A war has raged for most, if not all of the LDS church’s history — is Mormonism true?

And for most, if not all of that war, both sides — critics and apologists — seem to have agreed that the claims to defend or challenge are things such as whether the Book of Mormon documents events that occurred in history (and where?), whether historical narrative can show the character of Joseph Smith, or whether Egyptology and linguistics can verify that Joseph indeed translated an ancient text from particular papyri.

But in his essay within Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, Loyd Ericson claims starkly that this is all focused on the wrong thing. As Ericson closes his essay:

For the believer, the Book of Mormon is the word of God because its fruit nourishes her soul. Joseph Smith is a prophet of God because the fruit of his work brings joy to her life. Jesus is the Son of God because his fruit gives her peace, comfort, and life. These are wholly unconnected to the claims of scholarship and the brute facts of archaeology, history, and biblical criticism. By promoting a conceptual confusion of relevance that does not exist, apologists…are building and placing those very [stumbling] blocks [of faith] in the paths of struggling believers…

Ericson builds out the case in his chapter in the book, and the three-hour joint Mormon Matters and Mormon Stories interview (featuring him, Dan Wotherspoon, John Dehlin, and Bert Fuller) investigates the hypothesis. I’ll try not to dive too much deeper into how Ericson supported his claim either in the book or on the podcast (go buy! go listen!), but I wanted to discuss Dehlin’s challenge of Loyd’s concept. After all, Dehlin certainly is not alone in his thinking, and so he gives voice to how many people — disaffected or otherwise — might see things.

Quite simply, many people are taught that Mormonism matters because of secular truth claims — the sort of stuff I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. The church itself teaches a narrative that relies on secular truth claims; this is not something that apologists brought in on their own. So, Dehlin’s contention is that if scholarly findings do not support the traditional narrative that the church presents, at best, this must be disclosed, and it may legitimately defeat Mormonism.

In the podcast, Dehlin analogized the church to a car:

Let’s just say that the Mormon church in the 21st century is kinda like an automobile…it drives around; it gets people where they need to go; sometimes, people have amazing experiences in it; it’s a viable form of transportation…but there’s some information about its safety record or its reliability that has been known for some time — that it can occasionally lead to death or very unsatisfactory experiences…no one is going to argue that lots of good times have been had in this car, and that in many ways, it has taken a lot of people to a lot of good places, but for some time now, information has been available in the public domain that would let people know that occasionally, using this car can be fatal…because of flaws in the car itself…let’s just say that we now know that the manufacturers of the car have known about these problems for a long time…but have tried to hide the information so that people won’t know about the flaws.

Although the car analogy has been criticized on Facebook (and was critiqued in the episode itself), ultimately, the panel went with it (after all, it is similar to the church’s own “Old Ship Zion” transportation metaphor), and spent several minutes discussing comparable analogies (that is, the church as a building with structural weaknesses). Although Loyd likely did not have much time to think about such an impromptu metaphor, he eventually responded that to the extent his argument could be applied to such a metaphor, his response might be: what if religion is more about how comfortable the seats are? If it is, then although the car may be dangerous to travel in, such danger is irrelevant to how comfortable the seats are.

This answer seems like a profoundly dissatisfying response to me, but it does highlight how deeply the roles we ascribe matter. Quite simply, we buy cars to take us places. No one pays the price for a car just for the seats…and more importantly, there’s a strong case that no one should pay the price of the car just for the seats. So, what does this say, analogously, about religion?

…Perhaps religion shouldn’t be compared to transportation. Maybe that’s just the wrong language game.

In the podcast, Loyd also discussed music and art created by deeply flawed, problematic, even criminal individuals — and this metaphor made more conceptual sense to me. Couldn’t we accept the possibility that profoundly moving, beautiful music or art could be created by a deeply disturbed, sick, even criminal individual? And would we acknowledge that our ability to enjoy the music or art would persist regardless of the character of its composer? (We might argue that the composer’s character or personality might seep into the work, therefore creating a work that is as problematic as its creator, but we could imagine a work that didn’t bear the sins of its creators and that, if an audience knew nothing about the creator’s misdeeds, they would have no reason to judge the art poorly.)

Does it even mean that no one should engage in scholarship about the secular impacts of religion? Or does this mean that religion cannot be criticized? For Ericson, the answer is no on both fronts.

Ericson has no problem with scholarship; he simply challenges the concept of using secular scholarship to defend (or challenge) religious claims. That is, even if one could prove Book of Mormon historicity or translation accuracy, that wouldn’t show its divinity (Ericson has a compelling example in the essay; as much as it pains me as an accountant to say, even a valid translation of accounting records wouldn’t be explicitly religious; there’s no religion generated from Alma 11:5-19) — and so, even if the church, apologists, and critics have created a culture in which historicity matters, this obscures what truly is at stake.

And what is that, according to Ericson? Where should Mormonism really be tested?

Again, for Ericson, behind or around most claims about secular truth will be core religious claims — that when people say the Book of  Mormon is true, they really mean to communicate that to them, it has doctrines that moved, inspired, and transformed them. Or, as another source might put it:

28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

31 And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.

32 Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.

I again like the comparison to art or music. We might not spend a great deal of time or money on a flawed car with great seats, but if you think about the course of a life time, we do spend ample time and money on art, music, film, or literature that we find beautiful or moving. And although we may disagree, we can also distinguish between art that we find beautiful and art that we don’t, and this is an entirely separate question from whether the art is ancient or whether the artist was a good or beautiful individual.

My questions, in closing:

  1. Did you convert or join the church because of claims subject to secular scholarly inquiry (things such as Book of Mormon historicity and so forth?)
  2. Did you or do you feel the Book of Mormon (or some parts within) inspire you regardless of claims subject to secular scholarly inquiry?
  3. Would you have engaged at the same level (paid tithing as regularly, etc.,) without scholarly claims?
  4. If you have disaffected, to what extent can you understand this as the church no longer inspiring you spiritually, religiously, morally, or aesthetically?