Continuing on the theme of the LDS testimony and how Mormons come to “know” some things that science can’t confirm, I’ll address a common misunderstanding. Mormon “knowledge,” some say, is based on the whims of the heart. It’s entirely subjective. What the Mormon claims to be knowledge about morality, for example, has no basis except feeling. When others seek that same knowledge by prayer, they may come to completely different conclusions, so how can Mormon knowledge be trusted? It lacks a reproducible, trustworthy standard. (If there’s a better way to express this objection, let me know.)
However, we are not left on our own to the whims of the heart without evidence or standards. There are four factors to consider here:
- On key issues of morality and doctrine, we have been given standards to rely on in the form of God’s statements in the scriptures and through modern revelation to living prophets. While these are not infallible standards and frequently leave room for debate, they generally provide clear and inspired guidelines for us. Of course, ideally our conscience and our growing sense of personal morality or the whisperings of the Spirit in our life agrees with the standards we are given, but that is a topic for another post someday. For now, let me state that whether we should feel responsible to heed the standards and teachings of the Church depends in large part on whether the Restoration was indeed a divine event, which leads us to the next point:
- We have a remarkable tool to assist us in both intellectually and spiritually evaluating the reality of the Restoration in the form of the Book of Mormon. We are challenged to put this book to the test and determine if it is a mortal fraud or the word of God in a process involving mental study, pondering, and prayer to obtain personal revelation.
- Regarding the divinity of the Book of Mormon, God has not left us without serious evidence to move us to take it seriously and to help us overcome objections to it. This evidence includes the remarkable testimonies of many witnesses, not just to warm feelings but to encounters with real metal plates and even a real angel and the voice of God in 3 cases. There have been many other evidences of the Book of Mormon since that time, such as specific sites in the Arabian Peninsula that support details in the Book of Mormon in ways that Joseph could not have fabricated even if leading scholars had guided him, and other issues such as the discovery of chiasmus and other gems in the book itself. I believe these evidences are not meant to convert and will never be enough to convert, but are mercifully given to give us strength to continue moving forward.
- As one explores the Gospel, the evidences and intellectual satisfaction isn’t just from the Book of Mormon (sometimes that comes last, if at all). There is a remarkably sound and logical worldview, compatible with a great deal of recent scholarship, regarding many basic claims of the Church. Scholarship into the ancient world and early Christianity can support claims of apostasy, of lost scripture, of ancient covenant making practices and other practices compatible with LDS teachings and temple worship, etc. The LDS story of God’s ancient pattern of continuing revelation through authorized prophets and apostles, lost through apostasy, and now restored, fits well with a knowledge of the Bible and history. The Restoration brings profound and intellectually satisfying knowledge about the scope of God’s salvation, the work for the dead, the relationship we all have as children of God, the relationship between man and God, the purpose of life, the purpose and eternal nature of families, the destiny of man, and so forth. Subjective? Yes. These truths resonate with my soul and with my expanding view of the world and the cosmos as I learn more. It truly is delicious and intellectually fulfilling. But I can’t prove it with a peer-reviewed publication. You have to be willing to move forward a step or to on your own to see if anything is there.
Moving forward (or exercising a little faith and taking a step toward learning more) is the key, and the mind has to be part of that. Each human is different and will approach these matters with different needs, assumptions, and concerns, but there is a common core that can bring us to share what we dare to call knowledge of some of the aspects, not all, of our faith. This is usually a lengthy journey, though, with many factors involved. The journey includes seeing how the Gospel affects our lives, how prayer works, and how God works in our lives. It’s a combination of experience, of tangible results, and learning through the Spirit (yes unscientific, subjective, fuzzy learning from an unseen but masterful Tutor–the kind that can transform people into Saints, even if also scientists).
Consider the journey of Arthur Henry King, a majestic human being whose life radiates a love of Shakespeare and of the greatest literature. Twice decorated by Queen Elizabeth, this erudite scholar of English literature was rarely impressed by what humans wrote, but when he read the testimony of Joseph Smith, he had an interesting intellectual and possibly spiritual experience as he pondered the words and the man. That was the beginning of his journey toward conversion. Read the story of Dr. Arthur Henry King’s reaction to the Joseph Smith History.
