Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Paradigm of Book of Mormon Historicity

From the Oxford English Dictionary for "Paradigm":

4. A conceptual or methodological model underlying the theories and practices of a science or discipline at a particular time; (hence) a generally accepted world view.

1962   T. S. Kuhn Struct. Sci. Revol. ii. 10   ‘Normal science’ means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements..that some particular scientific community acknowledges..as supplying the foundation for its further practice... I..refer to [these achievements] as ‘paradigms’.
 When it was either suggested or required that I read _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ for some undergraduate class I took (yes, I almost always did the suggested readings, in addition to the required ones. What else are you supposed to do while you eat lunch, walk to school, brush your teeth . . .?), I liked it. I had no idea how influential a book it was. In the last year I have heard it referenced several times, and it really has a lot to say about how we think and how we look for truth as societies. Kuhn seems to me to have been very clear sighted. In addition, it seems to me that really believing his story requires never ceasing intellectual humility. Some implications are that paradigms are imperfect and competing. They will fail somewhere. Holding to a paradigm can be useful and productive, but can also prevent some advances. Paradigms are not ultimately provable, but rather are accepted empirically because they work. No paradigm is free of these dangers.

So one might say that a paradigm is circular reasoning that works. Assume Newton's laws and you can predict all sorts of things about the physics of daily life, and even about many microscopic, molecular processes. This then confirms the validity of Newton's laws as a paradigm. Assume Evolution and you can explain hoards of biological data and expand human understanding of the workings of nature. Assume Intelligent Design and you force your God into a smaller and smaller box every time science increases in understanding and predictive power. Assume a vengeful, tribal God and you force yourself toward belief in a being that it's hardly surprising many people reject and ridicule. Assume a compassionate God and new doors open to understand the beauties and evils of this life. You may have a sense that I choose my paradigms based in part on esthetics, and you would be right. Truth is beauty and beauty, truth, after all. As I work to be happier, I find that optimism and looking for good in others serves me best. Consequently, I have become more of an ethical pragmatist than an idealist. I've had to give up a few ideals. I found that they actually made me and others measurably unhappy and unhealthy. I might argue that they were false ideals, but I've found it more productive to change my discourse. When I talk with people about effective ways to achieve shared values, I get more done and feel better than when I draw a line and say I will not cross it.

Some thoughts on what Book of Mormon historicity is and isn't

What does this all have to do with Book of Mormon historicity? What it means to me is this--assuming the Book of Mormon is about real people, who really lived and really did the things they said they did, works. I've listened to believing, practicing Mormons express their difficulties with believing the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I've tried a little to understand their point of view, and I've made a little progress, but as of now I've still mostly failed. The biggest reason is because Book of Mormon historicity works. It provides a paradigm that allows interesting and useful questions to be asked, and answers to be found. I don't find this same productivity from any incarnation of the opposing view that I have heard.

Let me clarify some things about what I believe Book of Mormon historicity means and doesn't mean. It does mean that real people, who really spoke with God, kept records on plates thousands of years ago. It does mean that Mormon and Moroni had visions of a future day and compiled some records specifically for this future day. It does mean that Joseph Smith "translated" this work by some means which we can only make educated guesses at from a small number of first and second hand descriptions. It does mean that the Book of Mormon is a historical document that can be fruitfully studied using historical and literary methods as appropriately applied to ancient documents.
It doesn't mean that the Book of Mormon is written like a modern history, attempting academic objectivity. It doesn't mean that the men who kept the records were any different from good people keeping journals, and that they weren't limited by their perceptions, paradigms, prejudices, and the information available to them. It doesn't mean that the authors' agendas didn't shape their writing or what they included. It doesn't mean that modern assumptions about what historical claims are made by the Book of Mormon are what was meant or indicated by the authors. If we start out with false assumptions about what historicity means for the Book of Mormon, we can end up deductively proving almost any arbitrary hypothesis, so as I explore this paradigm, please throw out patently false and contradictory assumptions, or just move on because we won't really be discussing anything.

