Saturday, June 30, 2012

Spiritual Gifts: Not All Are Given to All: or, It's OK if You Can't Know or Do Some Things

I am trying to get back to being able to write each Saturday about my New Year's Resolution monthly topics.  Changing jobs and moving cross-country has wrecked havoc on my ability to do that over the last few months, but  I want to get back to it.  The topic I chose at the beginning of the year for July was "Spiritual Gifts" - and it's interesting that I've had that basic concept on my mind for a while now.

As I prepare to go more in-depth during July on this topic, I want to start the month by sharing a few scriptures that deal with the the concept itself - and make a very simple but important point about  spiritual gifts of which I believe many people lose sight too often.

The first point when speaking of spiritual gifts (or the gifts of the Spirit) is that all of them are subordinate to "the gift of God".  They are important in their own right, but they are not the end-all or ultimate goal of our spirituality.  The ultimate goal, in terms of gifts, is summed up succinctly in the following verses:

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7)
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.  (I John 5:13)

While it is important to understand, recognize and exercise spiritual gifts, that effort must be secondary (and obviously subordinate to) the ultimate hope that fuels our faith in the gracious gift of eternal life that is ours without price.  In other words, we can not let our desire to gain spiritual gifts blind us to the fact that we don't deserve them (that they truly are "gifts", not "wages") and that, when all is said and done, their existence in our or others' lives is not an indication of differing degrees of righteousness.  That is not a small point, in my experience, as it is easy and "natural" to begin to be prideful and discriminatory toward others when seeking for spiritual gifts becomes almost an obsession and their existence becomes a marker of righteousness.

This foundation is explained very clearly in the following passage that talks more about the "hierarchy" of spiritual gifts - that explain which spiritual gift is the most important: 

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. . . Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. . . And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (excerpts from I Corinthians 13) 

This passage says to me that seeking for spiritual gifts actually can be damaging and thwart the purpose of our very existence, if we remain or become uncharitable in the process.  If I die having never received any other spiritual gift but charity, I will die happy.  If I receive other gifts, I will be grateful and thankful and feel blessed - but that will not be central to my joy and happiness.  Receiving the gift of charity will. 

Finally, I want to end with the following from our modern scriptures - a reminder of something that I believe is easy to forget in our almost obsessive drive to say we "know" all things:

For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby. To some it is given by the holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful. (Doctrine & Covenants 46:11-14)

I will write more about the implications of that passage next week, but the point I want to make explicitly as I start to examine various spiritual gifts this coming month is that I believe they are important - but I don't believe they are of paramount importance in and of themselves - and I don't believe there is a collective hierarchy of gifts outside of eternal life and charity.  I believe that "pursuing" spiritual gifts is less important than "praying for and seeking" appropriate spiritual gifts to strengthen one's individual ministry - that receiving the "right" gift for one's own mission in life is more important than striving to obtain multiple gifts that might not include the one gift that would further God's work and glory the most through its receipt.

We forget sometimes that, at the heart of it all, it's not about us as much as it is about the family of God - and we tend too much to discuss spiritual gifts as if it actually is all about us.  Not all spiritual gifts as given to all, even some of the ones we usually see as the most simple or fundamental; it's OK to not know or be able to do some things.  The key is receiving, first and foremost (and perhaps exclusively), that one special gift that God wants to give you and me individually.

Friday, June 29, 2012

A Further Note on Atonement Symbolism

The religion professor I mentioned in my last post, at the end of the class, gave us an assignment to write our own parables, stories that would have meaning and power in our own world.

The one I will remember until the day I die was written by a young woman who wrote about a certain farmer who cared for his animals lovingly whenever they expressed discomfort or pain or loneliness - then beat his children whenever they cried. That lesson was totally symbolic within the context of a parable, but it was powerful to me - and it carries great meaning as I interact with my own children.  

