Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Seeking the Truth--George's Post

1.    Seeking the Truth

How does one come to a knowledge of the truth?  Why it is not easier for the faithful to have spiritual experiences, and why are not all men and women touched by the Spirit led to the same set of truths?  How it is possible that so many faithful, and sincere, individuals can have such different beliefs about the same doctrinal points?  How can one explain the different concepts of God, and the dramatically different types of worship, if God is the source of all truth, is mindful of man, and has ordained certain forms of worship as proper, specially designed to bring men into a closer relationship with God and to give them greater comfort about their station in life?[1]  These are fair questions to put to Mormons as adherents of a faith claiming to have the inspired word of God.  But they are equally fair questions to put to the believers of any faith—whether they be Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants.  All faiths should supply answers to these questions or at least give guidance to their faithful as to how men may approach God, seek to learn spiritual truths and, at the same time, explain why others, not of their faith, may believe differently.  These faiths should also provide explanations as to how the life experiences of all men, wherever they may live, are meaningful, and are a part of God’s design, and not just how God favors or looks after the affairs of some preferred subset of His children.   
Much time and energy, from scholars, the faithful, missionaries, and others, have been devoted to these and related questions.  And while it would be foolish to think I could provide easy, simple, answers to such core questions of faith troubling many before me, I would like to share a few thoughts about why many Mormons are comfortable with their faith or, in Mormon speak, have acquired a “testimony”—a fervent belief in the rightness of Mormon doctrine, in the inspiration of Mormon Church leaders, and in the power of the restored gospel to change lives.  These thoughts will ring familiar to many in the Mormon Church—I do not approach the subject of “getting a testimony” much differently than many before me.  Quite to the contrary, at its core, many Mormons find great similarity between the impressions and feelings they have felt when seeking spiritual insights with those experienced by others in the Mormon Church—and this shared experience dramatically enhances their ability to relate to one another, and strengthens their internal convictions of the “rightness” of their beliefs. 
For a number of years, I have thought that one key (indeed, perhaps the critical key) to seeking spiritual truth is found in a short episode in the life of Christ, recounted in John:  “Now about the midst of the feast, Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.  And the Jews marveled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never wanted?  Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.  If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”  John 7: 14-17.  One way to test the truthfulness of any doctrine (at least any doctrine requiring men and women to behave in a certain way)[2] is embrace the doctrine by bring one’s life in line with the prescribed conduct, and then testing to see if the fruits of that behavior are “good,” for by the “fruits” ye shall know them.[3]  This concept of “doing his will” has been expressed in different ways—as “exercising faith” and “repenting;” as “keeping commitments;” as “submitting our will to the will of God.”  It requires more that “words”—sometimes a cheap commodity, easily offered, easily forgotten.  If, for example, one wants to know whether keeping the Sabbath really matters—whether spiritual truth can be obtained through such an observance--it requires one to keep the Sabbath.  It requires action, obedience, submission, humility, more than an emotionally-charged expression of belief; it requires a commitment for a sustained period, demonstrating an exercise of faith.  “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.  Ye shall know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?  Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit…Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”  Matt. 7:  15-17.  It is fair to be guarded about those who claim to have faith, but who lack “good” works.   “Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.  Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works?  And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”  Matt. 7: 21-23. 
What are the “good” works of which we speak?  The Apostle Paul offers insight as to the “good” works, when comparing the “fruits of the Spirit” with the “works of the flesh.”  “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh….Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murderers, drunkenness, revellings, and such like:… But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentlemen, goodness, faith.”  Gal. 5: 19-22.  The scriptures also speak of “being born again,” “having no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually,” “having the pure love of Christ,” becoming “as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”  Mosiah 3: 19.  Underlying each expression is a change in heart—putting aside the “old man” and “becoming” new through faith in Christ.
Mormon missionaries extend the same challenge to all introduced to the Church—come join us, learn of the doctrine, change your life by repenting and living more fully the commandments.   The non-member is asked to live the law of chastity, abide by the Ten Commandments, keep the Word of Wisdom, pay tithes and offerings, to mention a few.  This amounts to bringing forth the fruits of repentance stemming from one’s growing faith.   The non-member is asked to exercise as much faith as he/she can muster, to pray and then to ask God whether the restored gospel’s message is not true.  The feelings of the heart are critical to the test—can one say that his/her feelings can be described in these or similar terms.    “And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.  That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”  D&C 88:23-24.  “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 world is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, year, it beginneth to be delicious to me.”  Alma 32: 28  It matters not how much light and knowledge one has before being introduced to the restored gospel.  All that is required is a willing heart and a contrite spirit.  The promises of enlightenment are expressed in metaphorical terms, but somehow the lyrical language captures the essence of the experience.  It is although one’s sight is perfected and refined, not the sight of the physical eyes, but the sight of the spiritual eyes.[4]  Hence, obedience and faithfulness are the keys to apprehending spiritual truth.
Because the Book of Mormon is central to the story of the restoration, and to the claims made by the Prophet Joseph Smith, it is frequently used as a means of introducing the Mormon Church.  And missionaries use it as a tool by pointing to the iconic promise in Moroni to aid non-members in testing the message in the Book of Mormon.  “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, ty the power of the Holy Ghost, And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”  Moro. 10: 4-5.  I think of this promise as an example of the broader principle of “doing the will of God,” with the attached promise of coming to the truth.  For new members of the Mormon Church this is usually the first step, creating in them a desire to join the Mormon Church, and starting them down the path.  What follows, or at least what one hopes that follows, is a life-time of obedience, through which deepens the individual’s convictions of the truthfulness of the principles introduced through the restored gospel. 
The principle of “obedience” suggests that the universe of human affairs is subject to a set, perhaps a complex set, of linkages—between obedience and blessings—divinely ordained of God, immutable and fixed, upon which men may, with confidence, rely.   And while this is likely the case, the world in which we live seems far messier and less predictable, and rarely does it produce the neat set of outcomes one might expect if human affairs were to run smoothly in line with fixed, absolute linkages between behavior and consequences.    There are at least six reasons why this may be the case.  But before considering those reasons, I wish to stress one point lest it be lost from sight.  Generally speaking, and without addressing any specific commandment or linked blessing, there is certainly a linkage between our efforts to obey generally God’s commandments and the overall quality of our life—and perhaps more specifically with the feeling that we are “right” with God.  In my experience, when I am as obedient as I can be to God’s commandments, knowing of course that I fall short of doing all I should, my life is better; and when I find myself lax or casual, my life is not as good.  That does not mean I don’t have trials, disappointments, struggles and the like—everyone is subject to those.  But each of the general relationships exits, and I find both propositions—“feeling good” and “not feeling good”—to reinforce my confidence in the proposition that “obedience” (or perhaps expressed differently “righteousness”) leads to “happiness.”[5]
Given the dramatic and bold nature of the claims made by Mormon missionaries, one might expect many to be willing to “test” the doctrine, even if they naturally suspicious of their claims.  The Mormon claims are startling, indeed revolutionary, speaking of modern-day prophecy, the restoration of priesthood keys, temple ordinances binding men and their families.  And while many have been prepared to take the message seriously, perhaps most shocking is how few do so.[6]  They have no interest to listening to what the missionaries have to say, nor are they prepared to do anything to inquire further.  Literally millions of Books of Mormon have been placed, most of which have never been opened or read, beyond a handful of passages earmarked by the missionaries.  One would think “reading” the Book of Mormon would be a pretty good way of getting a handle on whether the Mormon message has any credibility.   Despite this, each day thousands of people, briefly introduced to the Mormon Church, pass on the opportunity to do any real investigation of the missionaries’ message.  Why is this the case?  Many are not interested in religion; others think they know the answers in advance; many can’t be bothered.  Some are fearful of the new commitments they may be asked to make, knowing Mormons are extremely busy with their church and make considerable sacrifices of time and money.  Some don’t want to change their life styles and suspect (correctly so) that they will be asked to stop doing what they currently want to do, and instead to bring their lives in line with gospel principles.[7]

