Round Table: Historicity and Revelation – Round Three

Sorry, this has been a long time in coming, but I was holding out hope that Rosalynde would send in her answer. This third round of our historicity table is a quick and fun one, and I just wanted to thank all the participants for their insights and for the highly enjoyable conversation.

On to the final round!

From: Steve Evans
To:
Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, John Hatch, Nate Oman
Date:
May 13, 2005 3:31 PM

Subject:
Round Table — Third Question

Thanks everyone for your responses to the first two rounds!

Let me round out the round table with a nice, fun question: what is the LDS historical question you’d most like to answer? If you had access to any information you’d need, what would you want to know, and why?

Here’s mine: where is Cumorah?

I ask that question because it seems so rooted in Book of Mormon history and the founding of our early Church, and yet seems a little elusive. I like the idea of positively identifying our holy sites (I’d like to isolate the Sacred Grove, too!)

Steve

From: Scott Gordon
To:
Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, Brian Birch, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, John Hatch, Nate Oman
Date:
May 16, 2005 3:09 PM

Subject:
re: Round Table — Third Question

My “history” question involves two scriptures. I have pasted the scriptures below.

What things would Jesus have said that can not be written? What is it that we can’t conceive? What things did people see that weren’t written down? Why was it forbidden? Why was it “not lawful” to write them?
Scott

——————

13 Nephi 19:5: And when he had said these words, he himself also knelt upon the earth; and behold he prayed unto the Father, and the things which he prayed cannot be written, and the multitude did bear record who heard him.

16 And after this manner do they bear record: The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father;

17 And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father.

3 Nephi 26:16: Behold, it came to pass on the morrow that the multitude gathered themselves together, and they both saw and heard these children; yea, even babes did open their mouths and utter marvelous things; and the things which they did utter were forbidden that there should not any man write them.

17 And it came to pass that the disciples whom Jesus had chosen began from that time forth to baptize and to teach as many as did come unto them; and as many as were baptized in the name of Jesus were filled with the Holy Ghost.

18 And many of them saw and heard unspeakable things, which are not lawful to be written.

From: Steve Evans
To:
Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, John Hatch, Nate Oman
Date:
May 16, 2005 3:35 PM

Subject:
re: re: Round Table — Third Question

Nice speculation, Scott! Those scriptures have always raised some very difficult questions for me — what is it that transcends language here? How can you speak things that can’t be written? I think in my language — can we think things beyond language? A good hornet’s nest, but still a wonderful set of scriptures.


From:
John Hatch

To:
Dennis Potter, Ronan James Head, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, Steve Evans, Nate Oman
Date:
May 17, 2005 1:53 PM

Subject:
re: Round Table — Third Question

I’d love to peer back and see what’s going on with the gold plates. While I have problems with Joseph’s accounting of things, I don’t think plates seen by other people can be so easily dismissed. I find that to be one of the most likely “evidences” for the Book of Mormon. Chiasmus, “Joseph just couldn’t have done it,” and other evidences don’t impress me much. But those gold plates are a puzzler…

On identifying sacred sites:

I think one of the great testaments to the Church and to the importance of personal spiritual experiences is the power surrounding our sacred sites. But what I really love about it is that we *can’t* identify exactly where they are. It demonstrates (to me, at least) that the literal really isn’t as important as we make it out to be. So many people have been to the Sacred Grove and have come away with strong impressions of the divinity of Mormonism. Yet we have no idea where the Sacred Grove actually is – we’re really just guessing. That tells me that it isn’t as if the dirt or the trees are somehow infused with spirituality or essence of Holy Ghost, but that God is interested in strengthening us for our lives today, and is less interested in what exactly happened where.

When I told a man in an old ward that a building in Nauvoo where he had a powerful experience was actually rebuilt by the Church and was a replica. He was upset – which wasn’t my intention – and I didn’t see why he should have been. It didn’t make his experience or the testimony it gave him any less real.

John


From:
Dennis Potter

To:
John Hatch, Ronan James Head, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, Steve Evans, Nate Oman
Date:
May 18, 2005 2:45 PM

Subject:
re: Round Table — Third Question

I am not really sure how to answer this question. (However, below I do offer the “historical” question that I think we need to answer.)

This third question seems to assume that there is a univocal narrative of the history of the world. Or, in other words, it seems to assume that questions that are left unanswered by our narratives have definite answers (that would fit into our narratives) if only we could find these answers. I am not sure that I accept such an assumption. I like John Hatch’s point about questions that are left unanswered. From my view, such questions about the past may not be answered by our narratives for a reason internal to the logic of the narrative. He says that the fact they are not answered implies that they are not as literal as we might think. If by literal we mean that they do not reflect a history that could be uncovered using only scientific methods of investigation and evidence gathering, then I would agree. This does not mean that it is right to say that the sacred grove is really just a metaphor. It is a real part of our historical narrative and is not just a “parable” within that narrative. But this does not mean that there is just one answer or any answer at all as to where it is located in the present.

