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Unifying Truth: Analysis of the Conflict between Reason and Revelation

Alan M. Hurst, “Unifying Truth: Analysis of the Conflict between Reason and Revelation,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2005 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 41–55.

Unifying Truth: Analysis of the Conflict between Reason and Revelation

Alan M. Hurst

And it came to pass . . . that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. (Genesis 22:1–2)

How Abraham must have felt as he received this commandment—how love of his son and love of his Father must have rent his soul between them—is both easy to see and impossible to imagine. The long years of waiting for a child, a painful memory so happily forgotten, must have been recalled instantly to Abraham’s mind, making the joy of Isaac’s miraculous conception sickeningly hollow. How could God want such a thing?

Surely Abraham was mistaken. Surely the revelation was wrong. God’s commandment forbidding murder, Abraham’s own experience on the pagan altar years before, and the promise that God’s covenants would be fulfilled through this son and none other must have given him pause. The logical contradictions were obvious; they defied reconciliation by even the most nimble mind. Abraham, prophet of God, was forced to disregard all reason and to follow revelation.

The conflict between reason and revelation, shown so starkly in this story from Genesis, has busied Christian philosophers for centuries. Traditional Christianity, with its dual Jewish and Greek heritage, has always struggled to reconcile the legacies of its philosophical parents. In an attempt to find the truth among conflicting philosophies, the first question to be answered is, “How is truth to be found?” The Christians inherited one answer in the form of their scriptures: revelation from an all-knowing God. They found another in the writings of the Greek philosophers: human reason’s capacity to understand the universe. Both of these answers have become integral parts of Christian thought.

The challenge that Abraham’s story raises is therefore of vital interest to Christianity and Christian philosophers. Abraham’s experience suggests that revelation and reason are ultimately irreconcilable, that seekers of truth must choose one in the end, unable to serve two philosophies at once.

To the Latter-day Saint who values truth as “the fairest gem to which mortals or gods can aspire,”[1] finding and understanding true principles is the work of a lifetime and longer, and knowing how to discern between truth and error is no mere philosophical exercise but a matter of supreme, eternal importance. Given the emphasis that Latter-day Saint doctrine places on truth and understanding, one must ask: Should Latter-day Saints consider reason and revelation to be fundamentally opposed to each other, or are both necessary in acquiring truth? In short, does the restored gospel solve the apparent conflict between reason and revelation, and if so, how?

Estrangement

According to the Bible, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; according to the Greek philosophers, the beginning of wisdom is wonder. We are thus compelled from the beginning to make a choice, to take a stand. Where then do we stand? We are confronted with the incompatible claims of Jerusalem and Athens to our allegiance. We are open to both and willing to listen to each. We ourselves are not wise but we wish to become wise. We are seekers for wisdom, “philo-sophoi.” By saying that we wish to hear first and then act to decide, we have already decided in favor of Athens against Jerusalem. (Leo Strauss)[2]

With the Greek philosophers, the use of human reason took on a drastically new character. While those prior to the dawn of philosophy applied reason primarily in practical ways and left most fundamental questions to myth and tradition, the Greek philosophers began to question the assertions their myths made about the world. Instead of simply accepting traditional morality and cosmology, they began analyzing them,[3] seeking to understand through reason both human virtue and the nature of the universe. As Leo Strauss points out, this desire to understand, this “wonder,” was the beginning of Greek philosophical wisdom.

Revelation, on the other hand, is said to be not the product of any human wisdom or desire but wholly a gift from on high. “The Torah presents itself as given by God,” Strauss writes of Judaism’s revealed foundation, and “not created by Israel.”[4] Because it presents itself as a pure creation of God, revelation cannot be questioned even in its slightest details. In Jewish thought, revelation must be understood as a complete expression of ultimate truth, bestowed in its entirety upon God’s human mouthpiece and published to teach humanity the correct way of life. “According to the prophets,” Strauss writes, “there is no need for the quest for knowledge of the good,”[5] the highest quest of the Greek philosophers. Instead, the traditional idea of revelation maintains that the prophets already had the best possible understanding of ultimate truth, rendering the Greek philosophic “wonder” useless.

