Scripture and Historical Context: A Contemporary Example

There’s a common assumption that historical accuracy and a spiritual orthodoxy compete against each other in a zero-sum game. Either you have to take the most recent finding or the dominant academic consensus as credible, or you have to take a literal reading of the scriptures as axiomatic, but you can’t have both.

Well, that’s probably OK, because in my case I prefer neither. Reading the scriptures “literally” is a proposition that makes no more sense than trying to read Robert Frost “literally” since the scriptures contain poetry (and a host of other literary genres) that are supposed to be read in some fashion other than “literal.” On the other hand–much as I value and am interested in scholarship and research–I cannot take seriously the idea of handing the ultimate authority over any spiritual question to a committee of experts, which is about the most optimistic way you can look at the consensus of scholarship on any one particular issue at any particular time. The only person who gets a veto on my testimony is, in the end, me.

So, although I’m way too far out of my area of expertise to have anything specific to say about particular controversies, my general attitude is to try and approach the scriptures–as much as I can–on their own terms. This is of course difficult and (in some sense) impossible. The scriptures are not self-interpreting, and I cannot recover the historical and cultural context in which they were originally written. (Which makes it awfully convenient that the Book of Mormon was intentionally written for a far-future audience, but of course gets us nowhere with the Old and New Testaments and doesn’t render the Book of Mormon entirely transparent to our investigations, either.) The best we human effort we can deploy is a synthesis of the research we have available, the text before us, and our own common sense.

But what does that look like in practice?

Well, I stumbled upon an interesting case study that I thought I’d run by everyone. It’s interesting because it’s a very, very unusually recent example of a radically shifting historical context, one in which the assumptions of the speaker are radically different from the reality experienced by an audience today but where–with only a little bit of research–the facts about the historical context are still easily recoverable.

My case study is Elder LeGrand Richards’ talk What After Death? from the Saturday afternoon session of the October 1974 General Conference. Here’s how Elder Richards introduces his theme:

I thought today that I would like to direct what I have to say to those parents who have lost children in death before they reached maturity and could enter into the covenant of marriage and have their own children here upon this earth. I reckon that there aren’t many families who haven’t had that experience.

I was struck by the last statement that he made. After all, I only know a very few families who have lost a child. Surely things weren’t so different in 1974, were they?

Luckily, we have the data to answer that question.

First, it’s important to note that Elder Richards was born in 1886, and so his impressions over how frequently this kind of tragic loss occurred would have been formed right around the turn of the century. Secondly, we can get a feel for child mortality rates by looking at some publicly available historical data, in this case from the website Our World In Data. Here’s an illustrative chart:

054-chart-02

I included France and the United Kingdom because the US data didn’t go back far enough. Neither does the UK data, but all together they show that we’re looking at a fairly cohesive trend. Obviously I’d expect all kinds of regional differences–and it’s entirely probable that someone reading this post could give me exact figures for Utah around the turn-of-the-century–but for our purposes it is sufficient to say that childhood mortality was about 250 out of 1,000 (25%) in the 1880 – 1900 range, about 25 out of 1,000 (2.5%) in the mid 1970s (when the talk was given) and has fallen to about 4 out of 1,000 (0.4%)  for the most recent data (2013).

You could also point out that Elder Richards is talking about deaths before marriage and childbirth, and this data is specifically for deaths before the age of 5, but stay with me, because the overall point is robust in spite of these finer details.

Let me just make one more point with the numbers. If we assume a family with 4 childbirths, what’s the probability that at least one will die in childhood? In the earliest time range, it’s about 68%. By the 1970s, that has fallen to about 10%. By today, it has fallen to 1-2%.

So this is what I mean by a radical shift in historical context, but one that is close enough that we have the data to recover it, at least on an intellectual level. In Elder Richards’ day, his comment that “there aren’t many families who haven’t had that experience” would have been entirely accurate (especially if you consider families with more than 4 children born). But in our day and in our region of the world, the tragedy of losing a child is quite rare.

Now, as a final caveat, this talk does not constitute scripture in the strict sense of the word. That’s fine. I think it’s still close enough for us to ask this question: what role does understanding the historical context–both the turn of the century and the mid 1970s–have to play with our understanding of the message Elder Richards was trying to convey? Here are a couple of brief thoughts.

First, it’s not really that important. Although he assumed that the experiences he was relating would be commonplace, they need not be commonplace for the main message of his talk to come through. Primarily, he was interested in explaining some practical aspects of the resurrection, aspects that would of course be of tremendous comfort to grieving families in his day, and which may afford comfort to grieving families today.

Second, an apparently false note in Elder Richards’ talk resolves once we take the historical context into account. To answer the question of whether or not Elder Richards’ statement held true at the time he made it (1974), you’d have to do all kinds of work with age distribution and definitions that I’m not going to get into. New families just starting out had a low probability of losing a child (remember: 10% for a family of 4 children), but older families had lived through the time period when the rate was much, much higher and so many of them had already lost children decades ago. But the point is that what seems to someone in 2016 like a very, very odd and even apparently false statement makes perfect sense once we take the historical differences into account.

Third, the message does make more sense when we can recover the historical context. In his talk, Elder Richards reveals that he and his wife lost two children, so (even if the historical context were missing), we’d know that he had a personal stake in his message. However, I think that realizing how common the loss of a child could be to someone hearing this talk when it was first given hones the point on his message. Additionally, understanding that there’s a difference between Elder Richards’ historical context and our own can help us apply his message all the better. We do not face exactly the same challenges. Understanding that–and understanding where some of the differences lie–can help us unearth the common threads. (I wrote about that in greater length a month back on my own blog, and I won’t go into it in greater detail in this post today.)

Of course, there’s a tremendous difference between the relatively minute historical changes between Elder Richards’ day and our own and between the days of Moses or Abraham or Jesus Christ and our own. Increasing the gap will change things, and change them substantially. My intention here is just to present a kind of baby-example for thinking about how we approach scripture that originates in a different context.

And, along those lines, it’s worth remembering that all writing “originates in a different context.” Something written by another person today will, in small but real ways, reflect their own personal life history in ways that can lead to misunderstanding even between historical contemporaries.

I think it’s plausible to suggest that it’s possible to take away main ideas without mastering the ancient historical context. You don’t need to have perfect understanding to get a lot of value from the scriptures. However, it seems beneficial to try and overcome socio-linguistic-historical chasms to the extent that we’re able to do so, and we may be rewarded for our effort with even greater understanding of holy writ.

48 comments for “Scripture and Historical Context: A Contemporary Example

  1. January 2, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    This is actually a really important example. Not long ago, death of a close family member was part of most people’s childhood experience. Now it’s not, for which I’m grateful, but it’s easy to forget that, and to ignore that aspect of literature (it’s a theme in a lot of fairy tales) or religion.

