Edit: I have posted a slightly updated version of this at Rational Faiths
“If the CES Letter has added value to your life, please pay it forward.
“If the CES Letter has added value to your life, please pay it forward.
Your support will allow us to continue to help the honest in heart seekers.”
Such loaded language from the CES letter website gets my hackles up, but I’ll suppress them long enough to respond to some friends’ queries of “Have you read the entire CES Letter?”. I am finally going to write my responses to the “Letter to a CES director.” I’m going to expect no one to agree with me. I’m going to treat no one’s feelings or thoughts gently. If you love the letter and think it’s perfect, don’t read my response. If you expect detailed responses to every item in the letter, go someplace else. If you are my friend and what you really want is validation of your pain caused at the hands of the LDS church and its members, give me a phone call. Chances are I will agree with you, and I will do my best to show my love. I will acknowledge up front that I think there are valid criticisms of the LDS church and its leaders and scriptures, both past and present. But for sake of my time and sanity I’m going to be appropriately brief. I’m going to cite or link to other sources. I’m going to define what I view as a rational and honest perspective, and I will not consider myself bound by your, or anyone else’s, view of Mormonism. I am Mormon. My perspective is Mormon. You can seek to understand it or not. You can claim it is irrational, or seek to understand the logic. You can say I’m splitting hairs or avoiding issues, or not. You can try to understand and enter into a different paradigm, or not. I am limited by many factors in my choice of how to respond to this letter. So with this disclaimer out of the way, I will begin. Read at your own discretion.
My initial reaction to the CES letter was that it views the world and Mormonism from a particular, black and white perspective that I don’t hold to. Whether such a perspective is held by some other Mormons or not doesn’t matter for my belief--whoever those others are. If I hold to such a belief, either by embracing it or by rebelling against it, I am not truly taking responsibility for my own moral life. Most of the “problems” highlighted in the letter appeared to be more problems with assumptions about God or prophets or human nature than anything else. So now as I reexamine the CES letter, I will take this approach:
- If God exists, He interacts with humans in a way that is completely mediated by humans and the laws of nature. I believe this is the Mormon God, whatever selected LDS authorities have said to the contrary. I also believe in a limited God, and not the omni-God of certain theologies. So I will refer to the evolved God that I believe is most likely from science and Mormon theology of theosis. How many of the problems of the CES letter vanish by simply accepting this type of God?
- Prophets are human. They have human failings, human biases, human tendencies to create meaning through stories, and human limitations with memory, perception, and understanding. How many of the problems vanish by simply accepting this view of prophets?
Now here comes the flood, one topic at a time.
The Book of Mormon
- Problems 1-3: the KJV in the Book of Mormon. These objections are easily addressed with a “functional equivalence” method of translation. Brant Gardner has addressed this ably and thoroughly in his book The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. I expect further improvements on his work as scholars take advantage of the work by Colby Townsend in identifying the intertextuality of the Book of Mormon on the Bible (for example this paper), but I expect no substantive improvements on the functionally equivalent translation hypothesis.
- Problem 4: DNA analysis. Mr. Runnells and anyone else who thinks that DNA says anything about the Book of Mormon--even with a hemispheric model of Book of Mormon geography, simply doesn’t understand DNA evidence. This talk by Ugo Perego, an expert in Native American genetics, addresses the topic in detail accessible to the non-expert. DNA is a non-issue that arises from sloppy attention to the Book of Mormon text and ignorance of, or misapplied understanding of, DNA analysis.
- Probelm 5: Anachronisms. Continued research in cultural history has reduced the numbers of both physical and cultural anachronisms claimed to be present in the Book of Mormon. In addition, functionally equivalent translation (what most people do when they translate) predicts the insertion of some anachronisms, as do natural changes in language. Absolute claims like the one made here are at best problematic, and at worst disingenuous or intentionally ignorant. There are so many flavors of responses to this. I have my favorite. You can find many of my past thoughts on the Book of Mormon in posts linked towards the bottom of this page. I’m not going to pretend that my perceptions of the Book of Mormon can be encapsulated in a few paragraphs.
