Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Utah Fans with Editing Skills: A Chance to Strengthen Utah-China Ties

A remarkable non-profit organization in China, the Utah-Qinghai EcoPartnership, could use a little help a few times each year to review their English reports and make sure that the language sounds natural. Further, since there will be some description of Utah and its people, there is a desire to have someone from Utah or thoroughly familiar with Utah assist in this review. So a friend of mine (one of the coolest people in China!) is looking for a volunteer with editing skills and a Utah background to help out. Should only be a few times a year and nothing very lengthy. It's a volunteer position, but a chance to make a difference and become a small part of something quite exciting in China.

The Utah-Qinghai EcoPartnership is a non-profit organization dedicated to building relationships, encouraging all levels of government and business exchange, protecting intellectual property, and developing green technologies. It was forged by a Chinese man with some amazing ties who, after spending years working with Utah leaders, recognized that Utah has technologies and capabilities that can make China a better place. Some of the best examples of successful, legal, fruitful, and mutually beneficial technology transfer between the US and China have occurred in collaboration involving Utah schools like BYU and the University of Utah and some Utah businesses working with this partnership. Other examples of their work include aiding the creation of the sister-city relationship between Xining City and Utah County governments, Qinghai Normal University and Utah Valley University’s sister-school exchange program, the partnership of Xining middle school district with the city of Bountiful for a student exchange program, as well as a training and cultural exchange program for Chinese and Utahan government officials called the "Green Town Development."

These partnerships and cooperative programs have resulted in several awards and recognitions in China such as in September of 2012 when Qinghai Province and Utah State were honored with the national award for Best Cooperation from the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. Earlier, in June of 2012, Xining City (the capital of Qinghai) won the service award from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. Even further back on July 13 of 2011, Utah and Qinghai became sister-states. This relationship is recognized at the US and China national level as the Utah-Qinghai EcoPartnership, the only state level EcoPartnership program through the US Department of State.

For more information, the Utah-Qinghai EcoPartnership information, see the Utah-Qinghai EcoPartnership Website at http://www.utahqinghaiecopartner.com, and the US Department of State EcoPartnership Website.

If you would like to be involved, send me a note at jeff at jefflindsay d0t c0m and tell me a little about yourself and your interest. The leader seeking the help is looking for someone "mature" and responsible. Aren't we all!

Greetings from New Zealand

After a joyous and delicious lunch with two of our Chinese friends to celebrate the Chinese New Year, we left China and flew south to New Zealand where I spent the next 10 days reminding myself to stay on the left side of the road as we drove about 3,000 kilometers over the North and South Islands. What a spectacular country with so many surprises. I think what surprised me most was the way New Zealand smells. With the exception of the sulfurous stench of some fascinating thermal spots, the air in New Zealand isn't just clean and pure, but smells great. In many spots it was like getting free aroma therapy because the fragrances were so fresh, pleasant, and different. I was also struck by beauty of the landscapes (yes, much of Lord of the Rings was filmed there) and especially the grandeur of the vegetation.

While New Zealand is a perfect place to ponder the majesty of the Creation, it also compelled me to reflect upon the sorrows of destruction. We ended the trip with a visit to Christchurch, a city that many people now avoid because it still hasn't recovered from the terrific earthquake that destroyed so much of the beautiful city in 2010. The last four photos are from that city. We didn't think we would have time to go into the downtown and see the area. We only had a short while before sunset and an early morning flight, and it was too far to walk from the hotel we had just checked into (we returned our car in Greymouth and took a train across the Alps to Christchurch). We started walking anyway, wondering if we should just turn back and call it a day, and realizing that our only hope to see the downtown would be to find a taxi in a land where taxis seem to be rare, quite unlike Shanghai where they sometimes seem far too numerous.

Right as I contemplated our need for a cab, one came up the road and parked in front of some apartment buildings. We concluded it was waiting for a customer who had called, but decided to check anyway. We walked up to the taxi, interrupted the driver who was reading a book, and were delighted to find that he was free. He was the perfect one to give us a tour of downtown. He had lived there for many years and his wife's entire business was lost in the earthquake. He was able to take us from one scene to another and describe what happened, how many died, and how much trouble the insurance companies have given the people seeking compensation. What a mess and a tragedy. What a blessing to be able to learn from a fine and passionate man who is on the brink of giving up and going somewhere else. The reality of sudden disaster in Christchurch was sobering. Such things can strike us anywhere, anytime. Be as prepared as you can be, with food storage, emergency provisions, and other preparations for change. And don't set your heart on the material things of the world. They can be easily shaken from our grasp. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Refining Influence of Wealth?

I sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that more educated, wealthy folks are more likely to have what I consider to be good manners. 
Last night I was on a long train ride. A few rows in front of me was a couple watching a movie on their computer with speakers and sound volume worthy of a big-screen theatre. I ignored it for quite a while, but as the vampire flick grew more violent and bloody, the sounds of smashing, thrashing, and gnashing became increasingly annoying. It was as if they owned the train and no one else was on board. At my left a tired woman was trying to sleep. Across the aisle a man was visibly annoyed. But why was everyone just sitting back and taking such rude behavior? 

Finally, mostly out of sympathy for those around me, I decided to take action. It was a tough decision because it meant the potential sacrifice of a prized possession of mine. But I took them out of my bag and walked over to the offending couple, trying not to glance at the carnage on the screen. With my best fake smile, I held out my favorite pair of earbuds and said, in my poor Chinese, "Here, you might need these earphones. Go ahead, take them." 

When I looked at the woman, I was surprised. I'm embarrassed to say that I figured it would be some "country bumpkin" from the remote provinces who didn't understand the basics of civilized behavior in a train.  But this was a woman of wealth in a beautiful dress, with nice jewelry, decked out with a large laptop computer, loudly talking into her iPhone as I approached. She had to talk loud because the volume of the movie she was playing was already quite high. 

She quickly realized why I was offering earbuds and smiled back, saying that she had her own. To make she she understood, I repeated the offer. I think she got the message, and the volume went way down after that. I could only hear an occasional slaying after that. Much better. 