When Catholic theologians incorporated Greek thought into Christian doctrine, they had to alter the traditional idea of revelation to make the transplant fit. While revealed truth had traditionally been the only important knowledge, they made it merely a foundation for important knowledge. Whereas rabbis had memorized and dissected scripture in order to understand every nuance of its meaning, theologians began using it as a set of basic ideals and assumptions upon which the Greek philosophical and cosmological systems could be built—a decision whose flaws Galileo and others later made obvious. While the Jews saw revelation as a complete and perfect law, the Catholics saw it as a completion and perfection of philosophy.[6]

At the same time, reason underwent its own changes. Though intellectual understanding remained important,[7] the use of scripture as an intellectual anchor radically changed the Greek idea of reason. Declaring certain principles, especially moral principles, to be beyond question denied reason both its most celebrated technique—the habit of questioning everything—and its primary goal—”the quest for the knowledge of the good.”[8] Catholicism, though believing it had made revelation and reason complete by combining them, had actually misapplied the one and enslaved the other.

As Strauss writes, religion’s use of reason “as a handmaid” made it inevitable that reason would someday rebel against its new master.[9] This rebellion began in earnest with Galileo Galilei.

When Galileo took up the defense of heliocentric Copernican astronomy, he was accused of heresy. Catholic cosmology was based on Aristotelian physics, which maintained that the earth was the center of the universe, around which all celestial bodies revolved. Considering this cosmology doctrine, Catholic theologians had found an array of scriptures that seemed to prove that the earth was stationary.[10] Galileo attempted to refute this idea with reason and observation, an effort some theologians condemned as undermining the authority of God’s revealed word. In the end, Galileo was declared “vehemently suspect of heresy” and was ordered to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.[11]

The importance of Galileo’s defense against the charges of heresy, however, far outlived his punishment. When accused of teaching ideas contrary to the Bible, Galileo responded by affirming his faith in scripture but denying that it could be applied to science. He pointed out that scripture is not always to be taken literally because there are “things which are quite different from what the bare words signify.”[12] Since the interpretation of scripture was not an exact science, it should not be allowed to govern matters of exact science. With this reasoning, Galileo cut science loose from its anchor of religious assumptions. The emancipation of reason from revelation had begun.

Though Galileo would have disagreed vehemently with agnostic modern science on the question of religion, the scientific philosophy of skeptical empiricism is a descendent of his thought. The trust he placed in reason and observation to find truth without relying on revelation was the first step toward dismissing anything reason and observation cannot prove as fantastic. With the trend thus begun, the rejection of all ideas beyond the reach of empirical, mathematical, and logical tests became almost inevitable, leaving the world divided into “two different kinds of men, scientists, who proportioned their belief to the evidence, and Christians, who did not.”[13]

Such is the nature of the modern conflict between reason and revelation. On the one hand are the agnostic scientists and many modern philosophers who generally believe that the world and life were created by chance and that morality is relative. On the opposing side are the evangelical Christians, orthodox Jews, and many other religious groups, most of whom believe in the Creation, biblical morality, and their respective canons of revealed truth. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, letting science and reason determine some of their attitudes while still believing in a sphere where revelation trumps reason, deciding on a case-by-case basis which issues fall in which category. The thought that reason and revelation could be united in a manner satisfactory to both sides is generally dismissed as impossible.

Reconciliation

I want to say that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accepts all that is true in the world from whatever source it may come, with the knowledge that it originated with the greatest of all scientists, our Father in Heaven. (President George Albert Smith)[14]

In the Brigham Young University library, a place symbolic of rational learning and home to mountains of empirical and logical evidence, hangs a small plaque with the above quote written on it.[15] Though it is simple and inconspicuous, this quote makes a powerful statement about the Latter-day Saint doctrine of truth and has many implications in a gospel-based reconciliation of reason and revelation.

First, the statement was made by a modern-day prophet, which is in itself a reminder that Latter-day Saints cannot abandon revelation for science and reason. Nor can they, as did Galileo,[16] recommend that reason and science be allowed to rule their interpretation of revealed scripture. Revelation comes from an omniscient God who “canst not lie” (Ether 3:12); it cannot be made subject to the whims of human theory.

