The predominant account in the Book of Mormon chronicles the dealings of God with a family which left Jerusalem approximately 600 years before the birth of Christ and settled in what is known today as the American continents. Shortly after arriving in the Americas, this family and their descendants split into two main groups, known as the Nephites and Lamanites. For the most part, the Nephites were a righteous people who loved peace and sought to keep the commandments of God, while the Lamanites knew little of God and His commandments, pursued war, and sought dominion over their brethren.
However, just before the birth of Christ the “more part” of both the Nephites and Lamanites had turned from God. According to the records of Helaman, “the people began to harden their hearts, all save it were the most believing part of them, both of the Nephites and also of the Lamanites, and began to depend upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom”. The people began to doubt what the prophets had taught, believing the doctrines and prophecies to be “a wicked tradition, which [had] been handed down unto [them] by [their] fathers”. These people stated that they felt the prophets were trying to “keep [them] in ignorance” because they could not “witness with [their] own eyes that [the doctrines and prophecies] are true.” In Nephi's account we read that eventually “the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning”.
|“Opinion? Of course, there is a difference of opinion; but again, opinion cannot change laws or absolute truths.” — Spencer W. Kimball, twelfth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.|
In a day where modern technology gives almost everyone an opportunity to voice their opinions to anyone who will listen, there has arisen a perception—especially in regards to morals, the delineation between what is fundamentally right and wrong—that equal voice means equal authority. Just as in Helaman's time, with more people pursuing higher education than in previous generations, some individuals have turned from the teachings of prophets to relying on their own learning and wisdom.
Among some there has developed the idea that there is no such thing as absolute morals, that no one can definitively claim to know what is morally right and wrong, and accordingly, everyone's personal moral stance is valid and of equal weight. This moral relativism seems to be more and more what individuals are turning to, especially those who are younger, as a basis for their conduct—sometimes trying to bend the frame of traditional sources of moral code around their personal constructs. (That a general moral code is requisite for defining a set of laws whereby a people may be governed, and that in attempts to define such a moral code all too often to those with greater secular learning or greater popularity is attributed the greater moral wisdom, will need to be the topic of a different post.)
To atheists, the disappearance of a singular moral authority arises from the absence of a belief in the existence of Him who defines that which is eternally right and wrong—God. To theists, a belief that mankind can neither know nor comprehend the mind or will of God, or that God no longer calls prophets in our day, might be used as a justification that no specific individual among humanity can stake definitive claim on what God has said to be right or wrong—all are able to interpret what they feel God has stated through his prophets in times past and how it pertains to present challenges. Even among those who believe in living prophets, sometimes a rational is held up that the fallibility of man precludes the possibility that a prophet can claim with complete certainty to know God's view on specific issues.
Among the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the belief that God calls and ordains prophets to speak on His behalf. These prophets learn the will of God from God Himself, even by speaking to Him face to face when necessary, and are commanded to teach His truths and bare witness of Him to the rest of His children. God then sends the Holy Ghost as another witness to His children that what the prophets teach and witness is of Him and is true.
This pattern has been part of God's plan for His children throughout the ages. In Amos we read “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” And in a revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”
The Importance of the Law of Witnesses
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have received my own personal witness that God has called prophets in our day. As a physicist, I am often asked how I can have such a strong conviction that God exists and that there are prophets of God now living. In my discussions I have found that the difficulty in others in reconciling my religious convictions with my rather scientific mindset arises from both a lack of understanding of the law of witnesses and an over reliance on the scientific method. The latter part of that statement might sound like heresy to other scientists, but I assure you, the scientific method has its limitations.
To explain, I would like to highlight the difference between knowing something for oneself of oneself, versus knowing something for oneself of someone else.
The process of learning something for oneself of oneself is governed by the scientific method. In this process one begins with a hypothesis, any hypothesis, and develops a set of experiments against which one can test the validity of that hypothesis. Critical elements of this process involve identifying both appropriate and adequate experiments, carefully and precisely carrying out those experiments in a repeatable fashion, correctly interpreting the results of the experiments and what those results might mean in terms of the original hypothesis, and being able to adeptly document and communicate the entire process to others that they might repeat it and confirm the conclusions.
On the other hand, the process of learning something for oneself of someone else is governed by the law of witnesses. In this process, those who have knowledge of a truth share that truth with others. As those who hear the witnessed truth do not have access to the full proof of that truth, they must rely on the character of the witnesses to substantiate the validity of what is being claimed—hence, they learn truths of someone else. Yet, even without access to the full proof of the truth, those learning truth through the law of witnesses can still apply the truth, see the results of doing so, and come to a reasonable expectation that that which they have heard is true. Critical elements of the law of witnesses are that there are multiple witnesses of the truth, that the character of those witnesses is such that one can be confident that their testament is honest, that the witnesses have sufficient expertise in the area of the truth being witnessed that they can speak with authority, and that those hearing of the truth be willing to accept and apply the claimed truth until, in due time, they can learn the truth for themselves of themselves.
