Address

"Witnesses of God" - Elder Dallin H. Oaks

"Witnesses of God"

BYU-Idaho Devotional

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

February 25, 2014

My fellow students: I have felt impressed to speak to you about the significance of our belief in God. I do so because we live in a world where many deny the existence of God or the significance of His commandments. I hope what I say will help you be more effective in your duty to witness of God and to act for truth and righteousness.

I.

I begin with the first three of our Articles of Faith:

“We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

“We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.

“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” (Articles of Faith 1:1-3).

A great Book of Mormon prophet taught these same truths:

“Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.

“And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you” (Mosiah 4:9-10).

In contrast, today many deny or doubt the existence of a God and insist that all rules of behavior are man-made and can be accepted or rejected at will.

Why do I speak of such basic truths as the existence of God and the reality of the absolutes of right and wrong that govern our behavior? Sometimes the most needed things we can teach are things we tend to take for granted. We can neglect simple basic truths because we assume they are understood by all, but they are not. We must stress the fundamental truths on which our beliefs are based. Ultimately, these include the existence of God and the eternal reality of the truths and the right and wrong defined by His teachings and His commandments.

II.

The denial of God or the downplaying of His role in human affairs, which began in the Renaissance, has become pervasive today. The glorifying of human reasoning has had good effects and bad. The work of science has made innumerable improvements in our lives, but the rejection of divine authority as the ultimate basis of right and wrong by those who have substituted science for God has many religious people asking this question:

“Why [is] the will of any of the brilliant philosophers of the liberal tradition, or, for that matter, the will of the Supreme Court of the United States . . . more relevant to moral decisions than the will of God”?[1]

Those who have used human reasoning to supersede divine influence in their lives have diminished themselves and cheapened civilization in the process.

I am grateful to know that there are two methods of gaining knowledge — the scientific method and the spiritual method, which begins with faith in God and relies on scriptures, inspired teaching and personal revelation. There is no ultimate conflict between knowledge gained by these different methods because God, our omnipotent Eternal Father, knows all truth and beckons us to learn by them both.

Prophecies of the last days foretell great opposition to inspired truth and action. Some of these prophecies concern the anti-Christ, and others speak of the great and abominable church.

A.    Anti-Christ

The Apostle John uses the term anti-Christ to describe one who “denieth the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). Today, those who deny the existence of God are called atheists. Some of these ridicule the faith of those who believe in what cannot be proven, even as they aggressively deny a godly existence they cannot disprove.

We are prepared for such denials of God by the Book of Mormon’s account of a man named Korihor. In terms reminiscent of the most atheistic writings of our day, Korihor, twice called an “Anti-Christ” (Alma 30:6, 12), taught:

“Ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.

“Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so” (Alma 30:15-16).

Korihor also declared “that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men” (verse 17). His description of the consequence of his rejection of the idea of sin and a savior is strikingly similar to the belief of many in our time:

“Every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17; italics added).

B.    Moral Relativism

Today we call Korihor’s philosophy moral relativism. Two observers describe that philosophy as follows:

“When it comes to moral issues there are no universally objective right or wrong answers, no inappropriate or appropriate judgments, and no reasonable or rational ways by which to make moral distinctions that apply in every time, in every place, and to every person.”[2]

This is the belief applied by many in the popular media and in current peer pressure. “Break free of the old rules. Do what feels good to you. There is no accountability beyond what man’s laws or public disapproval impose on those who are caught.” Behind such ideas is the assumption that there is no God or, if there is, He has given no commandments that apply to us today.

C.    Secular Humanism

The rejection of an unprovable God and the denial of right and wrong is most influential in the world of higher education. Secular humanism, a branch of humanism probably so labeled because of its strong alignment with secularism, is deliberately or inadvertently embodied in the teachings of faculty members in many colleges and universities.

For religious people, the objectionable element in the various humanist manifestos is their rejection of the existence of God and their denial of the moral absolutes rooted in His commandments. Thus, the 1973 Humanist Manifesto rejected “traditional moral codes” and “traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience.” It further declared, “We can discover no divine purpose . . . for the human species. . . . Humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”[3]

Of course, adherents of humanism, called humanists, have had many positive effects. For example, they have been supportive of democracy, human rights, education and material progress. So long as these advancements do not exclude believers, our issue with humanists is their rejection of divine authority and values. As BYU philosophy professor Chauncey Riddle has written, “Humanism makes a man to be god, the supreme being, and the educated human mind becomes the arbiter of all that is true, good and beautiful.”[4]

Riddle also reminds us that humanism “enjoys good press in the world today because most of the writers, publishers, scholars and media people are of this persuasion.”[5] Thus, my wife Kristen heard a recent interview in which a prominent figure in a major U.S. university proclaimed that he was a humanist. That was not surprising, except for the fact that he was his university’s chaplain. Whatever his beliefs, it is a regrettable fact that many of today’s Christian ministers cannot truthfully affirm their belief in God.

