Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book of Mormon historicity favors progressive ideals

I am a stronger believer than I was, even as a young, indoctrinated teenager, that the Book of Mormon was written by real life, historical people who actually saw and did what they said they did. However, anyone who reads some of my past blog posts, sees some of my more private online conversations, or talks with me about Mormonism for long, will realize that I hold many views that don't line up with typical teenage indoctrination among Latter-day Saints. I spend a fair amount of intellectual time and energy around more liberal or progressive (or cultural) Mormons, although I tend to tune out those focused on being critical of the LDS church. Most of these people recognize problems with understanding what Joseph Smith actually meant by 'translating', and examine pronouncements given with prophetic authority very critically. A common (but not universal) sentiment among them is that the Book of Mormon is valuable simply because we, as the readers, find moral value in it. It has shaped our lives and history whether or not it is truly a historical record. I think they are largely correct. A number go so far as to say they don't believe it is a historical record, and that trying to demonstrate Book of Mormon historicity is a waste of time and a losing battle. I think progressive Mormons are hurting their efforts to shape the future of the church by rejecting Book of Mormon historicity. Instead, they should embrace it and push the idea that the Book of Mormon is truly an ancient historical document. Here are some reasons.

Skip these reasons--I'm venting

First, and perhaps least important, it's not a losing battle. Reasons against believing historicity are completely based on subjective arguments or the absence of evidence, every one of which is undermined by closer readings of the Book of Mormon text or by positive evidences from culture history (archaeology plus other stuff; for easily accessible examples see here). I think critics of historicity will find their resistance to it mildly embarrassing in 50 years. That's me being an uninspired prophet, so we won't dwell on it.

Second, Joseph Smith taught so much stuff that can be used to promote progressive ideals, and it is much easier to justify Joseph Smith as a prophet--and thus someone worth listening to--if he wasn't just imagining that he was translating a historical work. I think this is an important point, but it is highly debatable and won't be discussed here.

Historicity Empowers

Third, scholars who accept Book of Mormon historicity bring in information from many scholarly disciplines. This places limits on the Book of Mormon, turning the game of choosing the best interpretations from a superficial, mystical exercise shaped solely by our 21st (or 20th, or 19th) century views, into an endeavor potentially shaped by the best advances in the scholarship of cultural history, literary theory, etc. This changes the entire discourse around what the Book of Mormon teaches. I want to outline a few ways this favors progressive ideals.

Historicity Empowers Scholarship

Believing the Book of Mormon was written by historical figures--people we can potentially learn about through the study of cultural history--effectively weakens the absolute interpretive control of the religious hierarchy. I believe this control is more culturally assumed than doctrinal, anyway, and that many prophets don't feel it is their job to give absolute interpretations of scripture. Many prophets think we should all be doing it ourselves, and have said as much, although others would restrict personal interpretation more. But accepting the text as belonging in a particular historical and cultural context gives anyone who develops expertise in that history an added authority in scriptural interpretation regardless of their ecclesiastical position. Scholarly experts have more sway in how we understand scripture, and the door is opened for science to influence Mormonism a little more.

Allowing science to encroach upon a religious text will have serious consequences and will meet with a lot of resistance, but it will likely have a similar effect to Biblical scholarship. There will be fundamentalist Mormons who resist the liberalized understanding, seeing it as eroding moral values, but there are few mainstream Christian churches which don't recognize many of the difficulties with literal interpretation of the Bible. I'm unaware of any that still believe the Sun revolves around the Earth, although some still seek to justify a global flood. The same will happen with Mormonism. It will take a generation for each significant shift, but changes will happen, and they will happen in the direction of supporting measurable truths.

Historicity Witnesses for Christ

In contrast to the effect of Biblical scholarship causing many students to doubt the divinity and resurrection of Christ, embracing the Book of Mormon as historical has the opposite effect. Whatever biases its authors may have had, the Book of Mormon is a witness of the risen Christ. Biases don't eliminate the lived experiences of thousands, and the transmission of those experiences is much less convoluted than for the Bible. People who saw Christ wrote about it. Mormon had their writings. Joseph Smith translated those writings. Three steps with no gap of a generation or two between the events and their recording. In addition, it's difficult to argue away the Sermon on the Mount as a collection of wisdom sayings. It comes from Christ in its full force with its injunctions to love your enemies and do good to them that hurt you.

Historicity Empowers Moral Responsibility

If the Book of Mormon is historical, ancient prophets are as human as modern ones, with all of their biases and limitations of knowledge and experience. This gives greater justification for the serious care progressive Mormons give to listening to modern prophets and then carefully examining what they teach. It gives greater strength to the claim that we should claim responsibility for our own moral choices, and not simply rely on anyone else. Instead of having to convince Latter-day Saints that the Book of Mormon shouldn't be read historically, you only need to convince them to read it more literally. To read the subtext illuminated by faithful, church sponsored, Book of Mormon scholars. Nephi got the history right--from his own perspective. When we insist he got it right from all perspectives, we become vulnerable to outside (and inside, for that matter) critics who would show that the Book of Mormon is a hoax perpetrated by Joseph Smith. Mormon compiled the Book of Mormon from the perspective of a lifelong soldier fighting an overwhelmingly losing battle. Thank goodness he and Moroni had visions of the future, or this could be an irredeemably morbid text. When we limit the Book of Mormon to this more human (not completely human) dimension, as the scholars of the Maxwell Institute (and Sunstone and Dialogue) regularly do, then our claims are more defensible--and lots of faithful members like defensible claims (some examples). Show these members how making more modest, careful, historical claims about the Book of Mormon strengthens it against attack and props it up in its most important role--testifying of Christ--and they will begin to think and talk in more modest, careful ways. They will begin to give up a degree of scriptural inerrancy and prophetic hero worship because they will see how liberalizing these beliefs strengthens their testimony of Christ.

Those are some of my reasons. For progressive or cultural Mormons who want to stay in the LDS church, I think you are shooting yourselves in the foot to fight against Book of Mormon historicity. You should be embracing it to give you greater hope for the future of the LDS church, greater power to shape that future, and greater hope in the resurrection.

1 comment:

  1. Notes for rewrite:
    Remove first half of opening paragraph.
    "The way to win the historicity war is to embrace it, make the biases of the ancient authors and abridgers part of the everyday discussion, and open a space for academic scholarship in mainstream interpretation of scripture. God's hand isn't revealed in making Joseph Smith's translation more mystical, but in seeing God's hand hidden in the ordinary actions of flawed, but willing, men."
    Skip the venting.
    Talk about empowering discussions of progressive ideals, not disempowering them.
    "If your object is real social change rather than debunking historicity, then here are some reasons you should embrace and encourage MORE historical readings of the Book of Mormon."