As a professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University (1972-2011), I have rationally defended the restored gospel in local, national, and international venues. Indeed, in all my published work, I have done nothing else. Yet my own conviction of the restored gospel is not based on philosophical or theological reasoning; it is grounded in personal manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Though these are sacred experiences, not often communicated or communicable, I share one such experience here.
Confirmation at Bellingham
Several years ago I attended an eight week Institute in the Philosophy of Religion at Eastern Washington University in Bellingham, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Institute was directed by Professors William Alston and Alvin Plantinga and included as faculty some of the most prominent philosophers of religion in both the U.S. and Great Britain. We met all day Monday thru Fridays and a half day on Saturday, as well as three evenings a week. Near the end of July, sensing participant burnout, Professor Alston announced that we were going to take a day off the coming Friday and that, for those interested, plans had been made for a whaling boat excursion of the coast of Puget Sound.. All of us eagerly signed up.
On Thursday night—the eve of the excursion—I remembered that I had accepted an invitation to teach the priesthood lesson on Sunday in the High Priests group of the Bellingham 2nd Ward—my ward for the summer. Realizing that there would be little time later, I decided to read and begin to prepare the lesson. The manual that year was based on the Old Testament. The particular lesson dealt with seeking and receiving spiritual confirmation of gospel truth. The introduction to the lesson included a passage from Jeremiah containing the phrase “in mine heart like a burning fire,” and a quotation from President Harold B. Lee which said (I’m paraphrasing): “One is not truly converted until he sees the spirit of the Lord resting upon the leaders of the Church and that testimony goes down into one’s heart like fire.” As I read and pondered the lesson material, I felt a very strong impression that there was someone who was struggling with his faith who very much needed this lesson and that I consequently I needed to prepare the lesson with great care and prayer—so much so that I should forego the whaling boat excursion on the morrow and spend the entire day Friday in preparation. I tried to brush these feelings aside—I really wanted very much to go on that whaling boat expedition. But the feelings persisted. The thought came to me: you will only pass this way but once. There is someone who will especially benefit from your thorough preparation of the priesthood lesson. The battle continued. That’s a very vain and presumptuous thought, I countered. God doesn’t need me; he can do his work through anyone. The conflict continued for some time, but eventually my lower self lost the battle. I gave up the excursion and spent all day Friday preparing the priesthood lesson. I read and reread the lesson, together with the scriptures cited. I took several walks to ponder the manual’s content and spent much time on my knees praying for guidance. And guidance came. Impressions were clear. You need to deal with these issues; you need to invite class members to respond to these questions. You need to reflect on these scriptures, you to need to share these experiences. Never before had I felt such clear direction in my preparation. By the end of the day, my lesson outline was completely and clearly spelled out. I thought about the members of high priest group, wondering for whom I was specially preparing the lesson, but I drew a blank. Having been in the group for only six weeks, I didn’t know any of them very well.
It was the first Sunday in August and Ward meetings began with fast and testimony meeting. Near the end of the meeting, a young woman (probably in her early forties) came to the podium to share her testimony. Before doing so, she explained that she and her family were from out of state and that they were on their way to Vancouver, Canada, which was hosting the World’s Fair. They felt impressed to stop in Bellingham to attend their meetings. She bore her testimony and returned to the bench, a few rows ahead of mine, where her husband and children were seated. Her husband immediately followed her to the podium. He explained that, before the meeting, he had made a deal with his wife: although he had never spoken a word in a Church meeting, if she would bear her testimony, he would bear his. He began by sharing some personal background. He reported that he had never been a believer. And that his study of the hard sciences, including chemistry, in college had served to confirm him in his atheism. While in college, he met and subsequently married the woman who was now his wife. She was, and she had always remained, an active Latter-day Saint. Throughout their married life, she had always taken their children to the church, while he almost always spent his Sundays reading the newspapers, watching TV, and resting. Occasionally, he went to church with them, almost always when a family member was speaking or otherwise performing. And he sometimes participated with his wife in Church social activities. In time, his rabid atheism was supplanted by an open agnosticism. It was then that he, at his wife’s urging, was baptized. He became fully active in Church activities. Nevertheless, he said, until this morning, he had never before borne his testimony, asked a question, or even spoken a word in a Church meeting. In ending his remarks, he said: “I cannot honestly say ‘I know the Church is true.’ I have never experienced a spiritual confirmation of its truthfulness. But, I can honestly say ‘I know the Church is good.’” And, he concluded: “I hope the Church is true.” He then returned to his seat.