- Problem 6: Hemispheric vs. Limited Geography. A limited geography model comes from careful reading of the Book of Mormon text. No other model is sustainable. Hemispheric models are the result of inattentive reading, and I do not feel bound by them, whatever Joseph Smith said at other times. Remember, human prophet. Mr. Runnells’s analysis of what “should be found” shows to me an ignorance of archaeology and an impatience to conclude what he wants to conclude. To cherry pick a counter-example to his Roman occupation of Britain, the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 at a known location. We even know how many people died in it. But not a single metal artifact has been uncovered from it, and only a handful of bones. These problems from faulty expectations fail to excite me. His reference to an LDS archaeologist is just another appeal to authority, which the entire letter decries. Not interested.
- Problem 7: Book of Mormon geography and names. Despite the apparently large list of similarities between Book of Mormon geography and names and Great Lakes geography and names, I see it as a case of imposing a pattern where there mostly isn’t one. Where the pattern may be real (names--the geography is forced, sloppy, and inconsistent with the hemispheric model touted previously), biblical connections can explain many of them, and the Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project takes a much more careful and thorough approach to the issue of names. The Onomasticon Project also provides some insight into names that didn’t exist in Joseph’s world--an issue not covered by the superficial comparisons made in the CES Letter. The Hill Cumorah problems vanish when Joseph and his contemporaries are viewed as humans with human understanding and inattentional biases. There are several possible responses, and none of them are provable. This just isn’t a problem worth considering.
- Problem 8: View of the Hebrews. Connections with this book are historically tenuous and topically superficial. I don’t believe that belief in a connection can be maintained with detailed study. The differences far exceed the similarities, and are far more substantial.
- Problem 9: The Late War. Parallels with this book are embarrassingly superficial. I have addressed my view of these claims in a previous blog post, and in an improved version yet to be published.
- Problem 10: The First Book of Napoleon. This is as bad as The Late War (maybe worse). See the blog post above. Why hasn’t he included the 1823 Koran and the 1830 Book of Nullification? These are tenuous attempts to justify a superficial, naturalistic explanation of the Book of Mormon. A substantial naturalistic explanation requires a lot more work, and is much better supported by viewing the Book of Mormon as a translation (work through my mostly finished stylometry series, and this review of Brant Gardner’s book).
- Problem 11: Conception of the Godhead. I believe in an evolving understanding of God, both within Joseph’s lifetime and over the centuries that humanity has been seeking God (follow my series at Rational Faiths). This simply isn’t an issue from my understanding of God. It also isn’t an issue to me if Joseph changes his translation. If I viewed the process as a word for word dictation from the mouth of God, or even from the pen of Mormon, unfiltered by the translator’s understanding, language, and experience, then this might be a problem--but it isn’t.
Book of Mormon Translation
- We have told and perpetuated an image of the translation that doesn’t match reality. I agree. Let’s fix it. My faith has never been based on how the Book of Mormon was translated, but on its content. Both the how and the content have problems, but those are separate issues. Also, the perpetuation of an incorrect story is a problem to be fixed when prophets are viewed as mostly ordinary humans, not an earth shattering, faith crushing deception. People tell stories. The earliest written accounts, second or third hand from 1832, about translation already have Joseph looking at stones in spectacles, so I understand how people for whom it wasn’t an important issue perpetuated a story that made sense to them, whether it matched reality or not. Is this an issue for me? Yes (I’ve written about it--a lot). But not the way it is for Mr. Runnells.
- How is it ok that the church is not being honest about this? There is no response to this kind of loaded question. He has decided the church is being dishonest in a way he disapproves of. To respond seriously is a deep philosophical, social, and scientific question regarding the nature of honesty, history, social forces, and speculation about the knowledge and power of various individuals. There is no answer. I’m not dodging the issue. We could have fruitful discussions about the realities and value of all of these topics and still come to different conclusions regarding the honesty of “the church”. But such a question is not really asking for an answer. It is rhetorical. It presupposes guilt. It is not “honest at heart seeking”.