[1] Other questions might include: What are the common elements among various faiths and, within Christianity, among various denominations, do those common elements constitute a set of core beliefs that could be regarded as central and generally acceptable to those of faith. 
[2] At least initially, I am speaking of any “doctrine” requiring action, such as living the Word of Wisdom, paying tithes and offerings, staying chaste before marriage, not committing adultery, honoring one’s parents, controlling thoughts, being charitable.  Whenever the restored gospel posits a principle of moral conduct, that commandment can be “tested” through personal observance.  But perhaps surprisingly, even “faith” in God is a doctrine requiring action that can be put to the same test.  One can seek to exercise faith, even in the face of uncertainty, to “test” whether faith itself, as a principle of action, is rewarding and enlightening and in that sense yields good fruits.  See, for example, Alma 32.  There are, of course, other beliefs such as the nature of the Godhead, belief in a premortal life, etc., which seem largely immune to being “tested” through conduct.  How, for example, it is possible through conduct to get a read on historical facts, such as the claim that Jesus was resurrected on the third day.  Instead such beliefs seem to be accepted by the faithful “inferentially.”  See “Inferential Truths” below. 
[3] Is it “necessary” to try everything out?  Or can one test the “fruits” of a particular way of life by observing the conduct of others?  Observation is clearly sufficient in many cases.
[4] “But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.”  Moses 1: 11.  See also Rev. 1: 10.
[5]  “Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness.  Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.”  Alma 41:10.  This scripture is often construed to signify the opposite proposition—that righteousness “is” happiness.
[6] I am not talking about the decision of individuals not to even engage any discussion with the missionaries.  I am addressing the cases where the missionaries have had an opportunity to give a brief introduction to the claims of the Mormon Church.
[7] “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.  But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”  John 3: 19-21.