"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
February 8, 2013
On Testimony and Intellectual Fulfillment, with Insights from a Rocket Scientist
by Jeff Lindsay

First, here’s a “Happy Chinese New Year” from Shanghai, China, a land of surprise and irony. For example, while the peaceful people of this great nation frequently criticize America for its abundance of guns, over the next few days enough firepower is going to be discharged by the “unarmed” citizenry here to reenact World War II several times over. It’s amazing how much explosive force a city can withstand without collapsing. If you like non-stop, full-throttle fireworks, book the next flight to Shanghai—and pray it isn’t shot out of the sky as it nears town. We’re about to miss some of the pyrotechnics as we head to New Zealand for a few days. But I’ll miss China while there, as I always do these days when I leave. Come visit us in Shanghai!

In this post, 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, it 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 

  3. 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 three 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. 

  4. As one explores the Gospel, the evidences and intellectual satisfaction aren’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 two 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 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 by 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. 

Beautifully stated. Regarding the scientific method, the quest for a personal testimony is not as remote as you might think.

The Scientific Method and LDS Testimonies

Testimonies may start off small, fragile, and based upon a small number of experiences, but for a mature Latter-day Saint, testimony is typically the sum of many experiences and indeed, experiments, in which the principles and teachings of the Gospel are put to the test. There is a combination of the intellectual and the spiritual, the practical and the mystic, the day-to-day and the occasional rare but real miracle. There are often doubts and concerns that have been plumbed and addressed or put on hold. And along the way, there have been many voices taken into consideration: the voice of witnesses, the voice of skeptics and critics, the voice of reason, and the voice of the Spirit. It's a complex process that deals with the most complex issues humans confront: What is real? What is beyond this mortal realm? What is my purpose here? Who am I and am I supposed to live? And finally, who or what, if anything, is God?

To the surprise of some of our critics, the teachings of the Church do not focus on blind faith and random emotions, but on experience, even experimentation, as well as studying, seeking, pondering, and also, of course, praying. The approach to gaining a testimony is not taught as a one-time event but a lifelong journey. The Book of Mormon teaches a testimony-building journey that has some parallels to the scientific method. It even describes that journey as one of putting the Gospel to the test and conducting experiments with the word of God. Here is the relevant passage from Alma 32:

[26] Now, as I said concerning faith -- that it was not a perfect knowledge -- even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

[27] But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

[28] Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves -- It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

[29] Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

[30] But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

[31] And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.

[32] Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.

[33] And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

[34] And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because ye know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

[35] O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?

[36] Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.

[37] And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.

[38] But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.

[39] Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.

[40] And thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life.

[41] But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.

[42] And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.

[43] Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.

Those investigating the claims of the Gospel are encouraged to put it to the test by living it and seeing what the fruits are. Yes, faith must be exercised first, even a little particle of faith, but the results of this spiritual exercise will include knowledge and metal enlightenment, not just fuzzy feelings, and from those fruits one can see that at least some part of the Gospel makes sense and can be trusted. But that's just a beginning. It's an ongoing process that requires faith and diligence, for testimony is delicate and can be lost. That's also the point of the Lord's parable of the sower and the seed. The plant that sprouts up can be choked by materialism, sin, and neglect.

The path toward gaining a testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon is also not described as waiting for a random feeling, but a journey of careful study, pondering, and then turning to God to ask if it is true. Mind and spirit are involved, not random emotion. Discerning the voice of the Spirit, of course, is the difficult part where there is not a simple tangible outcome like getting a reading on a thermometer. So no, it's not a clear-cut scientific process. It's a journey of changing fallen man into a redeemed saint, and that's a much bigger and more important thing than even the wonders of science can achieve. In a way, it's very simple though it takes serious effort, but in terms of scientific standards, it's hopelessly fuzzy and subjective. So no, it's not as straightforward as, say, rocket science. It's too big and too important for that.

Mormonscholarstestify.org has some other interesting statements from LDS scientists and other scholars that might be helpful on this topic. See, for example, the testimonies written by Carol Anne Clayson, Steven F. Faux, and Laura Clarke Bridgewater. You may also enjoy the contribution of another astrophysicist, Dr. Darrin Ragozzine of the University of Florida, who discusses science, evidence, and testimony. For him, the strong evidences for the Book of Mormon appear to be significant, as I think they should be.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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