“Life is not so simple in the Twentieth Century among people who can read and write,” wrote Lowell Bennion in the adult Sunday School text for 1956. “As we mature in this critical and complex age, we must at some time or other accept or reject the faith of our fathers on its own merit. This is not easy to do.”
How much more “not so simple” would he have found the 21st century, among people who can access the internet?
While his discussion is cast as choosing among denominations in a largely Christian society, fitting the era and culture in which he wrote, it needs only a minor broadening of vocabulary to make this lesson relevant in a society where religious faith of any kind can no longer be taken for granted: Feeling – Reason – Experience are still the ways to know the truth.
In the Ninth Century, B.C., the Prophet Elijah called all Israel and the prophets of Baal together at Mount Carmel for a most dramatic test of religious truth. When they were assembled, “Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word. (I Kings 18:21)
Elijah had stated clearly the choice in his day – either follow Jehovah, God of Israel, or Baal. The people had nothing to say because there was no other choice for them.
Life is not so simple in the Twentieth Century among people who can read and write. Great religious leaders have spoken in many nations. In some things they quite agree; in other things they differ widely. Within each faith, there are often many sects, many points of view. Among the Jews, for example, there are Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. Among Christians there are Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, a great variety of Protestant faiths, and Latter-day Saints. Christian peoples have principles and aspirations in common, but they differ radically in their theology, Church life, and even in the character of daily living.
The Bible, espoused by all Christians, is not easy to interpret. Written originally in Hebrew and Greek by many authors over many centuries, it has been edited and re-edited and translated many times. We do not know the original writing. Great as the Book is, it is not without errors of translation and some contradiction. Since revelation has to come from God through man, it is adapted to the needs of men in their weaknesses and circumstances. Some things in the Law of Moses, for example, are quite opposite to the later teachings of the prophets and Jesus. The Law was adapted to the language and needs of the time. Of course, other things within the Law of Moses are comparable to any teachings which have been given since. Hence people of quite opposite beliefs often refer to this same book for the authority of their teaching.
Most of us have grown up in the faith of our parents. They indoctrinated and conditioned us favorably or unfavorably in it. As we mature in this critical and complex age, we must at some time or other accept or reject the faith of our fathers on its own merit. This is not easy to do.
Sometimes a new faith is presented to us. It, too, deserves an honest hearing. All manner of people confront us with “the word of God.” How shall we discriminate between truth and error? How shall we know if a purported revelation is of God? The Apostle Paul said, “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good” (I Thessalonians5:21). This is good advice, but how do we tell what is good?
The answer is not simple. There is no single way to know the truth. But there are a number of good ways which have been recommended by prophets and by Jesus, and which are in harmony with human reason and experience. We shall suggest some tests of truth for the reader’s consideration. In matters of faith and in the big questions of life, answers are not easily obtained.
In the last analysis each person must judge for himself, each must learn to carry his own lantern. Others may reason and suggest, and the God of truth will help, but religious faith, in the last analysis, is a private matter. As Latter-day Saints, we respect the right of every individual to his own faith, to freedom of conscience, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others. “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (11th Article of Faith)
THREE WAYS OF KNOWING
Philosophers speak of three ways of knowing: reason, experience, and intuition. (In more technical language: rationalism, empiricism, and intuition, sometimes also called mysticism.) Our experience in life seems to confirm the correctness and value of this classification. If something is true, we expect it (1) to make sense to us, to be free of contradiction, to appear reasonable, to be understandable, and (2) to be verified, if possible, in our experience, to be workable and fruitful in life. (3) We are also confirmed in our belief if we feel right about a question, particularly after we have made that question a matter of meditation and prayer.
Some issues of life can be tested by reason, others by experience, and some perhaps by feeling and inspiration. Let us consider these three basic ways of knowing as they apply to revelation.
I. Intuition, Feeling, Inspiration
In the dramatic story of the resurrection of Christ as told in Luke, chapter 24, the author tells of two disciples who had heard of the Savior’s resurrection and were discussing it as they walked towards a village called Emmaus, some distance from Jerusalem. While they pondered the reports and incidents of the day, “Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him” (Luke 24:15, 16). The men told Jesus of the happenings of the day. Toward evening as he was about to leave them, they asked him to remain with them. And then, “it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight (Luke 24:30, 31). Then they said these significant words to each other: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us, by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32; read entire incident in Luke24:1-36).
If we are sincere, humble, and prayerful we have a right to feel the falsity or truthfulness of a purported revelation from God. When we hear and contemplate religious truth our heart will also “burn within us,” the witness of the Spirit of God or of the Holy Ghost. As we have quoted in earlier lessons, Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Note Matthew 7:7, 8). A loving Father, God of truth, is certainly interested in guiding his children to the truth.
This confirmation of the Spirit does not come to man automatically, with no thought or effort on his part. To be inspired of Deity man must have faith, be humble, be concerned with finding the truth, and be anxiously engaged in a search for God’s will and truth. Inspiration comes to man in response to his need and desire and spiritual effort as was indicated in the preceding chapter. An interesting explanation of how God inspires man in his spiritual quest is told early in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Oliver Cowdery, companion and secretary of Joseph Smith, asked for the privilege of translating part of the Book of Mormon record into English. His request was finally granted, but he failed miserably in his attempt. His reason for failing was explained to him and gives us a reasonable explanation of how man receives revelation from God.
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9)
Feeling is a personal or subjective experience. It is not as concrete or tangible as ideas or things. Feelings are real, but difficult to communicate to others and even difficult to remember and to interpret by the person who has experienced them. Therefore, many people of a practical, intellectual, or critical nature, are very skeptical about feeling or intuition as a guide to truth. They wish to know how our feelings can be trusted, how we can know that they are influenced by the Spirit of God and are not simply the product of our own physiological and psychological processes. Our emotions may fool us. Critics are justified in raising such questions.
