Round Table: Historicity and Revelation – Round Two

Round One was a great kick-off to the topic — thanks for all your insightful comments. I think that those of you who enjoyed Round One will love Round Two (think Star Wars vs. Empire Strikes Back).

Anyways…

From: Steve Evans
To: Nate Oman, Dennis Potter, Rosalynde Welch, Ronan James Head, Scott Gordon, John Hatch
Date: April 26, 2005 11:06 AM
Subject: Round Table — Second Question

Thanks to all for your answers to the first round. Very enlightening responses. I have enjoyed reading and re-reading them.

My brief view on the question of when historicity matters is more rhetorically based: I want to know who is asking the question, and why they are asking it. I believe that matters of historical accuracy in scripture and revelation largely take their importance from context. Like Ronan and Nate, I find historicity to be a non-issue for my day-to-day worship, but the point takes on far greater importance as I discuss the Church with its opponents or with others interested in Church history. Does this mean the average Church member need not worry about the historicity of the scriptures? I believe the answer to that question hinges on a rephrasing: can the scriptures help bring us closer to Christ and save us if we are unaware of their place in history? I believe they can, but that as we seek to make our faith and knowledge perfect, we will sooner or later need to focus on these points.

So, with that out of the way, let me pose a second question for discussion.

Dennis brought up “dead ontology,” and other responses to the first question also pointed out different models for history. Using those ideas as a springboard, I’d like to ask to what extent we need adopt the same views of history as Church leaders, past and present.

Steve

To: Nate Oman, Dennis Potter, Rosalynde Welch, Ronan James Head, Scott Gordon, John Hatch

To what extent should we as latter-day saints abandon our own explorations or views of history in order to track the vision of our leaders? For example, are questions of ‘dead ontology’ irrelevant if Joseph Smith ignored them? What of specific points of history asserted by Church leaders — are their assertions automatically deemed true, so long as they are in keeping with the whole cloth of revelation thus far?

I look forward to your thoughts.

From: Dennis Potter
To: Nate Oman, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Ronan James Head, Scott Gordon, John Hatch
Date: April 26, 2005 12:50 PM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

I want to comment on what you take to be a preamble to your question before I go on to think through your question. I am currently re-thinking this issue for myself and so I want to explore ways of resisting some of those assumptions in your preamble.<br My brief view on the question of when historicity matters is more rhetorically based: I want to know who is asking the question , and why they are asking it. I believe that matters of historical accuracy in scripture and revelation largely take their importance from context.
Like Ronan and Nate, I find historicity to be a non-issue for my day-to-day worship, but the point takes on far greater importance as I discuss the Church with its opponents or with others interested in Church history.

It seems to me that these sentences assume the view of historicity that subordinates it to the scientific concept of what history is and how it can be checked. In my view, the historicity of the stories of Nephi (for example) are ever present in the grammar of our telling the story. It is not a parable. Rather it has the same grammatical status possessed by our stories about (say) the early Church experience. This grammatical status of the BofM narrative is the precondition of how this narrative matters for us in our discourse. What we do with these stories is different than what we do with parables. So, the historicity matters always, even when we don’t consciously think about it.

So, for example, someone like David P. Wright must think through the narratives of the BofM in a very different way than we do. For him, it is more grammatically like a parable than it is like a history. For him, the BofM plays a different role in religious practice. The lds community has rejected that different role as illegitimate. This indicates to me that there is something practical at stake in the difference between history and parable.
Does this mean the average Church member need not worry about the historicity of the scriptures? I believe the answer to that question hinges on a rephrasing: can the scriptures help bring us closer to Christ and save us if we are unaware of their place in history? I believe they can, but that as we seek to make our faith and knowledge perfect, we will sooner or later need to focus on these points.

The narrative of Nephi (for example) would be different were it told as a parable. It would play a different grammatical role in our religious discourse. I am not sure what you mean by “place in history” but it seems to presuppose a univocal narrative of the history of the world that could be “seen” from a God’s-eye point of view. I reject this assumption. Instead, I would say that the narratives are fundamentally important as historical narratives and we need to realize that we do not have to subordinate them to a scientific methodology of verification in order to understand or think this historicity. Also, it may very well be the case that narratives that seem to be competing narratives from the scientific perception of history are equally acceptable from the point of view that allows historicity to be defined in terms of a narrative ontology rather than a scientific/dead ontology.
So, with that out of the way, let me pose a second question for discussion. Dennis brought up “dead ontology,” and other responses to the first question also pointed out different models for history. Using those ideas as a springboard, I’d like to ask to what extent we need adopt the same views of history as Church leaders, past and present. Let me explain a little bit of what I’m getting at. Joseph Smith had very interesting views of history — some events were literal, and some symbolic or apocryphal, as Joseph himself would pronounce. All the world around him was that same scriptural world: bones along the road were Zelph’s; Spring Hill was Adam-Ondi-Ahman. The Book of Mormon was the story of the entire continent, and the papryi presented, miraculously, the book of Abraham. Subsequent Church leaders have not been visionary men on par with Joseph Smith, but they have adopted similar views of the accuracy of scriptural history. To what extent should we as latter-day saints abandon our own explorations or views of history in order to track the vision of our leaders? For example, are questions of ‘dead ontology’ irrelevant if Joseph Smith ignored them? What of specific points of history asserted by Church leaders — are their assertions automatically deemed true, so long as they are in keeping with the whole cloth of revelation thus far?


For the question….

It seems to me that we are not bound by JS’s narratives about the place of BofM story. Of course, the motivation to avoid this comes in the form of the lack of scientific evidence (or even contravening scientific evidence) and I have argued against the use of a scientific approach as fundamental. Two points should be made about the above questions, in my view. 1. We should look at Joseph Smith’s narration of the BofM’s place and see what it meant for him and his people. Similarly, we should interrogate other histories of current Church leaders to see the place they occupy in our current religious narrative(s). 2. It may be that we no longer share all the same narratives with earlier Church leaders. This is not in my view a problem. On a narrative approach to doing theology we can embrace the idea that continuing revelation entails the evolution of our narrative. This does not mean that the earlier narration was false and the current one is true. It may also be that we will find ourselves transforming current narratives in terms of how our competing interests as religious actors play out on the stage of practice.

I hope that some of this helps.

Best,
Dennis

__________________________
Dennis Potter
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Utah Valley State College
potterde@uvsc.edu
801.863.8817
__________________________

Any replies? Consider this a gentle prodding. So far Dennis Potter has been the only one to answer. I look forward to reading your emails.

Steve

From: John Hatch
To: Nate Oman, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, Scott Gordon
Date: May 8, 2005 12:47 PM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

On the question of prophets and history:

Mormonism’s divine claims and its history are so intertwined that it becomes difficult to separate the two. As a result, I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice by focusing too much on the literal. For example, if President Hinckley bears his testimony about the First Vision, it isn’t just a testimony about the divine and its implications in our lives, it’s also an affirmation of a historical event – one that may or may not be disproven by history. Arguments arise over whether there were revivals in Palmyra in 1820, over the intensity of the preaching, etc.

The First Vision remains pretty safe, however. It’s next-to impossible to prove Joseph did or did not see God. It becomes even more problematic when Prophets have born testimony of historical events that are almost certainly incorrect. In June 1834, Joseph Smith wrote to Emma on Zion’s Camp (a day after the Zelph incident), and told her how remarkable it is to wander the plains of the Nephites and pick up their skulls and bones – all in the state of Illinois.

