[This post originally appeared as two separate blog posts at Ploni Almoni–Mr. So and So’s Mormon Blog. The two posts are redacted here for convenience.]
“When Doubts and Questions Arise”
Hot off the press is the March 2015 Ensign.
Adam Kotter gets it right with his comments on how to healthily respond to a faith crisis:
Incidentally, I just read these words from Elder John A. Widtsoe this evening.
Doubt of the right kind–––that is, honest questioning–––leads to faith. Such doubt impels men to inquiry which always opens the door to truth. The scientist in his laboratory, the explorer in distant parts, the prayerful man upon his knees–––these and all inquirers like them find truth. They learn some things that are known, others are not. They cease to doubt. . . . On the other hand, the stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the effort, to pay the price of discovery, inevitably reaches unbelief and miry darkness. His doubts grow like poisonous mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers. At last, blind like the mole in his borrow, he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, and indolence for labor.
(John A. Widtsoe, “Is It Wrong to Doubt?” in Science and Your Faith in God [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958], 241.)
While I’m at it, here are also some sage words from Joseph F. Merrill.
In these days there are so many false teachings, so much propaganda, so much shallowness and insincerity, so many appeals to self-interest by ambitious demagogues and others, that it behooves the truth-seeker to investigate all proposals and appeals that come to him in order that he may act wisely.
(Joseph F. Merrill, “The Dynamic God of Science,” in Science and Your Faith in God, 117.)
A key to successfully navigating a faith crisis is to never assume that you know enough about the topic you’re struggling with. If it’s plural marriage, the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon historicity, or other issues in Church history, you can never study too much, but you can always study too little. In my experience, many individuals who resign their Church membership over these and other issues often do so after giving up too easily on the apologetic responses to the criticism, or not even knowing the responses in the first place! In many instances they read the critical material but don’t go any further. Or, if they are aware of the apologetic response, they often get it secondhand from critics who are, in reality, presenting little more than a straw man version of the apologetic response that distorts the real argument. (Exhibit A: the apparent inability of the denizens of the Ex-Mormon Subreddit to understand, much less accurately summarize, John A. Sorenson’s suggestion that “horse” served as a Nephite loan-shift for the indigenous American tapir. This, incidentally, has led to a bizarre obsession on the part of these ex-Mormons with the tapir that exhibits an amusing ignorance on their part.)
In short, to paraphrase Werner Heisenberg, “The first gulp from the glass of Mormon history will turn you into an ex-Mormon, but at the bottom of the glass faith in Joseph Smith’s divine calling is waiting for you.”
“Answers to Common Questions”
If I may be perfectly frank, I have been disappointed in the quality of many of the articles printed in the Church’s magazines as of late. While I read the Ensign and the New Era every month, mostly to stay current on what’s trending in Mormon discourse, I usually find myself skimming over most articles. Rarely do I find articles that are substantive or that grab my attention. To my delight, the March 2015 New Era, the Church’s magazine for youth, does have one intriguing article that I thought would be worth highlighting.
Here are some “common questions” that an unnamed author the New Era thought important to provide brief responses to. Keep in mind that, per the New Era‘s primary readership, these are the sorts of questions more likely to be encountered by the Church’s youth (perhaps, for example, while walking down the hall in an American high school).
1. Why do you have other scriptures? Isn’t the Bible enough?
2. Mormon men have lots of wives, right?
3. Why are Mormons against gay people?
4. Are you really Christians or more like a cult?
5. Why does it matter what church you belong to? Doesn’t God love everyone?
6. Doesn’t scientific evidence prove that the Book of Mormon couldn’t possibly be true?
7. What happens in your temples, and why are you so secretive about it?
8. Why does your church send out young men and women to be missionaries?
9. Why don’t you believe in having sexual relationships until you’re married?
10. Do you all just blindly obey whatever you’re told?
11. How can you be sure what you believe is true?
I will encourage my readers to go see for themselves the answers provided to these questions. I do, however, wish to highlight a few remarks.
