Act on belief even if questions persist, says Professor Magnusson

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Associate professor of public health Brianna M. Magnusson began her Tuesday devotional address by recounting the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who discovered that washing hands in a bleach solution prevented the spread of disease in a maternity ward.

In spite of the astounding evidence that hand washing could save lives, Dr. Semmelweis’s theory was rejected by his peers because he could not fully explain why this simple practice reduced the rate of disease. The germ theory of disease would not become widely accepted until after 1880, fifteen years after Semmelweis had passed away.

“Perhaps the saddest part of Dr. Semmelweis’s story is to consider the number of women who died and the number of children who grew up without their mothers due to the unwillingness of his contemporaries to accept a truth they could not explain,” Magnusson said before drawing a spiritual parallel. “Just as Dr. Semmelweis had to trust his experience, we must trust our experience of revelation and trust in God as we wait for more to be revealed.”

But that isn’t to discredit the role of questions in the gospel, Magnusson explained. Quoting the late Elder Robert D. Hales, she said, “genuine questions can actually fuel our spiritual growth.”

Questions about the gospel can be spiritually trying, she said, because they are born out of a place of vulnerability. “Yet this vulnerability can actually be a sacred space.”

Magnusson recounted a time in her life when she was uncomfortable living in uncertainty and vulnerability. She was in an emotionally and spiritually fragile state while her parents divorced, which led to a crisis of faith.

“In particular, I struggled significantly with testimony meetings,” Magnusson said. “I would listen to the testimonies of others and, almost without exception, they contained the phrase ‘I know.’ ‘I know that God lives,’ I know the Book of Mormon is true,’ I know, I know, I know. But the problem was: I didn’t know.”

Magnusson explained that her belief in the gospel at that point was not a certain knowledge, which caused her to feel vulnerability and discomfort at church. However, as she studied the scriptures, she was struck by Doctrine and Covenants 46:13:

“To some is given to believe on their words, that they might also have eternal life, if they continue faithful.”

“To believe was a spiritual gift,” Magnusson explained. “Just as was knowledge gained through the Holy Ghost mentioned in verse 13 of the same section.”

Magnusson said that over the years she has become increasingly comfortable with “exercising faith in the uncertainty.” Like Dr. Semmelweis, she has become willing to act without understanding the entire story or seeing the whole picture.

But the answers to our spiritual questions will come, she noted. They just come on the Lord’s timetable. Spinning a quote by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland about blessings, she said, “Some answers come soon, some come late and some don’t come until heaven; but for those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, they come.”

As a professor of public health, Magnusson said, sometimes she receives questions from students for which the answers are too complicated to be given at that time. “In such situations, I must often ask my students to trust me.”

This is similar to a situation a parent might have when a toddler asks why he must eat vegetables, she said. Parents ask children to trust them and may give a partial answer without going into the nutritional details of exactly why vegetables are healthy. “It’s not the entire story, but it’s enough for now,” Magnusson said. “As the child grows and develops, a more complete explanation can be given.”

Spiritually, we are the young children who can’t yet comprehend the entire truth, Magnusson said. “When I am wrestling with a question, the answers may come ‘Here a little, there a little.’ I believe one of the reasons for this is that I have not yet acquired all of the background knowledge or achieved the state of spiritual development in which I am capable of receiving and understanding the complete answer.”

Next Tuesday, Randal Beard, an electrical engineering professor, will deliver the Annual Distinguished Faculty Lecture for the 11 a.m. forum address.

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