  2. January 2, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    Children dying young is an interesting issue, particularly if you assume that life begins at inception.

    I’ve heard it preached that children who die before the age of 8 get an automatic pass to the celestial kingdom. So if you take all the historic and global children (including abortions, still-borns, etc.) who have passed away before the age of 8, you have at least 30 percent of humanity going to celestial kingdom.

    I think it’s better to assume that Elder Richard’s issue will all be sorted out in the hereafter. I don’t understand the point of your analysis.

  3. Clark Goble
    3
    January 2, 2017 at 9:50 pm

    Anyone have the figures for up to 18? I seem to recall my dad who grew up in the 50’s saying something like ¼ of his classmates were dead by the time they graduated school. (Going by distant memory and admittedly they lived in rural Alberta)

  4. Alexander
    4
    January 2, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    Inception – beginning; start; commencement
    So life begins at the beginning? I’ll buy that. Unless you meant the movie, which I think gives Leo DiCaprio way too much credit.

  5. January 3, 2017 at 12:53 am

    Thanx, Alexander. I meant conception. I’m a poor proofreader.

  6. January 3, 2017 at 5:38 am

    Fascinating and useful. But I disagree that it’s “not that important.” Elder Richards very explicitly positioned his remarks as “all of us” remarks. With reference to children dying before maturity (“aren’t many families who haven’t had that experience”) and boys dying on the battlefield (“thousands”) and women who haven’t been able to marry (“many”), he universalized his message. It was a lesson in how can God’s plan involve so much pain and suffering for everyone.
    But in the 21st century Elder Richards’ comments and others of like kind are sometimes taken out of context (that’s obviously the key phrase for this discussion) to preach to the one — someone in the 1-2% who has lost one of four — in response to her question “why me?”
    Now I can’t speak for Elder Richards, but having been there myself in much smaller local pastoral sense, I can say unequivocally that my sermon on “why do we all suffer” is very different than my response to “why did this extraordinary thing happen to me?” And so if I *were* speaking for Elder Richards I would be dismayed at such out of context use.

  7. john willis
    7
    January 3, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    If you check out legrand richards’ entry on family search you will see that he had a son who died at age three and a sister who died at age 4.

    He was speaking from personal experience.

  8. Mark S
    8
    January 3, 2017 at 6:21 pm

    One’s assumptions about historical context can completely change the meaning of a text. For one who assumes that the Book of Mormon is a 19-century text constructed by Joseph Smith, the text of the Book of Mormon is more likely to be understood as a window into Joseph Smith’s imagination and psyche. For those who assume that the Book of Mormon contains the words of ancients in the Americas, then the text is more likely to be understood as a window into the teachings of God the Father and Jesus.

    In your opening paragraph, you write that historical accuracy and spiritual orthodoxy are in competition. In Mormon culture, these seem to go hand in hand. Those who are commonly understood to be more orthodox seem to value the importance of historical accuracy far more than the non-orthodox. I commonly sense the insistence by the orthodox LDS folks that LDS scriptures are to be treated as historically accurate and that it is of utmost importance to emphasize this concept.

  9. Clark Goble
    9
    January 3, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    Christian, that’s a real important point noting the distinction between a kind of universal suffering and particular suffering. As we become more and more wealthy and more importantly without the tragedies that used to beset most people any suffering we encounter tends to be more unique. That changes how we view God.

    Of course one might say that the fact tragedies that are now uncommon were once so universal says something about the experience of life and how it is changing.

  10. Mark S
    10
    January 3, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    “I cannot take seriously the idea of handing the ultimate authority over any spiritual question to a committee of experts”

    I realize that you are saying this about secular scholarship, but one could easily derive from this statement that you are not a supporter of the LDS leadership. For who are First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 Apostles understood to be by the believing LDS community if not a sort of committee of experts on spiritual questions, whose words members should only cautiously question, if that?

  11. January 3, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    Mark S-

    >>In your opening paragraph, you write that historical accuracy and spiritual orthodoxy are in competition.< <

    Well, I attribute that belief to others. It’s not what I think.

    >>I commonly sense the insistence by the orthodox LDS folks that LDS scriptures are to be treated as historically accurate and that it is of utmost importance to emphasize this concept.< <

    So, there are two radical positions I’m trying to simultaneously fend off. On the one hand, there’s a tendency towards literalism that is unhelpful to the extent that it’s anachronistic or genre-inappropriate. Not everything that sounds historical to 21st century ears was intended to be read that way. On the other hand, there’s a tendency to dismiss historical considerations categorically, as though historicity never matters. But it does. Whether or not Jesus Christ really lived, really died, and really lived again is non-negotiable for Christian faith (as I see it).

    To read everything scriptural as history is foolhardy, but so is to dismiss all historical questions as irrelevant.

  12. January 3, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    Christian-

    Fascinating and useful. But I disagree that it’s “not that important.” Elder Richards very explicitly positioned his remarks as “all of us” remarks.

    I totally see where you’re coming from, but I do disagree. And the reason is that–as you put it–Elder Richards introduced universalism explicitly.

    Consider a hypothetical universe where Elder Richards had dropped the sentence about “there aren’t many families who haven’t had that experience.” In that case, it would be much easier to read the talk and completely miss the universal aspects of it. And–in that case–recovering the historical context would be a much more major change.

    In our case, however, what we have is a talk that is explicitly universal, but that cites (as the basis for its universality) a historical context that no longer exists. So, the universalism was present, it just didn’t make very much sense. To a modern reader, saying, (in effect): my talk is universal because basically all families lose a child is clearly a statement about universality, but it seems to be an erroneous one.

  13. January 3, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    Mark S-

    For who are First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 Apostles understood to be by the believing LDS community if not a sort of committee of experts on spiritual questions

    I listen to my leaders because Christ has asked me to do so. My obedience is exclusively to Him, and only on loan to Hi designated representatives at His behest.

    Expertise doesn’t even enter into it.

  14. Mark S
    14
    January 3, 2017 at 7:46 pm

    Nathaniel (13), who informed you that Christ asked you to follow specific leaders other than other people recognized as experts on spiritual matters by a particular community (i.e., the authors of the Gospels, LDS church leaders, parents, etc.)? Even if you believe that Christ came to you in a vision and told you to follow x leaders, then you would be deferring to Christ (or at least your perception of Christ) as an expert, no? And in some ways that appears to conflict with the idea that “the only person who gets a veto on [your] testimony is, in the end, [you]” (testimony being used as a synonym of strong belief). You’re admittedly allowing a perception of Christ and by implication the LDS leaders determine what many of your core beliefs should be.