Many who deny or doubt the existence of God would probably disclaim the philosophy of moral relativism. They would see themselves as having some external standards of right and wrong, though absolute standards not based on belief in God are difficult to explain. Secular humanists, who formally reject “traditional religious morality” and declare their reliance on “the tests of scientific evidence,”[6] seem to fulfill a Book of Mormon prophecy of those who “live without God in the world” (Mosiah 27:31).

D.    The Great and Abominable Church and Other “Churches”

Book of Mormon prophecies describe the “great and abominable church of all the earth, whose founder is the devil” (1 Nephi 14:17). This “church” is prophesied to have “dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people” (1 Nephi 14:11). Called “most abominable above all other churches,” this church is also said to act “for the praise of the world” to bring “the saints of God . . . down into captivity” (1 Nephi 13:5, 9). Since no religious denomination — Christian or non-Christian — has ever had “dominion” over all nations of the earth or the potential to bring all the saints of God down into “captivity,” this great and abominable church must be something far more pervasive and widespread than a single “church” as we understand that term today. It must be any philosophy or organization that opposes belief in God. And the “captivity” into which this “church” seeks to bring the saints will not be so much physical confinement as the captivity of false ideas.

In modern usage and in many scriptural passages the word church usually identifies (1) a house of worship or (2) a particular Christian denomination, including the true church of God. But if we apply either of those meanings to the scriptures describing the “great and abominable church of all the earth” (1 Nephi 14:17), we miss the intended meaning. For example, Nephi was told by revelation that there were only “two churches”: “the church of the Lamb of God” and “the church of the devil” (1 Nephi 14:10; also see 1 Nephi 13:4-6). This description suggests the contrast between those who believe in God and seek to serve Him according to their best understanding and those who reject the existence of God (see 1 Nephi 14:10).

Other teachings in the Book of Mormon also use the word church to signify belief or non-belief in God. The final chapters of 2 Nephi prophesy that in the last days the Gentiles will build up “many churches” that will “put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain” (2 Nephi 26:20). They tell of “churches which are built up, and not unto the Lord” (2 Nephi 28:3), which will “teach with their learning” and “deny the power of God” (2 Nephi 28:4-5). They will “say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today” (2 Nephi 28:5). In the Savior’s ministry among the Nephites, He warned against a church that “be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil” (3 Nephi 27:11). These warnings are not limited to religious organizations. In the circumstances of our day they include a multitude of secular philosophies and activities.

Lehi and Nephi had a vision of this. Those who partook of the fruit of the tree of life were looked upon with scorn and mocked by those who had entered a nearby “great and spacious building” (see 1 Nephi 8:26-33). This building was the “vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men” (1 Nephi 12:18); its occupants were “the multitude of the earth,” and together they represented “the world and the wisdom thereof” (1 Nephi 11:35). Many people who believe in God experience such scorn and mocking from worldly teachings and from the denial of God in many organizations, including educational institutions and media.

III.

I have spoken of prophetic challenges faced by the diminishing numbers of God-fearing people who share our belief in God and the right and wrong that exist because of His commandments. This only repeats what existed at the time of the Savior. The Apostle John wrote that the Son of God, who made the world, “was in the world, . . . and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:10-11). So it is today.

Even as we are “troubled on every side,” we are “not in despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8). We know that our spiritual growth requires “an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). We also know that the Lord “seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith” (Mosiah 23:21). But the scriptures also teach that He will deliver those who put their trust in Him (see 1 Samuel 17:37, 45-46; Psalm 34:22; Proverbs 3:5-6; Alma 23:22).

Believers need to be witnesses of God. I will now suggest three kinds of things we can do in response to current conditions, beginning with what is easiest. All of these respond to a great Book of Mormon teaching that we should “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death” (Mosiah 18:9). My suggestions also try to fit within the teaching that our good works should be “done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength” (Mosiah 4:27).

A.    Private Prayers and Greetings

We are taught to “believe in Christ, and deny him not” (2 Nephi 25:29); to “look unto [Christ] in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36); and to “talk of Christ,” “rejoice in Christ,” and “preach of Christ” (2 Nephi 25:26). Two ways we can do this are in our private prayers and in our personal greetings.

In our private personal and family prayers we should ask God to help us and our neighbors and leaders recognize God our Creator and the right and wrong established by His commandments. We should do this for the good of His children everywhere.

