My background is in law and in analytic philosophy, with an emphasis in the philosophy of religion. Virtually every challenge to belief is earnestly explored at length in the discipline of the philosophy of religion. This field of study presents every conceivable argument both for and against faith. I have been blessed to be exposed to numerous perspectives and the remarkable faith of some of the great minds in human history. I have felt a challenge throughout my life to honestly explore, challenge, and assess my beliefs. It is rare for a philosopher to claim to know anything. The realm of what we can honestly say we know is extremely small. Nevertheless, I know what I have experienced. I know that God has spoken in my heart of the truthfulness of the revelations of Jesus Christ to Joseph Smith.
The knowledge that my heart responds with knowing joy to the revelations and scriptures given through Joseph Smith has freed me to explore all challenges with a simple faith. This knowledge has defined my life since I was fourteen years of age. In about July of 1972, I saw a classic film about Brigham Young on TV that starred Tyrone Power, Vincent Price as Joseph Smith, and Dean Jagger as Brigham Young. Toward the end of the film, the saints have arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and nearly starved to death because they lacked food. When spring arrives they plant and await an early harvest. Just as the saints are about to harvest their crops necessary to make it through the next winter, a hoard of crickets descends from the hills and begins devouring their crops – you know the rest of the story. However, in the film, just before the seagulls arrive, Brigham is so despondent that he concludes that he must confess that he is really just a false prophet. Of course the seagulls arrive just in the nick of time to save him from this damning confession.
As a fourteen-year-old I figured that, if Brigham Young thought he was a false prophet, it followed that he was in fact a false prophet. I didn’t want to spend my life pursuing a religion that was led by false prophets. So I felt that I had better find out what was going on with Brigham Young. I asked my Mother where I could find more information about Brigham Young and she suggested that I could find what I was looking for in the Doctrine and Covenants. I commenced my search for answers with urgency. I decided that I would read ten chapters a day. As I began to read I discovered that there wasn’t much about Brigham in the Doctrine and Covenants. However, it occurred to me that Joseph Smith also had to know whether he was a prophet or just making it all up. Indeed, I didn’t see how he could possibly be self-deceived into thinking he was a prophet if he wasn’t, because he knew full well whether he had gold plates that he received from an angel or was just lying about it. So I began to read, and searched with an intensity I had never known in my admittedly inexperienced and short life.
As I read, I scrutinized carefully every chapter, page, sentence, and word to see if it could answer my question: Was Joseph Smith a prophet? I remember vividly, as I read, coming to the conclusion that, though Joseph Smith knew whether he was a prophet, I couldn’t know. I would have to get inside his head to know what he knew—and he was dead, and that knowledge died with him. Nevertheless, I also felt a sense of deep remorse for things that I had done. I remember kneeling and asking for forgiveness—and the response was so unexpected to me. I knew that I was forgiven. I felt as if someone had taken a powerful soap and cleaned me from the inside out. I felt as light as light itself.
I continued to read to see if somehow I could figure out whether Joseph Smith had tipped his hand in some detectable way. About the sixth or seventh day, as I read, my heart began to burn, to radiate, to vibrate with life, to expand with knowing, to enlighten my mind with knowledge—the deepest sense of knowing that I had ever experienced. It was the most joyful and meaningful experience I had ever known to that point in my life. As I sat on the side of my bed reading, I knew that I knew. I had found an answer in a way that I had not anticipated and, indeed, found knowledge within my heart that at some level I didn’t know already resided there.
About a year after that experience, I had another that convinced me that listening to the subtle stirrings of the still small voice is a matter of life and death—and very vital and real. I was waiting outside the gymnasium at the old Jordan High School. I was a sophomore at the time. As I sat there, a young women that I didn’t know well at all came and sat beside me. Without thinking and without hesitating, I turned to her and said: “I know that this will sound strange, but I have a message for you. God wants you to stop thinking about suicide.” Her eyes became great big and her mouth dropped in stunned surprise. She gasped, “How did you know?” In truth, I was also stunned that I had just said what I did. This young lady was a very pretty senior to whom I don’t remember having spoken previously. If I had thought about it before speaking, I would never have opened my mouth. I would have been completely intimidated. On any other day, I would have been too self-conscious to open my mouth. She explained to me that she had laid out on her bed stand an entire bottle of sleeping pills that she planned to go home to take right after the assembly we were about to attend.
