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After some time in my life, I came to wonder about my faith. I just wasn’t all that thrilled with the good stuff happening in my life. I was still getting accolades for my devotion to the church, but my work wasn’t going all that well.
I was increasingly becoming a more thoughtful guy. I thought that being more thoughtful was a good thing. Unfortunately, as it turns out, a lot of people don’t think thoughtful is a particularly good thing. I probably vocalized too much of what I thought. The more thoughtful I became, it seemed, the fewer accolades I was getting about my devotion to the church.
I thought about the blessings that I kept hearing about in the lives of faithful members of the church. It seemed that many members of the church experienced blessings like financial stability. Financial stability would have been a very nice blessing to have. I paid my tithing to the church, faithfully. Financial stability was often promised as a blessing associated with paying tithing faithfully.
It seemed my “career”, for lack of a better term, was not reflecting my devotion to being a faithful tithe payer. I continued to experience what seemed like a very odd pattern of bad luck in my work.
In a two year period I was trying to make a “go” of being a mortgage loan representative. I had family members and friends who were doing quite well in that business, and they encouraged me to give it a try. Everyone seemed to think I was doing all the right things. My clients seemed to like my work and refer me to their friends. Unfortunately, four separate loan companies folded up consecutively, right out from under me, forcing me to go find another job each time.
It seemed I had that kind of luck. It became troubling to me that my bad luck seemed to have a larger impact on my career than my devotion to being a full tithe payer.
Other things made me thoughtful. I served in a couple of Mormon bishoprics, as a counselor, and was increasingly becoming dismayed at things I observed in connection with that service. In fairness to the bishops with whom I served, I should point out that it was not their particular conduct that gave rise to my questions. It had more to do with other things, peripheral to their immediate jurisdictions, but within my observable vantage point as a counselor in those bishoprics.
Mormons believe that a man who serves in responsible positions of priesthood authority is “called of God” and endowed with the powers of “revelation” necessary to serve effectively in his “calling”. I won’t belabor a full discussion of everything I observed while serving as a counselor in two consecutive bishoprics that gave rise to my questions about these powers of revelation associated with callings. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that I began to wonder about how reliable the inspiration of the priesthood actually was. It was beginning to seem rather “hit and miss” to me.
I couldn’t help but observe, on a number of occasions, that the insight that I would have thought to be commonly found among beer swilling sophomores at a frat party, by contrast, exceeded some of the inspiration I saw attributed to God by Mormon priesthood authorities. Not always, just occasionally.
Unfortunately, some of those occasions had very significant negative impacts on people’s lives. I became quite thoughtful about that. This, it struck me, seemed relevant to the Mormon notion of their sense of superior entitlement to inspiration.
Mormon priesthood leaders, generally, were relatively good, well intentioned people, in my observation. Many, if not most of their priesthood decisions, seemed quite supportable. However, there were just too many things, for my comfort level, that I just had a real hard time with.
It was difficult, for instance, to reconcile the notion of an all knowing God, who was just and fair, actively leading His church through his priesthood representatives, where injustices or inequities seemed too common. It seemed more, to me, like well meaning fallible men were struggling to navigate through their own biases, political pressure, and personal agendas, to find their way, sometimes, to decisions that they would then attribute to God and inspiration in order to get support from people who might have had a hard time supporting the same decision, otherwise.
Not all the time. Enough times for me to become thoughtful about the reliability of the church’s claim to divine authority from God.
I began to wonder about things like statistics and probability. Simple things, like, “What percentage of time does one of my loan processors need to be obviously wrong about something before I begin to question the reliability of their judgment or credibility altogether? Would that be a big number, like ninety percent? Or, would it be a smaller number, like thirty percent?
If three out of ten times, when I told clients that their loan was approved, it actually turned out to be just wrong, how long could I continue to expect loan referrals from real estate offices? Should priesthood decisions or edicts attributed to God be held to the same standard of credibility as business representations? Or should there be some more lenient standard in matters involving the professed authority of God? Why?”
People, including myself, were coming to priesthood leaders for guidance in decisions that would have a major impact that they or others would sometimes have to live with for the rest of their lives. I became thoughtful about such things.
It really wouldn’t bother me so much if I went to a friend for advice and he told me his point of view, which clearly reflected a certain bias or personal agenda, and then added, “…but that’s just me, you need to make your own decision”. It wouldn’t bother me if a bishop said the same thing.
Where it becomes a different matter is when certain “counsel” is presented under the “color of God’s authority”, and your worthiness in God’s kingdom is tied to your willingness to follow that “counsel”. Let’s say your worthiness to be in attendance at your daughter’s wedding is part of the equation. See what I mean?
Would it seem reasonable to you that the standards applied in considering the credibility of the claim of inspiration would have to be fairly high before submitting yourself in obedience to an authorized representative of God under such circumstances? Or, had you already come to that conclusion on the basis of the notion of giving up a full ten percent of your annual income?
For me, it wasn’t the temple attendance thing or the tithing thing that got me thinking about the credibility of the church’s claim of divine authority and revelation. It’s funny what triggers the sensibilities of different people. For me, it was simple matters of injustice imposed on members other than myself. Things that just weren’t fair. Often these things were simple, but clear.
