On the Discourse of Dichotomy

Despite the fact that social scientists have yet to discover a single human society that is devoid of what we modern folk usually refer to as religion, it remains a highly contested category. Or, perhaps better, because of the ubiquity of religion, it’s a perspicuously polyvalent term that includes a massive variety of diverse expressions, and is thus notoriously difficult to pin down with precision. Still, however else one might understand the meaning and significance of religious ways of being in the world, one of the most prominent features shared by most traditions is a deep and abiding commitment to narrative. Stories, in other words, often play a decisive role in shaping religious discourse. The way in which any particular narrative might influence any particular tradition will, of course, vary widely, and what I want to do here is reflect on the rhetoric surrounding certain narratives that are central to the self-understanding of the LDS Church

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said that Christianity has a “peculiar disadvantage, [in] that, unlike other religions, it is not a pure system of doctrine: its chief and essential feature is that it is a history, a series of events, a collection of facts, a statement of the actions and sufferings of individuals: it is this history which constitutes dogma, and belief in it is salvation.” This is an intriguing observation, but it isn’t immediately apparent why one should think that this ‘peculiarity’ is a distinctively Christian one. Nor is it completely obvious why its historical element should be viewed as a disadvantage. Isn’t the identity of numerous traditions intimately intertwined with some sort of foundational narrative? Whether it’s the night journey of Muhammad across the Arabian desert and his ascension into heaven, Moses’ encounter with the divine and the establishment of the covenant with the children of Israel at Mount Sinai, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, or the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment while meditating alongside the Bodhi tree, each narrative is crucial to the self-understanding of the community. Insofar as certain origin stories coincide with the truth-claims of a tradition, don’t many have an evental element that is essential?

Perhaps, however, the significance of Schopenhauer’s statement lies in the word “history.” He goes on to acknowledge that even though the lives of founding figures are important in other religions, on his reading of Buddhism and Judaism, their commitment to their origin stories isn’t essential in quite the same way that it is for Christianity. What is central for them is not a set of historical persons and events, but a set of dogmas—i.e., certain foundational doctrines, teachings, or beliefs are what grant vitality to their faith. Clearly this is a debatable point of view, but what he seems to be suggesting is that what makes Christianity a uniquely evental faith is that it absolutely hangs or falls on certain historical happenings—i.e., something actually happened to actual persons at an actual time in an actual place. Christianity, in other words, is committed to certain objectively real or historical events. In telling the tale of Jesus’ death on the cross, burial in a tomb, and resurrection on the third day, one is not merely a telling a story that has the capacity to inspire someone. Rather, it is to declare the narrative of all narratives, for it is to proclaim a sacrosanct series of events that really took place within the human condition, and are decisive for the salvation of the human condition. Simply put, the salvation of humanity is at stake in the history that constitutes Christianity.

There are obviously a wide variety of views held by Christians thinkers on the question of the salvific character of the resurrection, but Schopenhauer’s suggestion points to what has been a relatively common position. Terryl Givens captures the notion well when he describes the resurrection as the “scandal of Christianity.” He calls it a scandal for at least two reasons. First, it runs directly counter to the way that modern human beings understand the world to work. In this strong literal-historical sense, Jesus’ dead corpse was not only revivified, but was somehow transformed into a glorified immortal body. Can that really happen to a dead body? True enough, the reality of the resurrection seems to be vitally important to most of the New Testament writers, and indeed most Christians, but has anyone reading these words ever encountered such a body? Or, to paraphrase the great twentieth-century Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, can someone who utilizes modern forms of transportation, takes advantage of modern medicine, enjoys the latest advances in modern technology, and understands basic aspects of modern physics; can such a person coherently claim that the atoms of dead bodies can somehow be refashioned into immortal bodies?[1] Indeed, as a twenty-first century citizen of planet earth, what would it even mean to speak of such bodies? For Bultmann, as with many other liberal Protestant theologians, some sort of demythologization is thus necessary—that is, the mythical elements of the ancient worldview must be reinterpreted and reimagined in light of modern scientific understandings.

