Knowledge by Faith
I had an experience as a young missionary in the eastern states that taught me something about the heart and the mind. My companion and I had moved into a small town in New Jersey only to find that the local Protestant ministers had prepared their parishioners for our coming. At almost every door we approached, we were met by a smiling face and the words, “Oh, you must be the Mormons. This is for you.” The people would then hand us an anti-Mormon tract. We saved the pamphlets, stacked them in the corner of the living room of the apartment, and soon had a rather substantial pile of material. Out of sheer curiosity we began to read the pamphlets during lunchtime. I can still recall the dark and empty feelings that filled my soul as I encountered question after question about selected doctrines and specific moments in the history of the Church. My senior companion was no different; he was as unsettled as I was.
For weeks we did our work, but our heart wasn’t in it. We went through the motions but, without saying much to each other, we sensed that we could not carry on indefinitely. I broke the ice one afternoon with the rather brutal query: “Elder Dyreng, what if the Church isn’t true?” He responded, “I don’t know.” I followed up: “What if the Baptists are right?” (There was a strong contingent of Baptists in the area.) He said, “I just don’t know.” Third question: “What if the Catholics are right? What if they have had the authority all along?” He responded, “I’ve been wondering the same thing.” Then presumably in an effort to cheer me up, he asked, “Elder Millet, do you think we are doing anything wrong? I mean, even if we are not a part of the true church, are we hurting anyone?” I sheepishly replied that we were probably not doing anything destructive. “Then,” he added, “maybe we should keep working.” I asked, with much pain in my voice, “Is that supposed to make me feel better? If so, it doesn’t.” He indicated that under the present circumstances it was the best he could do.
I am ashamed to admit that before that time I had never prayed intently about my testimony. I was raised in the Church. Mom and Dad had a testimony, and I knew that they knew. That always seemed adequate. But now I was up against the wall of faith, and suddenly what they knew did not seem sufficient to settle my troubled heart. I prayed and pleaded. I begged the Lord for light, for help, for anything! These vexations of the soul went on for about a month. I had actually concluded (though I had not confided it to my companion) that if relief were not forthcoming shortly, I would pack my bags and go home. It did not seem proper to be engaged seriously in a cause about which I could not bear my testimony.
We came home for lunch a few days later and my companion set about the task of making the soup and preparing the peanut butter sandwiches. I collapsed in a large chair in the living room, removed my shoes, and loosened my tie. As I began to reflect once more on my testimony problem, my heart ached. My feelings were close to the surface at this point, and I yearned for deliverance from my pain. For some reason I reached to a nearby table and picked up a copy of the pamphlet, Joseph Smith Tells His Own Story. I began reading the opening lines. I came to the Prophet’s statement that he was born on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont, and I was suddenly and without warning immersed in the most comforting and soothing influence I had ever known. It seemed at the time as if I were being wrapped in a large blanket as I began to be filled with the warmth of the Holy Spirit from head to toe. I wept as the spirit of conversion encompassed me, and as I came to know assuredly that what we were doing was right and true and good. I did not hear specific words, but the feelings on that occasion seemed to whisper: “Of course, it’s true. You know that now, and you’ve known it for a long time.” The other feeling, terribly pertinent to what I want to express in this article, was to the effect that the answers to what was troubling me were for the time being beyond my present capacity to comprehend. In time the answers would come, answers that would be as satisfying to the mind as they were soothing to the heart. The answers came, in fact, within a matter of months, and I marveled at the time how it was that something so simple could have been so problematic before.
The Spirit touched my heart, told me things my mind did not yet understand, and I was then in a position to proceed confidently with my work until my head caught up with my heart. That experience has served me well over the last thirty years or so. It continues to reinforce in my life important principles pertaining to study and faith. I believe in study. I find great joy in reading broadly and expanding my mind on a myriad of subjects. I think we are expected to do that as much as our time and circumstances allow. I believe it is good for men and women to specialize, to focus their attention and efforts on certain disciplines or fields of study, to master the disciplines, to become expert on what the great minds have discovered or uncovered. In short, I believe it is good to be learned. I am sincerely grateful for noble teachers, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, who have motivated me—set me on fire—in regard to the social and behavioral sciences as well as the ancient world of the Bible. At the same time, I thank God for those great minds whose faith in the true, eternal but unseen verities, have inspired me to prioritize. I have come to know that although ours is a thoughtful faith, one that requires reason as well as revelation, it is often necessary to place our unanswered questions on a shelf, to suspend intellectual judgment while findings from study manage to catch up with the feelings and impressions obtained from the Spirit of God.