    The reason I make this point is that I hear from you, as well as others, (often as a criticism of the perceived “New Atheism” and/or “positivism”) that we should be cautious before trusting experts on different subjects, particularly those whose claims could possibly be construed to falsify the LDS church’s core truth claims. However, it appears that you and others treat the LDS leaders in the same way that many treat people who are called experts; meaning, people who are acknowledged by a community that is interested in a particular topic to have strong powers of articulation and knowledge on said topic and whose words one should be cautious about questioning (especially if they are not acknowledge by the same community to be an expert). In other words, even if you don’t think that expertise has anything to do with it, you appear to treat Christ and LDS leaders as experts, at least on spiritual matters. That leads to an important question: if we should question those perceived as experts on a whole range of secular matters, then why not also question those perceived as experts on spiritual matters? Perhaps you should phrase it differently. Such as, “I cannot take seriously the idea of handing the ultimate authority over any spiritual question to a committee of experts, except the LDS leaders and Christ.”

    To tie this in with the OP, allow me to focus on the subsequent sentence: “So, although I’m way too far out of my area of expertise to have anything specific to say about particular controversies, my general attitude is to try and approach the scriptures–as much as I can–on their own terms.” You should probably remove “on their own terms” and write instead, “in a way that appears to be more or less in conformity with how the LDS leaders, people whom I regard as authorities, might view and interpret them.” You could probably add, “inasmuch as bringing out the significance of historical context might appear to undermine what LDS leaders have to say on the scriptures, then historical context should be declared irrelevant. However, when historical context can be construed as favorable to the LDS church’s truth claims, then it should be emphasized.”

    I hate to put words in your mouth, but think about it. Do you really disagree?

  15. January 3, 2017 at 8:37 pm

    Mark S-

    When a soldier defers to a commanding officer, that doesn’t imply the officer is an expert. That’s a question of authority. When one friend defers to another, that doesn’t imply either is an expert. That’s a question of personal loyalty. When a spouse defers to his/her spouse, that doesn’t imply the spouse is an expert. That’s a question of love.

    Your attempt to equivocate between deference to scientists, to Church leaders, and to God depends on a myopic view of deference in terms of only expertise. But this view bears no relationship at all to the multifaceted motivations that are actually in play.

    I defer to scientists because they know more than me. I defer to Christ because He knows more than me and because He loves me. (I’m pretty sure Satan also knows more than I do, but I try not to defer to Him.) I defer to my bishop not because he knows more than me (maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t) but because Christ has asked me to be a team player in His kingdom.

    I hate to put words in your mouth, but think about it. Do you really disagree?

    Yes, I really do. Here’s what I wrote:

    “So, although I’m way too far out of my area of expertise to have anything specific to say about particular controversies, my general attitude is to try and approach the scriptures–as much as I can–on their own terms.”

    Here’s what you suggest I really mean:

    So, although I’m way too far out of my area of expertise to have anything specific to say about particular controversies, my general attitude is to try and approach the scriptures [in a way that appears to be more or less in conformity with how the LDS leaders, people whom I regard as authorities, might view and interpret them. Inasmuch as bringing out the significance of historical context might appear to undermine what LDS leaders have to say on the scriptures, then historical context should be declared irrelevant. However, when historical context can be construed as favorable to the LDS church’s truth claims, then it should be emphasized.]

    1. What you’re suggesting is an impossibility. First, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a single, monolithic expression of “how LDS leaders…might view and interpret them.” I’m quite confident that LDS leaders have a diversity of opinions on a range of issues (arguably: all issues, to at least some degree). Second, even if I wanted to read Nephi with an eye to figuring out what President Monson might think that Nephi meant, I couldn’t keep track of that. So, no, I don’t read the scriptures that way, I couldn’t if I wanted to, and I don’t want to.

    2. I don’t ever think that “historical context should be declared irrelevant.” I might decide, on balance, not to go along with historical consensus on some particular fact. Let’s say, for example, that there was historical consensus that Christ was not a historical figure. I’d go ahead and disagree with that. But I wouldn’t simply declare it irrelevant, nor would I disagree with it casually. It would be a problem for me to live with and work through (depending on the specifics of why historians had decided Christ was non-historical.)

    So, no: I really, really don’t subscribe to your fixed version of what I wrote. I’ll stick with the original.

    When I read Nephi, my goal–as much as I can–is to figure out what Nephi meant. Same goes for Paul. Same goes for President Monson. Same goes, pretty much, for everybody I read.

  16. Mark S
    16
    January 3, 2017 at 9:35 pm

    Nathaniel, first, comparing the LDS leaders to the military or a friend is apples to oranges. Military power exists to reinforce state territorial claims, enforce political order, and, well, coerce people to do things and sometimes physically destroy them. The LDS church is nothing like it. It is a voluntary non-profit organization that is not enforcing any physical territorial claims by a state and doesn’t force anyone to remain in it. On friends, do you really regard the leaders to be peers with whom you discuss matters on a more or less equal level? I doubt that.

    Second, when you say you defer to Christ, by implication you defer to the LDS version of Christ, and therefore the LDS leaders. You probably do not mean that you defer to the Trinitarian version of Christ. Nor do you defer to a secular non-resurrected dead Christ whose words only exist in what was supposedly reported by his followers. You defer to a version of Christ who revealed things to Joseph Smith and a Christ who somehow reveals things to individuals. And who informed you that this is the nature of Christ? None other than the LDS leaders. So how is it that you do not regard the LDS leaders to be experts in matters related to Christ? By your own words, experts are people who know more than you on a given matter. Wouldn’t you regard the LDS leaders to know more than you on Christ? Did you inform yourself about the nature of Christ through your own thoughts, discoveries, historical research, etc. independent of any religious authorities? I would find that hard to believe.

    “I don’t think there’s any such thing as a single, monolithic expression of “how LDS leaders…might view and interpret them.'”

    I never said there was monolithic agreement, but there is a spectrum from which we can derive a good amount of agreement. This idea that the LDS leaders are all over the place with regards to how they interpret the scriptures is nonsense. We can even diagram agreement using a case-by-case approach. For instance, there is no difference among the leaders on their interpretation of the scriptures that god has a body of flesh and bones. However, there has been some disagreement about whether or not God’s love is conditional.

    “even if I wanted to read Nephi with an eye to figuring out what President Monson might think that Nephi meant, I couldn’t keep track of that. So, no, I don’t read the scriptures that way, I couldn’t if I wanted to, and I don’t want to.”

    And yet, if President Monson stated in general conference that Nephi meant x in the Book of Mormon, I have every reason to believe that you wouldn’t question that.

    “When I read Nephi, my goal–as much as I can–is to figure out what Nephi meant. Same goes for Paul.”

    And yet there are all kinds of interpretations as to what Paul really meant in regard to a number of things, many of them being mutually exclusive with what the LDS church teaches. The Catholic church interprets 1 Corinthians 7 to mean that priests should be celibate. I have a hard time believing that you would interpret that passage in a Catholic way or in another way that would be unfavorable to what the LDS church teaches. If you want to be considered an LDS member in good standing, there are certain limits as to how you can and should interpret scriptures. I highly highly doubt that you would be willing to transcend those boundaries.

