One of my favorite colleagues in education was an agnostic science teacher with whom I whiled away more than a few lunch periods commiserating about all our sundry complaints. Particularly at the school where we worked together, we had both noticed that the population had a strong, seemingly built-in sense of fatalism, wholly internalized, woven into the fabric of their DNA. Far too many kids would come into our classes at the end of a summer already convinced that they couldn’t learn, that they would never want to learn, that work of any kind just wasn’t important. Their philosophy was one of paralyzing nihilism, a mix of predestination and hedonism, I thought. They were absolutely sure that their intelligence, talents, and abilities were all immutable, a fixed, inherent quantity that they couldn’t improve or develop even if they wanted to, so why bother? My friend and I lamented our failure to convince them that they were far more powerful than they were giving themselves credit for.
During one of our conversations about religion, though, he short-circuited my attempts to get him to analyze his own agnostic assumptions when he asserted that I simply had the “gift of faith,” a thing which he said he respected, but just didn’t have. I don’t think any amount of banging my head against the wall ever got him to see the irony.
Now, there certainly is such a thing as a gift of faith, just as there are many other spiritual gifts, but the gift of faith isn’t necessary in order to have any faith at all. Like the gift of tongues, it’s meant to augment an ability that could already be there: any one could learn a foreign language with effort and study, but a genuine gift for tongues could facilitate even a miraculous acquisition. So it is with faith: the special spiritual gift could make one’s faith easier to obtain, or deeper than normal, but absolutely anyone could develop faith according to the formulas given in the scriptures.
Formulas? Yes. It’s doubly ironic that so many people, like my scientist friend, reject faith because they see it as subjective wishful thinking, when in fact true faith is something that comes about as a result of a clear, careful process; a concrete, sequential experiment that is definitely delineated in the scriptures.
This method is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon. The prophet Alma explains the exercises as follows:
First, “awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye can give place for a portion of my words.” (Alma 32:27) You must want to know the answer. Without an investment of sincere interest on your part (“ask with a sincere heart, with real intent,” Moroni 10:4), one is simply going through the motions. Nothing serious ever has been or ever could be developed that way. Apathetically strolling along the treadmill will never make any one a fit athlete, and limply breezing through this process will not reveal the authentic nature of faith. Also, we must be open to the possibility that God is there, and that we will have to act on a positive conclusion (“O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee…” Alma 22:18). Starting with any other attitude is intellectually dishonest, and will subvert this routine, as it would any experiment.
Second, “give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart.” (Alma 32:28). The real process begins with study (“Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee…” Alma 30:44; “A record….to the convincing of Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ,” Book of Mormon Title Page; “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and…he will manifest the truth of it unto you…” Moroni 10:4) and application (“If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” John 7:17).
Alma offers a description of what the sincere investigator will observe at this point, a clear, obvious set of results that will show the experimenter that the process is valid: “the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea it beginneth to be delicious to me.” Alma 32:28, emphasis added. The first and last signs are internal feelings over which no object like a sacred text or exercise like virtuous living could have a single, universal effect on anyone unless they were designed to have that specific effect on everybody.
The middle item is most interesting to those who aren’t inclined to give faith credibility because it appears to be unreasonable: investigating Christ increases our mental capacity. Indeed, in the same sermon, Alma notes that those developing faith will see “that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand” (Alma 32:34), and he stresses that the product of this program is “real…because it is discernible” (Alma 32:35) .
Third, to continue this process of growth, one must admit that growth is taking place: “then you must needs say that the seed is good” (Alma 32:30). Like anyone seeing external results in from their work, though, Alma cautions against putting ourselves on auto pilot before finishing what we’d started, contenting ourselves with only a fraction of what the experiment can deliver, because doing so jeopardizes the stability of what we’ve already gained: “neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good. And behold, as [your faith] beginneth to grow, ye will say, Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us.” (Alma 32:36-37).
Fourth, like any malleable talent or characteristic, faith must be continually practiced in order to be maintained. “If ye will nourish the word…by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life” (Alma 32:41). Notice just how active, how assertive the language used by Alma throughout this sermon is: he speaks of exercises and experiments, of planting and nourishing, of diligence.
The proscribed method is reliable. If you want to develop your physical abilities–strength and flexibility, for example–there are established routines of exercise: diet, calisthenics, resistance training. If you want to develop your mental abilities–comprehension and memory, for example–there are established routines of exercise: reading, annotating, studying. And if you want to develop your spiritual abilities–faith and charity, for example–there are established routines of exercise for those, too: the steps shown above. In this manner, the predictable, consistent experiences of a wide variety of people demonstrate the validity of each method.