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The two major breakthroughs of the early twentieth century physics were the theory of “quantum mechanics” and the theory of “relativity”.

A fundamental property—in many ways, the essence—of quantum mechanics is uncertainty, i.e., the proposition that it is impossible to know certain pairs of characteristics of any object at the same time. For example, one cannot know both the position of an object as well as its speed. If you measure the exact position of an object, you will not be able to register any information about its speed, and vice versa. If you seek middle ground, and are only interested in an approximate location of an object, then you will likewise only be able to measure, at best, an approximate speed of that same object. Lucky for us, these uncertainties are on such infinitesimal scales that you need not worry about, for example, the speed and location of your vehicle as you come to a stop sign.
The essence of Relativity is the perspective of the observer, as illustrated by a strange occurrence called “length contraction”: Imagine looking at a 200-foot-long airplane sitting on the ground. Next, you watch it take off and fly overhead at ever increasing speeds. As it speeds up, its physical length actually contracts from 200 feet down to 0 feet (never quite reaching 0) as its speed approaches that of light (impossibly fast). This observation is only from your point of view, stationary on the ground below. However, from the perspective of the pilot, the length of the airplane has always remained 200 feet long. As the plane slows and comes in for a landing, the length to your eyes (ground observer) will stretch back out to its "rest" length of 200 feet. As you can imagine, the plane compressing from the ground observer's perspective can be very unnerving if the laws of physics are not understood. What's more, the pilot would laugh away any claims that the plane compressed and stretched, knowing that from his or her point of view, no change in length ever took place. In this scenario, both perspectives are correct. The plane compressed, and the plane also did not compress.

Uncertainty and perspective apply, to one degree or another, to all observable phenomena. Some people have warmed up to these scientific principles quicker than others. In fact, Einstein (incidentally, one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics) fought against uncertainty for a long time. Nevertheless, evidence in support of the essential principles of quantum mechanics and relativity continues to amass. I have found interesting parallels between these principles and faith as we experience it in the contemporary world. In the following pages I will attempt to explain how uncertainty and perspective may be brought to bear to possibly illuminate our understanding of faith. Then I will give specific examples of what may be some challenging trials of faith and offer some corresponding views and resources that have helped me sort through them.

Foundations of Faith

Sir Isaac Newton's laws of gravity and motion were published back in 1687. Still useful in many applications, they continue to be taught in college physics classes today. For example, Newton's first law of motion holds that an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by a force. This statement is clean, simple, and unvarying. In a similar way, faith as taught in Latter-day Saint doctrine likewise can point the sincere seeker of truth toward clean, simple, unvarying propositions, to include that:

However, the dawn of the Information Age had brought unprecedented access to the original source documents and materials of the Restoration, providing the opportunity to explore aspects of Church history that have rarely been discussed. Concurrently, there have arisen new interpretations—based on what might be called questions of “uncertainty” and “perspective”—about the fundamentals of the faith.

Uncertainty

Uncertainty as a scientific principle implies that the measured characteristics will be forever unknowable. Rather than drawing an absolute parallel to religious uncertainty by saying that our religious faith will also be forever or inherently unknowable, I make the connection from scientific to religious uncertainty by specifying that during our time on earth, most of the tenets of our faith are subject to uncertainty, one day to be known and understood, but not at present (Hence, the need for faith).

Every day, people have crises of faith. Some falter because they were never given much opportunity to cultivate their faith. Others might begin to doubt because they experience an emotional or traumatic event. Still others might have been reared in the Gospel, had all the opportunities provided to them necessary to develop faith, and possibly even overcame traumatic experiences. Then, somewhere along the way, they started to question their beliefs and found themselves awash in uncertainty over matters that they previously considered settled. Not too long ago, this questioning spirit—coupled with the claim that the questioning produced uncertainty—would have been criticized and suppressed—not unlike some who held to classical physics and initially felt that the principle of uncertainty was itself of uncertain value. But that is not the case now. In fact, acknowledging uncertainty can be commendable and can ultimately be rewarding. Indeed, Apostle Hugh B. Brown said, "Doubt has a place if it can stir in one an interest to go out and find the truth for one's self."[1]

Many answers have always been available, but are not easy to find. Some information is pure anti-Mormon rubbish that is generally easy to identify and avoid. But there is also plenty of robust material out there that is free, available, and merits examination. In fact, we have the approbation of Church leaders to pursue this knowledge, and that is exactly what many of the rising generation are doing. On religion, science, and human affairs in general, Apostle Hugh B. Brown said, "I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent—if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression."[2]