The second reason that Givens calls the resurrection a scandal is that it’s inseparable from the heart and soul of Christianity. In other words, it’s impossible to pry apart the literal-historical claims regarding the empty tomb from the community and still expect the tradition to survive. To paraphrase Paul, “If Christ has not been literally, physically, and historically raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”[2] From this point of view, to demythologize the resurrection would be to jettison Christianity’s most essential, precisely because salvific, claim. Although Joseph Smith lived a century before Bultmann, it’s highly unlikely that he would have much interest in or sympathy for the liberal thinkers of his own day—e.g., Schleiermacher. As Smith once stated, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”[3] Christianity’s central claim is thus equally pivotal for Mormonism.

However, Mormonism doesn’t stop with the literal-historical claim of traditional Christianity. It adds what one might call a kind of hyper-literalistic layer with its additional affirmation that because of the resurrection of Jesus every human being will be resurrected. That particular claim isn’t entirely unique to Mormonism, but what is unique is the further metaphysical assertion that no matter who or when or where, somehow every single particle of every human body will be reconstituted as once was, or restored to a state of perfection if it was somehow deficient, and clothed with immortality and (some degree of) eternal glory. Or, as the Doctrine and Covenants puts it, “For notwithstanding they die, they also shall arise again, a spiritual body. They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened.”[4] Given the way that atoms and molecules and cells work, any talk of the “same body” probably doesn’t make much sense, but whether it’s the same body which was the natural body, or some other body of matter that is the body that will somehow be transformed into an immortal body, Mormonism ups the ante of the scandal with such hyper-literal claims.

The main point of Givens’ observation, however, is not about Christianity, but the kind of revelation that Joseph Smith claimed to receive, for it represents a similarly scandalous view.

What I mean by that is that on the face of it, [it is] an affront to sophisticated notions of how the universe works. God doesn’t deliver gold plates to farm boys. It’s a cause of embarrassment to many intellectuals in the church to continue to insist that Joseph had literal gold plates given to him by a real angel that he translates through the Urim and Thummim [seer stones].

But I also mean that it’s a scandal in the sense that it is inseparable from the heart and soul of Mormonism, that one could no sooner divorce the historical claims of the Book of Mormon from the church than one could divorce the story of Christ’s resurrection from Christianity and survive with the religion intact.

Or, as Givens succinctly states it elsewhere, the church stands or falls “on the veracity of the official version of its early history.” Notice here that it’s not simply any history that’s at stake, but the specific version that’s been officially sanctioned by the church. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that “LDS doctrine as a whole is rooted inescapably in history; its claims to divine authority and restored truth are entirely dependent on the narratives of LDS origins.”[5] Anyone who has read Givens knows that he’s a master wordsmith who chooses his words very carefully, so if this sounds like strong language, it’s meant to be, because he wants to forcefully capture the sentiment that has absolutely dominated the LDS self-understanding from its earliest days.

He understands as well as anyone alive that leaders, scholars, and lay-members alike have consistently maintained a “belief in Joseph Smith’s literal visitation by God and heavenly angels, verbally communicating and physically transmitting to him ancient records and priesthood keys.” In Smith, traditional notions of ontological distance between the human and the divine are overcome. Furthermore “without verifiable evidence of a continuing conduit linking Joseph’s successors to God—a God who personally directs the continuing work of the restoration—Mormonism would utterly lose its claim to be the unique institutional form of the one true gospel.” The LDS Church has thus thoroughly committed itself to a literal reading of at least three historical narratives—the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the narrative of Joseph Smith’s restoration, and the narrative the peoples of the Book of Mormon. These narratives must be true insofar as they really happened in the ways described in their official tellings or its faith is vain. As such, anyone who attempts to challenge orthodox accounts of the church’s past are viewed with extreme suspicion, because they are seen as undermining the beating heart of the faith.[6]

Gordon B. Hinkley, for example, repeatedly maintained throughout his prophetic ministry that everyone “has to face the matter—either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.”[7] When asked in his interview for the PBS documentary why any notion of a middle ground was unacceptable, he said,

Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.

The entire edifice of the LDS Church thus continues to stand or crumbles to the earth based on the historical veracity of its official origin stories.

