Seerstones and the Sacred

unnamedThe Church’s release of images of Joseph the Seer’s seerstone yesterday—together with essays explaining and analyzing his use of this stone—have caused a stir. Or at least, I hope they have. The much discussed “Mormon Moment” of the last decade has I think (and hope) been much more of a profound inward reflection by Mormons generally than it has been an external spotlight or recognition by others. And I’m convinced that this has been a serious benefit to us as a people. This is because I don’t think we can authentically embody and carry forth our tradition if we’re embarrassed or ignorant of what’s in our closet—whether that’s polygamy, theocracy, racism, or our past embrace of magic.[1]

This leaves the question, however, of how we ought to think about the seerstone. And that’s what I want to talk about here. In addition to embarrassment, there are a range of healthy options. Not everyone will be as enthusiastic as I am—feeling an intense closeness to the founding of this dispensation and an era when the heavens were opened by an unabashed seer; a thrill at the ways in which magic stones set us apart; a thrill for the possibilities for a more direct communion than our contemporary world offers with its feelings of quiet inner assurance and community.[2] In what follows, I want to say something more of why I feel this way. I recognize, however, that some aren’t likely to ever feel this way, and others feel only discomfort. I hope to offer a way to appreciate and respect our past and what it does for our present, regardless of one’s stance on supernatural paraphernalia today.

As is usually the case, I find Charles Taylor remarkably helpful on this end. A Secular Age remains the most comprehensive exploration of the fundamental changes in the nature of religious experience between the years 1500 and 2000.[3] With regard to seerstones, I think his discussion of the changing role of magic is instructive. A few points that are important to keep in mind[4]:

  • Rejection of magic was gradual but went through a number of important stages. This rejection was ineliminably tied to the Protestant as well as the more general reformation movements, and (later on) the enlightenment.
  • Magic became seen as an illegitimate means of trying to control God.
  • It also became associated with priesthood and the sacraments and ritualistic forms of religion. Actions, objects, times, and places that had been seen and experienced as sacred came to be seen as illegitimate because extra-biblical and tainted by their association with hierarchy.
  • The rejection of magic began by casting it as ungodly and then later cast it as mere superstition

Taylor also discusses two broader shifts in the way humans (in the “western” tradition) conceive of and experience the relation between themselves and the world around us.[5]

  • First, he describes a shift in the nature of our self-understanding, from that of a porous to a buffered self. A porous self makes no inner/outer mental distinction. Instead, we are fully open to what we might call today an external, mental influence for good or ill, protection or attack. The meanings of things are not merely in the human mind, but inhere in things themselves. Our understanding is open to being influenced or impressed by these meanings. Immaterial ghosts are thus physically threatening, as Horatio tries desperately to convince Hamlet atop the parapets of Elsinore.
  • In contradistinction is the buffered self, for whom the inner/outer mental distinction is quite real. All non-physical aspects of human life (e.g., meanings, emotions, moral values, etc.) are reduced to the merely “mental.” Thus “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” And consequently we scoff at the Horatios and tell our terrified children that a ghost can do no more than scare them.
  • Paralleling this shift in self-understanding is a shift in our understanding of the way in which things potently interact, from multiple notions of interaction to our modern notion of a merely mechanistic universe of causal interaction. Medieval Europe maintained an understanding of potent interaction through what Taylor calls “influence.” Objects, places, or times can be charged with a positive force whose influence on their surrounding environment is equal to their meaning or value. Thus, holy relics, places, or times can influence, not through mechanistic interaction, but through the openness of our porous selves to their potency.
  • Alongside influence, our familiar modern notion of causal interaction gradually developed and eventually came to dominate our general understanding. As opposed to influence, causal impingement is mechanistic interaction according to scientific laws that in no way depends on the meaning or value of the objects involved. Hence, any change in one’s well-being in the wake of contact with a relic is understood simply as placebo.
  • These changes happened gradually, beginning with social elites and eventually making their way to common conceptions (i.e., they became “common sense”). As Bushman and others have long noted, magic—certainly the concept and experience of influence and to a lesser degree that of the porous self—was still very much a part of religious experience in the early 19th century.

One way to understand Joseph’s use of a seerstone then is from within our more general belief that (as Nephi puts it) God speaks to his children in their own tongue and according to their own understanding. That is, God used a tool that Joseph could recognize from within his culture in order to attune him to the spiritual gifts needed for translation. Once this tool had served its purpose, however, it was no longer needed, and so Joseph gave up the stone, claiming to no longer need such a device. I think this approach has a lot going for it, and it seems to be the approach that the church’s historians have taken.

Additionally, however, we can recognize that different understandings of self and causality lead to very different experiences. There are certainly religious experiences that are only available to those with a given understanding. Correlatively, there are certain religious goods that will only be available to those with that same understanding. And critically, willing ourselves to have a different understanding doesn’t work. For example, we can’t just decide to experience ourselves as a porous self. But a coherent community can and often does continue to pass on at least a familiarity with other ways of seeing and experiencing. Some of these might be important to God’s purposes for us as a people. For example, I think that our ability to experience the temple as a literally sacred place derives in part from understandings that adhered with and were then passed down by the founders of the Restoration.

Finally, by not merely acknowledging but also owning the richness of our past we can feel empowered in our present. One of the real dangers we face is a closing off of the possibilities of transcendence. It’s becoming more common to feel, even against our will, that communion with the Gods, and perhaps even belief in them, is no longer possible. This is in part because of the way we think, feel, value, and experience our world today. One thing afforded to us when we own up to and appreciate the world in which seerstones operate is a holding open of a different set of religious possibilities and their attendant goods than that which pervades the culture and society in which Zion is embedded today. Even if you’re not looking for a world with magic rocks, you might well be looking for (or even yearning for) a world with more or different accesses to God than those currently experienced. Which points to a related result of seerstones. They manifest God’s willingness to speak to us wherever we are; which means God can speak our secularese as well. God knows how to train and tune our spirits to receive light and truth even here in our oppressively immanent and worldly age.

But again, I’ll be honest. Seerstones spark a fire in my bones, a connection to an earlier, earthier, more tangible, and sacral-infused Mormonism. And that’s a Mormonism I need in my life right now. I gave my wife a blessing of healing tonight. I did not have a seerstone to guide my speech. But I did use a magic—sacred—oil, which I find to be directly analogous to Joseph’s stone. And I surely wouldn’t flinch should God grant me a white stone to use at such times—now or in a future heaven. I certainly hope that my whole soul can be attuned in the same manner, that I too can speak in the name of the Lord. Similarly, I feel a sense of holiness each time I dress in garments. I relish what the world can only sneer it—my magic underwear. Likewise, I cherish reading over and over the personal scripture of my Partriarchal Blessing. I’ll take Joseph’s “folk magic” right along with the enchanted world and goods it affords me over the stale, insipid world of constrained, condescending and self-congratulatory scientism—any day.

But even if you don’t feel as I do—if you’re one of the many who have tamed and rationalized your experience with such artifacts of the Restoration—I hope you can appreciate and stand in an authentic relationship with our history. One need not be embarrassed by the “scandal” of the seerstone—whatever one’s epistemology—even if one can’t imagine our leaders using such things today. Instead, I hope we’re all grateful for these and the other “folk” elements of our religious tradition, and the goods—especially our experience of the sacred— that they (hopefully) continue to make available to all of us trying to build Zion today.

