Faith, Hope, and Clarity: Thoughts on Scholarship and Being True

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So long as I pilgrimaged through the fields of reason in search of God, I could not find Him, for I was not deluded by the idea of God, neither could I take an idea for God, and it was then, as I wandered among the wastes of rationalism, that I told myself that we ought to seek no other consolation than the truth, meaning thereby reason, and yet for all that I was not comforted. But as I sank deeper and deeper into rational skepticism on the one hand and into heart’s despair on the other, the hunger for God awoke within me, and the suffocation of spirit made me feel the want of God, and with the want of Him, His reality. — Miguel de Unamuno, “Tragic Sense of Life”

 

Conside the following two statements:

Statement #1: I do not believe that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document.

Statement #2: I do not believe that the evidence shows that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document.

These two statements do not mean the same thing. The first expresses a belief about a historical fact. The second evaluates of a body of assertions and evidences relating to the same historical fact. But it’s easy to see how some people confuse the two, since, in most situations, to believe something means to accept the evidence in its favor, while to disbelieve something means to reject that evidence. We are intellectually programmed to read Statement #1 and Statement #2 as identical.

This, I suspect, is why Latter-day Saints invest so much time and treasure in using the schools of contemporary scholarship to establish the ancient nature character of the Book of Mormon. And this is a fine thing to do. I like studying chiastic structures as much as the next guy with a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in rhetorical criticism. It’s fun. It illuminates deep meanings in the text. And it connects the Book of Mormon to other rhetorical traditions, both ancient and modern.

This becomes problematic, however, when we start to require the acceptance of a certain body of evidence as part of a confession of faith—when we say that, in order to be a good Latter-day Saint, one must accept certain scientific, historical, archaeological, and linguistic assertions about the Book of Mormon’s antiquity. It is one thing to believe in the power of God; it is quite another to accept mediocre scholarship. Let us never confuse the two operations.

Let me name my own biases: I believe that the Book of Mormon is true in exactly the way that it claims to be true, which is to say, I believe that it is a modern and inspired translation of an ancient document. This is a matter of faith, not a matter of evidence. I am perfectly aware that there have been studies—some of them very good—that identify certain Hebrew rhetorical traits in the Book of Mormon. I find this evidence plausible, but not at all convincing in light of other evidence—textual criticism, DNA tracking, known patterns of migration to the Western Hemisphere, etc.—that suggests otherwise.

By any scholarly standard of proof, it would take an enormous amount of evidence to establish the existence of a previously undisovered, pre-Columbian civilization, known only to us by an original record that no longer appears to exist. I do not believe that the existing scholarship on the Book of Mormon’s antiquity comes anywhere near meeting this burden. Chiasmus can be explained in many ways that do not require an ancient document. From a strictly scholarly perspective, almost any explanation that does not require angels hiding golden plates in Upstate New York is going to win.

But here is the kicker: I don’t need the Book of Mormon, or any other aspect of my faith, to meet a scholarly standard of proof. I have used academic methodologies to prove all kinds of things in my life, and I am very comfortable with their evidentiary standards. But I am also perfectly content to acknowledge that, in fact, almost nothing that I believe as a matter of faith meets these standards. And I believe these things anyway, which is kind of why I call it “faith.”

Nobody has been more influential to my understanding of the relationship between faith and intellect than Miguel de Unamuno, whose Tragic Sense of Life is one of the world’s great works of religious existentialism. Unamuno was both a committed Christian and an accomplished scholar, but he did not try to use his scholarship to prove his faith. Rather, he acknowledged that intellectual pursuits can never produce faith because faith, properly understood, exists at a deeper level than the intellect. The mind will lead us away from God because it was never designed to do otherwise.

Faith, for Unamuno, comes directly from hope. We believe in God because we need to believe, because we yearn for confirmation that some part of us will survive death—and that our lives mean something to the universe. Through our desperate hope, we fashion belief, and God enters our lives and our hearts. It is not an intellectual exercise, though once we believe something we often enlist our intellect in its support. But is not the end point of an intellectual journey. It is what happens first.

And this is why I will never be found in the mountains of Guatemala looking for “I ♥ Zarahemla” bumper stickers. And it is why I am interested intellectually, but not spiritually, in chiastic parallelism and the taxonomy of cureloms and cumoms. It does not matter much to me where the debates on these things end up because it is only my scholarly mind that cares about them. They have nothing at all to do with my faith.

Comments

  1. “I believe that the Book of Mormon is true in exactly the way that it claims to be true, which is to say, I believe that it is a modern and inspired translation of an ancient document. This is a matter of faith, not a matter of evidence.” I don’t understand this statement. Are you saying that despite any evidence that the BOM is an ancient document and in spite of substantial evidence that would tend to disprove it being a translation of an ancient document, you nevertheless believe it’s an ancient document because you believe it’s true? Is belief fungible with truth so that if I believe there’s a dragon in my basement then there is a dragon there?

