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Elder Renlund explains how observation and reason work synergistically with faith

The Apostle delivered the keynote address to a capacity crowd for BYU Education Week on Tuesday, Aug. 22

PROVO, Utah — Some might believe that observation or reason undermine faith. In reality, “this is a false dichotomy,” Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared, “because observation and reason work synergistically with faith.”

Speaking to a capacity crowd gathered in the Marriott Center on Tuesday, Aug. 22, during BYU Education Week, Elder Renlund spoke on this year’s theme: “Belief enhances inquiry, study amplifies faith, and revelation leads to deeper understanding.”

Observation, reason and faith are often prerequisites not only to receive personal revelation but also to understand that revelation, Elder Renlund explained.

To illustrate how observation alone can be unreliable, Elder Renlund showed a photo of him receiving a diploma of graduation from then-BYU President Dallin H. Oaks in 1976.

Although he likes the image, Elder Renlund said, it is an image generated by artificial intelligence. In fact, he did not graduate from BYU. “In the future, we will be wise to avoid relying on observation alone.”

In a similar vein, reason and even faith alone are insufficient independent of one another.

Using an example provided by the Savior, Elder Renlund then showed how observation, reason and faith can interact.

Attendees listen to Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at BYU Education Week in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023.
Attendees listen to Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at BYU Education Week in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Two disciples of John the Baptist go to the Savior to ask if He were the promised Messiah. Rather than simply saying, “Yes,” Jesus responded in a way that encouraged them to use observation and reason to develop faith, Elder Renlund noted. 

“Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see” (Matthew 11:2-5).

Elder Renlund explained, “These disciples were to observe what was happening, use their reason to answer their own question, and come to the realization that Jesus was the Messiah. In this example, the Savior encouraged observation and reason to activate faith.”

In the Book of Mormon, Alma invited a subset of the Zoramites who would listen to him to perform an experiment, comparing his words to a seed.

But while the scientific method prizes skepticism, Alma’s experiment depended on an inclination to believe.

With an inclination to believe, individuals plant the seed in their hearts. As the seed swells, sprouts and begins to grow, faith is strengthened, and individuals come to “know that this is a good seed” (Alma 32:30).

“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,” Elder Renlund explained. 

Elder Dale G. Renlund drops a book and a piece of paper to demonstrate a point in the Marriott Center during BYU Education Week.
Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles demonstrates a principle with Melanie Soares and Ethan Brown as he speaks at BYU Education Week in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Renlund noted that faith is either growing stronger or becoming weaker. “There is no place to stop and rest; there is no plateau.”

Additionally, faith can atrophy in at least three ways. “First, if we stop actively building our faith. This happens when we harden our hearts or become self-satisfied with our status quo.”

Second, faith atrophies as individuals actively choose to go back or become disobedient and stop repenting.

The third way faith can atrophy, Elder Renlund shared, is when individuals shift their inclination away from faith, toward skepticism and doubt.

“In all three ways faith atrophies, we receive less and less until we lose all that we had previously received. We lose the companionship of the Holy Ghost and ultimately know nothing concerning the mysteries of God. 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,” Elder Renlund said.

Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks at BYU Education Week in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Five principles of revelation

This combination of observation, reason and faith in receiving and understanding revelation was illustrated when President Joseph F. Smith received the revelation that would become Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

With the recent death of his son and daughter-in-law, World War I raging and the Spanish flu killing millions around the globe, death was on the Prophet’s mind, Elder Renlund noted. As President Smith pondered the Atonement of Jesus Christ, he saw a vision of the Savior preaching to the spirits in the spirit world.

“As we consider these experiences of President Smith, we see that reason and faith provided a springboard for that revelation,” said Elder Renlund, who then highlighted five principles of revelation learned from this experience.

Principle 1: “Personal revelation requires work, including learning how the Holy Ghost communicates individually with us.”

Principle 2: “Personal revelation is facilitated by understanding and formulating questions from multiple angles.”

Principle 3: “Personal revelation usually requires depending on and acting on incomplete understanding.”

Principle 4: “Personal revelation is iterative.”

Principle 5: “Personal revelation requires humility to corroborate and not concoct impressions.”

In conclusion, Elder Renlund reiterated that “observation, reason and faith facilitate revelation and enable the Holy Ghost to be a reliable, trustworthy and beloved companion.” He testified, “These elements will be key factors in producing ‘spiritual momentum in our lives,’ helping us move ‘forward amid … fear and uncertainty.’”

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