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A secular approach Prophecy and certainty Why follow a prophet

PROPHECY

Prophecy.
Eternal, certain, reliable.
The most powerful form of knowledge,
and the only one that ultimately matters.
The Firm Foundation.

This page shows why.

Introduction

The unique feature and great strength of the Mormon Church is prophecy.

Superficially, the church might look like any other. Those who do not understand it can praise it or ridicule it in equal measure. But look more closely. All the questions can be answered - students of comparative religion know this - and eventually we come down to the bedrock philosophy. Does it really make sense? How does it compare with other systems?

Here we see the real power of Mormonism. Belief in prophecy is the sure foundation:

All alleged problems can be answered. And the answers really make sense in a deep way. When you look closer, when you examine and ask questions, the real power of the church becomes clearer.

The church is most satisfying to those with a scientific mind. When you dig deep and really think about it, this church is the only philosophy or belief system of any kind that can make complete sense. Individuals may disagree over this or that principle. Individuals may make mistakes. But the whole concept is strong enough to survive - and thrive. It is unbeatable. It is beautiful. It is true.


If you want a church
Only Mormonism is authentic

Without prophecy, religion is just philosophy. True, many religions claim to have prophecy, but it is contained in ancient books that can be interpreted according to the fashions of the time. Take Judaism for example. The Jews once had prophets, but by the time of Jesus the religion had become based in books. And the books were interpreted by human minds. Or take Christianity for example. Once the apostles and prophets died, it was just a shadow of its former self.

Prophecy implies living prophets. That is what is mean by "the word of God" - living words. Without it, religion has no special claim. Perhaps it can be claimed that the holy spirit is all you need? This can lead to even more confusion (everyone is a prophet) so the spirit implies the need for an organization. This implies a living prophet at the head. These issues are discussed in more detail on the page about who has authority.

The only significant group to be led by a living prophet is the Mormon church. Thus, Mormonism is the only true faith.


If you want to be rational
Only the church can act as your foundation

"Science" is just a method of approaching truth. It is meaningless except in the context of non-science. So, science is dependent upon non-science. Put another way, science is the servant of revelation.

Which is the most rational form of revelation? Which stands up best to scrutiny? To examine a belief system rationally, we must have a clear idea of what it is. Any belief system that cannot be examined cannot be called scientific.

Which belief systems could possibly be scientific? Since different people will have different views of what something means, we need a clearly defined and authoritative leader - a prophet. Who has such a thing? Philosophical schools don't. Most religions don't. When we look at the small number that do, the Mormon church stands out with the strongest claims.

Therefore, because it provides a basis for science that can itself stands up to scientific scrutiny, the Mormon church can rightly claim to be the only true science.

(There is more about science further down this page.)


If you want certainty
There is only one real hope

What is certainty?

Certainty is a concept based only in the human mind. It refers to the individual's conclusion that something is extremely likely or reliable. It is not as absolute and unarguable as it might sound, because no matter how certain an idea might seem, someone clever enough can always ague against it (or at least, argue for a different understanding).

For example, we can say "as certain as the sun rising in the morning." In actual fact, we cannot prove beyond doubt that the sun will rise tomorrow. It just seems extremely likely, given past experience. So, certainty is not just a human construct, but it increases with experience.

It could be argued that some things are certain. For example, two plus two equals four. But this is only certain because it is abstract, and exists only in the mind. As soon as we translate this to concrete reality, there is the possibility of being wrong. For example, two drops of water added to two drops of water do not make four drops of water. If they touch, it could result in two or even one drop of water. Abstract thought is clear cut, but reality is messy.

Certainty, then, is a conclusion that individuals draw from experience.

Where is it?

Since certainty is simply a response to knowledge, the most certainty is to be found where there is the most knowledge. Certainty is a relative thing. If one thing is more certain than another, the other thing is automatically not certain.

For these reasons, and because Mormonism is the only true faith and the only true science, is is also the only source of certainty.

By similar reasoning, it can be shown that Mormonism is the only real hope, and in fact, the best or only source of all good things.

Is every teaching certain beyond doubt?

Certainty refers to the concept of relying on revelation, and not to individual teachings. This is because prophets are free individuals are are thus (in theory) free to make mistakes. But the church structure (and reliance on individual testimony) means that any mistakes are minor, rare, and and easy to overcome. Therefore, we can have complete confidence in the church as a whole, knowing that any difficulties along the way will do no more than help us to grow. For more detail, see the pages on following the prophet, freedom and obedience, and on deep doctrine and changes.

