I gave a talk last Sunday to two wards, and I felt I needed to put these thoughts together in a blog post that the world could see and comment. (I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
I believe that God wants us to engage him intellectually, logically and reasonably. Indeed, that’s what Jesus did when he was on the earth: He engaged his opponents with reason and logic. It was a scribe who saw that Jesus was reasoning that asked the great question: “Which is the first commandment of all?” (Mark 12) Jesus answered that question, of course: Love God, Love your neighbor.
So let us reason together.
My background is physics. I earned by BS in 2000. I did pretty well in physics, I think, and got a better grade than pretty much anyone else. I aced the tests, and I really enjoyed myself. I tell you this not to brag, but to quell any kind of ad hominem logical fallacy.
Let’s talk about logic.
600 years BC, we had Socrates going around Athens asking questions: “What is piety? What is virtue? What is beauty?” He was killed for asking these questions, but his disciple Plato wrote some of the things down and Plato’s disciple Aristotle kept the tradition alive. I think we can credit Aristotle for the founding of science. Aristotle’s disciple Alexander conquered the world, and that’s why the New Testament is written in Greek, so these people literally changed the world.
It wasn’t until about the 1300s that Europe rediscovered the ancients, but more importantly, they began to question again. We call this the Renaissance. 300 years later, more or less, we have Renee Descartes (pronounced de-cart). He is credited as being the father of modern science.
Before I go any further, let’s talk about what logic really is. Logic starts with assumptions. Then you apply logical manipulations to these statements and get a conclusion. That’s all it is. Without any assumptions, there is no logic to do.
If you don’t like the conclusions, then you question the assumptions or you question the logic itself. If there was an error, you expose it. But logic in and of itself is cold and uncaring. Give it a set of assumptions, and it will give you a set of conclusions.
What should be our assumptions? In religious terms, what should we believe, having nothing else as a foundation?
Renee Descartes struggled with this question, as we all must, and discovered some interesting things. First, he could not trust his senses. For all he knew, the universe we live in itself may not be real. We could be living in The Matrix. But the one thing he knew was this: “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, the fact that he could question and analyze meant that he existed.
To Christians and Jews, “I AM” is a very special phrase. When Moses asked God how he should tell the children of Israel that he was sent by God, God told Moses: Tell them, “I AM THAT I AM”. “I AM” is a name for God.
It is Christianity that gave us the idea that man and God are not so different after all. Jesus Christ bridged the gap, and if we follow him, we too can become like God, joint-heirs with Christ. (Do I need to expound on this? It is plainly in the Bible.)
So perhaps Descartes knew that he was really saying, “I think, therefore GOD”.
Regardless, Renee Descartes put together the foundations of science, which I think of as:
- The universe exists.
- Logical laws govern the universe, absolutely.
- Mankind can understand those laws.
- However, we are flawed.
- But we can test our ideas against reality.
- By testing ideas against reality, we can distinguish truth from error about the nature of the universe.
Let me add God back into the equation to show you where these ideas came from and why it had to be a Christian like Descartes that came up with them:
- We can’t know that the universe exists, but God created it, so it must.
- God governs the universe, and he is logical and reasonable, so the universe must be too. The only disobedient thing in the universe is man.
- God and man are not so different, and man is destined to become like God, which requires understanding God, which requires understanding the laws that govern the universe.
- Since we are fallible and mortal, we make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes are not permanently fatal, and we can repent and change over time, though.
- If we experiment and test our ideas with the universe, we can see if they are right or wrong. “By their fruits ye shall know them”, in Jesus’ words.
- This process can be repeated endlessly.
All of the founding members of modern science were Christian. Yes, we had fantastic contributions from people all over the world and from all faiths, but ultimately, it took Christians to bring these ideas home and to push human thought into modern science. None can argue against this.
Moving along, I want to point out a few things.
Science is simply a set of assumptions, assumptions that work really, really well. What are your assumptions going to be? Are you going to assume, as ancient man, that the universe is arbitrary and ruled by the passions of elite gods? Or are you going to use these assumptions?
What assumptions or beliefs are good and which are bad? Can we not test assumptions and beliefs just like we can test scientific theories?
Let me share some assumptions that I have that have been tremendously beneficial for me. I hope you will find them useful for yourself as well.
- This universe, you, humanity, is not a mistake. It was intended to be this way.
- It was intended by a God who has infinite love and compassion, and truly understands us and our state and wants us to become like him.
- As long as we keep trying to be better and better, as long as we leave our sins behind us and move forward, we can become more and more like God, and that’s OK.
Now, I want to mention one thing: God gave us free will, the freedom to choose our own set of assumptions. He cannot force us to accept one set of assumptions or another, but he can show us the consequences of those assumptions.
Some people talk about belief as if it were like getting hit by a truck on the freeway. God doesn’t work this way. It is more like an invitation. Sometimes he sends you a card in the mail. Sometimes he knocks on the front door. Sometimes he gives you a ring on the telephone. But in every instance, he merely asks you to believe. He never forces you. Now, some of us say things like “After such-and-such an experience, I couldn’t help but believe” but this really is not true. We could’ve equally chalked up those experiences to random chance or coincidence. We chose to attribute those experiences to God, nothing more. Ultimately, it’s all up to us what we choose to believe and choose to see.