Both the scientific method and the law of witnesses allow one to learn truth for oneself. They differ in how the proof of that truth is affirmed. Both are of great value in the process of learning; both have their place inside and outside of science.
Allow me to illustrate with an example the differences between the scientific method and the law of witnesses, and the great importance of the law of witnesses in the process of learning. I invite you, the reader, to ask yourself a question: do you believe that Einstein's statement on the equivalence of mass and energy, i.e. that E=mc2, is true? (N.B., This is not a trick question; to any fellow physicist reading this post, please feel free to assume that the mass in question is at rest with respect to the frame from which all quantities are being referenced.)
|“I want to know God's thoughts—the rest are mere details.” — Albert Einstein|
If you answered yes, ask yourself this (if you answered no, we should talk offline sometime): using the basic laws of physics could you mathematically derive that equation? If you cannot, have you at any time been able to do so, even if you can't remember all of the steps at the moment? If you can, or have before, derived the mathematical model and expression for this relationship, have you yourself performed any experiment which supports this model? And if you have done all of these things, can you demonstrate that your interpretation of the results of your experiment does indeed support this mathematical model of mass-energy equivalence?
If you could answer yes to all of the above questions, congratulations: you have applied the scientific method to learn this principle for yourself, of yourself. I imagine, however, that very few of you could answer yes to more than my first question.
If you answered no to any of my follow-up questions, and you insist that the only way to learn knowledge is through the scientific method, then it would be completely illogical for you to believe that there exists an equivalence between mass and energy—for in not being able to derive the necessary mathematical relationships yourself, in not having performed the experiments yourself, and in not being able yourself to justify that the results of those experiments corroborate the mathematical model, you can lay no claim on the scientific method to support your professed belief.
Now, is it unreasonable, really, to believe that E=mc2, even if you can't derive the equations nor perform the experiments nor interpret the results? No, of course not. Even if you have not done these things yourself, there are those who have. Over the years many physicists have added their voice to this claim: physicists who—although fallible—have given no indication that they are attempting to mislead us, physicists who have accrued expertise in this area by spending years of their lives studying it. Additionally, outside of that group of physicists, many have seen the application of this knowledge—for good and for bad—even though they themselves do not have access to the full proof of the mass-energy equivalence.
And it is reasonable for you to trust the claims of these physicists. However, to you (not them), this is a demonstration not of the scientific method but rather of the law of witnesses.
It is interesting to me that the law of witnesses is often used in science, although rarely explicitly acknowledged. And when the law of witnesses is explicitly discussed, in my personal experience it is not uncommon for scientists and other intellectuals to be dismissive of it as some form of hearsay, without merit. Rather, it seems scientists and intellectuals would like to assume that they can speak and act as though the entire breadth and depth of human knowledge is their own—because someone, somewhere, at some time, applied the scientific method—but they cannot do so without relying on the law of witnesses.
For all the rigor that the scientific method affords, it is the law of witnesses that allows one to learn true principles at a rate much faster than would otherwise be possible. Indeed, if you relied only on knowledge which you have received in applying the scientific method yourself, what truths would you be able to fully claim to know?
In teaching a child that 1+1=2 one does not begin by establishing the rules of formal logic and choosing an axiomatic set theory, nor would a Calc I teacher begin their class with lessons in real analysis. Instead, an explanation of truth is given, along with justifications and examples to support the claims being made and how one might apply them, and then the student is expected to apply those claims—building up the basis of an empirical knowledge—all without formal proof. As the student gains experience and knowledge in the application of a principle or truth learned of another, it helps them prepare to learn that same truth for themselves of themselves when—having sufficiently progressed—they are ready to do so at a later time.
The Importance of Prophets
|“We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these [God's spirit children] may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” — Abraham 3:24|
God knew that our time in mortality would be limited, He planned it that way. He knew there would be much for us to accomplish if we were to acquire all that we needed in order to be able to return again to Him and continue our progression, eventually realizing our full potential as His children. In the time between our birth and resurrection, we would need to enter into covenants, receive ordinances, and learn eternal truths which could only be understood in the context of experiences unique to this period of our existence.
Knowing, even designing, that we wouldn't have time enough to learn for ourselves of ourselves all of those most important truths, He created a plan that included prophets and the Holy Ghost. Through prophets, the Holy Ghost, and the law of witnesses, all of His children would have equal opportunity to learn for themselves of Him every truth necessary for their exaltation.