  2. I love everything about this. Learning and using my intellect are spiritual experiences for me, but only because I already have faith; I already believe. But they do not prove my beliefs to me. Love, hope, beauty, and wonder ‘prove’ my belief to me even as they transcend the necessity for proof.

  3. imreadyformycloseupmrdemille says:

    This is such a perfect articulation of a thought I’ve struggled to communicate. Faith is not in any way coconstitutive with knowledge. But life is designed to require faith in a million invisible, Indefensible ways, and some measure of faith is required for humans to function at all, but it’s so difficult to point to it working and name it.

  4. Just to chime in my usual caveat statement that apologetics at best demonstrates how one can rationally believe the BoM is ancient, not really give compelling reasons to believe so. Personal revelation is needed at this time.

  5. Great post. While I am personally grateful for the strides made in Mormon studies and apologetics, I am even more grateful for the undeniable revelatory experiences I’ve had.

  6. I like Clark’s comment. Apologetics and missionary work are two completely different things. I think apologetics has value to those intellectually seeking to understand a belief system, but not very much value besides idle curiosity to someone who already believes.

  7. Bryce Spencer says:

    This article is so true. I remember for a long time that I was curious as to the location of the geography of the Book of Mormon. While there were some interesting ideas some sincere scholars have put forth, I realized that man is imperfect in reasoning and in logic. Faith that saves and changes us is in things we spiritually know to be true, even if we might not have all the answers. I realized that it was okay to accept that.
    I once had a sincere Christian woman ask me how I could believe in the Book of Mormon when there was so little evidence for it. I replied, “Despite the massive amounts of evidence that we have found in Israel that certain events in the bible happened, there are many who choose not to believe in the bible. I know that faith is much stronger and is more lasting than any evidence we obtain from science since that witness comes from God.” She agreed that I was right in my statement.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    Jenny, I wouldn’t go that far. I think the stronger apologetic arguments have implications that ought inform how we read the text. I think in particular Brant Gardner has done some wonderful work in that regard. However many apologetic arguments are weak and we should perhaps be more careful with those. They can inform our readings but we should also consider alternative readings and recognize we can’t strongly pick between them.

    Then of course there are all those bad apologetics that we should just plain discard.

    I think honestly that a lot of our taking seriously our own scriptures has arisen from apologetics and often having to deal with critics.

    With missionary work it’s a tad trickier since I simply don’t think 18-21 year olds are mature enough to really apply things safely. They’re better off giving the basics and trying to get the spirit in there. However people have questions and even if apologetics aren’t ideal, they can provide a space for people to feel sufficient confident that spiritual answers are possible.

  9. Thanks. This in particular: “problematic, however, when we start to require the acceptance of a certain body of evidence as part of a confession of faith . . . It is one thing to believe in the power of God; it is quite another to accept mediocre scholarship. Let us never confuse the two operations.”
    Too much of the historicity discussion is about drawing lines that include some and exclude others.

  10. I found “San Manuel Bueno, martir” several years ago in college and it disturbed my thoughts for a long time, for the better. It spurred me to better understand the important role of faith in ourselves and those around us. Thank you for the application to the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

  11. Kevin Christensen says:

    “By any scholarly standard of proof, it would take an enormous amount of evidence to establish the existence of a previously undisovered, pre-Columbian civilization, known only to us by an original record that no longer appears to exist.”

    John E. Clark’s point has been not that the the Nephites and Lamanites have not been discovered, but that they have not been recognized. (See, for instance, his presentation at the 2005 Joseph Smith Conference.) There is a significant difference between evidence for a civilization in the right time and place and the possible identity of members of that civilization. It’s not as though there is no current evidence of any civilization in Mesoamerica, or that their abundant contemporary writings rule out any connection with Book of Mormon peoples, or that their are no known cites that have not been thoroughly excavated.

    Alma’s 32’s distinction between evidence that provides sure “knowing” versus evidence that provides “cause to believe.” Part of what I find exciting about the Book of Mormon is not just that it says interesting things, but that I find that in many instances the characters who say those interesting and unexpected things speak with the authority of eye-witnesses, granting that I read what they say in translation. An example of that would be, say Thomasson and Hawkins on “Survivor Witness in the Book of Mormon” or Nibley on qasida or Mark Wright’s comparison of the tower in the San Bartelo murals compared with Mosiah’s account of Benjamin’s discourse. Proof that coerces unwilling submission and compels both belief and covenant keeping? No. Cause to believe for those willing to nurture the seed. Oh yes.

  12. Ike Evans says:

    I believe in the BOM because of what is empirical. “Faith” is a matter of accepting what I observe. There is no meaningful difference between what I observe as compelling evidences as chiasmuses in the BOM, or the promptings of the Holy Ghost. As Mormons, we tend to focus on direct revelation of the spirit because it is an easier story to tell, and because it can be every bit as convincing (if not more so) as discovering Nahom or chiasmuses – among other reasons.

