Questions, but No Doubts
Assistant Professor of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University
During my graduate school experience, I met a bright and articulate Christian fundamentalist who assumed that since I was an active Latter-day Saint, I was neither a committed disciple of the real Jesus nor a believer that the Bible was the word of God. As we approached the end of our studies together she made an interesting observation and asked an important question. Although I do not remember her exact words on that occasion, this is the substance:
"When I started my graduate work, I firmly believed in the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. Now, after several years of study, I no longer believe in the Bible and have stopped attending my church. You, however, are still committed to your faith and still believe in the inspiration of scripture. How is that possible after all you have been exposed to in graduate school?"
I have thought about this situation and similar circumstances many times during the past few years. On such occasions, I often recall what Peter told the early Christian Saints: "Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Peter 3:15). I have found "a reason" for the hope that is in me and for why I continue to be a committed disciple after years of study and thought.
I observed friends and classmates coming to terms with their own beliefs and commitments during the strenuous period of graduate school. The transition to a different understanding of the scriptures was a time of uncertainty and often a period of severe personal anguish for them. It affected not only their own lives but the lives of loved ones and friends as well. As they attempted to find a new way of understanding their own faith and tradition, many came to feel that religious fundamentalism was deeply inadequate, while others gave up religion altogether.
Normally, people do not become fundamentalists—and by fundamentalists I mean those who hold the Bible to be both infallible and inerrant—if they are already well informed about scripture, doctrine, and history. While fundamentalists are not necessarily unintelligent or ill informed, people characteristically become fundamentalists before they know much about scripture, doctrine, or history.
Graduate school is not only a rigorous experience but also an intellectual adventure. For fundamentalists, graduate studies can have devastating results. Their fundamentalism usually arises from the practice of reading single texts in isolation from context. In fundamentalism, more than in any other tradition, the warning of 2 Peter is disregarded and disobeyed: "No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Peter 1:20–21).
My response to the question of why I still have hope is that I escaped fundamentalism long before entering graduate school. I did not believe in the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible. My faith in its value and inspiration was never under attack during my studies because I viewed the text in a different way than my fundamentalist friends did. Therefore, I approach study without fear and view my efforts in this field as ultimately in harmony with what I believe the gospel demands of disciples.
The Place of Academic Inquiry
I have come to believe that the acquisition of the simplest of academic tools is necessary for a mature understanding of the message of the gospel. That is not to say, however, that individuals who cannot read or write are somehow unable to develop a deep and committed discipleship. I know of such cases and believe that salvation comes to all of God's children without a price (including the price of an educational degree). Yet, in the context of my world, an environment where access to education is available, I believe the Lord expects me to progress—not only by learning to read and write, but also by thinking clearly and deeply.
In a certain and limited sense, academic training is by and large the acquisition of tools. Whether we learn to read and write English so we can read the Book of Mormon or learn to read Hebrew and Greek so we can read the Bible, we are acquiring proficiency in a language—a tool. Tools are not inherently good or bad; how one uses them is what matters.
For example, when the 1830 Book of Mormon was published, it was printed on a press at E. B. Grandin's print shop on Palmyra's Main Street. The press was a tool to make the translation available to the public. That same printing press was used at the same time to publish a Palmyra weekly entitled The Reflector. In this newspaper, Abner Cole published pirated extracts of the Book of Mormon and, in some cases, criticism of the work. Cole worked on the paper on Sundays when the press was free. The point is that the same tool was used in publishing both the Book of Mormon and the pirated extracts and criticisms of the work. Each individual used this tool for his own purpose.
Likewise, academic training is simply the acquisition of scholarly tools. Almost everyone in North America has learned how to use some tools of scholarship. The very act of learning to read, write, and think is the basis of all academic training. Those who write critically of the foundation of Christianity or modern Mormonism use the same tools as those who write with an eye of faith about Jesus of Nazareth and Joseph Smith.
However, academic pursuit alone is insufficient to lead one to a testimony of God's power and interest in us. Even the study of sacred and inspired scripture will leave us spiritually empty, emotionally hollow, and doctrinally unsound unless we draw inspiration and strength from the Author of holy scripture. I am reminded that British social critic Malcolm Muggeridge once said: "Future historians . . . are likely to conclude that the more we knew about Jesus the less we knew him, and the more precisely his words were translated the less we understood or heeded them."1
In brief, academic tools have a role in our pursuit of eternal truth—but not a dominant one. Sheer historical research can, in fact, turn out to be a way of avoiding the real drama and the essential issues raised by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The question we all face is "Am I willing to put my whole life with all its unanswered questions and hopes into the hands of the resurrected Christ?" Any academic research that prevents this challenge from being heard is both playing false to the nature of the message of the living Christ and substituting scholarly idols for the two important questions Jesus asks each of us: "What seek ye?" and "Lovest thou me?" (John 1:38, 21:15).
