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.