We should also assert ourselves against the current trend to refrain from religious references even in private communications. In recent years the inclusion of religious symbols and reverent words in Christmas greetings and sympathy cards have almost disappeared. When we make choices on these kinds of communications, we should not participate in erasing sacred reminders from our personal communications. As believers, we have a duty to preserve the name and influence of God and Christ in our conversations, our lives and our culture.

B.    Publicly Recognize the Blessings of God

A second thing believers can do to stand as witnesses of God is to support public recognition of the blessings of God. This seeks to counter the diminishing mention of religious faith and references to God and His blessings in our public discourse. Contrast current public documents and the current rhetoric of government leaders with the similar documents and words of leaders in the first two centuries of our nation. In that contrast you will have evidence of deliberate efforts to edit out references to God and the influence of religion in our nation’s founding and preservation.

What can we do about this? First, we can set the right example in our family and Church teachings by acknowledging the blessings of the Lord in the establishment of this nation. To do this “in wisdom and order” we should not seem to deny that this nation includes and is blessed by citizens of Jewish, Muslim, atheist and other non-Christian persuasions. But we should speak truthfully of the fact that this nation was founded by persons and leaders who were predominantly Christians and who embodied the principles of their faith in the constitution, laws and culture of this nation.

Our friend John A. Howard, esteemed educator and thinker, explains why this is appropriate. His book Christianity: Lifeblood of America’s Free Society (1920-1945), describes the religious commitments of the heroic founders of this nation. He states:

“It is because a large majority of Americans during the next century and a half tried to lead a life according to the principles of Christianity, and expected others to do the same, that America succeeded so fully in establishing and maintaining a self-governing free society, juster, kinder and more lawful than any other.”[7]

A recent essay by our friend and highly honored teacher and thinker Clayton Christensen insists that religion is the foundation of both democracy and prosperity. He reminds us that democracy and capitalism both depend on large-scale obedience to the unenforceable and that this prerequisite is dependent upon religions that teach such fundamentals as “the equality of people, the importance of respecting others’ property, and personal honesty and integrity.” Secularism, which aspires to displace theistic religion in our country, has no power or program to provide what Christensen calls “the requisite foundation of extensive obedience to the unenforceable.”[8]

We should also contend for the inclusion in textbooks and teaching in school settings of accurate accounts of great historical documents that recognize and invoke the blessings of God in the founding and preservation of this nation. I refer to such as George Washington’s farewell letter to the 13 colonies when he retired as commander in chief of the Continental Army. He ended with a prayer to “Almighty God . . . that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy Holy protection” and concluded, “Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[9] Benjamin Franklin’s stirring call for prayer at the Constitutional Convention is well known.[10] Lincoln invoked the blessings of God in many of his formal communications, including the Emancipation Proclamation and his great Second Inaugural Address.[11] Such acknowledgements and pleas are part of our history and should not be omitted from our memories or our culture.

C.    Contend for the Free Exercise of Religion

My third suggestion of what we can do to be better witnesses of God is to contend for the free exercise of religion. This is more difficult because it requires cooperative action by believers of various faiths. We should press officials in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of governments to honor the constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion. I am one of many in our Church who have spoken on this subject. Here I will emphasize only two examples of current concern.

The first involves public prayer. Prayer occurs when anyone addresses the Divine Being, whatever their concept of God and however they choose to address Him. Regardless of the content of a prayer, which will vary according to the belief of the one who prays, when a prayer is offered in a public setting it is important as an affirmation or symbol of a group’s common dependence upon and reverence for God. This is the nature of the prayers offered at the beginning of legislative assemblies or council meetings and in oaths administered to precede court testimony or official installations.

This symbol of prayer has been under legal attack for over 50 years, first in public school classrooms, where prayers were outlawed 50 years ago, and now in college graduations, city council meetings and other public settings. Whatever the designated pray-er’s concept of God and whatever his or her religious persuasion or language of prayer, I hope the citizens of this nation can continue to witness their belief in God by the symbol of prayer, wisely and tolerantly administered. That is worth contending for.

Second, we should be alert to oppose the potential significance of the fact that some government officials and public policy advocates are describing the First Amendment guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion as merely “freedom of worship.” But the guarantee of “free exercise” protects the right to come out of our private settings, including churches, synagogues and mosques, to act upon our beliefs, subject only to the legitimate government powers necessary to protect public health, safety and welfare. Free exercise surely protects religious citizens in acting upon their beliefs in public policy debates and in votes cast as citizens or as lawmakers.