In one “ward” (a congregation) of the church, an elderly divorced woman was struggling to make ends meet. Her ex-husband, who lived in another “ward” of the church in a different state, hadn’t been paying alimony under the terms of their court ordered settlement agreement for a number of years.
She found it somewhat offensive that her ex-husband, who was a member of a very prominent and politically significant Mormon family, still enjoyed the use of a “temple worthiness recommend”, since it is a matter of church policy that “temple worthiness recommends” are not issued to members who are in default in their alimony or child support payments.
On numerous occasions she sent letters to both her own priesthood leaders and his priesthood leaders raising the obvious questions. In those letters she consistently offered conclusive proof, from court records, that he had an alimony obligation and that he was in default in paying it. I have seen the documentary evidence. It is unquestionable.
I have also seen written acknowledgement of the receipt of her correspondence from the priesthood leaders, including this evidence.
This man, amidst this controversy, was called by the church authorities to serve three consecutive full time missions, for two years each, in which he would devote full time efforts on behalf of the church, without pay, to further the missionary work of the church.
The objective of the church’s missionary efforts is, obviously, the recruitment of converts by baptism into the church. Worthiness for baptism into the church includes a promise to pay an honest tithe to the church.
Each of these missionary calls would have to have been endorsed by his bishop; then his stake president, who was a regional priesthood authority; then a general authority of the church, who was another high priest with specific charge of church mission calls; and finally, by the president of the church, who is sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator.
Each subordinate priesthood official is believed to be endowed by specific delegation of priesthood authority with all of the “keys, rights, and powers of revelation pertinent to their calling”. So, God’s representatives were “all over” each of these three callings, at every level of review, with all of the presumed power and insight of Godliness to vet out any potential problems.
Still, amidst conclusive evidence of the default, this man was called to serve three consecutive two-year missions while his ex-wife got “stiffed”. Here, not just one priesthood leader had an “off day”, which would have been quite understandable. The entire chain of command appears to have repeatedly misfired in amazing lockstep unison, amidst repeated offerings of conclusive documentary evidence of the problem, receipt of which having been acknowledged in writing.
The man was, after all, a member of a very prominent and politically significant Mormon family.
Conversely, had this gentleman consulted with a beer swilling sophomore at a frat party about his missionary callings under the circumstances, I think he might have been told, “Gee dude, instead of working for the church for free, I mean as long as you’re willing and able to work, dude, why not get a real job and pay your alimony?”
Now this was not the only situation where I observed what seemed to be patently obvious examples of injustice perpetrated under “color of priesthood authority”. However, it is, perhaps, among the most clearly useful in pointing out with clarity the underlying philosophical questions that apply.
These are men who profess to represent God, Himself, in their insistence that your worthiness for His kingdom depends, in significant part, on your contribution of ten percent of your income to their coffers. It would appear that the recruitment of contributing tithe payers turns out to be quite a high relative priority to the God that they represent. Even higher, say, than the temple worthiness standard of honesty and fair dealing with one’s fellow man or ex-wife.
Of course, there will be those who argue that this isolated situation is just an example of the fallibility of humans, and not a sound or sufficient basis to cast aspersions on the “still valid” claims of divine authority of this priesthood.
I think this “isolated boo-boo" defense of the Mormon priesthood is a reasonable argument that might fairly be considered in evaluating the claims of the priesthood, but not so compelling an argument that the woman, or anyone else aware of the situation, should be branded as an unforgiving complainer for having fundamental questions about the responsibilities of the church, and its role in this matter, and the relevance of this situation to the evaluation of their claims of divine authority and revelation.
In short, I think the obvious questions that arise are valid questions, not malicious questions.
The woman will suffer the financial instability occasioned by this situation for the rest of her life. Her husband has now transferred all of his assets out of his own name, rendering her court judgment against him for the unpaid alimony uncollectible. He is now no longer able to work at all, for health reasons. She is now over 80 years old.
Her children’s lives will be affected as her care will increasingly fall to their responsibility where they are financially able to assist. The church is currently subsidizing her rent from funds made available to assist the “needy”. She wouldn’t be “needy” if the church had counseled her ex-husband to get a job for those six years and apply proceeds to the payment of her alimony during that time, instead of availing itself of his free labor. Nor would she be needy if the church had paid for the labor of the missionary work on the condition that the money was to be applied to her alimony.
When her children contribute from time to time to her financial needs she is expected to apply those contributions to her rent, thereby reducing the church’s welfare subsidy.
I am considered to be an unforgiving heathen by many Mormons for suggesting that there is something morally wrong with this situation. According to church theology, as it applies to apostasy, the notion that there is a higher morality than what is demonstrated in this scenario, and that I should aspire to that higher morality outside the church, while criticizing the church over the morality revealed here, is conclusive evidence of my alliance with Satan.
In fairness, let’s consider a rumor related to this situation, for conversation sake, that the man may have cheated on his taxes for a number of years and now found he was under the burden of a federal tax lien that exceeded the amount of his alimony arrearage.
Any assets or income under such a scenario would be subject to seizure by the Internal Revenue Service. By transferring his assets into the names of others, he might be able to protect his assets from seizure and avoid the loss of his home. Since any income would be subject to seizure he might as well dedicate his time for free to the church, because he isn’t going to see any of it anyway. His unpaid alimony would be the least of his problems. So there might have been some practical alternative motivation for the choices made. Still, the consequences to the woman are very real.