History, even with its imperfections, tells us with relative certainty who those bones actually belonged to – and it wasn’t a Nephite or a Lamanite. Such mistakes allow for doubt; if Joseph was wrong about the very book he translated, the very people he claimed to have visions of, what else was he wrong about? The focus is diverted from how scriptures can influence our lives for good and make us more Christlike to the many historical inconsistencies and dilemmas. Look at many of the FARMS publications. In the introduction to books like Book of Mormon Authorship, there’s the obligatory paragraph with lip-service that says a testimony of the Book of Mormon comes from the spirit. Then the rest of the book proceeds to try and “prove” the Book of Mormon is true, without addressing its spiritual qualities. Even when we talk about the Book of Mormon’s spiritual message, we can’t seem to resist pointing out that Joseph *couldn’t* have written the Book of Mormon (something in itself that is impossible to actually know) –just look at how intricate and marvelous it is.

I believe the Church will mature beyond this insecurity over its own claims and come to a place where it focuses on the spiritual message over the literal message. We’ll learn to cope better with the fact that some things just can’t be proven, and others will be proven false. But for the time being, we’ve put way too much faith in our own history, and not in our own message.

John

From: John Hatch
To: Nate Oman, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, Scott Gordon
Date: May 8, 2005 1:08 PM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

One quick comment on Church history and Church leaders teachings about history.

I don’t see how members can claim to have any responsibility to believe a Church leader who teaches about history – and is wrong. I had to smile when David B. Haight, speaking in conference a few years ago, referenced the founding of the Church. Not only did he say the Church was founded in Fayette, something itself that can be disputed, but he said that they poured the “wi…er the grape juice” for the sacrament. He started to say wine, caught himself, and substituted grape juice. It was a fun little moment with such a likeable apostle. But there are of course plenty of members who believe everything uttered in General Conference is scripture, and will believe that it was grape juice and not wine.

I’d argue members are also under no obligation to believe when it comes to much more serious questions of historicity. I honestly sympathize with the dilemma apologists face: They have to defend historicity while defending Mormon claims of continuing revelation and prophetic counsel. They can’t defend the Book of Mormon with the hemispheric model – it’s simply impossible. They therefore have to, in as diplomatic way as possible, essentially say that every Church leader from Joseph Smith to Gordon B. Hinckley was wrong about the Book of Mormon. They have to do it in a way that doesn’t put off members – many of whom are comfortable just shrugging their shoulders and saying “Well, I don’t care what the evidence says, I still believe in one Cumorah and that all Native Americans are Lamanites.” They also have to do it in a way that doesn’t provide ammo for critics, who can attack by simply pointing out that apologists are contradicting 150 years worth of teachings. Not an easy task.


John

From: Nate Oman
To: John Hatch, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, Scott Gordon
Date: May 9, 2005 9:29 AM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

John said,
“I believe the Church will mature beyond this insecurity over its own claims and come to a place where it focuses on the spiritual message over the literal message.”

With all due respect, I think that this is a rather distorted view of current LDS discourse. There is a constant danger of thinking that the Mormon discussions that we are primarily involved in are the primary Mormon discussions. I think that the points that John H. makes may be applicable to discussions in self-consciously “intellectual” Mormon fora. However, by and large, I think that for most members apologetic arguments over the Book of Mormon or one’s reaction to the New Mormon History simply are not on the radar screen. To be sure, John H. is right to point out that from time to time, people slip in little apologetic claims in the margins of their discussions, but I suspect that it is John H.’s interest in these discussions that makes these references seem so ubiquitous and overpowering. The last time my ward went through the Book of Mormon for Sunday School, for example, the discussion was overwhelmingly on its spiritual importance and the practical application of its teachings. The same is true, I think, of how the Book of Mormon is used on other contexts, such as conference addresses. The criticism that we are not focused sufficiently on the spiritual message of the Book of Mormon may be a fair point if by “we” we are talking only about FARMS or the latest Metcalfe and Vogel-edited offering from Signature, but if “we” is going to refer to Mormonism as a whole, I don’t think that this is really a fair criticism.

Nate

From: Nate Oman
To: John Hatch, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, Scott Gordon
Date: May 9, 2005 10:04 AM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

In reply to your questions, I think that there are a number of issues that are tangled up here. The first goes to the question of how we identify authoritative statements by prophets. I have blogged about this ad nauseum elsewhere, so I will spare you extensive elaborations, but let me point out that these questions only really matter if we think that there are some times when we ought to believe the truth of prophetic statements in face of our own contrary beliefs. This is what I mean, when I talk about “authority” or “epistemic authority.” If we cannot identify any such times, then it seems to me that we are simply saying that prophets have epistemic authority to the extent — and only to the extent — that they agree with us. This is a pretty lame and vacuous notion of prophecy in my opinion. Assuming that we have some sort of rough and ready way of identifying prophetic statements that are entitled to some authority, we need to figure out how much authority they have. I would agree with John H. that we make a mistake if we think that we are required to believe every detail asserted by any prophetic figure. Rather, it seems to me that we need to have some sense of what their claimed basis of knowledge is — personal study? revelation? brute assumption? — as well as the centrality of the historical claim to the validity of the rest of their message. However, I think that it is a mistake to believe that prophetic statements on historical questions never have any authority.

A final, philosophical point. It is probably a mistake to attempt to view prophetic statements in isolation from the rest of our beliefs. Consider, for example, how one might treat historical claims made by Joseph Smith. I am inclined to believe that some of them are simply mistaken and that some of them provide me we real knowledge about the past. In the absence of a formally realizable criteria, such picking and choosing may can seem ad hoc and illegitimate. Here, I think that a point made by Willard Quine is important. (Dennis, please correct me, if I am getting things wrong here). Quine pointed out that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to falsify particular statements. It is always possible, he argued, to adjust one’s other beliefs so that the questioned proposition can still be believed. Consider, for example, the claim that the path of light can be bent by the gravitational fields of particularly massive objects. This is a key postulate of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and contradicts the earlier claim of Newtonian physics that light was unaffected by gravity. In the second decade of the 20th century, this bending of light was purportedly observed during a solar eclipse, when a star that should have been behind the sun appeared slightly to the side of it. Newton was falsified by observation! Yet upon reflection, it is easy to see that Newton’s postulate with regard to light (ie it is unaffected by gravity) could have been rescued by adjustments in other beliefs, e.g. by believing that that our initial observations or calculations with regard to the observed star were incorrect and that it actually wasn’t “supposed to be” behind the sun, etc. Quine’s point was not that we are self-deluded or illegitimately post hoc in how we construct our understanding of the world. Rather, his point was that ultimately the empirical observation of the world (in the broadest possible sense) cannot verify or falsify individual statements. Rather, empirical observation of the world always operates to verify or falsify the totality of our beliefs. I think that questions about the value of prophetic claims about the past should be viewed against the backdrop of Quine’s theory. What is important is not the truth or falsity of particular statements, but rather the extent to which the totality of our beliefs can account for what we know about the world. Adjustments with regard to particular claims are inevitable. The problem with Quine’s insight, of course, is that it ultimately becomes impossible to talk about anything without simultaneously talking about everything, with the result that conversations are always in some sense fragmentary and unsatisfying.

Such is life.

From: John Hatch
To: Nate Oman, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, Scott Gordon
Date: May 9, 2005 12:03 PM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

I agree with Nate that most Church members don’t focus or engage in discourse about historicity. And he’s right that Sunday School lessons largely focus on the spiritual messages of the scriptures.