    “I don’t ever think that “historical context should be declared irrelevant.””

    Fair enough. You downplay historical context when it might conflict with what LDS church leaders might say.

    You’re clearly an LDS believer who regards the words of the LDS leaders to be authoritative in a number of regards. You have spent and continue to spend a considerable amount of time defending their words and deflecting criticisms of them. Your apparent unwillingness to own up to them as people who know more than you on matters spiritual and religious, in other words experts, is extremely puzzling.

  17. January 3, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    Mark-

    Nathaniel, first, comparing the LDS leaders to the military or a friend is apples to oranges

    I didn’t draw any such comparison.

    Second, when you say you defer to Christ, by implication you defer to the LDS version of Christ, and therefore the LDS leaders.

    That’s not correct. I’m a Christian first, and a Mormon second. If I thought Christ wanted me to be Catholic, I’d be a Catholic.

    And who informed you that this is the nature of Christ?

    My sources include, but are not limited to both LDS Standard Works and LDS leaders. Others include: C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, N. T. Wright, and many, many more. In addition, I have had my own personal spiritual experiences.

    None other than the LDS leaders.

    See above. I listed three off-hand. That list can get much, much, much longer if you’d like me to continue elaborating.

    So how is it that you do not regard the LDS leaders to be experts in matters related to Christ?

    I didn’t say they were not experts. I said that whether or not they are is irrelevant to my commitment to obey them. (A commitment that is not blind or unqualified.)

    Did you inform yourself about the nature of Christ through your own thoughts, discoveries, historical research, etc. independent of any religious authorities? I would find that hard to believe.

    Quite the opposite. It’s not a lack of religious authorities, but an abundance of religious perspectives from a variety of traditions–Mormon and non-Mormon–that you have to contend with. Everything I do informs my faith, including plenty of secular works of science. Simple example: Opposition in All Things and the Evolution of Love, in which I talk about Lehi’s teaching about “opposition in all things” by way of Steven Pinker.

    I never said there was monolithic agreement, but there is a spectrum from which we can derive a good amount of agreement. This idea that the LDS leaders are all over the place with regards to how they interpret the scriptures is nonsense.

    Right, but you were alleging that I try to understand what Nephi (for example) meant by filtering him through what LDS leaders think. But–on top of being weird, unnecessary, and impractical–there’s no such filter as “what LDS leaders think.” It as–as you put it–a spectrum. I’m not sure how you could use a spectrum of many individuals to hone in on what a single thinker things. It’s like trying to sharpen a pencil using a cotton swap. The spectrum is–by definition–amorphous and fuzzy. How can I possibly get clarity on a single thinker using some amorphous, fuzzy conglomeration of dozens or hundreds of individuals?

    I’m not sure why you think this is even a serious hypothesis.

    And yet, if President Monson stated in general conference that Nephi meant x in the Book of Mormon, I have every reason to believe that you wouldn’t question that.

    You’re only demonstrating your total inability to understand my words, in that case. I question everything. It’s my job.

    Besides which, you don’t even have the basics right. The Book of Mormon is canon. A General Conference talk is not. A single statement in General Conference carries a lot of weight, but no single statement by any mortal is going to be definitive, especially a non-canonical one.

    And yet there are all kinds of interpretations as to what Paul really meant in regard to a number of things, many of them being mutually exclusive with what the LDS church teaches.

    Yes, exactly. You’re the one who thinks I’m trying to find some perfect, conflict-free doctrinal structure. But that’s your pipe-dream, not mine. People are messy. People write scripture. So scripture is messy. Conflict is inevitable. That’s why the kind of bizarre absolutism you keep trying to attribute to me is not possible.

    Fair enough. You downplay historical context when it might conflict with what LDS church leaders might say.

    You’re still trying to put words into my mouth.

    What I actually do is struggle to synthesize all the information that I have into one cohesive whole, knowing full well that it’s an impossible task. Nephi and Moroni emphasized different aspects of the gospel. Jacob had his own concerns. Peter and Paul duked it out. If I ever think I have it all figured out, I’ll know I made a major mistake somewhere along the way.

    What I actually do is take everything–common sense, science, history, my own spiritual revelations, scripture, linguistics, my parents’ ideas, my friends’, Ensign articles, General Conference talks, Buddhist philosophy, existentialist literature–and try to figure out what it all boils down to.

    I like Albert Camus a lot. I don’t treat his words the same as I treat President Monson’s. But they do both go into the same equation, with their own particular weights and qualifiers. Same goes for historical context.

    Your presumption is that I start with what the leaders say as axiomatic, but I have no axioms:

    We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. – Otto Neurath

    You’re clearly an LDS believer who regards the words of the LDS leaders to be authoritative in a number of regards. You have spent and continue to spend a considerable amount of time defending their words and deflecting criticisms of them. Your apparent unwillingness to own up to them as people who know more than you on matters spiritual and religious, in other words experts, is extremely puzzling.

    I’m not entirely sure what “them” refers to (in “apparent unwillingness to won up to them”), but I will say this: if you ever consider the possibility that my obedience to LDS leaders is a consequence rather than a cause of my belief system, you’ll understand me a lot better.

  18. ji
    18
    January 3, 2017 at 11:02 pm

    I appreciate the original posting — “my general attitude is to try and approach the scriptures–as much as I can–on their own terms” — well said.

    For example, I know the scripture talks about Herod the Great being alive when Jesus was born. I know the historians say he wasn’t. I take the story at face value — for me, it works best that way. I don’t insist on the absolute correctness of the scripture and I don’t argue with the historians (I appreciate their work), but I do not let the historians (the committee of experts?) decide for me whether the scriptures are true — I will make that decision myself, considering everything in my experience. I do not require that everything be reconciled perfectly — I accept a little messiness and uncertainty. The absolutists at both ends of the spectrum seem to insist too much in their rightness and the other’s wrongness.

  19. ji
    19
    January 3, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    …my faith in LDS leaders is a consequence rather than a cause of my belief system…

    Well said. I’m also wired this way. Thank you!

  20. Mark S
    20
    January 3, 2017 at 11:37 pm

    “I didn’t draw any such comparison.”

    Ha. Yeah right.

    “That’s not correct. I’m a Christian first, and a Mormon second”

    Please. You wouldn’t subscribe to any teaching by a different Christian denomination that directly contradicted LDS teachings about Christ.

    “My sources include…”

    Finding other sources to confirm what LDS leaders have said about Christ doesn’t count as using those sources to inform yourself about Christ. You won’t accept anything that a non-Mormon has to say about Christ that would contradict what the LDS leaders have said about him.

    “you were alleging that I try to understand what Nephi (for example)….”

