“What matters to me is … not that I believe it, but that I believe it”
(Sir Thomas More, in “A Man for All Seasons”)
The first question put to me by a very prominent non-believing Jewish social theorist at my oral exam for advancement to PhD candidacy was, “How can you be a sociologist and a Mormon?” That context called for a reply based on critical rationality and social science knowledge, rather than on personal testimony. But I have worked at integrating the two and spent more than fifty years thinking about and studying science and faith, and doing so with substantial philosophical foundation and comparative research.
What does it mean for me, a somewhat Marxian social scientist, to testify—to bear witness—that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true and that what Mormons call the “Restoration” is likewise true?
On what basis do I make such a claim? What qualifies me as a competent witness? What about all the problems of ‘knowing’ identified by philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists? In a “post-modern” world in which relativistic views of knowledge, even of science, are influential, is it really possible to credibly claim to know something?
Testimony is both a form of knowledge and its expression. It can be about things physical as well as spiritual and about concrete facts as well as principles. One can testify in diverse kinds of settings, from courts to caves. But it is always about what one has personal knowledge of and can stand as a witness for, thereby involving only that in which one has sufficient confidence to stand by when the going gets tough. Thus, it is about truth-telling.
What does my testimony mean to me? Confirmation so strong that the knowledge is more sure than science. So strong that, while I often put my mortal life in the hands of science, I bet my eternal life on the Gospel. So when I declare that I have a testimony, I mean that my combined experiences, research, and reasoning persuade me that this is the most sure thing there is, the most real of realities.
Scientific knowledge relies on physical measurement, public confirmation, hypothesis testing, replicability of method, and effectiveness of practical applications. Thus, when we fly in airplanes we bet our lives on the truth of some principles of physical science and engineering. Scientific knowledge is, at any point, an approximation and subject to refinement, but much of it has proven reliable as well as exciting.
Spiritual knowledge is similar to science in some aspects. Confirmation also depends on following a systematic and repeatable method (albeit private rather than public), posing specific questions and examining evidence (testing relevant hypotheses), and practical outcomes.1 Likewise, resulting understanding is subject to refinement, emerging “line upon line.” And I have found life-betting validity and reliability as well as intellectual excitement and development in the Restored Gospel.
Philosophical knowledge relies on critical rationality and logical analysis, which help establish the clarity, consistency, and warrantability of arguments for claims of truth. And philosophy poses important questions and accumulates various answers to the big questions of life.
Understanding of spiritual principles and the Divine plan of life also entails pursuit of the big questions, careful analysis of various answers, sorting the wheat from the chaff, etc. And I have found in the Restored Gospel the most comprehensive, comprehensible, and convincing philosophy of life and living that I have encountered in a lifetime of comparative study of ideas. It is a sublime concept with personal purpose and power as well as explanation and meaning, which scale from the individual to the infinite and from the pre-mortal to the post-mortal in eternal time. A truly unmatched and grand theory which incorporates all dimensions of the universe and life—material and spiritual, natural law and meaningfulness of mankind, physics and a personal God.2
Humans as whole persons combine multiple approaches, in varying degrees, including intellectual, emotional, intuitive, experiential, and sensual (five physical senses). Sometimes humans take advantage of a ‘hidden’ dimension—one not utilized by science and philosophy—the spiritual, a kind of “sixth sense” if you will, one based on direct communication with God via an underutilized communication mechanism.
Each approach has benefits and limitations. Each offers some certainty, but combined they make possible a degree of confidence which cannot come from any single method.
The most competent witnesses make use of all approaches. And that is what I have done, for more than fifty years. While the bedrock of my testimony is the spiritual experience of Divine revelation, a substantial part of the total witness is a kind of truth net or web of interconnected and supportive evidence, theory, and analysis from both scholarly and spiritual sources. In short, the intellectual, spiritual, social, and emotional are mutually reinforcing, and in that I find greater confidence and conviction than in any science.
Confirmation of belief and knowledge—a testimony—may be direct and/or indirect. For example, Peter had direct experience with and evidence of Jesus’ physical resurrection, and Joseph Smith had direct experience with the risen Lord. On the other hand, many people receive a testimony that the testimonies of Peter and Joseph are true. Scientists today depend more on indirect testimony than on direct; that is, they accept the witness of others that their findings are valid and reliable. And many scientific measurements are indirect rather than direct, which means that we infer the existence of some thing or property from measurements of other things. Dark energy and dark matter are good examples of inference from indirect evidence in modern physics.
I have received, over the years, both direct and indirect confirmation of several specific things. I have received direct spiritual confirmation of Jesus as the Christ, His Atonement, the historicity and message of the Book of Mormon, the Divine calling of Joseph Smith, and the Restoration (among other things). But, interestingly, I have also received indirect confirmation of those—in two ways. The first was a very powerful spiritual witness that the testimony of my ancestors was true. This came, at age twenty, before my direct confirmation of discrete items (mentioned above), and this became a motivating force in my pursuit of direct experience and knowledge. The second source of indirect confirmation has been intellectual and scholarly examination of evidence, both internal and external, and arguments, including virtually every critique of Mormonism as well as the rebuttals.
So the evidences for my testimony are multiple and varied, entailing reason and experience as well as spiritual manifestations and affirmations. Now let me offer a particular comparative illustration of my message, connecting contemporary physics and classical faith.
Recently I was deeply impressed by two paintings depicting some events in our pioneer heritage.3 I was stirred not just by the suffering, but by the unseen force which moved them to undertake and endure extreme hardship. One painting is a representation of both the hardship and heroism of an event of the famous Martin and Willie handcart companies. Another depicts the account of several participants that unseen angels assisted in pushing the handcarts in a particularly difficult situation.
