Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The evidential basis of the Book of Mormon, Mormonism and Mainstream Christianity

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In a nutshell, I regard the matter of the evidential nature of the Book of Mormon (BoM) as a microcosm of the nature of Mormonism, which is itself a microcosm of Christianity.

That is to say there is evidence on both sides - evidence that the Book of Mormon is true - in the sense of being what it says it is; and other evidence that it is not true.

So that there are grounds for belief and also grounds to reject belief - and ultimately there is a choice to be made.

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As Terryl Givens has said, the whole way that the production, the existence, of the Book of Mormon explains itself, and the way the BoM was explained-by Joseph Smith - with such concrete exactness and wealth of specific detail (the size, weight, location of the gold plates, the instruments of translation, the convoluted history of the visitations and manuscript etc.) presents a stark dichotomy: either such an elaborate and concrete story is basically true (with some inevitable human errors and distortions), or it is an elaborate and deliberate fraud (a fiction grossly elaborated from a mere handful of unremarkable facts).

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And - because the BoM is the root and basis of the LDS church, the same argument applies to Mormonism - it is either essentially what it says it is, or else an elaborate and deliberate fraud.

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The evidence is not all on one side, there is a significant balance of evidence; not equal balance - whatever that would mean - but the mass of unbelievers cannot accurately or honestly say there is nothing (or nothing significant) to be said in favour of the reality of the BoM and Mormonism itself; nor can Mormons accurately or honestly state that the evidence for the book and the faith is overwhelming and could only be rejected irrationally or maliciously.

Even those who conclude that the BoM is a fraud cannot legitimately claim it is an obvious fraud; even those who claim the BoM is the most important book in the world cannot legitimately claim that its production and nature are transparently and compellingly consistent with that status.

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Furthermore, I feel that - at this point in history and in The West - the situation for Christianity is closely analogous to Mormonism.

CS Lewis put this crisply (although I would qualify his statement a little) when he said that Jesus Christ can only be regarded as either what he said he was; or else a deliberate fraud or insane.

My qualification is that the idea of Christ being insane is not much more plausible than that Joseph Smith was insane: considered as men (because those who deny the divinity of Christ regard him as a man) both functioned at far too high a level to be truly insane.

Those who regard Jesus as insane are required to believe that Christianity was fabricated by the Apostles - who would have had to be men of genius (and John and Paul certainly were); those who regard Joseph Smith as insane would be required to believe something similar - that Joseph Smith was surrounded by geniuses who did the real work of writing the BoM, devising a radically new theology, devising and organizing a new kind of church and so on - attributing the heavy lifting to the likes of Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young and perhaps Parley Pratt and with Joseph Smith as a charismatic, inspired but unwitting and crazed 'front' for these covert operations.

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So, in both instances it comes down to elaborate and deliberate fraud versus truth.

And neither mainstream Christians nor Mormons should be offended by hypothetical fraudulent explanations of their churches - since fraud is the only intellectually rigorous explanation for not believing.

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Now, of course, there is no reason why a Christian who has faith in the self-claimed divinity of Christ and is certain that Jesus was not a fraud; there is no reason why such a person is in any way compelled by consistency (or the similarity of the cases) to believe that 'therefore' the self-claim of Joseph Smith that he was a prophet was genuine.

It is logically possible that Jesus was genuine and Joseph Smith was a fraud. (Which is, of course, the mainstream Christian view.) And the opposite (i.e. JS genuine and JC a fraud) is not possible - because the fraudulence of Christ would invalidate all of Joseph Smith's visionary and prophetic claims.

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BUT the evidential position for Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith is similar to the modern mind, using evidence we have today and with that evidence regarded as we regard it today: which is to say there is reasonable and plausible evidence on both sides of the question, and that the ultimate decision of truth or fraud must be a choice and a matter of faith, intuition, inspiration, personal conviction.

The evidence does not decide the question for us - we must necessarily choose and we must know that we are doing the choosing; and yet we will (like it or like it not) believe and live by our choice; because upon our choice hinges the basic frame and understanding of our future life - our basic motivation and sense of purpose.

(Or, alternatively, our state of essential nihilism - characterized by underlying alienation, incomprehension and demotivation.) 

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I think Mormons are considerably more aware of this reality of modern existence as both consciously chosen and yet believed with certainty than are Mainstream Christians - and that this is one of the strengths of Mormonism.

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