However, just because many Church members are unaware of the discussions or don’t participate, doesn’t imply they value the spiritual over the literal. On those rare occasions when issues of historicity are raised in Sunday school, I’ve personally seen nothing but defensive responses, ranging from “Joseph couldn’t have written the book” to “maybe when God darkened the Lamanites skin, it changed their DNA.” In other words, members are only focusing on the spiritual because they’ve already made up their minds on the literal. If they are challenged on issues of historicity, the spiritual flies out the window until the literal can be re-established as the norm.

Absence of discussion doesn’t equal indifference. Try walking into a Sunday school class, announce Nephi never really existed, and see how members react. I’ve found that when members are faced with issues of historicity or the new Mormon history, they care a great deal. No one says, “Well, I don’t care if Joseph did this or that – it’s his message that’s important.” And that’s what my original point was getting at. It isn’t the ratio of spiritual to historical discussions, it’s the entire approach to the Church. Mormons are universally literal in their views scriptures. There’s little room for metaphor, and I think only the tiniest percentage of members would accept a view that rejects historicity, while accepting inspiration – be it about the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, or First Vision.

John

From: Scott Gordon
To: Nate Oman, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, John Hatch
Date: May 9, 2005 3:38 PM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

To what extent should we as latter-day saints abandon our own explorations or views of history in order to track the vision of our leaders?

With the foundational scripture of James 1:5 and Moroni 10: 4-5, we as members are encouraged to go directly to God with our questions. All books, opinions and comments from anyone are to be interpreted through the Spirit and not to be taken as official doctrine of the Church.

Dallin H. Oaks said,

Commentaries are not a substitute for the scriptures any more than a good cookbook is a substitute for food. (When I refer to “commentaries,” I refer to everything that interprets scripture, from the comprehensive book-length commentary to the brief interpretation embodied in a lesson or an article, such as this one.). . . As a result, commentaries, if not used with great care, may illuminate the author’s chosen and correct meaning but close our eyes and restrict our horizons to other possible meanings. Sometimes those other, less obvious meanings can be the ones most valuable and useful to us as we seek to understand our own dispensation and to obtain answers to our own questions. . .
If we depend only upon our own reasoning or the scholarship or commentaries of others, we will never obtain the understanding that can come only be revelation. Persons in that circumstance will be left forever with what Alma calls “the lesser portion of the word” (Alma 12:11) (“Scripture Reading & Revelation, Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign, Jan. 1995 p 9.)

This not only applies to scripture commentary, but all commentary and opinions. The question that comes up in following the views of the leaders is that we would then have to ask, “Which leaders?” There has always been a divergence of opinion on many issues among the brethren. The modern attempt to portray the brethren as always moving in lock-step in all matters seems to be a misuse of historical sources.

An example of this is the issue of evolution. Clearly Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith were opposed to evolution and spoke out against it. At the same time B. H. Roberts and James E. Talmage were more inclined to be in favor of it. John A Widsoe took a neutral position that said it wouldn’t matter which way it went. So which “Brother” do we want to follow? Which one should we quote?

When Joseph Fielding Smith published his book Man: His Origin and Destiny, both J. Rueben Clark and Henry B. Eyring made comments that distance the church from the book. The same thing happened with the publication of Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie. Many of the other brethren, including David O. Mckay were very unhappy with some teachings and errors in that book.

We have the same kinds of issue on the limited geography model vs. the hemispheric model and the Book of Mormon. Despite claims that every church leader for the past 150 years taught the hemispheric model, we have several, including John A. Widtsoe and Franklin S. Harris Jr., of the quorum of the twelve, and Anthony W. Ivins, counselor in the first presidency, who all state the Book of Mormon was about three colonies and that there were likely other people here. Additionally, the official church manuals of the day stated the Book of Mormon is only about three small colonies which may represent only a part of the ancestry of American Indians. Once again we are left with the question of which voices we should listen to. Do we believe the church manuals? Do we believe the apostles? Which apostles?

The idea that the brethren are infallible on issues of history, geology, geography, or even business seems to be a position that isn’t held by the Brethren of the Church. The statement on evolution made by the brethren seems to apply to the topics of history and the Book of Mormon as well.

The statement made by Elder Smith that the existence of pre-Adamites is not a doctrine of the Church is true. It is just as true that the statement: ‘There were not pre-Adamites upon the earth’ is not a doctrine of the Church. Neither side of the controversy has been accepted as a doctrine at all. Both parties make the scripture and the statements of men who have been prominent in the affairs of the Church the basis of their contention; neither has produced definite proof in support of his views. . . .Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the people of the world. Leave Geology, Biology, Archaeology and Anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church. . . .

The church does not teach history classes. Nor does it teach science classes. What the church teaches is gospel and moral principles. If history and science helps in that endeavor, then history and science will sometimes be used. If the science is poor or the history is poor, it doesn’t matter because it was the vehicle for the message and not the message itself.

Biblical criticism has studied these issues for years, and the Biblical scholars seem to be way ahead of us. We seem to be rooted in enlightenment thinking and positivism, looking for scientific proof for the Book of Mormon without understanding the relationship of the scriptures to God and man.

From: Dennis Potter
To: Nate Oman, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Scott Gordon, Ronan James Head, John Hatch
Date: May 11, 2005 12:24 PM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

A couple of comments on Nate’s answer to the second question.

As you know Nate, I am very influenced by Quine in my philosophical views. And you explained his view about theoretical revision very well. However, Quine, as with the Vienna Circle, gives epistemic privilege to those linguistic expressions that have the logical form and content that is acceptable to science. By doing so, narrative language is subordinated to scientific language. In this way, Quine commits himself to what I call the approach of “dead ontology”. In the context of this approach, Quine would argue that we think of all language as proto-science or developed science. So, methodological principles that apply to science should apply to any bit of language. This includes statements about the past. Two such principles are the principle of minimum mutilation (i.e., we should change our theory in the way that does the least damage overall) and Occam’s razor (i.e., we should accept the “simplest” ontology). I believe that one could make an argument that the DNA evidence against the BofM, coupled with these principles, would mean that the best revision of our theory is to reject its historicity. I believe that if we reject the subordination of narrative to scientific theory, then the current DNA problem does not arise in the same form. I do believe that we must say something about DNA. But I do not believe that what we say must follow standards of scientific discourse.


From: Rosalynde Welch
To: Nate Oman, Steve Evans, Dennis Potter, Scott Gordon, Ronan James Head, John Hatch
Date: May 11, 2005 5:43 PM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

I’m sympathetic to Nate’s point that we ought to be able to assign some epistemic privilege to prophetic utterance, or else our theory of of revelation becomes very thin indeed. But I don’t think scripture suggests that a prophet’s revelatory access to History, as the great code of Christian figural and eschatological history, necessarily provides him unique access to histories. Take for instance Lehi and the liahona: Lehi doesn’t seem to be privy to the natural history of the artifact, but instead uses it to construct a proleptic History of great things emerging from small beginnings. Even Mosiah, obtaining and translating the Jaredite plates, does not seem to make any claims for the history of the plates apart from the internal claims of the revelatory translation. Thus, I think scripture allows for a theory of prophetic authority that speaks authoritatively about History, but not always about histories. (It will be objected that histories are central to LDS History, and this is a fair point; the prominence of physical artifacts with natural histories in our mythic origins, however, need not structure our theory of revelation.)

From: Ronan James Head
To: Nate Oman, Steve Evans, Dennis Potter, Scott Gordon, Ronan James Head, John Hatch
Date: May 9, 2005 2:10 PM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

Re: John and Nate’s discussion.