Like a line of logical dominos, the rationale often runs as follows: if the Book of Mormon is a true record of an ancient people, then Joseph Smith is a prophet; and, if Joseph Smith is a prophet, then he must have received the divine authority of the priesthood; and, if he received the priesthood, then all of his successors have held that same authority; and, if all subsequent Presidents of the church have held that same authority, then the LDS Church is God’s kingdom on earth. The same rationale often begins with the first vision, so that if either one of the central narratives is true, then it necessarily follows that everything else is true. More than history as theology, this is hyper-literal history as the foundation of an entire religion.

This is why a contemporary Apostle, like Jeffrey R. Holland, wouldn’t hesitate to affirm that this is not merely an epistemic matter but an existential necessity:

I am suggesting that we make exactly that same kind of do-or-die, bold assertion about the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. We have to. Reason and rightness require it. . . . Accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and the book as the miraculously revealed and revered word of the Lord it is or else consign both man and book to Hades for the devastating deception of it all, but let’s not have any bizarre middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is just an inconceivable and, finally, unacceptable position to take—morally, literarily, historically, or theologically.[8]

The force of the dichotomy could not be clearer: either the Book of Mormon represents the reality of divine inspiration and the actuality of an ancient people, or the church that proclaims its message is nothing more than a ‘devastating deception.’

Nineteenth-century Apostle Orson Pratt expresses a similar sentiment in his “Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon”:

The Book of Mormon claims to be a divinely inspired record, written by a succession of prophets who inhabited ancient America. . . . This book must be either true or false. If true, it is one of the most important messages ever sent from God to man, affecting both the temporal and eternal interests of every people under heaven . . . If false, it is one of the most cunning, wicked, bold, deep-laid impositions ever palmed upon the world, calculated to deceive and ruin millions who will sincerely receive it as the word of God. . . . If true, no one can possibly be saved and reject it; if false, no one can possibly be saved and receive it.

Throughout its history, then, LDS leaders have employed this sort of dichotomous rhetoric to establish the authenticity of its witness. Indeed, it appears as though they see no other way of establishing their credibility. Unsurprisingly, its detractors are equally committed to the bifurcation. Hence, although the polemical voices on either side stand in polarized places, there is one thing about which they are in complete agreement: either true or false, either good or evil, either authentic or deceptive, either divine or satanic, either ancient or modern, either-or, either-or, either-or. There is no middle ground.

But is this binary opposition really the only viable option? Is this discourse of dichotomy truly the only possibility for making sense of these highly complex issues? Does the domino rationale actually work when carefully considered? Is it logically possible, for example, that Smith could have experienced a genuine theophany some time during his middle teenage years, and that at certain points during his prophetic ministry he not only exemplified a Christ-like life but also engaged in morally repugnant behavior? Is it logically possible that Smith transmitted the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God, but that there were also times when he led his community in directions that were entirely devoid of a divine influence? Is it logically possible that the transmission of the Book of Mormon constitutes a complex combination of both human imagination and divine inspiration? Is it logically possible that the Book of Mormon includes both historical and non-historical people, places, and events? Is it logically possible that divine authority was given to Joseph Smith, but that that authority does not reside within the LDS Church? Is it logically possible that the movement Smith founded, at every stage of its history, and in every one of its branches, contains elements of goodness and truth as well as ugliness and falsity?

Put differently, even if Joseph Smith had a profound encounter with the Divine, does it necessarily entail that the Book of Mormon was produced under divine direction? It may very well be the case that both propositions are true, but does one necessarily follow from the other? Even if the Book of Mormon contains profound truths that are worth committing one’s life to, does that necessarily entail that its entire narrative from beginning to end must be historical? Furthermore, does its divine authenticity logically demand that one also accept that Smith received the divine authority of the priesthood; or, does its historical veracity necessarily lead to the conclusion that that authority is present within the contemporary LDS Church; or, does its truthfulness necessarily entail that the LDS Church is everything it claims to be? All of those things may very well be the case individually, but does the truthfulness of one necessarily follow from the truthfulness of any other? The reality of branches of Mormonism other than the Salt Lake-based church would seem to provide sufficient justification to say that the answer to this line of inquiry is decidedly, “No.” The fact that there are thousands of believers throughout the world who claim that Joseph Smith is a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is scriptural but may not be historical, and also maintain that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the kingdom of God on earth, is just one reason why one might want to reconsider the validity of the discourse of dichotomy. Perhaps it represents only two extremes among many viable options.

