Monday, December 15, 2008

The Book of Mormon: "I Know" versus "I Believe"

We home school our kids. So to teach them about LDS (Mormon) beliefs and history we visited many of the Mormon historical sites. We visited Palmyra, NY (Hill Cumora), Kirtland, OH, Navoo, IL, Carthage, IL, Independence, MO, and Salt Lake City, UT. We also asked the local Mormon missionaries to visit and discuss LDS beliefs. If you have ever talked to LDS missionaries or gone to a Mormon historical site you will likely have heard someone tell you "I know the Book of Mormon is true", because they asked God and He gave them a feeling that it was true. But can they honestly say that they "know the Book of Mormon is true"?

The summary statements from the video "Journey of Faith: The New World", do still sum up the situation well. There are possibilities, but no actual conclusive evidence in support of the Book of Mormon has been found to date.

But of course the same could be said of any belief system. If we have objective, conclusive evidence about something (evidence that is convincing to a reasonable skeptic) then we say we "know" something is true. But if we do not have that objective, conclusive evidence then we say that we "believe" something is true. So, by definition, no belief system has objective, conclusive proof for their beliefs. Many religions have strong feelings and experiences which support their beliefs, but feelings and experiences are not grounds for saying you "know" something is true.

Joseph Smith believed the Battle of Cumora was in New York

Here is one question to consider. How would a 19th century person interpret the discussions in the Book of Mormon concerning the Nephites and the Lamanites and where they lived? It seems clear that readers of that day, including Joseph Smith, interpreted the Book of Mormon to be saying that the Nephites and Lamanites lived in North and South America rather than in the north and south parts of central America. But DNA evidence and travel time issues seems to prohibit the possibility that the North American Indians were Lamanites (and therefore Israelite descendants). So even if evidence of civilizations in central America at about the right time is found, it would still be a problem that Heavenly Father did not reveal to Joseph Smith the correct interpretation of the Book of Mormon concerning the location of the Hill Cumora and about the North American Indians being the descendants of the Lamanites. Every Mormon should watch the video "DNA and the Book of Mormon" and then compare what is said to the rebuttals from FAIR and FARMS (The Maxwell Institute), the two leading Mormon Apologetics groups. True beliefs can only be strengthened when tested.

I've studied both Mormon and anti-Mormon literature. Many of the reasons people dismiss Mormonism are either not valid or are not conclusive. But two seemingly valid issues to consider are: 1. Is what Joseph Smith's mother wrote in her biography concerning his father's dreams and Joseph Smith Junior's stories accurate? and 2. if Heavenly Father was originally a man and all his ancestors were once a man too, then who was the first God, how did he get there and what did each God create?

Joseph Smith's Mother's Biography

In the original 1853 edition of Joseph Smith's History by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, two passages seem to say Joseph Smith Junior and his father had information from the book of Mormon before the gold plates were actually found. Read the dream that Joseph Smith Senior had starting on page 55 of the 1908 edition of her biography and compare it to the same vision listed in the Book of Mormon in 1st Nephi Chapter 8. You must agree that both Joseph Smith Senior's dream and Lehi's dream listed in the Book of Mormon are so similar that it is highly likely they are both referencing the same dream. You can take the position that Heavenly Father gave both Joseph Smith Senior and Lehi the same dream 2450 years apart, but you have to admit that another logical possibility is that Joseph Smith Junior knew of his father's dream and added it to the book of Mormon.

Then also see the passage on page 85 of the original 1853 edition of Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith... (his mother's biography) which says:

"During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode, their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them."

Note that was before Joseph Smith Junior found the plates. So, logically, either God was giving him detailed information about the historical habits of the ancient North American Indians or Joseph Smith made up the stories and then recorded them in the book of Mormon.

How many God's have there been and what did they create?

According to the fifth LDS President, Lorenzo Snow, the LDS church teaches "As man now is God once was, and as God now is man may become". If our Heavenly Father was originally a man and all his ancestors were once a man too, then who was the first God and how did he get there (I'm not convinced by the infinite regression of Gods concept). And related to that is what exactly did Heavenly Father create, was it the universe, our galaxy or just our solar system. The official LDS Gospel Principles book says that He created the universe, but if that is the case, then what is left for the other Gods to create (I don't buy the multiverse concept)? See D&C 132:19-22 where it says men may become Gods.