What is the Book of Mormon’s greatest value? Is it to persuade that Jesus is the Christ, or that Joseph is his prophet?

I am of the opinion that the Book-of-Mormon-as-historical-artifact is important because it serves for Latter-day Saints as support for Joseph’s claims. Of course, as we all know, this is how the Book of Mormon has been used for most of it existence; early missionaries were not using the spiritual content of the book in their evangelizing. Indeed, we still don’t: missionaries today would be horrified if an investigator, after reading the book, told them that it persuaded him that he should be “more Christian”, but that he saw no reason to join the church. We want them to read the Book of Mormon *so* they’ll join the church. As a “spiritual” book I think there is better scripture out there; but as a historical book it’s the Church’s trump card for Joseph’s prophethood.

Historicity matters.

From: Dennis Potter
To: Nate Oman, Steve Evans, Dennis Potter, Scott Gordon, Ronan James Head, John Hatch
Date: May 12, 2005 12:04 PM
Subject: Re: Round Table — Second Question

Re: Ronan’s response:

This is the line that Terryl Givens has taken and I think that it is at least incomplete. The problem is that the Book of Mormon itself talks about its importance for people of our time. Joseph Smith said it is the most correct of all scripture. Recently, Ezra Taft Benson emphasized the need for us to read and understand the Book of Mormon. The narratives of the Book of Mormon are important because of their implications for how we should live. To be sure, the Joseph Smith story and the BofM’s place in it plays a significant role in our narrative discourse. Investigators are typically persuaded by this narrative. But this happens correctly only after they read the book (which means coming to grips with its content) and then follow Moroni’s promise (i.e., to pray about the truth of what was read—the BofM’s content). Both the narrative of Joseph Smith and the narratives internal to the Book of Mormon matter to the Mormon religious community. An account that says that the narrative theology of the Book of Mormon does not matter is incomplete.

Comments

  1. “Then the rest of the book proceeds to try and ‘prove’ the Book of Mormon is true, without addressing its spiritual qualities.”

    John, you seem to know lots about what FARMS authors are and aren’t trying to do. Are their disclaimers that it can’t be proven lies? Disingenuous red herrings, so they can set about FARMS true business of proving the BoM true, were such a thing possible? Or is it possible that you are mischaracterizing them and their papers?

    Is there any discussion anywhere of the presence of an ancient characteristic of some kind in the Book of Mormon that you do not view as trying to “prove” its truth? I’m just curious, as I’ve never seen you fail to react this way in similar discussions. Perhaps we just haven’t had enough

    Every paper has a topic. If my topic in a Shakespeare class is his use of Biblical references, then my paper won’t discuss his use of alliteration. In other words, you seem to think that any discussion of the BoM that does not focus explicitly on its spiritual aspects is illegitimate. No?

    “Try walking into a Sunday school class, announce Nephi never really existed, and see how members react. I’ve found that when members are faced with issues of historicity or the new Mormon history, they care a great deal.”

    Of course they do. The spiritual import of Jesus’ visit to the Nephites is nill, UNLESS they’re were actual Nephites to visit. If we base our understanding of God on what He has done in the past, then at least in the large picture, we must hold to historical (though not inerrant) scriptures. In other words, if the BoM (regardless by whom it was written by) is trying to teach us something about God’s actions towards men, then to portray things He has never done (ie. visit the Nephites, etc.), is like lying on a job application.

    “Your job history says you have years of experience shepherding Israelites in the Americas, visiting them, healing them, and providing for their spiritual lives. Is that correct?”

    “Yes, that’s correct.”

    “But, you never actually did any shepherding or healing, because you never actually visited them, because there were never any actual Israelites there, correct?”

    “Yes, that’s correct. But it’s ok, because it was metaphorical.”

  2. Rather…

    Every paper has a topic. If my topic in a Shakespeare class is his use of Biblical references, then my paper won’t discuss his use of alliteration. Are not both valid topics? Or must every paper on Shakespeare devote some time to alliteration or risk being labeled as “irrelevant”?

    In other words, you seem to think that any discussion of the BoM that does not focus explicitly on its spiritual aspects is illegitimate, and any discussion of ancient aspects that may be there is misguided, at best. No?

  3. “The spiritual import of Jesus’ visit to the Nephites is nill, UNLESS they’re were actual Nephites to visit.”

    Aaron, I can see why you say that, and yet I’m not sure you’re right.

  4. There’s plenty of fiction that can strengthen one’s testimony or make one feel closer to God, or help one choose to be a better more Christlike person. Les Miserables, for example, is one I think we could agree on. Parables were supposed to serve this purpose. The good Samaritan need not have existed for us to agree that his actions were the moral good Christlike behavior. However, take a look at what the Book of Mormon claims for itself in the title page in terms of goals. Is it for teaching good behavior? “Inspirational” literature? It’s quite specific.

    1) to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers;

    2) that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever–

    3)And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD,

    4)manifesting himself unto all nations.

    IF no Nephites or Jaredites existed as presupposed for either a metaphorical “inspired but not historical” BoM or Vogel’s pious fraud that was nevertheless inspiring, (and I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue some kind of hybrid, that Nephi was fictional but the Jaredites historical), how are these achieved?

    If God DIDN’T actually lead Lehi and his family out from teh destruction fo Jerusalem, preserve them across the waters, etc. etce, then the BoM has nothing to show the non-existant remnant what God did for their fathers, because He didn’t do any of it!

    Again, (#2) if Enos did not exist, God did not make a covenant with him and others in the BoM that later on in thier history they would be redeemed and brought back into the fold. Like #1, this explicit claim of the purpose of the BoM fails unless it is historical.

    #3) Here it is possible to allow that a non-historical Book of Mormon could convince someone to have faith in JEsus as the Son of God. However, if the BoM is historical, it becomes much stronger as a testimony of Jesus and God’s works given the “historical” status accorded the Bible in scholarly and popular works (such as the annual US News article devoted to this or that biblical controversy).

    #4)Again, if there were no Nephites there, and Jesus did NOT manifest himself to them, then God has not, in fact, manifested himself to all people.

    3 of the 4 claims the BoM specifically makes for itself in terms of what it is for fail unless it is historical, and the other one is much stronger if historical.

  5. Your application as to number 4 is a little weak IMHO. Plenty of people/peoples have not seen Jesus in the flesh.

  6. It doesn’t say “individuals” Steve, it says nations, which in an Isralite context refers to groups, not individuals. In any case, I think the point is specifically that Jesus did not only visit the Jews, but also the Nephites. Unless of course, he didn’t.

  7. I wasn’t referring to individuals either, Aaron. Hence “peoples.” Plenty of peoples (meaning groups, or as it says on the title page, “nations”) have not literally seen Jesus.

  8. From Mormon’s perspective, I believe his point is that because Jesus visited the Nephites, he did not limit himself to the Jews, as one would believe if one only had the bible.

    In any case, you’ve weakened 1 of 4 points, and I appreciate the feedback :)

  9. Besides your other points, Aaron, I think that you may be missing the broader issue here — even if we say that the BoM is historical, that phrase means nothing until we define what historical means and how much it all needs to be accurate.

    Let me illustrate: does it matter if the Nephites never used coins called “ontis”? Maybe not. Does it matter if Enos never existed? That’s tougher. Does it matter if the Nephites/lamanites are all of the ancient americans?

