Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?
Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God. (John 6:67-69.)
I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the words of eternal life, and I find the spirit of God here. I believe that this church helps me be a better person. I find good people outside this church who do not seem inclined to join, but who may be better than I am at showing love to others. It may be that God has another path for them, but He hasn’t found it necessary to tell me.
When it became known that I planned to go to the University of Utah, a well-intentioned ward member took me aside and warned me that the professors there would try to steal my testimony. I took an historical geology course from Dr. William Lee Stokes, head of the Geology Department and an active church member. By this time I accepted the abundant evidence for evolution, but wondered if there was room for compromise. Could this Earth have been made of parts of other planets where these fossilized animals had lived? Dr. Stokes answered, Only if the parts were the size of continents and had been added to the Earth without greatly distorting them–both unlikely prospects. It seemed to me then that if you needed to create bodies for mankind, a good way to do it would be through evolution.
I earned a Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics and began teaching. Some asked me how an otherwise intelligent person could believe in God. On the contrary, I find it reasonable to suppose that at least there might be a god, and I make the argument for this from large numbers. There are an estimated 400 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy ,with perhaps 20% of those, or eighty billion, being more or less like the Sun.
Astronomers believe that planets are usually formed along with stars, and if we suppose that each star has one earth-like planet (the Sun had three: Earth, early-Venus, and early-Mars), then there are eighty billion earth-like planets in our galaxy. (I ignore non-earth-like planets as too much of an unknown.) Life arose on the Earth after only 200 million years, almost as soon as it could. This suggests that life should be common, occurring wherever conditions are right. That life more complex than simple bacteria-like cells did not occur before the Earth was 3.8 billion years old suggests that this step was more difficult. Indigenous complex life may be relatively rare on these planets.
Particle physicist Murray Gell-Man’s Totalitarian Principle states, “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” Applied here to an infinite number of worlds, the principle means that anything that can happen with a world and its inhabitants must happen sometime, somewhere. Of course we do not have an infinite number of possible planets, but a large number–and we can make it far larger by considering that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the visible universe. I suggest that if it is possible for an intelligent race to arise and to become like gods, it probably has already happened somewhere, sometime. I say happened because we are latecomers. It seems to have taken 4.5 billion years for man to arise on Earth and for us to reach our current stage of progress, but the universe is three times that old, 13.75 billion years.
Consider the progress humankind has made in the last hundred years. What might we do in a thousand years, or in a hundred thousand years? Will we be able to make ourselves immortal? Quite possibly. If civilization stretches into millennia, will people become more righteous, or will we kill ourselves? In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker shows that world-wide violence as measured by murders per capita has steadily decreased over the millennia and more certainly over the last few centuries. That is hopeful. If we had a million years, could we become god-like? I suggest that the answer is yes, and if it is possible, I suggest that it has already been done, since, as has been said, we are latecomers.
I have been blessed with an abiding faith (detractors might say with a persistent blindness). Ever since I was a young teenager, whenever I wished to, I have been able to reach out and feel what I interpret to be the peaceful burning reassurance that God lives. Usually that reassurance comes immediately, although sometimes I must wait. My earliest recollection of this reassurance came in a Sunday School class as the teacher related Joseph Smith’s first vision. It was in the old 32nd Ward building, in Pioneer Stake, in Salt Lake City. The back half of the building had two stories, and we were in an upstairs classroom, seated around the perimeter of the room. The teacher, Sister Drechsel, told us that Joseph was only a little older than we were when God appeared to him. As she told us the story, the peaceful, burning reassurance of the spirit whispered to me the refrain, “It is true, it is true!” Sixty years later I still picture a glow filling the room and I feel the reassurance of the spirit as I relive this memory. As time passed, I had several experiences that reinforced my belief. I will relate a few of them.
I was about fifteen when our Boy Scout troop camped for a week in Little Cottonwood Canyon. I was with an older group that helped shepherd the younger boys. As the camp ended we got everything packed up and were waiting for cars to come from the city to take us home. Since we had a couple of hours, four of us decided to take a short hike without the younger boys while we waited. Jim was about my age, Jay a year or two younger, and John two years older. After obtaining permission from the adult leaders, we followed a stream into a narrow canyon thirty or forty yards wide. We walked up the canyon and soon came to a glacier covering the floor of the canyon, and saw that the stream flowed out of an ice cave in the face of the glacier. We wanted to explore the cave, but we would have had to wade in the stream, and the cave ceiling was low. It did not look too promising, so we climbed on top of the glacier. We decided to hike up the glacier a bit and then return to camp, but we soon came to a stack of tools, a couple of shovels and a pick, beside a fifty-foot rope that hung down the side of the cliff–and, of course, we had to investigate.
The rope tested strong enough and anchored well enough to hold, and it looked like there was some rubble and maybe a mine entrance near the top of the rope. John decided to go up and have a look, but he wouldn’t go into the mine, of course, since that might be dangerous. Well, there wasn’t anything to see at the top of the rope, and there wasn’t room for more than one there. Jim and Jay were soon up the rope, and they all jumped over to another ledge where the rubble was, and maybe a mine. I waited at the bottom, thinking that going up might be a bad idea. But what could go wrong? I could climb up, have a look around, and then we would go back to camp. Not wanting to miss out, I went up. The rope was anchored to a bump that jutted out from the cliff, and as I stood on this bump, the other boys started yelling at me, but I couldn’t understand them. I jumped over to them, and as my foot left the rock from which I jumped, that rock came loose and fell down to the glacier below.