Second, the description of God as the greatest of scientists, the promise to accept truths found through science, and the very placement of the plaque in the library of a Church-owned university preclude any attempt to remove reason and observational science from Latter-day Saint thought. Latter-day Saints must learn “of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth . . . the wars and the perplexities of the nations . . . and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:79). The pursuit of secular learning is a commandment of God.

Finally, the doctrine expressed in this statement makes it impossible for Latter-day Saints to accept one of the world’s most common attempts to reconcile reason and revelation. Expressed neatly in Cardinal Baronius’s assertion “that the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes,”[17] this philosophy maintains that God is silent in secular and scientific matters, allowing human reason to form its own theories and opinions.

Such a segregation of truth, however, flatly contradicts the doctrines of the restored gospel. Joseph Smith felt free to prophesy about contemporary political events (see D&C 130:12–13), and the book of Abraham is full of revealed astronomy. Elder Russell M. Nelson even recounts an experience in which God gave him a new surgical technique through revelation.[18] As Ezra Taft Benson said while President of the Quorum of the Twelve, “The prophet can receive revelation on any matter—temporal or spiritual.”[19] Since, as President Smith points out, all truth originates with Deity, God can reveal it as He sees fit in whatever manner He deems fitting, making artificial distinctions between secular and sacred irrelevant. As the hymn says, “truth is reason,”[20] but as Moroni says, “By the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5; emphasis added).

Given that Latter-day Saints must be committed both to reason and to revelation, a major question remains. How do they reconcile the se two traditions seen, by Leo Strauss and others, as fundamentally opposed to each other?

First, it should be said that the Latter-day Saint understanding of reason is fundamentally different from that of most scientists and philosophers. Where a traditionalist sees an individual’s unaided search for understanding, the Latter-day Saint sees the exercise of a God-given gift that would not function without God’s continued help. To them, human understanding would be impossible without the light of Christ, which is given “through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings” (D&C 88:11).

To a Latter-day Saint, then, truth arrived at through reason is no newer or more original than Columbus’s discovery of the Americas: the continents existed prior to Columbus’s landing. Vikings had visited Canada several centuries earlier, and there were millions of people living in Mexico and elsewhere. Like Columbus’s discovery, all other scientific discoveries are therefore only new for the discoverers and for those who learn from them, since every discovery has always been known to God. Like matter and intelligence, knowledge and truth can be neither created nor destroyed (see D&C 93:29). They can only spread.

Such thinking puts the entire history of science in a different light. Great breakthroughs cease to be triumphs of man and become gifts of God, who understood them in their entirety long before the creation of the world. Even great philosophers like Socrates and Plato were not creators of new thought, but good men and diligent thinkers who “received a portion of God’s light.”[21]

Like their beliefs concerning reason, Latter-day Saints’ understanding of revelation is fundamentally different from traditional Jewish and Christian doctrines on the subject. What Leo Strauss sees as the pure dictation of God, given in its perfection to prophets who played no role in its creation, the Latter-day Saint sees as written by real people who really had to think about what they wrote. One such real person was Oliver Cowdery, whom the Lord explicitly reprimanded for supposing the Lord would give him revelation “when [he] took no thought save it was to ask” (D&C 9:7).

An excellent example can be found in the sermon on the Resurrection that Alma gave to his son, Corianton (see Alma 40–42). In it Alma sets forth the conclusions of his painstaking meditation about the doctrine. Twice he says that he “inquired diligently” (Alma 40:3, 9), implying real intellectual effort. In several verses he admits the limits of his knowledge (see Alma 40:4, 8, 9, 21), once even venturing a guess of which he knows he cannot be sure (see Alma 40:20). His language is often that of reasonable argument, including even a brief analysis of a popular idea of his day and his rejection of it as applicable to the doctrine in question (see Alma 40:15–18). It is, of course, still revelation. Alma speaks of an angel who answered at least some of his questions (see Alma 40:11), and he always acknowledges a higher source of truth than his own mind. But it is obvious that both before and after the angel’s visit, Alma had to apply his reason in order to understand the doctrine. Like Oliver Cowdery, Alma had to “study it out in [his] mind” (D&C 9:8) in order to receive revelation.

