by Michael R. Ash
Inspiration and Intellect are two sides of the same coin in how Latter-day Saints believe that God communicates with His children. We know that the Spirit testifies to eternal truths, but we often forget (or neglect) the role that intellect plays in uncovering truth. The late Apostle Hugh B. Brown said, “revelation does not come only through the prophet of God nor only directly from heaven in visions or dreams. Revelation may come in the laboratory, out of the test tube, out of the thinking mind and the inquiring soul, out of search and research and prayer and inspiration.”[i] Likewise, the Lord instructed the Saints to “seek learning… by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). This counsel was repeated several more times in modern revelations (see D&C 11:22, 90:15, 93:53; and 109: 7, 14), and the admonition led Joseph to establish the “School of the Prophets” (D&C 88:127).
The dual-nature or dual-sources for discovering truth presents some challenges, however. The first challenge is that neither source—neither inspiration nor intellect—can provide infallible and inerrant data.
The Challenge of Inspiration
In my book Shaken Faith Syndrome, I wrote many pages demonstrating that prophets are divinely called men who have special responsibilities but not special brains. Therefore, their callings do not prevent them from making human-laden assumptions or errors in thought, word, or action. As Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf said in the October 2013 General Conference:
…to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes…. This is the way it has always been and will be until the perfect day when Christ Himself reigns personally upon the earth.[ii]
Since we do not believe that prophets are inerrant or infallible, we should recognize the obvious: what they have written, even if canonized as scripture, cannot be inerrant either. The early American prophet Mormon recognized this problem when he said of his collection of records: “And now if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men: wherefore condemn not the things of God….” (Book of Mormon Title Page). Sometimes we forget that continuing revelation implies not only that we will receive new revelation, but that future revelations may correct current errors in our gospel understanding.
The Challenge of Intellect
The fact that our religious understanding is not infallible is balanced by the fact that scientific and scholarly conclusions are also not complete or inerrant either. Scientists understand (and typically appreciate) that ongoing research updates our scientific knowledge and corrects previous inaccuracies. The secular world of scientific studies is forever searching for more accurate truths.
“The history of science,” observes philosopher Dr. James Ladyman, “is full of mistakes and falsehoods, even if we count it as not starting until the Scientific Revolution. For example, light is not composed of corpuscles as Isaac Newton believed, flammable substances do not contain phlogiston, and the rate of the expansion of the universe is not decreasing as was orthodoxy in cosmology until the 1990s.”[iii]
I have the utmost respect for science and have faith (no pun intended) that science, as a conglomerate of self-correcting disciplines, will eventually arrive at new temporal truths. For the foreseeable future, however, there are many unanswered questions as well as scientific theories that reside in a state of flux. We will yet see more scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts. And that’s ok because most scientists are not afraid to admit that science is ever-evolving, growing, and expanding with new light and discoveries.
As long as we are mortal, neither science nor religion will have a monopoly on truth, and neither approach provides all the answers to the questions we pose. Lastly, both pursuits have been wrong at times and will continue to espouse inaccuracies. The fact is, all human knowledge is weak, incomplete, and is, at times, potentially flawed. At times, we have been wrong on gospel issues, our understanding of the cosmos, the nature of humans, and on some aspects of history.
Clash of the Titans
The second problem with dual sources of truth is that we sometimes run into conflicts (or what appear to be conflicts) between what truths we have discovered through inspiration and those discovered through intellect. The worlds of religion and science sometimes seem to clash. It is my belief, however, that these conflicts in worldviews are not based on reality but are based on our misperceptions and false assumptions.
Former LDS General Authority John A. Widtsoe, an academically trained chemist, said, “Truth is truth forever. Scientific truth cannot be theological lie. To the sane mind, theology and philosophy must harmonize.”[iv] “True religion and true science,” Apostle Harold B. Lee similarly argued, “are in harmony.”
“I have always thought it to be a dangerous assumption that there was a clash or warfare between the fundamental teachings of the truths of science and the teachings of true religion. If there is a disagreement, it is because one or the other has not attained to the truth.”[v]
Death is the separation of body and spirit (James 2:26). In contrast, resurrection is the reunification of the body and spirit, never to be separated again. Joined eternally, they are whole and necessary to “receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 138:17). Unfortunately, these two essential parts of humanity are often in conflict with each other. Sometimes we are led by the spirit, and sometimes we are driven by the body. Sometimes those two paths clash. When our bodies and souls reunite in the resurrection, however, we become conjoined into a unified one—both body and spirit united in perfect harmony one with another (see Alma 11: 45).
So, likewise, I believe that the true teachings of science and religion are part of an eternal whole. As mortals, we can be led by the Spirit or by science. At times, inspiration and intellect seem to conflict because of our own cognitive limitations and misunderstandings. In the eternal scheme of things, however, the truths discovered through revealed religion and accurate science are both parts of one truth. In our post-mortal lives, as we enter God’s realm, we will find that these truths are in perfect harmony with one another.
Searching for Resolution
Nearly a decade ago, I began examining some of the supposed conflicts between science and religion—conflicts such as evolution, the Documentary Hypothesis (how the books of Moses were formed), the age of the Earth, Noah’s flood, the existence of Lehites in Ancient America, and the belief that Joseph translated not only an ancient American record, but ancient lore from Egyptian scrolls.