    You see, your points are only valuable once you are able to approach the question of what meaning is properly attributable to the notion of historicity. That is what this thread is about, and I’m worried that you’re missing the issue at hand in favor of repeating a few of the more oft-repeated apologist stances.

  10. Actually, I’ve never seen any apologists approach it from the perspective of what claims the title page of the BoM makes for itself. I wouldn’t mind any links pointing me in that direction if I’ve missed it.

    If a car is missing wheels, the things which enable it to perform its primary function of transportation, it’s irrelevant to focus on whether the speedometer is accurate or the radiator leaks.

    I’ll take my minor and irrelevant arguments elsewhere :)

  11. “John, you seem to know lots about what FARMS authors are and aren’t trying to do. Are their disclaimers that it can’t be proven lies? Disingenuous red herrings, so they can set about FARMS true business of proving the BoM true, were such a thing possible? Or is it possible that you are mischaracterizing them and their papers?”

    Ok, fair enough. I applied too broad a generalization about FARMS publications. But your focus on it misses my entire point: Mormons are literalists, which I think is problematic.

    It draws the line in the sand. We’re telling people they have to believe X happened, regardless of the evidence. As Steve suggests above, where do we stop?

    Aaron, do you believe Jonah was swallowed by a whale? Was the whole earth covered in water in a massive flood? Did God torture Job to win a pissing match with Satan? What about more recent historical questions – Was Zelph a great warrior? Did seagulls save Mormon crops from crickets?

    Questions like that don’t have black and white answers. Of course, the typical response is that I’m nitpicking over “small” issues. But who decides what issues we can chuck and which ones we have to believe unquestioningly in, regardless of the problems swirling around them. Why should someone get to tell me it’s ok to believe the Jonah story is a metaphor, but that if I don’t believe Nephites really existed, I’m not up to Mormon snuff?

    In the end, I think it comes down to an issue of security. Mormons like to be right, because it helps them feel secure in their view of the world (like everyone else). They defend literalism because if things aren’t literal, it means they could be wrong. It opens a can of worms they’d rather keep the lid on.

    But this insistance on “knowing” (we use that word all the time – we KNOW the Church is true) has created an environment where we’re sometimes too worried about whether other people believe the right thing (as if we could know what the right thing actually is). Orthodoxy trumps spirituality.

    I don’t believe this is the case all of the time, or even most of the time. Most of Church is about being closer to God and being more Christ-like. But only because we take the literal for granted.

    “The spiritual import of Jesus’ visit to the Nephites is nill, UNLESS they’re were actual Nephites to visit. . . . In other words, if the BoM (regardless by whom it was written by) is trying to teach us something about God’s actions towards men, then to portray things He has never done (ie. visit the Nephites, etc.), is like lying on a job application.”

    And that’s where we will continue to disagree. I think there’s plenty of plausible explanations for metaphorical scriptures, all the way to saying Nephites didn’t exist. Take Abraham: I’d much, much rather believe that the story is a metaphor for obedience and trust in God than an actual story about God telling someone to murder their own son. If God’s that big of a weenie, we’ve got trouble. I like what Clifton Jolley once said: “If God asks you to kill your own child, there’s only one right answer: No.” You tell him, ‘You’re God – give him cancer and his mother and I will take care of him until he dies.'”

  12. To what extent should we as latter-day saints abandon our own explorations or views of history in order to track the vision of our leaders? For example, are questions of ‘dead ontology’ irrelevant if Joseph Smith ignored them? What of specific points of history asserted by Church leaders — are their assertions automatically deemed true, so long as they are in keeping with the whole cloth of revelation thus far?

    Part of the problem is that this question addresses a whole lot more than just issues of historicity. It really asks how we should interact with people have ecclesiastical authority and, in particular, how we should behave as regards what they say. As Scott and Nate pointed out, until we have a really good and consistent means of deciding what is an inspired prophetic utterance and “that which seemed like a good idea” we simply won’t have a way to decide how closely to follow the ideas of the prophets.

    I think that I ought to point out that Gary Shapiro has put a lot of time and effort into arguing that the 1931 statement deals with the concept of “no death before the fall” and not with evolution. He makes some good points, although they are ultimately irrelevant to what Scott was saying.

  13. Well said, John H.

  14. ” But who decides what issues we can chuck and which ones we have to believe unquestioningly in”

    In this case, I think the logic of the title page necessitates core historicity for the BoM. I’m interested in further arguments there.

    “I’d much, much rather believe that the story is a metaphor”

    That is very telling.

  15. ” But who decides what issues we can chuck and which ones we have to believe unquestioningly in”

    In this case, I think the logic of the title page necessitates core historicity for the BoM. I’m interested in further arguments there.

    “I’d much, much rather believe that the story is a metaphor”

    That is very telling.

  16. sorry for the double…

  17. a random John says:

    #4)Again, if there were no Nephites there, and Jesus did NOT manifest himself to them, then God has not, in fact, manifested himself to all people.

    I know that some problems with this statement have already been dealt with. I would go further and say that the sentence takes as a given the concept of there being no Nephites. If this is true, then it would be very hard for Jesus to visit them. I would guess that the number of non-existent persons that Jesus has visited is zero.

    It is possible that I haven’t understood the statement properly. It could be a statement about the location of the Nephites being somewhere other than where they are assumed to be, in which case Jesus could have visited them in their new digs.

  18. John, out of curiosity, how many FARMS folks do you think are literalists? I can’t think of too many. It seems that they are among the most opposed to Protestant styled literalism or inerrancy there are.

    I think we have to be careful not to confuse literalism with historicism.

  19. Nate Oman says:

    “who decides what issues we can chuck and which ones we have to believe unquestioningly in, regardless of the problems swirling around them.”

    Me. Just give me a call John if you have any questions. ;->

  20. Kevin Christensen says:

    [John H. comments:] But who decides what issues we can chuck and which ones we have to believe unquestioningly in, regardless of the problems swirling around them. Why should someone get to tell me it’s ok to believe the Jonah story is a metaphor, but that if I don’t believe Nephites really existed, I’m not up to Mormon snuff?

    [Kevin C.] As far as “who decides,” that is obvious: everyone decides for themselves. Anyone can try to tell you anything, just as you get to state your own views. But only you get to decide for yourself.

    There is a hidden presumption in the “we have to believe unquestioningly in” phrase. That is, that we actually understand the texts and issues in question. It should be obvious that we cannot understand without questioning. For example, when Jesus said “Tear down this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” it is not only permissible, but essential to inquire whether we understand the statement. And take the Abraham example, for instance. When God asks Abraham to offer up Issac, do we unquestioningly presume that God wants Issac dead or even that Abraham understands this to be the case? When Abraham takes Issac up the hill, and says to those with them, “We’re going up to sacrifice, and we’ll be back,” do we presume that he’s lying about what he expects will happen? When Issac asks “Where is the sacrifice?” and Abraham says, “God will provide the sacrifice,” do we presume that Abraham is being disingenuous with his son? Do we think we can read the story by reading into it our own reactions, like Kierkigard via instrospection, or do we try to expand the context as Nibley does in “The Sacrifice of Issac”, looking at a number of Abraham’s previous adventures, with himself being offered up repeatedly, and Sariah being offered up repeatedly, and always, always, always in his experience, God providing a substitute? Does an unquestioning approach to any text offer any hope for furthering our understanding of what it might have to say?