    I do appreciate the author reminding me that a good LDS does not have to dig as deep as I have gone. Praying about it and recieving a spiritual witness is certainly good enough for most people, and I should do more to respect that.

  13. Michael – Was this by chance inspired by the ongoing Phillip Jenkins-Bill Hamblin debate over on Patheos?

  14. Conflating “truth” and “faith” is not the same as “real”. So my truth may be my faith in the resurrection, but that doesn’t mean that it actually happened.

  15. Bizarre. How much further back we can peddle from the “the most correct of any book on earth” and still have a viable church? Not much, I’m thinking. So what are you so-called scholars or intellectuals up to now? My guess: the painstaking construction of a soft landing.

    Good luck with that.

  16. Uncalled for.

  17. please

  18. you’re welcome? Seriously, your comment was a rude attack out of nowhere, not deserved and not polite. You can (and frequently do) write better things.

  19. Steve S says:

    I consider spiritual promptings and revelation to be evidence the same as sight, sound, touch, taste or any other sense. For example that I can go outside and observe the sun by seeing it, and I therefore believe it exists (among other reasons), so also I can go and pray to God and observe the spiritual communication I receive and therefore I believe he exists (among other reasons).

    I suppose it is differentiated in that this sense is not generally recognized for what it is in science and academia at this point in time. But I can’t imagine faith (religious or otherwise) in any meaningful sense that is not rooted in evidence. Over time I have come to trust spiritual communication as a means of understanding truth greater than I trust evidence from other means, but this is because of experimentation and observing the fruits of that experimentation that has given me cause for such trust. Or in other words, if faith does not have a cause, then it is random, and I see no worth in such a thing.

    Which is the long way of saying, I understand how the author separates the 2 statements as meaning something different from a current academic point of view, but if statement 2 were rephrased as “Statement #2: I do not believe that the evidence I have encountered shows that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document.” I believe this is equivalent to Statement #1, or ought to be.

  20. Steve S says:

    p, honest question, who are the “we” backpedaling from the statement “the most correct of any book on earth”? I certainly don’t feel among that group, and stand by that statement full heartedly, and I don’t think that accurately reflects what the vast majority of Church members are doing in action/thought/feeling.

  21. Elizabeth says:

    p –my thoughts exactly.

  22. Personally, I am unable to so totally divorce faith and reason (based on evidence) in my life. For starters, I’ve had spiritual confirmations (feelings) that worked out well. I’ve also had spiritual confirmations that did not work out at all. What does that say about our ability to trust feelings, no matter how strong, over evidence? There is a great deal of evidence that the Book of Mormon is too complex for Joseph Smith to have been its author. But there is also a great deal of evidence that the BoM is not exactly what the book itself or its caretaker (Moroni) claims it to be. So I’m still trying to figure out what I believe about the book. It seems to me truth will always be consistent with itself and not contradictory. Many of the attempts I’ve seen to explain away the inconsistencies amount to sloppy apologetics. So I’m still searching and sorting.

  23. A response, Steve, not an attack, since Michael broached the subject of historicity in the first place:

    “But here is the kicker: I don’t need the Book of Mormon, or any other aspect of my faith, to meet a scholarly standard of proof.”

    Adam Miller earlier this year on T&S:

    “The Book of Mormon isn’t a product of history. It’s not something that comes out of history. The Book of Mormon, as a messianic text, is something that’s working its way into history.”

    We get essentially the same treatment from Bokovoy, Givens, Green and others – a very long steep step down from “the most correct of any book on earth”.

    So what’s going on here? – (and BTW not a word about Nibley, ever, as if the man and his work never existed.)

    I submit that this “approach” (if you can call it that) is fundamentally dishonest because it skips a step. Is the BoM historical or ahistorical? Answer this and THEN, if necessary, move on to other interpretations.

  24. Sorenkierk says:

    There are 3 more statements that could be added to the list:
    #1: I do not believe that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document.
    #2: I do not believe that the evidence shows that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document.
    #3: I believe the evidence shows that the BOM is an ancient document
    #4. I believe the BOM is an ancient document
    #5: I believe the evidence shows the BOM is not an ancient document

    Micheal points out that #2 doesn’t necessarily imply #1, and is in fact consistent with #4. He points out that we can believe things without evidence. This seems fair to me. In the absence of evidence, it may be reasonable to exercise faith. The issue for me comes when I get to claim #5. For a long time I dealt with cognitive dissonance by ignoring that 5 was even a possibility. I believe that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the BOM is not an ancient document. This implies #1. Faith is believing in something when there is no evidence, but I don’t believe that faith means believing in something when there is overwhelming evidence against it. I guess my question for others on this forum do you accept or reject premise #5 above?

  25. Correctness does not mean historical, does it? JSJ in that quote was referring to the precepts of the book.

  26. AS a young man, and roughly 20 years after its first publication in 1972, I corresponded w/ Michael Coe regarding “Mormons and Archaeology – An Outside View” published in DIALOGUE. I asked him if the intervening years had modified his (in)famous assertion that “The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere.”