Situations like this leave me thoughtful. Is this a scenario in which a man would be considered worthy of a “temple worthiness recommend” by the standards of a just God who denies temple attendance to others for alimony arrearage?
Would it be appropriate for this man to be sent on a mission to call upon others to repent of their sins and come to the waters of baptism? How would a just God choose to be represented? Are these not fair questions?
Situations like this, over the years, have given rise to serious questions, in my mind, about the appropriate methodology for the validation of truth.
Mormon “fast and testimony meetings” are held monthly. The meetings are “kicked off” by a member of the local priesthood leadership sharing his testimony of the truthfulness of the church with the congregation. The time is then turned over to the congregation so that members, on an impromptu basis, can share their own testimonies of the truthfulness of the church.
“I know that the church is true”, is the common declaration, or, more formally, “I testify that the church is true”. Typically the member will share some heartwarming experience that they see as a recent reaffirmation for them that the “church is true”. What does that mean, “The church is true”?
I would venture to guess, on the basis of my experience in the church, that the majority of church members who share their testimonies in these monthly meetings are motivated to do so as a result of some recent event in their lives that gave rise to heartwarming feelings. Mormons are taught from a very early age, if they are raised in the church, to recognize heartwarming feelings to be manifestations of the Holy Ghost, confirming to them the truthfulness of the church.
Consequently, feelings of comfort, security, consolation, compassion, and many other such comfort moments often give rise to a belief in Mormons that they have, yet again, experienced a witness from the Holy Ghost as to the truthfulness of the church in general, or the truthfulness of a specific teaching, or principle, that is being presented when the feelings arise, or a specific answer to a prayer that precipitated the feelings. It’s all about that warm feeling in the heart.
Devout Mormons seek to feel truth. This is how they are taught to recognize truth. It is not about objective evaluation. It is about “spiritual manifestations” of heartwarming feelings.
There are very significant doctrinal reasons for this in the Mormon theology. There are also very practical reasons for this, as they relate to the simple dynamics of the conversion process.
The church capitalizes on the realities that relate to the very emergence of faith in an infant, and the programmed synaptic sequences that remain largely in place in all humans and that cause them to feel comfortable, under certain circumstances, while skipping the process of intellectual evaluation in order to adopt a “truth” on the basis of certain feelings.
A certain branch of philosophy, called epistemology, deals with the theory of knowledge and its corollary questions including, “What is knowledge?”, and, “How do we know what we know”?
To an engineer, involved in an effort to land a man on the moon, these questions have a great deal of significance. Recognizing the difference between what is known to be true and what is believed to be true is crucial.
To Edwin Ovasapyan, falsely accused of murder in Glendale, California, in 2009, these questions must have been haunting as he spent eight months in county jail before he was exonerated from the charges. Apparently negligence and malice in dealing with exculpatory evidence cost the city of Glendale over one million dollars in damages awarded to this modern day victim of epistemological abuse.
I don’t think the annals of religious history reflect a great deal of diligence, by any church, to questions of epistemology. Amazingly, the Book of Mormon takes the subject matter on directly.
Fundamental to the belief that the Mormon Church is true, is the belief that the Book of Mormon is true. So fundamental, in fact, that it has always been seen as a key "cornerstone" of the Mormon religion.
Of course, the Mormon Church’s continued viability and strength as an organized religion, and as one of the wealthiest international conglomerates in the world, is not derived from the unified belief in Jesus Christ. It is derived from the belief that the Mormon Church is the sole authorized agency on earth, exclusively endowed with the only true authority to act in the name of Jesus Christ and administer the ordinances that are absolutely required for exaltation in God’s Kingdom.
Acceptance of the Book of Mormon as a true and authentic ancient prophetic record is a key for three fundamental reasons, as follows: 1) The Book of Mormon bears witness to the divinity of Jesus Christ; 2) The Book of Mormon foretells of the restoration of the priesthood of Jesus Christ in these “latter days”, through a prophet name Joseph; 3) The Book of Mormon sets forth the prescribed epistemology of the church, which is vital to the conversion of its proselytes to a belief in the Book of Mormon itself, and, thereby, the church’s claims to authority in the ministry.
I would like to suggest that there are two fundamental approaches to the questions of epistemology that are differentiated by the relative value placed on two competing systems of validation, or differentiation, between knowledge and belief.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some professor of philosophy, somewhere, might disagree and call this an oversimplification of the subject matter. Of course, he would be right. It is useful, however, to illustrate a certain point.
On one hand, there are those who would advocate that “knowledge” is best ascertained and differentiated from a hypothesis by suspending the reasoning process and turning to the heart for the feeling of truth.
On the other hand, there are those who would advocate that knowledge is best ascertained by employing reasoning that is consistent with experimental validation and the gathering and analysis of factual evidence.
Various hybrids of these two approaches to epistemology are generally seen in practice. However, make no mistake, whenever a hybrid form of the two is employed, the candidate will ultimately reveal his or her bias by the relative priority that is given to either the feeling of the heart or the objective analysis of relevant facts as they may be synoptically integrated into a system of harmonious knowledge in the absence of contradiction.
Epistemology may, on the one hand, lead to a rigorous intellectual discipline, or, on the other hand, a subjective and potentially circular emotional whim.
