A few weeks ago, my daughter Tara shared with me a dilemma she faced with a friend as they struggled through the inevitable decisions they face as high school seniors. In the midst of final examinations, college applications, athletic opportunities, embryonic relationships, transitions from family to personal standards, confrontation with financial realities, and the troubling recognition that time’s flow is truly unidirectional, the most intractable questions they face arise in their contemplation of transcendent experience. Is such experience valid? If so, what does it teach us about the unseen world? What does it tells us about our current lives? That most of us have reflected on some variation of these questions is not a mystery; that we have come to so many different conclusions is.
Tara’s friend, a young man of great academic promise, preparing for the marvelous and seductive adventure of a liberal arts education at a top university, had come to her with a flattering but rather intimidating challenge. He expressed his admiration for her as a scholar, a vital member of their campus community, and especially as a person of religious commitment, but he was utterly unable to understand the nature of her faith. He recognized its importance to her, both as a governing principle and as an intrinsic element of her character, but he wanted an intellectual justification for it. “Prove to me,” he demanded, “with reason and logic the reality of what you believe.”
As an intellectual exercise, it was a hopeless task from the beginning. She figured that out fairly quickly and now presented it to me. A contest of IQ points with these two was anybody’s game, but I had the upper hand when it came to academic background. More important, I had struggled with these arguments for years and felt comfortable both sharing my experience and acknowledging its limits.
Tara grew up as a Latter-day Saint, but was never one of unquestioning faith. Her mother and I come from opposite backgrounds in this regard. My wife grew up in a different religious tradition, active and committed, but never satisfied. A long series of encounters with Latter-day Saints started a process that culminated in her recognition midway through college that her spiritual longings were not being met; neither the experience of her worship nor the world view of her faith satisfied her as an adult, and though it was a wrenching decision, she joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during college. She has never regretted doing so, and she remembers vividly that transition, the awakening of spiritual feelings and the realization that her lingering questions about the nature of God and her relationship to Him were now answered. I envy her the clarity of that contrast.
Five generations of my ancestors have been LDS, but my own continued involvement was not predestined. Many in my family struggled with their faith, or maintained it at some minimal level that did not quite sink far enough to entice them to leave altogether, but never brought them fully into the stream of religious commitment. Something changed with my parents about the time I was born, and I grew up in a household that held the purer faith as its ideal, if not always its practice.
My own religious journey was both a product of and a response to that home environment, followed by a series of academic pursuits that continues to this day. I discovered at an early age that my spirit is more firmly attached at the head than the heart. Trust in spiritual things was a late development for me, but my recognition that Joseph Smith’s revelations are a treasure of insight and enlightenment came early, and my joy in learning from them has never lessened. There is a coherence and simple depth to those teachings that continues to satisfy me.
None of my ancestors ever graduated from college, much less pursued academic careers. My father managed to get off the family farm for one year of engineering studies before he was derailed by the financial realities of the Depression and the demands (and opportunities) forced upon young men by the outbreak of World War II. My mother, after graduating as valedictorian of her high school class of 29 students, never seriously entertained the thought of college. Both appreciated the need for education in the post-war world but were deeply suspicious of academia. I never doubted their sincerity in encouraging my educational aspirations, but the fear in their eyes as they turned me over to the professors was unmistakable and I did little to reassure them in those first few years.
Eventually, however, I recognized the degree to which I shared their fear. I spent long years looking over my shoulder, waiting for the perfect argument, the historical tidbit, or the compelling intellectual system that would ultimately prove or disprove the truth of what I believed. My education, especially as an undergraduate, carried this theme as a brisk undercurrent, always on the verge of flooding the rest of my life. Even so, I loved that early experience, aptly described by an inscription on the campus noting that it, and we, were “dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the company of friends.” Academic truth proved rather more elusive than I had hoped, but its pursuit was an important process in which I learned the extent and limits of knowledge, the power and boundaries of reason, and my own capacity and weakness as a scholar.
My first discovery was the richness of philosophical tradition that grapples with the nature of truth, knowledge, and ethical decision-making. I frequently mused over the brilliance of the arguments, but was repeatedly deflated by the diversity of their conclusions, and invariably found them unsatisfying, or at least insufficiently compelling to demand devotion. A few of the philosophical writings of the past three millennia wielded significant impact on political systems and therefore history, but most were mere diversions, noteworthy primarily for how little difference they made except to the next generation of scholars who would carry on the tradition. I found myself asking after each encounter with yet another journey of reason, “Therefore, what?”
I had the good fortune to major in both chemistry and psychology at a liberal arts college, which gave me a unique opportunity to compare the perspectives of the natural and social sciences against a background of the humanities. What I gradually came to value above all else in my academic pursuits were testable hypotheses and concrete demonstrations of effect. In essence, I concluded that empirical data trump elegant theories, at least in any field that is focused on discovery rather than invention (i.e., this applies to science, not art).
That is not to say that I succumbed to the false dichotomy of faith versus facts. I don’t recall ever believing that, and if I did it was quashed early in my graduate years in a biochemistry laboratory. I spent innumerable hours studying protein molecules I could not see, trusting the mentors who taught me that there really are chains of amino acids, and that the circularly polarized light I shined on them not only existed but was actually made somewhere inside a machine capable of graphing colorful spectra that changed in ways I could predict, or sometimes failed to predict, based on a thousand prior experiments I had never seen done and had neither the time nor expertise to reproduce. Scientific research, I discovered, is an act of supreme faith.