    He answered emphatically in the negative – and this was before the first comprehensive DNA mapping of Native Americans, and long before SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 2/12/14: “The remains of a young boy, ceremonially buried some 12,600 years ago in Montana, have revealed the ancestry of one of the earliest populations in the Americas, known as the Clovis culture.
    Published in this issue of Nature, the boy’s genome sequence shows that today’s indigenous groups spanning North and South America are all descended from a single population that trekked across the Bering land bridge from Asia (M. Rasmussen et al. Nature 506, 225–229; 2014).

    Book of Mormon historicity is a losing game, even excepting the magically-disappeared Lamanites. Our so-called scholars or intellectuals have always known this, many of whom were persecuted by members of the Quorum of the Twelve for speaking truth – bullied, shamed, shunned, silenced, excommunicated.

    Mission accomplished. Today’s crop is apparently so traumatized and cowed by those past events that they themselves are incapable of plain honesty, but must misdirect, equivocate, and bullshit their way through the same issues.

    Well, on to too many earrings in our beaten-down females, that’s of vital importance. On to the Homosexual Conspiracy, that’ll distract us another year or two. Liberals, godless liberals, when nothing else presents …

  27. Let me know when you’re done pontificating so the rest of us can continue in bona fide conversation.

  28. Done, thx

  29. :)

  30. Clark Goble says:

    p (9:14 AM) I think Adam Miller was speaking very particularly and he didn’t mean in the least what you are taking him to mean. I discussed over at T&S at the time. I do think that using technical language like that can be confusing to people and of course Adam doesn’t always do it that way.

    Steve (9:20 AM) I don’t want in the least to devolve this into an other historicity debate. I do think that if there were no Lamanites or Nephites that it would be difficult to see how it could be the most correct book.

  31. Clark, there is probably some minimal threshold of historicity that most lds would need in order to support a claim of Scripture. But not sure what that is. But JSJ wasn’t talking about historical claims in that particular quote.

  32. “I believe that the Book of Mormon is true in exactly the way that it claims to be true, which is to say, I believe that it is a modern and inspired translation of an ancient document. This is a matter of faith, not a matter of evidence.”

    But why? Why isn’t the Book of Mormon historicity issue a matter of evidence? The LDS leaders don’t treat the questions of Joseph Smith’s prophethood or the restoration of the gospel in this manner. In the first chapter of the preach my gospel manual it is written: “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ is convincing evidence that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored.” They tie the claims that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that JC’s gospel has been restored to supposed evidence, so why not the Book of Mormon itself? Why must we bracket the historicity question for the Book of Mormon and try to put it in a separate space that is free from reasoned inquiry? If there is no solid evidence for the BoM’s historicity, as you suggest in the OP, then why not try to look for evidence? Isn’t your faith in the BoM being a historical text essentially dead and useless if you are not engaged in the work of finding evidence? And if we concede that it is probably unlikely that any strong evidence for Joseph Smith’s claims about the BoM will ever be found, then why should we bother to expend so much time and emotional effort shaping our lives, even our very identities, around claims about the historicity of this book? Why not just say what I think you really want to, which is, “no one has found any solid evidence confirming JS’s claims about the BoM, so we have no strong reason to believe them”?

    How can we say that we have true faith in something if we do nothing to confirm that faith? An unemployed person cannot say that he has true faith that he will find a job if he puts forth no effort in finding a job. Such it is with the BoM. Your faith in the BoM’s historicity is meaningless unless you are actually engaged in some effort to find evidence of it. Many LDS faithfuls claim that a supposed spiritual feeling is evidence of the BoM’s truthfulness (which is synonymous with historicity). But this is not what you are saying. Instead, you are saying that evidence is not needed at all.

  33. Incidentally, I found this quote from Jeffrey R. Holland’s 2009 talk entitled, “Safety for the Soul” in which he says, “As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness.” According to Elder Holland, there is evidence for the truthfulness of the BoM (by which he, of course, means its historicity), and this is because he has a testimony. So BoM historicity is a matter of evidence according to the brethren.

  34. Clark,
    Adam Miller and several others seem to suggest a middle ground between BoM as historical/a-historical. This makes me crazy (fairly obvious). It barely flies for quantum physics, much less history. The Battle of Stalingrad did not both happen/not happen. Concur with Brad L. We base our entire lives around this book. How can questions of veracity be so blithely dismissed?

    Steve E, your “minimal threshold of historicity” concept is interesting. Another post, please.

  35. Steve S says:

    “How can questions of [historicity] be so blithely dismissed?”

    (I edited your question, since that seems to be the sticking point.) I believe it is not as important to many people because the primary purposes of the BofM don’t include imo an accurate portrayal of the literal history of these civilizations (by modern standards). That said, I do agree with Steve E that there is probably some minimal threshold of historicity that is important to most believing members. And I think judging specific things stated in the BofM against our knowledge of scientific truths and history can be a valuable pursuit for believing members that may help shed light on the process of translation. While it may not be the most important thing and there are likely proper and improper settings to do see, I can’t think of a good reason to hide from or avoid such a pursuit altogether.