* * * *

1. I’ve noticed two common forms of embarrassment when it comes to these topics. Some are embarrassed to discuss them in any setting. Others are fine to discuss them internally but find themselves embarrassed in outside company. Sometimes this stems from either a lack of conceptual understandng or an inability to articulate and discuss that understanding—whether with others or with oneself. That said, I do not mean to imply that one needs to be well versed and articulate about things like seerstones in order to be an authentic latter-day saint. Rather, that has everything to do with how one seeks and responds to revelation and the divine call to join the Restoration. Nevertheless, I do want to claim that in this Mormon Moment, most literate adults, at least those in the US, have no choice but to confront our history. And responding with embarrassment inevitably interferes with one’s ability to respond to the voice of the Spirit as it speaks from within the Restoration. More generally, the Restoration is not merely a billboard for promoting personal salvation through Jesus. Rather, it is in all of its operations an instantiation of relational salvation in community—a building of Zion, for here and the hereafter. Eventually, then, I think we need to take up the working of the divine in all dispensations, and how that work underwrites contemporary Zion.

2. I don’t at all mean to dismiss the power and importance of quiet inner assurance and community. I cling to these. But they are only one part of the modes of connection to the divine on display in the scriptural cannon, and on their own make Mormonism not merely one religion among many but likewise one of the many.

3. If you’re one of those still waiting to read it, there’s never been a better time. If you’re daunted by its size or your ability to wade through its sometimes dense text, I highly recommend James K. A. Smith’s thin and readable companion book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.

4. See especially Chapter 1 sections 6-9.

5. Some of the bullets are taken from an essay I wrote for a Faith and Knowledge conference. It was later published in Dialogue (44:3).

65 comments for “Seerstones and the Sacred

  1. Dave
    1
    August 6, 2015 at 12:29 am

    I think one unintended result of this disclosure and discussion by the Church will be that many Latter-day Saints will suddenly realize how dis-enchanted they have become. And (this is the kicker) how comfortable that dis-enchanted worldview is to them compared to the alternatives. I simply cannot think myself (or faith myself) back into a 16th-century worldview. I think there are several different ways to “appreciate and stand in an authentic relationship with our history.” A very thought-provoking post, James.

  2. Ardis
    2
    August 6, 2015 at 12:48 am

    Thanks for this. I’m having a hard time processing my feelings about this — not because of embarrassment with the stone itself, or with the history, because I would like to sense the sacred there, but because of how it’s being treated by so many of us online. I may have to disengage with my friends for a while, to shut out the memes and jokes and trivialization. It’s a profane world. When even the Saints can’t be trusted with a few photographs, it will surprise me if we’re trusted with any more direct experience with the sacred any time soon.

  3. August 6, 2015 at 7:39 am

    This is an excellent article. It would seem, however, that we have regressed back to relying too much on the “law” and “rituals” reminiscent of Old Testament days, rather than the grace of Jesus Christ. My reading of Paul in the New Testament would argue that people who are mature in the gospel of Jesus Christ do not require such rituals. But then again they do not criticize those who do require these things either.

  4. Frank
    4
    August 6, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Ardis:

    With all due respect, a stone in a hat seems fraudulent and not from God. Its not that we cannot be trusted with the “sacred.” Its more of a realization that we have been mislead by probably people with good intentions but mislead nevertheless. Santa Claus is not real and JS did not get any revelation from a stone.

  5. DavidC
    5
    August 6, 2015 at 8:34 am

    To me, this clash of world views illustrates why the Anthon episode was important enough to be mentioned by Isaiah — the wisdom of their wise men shall perish and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.

    … and I thought Ardis’ comment was great.

  6. RMM
    6
    August 6, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Is anyone around here claiming that Joseph Smith got revelation from a stone, Frank?

    Nope, didn’t think so.

    If you don’t understand the difference between what James and Ardis are saying, and what you’re saying they’re saying, think about it for awhile.

    Mitchellcherie, do you mean that you reject the use of consecrated oil in a blessing of healing? Do you reject “the laying on of hands”?

  7. Frank
    7
    August 6, 2015 at 9:06 am

    He used the stone supposedly to give us the book of mormon and he used the stone to get his early revelations supposedly. This is what the Hyrum Page dust-up with the competing stone was all about. Look it up.

    Anyway, I think Ardis and others are simply dancing around the issue, namely, was the stone a source of revelation or was it a magician’s prop? I think the latter.

    Mormons are good people and smart people. They were just mislead a little with this stone thing. You can intellectually move about the issue all you want but the so called revelatory rock just doesnt hold any water.

  8. Silfo
    8
    August 6, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Embarassed? Are we embarrassed that Joseph saw visions? Why should we be embarrassed that he used a seerstone to help him see some of them, it’s called scrying.

  9. Ardis
    9
    August 6, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Frank, if you were a fraction as smart as you think you are, you would use the correct word “misled” instead of the incorrect word “mislead.”

    Your anti-testimony is as invalid as your grammar. You know nothing, your words are worth nothing, you deserve no further response or attention from anyone here.

  10. Frank
    10
    August 6, 2015 at 10:46 am

    Artis:

    Maybe you should check your emotions at the door? Sorry you were “misled.” However, you need to hear it, over and over again so you dont infect others. You are a smart person, a good person, but a misled person nevertheless.

  11. Nepos
    11
    August 6, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Oh for crying out loud, believing that Joseph Smith used a seerstone to translate the BOM is no more ridiculous than believing that Jesus rose from the dead. In fact, nothing JS did was particularly strange by religious standards–check out the Aztecs for some really weird (and horrifying) rituals.

    It’s one thing to argue that religion, in general, is wrong (though this website is hardly the place), but trying to argue the Joseph Smith, in particular, was somehow more fraudulent than, say, Jesus, or Buddha, or Moses, is just bigotry–and ignorant as well.

  12. Clark Goble
    12
    August 6, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Great post. I need to make an other attempt to read Secular Age.

    I confess I don’t quite get the embarrassment. Ignoring the fact the seer stone has been often discussed if you look at the mainstream discussion of seer stones broadly conceived they’re ubiquitous in Mormonism. Just read D&C 130:10 for the discovery we all eventually get one or JSH 1:35 for a discussion of using stones to translate the Book of Mormon. What’s new to some people is the discovery that Joseph used more than the one. (Even though it is discussed in the translation page at lds.org)

    I wonder how much of the embarrassment is actually less about the idea of using a stone for translation than the fact we have a photograph of it. And the photograph looks quite mundane. (At least the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark looked cool – although it was just filled with dust before the angels showed what they thought of Nazis)

  13. TA
    13
    August 6, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    Frank,

    Even if we think we’ve been misled by Joseph Smith, we have to account for the actual text of the Book of Mormon. Where did this incredibly complex and perplexing text come from? Certainly not from Joseph Smith’s imagination. The book is turning out to stump both its critics and its apologists.

  14. Marc Bohn
    14
    August 6, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    Certain comments on this thread are beginning to veer from our comment policy. Please be respectful and refrain from attacking others: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/comment-policies/

  15. RMM
    15
    August 6, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    Frank, if you could share some of your personal situation and faith journey, it would give people a better idea of how to discuss this sensitive topic with you. Going on the offensive is an easy way to cope with disappointment or anger, but constructive conversation would be more helpful in working through whatever hardship it is that you’re experiencing.

  16. Brad L
    16
    August 6, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    Thought-provoking post. I find it interesting that believing LDS folks tend not to like to be confronted with some questions that are laden with terminology, such as “magic,” that they don’t use to describe their beliefs, but essentially has the same meaning of the terminology they more commonly use. For instance, many LDS believers might get defensive if someone were to ask them if they believed in magic powers. But if someone asked them if they believed in the power of the priesthood to heal the sick and in Joseph Smith’s ability to actually translate a language that he had never learned using the Urim and Thummim through the gift and power of God, they would likely have no issue, and willingly embrace the belief.