 


[1] “New Testament and Mythology,” Kerygma and Myth, (New York: Harper Brothers, 1961)

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:14

[3] History of the Church, 3:30.

[4] D&C 88:27-8

[5] People of Paradox, (Oxford University Press, 2007) 222.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Loyalty,” General Conference, April 2003.

[8] “A Standard Unto My People,” CES Symposium, August 9, 1994.

  • Stephen Smoot

    “The fact that there are thousands of believers throughout the world who claim that Joseph Smith is a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is scriptural but may not be historical, and also maintain that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the kingdom of God on earth, is just one reason why one might want to reconsider the validity of the discourse of dichotomy.”

    If one wishes to maintain an unhistorical Book of Mormon and an unhistorical Restoration (i.e. no angels, or gold plates, or apostles giving authority, etc.) then my single question is this: did Joseph Smith know he was lying when he said an angel gave him golden plates, and that apostles came and gave him authority, or was he merely delusional?

    Follow up question: should we trust a lying or delusional Joseph Smith in anything?

  • Richard Livingston

    Thanks the questions Stephen. First, I think you might be reading more into what I’ve written than is actually there. Although I’ve asked a number of rhetorical questions, my point was merely to suggest that there may be good reasons to question to dominant (dichotomous) rhetoric. In other words, I really haven’t made a positive/substantive/constructive argument here. Second, your questions are actually a pretty good case in point of exactly what I have in mind: either unhistorical or historical, either lying or honest, either delusional or of a sound mind. As I hope is clear in what I wrote, is isn’t at all clear to me why this either-or approach should be seen as the only viable way to consider these questions. Indeed, given the enormous complexities involved with, e.g., the question of Book of Mormon historicity, I think it’s probably one of the least useful approaches. In short, I think dichotomy is an oversimplification that’s neither necessary or nor true.

    • thin-ice

      Well, as an outsider to the Mormon religion, I see the same thing in ALL religions as what you posit for Mormonism: that there is a “middle way” between the literalist position and “it’s all myths or lies” position.

      That the historical narrative of the Hebrew people as given in the Book of Mormon is completely false and without any archeological evidence is accepted by everyone, except the hard-core Mormon believer. To be able have a middle way, as you suggest, is the only way that a Mormon with any degree of intellectual honesty can possibly cope with that cognitive dissonance and maintain your faith. Which is OK. But i think a better way would be to state with brutal honesty: “I am going to believe and maintain my Mormon faith, even though I have real problems with what Joseph Smith wrote, because my faith is my life and being and I cannot imagine existing without it.” (BTW, I had to go through exactly the same quandary with my evangelical faith, when after 46 years I realized that the basic historical events as described in the Old and New Testaments were basically made up. No historical scholar or archeologist of any stature could find real evidence for many of the events and scenarios in the Bible, just as we find in the Book of Mormon. In the end I let go of the faith, rather than my intellectual integrity.)

      • JohnH

        “To be able have a middle way, as you suggest, is the only way that a Mormon with any degree of intellectual honesty can possibly cope with that cognitive dissonance and maintain your faith.”

        I have to disagree with you, I am very familiar with the state of Archeology in central America. It is because of my familarity with the state of archeology in that region of the world that I can confidently say that the Book of Mormon could be completely and accurately historic but that we just haven’t found out where yet. Not knowing where is only a problem if one is thinking that the state of archeology in the Americas is anything close to being similar to that of the Middle East. It isn’t, there have recently (in the last decade) been discovered entire civilizations from within the last thousand years which were completely previously unknown. Further for much of the area of Central America there has been no archeological surveys done at all. So saying that absence of evidence is evidence of absence in the case of the New World doesn’t make any sense as it isn’t true. There will be more civilizations found from central America as there continue to be and as there hasn’t been that much work done in the first place.