Elder Steven E. Snow, LDS Church Historian and Recorder, actively promotes the transparency of LDS Church history for many good reasons, among which is the simple reality of the Information Age: If one does not tell his own story, someone else will, and often with less accuracy or fidelity. Elder Snow said, "My view is that being open about our history solves a whole lot more problems than it creates. We might not have all the answers, but if we are open (and we now have pretty remarkable transparency), then I think in the long run that will serve us well. I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation—with the access to information on the Internet, we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open."[3]

Michael Otterson, Managing Director of Public Affairs for the LDS Church, quotes President Dieter F. Uchtdorf thus: "Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history— along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question. Sometimes questions arise because we simply don't have all the information and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn't make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction. Sometimes there is a difference of opinion as to what the "facts" really mean. A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others."[4]

Otterson also quotes Elder M. Russell Ballard thus: “Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, 'Don't worry about it!' Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Mostly, our young people lived a sheltered life. Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.”[5]

According to Elder Snow, the LDS Church seems to have disadvantaged its own public information effort with decisions not to publish some information. An attempt to remedy this is found in the publication of various Gospel Topic Essays starting in 2013 (https://www.lds.org/topics/essays). These essays do, in fact, take a big step forward in efforts to make doctrine and Church history available. Unfortunately, the essays themselves have not yet received the attention they deserve. Yet, much of the content found in these essays provide helpful and much-needed context for well-known works—some sympathetic, some not—that have been available, in some cases, for many years, to include: History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Smith, 1853), No Man Knows My History (Brodie, 1945), and Rough Stone Rolling (Bushman, 2005). Other recent scholarly work and research has been done to provide general access to the most accurate information that can be known in regards to the life and dealings of the prophet, much of it being official Church publications endorsed by the Church. Indeed, Elder Snow said, "Every generation rewrites history a little bit with their own methods and perspectives; that's okay. We try to tell the story as accurately as possible and then we hope there will be those of faith who will step forward and add other insights."[6]

Another noteworthy example of the LDS Church advocating openness is through the Joseph Smith Papers project. The Church published the first volume in 2008. Roughly 24 volumes will be published when it is finished, providing to all every extant document written by Smith or by his scribes in his behalf, as well as other records that were created under his direction or that reflect his personal instruction or involvement. All of this information is digitized and available for free at http://www.josephsmithpapers.org.

Why have Church leaders made such an effort in the last 10 years to open the archive doors? Because it stands as a testament that the message of the Restoration can indeed withstand scholarly scrutiny. Moreover, with the tools of the Information Age at their disposal, Church leaders can creatively reach virtually every human on the planet, disseminating all the materials and teachings in their archives with the click of a mouse. Thus, even as some critics still question the comprehensiveness of the recent publication efforts put forth by Church leaders, even critics must concede that, at the very least, major steps in the right direction are being taken.

New data always give rise to the possibility of new uncertainties. However, new data—whether in matters of physics or in matters of revealed religion—also provide new and important grounds for the exercise of faith. Uncertainty is, by definition, inseparable from faith, as “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things,” (which is not to say that perfect knowledge will never come), and seeking answers and questioning doubts are strongly encouraged by Church leadership and recognized as necessary for strengthening faith and personal testimony.

Perspective

I have a friend, Eric, who is a devout, non-LDS Christian. We have had several friendly religious discussions and debates over the past 15 years. On one occasion, I pressed a point that was to my mind an obvious "win" for Mormonism, then followed it with a simple testimony that I knew it was true. Eric asked if I was “witnessing” to him. This, in turn, led to a discussion about the Holy Ghost and how it operates. Eric, like me, believes in the spiritual confirmations of the Holy Ghost—and knew that his religious understandings were true. I wasn't sure how to respond. Eric and I each have perspectives on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In some areas we are aligned perfectly, others not at all, and everything in between. However, we both have faith and have received confirmation from the Spirit, Light of Christ, or the Holy Ghost that at least some of the things we hope for are true. Therefore, our alternate perspectives lead to confusion as to what is really true and what is not. Am I just right and he wrong because I am a Mormon and have been given the gift of the Holy Ghost? Years ago I would've said “yes”, but I am now inclined toward deeper reflection on the matter.

Consider the same issue from an intra-faith perspective: Imagine you have a friend named Beth, an active Mormon, who has exhibited strong faith much like you. However, a recent issue has caused her to question her faith in revelation from God to the prophet. She knows how faith works, she has the Holy Ghost, but so do you. Is Beth a liar? Are her confirmations entirely a deception from the adversary? Is she simply just not faithful? Or might there be a more constructive way to understand the divergence between Beth and me?

In past generations, a fairly typical tendency (of a kind not by any means limited to Latter-day Saints) may have been to respond by saying that there is no ambiguity in doctrine and that to even hint that there is would be heresy. Nevertheless, it has always been the case that honest inquiries into matters of faith can produce divergent understandings—especially since no two mortal beings possess precisely the same perspective. (Think back to our discussion on the airplane in which two people in different positions can have completely different but correct views of the same event—the airplane compressed AND didn't compress at one and the same time).