Did it really happen? I don't know. I don't know the background of the person who wrote it. It doesn't matter, really, since, like the story of Job, the message is more important to me than the historical veracity.

Within Mormonism, some people have derided Stephen Robinson's parable of the bicycle in "Believing Christ". They say things like, "That cheapens the atonement." I've even read some comments in various posts throughout the Bloggernacle saying that same basic thing about various interpretations of the Atonement. My only caution is the same thing I say in lots of other contexts - that we need to be careful of the human tendency to censor or eliminate things that don't make sense to us or match our own perspectives.

If a certain symbolic representation resonates with some people - if a particular symbolism gives meaning and peace and power and liberation to some people - if a particular symbolism helps some people "get it" in some way - why do we need to challenge or belittle or reject it? Why can't we say something like:

"Cool. I'm glad that works for them. Here's what works for me - at least right now at this point in my life."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Atonement as Literal AND Symbolic

Much of what I "accept" I do so symbolically or figuratively or allegorically. Some of those things I choose to accept also as literal, but even then I often do so in my own way from a symbolic or figurative foundation.

The Atonement is one of those things.

I accept the concept or principle of an atonement (a process by which we can become one with all mankind and God) as literal (that it can happen for those who strive to make it happen), but I accept "The Atonement of Jesus Christ" as symbolic - even as I accept that the earthly events might have been literal.  In other words, I accept the possibility of Jesus of Nazareth as God's Son literally incarnate and the resurrection as a literal event, but I also accept Jesus of Nazareth as the great symbol of the love of God, the Father, for His children no matter if those things are literal or not. 

I will try to explain:

The sacrificial lamb was a POWERFUL symbol in ancient times, as was the scapegoat. I take the combination of those powerful symbols and honor / value them. I talk of the "atoning sacrifice" as if there was a real, imbued power in it, since I believe there really is power in something in which people place power - and since I want to believe that there really was divine power in it. However, when I personally speak of "the Atonement", I speak of the grand, timeless process of becoming one with God and all mankind - the process that started in the pre-mortal life and will end only when mankind is exalted and godlike. I do that because, for me in my own lifetime and culture, that process is more powerful symbolically than just one event within that process. (I don't mean to devalue Gethsemane and Golgotha in ANY way by saying that. As I said, I value those events and the powerful symbolism they provide too much to reject them in any way.)

I had a Religion professor who taught a class called "Jesus and the Moral Life". In it, he compared the teachings of Jesus to the teachings of the founders of all other major world religions. One of his examples was analyzing the parables from the viewpoint of what he called the "Zen slap" - the conclusion of a Zen Buddhist story that came out of left field and "slapped" the hearer upside the head in a totally unexpected way. He talked about how many of Jesus' parables did just that - seemed to lead in one direction and then veered suddenly into an unanticipated and even shocking direction.

I see much of that in the narrative of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, of Nazareth - the life that pointed toward political liberation and sovereign power but ended "triumphantly" in public crucifixion and release from a tomb. I see great symbolic power in that narrative, and it is powerful for me whether or not it was historically accurate. I can believe that GOD chose someone to represent his commitment to bring all His children back to Him in unity and peace, whether that choice was made in a pre-mortal existence or retroactively upon that person's death. I can believe that GOD inspired someone in this life to teach the "life", the "truth" and the "way" - or that He chose someone who was a God before the creation to do so. I can lean toward the symbolic without discarding, rejecting or denying the literal.

I can view the Atonement as both literal and symbolic - and that combination opens all kinds of possible understandings and power that limiting it to only one option would exclude.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Defining the Atonement

I realized that even after two recent posts on the Atonement, I actually hadn't defined that term concisely.  Therefore, the following is my best attempt to do so:

At heart, "atonement" (at-one-ment) means "to unify" or "to restore what is broken". If you posit a "Fall" (a separation from God), becoming "at one" would mean having what was fallen changed to an "unfallen" state, albeit not the exact same state as before the Fall - since we were not truly "one with God" in the pre-mortal life.