    The freedom of thought that you are imagining in the believing Mormon world as per scriptural interpretation is an illusion. As a known believer who has long blogged in defense of the Mormon belief system, you wouldn’t dare come to a scriptural interpretation that could be construed as diametrically opposed to what LDS church leaders have said. Your freedom to interpret ends where core Mormon teachings begin (sure, you have some flexibility on peripheral matters, but not core ones). If you care to disagree with my assessment of you, name one core teaching that you full-on disagree with.

    “You’re still trying to put words into my mouth.”

    I’m trying to get you to own up to the clear implications of what you write and who you are. Just come out and say it loud and proud: “I believe almost without question the core teachings of the Mormon church.” That is your starting point for everything you write related to religion, consequence, cause, irrelevant. No one other than intellectual Mormons who experience the pains of cognitive dissonance that you do is buying that you are a fully independent thinker with regard to the LDS scriptures. No one buys the relativist facade that you and other intellectual believers put up to try to deflect criticisms against the LDS church. When it comes to core LDS teachings you are an absolutist through and through, and by your own admission. I see right through the maze of nuance that you construct which allows you to conveniently pivot away from positions when it appears that they are inconvenient. You’re trying to defend the core teachings of the LDS church, I get it. But you do so by imposing on yourself this sort perpetual state of cognitive dissonance that I know first hand (having been in it for years myself) must be a source of great mental pain from time to time. Your sensitivity to being pinned down and owning up to implications reveals this. Look, call me presumptuous, whatever. For me, this state of long-term cognitive dissonance was mentally unsustainable. And more and more I see that it is that way for intellectual Mormons too. You’re never in the LDS church too deep to change your mind. Anyhow, reflect on those words. I’ll give you the last word.

  21. Clark Goble
    21
    January 4, 2017 at 1:28 am

    Mark, I’d have to imagine that for most they go by what the spirit tells them often through confirmation. You can get that spiritual confirmation while reading secular or non-Mormon sources. I’d imagine that accounts for several popular non-Mormon authors like C. S. Lewis getting frequently quoted in conference. Of course what gets quoted is what is perceived as correct.

    While the Brethren of course by their position have authority and that entails a kind of burden of proof regarding doctrine, I don’t think they’d say they have the corner on truth. Again though one has to be in the spirit and the usual error is people going against the Brethren being out of the spirit but convinced they are in it. (Denver Snuffer and a few others come immediately to mind)

    Part of the problem is of course a certain ambiguity in what we mean by “Mormon teachings.” Mistakes pop up occasionally (although far more rarely than our critics suggest IMO). While we usually notice these in past leaders of course the spirit can tell us of things in the present. Again though the debate then rises over what is or isn’t inspired – made more complex by the fact when told such things by the spirit one is almost always told to keep quiet. So often the first thing that sets off warning bells for me is when someone doesn’t do that.

    In any case I think you are trying to create a theology of authority that I’m not sure is actually part of Mormon doctrine. That’s not to deny most of us accept with a fair degree of certainty the core teachings of the Church. I suspect most of us do. However I think many of us, especially in quasi-intellectual areas like here, do so in a fairly informed fashion even if you might disagree with us.

  22. Mars
    22
    January 4, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Mark, you’re trying to establish a foundation for free thought based on disagreement with core Church doctrine. In a way this is similar to scientific inquiry based on rejection of core physical principles. This is possible only if your new theory also accounts for experimental results based on the old.

    And there are a great many scientists who are marvelously curious and free-thinking who do not strive to overturn Einstein.

  23. January 4, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    [No interest in this ‘belief system’ discussion. Carry on. But here a sur-reply related to 6 and 12.]

    Nathaniel: I don’t see that we are disagreeing and so don’t mean this as a counter but rather an addition. Not infrequently a good historical analysis causes us to see what was already there in the text in a new light or a new emphasis. After the fact it can feel like we’re engaged in a plain reading of what was always there. Also after the fact it is difficult (sometimes, for some people–enough to matter) to recapture the shift in perception. As a result, the historical analysis may be undervalued.

  24. Clark Goble
    24
    January 4, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    Meaning is always caught up in context. Context rarely is explicit and often is ambiguous. As you shift contexts meaning changes – often quite dramatically. A great example of this is of course Shakespeare’s plays where Henry V has been done as an anti-war play or a pro-war patriotic play with exactly the same words. Scripture both because it’s shorter but also far less detailed is even more so this way.

    I hate the term literalism because I think what’s really going on is people assuming that the main meaning of a text is it’s meaning in a given cultural context. That is it means what it’d mean if the text were written with those same words by a typical member of a community. The problem with the term literalism is that it shifts the focus away from this issue of context into a debate about poetics and metaphor. Rarely is that the real issue. Even the most ardent fundamentalist usually is fine with metaphor. It’s just that the meaning of metaphor is shaped by how a member of their community would use those metaphors.

    On the other hand the scholarly community can have the same problem. First while they often (correctly) shift the debate about context to the context of the writer they can’t really address the divine component in the texts. We simply can’t quite fathom that context. Second often the context is so heavily missing that much is conjecture. Even when it is the “best we can do” so much is missing that could affect the meaning of the text that one ought be extremely cautious in saying what the text means. (In my opinion Biblical scholars are rarely that humble) Finally there’s the issue that what a text means in terms of this context of the utterer is quite different from how a text is used. Those uses can change. With scripture that matters a lot since most scriptural texts are themselves typically a result of quoting, redacting and use. The early sections of the D&C for instance are reworked from the Book of Commandments. Even when scripture quotes earlier scripture it doesn’t necessarily embrace the meaning of the original context.

    It leaves it all rather muddled.

  25. Michael H
    25
    January 5, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Historical accuracy is tricky, and I wonder if its importance varies according to one’s approach to LDS truth claims. More than wonder, I worry it is used selectively to push a certain, apologetic but not quite dubious, agenda.

    Mark S, you write: “I commonly sense the insistence by the orthodox LDS folks that LDS scriptures are to be treated as historically accurate and that it is of utmost importance to emphasize this concept.” This is certainly true, but I think recent years have seen the rise of a type of orthodox Mormon who discounts historical accuracy in cases where it may challenge the Church’s truth claims. While Nathaniel writes that it is foolish “to dismiss all historical questions as irrelevant,” I worry historical questions are too often addressed in only a circular, tentative way in an attempt to ultimately avoid the exploration of potentially unsettling answers.

    To use Mason’s “Planted” and the other Givens’ work in “The Crucible of Doubt” as examples, some seek to overcome conflicts between orthodoxy and history by proposing that a belief system without such conflicts is somehow less laudable. The emphasis of these works is focused less on the content than on the nature of doubt. Taken too far, this approach runs the risk of being employed to skirt opportunities to settle important (important to me, at least!) questions in Church history/doctrine.

