Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thinking About Marriage: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Elder D. Todd Christofferson's 2015 General Conference talk, "Why Marriage, Why Family," recently came up in a dinner conversation as an intriguing example of helping LDS people to think more deeply about marriage. A new friend, a professor, observed that it was interesting that Elder Christofferson chose to draw upon a Protestant theologian for a lucid explanation of marriage, and wondered if perhaps LDS writings on this topic have not been sufficiently thoughtful and eloquent to provide an abundance of equally valuable insights. In any case, Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers a  valuable perspective on marriage that takes it beyond the romantic love we tend to emphasize. Here is the relevant excerpt from Elder Christofferson:
Above the Great West Door of the renowned Westminster Abbey in London, England, stand the statues of 10 Christian martyrs of the 20th century. Included among them is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant German theologian born in 1906. Bonhoeffer became a vocal critic of the Nazi dictatorship and its treatment of Jews and others. He was imprisoned for his active opposition and finally executed in a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was a prolific writer, and some of his best-known pieces are letters that sympathetic guards helped him smuggle out of prison, later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

One of those letters was to his niece before her wedding. It included these significant insights: “Marriage is more than your love for each other.... In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. … So love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.”  [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (1953), 42–43.]
Bonhoeffer gives a clear reminder of what marriage is meant to be, in my opinion. Terribly unpopular words today, but worthy of consideration. This won't win arguments with critics, but for those wondering how to approach the topic of marriage from the perspective of faith, Bonhoeffer's words and Elder Christofferson's further comments might be helpful.

Of course, we live in an era of complexity where we often need to work closely with and respect those with many different perspectives, tendencies, lifestyle choices, and beliefs, perhaps even in our own families. But somewhere in there, understanding our own beliefs and being able to explain them when someone wishes to understand is a positive step.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Science and Mormonism: An Insight from LDS.org and an Update on the So-Called 1910 "First Presidency Statement"

Science and religion are two independent witnesses of God's Creation, according to a beautiful video interview of LDS scientist Dr. John Lewis, formerly of the University of Arizona and MIT, which is prominently provided at LDS.org. Lewis makes a very pro-science statement in his interview, though the emphasis is on expressing his faith and his witness of the divine Creation.

For those dealing with some of the tensions between science and religion, it's helpful to understand that the Church does not take an official view on the details of the Creation process for the earth and does not require the earth to be young, nor does it deny the possibility of evolutionary forces being an important tool in the creation of life.

There have been conflicting statements over the years, and even some confusion about the nature and content of some statements. Some LDS publications, for example, have cited an open-minded 1910 statement as a "First Presidency Statement" (one example). In my recent post on day two of the 2017 FairMormon Conference, I mentioned that one presenter referred to a 1910 First Presidency Statement, but I wasn't sure if that reference was accurate. The presenter, Ugo Perego, who had taken the quote from a secondary reference that described it as a "First Presidency Statement," kindly followed up and found the source of the original text. It comes from an unsigned editorial in the 1910 Improvement Era (the official Church magazine of that day), vol. 13, p. 185. At this time, the editors listed were Joseph F. Smith, President of the Church and Edward H. Anderson. Brother Anderson was not a General Authority; at the time, based on his Wikipedia entry, I believe he was in the Weber Stake High Council, which is not quite the same. President Smith might have helped in writing it and most likely approved it, but that doesn't make it an official First Presidency Statement. But I like it.

Images sent to me from Brother Perego follow (click to enlarge):




The text is available at FairMormon.org:
Origin of Man.-- "In just what manner did the mortal bodies of Adam and Eve come into existence on this earth?" This question comes from several High Priests' quorums.

Of course, all are familiar with the statements in Genesis 1: 26-27; 2: 7; also in the Book of Moses, Pearl of Great Price, 2: 27; and in the Book of Abraham 5: 7. The latter statement reads: "And the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground, and took his spirit (that is, the man's spirit) and put it into him; and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."

These are the authentic statements of the scriptures, ancient and modern, and it is best to rest with these, until the Lord shall see fit to give more light on the subject. Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God. For helpful discussion of the subject, see Improvement Era, Vol. XI, August 1908, No. 10, page 778, article, "Creation and Growth of Adam;" also article by the First Presidency, "Origin of Man," Vol. XIII, No. 1, page 75, 1909.

Editorial (unsigned) [Joseph F. Smith as president of the Church and Edward H. Anderson were editors], "Priesthood Quorums’ Table," Improvement Era 13 no. 4? (April 1910), 570.
This leaves open the possibility that evolution played a role in developing the human bodies of Adam and Eve and all of us. It's a noteworthy moment in the history of LDS teachings relative to evolution. For more details, see David H. Bailey, "History of the LDS Church's view on the age of the earth and evolution," Jan. 1, 2017, at ScienceMeetsReligion.org. David H. Bailey is a scientist from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (recently retired) and the University of California, Davis. Also see his collection of 14 LDS-related pages on science and religion.

Also see my LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) page, "Questions about Science and Mormon Views."

Disclosure: In fairness, I have to admit that I love science and my religion, and am invested in both.


Friday, August 04, 2017

FairMormon 2017 Conference, Day Two

Day two of the FairMormon 2017 Conference offered another series of outstanding speakers with messages covering a broad spectrum of topics. (See also my summary of day one.)

Ben Spackman
The day began with an outstanding presentation from Ben Spackman who discussed what it takes to properly understand scripture. He discussed the reality of accommodation, wherein God's words to us do not necessarily refute all our misunderstandings and ignorance at once, but address us in ways we can understand. Further, he stressed that we can consider scripture like a map. A map inevitably leaves out a great deal and often deliberately distorts reality in order to achieve its purpose, just as a two-dimensional map of the earth such as the Mercator Projection will distort distances, or as a map of a subway system will not only distort distances but also be useless for navigating streets, hiking, or mining. Taking Genesis as a map useful for understanding 21st century scientific issues such as cosmology and the literal scientific details of the Creation might be like using a subway map to plan a mining expedition.

Understanding God's accommodation of human understanding helps us temper out expectations of what we can extract from scripture and the words of the prophets. The Old Testament is infused with the geocentric view of the cosmos that was the only model human minds had at that time. God worked with rather than refuted that understanding. More significantly, perhaps, Christ explained that in terms of policy and commandment, God accommodated human hard-heartedness in allowing divorce, though it was contrary to God's desires. Matthew 19:8: "Jesus replied, 'Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.'" (

Ben recommend a good list of resources on dealing with scripture from the excellent blog, Benjamin the Scribe.

I liked how Ben used a poem from Emily Dickinson, "Tell All The Truth,"  to help illustrate God's tendency to guide us gradually toward the truth, accommodating our weaknesses and errors:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth's superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Ugo Perego on Evolution
Ugo Perego, a scientist with a strong background in genetics and DNA, spoke about the Church's position on evolution, which as you should know leaves us open to accept what science teaches and does not require us to force-fit our beliefs into young earth models of the Creation. 

He began with Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-34 which points to a future science fest in which the Lord will tell us all about the things of the earth, the way it was made, etc. This indicates he will be revealing things we don't know. If we think we know it today, we may have a surprise coming. In my opinion, this passage is one of many that should encourage us to care about science since the Lord obviously does.

While the Church has said relatively little about evolution, Brother Perego discussed a 1909 First Presidency statement on the "Origins of Man" and also referred to a First Presidency Statement in 1910 that he said clarified the previous statement and said that whether the mortal bodies of man evolved over time or were transplanted to earth or were born here, are "questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God." But I think this may be in error,  and that the 1910 statement that has often been widely quoted was not really a First Presidency Statement. He's checking on that (based on a chat with him afterwards). I hope the 1910 statement is legitimate, but while it is printed in a variety of books and articles, it may be problematic. If you have definitive answers, let me know! It is not at LDS.org based on my searching.

Another interesting article form the Church that he shared with us is "What does the Church believe about dinosaurs?," New Era, Feb. 2016:
Did dinosaurs live and die on this earth long before man came along? There have been no revelations on this question, and the scientific evidence says yes. (You can learn more about it by studying paleontology if you like, even at Church-owned schools.)

The details of what happened on this planet before Adam and Eve aren’t a huge doctrinal concern of ours. The accounts of the Creation in the scriptures are not meant to provide a literal, scientific explanation of the specific processes, time periods, or events involved.
More recently, in the October 2016 New Era, we have a clear statement in the article, "What does the Church believe about evolution?":
The Church has no official position on the theory of evolution. Organic evolution, or changes to species’ inherited traits over time, is a matter for scientific study. Nothing has been revealed concerning evolution.
Bruce R. McConkie noted that a "day" could be an age, an eon, or a division of eternity. He said there is no revealed guidance that the days of Creation were 24-hour days.

As Hugh Nibley noted, Abraham 4:20 says that God prepared the waters to bring forth life such as whales. Sounds as if they weren't instantaneously created, but the waters were made ready to allow them to develop.

Perego then turned to the topic of DNA and the Book of Mormon. While not specifying what geographic model of the Book of Mormon is best and warning that we need not do that, he said that the Heartland Model advocates who are claiming DNA evidence proves the Book of Mormon is true are abusing science. In specific, the hapotype X2a DNA that has been found has no bearing on the Book of Mormon, but is a New World DNA from the ancestor of Kennewick Man and was present in the Americas long before the Book of Mormon. It does not support a Great Lakes model of the Book of Mormon. 

Perego has studied and published on more sequences of X2a than any other scientist and is an expert on this topic. As of today, clear genetic evidence of ancient Old World transoceanic migrations other than Bering Strait migrations does not exist.