Ah, the refining influence of wealth. Doesn't always work that way, I guess. Should have realized that somebody with a high-volume computer wouldn't be from the regions of high poverty. The train was heading to Wenzhou, famed city of China's wealthiest people, it is said, legendary for their real estate prowess and abundant wealth. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review: Day of Defense by Scott Thormaehlen

Scott Thormaehlen’s new book, Day of Defense: Positive Talking Points for the Latter Days (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2013) aims to help readers deal with misunderstandings and accusations regarding LDS beliefs (p. xii). As one who has spent a good deal of time over the past couple of decades in responding to the numerous critical questions that can be hurled our way, I know this is not an easy task. In general, though, Thormaehlen does a good job in treating some common areas of concern and provides good basic material for responding to objections in many areas. Some sections may seem too shallow to satisfy the needs of some serious inquirers. I might even argue that the book is too short. Given all that is said against the Church and all that may need to be said to defend it, 124 pages for the main body of the text is relatively short, but the brevity is also a virtue for those wishing to have basic material to deal with key issues.

The organization of the book begins with a review of other faiths, early Christianity, and the apostasy. After three chapters on these themes, Thormaehlen turns to particular LDS issues, but does not begin with the Restoration but with what may be the most controversial and challenging aspect of our faith, polygamy. This is an area where a more detailed treatment or, perhaps, at least links and references for more detailed information would have been helpful. The work of Greg Smith, for example, on the issue of polyandry and other topics could at least have been mentioned for those concerned with some of the more complex and challenging aspects of polygamy (may it rest in peace). Resources at FAIRLDS.org, the Maxwell Institute, and other sites could have been mentioned for readers who wish to understand the controversies in more detail.

In general, one thing I think could have strengthened the book would have been further footnotes or hyperlinks pointing readers to more detailed sources of information. After all, crafting a sophisticated rubric sometimes requires detailed information on complex topics that can’t all fit within a book treating numerous topics. Some topics seem to be too shallow, and while space is a serious limitation, references to guide the reader would have been helpful. For example, in the discussion of Islam, there is no reference to the ground-breaking work of Daniel Peterson in advancing our appreciation of the Islam faith. A reference to his 2007 book, Muhammad: Prophet of God, or to his 2-hour CD, Understanding Islam, would have been helpful.

Speaking of Islam, I was disappointed by more than the failure to recognize Daniel Peterson’s scholarship in the area. I was troubled by the quick descent into criticism of the Muslim faith almost immediately after introducing a few basics. On page 4, for example, the author states, “For Islam to remain consistent with itself after 1,400 years, a few questions must be asked. First, where is the prophet of Allah today denouncing radical activity? Islam answers by saying that Muhammad is believed to be the last in the line of prophets. After so many centuries, has God spoken again? If so, to whom? About what? Why has he spoken again after so long? And what would the result look like if God spoke to man in more recent times?” Thormaehlen also wonders if Islam, like Christianity, has experienced its own apostasy resulting in the multiple groups claiming leadership and authority.  I found these questions to be a distraction. They may also be too much like the questions that people can throw at our faith without seeking to actually understand it.

This line of questioning does not further the objectives of the book, especially when one realizes that having living prophets and apostles has not removed LDS splinter groups or brought them back into the fold. If we can have division between RLDS, Fundamentalists, and the mainstream LDS Church, surely the lack of unity in other faiths such as Islam is not proof of complete apostasy (p. 6).

The brief discussion of Judaism also focuses on the lack of modern prophets in the religion. Like Islam, Judaism has “fallen from the Biblical use of prophets.” The discussion of early Christianity also quickly turns to its apostate status since they lack living apostles and prophets, which the LDS Church has. The manifold advantages of those callings are then set forth. The review of other religions boils down to the affirmation that most other faiths do not claim to have modern prophets, while we do.

Though much is stated well, there are some statements where one may take issue.  On page 12, for example, we then read that “Whenever God wanted his word spoken, he revealed it through a prophet, who then recorded it. This is the consistent pattern.” But is it? Do we not have a great deal of works spoken by prophets that were not recorded? Also on page 12, is it true that Mormons believe that the death of the Apostles led to the great Apostasy? Or was it the rejection of the Apostles prior to their death? “Among the three religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), those who today do not rely on prophetic guidance are associated with times of confusion, a loss of spiritual gifts, and divisions.” But again, Mormonism has its own divisions, in spite of prophets and apostles. The issues are more complex that that.

What follows then is a discussion of favorite Bible passages related to apostasy and priesthood authority, and evidence that the role of Apostles was meant to continue in the Church. Right as I was beginning to wonder if this book was a modern version of that old classic, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, there came a quote from it in which Franklin D. Richards refers to a Catholic theologian who said Mormons don’t understand the strength of their own position relative to authority and the Restoration. In a post at By Common Consent, I have noticed that Kevin Barney shared his homework leading to identification of that priest as John M. Reiner. It’s a fascinating story told more fully in the comments to the original post.

Chapter 3 tackles the issue of whether Mormons are Christian or not, including attacks on our faith related to our failure to fully embrace the doctrine of the Trinity. The chapter turns to a listing of questionable innovations in the Catholic Church and then focuses on a critique of the practice of celibacy for priests and then indulgences, followed by a comparison of popes and prophets, along with an attack on the infallibility of popes based on the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. The “violent and intolerant actions” during the Inquisition and the Crusades are contrasted with the words of Christ, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9). This argument would play better if Mormon history had always reflected such ideals and did not have its own tarnish.

At this point I felt that that the book sometimes was too critical of other religions when the objective is to defend our own.

Other topics briefly addressed include infant baptism, the term “saint,” and
continuing scripture (the open canon).

Chapter 4 is dedicated to the topic of plural marriage, but without getting into the heavy issues that most require a sophisticated rubric. The section on polygamy in particular fails to even mention some of the most controversial and troublesome aspects of the practice in early LDS history, and instead focuses on whether polygamy in the Bible is justified or divinely appointed. Accepting that some ancient righteous prophets practiced polygamy does not clear away many of the specific objections to how Joseph Smith implemented it.  