In all these instances (and more), some LDS beliefs appear to clash with the teachings of science and scholarship. Because I believe that truth cannot conflict with truth, I knew there must be a way to resolve such conflicts. While some Latter-day Saints might be prone to reject any scientific and scholarly conclusions that appear to conflict with what we “believe,” many scientists and scholars are quick to reject any LDS claims that appear to conflict with secular conclusions. It is my belief, however, that the resolution to the science vs. religion dilemma is to recognize that both can be right, both can be wrong, and that the truth may lay in reassessing what we “believe” (what things have actually been “revealed”) as well as recognizing what types of things science can and can’t answer.
How Does God Speak?
As my ongoing research examined these supposed conflicts, I became more aware of how God communicates to His children (including the prophets) and how God uses both inspiration and intellect to inspire His children and to reveal those principles that will bring us back to His presence. Unfortunately, because our human cognitive challenges limit our understanding of truth (both spiritual and secular), we only get glimpses of truth—and we typically express those truths in weak, incomplete, and sometimes erroneous language and interpretations. That weak understanding, however, doesn’t impede our ability to draw upon the spiritual power that can unite us with the Father.
After nearly a decade of research, I finished my work in a book entitled, Rethinking Revelation and the Human Element in Scripture: The Prophet’s Role as Creative Co-Author (available in the FAIR bookstore, as well as on Amazon in both print and Kindle formats). My book acknowledges what should be obvious—when we or prophets receive revelation, that communication is processed through our human brains, thoughts, biases, worldviews, and other weaknesses. There is no such thing as a purely divine communication. Even if God could communicate that way to a prophet, the prophet would have to process that input through his mortal brain and all the cognitive problems that come with this process.
My book attempts to show that, not only can a blending of inspiration and intellect harmonize supposed conflicts between religion and science (or scholarship), but that both inspiration and intellect are necessary to really understand humanity, the world, the cosmos, revelation, and perhaps even what’s to come after death. This is because God wants us and expects us to use both our brains and our hearts in determining all truths.
Once we recognize how humans participate in the revelatory process, we can better comprehend how some revelations can be both divinely inspired as well as humanly deficient, and how prophets may act as co-authors to the scriptures they give to the world. To fully grasp this concept, however, requires that we “reconstruct” some of our narratives about the scriptures, history, the restoration, and how God communicates with His children.
My book addresses all the original conflicts for which I sought understanding—evolution, the creation, the formulation of the Bible, the existence of Adam and Eve, the flood, the presence of 19th-century elements in the Book of Mormon, and the apparent difficulties that surround the “translation” of Egyptian papyri into the Book of Abraham (and the fact that the Abrahamic narrative appears to have no connection to the surviving papyri).
More importantly, however, my book also explores the bigger picture. A key element I discovered in my research was a greater awareness of how God speaks to humans. For example, supposed conflicts between science and religion should be assessed according to a greater understanding of how God communicates to His prophets and how a prophet’s intellect and worldview can become part of the revelation he receives from God.
Increased clarity on how God “speaks,” sheds additional insight (I believe) into how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. These insights illuminate the fact that the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite Interpreters) was a cultural artifact that not only connected Joseph to his environment, but also connected the Book of Mormon prophets to their New World environment. I found, for instance, some fascinating elements in Mesoamerican traditions that dovetail amazingly well with what we know about the Interpreters.
Lastly, and most importantly, I discovered that the scriptures (mistakes and all) are Covenant Narratives that are endowed with the power to potentially bind humanity to each other, as well as to the Father. This is especially true of the Book of Mormon. Therefore, I argue that the Book of Mormon translation (and even translation process) was a critical element in unsealing the power of Elijah to unite past, present, and future generations of God’s Covenant People.
My research, therefore, concludes that a marriage of inspiration and intellect offers new models for understanding personal revelation, scripture, the production of the Bible, our cosmos, the translation of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, and why the Book of Mormon is the “new covenant” as described in D&C 84:56.
Michael R. Ash
[i] Hugh B. Brown, quoted in David H. Bailey and Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, “Science and Mormonism,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture (2016), 19: 23.
[ii] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join With Us,” Ensign (November 2013), 22-23.
[iii] James Ladyman, “Toward a Demarcation of Science from Pseudoscience,” Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), Kindle Edition, 46.
[iv] John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith as Scientist: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy (Salt Lake City: The General Board Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, 1908), 156.
[v] Harold B. Lee, “I Dare You to Believe,” USAC Baccalaureate Address, 31 May 1953, Church News, 6 June 1953, 4-5, 19; quoted in Kirk D. Hagen, “Eternal Progression in a Multiverse: An Exploration in Mormon Cosmology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Summer 2006), 39:2, 16.
Michael R. Ash, a member of FAIR for more than twenty years, has been featured in nearly 90 podcasts and 30 videos. In more than two decades of writing LDS-themed material, and as a former weekly columnist for Mormon Times (owned by the Deseret News), his works include over 160 on-line articles, as well as articles in periodicals such as the Ensign, Sunstone, Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s FARMS Review, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
Michael is also the author of four LDS books. In 2008 FAIR published his book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt (which is available in English, German, and Italian). Mike quickly followed this publication with his second book, Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith. In 2015 Michael published Bamboozled by the CES Letter: An honest response to the .pdf pamphlet entitled “Letter to a CES Director”, and this year he has introduced his newest book, Rethinking Revelation and the Human Element in Scripture: The Prophet’s Role as Creative Co-Author.