Regarding a recent study on ancient Mayan DNA samples, Perego noted that the authors in correspondence with him said that one sample "did not work." Perego asked what that meant. Answer: "The DNA was not what we expected." It was rejected during review and they were asked to remove the unexpected sequence. (This is a danger I have noted in my paper on the Book of Mormon and DNA evidence, where I give some examples of unexpected DNA results being discarded that might have pointed to Old World ties in ancient Native American DNA.) Perego emphasizes that there is still much that we do not understand. For example a 2107 publication in Nature on the genomic era shows that there are studies showing possibility of genetic contact between South America and Polynesia. Which way was the gene flow and how? There is still much we don't known.

Perego advises that DNA and the Book of Mormon is an interesting topic, but not one to tie your testimony to, and certainly not a good reason to reject the Book of Mormon or the Church.

Janiece Johnson
Dr. Janiece Johnson delivered a strong message on the need to pay more attention to the women of LDS history. Dr. Johnson observed that too long women's voices have not been recognized in the Church, and we have suffered for this. There have been some bright spots, but many women's voices have been overlooked.

When asked what women were involved in the Restoration, Lattre-day Saints typically give a list of four women: Mary Fielding Smith, Emma Hale Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and Lucy Mack Smith. Dr. Johnson is pained that the many women of the Restoration have been largely reduced to these four voices. "We need to hear women's voices. We need to read their words. We need to hear their experiences."

To illustrate the diversity in the lives of major women in the Restoration, she contrasted Eliza R. Snow and Zina D.H. Young. Zina had a dramatic conversion experience by reading the Book of Mormon, with an almost instantaneous conversion. Eliza, on the other hand, took four years of study to get past her fears that it might be a hoax and become a firm believer. The diversity in the conversion stories of early LDS women reminds us of our diversity today and the different approaches and needs we have as we encounter the Gospel. There is much to learn from the stories of these early Saints.

Johnson covered aspects of the life stories of several other early LDS women, all with lessons for our day. One was Desideria Quntanar de Yañez. She would become the first women baptized in Mexico. She was a woman of faith who had a dream that guided her to send her son to Mexico City. Here is the story, as documented in Wikipedia's article, "Desideria Quintanar de Yáñez":
In February 1880, Desideria claimed to have a dream about a pamphlet called "Una Voz de Amonestación" being published by foreigners in Mexico City. Missionaries from LDS Church were, in fact, in Mexico City in the process of publishing a Spanish translation of Parley P. Pratt's pamphlet, "A Voice of Warning," which contained introductory information to the Church. This dream had a great effect on her, and she felt very strongly that this pamphlet would help her spiritually. Because of poor health, she was unable to travel to Mexico City to investigate the veracity of her dream. Her son, José María, went in her place, and was able to meet the apostle Moses Thatcher and other missionaries that had accompanied him, including a Spaniard, Melitón González Trejo (es), who had assisted in the translation of Church materials into Spanish, and James Z. Stewart. José María returned to the village where his mother lived with news of the foreign missionaries and their pamphlet. Since "A Voice of Warning" was still being translated (in part by Plotino Rhodakanaty, a Greek convert living in Mexico City), the missionaries sent other pamphlets back with José María.
In 1880, Desideria received the translated "A Voice of Warning," as well as the newly published Spanish translation of selections from Book of Mormon. Desideria was baptized by Melitón González Trejo into LDS Church in April 1880 in her village of Nopala. She was the 22nd person to be baptized into the Church in Mexico, as well as the first woman. Her oldest son, José María and his wife, as well his daughter, Carmen, were also baptized that day.
Dr. Johnson reminds us that we can lose ourselves in this world, and through studying the lives of early Mormon women, we can better remember who we are and find our way. It is not only women who need to hear women's stories; we all do.

Tyler Griffin, "Book of Mormon Geographical References: Internal Consistency Taken to A New Level"
Tyler Griffin has been leading some amazing work on mapping the scriptures at http://virtualscriptures.org/, which include a detailed internal map of the Book of Mormon.

Brother Griffin began by reminding us how young Joseph was as he produced mountains of scripture. He was 24 as the Book of Mormon was published and 31 by the time the Kirtland Temple was dedicated, all with three years of elementary frontier education. As Emma later recollected, "Joseph could neither write nor dictate a coherent well-worded letter" when he dictated the Book of Mormon. It was a marvel to her, clearly far beyond any abilities she had found in him.

In November 1832, Joseph begins a personal journal. It begins with a botched paragraph that he crosses out. And it reads like the writing of a farm boy, not like the Book of Mormon. One of the interesting things about the Book of Mormon is what went to the printing press: pretty much the rough draft as dictated by Joseph. When you compare Joseph Smith the man to Joseph Smith the Prophet, there is a world of difference, as Brother Griffin observes.

There are over 500 references to geography in the Book of Mormon. Once Nephi gets us to the New World, his interest in geography is negligible. We don't pick up details of geography until we get to Mormon's abridgements. Mormon, unlike Nephi, cares about geography a great deal. Given Mormon's military career where a mastery of geography is a regular matter of life and death, this makes sense to me. Nephi, though, is largely focused on theology. Thus we have different flavors in the Book of Mormon relative to geographical detail depending on the author and context.

The vast majority of geographical references are in the land of Zarahemla, which is what Mormon knows best. With over 500 references to geography and stories separated by hundreds of pages dealing with the same places, we somehow maintain nearly perfect consistency. "This book is so good that even when it's wrong, it's right." E.g., Alma 24, they "buried their weapons of peace, or, they buried their weapons of war, for peace." A remarkable textual clue pointing to a real man engraving text on an unerasable medium and making an alteration to fix a mistake. If a farm boy were making this up and made that mistake, he's say, "Oliver, scratch that and write "weapons of war for peace." Here we see Mormon making a mistake and moving on. A subtle hint of the authenticity of this ancient text.

After Ether 12:27, Mormon does not compare himself to others again regarding his weakness in writing.

Griffin has worked on making an internal map based on internal evidences. One of the key references for the map is Alma 22, where there is a description of the land southward and northward with a narrow strip of wilderness, etc. There is a wilderness west and east of Zarahemla. Many geographical issues. Some come from migrations. Migrations of people tend to be north. This was completely contrary to Joseph's environment, where migrations would be south or west.

Alma 63:5-9 involves Hagoth who leaves from the west sea on a large ship and they go north. He comes back and build more ships and goes again. Helaman 3:3-14 mentions other groups leaving and going far north, even until they came to a land covered with many waters and rivers. This northward tendency opens up opportunities for research. Where should we look for linguistic evidences or other traces of Nephite and Lamanite culture?

If Book of Mormon were written to show where Indians came from, the Book of Mormon does a poor job. No teepees, no tomahawks, no mocassins or peace pipes. Nearly all of the traditional trappings of Native Americans likely to be known to Joseph Smith and his audience are absent.

Three week's journey separated Mulekites from the Nephites for 350 years. Nephite enter their home turf and take over politically. This sets stage for later people to challenge the Nephite political system and claim to be of noble birth -- probably a reference to descent from Mulek.

Any lens you use to look at the book, whether political, cultural, geographical, linguistic, theological, etc., the book is remarkable, and difficult to explain as a farm boy's rough draft.

The land of Nephi is always up, Zarahemla is always down, across the Book of Mormon. Remarkable consistency (I think that is just like Nephi always speaking of going up to Jerusalem and down to the wilderness). For 19th century people, northward is usually up, so this doesn't fit Joseph's environment. Even today, I would say, Americans tend to go "up" when going north and "down" when going south. 

Moroni on east coast, lowest, followed north by Nephihah, Lehi, Omner, Gid, and Mulek. Land of Bountiful has to be close enough to sea shore for Teancum to go in the night to slay Amalickiah in his sleep. Last thing he would have done would be to choke on his own blood, in contrast to his oath to drink Moroni's blood.

My question was this: "Don't some major geographical details like apparent volcanism in 3 Nephi or a Sidon that flows north immediately rule out some geographical models?" His answer is that he seeks to leave open possibilities. Some deeply believe the Book of Mormon took place in Baja or South America, etc., and doesn't want to rule things out for them. He prefers to keep things open as much as possible. I guess I can't complain about that, though I think we need to help people think about the plausible physical places where the text could actually have taken place.

Brant Gardner: The Book of Mormon as a Seer Stone: Having Faith In and Through the Book of Mormon
Brant Gardner began by asking why in the world would Joseph have thought of putting a rock in a hat as a way to solve his problem, the problem of translating the unknown language on his gold plates. Brother Gardner suggests the reason is that he thought of something he was already familiar with.

Gardner suggests that Joseph initially used the interpreters that came with the plates only to do that which he had always done with seer stones: to find things, namely, to check on the location of the plates.

Gardner notes that the use of the hat to block out light might be a way to let others know that the seeing taking place is something unusual and miraculous.

He explained that we struggle with the problem of "presentism," citing Lynn Hunt's "The Problem of Presentism." The things that bother us the most are when we find people in history who should be like us but aren't. If we learn of something strange from people living on a remote island, we can accept it. But if we say Joseph Smith used a seer stone, it will bother us. Joseph's divining cup in Genesis 44:5 doesn't bother us. Omens were based on the appearance of liquids in the cup -- weird, but not something we have to worry about. If Joseph Smith had used a divining cup to translate the Book of Mormon, we would find it strange and troubling.

Money digging is weird today, but was common in Joseph's day. Wayne Sentinel, Feb. 16, 1825, mentions there might be 500 respectable men in the area engaged in diligent money digging activities. Fawn Brodie quotes this. Today we have the lottery -- same silly reason. People in difficult circumstances often look for easy way to gain wealth.

Gardner suggested that the Book of Mormon itself can act as a seer stone, a tool to help us learn directly from God and experience divine communication. It has changed people's lives, helped them find divine guidance, and brought long-lasting blessings to many lives.

Gardner was asked about Stanford Carmack's and Royal Skousen's theories on translation of the Book of Mormon (e.g., generally tight control to give a text often showing Early Modern English influence that cannot be accounted for by theories based on copying KJV language). Gardner has a difference of opinion about what the data means. That's pretty much all he would say for that question.

