|Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh|
A few months ago, Jeffrey Rankin, who is an Associate Dean in the Rutgers University, College of Engineering and serves as the Patriarch to our Stake, gave the following talk in one of our Branch sacrament meetings. While the topic of the talk was The Creation, I think that it is one of the best that I have heard on the general subject of science and religion.
The talk is published in our blog with his permission. As Jeffrey Rankin is the sole author of this article, it is not to be copied or distributed in any form or forum by anyone else without his written permission.
SACRAMENT MEETING TALK – East Brunswick YSA Branch – January 29, 2012
“Things as They Really Are” (based on writings by Elder Neal A. Maxwell)
I. The Glory of the Creation
I have had the opportunity to put my eye to the lens of several astronomical telescopes and view the night sky. That experience, I think, strikes any serious scientist, no matter his or her area of research, with a feeling of unequaled wonder.
Putting our planet in perspective, Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, wrote:
“The earth is a medium-sized planet orbiting around an average star in the outer suburbs of an ordinary spiral galaxy, which is itself only one of about a million million galaxies in the observable universe.”
When one looks at pictures of the Milky Way, our home galaxy, the breathtaking view brings to mind the Lord’s words about His having created “worlds without number” (Moses 1:33). Continuing to investigate telescopic pictures of other galaxies, we can recall the divine words that “there is no end to my works” (Moses 1:38). There are nebulae, like the Doradus Nebula, which if it were as close to us as is very distant Orion, would literally cover one-fourth of the night sky. Think of the words about how God’s creations “cannot be numbered unto man, but they are numbered unto [Him]” (Moses 1:37).
President Brigham Young said that God knows all things pertaining to this earth and “He knows all things pertaining to millions of earths like this one”. (Journal of Discourses 11:41). President Joseph Fielding Smith stated, “We have brothers and sisters on other earths. They look like us because they, too, are the children of God and were created in His image….” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:62).
When we contemplate the stunning vastness, it is wise to remember “Behold…all things are created and made to bear record of me (Moses 6:63). Alma declared, “All things denote there is a God…all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44). Our universe is an overwhelming one and a witnessing one!
Reversing the lens in both reality and in thought, I have also had the tremendous opportunity to look through microscopes so powerful they can see to the atomic level. At the other end of the spectrum of size we also see divine design in the tiny but significant DNA molecule. This molecule which performs so many large chores is formed by an intricate double, intertwined helix consisting of hundreds of atoms arranged in significant governing patterns.
The most important chemical in the world which is ever present in my work and teaching is one of the simplest – water. It is, as simply constructed as it is, probably the most unique in its properties. If it behaved like nearly every liquid in the world, when water froze to ice, it would become more dense, the solid ice sinking to the bottom of the remaining liquid pool. If this were the case, our planet would be literally a dead one, as ice would drop to the bottom of the oceans never to be warmed again, leading to the cold grip of death on the fauna and flora of our planet. One such as I who have studied literally hundreds of compounds cannot help but be amazed that such a simple molecule could be so critically different. Rather it has been designed so that its solid phase is just a little less dense than the liquid and so it floats on the surface to be the first to catch the warming rays of the sun, returning it to its life-giving liquid form.
While I was pursuing doctorate work, I was once asked in a public church meeting by an old dedicated high priest if I actually studied chemical engineering by the Spirit. I had never pondered that thought before and it took me back. I have since concluded that that is an all-important question in light of the awesome power displayed in our natural universe.
II. Levels of Truth
The Lord sees no conflict between faith and learning in any breadth of study.
D&C 88:78-79, 118:
“…that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
“Of things both in heaven and in earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms…
“And as all have not faith, 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.”
The scriptures tell us that the Lord sees faith and learning as mutually facilitating, not separate processes.
We are commanded to seek truth. Truth is the highly and rightly valued result of the learning process. There are, however, gradations of truth. They are not of equal significance. These gradations might be represented geometrically by a wide, layered circle. You might imagine this as a layered cake with tiers that decrease in diameter from bottom to top.
The bottom outer layer of the circle would include truths which are by definition accurate descriptions of reality. But these would be facts such as train schedules, monetary exchange rates, calendar dates, and so on. They are real. They have utility and they are relevant to our daily lives, but they often have a very short shelf life. They cannot be ignored in this world, but they are simply not on the same footing as other kinds of truth. I am sure you can think of lots of similar and probably better illustrations.
The next concentric circle or cake layer inward would include more important truths. These are important, but not what we will call the ultimate truths. Some of these, for instance, are verifiable by the very serviceable scientific method. These truths can be very useful and valuable. For instance, in the realm of astrophysics, they tell us much about the “what” and “how” of the universe, but they cannot (and do not presume to) tell us “why” it exists.