All truths are not of equal worth, nor are they acquired in the same way. Elder Dallin H. Oaks observed:
Seeking learning by study, we use the method of reason. Seeking learning by faith, we must rely on revelation. . . . Reason is a thinking process using facts and logic that can be communicated to another person and tested by objective (that is, measurable) criteria. Revelation is communication from God to man. It cannot be defined and tested like reason. Reason involves thinking and demonstrating. Revelation involves hearing or seeing or understanding or feeling. Reason is potentially public. Revelation is invariably personal.1
Surely we are put here on the earth to learn as much as we can in science, in art, in language, in history and foreign culture, and so on. And, to the degree that we can master some of these fields, we are better able to present the truth understandably and appropriately to more and more people. (See D&C 88:78-80.)
But I have a conviction that some truths matter more than others. It is valuable to know of gravity or the laws of motion, but it is vital to know of the reality of a Redeemer. It is helpful to know the laws of thermodynamics, but it is essential to know how to repent and call upon God, in the name of his Son, for forgiveness. The idea that spiritual truths are of greater worth to our eternal welfare than the field to which we have dedicated our professional lives should not be threatening to anyone, nor should it cause us to be defensive about our own disciplines. The perpetuation of eternal truth and the conversion of individual souls must be more important to us than the discovery or dissemination of this or that idea. We are children of God, followers of Christ, and devotees to disciplines in that order. When we get out of order we open ourselves to trouble; we begin the gradual dilution of our discipleship.
I am convinced that Mormonism is robust enough to open itself to rigorous study and analysis. It is commendable when a member of the Church, when confronted by a challenging issue, responds with the simple statement of testimony. Every one of us will be in that position at one time or another. And yet there is a particular power associated with the bearing of testimony informed by adequate study, testimony that represents, in the words of the apostle Peter, a reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). I refuse to allow my commitment to the faith to be held hostage to the latest fads and trends in the academic world. I cannot, for example, afford to postpone believing in Christ until New Testament scholars come to a consensus on what Jesus really did and what he really said. I cannot allow my witness of The Book of Mormon to rest on archaeological evidences in North, Central, or South America any more than I can prop my faith in the Book of Abraham on what a handful of Egyptologists make of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Forty years ago Hugh Nibley reminded us that
the words of the prophets cannot be held to the tentative and defective tests that men have devised for them. Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity.2
There are few things more desperately needed in our day than faith—faith in the unseen, or as one astute observer of Christianity has noted, “Faith that bridges the chasm between what our minds can know and what our souls aspire after.”3 I have come to believe that there is nothing weak about faith, even (or especially) in one dedicated to the life of the mind; faith is not whimpering acquiescence, not timid and spineless hope for happiness, for pie in the sky in the great by-and-by. Faith is active. Faith is dynamic. Faith is based on evidence, internal evidence, the kind of evidence that men and women acquire when they search and pray and open themselves to the infinite, refusing to yield to cynicism or arrogance.
One need not surrender cherished values to live in a modern world. One need not suspend his or her intellectual faculties to be a faithful Latter-day Saint. A member of the Church need not fall prey to the increasingly vocal voices of those who choose to preach from the forums of dissent; one can have implicit trust in the Church and its leaders without sacrificing or compromising anything, not the least of which is intellectual integrity. Having said all that, I hasten to add that one must be willing to put first things first, to establish a hierarchy of loyalties. If my attitude is “The kingdom of God or nothing!” then whatever I may encounter in my intellectual pursuits that is seemingly at variance with the scriptures or the counsel of living prophets will be placed in its proper perspective. One who is grounded in the witness of the Spirit deals with ambiguity and intellectual dissonance with patience and faith.
Though one need not be simpleminded to have faith, one may need to be simple in his or her approach to life and its challenges in order to enjoy the fruits of faith. There are times when faith requires us to act in the face of what the world would consider to be the absurd. Abraham was asked to put to death his beloved and long-awaited son, Isaac, the one hope Abraham had for the fulfillment of the promise that his posterity would be as numberless as the sands upon the seashore or the stars in the heavens. Jehovah had spoken. Abraham had entered the realm of divine experience, knew the voice of the Lord, and knew what he had encountered was real. Therefore, when the awful assignment came to offer up Isaac in sacrifice, he obeyed, even though, rationally speaking, there was no way the promises could thereafter be realized. But the father of the faithful had implicit trust in his God, “accounting that God was able to raise [Isaac] up, even from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham knew God and he knew his purposes were just; the finite mind yielded to the infinite, knowing fully that “whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.”4 His leap of faith was prerequisite to his ascent to glory.