I was disappointed to see an old myth repeated, namely, the idea that so many Mormon men had been killed due to persecution that polygamy was needed (p. 42). This is said to be a paraphrase of Glen Leonard’s acclaimed Nauvoo, A Place of Peace, but I worry that some misunderstanding is involved since I don’t think Leonard as a respected historian would offer this argument. It is not supported by demographic data nor by accounts of the persecution against Mormons. We were treated badly in several areas, and there were some deaths. But these amount to a handful of victims, not hundreds and certainly not thousands. The bloody and infamous massacre at Haun’s Mill had about 18 victims. There were a handful of victims from the Mormon War in Missouri, the attack on Carthage Jail, and other scattered events. But nearly all of these deaths occurred after polygamy was already in place. Much larger numbers of deaths came from the mass crossing of the plains, including Winter Quarters and the Martin Handcart Company, where there were several deaths from exposure and disease, but females were also  vulnerable, and the deaths of males did not cause dramatic drops in the proportion of marriageable men for the Church as a whole. Polygamy as a way to compensate for numerous male martyrs does not withstand scrutiny, and it is especially hard to argue that this had anything to do with starting polygamy in the first place. I have not yet read Leonard’s book, but I don’t think Leonard could actually be making that argument.

Further chapters tackle issues such as the premortal existence, the afterlife, and the divine potential of man, relying primarily on selecting passages from the Bible, expanded with analysis and,  of course, a popular quote from C.S. Lewis that I also use on my LDSFAQ page on theosis (part of a set of LDSFAQ pages that address many related topics).  Chapter 7 jumps into the controversy of salvation by faith versus works, with 7 pages on that and related issues. Chapter 8 gets into Book of Mormon issues, with a tiny cross-section of criticisms taken up such as the softball question on the legitimacy of “adieu” occurring at the end of the Book of Jacob, and the old argument about not adding or subtracting to the Bible. The responses are reasonable, but the these issues are minor ones unlikely to cause problems for a wavering member, a new convert, or a serious investigator who knows Mormon missionaries or friends who can answer these common and relatively weak arguments. This chapter would have been more meaningful to at least recognize and point to resources on more weighty attacks such as those involving DNA, apparently missing plants and animals like the horse,  and the alleged lack of archaeological evidence supporting the book. Evidences in favor of the Book of Mormon could also be cited.

Several other issues are briefly addressed, and then the main body of the text ends after 124 pages.

In general, this is a useful and very readable book. It covers a lot of territory, though much of it has already been covered in other apologetic works such as Michael Ash’s Shaken Faith Syndrome and the many resources at FAIRLDS.org, the Maxwell Institute, and so forth. Worth reading and pondering, but an expanded version in the future with further resources and hyperlinks for interested readers would be appreciated.

Update, March 31, 2013: In response to my suggestions, Scott has thoughtfully modified a couple of sections of the book to solve some problems I pointed out. This is a huge advantage of an electronic book and having an author willing to listen and respond to criticism. Much appreciated. My critic of comments related to the gender-imbalance myth and polygamy is no longer relevant and is deleted above. Scott also pointed out that I was reading something unintended into his explanation of the purpose of the book, and I deleted a critical sentence in that area also.

Just Another Ignored Impression

Yesterday while looking for some books in my office, I found a newspaper that I had saved for a friend in our District Presidency, a certain Brother B. who had been interviewed in a local Shanghai newspaper for a business story. The interview was accompanied by a nice color photo. Turns out he wasn't aware that the article had published when I mentioned it to him, so I assume that he didn't already have a copy and that others hand't given it to him. I ran into the article by chance on one of those two or three days in a month when I look at that newspaper, so it was a lucky find. 
When I ran into my saved newspaper yesterday, I had an impression: "Put it in your bag and take it with you Sunday." But that was obviously ridiculous because Sunday I was going to Suzhou to speak in the Suzhou Branch in my capacity as a District Councilor (like a High Councilor for a District, not yet a Stake), and President B. was not going there. So I dismissed the impression. And I was right: President B. did not go to Suzhou. I would not see him. 

This morning, as I was rushing to get ready to catch an early train, I stepped back into the office, saw the newspaper again, and had the same impression. "Just stick it in your black leather bag and take it with you to Suzhou." Naw, that makes no sense. I could be confident that President B. was not going to Suzhou. In fact, he was going the opposite direction to Hangzhou. I would not see him. 

I took a taxi to the Hongqiao train station on the west end of Shanghai (one of Shanghai's 4 train stations) heading to Suzhou. No, President B. was not there or anywhere near, as far as I know. But within 5 seconds after passing through security at the airport, I was approached by another District Councilor who had arrived at the same time. I don't think that's ever happened to me before. In this city of 25 million people and vast crowds at gargantuan train stations and airports, it's pretty easy to travel without running into anyone you know, much less a fellow District Councilor. He told me where he was going: to the Branch Conference in Hangzhou. Yes, that's right, the place where Brother B. would be also. I laughed and told him the story. "You know, this is a good lesson for me. Let me tell you what happened yesterday...." 

Our reasons for ignoring the promptings of the Spirit, the standards and commandments of the Church, or even our testimony of the Gospel are often very logical. We may even be entirely correct in our analysis, except for a little missing piece of information that later makes sense of the ridiculous. No, President B. was not coming to Suzhou. But I would see someone who was going to meet President B. and could have done something kind and perhaps even useful for reasons I still don't know, if only I had exercised a little faith and acted. 

Yes, I know there are many whims people have that look random and likely are not impressions of the Spirit. It's often not easy separating our voice or random voices from the voice of the Spirit. But we need to try and we need to listen and act in faith, learning from experience as we do so. One thing I think I have learned, as I ponder my experiences in this area, is that when there is a prompting about how we can help someone else, then this is something to pay attention to. If it comes again, and especially if it is confirmed when we pray about it, then perhaps we should pay attention and act. Seeking to follow the guidance of the Spirit in serving others is a great way to encounter many small miracles of timing and divine intervention that can help us grow closer to God and strengthen our own testimonies of His reality and love. If we dismiss such promptings as annoying whims, we'll soon find the Spirit annoys us less and less until it is silent and all we experience is perfectly logical, scientific, and devoid of some of the charm and joy that could be ours, with many missed opportunities to make the world better. 

And yes, I recognize this missed opportunity was relatively trivial compared to the big issues like war, famine, and the Green Bay Packers.  But God's work is often done with small means, including small acts of kindness where small souls like mine can occasionally make a difference, and if we are to magnify our ability to serve and make a difference, we need to be trained to listen to and respond to that still, small voice. I hope we can learn from experiences like this and do a better job of serving and helping when God tries to move us in His direction. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

When Evidence Isn't

"The Effect of Prayer on God's Attitude Toward Mankind" is a mathematical analysis of prayer's impact that was written not by some crackpot, but by a Nobel Prize Winner, James Heckman, one of the world's leading economists. He applies advanced mathematical tools to conclude that prayer can be effective, or, more specifically, "A little prayer does no good and may make things worse. Much prayer helps a lot." His brief and seemingly scholarly paper is the kind of thing some people would take as evidence to buttress their faith. It's actually clever sarcasm that pokes fun at belief in the unseen. One of the clues comes in the leading sentences:
This paper uses data available from the National Opinion Research Center's (NORC) survey on religious attitudes and powerful statistical methods to evaluate the effect of prayer on the attitude of God toward human beings.

