Learning to Love The Gospel

Revelation and Reason By Michael J. Preece

Revelation and Reason

The Historical Development of Rejection of Revelation and Dependence on Reason

In his book, The Lord’s Way, Elder Dallin H. Oaks provides some historical notes on the development of dependence on reason and the rejection of revelation. He notes that Professor Hugh Nibley has commented on what he calls “the age-old struggle between hard-headed realism and holy tradition.” Brother Nibley contrasts what he calls the sophic, “the operations of the unaided human mind,” with the mantic, “the prophetic or inspired, oracular, coming from the other world.” He dates the rise of the sophic from the beginning of the sixth century. He attributes to St. Augustine the dubious honor of “completing the process of de-Manticizing antique culture” (“Three Shrines: Mantic, Sophic, and Sophistic,” The Ancient State: The Rulers and the Ruled, 315, 333, 354).

Actually, within a century after Christ, the confrontation of Christianity with Greek philosophy brought some compromises in doctrine and practice. One scholar has characterized these as “denying the principle of revelation and turning instead to human intellect” (Stephen E. Robinson, “Warring against the Saints of God,” Ensign, January 1988, 39). Dr. Nibley quotes Henri Leclerq, a French Benedictine Monk: “From the fifth century on, the church became an ‘intellectual entity’ and ever since, one sees in ‘the church a thing of reason’” (Hugh Nibley, “Paths that Stray: Some Notes on Sophic and Mantic,” The Ancient State: The Rulers and the Ruled, 443). Goethe argued that “the deepest, the only theme of human history, compared to which all others are of subordinate importance, is the conflict of skepticism with faith” (Quoted in H. Curtis Wright, “The Central Problem of Intellectual History,” Scholar and Educator 12: 52).

For some, this conflict was resolved during the “great medieval debate.” Richard M. Weaver called it “the crucial event in the history of Western culture.” This debate was a contest over whether “universal truths” (laws of God) really exist. Weaver explained:

The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of [what is referred to as] nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by [revelation] and to posit as reality [only] that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism (Ideas Have Consequences, 3).

Empiricism or rationalism holds that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. This rational view excludes all that is supernatural. Another name given to this philosophic bias is nominalism. The use of this latter title was explained by Bruce L. Christensen. In an address to an audience of university students, Christensen, president of the Public Broadcasting Service, described the consequences of this empiricism or rationalism:

In other words, there was no absolute good. There was no absolute evil, or for that matter, no absolute anything. All absolutes were merely a convenience of thinking—they existed in name only (“nominally”), but not in reality. The first principle of nominalism was that there is no source of truth higher than, or independent of, man. The practical result was to deny that knowledge may be gained by any means other than that which can be perceived through man’s reasoned use of his senses. Revelation was no longer an acceptable means of acquiring truth (Bruce L. Christensen, “First Principles First,” Forum Address at Ricks College, November 19, 1987, Rexburg, Idaho).

The Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained yet other titles given to this same philosophy:

The mistake [in Western thinking] must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance [14th to the 17th centuries] and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment [18th century]. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy; the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. . . . This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. . . . We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession; our spiritual life (“Commencement Address,” Harvard University Gazette, June 8, 1987).

The History of Conflict between Religion and Science

The world has witnessed a long interaction between religion and rational science. When conflicts occur, it has usually been religion that gives way. Professor H. Curtis Wright explained: “The overall tendency of their interaction is always one-sided— toward the naturalizing of religion, not toward the supernaturalizing of science or scholarship” (“The Central Problem of Intellectual History,” Scholar and Educator: 53). The “naturalizing of religion” denies the existence of any truths or values that cannot be demonstrated by the scientific methods. The ultimate, exclusive reliance upon reason that results from this denial is at the root of many public debates. One such debate is the current controversy over teaching values in public schools. Another is the earlier but continuing concern over whether universities can simply be involved in disseminating knowledge or whether they must share responsibility for the probable use of that knowledge (atomic weapons, for example).