The epistemology advocated in the Book of Mormon is an appeal to a circular form of self-convincing, beginning with and dependant on an unleashed desire for the outcome of conviction (belief).
While some might profess that it respects a form of objectivity in advocating “an experiment”, the experiment advocated is thereafter revealed to be a form of fixation on the desire to believe, even to the point of openly discrediting skepticism, or the resistance of belief, on the basis of the yet unfounded suggestion that such skepticism would presumptively constitute resisting “the Spirit of the Lord”.
This remarkable speech is found in the teachings attributed to a prophet named Alma, as follows:
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.
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.
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 too enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
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.
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.
Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.
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.
And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you 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. (Book of Mormon, The Book of Alma. Compare to pages 289-290 of the 1981 edition.)
In effect, Alma advocates that a conviction of (belief in) the truth of his words can be achieved by fixating on a desire to believe his words are true until this desire fills the heart with a swelling feeling, deemed to be confirmation of the truth of his words.
I’m sure Alma is correct. A conviction of just about anything can certainly be achieved in such a manner. I am personally convinced that this is the same basic epistemology that gave rise to the misplaced conviction of some nine hundred souls who followed the late Jim Jones to Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, where they ultimately committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced, grape, Flavor Aid.
The key to this handy system of epistemology is to convince the follower to abandon the intellectual process of reasoned evaluation as an essential part of the appropriate validation of truth, and to encourage the synaptic firings of feeling based memory traces associated with anticipation of something good that is desired. It’s an emotional based sales job. Every marketing executive in America knows the game and makes his living by the skill with which he employs it.
Now, while we’re on the subject of confusing emotional based bias with thoughtful consideration, I recognize that there will be many who immediately feel quite “put off” with any analogy between the false prophet, Jim Jones, and the Mormon phenomenon, simply on the basis of the clear differences between the apparent “fruits” of the differing movements.
The lay members of the Mormon Church are often seen to contribute to considerable good in the world. This is unquestionable. Ostensibly, they can seem to be quite “squared away” folks with relatively high moral values and many examples of successes to boast of in the world. Jim Jones’ followers, on the other hand, self-destructed in a tragic mass suicide of historic proportions.
I am suggesting that the difference between the two social phenomena is not found in the fundamentals of epistemology. It is found in the direction the leadership decided to take the group, once having achieved their submissive, relatively blind, obedience.
It seems reasonable to surmise that Jim Jones was a man whose own self interests, which became self destructive, were a much higher value for him than any other lofty or noble purpose. He quickly turned the power of obedience that he acquired from his followers to his own corrupt and self destructive purposes.
The Mormon leadership in general, on the other hand, has for the most part an apparent legacy of nobility in purpose that continues today and seems, for whatever critics may say about the church, quite impressive.
They continue, ostensibly, to direct the submissive obedience that they have acquired from their followers into strong family and moral values, meaningful business and academic contributions, and civic leadership that seems, at times, inspirational.
For whatever occasional departures from this norm that may arise, many agree that there seems little apparent question that the simple goodness of the Mormon social track record outweighs the occasional Mormon blunders.
This perception is not an accident, neither is it due to the “correctness” of Mormon epistemology. It is a simple matter of promoting the perception of ostensible noble leadership over the long haul. As a result of this perception, lay members of the Mormon Church are also, generally speaking, perceived as comparatively good people. Obediently so. Submissively so.
Mormons celebrate submissiveness as an indication of spirituality and worthiness. The often quoted words of the Book of Mormon prophet, King Benjamin, bring the apparent authority of “ancient” Mormon scripture to bear on the requirement that members submit willingly to the will of the Lord as it manifests itself through His priesthood leaders.
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Book of Mormon, The Book of Mosiah. Compare to page 153 of the 1981 edition)
In the Mormon culture, what the Lord sees fit to “inflict” upon the members of the Mormon Church will often be preceded by a telephone call from the executive secretary to a Mormon bishopric, informing the member that he or she has been “invited” to meet with the bishop or a bishop’s counselor. Mormons are expected to accept the “callings” of the bishopric as callings of the Lord, Himself.
The Mormon culture requires that the rank and file male priesthood members of the church submit freely to the “counsel” and direction of the local bishop, and that the bishops submit unwaveringly to direction of their supervising ecclesiastical authorities.
Wives are expected to submit to the direction of their husbands.
The first law and principle of the “gospel”, as presented in the Mormon temples, is obedience. Unwavering obedience is evaluated in the consideration of candidates for advancement in the priesthood. Mormonism is a culture of submissive obedience to religious authority.
I think if the Mormon leadership sent out a world-wide bulletin instructing that the sacrament should be laced with cyanide, on a given Sunday, with some contrived noble reason provided within the context of the reassuring representation that this was ordained by God in a recent revelation, the tragedy of Jonestown would become historically insignificant by comparison to the outcome.
Of course, I doubt this will ever happen. The Mormon leadership is not only ostensibly noble, but it has also been established with certain limited checks and balances. Its enterprise is not the destruction, but rather, the exploitation of its members.
If, on the other hand, the Mormon leadership decided, for instance, that gay marriage was an affront to God’s divine plan for families, the political force of the Mormon constituency who “desired to believe” to the point of deep personal conviction would manifest itself astoundingly. And so it has, in the form of the “individual” activism expected of Mormons in the national campaign against gay marriage.
