Home / Testimonies / Thorsten Ritz

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As I reflect on what I can add as a natural scientist to the many testimonies that have already been given, I think it useful to discuss not only of what my testimony consists but especially how I received it. In many ways, my faith is based on a process that has worked over and over in my life rather than on any one particular fact or set of facts that I have come to accept as truth. I testify that it is possible to receive inspiration and revelation from God and to do so continually. It is my firm belief that this process will work for all who wish to find out. Being a scientist who works in both the physical and biological sciences, I also affirm that I am entirely comfortable with being a practicing, believing Mormon and a biophysicist without feeling the need to compromise on either side.

Prayers with answers

For me, the journey towards faith in Christ started not unlike a scientific experiment. When I grew up as a Lutheran in Germany, I did appreciate the teachings of Christ, but I simply could not begin to imagine that the resurrection happened, that Jesus Christ was anything more than an interesting man. I also felt that there was a great disconnect between the high ideal of “love your enemy” and other teachings beautifully presented in the Sermon on the Mount and what I might be able to live day-to-day. So, I turned to more down-to-earth role models as ethics guides.

When I met the Mormon missionaries for the first time fifteen years later, as a Ph.D. student in central Illinois, I am fairly sure I was not looking for a faith. My office-mate and dear friend had set up a meeting with them out of curiosity and, not being quite sure what to expect, asked me whether I could be a chaperone (after all, we have all heard things about Mormons, and this was the first meeting with them for either of us). At that meeting, I told the missionaries about my misgivings about the divinity of Christ and life after death. Rather than teaching about the importance of these concepts or telling me I had to believe them, the missionaries asked me to experience that they are true by praying about them. They cited some scriptural passages, and promised me that if I would ask God, he would answer my prayer and confirm to me that Christ was indeed resurrected. In short, they prescribed an experiment: If I was to meet certain conditions, certain results would happen. So I prayed, and when I met the missionaries again a week later, I reported that nothing had happened. It appeared that God did not answer after all. The missionaries read scriptures with me again and we discussed some of the specific pre-conditions required for the promise of an answer to be fulfilled, among them to “ask in faith, nothing wavering.” I have come to understand this passage as meaning to pray with an expectation of an answer, even if the answer may not be what I am looking for. It also means to come to God in prayer on his terms, not ours. I repeated the prayers and in the following week, for the first time in my life, I could believe that Jesus Christ indeed rose from the dead and is alive. I did not know for sure that this was the case at that time, but I could believe it without doubts or emotional turmoil, a huge difference to my previous certainty of it being impossible.

This experience was like the opening of a door into an unknown room. I had not expected this door to open, but now that it was open, my inborn curiosity nudged me on to explore the room behind it further. The fundamental revelatory process of praying and receiving answers to prayers is the primary source of my testimony. I find that such revelatory experiences are just as real and empirically reproducible as are some sensory experiences. I do not know a single practicing member of the church who cannot recount a similar experience in his or her life, in which they have received a revelation in response to a prayer. For me and many others, the first such experience has been followed by many more.

Observing service in the church

Since personal revelation plays such a central role in my faith, one might expect that one person can receive one answer to a particular question, and another person can receive a different, contradictory answer. Unless there is a God who provides the answers and a reliable mechanism for us to obtain the answers, disagreements about doctrinal, social, or practical issues will, over time, erode any common foundation of faith. In reverse, every time when different people come independently to find the same answer, this will build and strengthen faith. It is my experience that this happens and that revelation is most reliable when it is sought in the context of trying to best serve others.

I maintain that if it were possible for a person to neutrally observe the service to one another in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over a sufficient period, to participate in the relevant councils and visits, this person would be led to the conclusion that there is a divine influence guiding and directing those that work in the church. I witnessed many experiences where different persons received the same answer when praying about a question relevant to service or where they were led to an answer that initially did not appeal to common sense, but later turned out to be right. I have seen the extra energy and enthusiasm that enters into the lives of people engaged in this work.

Good things happen whenever people meet to think of the needs of others, but in the councils of the church, there is often an influence beyond the good will and ability of the people in the room. There are as strong and conflicting personalities among the members of the church as I have seen anywhere (after all, Harry Reid and Glenn Beck might sit on a church council together). Nevertheless, the solution that is found and approved after reasoning and prayer in a church council to me has always felt like an answer that supersedes personal viewpoints, an inspired understanding of what needs to be done. To see that strong personalities and, sometimes, egos can regularly be left at the door and to see consent be formed by enlightenment and not by compromise is nothing short of miraculous. I have been privileged to witness many such small miracles.