So, in essence, it means: 

becoming one with God - or uniting with God - or becoming fully godlike / godly.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Being Open-Minded: I Value My Wife-String as Much as My Me-Kite

I like Louis L'Amour books as brain candy. They probably are my favorite guilty pleasure.

One thing he says in multiple books is that leaving the eastern cities and moving west across the plains had an enormously different effect on different people. It empowered some, by freeing them of the constraints in which they lived previously; it crushed some, who couldn't handle the endless expanse and never-changing scenery; it strengthened some who had never had to care for themselves and others; it drove some crazy out of constant fear of attack and the lack of law and order.

People need what people need, and people tend to construct their lives to provide them what they need - and want. Being open-minded to me means, at least in part, not demanding that settlers be explorers - even as the typical settler mind-set is to be wary of and restrain the explorers. Often, explorers can explore in confidence largely because they know there always will be settlers waiting to welcome and feed and praise and provide security for a season when they return from their explorations.

Remember, too, that a kite is not just the thing that flies through the wind; it also is the string that keeps it safely grounded. I value my wife-string as much as my me-kite.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Fascinating Post about the LDS Church's Current Teachings about Human Nature and Sealing

Parents, Families, and Kin: A Father's Day Homily - Brad (By Common Consent) 

This post includes some detailed descriptions of economic theories and requires focus and, perhaps, some re-reading.  It is not an "easy read" - but it was fascinating and made me stop and think about a number of things.  I hope it edifies and enlightens, in some way, whoever else reads it. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

More on Repentanace and the Atonement

I should have been a little more precise in my last post.  I should have said that there would be no motivation to change **in the way that Jesus asked people to change** if there was no difference in the afterlife result.

Now, to break that down a little more:

1) Without a belief in an afterlife of some kind, this whole thing is academic. Of course, there is motivation to change if that change will affect one's state of life in the here and now and one's posterity - but those changes generally are not what is being asked of us as Christians. There generally is a disconnect, for example, between saving money and establishing a trust fund for the kids and giving away all and serving others. There often is a tension between getting ahead in many companies and industries and spending plenty of time with spouse and children. There absolutely is a conflict in many settings between being meek and humble and a peacemaker and climbing the corporate ladder. I'm not saying the examples I've given are mutually exclusive, but they don't mesh easily in many situations. So, for many, it is only a belief that what they become matters eternally that gives them the motivation to act differently than they would without that belief.

2) I personally don't differentiate between the outcomes in this life and the next life when it comes to the value of repentance - and I certainly don't mean to imply that the next life is more important than this one. I think there is NO difference - that who one becomes in THIS life is who one is in the NEXT life. Therefore, I believe this life is "more important" than the next one - since the next one hinges on this one. I just believe that those who posit the existence of a next life won't change if they don't believe it will make a difference - hence, my disdain (and I use that word intentionally) for "easy grace". It says, in essence, that change isn't necessary - so it destroys repentance - so it halts personal growth and change - so it nullifies the Atonement - so it causes the creation to be wasted, if you will.

That is what we call Lucifer's plan.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Atonement Gives Repetance Real Meaning

My own summary description of "the Atonement" is that the Atonement is what gives repentance real meaning. To explain:

"To repent" means "to change" - and there would be no reason to strive to change if there was no difference eternally in the outcome. To me, the phrase "having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof" points directly to the heart of repentance and the Atonement - that the "power of godliness" is the ability to take us and make us into "more than us" - to allow the change for which we strive but never fully master to be actualized in the end - to give us the hope that our efforts to change will have an eternal impact.

So, to me, the "Atonement" covers the entire span of eternity (as far as it concerns us). It is the foundation of the eternal stages of life that take us from what we were and are to what we may become. It is God's governing grace that allows the process of eternal progression to occur.

WITHIN the Atonement, our part is repentance - a conscious effort to participate actively in the process of eternal growth.