The technique— due to Singh (1977) — is briefly described here. Let Y be God's attitude arrayed on a scale ranging from zero to one. This is an unobserved variable. Let X be the intensity of prayer in the population. It too is scaled between zero and one. The population density of prayer is summarized by a univariate density f ( X ) which has been estimated by Father Greeley (1972).

Accept on faith that the conditional density of X given Y is of the form
g(X|Y)=a(Y)exp(XY)           (1)
where a(Y) is an unknown, continuous, positive, and differentiable function.... 
He's trying to estimate the relationship between an observed variable X and an unobserved one Y (the attitude of God toward mankind). "Accept on faith" is humorous in this context. Accepting the key assumptions on faith naturally leads to "desired" conclusion--a fair reminder that our own assumptions and expectations can greatly shape what we make of evidence and data in our efforts to understand reality. In his conclusion, he offers the conjecture that this approach can be generalized to the case when X also is unobserved--OK, that's also funny and a cute way to lampoon religion, where much of what we discuss and speculate on is unseen and mysterious. It's satire, economist style. Kind of fun. And not actually evidence on the power of prayer.

Sometimes things that strike us as evidence for faith really aren't evidence at all. It may be deliberate sarcasm that we have misunderstood, just as the expose at MormonCult.org has been shared by many of our critics, including some pastors, as vital evidence against Mormonism, or as the satirical essay on Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as the key source for the Book of Mormon has been accepted without thought by some.

A more frequent problem with evidence for things of faith may come from exaggerations and distortions that may be unintentional. Far too many faith-promoting stories are shared and accepted without adequate scrutiny. There are many faith-promoting stories A recent example of this, now circulating via email and social media, is a report that the non-LDS translator of the Afrikaans Book of Mormon found overwhelming evidence that it had ties to the ancient Egyptian language, and was convinced that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. This story is not mere "tripe" as some critics have claimed, but, like some other popular faith-promoting stories, contains possible errors and exaggerations which need to be toned down. The story began when a returned missionary posted a blog post sharing what he recalled (relying partially on his notes) from a 1972 event in South Africa where the non-LDS translator spoke and shared some of his impressions. I understand that multiple witnesses to the event confirm that the man was deeply impressed with the Book of Mormon and probably did see many strong ancient Semitic elements inherent to the text, but the first version of the story written by John Pontius (who passed away in Dec. 2012) had some issues and John retracted it with a statement that it was essentially accurate, based on feedback from others who heard the translator speak, but the part about first translating the Book of Mormon into ancient Egyptian was not fully accurate. See John Pontius' post of March 12, 2012, "Die Book van Mormon." Kevin Barney examines the statements of Brother Pontius and some of the apparent problems in a post at the excellent LDS blog, By Common Consent.

The version I saw most recently in email implies that the remarkable and possibly exaggerated and somewhat erroneous story is based on an article in the LDS Ensign. I think that is supposed to add authority to the account, but no link or reference to the original article is given. Typical of Internet rumors. The March 1973 Ensign has an article by Lawrence E. Cummins, “The Saints in South Africa,” that mentions the translator, Reverence C.F. Mynhardt (Felix Mynhardt in Brother Pontius' version). But none of the really interesting faith-promoting comments are found in the Ensign.

So what do we make of this? My take is that Reverend Mynhardt probably was a smart guy who did recognize, as many others have, that the Book of Mormon has a strong Semitic flavor and that some of the awkward English grammar fits language patterns in ancient Semitic languages like Hebrew or Egyptian. He may have made comments along those lines in his talk. But there may be some hyperbole or linguistically inaccurate statements in the notes and memories of impressed young missionaries who heard him speak. Wish we had more details on what he actually said. I think it would be wrong to completely dismiss his story, but also unwise to make too much of it.

I suspect a lot of poorly documented faith-promoting stories are that way: there may be a cool core of reality, but errors in transmission and memory, coupled with human tendencies to inflate and exaggerate unintentionally when something resonates and excites, require caution in using and repeating the account. If we don't have reliable sources, footnotes, or supporting evidence, sometimes it's best to treat faith-promoting material a little like the way we sometimes treat faith-challenging material as well, and put it on hold until we have more complete information.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Daniel Peterson on the Restoration and the Book of Mormon

