Defending the Faith: Going beyond what evidence can provide

Published: Thursday, Sept. 8 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

In Alma 44 of the Book of Mormon, the Nephite general Moroni orders a pause during a battle with the Lamanites. His forces are winning, and he wants to avoid further bloodshed.

"Ye behold that the Lord is with us," he tells Zerahemnah, the Lamanite commander, "and ye behold that he has delivered you into our hands. And now I would that ye should understand that this is done unto us because of our religion and our faith in Christ.

"Now ye see that this is the true faith of God; yea, ye see that God will support, and keep, and preserve us, so long as we are faithful unto him, and unto our faith, and our religion; and never will the Lord suffer that we shall be destroyed except we should fall into transgression and deny our faith."

God, Moroni continues, "has strengthened our arms that we have gained power over you."

But Zerahemnah takes a naturalistic view of things. "We are not of your faith," he responds. "We do not believe that it is God that has delivered us into your hands; but we believe that it is your cunning that has preserved you from our swords. Behold, it is your breastplates and your shields that have preserved you."

On one level, of course, Zerahemnah is right. And nobody knew this better than Moroni himself. According to Alma 43:16-21, it was he who had equipped his troops with innovative defensive armor that the Lamanites lacked. (Later, he erects defensive fortifications against Lamanite aggression.) He was a resourceful commander and knew what he was doing.

But Moroni was thinking on another level, as a man of faith. He saw the hand of God in the measures he himself had taken.

This instructive episode demonstrates how the same facts can appear quite different to people who approach them from differing, yet sometimes equally valid, angles.

We regularly vary our levels of description and analysis, depending upon what we're trying to accomplish. A certain situation might accurately and sufficiently be portrayed in terms of atoms or even of subatomic particles, or, on a different level, as operations of muscles and nerves, or, higher still, as interactions of carbon-based organisms. The game's announcer will probably find it more useful, though, to describe people and the rules of baseball (which are irrelevant, and invisible, on the molecular level).

A criminal trial might hinge on ballistics and DNA tests, but it will also involve the law and questions of responsibility, guilt and innocence, and right and wrong that cannot be resolved at the level of genes and trajectories.

Whether you should discuss neurochemical events in a brain or, alternatively, human thoughts depends upon the task you've set out to do.

Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto is both a set of vibrations in matter (the domain of physics and acoustics) and a powerfully complex creation at the dawn of music's romantic period (in the realm of cultural history). Neither description can be reduced to the other.

Likewise, the vast dynamic processes that created the features we see in such places as Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Park, and the tectonic and volcanic forces that formed the Hawaiian Islands, can certainly be viewed in purely naturalistic terms.

But on another level, prior to any historical evidence or doctrinal claims and apart from any specific scientific arguments, a religious sensibility can and often will see, behind all of that (yet manifest in it), something still greater.

Two enormous blocks collide, and, as a result, the Grand Tetons rise and Jackson Hole subsides. That's an important thing to know. But can it replace experiencing their beauty?

It's like sensing God in a sunset. This isn't a logical conclusion; it's an intuition. But it's not illogical, either. It simply goes beyond what the evidence can prove.

"The world," wrote the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, "is charged with the grandeur of God."

He might have been thinking of the ever-changing and endlessly creative effects of plate tectonics, volcanism, sculpting wind and water erosion:

"And for all this, nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things; and though the last lights off the black West went, oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs — Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.

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