Concerning whether scientific evidence disproves the Book of Mormon, the article states:
The scientific evidence we have cannot prove or disprove the Book of Mormon. Archaeological or genetic research in the Americas, for instance, is ongoing and often raises more questions than it answers. So to draw absolute conclusions from it about the Book of Mormon (either for it or against it) is usually a bit of a stretch—and quite risky, since new evidence often comes along that refutes old conclusions.
This is, actually, a very astute and reasonable reply. Having taken at least three different archaeology classes in my undergraduate program, I have learned that making positive claims about the past based on negative evidence is a rather problematic. I have encountered, on a number of occasions, the useful adage “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” in my reading of mainstream archaeology textbooks and papers. I have also encountered many wise and seasoned archaeologists warn against attempting to make a case for something on negative evidence. It’s a methodological pitfall that, unfortunately, many unwittingly seem to fall into.
Similarly, given what the archaeologist Mark Alan Wright has indicated about the excavation of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, we can appreciate that this sentiment is doubly true for the Book of Mormon.
Because of the extraordinarily diverse cultural landscape and the challenges of interpreting the archaeological record, scholars debate the precise chronologies, spheres of influence, and cultural boundaries of Mesoamerica. Literally thousands of archaeological sites dot the Mesoamerican landscape, the vast majority of which we know virtually nothing about, other than their locations. In the Maya area alone are approximately six thousand known sites, of which fewer than fifty have undergone systematic archaeological excavation.
. . .
Thanks to advances in satellite imaging, we have been able to identify over 6,000 sites in the Maya area alone, each composed of dozens, if not hundreds, of buildings. Of these thousands of known sites, each is unique in one way or another. From those polities whose artistic programs and hieroglyphic inscriptions have survived the ravages of time, we have discovered that each city worshipped its own unique pantheon of gods, typically a blending of pancultural deities with locally significant patron gods.
(Mark Alan Wright, “The Cultural Tapestry of Mesoamerica,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 : 4, 21; online here.)
But more important, attacks against the Book of Mormon on scientific grounds are usually based on faulty assumptions about what the book claims to be. For instance, it does not claim to be a record of the ancestors of all of the native peoples across the entire Western Hemisphere, nor does it claim that the people described in it were the first or only people inhabiting the area described in it. And yet, many scientific criticisms seem to assume that the book claims exactly these things.
Again, this is an excellent point. As Hugh Nibley wryly observed in 1967, “The normal way of dealing with the Book of Mormon ‘scientifically’ has been first to attribute to the Book of Mormon something it did not say, and then to refute the claim by scientific statements that have not been proven.” (Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. [Provo: FARMS, 1981], 214.)
Furthermore, this comment from the New Era is keeping in line with the Church’s recent Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Mormon and DNA studies:
The Book of Mormon provides little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby. Consequently, most early Latter-day Saints assumed that Near Easterners or West Asians like Jared, Lehi, Mulek, and their companions were the first or the largest or even the only groups to settle the Americas. Building upon this assumption, critics insist that the Book of Mormon does not allow for the presence of other large populations in the Americas and that, therefore, Near Eastern DNA should be easily identifiable among modern native groups.
The Book of Mormon itself, however, does not claim that the peoples it describes were either the predominant or the exclusive inhabitants of the lands they occupied. In fact, cultural and demographic clues in its text hint at the presence of other groups. At the April 1929 general conference, President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency cautioned: “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon … does not tell us that there was no one here before them [the peoples it describes]. It does not tell us that people did not come after.”
So, to give credit where credit is due, I appreciate that the New Era published this brief article. I appreciate it whenever the Church attempts to introduce a little bit of critical thinking into its curriculum besides merely faith-promoting material. I hope that more articles such as this one are published in future issues of the Church’s magazines. It can only help better prepare Church members to give their apologia for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:15).