    I appreciate the honesty of this post. Thanks for owning up to believing in magic underwear and the magic healing powers of consecrated oil. But here’s the kicker. If you believe in magic power of articles of clothing, stones found in wells, and blessed extra virgin olive oil, then why not the magic healing powers claimed by witch doctors in sub-Saharan Africa, or the magic powers of the gurus and other holy men throughout India? I’d be very interested to know how believing LDS people might react when confronted with such a question. Might some claim that we shouldn’t discount the possibility that these persons in Africa and India actually possess magic powers (perhaps phrased as “spiritual power”)? If such is the response, then perhaps we should ask a few follow-up questions, such as: Would you be willing to see a witch doctor in Africa if you were stricken with a disease there? Would you advise others to consult a witch doctor? Would you be willing to testify as to the importance of witch doctors and their power?

    If the respondent were to reject the validity of these other claims to magic power, then we could ask this follow-up question: What is the basis on which you are determining the validity of LDS priesthood blessings and the invalidity of witch doctor healing rituals?

  17. Frank
    17
    August 6, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    RMM:

    I like many others had a problem with polygamy which led me to review the other claims made by the church. I read books, primary sources, reviewed the so-called answers on fair mormon in an effort to resolve concerns. Slowly, I came to the realization that it wasn’t what it claimed. Fair-mormon and the other apologists simply cannot defend the indefensible. There aren’t any good answers to the rock in the hat and the fact the plates aren’t here to inspect as well as the fact that the book of abraham was allegedly “translated” from egyptian funerary texts that have nothing to do with Abraham. So, I guess I should thank the Church for finally admitting that those who do not believe any more are not crazy or simply want to sin. Maybe the recent partial admissions by the church will help me deal with the passive aggressive comments I get from family who still believe. Maybe my family will lighten up a little bit as the church comes to terms with the changes and obfuscations it has made to its history. I can only hope.

    So, sorry true believers if I came at you a little hard about the revelation rock Joseph Smith used. This is a tough time for everyone and I appreciate this site allowing me to vent a little.

  18. Anne
    18
    August 6, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Frank, you and I are in the same boat. I love how RMM mentioned your “disappointment or anger” and the “hardship” you’re experiencing — basically implying that *you* are flawed, not the church’s obfuscation and dishonesty. I can’t believe more members aren’t outraged.

  19. RMM
    19
    August 6, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    Anne, my comment was not a condemnation of Frank; it was a recognition of the tone of his comments. When someone is lashing out, it’s good to figure out what the person actually wants to say, rather than just escalating into a pointless argument about nothing in particular. I suggested that he explain. He seems to have understood my comment for what it was, and did so, and I appreciate his explanation and wish him well.

    You’re welcome to direct your anger toward me if you’d like, but it might be more useful to figure out if there’s something you’d like to say about James Olsen’s well-though-out post. Personally, I grew up in an area of the United States where it was not uncommon for objects and rituals to have mystical or spiritual powers. These traditions spanned a variety of cultures including Native American practices, so something like a seer stone fits into my greater cultural experience and doesn’t phase me at all; however, I do understand that it might have a directly opposite effect on others with different experiences.

  20. Brad L
    20
    August 6, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    “Where did this incredibly complex and perplexing text come from? Certainly not from Joseph Smith’s imagination.”

    For a person who is insisting that people be open-minded enough to entertain Joseph Smith’s claims about the Book of Mormon, I’m surprised that you’re not open-minded enough to entertain the proposition that the Book of Mormon is a largely a product of Joseph Smith’s imagination. Isn’t that proposition the most parsimonious, meaning the one based on the fewest assumptions about reality, the one that least multiplies entities unnecessarily, and the one that is based on fewest unknowns? The idea that Joseph Smith made up the Book of Mormon is the explanation that is most consistent with general human knowledge about collective human behavior, the history of early 19th century upstate New York, and the history of the Americas between 600 BCE and 400 CE.

    We have all sorts of evidence that humans are perfectly capable of deception on a large scale. Consider Wolfgang Beltracchi who deceived art connoisseurs throughout the world for decades for millions of dollars that he was selling them paintings done by Picasso, Monet, Gauguin, and other famous artists that he had actually just painted himself. Heck, consider Mark Hoffman who managed to deceive members of the LDS First Presidency and renowned historians that he had found all sorts of documents related to early LDS church history that he had just forged himself.

    We have all sorts of examples of humans performing extraordinary feats at young ages and without formal education. Consider Mark Twain, by far one of the most influential novelists in the English language, who had no formal education past the age of 13. Consider Srinavasa Ramanujan who, with little formal education in math, developed mathematical theorems that today’s most renowned scientists are using to research black holes. Many of the founders of religions are arguably geniuses in their own right. Muhammad was said to be illiterate and uneducated, yet he brought forth a long, complex, poetic texts that has influenced millions of people for centuries. Must the only possible explanation of the Qur’an be divine provenance? And just in case you do respond and say that you believe that the Qur’an is inspired (which many Mormons do), then I would ask you if you would be willing to testify before a group of people that the Qur’an is the word of God. And if you aren’t willing to do that, then you probably believe in the back of your mind that Muhammad just made it up. And if you do say that you are willing to do that, then your belief system is a massive contradiction, especially provided that you accept the idea that Jesus is the Son of God (which idea the Qur’an considers blasphemy).

    So the Book of Mormon could very well be what Joseph Smith claimed it to be. It is just that that is not a very parsimonious answer, which requires us to accept as true all sorts of unknown entities.

  21. Cody H
    21
    August 6, 2015 at 5:04 pm

    “But again, I’ll be honest. Seerstones spark a fire in my bones, a connection to an earlier, earthier, more tangible, and sacral-infused Mormonism. And that’s a Mormonism I need in my life right now.”

    I loved this comment because I feel the same way. This kind of thing speaks to me for some reason, probably because it forces my mind to view the things of God as something otherworldly. Thank you.

  22. August 6, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    My Maternal Grandmother grew up in a farm in New Mexico and her family was sent there by Brigham Young. She always seemed to have a fascination with superstitions. It was hard to tell if she was ever serious about them or not. And what I’ve heard about her mother, it seems like her mother was even more serious about some.
    I of course don’t know if it was folklore that they had kept with them after joining the church, or if they seriously believe that stuff. To be honest I suspect lots of adults didn’t believe folklore or superstitions, but it was something fun to think about and tease kids with.

  23. Old Man
    23
    August 7, 2015 at 12:13 am

    I am afraid that the problem that some will have with the seer stone is because they have no belief in seers. A stone must only be a stone. Associates of mine recently commented on the chemical composition of the stone and its geologic origins. Even though they were LDS, they simply could not grapple with the implications that the stone was somehow a mechanism for revelation. It was just simply too weird, too simple, too ordinary. Religion cannot be something concrete and physical, to them it is solely thoughts and dreams. Just enough to give one hope, but not enough to demand one’s complete attention.

    Like the Children of Israel, we modern imitators of Israel like the existence of our God kept comfortably far away (unless, of course their is trouble brewing or we want some enemy destroyed) and we devise means of keeping our knowledge of Him vague. We don’t want to remember how quickly He allows the sacred to be revealed in the mundane and everyday components of our lives; like Aaron’s staff, wine at a wedding, a sacred compass, stones which give light to a darkened ship or a pretty brownish stone found by a young man while digging a well. Miracles so complicate our modern materialism!

    But for Latter-day Saints anything eternal, even our spirits, are part of the material world. Latter-day Saints are the most radical of materialists. The stone brings to our minds that earthy, material doctrine of the restoration. Remember that it is a doctrine that even the earth we pace upon will one day be possessed by resurrected and glorified beings, and it will become a revelatory mechanism to all who possess her at that time. And yet some of us scoff at a little stone? We live in a secular, profane age with little regard for the sacred, even if some of us believe that a world of sacred potential is something in which we are immersed.