Gerrit Dirkmaat, "Lost Teachings of the Prophets: Recently Uncovered Teachings of Joseph Smith and Others from the Council of Fifty Record"
Dr. Dirkmaat is an assistant professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University with a PhD in American History from the University of Colorado. He worked as a historian and writer for the Church History Department from 2010 to 2014 as historian on several volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers project. Since taking his position at BYU, he continues to work on the Joseph Smith Papers as a historian and writer. He currently serves as Editor of the academic journal Mormon Historical Studies, published by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, and on the Church History editorial board for BYU Studies. He is the author of dozens of scholarly articles and is the co-author, along with Michael Hubbard MacKay, of one of my favorite books, From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, published by Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University and Deseret Book, 2015.

He began by telling the story of Joseph's decision to run for president after becoming disenchanted with the Democrats and the Whigs, who were unwilling to bring relief to the persecuted Mormons. American democracy had failed the Mormons.

Interestingly, in the 2nd paragraph of his declaration of his views on "Powers and Policy of the Government" was an attack on slavery.

Dirkmaat then turned to the newly published documents from the Council of the Fifty Record.

Joseph wanted the Council to speak their mind, and if they wouldn't, they'd be no better than a "doughhead."

The Council sought to propose a constitution for the kingdom of God on earth, a bold and daunting task. But their discussions reflected a great deal of disappointment toward the government of the US and their failure to protect their rights. Sense of loss of bitterness is reflected, and a feeling that they are being driven out of the nation. They consider various places that will be outside of the United States in order to live their religion in peace. Texas in one candidate, and representatives are sent to discuss possibilities. But is during one of their meetings, as Texas is being discussed, when a messenger comes in with the news that Texas was just annexed by the United States. Upper California in Mexico and Oregon were also considered.

Dirkmaat noted that Joseph wanted non-Mormons to be on the Council and that he was passionate about religious liberty for all. He wanted all in the Council to have total liberty to embrace the light they saw. He was not afraid to have ministers from other religions preach to his people. He preached against religious intolerance and wanted to preserve the rights of all to believe as they wished. "We must not despise a man on account of his infirmity; we ought to love the man more for his infirmity." He urged others to "drive from us every species of intolerance." Those who reject the Gospel should be embraced with the same charity from the Latter-day Saints and should enjoy the same rights to liberty in our midst as those who fully accept the Gospel.

Dirkmaat noted that after reading the Joseph Smith papers, one thing that especially stands out about Joseph Smith is that he had a great love for other people. His statement that we should not despise others for their infirmity is one of the most beautiful expressions from the 19th century. 

Daniel Peterson, "What Difference Does It Make?"
The closing speaker will be the venerable Daniel Peterson, one of the most vilified and respected defenders of the faith. It has been great to meet Daniel and other major forces in LDS apologetics here, many for my first time.


Daniel began by referring to a young man with whom he had corresponded, who left the Church and now was bitterly opposed to Mormonism. Daniel had tried to help him without success. The dialog suddenly ceased, and based on what Daniel knew of him and his state, he was worried for his well-being. He soon learned that the young man had committed suicide. Dr. Peterson cannot help but think that the man's loss of faith only compounded whatever problems he had that led to his suicide. "These things matter," he intoned. [Note, added Aug. 5: Peterson was not making a general statement about suicide or ex-Mormons, but a statement about an individual whom he knew and cared for. He would later note that a great many studies show that religious belief is strongly correlated with lower suicide rates, so the suspicion that a retained faith might have helped the young man does have a logical basis.]

Faith is viewed as a mental illness by some of the intellectual elites of our day. Is atheism healthier than faith, Peterson asked? Armand Nicholi, Jr., in The Question of God has C.S. Lewis debate Sigmund Freud on various topics. Though the two never met, Lewis was in a good position to consider both sides of the issues since he spent about half of his life as an atheist. Lewis arguably led a healthier and happier life than Freud.

Peterson points to studies showing the benefits of religious faith on the health and happiness of believers. This doesn't prove that religion or belief in God is true, but does discount the claim that faith is an illness. Rather, it seems to make us healthier.

Andrew Sims in Is Faith Delusion? Why Religion is Good for Your Health, he notes that a majority of studies exploring the impact of faith show that it is linked to reduced rates of suicide, healthier lives, reduced mental illness, less criminal activity, better marital stability, better social support, better coping with crises, reduced depression rates, and better general health. If study after study were showing that religion is harmful for numerous areas of health, it would be shouted from the front pages of the media. But these studies get very little attention.

In 84% of 68 studies, those with religious faith are less likely to commit suicide. "The nagging question we are left with is why is this important information ... not better known?" Governments and health care organizations should be rushing to encourage faith to elevate the heath and well-being of the nation, Sims suggests.

In Gross National Happiness (2008) by Brooks, religious people of all faiths are markedly happier than secularists (42% vs. 28% reporting they are happy in their lives). Those who pray daily are much more likely to consider themselves happy. Oddly, agnostics tend to be less happy than atheists.

People in religious communities are more likely to be financially successfully. There are benefits that accrue to a community as a whole when there is a high level of religious activity. The more your neighbors go to church, the more likely you are to be financially successful, according to Brooks.

Atheists sometimes, rather condescendingly, tell believers that they should enjoy the amazing ride of this life rather than spending so much time fretting about the next life and preparing for it that they miss out on the present life. But this is an erroneous statement, for there is no evidence that believers miss out on the joys and benefits of the ride here in mortality, or that they spend so much time preparing for the next life that they miss out on this. In fact, those with faith tend to live richer, more fulfilled, and longer lives than those who tell us to quit fretting about the next.

Peterson quotes from the chilling words of Iago in Verdi's Otello:
I believe in a cruel God
who created me like himself
in anger of whom that I name.
From the cowardice of a seed
or of a vile atom I was born.
I am a son evil because I am a man;
and I feel the primitive mud in me.

Yes! This is my faith!
I believe with a firm heart,
so does the widow in the temple,
the evil I think
and proceeds from me,
fulfills my destiny.
I think the honest man
is a mockery,
in face and heart,
that everything is in him is a lie:
tears, kisses, looks,
sacrifices and honor.
And I think the man plays a game
of unjust fate
the seed of the cradle
the worm of the grave.

After all this foolishness comes death.
And then what? And then?
Death is Nothingness.
Heaven is an old wives' tale!
On what grounds can a follower of Richard Dawkins demonstrate Iago's lethal immorality to be wrong?

Peterson also turned to Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.  
Starks shows that Christian communities were more likely to survive disaster (plagues, etc.) than pagan communities apparently because of their willingness to serve and care for each other in times of trouble.

Religious people are far more likely to support charities, to help the poor, and in general to strengthen their communities and serve others. They are more likely to be active in civic matters and donate their time to build their communities.

Stark points out that religion shows that rather than being a mental illness, those with religious faith are far more likely to have mental health. In addition, religious husbands are far less likely to abuse their wives and children (contrary to the images the secular Hollywood community tends to feed us).

The average life expectancy of religious Americans is more than 7 years longer than for the non-religious. Religious Americans are more likely to be successful in their careers. They are less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal, and are more likely to patronize the arts.

The accusation that religion is unhealthy and antisocial is strongly contradicted by data from numerous sources. Religious people are more likely to be involved in club, social organizations, etc.

If societies wish to encourage better health, happiness, and stronger communities, they should encourage religion, not bitterly oppose it.

Religion matters. Faith matters. Truth matters. And the truth is that religion in general is healthy. And for that reason, I might add, the ability to defend religious faith from spurious attacks, no matter how vocally and popularly proclaimed, is vital for those of us wishing to make this life better, happier, and healthier for our families and neighbors.

Update, Aug. 5, 2017
I concluded my post yesterday thinking that Daniel Peterson was about to finish. I published it just  before my computer would run out of power. But there is more to add.

The bulk of the studies referred to, as I learned during the Q&A, came from work done in North America and Europe, which means they were evaluating the impact of Judaeo-Christian religion. Conducting similar studies in, say, China or Islamic nations tends to be more difficult.

At the point where I thought Peterson had beautifully illustrated his point about how religion matters and was about to wrap up, he made what seemed like a surprising turn as he illustrated the sorrow and disappointment of life by reviewing some details from the lives of remarkably capable human beings like Max Planck and Beethoven. He told the story of Beethoven's loss of hearing and tragically short life, unable to hear his greatest masterpieces,  and asked how much more this man might have achieved had he been healthy and able to hear? So many previous lives are filled with missed opportunities, with potential unfulfilled, with sorrow and tragedy. Are the atheist right that all this is cause for despair and grounds for denying the existence and mercy of God?

Then Peterson turned to the core message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and spoke of the Savior and His infinite love and sacrifice for us, His conquest of death and sin that is able to embrace all of us and life us from our tombs of despair and give us joy and eternal hope. Through Him and His victory, all of our tears from our failures, the injustice we suffer, the tragedies and sorrows of mortality, can be wiped away in His love. We can rise again and have endless joy and opportunity, being lifted to a path of eternal growth and beauty. We can realize our endless potential through Jesus Christ.

Peterson's conclusion was truly inspiring and poetic. Perhaps my favorite moment of many outstanding ones during the two-day event. It caught me by surprise and brought the message of the whole conference together, leading us to contemplate in reverent awe the real reason for defending, teaching, and understanding our faith.

Yes, religion matters. Christ matters. He changes everything.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

The FairMormon 2017 Conference, Day One

Today was my first time attending the FairMormon Conference. The 2017 event is being held Aug. 3 and 4 at the Utah Valley Convention Center at 220 West Center Street in Provo. I was surprised at how large the crowd of attendees was, and was delighted both with the content and also the chance to meet some of the thinkers and writers I've been following for years, including Daniel Peterson, Brant Gardner, Matthew Bowen, Neal Rappleye, Steven Smoot, Scott Gordon, Michael Ash, Mike Parker, etc.

