Thursday, April 4, 2013

My Father's Response to "My Testimony vs. Science"

My father sent me a response to a recent blog post I wrote about reflecting on our testimonies in light of the psychology of religion. I shared some opinions about things we might consider in deciding what we believe and in sharing it. My father responded with some balanced, and sincerely written elaborations and criticisms of my post. I asked if I could share what he wrote, and he said yes. I think it is valuable. He might be embarrassed for me to make these links, but you can read more about him and his beliefs at Mormon Scholars Testify, in Expressions of Faith, and on Wikipedia (although only specialists, of which I am not one, will understand everything on the Wikipedia article. He tells me whoever wrote it was pretty accurate). Thank you, Dad, for sharing this.

I enjoyed your thoughts, Jonathan. Since you have often asked that I respond to what you write, here are some of my thoughts:

Most of the issues we concern ourselves with miss the more important things in life, namely, love for and gratitude to God, love for neighbor, love for the beauties of the world, service, kindness, purposeful and graceful contribution to the family and community. Such things are the “weightier matters.”

As to conformity, much of what we do is, and should be, based on convention. Convention frees us to pay attention to things that need more attention. As Thomas Kuhn’s work on the nature of scientific revolutions suggests, we make radical changes only when the evidence makes it clear that something seriously needs modification. Even then, the evidence is often ambiguous and unclear. There is no value in speaking against convention or conformity per se. The best we can hope for is to remain as clear sighted as possible.

“Proclaim your most examined beliefs.” We are admonished by Peter (1 Peter 3:15-16)…”be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: Having a good conscience; that whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.” I love many things about this scripture. First, I love Peter’s acknowledgment that we need good conscience and both meekness in our convictions but also a dose of fear. I also like the acknowledgment that, despite our best intentions, it is likely that others may accuse us of evil – or foolishness--, that it is better to be maligned for doing good than to be maligned for doing evil.

As to the traditions of the fathers, each of us has to act (or not) on the basis of incomplete knowledge and evidence. We are all dependent upon the experiences of others. We all have to decide what and whom we trust. Since my “fathers” (and mothers) are among the kindest, most open, honest, and conscientious people I have ever known, I give their traditions high weight, and give little weight to the nay-sayers.

I like your comment that “Everything is known through eyewitness testimony.” In science, seeing is often very indirect and mediated by many deductions. Juries of necessity have to weigh the credibility of an eyewitness account. Of course we often judge unjustly, but we still have to make judgments based on what we see or experience or are told. We make our judgments with “meekness and fear”.

We are aware enough of the methods of manipulation that we can factor that into our judgments. The experiences of Nazi Germany show how almost impossible it is to go against the opinions of state, community, family, and church when they are unified in their voices. Manipulations go in many directions. As social opinions change in our country, it is very hard to think independently. Since we live in more than one culture, the things that are “obvious” to one culture are likely to be “clearly wrong” to another culture.  I  think the only way around that problem is to try to formulate and test correct principles and their consequences and examine things in the light of those principles, with the continuing thought that we are often wrong despite our best intentions and methods. Even in a subject as simple as mathematics, we often make mistakes. What we do then is not only check our reasoning but also check the consequences against all of the other things that we know. There is likely to be apparently contradictory evidence that we have to live with in anything, such as life, that is more complicated than mathematics.

Testing certain religious beliefs is certainly beyond us at this point. We do not know how to create worlds. We do not know how to resurrect people. We are not all visited by the Father and the Son. We know that mental illness can cause people to hear voices. Nevertheless, we do test our religious beliefs essentially every day as we pray for guidance, listen for the promptings of the Holy Ghost, try to serve others, read the scriptures. Though I have never heard voices, I believe that my mother did when her mother died. Though I have never seen a vision, I believe there are people who do see visions, real visions. I trust Joseph Smith’s experiences. I trust Sister Litchfield’s accounts. I have experienced things that I consider miraculous. I trust Theodore Burton, a close friend of my father who served as assistant to the quorum of twelve, who told my father that he had never, in the higher councils of the church, seen even a hint of deception, but had seen rather a complete integrity, even in the acknowledgment of the presence of angels and other miraculous things. I choose to trust these things.

When I read the Book of Mormon, the very text itself shouts out to me its own integrity. I have personally written and published thousands of pages [Editor's note: mostly of mathematics. See the Wikipedia link]. I have read many hundreds of books [I would have guessed thousands, but maybe he didn't want to overestimate]. There is simply not an author among those of my reading acquaintance who could write such a book. (See Doctrine and Covenants 67.) It is, as Parley Pratt used to say, “the book of books”. When I add to that the observations about societies and languages that Nibley brings to the book, I feel strong confidence in the authenticity and worth of the Book of Mormon. The complaints I hear about the book seem weak to me. Though I cannot give definitive answers to those complaints, I can see many ways in which they might be explained. Whatever is true with regards to those complaints is true. I have enough confidence to postpone knowing.

Mormon (in Moroni 7) says that revelation comes to “them of strong faith and a firm mind in every form of godliness.” And the purpose seems not to tell people the future but rather to bring us to faith in Christ, to teach us the purposes and plan of life, the covenants of the Father, to teach us what it is that we are to learn, do, and be, and to give us enough confidence in Christ and the atonement that we can proceed in faithfulness to do what we are sent to earth to learn, do, and be.

And so, right or wrong, this is what I am committed to. I am overwhelmed that the great being in the universe invites us to partake in his great work: to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. There could be no greater aspiration.

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