Why would an MIT Planetary Scientist become a Mormon?


John S. Lewis

My parents took care to raise me in conformity with Christian principles, with love and encouragement for me to follow my own interests and choose my own path. The Congregational church that we attended encouraged scripture reading and memorization, both of which I pursued energetically.

From an early age I showed great interest in nature and the natural sciences, taxing my parents’ ability to lead me in directions so different from their own interests and experience. At the age of five years, I asked my mother whether the Moon had a face on the other side (I already was well aware that the Moon always kept the same side toward Earth and that the far side was not the mythical “dark side of the Moon”). My mother, a former school teacher, responded with the perfect answer: “Nobody knows.” Thus she opened to me the notion that our knowledge of the Universe was not a settled body of doctrine, but an ever-growing body of knowledge to which even I might one day contribute. During bouts of childhood illness, my father would stop by the public library and bring home a wildly eclectic stack of books, of which I most enjoyed those on nature, exploration, history, and biography. For Christmas in 1954 my parents gave me a newly issued handbook of the heavens, The Little Golden Book of Stars, which I literally wore out and memorized. Two highlights of the book included a table of data on the planets, liberally decorated with question marks, which confirmed that there was still much to be learned. The other was a modest two-page spread headed “Rocket to the Moon,” which began, “Given time and money for research, a rocket capable of reaching the moon will certainly be made.” The author would probably have been astounded to know that the first moon probe would be launched less than four years later. In high school I resolved to study chemistry and physics, which I regarded as a better foundation for the study of the Solar System than astronomy or geology.

Meanwhile my religious self-education continued. In the course of reading the Bible, many points of doctrine struck me quite strongly. The insistence of the Gospels that Jesus Christ was the creator of the Earth implied to me that the Jehovah of the Old Testament was the same as Christ. Paul’s warnings about churches run by “hirelings” definitely caught my attention. Although I respected and felt love and appreciation for our minister, the nagging thought kept coming to me that he was without authority and should not be a salaried “hireling”: he was evidently a fully committed Christian and completely sincere, but I doubted his authority. The references to anointing, to the laying on of hands, and to baptism for the dead in the Bible were simply to be ignored. They were dismissed as “practices of the primitive church,” as if we were now too grown-up for that nonsense. The role of the Temple intrigued me. I was aware of the belief in some churches that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit were one and the same person, and I decided that this was untenable in light of the many passages of scripture in which they speak of, or to, each other as distinct personages. When Christ on the cross prayed “Father, forgive them” he clearly was not talking to himself.

Attempts to discuss theology with my parents were not entirely satisfactory. My mother faithfully recited the doctrinal beliefs of the church we belonged to and felt uncomfortable discussing interpretation of scripture, preferring to leave that task for those educated in the ministry. My father, an exemplary Christian who lived a selfless life of service in the YMCA, turned out to have no theology: his willingness to emulate Christ coexisted with a deep impatience with sectarian doctrines and especially with doctrinal differences and disputes. Neither was comfortable with the concept of the Holy Spirit. Yet the Holy Spirit was real: at the age of twelve, I was given a remarkable insight, that I would one day marry a girl named Peg. I knew no girls with that name, and no one wanted to hear about my experience. When, at the age of fourteen, I was invited by the minister to give the sermon on Youth Sunday, I talked about missionary work, not fine points of doctrine.

So it continued until I was nearly forty years old. I was a faithful church-going family man, a professor at MIT, taking my wife Peg and our four children to church every Sunday, teaching Sunday School and singing in the choir. When we told the minister that the Holy Spirit testified to us of the truth of certain things said by him in his sermons, he responded impatiently, “Don’t mock me.” It slowly became clear that he was a hired preacher, not guided by the Holy Spirit, who bought sermons from other hired preachers and read them to us. His true function was as a social worker and a motivational speaker. The Holy Spirit was talking to us, not to him. We left that church on Easter Sunday with the feeling that we were still Christians, but our church had strayed away and left us behind. We never went back. My father’s distrust of organized religion had apparently bred true.

A few weeks later two young Mormon missionaries knocked on our door when we were out on errands. Peg’s mother, who was visiting and knew nothing of our decision, answered the door and told them that we were “perfectly happy with their church.” But the missionaries were strongly impressed to come back to speak to us personally. They did, and I set up an appointment with them to come by the next Sunday afternoon. Peg, hiding behind the front door, was appalled: “But we decided not to follow organized religion!”

The next Sunday afternoon the missionaries arrived. We hustled our children out of the room lest they be contaminated by these unproved proselyters. We sat down, Peg with her arms folded and a less than inviting look on her face, and I threw out a nearly equally cordial challenge: “I must warn you that we have a very negative view of organized religion. We are Christians, but we have come to the sad conclusion that there is no church out there that has any real authority or power. We fear that the true church was lost in the century or so after the death of Christ and the Apostles.” Much to our astonishment, the older missionary smiled back at me and said, “Have we got news for you!”

