How the Gospel Works Hand-in-Hand With Teaching in The College of Life Sciences
By John Bell
When it comes to studying science, some students worry that concepts learned in their classes will present challenges to their faith. There is great value in addressing this concern through classroom discussion since students often feel reluctant to ask for help with their worries. Even when they do, they sometimes become confused by misinformation from well-intentioned but under-prepared associates. These confusions and concerns can lead to unnecessary crises of faith or rejection of scientific ideas. Years of experience helping students through these important moments in their education has shown me three ways that instructors benefit students during these times: providing a trusted example, guiding students through thoughtful reasoning, and discussing relevant doctrinal references.
Faculty members throughout campus provide numerous opportunities for students to witness their commitment to the gospel. This is often apparent in the caring way they conduct class and interact with the students. It is reinforced by opening class periods with prayer to invite the Spirit. Sometimes, it is through scripture and personal testimony. Students especially appreciate the occasions when faculty members discuss concepts that are traditionally associated with religious controversy and give reasons why they are not negatively impacted by such issues. For example, I have found that students are first surprised and then relieved when I tell them that I do not have answers for how many of the scientific principles mesh with various scriptural passages. My willingness to accept such ambiguities because of a deep foundation of faith and testimony appears to liberate and comfort students. Their concerns are often born of limited experience or perspective and they may not yet realize that they can faithfully follow Christ and live the gospel without having all their questions resolved. Moroni’s words are particularly helpful at such times: “Faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”1
It is important for students to understand that science and true religion do not differ in their search for truth, and vary only in their methods and focus. For example, President Howard W. Hunter once wrote, “Scientific research is an endeavor to ascertain truth, and the same principles . . . are used in the quest to establish the truth of religion . . . ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.’”2
This process of asking, seeking, and knocking requires real work. Indeed, in the early days of the Church, Oliver Cowdery was taught that a simple request for truth is insufficient (see D&C 9:7–8). In both scientific and religious quests for truth, one must study, ponder, and reason. Beyond that, however, the methods differ. I often use the metaphor of truth being a needle in a haystack of falseness. Revelation through the Holy Ghost can be compared to a magnet that pulls the needle directly from the haystack, while the scientific process works in a different way. In science, the stalks of hay are examined individually, and discarded when proven false. Thus, truth is approached gradually by eliminating false hypotheses. With the “magnet” procedure, only a few key truths are revealed, usually by addressing the “whys” of our lives and providing us with guidance for our behavior. Consequently, most of the answers we seek concerning the “hows” of the world are left for us to discover through the painstaking methods of science and experience.
It is the slowness of the scientific process and the very different focus of revelation and scripture that perpetuate the gap between our questions and the number of definitive answers. This emphasizes the need for students to develop patience, tolerance of ambiguities, and humility to recognize that the amount of real truth we possess is very limited. Scriptural passages are helpful here. For example, students can find comfort in recognizing that it is not the Father’s intent to reveal all things at this time: “Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things—Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof—Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.”3 Students are also warned against the common practice of attempting to bridge gaps in their understanding by fabricating explanations that accommodate a mortal perspective. Although it is intellectually stimulating to speculate in this way, this practice becomes problematic when these speculations convert to personal beliefs that result in an abandonment of faith or a rejection of science. Instead, students are encouraged to not limit deity in this way. They are reminded that truth is likely to be bigger and broader than our earthly ideas. The comment of the Lord to Isaiah makes this point very clear: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”4
It is gratifying to watch students relax and shed the concerns that have previously troubled them. They want to learn and to be faithful, but their fears can be stifling. When freed from such fear, they are truly grateful. Certainly, the opportunity to observe and facilitate this kind of growth is one of the sweetest blessings of serving at Brigham Young University.
1. Ether 12:6
2. “To Know God,” Ensign, Nov 1974
3. D&C 101:32-34
4. Isaiah 55:8-9