Friday, August 29, 2014

I Like Joseph Smith, the Man, Much More than Joseph Smith, the Caricature

I have been asked multiple times in my life if Joseph Smith might have been (fill in the blank) by skeptics and opponents of the LDS Church.  Speaking strictly from an intellectual viewpoint, and employing standard psychological perspectives, there are multiple possibilities - and that applies even to something like the translation of the Book of Mormon.  I personally accept Joseph as a visionary prophet who brought forth modern scripture, but, again, from a strictly logical perspective, it is important to me to be able to understand intellectually and emotionally how others see him - to consider the possibilities.  The following list is not comprehensive, but it illustrates what I mean: 

According to his own words, Joseph was a treasure seeker by nature and inclination. Therefore, in regard to the Book of Mormon, the possibilities are not limited to just actual historical record on ancient plates or intentional fraud.

1) Exactly as he recorded it, including an actual visit to an actual hill with actual buried plates, with the plates being of ancient origin and buried by Moroni. (i.e., translated/transmitted non-fiction)

2) Exactly as he recorded it, including an actual visit to an actual hill with actual buried plates, with the plates being generic plates of unknown origin revealed by Moroni and "translated" by the gift and power of God. (i.e., inspired non-fiction)

3) Exactly as he recorded it, including an actual visit to an actual hill with actual buried plates, with the plates being the prop for divine transmission of the word of God but not literally a translation/transmission of an ancient record. (i.e., truly inspired fiction)

4) Completely visionary experiences, with something physical used as tangible "proof" of what was seen in vision. (could be any of the genres above - and could be visions of "actual beings" or hallucinations, both of which would be "real" and lead to sincere belief in what was envisioned)

5) Made up stories by an intentional fraud.

There are more possibilities, but the above are enough to make my point about trying to understand the perspectives of others. The above (and all the other options I've considered over the years) is much more analytical than an attempt to reach a specific conclusion that includes spiritual witnesses and constitutes a testimony. Having said that, the "simplest" options above are #1, #4 and #5. I can't prove any of the options above, but I've studied everything as a history teacher by nature and inclination, and the intentional fraud option just doesn't work for me. I've known a few "visionary" people in my life, and what I've read of Joseph fits them (and other historical figures) quite well. Therefore, I personally choose to see him as a visionary man - with all of the good and bad associated with that orientation.

Just in conclusion, I also think it's instructive for those who accept the stories literally that the actual quote is that his "name would be had for good and evil" - not that people would say good and bad things about him. When you parse that statement, analytically and not apologetically, it opens up all kinds of possibilities that make a lot of sense - at least to me. It certainly can make him much more complex and "real" than the caricatures that have been created of him over the years - by both passionate defenders and passionate opponents.

Personally, I like and admire the complex man much, much more than any caricature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree. I read 'Rough Rolling Stone' a while back with some anxiety as to how my testimony might emerge, but knowing I was going to have to engage with a more historically nuanced view due to the availability if information that my kids were having to deal with in their own peer groups. I was certainly not pleasantly surprised. But I came out of the experience with much greater love, sympathy and grief for this poor man, and a greater understanding of how and why he has come to be known for good and ill.
Interestingly, I think my testimony has grown from the experience, as he seemed to have had very little, if any benefit from his visionary behaviour, only misery and abandonment. It seems to me that what arose out of this very human man's inspired efforts was something that very much transcended his own ability and personality.