That's why "easy grace" (don't worry about what you do; God will save you regardless) is so abhorrent to me. I don't believe we "earn" or "deserve" a reward, but I do believe we have to participate in the effort to grow - that we have to strive to change and become - that we have to "repent". I don't believe we will change totally and completely in this life, but I believe we have to be involved in the effort to become more than we currently are - and to "endure to the end" in that process.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

30 Years Ago I Met My Split-Apart

My wife posted the following video on her personal blog on Thursday - the 30th anniversary of the day we met.  Other than not believing I"m old enough to have met her 30 years ago, that is a wonderful thought - that I reconnected with my eternal split-apart that long ago.

I have a hard time remembering life without her - and, as corny as it might sound to some, I choose to believe there wasn't a time before her - at least not in quantifiable terms that mean anything to me.

So, in honor of the woman who is half of my whole, enjoy:

Savage Garden: "I Knew I Loved You before I Met You"


Finally, Collin Raye is one of our favorite performers.  His music was a big part of our early years together as a married couple.  We will be attending a concert of his tonight, and I want to end with the following songs I hope we hear live: 


"All My Roads"

Friday, June 15, 2012

An Intellectual, Historical Explanation of Why I Can Accept Our Modern Prophets

There are other, more spiritual reasons why I accept modern prophets, but the following are some more objective, intellectual, historical reasons that work for me:

1) I have some limited experience with them that others haven't had, albeit in my case through my mother - who was one of Pres. McKay's secretaries many years ago. They really are amazing people.

2) I have a strong belief that THEY believe they are prophets, seers and revelators - and that means a lot to me, since it means they truly are striving to hear the voice of God in their lives and their callings.

3) I don't expect them to be perfect or infallible, so I don't hold them to that standard - but I think they "get it right" FAR more often than they get it wrong.

4) I believe adamantly that there isn't a "bad person" among them - that, if it is possible for there to be prophets on the earth, these are the kind of people they would be.

5) I believe, to a large degree, that prophets are as prophets are sustained and supported - that the expectations and hopes and dedication of the membership actually helps in a real way.

6) I can read the Bible and Book of Mormon -- and accept unmarried, Christian-killing, sexist-teachings accepting Paul -- and quick-tempered Peter -- and burn-up-the-competition Elijah -- and dysfunctional family father Lehi -- and perhaps bi-polar Nephi -- and (how can I describe him charitably . . . other than stupid for love or lust) Samson as prophets -- (as well as Muhammed and perhaps Jethro [not an Israelite from whom Moses received the Priesthood] and many others outside of Mormonism) -- so I certainly can accept our current First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"God Is Within You" - A Uniquely Mormon Perspective on That Statement

If we look at the ultimate objective of life within Mormon theology, it is to progress to the point where we know strictly from within ourselves what we need to do - and then we do it. That is a different definition of Godhood, but I think it's a valid one - since "perfect" in the scriptural sense means "complete, whole, fully developed" and is tied in multiple places to the idea of being agents unto ourselves.

In other words, the objective of Mormon theology is to reach the point that we will not need our Heavenly Father to be a Commander - even as we continue to need Him to be a Father.  

That's worth considering, especially since Elder Holland actually said, "God is within you" multiple times in our Stake Conference a couple of years ago. He said it in a way that was totally "Mormony", but he said it in those exact words.

Monday, June 11, 2012

When You Aren't Sure about Accepting a Calling

More than once I have explained my reservations about accepting a calling (and I mean given detailed explanations about why I was hesitant) - with the caveat that I would accept it if they went back and talked and prayed about it and still felt they needed me to fill the position.

Once I explained that if I did accept it I would be "filling a slot" and probably wouldn't be able to "magnify" anything, given my work situation at the time.

One of those times, they still asked me to accept the calling, so I did - and was released eventually when someone better was able to do it.

Twice, they talked about it and never extended the calling.