It is interesting to investigate what it means for members to go to the patch of land that they believe is the sacred grove. How do they use the phrase ‘This is the sacred grove’? What role does this play in their discourse? It seems that it is an act of worship. It is an act that connects their spiritual lives with land and with history. It doesn’t matter to them that they have any kind of scientific evidence that this is the patch of land that Joseph “really” walked on. What matters to them is that it is a destination for a pilgrimage. It serves the very same purpose as Fatima in Portugal or Lourdes in France. It has the effect of locating the sacred in the mundane. It transforms material reality into a sacrament allowing it to point beyond itself into an animated narrative in which they live. This is not a pragmatic point. If the community of Mormons make pilgrimages to the sacred grove and their practice is to say this is where Joseph saw God, then they are completely right to do so. It becomes the sacred grove by virtue of that act.

Of course, we also need to interrogate the socio-political dimension that accompanies this practice. For example, the idea that the garden of eden was really in Missouri is connected with an kind of American exceptionalism in Mormon discourse. This land (to be identified with the geographical boundaries of the United States of America) is the true land promised to the people of God. So, American saints stand in a unique relationship with their nation-state that is not true of Nicaraguan saints. Ours is the country of God. To some extent the connection of our historical narrative with patches of land within the boundaries of the United States of America feeds a kind of religio-political imperialism. Is that really a narrative that we can accept? What connection does it have with the idea of American exceptionalism found in Evangelical thought and with the current Administration’s belief that they are above and beyond international law? We don’t construct our religious narratives in a socio-political vacuum. They have political import and need to be interrogated with this import in mind.

So, my question is the following: what is the political importance of the move to a central American model for Book of Mormon geography? What does this mean for our attitudes of north American exceptionalism?


From:
Ronan James Head

To:
John Hatch, Dennis Potter, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, Steve Evans, Nate Oman
Date:
May 18, 2005 2:53 PM

Subject:
re: Round Table — Third Question

So, my question is the following: what is the political importance of the move to a central American model for Book of Mormon geography? What does this mean for our attitudes of north American exceptionalism?

This is a great question. The Book of Mormon really sets up the idea that America is the Promised Land, but which America? Guatemala?

The point about “creating” ahistorical sacred places is also well said by Dennis and John. I was in Jerusalem last summer and felt this very strongly. At the Church of the Nativity, for example, I was aware that we had no idea whether this was *really* the spot of Jesus’ birth. But I didn’t care. Not only did I feel a closeness to Jesus there, I also felt an overhwhelming connection to humanity. The sacredness of pilgrimage was overwhelming. I ended up doing something very un-Mormon: I lit a candle and knelt down and kissed the star.

So, Steve, I have come to believe that exact historical details don’t worry me too much. I don’t care where Cumorah really was.


From:
Nate Oman

To:
John Hatch, Dennis Potter, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, Steve Evans, Ronan James Head
Date:
May 18, 2005 3:02 PM

Subject:
re: Round Table — Third Question

I will leave the metaphysics of history to Dennis for now and offer a rather simpler wish. I would like to know what happened to the 116 pages and what they said. Hoffman, I have heard, was at work on the production of these pages when he was finally exposed by his own murders and frauds. Even his forgery, however, would have been interesting. I am curious both as to the content of the stories in the pages and in what happened in the Harris household when they were lost. There is something very tantalizing about lost scripture that was ever so close to being restored that just isn’t there for me with the Book of Zenos. Also, the emotions and plans swirling around Joseph Smith, the Harrises, and the others involved in the translation and loss of those pages — as well as the resolution of that loss — seems like a great story about which we know relatively little.


From:
Steve Evans

To:
John Hatch, Dennis Potter, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, Nate Oman, Ronan James Head
Date:
May 18, 2005 3:08 PM

Subject:
re: re: Round Table — Third Question

Leave it to the philosophers to take all the fun out of idle speculation!

I would disagree with Dennis’ reference to acts of pilgrimage as not necessarily rooted in literal event. For a pilgrim, it matters very much that St. Denis collapsed, headless, where the Cathedral was founded, or that the Grotto at Lourdes is in fact the Grotto referred to. Were historical evidence unearthed that questioned the location of such events, the pilgrims’ destination would shift, however sacred the mundane places had become. If we found some additional journal piece that relocated the Sacred Grove to an entirely different spot, don’t you think we’d abandon our current pilgrimages in favor of the new one?


