A Few Thoughts on the Relationship Between Faith and Reason

Elder John A. Widtsoe (1872–1952). Elder Widtsoe, an Apostle and a scientist, is a personal hero of mine for his example of one who could commingle faith and reason in a remarkable way.
[I wrote this paper for my history class as part of having recently read Milton Steinberg's excellent novel As a Driven Leaf. Some of my thoughts in this paper come from my article published a few years ago in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.]

At one point in his novel As a Driven Leaf, Milton Steinberg includes a discussion between Elisha, the protagonist of the novel, and his rhetoric instructor Antiphanes. Elisha is a disillusioned Jew who has turned to find meaning in Greek philosophy. At one point the discussion turns to the question of the relationship between faith and reason. A rueful Elisha explains to Antiphanes that he cannot go back to his Jewish belief. "Revelation must either be accepted or rejected," Elisha insists. "I had to choose between faith and reason. I have chosen the latter."[1] While this attitude may be prevalent amongst many, I will argue in this paper that from a Latter-day Saint perspective faith and reason are not adversarial with each other.

There are several scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants that emphasize the importance of seeking truth "by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118). “Seek not for riches but for wisdom,” admonishes D&C 6:7. “Study and learn and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues and people,” we are instructed in D&C 90:15. “Obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man,” dictates D&C 93:53. The Latter-day Saints, accordingly, have long been keen students of history and cultures, and have tried their best to use both spiritual and rational methods of arriving at truth.

Ideally, therefore, Latter-day Saints should not be afraid of complimenting spirituality and rationality. However, this ideal can sometimes be challenged by very real-world intellectual challenges. Some scientific or scholarly theories seem completely incompatible with key tenets of Mormonism. For example, if atheistic materialists are correct that the human mind is nothing more than the pre-determined collision of atoms acting on natural law, then the Mormon concept of agency, or the ability to choose between right and wrong, cannot be sustained. What, then, is to be done when such conflicts between faith and reason arise?

First, I will briefly address what should not be done. Unlike Elisha, who painted himself in a corner with a very fundamentalist mindset, one should not dogmatically assert that there can only be one right answer, or only one right way of thinking, and that if something else cannot be squared with that one answer or way of thinking it is therefore false. This was Elisha's mistake when he insisted to Manto that "every proposition . . . [must be] proved by rigid logic" similar to that contained in Euclid's Elements of Geometry.[2] This, Elisha incorrectly concluded, is the only valid method of determining whether not only mathematics was correct, but also if "religion, philosophy, and morality" could "be successfully applied" in a real-world setting.[3] In fact, there are multiple epistemologies or ways of determining the truth. Some are sensory, others are intuitive, and yet others are revelatory. From a Latter-day Saint perspective all of these methods of determining truth are valid and can yield different important results. Having differing epistemologies, therefore, is not the same as having contradictory epistemologies.

So if one should eschew the dogmatism of Elisha, what should one do? First, as explained by Terryl Givens, the religion restored by Joseph Smith is not one of final, infallible answers. Rather, it is a faith that is eager to explore and search for new and greater truths to compliment what truth is already known. As Givens explains, Mormonism is a religion that values "the process, the ongoing, dynamic engagement, the exploring, questing, and provoking dialectical encounter with tradition, with boundaries, and with normative thinking [that] should not be trammeled or impeded with clerks and scribes looking for the final word, interrupting a productive process of reflection, contestation, and creation."[4] Said another way, "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God" (Article of Faith 9). Surely, then, as Givens observes, "A study of Joseph Smith seems to always come back to the dynamics of the revelatory process, rather than the finality of a polished product; the structure of his thinking, rather than the end result of his thought."[5]

What does this mean? It means that when contradictions between faith and reason appear to exist, it may very well be that it exists because of our limited understanding of the subject(s) being studied. If God is a source of all truth, both of things eternal and of things earthly, then the problem is not that God is contradicting himself, but rather that we, with fallible, limited human language and reasoning faculties, do not have the capability to fully harmonize or recognize this truth. We can see this in Elisha's distraught ponderings on the creation account in Genesis. From the perspective of his rabbinical training, Elisha was not able to square his belief with the possibility suggested by "some Greeks" that "water was the primeval substance as old as God, [and] that the entire creative word had given to material things not existence, but only form."[6] Nor was Elisha capable of reconciling the plural of Genesis 1:27 with his current paradigm, as he worried over the idea that someone else "was with Him in that awesome moment" of creation.[7] Instead of using this ambiguity as an opportunity to seek more truth and understanding, however, Elisha too quickly concluded that a contradiction in the scriptures means he cannot trust the scriptures. This is a fallacy, and stems not from sound reasoning, but from fundamentalist assumptions.

To apply this principle to my own field of study, I am currently grappling with the ideas of the Documentary Hypothesis and my acceptance of the Pentateuch as inspired scripture. Briefly put, the Documentary Hypothesis argues that the first five books of Moses in the Bible are not the composition of a single prophetic author (Moses), but rather the result of centuries of redaction of disparate sources. As a Latter-day Saint who is majoring in ancient Near Eastern Studies, I am trying to think critically on how I can accept or harmonize these two seemingly contradictory positions. I am aware that different Mormon scholars have proposed different ways of dealing with this issue, but I still do not have an entirely satisfactory answer for myself.[8] I am, however, optimistic that the Documentary Hypothesis can be compatible with my Latter-day Saint paradigm. There will probably have to be some give and take on both sides of the issue, and I don't know that any one person (certainly not I) has fully articulated such compatibility, but I think it's possible. I try to mend my attitude, then, to not be one of dogmatism (like Elisha's), but instead one of curiosity and open-mindedness.

In conclusion, I cannot help but summarize my thesis (that Mormonism welcomes both faith and reason) by reiterating Akiba's retort to Elisha when the presumptuous young scholar accused him of "accept[ing] doctrines on blind faith."[9] "By what right," Akiba responded, "do you presume to call my attitude blind? Belief need not be unseeing. Is it a darkening of counsel to admit that truth is not a matter of the mind alone, but of the heart and experience also? Since it cannot be obtained by reason unaided, faith is indispensible both as a base on which thought may stand, and as a checkrein when logic goes astray."[10] This is fundamentally my attitude towards the entire faith vs. reason debate. I believe it is highly misguided to try and pit the two against each other, as the two need not be intrinsically contradictory. As a Latter-day Saint I am willing to accept what I do know, but also be patient in anticipating future truths and humble in acknowledging that I don't know everything. I am also not willing to lose faith in what I do know because of what I don't know. Nor do I believe any Latter-day Saint should either, as our religion is capable of harmonizing faith and reason. A broken Elisha himself, at the end of the novel, comes to see the truth of this. "Faith and reason are not antagonists," a dejected Elisha finally admits his servant Meir. "On the contrary, salvation is through the commingling of the two, the former to establish first premises, the latter to purify them of confusion and to draw the fulness of their implications."[11] It is thus my hope that we, as Latter-day Saint disciple-scholars, like Elisha, will "go seeking now, through faith and reason compounded, the answer to this baffling pageant which is the world."[12]



[1] Milton Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, (Springfield, New Jersey: Behrman House, 1996), 305.   
[2] Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, 296.
[3] Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, 296. Elisha himself would be humiliated and defeated when another Greek philosopher, Charicles, would disprove Elisha's dogmatism with the very logical tools Elisha was convinced had proved his own proposition. See Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, 460–468.
[4] Terryl Givens, “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plentitude,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 59–60.
[5] Givens, “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plentitude,” 60.
[6] Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, 186.
[7] Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, 186. Incidentally, no Latter-day Saint should have a problem with the issues in Genesis that plagued Elisha, as Latter-day Saint cosmology explicitly acknowledges that God fashioned the universe from pre-existing matter and that the creative process was carried out by the heavenly host that make up God's divine council. See my article "Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.
[8] See, for example, Kevin Barney, "Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 57–99; Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, and David Rolph Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2009), 144–145; David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014).
[9] Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, 243.
[10] Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, 243.
[11] Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, 473.
[12] Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf, 475.

Comments