Acknowledgement of apparent problems

Horses, elephants, large armies equipped with bronze and steel armor, and Middle Eastern origins for Native Americans rather than East Asian origins are among the testable problems for Book of Mormon historicity. I disagree that these or others are insurmountable or that, to be resolved, they require any mental gymnastics unusual to the fields of Archaeology, Linguistics, or Comparative Literature, or that they require any mental gymnastics at all for Genetics, but I would refer you to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies for apologetic comments on these and many other topics. I am convinced that much of the evidence for Book of Mormon historicity involves some circular reasoning, and that I cannot provide definitive proof that any of these people lived or did what they said they did. It may forever remain an impossibility. I have begun to examine Book of Mormon historicity as a paradigm rather than focusing on it exclusively as a fact that I must establish or reject based on the paradigms of scientific inquiry (I am interested in such a proofs, but find discussion of them generally fruitless. Too much is "lost to history").

An example of why I find the historicity paradigm valuable

I want to share a more subtle example of how the historicity paradigm works for me. To do this, I'm going to quote from a book about the Book of Mormon, the Psalms, and ancient temple worship:
The Hebrew word translated "prosperously" has the connotation of success rather than of wealth. The words in the LDS scriptures are keyed to mean the same thing as those same words in the Bible, so we can move from the Bible to the Book of Mormon and back again, and know the words in each have the same meaning. That would not have been true if Joseph had translated the Book of Mormon into 19th century New England backcountry English, but it is true because he used Bible words and phrases as they are used in the King James Bible. Consequently, just as we can use Bible meanings to decode the subtext of the Book of Mormon, so we can use the Book of Mormon to decode the subtext of the Bible. The word "prosperously" is a splendid example.
"Prosper" is an important code word in the Book of Mormon. We first encounter it when the Lord promises Nephi of the blessings of priesthood and kingship:
19 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.
20 And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands.
21 And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.
22 And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren (1 Nephi 2:19-22).
There, as in the Hebrew, prosper had to do with success rather than wealth. The opposite of prosperity was not a bad potato crop, rather it was to be cut off from the presence of the Lord. That is an often repeated part of Book of Mormon theology. Lehi reminds his children:
Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence (2 Nephi 1:20)
So we may deduce that "prosper" was code for being brought into, or remaining in the presence of the Lord. If our psalm carries the same connotation, then the rest of the verse comes alive with meaning:
And in thy majesty [sacred garments of kingship] ride prosperously [successfully--in the presence of the Lord] because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee awesome things.
(Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, LeGrand L. Baker and Stephen D. Ricks, Eborn Books: Salt Lake City, Utah, 2009, pp. 267-269.)
That's a long enough quote, and likely not very illuminating about what I mean. Let me illustrate a little:

  1. Assume Joseph Smith translated mostly into KJV English and not his own.
  2. Assume ancient authors with strong Biblical cultural history wrote with similar understandings of theology as Biblical authors.
  3. Assume the cosmic temple story, in broad strokes, is the same now as it was anciently among the Jews and the Nephites.
 Admittedly, these are big assumptions that have not been proven, but what are some fruits of making these assumptions:
  1. Early 20th century scholarship proposing that many of the Psalms were the ancient temple liturgy make sense, and one can use the Book of Mormon as an independent check of still ongoing (although I don't know how prominent) study into the Psalms. It isn't academic proof, but it can open your eyes to things you may have overlooked in previous Biblical scholarship.
  2. Biblical scholarship can now be used as a tool to better understand the Book of Mormon. Things that we learn about 6th century BCE Jewish culture can offer a starting place for speculations about Book of Mormon culture--a culture for which we have no other confirmed archaeological or anthropological data because we aren't even positive where they lived, and there are almost no records from the possible Nephite and Lamanite civilizations (a lot less archaeology has been done in the Americas). Further, we can compare Book of Mormon words with KJV Bible words and look at their Hebrew or Greek roots to see if additional meaning is revealed in the Book of Mormon.
  3. We can use the Biblical scholarship and our understanding of temples to replace false interpretations of the Book of Mormon.
This third point is probably the most important to me (although perhaps not the most fun). Take the quote as an example. We can assume that Nephi was a cultural bigot who lorded his righteousness over his brothers and who was intent on making his brothers look bad and fostering a generations long feud among their descendents. We can assume that "prosper" means to get rich, and that the nearly unconscious Mormon belief that wealth + correct cultural practices = righteousness is supported by the Book of Mormon, and even that racism is supported by the Book of Mormon. Or, from this historical view of the Book of Mormon we can demonstrate to other believing Mormons that these views are false. We can show each other that God has greater hopes for us. He wants us to become His friends, not just His children. He wants us to bring all of our brothers and sisters along on the journey to a new promised land. He wants us all to "prosper."