The day began with a strong presentation by Neal Rappleye, who plays a key role at Book of Mormon Central. Neal spoke about the need for a mature approach to the historicity Book of Mormon based on understanding the historical context and applying a careful reading of the text. Many readers tend instead to project modern understanding and expectations onto the text which can make it difficult to see the actual evidence before them while jumping to "obvious" conclusions that be disconnected from reality. He compared the Jerusalem of the Amarna Letters to the the Jerusalem of Nephi and showed some fascinating evidences of historicity embedded in Nephi's text based on information that would not have been available to Joseph Smith. His discussion included data showing that metal workers in Nephi's day could also be trained in writing, evidence that military leaders like Laban could have archives of records in their homes, and evidence showing that elite immigrants from the Northern Kingdom (like Lehi, for example) were playing important roles in Jerusalem of that day. His discussion also included a review of an inscription that may have referred to Mulek son of Zedekiah, the growing evidence of New World barley as an important crop in ancient North America (countering the common claim that barley in the Book of Mormon is an anachronism), and the multiple ways in which the brief mention of cement in the Book of Mormon complies with archaeological information about the rise of cement in the northern section of Mesoamerica and the deforestation that was associated with it. It was a well-organized, content-rich presentation.

The second speaker was Elizabeth Kuehn  with the Joseph Smith Papers project, who discussed many details of the Kirtland Bank disaster and its impact on the early Mormons. This was a case where it was critically important to understand the natural fallibility of mortal prophets. Her presentation, "Finances and Faith in the Kirtland Crisis of 1837," was based on an excellent mastery of primary historical documents and an understanding of the broader economic issues that Kirtland and the entire US faced at the time.

Keith Erekson of the LDS Historical Library spoke on "Witnessing the Book of Mormon: The Testimonies of Three, Eight, and Millions." He talked about the proper historical approach to evaluating claims made about the witnesses, illustrating the shoddy methods of, say, Fawn Brodie, who treats a newspaper's reports of statements David Whitmer allgedly made to an unnamed "informant" whose recollection was admittedly unclear as if it were a direct report of Whitmer to the editor, which it was not. Questionable work abounds in which sources aren't given or are obscured, in which evidence is based on hearsay or third-party reports, or in which readers are forced to make false "either/or" conclusions  (e.g., the issue of seeing something in a divine vision versus seeing it with one's physical eyes, as if these must necessarily be mutually exclusive when they are not). He reminded us of the powerful and clear statements, over 200 of them, directly from the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, which create a consistent and compelling account for the existence of the plates and the reality of the work of the Restoration.

Michael Ash gave a presentation heavy in theory and academics on interpreting history and understanding a sacred record.

Matthew Bowen gave a highly informative and rich presentation on the many interesting word-plays involving names in the Book of Mormon but also in the Book of Moses. This deserves a separate post later. How work is some of the most impressive dealing with the Book of Mormon. So many intriguing finds showing the literary sophistication of the ancient writers of our sacred texts.

Scott Petersen gave an exciting overview of statemenets from early Christian voices that lend plausibility to many of the unique aspects of LDS theology. I purchased his book, Do Mormons Have a Leg to Stand On? Look forward to reading this.

Scott Gordon, head of FairMormon, gave the concluding presentation, "Mormon Temples and Freemasonry," which included useful information about Free Masonry and the LDS Temple, and the substantial differences between them. The elements from Free Masonry apparently adopted for a few aspects of the Endowment ceremony do nothing to undermine the ancient and revealed nature of the LDS Temple. He examined a number of specific arguments made against the Temple based on alleged borrowing from Free Masonry.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the conference was the quality of the Q&A after each presentation. There was adequate time for questions and the questions were often meaningful and intelligent, leading to additional good discussion from the well-prepared speakers.

I learned a lot and came away more excited than ever at the fruits of scholarship and investigation on LDS topics. I also came away with the need to buy another bag or suitcase to haul all the new books I bought. Kudos to FairMormon and all those who support it and this conference. A+!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Unncessary Attacks, Part 2: In Defense of Grant Hardy

My previous post responded to Duane Boyce's critique of some modern LDS scholars who pointed to the fallibility of human leaders in the Church in ways that Boyce felt were egregious and irresponsible. Since then, Boyce has published Part Two of "A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation?"
where his target is Grant Hardy's impressive work, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

I felt the tone of Part 2 was an improvement over Part 1. But flaws in the approach remain that I wish to address, for I feel that Hardy's book, in spite of some flaws, is a genuinely important and faithful work on the Book of Mormon in which analysis of easily missed subtleties in the text help us see and better understand the distinct and ancient voices who produced various parts of the Book of Mormon text.

Hardy's analysis of Nephi's voice seems to offend Boyce for it suggests that Nephi was not simply regurgitating the words of God, other prophets, and angels, but reveals some of his own feelings, perspectives, and even agendas. Hardy's analysis of how Nephi presents and interprets the tree of life vision, for example, is said to be horrifically flawed. Hardy sees in Nephi's account a brother who emphasized hell and judgement in teaching his abusive elder brothers, at whose hand he and Jacob had suffered for years, whereas father Lehi does not focus on the same details and instead is more of a tender parent fearful that two of his dear sons might not have the joy that God offers them.

However, Boyce’s analysis of the tree of life in his critique of Hardy seems to overlook some crucial points. Boyce seems to want things to be neatly classified as black and white, such that the tree of life either means the very tree John saw, or the specific tree Adam encountered. Connections to both are improperly ruled out. The broad significance of the tree of life in the ancient Near East (and Book of Mormon) is overlooked.

After noting the relationship between the tree of life in Nephi’s vision and Mary and the coming of Christ, Boyce says: “The idea of life — indeed, of divine life — permeates the account. These elements of the record make it easy to imagine Nephi’s referring to the tree he sees as the ‘tree of life,’ independent of the tree in the Garden of Eden. Nephi explicitly saw what John saw of a ‘tree of life’ — a tree that represented spiritual abundance and glory and that was associated with living waters. Moreover, even what he saw of Lehi’s tree served as a forceful and holy symbol of the bestowal of life.” [emphasis added]

But how does Boyce jump from parallels to John’s tree of life to the claim that Nephi’s tree is “independent of the tree in the Garden of Eden”? The tree of life is a well-known ancient theme, or complex of themes, that permeated wisdom literature and abounded throughout the Near East in art and literature. That term is used multiple times in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Both Christian and Jewish writings link it not only to fruit but also to waters and to life, including divine life. I cannot imagine an ancient Jewish or early Christian writer such as Nephi or John or Lehi speaking of the “tree of life” without understanding and intending connections to various well known aspects of that ancient theme.

Boyce writes as if the Genesis tree of life cannot possibly have been invoked by Nephi because his tree has strong parallels to John’s tree of life, but John’s tree of life cannot be separated from that of the Old Testament. His tree may be different or used for a different purpose, but the concept is overtly similar: a divine tree with fruit that brings life. They are part of the same complex of themes.

Neglecting the basic knowledge and extensive scholarship on this point raises serious questions about the methodology in Boyce’s black-and-white effort approach that seeks to paint LDS scholars with interesting insights as egregiously wrong. It’s OK to disagree with their interpretations and some may go too far, but the reasons given in the tree of life discussion seem highly flawed.

By way of background, see Wilford Grigg, “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” from the June 1988 Ensign. It’s an excellent overview of how that theme rooted in Genesis plays a vital in later Jewish and Christian thought. See also Daniel Peterson’s famous work, “Nephi and His Asherah,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000): 16–25, 80–81. Also just consider Genesis 2 and other OT references to the tree of life to see that it is likewise associated with water and, of course, life (Gen. 2:9-10, and Prov. 13:10-12 with a fountain of life and tree of life). Also consider, among many works that could be cited, Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 3rd ed. (Frand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990), Kindle edition. An excerpt follows:
Within the Hebrew Bible itself, the wisdom literature is exciting, because it deals directly with life . The sages of Israel did not share the same interest in the saving interventions of the Lord as did the Deuteronomistic historians. Their concern was the present, and how to cope with the challenges provoked by one's immediate experience. Their intensity often equalled that of the Deuteronomists (cf. Deut 4–11, esp. texts like 4:1, 6:1–9). The choice between life and death which Moses dramatically places before Israel in Deut 30:15–30 is reechoed in the sages' emphasis on life. The life-death situation is expressed positively in the image of "the tree of life." Wisdom "is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; fortunate are they who embrace her" (Prov 3:18). This image was well known from its appearance in Genesis: the first dwellers in the garden were kept from that tree lest they live forever (Gen 2:9, 3:22–24). In a vivid turn of metaphor, wisdom has become the tree of life and is personified as a woman: "Long life is in her right hand—in her left, riches and honor" (Prov 3:16). She can boast that the one who finds her finds life (Prov 8:35), and the one who fails is ultimately in love with … death (8:36). (Kindle edition, "Foreword," loc. 52)
And later:
The teaching of the wise [in Proverbs] is "a fountain of life" (13:14); this is also applied to "fear of the Lord" (14:27), which is also the beginning of wisdom. The symbols of fountain and tree of life are frequent: 10:11; 16:22; 3:18; 11:30; 13:12. (Kindle edition, p. 28 loc. 731; emphasis added)
I don’t think one can fairly claim that whatever Nephi and Lehi said about the tree can possibly be “independent” of the Genesis account and the many interrelated themes and concepts. That John and Nephi associate water with the tree does not exclude a connection to the tree of life in the Old Testament.

Boyce’s claim is even further undercut by Lehi’s own words recorded by Nephi a few chapters later when he expressly addresses the tree of life in the Garden of Eden in 2 Nephi 2:15. These teachings of Lehi in the discourse with his call of repentance to his wayward sons have a purpose similar to the purpose taught by Lehi’s dream of the tree, and the connection simply cannot be denied.