        • http://WWW.TRUEORIGINS.US BIOMED

          I WILL NEED TO DISAGREE. DNA MARKERS HAVE BEEN SAMPLED ALL OVER THE WORLD, INCLUDING IN THE AMERICAS, TO SUCH A DEPTH AND EXTENT THAT WE HAVE THE ANSWERS WE NEED REGARDING THE POPULATING OF THE AMERICAS. WE KNOW WHEN, WHY, AND PROBABLY WHAT ROUTES THE ANCESTORS OF NATIVE AMERICANS TOOK AS THEY MIGRATED INTO THE AMERICAS. AS STENGER HAS NOTED, “ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF ABSENCE UNLESS THE EVIDENCE SHOULD BE THERE AND IS NOT”. MIDDLE EAST MARKERS WILL NEVER BE FOUND IN AMERICAN INDIAN POPULATIONS CONFIRMING THE MORMON SCRIPTURES. UNFORTUNATELY FOR MANY RELIGIONS, WE NOW CAN OFTEN TEST (FOR THE FIRST TIME), SOME OF THE FOUNDATIONAL NARRATIVES USING CUTTING EDGE SCIENCE AND THEY ARE BEING FALSIFIED TO SUCH A HIGH PROBABILITY THAT ONLY TRUE BELIEVERS CAN HOLD ON BY APPLYING ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF FAITH. THE DNA EVIDENCE IS SO STRIKING THAT ONE MORMON BISHOP TRAINED IN GENETICS LEFT HIS FAITH OVER IT (SOUTHERTON: GOOGLE IT). THERE ARE MANY OTHER ASSERTIONS FROM THE MORMON SCRIPTURES THAT CANNOT BE TRUE (HORSES AND STEELE IN THE AMERICAS BEFORE THE EUROPEANS ARRIVED; WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE OF THE HORSES AND THE ARCHEOLOGICAL STEEL MILLS?). IT’S THE SAME PROBLEM WITH CONSERVATIVE EVANGELICALS: 3 – 6 MILLION HEBREWS WANDER THE DESERT FOR 40 YEARS AND LEAVE *NOT A SINGLE ARTIFACT*?. IF WE BEGIN TO TREAT SCRIPTURAL NARRATIVES AS HYPOTHESES THERE ARE NOW WAYS TO TEST – AND INVALIDATE – MANY OF THEM. OFTEN FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY. POSSIBLY THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION WE CAN ASK WHEN BEING EXPOSED TO SUPERNATURAL CLAIMS AND ASSERTED HISTORICAL EVENTS FROM SCRIPTURE AS EVIDENCE OF BELIEF AND FAITH IS: “BUT, IS IT TRUE?” IF THE ANSWER IN MULTIPLE INSTANCES IS NO, THEN ARE WE NOT OBLIGATED AS PERSONS OF REASON TO REJECT THE CLAIMS THAT THE SCRIPTURES ARE INSPIRED, TRUE, AND VALID REASONS TO EMBRACE THE CLAIMS OF THE RELIGION? AND IF THE THEOLOGIAN CONVERTS MUCH OF HIS OR HER SCRIPTURES INTO METAPHORS IN A RESCUE ATTEMPT, DOES IT THEN JUST DISSOLVE INTO A FOG OF LITERATURE, AS WE TREAT GREEK AND ROMAN STORIES TODAY? I FOR ONE CANNOT IN ALL INTEGRITY TURN MY BACK ON REALITY NOR PUT MYSELF IN A POSITION OF PERVERSE DENIAL.

          • JohnH

            Turn off caps-lock. Steel doesn’t need huge mills to be produced, it can be produced on a small scale fairly easily, also looking for that level of metallurgy would require knowing where to look in the first place. I am not as familiar with genetics but I don’t see it as a small problem as I believe the Nephites were a very small population that interbred with the natives; I would be very surprised if there is that level of fine grain detail in genetics research and have read credible articles suggesting that there isn’t that fine of detail. I really don’t care what a bishop or ex-bishop does or does not do, I have known too many of both. I don’t believe there were that many millions of Hebrews in the wilderness, I think that is a mistranslation but regardless one would still have to know where to look for artifacts, I am positive the Sinai Peninsula has not been sifted down to bedrock; I would be surprised if much research actually has been done there as there isn’t any really neat architecture to be found or graves to be studied/looted. Further I would be very surprised if there were no artifacts at all in that area from the past and even more I would be completely doubtful if someone were to claim to have found such an artifact as being from the Hebrews. I really very much doubt that the artifacts are labeled very nicely and neatly as being “Hebrew” and identifying it as being from a moving camp of Hebrews would be nearly impossible. In other words, please go study actual archeology and go on an actual dig sometime and then get back as to what archeology is or is not like or what should or should not be already known.

