THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS
OFFICE OF THE AUSTRALIA/NEW ZEALAND AREA PRESIDENCY
December 11, 1998
10 Stavewood Court
Samford, QLD 4520
President Featherstone shared with me copies of your letter to him dated 7 December, together with his reply to you and your 18 November message from Scott Woodward. I just wanted to add a couple of personal thoughts, partly because I introduced you to Scott, partly because of your request that I inform Church leaders in Utah about the DNA issues, but mostly because I am interested in you personally.
First, I want you to know that I did discuss your questions with other General Authorities in Salt Lake City in October. One of them has a doctoral-level education in a scientific field. I learned from him that you are not the first person to raise these questions. So don’t worry that DNA questions about the Book of Mormon will catch the Brethren off guard. And clearly your questions won’t be the last ones to be added to the “interesting Church issues” list. As I will describe in what follows, your questions are but one good example in the longstanding and at time irreconcilable debates between science and religion—which is but a subset of the perpetual dialogue between faith and reason.
Second, and more importantly, I want you to know that I take your questions seriously, Simon, because I take you seriously. You come from a wonderful family, you have rendered much service to the Church, you want to retain your integrity, and you are clearly trying to work through your current struggle in a responsible way. In some ways, as I will try to explain, your struggle may be another consequence of “the tyranny of distance” that has affected life in Australia for so long. I am grateful that the communications technology of the global village is shrinking that distance so rapidly, because faithful and educated Church members all over the world need to be talking more to each other—just as you and Scott have done.
I have spent my adult life in the teaching, learning, and scholarly processes of higher education. I respect the scientific method, I believe there is great value in intellectual pursuits, and I do not believe the Lord expects us to extinguish our sense of wonder. On the contrary, I believe He expects us to cultivate it. One of the best classes I ever took at BYU in my student days was called “Your Religious Problems.” It was restricted to a small group of students and taught by the Dean of the College of Religion, B West Belnap. In each class period a member of the class would present a “problem” he or she had identified, offering background, defining issues, offering alternative explanations, then inviting the class to join in the quest for resolution—to whatever extent was possible. We ran the gamut—evolution, polygamy, Church history, anti-intellectualism, the problem of evil, how to recognise inspiration, how to reconcile differing views among Church leaders, etc. etc. Each class member had to write a short paper offering his or her own resolution of each problem. Your current DNA questions would have fit that format wonderfully—and would have been welcomed.
Looking back about 35 years to that class, the best thing about it was the wonderful combination it offered—curious minds, believing hearts, and inspired tutelage from a seasoned teacher. I learned from that experience about the nature and the value of “faithful questions.” It isn’t a bad thing to ask questions, but there are different ways of approaching gospel questions, some more productive than others. Problems with faith arise not when we can’t answer all our questions, but when our very way of asking proceeds more from an attitude of skepticism than from an attitude of faith. Faithful questions don’t demand simple explanations for complex phenomena. But we ask them with patience and trust, and a willingness to live with hard answers—or, as is sometimes more difficult, incomplete ones. Faithful questions don’t let the many things we do understand be at the mercy of the various things we don’t yet understand.
Since I joined the BYU faculty in 1971, I have faced what seems like a steady diet of “religious problems” that share many common characteristics with what I first found in that class. Take the well-worn topic of evolution, for example. You stated in one of your letters to Scott that you “can’t even talk about the beauties of evolution with Church friends because many can’t accept it and it hurts them. But you and I both know that evolution is a brilliant mechanism created by our Heavenly Father to allow his creations to adapt to changes in the world’s environment . . . Why does the truth hurt so many people in the Church?”
I have participated in stimulating (and, for some people at some times, frustrating) discussions about evolution for years with BYU faculty and students. Of course evolutionary patterns, in the sense in which I think you are using the term, are taught in BYU science courses and used in BYU research. Unfortunately, some underinformed Church members don’t understand the difference between the general process of change and adaptation involved in evolutionary theory and the specific doctrine of man’s origin. I have sat in meetings of the BYU Board of Trustees, which includes the First Presidency, as they have discussed in very informed ways how evolution should be approached at BYU. I have participated in similar discussions, both on campus and in Board meetings, about abortion, feminism, homosexuality, apostasy, and many other matters that are full of both complexity and significance. All of these discussions are simply parts of a larger, non-stop conversation I have enjoyed for the last thirty years with Church friends—leaders, faculty, and students—about the general process of reconciling the values of intellectual inquiry with the principles of the gospel and the nature of the Church. That theme has endless variations but many common threads. I wish you could have heard all these things, Simon, because they would give you both perspective and reassurance—even if they didn’t give you final answers to your questions. Just remember what Henry Eyring once told his children—you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.
