Observation and reason are not opposed to faith, but work synergistically with faith, taught Elder Dale G. Renlund, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Tuesday’s Education Week devotional.
“Faith will only grow by observation and reasoning, coupled with other spiritual work. In addition, observation, reason and faith are often prerequisites not only to receive personal revelation but to understand that revelation.”
All these elements must be properly harmonized, Elder Renlund explained. Observation alone can be misleading, as we see in the doctored images prolific on the Internet. Likewise, reason alone can be erroneous — for example, using only reason without experimentation, Aristotle incorrectly taught that heavier objects always fall faster than lighter objects. Even faith on its own can be ineffective: the scriptures instruct us to use the means available to help solve our problems, rather than passively wait for divine intervention.
Elder Renlund pointed to the Savior’s parables as examples of how to appropriately balance observation, reason and faith. “His parables were simple stories comparing ordinary objects or events to illustrate a spiritual truth. He then asks us to reason our way to discern the underlying meaning.”
When we use observation and reason for spiritual learning, it is essential that we favor faith. “Those disinclined towards faith in God often over-rely on reasoning and look to explain away the hand of God,” he said.
“When we start with an inclination to believe, observation leads to faith. As faith grows, reason facilitates the transformation of faith into revelatory knowledge, and revelatory knowledge produces added faith.”
Faith is never static but is always either strengthening or dwindling. Faith can weaken if we fail to actively build it by consistent effort, if we are disobedient or if we lean into skepticism and doubt.
“In all three ways faith atrophies, we receive less and less until we lose all that we had previously received. It will be like disengaging the gears of a vehicle that has no brakes on a steep mountain road. Once our upward momentum ceases, we will roll backwards.”
By contrast, applying observation and reason in faith can yield increasing spiritual insights. President Joseph F. Smith’s 1918 vision of the spirit world is one example of that process. President Smith received the revelation after pondering the fates of family members who had recently died, as well as the fates of the victims of the world war and the influenza pandemic that were then raging.
“We see that reason and faith provided a springboard for that revelation,” Elder Renlund said. He then offered five principles for using reason, observation and faith for revelation.
First, to receive personal revelation, we must study out problems and consider possible solutions, then discern how the Holy Ghost communicates to us individually.
“The voice of the Holy Ghost is mild and still, like a whisper, not loud or noisy,” he explained. “It may be stunningly simple and plain. It can be piercing or burning. It affects both the mind and the heart. It brings peace, joy, and hope, not fear, anxiety or worry. It is enlightening and delicious, not muddling.”
Second, we can decide whether a thought is personal revelation by analyzing it from multiple angles. “These are the criteria to determine whether we should act on a particular thought: it promotes believing in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, it promotes loving and serving Them, and it promotes doing good.
Third, we can act on promptings even if we don’t fully understand the reason they were given. “Rarely does revelation come with clear explanations of why we should do something. Trying to explain ‘why’ when no revelatory reason was given often misleads or can cause us to stumble.”
Fourth, because personal revelation is “iterative” — given “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little” — we may need to reason through a revelation over time.
Finally, we must consider personal revelation in context of previous teachings to ensure that we are not merely concocting answers to match our own desires. “As we pray for inspiration, we compare our spiritual impressions with the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets. Impressions from the Spirit will align with these sources.”
Elder Renlund concluded by emphasizing that the harmony of observation, reason and faith can “facilitate revelation and enable the Holy Ghost to be a reliable, trustworthy and beloved companion.”