While reviewing information related to Cornelis Van Dam's outstanding book on the Urim and Thummin (he's a non-LDS scholar whose scholarship regarding that ancient tool should be of special interest to LDS people, as I've discussed here before and will discuss in my next post for the Nauvoo Times), I ran across a rapid-fire but noteworthy essay from Daniel Peterson on the Restoration, courtesy of the Maxwell Institute. Below is an excerpt dealing with the Book of Mormon that I found helpful. I hope you'll read and ponder his entire article over at the Maxwell Institute. For the latest from Daniel Peterson and friends, be sure to regularly visit the Mormon Interpreter. (For what follows, please see the original article for all the footnotes.)
Joseph Smith obtained the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated from the angel Moroni on 22 September 1827—which was not only the autumnal equinox but Jewish New Year's Day, Rosh Hashanah, the so-called "birthday of the world."20 More and more, the Book of Mormon appears to fit the ancient world from which it claims to have emerged.21 This is a remarkable fact, considering that its translation and dictation appear to have been accomplished in roughly 63 working days—a torrid pace that, with neither rewrites nor significant corrections, produced nearly 8.5 pages (of the current English edition) daily.22 And it was produced in what might justly be termed an "information vacuum" by a semiliterate young farm boy who had essentially no access to data of any kind about antiquity.23 Yet Joseph Smith's account of the translation process, according to which he made use of a priestly implement that the Hebrew Bible terms the Urim and Thummim, now finds remarkable circumstantial support from contemporary scholarship on that rather mysterious object.24 
And the book that resulted from the process is littered with what can now be recognized as authentically ancient names, many of them unknown in the Bible or in any other source available to Joseph Smith. The name of Lehi's wife Sariah, for example, previously invisible outside the Book of Mormon, has now been found in ancient Jewish documents from Egypt.25 Likewise, the nonbiblical name Nephi belongs to the very time and place of the first Book of Mormon figure who bears it.26 Other uniquely Book of Mormon names—such as Abish, Aha, Ammonihah, Chemish, Hagoth, Himni, Isabel, Jarom, Josh, Luram, Mathoni, Mathonihah, Muloki, Sam, and Shule—are now attested in ancient materials.27 Two male characters named Alma appear in the Book of Mormon. And, of course, this seems to run counter to what we might have expected: If Joseph Smith knew the name at all from his environment, he would most likely have known it as a Latinate woman's name. (Many will recognize the phrasealma mater, which means "beneficent mother.") Recent documentary finds demonstrate, however, that Alma also occurs as a Semitic masculine personal name in the ancient Near East—just as it does in the Book of Mormon.28As a final example, Jershon designates a place that was given to the people of Ammon as a "land . . . for an inheritance" (Alma 27:22). In Hebrew, Jershon means "a place of inheritance."29 It is simply inconceivable that Joseph Smith could have known this in the late 1820s. 
The presence in the Book of Mormon of the characteristically ancient literary structure or technique known as chiasmus—a complex rhetorical device largely overlooked by biblical scholarship until decades after Joseph Smith's martyrdom in Illinois—is another powerful indicator of the record's antiquity and almost certainly did not arise by random chance.30 (The same literary structure has now been identified in pre-Columbian America.)31 In one intriguing example of chiasmus, the crucial wordplay rests on an equivalence between the word Lord and the royal name Zedekiah (see Helaman 6:10). But those words are only equivalent to readers aware that the termLord probably stands (as it does in the King James Bible) for the divine name Jehovah or Yahweh, and that the -iah element in Zedekiah is the first portion of that same divine name. This chiasm thus works better in Hebrew than in English, which seems an important clue to the original language of the Book of Mormon.32 
A number of details from the Book of Mormon text appear to support a view of the book as a rather literal translation from an ancient document.33 In an ancient Hebrew idiom, for example, arrows are "thrown" (see, for example, Alma 49:22). Also, just as in ancient Hebrew and other Semitic languages, in a construction known as a "cognate accusative,"34 the word denoting the object of a verb is sometimes derived from the same root as the verb itself. "Behold," says the prophet Lehi, "I have dreamed a dream."35 Similarly, the (to us) redundant that in such expressions as "because that they are redeemed from the fall" and "because that my heart is broken" is a Hebraism (see, respectively, 2 Nephi 2:26 and 4:32). 
But some Hebrew constructions that appeared in the first (1830) edition of the Book of Mormon have been erased from later printings, in a bid to make the book read more smoothly as English. One striking example of this involves a series of conditional sentences in Helaman 12:13—21. Such sentences, in English, typically feature anif-clause (either using the word if itself, or something equivalent), which expresses a hypothetical condition, and a result clause that describes what will occur if the hypothetical condition comes about. For example, "If you don't study, you will fail." The result clause may contain a word such as then, but commonly does not. By contrast, the result clause of a conditional sentence in ancient Hebrew can be introduced by the word wa (and), so that the sentence takes what might be termed an if-and form.36 The occurrence of if-and conditionals in the 1830 Book of Mormon seems to indicate that it did not originate in the mind of a native English-speaker, but is a quite literal translation from a Hebrew original:
13. yea and if he saith unto the earth move and it is moved
14. yea if he say unto the earth thou shalt go back that it lengthen out the day for many hours and it is done.
16. and behold also if he saith unto the waters of the great deep be thou dried up and it is done.
17. behold if he saith unto this mountain be thou raised up and come over and fall upon that city that it be buried up and behold it is done.
19. and if the Lord shall say be thou accursed that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever and behold no man getteth it henceforth and forever.
20. and behold if the Lord shall say unto a man because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever and it shall be done.
21. and if the Lord shall say because of thine iniquities thou shalt be cut off from my presence and he will cause that it shall be so. (Helaman 12:13—14, 16—17, 19—21, 1830 edition)
4. and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart with real intent having faith in Christ and he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost. (Moroni 10:4, 1830 edition)37
It is difficult to imagine a native speaker of English (such as Joseph Smith, though poorly educated at the time, indisputably was) producing such sentences. Yet they represent perfectly acceptable Hebrew. 
Lehi's vision of God and his accompanying prophetic call, we now know, could serve as a textbook illustration of such visions and calls as they are recounted in ancient literature, complete with motifs of the heavenly book and the divine council that have only garnered scholarly attention in recent decades.38 The imagery of Nephi's subsequent vision, too, is deeply rooted in ancient Near Eastern symbolism with which Joseph Smith could not conceivably have been familiar but that seems to point directly to an origin in preexilic Israel (see 1 Nephi 11).39Not surprisingly, in that light, the account of Jerusalem just prior to the Babylonian captivity that is given early in the Book of Mormon narrative gains in plausibility as research accumulates.40 Although it is generally supposed, for instance, that the captured Judahite king Zedekiah was forced to watch the execution of all his sons before his eyes were put out and he was taken off to Babylon, the Book of Mormon says that one of them, named Mulek, survived. A careful reading of the Bible, particularly in the original Hebrew, suggests that the claim is plausible, to the point, even, of including the detail of the prince's name.41 Even Nephi's slaying of Laban, and the justification given to him for doing so, can now be seen to fit very specifically into that period.42 The book claims, moreover, to have been written in "reformed Egyptian" (Mormon 9:32). Most who have studied the subject conclude that this signifies writing the Hebrew language in modified Egyptian characters. In recent years, we have learned that several indisputably ancient documents were written in precisely that fashion.43 
The account of Lehi's Arabian sojourn after his hasty departure from Palestine is remarkably accurate—in fact, likely Book of Mormon locations have been identified along the coasts of Arabia—but no scholar in the nineteenth century, let alone Joseph Smith, could have known any of this.44 And Lehi's epic journey from Jerusalem to the New World endured for a millennium in the memory of his descendants, who saw it as a signal instance of God's miraculous power much like the Israelites' earlier deliverance from Egyptian bondage.45 Indeed, careful modern readings show that the very terms in which it was described and remembered derive from the biblical account of the exodus. The literary crafting of the story is both sophisticated and authentically Near Eastern.46
These are just some of the many things that can strengthen our appreciation of the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text.  It truly is an impressive book worthy of deep study and reflection. 