    With respect to how to value various puzzles, I have written on this several times. Recently, in FR 16:1, for instance, this:

    What makes an anomaly “that normal science [or faith] sees as a puzzle” into what “can be seen, from another viewpoint, as a counterinstance and thus as a source of crisis”?88 There is no comprehensive answer. But Kuhn does highlight three issues upon which Vogel opts for a discreet silence:

    1. Issues for fundamental generalizations. “Sometimes an anomaly will clearly call into question explicit and fundamental generalizations of the paradigm.”89 In American Apocrypha, the point of Vogel and Metcalfe’s introduction is to establish a set of generalizations about Book of Mormon geography (hemispheric) and populations (exclusive) that are particularly easy to call into question.
    2. Anomaly related to specific practical applications. “An anomaly without apparent fundamental import may evoke crisis if the applications that it inhibits have a particular practical importance.”90 For example, David Wright’s study of Isaiah in American Apocrypha fusses over “the appearance of ‘yea’ and the twice-occurring ‘for,'”91 neither of which is fundamental, but both of which relate to practical understandings of the translation.
    3. Research puzzles that currently resist solution. “The development of normal science may transform an anomaly that had previously been only a vexation into a source of crisis.”92 The shift from the hemispheric model to the limited model flowed from an awareness of anomalies that the former model created, both with respect to the view of developing science and to the internal demands of the Book of Mormon text.93

    Kuhn points out that a paradigm crisis closes in three ways.94 First, normal science handles the crisis. Hence, we have things like Nibley’s “Howlers in the Book of Mormon” and Matthew Roper’s “Right on Target: Boomerang Hits and the Book of Mormon,” showing how things that had formerly been put forth as evidence against the Book of Mormon have been transformed into evidence in its favor.95

    Second, the problem is labeled and set aside for a future generation. This was the official response to the B. H. Roberts study in 1921.96 And surprisingly, it was the correct response because his questions were premature in terms of working out a consistent internal geography of the Book of Mormon, relating it to a specific external site (the work had not been done), and correlating it to relevant information on ancient Mesoamerica (it was not available).

    Third, a new paradigm emerges with the ensuing battle for acceptance. Kuhn remarks, “Since no paradigm ever solves all the problems it defines and since no two paradigms leave all the same problems unsolved, paradigm debates always involve the question: Which problems is it more significant to have solved?”97 Our Book of Mormon critics always tell us exactly which problems they think are more significant to have solved. That is their privilege, but we don’t have to agree with their valuations.

    End quote.

    And finally another quote. This one is on liteary criticism but it has implications for dealing with the way the early LDS read the Book of Mormon.

    George Steiner, in his book The Death of Tragedy, said this:
    When the artist must be the architect of his own mythology, time is against him. He cannot live long enough to impose his special vision and the symbols he has devised for it on the habits of language and the feelings of his society. Without an orthodox or public frame to support it, it does not take root in the common soil.[2]

    Given that there was an existing mythology of what Vogel calls “Indian Origins” when the Book of Mormon was translated/composed, depending on ones’ point of view. What is the relationship of the public frame to the text? It is the source of the text, or merely a pot in which it was planted for a time, and has since outgrown?

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  21. I think this discussion raises at least two valuable issues:

    1) Are there spiritual gains to be had from de-emphasizing the origin stories of Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices in favor of their content?

    2) How much of the “official story” has to be true in order to make the Latter-day Saint faith in some specifiable sense true?

    Question #1, which seems to be the one that John H. is most interested in, strikes me as one that is inadequately discussed. Regardless of how much historicity is necessary for our faith to be acceptable, it may well be the case that discussing historical claims distracts from spiritual messages.

    I think there is a confusion between messenger and message that sometimes arises in LDS discussions–as, in my opinion, in Ronan’s statement, with respect to the Book of Mormon, that “[a]s a ‘spiritual’ book I think there is better scripture out there; but as a historical book it’s the Church’s trump card for Joseph’s prophethood.” If the primary purpose of Joseph’s prophethood was to testify of Christ, then we have to face the fact that the Book of Mormon is the most explicit witness of Christ among the scriptures Joseph was involved with. That witness for Christ seems more important to me than Joseph’s prophethood. If discussions about Joseph’s role as translator and prophet distract, even to some extent, from that message, then I feel something of great value has been lost.

    With respect to question #2, cheerio, folks: this is the one we discussed at length on the first historicity thread.

  22. “Me. Just give me a call John if you have any questions. ;->”

    That cracked me up – thanks Nate :)

  23. Now Confused says:

    If Joseph Smith was only telling parables and using hyperbole, why are missionaries instructed to tell investigators that the Book of Mormon was indeed an historical record?

  24. Confused,

    This question, and related issues, necessarily go to the issue of which church teachings are revelations and which are best guesses. For example, the introduction to the Book of Mormon claims that the Lehites were the principal descendents of the American Indians and other pre-colombian peoples. However, most LDS intellectuals now believe that this statement is not inspired but instead reflects the opinion of some leaders. Answering your question would require discussion of the actual text of the current missionary handbook, which I haven’t yet seen. But any texts there about the historicity of the Book of Mormon or other scriptures would be subject to the same debate about inspiration versus opinion.

    None of this discussion is about the actual status of these scriptural texts, by the way. The Book of Mormon could indeed be a historical record. Or it could be an uninspired fraud. Or it could be an inspired parable. Decisions about the choice among these and other options should, in my view, be based on personal evaluation of the intellectual evidence and personal spiritual witness–not group philosophy sessions.

  25. Now Confused says:

    Regardless of what the missionary discussions actually say verbatim, the Church leaders–including President Hinckley–all make it clear that Joseph did, indeed, unearth actual gold plates that were actual writings of human beings that actually existed (whether on a large continent or small area).

    If Smith was only making it up to make a point, the Church leaders are so misinformed and easily duped as to render it ineffectual for the membership to listen and follow them on many post-Joseph teachings that vary from basic Christianity.

  26. Confused: This is the kind of thing that is probably better prayed about than thought about, in my opinion…

  27. Now Confused says:

    Re comment #26, now I REALLY am confused.

    Are you saying one should pray about whether the Church leaders are telling the truth? When they solemnly swear in the name of Jesus Christ that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record translated by JS (and not just a nice fairy tale that testifies of Christ)? Pray to see if Joseph told the truth? Even if cureloms were figments of his imagination and he didn’t ever heft any gold plates? Is God supposed to say “yes”–it happened, even if it didn’t?

    And if it really is a faith-enhancing fiction, why should ANYONE join the LDS church instead of staying in their own churches?

  28. Seth Rogers says:

    Personally, I find the Gospel relatively uninteresting if it must be reduced, in its entirety, to “parable status.”

    It’s just too convenient to reduce the instruction to sacrifice Isaac to a mere metaphor for the importance of obedience to God’s will. Such thinking seeks to confine all scriptural discourse to the realm of the theoretical. Once a concept is theoretical, there is no longer any danger that I might be required to change my behavior to accomodate that concept.

    Once tithing is rendered into a parable, it doesn’t matter what physical actions I undertake to conform with “the principle of tithing.” I might simply decide to devote that ten percent to National Public Radio, the Sierra Club, or the national Republican Party. Or I might decide that my situation doesn’t warrant any effort on my part at all.

    And who’s to stop me?

    After all, when you’re talking about parables, the application becomes very subjective. We are now talking about opinion. And as we all know, battles of opinion are almost never resolved. Your opinions are just as valid as mine and neither of us have the right to dispute that validity.

    Personally, I find the impulse to translate all scripture into parable to be nothing more than thinly veiled relativism where all ideas are valid and none of them are.

    If you’re looking for that kind of thing, there are several Christian denominations that will agree with you. But Mormonism isn’t one of them.