Since others share this belief about God’s divine plan, as it relates to gay marriage, the political ramifications of the Mormon involvement on this subject have, while clearly noticed, not actually been understood for their full political significance.
Homophobia continues to abound in our society, so Mormons find some measure of shelter and support for their activism among others groups, while expanding on the benefits of the exploitation of faith by adding the exploitation of fear.
At some point, perhaps, the Mormon leadership will see God’s divine plan to require of the Mormon constituency a somewhat more socially challenging resolve. Or, then, maybe not.
The Mormon perception of God’s interest in polygamy was apparently abandoned when it became an obstacle to Utah’s statehood, and their view of God’s aversion to blacks being called to the Mormon priesthood was somehow apparently placated at a time when such a position was becoming a public embarrassment.
The Mormon Church, however, in those days, was clearly a religious minority struggling to outgrow its reputation as a “cult”. Today, the Mormon religion has achieved political “critical mass”. It is now a social and political force to be reckoned with like never before, and, some would argue, like few others.
Omniscience, after all, would clearly include political savvy.
Mitt Romney, a notable Mormon high priest who made an admirable showing of giving the late Ted Kennedy a run for his Senate seat in Massachusetts, ran on a “pro-choice” platform. He was morally opposed to abortion, but, I surmise, thought freedom of choice was consistent with the Mormon theology on the importance of the “free agency of man”.
Massachusetts, of course, does not have an overwhelming population of Mormon voters. It does have a significant population of liberal democrats.
Subsequently, in a national bid for the republican presidential nomination, the same Mormon High Priest had an epiphany on the subject of abortion, the new basis for which still somewhat unclear to me, other than its consistency with the attitude of the majority of Mormon voters on the subject. His platform then shifted to “pro-life”.
If historical patterns are a clue, it would seem unlikely that God will inspire the Mormon leadership with any tremendously socially or politically challenging revelations any time soon, but you never know. Who knows the mind of God, other than, of course, his exclusive agency on earth, the Mormons?
Let’s get back to the ostensible historical nobility of the Mormon leadership and the good works of the church as they relate to the epistemology of the church.
Many will make what I will call the “by the fruits” epistemological argument. There is somewhat of a biblical basis for this. Of course, that would lead purely objective intellectual evaluators to the question of why the Bible should be considered a sound basis for anything.
Mormons, who presume the Bible to be the “word of God insofar as it is translated correctly”, (a caveat giving rise to the apparent need for the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible), take comfort that the “by the fruits you will know them” epistemological argument is found in the 7th Chapter of Matthew, in the New Testament.
Actually, an attentive student of philosophy might point out that the “by the fruits” argument is more of a logical argument than an epistemological argument, and not a very strong one at that.
The passage in Matthew points out that “false prophets” will be easily identifiable by their “evil fruits”. By reverse inference, it is largely accepted, by Mormons, that the “good fruits” of the church’s notable efforts over the long haul should be seen to be strong clues as to the divinity of its leadership, if not conclusive evidence.
The significance of this argument, and the Bible passage promoting it, is not lost on the Mormon leadership, being comprised largely of very successful retired businessmen.
The Mormon Church takes great care to involve itself, openly, in good works. This is a matter of specific Mormon theology as well. Good works are required of Mormons by edict in their own uniquely canonized book of scripture known as the Doctrine and Covenants.
Jim Jones, on the other hand, was apparently preoccupied with other things, and missed the significance of this biblical passage as it might have cast a shadow on his leadership.
Unfortunately, as seen in the Jonestown tragedy, identifying a false prophet by his evil fruit might, for some less astute observers, be a methodology a little wanting in the timeliness of its relevance.
Still, for all of Jim Jones’ tragic flaws, talking nine hundred people into following you to a foreign country is a remarkable feat of influence. Certainly not ranking with the accomplishment of talking fifty thousand into two years of dedicated missionary service, year after year, for decades, but still quite impressive.
Many of us struggle with the ongoing challenge to convince a few people that we are “ok” to “hang around” once in a while.
Even though it is true, that a bright philosophy student might call the “good fruit” argument a relatively weak one, it still remains a fact that what I will call the “good fruit phenomena” is enormously significant in Mormon epistemology. The “good fruit phenomena” has more to do with the good feelings that follow the “good fruit”.
In the closing chapter of the Book of Mormon, the concluding prophet, Moroni, wraps up his testimony of the truthfulness of the book and makes a promise that most every Mormon is intimately familiar with. His promise is in reference to the writings in the book itself. Moroni says,
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exort you that ye would ask God the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Book of Mormon, The Book of Moroni. Compare to page 529 of the 1981 edition)
This particular scripture may well be the most quoted, by Mormon missionaries, to investigators of the Mormon Church, together with certain paraphrased quotes of a verse from the Mormon canonized book of scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants.
In one of the earlier sections of the Doctrine and Covenants God explains to a would-be translator of the Book of Mormon, through Joseph Smith, the methodology of spiritual confirmation of truth, or knowledge, saying,
… but behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore you shall feel that it is right. (Doctrine & Covenants, Section 9. Compare to page 16 of the 1981 edition)
Investigators of the Mormon Church and, in fact, all members of the Mormon Church are taught, early on, and continually reminded, that the process by which God confirms truth to the soul is through a feeling brought on by the Holy Ghost. The feeling, in particular, is a “burning in the bosom”, or warmth in the heart.
