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Patient Faith and Expanding Knowledge: Some Reflections on My Journey with the Book of Mormon (and an Invitation)

Some good advice for anyone in a faith crisis
As I was working on a review of Geology of the Book of Mormon, by Jerry Grover (a book I highly recommend for reasons that will be clear when the review is released), I took a moment to reflect how much my views on the Book of Mormon have changed over the last 6 or 7 years. In certain ways, my views are no different than they were before. I still believe that the Book of Mormon is true, in the traditional Mormon sense of the word—it is the word of God, it is real history, and it is an important source for inspiration. But I very often read it differently than how I used to. When I read it now, I can’t help but be struck by how real, how authentic it seems on every page. Even when I am reading it with my family, I very often can’t help but pause to say, “this sounds a lot like a Mesoamerican…” or, “this makes a lot sense in light of how in the ancient Near East…” fill-in-the blank with whatever I observed at that moment. I find myself able to visualize the events of the book in ways I never could have imagined before.

Of course, there are plenty of perplexities that remain. I haven’t settled all the anomalies. Heck, I am willing to bet I haven’t even discovered all the anomalies! But that is part of the excitement—there is always more to discover and learn. And the presence of those anomalies does not detract from the overall sense of authenticity that I can see in the text. (And if you talk with a serious researcher on the Book of Mormon in a 19th century context, guess what? You will find out that there are features of the text that confuse them, perplex them, and that they just can’t make sense of within the context they choose to read it. Anomalies don’t just go away by shifting the context.)

I can still remember getting home from my mission and wanting to start learning about Book of Mormon scholarship. In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that when I started I was expecting to find all kinds of proofs—yes, proofs—of the Book of Mormon’s historicity. I wanted to be able to prove it to everyone I knew, and thought finding the proof would be easy. When such certain proof was not quickly forthcoming, I can remember feeling a little frustrated but not necessarily shaken. For awhile there was a tendency to read certain proof into more cautious evidences put forth by John W. Welch or Hugh Nibley or whomever. And anything talking about meta-discourse (such as the assumptions we make, paradigms, or methodology)? BORING! I didn’t care about it. I didn’t have the patience for it. I can even remember feeling frustrated that they weren’t tackling the issues more “directly.”

Over time, though, I started seeing the wisdom in the more cautious expressions made by the better scholars I was reading. Meta-discourse started to make more sense, and even seem valuable, and eventually, essential! Now I can hardly start a conversation with someone on the Book of Mormon authenticity without saying, “Hold on, let’s just back up for a minute and talk about what you mean by …” It is not there to “distract,” “evade,” or “prevaricate” or whatever. Very often, issues of assumptions, definitions, method, etc. are the real issues and points of disagreement. I wish I could clearly lay out my progression on all of this, but I can’t. I don’t really remember how it happened. I wasn’t really thinking about it as it happened. The best I can do is tell you some stories.

When I got home from my mission, or shortly thereafter, one of my old friends was blogging about why he had left the Church. I read some of his posts, for most of which  he leaned very heavily on MormonThink. All of this was very new to me, and I didn’t try to engage him on much of this. I knew that if I did, I would get trounced because he had done a lot more reading than I had. I do remember that he and I had a PM conversation, though, where I talked about some reasons for believing in the Book of Mormon and mentioned NHM/Nahom. My friend had questions about that which I could not readily find answers to. Years later, however, a paper I co-wrote was published that addressed several common objections to the NHM/Nahom correlation, and though it was not a direct response to my friend, it addressed the questions he raised, which had stuck in mind over the years. Having read pretty extensively on the topic from both believers and critics, I don’t see any compelling objections to correlating NHM with Nahom, and in fact find a lot of compelling reasons to see this as an evidence for the Book of Mormon. You can read my paper on it to get an idea of what those are. The point is that over time, as I simply continued to read and learn, eventually I found satisfactory resolutions to the puzzles posed by my friend.

Another point my friend liked to make was that there were no sunken cities in Mesoamerica. For some reason, the criticism of his stuck out to me. Eventually, I more or less stumbled on reports from John Sorenson that underwater ruins had been found quite close to where he had placed the Lamanite Jerusalem, a city drowned in the midst of the destructions of 3 Nephi 9. Whether this was actually the Book of Mormon city was much less important to me than the fact that, contrary to what I had initially been told, there were sunken cities in Mesoamerica. No real problems for the Book of Mormon there.