- The best, non-accusatory response to translation problems that I have read is the first part of Brant Gardner’s book The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. I’m not going to try to rehash his well constructed work in a poor summary, but it is my answer to these problems with the Book of Mormon.
Multiple First Vision Accounts
- This problem amounts to, “Do I believe Joseph is a credible reporter of his vision that may or may not have occurred?” Runnells concludes there are significant reasons to doubt Joseph’s veracity. I see, instead, very human tendencies to tell stories that create meaning, and very human tendencies to shape memory according to the meaning of our stories. Neither of these speaks to the reality of Joseph’s experience. They may speak to the certainty with which we know the content of Joseph’s experience, but they are far from evidence of deception. I find these multiple reports a fascinating window into Joseph’s thought and development, but that they speak little to the reality or unreality of the event. That President Hinckley and others feel that the reality of a particular version of the first vision story is central to the truth of Mormonism (and I’m not even sure he would agree that one particular version is central), does not bind me to the same belief. Other prophets clearly didn’t concern themselves much about Joseph’s vision, and I am not troubled by the idea that all our prophets could have faulty understanding about certain topics. So again, believing in human prophets makes this a non-issue.
Book of Abraham
- Problem 1: Scholars have translated the papyrus that it was on and it isn’t there, and it’s from the wrong time. Yes, the papyri are from later. So is every copy of the Bible that we have today. How is this a problem?
- Problem 2: The papyri have a funerary text, not the Book of Abraham. Wrong papyri. We don’t have the ones it was on.
- John Gee’s and Brian Hauglid’s (among others) work on the papyri and the Book of Abraham is not simply apologetic circumlocutions. The simplistic view presented by Mr. Runnells, whatever experts have made cursory forays into the translation of the papyri, just doesn’t cut it. It probably is an apocryphal text written by a 1st or 2nd century BCE jew, but Joseph’s revelation is not consistent with simply being a modern creation. A modern adaptation or translation, yes, but not simply a modern text. Numerous of the “errors” Runnells reports probably aren’t, and many others are explicable through application of Gardner’s understanding of translation. There might be a few that remain after a closer look, but it’s nothing like the seemingly extensive and damning list that Mr. Runnells and others have compiled.
- You are welcome to find the Book of Abraham problematic. I have more unanswered questions about it than about any other book of scripture, so I sympathize. However, I will not admit that this is a vast, logical difficulty. I believe it’s ok to admit that we don’t have the papyrus Joseph translated from. I believe it’s ok to acknowledge that facsimiles like those we have had a variety of meanings in different contexts, and that Joseph’s interpretations had more correct than the superficial criticisms posed by scholars who only treated them superficially. I believe it’s ok to acknowledge the 19th century influence on the text from a human revelator, with all his limitations of understanding, language, and prejudice. I don’t have to view the whole thing in the forced, black and white way it is presented in the CES letter.
Polygamy and Polyandry
- I’ve written my thoughts on it before. There was some ugly stuff. We’ve moved past it, mostly, in practice. Let’s move past it completely in practice and be frank about our history.
- I don’t agree that this shows past or present leaders to be evil or unworthy people. I have studied their lives and teachings too broadly to define them by their actions in one or a few small areas. I can even condemn those actions. But again, viewing prophets as human, and God as acting mediated through deeply flawed individuals, takes away much of the sting of learning this history.
- I feel sadness as I hear the stories of abused or manipulated women (and men), and I speak out as a Feminist to correct such ills in our day, but I mostly see in it ordinary, human, biologically fostered Patriarchy. Time to overcome the natural man, but that’s a Mormon problem and a human problem. There are few places free from it.