  24. Mary Ann
    24
    August 7, 2015 at 12:33 am

    I liked Old Man’s comment – the stone is simply “too weird” for a lot of members to process easily. I was talking to some fellow young adults one time about our initial experiences going through the temple. I explained that my initial reaction was that it was weird, and got severely reprimanded that I would call something so sacred “weird.” When something is beyond what we’ve typically experienced in our culture, it is entirely normal to have a reaction, like saying “that’s weird.” Mormons (American ones, anyway) don’t typically think about or interact with seerstones. Seeing a picture of one pop up that was intimately involved in creating a book of scripture we revere can understandably cause some of us to do a double-take.

    We’ve been taught that there are appropriate ways to interact with the supernatural (priesthood blessings, temple ordinances, prayers), and inappropriate ways (Ouija boards, mediums, etc.). A seerstone in today’s culture feels a bit more like those inappropriate ways. There really is a thin line between acceptable religious beliefs and folk magic/superstitions. Where you view that line depends a lot on the circumstances in which you were raised.

  25. Alan
    25
    August 7, 2015 at 12:51 am

    This isn’t any different than Joseph in ancient Egypt using his silver cup for divination, as per Gen 44, even though the bible specifically forbids divination. There is opposition and counterfeits in all things. I hope we aren’t so prideful that we expect to understand the mysteries of God in our “enlightened” state.

  26. Ismael
    26
    August 7, 2015 at 8:45 am

    Magic, superstition, and seer stones hopefully are relics of the past. They weren’t rational then (hence the almost immediate distancing from it by the early church) and seem incredibly irrational today. The time it took for the church to disclose it seems to speak volumes.

  27. Old Man
    27
    August 7, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Ismael,
    Why should we impose your definition of rationalism upon the sacred? With all due respect to your personal comfort, it seems rather limiting. Are there any other miracles which make you uncomfortable which must then be exorcised from the canon?

  28. Ismael
    28
    August 7, 2015 at 11:56 am

    Old man,

    I find it hard to believe the seer stone is sacred when the early church distanced itself from it almost immediately and the current church only recently and reluctantly admitted of its use – because of its relation to treasure seeking. Moreover, only now are we seeing pictures of it. Wouldn’t a “sacred object” be prominently displayed? Is this sacred talk more spin like turning the handcart tragedies into “sacred” youth trek outings?

    He claimed that the subject stone was instrumental in the Book of Mormon dictation, later calling it a urim and thumin, in order to distance his story from treasure lore. He and Oliver Cowdery probably did so because Kirtland converts had a hard time with the seeming irrationality of it. Further the church continued to try and distance itself from the seer stone ever since because of the irrational nature of it.

    So, respectfully, I have to disagree that it was ever sacred to the church. It’s an irrational relic from a want to be forgotten past just like the Jupiter talisman Joseph Smith wore until his death.

  29. jeff hoyt
    29
    August 7, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Old Man your understanding is perfect, and right on cue Ismaels comment proves your point.

  30. Ismael
    30
    August 7, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Jeff,

    I think if the church would tone down the missionary work and the one and only true church dogma, people wouldn’t bother. This is what is so frustrating in dealing with Mormons. They use their dogma as a sword and then claim bigotry when challenged and then deny this is how they act.

  31. Brad L
    31
    August 7, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    Why should we impose your definition of rationalism upon the sacred?

    Well, we wouldn’t be imposing someone’s arbitrary definition of rationality on the sacred. The concepts of rationality and sacredness are diametrically opposed to each other. Rationality pertains to reason and sacredness pertains to religious tradition. I take it that you are suggesting that the belief that someone was able to use a seer stone to accurately translate the words, concepts, and ideas from a language that he had never learned into his native language is rational. Are people (expert observers included) arriving such an idea through independent reasoning? No! They haven’t conducted any tests to verify whether that is possible. We have the very stone that Joseph Smith supposedly used to translate the Book of Mormon. To my knowledge, no one has ever run a successful test and proved that someone was capable of translating from a language that they had not learned into their native language by using that stone. In fact, we know of no objectively verifiable case in which someone has managed to accurately translate from a language that they never learned. Therefore such an idea is irrational. Of course, such a belief could become rational if we found that the stone actually enabled people to translate unlearned foreign tongues. People are arriving at that idea that the stone enabled Joseph Smith to translate from a language he never learned because that is what LDS tradition holds. And LDS tradition was shaped by the thoughts and ideas of Joseph Smith. I.e., Joseph Smith said x, therefore it is. It is a traditional belief, a belief based on authority, a spiritual belief, but not a rational belief, at least not yet.

    A second issue is the definition of words. The meaning of a word is much like the market price of a commodity: it is determined by aggregate perception. The meaning of rationality has been determined by how modern English speakers (particularly the educated, since they more or less command the respect of all other speakers on the issue of what the proper usage of terms is) perceive it. The meaning of the term has evolved over time, and could evolve to mean something different in the future. But for now, we have to respect the general aggregate perception of the word’s meaning. I could say that what I mean by “rationality” is what most English speakers mean by “caterpillar” (i.e., a “rationality” forms a cocoon and turns into a butterfly). But then I would be constructing a private definition of the term that would be unrecognizable to the vast majority of modern English speakers. And I would be inventing my own language, misunderstanding the meaning of term, or being intellectually dishonest (at worst).

    So you could make a case that we should believe certain propositions because that’s what a particular tradition dictates. But you simply cannot make the case that belief that a stone enabled Joseph Smith to translate Reformed Egyptian (without his prior knowledge of the language) into English is rational.

  32. Old Man
    32
    August 7, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    Brad L,
    If you took my statement as meaning that religious experience was empirically testable, you completely misunderstood my statement. I was asserting the exact opposite. But some do attempt to “disprove” religious/spiritual experiences by appeals to empiricism. Others claim that everything they accept as truth has been empirically proven. You also seem to make the unproven claim that anything outside of empirical data does not exist. That is a philosophical position and not a fact. Religious experience cannot be tested in such a way. Not because such experiences are unreal, but for a variety of reasons, including that the conditions connected with religious experiences, especially those experiences described concerning the seer stone, are not replicable or falsifiable.

    I accept the notion that there is a portion of reality outside that portion which is subject to empirical observation. Ismael and yourself probably do not. And due to that philosophical constriction, you fail to accept the rationality of religious adherents who refuse to accept the intellectual limits you propose. I believe I have experienced segments of that reality which lies outside the realm of empirical observation. I do not accept your concepts of reality as fully reflective of what is truly real. I respectfully invite both you and Ismael to entertain the notion that there is more to reality than you currently accept.

  33. Martin James
    33
    August 7, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Frank,

    I don’t know about God but there is abundant evidence annually that Santa Claus is real. You must have been a bad boy to not get any presents from him.

  34. Ismael
    34
    August 7, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    Old Man:

    My problem with religion in general and Christianity and Mormonism to be specific is the presumptions of truth you have to make in order to believe in the first place. I know this is what a religious person might call faith. However, this kind of faith reasoning leads to circular reasoning and is completely backwards. One shouldn’t have to believe in something first and thereafter have to wait until death to find out if it really was true. A lot of fraud gets committed in the name of this religious principal and the stone in the hat seems questionable to me.

    It seems that if the one true church was so important then wouldnt a loving god give us a little more like he supposedly did to Joseph Smith? Joseph Smith supposedly saw god, jesus, paul, Adam, moroni, etc. So he wasn’t really required to have any faith at all. God gave him proof allegedly. He also gave this proof to the book of mormon characters allegedly but not us? Only warm feelings that all religious people claim to get. So, how do you tell which warm fuzzy is correct?

    Do you even get beyond the studying it out in your mind when there is this stone in the hat, disappearing plates, book of abraham mistranslations, etc?

