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.

  • Scott Cisney

    It is easy to get lost in various branches of science and evidence relating to whether the Book of Mormon is “true” and “historical”. For me, as a Mormon my whole life, I have come to conclude it is not “true” nor “historical”. Why? Well many things point to it not being true. The DNA studies, the lack of evidence of horses during the timeframe of the book, the lack of steel found among artifacts in the new world, the place name similarities in the Book of Mormon to those around Joseph Smith’s vicinity, etc. But then you encounter another book of Mormon scripture, “The Book of Abraham” and it falls apart immediately (go study this out on your own). Given that Smith made up the Book of Abraham, was involved in con schemes (Kirtland Safety Society), married other men’s wives and young girls, it is obvious the man was clever and coniving. Now that is my opinion based on many pieces of evidence. Others feel differently, and they have a right to do so. God bless all of us. We need it.

  • http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com E B

    I may not be a scholar of religion, but I do not have to be a scholar to determine whether or not any of the things Joseph Smith taught or stood for or true because the manner in which we obtain spiritual knowledge is different than physical or earthly knowledge such as you’d get out of the scientific method, for example. I am an LDS scientist. Spiritual knowledge comes as it ever did – taught in both the Bible and Book of Mormon that first you must seek to find, knock to open. In the Book of Mormon we learn (much as Jesus taught) that faith is like a seed which will grow if planted and nurtured.

    Some of your rhetoric questions may be better understood with this in mind: there are three separate but related entities at play. First is the doctrine – the gospel of Jesus Christ, which never changes throughout the ages and embodies all truth and love and good. Second is the LDS Church which teaches the gospel, sometimes changing policies to best meet that objective as times change (much as Peter did in the New Testament, following revelation). The Church is administered by humans – flawed by definition. No man is perfect including prophets, but what a prophet teaches when speaking as a prophet you can trust, and pray and act about to get your own witness as to its truth. Third is culture. Mormon culture is a byproduct of many members of the LDS Church living and working in close proximity and doesn’t necessarily have much to do with either the gospel or the Church. Note that Mormons get the reputation for exclusivity or being judgmental from the culture, most pronounced in places with higher concentrations of members, and not the gospel of Jesus Christ which teaches love and tolerance towards all.

    As to the other rhetorical questions about break-off faiths from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I would ask whether you consider the growth rates of these churches or their changes in doctrine as taught by Joseph Smith? I’ve known and known of members of break-offs who become dissatisfied with their versions of Mormonism after learning more of the original teachings of Joseph Smith. The questions you raise are certainly appropriate but I have to wonder whether you’re just trying to stir the pot rather than provide any real enlightenment, scholarly or otherwise.

  • laverl wilhelm

    Richard, I agree with you that alternatives are always an option.
    I have found over my 42 years of practice in human psychology that very seldom is human nature and belief an either-or proposition, but rather a mixture of both. Most people can agree that God is perfect, BUT he has to communicate with imperfect human minds and that then destroys the premise that any human transcription from divinity is perfect. The Bible is not perfect, because of centuries of scribal influence and dozens of translation interpretations, but it is the closest thing we have to God’s communications as woven into the history of the Judeo-Christian narrative. The same goes for the Book of Mormon. It is a very inspired historical and doctrinal summary of a new-world people who were led to America by God. It was channeled through Joseph Smith whose mind was influenced in its thinking by a King James Bible English education. However, both the Bible and the Book of Mormon agree on the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ–the central tenet of Christian dogma.
    When Joseph Smith was channeling the Book of Mormon, as well as his various later revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, he did so again through a mind influenced by a King James English Bible education. It is so prevalent that it is impossible to deny. Yet it is also impossible to deny the inspiration one feels as one studies these revelations.
    When I study the red letter English version of the New Testament, I also feel inspired and it increases my dedication to the Lord, yet I have to smile because I KNOW of a surety that Jesus did NOT speak in English. The original manuscript (which we don’t even have access to) was in Greek. And to complicate matters, Jesus gave most of his sermons in Aramaic.
    The genius of the Judeo-Christian system is that God provides the Holy Spirit as a spiritual guide for each one of us to be able to sort through the inconsistencies of scriptural literature and find the necessary food for the soul that God has provided so that we may be guided in our journey back to Him.
    Viva the “alternative” that God CAN be effective in communicating with us through His imperfect prophets!