The next morning she ran out of the building to meet me as I approached the school steps. She ran up to me and hugged me, crying. I’ll never forget what she said as she sobbed: “I didn’t know that God cared about me. Thank you.” To this day I’m stunned that somehow I knew God had a message for that marvelous young lady. We became friends after that experience. But the truth is that I don’t know how I knew—I just did.
At the beginning of my sophomore year I decided that I would prove that the theory of evolution must be wrong for a research paper in my English class. I read everything I could find, including specifically Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny. As he explained it, if evolution is true, then there was no fall; if there was no fall, then there is no need for atonement; and, if there is no atonement, then there is no Christ. I knew that the gospel is true and thus concluded that evolution had to be false. In many ways, this experience of searching to disprove evolution would define my path in life. As I researched to disprove evolution, I became convinced that evolution is the best explanation for the evidence that is overwhelming. Everything in paleontology, geology, zoology, and biology made little sense unless I accepted some form of the theory of evolution. Instead of writing a refutation of evolution, I wrote a paper about the relationship between intelligence and hominid cranial evolution. I concluded that cranial size or capacity had no real relation to intelligence, but morphite dendrology or the complexity of dendrites in the endocasts of hominid cranial fossils was the real determinant of intelligence.
However, my conclusion presented a very trying dilemma and a good deal of cognitive dissonance for me. How could the gospel be true as I knew in my heart and yet evolution also be true? I began to research that issue at length. I spent almost every waking hour researching, reading, thinking, and pondering the implications of these issues. I learned of the historical discussion among the Latter-day prophets and apostles and their disagreements and disputations regarding this issue. I admit that it is an issue that I continue to research. But I have long since concluded that Genesis was written in a pre-scientific culture that had a very different world view than any that I could truly entertain as an explanation for the evolution of life. However, I have also learned about ancient Near Eastern cultures and the role that the creation stories played in their explanation of human experience. The opening chapters of Genesis are among the most valuable in the scriptures for me. I continue to see myself and the reality of the human condition and our relationship to God and the gods powerfully revealed in these chapters.
Shortly after or during this same time, I also learned that Joseph Smith and others had made numerous changes to the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon in editions subsequent to the first editions. Because of my love for the Doctrine and Covenants, I began to ponder how that could be. How could Joseph Smith alter a revelation he had received? It was during this time that I first formulated what I have come to the call the co-creative view of revelation. I knew from my own experience that I had impressions, revelations, and insights that spoke in my mind and that I could formulate in many different ways. In fact, the fullness of the knowledge could almost never be expressed adequately and, as I grew in capacity, I was better able to express even what I had learned in earlier revelations. I figured it was the same for Joseph and the translation of the Book of Mormon.
Shortly after I began to work on this issue, I also discovered that Egyptologists had raised a number of issues about the translation of the Book of Abraham. This issue became my next project. I read all of the Improvement Era articles and everything I could about what is known as the 1912 Bishop Spaulding attack on the Book of Abraham. I was surprised how open the Mormons had been to publishing even the attacks on the Book of Abraham in full in the Improvement Era. Frankly, I didn’t find much helpful to respond to the points made by the Egyptologists. I also read all of Hugh Nibley’s articles in the Improvement Era that responded largely to the issues raised when facsimile number 1 was found by Aziz Atiya in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1966.