    Like Frank above maybe we should be thanking the church because it is finally coming out with this stuff we knew for a while but were ridiculed for telling it and accused of sinning or having some evil motive for not believing. So I guess thank you church.

  35. jeff hoyt
    35
    August 7, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Ismael;

    Is your belief system not subject to the same incredible presumptions?

  36. Josh Smith
    36
    August 7, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    Here’s the problem, as I see it … we’ve got a religion mullet–all business in the front and a party in the back.

    We’re all business in front. White shirts. Meetings, and more meetings. No wine or coffee. Hell, no iced tea. No pants for the ladies. You get the idea. We’re all business in front.

    We’ve got a serious party in the back. Seer stones are only one step removed from psychoactive substances and transcendence rituals. Wow! In graduate school I had a secret fantasy that I could be a medicine man. That fantasy somehow resolved itself, until this week. The disclosure of the seer stone has resurrected my fantasy, if only a wee bit.

    Yep. The problem we have here is not a seer stone. The problem we have is the problem plaguing mullet-wearers everywhere–awkward juxtaposition. We’ve got a religion mullet. Zoinks!

  37. Brad L
    37
    August 7, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    Old Man, your comment suggested that it is rational to believe that Joseph Smith translated a language he had not learned by looking at a stone. It is not rational to believe that, at least not in the way that the term rational is understood by the majority of English speakers. This is not just because we have no empirical proof, but it does not square with reasoning or logic. This is not to say that there is something especially wrong with having irrational beliefs. All humans do. I’m sure I have my fair share of irrational beliefs. But let’s not try to pass off a belief that is clearly irrational as rational.

    I accept the notion that there is a portion of reality outside that portion which is subject to empirical observation

    Yes, there are all sorts of things about reality and history that we simply don’t understand or that we are currently wrong about. But why not reduce the number of propositions that we are certain about? Why let a set of traditional irrational beliefs get in the way of trying to discover history and nature?

  38. Kruiser
    38
    August 8, 2015 at 12:03 am

    Oh come on. We all use all seer stones every day in the form of Blackberries, iPods, and all the others including the one I am looking into now lying in my lap. So many people I see at Church with them. I sometimes go up and ask them, “What do you see in your Urim and Thummim today?”

  39. nl
    39
    August 8, 2015 at 3:10 am

    In all fairness it was a fine Jupiter talisman.

  40. living in zion
    40
    August 8, 2015 at 4:27 am

    Until I see someone turn on the seer stone and read a book from it, I won’t be able to compare it to an ipad,
    And if the ipad analogy is true, and the seer stone is a normal, natural way to seek God, I guess that explains why the church chose to keep it’s existence hidden from church members all these years. We were obviously waiting for the further light and knowledge of Apple computers to help us understand this truth.
    Also, I never, ever want to hear from a church member any questioning of the use of herbs, oils, acupuncture, supplements or homeopathy for healing of the body. Now that we are officially in the rock reading business, all claims of irrationality are off the table. We believe in everything, all the time.

  41. ji
    41
    August 8, 2015 at 9:18 am

    One of the real dangers we face is a closing off of the possibilities of transcendence.

    So true. Our God works in simple ways to bring great things to pass, and those ways are mocked by those who choose not to see the hand of God at work. There was no earthly magic. Our God provided a very simple tool to help the Prophet Joseph Smith accomplish his work. How wonderful is our God, and how wonderful it is to be a part of the Church or Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    A stone is not the way to seek God. However, it does not offend me to think that our God might have used a stone to help the Prophet Joseph Smith.

    I hope the seer stone photographs are not a stone of offense for anyone, or an occasion for mocking. The proper authorities having made a decision to release the photographs to the public, I sustain them in that. In the context of the Joseph Smith papers project, it makes some sense to release the photographs. For me, that is enough. I appreciate the positive tone of the original posting. Yes, the hand of God is at work in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  42. Clark Goble
    42
    August 8, 2015 at 11:28 am

    Just a quibble on rationality vs. sacred (or anything religious). I think the lines are blurrier simply because rationality is very much a vague and somewhat ambiguous term. The line between the rational and irrational in particular is very problematic. This has been debated a *lot* within philosophy the past 50 years and I don’t think there are clear answers. Depending upon people’s temperament they tend to draw the line somewhat differently.

    Part of the problem is that reason has gaps. We think of reason as gapless and leading inexorably to a conclusion but this is the bias of mathematics and deductive logic. Most reason isn’t like this though. At a minimum we have induction where there’s a leap somewhat unjustified by the evidence. Further in most reasoning (even at times the more rigorous mathematical or physics style of reasoning) people make leaps.

    Saying that the sacred is not rational thus depends upon a whole set of assumptions that may not hold. By the same sort of reasoning we might say it is not rational to have a set of rules against murder. Yet most people want to say ethics – or at least the most agreed upon ethics – are rational.

    The whole religion vs. reason dichotomy really is much more a product of a certain way of thinking in the 19th century that I think has largely fallen out of favor even if a lot of its conclusions remain normative within academics.

    I bring all this up because I think these echoes of debates a century ago still play out in a lot of terminology. Thus some say we call other culture’s practices magic while *our* practices are religion. From a certain (probably dominant) stance it’s all irrational and to be discarded with a thoroughgoing rationality which is more or less just accepting what science has established. In this case magic rocks and faith in God are both the same. The problem there is that even a lot of people adopting this sort of scientism often want to maintain a notion of the sacred – albeit pushed off into the sacral view of nature.

  43. Clark Goble
    43
    August 8, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Personally I think the iPad analogy is a horrible analogy because I don’t think these religious items are ever portrayed as technological. (Some conceptions of magic do verge upon he technological and thereby move more into the pseudoscience. One might say homeoapathy for instance fits this view.) Rather I suspect most of these items are at best providing a clearing to help one discern the will of the Lord. (Which as I’ve often mentioned, is the common theme to all non-Mormon scholarly attempts to reconstruct the function of the Urim & Thummim in ancient Israel) In this way the better analogy is actually to meditative practices of say breathing exercises in Zen.

    This analogy works better than most realize because *a lot* of practices, rituals and items that come out of the esoteric tradition in the Renaissance were often viewed in that manner. Even if the popular view of them was far more as “magic.” (And of course as we see with figures like John Dee even prominent figures can adopt a more magical view of them)

    The line between science and “magic” was blurry. You see this for instance in early chemistry with say Boyle or Newton. While Boyle tried to separate out what would become the science of chemistry from his alchemy many others saw no distinction. (Some might argue that an analogous mixing can be see in how psychology/psychiatry in the 20th century developed – and some might even say it’s still very early in its scientific development yet)

  44. Brad L
    44
    August 8, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    rationality is very much a vague and somewhat ambiguous term

    You’re making it out to be much vaguer than it really is. I would venture that the vast majority of people who have thought much about what is rational and what is sacred in any depth draw a distinction between the two.

    The line between the rational and irrational in particular is very problematic. This has been debated a *lot* within philosophy the past 50 years and I don’t think there are clear answers.

    Yes there has been debate. This doesn’t render the term “rational” useless (which is what you appear to try to be doing). The existence of great debate over the issue doesn’t mean that there are not clear answers about what rationality means (even if there is some variation). It also doesn’t mean that humans don’t draw distinctions between rational and irrational, even if the distinctions do differ. As I pointed out before, rationality doesn’t mean “caterpillar” (at least no English speaker would recognize it as such) and it doesn’t mean “faith” either. To say that it is rational to believe that people in history have managed to translate languages they never learned by looking at a stone in a hat simply does not square with how the term rational is used. You also simply cannot say that a word or concept exists independently of human minds. Humans created the concept of rationality, and they gave it a meaning, which was based on observed patterns of human thinking, that was distinct from other words. Yes, the meaning has experienced some evolution and variation. But not to the extent where most educated English speakers would recognize belief in magical powers of seer stones as rational. I’m also quite confident that if we had the resources and time to conduct a poll among English speakers that we would find that the overwhelming majority of them would regard belief in seer stones to be irrational.