Or returning to the issue of science and testimony, consider the journey of a real “rocket scientist,” an MIT astrophysicist, Dr. John S. Lewis (Jr.). Dr. Lewis, now Brother Lewis, is Professor Emeritus of Planetary Sciences and former Co-Director of the Space Engineering Research Center at the University of Arizona. He was previously a Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Visiting Professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Recently, he was a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which is one of the world’s coolest universities IMHO. He has written seventeen books, including undergraduate and graduate level texts and popular science books, and has authored over 150 scientific publications. In scientific lingo, this guy rocks. Now read the story of Dr. John Lewis at Mormon Scholars Testify. This is a man who grew up using his brain to explore the not just science but also questions of religion. He had come to doubt organized religion and ministers out for hire, but recognized that the Bible taught things like anointing and laying on of hands that were denigrated in modern times as things of the “primitive Church” no longer applicable today. Here is one excerpt, but please read the whole things and see his video testimony also:
The next Sunday afternoon the missionaries arrived. We hustled our children out of the room lest they be contaminated by these unproved proselyters. We sat down, Peg with her arms folded and a less than inviting look on her face, and I threw out a nearly equally cordial challenge: “I must warn you that we have a very negative view of organized religion. We are Christians, but we have come to the sad conclusion that there is no church out there that has any real authority or power. We fear that the true church was lost in the century or so after the death of Christ and the Apostles.” Much to our astonishment, the older missionary smiled back at me and said, “Have we got news for you!”
The next few weeks were an intense blizzard of activity. The missionaries visited us daily, usually staying for dinner. All the questions about religion that had been haunting us for years, polished by reading, among many others, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, the Popol Vuh, the Book of the Hopi, the Upanishads, the writings and lives of John of the Cross, Teresa de Avila, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Søren Kierkegaard, and the inspirational Christian works of C. S. Lewis, were aired. Usually the missionaries had a ready and satisfactory answer. Sometimes they confessed ignorance, went to study out the issue, and returned with answers. Never once did they shoot from the hip with unsatisfactory answers, as the Holy Spirit testified to us of their truthfulness. Here at last, in full integrity, was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ we had found in the Bible, trimmed of the inventions of uninspired men. All the purity of truth that pervades and underlies Christian belief was laid out as a seamless, clean, unblemished cloth. All the sectarian dross was washed away. Paul’s vision, in I Corinthians, of a single, united Church free of doctrinal contention alone remained. And the doctrinal foundation of that true church could only be known with certainty by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, as prescribed by the Epistle of James. Through that testimony the strength and integrity of Christian doctrine was restored to me, based on the firm foundation of the Bible and building a single coherent, harmonious Church upon that foundation, free of the divisive doctrinal disputes of the other churches I had studied. Biblical scholarship, however important, was an artifact of the intellect, rarely capable of resolving doctrinal disputes. Faith, by contrast, was the key to salvation; not just belief in anything, but belief in things not seen which are true – and the truth could be known spiritually. The intellectual and legalistic Talmudic and Midrashic pilpul that engulfed the Old Testament had been illuminated by the New Testament’s gift of the Holy Spirit, which threw light into the darkest corners of scriptural commentary. The Holy Spirit was truly a “guide for the perplexed” with greater authority than Maimonides.
Like I said, this scientist rocks. He gets it. He was finding intellectual and spiritual fulfillment in the bold and clear vision presented by the Restored Gospel. A lifetime of seeking, pondering, and studying prepared him to recognize the intellectual strength of our basic message. I have much to learn yet from him and his approach, and definitely need to catch up on my reading. He continues, addressing the issue of science and religion:
As a professor of Planetary Sciences at MIT, I was on the forefront of the exploration of the Solar System. Much of my work centered on the earliest history of the Solar System, essentially on the mechanics of creation. I was intimately familiar with the evidence, from the chronology of planetary formation through the geological history of Earth, the cratering record on the planets, the composition and evolution of their surfaces and interiors, and the relationships between ancient small bodies (asteroids and comets) and the planets. I was also familiar with the literature of “scientific creationism,” which I found to be appallingly bad, full of glaring factual blunders and astonishing lapses of logic. I found their personal interpretations of scripture to be indefensible in the face of overwhelming evidence. Their mindset seemed to be that science was the opposite of religion; that their interpretations of scripture were right and anyone who disagreed with them must be evil, intent on destroying religion. But the geological record is as much the work of God as the scriptures are. They together constitute two independent witnesses, satisfying the Old Testament requirement that two or more independent witnesses are required to attest to truth. That the two witnesses, science and scripture, should see different things is no surprise. After all, your own two eyes see different scenes; each eye sees things the other does not see, but by combining the witness of your two eyes you can see in depth, something neither eye can do alone. To assume that one witness is correct and the other is lying is to lose all perspective. It is to become half-blind. As the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin expressed it, “Science and religion are two complementary faces of one and the same underlying reality.”
I see no conflict between science and religion. I see many conflicts between the misunderstandings of science and the flawed interpretation of scripture of men who lack both scientific knowledge and guidance by the Holy Spirit. I invite any person who desires to strengthen his understanding and testimony of creation to study both the scientific and scriptural evidence prayerfully, with the goal of learning and understanding. Properly understood, this study will provide you with a rich and deep perspective. Science will tell you the when and where and how of creation; the scriptures will tell you who and why.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its long tradition of free inquiry and of individuals prayerfully testing every point of doctrine for themselves, is fully compatible with the scientific method.
To that, I will say Amen!