On Facebook, I posted a link to one of the best LDS Conference talks I’ve heard in many a moon. It’s Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s piece on the Book of Mormon, and it’s just as powerful on the page as it was when he delivered it live. (And his delivery was pretty powerful, indeed!)
This prompted a response from a thoughtful friend of mine named Matt, who asked the following:
Stallion, do you ever have trouble intellectually reconciling the fact that the geographical circumstance of your birth has dictated your theological belief system? i.e. if you had been born into a muslim or jewish family, you would subscribe to those belief systems, but because you were born into a Mormon family, you’re signed up for that club. Don’t you think that the Absolute Truth of the Universe transcends the random circumstances of the birth of organisms on this speck of dust floating about in space?
Good question. VERY good question. I responded by tying my faith to the Book of Mormon, citing Elder Holland’s powerful statement that if you choose to leave the church, “it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit.” But that wasn’t really a direct answer to Matt’s question, and he followed up thusly:
I guess the question is: Have you made an equal effort to crawl over/under all the other religions of the world, given them equal time/thought, and judiciously decided on your current choice? You wouldn’t go to an ice-cream parlor and just order whatever flavor your family likes, would you? Anyway, thanks for indulging my questions and not being offended. I really respect your views.
And I really respect Matt enough to answer the question with a bit more depth and perspicacity.
I can remember a Sunday School class decades ago where I asked a similar question. The teacher was talking about all the confusion in the Christian world, and she numbered the totality of individual Christian sects in the thousands. I responded by asking just how likely it was that, of all the thousands of sects, all of us just happened to stumble on the only correct one. And keep in mind, this excluded all the non-Christian religions, of which there are legion, with just as many varieties and schisms as the Christians have.
And me, Stallion Cornell, I just happen to have the truth fall into my lap? Really?
This bugged me for a very long time.
I’ve recently been rereading my journal that I kept in my teens – that’s the subject of plenty of blog entries all on its own – but one recurring theme I wrote about was the nagging doubt that I was just being brainwashed, that my “faith” was all cultural nonsense, and that if I were truly courageous, I’d strike a blow for individuality and burst out of the Mormon bubble.
Part of the problem was that I had a father that had thought through many of my objections before me, and every time I tried to poke holes in the theology, I found that his counsel and explanations had too much merit for me to dismiss them offhand. But the struggle continued, and the intellectual tension between my reason and my faith was exacerbated by the melodrama of adolescence, and it only got worse with time.
A few remarkable things happened that erased the doubt and turned me into a lifelong believer.
The first was a girl I began dating right out of high school, a Catholic girl I had known since childhood who was in a singing group with me. My religion, at first, wasn’t really that big a deal in the equation, but it was interesting that, as time wore on, she took my faith more seriously than I did. I remember one occasion where she was teasing me about my adherence to the Mormon dietary code that prohibited the drinking of tea.
She was a big fan of tea, and she often taunted me for my lifelong tea teetotaling. So one night, just to spite her, I laughed and poured myself a cup. I had never even tasted tea, but I wanted to show her how cool I was, that it wasn’t really that big a deal.
As I put it to my lips, she knocked it out of my hands and onto the floor.
When I protested, she responded by saying she didn’t want to be responsible for me violating a tenet of my faith. She asked me a number of questions about the church, and I answered halfheartedly or not at all. I just didn’t want to get into it. I was also wrestling with whether or not I was going to serve as a Mormon missionary at the age of 19, which male members of my church are expected to do. I wasn’t sure where I stood, so I didn’t want to get her involved.
Then, one Sunday, without telling me, she took it upon herself to go to a Mormon church and asked if there was anyone there who could tell her more about the faith.
If you lack for attention and want people to notice you, I would suggest you do what she did.
A swarm of Mormons descended on her, and soon two young men in white shirts and bicycles were on her doorstep, teaching her the Mormon missionary discussions. I sat in on the discussions, making trouble and acting like a curmudgeon. But in spite of me, she embraced the faith, and she asked me to baptize her.
It was then that I saw my faith have practical, life-changing applications in someone else’s life, and that gave me the impetus to go and willingly serve as a missionary, the way I had always been expected to.
The problem, though, was that even with that dramatic experience, I hadn’t really settled the question in my own mind and heart. Within the first month of getting to Scotland and knocking on people’s doors, I encountered a number of remarkable people who had searched all their lives to find God and found him in places I’d never dreamed of. I spent hours talking to one dude who had climbed Mt. Ararat himself in search of Noah’s Ark. I came away from that experience more than a little shaken. Look what he had sacrificed, I said to myself, and what have I done in comparison? I’m just a spoiled kid from suburbia. Who am I to say I’m right and he’s wrong?
The tipping point was a meeting with an evangelical Christian who was young and hip and cool who looked me in the eyes and told me that the Book of Mormon was a tool of the Devil that was getting in the way of my relationship with Christ. I expressed my own doubts in that meeting, which terrified my missionary companion. We went back home and called our mission president, who drove out to see me within an hour.
That meeting, too, was life-changing.
Because I realized, at that moment, that I had been basing my faith on my opinion of others: the girl I dated, the cool evangelical, Mr. Noah’s Ark, and the mission president, who was every bit as cool and persuasive as the evangelical guy. I looked up to each of them, and I decided that if I was going to choose what I believed about the nature of the universe based on who I thought was cool, or on what my parents wanted, or anything like that, I wasn’t going to go anywhere. I needed my own faith, my own testimony, and I needed to find out how to get it.
Which leads us, full circle, to the link that started this discussion.
Joseph Smith once called the Book of Mormon the “keystone of our religion.” That is to say, everything rises and falls with its veracity. If it is what it purports to be, then Joseph Smith was, indeed, a prophet of God, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the restored New Testament church on earth today, complete with living apostles and Christ’s holy priesthood. Conversely, if it’s a fraud, then I needed to get as far away from the church as humanly possible.
I had a fairly solid intellectual appreciation for the Book of Mormon. The arguments for its authenticity carry more weight than its critics would have you believe, but at the same time, an intellectual assessment is insufficient. It’s not enough to appreciate a book. To have lifelong faith to carry you through all the crap that life dishes out, you have to encounter God.
And the Book of Mormon itself promises that God will make Himself known to you as you read and ponder its pages.
I can muster up as many good arguments as the next guy, but they don’t do any good. If you want to know how I can be so confident that what I believe is right, the only way I can answer is that, particularly through the Book of Mormon, I have felt the power of God that has given me an assurance that goes beyond words. It does not defy reason, but it is not swayed by the winds of fashion. I recognize that similar sentiments have been voiced by lunatics and worse, and I make no pretension to perfection or even a preponderance of goodness. All I can do is suggest that the only one who can tell you what God wants you to do is God Himself.
I respectfully suggest you ask Him.