The scriptures remind us sharply that we are not saved by academic pursuit alone. Yet the scriptures and the prophets encourage us to consider our faith thoughtfully through the acquisition of academic tools. I recognize the constant tension that exists between finding Jesus through academic study and finding him through service to the least, the last, and the lost—through service to the world's poor; through worship with the Saints of God; and, more important, through personal expressions of worship such as fasting and prayer.
Joseph Smith's Example
I have carefully studied the life of Joseph Smith, who both relied upon inspiration from the Lord and dedicated himself to serious and thoughtful study. No one was more determined to expand his vision by study than the Prophet. While exposed to incredible outpourings of the Spirit, he nevertheless spent time and money in an effort to learn Hebrew and German so he could read the scriptures in languages he felt could help him. Joseph records: "My soul delights in reading the word of the Lord in the original, and I am determined to pursue the study of the languages, until I shall become master of them, if I am permitted to live long enough."2 Joseph Smith demonstrated the necessary balance between seeking the Lord through private, personal experiences with God and seeking the Lord through study.
The Church follows Joseph Smith's lead as we expand our literacy program so all Saints may benefit from the acquisition of the simplest of academic tools—reading and writing. At our institutions of learning (including seminaries and institutes of religion), we use the latest tools to teach students the scriptures. We want students not only to feel but also to think about the gospel they have received. Our missionaries are exposed to the very latest academic tools to acquire a proficiency in foreign languages; teachers who have been well trained in their fields of study are employed to help prepare these ambassadors to preach the gospel to the world. The stream of thoughtful talks, discourses, essays, and books by Church leaders suggests a commitment to the proposition that one's testimony can be strengthened and confirmed by study as well as by faith.
I begin my religious education classes at the university with a statement something like this: "I want you to know that there is nothing wrong in saying 'I do not know the answer.' I will try to answer your questions honestly and will, on occasion say, 'I do not know.' I have many questions myself about the glorious gospel we have received, but I have no doubts about the message of hope in Christ and the trust in the prophetic leadership of the Church."
I found a story in Camilla Eyring Kimball's biography that has been very useful to me in dealing with unanswered questions:
Camilla had a philosophy about religious problems that helped her children. She said that when things troubled her, she put them on the shelf; later when she looked at them again, some were answered, some seemed no longer important, and some needed to go back on the shelf for another time.3
We cannot answer all the questions of life, let alone academic issues raised in the debate of the so-called marketplace of ideas. We must trust in the Lord with a mature faith that someday we will know the answers to the right questions. Yet, from time to time, we find an answer to a burning question that we may have put on the shelf earlier. These answers confirm our faith and our appreciation for the profound nature of the gospel.
One question I was able to answer by putting it on the shelf for a while concerned boat building in the ancient world. During my graduate training, I took courses in ancient history, including a seminar dealing with Mediterranean Sea commerce. Although the emphasis in this field has been, for the most part, on the economic and political aspects of ancient commerce, during the past twenty years scholars have become increasingly interested in the ships themselves.
Although many cargo ships sailed the ancient Mediterranean for thousands of years, underwater archaeologists have only recently discovered and excavated their remains. A major breakthrough in understanding the ancient art of building ships came when a Greek merchant ship was discovered in 1967 off the north coast of Cyprus, near the small town of Kyrenia.4
The shipbuilders of the Kyrenia used hull-first construction—a labor- and material-intensive construction technique. The keel was laid first, but instead of adding the frames next, as in modern wooden shipbuilding, the builders added hull planks. These planks were held together by mortise-and-tenon joints. The frames were then added as buttresses only after the hull was completed. The contents of the cargo indicate that the ship may have sailed from Samos to Nisiros to Rhodes before being sunk by pirates around 300 B.C.
With the information gleaned from this important discovery, George F. Bass was able to piece together the story of shipbuilding practices in the Mediterranean Sea. He had already reconstructed another ship, this one from the seventh century A.D. It was a merchant ship uncovered near Yassi Ada, Turkey, during the summers of 1961 through 1964.5 Comparing the Yassi Ada shipwreck with the Kyrenia, Bass discovered that both ancient and modern techniques were used to construct the Yassi Ada ship. With their construction techniques, these shipbuilders were laying the groundwork for the eventual emergence of the skeleton-first system of hull construction, the most widely followed method of wooden-hull construction in the world today.