This connection should be overwhelmingly clear by Nephi’s reference to a flaming sword associated with his tree, obviously and remarkably similar to the flaming sword the Lord uses in Genesis 3 to keep Adam away from the tree of life. Boyce seems to turn to special pleading to deny the significance of the connection, while grudgingly admitting that there is a superficial similarity(!). Again, he points to the existence of some differences to deny a connection: “The first feature that creates a difficulty is the dissimilarity that exists between the two fiery elements. Whereas the fire and sword Nephi sees specifically represent the justice of God — and explicitly separate the wicked from the righteous and from God — this is not true of the fiery sword in the Garden of Eden. The Genesis account does not frame Adam and Eve as wicked, and its fiery element does not represent the justice of God: it is a flaming sword that merely prevents Adam and Eve from partaking of the tree and living forever. That both accounts have fiery elements, therefore, is only weak evidence that the fire Nephi sees puts him in mind of the tree in the Garden of Eden.”

The fiery sword protecting the tree of life has become merely a “fiery element” shared perhaps by chance alone with Nephi’s vision. We are to dismiss the connection–when the mere use of the term “tree of life” is ample evidence of a connection to the well known tree of life theme, and the specific use of a fiery sword should remove all doubt. Hardy has a very plausible point, and what becomes implausible if not egregiously wrong is the effort to deny a connection. The methodology Boyce applies leaves me perplexed.

Boyce makes a valid point in noting a significant weakness in Hardy’s use of 1 Nephi 15:36, “the wicked are rejected from the righteous, and also from that tree of life” (1 Nephi 15:36). The word “rejected” probably should be “separated” which undermines one supporting argument from Hardy but does not demolish his point about Nephi’s view relative to Lehi’s. Hardy offers a footnote observing that Skousen proposes it should be “separated.” This is not enough for Boyce, who cries foul since Hardy has failed to let Skousen’s conclusion change his mind (after relying on Skousen’s proposed changes elsewhere) and insists that Hardy is guilty of error in this manner.

While I personally respect Skousen’s work and rely on it heavily, there is irony in Boyce’s argument that needs to be noted. Some of the irony is that the very mistake he accuses Hardy of making, connecting the tree of life in Nephi’s account to that of Genesis 2, has been rather naturally made by other LDS leaders in various talks and sermons, and even the footnotes in the current printing of the Book of Mormon for 1 Nephi connects the term “tree of life” to Gen. 2:9.

There is further irony. According to Boyce, Hardy’s error here is in relying on the wording from the official LDS canon (“rejected”), the wording that has been approved by leaders of the Church instead of fully accepting an alternative (“separated”) proposed by an LDS scholar in an unofficial, uncanonized but highly scholastic work. I agree with Boyce that this should have been addressed more fully in the text and not merely observed in a footnote, but feel Boyce’s protest is too harsh here. Isn’t Boyce’s argument highlighting a case where human fallibility among leaders has resulted in an alleged error in the scriptures that LDS scholarship may now help correct? If such errors don’t matter because prophets are virtually infallible in all things that are important, can Hardy’s apparent error actually matter?

In other words, in Parts 1 and 2 Boyce condemns scholars who imply prophets are fallible in ways that might actually matter. He also condemns scholars who offer new readings of scripture that may highlight human weakness in prophets or otherwise depart from teachings of some leaders in the Church. But then he condemns Hardy for an argument that draws upon the wording in the official, canonized version of the Book of Mormon instead of fully accepting an alternative in wording proposed by an LDS scholar in an academic work that has not been canonized and that inherently points to the existence of possible error in the canon that the prophets have given us. Is this not a touch of irony that should help the author soften his stance a bit? Is Hardy’s problem relying too much on the official wording rather than a scholar’s revision?

A further problem is Boyce’s view that Nephi’s words to his brothers about the vision he had cannot reflect his own views since he is merely an intermediary passing on what he learned from an angel and from Lehi. This seems out of touch with the basics of human conversation and certainly scholarship on the ways in which a text or story can be shaped by the teller for the teller’s own purposes. I can add a touch of my own views just in the way I read a fixed text out loud, choosing where to pause, what to emphasize, what to brush through quickly. But when I can paraphrase or retell a story in my own words, then I can dramatically inject my own views and attitudes, whether intentional or not. This should be obvious and is something that LDS students should know especially well as they consider the different ways Joseph shaped his First Vision account or the different ways Alma’s dramatic conversion story is told.

Further, many of us should know from family experiences that the attitude of a parent toward a rebellious child is often greatly different than the attitude of a well-behaved sibling who has suffered at the hands of the rebel. It is insufficient to deny this by saying that Nephi is just an intermediary or merely “answering questions.” Answering questions is the ideal way to teach our views and achieve our objectives in a conversation, whether we are conscious of that or not. Boyce’s insistence that Hardy is wrong because Nephi is just passing on Lehi’s vision or an angel’s words and is merely answering questions does nothing to undermine Hardy. I am surprised that this line of argumentation is pursued.

Hardy helps us see that Nephi’s own text provides subtle clues about this very plausible and natural difference in attitudes. Seeing it through the lens Hardy offers should not make us feel threatened by the possibility of Nephi having human weakness and frustrations that may have shaped his tone and message. Rather, Hardy’s lens helps us see in remarkably subtle ways that there are different voices and different authors in the Book of Mormon, indeed, real people, and the result is a nuanced, beautiful text that is deeper and more plausible that we had previously realized. Nephi and Jacob, for example, are very different in tone and style, but both are plausible examples of men who have suffered much at the hands of their brethren. One struggles with anger (2 Nephi 4) at his “enemies,” while the other seems to have become highly sensitive from his years of abuse. Meanwhile, Lehi is a tender parent doing all he can to love and rescue his wayward sons. Nephi speaks of justice and punishment for his enemies, while Lehi speaks of fear that his wicked sons may be lost. Those clues are there and need not be so vigorously denied because they do not undermine Nephi or prophethood or the Book of Mormon after all.

Building in such subtlety and plausibility that only now is being noticed would have been a remarkable task for young Joseph dictating from a hat. What Hardy offers is powerful evidence of Book of Mormon authenticity. Some of Hardy’s points may be weak at times, but the overall approach is one of refined and noteworthy scholarship from a faithful writer deserving more praise than condemnatory nitpicking.

I agree that scholars sometimes go too far in advancing their theories and sometimes fail to emphasize how speculative some suggestions may be. But Hardy's approach does not deserve to be treated as an example of blatant, fallacious, misleading material reflecting dangerous attitudes and a loss of real scholarship in the Church. His work deserves to be treated with more fairness.

The personal insights Hardy brings out regarding Nephi's stance and agenda resonates well with more recent scholarship on the evolution over time in Nephi's use of chiasmus. See Dennis Newton, "Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 22 (2016): 79-106. Newton explores the large chiasmuses from Nephi, 15 in total, and sees an evolution in his themes. Nephi initially emphasizes obedience in his more extensive chiasmuses, but near the end of his writings he has shifted to focus on grace and the love of Christ. In light of Newton's analysis, Hardy's position seems all the more plausible: the early Nephi may have naturally preached obedience and keeping the commandments to his wayward brothers, coupled with an emphasis on the punishments they faced for their sins, while the more mature Nephi may finished his final chapters with a deeper understanding of the grace of Christ and a fuller appreciation of the love of God that the tree of life represented. Even prophets must learn and progress, and we may see some of this in Nephi's own writings.

Addendum, Aug. 1, 2017: Suppressing or Ignoring Evidence from Skousen? 

Boyce’s comments regarding Hardy’s alleged double-standard in his use of Skousen’s Critical Text also require a response. Boyce states:
Reliance on the word rejected in this part of Hardy’s argument, then, is an error. The truth about the language in this verse, far from serving as evidence for Hardy’s view about Nephi’s condemning and justice-oriented tone, actually serves as compelling evidence against it.
Additional Error. There is an additional layer to this error. After all, Hardy is familiar with Skousen’s textual change from “rejected” to “separated.” It is something he acknowledges in an endnote. What he does not do, however, is allow this alteration to affect his argument. This is surprising. Throughout his volume Hardy refers to Skousen’s textual changes and in each instance he accepts Skousen’s modification. In this case, however, while acknowledging in an endnote Nephi’s use of the word separated rather than rejected, Hardy proceeds in the text with his characterization of Nephi as if this correction didn’t exist — or at least as if it didn’t matter.
It does matter, though. Hardy’s characterization of Nephi as exclusionary and condemning depends in no small measure on the appearance of the word rejected in this particular passage. When Hardy discovers this is the wrong word, one would therefore expect him to identify this passage as a counterexample to his thesis about Nephi and address it in some way. What we do not expect is what Hardy actually does: ignore the disabling effect this correction has on his argument altogether.
This suggests a highly unfair, perhaps even unethical handling of Skousen, but that charge is questionable. Where does Hardy show signs that any of Skousen’s changes have changed or served as the basis of his argument? What does Boyce mean with “Throughout his volume Hardy refers to Skousen’s textual changes and in each instance he accepts Skousen’s modification”?

In the Kindle edition of Hardy’s book, it is easy to search for “Skousen” and thus one can see that he is mentioned only 3 times in the body of the text, outside of endnotes. First is in the Acknowledgements (loc. 47). Then comes a mention on page 67, where a table of 4 Isaiah verses from the KJV are compared to the Critical Text’s version of the Book of Mormon to illustrate something about the translation process, not anything relevant to Hardy’s arguments about Nephi or other Book of Mormon prophets. And finally comes another mention right after that table, still on page 67, noting that Skousen estimates that about 1/3 of the changes relative to the KJV involve italicized words. And that’s it. All other references to Skousen are in the endnotes (chapter notes), with little indication that any of his arguments depend on Skousen’s proposed changes, though there are many interesting and sometimes quite academic insights.