    At some point, the rubber has to meet the road.

  29. Count me among those who believe The Book of Mormon is really just a parable, but I’m still struggling with the symbolism of this passage.

  30. Eric, maybe it’s the same as the symbolism of this passage: http://scriptures.lds.org/query?words=Genesis+4%3A17-26&search.x=33&search.y=11&search=Search&newsearch=ok&OT=1&NT=1&BM=1&DC=1&PGP=1&SH=1&TX=1&SM=1

    Seth, I think that a real belief in the Holy Spirit is what keeps things from the kind of pure anarchy you describe–whether or not the scriptures are history. If the Holy Ghost tells you that you should pay 10% tithing to the church, you had better do it. If, by contrast, it tells you that you shouldn’t, then you shouldn’t. Or, if the Holy Ghost generally tells you that you should do what the scriptures say, then you should–Nephi or no Nephi.

  31. RT,

    Weren’t you the guy talking about how we make mistakes in interpretig spiritual experiences? The D&C and the temple are both pretty adamant about the reality of deceiving spirits. So the idea that all we need is the Spirit is a little trite. Our spiritual capacity simply is not well-developed enough as a people to pull that off (though we all wish it were). Of course we need the spirit. But (until we have received the Second Comforter) we also need witnessess for that spirit to confirm.

    Speaking of historicity, I was reading 3rd Nephi with my wife and we encountered a passage where Christ takes some care to get the history right. So presumably the “symbolic teaching” in that passage is, well, to get your history right. And that Christ prefers accurate records of miraculous events. Sounds good to me.

    I’m still waiting for the scripturally based argument for why historical accuracy is irrelevant. It seems to cut against the whole idea of witnesses testifying to their own experiences. Here’s one example, but there are lots. And, as Steve has brought up, it probably cuts against the way the prophets treat the scriptures.

  32. “…it may well be the case that discussing historical claims distracts from spiritual messages.”

    I just don’t see how that can be the case. Isn’t it a basic hermeneutic principle that better information on context entails better understanding?

  33. As I’ve been thinking about Steve’s original question, I have come up with a scenario that I believe applies.

    Suppose You’re watching the Sunday Morning Session of Conference this coming November. President Hinckley is speaking and bears testimony that the Book of Mormon represents actual events that happened to actual people that happened throughout the American continents. Do you say:
    1. Well, that is just his opinion, it shouldn’t be considered as doctrinally relevant.
    2. Clearly President Hinckley is not keeping up with the recent developments at FARMS/FAIR, so we can’t expect him to know everything.
    3. Scientific method, Schmientific method. What the prophet says, goes.
    4. “Throughout the American continents”, eh? It must take place near the isthmus of Panama so you can get both continents into your limited geography.
    5. (For RT) President Hinckley’s testimony of itself has no bearing on my faith. However, if the Spirit confirms in me that it is right or wrong, then it might.
    6. (For John H) Why isn’t he talking about Jesus?

    Would you response change if he said this on Larry King Live, instead of in Conf (hypothetically, of course)?

    I am sure that there are others, but my point is that we may be making the case too academic by discussing what Joseph Smith/Brigham Young/Solomon Spaulding thought about Book of Mormon historicity. Steve’s question speaks to the whole problem of interpreting prophetic authority.

  34. John C. –

    7. The plates had to get to New York somehow. Even the whole narrative took place in Gutemala or wherever, the fact that the plates where in New York fulfills the “throughout the American Continants” contingency. :)

  35. J. Stapley: Guatemala and New York fulfills “throughout the American Continents”? But both are in North America! Maybe Moroni passed through Chile and Brazil en route?

    Frank: Of course we do make mistakes in interpreting the spirit. But we make mistakes in interpreting scriptural texts and prophetic statements as well. If you’re looking for a way to avoid making any mistakes ever, I’m pretty sure that there’s little anyone can offer you. My point is just that, since we are consistently taught to seek a testimony of each principle, the catastrophic predictions of anarchy, “relativism,” and disobedience need not follow from viewing the text as potentially ahistorical.

    Clark: I agree that context aids the recovery of meaning. Narrative context, in particular, is invaluable–and sometimes lost in our occasional tendency to pluck individual sentences and even phrases out of narratives and discourses to prove a point. However, when we begin to treat the context and the messenger as more important than (or equally as important as) the message, we have become distracted in a way that can even alter the theology people take away from the discussion. A relevant question here, for example, is this: do we talk more about Jesus than about Joseph Smith? I think we do now, although there have been times when we haven’t.

  36. RT,

    I am advocating integrating prophetic counsel and one’s own feelings, much as you (I believe) previously advocated integrating scientific evidence and one’s own religious experience. The straw man of never making a mistake is beside the point. Does viewing the text as ahistorical matter? It mattered to Christ and it mattered to Nephi. Why should it not matter to us?

  37. J. Stapley: Guatemala and New York fulfills “throughout the American Continents”? But both are in North America! Maybe Moroni passed through Chile and Brazil en route?

    Running away from the Lamanites I’d guess.

  38. RT: If the Holy Ghost tells you that you should pay 10% tithing to the church, you had better do it. If, by contrast, it tells you that you shouldn’t, then you shouldn’t. Or, if the Holy Ghost generally tells you that you should do what the scriptures say, then you should–Nephi or no Nephi.

    Seems like good advice to me — we should always seek revelation. My question is do you think the Holy Ghost only give us behavioral counsel? What about revealing facts about history? Can the Holy Ghost tell us that Nephi really did exist and that the Book of Mormon is not a parable (or not)? All of our modern prophets from Joseph through President Hinckley seem to think so.

    I’ll readily admit that prophets can be wrong about doctrines and facts. But wouldn’t you agree that unanimity among all of them (and that includes all apostles in that time too as far as I can tell) from the beginning ought to be considered pretty strong evidence? Has anyone claimed to receive revelation that the Book of Mormon is a parable?

  39. Seth Rogers says:

    Re: Roasted Tomatoes #30

    I think the Gift of the Holy Ghost ensures nothing of the sort.

    In my experience “promptings of the Spirit” are often code for: “doing whatever I feel like doing.”

    I am very uncomfortable with the urge I think I’m seeing here, to reform the doctrine to meet with our own personal preferences.

    The Book of Mormon is hugely less demanding on my personal life and flaws if I choose to read it as a mere parable.

  40. I agree that context aids the recovery of meaning. Narrative context, in particular, is invaluable–and sometimes lost in our occasional tendency to pluck individual sentences and even phrases out of narratives and discourses to prove a point. However, when we begin to treat the context and the messenger as more important than (or equally as important as) the message, we have become distracted in a way that can even alter the theology people take away from the discussion.

    But it isn’t clear to me that this is happening. Certainly not with apologetics. Were there this big problem with this I could see this as a complaint. But it seems to me that most apologists are very cognizant of content. So it seems to me that this is a worry in search of an instantiation. Certainly it doesn’t justify ignoring context the way I think many suggest. As you say, context is invaluable in understanding texts. (I’m not sure I’d agree with calling that recovering meaning. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish.)

    Regarding about whether we talk about Jesus or Joseph Smith, I suppose that one could turn that around and critique your approach. Are we speaking of content or narrative accidents? If the former, then we can talk about Joseph all the while actually talking about the content of Jesus’ atonement. Likewise we can talk about Jesus while neglecting his message. In any case I’ve never seen any evidence that we focus too much on Joseph Smith.