These angels were not seen by the natural eye nor heard or touched by other physical senses. But several pioneers testified of the real presence and assistance of these unseen beings.
Modernist philosophy and the psychology of self-deception dismiss such stories as figments of imagination or stress-induced wishful thinking. After all, it is argued, angels do not exist because they have not been observed and cannot be measured by material means of science. Furthermore, they say, the human mind is a myth-making mechanism.
Yet that idea is a special conceit of the modernist mentality, one that does not hold up well to critical analysis. One only needs to examine contemporary physics to see how science confidently asserts the existence of things it cannot see or measure.
Thus, many physicists claim that more than 90% of our universe is “missing.” This massive amount of stuff is called “dark matter” and “dark energy.” It is said to be “missing” because it cannot be detected, but it is assumed to exist because modern theory would not be right or ‘true’ without it.
Likewise, modern “string theory” (in physics) asserts the existence of unseen parallel universes and seven more dimensions than the four we know in our own world.
So consider the paradox of the modern rationalist who ridicules faith in unseen angels and unmeasured power of the Holy Ghost while believing in missing matter and invisible universes. And these people presume to pooh-pooh the spiritual form of knowledge and communication?! “There is none so blind as those who will not see.”
No, there is nothing less true, or less real, or less rational about spiritual knowledge from God than about material knowledge from science.
Thus, after decades of extensive examination of every argument against faith in God and the Gospel, as well as several undeniable spiritual experiences, I affirm and bear witness that the testimony of our pioneer ancestors about those and the Restoration is True.
In summary, my testimony is the strongest thing I have. It came in expected and unexpected ways, and it came both easily and with much difficulty. And it is an integrated, total experience and system of thought, understanding, and practice.
After growing up in a household of faith I sought my own independent testimony and understanding. I spent my first two years in college pursuing philosophical understanding and scientific evidence in an attempt to discover the truth about God and the Restored Gospel. But, not surprisingly, to no avail—they did not have the answers or even adequate methodology.
My spiritual testimony began when I was approaching my twenty-first birthday, during a couple months of intense prayer and study, especially of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. Several special spiritual experiences leave me irrevocably convinced of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel. These cannot be denied nor explained away by various forms of science and scholarship. My intellectual testimony developed over many years of extensive study of churches, religion, philosophy, and science (natural and social).
Together these (experiences, research, analysis) form the basis for a strong personal commitment to the reality of Christ and His Gospel—one strong enough, I hope, to carry me through the ultimate test. This testimony serves as both anchor and compass, keeping me from going too far adrift in the storms of this mortal existence and pointing the way to Eternity and Exaltation.
The bottom line is that I can say that I KNOW that Jesus is the Christ, that He did accomplish the Atonement, which makes possible eternal life, that the witness of the Book of Mormon is true (in both principle and history), that Joseph Smith is a prophet selected by God and through whom Divine priesthood, organization, and principles were revealed and restored. In short, I testify that the Restoration is True and that its outcomes are most powerful and meaningful.
1 Elements of the Gospel epistemology may be found in I Corinthians 2, especially verses 9-11; Alma 32:17-43, especially 26-34; Moroni 10:3-5; and D&C 9:7-9 and 50:10-22.
2 As Joseph Smith taught: “the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity – thou must commune with God.” (TPJS: 137)
3 “Rescue at the Sweetwater” and “When the Angels Came” by Clark Kelley Price.
T. Allen Lambert grew up mostly in San Diego, the son of a physicist who was philosophically thoughtful, and started college in physics and still pursues physics as a hobby. He first attended college at the University of Utah where he pursued physics, philosophy, pool, poker, and football for 2½ years. Then an LDS mission to France and Switzerland, which burden focused his attention on the urgency of personal knowledge of what is actually true.
Then four years at BYU, where he discovered sociology and social psychology as his preferred academic path. In addition to involvement in student government, he had the unique opportunity of serving as a teaching assistant to Chauncey Riddle and Reed Bradford, both profound thinkers about, and practitioners of, the Gospel. Other religious thinkers he was blessed to take courses with included Hugh Nibley, Hyrum Andrus, and Lynn McKinlay.
Then on to graduate school at Washington University (St. Louis) where he explored the philosophy of science and phenomenology while majoring in social theory, organizational and small group behavior, and development of the self, and publishing research on student protest and youth and social change.
His next stops were on the sociology faculties of Boston University, Rice University, and the University of Arkansas. Then three years in business (starting a hi fi shop).
Deciding to return to academia, Allen entered another doctoral program at Cornell University in rural sociology and the political economy of regional development. His dissertation advisors included an agricultural sociologist, a cultural anthropologist, a Marxist economist, a geographic historian, a political scientist, and a physical chemist—for a topic too complex to describe here. But marriage and children prompted a return to business, taking advantage of the emerging personal computer revolution.
After years in business and a couple of terms as a elected member of the Ithaca (New York) Board of Education, Allen discovered that almost no one actually studied school boards. So back to school for a third round, this time in education administration. So he is presently doing a large-scale comparative study of the organization and operation of school boards. And he has taught as an adjunct professor at Cornell, SUNY Albany, and Elmira College.
Allen’s intellectual interests range widely. In addition to academic writings and professional presentations in sociology, social psychology, political economy, and education, and many newspaper editorials, he has published stuff of relevance to Latter-day Saints in FARMS Review, Dialogue, Sunstone, Sunstone Review, Zion Quest, and First Things.
In addition to his hobby of selected topics in science and religion, Allen teaches the high priests in his ward and serves as co-chair of Area Congregations Together (ACT), an interfaith group in the Ithaca, New York, area. And he rides motorcycles (Goldwing), including a 4,500-mile trip last summer with his son (who also does philosophy as a graduate student at Harvard).
Posted March 2011