While I was attending college in Minnesota in 1983, I had a good Lutheran friend with whom I had animated religious and philosophical discussions. Our friendship was secure enough that I disclosed to him my sincere opinion that the Roman Catholic Pope had to know on some level that his own authority was fraudulent. My friend was incredulous that I could believe this. I had come to this conclusion (astonishing, in retrospect) despite my inclination to acknowledge truth wherever it is found, because of two mistakes. First, I felt erroneously that I had a sufficient understanding of Roman Catholicism to address its internal coherence. Second, I had applied the all-or-nothing reasoning I had often heard Latter-day Saints use as a proof for the restored gospel: the proposal that the truth or falsehood of a key point necessarily determines the truth or falsehood of everything else in the belief system. (I have since come to recognize this as a common but potentially misleading approach to all types of religious and quasi-religious understanding.) During my mission service in Southern Germany, I had met countless cultural Catholics who did not inspire much respect in me for their own faith experience or commitment, especially compared to many German Latter-day Saints that I knew.
Fast forward eleven years, and I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience of shaking hands with Pope John Paul II. Because of my research in natural approaches to family planning, I was invited by a Catholic mentor to participate in a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Perhaps half of the participants were believing Catholics, and all had distinguished careers in biological, medical, and/or social sciences. Many associations related to that and similar meetings are among my valued professional associates and personal friends today. Some of my most significant mentors in science and medicine are devout Roman Catholics who have shown me how to seek the light that faith and science can bring to each other, as well as how those of different faiths can learn from each other. And I have been greatly inspired by the life and writings of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), particularly in relation to what he called the Culture of Life.
As Latter-day Saints, we invite others to come and add to the truth they already have, by learning of the restoration of the gospel. We may sometimes be less diligent in seeking the truths they can bring to us (Moroni 7:19; Article of Faith 13). We often say that Latter-day Saints have no monopoly on goodness, and this is true. I have also learned that we do not have a monopoly on testimony, nor are we the exclusive conduit for all truth that God is bringing to the earth in the fulness of times. This is not to say that I believe in a multi-cultural understanding that is based on moral relativism. But the truths that we are all children of God and that the light of Christ is available to all of us mean much more to me now than ever at any time before in my life.
At this point in my mortal journey, I find that there are many things about which I have become less certain and some about which I have completely changed my views. I have increasingly learned the value of suspending judgment, being open to new understanding, and acknowledging the limitations of my own human perspective (Mosiah 4:9). I recognize the inevitable human propensity to place one’s own cultural and personal interpretation on the revelation one receives. Faith and belief have become more valuable to me than knowledge. Learning from fellow travelers is more important to me than knowing absolutely. Questions and perspective are more important to me than certainty. Faith, hope, charity, repentance, and covenant are more valuable to me than a well-packaged belief system, where every matter seems appropriately explained and resolved. The path of faith does not become easier as I get older, but the nature of the challenges changes, and the vistas and rewards are greater.
There are a few things that have become more certain to me through sacred experience: God lives. God loves His children and gives personal revelation, grace, and virtue to those who seek. All human beings are God’s children, and of equal value to God. This life is part of a continuum of existence in which we choose who we are becoming by what we do with our opportunities and circumstances; which society we choose and which associations we cultivate; which thoughts we cultivate in our conscious mind; where we place our hearts and our actions in relation to God (Doctrine and Covenants 137:9). Man’s sinful nature in his separation from God and God’s reconciliation of man with Himself through the atonement of Christ are the central reality of the relationship between God and man (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). I believe that covenant and authority are an essential part of receiving the atonement in our lives, even though, as humans, we tend almost universally to overestimate and abuse authority. Likewise, covenant and fidelity are the antidote to the near universal human tendency to spiritual lassitude. The Book of Mormon, the Bible, and revelations received by Joseph Smith have been and continue to be instrumental in my spiritual growth, even as my understanding of them changes over time. I accept and honor the prophetic calling and authority of Joseph Smith and his successors in bearing witness of these realities and bringing the new and everlasting covenant to mankind. That my faith in these sacred truths is necessarily socially formed and culturally interpreted does not make it any less valid or important in my life.
Beyond this core understanding of truth, I find it necessary to suspend final judgment about religious, historical, and scientific truths of every kind. I value the marvelous opportunity of life to consider all evidence, all hypotheses, and all honest perspectives. I love Henry Eyring’s statement, “I believe whichever way it turns out to have actually been.” Future revelation will certainly surprise everyone in transcending current understandings (Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-34).
As a physician and epidemiologist, my clinical work and research in natural family planning and restorative reproductive medicine has opened vistas of inquiry that I never could have imagined had I trod the mainstream path of the secular and popular approaches to sexuality, family planning, and fertility. Faith and fidelity can change the questions that are asked and hence the truths that are discovered. In my research, I have found great value in seeking dialogue and conducting research with honest scientists of many different viewpoints, including different underlying moral assumptions. I have learned from them, and I hope they have learned from me.
It has been my privilege to provide medical support for many couples who seek a different approach than the ones on offer from the world to the most intimate aspects of their marriage, and to research into effective fertility treatments that avoid the moral dilemmas and pitfalls of “assisted reproductive technology.” I have been able to make small contributions to scientific understanding that support an ennobling understanding of human sexuality and fertility, and promote a full respect for the earliest stages of human life. I am humbled and grateful that couples and health professionals have thanked me for helping them live their faith—including Catholics, Latter-day Saints, and some of other faiths. I am grateful for the grace of Christ, and the complete support of my wife, which has made this possible.
Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is of inestimable value to me. It gives me the opportunity to repent and be forgiven (Isaiah 1:18), to seek virtue, and to grow in faith (2 Peter 1:2-8). The Church gives me the opportunity to make and renew covenants, individually and with my family. It gives me the opportunity to serve. It renews my hope to come into the presence of God (1 Corinthians 13:12; Doctrine and Covenants 93:1).
Joseph B. Stanford (M.D., University of Minnesota Medical School) is a professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of Utah. He and his wife, Kathleen Barnett Stanford, have seven sons, each of them a success of natural family planning. His academic career is summarized here. He has summarized medical research and moral perspectives on human fertility here. In the church, he has served in a number of callings, but has most enjoyed serving as a home teacher with his own sons.
Posted August 2011