  36. Steve S says:

    do so*

  37. Wow. p just proved Michael’s point perfectly that people cannot distinguish between statement 1 and 2 in the original post.

    From what I understand you think that Michael is backing off of Book of Mormon historicity, when he specifically says he believes it to be a historical document regardless of whether it has met the scholarly burden of proof.

  38. “I believe it is not as important to many people because the primary purposes of the BofM don’t include imo an accurate portrayal of the literal history of these civilizations (by modern standards).”

    In my decades of experience as a very literal believer in BoM historicity (my beliefs have since evolved), I always remember historicity being of utmost importance for me and other members around me (at least in the Provo/Salt Lake areas and Washington DC). I believed that the professors at FARMS were making amazing findings that confirmed the historicity of the BoM (that other researchers just weren’t bothering to see) and that their research was solid (not that I actually read much of it in great detail, but I was most certainly aware of it). Had I read a blog post that was dismissive of the FARMS researchers’ scholarship as mediocre and touted the idea that there was no strong evidence for the BoM in my literalist days, I don’t think that I would have taken too kindly to it. I remember throughout those years that my attitude, as well as those of many other believers, to the historicity question was that you shouldn’t believe the BoM to be historically true because of “worldly” evidence (although such type of evidence was supposedly emerging), but because of spiritual evidence. Hence, I wouldn’t ever approach a non-believer about the question of BoM historicity in any other way than the prescribed missionary way. But the conversation that I had among believers about the Book of Mormon history was different. My believer peers and I just assumed that we all took everything fairly literally. The prevailing attitude was that you were at church because you had a testimony and that that meant that you just accepted the idea that the BoM was historical, that Jesus literally appeared to ancients in America, and that the Americas were populated to some extent by people of Hebrew/Jewish origin. So it wasn’t ever a big deal to speculate about Lamanite traditions and talk about ancient America as if the Lamanites and Nephites really existed. I remember many believer friends and I relishing in such speculations about ancient Nephite and Lamanite culture. In conversations among believers the questions of “is it really true and where’s the evidence” rarely appeared. If you posed such questions, you were seen as “struggling with your testimony”, an agenda pusher, or just plain weird. Yet, it couldn’t really be said that I or my believing peers didn’t care about the historicity question. In situations where we felt challenged on historicity by fellow LDS people, the typical response was “how could have a farm boy written that,” “you have to pray about it,” and at last resort after a bout of frustration, “how do call yourself a Mormon and doubt such things?” The historicity question, for me, meant everything for decades. Everything hinged on that. The thought of the Book of Mormon not being what Joseph Smith claimed it to be caused me to question my entire identity. I sensed the same feeling from many other fellow believers.

    Those who claim that the historicity question and evidence is not important 1) haven’t had what appears to be the conventional Mormon experience, 2) have some sort of private definition of historicity and evidence that is different from the conventional Mormon understandings of those, which they are not making clear, or 3) are engaging in a form of mental contortionism to avoid confronting a likely painful cognitive dissonance caused by really confronting two important questions: a) where is the evidence for the BoM, b) is “feeling the spirit” or the experiencing some sort of euphoric feeling really constitute good evidence for historicity? I suspect issue number 3 to be plaguing many commenters and posters on this blog.

  39. Clark Goble says:

    Steve, I agree Joseph wasn’t talking about historical claims but a lot of the theological/religious claims are grounded on historicity. i.e. a promise to the lamanites only works if there are lamanites. But I’ll not retrod this well worn discussion.

    P, I think he’s making a more subtle approach making more complex questions of evidence. For instance if religious experiences are grounds for historicity yet are not themselves historical evidence what does that mean? As I’ve said I just think Adam’s language, while great for those with experience in these discussions, is off-putting and misleading for everyone else. That said there are lots of philosophical questions in all this. But they are subtle and require we be careful and clear with our terms. When we talk meanings rather that events meanings are always contextually affected and thus never able to be pinned down to a particular point in time.

    All that said I’ve personally never heard Adam say anything arguing against a traditional historical notion of the text even if that might not be what is his focus.

    As others note, accuracy is not the same thing as historicity. I have no problem with there being errors in the text, narratives that miss what is going on, and reading with what one might call a hermeneutics of suspicion. That all seems independent of whether there’s some sense of historicity to the text (and what that means)

  40. Elizabeth says:

    Brad L, I suspect number 3 as well. This blog has made an odd, apologetic shift in the past few years.

  41. Steve S says:

    For me, I do believe “that the BoM [is] historical, that Jesus literally appeared to ancients in America, and that the Americas were populated to some extent by people of Hebrew/Jewish origin”

    At the same time I probably do hold a non-conventional view of the translation process as a result of the evidence as I have seen it, which I feel this has blessed my life by gaining a better understanding the process of revelation, but then again such view changes are probably to be expected to some extent if we choose to dive deeper into most everything we teach. Having limited knowledge means that our narratives while portraying truth, are likely going to be more simplistic than the complexities of reality. And I’m okay with that.