When Hardy discusses the fiery sword keeping mortals away from the tree of life, it is only in an endnote (#32 on p. 54) where we learn that Skousen proposes “sword” should replace “word” in 1 Nephi 12:18. I think that is an important observation that greatly strengthens Hardy’s argument, and wish it had been given more emphasis in the body of the text, but he discusses that merely as a quiet observation in an endnote, just as he observes in the next endnote (#33 on p. 54) that Skousen offers a proposed change that undermines Hardy’s point about the wicked being “rejected” (versus Skousen’s “separated”) from the tree of life.

Those are the only two changes in wording from Skousen’s Critical Text that appear to have significant bearing on Hardy’s arguments, one significantly strengthening part of an argument and one undermining an aspect of an argument, and both are handled the same way–fairly. Both are cited in an endnote. This cannot fairly be characterized as unethical. I don't think it is proper to say that Hardy acts “as if this correction didn’t exist” when he gives it just as much weight as a similar change that greatly strengthens his argument? Boyce seems to error when he says that Hardy fails to identify Skousen’s proposed change and that he has chosen to “ignore the disabling effect this correction has on his argument altogether” when in fact he has identified Skousen’s proposed correction and has not ignored it at all, but given it just as much weight as a proposed correction in his favor.

Hardy’s book was written nearly 10 years ago and published in 2010. Skousen’s work was not so widely known and accepted then as it is now, and it was a sign of good scholarship that Hardy was citing Skousen and paying attention to the details of that scholarship already at that time. But his tendency is to rely on the canon that we have, leaving the details of a scholar’s proposed changes for endnotes. And for this, for failure to value Skousen over the canonized text, we are to accuse Hardy of grave error in failing to rely properly on the prophets instead of LDS scholarship?

The other references in endnotes to proposed textual changes from Skousen include endnote 13 from page 40 (the note itself occurs on p. 268) which tells us that 1 Nephi 3:16 has the singular “commandment” in Skousen’s Critical Text versus “commandments” in the current printing, which is consistent with a minor argument made by Hardy, but not of great import. Another minor observation from Skousen’s Critical Text is found in a note regarding 1 Nephi 19:4 (note 23, p. 47). Another minor observation is made regarding 1 Nephi 9:4 in endnote 24 on p. 47 (“reigns of the kings” vs. “reign of the kings”), which has little impact on Hardy’s arguments.

A proposed change is also found in endnote 37 on p. 56 which has little impact on Hardy’s point about 2 Nephi 4:26 (Skousen proposes that “visited men” should be “visited me”).
In the section on Mormon, Hardy in endnote 1 on p. 89 observes a minor change proposed by Skousen with no obvious bearing on the analysis of the verse considered (Jacob 7:26). Other revisions noted without significant bearing on his argument include endnote 45 on p. 80, endnote 3 on p. 90, endnote 12 on p. 102, endnote 14 on p. 103, a minor insight from Original Manuscript in endnote 44 from p. 142, a minor issue in endnote 28 on p. 171, another in endnote 44 of p. 206, endnote 52 on p. 211, endnote 2 on p. 219, endnote 14 on p. 227, endnote 22 on p. 236, and endnote 7 on p. 268. These are provided for the reader’s information and aren’t necessarily accepted or rejected.
Nearly all of the endnotes discussing Skousen’s work are there for completeness and don’t affect the argument Hardy is making. Skousen’s proposed alternative is directly relevant in only two cases, in my opinion, and both are handled in the same way. There is no sign of a double standard or unethical cherry picking that Boyce alleges, in my opinion.

If Hardy were actually suppressing evidence, he could have simply left out the footnote where he explains Skousen’s offers “separated” instead of “rejected.” But he treats that case the same way he treats a proposed change that strengthens his argument: it’s placed in a footnote, while the main body of the text relies on the canonized text. It’s evenhanded and fair — unlike the harsh treatment Hardy receives in this paper. I feel an apology, retraction, or correction of some kind is warranted. Boyce is trying to strengthen the faith and encourage acceptance of prophets and the canon, but the methodology here seems seriously flawed. I hope Part 3 will reflect careful corrections to ensure it more fully complies with the high standards that the Interpreter seeks to follow.

Concluding Note
Finally, let me remind readers that in spite of my strong disagreement with conclusions and methodology, Boyce is sincerely seeking to strengthen the faith and thinking of Latter-day Saints, and I apologize if my own tone in challenging him is too harsh. He makes numerous points that many readers might perceive as well reasoned and intelligent. But I think that at least some of his targets do not deserve the criticism he levies, and in his passionate effort to condemn sloppy LDS scholarship, has made some unfortunate errors in scholarship himself.

Such errors are easy to make, and I have made similar errors in my own writings where I miss a key point or misunderstand a source I criticize. I hope the explanation of apparent errors will result in some revisions, at least in the forthcoming Part 3, and some form of acknowledgement to temper what has been said so far, so that noteworthy and faithful LDS scholars may be more fairly characterized.



Monday, July 24, 2017

An Unnecessary Attack on Faithful LDS Scholars: Does Prophetic Fallibility Matter?

A faithful call to respect the prophets and take them more seriously is the intent of Duane Boyce’s article just published at the Interpreter. See Duane Boyce, “A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation? Part One,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 26 (2017): 1-49. While I agree with much of Boyce’s intent and likewise affirm the reality of divine revelation given through living prophets and apostles, I feel some tempering is needed. Indeed, I feel more respect for the men he targets may be due. I also feel they may have been seriously misunderstood. Some of the mistakes he labels as egregious blunders may be much more plausible or even acceptable than he realizes, and may reflect a faithful and reasonable reading of the scriptures as well as of history and the human condition. The problems are serious enough that I feel the article should be revised at a minimum.

Boyce is concerned with the teachings of LDS scholars on the issue of prophets and revelation, where he bemoans “a general deterioration of thought … in LDS scholarly discourse.” He warns that some LDS scholars, even though they may be widely considered to be highly faithful, are making grave errors in what they teach. In his article, he focuses on Terryl Givens and Patrick Mason, who have gone dangerously afoul and undercut the faith and trust we need to have in prophetic words, actions, and policies. His main target in Part 1 is Givens:
To begin, consider a single paragraph by Terryl Givens [citing Terryl L. Givens, “Letter to a Doubter,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 131-146]. In it he desires to show that we should not expect moral superiority from men called as prophets — they are not “infallible specimens of virtue and perfection.” As partial support for the obviousness of this claim, Givens draws attention to the Lord’s statement to the infant Church, regarding Joseph Smith, that “thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments” and that “his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith” (D&C 21:4–5). Givens quotes only the phrase “in all patience and faith” in this passage, however, remarking that “God would not have enjoined us to hear what prophets, seers, and revelators have to say ‘in all patience and faith’ if their words were always sage and inspired.” Givens thus interprets this passage to indicate that we are to have patience and faith toward the Brethren since they are not always “sage and inspired.”

Givens has made this claim more than once… [here he cites Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2014), Kindle location 1396, which is inside Chapter 6, “On Delegation and Discipleship: The Ring of Pharaoh”].
Boyce’s lengthy article would only be slightly longer and more fair if it reproduced the “single paragraph” that Boyce mentions and condemns. That paragraph provides important context and examples that undercut some aspects of Boyce’s stance. Here it is (Terryl L. Givens, “Letter to a Doubter,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 131-146; quotation from 134–136):
1. The Prophetic Mantle
Abraham deceived Abimelech about his relationship with Sarah. Isaac deceived Esau and stole both his birthright and his blessing (but maybe that’s okay because he is a patriarch and not a prophet, strictly speaking). Moses took glory unto himself at the waters of Meribah and lost his ticket to the promised land as a result. He was also guilty of manslaughter and covered up his crime. Jonah ignored the Lord’s call, then later whined and complained because God didn’t burn Nineveh to the ground as He had threatened. It doesn’t get a lot better in the New Testament. Paul rebuked Peter sharply for what he called cowardice and hypocrisy in his refusal to embrace the gentiles as equals. Then Paul got into a sharp argument with fellow apostle Barnabas, and they parted company. So where on earth do we get the notion that modern-day prophets are infallible specimens of virtue and perfection? Joseph said emphatically, “I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous.” To remove any possibility of doubts, he canonized those scriptures in which he is rebuked for his inconstancy and weakness. Most telling of all is section 124:1, in which this pervasive pattern is acknowledged and explained: “for unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth” (D & C 124:1; emphasis added). Air-brushing our prophets, past or present, is a wrenching of the scriptural record and a form of idolatry. God specifically said he called weak vessels so that we wouldn’t place our faith in their strength or power, but in God’s. Most crippling, however, are the false expectations this paradigm sets up: When Pres. Woodruff said the Lord would never suffer his servants to lead the people astray, we can only reasonably interpret that statement to mean that the prophets will not teach us any soul-destroying doctrine—not that they will never err. President Kimball himself condemned Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings as heresy; and as an apostle he referred as early as 1963 to the priesthood ban as a “possible error” for which he asked forgiveness. The mantle represents priesthood keys, not a level of holiness or infallibility. God would not have enjoined us to hear what prophets, seers, and revelators have to say “in all patience and faith” if their words were always sage and inspired (D&C 21:5).
In context, Givens’ statement seems well supported and points to obvious difficulties from assuming infallibility in Church leaders. Dealing with mortal leaders clearly requires “patience and faith.” But Boyce will make a seemingly plausible argument that Givens’ neglects a key part of the verse he cites, the phrase “as if from mine own mouth," thereby leading to grave error and an absurd, egregious reading of scripture. This, perhaps the most crucial argument of Boyce’s paper, will be addressed below.