  • Scott Cisney

    I am familiar with the idea that the way to obtain “spiritual knowledge” is through the “spirit” and is different from the way we gain temporal knowledge. I taught that as a missionary in a special discussion that we (my companion and I) made up to use when teaching people in Thailand. This is just another area of divergent opinion between me and my believing Mormon friends. It is OK (IMHO) to have “faith” in something we can’t see or don’t understand. It is not OK to continue having faith in something that presents itself as false through verifiable evidence. That is just stubbornness. Additionally, the “heart sell” or emotional approach to gaining knowledge is used to in many endevours to get people to have an emotional response to a product thus opening the pathway to purchasing the product. It is an anti-intellectual approach that confuses an emotional response with verification of the “goodness” of the product. Religion can be based on faith but should not be conflicted in such an unavoidable way with physical reality. In my opinion you (and me at one time) and others are mistaking emotions for the “spirit”. It can lead to bad decisions, and has, for me, many times.

  • laverl09

    Richard,
    Maybe another way to approach this subject is by discussing cause and effect.
    Does the fact that we believe that Joseph Smith saw God, cause us to believe that he saw the angel Moroni, or that he received gold plates from the angel or that the Book of Mormon we read today is a direct translation of those plates?
    Does the fact that we believe current DNA research cause us to disbelieve all of the other of Joseph Smith’s claims?
    The Spirit is given to every man to help him decide for himself what is true and what is not. Most people then examine items of history and then decide whether they can believe them or not. As we can see by the comments already written, at some point the balance tips in one direction or another, but in the meantime, we are all in between the either-or dichotomy.
    For instance when I read a red-letter edition of the New Testament, I can learn a great deal about Jesus and what he said, however I know good and well that he did not speak English. Is the entire New Testament then to be declared a fraud?

  • Evan

    Mr. Livingston,
    I appreciate that you have quoted from the Doctrine and Covenants (which, as those in the LDS faith believe, is modern revelation Joseph Smith received through inspiration in the same way the prophets of old received and recorded the teachings in the Bible) and from Gordon B. Hinckley and Elders Holland and Pratt. Toward the end of the Book of Mormon, the prophet-historian, Moroni, wrote the following:

    14 “And I am the same who hideth up this record unto the Lord; the plates thereof are of no worth, because of the commandment of the Lord. For he truly saith that no one shall have them to get gain; but the record thereof is of great worth; and whoso shall bring it to light, him will the Lord bless.
    15 For none can have power to bring it to light save it be given him of God; for God wills that it shall be done with an eye single to his glory, or the welfare of the ancient and long dispersed covenant people of the Lord.
    16 And blessed be he that shall bring this thing to light; for it shall be brought out of darkness unto light, according to the word of God; yea, it shall be brought out of the earth, and it shall shine forth out of darkness, and come unto the knowledge of the people; and it shall be done by the power of God.” (Mormon 8:14-16).

    Doctrine and Covenants Section 1 also tends to shed light on this:

    17 “Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments;
    18 And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets—
    19 The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—
    20 But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;
    21 That faith also might increase in the earth;
    22 That mine everlasting covenant might be established;
    23 That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.
    24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
    25 And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
    26 And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
    27 And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
    28 And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.
    29 And after having received the record of the Nephites, yea, even my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., might have power to translate through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon.
    30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.”

    There is no middle ground. Either (1) Joseph Smith’s experiences occurred for the purpose of establishing the church of Jesus Christ on earth again or (2) he was part of a conspiracy to deceive others to think that he had restored the Lord’s church to the earth. The reason there is no middle ground is because the experiences Joseph Smith had and the work that he did all occurred for the purpose of restoring the Church of Jesus Christ to the earth with priesthood authority that would never be taken from the earth and with a prophet who would continue to receive revelation from Jesus Christ to lead the church. (See the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, Joseph Smith, Chapter 11, https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-joseph-smith?lang=eng).