          • http://WWW.TRUEORIGINS.US BIOMED

            Sorry about the all caps. My keyboard Caps Lock broke and I could not type lower case that night. I may need to replace my keyboard.

          • http://WWW.TRUEORIGINS.US BIOMED

            John H – you need to go read the OT for yourself and check the Biblical scholars about the millions of Hebrews that supposedly left in the Exodus. It’s well known and spelled out in several books of the OT. And archeologists don’t need to go “all the way to bedrock” to find artifacts. There have been 40 million SNPs sampled around the world as scientists work out the migratory paths that humans took 100,000 years ago out of Africa. There are NO DNA Middle Eastern DNA markers in native American populations. Appealing to a “small” Nephite population won’t rescue the Mormon Scriptures. It’s like people trying to get a local flood out of Genesis (why then take birds on board and why does it say over the “highest” mountains?). You’re rationalizing instead of considering that your faith is based on invalid scriptural claims. This is called motivated reasoning and is well studied in the cognitive sciences.

          • JohnH

            I am appealing to a small population because that is what is claimed internally in the Book of Mormon, if you want to dispute that it was a small population then you will have to go through the Book of Mormon and show me wrong. The Jaredites were a much larger population, the Nephites were tiny.

            I am not the person to discuss the particulars of DNA, I have read claims that what you claim is wrong. On wikipedia as evidence for the Solutrean hypothesis of the Clovis culture it is stated that there is mDNA haleogroup X (which is from the Middle East) in Native North American tribes. Also there is Haleogroup R in y-dna which has been used for the Solutrean hypothesis as well. I realize that there are researchers arguing against the Solutrean hypothesis using genetics as well but I don’t believe it is as definitively settled as you think it is. If you want to continue the discussion with someone that actually knows something in relation to the DNA then find an archeologist working on the Solutrean hypothesis or talk to the guy at Joseph Smith DNA dot com.

            Archeologists often go down to the rock layer when looking for artifacts. Go on a dig sometime.

            Not even many evangelical fundamentalists think the exodus was 6 million, but rather 600 eleph, which could be translated as 600 warriors on foot, making the chariots of Pharaoh to be very formidable instead of a laughing matter.

  • Rick Kestle

    “As I hope is clear in what I wrote, it isn’t at all clear to me why this either-or approach should be seen as the only viable way to consider these questions. ”

    I guess I just don’t understand your alternatives. What other approach could be viable? Give me an example. Say Joseph really DID see the angel Moroni… but it is possible he DIDN’T actually have the plates? Would you argue this? Why would this be more reasonable, much less more historical? How would you explain the “truthfulness” of the visitation of the Father and the Son in the grove, or the Angel Moroni, but not the “truthfulness” of the reality of the Book of Mormon plates? And what evidence would you muster to accept one thing, but not the other?

    As for the reality of “either-or” dichotomies, what is wrong with them? Wasn’t it Aristotle who long ago argued that a thing can’t both “be” and “not be” at the same time? Or do you just want the right to choose which dichotomies you’ll feel comfortable with? I’m sorry, I probably don’t understand what you are after, but to me, your closing paragraphs didn’t really offer anything substantive – they didn’t offer me any other rational, reasonable examples of other kinds of possibilities.

    • Richard Livingston

      You’re exactly right, Rick, I’m not offering any substantitve or constructive proposals in this post. My objective here is much more modest–namely, to raise questions about the dichotomous discourse that dominates the LDS self-understanding in order to suggest that it may represent a problematic perspective. And, to the extent that one agrees that it is problematic, I’d rather leave it up to each individual to determine for him or herself what might be the most persuasive or compelling alternatives.