This was one example from one pair of authors that has influenced me recently. I have had similar experiences with my understanding of faith, the atonement, and the creation story, to name three. The changes in my understanding have been incremental, and possibly could have come in other ways, but this is how I learned them--listening to people who have thought carefully about the historical Book of Mormon.

Concluding thoughts

If the Book of Mormon is historical, then real people had real visions (1 Nephi 1, 8, 11). Real people had real gaps in their knowledge and perception and wrote a flawed story as a consequence (Ether's claim that not one Jaredite survived). Real people had real agendas, and we can understand their meaning better as we search for those agendas (see Who Shall Ascend cited above). If it isn't historical, it's a nice story--sometimes. It's impressive literature to come from Joseph Smith or whoever. It has great and inspiring words of wisdom. But I'm not sure it teaches me what it says it wants to teach me--how to be like and return to Christ. I'm not sure an invented story about seeing Christ can teach me as much as a real account about a flawed person who actually met Christ (Ether 3). I'm not sure an abstract story about coming into God's presence can teach me as much as a story of a real person who himself became God's friend (Helaman 10-11). And I'm not sure I could learn as much from the Book of Mormon if I didn't believe its historical and biblical ties--beyond just quoting some verses and using similar sounding language. I would be depriving myself of tools to fully explore this amazing book and fully apply its power to bring me to Christ. The tidbits I've gained from this approach have added up. They have been small and scattered. Not one of them is impressive by itself. But they show up year after year without my doing anything that feels like mental gymnastics. In fact, the longer I study the Book of Mormon from the paradigm of historicity, the more apparent problems sort themselves out for me. I know others have experienced it differently, but I think for now I'll keep believing the historicity.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"The Family" Part 6 and Last

"The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan."

I think this is beautiful. I am also aware that one thing being essential does not necessarily imply universality or that other things are not part of the plan.

"Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity."

Yes, they are. This is a warning to each of us who has the opportunity to be part of this. This is not the only right of children. They are entitled to loving, extended families. They are entitled to being reared by loving parents who may not be their biological parents when circumstances prevent this biological ideal from occurring. They are entitled to being raised in a loving family when one biological parent is a surrogate or a test tube. They are entitled to being raised in a loving family when their biological parents are two women or two men. They are entitled to being raised in a loving family when they are genetic clones. They are entitled to be loved and taught truth and goodness.

"Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities."

The ambiguities of this statement make it what you want. I can praise it completely or condemn it for implying absurd or contradictory untruths. I chose to use it as inspiration to a better life and greater understanding.

"By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation. Extended families should lend support when needed."

These assigned roles may be wrong in some important ways, but in the context I see, they show a church that is willing to change as more knowledge is gained. This was the first place I encountered the church stating so clearly that men and women are to be equal partners. The emphasis on men presiding and women nurturing is much reduced, and situations other than the ideal are recognized. The LDS church evolves slowly and conservatively, but it evolves as it has always claimed it will and must.

"We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets."

You want living prophets to prophesy? Here it is. I suspect they are right, although I believe the prophecy may mean different things than they thought when they gave it. I think strong capitalistic valuing of competition and individualism carried unconsciously into our attitudes toward relationships is severely damaging to families. I could probably be convinced this is true of any political system carried into private life where the law of consecration should be our ruling law. Then, as I've stated previously, I have found that advocates of marriage equality are our allies in promoting family values and chastity and in fighting abuse and neglect.

"We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society."

I take this call seriously. I love the LDS church. Everything I have seen tells me that the leaders of the LDS church are good and loving men. I know they have and will make some serious mistakes, but I support their call to maintain and strengthen the family. They might be surprised or shocked to see the conclusions their call has led me to (although I doubt it), but I hope they would understand my gratitude for their having given me this call nearly 20 years ago. It has shaped my life. I hope for the better.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Family Poems

It's time for some poetry, again. I listened to an interview with Carol Lynn Pearson, and I related to this poem she read.