Conclusion

That is why I consider all other philosophies and faiths to be simply playing at churches. It all comes down to prophets. Nothing else even begins to make sense. And that, gentle reader, is why I am a Mormon.


The World and the Prophets

"The World and the Prophets" was a series of radio lectures once given by Hugh Nibley. If you want to understand prophets, you must read Nibley's "The World and the Prophets" (available from FARMS). Nibley's great strength is in his familiarity with historical sources that most people do not bother to read. He shows again and again that when we think we are being modern and enlightened in our thinking, we are simply repeating the mistakes of the ancient Greeks, or the medieval schoolmen, or even the Victorians.

The chapter titles give a flavor of the contents:

1. "How Will It Be When None More Saith `I Saw'?"
2. A Prophet's Reward
3. Prophets and Preachers
4. Prophets and Scholars
5. Prophets and Philosophers
6. Prophets and Creeds
7. The Prophets and the Search for God
8. Prophets and Gnostics
9. The Schools and the Prophets
10. St. Augustine and the Great Transition
11. A Substitute for Revelation
12. Prophets and Mystics
13. Rhetoric and Revelation
14. Prophets and Reformers
15. The Prophets and the Open Mind
16. Prophets and Miracles
17. Prophets and Ritual
18. Easter and the Prophets
19. Two Ways to Remember the Dead
20. Prophets and Martyrs
21. The Ancient Law of Liberty
22. Prophets and Crisis
23. The Prophets and the Scripture
24. The Book of Mormon as a Witness
25. Prophecy and Tradition
26. The Prophets and the Plan of Life
27. A Prophetic Event
28. Prophecy and Office
29. What Makes a True Church?
30. Prophets and Glad Tidings
31. The Doctors' Dilemma
32. The Return of the Prophets?

The beginning of chapter 1:
"How Will It Be When None More Saith `I Saw'?"

For full quotations, with original footnotes and references, refer to the book itself.

"In the realm of the mind, in letters, the arts, and in most of the sciences, it was the ancient Greeks, most educated people will concede, who walked off with nearly all the first prizes. It is hard to say anything on any but the most specialized and technical of matters that some Greek many centuries ago did not say better. If any people ever knew and lived life well and fully, it was the chosen spirits among the Greeks. They explored every avenue of human experience; they inquired into every possibility of broadening and improving the mind; they sought the truth as persistently and as honestly as men can ever be expected to seek; and, sounding the depths and skirting the outmost bounds of man's wisdom, came to the unanimous conclusion that the wisdom of man is as nothing."

Nibley quotes the greatest minds of Greece, with statements such as:

"Like gaping fools we amuse ourselves with empty dreams. . . . Do not doubt it, insecurity follows all the works of men, and no one knows, when he begins an enterprise, how it will turn out."

"The hopes of men are often exalted in one moment only to be dashed down in the next, as they roll helplessly in a sea of false expectations and miscalculations. For no mortal man ever got an absolute guarantee from the gods that his affairs would turn out as he thinks they would. There is always some unknown quantity that vitiates any attempt to predict the future."

"The gods take many forms indeed, they bring surprising things to pass. And that which we have confidently believed in goeth into fulfillment, while the gods manage to bring about the one thing that nobody expected. That's the way things are."

In this context, the early Christians held prophecy as their greatest claim. It was the only hope of certainty, or of any kind of meaning to life. You might argue about whether it is genuine. But without it, you have nothing.

"The gift of prophecy--while it remained--was the boast and glory of the church. Thus when Justin wishes to prove to a Jewish friend that the truth has now passed from the Jewish to the Christian community, his one argument is that the gift of prophecy, once enjoyed by the Jews, has now been transferred to his own people, the proof of which, he says, is 'that prophetic gifts are to be found among us to the present day, . . . such as were anciently shared among you.' Note well: the church boasts the possession of prophetic gifts a hundred and fifty years after Christ, and not merely the written words of the prophets of old--for the Jews had those--but the words of living prophets, no longer had among the Jews."

Selections from chapter 4
"Prophets and Scholars"

"What is a prophet? ... So loosely has the word come to be used that we must, before proceeding, reach an agreement on a few things that a prophet is not.

"The ancient and valuable Didach ... [gives] the tests for distinguishing between a true and a false prophet, for in those early days there were still prophets, both true and false, in the church. If anyone who claimed to be a prophet attempted to teach anything of his skill to another, he was not a true prophet, the saints were advised. Prophecy is a direct gift from God; it cannot be conveyed from one man to another; it cannot be transmitted through any courses of instruction. (Didach XI, 11-12.)"