As I have read the things you’ve written, whether in your correspondence with Scott, with Cam Gray, or otherwise, I have found myself wishing you could just spend more time (not hours, but months or, better, years) with curious and competent Church members who are not only familiar, but quite comfortable, with the general intellectual environment you inhabit. It isn’t necessary for you to feel forced to choose between faith and reason, Simon. Enough good people have covered the ground you’re walking that I wish you could just walk with them—with both faith and honest inquiry—in every footstep.
If you could, perhaps you could have a more measured perspective in the way you’re interpreting what Scott is telling you, or what you’re finding from other sources. As I read your correspondence, I think you’re missing some important nuances in Scott’s language and in his perspective. You are demanding a level of certainty about a number of things that is either premature, unnecessary, or overly rigid.
For example, is it possible for you to frame your questions in a way that asks more for plausibility than for certainty? As Scott has said, there is so much we still don’t know about so many issues that it is just isn’t possible to reach definitive answers about the DNA problem—either for or against the claims of the Book of Mormon. But what we do know, scientifically or otherwise, doesn’t render the Book of Mormon implausible—there are too many potential alternative explanations to reach that conclusion. Nor does it render the Church’s useage of “Lamanite” implausible. Scott hasn’t told you that the Lamanites “all died out.” What he has said is that he believes “the genes of the Lehites were mixed early on with the surrounding gene pool.” If that is true, and if, over time, that mixing process scrambles genetic markers enough to make DNA testing complicated, that just means we may well have more questions than answers as we wait for more definitive explanations of how the entire historical pattern actually developed. But it is clearly plausible, even amid all this uncertainty, that the Book of Mormon story could have taken place in either a limited area with a relatively small population, or a larger population in a larger area. Either way, “Lehi’s children” could have eventually become mixed into enough other streams to allow the blessings of “the promised land” to extend to groups with mixed origins. And the word “Lamanites” as used since the Restoration could apply to these people in all kinds of ways and still retain the meaning of those promises. Within my own lifetime, I have seen the typical Church usage of “Lamanites” grow from American Indians to include Central and South Americans. What proportion of one’s genetic heritage must be traced to Lehi for one to be included in those blessings? We could ask the same question about “the blood of Israel.” With the scattering and the gathering of Israel as widespread as it seems to be, who knows the genetic implications of trying to identify that “blood” in some measurable empirical sense?
I think Scott’s primary role in your quest is that he has demonstrated to you than an honest, well trained scientist can ask faithful questions, seeing all the data and all the theories you’ve seen, and conclude that the Book of Mormon and all that goes with it remains plausible. Whether you choose to take the same position will be compelled more by your attitude than by scientific evidence, because the evidence is simply inconclusive either way. And that is the common problem with using scientific evidence to prove or refute propositions that are fundamentally religious in nature. As B.A. Santamaria said a few years ago summarizing some thoughts from Pascal, “philosophic reasoning can carry us only to a certain point. It can show that belief in the existence of God is a belief open to a rational mind.” But not everyone will be persuaded to the same conclusion by such reasoning, because science and Philosophy “can take us to the point of providing rational justification” for our beliefs “but it does not take us much further.” That’s what I mean by focussing more on plausibility than certainty when dealing with secular knowledge, the positive as well as the negative side of religious matters.
Somehow I’m reminded here of an LDS friend who once said, “I find the whole idea of the universe itself highly improbable—but there it is!”
I hope you won’t mind my enclosing a little book I did a few years ago called “The Believing Heart.” This set of essays was prepared more for student readers than for people at your more experienced level, but perhaps some bits of it may interest you. I’m thinking especially of the chapter entitled, “On Dealing With Uncertainty.” This will at least illustrate some of what I mean in referring to the long conversation I’ve enjoyed over the years about ambiguity and certainty in matters of faith and reason.
One of these days I hope we might have the opportunity to meet, and talk. I care about you, Simon, and I know from personal experience that there is Light at the end of the tunnel you feel you’re in right now—the Light and Life of the World.
Bruce C. Hafen