Finally, once I was in a holding pattern for an extended period of time with a potential calling based on what I shared with the person who spoke with me. It actually is a calling I would have liked to accept, but I wasn't sure if I could do it well or for how long - since we thought we might have been moving in the near future. They waited for us to decide fully about that possible move, then the calling was extended when we decided not to move. 

I share all of that to say this:

To those being extended a calling: 

If you aren't sure about accepting a particular calling, be open and honest about your concerns with those who are talking with you about that calling.  Be willing to accept a calling with which you aren't comfortable, but don't withhold important information if those who are talking with you aren't aware of it.  Don't refuse reflexively - but if you can't accept reflexively, that's fine, as well.  Talk about it; don't hide your feelings and concerns. 

To those extending a calling:

Talk with the person first, before actually extending the calling.  Be willing to reconsider, talk again and pray again about it if the person has concerns.  You are dealing with real people, so give them sincere consideration as agents unto themselves.  Respect their agency - and truly listen to them. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Creating Joy

I came across the following post I wrote a few years ago and felt like I should re-post it today.  I hope it helps someone, somehow: 
One of the reasons I loved my mission so much was that both of my Mission Presidents emphasized what I already believed about the purpose of a mission – both what it means to be a missionary and how that should direct missionary effort.

The foundation: I have believed a basic concept for as long as I can remember thinking about it. I have believed it from a very early age – even before I remember hearing anyone else articulate it. I finally found the perfect, concise expression of it in the following expression: "People do not believe what they see; they see what they believe."

The missionary application: I approached my mission as an attempt to find people who would accept our version of the Gospel when they heard it (who could catch a glimpse of the vision when it was presented to them) – or, I should say, who would not reject it when they began to hear it and refuse the chance to begin to see it. It wasn't my job to try to convince them intellectually, but rather to touch them spiritually.

Some people I met said, upon hearing various things we believe, "That's crazy. You're nuts. Mormonism really is a cult if you can believe that stuff." Some said, "Say what? Whatever. I just don't get it." Others said, "I don't get it, but I’d like to hear more." Finally, a few said, "That's exactly what I've always thought/felt!" Given what little time I had, my job wasn't to convince the first two groups, but rather to find and encourage the latter two groups – to help them feel the motivating influence of the Holy Ghost. That perspective led me to say, in essence, to everyone, "Follow what you feel – not what you think about it at first. Try it; you'll like it." If someone responded with strong negativity, my response basically was, "OK. I'll find someone else." They almost always spent more time and energy trying to convince me that I was wrong than I did trying to "convert" them. I was looking for a particular type of person - someone who was looking, first and foremost, for joy – either joy they lacked or more joy than they felt at the time. As I had experienced myself, once they found a core Gospel perspective that produced the joy they were seeking, they were able to wrap their minds around the theological and doctrinal details – the other “intellectual” stuff.

The choice: I believe you can tell more about people (both inside and outside the Church) by how they deal with the joy others find outside their own organization (or with differing perspectives that bring joy inside their own organization) than perhaps by any other criterion. One type of person lacks internal joy, constantly finds fault with the joy of others and actively seeks to undercut that joy; another type is secure in his joy and not interested in the differing joy of others; the final type accepts and embraces the idea that others have their own degree of joy - and tries to add to it (and, through it, add to their own joy) whenever possible. I don’t want to argue with the healthy and happy; I want to learn from them. I want to spend just as much of my time administering joy to the sick and searching.

The blogging observation: When I entered the world of blogging, I was struck immediately by two competing forms of discussion: the vast majority of those who participate in the blogs I frequent are sincerely searching for greater understanding and increased joy. Some of them, however, seem to be stuck in a cycle of trying to understand something intellectually before they can accept it spiritually. They seem to be saying, "I will accept this once I can understand it," rather than, "This brings me joy, so I will accept it and do my best to understand it - even if that means my understanding changes periodically, or regularly, or constantly over a long period of time." They say, "My heart wants to accept this, but my mind keeps me from accepting it," rather than, "My heart accepts this, so I will exercise my mind diligently to try to understand what I have accepted - knowing that that process might not end completely in this life, but I will continue to accept it regardless, because it brings me joy."