Such study is hardly limited to prophets. As Moroni teaches, it is a prerequisite for gaining a testimony. In the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, Moroni gives certain instructions to everyone who desires to know if the book is true. First, he assumes that they have read it, a task that requires a large investment of mental effort. Second, he exhorts them to think about “how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men” (Moroni 10:3) since the creation of Adam—hardly a small topic. Third, he issues the challenge that they “ponder it in [their] hearts” (v. 3). Only after applying their minds to these tasks are they qualified to ask God and to expect the Holy Ghost to answer (see v. 4).

As these examples show, the contradictions that the world sees between reason and revelation mean nothing in the context of Latter-day Saint theology. To Latter-day Saints, the philosopher and scientist are not lone minds in search of truth but children of a loving God who blesses them with inspiration according to their efforts and His will. A prophet of the restored Church claims no perfect understanding of doctrine but is always pondering it and, contrary to what Strauss said, is eternally questing “for the knowledge of the good.”[22] In short, reason without revelation is impossible, and revelation without reason is unintelligible.

Einstein and the Angel

New beliefs should be accepted with care, but to refuse to exchange old error for new truth would be disastrous. (Elder John A. Widtsoe)[23]

If Latter-day Saints see truth as indivisible, if their understanding of reason and their doctrines concerning revelation are so intertwined, how do they approach Abraham’s dilemma? When reason and revelation lead to such contradictory results, how do Latter-day Saints claim to accept both reason and revelation? An answer may be found in a brief comparison of Abraham’s dilemma with one that physicists faced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Around the turn of the century, a discovery was made that created considerable problems for Newtonian physics. Through their experiments, physicists discovered the speed of light to be constant in all frames of reference. For those who have grown up hearing the equation E=mc2, that statement seems as normal as the earth moving around the sun, but its implications were disastrous for Newtonian thought.

The following situation illustrates the problem. If a car is passing a pedestrian at 60 mph and a bullet is passing the car at 1000 mph, the bullet is passing the pedestrian at 1060 mph. Experiments proved, however, that a beam of light passing the car at the speed of light is also passing the pedestrian at the speed of light, not the speed of light plus 60 mph. Light passes everything at exactly the same speed, no matter how fast or slow the object it passes is moving in comparison with anything else. In Newtonian physics this is impossible, and it violates all common sense. However, it was proven through experimental observation.[24]

What then were the physicists to do? Newtonian physics was held to be fact, not theory, and not just any fact, either. It was the foundation of modern science, the definitive explanation of the universe. Its discovery was considered a prime achievement of the Enlightenment.[25] It is almost impossible to overstate the respect scientists had for Newton’s physics. As Alexander Pope wrote, “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night: / God said, let Newton be! and all was light.”[26]

Compare this situation with the one that Abraham faced. Both Abraham and the physicists had accepted certain beliefs as absolute truth and had built their understanding of the world on them. Abraham had accepted revelation as his basic truth and, by using it as a foundation, had come to regard other ideas as likewise true, including God’s prohibition of murder. The physicists, on the other hand, had accepted as their foundation empirical observation and mathematics, and the foremost truth they had derived from this foundation was Newtonian physics.

Both Abraham and the physicists were faced with new information that defied reason by showing a contradiction in their systems of accepted truth. God’s command to sacrifice Isaac made it impossible for Abraham to accept both current revelation and God’s previous commandment not to murder, and a new observation made it impossible for physicists to accept both empiricism and Newtonian physics. Both Abraham and the physicists had to decide whether to keep their foundational truths or their derived ones, and both made the same decision: hold to the foundational truths while waiting and searching for new understanding that can solve the contradiction. Scientists accepted the results of the experiments, and Abraham followed revelation and prepared to offer his son.