My people were Mormon pioneers.
Is the blood still good?
They stood by in awe as truth
Flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the West.
Where truth flies you follow
If you are a pioneer.

I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.

I will sing by the fires at night
Out there on uncharted ground
Where I am my own captain of tens
Where I blow the bugle
Bring myself to morning prayer
Map out the miles
And never know when or where
Or if at all
I will finally say,
“This is the place,”

I face the plains
On a good day for walking.
The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be alright:
My people were Mormon pioneers.


I think I like a bit of melodrama, and I certainly did in the past. Some of the language of my next poem reflects that, but my poem, and the one from my brother that inspired it, are family relationship poems, so I think they are fitting to pair with "Pioneers." I'll admit, I still find some pleasure in my brother's flattery.

To a Brother
Andrew G. Cannon

I’ve always felt this way;
Like a spring, bubbling and rumpling
over your rock;
Like a wind, laugh-whistling
through your mountain canyons.
And I’m doing it again:
too much stagger and swoon,
too much caper and fancy, loose-foot step.
When I think of you,
I’m still.
I’d gladly be an Aaron,
to your Moses.

Brother Tree, Brother Bird

How are you strong? What are the depths
That my eyes can’t see that your roots have conquered?
How can you day after day hold so firm
Your reaching branches, so straight your trunk?
How can you lose your leaves and patiently
Wait month after month their return?
What essence flows in your veins that year
After year makes you grow and bud and blossom?
As I flit here and there through your shade,
Like one more shadow of your windblown leaves,
What makes you constant?

You wrong yourself my unsure brother.
Don’t you remember we grew together?
My trunk grew straight, your wings grew strong,
My leaves spread wide, your eyesight long.

You see the stream that feeds my soul?
It’s the same that feeds yours—the very same.
I draw what it whispers down through the earth
That it carries so cleanly from distant hills;
You gather its joy as it laughs and twirls
And channels the words of messenger clouds.

It is true that my heart is bound in the earth
So that all who know me can find me and rest,
And they call me constant, they call me calm,
They call me strong, they call me friend.

You think you’re inconstant because your feet
Have only scratched the hard brown earth
And never taken root to send
Your body straining towards the light,
But you wrong yourself, my doubting friend.

You forget the wind, the wind that I
Can barely touch when it comes to me.
The wind that makes me desire to soar
So near the sun where you often go.
Yes, maybe you’re not gone for long
And always return to my waiting branches,
But you carry back a taste of the light
That my patient branches cry out to possess,
And my tormented roots, that seem so strong,
Drive down for the hold to free their hope
And throw their branches to the sky
Where all will see as they now watch and marvel
At you, soaring and circling in the light
And on the wind that you possess,
Which I can only feel as, rustling,
It passes me by.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"The Family" Part 5

"We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed. We affirm the sanctity of life and of its importance in God's eternal plan." (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)

Life is beautiful. Sex is beautiful. Our powers to create should be treated as sacred. I think I have a lot to learn about what this means in practice, and I have some thoughts of my own, but I like this statement and don't think I know many people who would take serious issue with it. Onward.

"Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. "Children are an heritage of the Lord" (Psalm 127:3). Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations." (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)

Again, no problems here. Parents should care about and for their children, and God cares if we do. Can I embrace this part of "The Family"? Yes, and I think it condemns us for our condemnation of homosexual children. It may not have in the past when we could still reasonably fear that a child could be led to homosexuality through example or coercion--then would could believe that we were protecting other children--but we no longer can reasonably hold this view. Both scientific consensus and the LDS Church have rejected it. God will hold us accountable for the physical and mental care we give our LGBT children. I see no indication of God's excusing a parent for rejecting a child in any degree as the consequence of perceived (or even real) sin. I see Christ's warning that if I harm a child, it would be better to have a millstone hung about my neck and be drowned. I do see evidence of God's allowing natural consequences to follow poor choices, but I see much more evidence of long-suffering love than tough love.

"The Family" Part 4

"The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife. We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife." (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)

The importance of reproduction is biologically obvious. Its method has required man and woman until recently. Bearing and raising children outside of a two parent family has negative consequences for individuals and society. Casual sex has negative consequences for individuals and society. That God does not want these consequences for his children seems totally straightforward. This proclamation was made in this historical context, and could be completely correct in its context. I see many reasons to support these teachings.