  26. Anonymous
    26
    January 5, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    Good points.

    How the data (I understand that my n here is 1) bear out for my family: my maternal grandmother died in 1974. She had 14 children, 5 of whom died before the age of two.

    Of the surviving nine children, 31 children were born, all of which are still alive today (the oldest just having turned 80).

    But each of us was raised with stories of the 5 that passed away.

  27. p
    27
    January 6, 2017 at 12:58 am

    Michael H ” … some seek to overcome conflicts between orthodoxy and history by proposing that a belief system without such conflicts is somehow less laudable. The emphasis of these works is focused less on the content than on the nature of doubt.”

    Well said.

  28. Clark Goble
    28
    January 6, 2017 at 11:04 am

    Michael, I think all readings can ultimately only be addressed in a circular manner. That’s why it’s called the hermeneutic circle. Ideally we hope it’s a spiral but more often than not we’re ignorant and we have to keep that ignorance in mind. There are lots of justifiable readings and typically little reason to prefer one above the other beyond our personal preferences and biases. That’s not to say there aren’t many bad readings which can’t explain the evidence of course.

  29. Michael H
    29
    January 6, 2017 at 11:49 am

    Clark, you write: “There are lots of justifiable readings and typically little reason to prefer one above the other beyond our personal preferences and biases.”

    If biases have the potential to drive circular interpretation, I think it’s good to explore this when appropriate. For that reason I sort of appreciate Mark S’s overall effort to explore whether Nathaniel’s post is guided by such a bias.

    “That’s not to say there aren’t many bad readings which can’t explain the evidence of course.”

    My comment on recent pro-doubt writings, which propose a framework that under-appreciates the importance of trying to explain evidence, perhaps suggests that I think these are the “bad readings” you speak of. It comes down to my dismay over what Dave Banack in a previous post called the “ponder and tolerate” (vs. a ponder and resolve) approach that the New Apologetics embraces. That said, a debate on the merits of the New Apologetics approach to doubt is probably running too far afield from the original intent of the OP, so I guess I’ll leave it there for now. That debate seems to be a black hole whenever it pops up, but I can rarely resist pushing my view on the matter!

  30. Clark
    30
    January 6, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    Michael the circularity I mentioned is a special kind. It arises from the basic problem of hermeneutics – mainly that the whole depends upon the parts but the meaning of the parts depends both upon the whole but also some of the other parts. This means there’s a circular process of reinterpretation. Typically we’re left with multiple defensible readings.

    To your point about explaining evidence I think that’s very important to do, although we also have to be cognizant of what evidence we have to explore and what information is simply unknowable. Not being able to reconcile all data isn’t necessarily a problem – it’s actually pretty common. But I do think one needs some kind of explanation. The traditional FARMS type of apologetic, for all its flaws, was actually pretty good about at least trying this. (To my eyes people try to stereotype the entire endeavor with the less defensible arguments that managed to get printed – neglecting that apologists typically threw out bad arguments too and there was no agreed upon apologetic dogma)

    I’m never entirely sure what people mean by the New Apologetics since from what I can tell that tends to be writings more interested in meanings as possible ways to read the text independent of extra-textual evidence. Personally I think that can be a problem too in that possible readings have to be grounded by context. Effectively the danger is this leads to an a-contextual reading just as problematic as what gets labeled literalist readings. Indeed it’s quite possible to see both following the same sort of hermeneutic.

    Relative to doubt it’s an interesting question. I’ll confess I’m not quite sure how to deal with other people’s doubt. I just know how to deal with my own at various times. That said, clearly people have doubts. To my eyes if we have some really strong reasons to believe and then some that seem to go the other way there might be a good reason to simply say, “we don’t know everything, I don’t know how to reconcile this right now, but I think the reasons I have to believe are enough to give me faith regarding what I can’t explain.”

    I confess I’ve just not read enough of the recent “doubt genre” of faith promoting books to really have much of an opinion on them. My personal response to doubt is to inquire more and try to find out. I’ll fully admit I’m very leery about attempts to get people to stop inquiring, if any books actually do that.

  31. Mark S
    31
    January 6, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    Clark,

    “Part of the problem is of course a certain ambiguity in what we mean by “Mormon teachings.”

    I’ve repeatedly emphasized the concept of core Mormon doctrine. The existence of such a core should be beyond question. And for believers, such as yourself and Nathaniel, the truthfulness of such a core is beyond the realm of questioning. A part of you may not like to admit that because a part of you is a questioner and you like to imagine yourself open to the possibility of any proposition being true or false, but deep down inside you know you aren’t fully open to the idea that many of these core LDS truth claims may indeed be false. Nonetheless, you have proven yourself for years to go to great discursive lengths (far, far more than any non-Mormon would ever go to) to defend the possibility of truthfulness of these core teachings.

    “In any case I think you are trying to create a theology of authority that I’m not sure is actually part of Mormon doctrine.”

    Let’s take the idea that Jesus appeared to ancient American Jews. That is a core teaching of Mormonism. How has that been established as true? Because Joseph Smith is regarded as an authority, and he said so. So much of Mormon belief is the result of authorities saying things are true and people believing that they are true simply because an authority said so. Nathaniel has almost openly admitted this himself. He has said that he believes core Mormon teachings because Christ told him to regard Mormon leaders as authorities. Of course, he is not wiling to admit that he believes a long list of ideas because people whom he regards as authorities said so (including the idea that Christ can reveal things to people), but that is why you, Nathaniel, and other believing Mormons (intellectual and lay alike) believe a number teachings. Sure you might say the spirit told you, or Christ, or whatever. OK, then, what caused you to believe that a spirit exists that reveals things to people?

  32. Mark S
    32
    January 6, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    Mars,

    “And there are a great many scientists who are marvelously curious and free-thinking who do not strive to overturn Einstein.”

    And yet none of these scientists regard Einstein to be beyond question or that ethereal forces confirm the truthfulness of Einstein’s words. It would furthermore be unseemly of a scientist to use relativist tactics against another scientist who questioned one of Einstein’s propositions (i.e., “so you think what Einstein said isn’t true, well what is truth anyway? Doesn’t reflect reality? Well, what is this “reality” you speak of?”)

    Although he is not willing to admit it (because he fears that a huge double standard on his part would be exposed), it should be no secret that Nathaniel Givens on a certain number of core LDS teachings regards the LDS leaders to be experts on matters spiritual, and well beyond the type of expert that your average scientist might consider Einstein; but experts whose words of insight on a number of core issues (not necessarily everything, but core issues) are beyond question, in other words authorities. He says this is because Christ told him so. But what he means is the Mormon version of Christ whom he wouldn’t have been informed about were it not for Mormon leaders and a Mormon upbringing. It isn’t as if he is claiming that Mormon teachings are true because of an encounter with Lord Vishnu. He had to accept that Mormon leaders were authoritative experts on Christ for him to even claim that the LDS Christ revealed things to him.