The next few weeks were an intense blizzard of activity. The missionaries visited us daily, usually staying for dinner. All the questions about religion that had been haunting us for years, polished by reading, among many others, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, the Popol Vuh, the Book of the Hopi, the Upanishads, the writings and lives of John of the Cross, Teresa de Avila, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Søren Kierkegaard, and the inspirational Christian works of C. S. Lewis, were aired. Usually the missionaries had a ready and satisfactory answer. Sometimes they confessed ignorance, went to study out the issue, and returned with answers. Never once did they shoot from the hip with unsatisfactory answers, as the Holy Spirit testified to us of their truthfulness. Here at last, in full integrity, was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ we had found in the Bible, trimmed of the inventions of uninspired men. All the purity of truth that pervades and underlies Christian belief was laid out as a seamless, clean, unblemished cloth. All the sectarian dross was washed away. Paul’s vision, in I Corinthians, of a single, united Church free of doctrinal contention alone remained. And the doctrinal foundation of that true church could only be known with certainty by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, as prescribed by the Epistle of James. Through that testimony the strength and integrity of Christian doctrine was restored to me, based on the firm foundation of the Bible and building a single coherent, harmonious Church upon that foundation, free of the divisive doctrinal disputes of the other churches I had studied. Biblical scholarship, however important, was an artifact of the intellect, rarely capable of resolving doctrinal disputes. Faith, by contrast, was the key to salvation; not just belief in anything, but belief in things not seen which are true – and the truth could be known spiritually. The intellectual and legalistic Talmudic and Midrashic pilpul that engulfed the Old Testament had been illuminated by the New Testament’s gift of the Holy Spirit, which threw light into the darkest corners of scriptural commentary. The Holy Spirit was truly a “guide for the perplexed” with greater authority than Maimonides.

As a professor of Planetary Sciences at MIT, I was on the forefront of the exploration of the Solar System. Much of my work centered on the earliest history of the Solar System, essentially on the mechanics of creation. I was intimately familiar with the evidence, from the chronology of planetary formation through the geological history of Earth, the cratering record on the planets, the composition and evolution of their surfaces and interiors, and the relationships between ancient small bodies (asteroids and comets) and the planets. I was also familiar with the literature of “scientific creationism,” which I found to be appallingly bad, full of glaring factual blunders and astonishing lapses of logic. I found their personal interpretations of scripture to be indefensible in the face of overwhelming evidence. Their mindset seemed to be that science was the opposite of religion; that their interpretations of scripture were right and anyone who disagreed with them must be evil, intent on destroying religion. But the geological record is as much the work of God as the scriptures are. They together constitute two independent witnesses, satisfying the Old Testament requirement that two or more independent witnesses are required to attest to truth. That the two witnesses, science and scripture, should see different things is no surprise. After all, your own two eyes see different scenes; each eye sees things the other does not see, but by combining the witness of your two eyes you can see in depth, something neither eye can do alone. To assume that one witness is correct and the other is lying is to lose all perspective. It is to become half-blind. As the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin expressed it, “Science and religion are two complementary faces of one and the same underlying reality.”

I see no conflict between science and religion. I see many conflicts between the misunderstandings of science and the flawed interpretation of scripture of men who lack both scientific knowledge and guidance by the Holy Spirit. I invite any person who desires to strengthen his understanding and testimony of creation to study both the scientific and scriptural evidence prayerfully, with the goal of learning and understanding. Properly understood, this study will provide you with a rich and deep perspective. Science will tell you the when and where and how of creation; the scriptures will tell you who and why.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its long tradition of free inquiry and of individuals prayerfully testing every point of doctrine for themselves, is fully compatible with the scientific method. The priesthood is held by every worthy male, and any may be called to positions of authority and responsibility in the Church. There is no paid clergy. The Church is led by Jesus Christ, as its name clearly attests. There is not and has never been a “Mormon Church,” a phrase originally invented by enemies of the Church to avoid acknowledging what it really is. We have the priesthoods held anciently by Aaron, by Abraham, and by Jesus Christ himself, restored in our time. We have temples, restored by divine direction, in which the ancient ordinances of salvation, including baptism for the dead, are carried out. We believe in the reality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in purpose and three in number. They are no more one person than Paul and Apollos (I Cor. 3:6-8) were the same person.

I testify that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, which I can say only by the witness of the Spirit. I further testify that the Book of Mormon is another witness of Jesus Christ. I believe in the words of Christ, when he said “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This is our challenge and commandment. I know of no other church that believes that these words of Christ are literally true.

Source: Mormon Scholars Testify

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply