I had an experience some time ago that led me to think and to pray intensely. The whole incident caused me to reflect on the ways we gain knowledge from our Heavenly Father, and on the intimate relationship that exists between intellectual and spiritual means of acquiring knowledge.
As I read the experiences of others who were seeking knowledge, I found patterns similar to the ones I had discovered. Even more strikingly, I noticed remarkable similarities between searches for knowledge using the more obviously spiritual processes of prayer and fasting, and those using the rational processes of scientific inquiry. (Ultimately, our spiritual and rational characteristics are surely part of a whole.)
This is not surprising. Our Father in Heaven can inspire both those seeking him in prayer and those seeking knowledge by rational means. He can reveal knowledge to those seeking “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
But before we examine the process itself, we must deal with three questions: (1) Why must we rely on God at all? (2) Where do ideas come from? (3) How can prayer help us?
1. Why must we rely on God? We have only fragmentary knowledge of our premortal existence and no memory of it. We have only incomplete knowledge of post-mortal events. Thus, in order to understand what is going on around us in earth life, we must appeal to God for knowledge.
2. Where do ideas come from? There are several views on the matter. Since ancient times philosophers have related man’s intellect to their ideas of man’s nature. To Aristotle and Aquinas, for example, ideas result from the intellect’s power to make abstractions out of individual sense experiences. However, to Plato, Augustine, Descartes, and Kant, the intellect is somehow innately endowed with ideas or seeds of understanding.
In some ways, the Latter-day Saint position bridges these two views. An idea that seems to be innately present within man may really be an abstraction from individual sense experiences that were enjoyed in a premortal state. This being so, some of our thinking must be a recovery of truth, not a discovery.
In the Phaedo, Cebes says, “Your favorite doctrine, Socrates, that knowledge is simply recollection, if true, also necessarily implies a previous time in which we have learned that which we now recollect. But this would be impossible unless our soul had been in some place before existing in the form of men; here then is another proof of the soul’s immortality.” (Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica: 1952, p. 228.) And in the same book Socrates says, “Our souls must also have existed without bodies before they were in the form of man, and must have had intelligence.” (Ibid., p. 230.) And in Phaedrus, Socrates says: “The soul through all her being is immortal, for that which is ever in motion is immortal; but that which moves another and is moved by another, in ceasing to move ceases also to live. Only the self-moving, ever-learning self never ceases to move and is the fountain and beginning of motion to all that moves besides. Now the beginning is unbegotten, for that which is begotten has a beginning; … if unbegotten, it must also be indestructible; for if beginning were destroyed, there could be no beginning out of anything, nor anything out of a beginning. … Therefore the self-moving is the beginning of motion; and this can neither be destroyed nor begotten, else the whole heavens and all creation would collapse and stand still, and never again have motion or birth. … That which is moved from within has a soul, for such is the nature of the soul. But if this be true, must not the soul be the self-moving, and therefore of necessity unbegotten and immortal?” (p. 124; italics added.)
Socrates apparently achieved this insight by inspired reason. Joseph Smith explained the same concept, and incomparably more, after much study, meditation, and prayer, when he received the revelation in section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
“I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn. …
“Ye were also in the beginning with the Father. …
“Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
“All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
“Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man. …
“The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.” (D&C 93:21, 23, 29–31, 36.)
When we seek ideas, therefore, they may constitute either new knowledge, or understanding possessed by us before but hidden from our consciousness now for purposes of our probation and growth in mortality. In either case, our Father aids us in discovery or recovery, whichever the case may be.
3. How can prayer aid in our quest for this knowledge? If by praying to the Father one may learn truth possessed by Him, are not all attempts to gain knowledge any other way crude, laborious, and time-wasting? And if God knows our thoughts before we utter them, what is the reason for prayer? Jesus himself said that the Father knows of our needs even before we tell him (see Matt. 6:7–8). If the Father wishes, he will bless us with ideas, knowledge, or truth; or he may decide to withhold these blessings. Therefore, why should we pray for knowledge or for any other matter?
Yet Jesus directed us to pray. He said, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7). The answer to the apparent dilemma may be within those key words seek and opened. The first implies work and meditation—a personal effort to gain enough knowledge and understanding that the Father can communicate with us, and sufficient pondering and searching that we have become completely immersed in the problem. Effort concentrated like laser light is a vital ingredient in the process of gaining knowledge: the most sustained and intense struggle on our part in which we use all our spiritual, mental, physical capacity. This principle holds whether we seek to comprehend that knowledge that is deep within our own souls or to perceive new knowledge from God.
The second word, opened, seems to describe a flash of insight, which if preceded by seeking (intense work, study, prayer, and meditation), will come as revelation from the Father. It follows that part, though only part, of what God offers us in prayer is the right to carry on a dialogue with him to help us probe for truth, with the promise that in due time truth or ideas will be ours. The understanding of our own selves and the expansion of our own souls (see Alma 32) evidently demands absolutely our own effort. The degree to which prayer is in fact dialogue and not monologue would depend upon such factors as our own spiritual receptivity, coupled with the mental and spiritual knowledge that we already possess.
Socrates’ system of careful questioning, today known as the Socratic method, was the style he developed for thinking through a problem to discover (or recover) the answer. The experience of modern-day prophets provides some intriguing parallels.