      As for the question of dichotomies in general, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, so long as they’re true dichotomies. I have no quarrel with the basic rationale of Aristotle’s formulation of the principle of non-contradiction. I’m not sure I’d completely agree with him that it forms the singular basis of knowledge, but the basic idea that something cannot both be and not be the same thing and in the same respect seems essentially right to me. What I do have a concern with is invoking the idea of an absolute contradiction or dichotomy when the two choices being offered aren’t the only genuine alternatives. And, to me at least, the usual choices offered in the LDS discourse of dichotomy are *not* the only alternatives.

      So, for example, I’d be happy to admit that I’m wrong if someone could provide a sound argument showing that the Book of Mormon must *necessarily* (i.e., there are no other logical alternatives) be either a work of modern fiction or a work of ancient history, or that it’s either pure goodness or pure evil, or that it’s either absolutely true or absolutely false. Similarly, if you can provide a sound argument that demonstrates why Smith must be taken as either an inspired prophet or an evil deceiver, or that the first vision either must have occurred precisely as reported in the canonized account of the LDS scriptures or it was a pure delusion, I’d concede the point. Likewise with the common domino rationale–that there is no other logical alternative to the claim that because the Book of Mormon is true, or because Smith experienced a theophany, something else is true, and because that something else is true, something else is true, and so on until one arrives at the conclusion that the LDS Church is absolutely everything it claims to be. Why does it logically follow that because one thing is true another thing must necessarily be true?

      So, my claims, to the extent that I’m actually making any strong claims here, are simply as follows:
      1) The traditional alternatives being offered in the dichotomous discourse of the LDS Church don’t represent the only logical possibilities.
      2) If that’s right, then the dichotomies are false.
      3) If the dichotomies are false, then we should be open to the possibility that there are viable alternatives.

      I leave to others to determine what those alternatives might be, but obviously I’ve hinted at some paths that I might be interested in pursuing–e.g., that it’s logically possible that Joseph Smith was (at times) both a true prophet and a deceptive human being, that’s it’s logically possible that the Book of Mormon is a work of both divine inspiration and human imagination, that it’s logically possible that the Book of Mormon is both historical and non-historical, etc.

      • JohnH

        You are making the claim that the Book of Mormon is as “True” and “Historic” as the Chronicles of Narnia or the Lord of the Rings, in which case even if inspiring and enlightening it is still false and even worse then the other two examples it is lying about its falseness in that it claims to be actually historic and actually true when, according to your theory, it is a work of inspired fantasy.

        I mean, sure the Book of Mormon if taken as real is not a impartial recording of what actually happened, there are things not mentioned, things that are mentioned as an inconvenient fact, and things only mentioned in passing that make it very clear that the Nephites were a tiny group of people surrounded in the south by much larger civilizations who had a very divergent view of history from the peoples around them and left out a lot of details which they found unimportant (or inconvenient). But that wouldn’t be a work of human imagination, that is just them writing according to their own world view and priorities, and isn’t really that different from what other records contain or what we do today. It is as historical as anything really can be, otherwise it is false.

  • Jennifer Walker

    Mr. Livingston: Have you ever read the entire Book of Mormon, beginning to the end?

    • Richard Livingston

      Hi Jennifer, I’m not sure that my having read the entire BoM is directly relevant to the issues considered in this this post, but, for what it’s worth, yes, I’ve read it (and taught it) many times.

  • David Naas

    How can something both BE and NOT BE at the same time? Well, quantum physics says it can.
    I get the point about dogmatic Either/Or statements. They are designed, not for discussion, but to close off discussion. Logically, every faith has within it sharp contradictions, severe inanities, and stupid discontinuities. This is why they are called “faiths”, not “sciences”. The literalists of whatever belief need rigid categories, because their “faith” is riddled with hidden doubts. The only way to deal with doubts is to reject anything which threatens the edifice — the house of cards — they have built.
    The problem with the religion Joseph Smith gave to the world is that everything depends on his unsupported word. (Pleased, don’t bare your Testimony — it is as irrelevant as the “Testimony” of the followers of David Koresh, Heaven’s Gate, or Jim Jones, and for the same reason.) What it all boils down to is whether Joseph Smith, Jr. was telling the truth or not. Whether he was sincere, or sincerely deluded, or perhaps came to believe in what he said, is also irrelevant.
    The question is, do you believe Joseph Smith or not. If you do, you are a “Mormon”. If you do not, you are not a “Mormon”.
    Simple.