In this same middle layer, the suburbs of the ultimate truths, so to speak, there is a churning and revising among some of these truths. Indeed life in the suburbs may mean one can be “ever learning” but still “never able to come to a knowledge of THE truth” as Paul stated to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:7). Even so, these truths are important and valued.
Let me give you an example from personal study. I have been preparing class notes for a course that I must teach involving one of the most exact mathematical sciences known to us, that which we call Thermodynamics. It is a useful science that has been at the heart of much technological progress. Its first fundamental law states that the energy content of the universe is constant. That means simply in the words of beginning student that “you can’t get something for nothing”. Using energy to work change in one system means that you must decrease the energy content somewhere else. The second law is even more restrictive. It deals with a property labeled Entropy which would describe the disorder of the universe. Clausius formulated the law in these terms: The entropy of the universe is ever increasing. In the words of that beginning student, “not only can’t you get something for nothing, you can’t even break even.” Or, “if you think things are messed up now, just wait awhile!”
These theories to organize scientific facts as we observe them would tell us that the universe is winding down, slowly but surely. All things lead to a natural death of things as we know them. Even as mankind acts to improve his environment by harnessing the forces and materials of nature, he forces an acceleration toward ultimate complete disorder where nothing can work any longer.
Now contrast those ideas to such processes as “creation of worlds without number” or “resurrection of the body to its perfect condition.” Clearly we have much more to add to these accepted scientific truths!
So in the very center of the circles of truth lie the “deep things of God” (I Corinthians 2:10, 14). These come to us only by revelation from God, and they clearly have a greater significance than other truths and fleeting facts.
There is constancy, not churning, among these strategic truths. These truths, for instance, are revealed from God and tell us “why” the universe exists. They are also very personal and crucial. They represent the highest order of truth.
Stephen Hawking, displaying the meekness which is found in all great scientists, wrote:
“Although science may solve the problem of how the universe began, it cannot answer the question: Why does the universe bother to exist? I don’t know the answer to that.
“What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is?...
“…If we do discover a complete theory,…then we shall all…be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.”
Such questions are answered only by revelation, not solely by reason. Certain high-grade knowledge, as Paul taught, is “spiritually discerned” only (I Corinthians 2:14). Only when mind and spirit combine efforts can we penetrate the inner circle realm of truth.
These truths are likewise verifiable. Jesus described how:
“If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17)
Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Since He has received a fulness of truth, we rightly seek to have the “mind of Christ” (D&C 93:26, 1 Corinthians 2:16). If we keep his commandments, the promise is that we will receive “truth and light” until we are “glorified in truth and [know] all things” (D&C 93:28). Would either a true scholar or disciple settle for less?
Paul L. Holmer wrote, “We can also say that in living right, we will also think right.”
III. What Is Real
The adverb “really” is used only twice in all of scripture, and then only for exceptional emphasis. In Jacob 4:13, the prophet Jacob underscored the manner in which the Spirit teaches the truth.
“Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls.”
Jacob’s declaration about truth is consistent with the definition of truth given by the Lord to Joseph Smith.
“And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.”
The true religion believer is actually the ultimate realist, for he has a fully realistic view of man and of the universe. He traffics in truths that are culminating and everlasting. He believes as the Lord has said “…truth abideth and hath no end.” (D&C 88:66)
What are the special and central and overarching truths that are numbered among “things as they really are”?
1. There is a true and living God.
2. There is a true and living Church.
3. There are true and living prophets.
4. There are true and living scriptures.
It is the “living-ness” of these incredibly important realities that separates them from transitory things, from dying things, from local beliefs, or from short-lived theories that do not maintain themselves over time.
IV. Understanding Reality Gives Us Perspective
Much of really living consists of aquiring perspective about everlasting truths so that we can manage the transitory factual things. To experience real freedom as Jesus spoke of, for “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32) we must understand that certain deep truths are to obtained only through the Spirit of our Heavenly Father. Paul stated “the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.” (I Corinthians 2:10) But “the deep things of God” are understood only as we come to know about things as they really are. Such knowledge is of inestimable worth.
Would we ask someone who is in a jet flying over Europe to adjust to the culture and language of each country whose airspace he is over at the moment? We would not. Likewise the disciple of Christ knows in reality that he is only briefly in but not of this world; it is not his destination, for he follows the living God of the galaxies. The ways of this world are, in factual perspective, alien to the better world he seeks to prepare for. He will be truly realistic, for to be too quick to adjust and accept the ways of this world is to be maladjusted and ill prepared for the next. It is vital to know therefore about things as they really are in order to have proper perspective for our choices.