Finally, Bass worked on another Mediterranean shipwreck inside Serce Liman, a natural harbor on the southern Turkish coast opposite Rhodes.6 The ship is dated from the first half of the eleventh century A.D. and demonstrates the final evolutionary step of modern wooden-ship construction. With a rigid skeleton of frames, the ships from this time period on were stronger than the earlier ships—strong enough to leave the Mediterranean Sea and to cross the oceans for India, Asia, and America.
It did not require much time to understand the implication of the work of these nautical archaeologists: Nephi could not have built a ship strong enough to cross the ocean in 600 B.C. because the techniques necessary for such an undertaking were not available to him. Like most Latter-day Saints, I was aware that attempts had been made to prove that a raft could have made such a trip.7 Nearly everyone has heard of Thor Heyerdahl's efforts to prove that people could have "floated" to the Western Hempisphere. Yet the evidence from the Mediterranean suggested another interpretation of the data. Because I had no doubts about my foundation—the Book of Mormon is an ancient text—I decided to put this question on the shelf.
Sometime later, I took the question down from my shelf after reading the Book of Mormon and paying closer attention to what the text actually said:
We did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.
Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men. (1 Nephi 18: 1–2)
Nephi apparently did not use the shipbuilding techniques of his day. He says clearly that the "timbers" were used in a way that was unfamiliar to him and to others who built ships at the time. The ship was, in fact, built according to what the Lord showed Nephi. Modern nautical archaeology appears to confirm the historical setting of this story—no one during this period of history had the knowledge to build a wooden ship strong enough to cross the ocean. The Lord has left us, through Nephi's writings, a significant clue—a precious gem that may now shine and enlighten our appreciation for this marvelous text.
Some may question the need or even the desire to find external evidences for the Book of Mormon—especially using tentative academic tools such as archaeology, as in the case above. Yet readers of the Book of Mormon are exposed to the testimonies of witnesses printed in the front of the book, themselves external evidences. Interestingly enough, the two testimonies are essentially different from one another. The first, signed by three men, is a "spiritual" witness—the witnesses saw an angel and heard a heavenly voice declare the translation was correct. The second testimony, signed by eight men, is a physical witness. The men saw and hefted the plates—no divine voice and no angelic appearance, just the plates.
The New Testament has similar testimony contained in its pages. The witness of Jesus Christ is based on two separate and distinct experiences—the spiritual testimony and the physical testimony. Peter came to know who Jesus really was through the Spirit (see Matthew 16:16–17). The resurrected Lord stood before the disciples on several occasions and, by "infallible proofs," showed himself alive (see Acts 1:3). Some touched him and others saw him eat—physical evidences of the resurrection.
The fact that the Lord has provided both types of witnesses suggests that, in his eyes, we cannot make the choice between spiritual testimony and physical testimony an either/or proposition. Both are valid and essential to his divine purposes. The acquisition of academic tools that may provide a physical witness to our central beliefs through archaeology, linguistic studies, and cultural background is an important part of our testimony.
In this respect, students of the scriptures add their witnesses to those of others who have gained a spiritual witness of the Restoration without the acquisition of academic tools (they may not even know how to read or write). Each witness is valid and essential to the proclamation of the message that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith was a chosen servant of the Lord to bring forth the Book of Mormon, and that we have a divinely appointed leadership today.
I believe, passionately, that I must use every faculty within me—my whole soul, that is, my mind and my heart—to find God, to search out his ways, and to praise and worship him and his Son. My worship then becomes complete as I sing praises to his name, pray and fast, attend to the divinely appointed ordinances in sacred places, and, finally, worship him with my mind through study and contemplation.
Although I still have a shelf full of questions, like Camilla Kimball, I have no doubt that in time all these questions will be answered. On another level, I have no doubt about the foundations of my faith and hope in Christ and the glorious future that awaits his faithful disciples beyond death. Like Paul, I believe that "for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
1. Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus: The Man Who Lives (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 8.
2. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 2:396.
3. Caroline Eyring Miner and Edward L. Kimball, Camilla: A Biography of Camilla Eyring Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 110.
4. George F. Bass, A History of Seafaring Based on Underwater Archaeology (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 38–41, 48–52, 62–64, 69.
5. George F. Bass and Frederick H. Van Doorninck, Jr., Yassi Ada: A Seventh-Century Byzantine Shipwreck (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982).
6. George F. Bass and Frederick H. van Doorninck, Jr., "An Eleventh Century Shipwreck at Serce Liman, Turkey," The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 7 (1978): 119–32.
7. See also John L. Sorenson, "Transoceanic Crossings," in The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr. (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1988), 251–70.