Alma taught about the seed of faith, how we have to plant and nourish it and it will grow until it gives you fruit, namely, eternal life. (Alma 32) I won’t revisit the entire story, you can do that on your own time.
What I will say is this. When we have a seed, and we nourish it, and it dies, it could be because it was a bad seed, or it could be because we didn’t nourish it properly. Many of us, throughout our lives, find our seeds of faith wilting or dying. I’m here to tell you that’s ok. God gave us time on this earth to explore and change and grow. Sometimes we have what we think is a good seed but it turns out it’s not so good. Besides, if it is a good seed but we’re just bad gardeners, it doesn’t mean we should neglect the rest of the plants in our garden.
If you’re one of those who doesn’t have any plants in their gardens yet, start planting some seeds and watering them! That’s the only way you can get plants. You won’t get plants by hoping or wishing. It takes getting your hands dirty and finding new seeds. And patience. If you’ve ever planted a seed in a cup with a little kid, you know that it’s just when the kid is about to give up and throw it away that the seed will sprout.
If you’re one of those who had lots of beautiful plants but, through neglect or just by picking bad seeds, those plants are dying, the answer is to find new seeds and plant them.
If you’re one of those with a beautiful garden with lots of flourishing plants, go get some more seeds! We need to keep adding to our faith so that we can gain all good things, not just some of them.
In all cases, go get more seeds, go plant those seeds, and nourish them. And meanwhile, don’t forget the plants you already have. Someday, if we keep this up, we will see we have a beautiful garden with *all* the good plants, all of them bearing fruit.
I like to talk about how when I was a young child, I believed young child things, and that was good enough for me when I was a young child. When I became a teenager, the young child things didn’t work anymore, so I had to go relearn the gospel as a teenager, which was good. But when I became a young adult, those teenager beliefs didn’t satisfy me anymore and I had to go relearn the gospel again to believe in things that were good for me as a young adult. And now that I am a father with teenagers of my own, those young adult things don’t work and so I need father-of-teenager beliefs. I imagine when I am 80 years old I’ll have yet a different set of beliefs. It isn’t so much that what I learned as a child was wrong, but that those simply aren’t the things I need today. We should expect that as we grow and change, our beliefs must grow and change with me. That’s why we need to keep learning and keep studying and praying and changing.
Let me tell you an example. When you are a teenager, you see your parents and how wrong they are about things, but as an older adult, I don’t care about that so much anymore. We’re all flawed, and we all have errors and it’s no use to beat each other up because we are wrong about something. It’s so much more important to have peace and calm and share love one with another than point out each other’s faults. I couldn’t see that as a teenager, and I don’t expect other teenagers to either, but as a middle-aged man, I am beginning to understand that crystal-clear. I imagine when I am 80, I’ll understand it even better, or perhaps even understand it in a different way.
Sometimes we hear about how science and religion are diametrically opposed to one another. This is an example of a false dichotomy, a logical fallacy where you say either one or the other can be true, but not both.
The founders of modern science were all Christian. To say that modern science opposes Christianity is simply absurd. Christianity created modern science, and modern science is based on it, as I have already shown. Indeed, if anything, modern science *is* Christianity.
Sometimes scientists come up with strange ideas that are contrary to Christianity, but really, who cares? Science is all about testing out strange ideas. The history of physics is a history of error. I can name so many smart people that believed wrong things, from Einstein saying “God does not play dice!” (He does), to Maxwell and Ether Theory, to Newton saying light is made of particles, to Rutherford believing in the plum pudding model of the atom until he saw alpha particles bounce of gold foil. If there’s anything I learned studying physics, it’s that whatever we believe about science today is probably wrong. It’s just a matter of time until we figure out how it is wrong.
But that idea — believing in a scientific theory — what is the point? Can Quantum Mechanics bind a wounded heart? Can Electrodynamics tell you how to treat your teenage kid? How can understanding the Second Law of Thermodynamics give you the right words to say to your wife to save your marriage? Do you see the powerlessness of science compared to religion?
I believe we should also approach religion scientifically. We should test our beliefs out, keep the good ones, reject the bad ones, and continually search for better ones. We should be praying for guidance and new ideas, we should be searching the scriptures, we should be walking circumspectly before God. Our church is a big church. We invite all, no matter what they believe, to be with us and worship with us, to grow with us, to be part of us. We have time here on earth to work through this all. It’s what we’re here for. We trust God knows what he is doing better than we do. We’re a hospital of sinners, not a museum of saints.
Finally, I want to end with my testimony. I know God is real. He answers my prayers. If you want to know for yourself about God, pour your own heart and soul out to him. Tell him how you really feel about him, whether good or bad. He’s a big boy. He can take it. He understands you better than you can understand yourself. I know that God answers those prayers. He will answer yours.
In Jesus’ name, amen.