The Burden of Belief and Pursuing Truth: Part 2

“Since truth is the only meaningful foundation upon which we can make wise decisions, how then can one establish what is really true?” –Elder Richard G. Scott

In part one of this blog post I explained my background (it got real – I even admitted to wearing a bolo tie), and I described a paradigm-shifting crisis of faith. I seriously questioned the existence of God and in so doing learned that with or without God there is an inability to comprehend the undeniable eternity that surrounds us, and therefore there is a need for belief, for faith in something that is not seen but is believed to be true. I learned that rejecting God does not relieve that burden of belief, and I determined to make my best judgment after examining three things: my own experience, the experience of others, and the “facts”.

My Own Experience

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is designed to actively involve its members in spiritual pursuits. Being raised in that environment, I have always said regular prayers, read scripture, attended church meetings, and served others in various capacities. None of my varied experiences are undeniable proof of God, but all of them add up to strong personal evidence of his existence. When pursuing answers to big questions or guidance during turbulent times, I have found feelings combined with thoughts that seem to come from outside of me and confirm the existence of a Heavenly Father that is concerned with my well-being.

The Experience of Others

In addition to my own experiences, I find my belief in God strengthen by the experiences of others. For example, the Book of Mormon and the Bible are essentially the spiritual journals of men from long ago, and the stories they tell testify without hesitation of the existence of God and of his love for his children.  In more recent times Joseph Smith said he saw God the Father and Jesus Christ and they spoke with him face to face, and modern-day apostles and prophets testify that God and Jesus Christ live. My own close friends and family members have had significant experiences that convince them of God’s existence.

The “Facts”

The “facts” as revealed by science are inconclusive. The materials that make up the Earth date back millions of years, and we can observe evolution in nature. But we don’t really know how dramatic leaps in evolution happen or how a habitable planet was formed from a big explosion of energy. In fact some non-religious scientists believe the evidence suggests an intelligent design as opposed to an accident. I believe at some point instructions were issued so that order could come from chaos. I believe God was the author of that intelligence. In short, while there is definitely no proof of God’s existence from science, there is plenty of room for belief in Him.

Pursuing Truth

Every one of my three pillars of belief can be discounted, argued, or contradicted. There is no easy answer. In fact I believe this Earth life was designed to allow us to make decisions without a sure knowledge so we could gain experience that only that type of environment could afford.

Truth be told (pun intended) I am not trying to convince you to believe in God, I am trying to convince you to pursue truth. Truth is the only meaningful foundation on which to make decisions, and identifying it is the first step to leading a peace-filled life. So pursue it. Relentlessly. And when you find it, or when you think you find it, take action! DO whatever it is that truth would suggest is right.

Your pursuit of truth may lead you to believe exactly what I believe. Or perhaps your pursuit of truth will lead you to something totally different. The God I believe in would not fault someone for honestly pursuing truth and not finding it. I believe our pursuit of truth and our best effort to act according to the truth we find makes this life meaningful and valuable and enjoyable.

I count my doubting the existence of God as one of the great blessings of my life because it forced me to think and to personally pursue truth. I am thankful for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for it is in this church I have found answers to life’s most important questions and had experiences that convince me of God’s love and our eternal worth. May we continue to relentlessly pursue truth, even (especially) when it contradicts what is popular, what is tradition, or what is culture.

The Burden of Belief and Pursing Truth: Part 1

I was born into a strong Mormon family. Every Sunday I put on my tie, or in earlier years cinched up my bolo tie (hey don’t judge, I grew up in New Mexico… on second thought maybe you should judge), climbed into the “middle seat with the feet on the hump” in our 1976 Chevy Beauville Van, and went to church with my five older siblings and parents.

I learned about God, about revelation, about scripture and prayer, about Jesus, about being kind and responsible. Some Sundays I was bored, some Sundays I was engaged, and some Sundays I was excited to see if I could sit next to the new girl. During the week my parents made sure to pray and study with us regularly and hold weekly family nights complete with spiritual lessons, songs, treats, and family arguments (teenagers are just the worst).

I even practiced some of what I was taught. I prayed regularly, read scripture, attended church classes, and avoided most of the things I was taught to avoid (dating young, addictive substances, etc.).

At age 20, though, I encountered serious doubt. While serving as a full time volunteer for my church I learned that my oldest brother, a hero of mine, no longer believed in God. Frankly, I hadn’t considered that possibility, and now I was forced to. The implications of it all came crashing down. Had I been inadvertently brain washed by my own family and religion? Did I invent spiritual experiences and selectively remember convenient coincidence to match my conditioning? Was it all born of some human need to feel important and avoid the reality that we die and cease to exist?

For days I agonized over these questions. I prayed regularly asking God (if he was there) to make himself known to me, to remove my doubt, to solidify my foundation of faith so it could not be broken. I saw no angel, I heard no voice, and I did not climb a mountain to talk to a burning bush. No, I more or less felt nothing… nothing more than I had always felt – a calm, quiet peace that perhaps I had invented.

So for a few days I allowed myself to not believe and freed my mind to pursue existence without God. At first I felt fear – fear of being finite and unimportant, a temporary fixture on this accidental life-sustaining planet. Some believe that fear is the only reason religion exists, to give us weak humans a crutch to lean on. However, I found something even more shocking. Even without God I was confronted again with a need for belief.