Boyce goes on to give a firm rebuke to those who question the consistent accuracy of prophetic utterances or who think that the Lord only “occasionally” offers direct revelation to guide the leaders of the Church instead of constantly or continually guiding them, although the practical difference between "occasionally" and "continually" is rather vague and hardly a reasonable metric for discerning scholarly apostasy (could revelation, say, once or even twice a day be considered within the scope of a scholar's "occasionally" and yet register as "continually" for another faithful member?). Boyce buttresses  his argument with declarations from scripture, statements from various leaders about the frequent revelation they experience, and anecdotes showing examples of the Lord’s ability to give specific and precise revelation. These teachings and examples are things which many faithful Latter-day Saints will and should generally accept. Revelation to our leaders, in addition to personal revelation in our lives, is a core element of the LDS faith. But Boyce's collage of faithful clippings does not adequately cover the argument from Givens.

Indeed, Boyce, takes these widely accepted teachings regarding revelation and arguably takes them too far in his effort to criticize the thinking of some LDS writers seeking to cope with the occasional gaps between theory (the theory that prophets consistently speak for God) and practice. Some readers will think Boyce is advocating infallibility, but it is not exactly that. He recognizes that leaders are mortal and that error can occur, but only in relatively minor ways (see his footnote 60, where areas such as details for “activity days for Primary children or the awards to be earned by Priests or Laurels” or the length of missionary service are said to be obvious examples of the minor things where human error would not “lead the Church astray” and thus could plausibly occur).

The gap between theory and practice in dealing with prophets and revelation comes from the limitations of imperfect mortals when they act as divinely appointed but still mortal delegates for the perfect and glorious God of heaven and earth. Boyce seems to brush over these gaps without addressing, recognizing, and empathizing with the pain that can come human weakness. This pain is explained well in Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt:
Mormons frequently describe priesthood as the authority to act in God’s name. But they often fail to plumb the potentially vexing implications of that principle. Authority is the source of delegation, delegation involves humans, humans entail error, and error in the context of authority creates conflict and tension. These stresses, which involve fallibility in conduct as well as in words, can be a challenge to the most faithful. Imperfect actions can be personally devastating. Knowing in theory that even those in authority over us will succumb to the same flaws and weaknesses under which we also labor does little to mitigate the pain when we suffer from poor judgment or downright unrighteousness. Teachings that seem to bear the stamp of divine authority and are later declared to be in error are even more challenging to faith.

Austin Farrer, the great Anglican churchman beloved of C. S. Lewis and often quoted by Elder Neal Maxwell, wrote an essay on “Infallibility and the Historical Tradition.” Farrer’s effort to balance God’s divine purposes with the imperfection of His human instruments suggests one way Mormons might think about faith-wrenching practices (polygamy), missteps and errors (Adam-God), and teachings that the Church has abandoned but not fully explained (the priesthood ban). Practices, in other words, that challenge and try one’s faith; teachings whose status as eternal truth is either disconcerting, questionable, or now denied. Here is what Farrer said: “Facts are not determined by authority. Authority can make law to be law; authority cannot make facts to be facts.” (Or, as Henry Eyring once quoted his father as saying, “in this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.”)

What does it mean for us if God’s anointed leader propounds what is an error? What does this mean for the truthfulness of the Church, for our duty as members and as Christian disciples? Farrer continues his meditation on the subject with a discussion of the Lord’s meaning when He promised Peter that whatsoever he would bind on earth would be bound in heaven. Though he doesn’t use the kind of vocabulary Mormons often employ, we might think of what Farrer says in terms of the principle of priesthood delegation of authority: “If Peter and his colleagues make law in applying the Lord’s precepts, . . . their law is the law of Christ’s Church, the best (if you will) that God’s Spirit can make with human instruments there and then, and, as such, to be obeyed as the will of God Himself. But to call Peter infallible in this connection is to misplace an epithet” (Kindle edition, Chapter 6, Kindle location 1343).

The divine appointment and mortal fallibility of modern LDS prophets and apostles is much like what we learn from earliest Christianity. A fallible Peter who can even (temporarily) deny Christ after receiving the keys of the kingdom is still the Lord’s chosen servant and leader of the Church. But surely the various flaws among the early apostles were the source of confusion and pain at times for some of the Saints, and some degree of disappointment for us generations later.

Boyce never recognizes the sincerity with which Givens and many others can ask, “What does it mean for us if God’s anointed leader propounds what is an error?” This is not a nonsense question that can only come from critics or renegades in the faith. Boyce quotes various leaders to assure us that God will not allow men to lead His Church significantly astray, which many Latter-day Saints accept, but a gargantuan deviation from the purposes of the Church is not necessarily what Givens and others are addressing. Rather, they consider specific challenges from the past that continue to cause pain. Issues such as Brigham Young teaching puzzling and sometimes contradictory doctrines that are now called the Adam-God theory, a concept that has been officially repudiated by later prophets. One can argue that those teachings were Brigham’s personal opinions and not commandments or policies of any real import, and that may be right, but there were many who heard and read such things taught as doctrine resulting in confusion and pain, and that pain was not simply erased for all eternity when later prophets explained that Brigham was wrong.

Much greater pain derives from teachings regarding the previous race-related restrictions on the Priesthood. The very existence of that policy was painful enough, but his was exacerbated with the natural attempt of well-intentioned leaders attempting to fill in their knowledge gap with attempts at explaining the policy, resulting in more pain from speculative and harmful teachings. When revelation came in 1978 that did away with the previous policy, and when the Church officially renounced previous attempts to justify the old policy, the pain from that era and from the misguided human teachings was not erased. Part of that pain comes from the inescapable recognition that however constant and continuous revelation may be in the Church, it did not prevent erroneous and harmful speculation about the premortal worthiness of blacks from being espoused from the pulpit. What some leaders once taught as inspired doctrine was now renounced. Surely this experience must teach us something meaningful about the limitations inherent to having mortal leaders acts as God’s delegates on earth. Surely the pain and confusion from that episode in Church history needs to be recognized as a legitimate topic for scholars and laymen alike to discuss in understanding that the fallibility of mortal leaders is not just limited to theory but can have serious practical consequences beyond the trivial issues that Boyce would impose for its scope.

Boyce fails to acknowledge, much less empathize with, Givens’ well articulated sources of pain from the fallibility of divinely appointed leaders. Givens’ response is not one of an apostate a questionable scholar teaching radical, egregious, and absurd false conclusions that threaten to contaminate thinking in the Church, but of a believer who insists that the leaders in the Lord’s church are truly given authority from God and that revelation from God to men is real and offers insights drawn from scripture and history to guide the faithful in sustaining their leaders. He recognizes, wisely, that delegation is a terrible burden, one that imposes great challenges on those who receive it as well as those affected by it (Crucible of Doubt, Chapter 6). Before citing Givens’ teachings on delegation, it is time to again take up the primary and most pointed attack Boyce makes on Givens, that of abusing scripture in a way that results in absurd propositions and egregious, deceptive error.

Givens’ Alleged Abuse and Neglect of Doctrine & Covenants 21:4–5:

When Terryl Givens cites Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5 to suggest we need “patience and faith” to follow the prophets since sometimes they will make human errors, Boyce finds this a nonsensical proposition based on an egregious misreading of scripture:

Misreading and Absurdity
Unfortunately, the interpretation Givens and Mason offer of this verse is untenable. After all, immediately prior to telling us to receive prophets’ word in patience and faith,9 the Lord tells us to receive that word “as if from mine own mouth.” But this creates an obvious problem. If the Lord is telling us to receive prophets’ words as if from his own mouth, it is not likely that he is simultaneously telling us to have patience and faith because those words might not be “sage and inspired.” Such an interpretation reduces to the claim that the Saints should recognize that the Lord’s own words are not always sage and inspired and therefore that members should be patient with him. This absurdity is not what Givens and Mason intend, but it is what their interpretation of the verse logically entails.

Boyce states that when Givens makes his argument by citing Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5, he only quotes one phrase, “in all patience and faith,” as if he is neglecting the key “as if from mine own mouth.” Boyce asks if patience and faith are needed to accept the words of prophets because of their fallibility, then why does the Lord tell us to accept those words “as if from mine own mouth”? Boyce insists that Givens’ reading would require us to likewise require faith and patience to receive words of the Lord directly from His own mouth because He, too, is not always reliable. Without the context that Givens supposedly has stripped out or overlooked, Givens misreads the verse to argue that it is because prophets are fallible that we need faith and patience to follow them. Not so, Boyce explains, for since their words are “as if” from God’s own mouth, the need for faith and patience is obviously not because God’s words are unreliable, but because of the sacrifices and trouble that may follow from the opposition of the world when we follow God. Thus, Givens makes a horrific blunder in misreading scripture and threatens to lead believers into doubting God’s words. Givens’ reading of Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5 is thus said to result in the absurdity of God Himself being unreliable, speaking words from His own mouth that cannot be trusted.

It’s an argument that can be made plausibly, but the next step, rather than condemnation of Givens and other scholars and a declaration of victory in defending the faith, should be to at least conduct the thought experiment of asking how Givens might respond to such a critique. Is it remotely possible that Givens thinks the Lord God is not reliable? Of course not. So must we assume that Givens has simply taken “faith and patience” out of context, as Boyce implies, and blindly missed or deliberately concealed the all-important statement about receiving the prophet’s words “as if from mine own mouth,” a statement that anyone can see leaves only one possible reading for the verse Givens distorts? Is Givens the scholar really this clumsy, building huge misleading arguments out of a catchphrase ripped from context and easily exploded by simple analysis of the text? Boyce says yes: “Unfortunately, Givens and Mason quote only a portion of the passage they cite, and this leads them into error.” Those two men are said to present a view of the prophets that “has had influence among the Saints, even though it is the near-opposite what the verse actually says and even though it entails a conclusion about the Lord that is logically absurd.”