"The knowledge of salvation is not transmitted from one man to another horizontally, as it were; it is not passed from one generation to the next as a great earthbound tradition. A testimony, that is, the sure knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, is received not by horizontal but by vertical descent, or, to use Justin Martyr's expression, it is 'a gift that descends from above on holy men at a certain time.'

"No man who has a testimony is dependent on any other man for that testimony. Everyone must know for himself that Jesus is the Christ. No one is expected to believe the gospel is true because some official or board or synod says it is."

He quotes Brigham Young:

"Without revelation direct from heaven, it is impossible for any person to understand fully the plan of salvation. We often hear it said that the living oracles must be in the Church, in order that the Kingdom of God may be established and prosper on the earth. I will give another version of this sentiment. I say that the living oracles of God, or the Spirit of revelation must be in each and every individual, to know the plan of salvation and keep in the path that leads them to the presence of God."

Selections from chapter 15
" The Prophets and the Open Mind "

"Prejudice does not consist in having made up one's mind--in defending an opinion with fervor and determination--as too many liberals seem to think; it consists in forming an opinion before all the evidence has been considered. This means that freedom from prejudice whether in the field of science or any other field requires a tremendous lot of work--one cannot be unprejudiced without constant and laborious study of evidence; the open mind must be a searching mind. The person who claims allegiance to science in his thinking or who is an advocate of the open mind has let himself in for endless toil and trouble.

"But what has happened? Those who have called themselves liberals in religion have accepted science with open arms precisely because they believe that excuses them from any toil at all. For them to have an open mind means to accept without question, and without any personal examination of evidence, whatever the prevailing opinions of the experts may prescribe."

Nibley gives the example of evolution being applied to history. It is assumed that later religions are complex, and earlier religions are simple. However, the documents show that the exact opposite is true. The original religious leaders - such as Moses, Mohammed, Joseph Smith - produced fully formed complex religions. And thse were simplified by later generations. But most liberals do not read the documents, and thus rely on blind prejudice.

Liberal Bible scholars go even further. When they find something in the Bible that does not fit their pre-conceived notion, they declare that it is a later interpolation! If they do not like what the text says, they change the text! Thus, any reference to the Messiah in pre-exile Old Testament texts is declared to be a later addition. Isaiah was devided up into many different authors. They carved up the books of Moses into parts supposedly written hundreds of years apart by different people.

"The result is a reformed text which brilliantly confirms the theory on which it was reformed. They produce a new text that is carefully tailored to their theory, and then point to that text as proof that the theory is correct! Incredible as it may seem, this cheap and easy circular method became the standard procedure and the indispensable tool of the higher critics, who operated on the principle that, while to ignore evidence is a sign of prejudice, to alter and adjust it to fit one's preconceptions is a mark of brilliance and ingenuity."

Prejudice is just as likely to be held in scientific circles. Nibley notes how the scientists did not want to believe that Piltdown Man was a hoax. For similar examples, see the box:

How reliable is science?

Please do not take this as an attack on science.

As a Mormon, I love science. On the whole, it is extremely reliable. I would rather trust a scientist than a politician, journalist, artist, or most other perveyors of "truth." In general (with no other information to go on) I would rather trust an orthodox scientist than an unorthodox one. But scientists are human, and have all the weaknesses of other humans.

Science is successful because it avoids asking hard questions

Science can tell us little or nothing about the majority of life - the great, overwhelming issues of everyday life and experience. Science is only reliable when dealing with those things that are easy to study. See the page on non-science for details. When science starts commenting on areas outside its expertise, it becomes pseudo-science.

Is science moving closer and closer to absolute truth?

Perhaps, but since they don't know how far away the goal is, they could still be a very, very long way away. Nibley often refers to Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, who has shown that whatever science says is forever tentative. Science simply does not deal in final answers. It can offer temporary help, but it might turn out to be wrong, or at least misleading. It has been wrong plenty of times in the past.

Can scientists be convinced of something - and yet be wrong?

A few years ago, I picked up a science magazine at random (it was that week's copy of New Scientist, 15th feb 1997) to see how many major theories were being overturned. This is what I found.

One writer discusses superstring membrane theory, marked by “considerable scepticism by the orthodox superstring community. One string theorist I knew would literally cover up his ears whenever the word ‘membrane’ was uttered within his earshot. The mood of the time was summarised by Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann with the words: ‘eleven dimensional super-gravity (ugh!)’” Ten years on, it’s a Nobel prize winning theory.