This kind of faith may be particularly difficult for one who is devoted to research and study and dependent solely on external evidence; it requires that we put first things first, that we not judge the restored gospel—its history or doctrines—by the canons of our own discipline, but that we judge our own disciplines by the standards of the gospel. That is, faithful scholarship does not, as some have naively supposed, entail hiding from the truth or hiding the truth, but rather viewing all things through the lenses of the Restoration. It is only then that we are able to see things as they really are and as they really will be. One of the challenges a person faces is to learn the strengths—and thus the limitations—of his or her own field of study, what it can teach and what it cannot teach. It just may be that faithful scholarship requires more, not less, mental discipline. Faithful scholarship requires that we not live a divided or disjointed life, that we not be psychologists or historians or chemists during the week and Latter-day Saints on Sunday, but that we take the restored gospel seriously and incorporate it into all areas of worthwhile investigation. The apostasy was long and broad and deep; it made its influence felt in the pure sciences, the social sciences, the arts, and, of course, theology. The Restoration is destined to have an impact not only in the explication of doctrine and the delivery of divine authority (as vital as those things are), but also in all areas of study. When disciplined minds and creative artists open themselves to the enlightening powers of the Holy Ghost and are imbued with the spirit and power of the restored gospel, learning and discovery and creativity reach beyond the paltry bounds of what has been done heretofore and open us to new vistas of understanding and expression.
Indeed, faith has its own type of discipline. Some things that are obvious to the faithful sound like the gibberish of alien tongues to the faithless. The discipline of faith, the concentrated and consecrated effort to become dedicated to God, has its own reward, a reward that includes the expansion of the mind. Those who enter that discipline come to be filled with light and are able in time to comprehend all things (D&C 88:67). It is worth considering the words of a revelation given in Kirtland, Ohio. Having encouraged the Saints to call a solemn assembly, the Lord continued: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; . . . seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). We note that the counsel to seek learning out of the best books is prefaced by the negative clause, “And as all have not faith.” One wonders whether the Master did not intend something like the following: Since all do not have sufficient faith—that is, according to Elder B. H. Roberts, since they have not “matured in their religious convictions” to learn by any other means5—then they must seek learning by study, the use of the rational processes alone. In other words, if all did have the requisite faith, then what? Perhaps learning by studying from the best books would then be greatly enhanced by revelation. Honest truth seekers would learn things in this way that they could not know otherwise.
Could this be what Joseph Smith meant when he taught that “the best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching”?6 It is surely in this same context that another of the Prophet’s famous, yet little-understood statements yields meaning: “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes,” he declared, “you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject” of life after death.7
“I believe in study,” President Marion G. Romney stated. “I believe that men learn much through study. As a matter of fact, it has been my observation that they learn little concerning things as they are, as they were, or as they are to come without study. I also believe, however, and know, that learning by study is greatly accelerated by faith.”8
President Harold B. Lee spoke to BYU students, just weeks before his death, of the rigors of learning by faith:
The acquiring of knowledge by faith is no easy road to learning. It will demand strenuous effort and continual striving by faith. In short, learning by faith is no task for a lazy man. Someone has said, in effect, that “such a process requires the bending of the whole soul, the calling up from the depths of the human mind and linking the person with God. The right connection must be formed; then only comes knowledge by faith, a kind of knowledge that goes beyond secular learning, that reaches into the realms of the unknown and makes those who follow that course great in the sight of the Lord.”9
On another occasion, President Lee taught that this idea of “bending . . . the whole soul” is accomplished “through worthy living to become attuned to the Holy Spirit of the Lord, the calling up from the depths of one’s own mental searching, and the linking of our own efforts to receive the true witness of the Spirit. “10
Learning by faith requires that we be as rigorous in our pursuit of sacred things through the established channels—scriptures, living prophets, personal revelation—as we are in our research and study of secular things. Sometimes members of the Church dismiss outright or at least underestimate the power of the gospel message because they have not paid a sufficient price to plumb the depths of those things God has made known. Elder John A. Widtsoe stated:
It is a paradox that men will gladly devote time every day for many years to learn a science or an art; yet will expect to win a knowledge of the gospel, which comprehends all sciences and arts, through perfunctory glances at books or occasional listening to sermons. The gospel should be studied more intensively than any school or college subject. They who pass opinion on the gospel without having given it intimate and careful study are not lovers of truth, and their opinions are worthless.11
Learning by faith seems to entail something else as well. An episode in the Book of Mormon highlights another very important principle. “Now it came to pass,” Mormon writes, “that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers. They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ.” And now note this powerful statement: “And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened” (Mosiah 26:1–3, emphasis added). Because of their unbelief—their refusal to believe, to accept the true but unseen, to surrender and yield to God—they denied themselves the right to understanding. To give a modern-day example, one who approaches the reading of the Book of Mormon with a cynical eye is not likely to mine its doctrinal gold or gain a witness of its truthfulness; there must be a willful suspension of disbelief, an inclination to accept the truth when confronted with it, an openness to the possibility that something just might be true.