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Double Happiness?

Happy Chinese New Year! We celebrated it with some native Chinese friends at their home today--what an unexpected feast! The hospitality of the Chinese really contributes to the fun of being in China. Hope you have a wonderful Year of the Snake!

While waiting for a flight tonight, I thought I'd share this common image from the streets of China. "Double Happiness" is a leading brand of cigarettes, and a good reminder that some of the things the world calls happiness lead to quite the opposite. Don't fall for the smoke and mirrors. Well, mirrors aren't so bad, but that smoke! According to a report I read from the World Bank, "a Chinese man smokes 1 in 3 of the world's cigarettes." I believe that, and think I've met that man on the streets of Shanghai.

Far too many Chinese men and some Chinese women have been tricked into the breathing the poison of falsely labeled happiness, even Double Happiness. May Chinese discard that curse from the West and breathe more freely in the future.

Friday, February 08, 2013

On Evidence, Knowledge, and the Whims of the Heart

Continuing on the theme of the LDS testimony and how Mormons come to "know" some things that science can't confirm, I'll address a common misunderstanding. Mormon "knowledge," some say, is based on the whims of the heart. It's entirely subjective. What the Mormon claims to be knowledge about morality, for example, has no basis except feeling. When others seek that same knowledge by prayer, they may come to completely different conclusions, so how can Mormon knowledge be trusted? It lacks a reproducible, trustworthy standard. (If there's a better way to express this objection, let me know.)

However, we are not left on our own to the whims of the heart without evidence or standards. There are four factors to consider here:
  1. On key issues of morality and doctrine, we have been given standards to rely on in the form of God's statements in the scriptures and through modern revelation to living prophets. While these are not infallible standards and frequently leave room for debate, they generally provide clear and inspired guidelines for us. Of course, ideally our conscience and our growing sense of personal morality or the whisperings of the Spirit in our life agrees with the standards we are given, but that is a topic for another post someday. For now, let me state that whether we should feel responsible to heed the standards and teachings of the Church depends in large part on whether the Restoration was indeed a divine event, which leads us to the next point:
  2. We have a remarkable tool to assist us in both intellectually and spiritually evaluating the reality of the Restoration in the form of the Book of Mormon. We are challenged to put this book to the test and determine if it is a mortal fraud or the word of God in a process involving mental study, pondering, and prayer to obtain personal revelation. 
  3. Regarding the divinity of the Book of Mormon, God has not left us without serious evidence to move us to take it seriously and to help us overcome objections to it. This evidence includes the remarkable testimonies of many witnesses, not just to warm feelings but to encounters with real metal plates and even a real angel and the voice of God in 3 cases. There have been many other evidences of the Book of Mormon since that time, such as specific sites in the Arabian Peninsula that support details in the Book of Mormon in ways that Joseph could not have fabricated even if leading scholars had guided him, and other issues such as the discovery of chiasmus and other gems in the book itself. I believe these evidences are not meant to convert and will never be enough to convert, but are mercifully given to give us strength to continue moving forward. 
  4. As one explores the Gospel, the evidences and intellectual satisfaction isn't just from the Book of Mormon (sometimes that comes last, if at all). There is a remarkably sound and logical worldview, compatible with a great deal of recent scholarship, regarding many basic claims of the Church. Scholarship into the ancient world and early Christianity can support claims of apostasy, of lost scripture, of ancient covenant making practices and other practices compatible with LDS teachings and temple worship, etc. The LDS story of God's ancient pattern of continuing revelation through authorized prophets and apostles, lost through apostasy, and now restored, fits well with a knowledge of the Bible and history. The Restoration brings profound and intellectually satisfying knowledge about the scope of God's salvation, the work for the dead, the relationship we all have as children of God, the relationship between man and God, the purpose of life, the purpose and eternal nature of families, the destiny of man, and so forth. Subjective? Yes. These truths resonate with my soul and with my expanding view of the world and the cosmos as I learn more. It truly is delicious and intellectually fulfilling. But I can't prove it with a peer-reviewed publication. You have to be willing to move forward a step or to on your own to see if anything is there. 
Moving forward (or exercising a little faith and taking a step toward learning more) is the key, and the mind has to be part of that. Each human is different and will approach these matters with different needs, assumptions, and concerns, but there is a common core that can bring us to share what we dare to call knowledge of some of the aspects, not all, of our faith. This is usually a lengthy journey, though, with many factors involved. The journey includes seeing how the Gospel affects our lives, how prayer works, and how God works in our lives. It's a combination of experience, of tangible results, and learning through the Spirit (yes unscientific, subjective, fuzzy learning from an unseen but masterful Tutor--the kind that can transform people into Saints, even if also scientists). 

Consider the journey of Arthur Henry King, a majestic human being whose life radiates a love of Shakespeare and of the greatest literature. Twice decorated by Queen Elizabeth, this erudite scholar of English literature was rarely impressed by what humans wrote, but when he read the testimony of Joseph Smith, he had an interesting intellectual and possibly spiritual experience as he pondered the words and the man. That was the beginning of his journey toward conversion. Read the story of Dr. Arthur Henry King's reaction to the Joseph Smith History