In the Meno Socrates showed that a slave boy with no education could discover the solution to a geometry problem by answering questions designed to lead the boy to information he already had. “There have always been true thoughts in him,” Socrates tells Meno, “which only needed to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him.” Consequently, “his soul must always have possessed this knowledge.”
We do not have to accept Socrates’ conclusion, however, since we know of a premortal state with experiences somewhat different from those suggested by Plato. Nevertheless, in requiring that we seek, knock, and ask, is not God saying that he will carry on a dialogue with us? And isn’t he saying that if we will strive by reason, by deep and sometimes painful reflection, and by listening to the promptings of the Spirit who brings to our remembrance things past, we will be blessed with knowledge? We do not have to accept this as a complete answer to why prayer helps us gain knowledge, but it might be a partial answer.
In Theatetus, Theatetus tells Socrates that he, Theatetus, cannot shake off his nervousness and anxiety. Socrates replies that “these are the pangs of labour, my dear Theatetus; you have something within you which you are bringing to the birth. … The triumph of my art is in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth.” (p. 516.)
We can see all of these factors at work in one of the most fascinating and enlightening events in Church history, which led to sections eight and nine of the Doctrine and Covenants. The place was Harmony, Pennsylvania. The time, April 1829. Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon with Oliver Cowdery acting as scribe. Oliver Cowdery desired that the power to translate be given to him. Section eight of the Doctrine and Covenants was given in response to Oliver’s prayers for this power of revelation and translation. The Lord assured him that he would receive the gift:
“Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.
“Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.
“Therefore this is thy gift.” (D&C 8:2–4.)
But Oliver was not able to proceed very far, and the translation experience did not go as he desired. Finally, the Prophet asked of the Lord to see why Oliver was not able to continue as a translator. Section nine of the Doctrine and Covenants explains why. The Lord said to Oliver Cowdery through the Prophet:
“Behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you. …
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
“But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
“Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.” (D&C 9:5, 7–10.)
In 1877, Elder Lorenzo Snow referred to Oliver Cowdery’s experience and said:
“It is impossible to advance in the principles of truth, to increase in heavenly knowledge, except we exercise our reasoning faculties and exert ourselves in a proper manner. …
“Although the gift to translate had been conferred, he could not prosecute the work, simply because he failed to exert himself before God with the view of developing the gift within him; and he became greatly disappointed, and the Lord, in his goodness and mercy, informed him of his mistake. …
“So in regard to us, respecting the things which we are undertaking. If we expect to improve, to advance in the work immediately before us, and finally to obtain possession of those gifts and glories, coming up to that condition of exaltation we anticipate, we must take thought and reflect, we must exert ourselves, and that too to the utmost of our ability.” (In Journal of Discourses, 18:371–72.)
Does this revelatory process differ markedly from the scientific method of getting knowledge or ideas or truth? In a lecture at Brigham Young University a number of years ago, Dr. Edmund D. Starbuck declared: “The scientist studies his problem, saturates his mind with it, puzzles over it, dreams about it, but seems to find progress impossible, blocked as it were by a black, impenetrable wall. And then at last and suddenly as if out of the nowhere, there comes a flash of light, the answer to his quest. His mind is now illumined by a great discovery.” (Quoted by Harold B. Lee in “Sweet Are the Uses of Adversity,” Instructor, June 1965, p. 217.)
Albert Einstein said: “When I think and reflect how my discoveries originated and took form, a hundred times you run, as it were, with your head against the wall (meaning a hundred failures) in order to lay your hands upon and define and fit into a system what, from a merely indefinable premonition, you sense in vain. And then suddenly, perhaps like a stroke of lightning, the salient thought will come to you and the indescribably laborious task of building up and expanding the system can begin. The process is not different by which the artist arrives at his conceptions. Real faith, either to a scientist or a businessman or a minister of religion, involves the problem and struggle of searching.” (Instructor, June 1965, p. 217.)
Einstein described this process of gaining knowledge like a “stroke of lightning”; Starbuck described it as a “flash of light.” Plato used almost the same language to describe his intellectual leap from frustration following deep thought to the resolution of a problem or getting an idea. Joseph Smith said, “A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas.” (History of the Church, 3:381.)
This very process argues against the false idea that prayer, study, and meditation, or deep thought are merely attempts to convince oneself of a particular principle. To the person who is sensitive to divine communication, pure revelation floods the very being in a way that makes it unmistakable. Whether the truth be in science, philosophy, or religion, that knowledge is now his in a way that it was not before. Again, Einstein said of faith: “Real faith, either to a scientist or a businessman or a minister of religion, involves the problem and struggle of searching.” The Lord said to Joseph and Oliver that “you must study it out in your mind.”
This may be at least partially what the Master meant when he admonished us to “search the scriptures” (John 5:39). The injunction was not merely to read the scriptures, but to search them, which implies a process of reading and rereading, studying, pondering, praying, meditating, and exerting all the mental and spiritual power we possess to obtain the deepest level of understanding of that which the Lord has given us. The same effort is implied in Alma’s description of how faith develops into perfect knowledge: “Swelling motions” enlarge the soul, growing until “your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand” (Alma 32:28, Alma 34:26–43).
Finally, I have learned that one must use the truth he possesses before asking for more. An ancient Tibetan proverb says, “He who knows and fails to practice the precepts is like a man who lights a lamp in the darkness and then closes his eyes.” We have a loving Heavenly Father who possesses all knowledge. He is willing to share it with us as fast as we are able to obtain it by worthy effort and then truly make it “ours” by living it.