It is vital to know that there REALLY is a God, that there REALLY is a Savior, Jesus Christ, that there REALLY is impending immortality for all men, that there REALLY will be a judgment with genuine personal accountability, and that there REALLY is purpose in life and a divine plan for happiness for man. These truths are a special kind of knowledge – “of things as they really are and of things as they really will be – which keeps us from being tossed to and fro by mere theories. These are the truths that will make us free.
With true perspective comes a sense of proportion about life. It helps us with our priorities. For instance, understanding a true perspective, clearly one would not forgo partaking of the sacrament because he is trying to lose weight. Yet some neglect the scriptures because they are too busy minding the cares of the world. Knowing how things really are permits us to test all mortal suppositions so we won’t be victimized by fleeting and tempting tradeoffs proffered by mortal men. Coming to see things as they really are will of course make one a member of a minority, one that is sometimes despised. We could scarcely endure taking up the crosses of the world without knowing the truth of things as they really are.
Do you remember the great and spacious building in the Book of Mormon in Lehi’s dream which we just studied in gospel doctrine class? The trendy, self-congratulating multitudes mocked and pointed at those who clung to the gospel’s iron rod. A few whose hands had once grasped the iron rod ended up in the great and spacious building pointing their own fingers of scorn at former friends. Strange is it seems, the scriptures do not indicate that these individuals let go of the iron rod for any objective reasons or because they were in truth intellectually persuaded by the views of those in the building. They were simply ashamed and embarrassed to be separated from the worldly multitudes, whose contempt they could not endure. Nephi saw that “after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.” (1 Nephi 8:25)
Being true to what we know about things as they really are takes immense integrity and constant courage. Things as they really are require the believer to be at his best – to be what he really could be, and also to understand who he really is.
V. Vastness of Creation vs. Individual Attention of God
Amid the cosmic vastness overseen by God and Jesus, we can also have faith in their loving personal-ness. We want to be assured that God is there and also to know what He is like. We yearn to know what His and life’s purposes are. Does He really know us and really care about us individually? The reassuring reality was confirmed in Enoch’s exclamation:
“And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever” (Moses 7:30).
The most important thing for meek Enoch to know as not how many worlds there were, but that God was really there! Enoch also learned that God is just, true, merciful, and kind. We have an example in the Lord. Will we, however, follow His example?
God is in the details of the galaxies, of the DNA molecule, but, even more importantly, He is in the details of our individual lives.
VI. The Scholar-Disciple
For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship. It is actually another dimension of consecration. One who seeks to be a disciple-scholar will take both scholarship and discipleship seriously and therefore likewise gospel covenants. For the disciple-scholar, the first and second great commandments frame and prioritize life. How else could one worship God with all of one’s heart, MIND, and strength? (Luke 10:27)
The disciple-scholar also understands what kind of community he or she should help to build. Its citizens openly and genuinely desire to be called God’s people. They are not secret disciples, but bear one another’s burdens, mourn with those that mourn, comfort those in need of comfort, and witness for God at all times, and in all places, and in all things (Mosiah 18:8-9). Intellectual pride reflects the way of hell, not of heaven. It is no wonder that a true community of scholars would qualify to be a part of the larger community of Saints.
The disciple-scholar also understands Jesus’ style of leadership, which includes persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge – all being achieved without hypocrisy and guile. (D&C 121:41-42, Mosiah 3:19)
It is meekness which facilitates working on what is lacking in each of our characters. For instance, the rich, righteous young man, otherwise clearly a high achiever, who came to Jesus asking what he might do to have eternal life, was told “One thing thou lackest” (Mark 10:21). His lack was not of marketplace business ability or of honesty in business affairs; instead, he lacked meekness. This unfortunately kept him from doing that customized thing which Jesus asked him to do – sell all that he had, give to the poor, and come follow Him. The young man lacked consecration.
If we are to be true disciples, we can be assured that Jesus will ask us to do works and meet challenges that He has customized for us according to what we lack, each being different. As Michael Polyani noted, “To learn by example is to submit to authority”. The key attribute of the disciple-scholar is meekness.
Ponder what Brigham Young said of his tutorial relationship with Joseph Smith:
“An angel never watched [Joseph] closer than I did, and that is what has given me the knowledge I have today. I treasure it up, and ask the Father, in the name of Jesus, to help my memory when information is wanted.”
If knowledge is truly power, how can he who possesses absolute truth be considerate of others? Obviously the answer is for truth to be accompanied by love and meekness, as exemplified for us in the character of Jesus. Power is safest, therefore, with those most Christlike, and heaven’s power is accessible only to such individuals.
Genius is safest when it is accompanied by meekness. Competency is most useful when accompanied by humility. The qualities of love, mercy, patience, meekness, and spiritual submissiveness are eternally portable. These – to the degree they are developed – will go with us through the veil of death; they will also rise with us in the resurrection.
VII. Testimony of the Reality of God and His Love for Us Individually