Or returning to the issue of science and testimony, consider the journey of a real "rocket scientist," an MIT astrophysicist, Dr. John S. Lewis (Jr.). Dr. Lewis, now Brother Lewis, is Professor Emeritus of Planetary Sciences and former Co-Director of the Space Engineering Research Center at the University of Arizona. He was previously a Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Visiting Professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Recently, he was a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which is one of the world's coolest universities IMHO. He has written seventeen books, including undergraduate and graduate level texts and popular science books, and has authored over 150 scientific publications. In scientific lingo, this guy rocks. Now read the story of Dr. John Lewis at Mormon Scholars Testify. This is a man who grew up using his brain to explore the not just science but also questions of religion. He had come to doubt organized religion and ministers out for hire, but recognized that the Bible taught things like anointing and laying on of hands that were denigrated in modern times as things of the "primitive Church" no longer applicable today. Here is one excerpt, but please read the whole things and see his video testimony also:
The next Sunday afternoon the missionaries arrived. We hustled our children out of the room lest they be contaminated by these unproved proselyters. We sat down, Peg with her arms folded and a less than inviting look on her face, and I threw out a nearly equally cordial challenge: “I must warn you that we have a very negative view of organized religion. We are Christians, but we have come to the sad conclusion that there is no church out there that has any real authority or power. We fear that the true church was lost in the century or so after the death of Christ and the Apostles.” Much to our astonishment, the older missionary smiled back at me and said, “Have we got news for you!”
The next few weeks were an intense blizzard of activity. The missionaries visited us daily, usually staying for dinner. All the questions about religion that had been haunting us for years, polished by reading, among many others, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, the Popol Vuh, the Book of the Hopi, the Upanishads, the writings and lives of John of the Cross, Teresa de Avila, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Søren Kierkegaard, and the inspirational Christian works of C. S. Lewis, were aired. Usually the missionaries had a ready and satisfactory answer. Sometimes they confessed ignorance, went to study out the issue, and returned with answers. Never once did they shoot from the hip with unsatisfactory answers, as the Holy Spirit testified to us of their truthfulness. Here at last, in full integrity, was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ we had found in the Bible, trimmed of the inventions of uninspired men. All the purity of truth that pervades and underlies Christian belief was laid out as a seamless, clean, unblemished cloth. All the sectarian dross was washed away. Paul’s vision, in I Corinthians, of a single, united Church free of doctrinal contention alone remained. And the doctrinal foundation of that true church could only be known with certainty by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, as prescribed by the Epistle of James. Through that testimony the strength and integrity of Christian doctrine was restored to me, based on the firm foundation of the Bible and building a single coherent, harmonious Church upon that foundation, free of the divisive doctrinal disputes of the other churches I had studied. Biblical scholarship, however important, was an artifact of the intellect, rarely capable of resolving doctrinal disputes. Faith, by contrast, was the key to salvation; not just belief in anything, but belief in things not seen which are true – and the truth could be known spiritually. The intellectual and legalistic Talmudic and Midrashic pilpul that engulfed the Old Testament had been illuminated by the New Testament’s gift of the Holy Spirit, which threw light into the darkest corners of scriptural commentary. The Holy Spirit was truly a “guide for the perplexed” with greater authority than Maimonides.
Like I said, this scientist rocks. He gets it. He was finding intellectual and spiritual fulfillment in the bold and clear vision presented by the Restored Gospel. A lifetime of seeking, pondering, and studying prepared him to recognize the intellectual strength of our basic message. I have much to learn yet from him and his approach, and definitely need to catch up on my reading. He continues, addressing the issue of science and religion:
As a professor of Planetary Sciences at MIT, I was on the forefront of the exploration of the Solar System. Much of my work centered on the earliest history of the Solar System, essentially on the mechanics of creation. I was intimately familiar with the evidence, from the chronology of planetary formation through the geological history of Earth, the cratering record on the planets, the composition and evolution of their surfaces and interiors, and the relationships between ancient small bodies (asteroids and comets) and the planets. I was also familiar with the literature of “scientific creationism,” which I found to be appallingly bad, full of glaring factual blunders and astonishing lapses of logic. I found their personal interpretations of scripture to be indefensible in the face of overwhelming evidence. Their mindset seemed to be that science was the opposite of religion; that their interpretations of scripture were right and anyone who disagreed with them must be evil, intent on destroying religion. But the geological record is as much the work of God as the scriptures are. They together constitute two independent witnesses, satisfying the Old Testament requirement that two or more independent witnesses are required to attest to truth. That the two witnesses, science and scripture, should see different things is no surprise. After all, your own two eyes see different scenes; each eye sees things the other does not see, but by combining the witness of your two eyes you can see in depth, something neither eye can do alone. To assume that one witness is correct and the other is lying is to lose all perspective. It is to become half-blind. As the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin expressed it, “Science and religion are two complementary faces of one and the same underlying reality.”
I see no conflict between science and religion. I see many conflicts between the misunderstandings of science and the flawed interpretation of scripture of men who lack both scientific knowledge and guidance by the Holy Spirit. I invite any person who desires to strengthen his understanding and testimony of creation to study both the scientific and scriptural evidence prayerfully, with the goal of learning and understanding. Properly understood, this study will provide you with a rich and deep perspective. Science will tell you the when and where and how of creation; the scriptures will tell you who and why.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its long tradition of free inquiry and of individuals prayerfully testing every point of doctrine for themselves, is fully compatible with the scientific method. 
To that, I will say Amen! 

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Mormon Testimonies and the Scientific Method

In a caricature of the LDS testimony, Mormons are said to believe in their religion because of a stray warm feeling that they mistake for knowledge from God. Some gullible persons prays, has a nice feeling, and bingo, we've got a convert. That's not how I see it.

Testimonies may start off small, fragile, and based upon a small number of experiences, but for a mature Latter-day Saint, testimony is typically the sum of many experiences and indeed, experiments, in which the principles and teachings of the Gospel are put to the test. There is a combination of the intellectual and the spiritual, the practical and the mystic, the day-to-day and the occasional rare but real miracle. There are often doubts and concerns that have been plumbed and addressed or put on hold. And along the way, there have been many voices taken into consideration: the voice of witnesses, the voice of skeptics and critics, the voice of reason, and the voice of the Spirit. It's a complex process that deals with the most complex issues humans confront: What is real? What is beyond this mortal realm? What is my purpose here? Who am I and am I supposed to live? And finally, who or what, if anything, is God?

To the surprise of some of our critics, the teachings of the Church do not focus on blind faith and random emotions, but on experience, even experimentation, as well as studying, seeking, pondering, and also, of course, praying. The approach to gaining a testimony is not taught as a one-time event but a lifelong journey. And since we've been discussing science recently on this blog, I'll point out that the Book of Mormon teaches a testimony-building journey that has some parallels to the scientific method. It even describes that journey as one of putting the Gospel to the test and conducting experiments with the word of God. Here is the relevant passage from Alma 32:
[26] Now, as I said concerning faith -- that it was not a perfect knowledge -- even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.
[27] But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
[28] Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves -- It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
[29] Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
[30] But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.
[31] And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.
[32] Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.
[33] And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.
[34] And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because ye know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
[35] O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?
[36] Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.
[37] And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.
[38] But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.
[39] Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.
[40] And thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life.
[41] But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.
[42] And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
[43] Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.
Those investigating the claims of the Gospel are encouraged to put it to the test by living it and seeing what the fruits are. Yes, faith must be exercised first, even a little particle of faith, but the results of this spiritual exercise will include knowledge and metal enlightenment, not just fuzzy feelings, and from those fruits one can see that at least some part of the Gospel makes sense and can be trusted. But that's just a beginning. It's an ongoing process that requires faith and diligence, for testimony is delicate and can be lost. That's also the point of the Lord's parable of the sower and the seed. The plant that sprouts up can be choked by materialism, sin, and neglect.