The Rejection of Revelation in the Academic Setting

Over the centuries, the source of the ancient conflict between reason or intellect and faith or revelation is the professor’s rejection of revelation, not the prophet’s rejection of reason. One might assume that spiritual or religious experiences are sufficiently common that most people would not be willing to reject their validity outright. Professor Obert C. Tanner puzzled over this issue:

Here is a fact, yet one which defies intellectual analysis. It is a strange thing that a [spiritual] experience so decisive as to influence a person’s total life and commitment should [continue to] be described as ineffable [incapable of being expressed], unutterable, indescribable . . . It is no wonder that universities . . . are unable to deal with more than fringe religion—[only] the ideas about religion, not the personal and private experience of religion. It is no wonder that churches and free universities are respectful but reserved toward each other (One Man’s Search, 151).

In a talk at Brigham Young University, Elder Boyd K. Packer observed: Each of us must accommodate the mixture of reason and revelation in our lives. The gospel not only permits but requires it. An individual who concentrates on either side solely and alone will lose both balance and perspective. History confirms that the university environment always favors reason, with the workings of the Spirit made to feel uncomfortable. I know of no examples to the contrary (“I Say Unto You, Be One,” Devotional Address at Brigham Young University, February 12, 1991).

The Appropriate Role of Reason in Revelation

Elder Oaks has written about authenticating revelation with reason:

There are at least three tests that reason can apply as a threshold check on the authenticity of revelation. True revelation will pass all three of these tests, and spurious revelation . . . will fail at least one of them.

  1. True revelation will edify the recipient [that is, it will make sense, instruct, or enlighten. It must fit in to what is already known]. It must therefore be in words that are coherent or in a feeling whose message can be understood by one who is spiritually receptive. . . . In a modern revelation given to instruct the saints how to distinguish between the Lord’s revelations and those given by the “false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world” (D&C 50:2), the Lord declared: “That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50:23). . .

  2. The content of a true revelation must be consistent with the position and responsibilities of the person who receives it. The Lord taught this principle to the infant church in a revelation that explained to Oliver Cowdery that no one was appointed to receive commandments and revelations for the entire Church except the prophet Joseph Smith, “for all things must be done in order.” Revelations being received by a member, Hiram Page, were the deceptions of Satan, “for, behold, these things have not been appointed unto him” (D&C 28:12-13). . . . According to these principles, revelations for a ward come to the bishop; for the family, to its head; for the person, to him or her directly. A neighbor does not receive revelations for a neighbor, and one who has not been publicly called and set apart according to the government and procedures of the Church does not receive revelations to command or guide the Church or any group of its members. One of the surest evidences of false revelations (those based on mortal authorship or devilish intervention) is that their content, judged according to reason, is communicated through channels other than those the Lord has prescribed for that subject.

  3. True revelation must be consistent with the principles of the gospel as revealed in the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets. The Lord will not give revelations that contradict the principles of the gospel. His house is a house of order (The Lord’s Way, 67).

There are strange and bizarre spiritual manifestations in the world. These do not edify. Hence, one may know they are not from God.

The Relationship between Reason and Revelation Today

Elder Oaks observed the growing trend in today’s world to depend on pure reason (without the influence of the Spirit) rather than revelation (the influence of the Spirit) for learning truth:

Knowledge about the earth and its various forms of life is expanding so rapidly that it can hardly be catalogued. But the world as a whole is not experiencing a comparable expansion of knowledge about God and his plan for his children. To obtain that kind of knowledge, we must understand and follow the ways God has prescribed to know the things of God. We [must] come to know God and the truths of his gospel by study and reason and also . . . by faith and revelation (Ibid., 45).

Elder Oaks then called attention to a clear hostility and contemptuousness toward even the idea of the existence of God and the existence of divine revelation. Those responsible for this trend reject outright any concepts or ideas that assume the existence of a God. They reject the assumption that God can directly communicate with and influence man. The only ultimate authority to which they subject themselves is the authority of rationality and reason. Brigham Young said: “How difficult it is to teach the natural man, who comprehends nothing more than that which he sees with the natural eye!” (JD, 1:2).

The Book of Mormon describes this same attitude among a people who depended solely “upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom” and upon what they could “witness with [their] own eyes” (Helaman 16:15, 20). Upon the basis of reason, these individuals rejected the prophecies, saying, “It is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come” (verse 18). Applying that same attitude, a prominent professor, at one point in his life, dismissed the Book of Mormon with the assertion, “You don’t get books from angels. It is just that simple” (“An Interview with Sterling McMurrin,” interview by Blake Ostler, Dialogue 17/1, 1984: 25).