I also see reasons for re-evaluating some assumptions closely tied to these teachings. When children are cloned, or born through technology to two women or two men instead of a man and a woman, will we claim they don't have souls, aren't really children of God, or are born in sin? Are we truly willing to condemn these children or their loving parents? How different, really, are these situations from in vitro fertilization? We no longer imagine that birth control is sinful, yet it was once preached against as if there were a doctrinal mandate to condemn it.

We should exercise caution in employing new technologies to create life (the powers of procreation, and creation, ARE sacred, and we must show we can use them with wisdom, love, and foresight if we are to show ourselves ready to assume the role of gods). We should also remember that God speaks to his children all over the world--including in revealing science, if our prophets are to be believed. I think it will be easier to go to God for further light and knowledge on the subject than to justify as eternal doctrines meant for a specific historical and cultural environment.

I do have one problem. I do not believe that sex is only healthy and beautiful between a man and a woman. I have known too many homosexuals (one would be enough) in loving, committed relationships who show too many fruits of happiness, goodness, and love to hang on to my absolute, black and white prejudices against homosexual sex. The lawfully wedded part I think is very important to individual and societal well-being. I want to advocate for continued recognition of the value of family in our legal system. This is why I view gay marriage advocates as my moral allies. This is why I apologize to my LGBT sisters and brothers for the pain caused by the condemnation they have experienced because of our implementation of some doctrines we espouse as Latter-day Saints.

This paragraph of "The Family" is one I'm not sure I could endorse as scripture. I'm not sure I would raise my hand to the square to vote it into our canon. But I might. While many Latter-day Saints are uncomfortable with my reading of "The Family", it is explicitly part of our scripture and doctrine (much clearer than the total absence of canonized, scriptural condemnation of gay marriage) that scripture is given to us according to our language and understanding, in a specific cultural context, and with the possibility that new revelation will supersede it (as it has with parts of every other book of scripture in our canon). I'm ok with scripture being flawed, so I might vote yes and pray for the day when our leaders will seek and reveal more light and knowledge on the subject. There is already so much of good in it.

"The Family" Part 3

"In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshipped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny as heirs of eternal life. The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally." (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)

This grand view of eternity is what helps me make sense of life. This life is hard. That's built into mortality. Even if there were no other evils, death would be an awful monster to face in uncertainty. Yet death is exactly what each of us must face--with great uncertainty. What possibly could be the purpose of placing us into such a state of existence? Clearly other options exist for such a powerful being as God? What can I learn from believing a loving god placed us in this position? From believing that I chose it? Then there is the idea that our earthly relationships continue in meaningful ways. It isn't only our continued relationship to God that matters, and that we don't lose our individuality into some nebulous being. We are developing relationships of eternal consequence, and it is explicitly part of LDS doctrine, not just something that we think should be true.

Death and all this family stuff makes a wonderful sort of sense once you decode the doctrines hidden to make the proclamation more approachable to the uninitiated. We are destined to be gods and goddesses if we make the choices that will allow us to become such. If you think this belief is too weird, or even evil, I'm sorry it bothers you. I think, "What more natural meaning to being God's children than growing up to be gods?"

We need temples and the ordinances performed in them. This is a problematic doctrine for my current universalist belief tendencies. My personal response is, everyone will have an opportunity for these ordinances, and while it is wonderful to experience the spirit of the ordinances in this life, it is not essential. I find temple work beautiful and inspiring to do much good. If anyone else wants to experience the beauty I have found in the temple, I'm happy to help you get there. If not, I'd love to be an observer, companion, or helper in your personal search for truth and beauty.

In summary: we chose life, physical bodies are wonderful, individuality and relationships are eternal, and we can become gods and goddesses. Quite the crazy metaphysical framework, but it really works for me. I think there is even more implied. If relationships are eternal, we lose something of eternal value every time we contribute to harming a relationship with a loved one. If I am not asking myself what I can do to improve my family relationships, I am failing to fully embrace the atonement in my life. If I am focused on how a family member or friend has lost his salvation, I may be forgetting the universalism of our temple doctrines, or be overemphasizing our belief in works and not giving grace its due weight.

No more questions I haven't already asked for this part. :)