  41. I cast one vote in favor of Ronan’s position: That, in large part, the historicity is the message. This is consistent with how the Church has used the Book of Mormon from day one.

    Besides, claiming the substantive content is the primary message creates problems. First, there really is no consistent, distinctive substantive message to the book. Second, to the extent there is a distinctive message (that adds something to the Bible message) it is that supernatural artifacts are very, very important (e.g., Liahona, Nephite interpreters, Jaredite stones), hardly the substantive message it is held to stand for in the modern Church, whose leaders make no claim to use such devices. Third, the modern Church is quite selective about what it draws from the book, ignoring what it doesn’t like. The Book of Mormon denunciation of polygamy as an abomination, for example, didn’t stop early Saints from embracing it. What’s the point of a extolling the virtues of a restored substantive message that is freely ignored when it conflicts with modern doctrine or practice?

    So IMHO Ronan’s position that historicity is what the book essentially stands for both describes how it is actually used and avoids notable inconsistencies.

  42. Let me discuss my primary concern in a different way. Are we, as a community, able to include people who have a testimony of the restoration and accept the Book of Mormon and other scripture as authoritative for doctrine, faith, and morals, but affirmatively disbelieve in the Book of Mormon’s historicity? Could such a person belong, or should they find another home?

    This question is my primary concern, and I’m advocating an inclusive response. Such a person can, in my opinion, have a vibrant testimony and fully pass a temple recommend interview–so I see no reason not to fully include the hypothetical individual in our community.

    Since I’m not that person, I don’t have to explain exactly which of the several different possible intellectual positions with respect to the Book of Mormon the person adopts. Nor do I have to argue that we shouldn’t care about historicity. My main concern is with the question of whether a belief in historicity should be decisive for full inclusion in the church community.

    Dave: I agree that historicity-as-message describes the usage of the Book of Mormon at least through the Benson era. However, it seemed flawed to Benson, who attempted to reorient us toward its content–and it seems flawed to me. If our proof of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling is that God gave us a useless book through him, that really seems to be evidence that God is wildly inefficient and that what prophets say isn’t very important.

  43. RT,

    Who does and does not go to the temple is a question pretty much out of my purview. But I would guess that the answer depends a great deal on how publically the person wishes to push their views, since one can believe a great deal and still be in good standing as long as one keeps one’s views to oneself.

    If I found out that someone had been publishing articles about how the Book of Mormon was fiction, and then later found out that person had been disfellowshipped or excommunicated, I would have little cause to argue.

  44. Seth Rogers says:

    Re #42:

    My feeling is that as long as they qualified for the ordinances and “passed” the Temple Recommend interview, I doubt many in the church would deny them full fellowship based on their more “unconventional” views.

    I can’t be so certain about whether this tolerance would continue if said individual started becoming very vocal about those unconventional views.

    Perhaps it’s like the US Army’s old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy?

  45. Steve (FSF) says:

    I’m coming into this late, so please excuse what may be a dumb question. Have the BofM witnesses been explained away?

    For background on my present position, even as a youth in the 70’s I scuffed at the idea that the BofM precluded multiple entries into the Americas, that most Native Americans descended from BofM peoples, or the dark skin thing was accurate. My guess on the skin thing was Laman and Lemual assimilated into a dark skinned pre-Nephite tribe and their descendants were therefore dark. After all, almost all scripture is a one sided story, not a balanced accurate account. As for those who view the book as allegory only, I have no beef w/ them, but they do have to explain away the witnesses.

  46. Most of what has been said about epistemic privilege here treats it as though it is more or less arbitrary, and that different privileges work for different purposes. Dennis Potter states that positivism “gives epistemic privilege to those linguistic expressions that have the logical form and content that is acceptable to science” as though other options might be equally viable. (It was exactly this kind of woolly fluff that logical positivism was designed to eliminate, btw.)

    All of this loses sight of the purpose of reason; viz., to match means to ends. Indeed, an essential part of using reason, science, and logic consists of properly adapting means to ends. Opposing reason means desiring that people choose means that are (at the very least) quite unlikely to result in their desired ends. And why exactly should one desire for people to choose inadequate means to their desired ends? It seems to me that there are only two possible answers:

    1. one desires to deceive about people about the means that they choose
    2. the real end that one has in mind is not the end that to which he has professed to offer an end.

    We will only see a great deal of #2 when people are acting in bad faith; for example, a televangelist who offers blessings for the sole purpose of lining his pockets.

    But it seems to me that an awful lot of #1 goes on among those who would privilege non-scientific discourse. Let’s suppose that the end in mind is to explain the how one might believe in the truth of the Book of Mormon. Basically, people have to argue with the following type of statement:

    The Book of Mormon’s representations of ancient America are altogether incorrect. Joseph Smith created it out of whole cloth, claimed that he was merely a translator, and used it as a basis for founding a new church.

    The tradition of reasoning that we inherited from the Enlightenment and 20th century scientism would argue with this head on. And it may even come to saying something like “I’ll allow the non-historicity for argument’s sake and still take the Book of Mormon to be inspired” (I don’t myself believe this, by the way). But some people don’t like the way that this sounds, so they decide that favoring such candid discourse “privileges” a “dead ontology,” as though scientific knowledge were just a spoiled rich kid that’s out of touch with the needs of the common man. Based on this, they rephrase the earlier position so that it sounds better:

    The question of historicity of the Book of Mormon cannot be assessed without understanding its meaning, and its meaning is determined by the community in which it is embedded as a text and a narrative. Thus, the scientific approach to assessing the Book of Mormon is necessarily incomplete.

    My initial reaction to this is that it’s damned creepy. It sounds like something that the Manson family might chant or that a wide eyed, brainwashed Patti Hearst might recite in honor of Che Guevara.

    But the real problem with it is that it deceives people about the nature of the means that are being urged. It’s just a convoluted way of saying “I’ll allow the non-historicity for argument’s sake and still take the Book of Mormon to be inspired.” And it’s fine with me if you want to say that, but don’t pretend that done something innovative or important or that you’ve solved the historicity problem. If you pretend this, then you’re opposing reason in order to deceive people about the nature of the means that your offering to their end. Specifically, you’ve tried to hide or obscure the issue of historicity in the interest of convincing someone of how they might believe in the Book of Mormon.

  47. David, I agree with you that attempts to redefine logic, proof, or epistemology in order to save the text are problematic. Since such moves show what most people would be willing to call an irrational (or at least extra-rational) commitment to the text, I think it would be healthy to simply admit that, with respect to the Book of Mormon, we are going to abandon rationality and embrace pure faith. If that’s what we’re going to do, we should be up front about it. After all, that’s what most members of the church have done, at any rate; relatively few people are converted through a careful study of apologetics. This position is what we might call a Mormon existentialist one.

    A dilemma for Mormon existentialists is that the Latter-day Saint tradition has profoundly empirically-oriented, pro-scientific elements. While perhaps most Latter-day Saints have an entirely faith-derived commitment to the Book of Mormon, few Saints would be willing to discuss their belief as purely extra-rational. There’s a strong desire for a literal correspondence between faith and the empirical world.

  48. RT, I agree with you that mainstream Mormons seek an understanding of faith in terms of its literal correspondence with the empirical world. That’s another reason why it simply won’t do to adopt a framework that deceives them with regards to the end of seeking this correspondance. It’s as though I give someone a blessing, and when they ask me whether it is efficacious I feed them some canard about how the blessing must be understood as a narrative embedded within a community. I think this answer is a load of crap, because it’s just a deceitful way of saying no.

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