    And in the end, more important to me are the precepts of the BofM that teach truth and the nature of good and evil that opens my mind and heart and helps me act in closer accordance to truth – coming closer to God and light than any other book has done for me. But maybe this gets closer to the heart of your point – if after I died I learned the ‘truths’ of the BofM were indeed true, and the restoration of the Priesthood, Church, and Kingdom were just as Joseph Smith claimed, and yet Moroni was never a real person (for example) I would definitely be shocked at first and I would have a lot of questions as my current paradigm wouldn’t be able account for such a seeming contradiction (but in such a case it would be my current paradigm that is in error). So yes, I do believe in an underlying historicity of the BofM given all the evidence I have seen and been able to find.

    “is “feeling the spirit” or the experiencing some sort of euphoric feeling really constitute good evidence for historicity?” The same might be asked of the existence of God, the existence of morality, right and wrong, good and evil, or even beauty. Each person must experiment upon the word and come to their own conclusions. But it seems intuitive in almost all humans that such things do exist, that they are realities, which means that right or wrong most people trust this inner source to one degree or another in the establishment of their worldview. Perhaps we are all simply deluded as a species, an evolutionary advantageous trait but ultimately false to actual reality; but I don’t think so, I think there is more to it than that, and I believe many people have been beyond the veil and back, near death or otherwise, to testify of these truths and that this light with in is only a part and portion of the great spiritual reality beyond this coarse mortal and probationary sphere.

  42. FYI Steve S, I got my ass kicked for “pontificating.” Also, I’m sorely tempted to say something about Kool-Aid here, but instead I ‘ll shut my big mouth, pick up my chipped sad little pile of marbles and go home.

  43. An interesting question to ask might be, “If the Book of Mormon were decisively proven to be ahistorical, what would happen to the Church?”

    My answer is, not much.

  44. How much more decisive could it be, Steve E.? As to what will happen to the Church as a result, it’s happening now. There’s a reason the missionaries bring only homeless addicts (as opposed to middle-class families, recent graduates, professional people, as in days of yore) to sacrament each Sunday: contradictory evidence + Internet.This trend will likely accelerate, especially as, #1, the Information Age itself accelerates, and #2, the LDS Church even more firmly stakes out its anti-homosexual positions which, as RJH pointed out, have literaly become sine qua non of our brand of Christianity.

  45. Sorenkierk says:

    Steve S., I think that there is a very big difference between “feeling the spirit” as good evidence for historicity and “feeling the Spirit” as evidence of the existence of God, the existence of morality, right and wrong, good and evil, or even beauty. The difference is that historicity is well defined objectively. Events either happened, or they did not. Either a statement about history corresponds to objective reality, or it does not. The same cannot be said about the existence of God, morality, good, evil or beauty. The concept of “God” is continually adapting and very personal, so much so that you are unlikely to find two people in the world that have the exact same concept of who or what God is. The same can be said about morality, good/evil and beauty. Applying feelings of the Spirit to historicity is applying individual, subjective data to a universal, objective concept. It is like saying that I will rely on the Spirit to let me know if 1+1=2. It doesn’t matter what the spirit tells you– some statements are either objectively true or false.

    On the other hand, with God, morality, good, evil and beauty, this are subjective concepts. We have no direct access to these concepts. Even those who claim to have direct experience with God seem to struggle to define Him (perhaps he is incomprehensible to our human minds). This opens a space for “feelings” and “impressions”. Something is beautiful only if we “feel” it is beautiful. We understand God only so far as our “feelings” and “impressions” permit us to do so.

    TL&DR: Beauty, God and Morality are in the eye of the beholder. Historicity is not.

  46. Steve S says:

    If God is an actual being, if there is true morality or actual rights and wrongs, or things that are truly good and truly evil in the universe; then to my entire point – they are not subjective at all. We might have many ideas about the nature of those things, but ultimately they are objective facts to which or ideas of them will prove right or wrong.

    Or perhaps there isn’t an objective real God in the universe, there is no true good or evil, nor morality. Certainly for the first time in history there is a growing percentage of the population that believes these are subjective non-factual concepts. It’s a valid option/belief, but one that is seemingly contrary to the natural intuition of human beings. Which again gets to the heart of the matter, if you upfront reject these intuitions as speaking to factual realities in the universe, then you have already made your conclusions.