- Adam-God, Blood Atonement, Polygamy, Black Temple Ban, Mark Hoffman. All problems. All problems that are readily explained with a human understanding of prophets and of revelation. These are only problems for those who hold some degree of infallibility for our prophets, or for those who feel that Mormons must believe in prophetic infallibility. I don’t. I’m a Mormon. I learn from prophets. I respect prophets. I don’t currently idolize them. I know many Mormons who take them very seriously but don’t idolize them. Idolatry is human, but it should be done away. It should be done away in the Mormon church, too, but it will probably never happen in this life. This is a problem for me, but a human problem. One we have to face every day in the LDS church, so let’s face it. But these are not problems for my faith because my faith is not based in this prophetic infallibility.
- Kinderhook Plates. I think this is one of the strongest reasons to doubt Joseph as a revelator. I personally find it insignificant put in the perspective of his entire life’s work, but that’s a judgment call.
Testimony & Spiritual Witness
- I’ve written about My Testimony vs. Science, and published my father’s response to it. Take it as you will. I have many of the same concerns as Mr. Runnells, but don’t feel that they compel me to the same conclusions. Again, this list of problems is one I’ve dealt with over years, and I find Mr. Runnells’s conclusions and implications only one set among many possibilities, and not the most convincing.
- More problems with the telling of history and its uses in the modern church. Both sets of problems fit well within the ordinary when prophets and leaders are viewed as human with a touch of inspiration. I just can’t get worked up about this, although I find Greg Prince’s thoughts on it very interesting.
- Ask me if I think Priesthood should keep changing, and I’ll give a resounding YES! Just check out my Ordain Women Profile and my name on the Agitating Faithfully petition.
Witnesses to the Book of Mormon
- This seems like yet another set of problems with interpreting history. We read the same facts and see different things. I mostly don’t worry about it, since the facts can be fit to my story (and several others), and my testimony of the Book of Mormon is built on different reasons and experiences. I’ve written a lot about it.
- I’ve finally been convinced that the magic world view is a significant part of Mormon history. I just don’t think it’s as significant, or significant in the ways, some critics claim or imply. It’s much like looking for the 19th century in the Book of Mormon. You can find it in abundance, but it doesn’t come close to painting a complete picture. There is much more to Joseph’s history than the magical influences, despite a significant presence of that view in shaping his stories and actions. People live in a culture and don’t ever completely escape it--not even prophets.
- Mr. Runnells uses reports of the witnesses to infer things about their experiences, their honesty, and Joseph’s experiences and honesty. Even if I could be convinced his interpretation were logically sound (I’m not sure of that), logical extrapolation is still extrapolation. I find it poor grounds for either confirming or rejecting faith, and I try to only use it when there is no alternative.
- Once again, Mr. Runnells uses analogies to draw his conclusions. Sometimes it is a necessary approach. I find it informative, but once again fail to find serious reasons to be troubled by this long list of suppositions based on an interpreted list of limited historical facts.
Temples and Free Masonry
- There are connections between the two. There are more differences between the two. Humans create using already existing elements. So does God, according to Mormon theology.
- Religion evolves. Changes are only a problem for those who expect otherwise. I don’t. What I do hope is that changes will be for the better, and I believe they predominantly have been in the temple ceremonies.
- Joseph didn’t understand everything. He didn’t even understand everything he thought was revealed to him. Oh well.
- I’m not a scriptural literalist. I do believe that some elements of most scriptures were literal, but that it often doesn’t matter, and that it requires careful winnowing to draw historical or scientific conclusions from scripture.
- This is another list of problems that just aren’t problems from my world view. I dealt with scriptural literalism in the LDS church from the time I was 14 until I was about 30. Some stories aren’t literal whatever any LDS authority has said or believed about them. Prophets are human.
- God is interpreted through human experience and understanding and language in ALL of scripture. Humans get it wrong and say wrong things about God even when they think they are inspired, sometimes. That’s reality. Saying it isn’t or shouldn’t be speaks more to an individual’s acceptance of reality than to the nature of God.