    Part of the problem is that reason has gaps. We think of reason as gapless and leading inexorably to a conclusion

    I don’t believe reason to be gapless, and neither do a large number of well-educated thinkers. But you have to recognize the basic fact that gaps in religious thinking are much larger than in conventional scientific thinking (and in what is largely recognized by the educated community to be reasoned thinking), and therein lies the distinction between religion and reason.

    The whole religion vs. reason dichotomy really is much more a product of a certain way of thinking in the 19th century that I think has largely fallen out of favor

    Yes, of course it is a product of 19th century thinking. Much of what people thought in the 19th century is still very valid today. Why should ideas be considered inherently flawed and wrong simply because they are old? I don’t think that this distinction has fallen out of favor at all. It is still widely accepted.

    In this case magic rocks and faith in God are both the same

    Apples to oranges. The concept of God is extremely broad. The concept of seer stones used to translate unlearned foreign languages is very specific and very testable. Sure, it could be that Joseph Smith did actually manage to translate Reformed Egyptian using that stone. But because such a proposition doesn’t fit any pattern of observable natural phenomena, and because we don’t have the ancient text to verity JS’s claim, and because people are arriving at that belief because of tradition, then it is safe to term the belief groundless and therefore irrational.

  45. Brad L
    45
    August 8, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Almost forgot to address one more point:

    Saying that the sacred is not rational thus depends upon a whole set of assumptions that may not hold. By the same sort of reasoning we might say it is not rational to have a set of rules against murder. Yet most people want to say ethics – or at least the most agreed upon ethics – are rational.

    Of course there are assumptions. But those terms clearly have meanings, don’t they? They are also not the same thing. I have every reason to believe that you are introducing gratuitous complexity to the terms “sacred” and “rational” so as to render them useless as a subtle philosophical tactic to defend your religious beliefs.

    Even though you haven’t outwardly stated that you believe that Joseph Smith translated a language that he had never learned by looking at a stone, I’m assuming that you 1) believe that and 2) that you think that that is a rational belief. Of course, by all means correct me if I’m wrong. Yet I think it would be more fitting to first address the vast and numerous assumptions of those beliefs (which are far greater than whatever assumptions I have that supposedly don’t hold about the distinction between sacred and rational) before we address how the terms “sacred” and “rational” are supposed to be defined. After all, the OP is primarily about the seer stone, and perhaps only secondarily about what’s sacred and what’s rational.

    As for your comments about rules that forbid murder, ethics is really in a different category from explaining natural phenomena. So that’s a discussion for a different time.

  46. Steve S
    46
    August 8, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    Brad L,

    A couple questions – 1) Do you believe in revelation? (In the sense that one can obtain understanding or knowledge through spiritual communication) 2) Do you believe there is an actual existing living being that is God?

    If you accept neither of these things as part of reality, then it is not hard to understand why revelation from God to man through aid of a seer stone would seem irrational. I am interested to know your belief on these two things.

    And for clarity sake, I believe that both of these things (revelation, God) are realities of the universe, and feel my basis for such belief is rational. And based on those two foundations alone, it is not a difficult leap to accept that a seer stone could be used in one of a myriad of ways in the process of revelation.

  47. Brad L
    47
    August 8, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Just thought of another way to put it, Clark. I will concede that there are cases where the definitions of “sacred” and “rational” can be hard to nail down. But so is the definition of pornography. We can quibble about whether or not Michelangelo’s David is pornographic. But we would be fooling ourselves to say that all of the hardcore online stuff isn’t. We would also be fooling ourselves to say that the term pornography is so hotly debated (which it is) that it is utterly useless. It’s a real category, even if we humans cannot agree on everything that fits into it. So yeah, there are beliefs that are difficult to nail down as rational or irrational. But there are beliefs whose irrationality should not be a matter of disagreement. For instance, what of the belief that the weather god can be appeased and grant us good weather if we regularly perform human sacrifices? It is a completely irrational belief, would you not agree? But if you concede that that is an irrational belief, then this clearly shows that you believe that an irrational category exists and that it corresponds to beliefs for which there is no evidence and against which there is overwhelming counterevidence. Similarly this shows that you believe some beliefs to be more rational than others and that there is a sort of rationality spectrum along which we can situate different beliefs.

    On the other hand, if you claim that the belief that human sacrifices help improve the weather could be a rational belief, then you either render the term rational completely useless or you cheapen all other rational beliefs. You especially cheapen the idea that Mormon beliefs are rational. For if Mormon beliefs about nature (such as the translating power of seer stones) is on par with beliefs in the weather-controlling aspects of human sacrifice, then how are Mormon beliefs more rational than any other beliefs?

  48. Brad L
    48
    August 8, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Steve S, I don’t rule out the possibility of revelation or God. I just don’t always understand how revelation (with the meaning of a transmission of true information to humans by a higher ethereal power) occurs or how we’re supposed to tell what is and isn’t a revelation. There are also so many concepts of God that I cannot tell always which concepts are rational and which are irrational. If one perceives God to be synonymous with nature, then I guess that would more of a rational belief in God. But I generally find most concepts of God to be irrational. I pray to God, knowing fully that my action is irrational. I have no logical basis to do so. It is simply a cultural tradition and something that gives me a sense of regularity in my life. But the belief that a stone gave someone the ability to translate is more irrational than the belief in God. And while I try to steer clear of holding irrational beliefs, I am an emotional creature who is beholden to hunches and intuition like everyone else. I don’t have time and energy to test the rationality and validity of all my beliefs. I have many irrational beliefs and there are probably all sorts of contradictions in my beliefs that I am completely unaware of.

    Might I ask you what you would find to be an example of an irrational belief? Do irrational beliefs exist?

  49. Ismael
    49
    August 8, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Jeff Hoyt:

    I believe whats verifiable and testable. Obviously, in certain areas like whether God exists or whether there was an historical jesus is debatable so in the end I cannot believe that a God who hides from us will make us suffer if we dont follow some guy who claims revelation from a rock or if we can’t find the hidden God. Anyway, why couldn’t Joseph Smith find the lost 116 pages with the seer stone?

  50. jeff hoyt
    50
    August 8, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Ismael;

    Of course it is debatable whether or not God exists. My point of course was that your beliefs are likely just as incredible as mine (more so I believe). Of course the revelations were not “from a rock”, but from God; God is not truly hidden; and we suffer by our own accord when we reject his word, not because he is making us suffer. And Joseph could have redone the missing pages if God had allowed it.

  51. Ismael
    51
    August 8, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    Jeff Hoyt:

    I don’t see how believing in what has evidentiary support is incredible or irrational. It seems to be the opposite.

  52. Brad L
    52
    August 9, 2015 at 2:16 am

    Jeff, I don’t see where Ismael has revealed his belief system on this post, so how do you know that it is just as incredible as yours? Are all belief systems equally incredible to you? Even Mormonism’s belief system? OK, but I had you pegged as a believing Mormon. If so, shouldn’t you be saying that Mormonism is credible?

  53. jeff hoyt
    53
    August 9, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Ismael and Brad L;

    I am a believing Mormon (formerly atheist).

    All belief systems are incredible. As we have to believe in something, we just pick one that either conforms to what we would like to believe, or seems to make the most sense.

  54. Brad L
    54
    August 9, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    Wait, how are all belief systems incredible? What someone believes is credible to that person. Ideas that make sense and ideas that are incredible are mutually exclusive. If Mormon beliefs are incredible to you, then how are you possibly believing them?