  33. Mars
    33
    January 6, 2017 at 8:20 pm

    Mark, you’re making some pretty heavy logical leaps. I’ll help you unravel a few of them but I’m not getting paid for this.

    I’ll lay aside the drastic yet common mistake you have made of assuming that the Christ worshiped by the Latter-day Saints is somehow a different figure than that worshiped by, presumably, your church. It’s a tiresome and fruitless debate. The direct problem is your assumption a kind of linearity of experience. Informed of LDS Christ – seek spiritual experience – have LDS Christ confirmed. That’s not how it happens. A testimony is a feedback loop with all sorts of inputs (Clark mentioned the hermeneutic circle, also a useful concept here).

    Or rather, a much more useful metaphor is that of a seed. Nathaniel did not have to accept wholly all the claims of the LDS church – he merely had to accept that they could be true. He planted the seed they offered it, watered it, and watched it grow. In the meantime he planted many, many other seeds, some of which bore fruit and some of which withered or never sprouted. Eventually the seeds of his faith in the Church, his faith in Christ, in the scriptures, and so on, grew tall and fruitful.

    This epistemic circularity argument you’re so focused on is a non-starter. I wouldn’t keep it around.

  34. Clark Goble
    34
    January 7, 2017 at 1:17 am

    Mark S, I am open to the possibility that I am not typing on a computer right now but deep in my heart I know I am.

    You’re confusing openness to inquiry with justification to knowledge.

  35. Nathan Whilk
    35
    January 7, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    Fascinating Fact: According to Google, the phrase “ancient American Jews” isn’t used by believing Mormons.

  36. Mark S
    36
    January 8, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    Clark, if you disagree with my assessment of you, how about you inform us of the core LDS teachings that you would find likely untrue. You seem to prove my point. You are as sure of the truthfulness of core LDS truth claims as of the fact that you typed your response on a computer. At any rate, the fact that you won’t own up to the fact that a set of core Mormon teachings exists is very revealing. You don’t want to be held down by any traditional belief system. You are. Face it. Of course, you don’t have to held down. It’s your choice.

    Nathan, Mormon believers don’t think that Lehi and his family were Jews and that those who supposedly saw Jesus?

  37. Clark Goble
    37
    January 9, 2017 at 12:30 am

    Again what counts as core? But I’m fine with you thinking I accept the core teachings. As best I can tell I do. Probably because anything I’m dubious about I can’t see as being core. LOL. There certainly are some I’m dubious about such as the idea we’ll each have our own universe independent of everyone else once we’re deified. But is that a core teaching? While I believe in the spirit birth theology, I’ll admit that it’s not something I feel confident in particularly. But is that a core belief or merely a historically dominant one? So there’s a certain vagueness to your critique.

    But that’s not my point. My point was more your conflating epistemological concerns with openness to inquiry. That’s an important mistake. I can be completely convinced by something yet still open to arguments against it. I should have up my Peirce post tomorrow which will start to touch on this again (been too busy for blogging unfortunately the past two months). But I’d argue that if you are doing diligence in inquiry then what persists through honest inquiry that you can’t doubt is de facto something you think you know.

  38. JFM
    38
    January 9, 2017 at 12:32 am

    Mark S, you should offer Clark at least 6 onties of silver to deny a core LDS teaching.

  39. Mark S
    39
    January 9, 2017 at 1:28 am

    Clark, a core teaching would be something that is regularly emphasized by believers and the leadership as true. For instance, you need to be baptized by immersion before witnesses in the body or by proxy to be saved after you die. There is quite a list of such teachings that we could come up with. The idea that we’ll have our own universe after we die is not a core teaching, for it is not regularly emphasized and believers do not point that out as a key aspect of their belief system to others or among themselves.

    On openness to inquiry, I’m not taking issue with how you think you know. If you want to loudly proclaim that you believe x because of y evidence, that is fine with me. I really don’t think that you or Nathaniel or other intellectual believers are open to fully investigating reasons why the LDS church’s truth claims might be false or investigating why counterclaims that would falsify LDS teachings might be true (i.e., reincarnation, trinitarianism, etc.). I don’t see you weighing out possibilities as to why other religious explanations of the scriptures would be better (i.e., 1 Corinthians 7 is evidence that priests shouldn’t marry). Also, bear in mind that your target audience for what you write about concerning the LDS church is other intellectual believing LDS people. I doubt that your writings would fly with more general non-LDS intellectual audiences. This whole discussion originated over Nathaniel taking issue with deference to experts on spiritual matters. But that is how he treats the LDS leaders. And you seem to do the same. Clearly you’re more open-minded that many other rank and file believers, but as extensive as your inquiry might be, the result appears to be the same: a core of ideas taught by people you regard to be authorities are absolutely true, and you wouldn’t dare openly challenge it for a host of psychological and social reasons.

    JFM, I’m not trying to get Clark to deny anything, but simply acknowledge that he is not as open-minded as he thinks he is with regard to LDS teachings. I see too many believing intellectuals try to rationalize what is ultimately an unrationalizable belief system, when the best explanation for what they believe is what the rank and file say; namely, I feel good about x authority saying this, therefore I believe.

  40. Mark S
    40
    January 9, 2017 at 2:18 am

    Mars, Christendom has long been divided (and historically sharply so) over what the nature of Christ is. A fair number of denominations won’t even acknowledge Mormonism as a Christian church, for they regard the LDS concept of Christ as significantly different from theirs.

    How else are LDS people informed of the LDS Christ except through other LDS believers, whose collective belief is informed by LDS leaders? All belief in the LDS Christ can be traced back to Joseph Smith who claimed that Christ was revealing things to him, had a body of flesh and bones, was a distinct personage from God the Father and the Holy Spirit, and a whole host of rather distinct and unique things about Christ. It isn’t as if people are coming up with a concept of Christ that is identical to that promoted by the LDS church independent of contact with LDS believers. The rest of what you said is shrouded in LDS believer rhetoric that is really only intelligible to a believing audience. The concept of planting metaphorical seeds to gain knowledge would make sense only to someone who has internalized Alma 32. You write, “a testimony is a feedback loop with all sorts of inputs.” That wouldn’t make sense to anyone except an LDS believer. Even the very concept of testimony itself when used in the LDS context of “I have a testimony” is different and distinct from the way the term is used in non-LDS settings. Outside the LDS church, the term testimony means a formal declaration, often under oath, of something believed to be true AND evidence that testifies to something. For instance, “the witness took the stand and gave her testimony before the judge,” or “the ink stain on the shirt is a testimony to the leakiness of the pen.” While LDS believers use the term testimony sometimes as synonymous with formal declaration (i.e., “I would like to bear my testimony”), they often use the term as synonymous with strong belief, presumably a belief that was informed by the member of the LDS godhead, the Holy Spirit. In secular discourse, and even in other non-LDS religious discourse, I have never seen the term testimony used as a synonym with strong belief, only as a sort of synonym with formal declaration or evidence.