Apostle Hugh B. Brown taught, "[F]ree exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence or any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the Church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences."[7] More recently, as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, "It's natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty."[8] It is important to note that these statements and others like them grant no license to apostates, heretics, naysayers, or others who take it as their task to find evil in good. Moreover, there is a difference between having, or even expressing, a unique perspective of faith and launching a public campaign against the Church because the official doctrine or practice of the Church does not accord with one’s own views. Having a voice is, and always has been, a responsible vehicle to positive change within a context of faith that seeks to do God’s will in preference to one’s own; but caution must be exercised in the methods used, should one feel compelled to speak out. Behaviors and actions that step outside the bounds of humble and personal exploration will work to undermine faith altogether, limiting one’s access to truth.

Another point about perspective that must always be borne in mind is that not every perspective, however well intended, is equally correct. Some perspectives are skewed, as any elementary school student who seeks to amuse another with an optical illusion trick can testify. Some downright inaccurate perspectives available in the Information Age are far better adjusted or corrected than adopted. Consider the interpretive issues associated with Jesus’ command, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” How does one interpret the phrase “love thy neighbor”? There seems to be a tendency on the part of some to construe this commandment to mean unbounded tolerance and acceptance (which, in turn, gets labeled as “open-mindedness”). All who carry this mindset often erroneously invoke the perfect love of Jesus Christ to justify anything and everything. This skewed perspective can be very tempting, but also damning if extended beyond proper bounds. The scriptures do make it clear that the Plan of Salvation is one of both justice and mercy, even as some presume to justify the blanket acceptance of anything and everything. Condoning everything, they argue, is an act of mercy. But this would be an incorrect application of mercy. In fact, the Lord is repeatedly blunt in the scriptures about the necessity of strictly following and obeying the commandments. One of the greatest of these commandments is to forgive others—an act of mercy and love. But, mercy exists to allow for recovery from our faults, inadequacies, and weaknesses as we strive to overcome them. It is not given to excuse, allow, or justify behaviors, actions, or lifestyles contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus taught love above all else, especially love for the sinner. However, it does not follow that faithful Christians must condone, in the name of mercy, that which Christ Himself has forbidden. Merciful allowance of this sort is nothing more than a redefinition of sin.

Faith in Practice

Faith, means that, in this life, one need not expect, and should not insist, that all reasons for doubt, uncertainty, or conflict will disappear altogether. The better course is to practice what Columbia University historian Richard Bushman calls "practical empiricism."[9] Empirical evidence does not preclude faith, but it likewise does not preclude the pursuit of truth. Knowledge, facts, and evidence come, go, change, and are honed, yet faith can still grow. Until faith, testimony, and conviction are transformed into pure truth and knowledge, the objects of faith may remain uncertainties; but that does not mean that they are somehow unreal. (Notice, for example, that the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics does not call into question the reality of the phenomena under inspection; it only calls into question the ability to measure it.)

Joseph Smith’s life followed the writer's traditional "character arc." His revelations, his character, and his faith all had telltale signs of being on a journey of development. And why wouldn't they? He wasn’t born perfect. Indeed, he was, by his own admission, a rough stone that rolled until it became smooth. None of God's prophets have gone through life without first having to mature, make mistakes, and learn from them. Faith itself also has its own character arc; and someday, it will conclude its journey with perfect knowledge. Joseph Smith’s character arc was slow and arduous, but it forged ahead. Over his lifetime, Joseph and his following faced multiple migrations, persecutions, upheaval from within, financial distress, sickness, mobs, extermination, and death. Nevertheless, faith was victorious. The Church of Jesus Christ was organized in 1830. Claims of visitations from the other side of the veil were plenty. Keys of the Kingdom of God were restored. The Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants, and updated translation of The Bible were produced. Cities and temples were built. Miraculous healings occurred. Prophecies were fulfilled. In contrast, think of the reference points that modern Latter-day Saints have for the development of faith now, which Martin Harris did not have when he helped finance Joseph Smith’s efforts in translating and publishing The Book of Mormon.

Our understanding of faith has evolved over the years, and we are lucky to have the hindsight of looking back on the arc rather than riding it upward into the unknown. Or, maybe "lucky" is the wrong adjective. Maybe we are cursed for having too much evidence, empirical data, spiritual accounts, historical records, etc., and two hundred years of Church history overly complicates faith's humble beginning. But isn't this the story for many literary protagonists? In the beginning, people are simple, humble, but naive or ignorant. Then, they learn a lot in a short time, become subject to trials that expose weakness, and struggle. Finally, they mature, learn from their mistakes, use experience to overcome obstacles, and triumph. Yet, the innocent beginning was necessary for them to succeed in the end, as the early experiences reminded them of what is important, and gave them courage in their most desperate times. Hope, faith, truth, and knowledge all have their place in the Gospel and in our own personal paths of progression. There may be other steps on the arc of faith that we have yet to see or encounter; but eventually, they will all lead one on a path to perfect knowledge and eternal life.

