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Faith is By Choice An LDS Faith Blog

The Gospel and Critical Thinking

I taught college courses for 15 years.  I wasn't what you would call a professor, we didn't really have those at our school. I was an adjunct faculty member, which is a fancy word for part-time teacher... although for a stretch there I taught full-time during which period I also completed a masters degree in education.   My subjects were usually technical in nature: website development, programming, web design, although I also taught some drawing & illustration courses along the way (I bounced around in college majors as both a student and a teacher).  I even taught a business marketing course -- which turned out surprisingly well actually.  But one of my favorite courses to teach was "Logical thinking and programming", which I taught for a number of years.   

In education we spend a lot of time talking about "critical thinking".  Every teacher wants their class to practice critical thinking, and there are hundreds of articles and books written about the lack of it, and the importance of it.  At this point it's become a buzz word in education, like getting students "engaged" in their learning (which really means excited, or at least interested).

I don't mind the phrase, although it's over-used.  What we typically mean by critical thinking is: Don't just believe or accept everything you hear.  Research issues, look at both sides of a question. Become informed, and knowlegeable about the given subject. Don't just accept something based on one person's argument, or based on your own personal bias, your upbringing or culture. Challenging and difficult issues of our day such as gun control, poverty, welfare, gender issues, climate change, the role of government, crime, war... all require deep and critical thinking from our nation's brightest minds.   

It is important to challenge assumptions, and to get our students to look at things in a different way, and to really look at questions from all angles.  But as educators we should not attempt to force our own particular political view - we should try to be unbiased and outside politics.  Present the evidence to students, encourage them to research, and point them to good resources, and let them come to their own conclusions.  We encourage them to ask questions and seek for knowledge.  Especially in the relm of today's politics, we could all do with more critical thinking.    

How does this apply to the gospel or religious faith? 

I have found that many people take a certain pride in doubting the reality of the revelations given to Joseph Smith, and the stories of his visions and the restoration. They even come to doubt personal spiritual experiences they have had themselves earlier in life. They believe they are smarter now. They have come to feel that their earlier experiences were born of a certain youthful gullibility, and that they had been duped. They now are thinking more critically, as they see it, in questioning their faith.  

But what I think has really happened is that they've encountered some historical facts they didn't know before, and some cracks formed in their foundation of faith. Rather than immersing themselves in scriptures and seeking for spiritual answers, and confirmation from God that the church is still true, they immersed themselves in material that generated more doubts. They fed their doubts by what (and who) they chose to read, listen to, and watch. It makes a very big difference who is presenting the information, and what their motivations are.  

But such doubting is not new, and skeptics always think they are more sophisticated and intellectual than believers. In the Book of Mormon shortly before Christ came to visit the Nephites, many people had come to think that the prophecies simply couldn't be true, and that the church leaders of that day were lying to them and trying to manipulate them: 

And they began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying: 
That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come... we know that this is a wicked tradition, which has been handed down to us by our fathers, to cause that we should believe in some great and marvelous thing which should come to pass, but not among us, but in a land which is far distant... therefore they can keep us in ignorance, for we cannot witness with our own eyes that they are true.
... and they will... keep us down to be servants to their words, and also servants unto them... and thus they will keep us in ignorance if we will yield ourselves unto them, all the days of our lives. (Helaman 16:17-21). 

People's reaction is much the same today. They accuse church leaders of lying to them, and attempting to keep them from the truth or trying to manipulate them. They say it's all about maintaining power and control. But nearly all our church leaders have been called away from their already succesful careers outside religion.  They often come from fields of medicine, business, law, education, etc..  In our church leaders do not seek out church office, and we have no professional clergy.  How does a church leader who never asked to be placed in a position, who never sought for it, how does that leader get blamed for power-seeking?  On the one hand they get blamed for being manipulative, and then on the other they get blamed for not knowing enough and being just amature lay-leaders. 