This issue presented more challenges than I had capacity to answer. I began to study Egyptian as best I could, using Budge’s introduction to Egyptian. It is clear that the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed were not written by “Abraham’s own hand,” because they date from around 200 B.C. to 100 A.D.—at least 1,500 years after Abraham lived. However, since I had experienced the truth of Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet, I knew that I didn’t have to become an Egyptologist to retain my integrity. I still have questions about the Book of Abraham, but I have come to a few firm conclusions. First, the parallels between the first century pseudepigraphic work known as the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Book of Abraham are so compelling that they require some explanation. Joseph Smith could not have known about this pseudepigraphic work. Second, it is rather clear that Joseph Smith is not translating the facsimiles in any common sense. Rather, he is explaining their meaning in relation to the story of Abraham and using them to illustrate Abraham’s visions in a manner very similar to another first century pseudepigraphic work known as the Testament of Abraham, which also used vignettes from the Book of the Dead to illustrate Abraham’s visions. I have provisionally concluded that these vignettes from the Book of the Dead, or the vignettes from the Book of Breathings that Joseph Smith had, are recognized as derivative of Abraham’s visions by both these Jewish writers and Joseph Smith through revelation. Third, I have also studied the ancient Near Eastern sources and creation stories. As I read the Book of Abraham, it reflects an ancient Near Eastern knowledge of the council of the gods and their activity in creating the world.
I have also studied the history of Joseph Smith. While I was still in high school I became aware of what many regard as thorny issues regarding Joseph Smith. I have continued to study as much as I can for greater insight. Joseph’s practice of polygamy has not been the challenge for me that it is for many. Nevertheless, I have explored as much as I can because it is so easy to engage in judgment of Joseph Smith regarding this issue. The knee-jerk reaction is that Joseph was just a sexual lech who used his position of power to persuade others to give up their daughters for sexual escapades. However, the practices of sealing, of being sealed to other men’s wives, of being married to many older women, and of asking for other men’s wives only to use the challenge as a test of faith is much more complex than such a facile judgment—or judgmentalness—can explain. I have concluded that there is a great deal that we must surmise and that there is a great deal that we just cannot know because of the intimacy and sacredness of these relationships. These were, after all, almost puritanical women committed to faith in God who consented to marry Joseph Smith.
However, there are a few provisional conclusions that I have reached. The fact that we cannot verify any descendants of Joseph Smith except those begotten through his wife Emma strongly challenges the notion that Joseph Smith was simply using plural marriage as a means to satisfy his sexual lust. Second, and far more importantly, polygamy was and is intended to be a test that stretched those who confronted the request to engage in it beyond anything they could imagine. It also stretches and challenges us. Indeed, even today it challenges us to give up the preconceived notion that we can pigeonhole God into our matrix of judgments. The practice of plural marriage obliterates the notion that God must fit into our categories of right and wrong and that we can know all about God without God revealing himself to us as he is, rather than as we think he must be.
Blake T. Ostler is a partner in the Salt Lake City law firm of Thompson Ostler & Olsen. Mr. Ostler concentrates his practice in the areas of civil litigation, education law, special education, employment law, construction law, intellectual property litigation, and real property law.
In 1981, Mr. Ostler graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy (summa cum laude) and a Bachelor of Science in Psychobiology (magna cum laude). He then graduated in 1985 as a William Leary Scholar from the University of Utah with a Juris Doctorate (cum laude).
Blake Ostler has published widely on Mormon philosophy in professional academic philosophy journals such as Religious Studies (Oxford, England), the International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion (Netherlands), and Element: The Journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, as well as in the Mormon scholarly publications Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, BYU Studies, and FARMS Review. He is the author of the multi-volume series Exploring Mormon Thought—The Attributes of God (2001), The Problems of Theism and the Love of God (2006), and Of God and Gods (2008)—published by Kofford Books. He has also taught philosophy at Brigham Young University as an adjunct instructor.
Mr. Ostler is fluent in Italian and French, conversant in Swedish and Spanish, and conducts scholarly research in German, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He loves spending time with his wife and five children, and (to a qualitative lesser extent) fly fishing, playing racquetball, four wheeling, and watching BYU football.
Posted January 2010.