The personal observation: I am joyful because I have chosen an outlook that brings me joy; I am at peace because I made the conscious choice from among many options. This peace and joy are not primarily intellectual. I still must exercise my mind constantly in order to understand and reconcile the issues with which I am faced daily, and I love to read the nuanced, intelligent and insightful perspectives of others, but I do so from the foundation of belief. I hear someone (anyone - inside or outside the Church) say something, and my first thought is not, “I don’t get it; it must be wrong,” but rather “How can I understand this in a way that is consistent with my understanding of the Gospel – in a way that will add to my joy?” In all seriousness, that approach has not let me down yet - particularly since I am willing to suspend disbelief when I'm not getting anywhere and revisit the issue when my mind has had time to rest and recuperate. Sometimes, what I consider to be a "full" understanding (meaning as close as I believe I will ever get to knowing fully) has taken years to achieve, and there are some questions that still sit on a shelf untouched for a time while I refine my understanding of others. I'm fine with that.

The question: Why is this? The answer: I know I am able to construct just about any intellectual justification I desire that will warrant just about any theological / philosophical / doctrinal construct I choose to accept. Given my ability to adapt a solid intellectual argument for whatever I desire to believe, I exercise my agency by focusing on what I desire to believe – what my heart and soul tells me it wants to believe - what brings me joy. I consider the options and make my choice. Again, since my brain is capable of justifying whatever choice I make, I pick my course (what kind of life I want to live), then I construct / adopt / assimilate the perspective that I feel will lead best to the end of that course.

The result: The only intellectual restriction I place on my mind is that whatever I devise must be consistent with the over-arching and under-pinning principles I hold central to my understanding of joy - in my terminology, the core principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand them. I have been accused of engaging in mental gymnastics, but I believe life is, in very real and powerful ways, an obstacle course. I believe everyone plays within their own gymnasium or on their own steeple chase course (jumps through their own intellectual hurdles - or stops and refuses to surmount them) in ways that look odd to others whose conclusions are different. I understand completely the concerns others express, but the joy I feel now is my own soul's condition – what my heart/spirit has directed my mind/body to accept. I no longer feel joy; I have it - and it has me.

Friday, June 8, 2012

If You Could Choose a Church Calling, What Would It Be?

Just curious.  For me:

1) Nursery leader was wonderful! I would do it again in a heartbeat.

2) I'm not exactly shy (as everyone in the entire Bloggernacle knows), and I really like to organize and give talks (surprise, surprise) - so I really enjoyed being on the High Council. It helped to have sincere, humble Stake Presidents whom I admire greatly.

3) I had an incredibly humble, gentle, loving Bishop when I was a counselor - and the Bishopric included people with radically different political and religious views. I'd choose that calling without hesitation if I could choose the Bishop, and especially if I could recreate the diversity of the Bishopric.

4) Primary pianist - again, in a heartbeat. Listening to the kids sing . . . gives me chills again just remembering it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Honoring Not Just the "Heroes" but Also the "Common Fodder" of War

On this, the anniversary of D-Day, I want to provide a link to a post from last year on this date.  It is a bit hard to follow at first, but please bear with it.  The part I want to highlight most comes after the mathematical equation in the middle of the post.  

My own feelings are summed up nicely in comment #5 by "As Sistas in Zion":

If you look at war briefly without looking beyond the surface it may seem that those who have given their lives have provided the ultimate sacrifice, but we should not overlook the sacrifice of those who have escaped death, but are left to live with the aftermath of being pushed “to the brink of moral destruction.”