We are colored by the water that we swim in.  One simply cannot spend all his time immersed in doubt-promoting materials, where people are constantly trying to question and tear down - and not come away with doubts.  It's bound to happen, even predictable.  I'm not saying that one should never look at things that bring up questions, but I am saying that if that's all you do – it's pretty easy to predict the outcome.  And the opposite is also true. If you spend your time seeking in the scriptures, at church, discussing with church leaders, going to the temple, and reading faith-promoting literature... your faith will inevitably get stronger.  

Those seeking to tear down faith often spin the truth, hiding certain facts and context, and putting events into the most negative light.  They may not even realize they are doing this, it's a completely natural thing to do and takes great effort to try to be totally fair and unbiased.  This is why I would advocate reading scholarly and academic material with good references, and even then, not just from one author.  Even the church, in trying to build faith has been guilty of minimizing the negative (or avoiding it entirely) and over-selling the positive.  This is detrimental to the discovery and learning of truth.  

Critical thinking, while wonderful and helpful generally is somewhat limited when it comes to matters of faith.  If we mean by critical thinking – constantly asking questions and never believing anything without proof – well, that kind of attitude will never lead one to a spiritual experience.  To find God and learn truths in religious matters requires divine help, it requires personal revelation.  There is a big difference between that kind of critical thinking (or doubting), and what the scriptures refer to as pondering.  The Lord asks us to ponder.  

Are questions a part of pondering?  Of course.  If we're not asking questions, we're not really thinking.  But we can ask questions in a context of faith rather than doubt.  If we have had spiritual experiences in our life, we can approach God knowing He is there, and that He loves us, and we can seek knowledge from him about things we don't understand.  And if it takes a long time to find answers that satisfy us, we can be patient, continuing in the faith.  We resist the temptation to throw away our testimony because there's something we have a question about.  Give God, and his prophets, the benefit of the doubt. 

When Korihor showed up among the Nephites, teaching the people that there should be no Christ, and that the prophets were all wrong, Alma asked him: 

"Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings?"  (Alma 30:22)

It's a good question for our day as well.  Many people now struggling have been abundantly blessed by the Lord, and they were once happy and joyful in the church.  But now they struggle with doubts and cannot find peace.  They will say it is because they have discovered so many things they did not know - and were never told before, and now they cannot find faith in light of this information.  Doubts do interrupt our rejoicing in the gospel, and interrupt our ability to bask in spiritual light. 

But was it ever the church's job to teach you all about it's history?  Is it the church's responsibility to make sure you know every flaw or mistake that leaders might have made?  I would suggest that if you want to learn and delve into history, then study history.  But don't expect to get all the historical details in sunday school.  Those sorts of details are going to be quickly glossed over, summarized, or even skipped -- because it's not really why we're there. 

In D&C 138, the Lord reveals what is taught in the spirit world to those that have passed on: 

"These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by laying on of hands, 
   And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh but live according to God in the spirit.
   And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross." (D&C 138:33-35)

The real purpose of the church is to teach that knowledge that leads to salvation and exaltation. It is to build faith in Christ and his atoning sacrifice, so that we can be led to repentance and forgiveness.  This brings the great joy we find in the gospel.  

Historical details matter very little against that grand backdrop.  What does it matter if Joseph Smith used a Urim & Thummim for a short while and then switched to translating the plates by peering into a seerstone? All I really need to about the translation method is:  Did God help him translate, or did he make the whole thing up?  And I can learn that by studying the book itself, pondering, and praying about it.  

I guess my point on this one is -- let us not get too puffed-up by our doubts and feel we're so much smarter because we've learned to be skeptical.  Feeding our doubts is not a new or smart thing to do.  And it doesn't lead to answers or to truth.  Read and study via good scholarship, yes.  But ask the Lord to guide your study.  If you cannot have faith in Joseph Smith as a prophet, then have faith in Christ.  As Nephi once said: 

"...if ye believe not in these words, believe in Christ.  And if ye believe in Christ ye will [be led to] believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good." (2 Nephi 33:10)