From:
Dennis Potter

To:
John Hatch, Steve Evans, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, Nate Oman, Ronan James Head
Date:
May 19, 2005 12:00 PM

Subject:
re: re: re: Round Table — Third Question

Leave it to the philosophers to take all the fun out of idle speculation!

I didn’t mean to take fun out of it. Believe it or not, I thought that my idle speculation was a bit fun as well. But I know that the tendency to deal with issues from a philosophical perspective is an acquired taste.

I would disagree with Dennis’ reference to acts of pilgrimage as not necessarily rooted in literal event. For a pilgrim, it matters very much that St. Denis collapsed, headless, where the Cathedral was founded, or that the Grotto at Lourdes is in fact the Grotto referred to. Were historical evidence unearthed that questioned the location of such events, the pilgrims’ destination would shift, however sacred the mundane places had become. If we found some additional journal piece that relocated the Sacred Grove to an entirely different spot, don’t you think we’d abandon our current pilgrimages in favor of the new one?

Of course, we have to ask what counts as historical evidence” for a religious community. It is not at all clear that it should be the same thing that counts as historical evidence for a scientific community. The truth of religious claims will not stand or fall based on the forensic investigation of a document. Some people would have left the church based on the Salamander letter without the forensic “refutation” of it. But the vast majority would not have lost their faith at all. What does this mean for how they understand their religious claims and commitments? However, if a religious community decides to take certain items of religious evidence to count as a reason to move the location of an event in their narrative then that is up to them.


From:
John Hatch

To:
Dennis Potter, Steve Evans, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, Nate Oman, Ronan James Head
Date:
May 19, 2005 12:36 PM

Subject:
re: re: re: Round Table — Third Question


A quick story to go along with Dennis’s larger point about historical verification for religion. A friend of mine was working at the Utah State Library when an incredible Mormon document was discovered and brought in to the curator. As a student, he got to hold the document and as he was doing so, he had a powerful witness that Joseph Smith was a prophet.

You see where I’m going with the story after Dennis’s example. The document was Hofmann’s forged Anthon transcript. Does the forgery make my friend’s experience any less valid? No, but he took the time to ponder it and re-interpret it based on the physical evidence that came later. On the one hand, I think it’s naive to dismiss spiritual encounters outright when we discover some later evidence that might contradict them. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s an informed faith that brushes aside all troubles (ie., historicity) simply because one has had a divine witness. Divine experiences are always infused with our own perspectives and biases, and when all of that is stripped away, I find exactly what our experiences are supposed to mean is less clear than we originally thought.

John


From:
Nate Oman

To:
Dennis Potter, Steve Evans, Brian Birch, Scott Gordon, Rosalynde Welch, John Hatch, Ronan James Head
Date:
May 19, 2005 12:56 PM

Subject:
re: re: re: Round Table — Third Question


Dennis,

I guess that my problem is that I am not sure why I need some sort of new metaphysics or ontology in order to understand your point with regard to the Salamander letters. It seems to me that this would be a straight-forward example of the kind of holistic belief adjustment set out by Quinne. As it happens, I am not a huge fan of the sort of mechanistic metaphysics that are generally imputed to science and seem to be assumed by the logical positivists with whom Quinne hung out. (Truth be told, I try not to think about metaphysics too much or too often, especially in ways that would require me to read Continental philosophers.) Hence, I don’t think that I am overtly hostile to your search for some new ontology, but I have to admit that I am somewhat confused as to what it is or why I should find it attractive. This may be beyond the scope of this discussion, but I throw it out for what it is worth.

NBO


From:
Scott Gordon

To:
Dennis Potter, Steve Evans, Brian Birch, Nate Oman, Rosalynde Welch, John Hatch, Ronan James Head
Date:
May 20, 2005 1:45 AM

Subject:
re: re: re: Round Table — Third Question

I just wanted to comment that I have enjoyed the responses from the various participants.

Thank you for your thoughts.

Scott Gordon

And we’ve enjoyed yours, Scott! And thanks to all for participating, and to our readers for reading all this fun stuff! Stick around for the soon-to-come next Round Table!

Comments

  1. I’ve always wanted to understand how, in the next life, anyone could continue to reject the Gospel. I’d think, at that point, it would become self-evident (or, if not self-evident, at least a whole lot clearer). I realize it’s because I have no concept of what the afterlife is like, and especially not of that period between death and resurrection. But still, it would be a cool thing to know.

    Great roundtable, by the way, Steve.

  2. I just want a curelom for a pet.

  3. I wouldn’t mind getting the scoop on Zelph.

  4. Just a quick note to say that I like John Hatch’s closing comments on inspiration and evidence… But I tend to think that God can tailor our inspiration well enough that we can get out of it what He needs us to get. Sometimes we just read too much into it and start to impose our own criteria on God’s message, no?

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