A book reviewer discussed the constant scientific battles between environmentalists and their critics.

Another reviewer chronicled the “ferocity” of arguments between supporters of the Big Bang theory and the Steady State theory. In years gone by, Steady State’s implication of “matter out of nothing” was “a hanging and flogging offence”. But now quantum physics makes it orthodox.

Another writer notes that ancient remains dug up from the Columbia river were dismissed as “yet another native American skeleton”. Yet initial studies suggest it is caucasian - “tangible evidence to challenge the received theory of the colonisation of North America.”

Other disagreements were regarding genetic engineering, the state of the antarctic ice sheet, the justification for supporting Soviet nuclear plants, measuring scientific achievement, and so on.

So, disagreements are normal. And when the scientific community changes its mind on controversial topics, it does so quietly - as for example over the effects of lead in petrol, acid rain, CFCs, etc. Or (as Mormons will have noted) over the Bering Strait theory, cement, writing on metal plates, etc. You hear when they disagree with prophecy. You do not hear when they agree.

Are scientists scrupulously honest?

Nibley was writing in the 1950s, and refers to the then-famous Piltdown man (a faked "missing link" that was accepted as genuine for many years). Piltdown was not an isolated incident.

At the time of writing, medical ethics are constantly in the news. Each time something is uncovered, everyone stresses that problems are extremely rare. But I wonder, "how would they know?" Unethical practices are, by their nature, covered up or disguised.

Are scientists generally more honest than other people? I doubt it. Let us just look at the most famous scientists. (The following came from New Scientist, 3rd August 1991, p.45):

  • Hipparchus (second century BC) - who copied a Babylonian star catalogue and siad it was his own.
  • Ptolemy (second century AD) - claimed to make astronomical masurements, but didn't.
  • Galileo (early 17th century) exaggerated some of his experimental results.
  • Newton (late 17th century) added some unscientific factors to make his results look better.
  • Mendel (19th century) similarly made his results look bettre than they actually were.
  • Admiral Peary (early 20th century) claimed to reach the North Pole - when he knew he was hundreds of miles away.
  • Millikan (20th century) claimed to report all his results, but quietly withheld those that did not look good.
  • And what of the late twentieth century? Too many people are still alive. It would not be wise to criticize the high priests of science - too many people get offended.

Note that this list comes from a reputable science magazine and involves just famous scientists - those whose work is examined most closely. What about the others? Are scientists really so much more honest than other people?

Are scientists willing to admit mistakes?

This is always the great claim, that scientists are willing to change when the evidence goes against them. But is this true? It sounds like the claim to be a "free thinker" - it adds up to nothing more than a childish insult, based on the flimsiest of subjective evidence, that "I am clever and sensible and you are stupid."

"I have known intimately a number of creative scientists and I have studied the behavior of a great many more as revealed by the record of history, ...I have never encountered one of any importance whatever who would welcome with joy and satisfaction the publication of a new theory, explanation, or conceptual scheme that would completely replace and render superfluous his own creation."

Instead of embracing new truth at any price, "the scientist actually tries--often in vain--to fit each new discovery or set of discoveries into the traditional theories" as he "clings to conceptions or preconceptions as long as it is humanly possible." Hence "any suggestion that scientists so dearly love truth that they have not the slightest hesitation in jettisoning their beliefs is a mean perversion of the facts. It is a form of scientific idolatry, supposing that scientists are entirely free from the passions that direct men's actions, and we should have little patience with it."

I. Cohen, "Orthodoxy and Scientific Progress," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 96 (1952): 505-6. Quoted by Nibley.

The fatal flaw in modern liberalism
(from chapter 15)

"Modern liberalism, like modern education, goes on the theory that the scientific attitude can become the possession of every man, woman, and child in the democracy. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

"The only way you can get the scientific attitude is to be a scientist. The only way one can know what mathematics is about, according to Courant and Robbins, is actually to work problems--lots of hard problems--in mathematics. One cannot acquire the attitudes of a painter or a teacher or a musician or a zoologist or a tap dancer without doing actual work in those fields. A really scientific attitude cannot be imparted by lectures about it or pocket books or popular articles that glamorize it or survey courses that play with it; the masses can embrace science only as many people embrace religion--in name only.

"The real enemy of true science is the glib and superficial lip service to science that goes under the name of liberalism. And the same holds true for religion. There is no substance to the easy and sentimental 'religion of man' by which the human race was expected to lift itself to infinite heights by a gentle tugging on its own boot-straps.