Here Boyce’s warnings regarding inadequate scholarship might well be considered and applied to yield a more gracious argument. Yes, it is true that Boyce has found a paragraph form Givens that only directly quotes “faith and patience” from Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5. But are there vital other passages in Givens’ writings that show a serious awareness of the allegedly overlooked passage that might guide us in understanding what Givens actually means and how he might response to Boyce’s critique?

Beside Givens’ lone paragraph from a short article that Boyce has targeted, Boyce also is aware of a longer, more recent work of Givens that addresses this topic, as we see in his footnote 7 citing Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt. The citation is to Kindle location 1396, which is early in Chapter 6, “On Delegation and Discipleship: The Ring of Pharaoh,” a carefully considered discussion of God’s delegation of authority and leadership to mortals where Givens also discusses Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5, including the issue of prophetic fallibility and the proper response of the faithful. A relevant excerpt follows:
Delegation is a sobering, even terrifying gesture on God’s part. To delegate or to deputize, both mean that the person receiving that authority has something like God’s power of attorney; the person’s acts, within circumscribed limits, carry the weight and efficacy of God’s own acts. But surely no human can act with the wisdom, the perfect judgment, the infallibility of God. Precisely so. And if delegation is a real principle — if God really does endow mortals with the authority to act in His place and with His authority, even while He knows they will not act with infallible judgment — then it becomes clearer why God is asking us to receive the words of the prophet “as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.” Indeed, this counsel was part of the very first revelation God gave to the newly organized Church in this dispensation, which should give the warning particular primacy among God’s many counsels. Clearly, the Lord can delegate His authority to a human without any assumption that said human will always exercise that authority in perfect conformity with God’s intentions. From Sunday School teachers to prophets, those with God’s authority to act in His name will, even with the best of intentions and efforts, make mistakes. God has already anticipated the need to overlook His prophets’ human weaknesses; hence His admonition on the day of the Church’s very founding. And so did Joseph himself remind his people: “if they would bear with my infirmities . . . I would likewise bear with their infirmities,” he said.

However, a different question emerges when it is the action, not the person, that is imperfect. If a bishop makes a decision without inspiration, are we bound to sustain the decision? The story is told of a Church official who returned from installing a new stake presidency. “Dad, do you Brethren feel confident when you call a man as the stake president that he is the Lord’s man?” the official’s son asked upon his father’s return home. “No, not always,” he replied. “But once we call him, he becomes the Lord’s man.” The answer disconcerts initially. Is this not hubris, to expect God’s sanction for a decision made in error? Perhaps. It is also possible that the reply reveals the only understanding of delegation that is viable.

If God honored only those decisions made in perfect accord with His perfect wisdom, then His purposes would require leaders who were utterly incapable of misconstruing His intention, who never missed hearing the still small voice, who were unerringly and unfailingly a perfect conduit for heaven’s inspiration. And it would render the principle of delegation inoperative. The Pharaoh didn’t say to Joseph, your authority extends as far as you anticipate perfectly what I would do in every instance. He gave Joseph his ring. The king of Spain didn’t say, I will honor your judgments and directives insofar as they accord with my precise conclusions at such a time as I second-guess your every word and act. He signed the viceroy’s royal commission. And after calling Joseph Smith to his mission, the Lord didn’t say, I will stand by you as long as you never err in judgment. He said, “Thou wast called and chosen. . . . Devote all thy service in Zion; and . . . lo, I am with thee, even unto the end.” [Doctrine & Covenants 24: 1, 7, 8]

So, what does this mean for us devoted disciples of the Loving God? In Farrer’s opinion, God “does not promise [Peter, or Joseph] infallible correctness in reproducing on earth the eternal decrees of heaven. He promises him that the decisions he makes below will be sanctioned from above.” In that view, if delegation has any meaning at all, then God is as good as His word. He honors the words and actions of His servants, sincerely executed on His behalf. Here Farrer gives an interesting reading of Christ’s words to Peter, that what His servant binds on earth, will (then and therefore) be bound in heaven. The words are God’s promise to give His divine weight of authority to the principle of delegation, to stand surety for the leaders He entrusts. (Givens, Crucible of Doubt, Kindle location 1363)

Givens’ teachings here should do much to strengthen the ability of Latter-day Saints to sustain not just the President of the Church but their leaders throughout the organization, even when we see human imperfection or suspect human error in a decision or policy. We may sincerely disagree, but there is a need to respect the divine commission of the Lord’s mortal delegates. There are other hard questions that still need to be taken up, and Givens does so, but that is beyond the scope of this post. Boyce and other faithful Latter-day Saints should welcome Givens’ thoughtful and faithful analysis of divine delegation in Chapter 6 of The Crucible of Doubt and not denounce it as heresy for suggestion that human imperfection may have practical and painful implications for the rest of us mortals in and out of the Church.
There can be no doubt that Givens has considered the import of the phrase “as if from mine own mouth.” There can be no suggestion that he has overlooked or deliberately neglected the key phrase in The Crucible of Doubt. We can see Givens’ thinking more fully and see how he weighs it. In my opinion, in light of the extensive discussion in Chapter 6 and even in light of the brief excerpt above, Givens’ reading becomes not only plausible but superior to Boyce’s.

Also note that the words “as if” can indicate that a non-existent, hypothetical, imaginary or even impossible situation is being described, as in “he acted as if the world were ending.” The world is not necessarily actually ending in that sentence. In the verse in question, the words we receive are not actually from the Lord’s own mouth. That would be a much different experience that what we actually have when a mortal speaks. Even though we are told to receive them as if they were from the Lord’s own mouth, there is a range of differences between the “as if” and the reality that can color the experience and our response. From the mortal prophet, we do not see the Lord’s glory nor feel the impressive surround-sound rumbling with intense bass and other incontrovertible soecial effects that some might expect were the Lord speaking to us directly with His own mouth. Rather, we may encounter a frail elderly man with a raspy voice addressing a topic which we might think he can’t possibly understand fully. This is the moment that requires faith and patience to also hear and accept the voice of the Lord.

One of those differences between hearing God speak directly versus God speaking to a fallible delegate is that mistakes are possible.

If the meaning of Doctrine & Covenants 21:4–5 is that prophetic declarations are essentially as infallible as God Himself, and that faith and patience is needed only because of the future trouble that will come to those in the world who do God’s will, then why does the Lord continue in the next verse to speak of the miracles and success that will come to those who obey? By obeying the prophet, the powers of darkness will be dispersed, the gates of hell will not prevail against them, and heaven will shake for their good. These are glorious promises of success, a promise of powerful evidences and confirmations for the faith they exercised in obedience, not a warning of opposition that will try their faith and demand future faith and patience. The faith and patience seem to be needed now. The trial seems to be a present one.

Boyce also criticizes Givens for for his use of a 1963 letter from Spencer W. Kimball. Kimball, as an Apostle pondering the priesthood ban for blacks and the desire of many to change it, wrote "I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation." Givens cites this in the "single paragraph" above that draws the initial attention of Boyce and uses it to show that Elder Kimball could entertain the possibility that the priesthood policy arose through possible human error. Boyce is incredulous and accuses Given and Mason of radical error in once again misreading a simple sentence. Boyce states that since Kimball recognizes the policy as "the Lord's policy," it cannot possibly be in error, and therefor the "possible error" must refer to something else. Boyce argues that it refers to the possibility of "error committed in the pre-earth existence" that Kimball might have been considering (erroneously considering, that is). This might have been Kimball's intent, but were it so, it is puzzling that he would use the singular "error" to describe the (hypothetical and now disavowed) errors of many individuals leading to their loss of priesthood rights. Such collective error/sins/mistakes of some kind are plural and that would be the most natural way to describe them. The use of the singular "error" would seem to more likely point to a human error in establishing the policy. How, then, could it be the Lord's policy? Precisely because of the principle of delegation, in which error-prone humans act with the Lord's authority to create policies in the Lord's Church. It is the Lord's Church, and to those who understand authority and delegation, or at least who accept the concept as neatly described by Givens, it is possible to recognize the policies in the Lord's Church can be "the Lord's" and yet be the result of human action and occasionally even some degree of human error. The argument can be made either way, actually, leaving no space to assume that a different plausible reading necessarily represents dangerous apostasy and radical error. Boyce is consistently too confident in his readings and in the assumptions he applies, and too harsh in criticizing those who differ.

Overall, while I agree with the importance of revelation and authority among our leaders, the "long shadow" of scholarly error condemned so strongly by Boyce looks much less fearsome in light of what the LDS scholars are actually saying, the historical realities that they must contend with, and the likely meanings of the verses or other passages they allegedly have abused. I hope Boyce will reconsider, for example, what Given has written about Doctrine and Covenants 21:4-5 and more fully consider the practical issues that beset and pain faithful members when human limitations come into play among Church leaders. Human fallibility is not just limited to low-pain impact on minor issues like the scheduling of Activity Days, but can have lasting impact on the Church.

Examples of lasting impact from human weakness can be cited from the areas that concern Givens (the past priesthood ban, the Adam-God theory, and the difficulties and implications of polygamy), but one that might be easier to consider involves Joseph Smith's obvious mistakes leading to the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon. This problem, of course, was anticipated by the Lord and compensated for in part with the small plates of Nephi. However, I think one cannot reasonably deny that we as a Church have suffered loss as a result and would have had a stronger, larger, more data-rich text if we still had the 116 pages along with the rest of the Book of Mormon. You can say that we have all we need, all the Lord sees fit for us to have, etc., but those pages were there and were part of the sacred record written and preserved by ancient prophets at great cost to benefit us in our day, and through a modern prophet's mistake we temporarily do not have them. Call that minor, but it matters to many of us. Prophetic fallibility matters, just as the fallibility of Apostles, stake presidents, bishops, and deacons quorum presidents can matter. Yet the Lord has called and authorized these leaders, whom we should sustain and support, in all patience and faith.