One of my favorite scriptural passages is found in the revelations that the prophet Joseph Smith received. In this passage we find: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine & Covenants 88: 118). Later in this same book of scripture we also learn that obedience is an important element in gaining “knowledge and intelligence” (Doctrine & Covenants 130: 19; see also John 7: 17). I find great meaning in these passages and have seen their truth confirmed in my own life. Although some people are suspicious of religious and spiritual matters, I have actually found that such things complement the academic and secular approaches to learning. In my own life I have learned things through both study and spiritual intimations. In fact, at times I have sought the help of the Lord to solve particular problems, even academic ones that transcend the current limits of my own understanding. At other times I have experienced a burst of insight or direction that I had not anticipated but that has allowed me to make further progress in my own life or academic work.
To acknowledge that the Lord takes an interest in our lives, sometimes even matters related to our work, is not to say that he regularly solves our problems for us. He certainly expects us to do our part. The first passage I mentioned above mentions study, not just faith. But if people merely study and shut themselves off from the additional font of light and knowledge, then they are imposing an unnecessary limitation on their potential happiness and success.
I am certainly aware that some skeptics might propose counterarguments or alternative theories by which they might attempt to explain away what I have just said about my own personal experiences with faith and reason. But my own conclusions about this relationship between faith and reason have not been developed through some kind of naiveté. I have had many years of experience and personal reflection on this relationship. And although I don’t claim to have figured out everything in this regard, I have seen and experienced enough to know that the relationship is a real one. As with many truths in life, I think it involves paradoxes. Some might ask how faith and obedience can bring learning or knowledge. It might initially seem like a backwards proposition to those who assume that faith and obedience should come after evidence or knowledge. But in the same way that many people have “found” themselves only after first losing themselves in the service of others, I can also say that faith and obedience often precede greater light and knowledge. Indeed, the relationship in my own life seems to be cyclical. Faith and obedience bring greater understanding, which in turn builds a greater faith and desire to be obedient, which can bring more understanding, and the process continues. Along the way we can see evidence of the truth of what we believe, so we are not operating with what others would incorrectly assume to be “blind faith or obedience.” We aren’t expected to abandon our intellect and reason. The Book of Mormon, in fact, encourages us to try an experiment in relation to faith (and it actually uses the word “experiment”). It invites people to first “exercise a particle of faith” to plant a seed (the word of God) and then observe whether the seed grows with watering and cultivating. The seed won’t grow if it is not a good one. But if the seed grows and enlarges our soul and increases our understanding, then we know it is a good seed. Thus we have evidence along the way to confirm what originally only required just enough faith to plant the seed as part of an experiment (Alma 32). This description in the Book of Mormon is consistent with my own person experience. And my own conviction of the truth of the restored gospel has not come through just one experience but many experiences, stretched out over a lifetime.
As I read the Book of Mormon and other latter-day scriptures revealed through the prophet Joseph Smith, I am continually impressed with the richness and beauty of the doctrines presented within them. I am also amazed at the continuity and consistency between these scriptures and the Bible. Moreover, when I read the latter-day scriptures, I feel the same spirit that I feel when I read the Bible. This confirms to my soul that the ultimate source of both is the same: the Lord Himself.
Dallin D. Oaks is a member of the Linguistics and English Language Department at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on the structure and history of the English language. He has a Ph.D from Purdue University and has published a variety of books and articles, including a two-volume work on structural ambiguity.
Posted May 2011