We should not fear inquiry or investigation. Like Elder Snow, it is my belief that it serves everyone best to open the doors of information, whether it creates uncertainty or not, and whether it exposes differing perspectives among Church members or not. The Church has done a lot to begin this effort, and much of what I state has already been published by the Church, or other respected researchers, scientists, historians, and experts. President John Taylor said, "Some people will say 'Oh, don't talk about it.' I think a full, free talk is frequently of great use; we want nothing secret nor underhanded, and for one I want no association with things that cannot be talked about and will not bear investigation…because out of such things, unless properly understood, a great many misunderstandings arise."[10] So let us avoid propagating misunderstanding, let us not sweep things under the rug, and let us be respectful of open discussion for honest seekers.

Some Common Areas of Faith Uncertainty

The list of common areas of faith uncertainty found below is far from comprehensive, and the thoughts shared on each are minimal. This is not an exercise in uncovering all truth. Rather, it is an attempt to consolidate into one location many of the primary issues causing uncertainty and conflicting perspective amongst Church members and critics. It should hopefully serve as a starting point for those wishing to research more in attempt to find answers, develop faith, and strengthen personal testimony. I strongly recommend all to visit the Church’s website on Gospel Topic Essays (https://www.lds.org/topics/essays) in order to learn more information on many of these topics, as well as many other issues not discussed herein.

Joseph Smith

Science


Conclusion

Richard Bushman once bore his testimony of faith saying, "What does my faith mean? What do I truly believe, and how can I explain it? Over time, these inquiries will doubtless lead to new prospects and broader perspectives. In my case, the interrogation all goes on under an umbrella of faith. I am looking to support what I know in my heart is good and true. Others may have had their confidence shaken and don't know which way to turn—towards faith or away from it. I cannot say that they must swim toward the shore where I stand, or perish; the truth is that we have to find our own footing in our search for understanding. I can only say that Mormonism has served me well and that I believe most people would be better off if they followed the Mormon way."[13]

Faith is dynamic, inexact, and most of all, personal. Attaining and exercising faith by one person has no reflection or bearing on the faith of another. Not only is everyone at a different location on the arc of faith, but each person has their own arc. The key for all, however, is that individual faith progresses. Someday, faith will be supplanted by knowledge, but until then, it is okay not to "know" in the absolute sense. For me, spiritual truth comes from its fruits, sensibility, and feeling. Until science and faith merge completely, I am content to hope that if something makes sense, feels right, and begets good, it is true. This is my perspective, as full of uncertainty as it is, of faith.

NOTES:

[1] Edward B. Firmage, The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown: An Abundant Life, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1988, pg. 135-140. www.sciencemeetsreligion.org/lds/brown-final.php —- [Back to manuscript].

[2] Ibid [Back to manuscript].


[3] Start With Faith: A Conversation with Elder Steven E. Snow, Religious Educator 14, no. 3 (2013): 1-11. http://mi.byu.edu/truth-in-Church-history-excerpts-from-the-religious-educators-qa-with-elder-steven-snow/-- [Back to manuscript].


[4] Michael Otterson, UVU Academic Conference, April 2016. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/transcript-michael-otterson-uvu-academic-conference -- [Back to manuscript].


[5] Ibid [Back to manuscript].


[6] Ibid. 3 [Back to manuscript].


[7] Ibid. 1 [Back to manuscript].


[8] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, General Conference, October 2013. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng&_r=1 -- [Back to manuscript].


[9] Richard L. Bushman, Mormon Scholars Testify, 2010. http://mormonscholarstestify.org/396/richard-lyman-bushman -- [Back to manuscript].


[10] John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, v. 20, p. 264. http://jod.mrm.org/20/256 -- [Back to manuscript].


[11] Dieter F. Uchtdorf Facebook post, June 21, 2016. [Back to manuscript].


[12] President Thomas S. Monson, "The Lighthouse of the Lord: A Message to the Youth of the Church," New Era, Feb. 2001. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2001/02/the-lighthouse-of-the-lord-a-message-to-the-youth-of-the-Church?lang=eng&_r=1 -- [Back to manuscript].


[13] Ibid. 9 [Back to manuscript].


* Many thanks to Dr. Lawrence Rees, BYU professor of physics, for assisting with the details of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity.



Full Citation for this Article: Phillips, Roo (2017) "Uncertainty, Perspective, and Faith," SquareTwo, Vol. 10 No. 1 (Spring 2017), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticlePhillipsUncertaintyPerspectiveFaith.html, accessed <give access date>.

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