While this brother was speaking, I received a powerful spiritual confirmation that he was the person for whom, with God’s help, I had prepared the priesthood lesson. Accordingly, immediately following the close of the fast and testimony meeting, I introduced myself to him and invited him to our high priest group meeting. “Thank you,” he said, “but I’m an Elder.” “That’s alright,” I said. “You’re supposed to meet with the high priests this morning.” Puzzled, he nonetheless came with me.
In the group meeting, I presented the lesson material—asking the questions, pondering the scriptures, sharing the experiences—as I had been divinely guided to do. Consistent with what he had reported in his testimony, this brother did not say a word.
But he lingered in the classroom following the closing prayer until only the two of us were left in the room. Then he thanked me for the priesthood lesson, reporting that the issues dealt with in the class were the very ones that he had struggled with throughout his life. “Now I know how to resolve them,” he said, “Thank you very much.” He continued, “During the lesson, I received a spiritual confirmation that the restored gospel is true.” And then with tears streaming down his cheeks, he continued, “God brought me to Bellingham this morning.” And, through my tears, all I could say was, “I know.”
David Lamont Paulsen is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University (BYU), where, from 1994 to 1998, he held the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding.
Professor Paulsen received an associate’s degree from Snow College in English, a bachelor’s degree from BYU in Political Science (graduating that year as BYU’s valedictorian), a J.D. from the Law School of the University of Chicago in 1964, and then, after several years spent as a practicing attorney, a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan in 1975, with emphasis in the philosophy of religion.
With Donald W. Musser, Professor Paulsen edited Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2008). He also wrote the foreword to The Mormon Doctrine of Deity: The Roberts-Van Der Donckt Discussion (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2000).
Professor Paulsen has contributed articles to The International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, Analysis (“Divine Determinateness and the Free Will Defence” [43:1]), The Harvard Theological Review (e.g., “Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses” [83:2]; and, with Carl W. Griffin, “Augustine and the Corporeality of God” [95:2]), Faith and Philosophy (“Must God Be Incorporeal?” [6:1]), and Speculative Philosophy.
He has also contributed essays to the FARMS Review (including, among others, with Ari D. Bruening, “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths” [13:2]; with Brent Alvord, “Joseph Smith and the Problem of the Unevangelized” [17:1]; and, with Cory G. Walker, “Work, Worship, and Grace” [18:2]), the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (e.g., with Roger D. Cook and Kendel J. Christensen, “The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity” [19:1]; with Brock M. Mason, “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity” [19:2]; and, with Kendel J. Christensen and Martin Pulido, “Redeeming the Dead: Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority” [20:1]), and BYU Studies (e.g., “The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives” [35:4]; “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil” [39:1]; “Joseph Smith Challenges the Theological World” [44:4]; “Are Christians Mormon? Reassessing Joseph Smith’s Theology in His Bicentennial” [45:1]; with Julie K. Allen, “The Reverend Dr. Peter Christian Kierkegaard’s ‘About and Against Mormonism’ (1855)” [46:3]; “What Does It Mean to Be a Christian? The Views of Joseph Smith and Søren Kierkegaard” [47:4]; with Clark H. Pinnock, “Open and Relational Theology: An Evangelical in Dialogue with a Latter-day Saint” [48:2]; and, with Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven” [50:1]).
Posted December 2011