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Self-inflicted theological wounds

November 5, 2017

Earlier this summer, Loyd Ericson and Blair G. Van Dyke released the second volume in the Perspectives on Mormon Theology series…this one was about apologetics. The volume features essays by authors all over the map in terms of positions on apologetics; Loyd and Blair let the authors speak for themselves, but if you are familiar with the existing dynamics, you can definitely understand that some essays are “responding” to other essays.

The typical meta-arguments about apologetics have been hashed out too many times already, but what I wanted to focus on was Loyd’s own contribution to the volume: an essay entitled “Conceptual Confusion and Building of Stumbling Blocks of Faith.”

Loyd went on a joint Mormon Matters/Mormon Stories podcast episode with Dan Wotherspoon, John Dehlin, and Bert Fuller to discuss his concept, and I have written more extensively about his notion at Wheat & Tares, so I won’t dive too deeply into his argument. However, to summarize, Loyd believes that attempts to utilize secular scholarship to defend religious claims actually opens up those religious claims to defeat by secular scholarship. That is to say, faith crises spurred by doubt in the historicity of the Book of Mormon could only happen because apologists and critics were both confused that the truth of the Book of Mormon were tied to the historicity or ancient nature of the book.

I was intrigued by Loyd’s thesis, but also somewhat doubtful. As I wrote in several comment on Facebook and on the Mormon Matters podcast page, I thought the main issue Loyd would run into is that he’s already too late. Many believers do believe that secular scholarly claims are tied to the religious claims, and even worse, it’s not just apologists who caused this. Rather, the church hierarchy itself teaches members to believe that its truth claims extend to claims regarding secular facts.

It’s clear in Moroni 10 that Moroni isn’t asking people to pray about the historicity of the book. That’s where Loyd’s argument has grand merit. Moroni explicitly states in verse 6:

And whatsoever thing is good is just and true; wherefore, nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is.

Please note that this says: “whatsoever thing is good” is “just and true” — one looks to goodness first as the criteria of truth. (And furthermore, there’s nothing in this line to suggest that “true” implies our modern understanding of historical facts, but rather about acceptance of theological claims. As Loyd summarizes DZ Phillips in his essay, to proclaim that “Jesus is the Christ” is a categorically different thing than saying “Jesus is a carpenter.”

And yet, notwithstanding these concepts in the Book of Mormon (or the Alma 32 concept that you verify the goodness of the word by experimenting upon it, not by validating its historicity), there is at the same time an emphasis from the church itself that historicity matters.

I posted my Wheat & Tares post on the exmormon reddit to see what people would think, and most people adamantly protested the idea that Mormonism could be true if it were not historical. To avoid the potential of having a biased audience (perhaps exmormons tended to have more literalistic faith than typical?), I also asked the more believing latterdaysaints reddit, and although there were some who responded that their testimony did not depend on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, others expressed that it did. As the top upvoted comment wrote:

Joseph didn’t leave the “inspired fiction” option open to us. He spoke of an actual visit from Moroni. He claimed to have dug up a real, tangible set of ancient plates. He said that they had actual Reformed Egyptian characters on them. He claimed to have translated them with an actual seer stone that the Church still possesses to this day.

I know that for more nuanced Mormons, it will be easy to say that Joseph may not have fully understood his own experiences, and could have misreported what was happening. However, at that point — and as I remarked about Loyd’s argument in the first place — one has to essentially argue against members’ understanding of how the church itself presents its own nature, to try to preserve faith in said church. The church’s emphasis on literal historicity is therefore a self-inflicted theological wound.


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  1. Agellius permalink

    It may be a self-inflicted wound, but would admitting that your religion was founded on fictional events be any more likely to attract and hold adherents?

    • The argument from Loyd is that the text will (or will not) resonate with readers regardless of historicity. And that resonance is what really matters.

      As Dan added in the podcast, myths usually don’t self announce as fictional, and yet, we are supposed to understand that their basis in fictional events doesn’t make them fraudulent or reduce their truth value.

      • Agellius permalink

        Fair enough but if all the things that Smith claimed were factual in fact were not, doesn’t that simply make him a liar rather than a myth-teller? In which case who would venerate him as an inspiring religious figure? Because you know, he vehemently insisted on their factuality, what with all the oaths and written testimonies and so forth. I just don’t see him having any credibility or even respectability if it was all made up.

        • I guess the first question would be whether authors of pseudopigrapha (e.g., disputed Pauline epistles) wouldn’t count as liars or if there are contexts for which that sort of thing would be understandable (a “pious fraud” model.)

          But then the second question would be whether there even was conscious intentional deception going on. The “sincere visionary” model would point out that it’s possible for Joseph (or any other religious figure — as Ann Taves would attribute similar sorts of things happening in the development of Alcoholics Anonymous and “A Course in Miracles”, but those two and Mormonism developed in different directions) to have misunderstood the experiences they were having. So, they could be misinformed about the explanations they assigned, but ultimately, they were still pointing to something real.