LDS Church’s Dishonesty and Whitewashing of History
- I freely admit errors and falsehoods in our presentation of history, past and present. Again, human. If you want to argue some conspiracy of deception that goes beyond what people of good will may do in error, I will say you are looking at the lives of these people too narrowly and at the power of institutional forces too unrealistically. These are problems for me, but they speak to the nature of humanity and of organizations, not threats to my faith or understanding of Mormonism.
- I wish the church were more transparent. I don’t know if I would agree with every expenditure. I probably wouldn’t. Here is my perspective on church finances. I find implications or claims of gross dishonesty or negligence of stewardship unlikely. There are too many honest people working for the LDS church for me to believe that truly gross abuses wouldn’t be uncovered in time. But if financial secrecy bothers you, I can’t fault you for that. It bothers me, too. I will validate you if it bothers you more--but not if you look for dishonesty, irresponsibility, or negligence by implication.
- If you don’t like how the church spends its money, that is a real problem you must face. I can’t resolve it for you. I see the LDS church and its leaders trying to solve a big, complicated optimization problem, and I’m not sure there is a best solution. If you think their choices don’t represent what God wants, I’ll partially agree with you (we only ever imperfectly represent God), and partially say you are expecting the church and its leaders to be something they are not--divine.
Names of the Church
- You are expecting a static gospel. That’s not what I believe in. No problem here, for me.
- “Some things that are true are not very useful + It is wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true + Spying and monitoring on members + Intellectuals are dangerous + When the prophet speaks the debate is over + Obedience is the First Law of Heaven = Policies and practices you’d expect to find in a totalitarian system such as North Korea or George Orwell’s 1984; not from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- If that were all there were to the LDS church and its culture, it would be the end of my Mormonism. These are problems. But for me they are the teachings and actions of humans, and they are a very small part of the LDS experience. They are predictable happenings in large organizations. They are predicted by our own scriptures, and condemned by them, as well. If you are one of the people for whom these facts are the dominant reality, I have said elsewhere that I consider harm to the individual to be good reason for protecting oneself or one’s family or friends from the organization. The rest of us should seek to correct and repair wrongs. But although I have heard all these teachings for years, and they have even caused me pain, the Mormonism I have lived and loved is as open to intellectual pursuits as any large organization I have encountered. In some ways less, and in others more. You should free yourself from this intellectual bondage, but rebelling and going to the opposite pole is only the first step.
I was fine with Mr. Runnells’s letter when it was his story. He has a right to it. It is a real, lived experience. He came by it honestly. Many others have had similar experiences. I feel for their pain. I have cried with some. People close to me have been lost to the church because we have been unable or unwilling to correct some of these real wrongs. But out of eighty pages of criticisms and problems, the vast majority are problems created by hanging onto a black and white worldview that doesn’t match either my understanding of God or of how he acts among men. There are not dozens of serious issues. There are very few, and all of them are questions of practical action. Or they are Mr. Runnell’s and others’ assumptions about God and prophets. What God do you believe in? How does he act among men? Believe in inerrantly mediated action from an omnipotent and controlling God whose goal is to make everyone behave perfectly, the kind of God so frequently implied in Mr. Runnells letter, and I will say you have described the Lucifer of the Book of Abraham. Quote LDS authorities who have espoused portions of belief in such a God, and I will say you’ve come by your belief honestly, but now it’s time to move on. Believe in the God of agency, justice, and mercy whose goal is to turn us into creators and peers, who works within the reality of human biology, psychology, and sociology, and the limits of nature, and nearly all of these serious problems become ordinary problems of living in a human world. To come where I am, you will have to give up the expectation that the LDS church is far beyond--or far below--other earthly organizations. You will have to experience the real pain that errors of prophets have caused. You may have to rebuild a connection to God as your previous beliefs are torn from you. But the CES letter is only half of an honest seeking of truth. It is still bound by the same paradigms that caused the distress in the first place. If this letter is the end of your journey with Mormonism, I understand to a degree. I won’t fault you for moving on. I’ll wish you the best as you seek a new spiritual home. If you are my friend, I hope we can still journey through life together. But I won’t adopt your problems with Mormonism. I’ll stick with my own.