    • jz131313

      Faith is called faith not because of “stupid discontinuities” but because it can not be proven by science. Not everything can be proven by science. To suggest otherwise to to show some pretty extreme faith in science. My faith doesn’t need rigid categories because it is riddled with doubt anymore than science needs classifications for types of animals because it is riddled with doubt. You call it a house of cards, I call it a faith built on the firm foundations of doctrine.

      Everything you have said is pure non sequitur.

  • jz131313

    I don’t claim to be any kind of LDS expert, but from a purely logical point of view, I would argue that in order for the Mormon faith to be true (as expressed by the mainline LDS church based in Salk Lake City), all the dichotomies must hold up precisely because LDS church claims that they must. Otherwise, why would you bother to listen to the authority figures in the church, or at least consider them to be anything more than one voice of many? But this contradicts the fundamental tenant of their faith regarding the authority of the line of Profits (apologies if my terms are off here).

    I agree that the concept of falling dominoes can be taken too far, but I don’t see how you avoid the dominoes I’ve described. This is similar to the claims made by Catholics (including me), although I would argue the Catholic Church makes much more modest claims about itself. For example, the logical case for the Catholic faith falls to pieces if you don’t accept doctrines that have been infallibly defined, such as the Resurrection that you mentioned (in reality there are far fewer infallibly defined doctrines than most people realize.).

  • Kyle in Michigan

    Thanks for trying to bring people together. There are so few of us Christians these days; we need to see what is good in each of us; satan wants us to fight among ourselves.

    This will be the 8th year out of the last 9 that I have read the entire Book of Mormon. I just finished the Doctrine and Covenants for the 8th of 9 years, and I have also finished this year already the Pearl of Great Price for the 9th year in a row (Books of Moses and Abraham). This will be the 4th year in a row I have read the entire King James Holy Bible. I feast upon The Words of Christ in each Book of Holy Scripture. I respect that not all here share my view.

    When I read from each I feel a warm Spiritual glow in my heart. One of the purposes of life is to grow in Faith in The Lord Jesus The Christ; if we have all of the “answers” then we do not grow in Faith.

    My late father had the largest book collection of books pointing away from the LDS Church that I have ever seen. I have read them all; yes; Joseph was human; he had his good days and his bad; many Prophets made mistakes; only Christ was perfect. What I have felt, is the power of The Spirit flowing through me as I have exercised the Priesthood.

    Regarding Archeology and DNA. I spent parts of three summers on Mount Ararat; no I do not find wood but I did see one whale of a rainbow one day. I also spent part of one summer in Mexico and Central America performing Book of Mormon Archeology hunting. No I did not find Nephi’s name chiseled on a rock. It was not until 1961 that we had our first evidence in a archeological form that Pilate even existed. Recently we finally confirmed that there were Lions in Israel. So Archeology is still progressing. The same with DNA.

    After Joseph Smith died, he came back in Spirit form as an Angel to Brigham Young; Joseph told Brigham that the most important thing was to seek The Spirit of The Lord, as The Spirit will guide us in all things. As we exercise Faith in Jesus and keep the Eternal Commandments we receive The Spirit. The warm glow of The Spirit, to me, is much more powerful of a Witness than any Archeology Find or DNA match. I respect that others feel differently.

    Mr. Livingston: in as much as you teach about the Book of Mormon, you might enjoy my new Indie Movie, “Sisters Go Ye”; on Youtube at, “Sisters Go Ye Trailer 2″. It is a four hour musical about Mormon Sister Missionaries. If you ever teach a class about Mormons again, I would be happy to help during an on-line chat.

    Thank you again for trying to bring people together. Let me close by expressing my sincere gratitude for The Atonement of Jesus.


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