The scientific method has done much to uncover truth, but it cannot answer many questions: Where did the energy to create the big bang come from? And what forces govern sub-atomic particles? And what is space? Does it have an end? What will all the space and planets look like in 100 billion years? And beyond that infinitely? And what set of instructions dictated leaps in evolution from single-celled organism to fish to mammal to human? What makes humans different than other life? Why are we so fallible? What is morality and conscience? With or without God, there is an inability to comprehend the undeniable eternity and complexity that surrounds us, and therefore there is a need for belief, for faith in something that is not seen but is believed to be true. Rejecting God does not relieve that burden of belief.

I determined that the only way to justify my own belief, whether in a God or in the absence of God, was to examine as much evidence as I could. Ironically what was at first a crisis of faith became a firm foundation of enduring faith and confidence. I’ll tell you about it in the 2nd part of this two-part post…

Is there a God? How Can I Know?

God and Man

Perhaps Julie Andrews said it best:

Let’s start at the very beginning.

El numero uno question above has to do with the existence of God. A quick glance at this wikipedia page reveals a potentially complex subject with myriad opinions, theories, and arguments for and against the existence of a Supreme Being in the universe.

And among some groups of people, confidence in God’s existence is changing. A recent Pew Research Center asserts that more Millennials are doubting the existence of God than the Millennials of five years ago. (To be precise, the question appears to be phrased: “I never doubt the existence of God” [my emphasis]. I would argue that’s quite a high hurdle.) Nevertheless, the data suggest there is a growing number of 18-29 year olds who are less confident in the existence of God.

Interestingly, women tend to be less doubtful than men on the subject, and highly educated persons tend to be more doubtful than those who only attained a high school diploma or less.

Zooming out from specific demographics, however, 88% of all respondents in 2002 reported never doubting the existence of God, compared to 83% of respondents in 2007, and 80% in 2012. That 80% of Americans seem to be absolutely confident in the existence of God is impressive, to be sure. But the decline in the number of people who do have such confidence shows that this is a topic worth talking about.

For me, this is where specific teachings from the Book of Mormon provide a powerful and dynamic witness to the nature of God. The very existence of the Book of Mormon – its origin and underlying message – attest to the involvement of a loving God — a topic I’ll address in a future post. But the narrative within the Book of Mormon is full of prophetic declarations and testimonials concerning God’s attributes, presence, and concern for His children. Consider for a moment the following tweetable material from the Book of Mormon:

God as Creator

There is a God, and he has created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon (2 Nephi 2:14).

The Lord hath created the earth that it should be inhabited; and he hath created his children that they should possess it (1 Nephi 17:36). -Spoken by Nephi to his brothers, Laman & Lemuel, approximately 591 B.C.

Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth… (Mosiah 4:9). -Spoken by one King Benjamin to his people, approximately 124 B.C.

Attributes of God

He has all power, all wisdom, and all understanding; he comprehendeth all things, and he is a merciful Being (Alma 26:35)

…Believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend (Mosiah 4:9). -Spoken by one King Benjamin to his people, approximately 124 B.C.

The Lord God worketh not in darkness (2 Nephi 26:23).

God Knows Our Hearts

He looketh down upon all the children of men; and he knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart; for by his hand were they all created from the beginning (Alma 18:32). -Spoken by Ammon to King Lamoni, sometime before 77 B.C.

He Invites All People to Come Unto Him

[God] inviteth…all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile (2 Nephi 26:33). -Written by Nephi to his people, approximately 545 B.C.

God’s Love and Mercy Are Over All the Earth

God is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in; yea, he numbereth his people, and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth (Alma 26:37). -Spoken by a missionary named Ammon to his brothers, approximately 77 B.C.

He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world (2 Nephi 26:24).

I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things (1 Nephi 11:17). -Nephi’s response to a question, posed by an angel of God inquiring as to Nephi’s understanding of the condescension of Christ. About 592 B.C.

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There are more – many more, in fact – but hopefully you get the idea that the Book of Mormon has a lot to say on not only the existence of God, but his character, attributes, and desire to bless, help, direct, and instruct his children. In fact, these verses and stories not only teach about God, but teach that He can be revealed. Not just to prophets, but to all people, regardless of age, sex, race, condition, or religion.

Perhaps the most poignant and stunning view on God in LDS belief comes from an extra-Biblical account (i.e., not the Book of Mormon) involving the Old Testament prophet Enoch, in which God does reveal himself, but in an amazingly unique, and well, human, way.

Straight to the verses:

And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?

…The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge in the day I created them…

…And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood (Moses 7:28, 32-33).

Here we learn that God is touched in a very real and emotional way by the conduct of His children. Despite His omnipotence and glory, still he weeps for the wickedness and pain caused by human beings. His Fatherly concern reaches out and compels Him to feel after us. Surely, such a compassionate, personal God demands at least our heartfelt consideration of the possibility that He might be in very fact real.

Such consideration leads us to wonder, How can I know? From my own experience, a little faith and a little patience, with a regular amount of sincere prayer and desire can call down the powers of heaven. I have found that I experience God through feeling His Spirit, the Holy Ghost, which for me brings feelings of peace, comfort, clarity, gladness, and joy.  The first step in this journey is to choose to place your faith in this type of God. As one believing scholar put it:

The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true (emphasis in original).

Or, as the Book of Mormon teaches:

If ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words (Alma 32:27). [Read verse 28 in the link for the promised result if one does this.]

For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart? (Mosiah 5:13)

This journey of faith and understanding ultimately results in sweet spiritual experiences that affirm the existence and Fatherliness of an almighty God, anxious to take us by the hand and allow us to “partake of his goodness.”