In both cases, the apparent contradictions were caused by flaws in the previously accepted systems of truth. When the angel stayed Abraham’s hand, Abraham learned that the Lord didn’t really want him to kill Isaac but had other purposes in issuing the command (see Genesis 22:12). When Einstein shocked the world by showing that distance and even time were not absolute but rather changed with motion, physicists saw the flaws in Newtonian physics that had led to the contradiction. Einstein and the angel are thus powerful reminders that no human understands everything. It is unreasonable to believe that one’s reason is always right, and in a religion revealed “line upon line, precept on precept” (2 Nephi 28:30), no one can claim a perfect understanding of revelation. Latter-day Saints believe that when all truth is finally understood, reason and revelation will be seen in perfect harmony on every subject. “Truth is truth,” writes Elder Widtsoe, “whether labelled science or religion.”[27]

Conclusion

Ultimately, Latter-day Saints should not believe that their religion forces them to reject science, philosophy, or any other endeavor of human reason. Although the traditional understanding of reason may conflict with traditional doctrines concerning revelation, the restored gospel shows these traditional ideas to be flawed. Both the effort of the human mind and inspiration given of God are necessary for humanity to understand any new truth, regardless of worldly distinctions between secular and spiritual learning.

Even in those cases like Abraham’s where the traditional conflict seems to be absolutely irreconcilable, the gospel shows that any apparent contradictions between revelation and reason are only the results of flawed understanding. As the development of modern physics shows, belief that human reason is perfect is ultimately unreasonable, and as Abraham shows, the instant bestowal of perfect understanding is a kind of revelation no revelator would recognize.

This liberating doctrine is a blessing to every Latter-day Saint. The person who believes in the restored gospel knows that for every apparent contradiction between reason and revelation, God will someday grant a reconciling truth that will enlighten the minds and broaden the horizons of His children. In the words of Elder Maxwell: “In my own education . . . I found that the basic gospel truths could be harmonized with the great secular truths. [And] those gospel truths which, for the moment, could not be harmonized, could . . . be regarded expectantly, for ultimately, all truths belong to the gospel. Not all theories . . . but all truths. To so realize was an emancipating feeling then, and is now, for the feeling has never diminished, only increased.”[28]

Notes



[1] “Oh Say, What Is Truth?” Hymns (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 272.

[2] Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” in The Western World, ed. Ralph C. Hancock (Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2002), 21.

[3] Indeed, Socrates’ lack of respect for the traditional gods and virtues of the city was the crime that led to his execution.

[4] Leo Strauss, “Progress or Return?” in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, ed. Kenneth Hart Green (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 92

[5] Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” 45.

[6] See Ralph Hancock, “Reason and Revelation,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1192–4.

[7] See Hancock, “Reason and Revelation,” 1192–4.

[8] Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” 45.

[9] Strauss, “Progress or Return,” 104.

[10] See Joshua 10:12–13; 1 Chronicles 16:30.

[11] Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Galileo’s Copernicanism,” http://search.eb.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/eb/article?tocId=8441.

[12] Galileo Galilei, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, trans. Stillman Drake (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), 181.

[13] C. S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief,” in The World’s Last Night (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1960), 20.

[14] George Albert Smith, address at groundbreaking of Physical Science Building, Brigham Young University, May 11, 1948, 2.

[15] The plaque is on the fifth floor of the Harold B. Lee Library.

[16] See Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” 181.

[17] As quoted by Galileo in “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” 186.

[18] See Russell M. Nelson, “Sweet Power of Prayer,” Ensign, May 2003, 7.

[19] Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” Tambuli, June 1981, 1.

[20] “O My Father,” Hymns, no. 292.

[21] Quoted in James E. Faust, “Communion with the Holy Spirit,” Ensign, March 2002.

[22] Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” 45.

[23] John A. Widtsoe, In Search of Truth: Comments on the Gospel and Modern Thought (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1930), 8.

[24] See Albert Einstein, Relativity (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995).

[25] See Encyclopedia Britannica online, s.v. “Isaac Newton,” http://search.eb.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/ebi/article?tocId=9276067.

[26] “Lucid Café,” Sir Isaac Newton Scientist and Mathemetician; www.lucidcafe.com/library/95dec/newton.html

[27] Widtsoe, In Search of Truth, 16

[28] Neil A. Maxwell, as quoted in Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple’s Life (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 166.