  55. jeff hoyt
    55
    August 9, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    Brad L;

    Tell me your beliefs about how we happen to exist and I will explain how it is incredible. Perhaps I can save time by giving you a materialists definition of hydrogen: A colorless, odorless gas that if given enough time, becomes people. I think that is less credible than God assisting Joseph in receiving the text of the Book of Mormon. Others may disagree, but the very fact of our existence I consider incredible.

  56. Brad L
    56
    August 9, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    Jeff, your assertion that all belief systems are incredible means that you believe Mormonism to be incredible. Yet you claim to be a believing Mormon. So don’t you mean to say that Mormonism is credible but other belief systems are not?

  57. Old Man
    57
    August 9, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    Brad L,

    Your definition of rational simply does not hold. Your are conflating our use of the word “rational” with the ideology of “rationalism.” The traditional definition of rational is simply thinking based on reason or logic. There are plenty of theological and philosophical logical arguments which ably defend the existence miracles and non-materialist (in a philosophical sense) views.

    Now on to your challenge: “Why let a set of traditional irrational beliefs get in the way of trying to discover history and nature?”

    If you are suggesting that historians set aside the questions of theological truth when describing religious movements or religious leaders, plenty of that has been done. If you are suggesting that the scientific method is incapable of evaluating systems of belief, I readily agree with you, as would Descartes. But that is not what you are suggesting.

    What you are suggesting is that you can more fully understand, even on a personal level, the development of religion or religious figures by denying or ignoring the potential validity of their beliefs and practices. You can readily make an argument against religion and God for yourself by refusing to accept evidence that does not meet your self-limiting criteria. But individuals should not hide behind the historical or scientific methods, which are valid in their own sphere, or a misplaced belief in the absolute power of empiricism, while claiming to seek all truth.

  58. Clark Goble
    58
    August 10, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Brad L, don’t have time to say much. I don’t think I’m downplaying rationality at all. I’m a physicist by training and that’s a type of activity which typically is considered one of the exemplars of rationality along with mathematics. I’m just suggesting that the sacred isn’t an antonym to rationality and that one can reason fairly rationally about the sacred, even if perhaps not entirely so. (Just as we can ethics) I don’t think I’m introducing gratuitous complexity. Just that there is an inherent complexity. Maybe you think reason is very simple to which I’d simply disagree. I can but say that most projects attempting to show reason simple have failed spectacularly. (Think the logical positivist of the first half of the 20th century)

    Now if you just want to say something trivial like physics tends to be done with more rationality than reasoning about the sacred I’d completely agree. However it seems you are trying to make a much stronger claim that seems far more problematic. Again, it seems to me that we all reason about ethics. It’s not at all clear to me that reasoning about the sacred is more problematic than reasoning about the sacred. Nor is it really tied to religious ontological questions. There are plenty of atheistic thinkers with a strong notion of the sacred, for instance.

    It seems clear that simply identifying bad reasoning about the sacred does not tell us much about the sacred in general let alone particular considerations about the sacred. No one, for instance, is arguing human sacrifice. Bringing up examples of bad reasoning to tar an avenue of thinking is itself bad reasoning. (I could, for example, give lots of examples of horrible reasoning in freshman physics assignments, but would that really tell us much about physics?)

    The fundamental epistemological issue is ultimately how we deal with private versus public evidence along with pluralism in reasoning. That’s a topic where people can disagree while both sides are rational.

    But all this is getting a bit afield to the original post. While I certainly enjoy talking epistemology I don’t want to divert the discussion down a tangent.

  59. Brad L
    59
    August 10, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Clark, I’ll agree that there exists among us a plurality of reasoning, but there is most certainly a limit to what we can legitimately call valid reasoning. Logical positivist scholars of the past may have been overly simplistic, but there clearly exist categories of reasonable and unreasonable ideas. I reject the idea that what is considered rational is all in the eye of the beholder, and although you don’t seem to be stating that outright, some of what you say in your comments above certainly suggests that. Look, if we could run an experiment (which could be done, but it would be very difficult and time- and resource-consuming) to see how thinkers (laymen not included) of all different walks of life perceive what is rational and what is sacred, it is reasonable to believe that we will not find much overlap and that we would clearly see that the intellectuals throughout the world recognize the rational and the sacred to be two different and distinct categories. Sure, there are many religious people who try to argue that their sacred beliefs are rational. But they are mostly trying to fit a square peg into a circular hole. Furthermore, those who make the claim of religious beliefs being rational most often do so with reference to their own religious beliefs and not others’. I suspect a double standard here. Many believing LDS people who believe that their belief that Joseph Smith translated an unlearned foreign language with a stone is rational are probably unlikely to believe that the belief that Christopher Nemelka translated the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon or that James Strang translated the plates of Laban that Nephi brought over from Jerusalem is a rational belief. The issue of private evidence can be highly problematic. Many commonly argue that the evidence for Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon is a feeling of the spirit. The meaning of “feeling the spirit” and how exactly it proves the translation are unclear, however.

    No one, for instance, is arguing human sacrifice

    Ask Ignesh Kujur and Padam Sukku from the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, who in late 2011 allegedly offered the bodily organs of seven-year-old Lalita Tati, after killing her, to the Hindu goddess Durga on the belief that such action would bring them a better harvest. They were acting upon common belief in the region that the offering of the organs of young children to gods would improve harvests (and human sacrifice is not an uncommon practice in India). What about Awali in Uganda? He said in 2011 to undercover reporters who claimed that they were seeking success for a local construction project that the most powerful spell to bring success to a business was through child sacrifice. He is quoted as saying, “there are two ways of doing this. We can bury the child alive on your construction site” and the second way is really too graphic to include on this blog, but you get the idea. It can be inferred from your comment that you believe the idea that human sacrifice brings good harvests or business success to be bad reasoning, and therefore irrational, correct? Why would you consider this to be so? Why couldn’t it be said that the idea that human organ offerings to Durga improve crop yields is a rational idea? I’m sure that the practitioners of human sacrifice in India have all sorts of private evidence that this is the case.

    Perhaps you wouldn’t mind explaining how belief that a stone enabled Joseph Smith to correctly translate an unlearned foreign language is rational. You should probably also clarify whether or not you actually believe in the categories of “rational” and “irrational” and give me an example of what you consider to be an irrational belief.

  60. Brad L
    60
    August 10, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    Clark, I’ll agree that there exists among us a plurality of reasoning, but there is most certainly a limit to what we can legitimately call valid reasoning. Logical positivist scholars of the past may have been overly simplistic, but there clearly exist categories of reasonable and unreasonable ideas. I reject the idea that what is considered rational is all in the eye of the beholder, and although you don’t seem to be stating that outright, some of what you say in your comments above certainly suggests that. Look, if we could run an experiment (which could be done, but it would be very difficult and time- and resource-consuming) to see how thinkers (laymen not included) of all different walks of life perceive what is rational and what is sacred, it is reasonable to believe that we will not find much overlap and that we would clearly see that the intellectuals throughout the world recognize the rational and the sacred to be two different and distinct categories. Sure, there are many religious people who try to argue that their sacred beliefs are rational. But they are mostly trying to fit a square peg into a circular hole. Furthermore, those who make the claim of religious beliefs being rational most often do so with reference to their own religious beliefs and not others’. I suspect a double standard here. Many believing LDS people who believe that their belief that Joseph Smith translated an unlearned foreign language with a stone is rational are probably unlikely to believe that the belief that Christopher Nemelka translated the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon or that James Strang translated the plates of Laban that Nephi brought over from Jerusalem is a rational belief. The issue of private evidence can be highly problematic. Many commonly argue that the evidence for Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon is a feeling of the spirit. The meaning of “feeling the spirit” and how exactly it proves the translation are unclear, however.