As a last example, a couple years ago I came around to the view that Lehi and his family were probably craftsmen who worked with metals. Now, I readily admit that the truth of the Book of Mormon does not directly ride on this theory. The believability of the characters, their skill-sets, and lifestyle, however, are important. If the text is fiction, it does not matter if Nephi has all kinds of skills, Lehi all kinds of wealth, none of which can plausibly be explained within the setting of life in Jerusalem ca. 600 BC. If the text is history, then all these things should fit a reasonable scenario. Anyway… I had come to find the explanation of Lehi and his family as metalsmiths as quite compelling. I still think so, though I shortly thereafter encountered remarks from John Sorenson insisting that such could not be the case because Lehi was too wealthy to be such a low-class worker. I had no answer to this at the time, and no one who advocated for Lehi as a metalsmith had bothered to address it. Yet, it did seem like a legitimate criticism. The common view (at the time Sorenson wrote it, in the 1990s, and when I read it just a couple of years ago) was indeed that smelters were low-class laborers doing back-breaking work with little compensation. Archaeologists called the mound at one site where smelters quartered “Slaves Hill,” for crying out loud! How could the apparently wealthy Lehi have been a metalsmith? Well, a few months ago, while I flipped through what was then the latest issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review, I found out that the latest archaeological findings indicate that smelters were, in fact, upper class workers.

Although in no case was I sent into a spiritual tailspin over these issues, I have not just randomly chosen arbitrary curiosities of mine that have conveniently been answered. In each case, the questions that arose genuinely bothered me. It bothered me that I there didn’t seem to be any sunken cities, or that Lehi’s social status didn’t seem to fit the profession he appeared to hold. I didn’t know what to do with such questions, and answers were not immediately forthcoming.  Also, in each case, it took years before I found answers, and usually in each case I found them when I wasn’t specifically looking, but instead was reading more generally in literature exploring matters of the Book of Mormon history and geography, archaeology, etc.

Sam Wineburg has observed that when confronted with documents on Abraham Lincoln’s views on race, some readers quickly dismiss Lincoln as a racist, while others reach for immediate and convenient justifications. One reader, however, instead, “sat with this discomfort over the course of several documents” (Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 22, also see pp. 89–110) as he wrestled with Lincoln’s words, their implications, and what they could possibly mean within the world of the 1850s. According to Wineburg, this is a key element to developing mature historical understanding. We must be able to let our discomfort with specific uncertainties simmer as we continue to slog through the evidence and think about the problem. In other words, don’t merely read and react to your cognitive dissonance. Learn how to patiently let that discomfort settle as you pursue additional information, always with those questions in the back of your mind.

I don’t think anyone can prove that the Book of Mormon is historical. This won’t stop me from offering arguments and evidence that I think suggests as much, but ultimately I really think it is a choice that has to be made on faith. But let me assure you, that if you so choose to read the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text, there are some incredible avenues to explore. The text can come alive in ways you never anticipated.

If you are hung up on narrow questions of, say, horses and chariots or Hebrew DNA and language, let me suggest that while you keep those questions in the back of your mind, you seek out a broader literature on contextualizing the Book of Mormon within ancient America (or the ancient Near East), think about broader questions of how the Nephites might have fit into the larger cultural picture, and find some particular insights that are quite striking to you. If you do this, I would be willing to bet that, like me, over time you will learn to read the Book of Mormon differently. You will find that it comes to life in remarkable ways. Meanwhile, I am also willing to bet that some of your questions will be met with full satisfaction. Others you may continue to puzzle over while you see multiple potential explanations, while yet others may continue to bother you a bit though the once overwhelming doubt they caused you will diminish as your faith is buoyed up by the enriching insights your new ways of thinking have opened up. Odds are you’ll also pick up some new questions along the way (as I did with Lehi’s profession). It is a continual journey of expanding knowledge and patient faith that, once started, you can’t really ever quit. You may need to rest from time to time, but you’ll always find the urge to journey on stirs inside of you.  And throughout the journey you will find rewarding treasures, even hidden treasures that lay just beneath the surface of the text. I invite you join me in this journey, my friends, and I hope you enjoy it!

Seriously, I know we like to think the internet puts all the worlds knowledge at our finger tips,
but the truth is a lot of the best information and research is still only available in books. 

Comments

  1. Sometimes, Neal, I think you and I think too much alike!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmmm... I'd better change the way I think. ;-)

      Delete

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