I met a man at the Cache County Fair who belongs to the fastest growing religion in the world. You might have met some one like him. He believes that there might be a God out there, or an alien (his words). He believes that organized religion is nice if you need that sort of structure to get you through life (he admitted later he felt organized religion is also the reason for all the suffering throughout human history). The gospel he lives is be a good person. He figures he’s covered with that. He was very nice to me so I suppose he’s living his religion.
Some may find it difficult to try and share the restored gospel with a friendly Agnostic. It’s difficult to take any of the traditional missionary routes of talking about scripture, divine authority, or even the nature of God Himself with them. It seems we have almost nothing in common theologically. But Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught something recently that has changed my approach to sharing the gospel.
“When I say that Latter-day Saints “think differently,” I do not suggest that we have a different way of reasoning in the sense of how we think. I am referring to the fact that on many important subjects our assumptions—our starting points or major premises—are different from many of our friends and associates…
“I suggest that it may be preferable for our young people to refrain from arguing with their associates about such assertions or proposals. They will often be better off to respond by identifying the worldly premises or assumptions in the assertions they face and then by identifying the different assumptions or premises that guide the thinking of Latter-day Saints. This won’t elicit agreement from persons who don’t share our faith, but it can move the discussion away from arguing over conclusions to identifying the real source of disagreement.” (“As He Thinketh in His Heart”, Evening with a General Authority talk to religious educators, Feb 2013.)
Although Elder Oaks is referring to conflicts over moral issues, from this statement we see that figuring out the beginning assumptions a person is coming to the discussion with is very important. Once these assumptions are clear, you can explain the correlating premises of the restored gospel that speak to these assumptions. You may not change their mind, but you’ll be understood. And a person cannot have the spirit testify to them about something they don’t understand.
So in taking this advise, I listened carefully to what my friend was explaining to me about his beliefs so that I could articulate accurately his beginning assumptions. I needed to understand these before I could be ready with an answer for why I believe in the restored gospel. For simplicity, I will list his main assumptions.
1. If there is a God, He’s not too concerned with our life as long as we are good people, which he defined as following the Ten Commandments, specifically the don’t lie, steal or kill part (he was obviously not acquainted with the first four commandments which deal with the worship of the One true God).
2. Organized religion is a man made institution. At best it provides some people with a peace of mind. At worst it’s a platform for corruption and abuse.
3. No one can really know what happened in the past if you weren’t there yourself. (This assumption came as we talked about Joseph Smith later in the discussion.)
4. If God wanted to be known, He would show Himself to everyone. (This also was expressed later in the discussion.)
I tried to understand his main assumptions before I responded. I proposed an alternate possibility. “Suppose there really is a God,” I said, “and suppose what He wants for us is to become like Him because He has a fullness of joy and happiness. This God would have to be known, so He could be followed.”
I then talked about how God is known through prophets who are witnesses of Him. They receive God’s will and authority and lead His kingdom on earth. It was around this point where he asked “am I just supposed to take Joseph Smith’s word for it?” I thought that was a great question, and I told him so.
I explained that at the end of the Book of Mormon we are given a promise that if we will read the book, and give it a chance, we can ask God specially if it’s true. The promise is we can know the truth by the power of the Holy Ghost. And this promise applies to all truth, “by the power of the Holy Ghost you may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:3-5)
At this point he asked why God doesn’t just show himself to everyone. I was glad to explain that this life is a test to see if we’ll chose God or something else. It can only be called a test if it were challenging. God will reveal Himself to those who are prepared and qualified. To those who say they need a sign before they will believe, Jesus condemned as evil and adulterous. We will always be given enough evidence to believe in God. At the same time we are also allowed enough reasons to doubt. We are to choose.
At the conclusion of our conversation I asked my friend if he’d accept a Book of Mormon to investigate. I told him we could talk about it next year when the fair rolls around again. He agreed, and an hour later I grabbed a book from the missionaries who happened by.
In the end, I don’t think I changed his mind. But I did break down at least a part of the caricature he had for members of organized religion in general, and Mormonism specifically. And who knows, I know the Book of Mormon is true, maybe he will actually give it a chance. That could make for an interesting conversation next year.