Michael sits for his first college lecture of his lifetime. He has always been a good church-going Christian and is excited to advance in his knowledge of theology. But instead of deep investigation of faith and sin, he is shocked to hear the professor talk like an atheist. The professor says Jericho was destroyed long before the Israelites existed, contrary to what the bible says. Is the bible wrong? The professor says the bible was written during the Hebrews’ captivity in Babylon, long after all the events in Genesis supposedly took place. The bible was likely based on tales. The Garden of Eden was just another one of those tales, and it was based on local Sumerian and Babylonian legends.
Michael doesn’t know what to think about all this. “Well I still believe in the bible,” he thinks. “I can learn all this important information and still hold on to my faith.”
Years later, Michael exits his final college lecture. He is still a religious believer, but he talks and acts very differently than before. A friend confides in him that she has sex outside of marriage. She asks him if she can still go to heaven. “Well, certainly,” Michael replies, sympathetic for all the shame she had to go through. “God loves all His children and nobody will be damned for a natural expression of love.” Then, she asks Michael about Paul’s sexist doctrine in the New Testament, and he replies with a lengthy rationalization about what Paul actually meant according to the original Greek. Michael finally becomes a certified priest, and in his Sunday sermons he delivers pearls of wisdom from the scriptures, feel-good lessons that help people lead a better life.
Michael is still religious, but does he really believe the words he reads from the bible? No, not any more.
Belief Is More Difficult With More Investigation – People treat religion like a headache medicine. They want quick-term relief and comfort to help them sleep at night. But what happens when you become the pharmacist? What happens when you learn all about it and become an expert. It is easy to just admit there are a lot of things in religion that you just don’t know, but once you place religion under the microscope, suddenly you will have a hard time admitting there are things you don’t know. Few are prepared to engage their religious beliefs in a rigorous classroom setting, and involve archaeology, philosophy, linguistics, ethics, and rhetoric.
When you turn personal beliefs into a science, what you thought you know and what you find is reality rarely match up. It’s like that moment when you are dating and you realize all of the imperfections in your partner, things you never could have imagined at first, and you have to decide whether to go on with the relationship. These dissonances will make the most brilliant and determined student push faith away, making it less personal. It will become detached and academic, an intellectual or theoretical frame of reference for your political or philosophical agendas. This is a dangerous road to go down. Instead, you have got to find a way to make your religion more personal, with more faith and meaning, as you develop your studies.
Follow Your Instinct
My number one rule has always been to follow my inner voice, before my college teachers and even my church leaders. Religious leaders may be smart and inspired people, but some of the biggest problems in life result from following the advice of others. The core relationship is between me and God.
Archaeologist Frank Calvert defied all his colleagues as he searched for the legendary city of Troy. Everyone told him that Troy was nothing but a myth from Iliad. But after many years his convictions paid off, and the city was discovered right where he said it would be. He did not let the orthopraxies and stubborn group-think of his educated colleagues and all the professionals change his mind.
There will be plenty of disillusionment as you study theology, as you learn the gritty details of history, the fallibility of prophets, and dark corners of religion that we only whisper about, but can these moments of realization actually be uplifting? For example, let’s consider whether Joshua really knocked down the walls of Jericho like the bible says. Ow was Jericho destroyed before Joshua supposedly existed as physical evidence reportedly indicates? A weak theology student will take this as overwhelming evidence that the story was a myth and that the bible is therefore myth. But are there other explanations? Maybe there were two Jerricho’s. After all, there were two Bethlehems. Or maybe the walls were wood, not stone, and have long ago rotted away. Or maybe the walls were dismantled and distributed to construct other buildings. Or maybe Joshua actually lived long before we date him in history. Or maybe the bible account changed when someone copied it down over the years. There’s any number of explanations.
On the other hand, it is close-minded to approach science with rigid presuppositions and to rationalize incorrect beliefs with cherry-picked evidence. So the challenge is to be open enough that you aren’t rationalizing everything that you presuppose, and yet you are sticking by your core convictions. I find that when I earnestly follow my honest instinct, my beliefs happen to end up in line with canon and true prophets. I find that my core convictions pay off and end up being right.
Avoid Social Justice Theory
There is no avoiding the primary question of existence: free choice vs. universal salvation. This question is called our “first estate.” Oh we may think we got past that question long ago in the preexistence, when Lucifer’s plan was overthrown and we chose to come down to earth. But this battle is still at the heart of every non-believer, and the influence of Lucifer’s plan infests every society on earth. This fundamental question is at the root of all the little questions that come our way such as the date of Jericcho’s fall, and therefore must be at the center of our focus. Fundamental questions of the heart, emotional questions such as romance, family relationships, and social empathy with oppressed classes, must likewise be foremost confronted as derivatives of your fundamental religious faith.
How could a benevolent God allow suffering to exist? Why didn’t God create human beings who innately have enough integrity so that everyone chooses the right path? These doubtful questions are the reason why there are so many nonbelievers in America today, and they affect theologians more than anyone. The more you study theology, the more you get pushed to confront these questions. Consider how great theologian C.S. Lewis doubted God’s benevolence after his beloved wife died. Or how Peter thrice denied Jesus after he saw Jesus being led away to his death. These doubts will come no matter who you are. The more you know about theology the less you are willing to just say: “I don’t know how the atonement works.” The important thing is that you are prepared in how you will deal these temptations when they come.
Unfortunately, our modern popular culture thrives on social justice: Satan’s plan of universal salvation in opposition to free choice. Environmentalism, social equality, class consciousness, gender equality, etc. all rely on social justice as the fundamental belief. The same rhetoric we fought against in the pre-existence is taught nonstop on television and in the public school classroom–and in theology university classroom. It is impossible to avoid, and we all have to delve into the study of theology to defend against it. Social justice is merely a rehash of universal salvation, the same highly-competitive belief system that has been around from ancient Babylon to modern-day Marxism. But it is more pervasive now than ever. We must become theologians and develop faith and meaning in our studies.
What is universal salvation>? Think of the God of Christianity like a math teacher who gives some students A’s and other students C’s. You get the salvation you merit. But is it justice for God to create some people who eventually fail? Why can’t everybody get A’s? Universal salvation declares that nobody should be allowed to be better than anyone else. They will force you to live the right way to get to heaven. Everybody gets an A. We are surrounded by this kind of chilling social justice rhetoric today, where everyone has to be equal under the thumb of a benevolent dictator.
Most religion professors and journalists put the cart before the horse in order to push a social agenda. They use religion to push gender equality or gay rights. They presuppose and post-rationalize religious conclusions based on these “progressive” social and political beliefs. Their faith has been totally deconstructed as theology students and reconstructed as a social-justice crusader. That’s what the theology classroom does, pick apart our faith piece by piece and replace the emptiness with social justice causes. The new glowing heart of their replacement Iron Man suit is universal salvation.
But you get your social agendas from religion, not religion from your social agendas. With faith deconstructed, the theology classroom convinces students to replace empty meaning with social justice causes based on the fundamental religion of universal salvation. So what is really at the heart of your social crusades, religious journalists? What is it all about?
Go Boldly Independent
In 1967, the LDS church acquired some fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri that contained the Facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham. The church’s leading expert in archaeology, Dr. Hugh Nibley, translated the fragments and discovered they were from the Egyptian Book of Breathing, not from the Book of Abraham. Skeptics said Joseph Smith must have used these fragments as his source for the Book of Abraham and that it must therefore be made up. So how did Hugh Nibley explain it?
Hugh Nibley wrote the most important volume on Mormon archaeology ever produced: Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri:. The fragments contained only a small handful of hieroglyphics, so the easy explanation was that the Book of Breathings was a companion to the Book of Abraham text, which has not survived. But this was not enough for Nibley. He researched the crap out of it, exploring every angle and the background of every piece. He spent endless hours researching it, authoring thousands upon thousands of pages of findings. He explored every angle. He did not seek rationalizations of his religious beliefs, but pursued earnest investigations from various conjectures. It turned out Facsimile 1 on the papyrus fragment showed an Egyptian context, but it relates to Abraham exactly as Joseph Smith claimed, as it originates from the Sed-festival and Abraham filled the role of the sacrifice. His answers fit neither the narrative of the church nor the narrative of mainstream archeology. He explored new theories on the nature of translation and inspiration. He confronted what the world fundamentally thought about Egypt and ancient literature, and changed what we know about the Book of Abraham. He was honest and sincere, and it led to a much stronger confirmation for the Book of Abraham.
Do not be afraid to break new ground. Now, this is dangerous because I see plenty of religious journalists out there pushing all kinds of wacky theories, spreading false doctrines. It is important to keep your ideas grounded in reality. Wacky theories arise when people try to take shortcuts to truth. No, Ezekiel 1 is not about aliens. The answer is much more complex, and only an earnest, hard worker will discover it.
Do not rationalize your false beliefs. Yet do not switch to a new hasty conclusion without exploring every piece of evidence. The answer is there. The scriptures lead you to the answer. Theology is great because you can involve all kinds of fields of study to back you up. We are encouraged to “seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118) The key is a combination of study and faith. Abraham provides a wonderful path to follow, as he boldly broke new ground as a young child with his questions. He rejected the idolatrous world he was surrounded with and developed faith through intellectual and spiritual inquisitiveness.
Science can enrich your theology. Sir Francis Bacon pointed out, “even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion.” An atheist scientist who sincerely seeks out truth can deliver truth. I find that to be true. It is up to you to deeply ponder the facts and tie them all together. The Social Justice ideology is thin and easily defeated with reason and logic. The “contemplative atheist is rare” to be found, indeed.
The evil ideology of Satan is cold and leads us away from humanity and inner happiness. It stimulates our emotions with volcanic outrages but leaves the heart unfulfilled. It fills the mind with pride and delusions of sagacity. It bears a false resemblance of humanity. But our increasingly corrupt society can push us to master our thoughts and feelings, to feel for the invisible rays of godly light as we seek out a more definite reality. Feel out your direction and do not heed the jarring calls and mocker with which you are surrounded. True religion embraces human warmth in a sincere way, as it points man to God for his magnanimity. Feel out this direction with your eyes closed, like rays of the sun, and do not heed the calls of anyone else. To comfort the widow, strengthen the weak, cloth the naked, this is true religion. This is the goal.