I’ve been thinking a lot the past few weeks about mental frames, ever since reading Greg Hamblin’s post about John Dehlin. The more I study about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, the more clearly I see that there’s persuasive evidence on both sides, each convincing enough that evidential analysis alone results in a draw. It thus becomes a matter of faith: I must make a decision, entering a mental frame of either belief or doubt.
If I choose doubt, I decide that the positive evidences must be wrong or misinterpreted; if I choose belief, I decide that the negative evidences must be likewise wrong or misinterpreted.
I hope it’s obvious that I’ve chosen belief. There are many things I don’t understand about church history or the gospel, but I’ve chosen to believe, and so the positive evidences — the goodness I see in the doctrines of the Church and the lives of its members, the brilliant testimony of Christ in the Book of Mormon, the way I feel when I try to follow the Mormon path to discipleship — now outweigh and overwhelm the negative evidences. When I occasionally come across those negative evidences, I remind myself that I’ve made the choice to believe, and the confusing darkness then fades away and I can see clearly again.
I know that it’s not this way for everyone, and that choosing belief often comes hard. Life is messy. But while there are many grey areas and complicating factors, some things do in fact have simple yes/no answers. Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, or he was not. He may or may not have acted the way we expect a prophet of God to act, but that doesn’t change the truth that it has to be one or the other. Joseph cannot be a prophet of God while not being a prophet of God at the same time.
Same with the Book of Mormon — either it’s of God and is what it says it is, or it’s not. Historical/literary/anthropological/etc. evidence on either side can’t change that.
And so I continue to believe, partly because I’ve felt the Spirit tell me in my bones that this is real and good and true, partly because I can easily see the good fruits of the gospel, and partly because belief is the path I’ve chosen to commit to.
When I’m feeling discouraged and imperfect, worlds apart from the holy, unswerving disciple I want to be, I like to remember this quote from Joseph Smith:
Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive. (In Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith)
That’s not a license to sin, of course. But when we’re honestly striving to be good followers of Christ, it feels good to know that God is more merciful than I expect him to be.
David Whitmer repeatedly insisted that the translation process occurred in full view of Joseph Smith’s family and associates. (The common image of a curtain hanging between the Prophet and his scribes, sometimes seen in illustrations of the story of the Book of Mormon, is based on a misunderstanding. There was indeed a curtain, at least in the latter stages of the translation process. However, that curtain was suspended not between the translator and his scribe but near the front door of the Peter Whitmer home, in order to prevent idle passersby and gawkers from interfering with the work.)
This was the first I’d heard that the curtain wasn’t between Joseph and scribe. Makes me realize just how little I know about Church history. (Which is one of the reasons we’re doing the Mormon Texts Project.)
Beyond that, the article has two other anecdotes I found fascinating. First, from David Whitmer:
He could not translate unless he was humble and possessed the right feelings towards every one. To illustrate, so you can see. One morning when he was getting ready to continue the translation, something went wrong about the house and he was put out about it. Something that Emma, his wife, had done. Oliver and I went up stairs, and Joseph came up soon after to continue the translation, but he could not do anything. He could not translate a single syllable. He went down stairs, out into the orchard and made supplication to the Lord; was gone about an hour—came back to the house, asked Emma’s forgiveness and then came up stairs where we were and the translation went on all right. He could do nothing save he was humble and faithful.
I can relate — if I get put out about anything, bam, the Spirit’s gone. (Also, now that I’m twenty-eight, it’s dawning on me just how young Joseph was when he was translating the Book of Mormon. Wow.)
The second is from Martin Harris via Edward Stevenson:
By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, “Written,” and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used. Martin said, after continued translation they would become weary, and would go down to the river and exercise by throwing stones out on the river, etc. While so doing on one occasion, Martin found a stone very much resembling the one used for translating, and on resuming their labor of translation, Martin put in place the stone that he had found. He said that the Prophet remained silent, unusually and intently gazing in darkness, no traces of the usual sentences appearing. Much surprised, Joseph exclaimed, “Martin! What is the matter? All is as dark as Egypt!” Martin’s countenance betrayed him, and the Prophet asked Martin why he had done so. Martin said, to stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them, etc.
Joseph Smith himself often disagreed with various of his brethren on different points, yet he never cracked down on them, saying they’d better change this or that, or else. He disagreed with Parley P. Pratt on a number of things, and also with Brigham Young on various things. Brigham said that Joseph didn’t know a thing about business.
Joseph rebuked Parley P. Pratt for things said in the newspaper Parley was editing, but he didn’t remove him from the editorship. “The paper is not interesting enough. You’re not putting the right things in it.” Still he left it entirely up to Parley what to do. This has always been the policy in the Church — a lot of degree of differences. It should not worry us.
As a sidenote, it took us eight months to proof and release our first book, Joseph Smith as Scientist, which was 173 pages long. It took us two days to proof and release Joseph Smith the Prophet-Teacher, with only three volunteers involved. Yes, that’s two days, not weeks, not months. Unbindery is really speeding things up for us. Expect more releases in the near future.
I’ve wanted to start doing more gospel-related art (along with my science fiction and fantasy illustrations), and this is my first piece, “First Vision Triptych.” It’s also one of my first forays into semi-abstract art. (The main reason I did it this way, though, is that I’m not good at drawing people yet.)
Got an e-mail today from the Mormon Artists Group announcing a new book called On the Road With Joseph Smith. It is “Richard Lyman Bushman’s private account of the events surrounding the publication of his great work, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” and one of the excerpts was striking:
August 9, 2005
[In response to a Presbyterian critic’s query about believing scholarship]
I wish I could strike a responsive chord in Christians like you. We wonder why all Christians don’t understand that we believe in the Book of Mormon on the basis of a spiritual witness. It is very hard for a Mormon to believe that Christians accept the Bible because of the scholarly evidence confirming the historical accuracy of the work. Surely there are uneducated believers whose convictions are not rooted in academic knowledge. Isn’t there some kind of human, existential truth that resonates with one’s desires for goodness and divinity? And isn’t that ultimately why we read the Bible as a devotional work? We don’t have to read the latest issues of the journals to find out if the book is still true. We stick with it because we find God in its pages or inspiration, or comfort, or scope. That is what religion is about in my opinion, and it is why I believe the Book of Mormon. I can’t really evaluate all the scholarship all the time; while I am waiting for it to settle out I have to go on living. I need some good to hold on to and to lift me up day by day. The Book of Mormon inspires me, and so I hold on. Reason is too frail to base a life on. You can be whipped about by all the authorities with no genuine basis for deciding for yourself. I think it is far better to go where goodness lies.
I keep thinking other Christians are in a similar position but they don’t agree. They keep insisting their beliefs are based on reason and evidence. I can’t buy that — the resurrection as rational fact? And so I am frankly as perplexed about Christian belief as you are about Mormons. Educated Christians claim to base their belief on reason when I thought faith was the teaching of the scriptures. You hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, and you follow it.
I guess we could go on and on. I hope I am telling you the truth about myself. The fact is I am a believer and I can’t help myself. I couldn’t possibly give it up; it is too delicious.