    No one, for instance, is arguing human sacrifice

    Ask Ignesh Kujur and Padam Sukku from the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, who in late 2011 allegedly offered the bodily organs of seven-year-old Lalita Tati, after killing her, to the Hindu goddess Durga on the belief that such action would bring them a better harvest. They were acting upon common belief in the region that the offering of the organs of young children to gods would improve harvests (and human sacrifice is not an uncommon practice in India). What about Awali in Uganda? He said in 2011 to undercover reporters who claimed that they were seeking success for a local construction project that the most powerful spell to bring success to a business was through child sacrifice. He is quoted as saying, “there are two ways of doing this. We can bury the child alive on your construction site” and the second way is really too graphic to include on this blog, but you get the idea. It can be inferred from your comment that you believe the idea that human sacrifice brings good harvests or business success to be bad reasoning, and therefore irrational, correct? Why would you consider this to be so? Why couldn’t it be said that the idea that human organ offerings to Durga improve crop yields is a rational idea? I’m sure that the practitioners of human sacrifice in India have all sorts of private evidence that this is the case.

    Perhaps you wouldn’t mind explaining how belief that a stone enabled Joseph Smith to correctly translate an unlearned foreign language is rational. You should probably also clarify whether or not you actually believe in the categories of “rational” and “irrational” and give me an example of what you consider to be an irrational belief.

  61. Clark Goble
    61
    August 10, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    I don’t think I’m in the least saying what’s rational is in the eye of the beholder. I certainly reject relativism. Yet it also clearly seems that in some grey areas we’ll disagree and can disagree while attempting to be rational. I don’t think I’m really claiming much beyond that – well that and that one can reason rationally about the sacred, ethics and aesthetics.

    Again though it seems to me you’re missing the fundamental issues of what counts as evidence. It’s precisely there that I think people disagree. While I may be wrong, I think this whole issue of public v private evidence is something you’re avoiding.

    To human sacrifice, I mean no one in this discussion is arguing human sacrifice. Again, to find an irrational argument says nothing about the particular arguments someone else may be using. So I don’t see the relevance. Again, there is a lot of irrational reasoning out there. On that I think we both agree.

    As for why I think it rational to think these stones were used as a catalyst for Joseph, I think that’s fairly easy to do. I’ll write something up at my blog and provide a link. Then we can debate epistemology carefully and rigorously without distracting from the discussions at hand.

    To what counts as rational, I think I already gave some examples. Mathematics and physics are the two classic examples. As to what counts as irrational, I’ll point to the arguments at most political blogs. (grin)

  62. New Iconoclast
    62
    August 11, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Josh Smith, fair notice – I intend to steal the phrase/concept, “a religion mullet.” Nice!

  63. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    63
    August 17, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    The Book of Mormon, Book of Ether tells us in a very detailed narrative that God can transform 16 stones into bright lights that can illuminate the interior of ships for a full year. In the same narrative, God gives the Brother of Jared two more stones (apparently not part of the original 16) that are capable of being used to see information, including translating records written in a language unknown to the user. God is directly involved in creating and delivering objects that perform divine functions. The same goes for the Liahona. When the Camp of Israel is attacked by poisonous snakes, Moses is told to fashion a bronze serpent on a staff and promise Israel that they will be healed if they go look at it, a narrative that is affirmed by Jesus in John 3:14. If we believe in the Book of Mormon, we believe that God can use special physical objects as instruments to do his work.

    The seer stone was “just found”? Just like Joseph Smith, Jr., was transplanted from Vermont to Palmyra, New York, within walking distance of the Book of Mormon burial site, by the climate impact of the Tambora eruption in 1815? Just like the Liahona was “just found” outside Lehi’s tent one morning?

    Prophets are embodied men. They have physical brains that receive revelatory voices and visions. A seer stone is no more physical than the physical brain through which a prophet receives revelations. It is just as physical as the metal plates on which the Book of Mormon text was inscribed. Joseph could not read the characters engraved on the plates, but their presence in the proximity of the translation work was apparently necessary for the translation process to go forward. If we accept the physical nature of the plates, why not the physical nature of the seer stone?

    People who claim to know the chemical constitution of the seer stone from just looking at it are basing it on resemblance to other stones without its special claimed properties. I have seen no evidence that a chip from the stone has been subjected to x-ray backscatter analysis which would determine the signature of its chemical constituents. It is an item apparently made of silicon with trace amounts of other elements. But that also describes my smart phone, including its computer processor, its memory, its display screen, and its battery. My guess is that any American in 1829 would think a modern smart phone was just as “magical” as the Urim and Thummim.

    The creation of loaves and fishes by Jesus, his healing of the sick, his walking on water, and his resurrection from death, all involved altering material things using divine power. Compared to those things, the ability of a physical object to do many of the things our smart phones can do, does not require much faith.

    As Catholic and Theologian Stephen Webb has noted, Mormonism declares that there is not a radical distinction between the “divine” and the “material”. God himself is a material being, and he has often used material things to demonstrate his power. N.T. Wright’s discourse on the physical nature of resurrected humans has evoked a negative reaction from traditional Christians who have preserved a Gnostic belief in the utter difference between the material and the divine, a belief that was at the core of the Ptolemaic design for the cosmos, and is described in Dante’s Divine Comedy. If we feel uncomfortable with material objects that convey divine power, we need to grow up, because every priesthood holder is called to become precisely that when we lay our hands upon someone.

  64. Clark Goble
    64
    August 17, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    Do we know if the two stones after Moroni’s discussion in the middle of Ether 3 are separate from the stones at the beginning? Honestly it seems ambiguous in the text. It seems like the event is continuous with the BoJ seeing the finger of Jesus and then the body after which he gets the vision which Moroni briefly summarizes without giving details. so the “these two stones” is part of the same even at the beginning of Ether 3 rather than a different event.

    What makes all this interesting is the traditions about the priestly Ephod at the time of Christ. The Ephod had 12 stones (one for each tribe) but then two stones which were the Urim and Thummim. Josephus ties this to the priest’s prophetic ability. While scholars usually tie the Urim and Thummim to the use of lots as divinization (often two arrow like objects for yes/no) clearly Josephus has a different tradition. The Dead See Scrolls (4Q 164 Pesher Isaiah) talks about oracle divination with the twelve stones by means of the Urim and Thummim. Some scholars think this was illuminating each stone to represent a letter. (Although Hebrew had 22 letters but only 12 stones so it’s not clear how that worked) This illumination/flashing of the Urim and Thummim pops up in other texts although the meaning isn’t quite clear. (Some think it just flashes to indicate authority) The later rabbinical traditions see the divinization coming from light shine through the 12 stones and the tetragrammaton.

    So it’s hardly exactly the same. The number of stones is different, yet there are some really interesting parallels between Ether 3’s U&T and the traditions from 1st century onwards. Again, those traditions are at odds with how the pre-second temple ephod/U&T is typically interpreted though. (Although most of that is speculative as well)

  65. Eric Hazelle
    65
    September 9, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    “Magic” is not the issue. There is no Harry Potter wand, here. Throughout history, when God performed miracles with man, He often asked man to play a token part. Examples: Naman the Leper was asked to dip himself in the River Jordan 7 times to cure his leprosy. Is that magic? No. That won’t work under any other circumstances save a prophet of God so directs. Jesus healed a blind man by making a mud of clay and spit and daubing it on his eyes. (John 9: 1-7) Will clay and spit cure blindness? No, unless it is done under inspired instruction. Joseph Smith translated The Book of Mormon by means of a stone. Can any of us look into a stone and come up with the equivalent of The Book of Mormon? No, unless divinely directed and empowered. To avoid apologizing for “magic” or explaining the unexplainable, we must realize how God works His miracles, and that, many times, He asks a token participation of us.

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