    But for the majority of the human family that believes these feelings speak to realities in the universe, I think your observations are helpful in gaining a better understanding of the nature of revelation and how it might relate to historical facts as well. You rightly point out that while most people agree or believe in the existence of God or a higher being, the finer details from that point forward vary quite a bit. So it has been with morality and good and evil, while their existence has been almost universally agreed upon until recently, the finer details of what constitutes right and wrong have been widely debated. For the unbeliever this may be seen as evidence of subjectivity. For the believer, or for most humans that have ever lived these things are a matter of further light and knowledge, a line upon line precept upon precept principle – who has access to greater levels of divine light. Which is to say as we gain greater light so also our understanding becomes refined and comes nearer and nearer to the objective facts of reality that are God, good, evil, etc. Applied to facts of history, while it may be easier to come to a knowledge/understanding of some basic degree of historicity, the finer in detail you go the more likely we are to find points that can and would be refined with further light and knowledge. Thus if Joseph Smith received the translation of the BofM by true revelation, we would expect as with revelations about the nature of God that it is not all perfectly refined, dependent on the degree of light and knowledge Joseph Smith had access to. Furthermore, as we gain greater light and knowledge we should expect to then find certain details that need to be refined to come in closer accordance to objective reality. And so it is also with our own personal revelation of the historicity, gaining a knowledge that there is some broad level of historicity underlying the text would be the first level of revelation on the subject, and what that means will likely continue to be refined for the individual as they increase in personal light and knowledge coming closer and closer to objective reality in the finer details.

  47. Steve S says:

    Also, this process of refinement is not unlike obtaining further knowledge about objective facts through any other sensory means of observation. Which, for example when applied to history, is why our history books 25 years ago don’t teach quite the same history that we teach today.

  48. Steve S, please re-read the OP

    “Faith, for Unamuno, comes directly from hope. We believe in God because we need to believe, because we yearn for confirmation that some part of us will survive death—and that our lives mean something to the universe. Through our desperate hope, we fashion belief, and God enters our lives and our hearts.”

    In what sense does this process describe a path to “objective reality” as opposed to, say, a psychological defense mechanism? Also, your reliance on the “natural intuition of human beings” is shaky ground, indeed.

  49. Steve S says:

    I disagree with Unamuno. Faith to me comes from observation. From that quote, it seems his faith is more akin to fear and self-deception, but my experience is that faith is calm and confident because one is being true to oneself in their observations above all else.

  50. Steve S, a few comments. “Having limited knowledge means that our narratives while portraying truth, are likely going to be more simplistic than the complexities of reality.”

    I fully agree. However, isn’t a bit odd to say this in defense of a religious tradition that has very specific claims about history and nature, around which it exhorts people to shape their lives?

    “… in the end, more important to me are the precepts of the BofM that teach truth and the nature of good and evil…”

    Aren’t these precepts contingent upon the idea that the BofM literally contains the words of ancients in America transmitted by Joseph Smith into English? By viewing the BofM as ahistorical, we render its precepts (the key of which being that it is another testament of Jesus Christ) meaningless.

    “most people trust this inner source to one degree or another in the establishment of their worldview”

    Sure. But doesn’t declaring all knowledge to be intuitive cheapen Mormonism? Doesn’t it place Mormonism on par with all other belief systems? We’re talking about a religion that sprung into existence because a farm boy believed that God told him that the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists, among others, were “wrong” and “abominations in [God’s] sight.”

  51. As I understand Unamuno’s project–and clearly it is one that I sympathize with very deeply–he is trying to situate faith in God, and in the scriptures, back into the pre-Enlightenment context that the scriptures were actually designed for. This is an extremely difficult project, since we are all creatures of the Enlightenment. We understand the world through the lens of fact claims and hypothesis testing to the point that we can’t imagine thinking any other way.

    This means that there are two things that Unamuno is NOT saying or doing (and neither am I). First of all, he is not an apologist. He was, in fact, quite opposed to apologetics because they are entirely a rational, fact-based approach to faith. The whole purpose of the apologist is to defend faith on the Enlightenment’s playing field: scholarship, the scientific method, hypothesis testing, etc. The problem he saw with this is that faith is indefensible on this playing field. At some point, anybody who has faith in just about anything religious–the Book of Mormon, the Bible, the existence of God, the Cycle of Samsara, or whatever–has to abandon observable, testable truth and accept an irrational, unprovable proposition. Pure rationality, he believed, could only lead to a rejection of religion.

    The second thing he is NOT doing (and neither am I) is arguing in favor of a “spiritual witness” to confirm to truth of an irrational proposition. This, again, throws the entire question of faith onto the rationalist playing field by creating a new kind of evidence that can be combined with other kinds of evidence to produce certainty of belief. Again, the whole point of his project is to remove faith from the grip of rationality and place it somewhere else.

    And he places it in hope. He argues that reason and logic are not primarily tools that we use to find the truth, but tools that we use to defend whatever position we have come to for other reasons (a hundred years later, cognitive science has pretty much demonstrated that this is the case). Faith is something that is born out of our deep yearning for permanence and for order and meaning in the universe. This yearning comes before our application of rational methodology, and it determines what we focus our rational energy to prove. We have faith, in other words, because, at a very deep level, we need to have faith.