It could not be otherwise. We cannot discover everything ourselves and must trust our predecessors in most things. We must also be prepared to consider alternative hypotheses, to change them in response to new findings, and above all, never get too far in front of the data. I learned this last point by repeated encounters with unexpected findings. Surprising data are always the most useful, but only if they emerge from a system that is otherwise comprehensible. It may be possible in fields that readily lend themselves to mathematical description, such as physics, to let the theoreticians run far ahead of the experimentalists, but in the more complex world of biological systems or social sciences, it never pays to extrapolate very far. One step past the data is sometimes reasonable, two steps usually risky, and three steps totally random.
On the religious side, I made the difficult decision to leave my studies after the first year and serve a two-year mission. Only two of my ancestors had chosen to do the same, most recently 50 years before. I was not entirely convinced that I wanted to be the one to disrupt that record of noncommitment, but I definitely did not want to live an unexamined life, and this was the hypothesis that most needed testing, so I accepted the calling and served.
It was a wise decision. Within a few weeks of my arrival I began to find exactly the depth and satisfaction that had been missing in the philosophy classes. In part, this represented the realization that religious conversion is about discovery of an objective reality, rather than exploration of purely subjective experience, invention of a personal viewpoint, or selection from among equal valid ethical constructs. Theology, I learned, is a fundamentally empirical pursuit. In part it represented the complementary realization that religious experience is personally transformative, involving not only intellectual enlightenment, but a deeper, more subjective resonance with the eternal. Those encounters left me profoundly changed, with a deeper appreciation of spiritual things and a desire to align myself with them. Spirituality, I found, leads inevitably to personal growth and commitment.
As I shared those experiences and the larger gospel message with the people of Argentina, I was confronted repeatedly with the question of how we gain a conviction of spiritual things. By that time, I had discovered for myself that the standard answers of study, prayer, humility, and the experiment of personal commitment really do work, and pretty much nothing else does. I had learned that it was essential to search, examine, and contemplate what was taught, to truly strive to understand it, and to put it into practice, at least on a trial basis. Perhaps the most difficult step for me was learning to trust my feelings as a legitimate indicator of valid spiritual experience. Neither the mind nor the heart was sufficient; both were essential. I intuitively recognized truth when I encountered it, but its confirmation came with the intense comfort and assurance that I recognized as the Spirit of God. I was pleased to discover, however, that those spiritual experiences never left me intellectually dissatisfied, but invariably enlightened.
In my search for those confirmatory experiences, I most often found them not in contemplation but in action. This step is crucial and most often overlooked. In medicine we call this “translational research,” the study of what happens when we take a new idea and actually put it into practice. Only then do we know if it is valid and useful.
I was afraid that my delight in education would be gone when I returned, but I found just the opposite. With the additional insight of spiritual experience, my journey of intellectual discovery was all the more satisfying. This was especially true when I made a commitment early in graduate school to apply the same level of rigor and commitment to my study of gospel topics that I was using in my scientific work. As I did so, it began to dawn on me that the Bible provides us with a collection of personal accounts of spiritual experience—in essence, data points. As in scientific research, our theories are only as good as our data, and those data can never be too plentiful.
I love the Restored Gospel largely because it provides us more data. Joseph Smith and his colleagues left us detailed accounts of their experiences with God—what He told them, what He showed them, and what He asked of them. They left us concrete works to examine—the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and innumerable other writings and sermons. They built a Church and religious tradition that remains with us and is available for all to examine. Their assertions demand examination, and the material to conduct that study is readily accessible to all.
Not long ago, I attended a discussion of baptism in a church meeting that included adherents of several faiths. Each of us presented a different theological perspective that led to different conclusions. One asserted that baptism is essential to free us from original sin and is a requirement for entry into heaven. Consequently, it must be done at birth by whatever means possible. Another argued that it is a sign of personal commitment to the Christian faith, and therefore can only be accepted by a competent adult following a spiritual rebirth. Yet another saw baptism as essentially about the remission of sins, and thus appropriate for anyone able to discern right from wrong, even without a mature understanding of faith. It occurred to me afterward that we were recapitulating one of the great theological debates that have tormented Christianity for half a millennium, and we were no more able to resolve it than the brighter minds and more devout believers who preceded us in the argument. Would we not have done better to go to the source of truth with that question and find out once and for all, rather than theorizing about it? Would it not be more informative to have the question answered by revelation from God, then to develop our theological principles based on what that teaches us?
Joseph Smith and the subsequent prophets of the Restoration have done just that. By receiving revelation from heaven, they provide answers to the critical questions. The proper order of things, with theology based on revealed truth, rather than the other way around, was once again established. The key for us is to test their claims. This cannot be done by assumption or by proxy. It requires that we carefully and prayerfully examine their words, apply them, and sincerely search for the confirmation of the Spirit to our souls.
And so I return to Tara’s dilemma. Her friend cannot be convinced by logical argument, but only by personal experiment, and that requires an open mind and open heart, a willingness to search, and a willingness to accept what that search reveals. That is what I believe. That is why I believe. I know from my own experience that this works. And I know that it is worth it.
Michael D. Jibson is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He received his B.A. in chemistry and psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, followed by a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California at San Francisco and an M.D. from the University of California at Davis as well as a residency in psychiatry at Stanford University.
Posted May 2010