This feeling of warmth and comfort is pervasively the “go-to” method of epistemology employed throughout the church, and particularly by the priesthood. It is the accepted method by which theories and proposals are confirmed by God to be seen as “true”.
This confirming spiritual manifestation of truth is the method by which church callings, including full time missions, are recognized as appropriate for members by priesthood leaders.
It is the method by which the Mormon Church’s quorum of twelve apostles ratifies the revelations of the prophet, including both the onset and termination of the practice of polygamy, and the inclusion of blacks in eligibility for priesthood office.
It is the method by which a Mormon bishop ascertains the truth of a member’s professed worthiness to attend the temple.
There are countless volumes of church literature dedicated to this very subject matter. It is the recommended method by which members of the church select mates; careers; from paths of escape, when they are lost in the woods; who to believe in a dispute; and the appropriateness of public policy.
While arguments will differ on whether or not this method is valued above empirical or other compelling evidence, when available in considering the truth of a matter, it is my own personal experience, in the church, that the degree to which this method is employed, instead of thoughtful consideration of available factual data which is sometimes viewed dismissively in the alternative, is unnerving.
It is a simple matter of truth that far too many men who profess spirituality and spiritual authority commonly get carried away in their pride, and arrogantly consider their own divine powers of intuitive revelation more reliable than concrete proof that would slap them in the face if they would be humble enough to let it.
I have come to believe that professed spirituality and spiritual authority are among the most common forms of arrogance. They masquerade as humility before God while serving the egos and agendas of their hosts.
I, personally, sat in the presence of a general authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, at his own invitation, having expressed an interest in concerns I had about inappropriate conduct in the priesthood. I listened to him brag about ten thousand members he had preached repentance to, and sent on their way, arrogantly finding no need to consider their concerns, or my concerns, beyond a superficial level.
We all just needed to repent. He told me so, on behalf of God. He made his speech. I was apparently number ten thousand and one, and he did not appear to have any interest in any discussion that ran any deeper than “cleansing his garments” from my sinful questions about priesthood conduct by declaring his testimony to me that I needed to repent.
I understood that this was the man that had supervisory authority over mission calls for the entire church at the time of the aforementioned unpaid alimony fiasco. Whether this was actually his particular responsibility or not, he professed to have joint responsibility with all officers of the church for the conduct of the priesthood. Such is consistent with Mormon doctrine on the subject of the priesthood.
He didn’t take time beyond a cursory level to explore my concerns. That, apparently, wasn’t worth the investment of his time. The professed interest in my concern, as it turned out, seemed to be just a ruse to get me into his office so he could tell me I needed to repent, as was clearly apparent, since I had questions about the integrity of the priesthood.
I’m sure others had told him of my alleged sins and need for repentance, and their representations were, no doubt, complimented by his own “feelings” that they were true, amidst the clear evidence that I presumed to question the appropriateness of the conduct of ordained officers of the church.
What became immediately clear was that his innuendos about certain of my particular “sins” were made with a considerable degree of comfort while he, apparently, had no inclination whatsoever to afford me any direct information as to the substance of exactly what I had been accused of, nor by who, nor an opportunity to respond.
Such, I guessed, would have been a superfluous waste of his time, given the presumption that a confirmation of my sinfulness and its direct bearing on the legitimacy of my complaints had already been made manifest to him by the Holy Ghost.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, I was not guilty of what he particularly insinuated. I knew that I was not guilty of it, and I was very much aware that it was being insinuated by a man who professed the divine authority and the guiding Spirit of God in the process of his insinuations.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turns out he had a personal interest in raising questions about my credibility which I now understand better.
There, before me, was a significant piece of empirical evidence about his spiritual powers of inspiration and the credibility of his priesthood in general that was hard for me to overlook.
The “burning in the bosom” or “warm heart” test for validation of truth has its obvious problems, but it is still an enormously effective device in acquiring and nurturing the devotion of millions of Mormon members.
You see, the Mormon Church doesn’t, typically, appeal to drug dealers, or pimps, or alcoholics, or prostitutes. These are not the particular target audience to whose attention the church’s missionary force of more than fifty thousand is primarily directed.
The Church seeks out young single moms, newlyweds, new home owners, survivors of the recently deceased, and parents of newborns, among other special groups, not that anyone else would be turned away. There is a reason for this.
People who fall into these particular categories are the most likely to be at a place in their lives where they recall, with longing, the comfort of hearth and home, and have an intense desire to share the best of what they remember about their childhood experiences with their families. These are people who long for the synaptic triggering of those familiar memory traces associated with the anticipation of the comfort and security that they, subconsciously, have connected with mom from their infancy.
With such people, the Mormon conversion process becomes quite simple. Trigger the anticipation while promoting an epistemology that skips the intellectual process.
These people experience intense feelings of comfort upon being accompanied to beautiful chapels with well manicured lawns and filled with young families with shiny cars and pearly white teeth.
They are “taken in” by the attention given to family values, fidelity in marriage, and financial security. It is quite understandable that they have very intense desires to believe that this faith is the answer to their anxieties about life. They easily come to believe that such values are the answers to their anxieties about life. After all, for the most part, such is true about these values. They are the answers to many of the anxieties about life. So they, quite understandably, feel deep feelings of comfort and harmony amidst their new friends. Their hearts are warmed. They are now primed for the pivotal doctrinal lesson of the church.