    Religion, then, is fundamentally irrational, and we ultimately do religion a disservice when we try to turn it into a proposition that can be tested rationally–since it will always ultimately fail the test. But human beings, for the most part, are not designed to be satisfied with answers like that. We want to believe in stuff. It comforts us, calms our greatest sources of anxiety, makes us feel more whole. There are plenty of exceptions, of course. One need not believe in God or religion to have a peaceful, meaningful life. However, many people do need this belief, or, at least, live happier, more meaningful lives through it.

    From an Enlightenment perspective, this is completely indefensible. Cast in rational terms, it comes out sounding something like, “we have to deceive ourselves with imaginary friends in order to sleep peacefully at night,” And perhaps this is the case. But I am at least willing to consider the proposition that the way that American and Western European intellectuals have conceived of the world for the last 300 years or so might not be the only way to look at things, and that the rational definition of proof might not be the only way of determining truth, I am willing to at least keep on the table the idea that hope can lead to faith in something irrational and unprovable and that, through this hope and this faith, many people, including myself, can live better than we otherwise could.

  52. Meanwhile, Michael, our Enlightenment-lite faith organization takes 10% of my gross income with zero accountability/transparency, destroys my Sundays with oppressive monotony & tedium, prohibits me from bucking up my spirits with a little coffee, or relaxing a bit with a mild barley drink D&C be damned, tells me I’ll suffer the very wrath of god if I marry my boyfriend yet offers no option besides a life of misery & isolation, un-subtly points me in the same political direction as right-wing believers of other church-ly stripes so stupid you wonder they can tie their shoes – and makes, yes literally MAKES me feel like a heretic if I question some of our more interesting beliefs and history. Like the “translation” of funerary documents entirely unrelated to Abraham. Like JS’s dalliance with the wives of other men. Like the destruction of the printing press that exposed this. On & on.

    No sir. I need the Book of Mormon to be literally & prove-ably true as the Church has taught for almost two centuries. Otherwise we have a very large problem.

  53. p

    That is certainly a legitimate perspective.

  54. Walking up to the university today, I detoured to avoid an antic homeless man on the sidewalk ahead of me. Ten minutes later, and after properly upbraiding myself for this obvious moral failure, I did exactly the same thing with the same man – though, it must be said, at least on a different sidewalk. Later, coming back down, I avoided an older couple with obvious disabilities slowly struggling along with bags of groceries they’d just purchased from a nearby store.

    After a lifetime of trying, that’s the kind of Christian I am.

    Thomas Merton, in his introduction to the Dods translation of St. Augustine’s CITY OF GOD, said,

    “What do we mean when we say that Augustine lived the theology that he wrote? Are we implying, for instance, that other theologians have not lived up to their principles? No. That possibility is not what concerns us here. It is more than a question of setting down on paper a series of abstract principles and then applying them in practice. Christianity is more than a moral code, more than a philosophy, more than a system of rites. Although it is sufficient, in the abstract, to divide the Catholic religion into three aspects and call them creed, code and cult, yet in practice, the integral Christian life is something far more than all this. It is more than a belief; it is a life. That is to say, it is a belief that is lived and experienced and expressed in action. The action in which it is expressed, experienced and lived is called a mystery. This mystery is the sacred drama which keeps ever present in history the Sacrifice that was once consummated by Christ on Calvary. In plain words — if you can accept them as plain — Christianity is the life and death and resurrection of Christ going on day after day in the souls of individual men and in the heart of society.”

  55. Michael, I see what you are saying, but there are a couple of issues. First, your contestation that religion is irrational is at variance with how LDS leaders have repeatedly presented Mormonism, which is as a religion that is logical and rational. Consider Howard W. Hunter invocation of reasoning to argue in favor of the existence of God in 1968:

    “All nature portrays the existence of a supreme being. In this material world, we have learned that every building has a builder and everything that is made has a maker. As we look at this Tabernacle, the great organ that has been played for us, the clock on the wall, the camera that carries the image to the world, the lights, the microphones before me, we realize that each of these had its maker. Outside those things made by man, all of nature whispers to my reasoning that there was a creator. I know this to be God.”

    Bruce R. McConkie said in 1969 that “everything pertaining to the gospel is rational and reasonable.”

    Richard G. Scott said in 2003 that “some feel that any discussion of religion and the guidance one can receive through robust faith have no rational basis. However, faith is not illusion nor magic but a power rooted in eternal principles,” suggesting that faith is rational.

    Also consider Joseph Smith’s invocation of logic to argue in favor of the immortality of the spirits of humans: “I am dwelling on the immortality of the spirit of man. Is it logical to say that the intelligence of spirits is immortal, and yet that it had a beginning? The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end. That is good logic.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 353).

    The second issue I have with what you say is that the way you are using the term “faith” makes it synonymous with “belief without evidence” at best or “belief on bad evidence” at worst. Yet you say, “we need to have faith.” Why? Why should we believe something for which there is no evidence? To turn the question around, if we need to believe in ideas for which there is no evidence, then why not have faith in reincarnation?