The path toward gaining a testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon is also not described as waiting for a random feeling, but a journey of careful study, pondering, and then turning to God to ask if it is true. Mind and spirit are involved, not random emotion. Discerning the voice of the Spirit, of course, is the difficult part where there is not a simple tangible outcome like getting a reading on a thermometer. So no, it's not a clear-cut scientific process. It's a journey of changing fallen man into a redeemed saint, and that's a much bigger and more important thing than even the wonders of science can achieve. In a way, it's very simple though takes serious effort, but in terms of scientific standards, it's hopelessly fuzzy and subjective. So no, it's not as straightforward as, say, rocket science. It's too big and too important for that.

Mormonscholarstestify.org has some interesting statements from LDS scientists and other scholars that might be helpful on this topic. See, for example, the testimonies written by Carol Anne Clayson, Steven F. Faux, and Laura Clarke Bridgewater. Others you recommend?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Relying on Human Knowledge and the Scientific Method (Alone): Recipe for Disaster

In some of my latest posts here and at the Nauvoo Times, I tried to explain that what we humans can perceive and understand is incredibly limited. In pointing out the limitations of science, I was not suggesting that this in any way proves the superiority of the Mormon concept of testimony and revelation from God. What I was seeking to do, as most of us apologists generally try to do, was not proving our position is true, but trying to address a common objection against it. We address objections to help people get past them so they can take the Gospel seriously enough to read, think, ponder, and ultimately pray, seeking guidance from God.

Some readers may have been left in the dark by my discussion of strange new and unseen forms of matter and energy that modern scientists now believe must dominate this universe of ours. Some eyes might have glazed over when I raised the issue the tiny range of electromagnetic wavelengths that we can perceive visually when I chided those who only want to believe that their two imperfect eyes tell them (eyes which, on a clear day, see approximately 0% of the earth’s surface and thus can grasp approximately 0% of what’s really going on in this miniscule corner of the universe, even if they could see all wavelengths and all that dark matter and dark energy, too). So, to address this issue of knowledge and the things of the Spirit more generally, let me raise the question, how do we limited humans really know things with a certainty?

Simple Example: The Bible and Basic Book Knowledge

Since we often discuss the Bible and other books on this blog, let’s begin with an important example of common knowledge in this realm. Here is a serious question: How did you come to know that the Gutenberg Bible was the world’s first mass-produced book printed with movable type? OK, I’ve given one reasonable answer away: it’s common knowledge. Movable type, printed books, the Bible and Gutenberg—we all know that. We hear this over and over, and it’s just an Internet rumor. We learn it in school. And there’s another reasonable answer: We know it because the experts tell us so. Not just hobbyists and hacks, but pedigreed, multi-degreed, world-class scholars in the nation’s most trusted institutions. For example, on this topic, one of the nation’s premier centers of knowledge on books and literature, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin, actually has one of those rare Gutenberg Bibles and call tell us with all the confidence of modern scholarship this basic piece of knowledge:

The Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center
The Gutenberg Bible, the first substantial book printed with movable type, is one of the greatest treasures in the Ransom Center's collections. It was printed at Johann Gutenberg's shop in Mainz, Germany and completed in 1454 or 1455. The Center's Bible was acquired in 1978 and is one of only five complete examples in the United States.

They must know this, of course. They’ve even got the book, one of only five in the country. Cool! Maybe some of you have even better reasons for knowing this little factoid, but for most of us, common knowledge, the consensus of teachers, plus the authority of  world-class experts like the Gutenberg Bible pros at the University of Texas should be more than enough. This is how human knowledge can become firm, authoritative, and highly trusted.

You should all feel perfectly safe in raising your hand and saying “The Gutenberg Bible!” when asked who produced the world’s first mass-produced printed book, and that’s the answer most educated people give. I know, because I’ve asked that question in public presentations I’ve given, both in the US and in Asia, and nearly everyone who dared to answer knew that answer. Likewise, when asked who the inventor or producer was, they knew it was Gutenberg.

But that’s the wrong answer. Seriously. It’s wrong.

Friday, February 01, 2013

"Eye Hath Not Seen": Understanding the LDS Testimony

For those who want to understand the things of God and eternity only through the lenses attached to their own eyeballs, who can only believe what they can see, I would like to ask them how they can be so confident of the conclusions they might reach through this means. Science has recently determined that what we can see and measure is only a tiny fraction of the unseen materials and forces that shape the universe. As recently discussed here, mysterious dark matter and dark energy dominate the universe, comprising about 96% of the matter-energy out there. All our glorious instruments, eyes and hands included, are incapable of detecting most of what surrounds us in the cosmos.

Apart from that stunning and recent fact, we stand on one tiny speck of a vast galaxy within a cosmos on millions upon millions of galaxies. Even if your eyes are very sharp, what you see, even if you could see dark matter and dark energy, is a vanishingly small fraction of the scope of the universe. And even for our own domain, in your own town or apartment or wherever you are, what you see even with the sharpest of eyes is limited to photons having a wavelength between about 390 nanometers and 700 nanometers. You can’t see ultraviolet or infrared. You can’t see microwaves or radiowaves or gamma radiation or x-rays. The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation—light—that places a non-trivial role in the physical world extends far below and above the range of visible light by many orders of magnitude. What we can see represents a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic reality right in front of our noses. Are you so sure you’ve got the full picture, even if you’ve got 20/20 vision? (And I haven’t even mentioned optical illusions. Another fun topic.)

Here is a representation of the electromagnetic spectrum, courtesy of Wikipedia’s article on that topic:

There is vastly more to the universe and to life than meets the physical eye, and some of the most important information that we need will be missed if we don’t realize there is a spiritual dimension to life. Light and truth, spiritual information, can be conveyed through the Spirit to supplement the pittance of physical data we obtain with our senses.

Yes, the testimony thing Mormons talk about isn’t easy and can be confusing. But to trivialize the possibility of gaining information from the Spirit is far more serious than just ignoring 96% of reality or nearly all of the spectrum. When it comes to the things of God and His beautiful plans for us, this is one area where we don’t want to be blind.