I think this is what the Lord has in mind when he counsels us to “search diligently, pray always, and be believing,” with the promise that all things shall thereafter work together for our good (D&C 90:24; emphasis added; see also D&C 100:15 and Romans 8:28). God doesn’t ask us to be gullible or to obey blindly. “Of those who speak in his name,” President Joseph F. Smith declared, “the Lord requires humility, not ignorance.”12 Neither ignorance nor blind obedience adds strength to the kingdom. Instead, the Omniscient One simply asks of his Saints that they believe, that they be willing to trust in him, in his plan, and in those who direct the destiny of his Church. Some knowledge may come by study, but intelligence or the glory of God requires diligence and obedience (D&C 130:19). In a revelation to President Brigham Young, the Savior explained: “Let him that is ignorant learn wisdom by humbling himself and calling upon the Lord his God, that his eyes may be opened that he may see, and his ears opened that he may hear” (D&C 136:32).
I have learned a few things as I have studied over the years. I thank God for the formal education I have received, for the privilege it is (and I count it such) to have received university training and to have earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Education has expanded my mind and opened conversations and doors for me. It has taught me what books to read, how to research a topic, and how to make my case or present my point of view more effectively. But the more I learn, the more I value the truths of salvation, those simple but profound verities that soothe and settle and sanctify human hearts. I appreciate knowing that the order of the cosmos points toward a Providential Hand; I am deeply grateful to know by the power of the Holy Ghost that there is a God and that he is our Father in Heaven. I appreciate knowing something about the social, political, and religious world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born; I am deeply grateful for the witness of the Spirit that he is indeed God’s Almighty Son. I appreciate knowing something about the social and intellectual climate of nineteenth-century America; I am deeply grateful to have burning within my soul a testimony that the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith in the spring of 1820, and that the work set in motion is truly the kingdom of God on earth. In short, the more I encounter men’s approximations to what is, the more I treasure those absolute truths that make known “things as they really are, and . . . things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13; see also D&C 93:24). In fact, the more we learn, the more we begin to realize what we do not know, the more we feel the need to consider ourselves “fools before God” (2 Nephi 9:42).
Those who choose to follow the Brethren, choose to believe in and teach the scriptures, and choose to be loyal to the Church—no matter the extent of their academic training or intellectual capacity—open themselves to ridicule from the cynic and the critic. Ultimately, doctrinal truth comes not through the explorations of scholars, but through the revelations of God to apostles and prophets. And if such a position be labeled as narrow, parochial, or anti-intellectual, then so be it. I cast my lot with the prophets. I sincerely believe that education need not be antithetical to conversion and spiritual commitment and that study can contribute to faith in the ways I have described in these pages. It all depends on where one places his or her trust. Elder Bruce R. McConkie testified:
True religion deals with spiritual things. We do not come to a knowledge of God and his laws through intellectuality, or by research, or by reason. . . . In their sphere, education and intellectuality are devoutly to be desired. But when contrasted with spiritual endowments, they are of but slight and passing worth. From an eternal perspective what each of us needs is a Ph.D. in faith and righteousness. The things that will profit us everlastingly are not the power to reason, but the ability to receive revelation; not the truths learned by study, but the knowledge gained by faith; not what we know about the things of the world, but our knowledge of God and his laws.”13
1. Dallin H. Oaks, The Lord’s Way (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 16–17.
2. Hugh Nibley, The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987), 134.
3. Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus: The Man Who Lives (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 20.
4. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 256.
5. Harold B. Lee, in Conference Report, April 1968, 129; or “Seek Learning, . . . Faith,” Improvement Era, June 1968, 102.
6. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 191.
7. Ibid., 324.
8. Marion G. Romney, Learning for the Eternities (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977), 72; emphasis added.
9. Harold B. Lee, “Be Loyal to the Royal within You,” in Speeches of the Year: BYU Devotional and Ten-Stake Fireside Addresses, 1973 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1974), 91.
10. Harold B. Lee, in Conference Report, April 1971, 94; or “The Iron Rod,” Ensign, June 1971, 10.
11. John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987), 16–17.
12. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970), 206.
13. Bruce R. McConkie, in Conference Report, April 1971, 99; or “The Lord’s People Receive Revelation,” Ensign, June 1971, 77–78.