"The mathematician Godel has demonstrated, or at least has proposed to demonstrate, that "no logical system can ever prove that it itself is a perfect system in the sense that it may not contain concealed self-contradictions. . . . This means that the human intelligence can never be sure of itself; it is not . . . capable of unlimited perfectibility, as is so often fondly imagined." What is more, even that ultimate rock of refuge, common sense, has become a rapidly melting ice floe [Nibley quotes authorities on relativity and quantum theory]

The myth of objective certainty

"It is time we came to the moral of our discussion--the religious part of it. Schoolmen--ancient, medieval, and modern--have persisted in proclaiming to the world that there is aside and apart from that knowledge which has come to the human race by revelation and which is an object of religious faith, another type of knowledge--real, tangible, solid, absolute, perfectly provable knowledge--the knowledge (according to the prevailing taste of the century) of philosophy, science, or common sense. The exponents of this knowledge, we are told, are impartial and detached in their searches and their conclusions. I have met many students who have been convinced that anyone who experiences any doubt regarding the scriptures has only to remove his troubled mind from old legends and dubious reports to realms of clear light and absolute certainty where doubt does not exist.

"Significantly enough, this gospel of hope is almost never preached by scientists but enjoys its greatest vogue in departments of humanities and social science. What the true scientists of our day are telling us, as they have told us before, is that no such realm, no such intellectual Hesperides, is known to them. One never knows which of our most cherished and established scientific beliefs may be next to go by the board."

Selections from chapter 31
" The Doctors' Dilemma "

(Using the term "doctor" in its scientific and scholastic sense, and not its medical sense.)

Can science lead to truth?

Those who place their ultimate faith in science are proud that it does not attempt to answer the big questions. They seem to think that piece by piece it provides everything they need. But this is a not logical.

The big questions have (effectively) infinite scope. The little questions are finite. Even if all the little questions could add up to an infinite supply of answers, this is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. The ancient Greeks thought hey were getting close. The Victorians thought they were close as well. But we seem to be as far away as ever.

" 'For scientific procedure,' Courant and Robbins remind us, 'it is important to discard elements of a metaphysical character. . . . To renounce the goal of . . . knowing the ultimate truth, of unraveling the innermost essence of the world, may be a psychological hardship for naive enthusiasts, but in fact it was one of the most fruitful turns in modern thinking.' Modern thinking? That was exactly the program of Thales and the Ionian school; it was what made Science Science.

"And the Ionian school had no sooner got started than the wise Heraclitus pointed out that the objectivity that the scientists thought they had achieved by barring the Other World from their calculations was an illusion; and indeed before long one scientist after another was issuing solemn pronouncements on the ultimate substance and the ultimate cause of everything. [Sounds familiar? Remember Stephen Hawking? Or Richard Dawkins? Or Carl Sagan? Or a host of others?] The basic illusion was that the scientific observer, free of all prejudice and preconception, simply let the evidence work on him and saw things as they were. But Heraclitus knew better: it is the observer who really decides what he is going to see."

Why does eschatology (the study of "the last things") matter?

Nibley answers with a parable:

"There was once a man who went to see a play at the theater. He arrived an hour and a half late, and had barely taken his seat when an emergency call obliged him to leave. The next day a friend asked him how he liked the play. What could the man answer except that he saw almost nothing of it? What he saw may have been gay or depressing, colorful or exciting, but it was no play at all; it was only a three-minute glimpse of what might or might not be a meaningful drama.

"Such is our position in the world. We come late to a play which has been in progress for ages, and we never stay long enough to find out what is really happening. We get a glimpse of the stage and the actors and hear a few lines of speech or music, and then we are hustled out of the house. From what we have seen we may rack our brains to reconstruct some sort of plot, but our speculations can never be anything but the wildest guesses.

"Yet unless we know both how the play began (that is protology) and how it ends (that is eschatology), the whole show remains utterly meaningless to us, 'a tale told by an idiot, . . . signifying nothing.' And not to know what the play is about is an intolerable state of things; it is not to be borne. For not only do we find the drama strangely engrossing, but we are actually pushed out onto the stage and expected to participate intelligently in what is going on. We are much too involved in the thing to settle for a play without a meaning, but who can tell us what it is all about?"

Conclusion

We all desire prophecy, final answers, revelation, certainty, call it what you like.

We all need prophecy. It is unavoidable. Why? Because we all have to make decisions every day. This implies revelation.

All I am saying is, identify your source of prophecy. Examine it. Make sure it is the best.


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