A Change of Debtors is not Forgiveness

The historical Christian concept of the value of Jesus's sacrifice is that he paid our debt and then forgave us if we are willing to follow him. This concept of complete forgiveness up front seems to be in stark contrast to other religions, where some form of good works is required in order to be acceptable to God. Yet the LDS concept of the value of Jesus's sacrifice seems to be different than the historic Christian concept in this key area. The LDS concept seems to be that God was going to put us in jail (or give us spiritual death) for non-payment, but Jesus paid our debt so that we will instead repay him the full debt, but he will spread out the payments so that we can afford the repayment schedule. See the parable from Elder Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, written in the official Gospel Principles Chapter 12.

Good People with Important Questions to Answer

I like the Mormon people I have met. They were surprisingly open and honest, even concerning the hard questions listed above. So it is good to try to get past common stereotypes and fear of people who believe differently. It is also important for each of us to take a look at the hard questions concerning our beliefs. So if you are LDS (or Community of Christ) then I hope you will do that with the questions listed above. And, even though they may not think so, atheists and agnostics have hard questions about their beliefs that they should look squarely in the face as well. So Mormonism is not the only belief system that has hard questions to answer.

For example, atheists and agnostics should consider the apparent design of physical constants. And since the human brain has the most complexity per square inch of anything we know of, does that imply the purpose of the universe may be to support human life? And can a good human society ultimately result if there is no external source of value for humanity? Also, we should consider the future implications of evolution, if it is true, such as future super-humans and that some form of social Darwinism (not racial) actually would seem to be a good thing for society in the long run (if evolution is true). So, Mormons are not the only ones who need to consider the hard questions about their beliefs.

We all look at the evidence and basically bet our lives on our best guess as to what we think is ultimately true. Family, friends, relationships and society are strong forces that usually sway people one way or another, which is why most people stay in the belief system of the social group they belong to. But ultimately we should ruthlessly follow truth, wherever that search may lead.


Unknown said...

Enjoyed reading your article.

Since our knowledge is limited to our senses then may I submit that none of us are capable of knowing anything, and in the extreme, anything that we think we know is really something that we believe. It boils down to where one draws the line in the sand or how high one's bar is. And it's all subjective. But I think you were saying essentially the same thing.

I think it is absolutely amazing, and more than coincidence, the artifacts that have been found in the new world that support the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon. It's enough for me but perhaps not enough for you and your family.

BTW, I consider science to be a belief system with a different methodology. And I love math, physics, science, etc. etc. and I know that the theories of science are very fluid.

I dont think you are qualified to conclude what people believe or know. Peter said he knew that Jesus was the Son of God and Jesus clearly stated that Peter knew that by the Spirit of Revelation (not in so many words but it is still an example that even Peter claiming he knew something rather than believe something). When one studies it out in one's mind and then ask for confirmation and the Lord solidifies both the mind and the heart, then it is very difficult for one to say they dont "know".


I dont believe Joseph Smith interpreted the Book of Mormon to say that the Nephites/Lamanites lived in South America. I think it is very clear that Joseph Smith knew exactly where these people lived because the Lord commanded him to preach the Gospel to them and he did and he did not go down to S.A. to obey the Lord's command.

DNA evidence regarding early American inhabitants has made significant progress lately. May I lead you to:

illustrating the DNA evidence supporting the Book of Mormon civilizations and showing mid-east DNA in the Indian population. These new discoveries has over turned the DNA discussions of 6 years ago.

Hey, is that scientific proof enough for the skeptic?

Again, I think Joseph Smith knew exactly where the Hill Cumorah was. It's the same hill where the plates were found. Duh!

The two issues that you bring up, such as #2, I'm not sure what your point is. Do you think we are prepared or capable of understanding such things? I dont think so. Although I believe Joseph Smith has added immense knowledge and greatly expanded our understanding of eternal things, I think the mysteries of Heaven are infinite to what we comprehend at present.

Scientist are exploring and considering the concept of matter being able to be in two places at the same time and alternate universes. Can you conceive of those? Probably not if you can't conceive of multi-universes. To be a scientist discovering new things, one has to have an open mind.

Your comments regarding Joseph Smith being able to describe Book of Mormon people before obtaining the plates is easily explained by the fact that during those 4 years he was being visited by other heavenly messengers:

"Something in the lesson manual that I did not know was that during those 4 years Joseph Smith was visited by many other Nephite prophets, such as Nephi, Alma, Mormon, and the twelve disciples chosen by the Savior in America (see Church History in the Fulness of Times, p. 41)."

I hope I was able to share something new. I also have read much pro and anti-Mormon literature and have found the "anti's" take way too much out of context and say ridiculous and untrue things.

I dont find your article ridiculous at all but an article that asks and point out some interesting questions that I enjoyed trying to address.