We believe that an must be wary of feeling as the only guide to religious truth. Our feelings need to be checked by reason and by our total life experience. An within the area of feeling itself, we must learn through experience and verification whether our intuitive insights are trustworthy and might be inspired of a power other than ourselves. We must give ourselves time in the study of religion to see if the “burning in our hearts” is constant and a response to prayer and not simply the product of our emotional state at the moment. Feeling ought to be reassuring and the companion of thought and living, to be trustworthy. Let us turn, for a moment, to a consideration of the other tests of truth: namely, reason and experience.
Man is endowed with a mind, the capacity to think. While there are many things which man as yet cannot know by use of his mind, still most of what he does know is the result of thinking. Therefore, in our search for truth, including religious truth, we should not by-pass thinking. Jesus was brilliant of mind. He asked provocative and difficult questions and gave profound and wise answers. As we read the Gospel story we are impressed with the clarity and force of his thinking as well as the depth and strength of his feeling. Surely the Gospel of Jesus Christ should appeal to our minds as well as to our hearts. Feeling gives to life motivation and satisfaction; reason can give needed direction and guidance. The Creator himself is God of love and also of truth. “The Lord by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens. By his knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew.” (Proverbs 3:19, 20)
Let us consider some ways in which we may use our minds in an evaluation of purported religious truths.
1.A revelation from God is reasonable. It makes sense. We can expect it to have purpose and meaning in human life. Great revelations of the past, such as the writings of Amos and Isaiah, contain messages of intellectual importance; they appeal to reason.
Sometimes people claim revelations from God which are void of meaning. They resemble babbling or generalized nonsense. The writer recalls having met a man, who seemed to be perfectly sincere, who claimed that Jesus had visited with him and taught him night after night. When asked what Jesus had said to him, what he had taught him, the man did not know. The question took him by surprise. Another person, whom we met, said God had inspired him to rewrite the Bible. Upon examination of some of his manuscript, we found no new contribution to the meaning of the Bible. It seemed to us that he had simply garbled the text.
A passage in the Book of Mormon reads: “For behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you that the Lord God worketh not in darkness” (II Nephi 26:23). There are, we believe, two kinds of spiritual darkness, ignorance and sin. God does not sin. Neither does he work in ignorance nor bring confusion to the minds of men. We, therefore, believe that a revelation from God should have meaning and purpose and be intelligible.
2. A revelation from God is consistent within itself, not self contradictory. For example, it is impossible for us to believe in both predestination and in the free agency of man. Predestination means that the salvation or damnation of man was predetermined by God even before man was created. This doctrine implies that salvation is entirely the work of Deity. Free agency, on the other hand, clearly implies that man can choose in some measure his course in life, that he is a responsible, moral agent. Free agency and predestination appear to the mind as being irreconcilable as principles of the same religion. One must give way to the other.
3. A revelation, to be inspired of God, must be consistent with the great fundamentals of religion which have been taught again and again and which have vindicated their worth in human history. A very interesting appeal is made to ancient Israel in Deuteronomy, chapter 13.The people were admonished, without equivocation, to pay no heed even to a prophet who would lead them away from the one true God to worship other gods. “If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Ye shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him” (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
A purported revelation which is contrary to such principles as the justice and love of God and the free agency and dignity of man cannot be inspired of God. Why would he inspire men to contradict his great teachings given at an earlier date through his prophets?
4. A revelation from God will be in harmony with the spirit and teachings of his Son, Jesus Christ, for he came to earth to reveal to man the nature and character of God. Christians, who believe in Jesus Christ, accept him as the revelation of God to man. He has given to us religion at its best, in its highest and finest expression.
We would do well as Christians to study his life and teachings diligently and then see that our own interpretations of the scripture are in harmony with his emphasis in religion. Where we find either the words of scripture or of any man out of harmony with the great fundamentals Jesus taught, we ought to attach a question mark thereto. Either we do not understand the message, or the speaker or writer lacked inspiration, for Christ knew the Will of God and he is our best guide to religious truth. Jesus said, in response to Pilate’s question, “Art thou a king then?” “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth” (John 18:37).
A Mormon hymn-writer, Eliza R. Snow, gave expression to our faith in Christ as our guide to religious truth in these words:
He marked the path and led the way
And every point defines, to light
And life and endless day
Where God’s full presence shines.
(“How Great the Wisdom and the Love,” verse 4)
Unchristian teaching and practice cannot be inspired of God.
A third way to know if a revelation is truly of God is given us by the Savior. When Jews marveled at his teachings, saying, “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned? Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him” (John 7:15-18).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, in a similar vein: “Beware of false prophets, which came 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. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:15-20).
True religion, when lived in daily life, will bring joy, peace of mind, courage and comfort. The Spirit of God will also bear witness to us of the rightness of a principle as we live it.
There is one danger in testing the truth or falsity of a religion by practicing it. If the doctrine or principle be false, one may ruin his life or suffer irreparable loss by experimenting with evil. Therefore, it is well also to learn vicariously, by observing the fruits of religious living in the lives of others. Therefore, it is also important to approach any valuation of religion with all three ways of knowing the truth – thoughtfully, seeking inspiration, and through experience.
In this chapter we indicated the difficulty of finding the truth in this modern complex age. Then we described briefly three ways of knowing: feeling, reason, and experience, and suggested how each might be used to verify revelations. We recommend all three ways and believe that they should check on one another and supplement each other. Let a man pray, think about this religion, and live it too! Then he should know if it be of God and should have faith to accept or reject it.