While I am still far away from the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount, I have now some hope that there is a path to them. In my best moments, when engaged in service to my family or within the church, I get glimpses of understanding of what it means to grow from “grace to grace” or to be filled with the pure love of Christ. I have seen moments where I was given compassion, patience, understanding, or just a feeling of being connected to a person that helped me approach them better. I know that these feelings were gifted from the same source as other revelations and were not simply coming from within myself.

Finally, and most importantly, I witness that I have seen the very real, and sometimes very practical and tangible, blessings in the lives of people who were served through such actions or prayers.

An interacting God

Among scientists in the physical sciences, it is not uncommon to find appreciation for the beautiful construction of our universe and to assume some form of intelligence in its creation. Albert Einstein is said to have expressed this sentiment as follows: “What I see in nature is a magnificent structure that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.” In many cases, when natural scientists believe in the existence of some creative spiritual force, they think of a deist God that established the laws of physics and now lets the universe run its course. For me, belief in such a God is a rather feeble approximation of the real God and suggests that we may not have tried hard enough to interact with him.

At my Physics department in Irvine, neutrino research is a strong point. This is in large part due to the legacy of Frederick Reines, who worked and researched here. Neutrinos are elementary particles whose existence had been inferred from the laws of physics. However, to infer the existence of a particle is much less satisfying than to observe it experimentally, and Frederick Reines was awarded the Nobel Prize for being the first to do the latter. Today, we expend enormous efforts in technology, finance, and manpower in trying to observe other elementary particles. At the heart of the experimental observation is, in all cases, the interaction of the particle in question with the experimental setup. Seeing the energy we spend in trying to interact with particles, I find it quizzical that we should be satisfied with a God whose existence we can only infer, rather than expending at least equal efforts in trying to interact with him.

I believe in the God of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in God the Father and Jesus Christ, and I believe that he interacts with us personally. I know him through these interactions and, quite frankly, I would find a God whose existence could only be inferred at best of interest for historical reasons, but largely irrelevant for my life here and now.

Faith and science

If one believes in an interacting, intervening, personal God, how can this be reconciled with the scientific laws that seem to suggest a rather independent universe? After all, scientists have not found God in any experiment.

Perhaps most of all, this requires a willingness not to actively resolve seeming contradictions while we have imperfect knowledge, but to allow them to be resolved in due course. Humility in assessing our true state of knowledge, an appreciation of the various processes with their inherent challenges, and an understanding of the nature of the questions they answer also help.

By the scientific process that I apply daily, I learned that sensory capabilities of animals are operating close to physical limits, that evolution occurs and is a key element in understanding the biological world, that our world is many million years old. At this point in time, to not accept these statements as truth would require me to dispense with the scientific process. I do not intend to do so, since I’ve found this process to be sound and based on good fundamental principles, such as reason, keen observation, or thoughtful experimental design.

Likewise there is a spiritual process through which I learned that God created our world, that He loves us, that He supports my family and me in a personal way. I have attempted to describe some elements of this process above and I have found this process to also be sound and based on good fundamental principles, such as reproducibility, matching reason and experience with inspiration, and observing the results in my life and the lives of others.

Just because I do not have the intellectual ability to see how both of these truths will ultimately resolve into one or be superseded by a higher truth does not make it right for me to cut short either of these important processes. I have full trust that as we follow the scientific process and the spiritual process, we will be led to one ultimate truth that is far beyond what we can comprehend now. The only thing that can prevent us from getting there is to stop following either process: either stop doing science, or stop seeking for spiritual inspiration. Doing so would deprive us of many essential and enriching parts of life.

I testify that my joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a tremendously enriching experience. More importantly, it has helped me to grow by moving me out of my comfort zone in many ways and added joy, energy, peace, and perhaps a certain measure of wisdom through experiences I would have missed in my life otherwise. God lives and has given us the gospel to guide us during our existence here on earth before we return to him. It is worth every effort to come to know him and to find out where we will be led by following his gospel.

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Thorsten Ritz is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. He studied Physics at the JW Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and went to graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Ulm, in Germany, earning a Ph.D. in Physics in 2001. He joined the faculty of UC Irvine in April 2003. His main research focus is in biophysics, in particular the study of magnetic sensing in animals, for which he has received national and international recognition. He was named Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation (UK), Fellow of the Institute of Physics (UK), Fellow of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Cottrell Scholar of the Research Cooperation, and Distinguished Assistant Professor for Research at UC Irvine.

Brother Ritz joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1997, in Urbana, Illinois, where he met his future wife, Brooke. They and their two children live in Irvine, CA. He has worked with the youth, taught and administered in congregations, and served in Church Public Affairs and as High Councilor. Currently, he serves as Bishop and on the Board of the UC Irvine Interfaith Foundation.

Posted September 2011