It turned out that the other boys had been yelling to me not to jump, since they didn’t think that they could jump back to the rope safely–the landing area was small (smaller since my jump), and there was no way to safely stop if you overshot. On the other hand, we thought we could trace out a route up the several hundred feet to the top of the cliffs with the hope that going down the other side would be easier. After a very fervent group prayer, we felt we ought to go up and over, so we did. John had a ten-foot length of rope, but otherwise we had no climbing equipment. I believe we had canteens. It became a spiritual experience in that we reached for a hand hold, and finding none, prayed harder, and then found a hold. As we worked our way up a chimney, we had to take turns climbing because of the loose rocks we dislodged. On one occasion, the climber above me started again before I was out of the chimney. I heard a rock rattling down the chimney and looked up to see a double-fist-sized rock hurtling towards my head. I thought I could hang on tight and lean outward and let it hit me in the chest or I could hug the cliff and it would probably hit my head. I hugged the cliff. The rock hit just above my head and bounced out into space.
It took about three hours, but we made it to the top, and as we had hoped, the other side was much less steep. As we trotted down a deer trail, Jay tripped and cartwheeled off into space. He later told us that he saw a rock coming at him and that he felt if he could just grab onto that rock, he would be all right. He caught the rock and came away bruised and badly shaken, but alive. Had Jay not caught that rock, he would have plunged another forty feet onto a jumble of granite boulders. Some may say that we deluded ourselves and that the good outcome was the result of a series of coincidences, but we felt that God was watching over us and helping us.
I was a missionary in Germany when the Berlin wall was built. Elder Henry D. Moyle, counselor in the LDS Church’s First Presidency, visited the wall with Elder Theodore Burton, European Mission President, and others. Elder Burton related to us missionaries that Elder Moyle said that the Berlin wall would fall, and the time would come when missionaries would be so busy teaching those on the east side of the wall that those on the west side might need to wait before they could be taught. At that time the Communists looked very powerful and immovable, and I expected the wall to stand for fifty years or more, but the prophecy has already been mostly fulfilled. The wall has fallen, and missionaries are quite busy teaching those on the east side of the wall, but they still teach those on the west side. This is consistent with my experience that inspiration generally comes as impressions that we must then put into words, and we do not always get the words just right. Since we are fallible, that seems reasonable to me.
I believe I received a revelation that left no room for misinterpretation. Once as a missionary I was put with a companion who had a very different idea than I had about what we ought be doing. Things had been getting worse for weeks when he did something that left me completely and utterly frustrated. When I was alone, I knelt in prayer and told the Lord that I did not see how I could continue on. I heard a voice tell me not to worry, that the matter was being taken care of. The voice was so real and immediate that I opened my eyes and looked around to see if I was still alone. I was. That afternoon a telegram came transferring me to work on a different task with a different companion.
Some might explain away the experiences I have related as coincidences and selective memory where I remember experiences that confirm my belief and ignore experiences that do not. A common explanation for answers to prayer is that we pray until we get something that we can interpret as what we wanted, but I have an example that counters that. While teaching physics and astronomy at the local university, I served in various capacities in the Clinton Oklahoma Branch (now Clinton Ward), including seven years as Branch President. The Branch covered about 5,000 square miles. There were members in all the far corners, but most of them lived in three towns along I-40: Weatherford, Clinton, and Elk City. The church building is in Clinton, but my family lives in Weatherford, so we travel fifty miles round-trip to church. Some travel twice that far. The long distances make church attendance a trial of faith. I was Branch President during the late 70s and early 80s, the years of the “oil boom.” Attracted by oil-field jobs, new members strained the capacity of our phase one building. We even had classes in the baptismal font and in the furnace room. Attendance was high enough to qualify us to add some classrooms and a real chapel to the Clinton building, or we had almost enough to build phase one buildings in Weatherford and Elk City. I greatly favored the second choice and had the support of my counselors and of the Stake President in this. We saw it as a way to mitigate the distance problem.
We got some portable classrooms, and that helped until a fellow from the building department in Salt Lake showed up. He looked at the portable classrooms and announced that they had to go. “They project an image of impermanence; we don’t want that.” I felt terribly frustrated. A few more weeks of good attendance and we would qualify for the other two buildings. I prayed that the building representative would have a change of heart and help us rather than hinder us. An image came to my mind of our three daughters walking together down the aisle of a real chapel, with organ music in the background. Suddenly I knew that we should build the chapel. Still concerned about driving distances, I interviewed each active member and asked for their input. Almost without exception they answered that they had been driving the distance for many years and a few years more wasn’t going to make a difference. While we were building the chapel, the oil boom went bust, and so many members moved out that had we had buildings in Weatherford and Elk City, we would have lost them. I believe that I had an answer to prayer that certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
I believe that God lives, and wonder of wonders, He concerns Himself with our welfare.
I fulfilled an eight-year obligation with the Utah National Guard. I also served a mission in West Germany, and was there when the Berlin Wall was built. I graduated from the University of Utah in 1965 with a B.A. in physics, and then attended Oregon State University where I received an M.S. in physics in 1968 and a Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics in 1971. I spent one year as a visiting assistant professor at Louisiana State University before coming to Southwestern Oklahoma State University. I have taught over 8,000 students during forty years at the university. I have just retired and am now an emeritus professor at Southwestern.
I have written about a hundred popular-level articles on subjects from Nobel Prize winners to nuclear weapons. I was the technical editor for two encyclopedia volumes and for a set of children’s encyclopedias. I have conducted numerous observatory viewing sessions for area public schools and the general public and have been guest speaker on such topics as astronomy, nuclear war, and the dangers of too much UV. My wife JoAnne and I have three daughters who are now grown and have families of their own.
Posted December 2012