          It’s not that you need believe Joseph to have any credibility or even respectability. However, the idea from Ericson is that his credibility or respectability as a religious figure is ultimately only based on the quality of the religious thought (and that is not something you appeal to secular scholarship for.)

          Maybe to use an analogy that will work better for you based on previous conversations we’ve had…Loyd analogizes religious truth to aesthetic truth. I know you believe in objective aesthetic value, but couldn’t you agree that a work of art would still have aesthetic value (objective even) even if that value weren’t something that could be drilled down to scientific or historical inquiry? That is, the artist could be a criminal scumbag, the art could be entirely different than what the artist believed it to be, but you evaluate the art on its own merits, no?

          • Agellius permalink


            My understanding is that there is only one disputed Pauline epistle, namely Hebrews, and it doesn’t claim to have been written by Paul.

            I agree that you can evaluate the quality of Smith’s religious thought apart from his character or reliability as a truth-teller. But having given quite a lot of time and thought to Smith and Mormonism, I feel very strongly that the specificity and factuality of his revelations was the whole point of the thing, and indeed he repeatedly insisted on such. The basic reason a restoration of the Gospel was needed was because things had become muddled and confused, and God wanted to restore clarity and accuracy to the Gospel message. It was not an attempt to introduce indefinite, inspiring religious notions and general religious principles, but quite the contrary, it was a set of direct, specific and concrete revelations, often naming specific dates, people and places.

            I agree that it’s possible that even if all these things were false, Smith was nevertheless not a fraud. But on the premise that they were false, it becomes exceedingly easy to view Smith’s statements and actions as those of a deliberate fraud, feeding his ego, enjoying religious and political power, collecting wives and so on.

            In my opinion if factuality is abandoned, Mormonism will not be long for this world.

  2. Mary Ann permalink

    Mormonism is influenced heavily by the enlightenment, which puts weight on science. In this system, myth is given less weight than historical events that can be verified objectively. In this secular age, fiction can definitely be inspiring (art, movies, books, etc.), but people expect to see an accurate categorization at some point. If a movie says “inspired by true events,” people will expect some artistic license taken. But presenting fiction as fact or fact as fiction are both considered, to a certain extent, offensive in a secular culture (this is why Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny can be so problematic for kids as they grow up). This reaction is not universal, though. Some other cultures don’t care as much about the distinction between fact and fiction.

    • Agellius permalink

      Mary Ann:

      I agree with all that, but the Catholic Church was insisting on the factuality of its beliefs — the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ miracles, etc., for over a millennia before Mormonism came along and before Western society became predominantly secular. It’s true that some other cultures blur the line between fact and fiction, but it’s also true that modern science arose in the West and I would argue there’s a connection with having a clear distinction between the two.

  3. Agellius,

    With respect to your comment to Mary Ann, doesn’t the Catholic Church believe the following:

    1) Yes, the Resurrection, Virgin Birth, Jesus’ miracles, etc., are factual
    2) Scientific truth should not conflict with revealed truth, and yet…
    3) Revealed truth is not established through scientific methods.

    Like, you would accept the Resurrection as actual, and in your faith, you would accept that scientific or historical truths will not conflict or contradict this, but you aren’t going to follow secular scholarship that doubts the resurrection. Your faith means accepting the resurrection first, and then trusting that all seeming contradictions are only *seeming*.

    am i missing anything there?

    If anything, the difference is that if someone comes to disbelieve (1) or (2), you would probably say they cease to have faith anymore, right?

    • Agellius permalink


      I don’t consider secular doubts about the Resurrection to be the result of scholarship. Secular-ness is already a decision to doubt the supernatural. Secular doubt in that sense is a redundancy. To examine a purportedly supernatural event by secular standards, that is, by the only criteria accepted by secular people, is to have decided in advance that the supernatural could not have happened. No matter how strong the evidence, secular scholarship would never conclude that the Resurrection happened but would always insist that there must be some spatio-temporal explanation.

      My position is not that I refuse to follow secular scholarship, but rather, that secular scholarship, as a factual matter, not only has not, but will never be able to disprove the Resurrection, since you can’t disprove the truth. It’s a prediction based on my conviction that the factuality of the Resurrection has been divinely revealed and is therefore absolutely reliable.

      I agree that if someone came to doubt the factuality of the Resurrection, that would mean they have ceased to have faith.

  4. tom permalink

    Different tradition have different historicity and factuality , its like an individual point of sensory view , we sense different things so the common between us is interpreted.

    We start from idiosyncratic subjectivity and build objective reality from that.

    The more standards (secular , supernatural , est) we have and the richer they are , the more reality we have.

    Our contexes are in medias res.

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