The most significant and key message of the church, at this point, is now impressed upon them by many new friends who know the curriculum like the back of their hand. Prospective members find themselves surrounded by new friends, all of whom are well familiar with the critical timing of the moment and the needed content of their messages. Paraphrasing, the speech goes something like this,
“Those feelings that you feel, those heartwarming feelings, they are spoken of by ancient prophets. They are the manifestations of the Holy Ghost, confirming to your soul that: the Book of Mormon is true; that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God; that Jesus Christ lives and guides and directs this church through a modern day prophet, who leads our church today; and that God lives, and loves you, and has directed you to this discovery and to our nurturing fellowship. There is no need for further consideration of these matters. The truth of these things has been confirmed to your soul by the power of the Holy Ghost”.
To devout members of the Mormon Church, this epistemology is as fundamental to their life as the air they breathe. When the Star Wars hero, Luke Skywalker, was told to abandon his computer assisted targeting device and “trust the force”, Mormons knew he was a true hero. This is the Mormon “fix”. It has everything to do with the Mormon epistemology.
If you can be convinced to suspend the intellectual process of careful evaluation of all relevant facts and trust your heart, you will easily find your way to believe what you desire to believe in anticipation of the warmth and security of hearth and home. It works because so much of it is consistent with the reality of life, already experienced at the subconscious level by the convert, from infancy.
It is very difficult for many to control their emotional desire to believe and embrace what they want so desperately to be true. Not too many people even want to control their emotional desire to believe. Why should they, they wonder? What’s the harm? A lot worse mistakes than joining a group of people devoted to such values are made in life, particularly a group with such a seemingly consistent track record of continuity, in the support of those values, over the long haul.
What is easily overlooked in the process of this spiritual infatuation, is a simple sociological reality that becomes harder and harder for Mormons to consider. This reality is that good people who may be right about a lot of things aren’t necessarily right about everything.
What is overlooked is that the sublime, harmonious spirit, so commonly associated with the Mormon experience, is a transient feeling that attaches to the values that they collectively profess to devote themselves to. People who aspire to goodness and decency feel naturally comfortable when surrounded by a supportive group of people who seem to share those values. That will always be true about society, whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or not, and whether the Book of Mormon is true or not.
One of the more common and successful marketing practices in business is the practice of “bundling”. Savvy retailers and distributors bundle packages of products and services for “discount” prices that are less than what the retail “a la carte” price for each of the products or services in the bundle would be.
In this way, hotter products with more market demand can be bundled with products with lower comparative market demand, thereby helping the retailer move products that he might not be able to sell so easily or profitably on their own.
Most of us have had the experience of making a purchase of a bundle of products or services that included things that we had no interest in, on the basis of the argument that, on balance, the overall value of the bundle was worth the asking price, because what we did want was acquired as part of a reasonably priced package.
The Mormon bundled package deal includes the apparent hot commodities of a meaningful support system for the pursuit of family continuity; apparent stability and financial security; opportunities for meaningful and heartwarming service to one’s fellow man; and, in the fine print, acceptance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as the sole agency on the earth authorized to receive, interpret, and communicate God’s will to you, which, let’s be clear; begins immediately with the requirement of ten percent of your annual earnings turned over to the church, and the dedication of whatever time it takes to serve in the callings that may be required of you, and your submission to the Mormon priesthood generally.
It is hoped that the intense anticipation of the benefits of the first parts of the bundle will give rise to such a strong desire to believe that thoughtful consideration of the last part will be overlooked as an unnecessary intellectual exercise.
After all, the Holy Ghost, it is argued, already confirmed the truth of the bundle, just like those ancient Book of Mormon prophets predicted He would. And, “gosh”, who could doubt them? They “nailed” the whole thing about the restoration of the church through a prophet named Joseph in these “Latter Days”! How handy is that?
For those prospective members of the church who are inclined toward a more vicarious heartwarming experience, the Book of Mormon provides a fabulous epic saga that leaves many readers with a strong desire to believe it is true.
One notable exception, of course, would be the famous author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin, Samuel Clemens, whose pen name was Mark Twain. Samuel Clemens has been quoted as saying he thought the Book of Mormon was “chloroform in print”. For the benefit of younger readers, chloroform was used in the practice of medicine, as a general anesthesia to put people to sleep.
Apparently, Samuel Clemens thought the Book of Mormon was quite boring. We might consider that he was a fiction writer, and he probably read the Book of Mormon as a fiction.
The Book of Mormon is presented to investigators of the Mormon Church as an authentic record of ancient prophets who lived on the American continent. With the heightened mystique of being an actual collection of the diaries of real prophets from ancient times, the book is significantly more impactful.
It is routinely presented to non-Mormon friends, by members of the church, with their handwritten testimony as to its veracity and authenticity as just such an ancient prophetic record. This testimony, of course, would be based on the application of Moroni’s aforementioned promise, and Alma’s epistemology, which is thoughtfully recommended to the prospect.
Sincere folks that they seem to be, the testimonies of the solicitous Mormon friends are usually enough to get the prospect into at least the first few pages of a book that might not have, otherwise, seemed compelling enough to open at all.