The apostle Paul referred to the knowledge of these self-sufficient academics as “knowledge puffed up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob described the origin and consequences of this attitude: “O that cunning plan of the evil one! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish” (2 Nephi 9:28).

Defining Religion without Revelation

When individuals attempt to understand, explain, or to criticize the doctrines of Jesus Christ, the practices of the Lord’s Church, or the key individuals in his Church by the method of reason alone, the outcome is predetermined. No one can find God or understand his doctrines or ordinances without using the means he has prescribed for receiving the truths of his gospel. That is why gospel truths have been corrupted. That is why gospel ordinances have been lost. Their meanings and applications have been left to scholars who reject the revelations and lack the authority of God.

Those who rely exclusively on study and reason reject or doubt all absolutes that cannot be established through the five senses. They do not believe in good and evil or the existence and omniscience of God. They tend to be self-sufficient, self-important, and enamored of their own opinions. Reason is their god. Intellectualism is their creed. It may be said of them as Stephen said of the children of Israel who made a calf in the days of Aaron: They “rejoiced in the works of their own hands” (Acts 7:41). This worldly worship of self and self-sufficiency is surely condemned by the eternal command, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

For these reasons, the Lord has often called his prophets from among the unlettered. They are typically unspoiled by the reasoning of men. They are receptive to the revelations of God. President Spencer W. Kimball explained: “The Lord seems never to have placed a premium on ignorance and yet he has, in many cases, found his better-trained people unresponsive to the spiritual, and has had to use spiritual giants with less [academic] training to carry on his work” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 388-89). The apostle Paul explained this to the Corinthian saints. He told them he was not going to preach the gospel “with wisdom of words,” because “the preaching of the cross” was “foolishness” to the sophisticated (1 Corinthians 1:17-18). But the sophisticated would come to naught, for, it was written, the Lord “will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1 Corinthians 1:19). In contrast, those who placed their faith in what Paul ironically and with tongue in cheek called “the foolishness of preaching” would be saved (1 Corinthians 1:21).

The modern manifestation of self-serving scholarship was prophesied by Nephi: “The Gentiles . . . have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning” (2 Nephi 26:20).

One example of the difficulty of explaining a spiritual topic in purely secular terms might be a recent scholarly book on the life Prophet Joseph Smith. This is Richard Lyman Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, A cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder. Bushman, a devout member of the Church and believer in the divinity of Joseph Smith’s calling, purposefully wrote the book for a secular audience, particularly for his scholarly colleagues. His book is a remarkable achievement. He was able to communicate Joseph’s life and achievements in terms that met the approval of his colleagues. Yet, I personally found myself conflicted, and sensed the author’s struggle, as I read his mostly secular explanations for the spiritual events in the Prophet’s life. It is difficult to truly understand Joseph Smith without acknowledging God, angels, and Joseph’s personal and direct interaction with them.

The integrity of the spiritual life of each of us in the Church is completely dependent on Joseph’s telling the truth about his First Vision. If he did not, in fact, see and converse with God and angels, then he was hardly a prophet. Rather, he was a manipulative and dangerous charlatan.

We do enthusiastically avow that Joseph was indeed a true prophet. But we do so not because of any secular explanations. We believe wholeheartedly in his supernatural experiences and in the divine origin of his calling.

I have witnessed, over the years, a few persons of scholarly inclination who have written articles, given lectures, published journal articles, and organized symposia about the LDS Church. Their avowed purpose has been to study the history and doctrines of the Church, to reason about principles of the gospel, and share insights into the application of gospel principles to contemporary problems. For a few, these efforts have been less a prelude to or complementary of faith and revelation, and more a substitute for them. An example of this phenomenon, in my opinion, has been some of the church members who have participated in the activities of the Sunstone Education Foundation. While this organization has contributed much to the understanding of LDS culture and history, I have become less certain of their commitment to the Church as the divinely restored Church of Jesus Christ and the very kingdom of God on the earth today.

- Michael J. Preece