  41. Mars
    41
    January 9, 2017 at 3:42 am

    Mark, Mark, you just don’t get it. You’re acting like we haven’t had supernatural experience with the Spirit of God, like if the Church had taught us about Odinism we’d be standing here with testimonies of Odin. Yeah, there are lots of different teachings about Christ, but there’s one Christ. We’re not trying to get in touch with Mormon Jesus, we’re trying to get in touch with Jesus. Screw Mormonism if it doesn’t connect us with Christ. And, hey, it did, and the many inputs of our testimonies confirmed the relationship of Christ with the LDS Church and here we are. How else are LDS people informed of the LDS Christ? From the LDS Christ, duh. Do you know nothing about our beliefs? And we’re using LDS terms here, too, because it’s an LDS website. I could try and translate everything for you but you have to put some work in too.

  42. Clark Goble
    42
    January 9, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Mark there’s a couple of issues there. First your definition of core teaching seems problematic since it ends up just being what people believe at a particular time that’s also taught by leadership. Surely the significance they give the doctrine matters a great deal. There’s also that ambiguity of “emphasized” since of course there are doctrines I’d call core, such as second anointing and having ones calling and election made sure, which aren’t emphasized at all. Likewise there are things that are emphasized more than anything else like Home and Visiting Teaching that I wouldn’t call core. I suspect a significant number of members are even ignorant of the doctrine. There are a few others, but that sort of gets at the problem of this – it’s so tied to normative emphasis whereas to my eyes that’s completely irrelevant for what theologically is a core doctrine.

    To your point about inquiry, this seems the broader issue of expertise which is a big public issue at the moment due to the place of populist movements on both the right and left that tend to disparage expertise. However I think I was pretty careful how I responded. I think the leadership have experience I don’t and skills I don’t (and from a theological perspective a gift of discernment tied to their stewardship I don’t). That doesn’t mean I automatically think they are correct. However it does mean I give them the benefit of doubt. What I believe though is a trickier business, not the least of which because I don’t think belief is volitional. That is I simply believe or doubt but can’t choose to do so. I can merely inquire. What you are saying is that I don’t inquire to which I can but say I actually do read most of the critiques of my religion. I bet there are few you could bring up I’ve not already heard. Indeed at many points of my life it would have been much easier to disbelieve than to believe. Yet I find myself unable to relinquish my belief presumably because of the experiences I have both recent and in the past.

    The big problem I have with your approach is that you presume that if I come to the conclusions I do that somehow I must not be sincerely inquiring. Interestingly this is the exact reasoning you critique in many Mormons (that if you don’t come to the conclusions they do after Moroni 10:4-5 that you weren’t really inquiring) So there’s a certain irony here to how you approach all this. You end up taking what I’d call the naive Mormon epistemological perspective. You’ve merely shifted how you apply it from a believing perspective to what I suspect is a more secular perspective. Yet the approach appears to be the same.

    Finally you presume that the only way Mormons come to these conclusions is apparently due to peer pressure. That is from other contemporary Mormons. That is you don’t even allow for the possibility that people are actually doing careful inquiry and coming to those conclusions independent of their peers (including contemporary leaders). That seems quite dubious at best since it makes a lot of assumptions about how people, like myself, inquire. Why do you assume we don’t look at the same evidence you do? Presumably again because you think if we did we’d come to the same conclusions. Which seems deeply problematic.

  43. Jared vdH
    43
    January 9, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Mark S in your comment #36: “Nathan, Mormon believers don’t think that Lehi and his family were Jews and that those who supposedly saw Jesus?”

    Actually most Mormons believe that Lehi and his family were of the tribe of Manasseh and typically refer to the Nephites and Lamanites as “of the house of Israel” or “Israelites”, not specifically as “American Jews”. Interestingly, Lehi and his descendants will occasionally refer to themselves as “Jews” in the Book of Mormon, but most members of the LDS Church do not call them “Jews”. This is probably due to the modern cultural awareness of modern Jewish culture and not wishing to conflate the Nephites and Lamanites with modern Jewish peoples.

  44. Jared vdH
    44
    January 9, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    Also to Mark S in your comment #40: “All belief in the LDS Christ can be traced back to Joseph Smith who claimed that Christ was revealing things to him, had a body of flesh and bones, was a distinct personage from God the Father and the Holy Spirit, and a whole host of rather distinct and unique things about Christ. It isn’t as if people are coming up with a concept of Christ that is identical to that promoted by the LDS church independent of contact with LDS believers.”

    Actually, many facets of Joseph Smith’s and later Mormon teachings about the nature of Christ have been echoed throughout the history of Christianity. Just a quick glance through the Nontrinitarianism article on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nontrinitarianism) highlights several different interpretations of Christ that are similar to that of Mormonism.

    Arianism – Core tenant is that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are separate beings. This strain of Christianity lead to the the Council of Nicaea which established Trinitarianism as the orthodox belief and Arianism as a heretical belief.

    Likewise there are Trinitarian Christians who believe that Christ still has his body of flesh and bone: http://www.jesus.org/death-and-resurrection/ascension/did-jesus-shed-his-humanity-at-the-ascension.html

  45. Jared vdH
    45
    January 9, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Also meant to add to that last comment – Even if you take a completely myopic point of view, throw all of Christianity’s various beliefs about Christ in a bucket, shake it up, and pull them out at random. Given enough tries Joseph Smith’s version of things was bound to come out at some point.

  46. Clark
    46
    January 9, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    Jared (43) Interestingly, Lehi and his descendants will occasionally refer to themselves as “Jews” in the Book of Mormon, but most members of the LDS Church do not call them “Jews”. This is probably due to the modern cultural awareness of modern Jewish culture and not wishing to conflate the Nephites and Lamanites with modern Jewish peoples.

    It’s also possible, given that the tribe of Manasseh was taken captive and the northern Kingdom destroyed, that they see themselves as being culturally Jewish. i.e. of the southern Kingdom. But I suspect that primarily this is just an artifact of translation and they simply mean Jewish as to loose modern sense of descended from Jacob.

    I’d also quibble about whether contemporary Mormons call them Jewish. I hear them called that all the time in Sunday School.

  47. Jared vdH
    47
    January 9, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    Clark (46)

    Maybe regional differences then (CA, FL, and TX for me)? I can’t recollect them ever being specifically called “American Jews”, but another explanation is that I just never noticed it.

  48. Clark Goble
    48
    January 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Not called American Jews but they are regularly called Jews. That may be because “American” tends to be used for citizen of the US rather than inhabitant of north and south America. It’s an ambiguity that persists to this day. (Do Mexicans or Canadians like to be called Americans? — I know most Canadians don’t)

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