    Overall, Joseph Smith’s experiences were inextricably tied to restoring the Church of Jesus Christ. Either that church is the true church of Jesus Christ or it is not. There is no middle ground in this. It makes no difference if you start by asking (1) whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church of Jesus Christ, or (2) whether Joseph Smith was a true prophet who conversed with Jesus Christ and was called as a prophet to restore His church. Each one of these truths establishes the truth of the other, or they are both false together. The Book of Mormon was a fundamental part of restoring that church because it was through this translation that Joseph Smith learned principles of the gospel that he needed to know in order to restore the church of Jesus Christ.

    It is an individual pursuit for those who would like to know whether the work of Joseph Smith was done by the power of God and whether he was called to restore the church of Jesus Christ again to the earth. Read Isaiah Chapter 29 and prayerfully consider whether (1) the Book of Mormon is this book Isaiah spoke of and (2) whether “the marvelous work and wonder” Isaiah spoke of is the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ again on the earth. Have an open mind to the possibility that it may be true that the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is this “marvelous work and wonder.” This is also an excellent movie about the work of Joseph Smith: (http://radio.lds.org/joseph?lang=eng). Pray to know if these things are true and whether the church he organized is the same church that Jesus Christ established when he was on the earth. This answer will come by the thoughts and feelings that come to you through the Holy Ghost. The Book of Mormon ends with a promise that through study, pondering, and prayer, those who will ask God in faith, with real intent can know if this is true by the power of the Holy Ghost. “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” Moroni 10:3-5. See also John 14:26.

  • Pacumeni

    Richard,
    I think you are spot on in your analysis. We have set up a false dichotomy. I have studied the Book of Mormon very closely, and it is a remarkable text. I find it very hard to believe that it is the unaided product of Joseph Smith’s imagination, and the Spaulding, Sydney Rigdon, and other hypotheses that posit someone other than Joseph as the author are all seriously flawed. And yet, there are various anachronisms in the Book of Mormon as well. I’m confident from my own experience that there is a God who intervenes in human lives. And the Book of Mormon has played an important role in connecting me with this God. There are multiple ways to account for this constellation of facts and experiences. One is the fully orthodox Mormon view. I haven’t ruled that out entirely, given just a few concessions to nuance. But that isn’t the only option for me. I could remain as fully committed to the Church and as fully active if some kind of evidence convinced me that the Book of Mormon is a fiction that Joseph Smith composed with divine guidance rather than a literal history of ancient meso-America. Given my personal experience of the book’s holiness, that is a solid fall back position for me. (It seems irrational to me that a believer would reject all his beliefs if he were to discover, for example, that the book of Jonah is a parable rather than history.) So the fundamentalist view is not the only viable way of understanding and deeply believing in Mormonism. I know the Church to be true in multiple senses from my own extensive experience with the lifestyle. Having one part of its truth claims fall out would not result in my abandonment of my entire array of convictions. Judgments about what to believe must always be made with an awareness of what the alternative is to one’s current beliefs. If one does not have an alternative worldview that better accounts for one’s experience, one should hold to the present theory while recognizing whatever shortcomings it may have and making ad hoc adjustments to obviate the problem. Assessed by the entire package–e.g., social outcomes, personal happiness, communion with God, theological insight–the LDS constellation of beliefs holds up very well in comparison to the competition. At least, that has been my experience while getting a couple of Ph.D.’s and living as a Mormon for more than 50 years. I will grant that many in the Church (and outside it) have a fundamentalist view of Mormonism. Some of those fundamentalists are scientific positivists who hold their beliefs as dogmatically as any believer. For them, the either/or proposition holds true. But I think this approach, whether believing or unbelieving, is an unsophisticated and ultimately uniformed response to the complex reality we encounter if our eyes are open.


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