By not relying on the scientific method as the means whereby His children learn spiritual truths, God demonstrates that He is no respecter of persons—for otherwise a person's spiritual progression would be limited by their intellect and their chances for learning. By relying on the law of witnesses as His means for revealing eternal spiritual truths, all of His children who humbly come unto Him with a broken heart, a contrite spirit, and real intent may know through His Spirit the truthfulness of all things—irrespective of their educational background or intellectual prowess.
|“The Lord has not chosen the great and learned of the world to perform His work on the earth. It is not those who have been trained and educated in the colleges and seminaries of learning, but humble men devoted to His cause whom He has chosen to take charge of the affairs of His Church, men who are willing to be led and guided by the Holy Spirit, and who will of necessity give the glory unto Him, knowing that of themselves they can do nothing.” — Lorenzo Snow, fifth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.|
Knowing that His children would make mistakes along the way—violating eternal moral law in sinning, with the demands of justice preventing their return to Him and continued progression—God provided a means for redemption, through the Savior and His atonement, by which justice might be satisfied and yet mercy extended to those who met specific conditions. By calling and ordaining prophets and granting unto them authority through priesthood keys to arbitrate His covenants and have ordinances performed for His children on His behalf, His children are able to make the atonement effectual in their lives—allowing them the opportunity to overcome spiritual death, in addition to their guaranteed overcoming of physical death, that they may continue to realize their divine destiny hereafter.
God wants His children to realize their full potential that they may enjoy the same opportunities, blessings, and happiness that He enjoys. By teaching His prophets Himself, and giving them authority to speak on His behalf, He provides a singular source for clarification on spiritual truths—settling any confusion on matters pertinent to our exaltation.
It is true that God expects us to search out truths through our own study of the words of the prophets, prayer with Him, and by seeking personal revelation through the Holy Ghost. He commands us to study questions of spiritual matters in our minds and in our hearts. However, He will never reveal unto His children through the Holy Ghost doctrines which stand contrary to that which He has revealed to His prophets. When searching out spiritual truths for themselves, God's children are to search out whether He has already revealed the answer to their questions through His prophets. If so, God expects His children to be willing to accept, apply, and live by what He has revealed through His prophets that in so doing they might come to a reasonable expectation that that which they have heard is true—living by faith the principles God has already revealed, instead of living by principles they hope He might possibly yet reveal.
|“Hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes.” — Jeffrey R. Holland, current member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.|
As much as God wants us to ask questions and learn His mysteries, we need to keep in mind that the answers to our questions will come from Him in His timeframe. God teaches both His Children and His Church “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little”. By waiting for us to be prepared before revealing additional truth, God prevents that additional light and knowledge from becoming a stumbling-block unto us. Indeed, as we prepare our minds and hearts to learn truth, that which is revealed through God's prophets and His Spirit will often be plain, simple, and easy to understand. Some truths, however, we might not be ready to understand until after this life.
We also need to keep in mind that having questions and having doubts are not one and the same. I have heard some suggest that having doubts is an important step in spiritual progression, reasoning that without first doubting one cannot understand nor develop faith—some even implying that this logic is some form of a higher spiritual road that only the best and brightest of God's children are prepared to walk. Although we are to ask questions, God has clearly stated that we need to cast aside all doubts and fears that we might have—including those concerning His anointed. He has counseled us to “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.” In the words of Jeffery R. Holland, “In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith.”
This weekend anyone with an internet connection will have the opportunity to hear and learn from those men whom God has called as prophets for our day, as well as from other leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two hour sessions will be broadcast on lds.org, beginning at 10:00 am and 2:00 pm MDT (4:00 pm and 8:00 pm GMT) on both Saturday October 5th and Sunday October 6th, as well as an additional session—intended for those in the Church who hold the priesthood, but available online to all—that will be held at 6:00 pm MDT on October 5th (12:00 am GMT October 6th).
I invite all to take the great opportunity to come and listen to a prophet's voice during these sessions of this general conference of the Lord's Church. In the words of Elder Russell M. Nelson, “If you have a question about the position of the Church on [any] important issue, prayerfully ponder it, and then heed the prophetic messages at this forthcoming October general conference of the Church. Those inspired addresses, plus inspiration from the Holy Ghost, will bring to your mind a fuller and truer understanding.”
I know for myself of God that Thomas S. Monson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a prophet called of God. He has authority from God Himself to speak on His behalf to the entire world, and is the only individual on the Earth today who is authorized to exercise all of the keys of the priesthood. His counselors in the First Presidency as well as the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are also prophets of God. These men lead Christ's Church under His direction, teach the doctrines and wisdom of God, and stand as witnesses to His existence and eternal truths.
If you will open your heart and listen to the words of these prophets—with the real intent to learn truth and apply it in your life—you can come to know for yourself of God, through the power of the Holy Ghost, that they are who I claim they are and that that of which they teach and testify is from God and is true. If you have any questions concerning what you hear, you can chat anonymously online at mormon.org with missionaries of the Church who would be happy to answer your questions.
For the Lord has promised: “And whosoever shall believe in my name, doubting nothing, unto him will I confirm all my words, even unto the ends of the earth.”