We should also use our political influence to resist current moves to banish from legislative and judicial lawmaking all actions based on religious convictions and motivations. A dangerous recent example of this was the opinion of the single federal district judge who invalidated the California Proposition 8 constitutional amendment.[12] The precedent of his decision on the inappropriateness of presumed religious or moral motivations as a basis for lawmaking was used by the lawyers who persuaded another federal district judge to invalidate the Utah constitutional provision and laws affirming the traditional limitation on marriages to one man and one woman.[13] Then, when an eminent lawyer was hired to take the appeal, he was criticized by the Human Rights Campaign for having religious motivations for his decision to defend traditional marriage.[14] Where will this illogical attack on religious motivations end?

As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in his powerful address to a nationwide audience of Christian leaders, we Mormons are “eager to join hands . . . to guarantee the freedom of religion that will allow all of us to speak out [and I would add to act out] on matters of Christian conscience regarding the social issues of our time.”[15] We should all agree with the Christian writer he quoted:

“All of our nation’s religious citizens need to develop a respect for other religious people and their beliefs. We need not accept their beliefs, but we can respect the people and realize that we have more in common with each other than we ever will with the secularizers of this country.”[16]

We need to support the coalitions of religious leaders and God-fearing people who are coming together to defend our nation’s traditional culture of belief in God and the acknowledgement of His blessings. As Clayton Christensen’s impressive essay reminds us, religion is essential to our nation’s democracy and prosperity.[17]

IV.

In conclusion, I say to my fellow Latter-day Saints — and I suggest to all believers everywhere — that we have a solemn religious duty to be witnesses of God. We must affirm our religious faiths, unite to insist upon our constitutional right to the free exercise of our religions and honor their vital roles in establishing and preserving and prospering this nation.

I remind my fellow Christians of the solemn teaching of the Apostle John:

“And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (1 John 4:3).

The consequence of our failing to speak out as witnesses of God are evident in our Savior’s teaching about the salt that has “lost its savour.” Mixed with other substances — just as we can be diluted by the values of the world — it loses its unique influence on the mixture of the mass. As the Savior taught, it is “thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men” (Matthew 5:13).

My fellow students, we are the “salt of the earth.” We must retain our savour by living our religion and by asserting ourselves as witnesses of God. When we do so, we associate ourselves with those who will enjoy the ultimate victory of truth and righteousness, when “every knee shall bow . . . and every tongue shall confess to God” (Romans 14:11) and the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we worship and whose servants we are. I testify of Them and invoke Their blessings on all who witness of Them, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 

[1] Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (1963), 226. See chapter 11 generally.

[2] Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Kouki, Relativism (2007), 12-13.

[3] See Paul Kurtz, ed., Humanist Manifesto I and II (1973), 14-16.

[4] Think Independently (2009), 120.

[5] Id., at 121.

[6] Humanist Manifestos, note 3 supra at p. 16.

[7] John A. Howard, Christianity: Lifeblood of America’s Free Society (1920-1945), 51 (2008), 51.

[8] Clayton Christensen, “Religion Is the Foundation of Democracy and Prosperity,” see http://www.mormonperspectives.com/2011/02/08/religion-is-the-foundation-of-democracy-and-prosperity.

[9] Quoted in Howard, note 7 supra at 131.

[10] See Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia (1986), 125-26.

[11] See An American Primer, vol. 1 (1966), 413, 423-24.

[12] Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 704 F. Supp. 2d 921, 938, 985, 1001-02, (N.D. Cal. 2010), aff’d sub nom. Perry v. Brown, 671 F.3d 1052 (9th Cir. 2012), vacated and remanded sub nom. Hollingsworth v. Perry, 133 S. Ct. 2652 (2013).

[13] Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment at xxviii, 21, 28-29, Kitchen v. Herbert, No. 2:13-cv-00217-RJS (D. Utah Oct. 10, 2013); Plaintiffs’ Opposition to Motion of the Governor and Attorney General for Summary Judgment at 3, 26-27, Kitchen v. Herbert, No. 2:13-cv-00217 RJS (D. Utah Nov. 22, 2013).

[14] “Why Is Utah’s Hired Gun Fighting Gay Marriage? It’s His LDS Faith,” Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 24, 2014, A5; “Lawyer Accused of Defending Amendment 3 for Religious Reasons,” Deseret News, Jan. 23, 2014, B2. Also see editorial, “Religious Conviction,” Deseret News, Jan. 24, 2014, A12.

[15] “Standing Together for the Cause of Christ” (Governor’s Mansion address to Christian leaders, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 10, 2011), 5.

[16] Id., at pp. 8-9, quoting Tim LaHaye, The Race for the 21st Century (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986), p. 109.

[17] Note 8 supra.

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