In those first few pages, the ancient prophet, Nephi, introduces himself as Lehi’s son, and goes right into a story of intrigue, mystical dreams, and homicide, with a curious justification that would not work in today’s courts but somehow appeals to Mormons.
Many readers make it through the “historical record” of ancient civilizations that fell in and out of favor with God. Obedience to God’s commandments, as communicated by His prophets, is the over-riding message, reinforced by the scary examples of what happens to the disobedient and heartwarming examples of what happens to the obedient.
The majority of the book makes up the back story for its crucial and pivotal point. This is the single point on which the entire Mormon faith rests. It is not, as the church has in more recent times attempted to convey with a significant marketing focus, the point that Jesus is the Christ.
Clearly, the book does purport to confirm that message about Jesus. However, neither the existence, nor the divinity of Jesus Christ necessarily gives rise to the need for the formal organization of the Mormon Church, nor its claim that any previous baptism of a candidate for membership would not be valid for lack of the Mormon priesthood authority.
What makes the Book of Mormon so key to the Mormon faith and integral to the Mormon doctrine, is that the Book of Mormon purports to “foretell” the “restoration” of the priesthood authority of Jesus Christ through the “Latter Day” prophet who would be named Joseph; and further explains that obedience to God’s commandments, as continually revealed by and through His prophets, is required for exaltation in the kingdom of God.
That’s the “gotcha” that makes the Book of Mormon a “cornerstone” of the Mormon faith.
In short, by divine decree of ancient prophets, the Mormon Church lays claim to the benefit of your free time for service in their church, as they see fit, and the collection of your tithing. Not some other Christian church.
Of all of the “plain and precious truths” supposedly lost from the Bible, that the Book of Mormon is supposed to restore, that is the real salient point of the Book of Mormon. I contend that there is no other. The Mormon Church will, of course, have another view.
Fortunately, this salient message is enveloped in heartwarming accounts of God’s love and blessings to the faithful, that give rise to a significant desire to believe, in many readers, which is, predictably, reaffirmed to the prayerful reader by the power of the Holy Ghost, just like the concluding prophet, Moroni, foretells.
The Book of Mormon stories really are quite touching, if taken seriously. I must admit that I felt a profound sense of heartwarming gratification when I read it, as a young man. I was convinced that I had received a manifestation of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, just like Moroni predicted.
Of course, I had been reading the Book of Mormon for weeks on end, and was praying fervently for just such a manifestation, as required by the Mormon epistemological formula, so my "spiritual manifestation" was relatively assured.
I have come to realize that the heartwarming feelings that I once believed to be manifestations of the Holy Ghost, confirming to me that the Book of Mormon and the Mormon Church were true, were actually just the naturally occurring phenomena resulting from talking one’s self into feeling a “spiritual” manifestation.
I was a young man, who fervently wanted to be blessed with a spiritual manifestation of the truthfulness of the church, as Moroni promised. I fixated on that desire until it became true for me. There is really nothing at all remarkable about this.
What is remarkable is that millions of people, world-wide, either can’t or won’t see it for what it really is. The desire to believe is one of the most compelling forces in the world. It is easily harnessed by those who seize upon the opportunity to assume a leadership role over those who are only too happy to believe and subordinate.
It was explained to me once, by a general authority of the church, that the power of a man’s, or an institution’s, priesthood can be measured by the obedience acquired by that man, or institution, from souls, without compulsory means.
By this standard, the Mormon priesthood is, perhaps, among the most powerful in the world. However, I sincerely believe that the true power of this priesthood flows from the faith of the people, upward. It has much to do with the apparent nobility with which the Mormon leadership manages this power, and exploits the faith of the members.
I now believe it has nothing to do with the divinity of that power. The notion of this divinity, however, raises other interesting questions.
At this point, I should point out that I do not argue that the existence of an alternative practical explanation for the development of faith, and certain feelings associated with the identification of truth, as a natural pattern of human development should necessarily be seen to rule out other explanations.
I am often annoyed by the notion that something can be disproved by identifying a practical alternative explanation for occurrences attributed to it. Such is not necessarily the case. A closer examination of the Mormon theology on the subject of the Holy Ghost, and manifestations of truth associated with the Holy Ghost, is worthwhile and enlightening, and should be considered in the spirit of objectivity.
Mormons believe in a Godhead consisting of three distinct personages. First and foremost, they recognize as God, the Eternal Father. Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost make up the other two members of the Godhead, for Mormons. Unlike many other Christians, the Mormons do not believe that Jesus Christ, or the Holy Ghost, are simply alternative manifestations of the same God. They actually believe that the three personages exist apart from each other, and function in distinct and separate roles, all of which are meaningful and necessary in their own right.
According to Mormon theology, the manifestation, or confirmation, of truth, in the form of a heartwarming or spiritual feeling, is actually a spiritual confirmation of truth that has much to do with the actual spiritual and physical realities of our existence, and relationship with the Godhead.
The Mormon theology about this relationship is based largely on the teachings in the Book of Mormon and the teachings of the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, and his interpretations of the bible, combined with his own “revelations”.
The most officially accepted of Smith’s “revelations” are compiled in the Mormon canonized book of scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants. A brief explanation of the theology follows. It is, in my opinion, filled with beautiful and sublime notions.
I don’t think it would be unlikely that some readers will “feel” that it is true, in spite of its dubious origins which have been conclusively discredited.