Boundaries - WVS (By Common Consent)

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Very Short, Very Profound Statement

I love the following thought:

I try to live so that I may be the second coming of the Lord for someone else.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

We Are Done Driving, Unloading and Situating the Big Stuff. I'm Exhausted. Good Night.

2,209 miles in 4.5 days - caravan-ing across country in a moving truck and a van, both packed to overflowing - with my wife and I driving the entire time - with three kids along for the ride - etc., etc., etc. 

We're safe; we've returned the truck; we have a gazillion boxes in the garage and house (give or take a billion or so); we're exhausted.  However, thankfully, we're safe.  That is the most important thing right now - along with falling asleep ASAP.  (*grin*) 

My life still will be hectic for a while, but it's settling back into a rhythm of sorts - and I'm grateful for that. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

How I Answer Questions from Non-Mormons about the Book of Mormon Authorship

[This is going to be much more of an analytical post than a spiritual post.  Please understand that I am not addressing my own spiritual witnesses or feelings in this post in any great detail.]

Could Joseph have written the Book of Mormon? (In other words, is it possible that it is nothing more than fiction?) Sure; to deny that possibility completely is silly, in my opinion. However, I personally don't view it that simply - for a number of reasons.

1) I really do believe it is a MUCH more complex record than many assume.

I think there are legitimate strengths and arguments to be made regarding: 1) chiasmus; 2) the geography of 1 Nephi (especially); 3) the cultural contrast between the Nephites, the Mulekites and the Jaredites (which, as a history teacher, I can tell you are striking and incredibly accurate for what we know of the groups that might have been the genesis of each group); 4) the consistency of the split-narrative format; 5) the various narrative voices and styles (that shift quite seamlessly, especially when Mormon is recorded as inserting his own commentary smack dab in the middle of quotes from other sources); and more. I don't pretend that these things "prove" Joseph wasn't the author, but there are much stronger arguments than most people (even members) realize.

2) Joseph really didn't understand the Book of Mormon very well - and very few authors misunderstand what their own works actually say to the degree that Joseph did. His lack of understanding is a pretty good argument for the manner in which the transmission is said to have occurred.

3) There is an element of fluidity in the descriptions of the translation process that would be difficult for someone who simply was making it up - or who had done nothing more than map out a story in his mind over time.

4) In order for it to have been a fraud, as it would have to be if Joseph wasn't sincere in his description of what happened, there would have had to have been a fairly wide-spread conspiracy - and I just don't see that in the records we have available to us, even from anti-Mormon sources of the time.

5) I'm not really concerned all that much about what others perceive to be anachronisms - especially since the record itself does a pretty good job explaining why the doctrinal ones are there. As to nearly all of the others, the question of elephants and steel (which were the focus of much of the early criticism of the Book of Mormon) is perhaps the best example of why I don't spend emotional or intellectual capital worrying about them. Since the time the Book of Mormon was published, LOTS of stories of mastodons roaming the American continent(s) have been discovered in the oral traditions of the American Indians that would fit the reference in the Book of Ether (from, for example: "a massive, elephant-like mammal that flourished worldwide from the Miocene through the Pleistocene epochs and, in North America, into recent times), and "steel" is much like "man" - a very generic term that could mean much more than the most narrow parsing of the word itself.

6) All of the books that are listed as inspiration for Joseph to have written the Book of Mormon actually are RADICALLY different than it. The central themes, the narrative flow and voices, the cultural statements - pretty much everything indicates that the Book of Mormon isn't derived from those sources. A non-believer could argue reasonably that the genesis of the idea to write the Book of Mormon came from the existence of such books, but I find the idea that they actually provided source texts to be quite weak.

I personally think there is a better argument for "delusion" than for "deceit" - but I choose to believe it actually was an inspired transmission. That is a conscious choice, and I understand very well the arguments against it, but it's what I have chosen to believe on faith. I've read it slowly and carefully and analytically and parsing as I go - and I honestly believe most members still have little idea what it actually contains within its pages.