This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. A conference and gala event are being held on September 30th to commemorate this anniversary. In that spirit, I offer a few reflections on the impact Dialogue has had in my own personal life.
WHAT DIALOGUE ARTICLE HAS IMPACTED ME THE MOST?
There are two articles that have had an extraordinarily important impact on my personal faith and religious worldview. The first is Blake Ostler’s 1987 “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source.” In this article, Ostler reviews the evidence that would place the likely Book of Mormon authorship in the ancient world as well as the evidence that points to its origin more as a product of Joseph Smith’s 19th-century worldview. He argues that explaining the provenance of the Book of Mormon ultimately requires a both/and approach rather than an either/or approach:
The ultimate reality in Mormon thought is not an omnipresent God coercing passive and powerless prophets to see his point of view. God acts upon the individual and imparts his will and message, but receiving the message and internalizing it is partly up to the individual. In this view, revelation is not an intrusion of the supernatural into the natural order. It is human participation with God in creating human experience itself. … Even if Joseph had been aware of his presuppositions, however, it would have been impossible for him to escape the influence of his culture and the necessity of rendering the translation in a conceptual framework meaningful to his contemporaries. We are all limited by language, culture, and conceptual presuppositions. (110-111)
The second article is Duane Jeffrey’s 1973 “Seers, Savants and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface.” In this article, Jeffrey details the various authoritative statements by LDS General Authorities on the topic of biological evolution. Most interesting to me, he details how the views of James Talmage and B. H. Roberts differed from those of Joseph Fielding Smith on the topic and how they publicly taught competing views to Mormon audiences in the mid-20th century.
Ostler’s article was important in my life several years ago because it was the first time I had to take seriously the idea that divine revelation is necessarily mediated through imperfect human filters. Up until that point I had mostly assumed that all scripture (except for the parts of the Bible not “translated correctly,” of course!) was the direct and inerrant word of God as conveyed by the prophets who wrote them. It had not occurred to me that the divine message might somehow be distorted by the biological, cultural, or psychological biases and limitations of those prophets or others who claim to receive authoritative revelation.
Jeffrey’s article was important at an earlier point in my life because up until that point I had not known that the LDS apostles ever disagreed on anything important. Growing up I had assumed that being a “prophet, seer, and revelator” meant that you had a direct, clear, and reliable access line to God. Why would one apostle ever disagree with another if they all had equally reliable and unmediated access to the Source of all truth? Jeffrey’s Dialogue article showed evidence of disagreement among the apostles about a topic that is arguably of fundamental importance: the origin of human life on earth. This forced me to grapple with the question of what exactly it means to be a “prophet, seer, and revelator” in the Mormon tradition. Just how reliable and direct is that access line to God if different apostles are getting different answers, even on the big questions?
Collectively, these two articles gave me the building blocks to critically and rigorously assess my understanding of the relationship between divine revelation, scripture, prophets, and religious authority. This understanding continues to be reevaluated and revised to this day, which has strongly influenced my constantly evolving paradigm of reality, especially in the realms of faith, religion, and spirituality.
WHY DOES MORMONISM NEED DIALOGUE?
Because, as J. Reuben Clark once wrote, “if we have the truth, [it] cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.”
Also, because I strongly believe that truth is more likely to be found through the vigorous public contestation of ideas from multiple sources and perspectives. As John Stuart Mill wrote:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (On Liberty, chapter 2)
Elder Hugh B. Brown expressed similar sentiments:
I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent – if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression. (“A Final Testimony”, from An Abundant Life)
There must be forums for this contestation and deliberation of ideas to take place if truth is to be found. Dialogue is one of these important forums in contemporary Mormon thought.
WHAT I HOPE MORMONS WILL BE DIALOGUING ABOUT IN FIFTY YEARS
In fifty years I hope Mormons will be dialoguing more deliberately about the continuing shift into a postmodern worldview in Western culture and what it means for religious identity and authority. I hope that we are dialoguing about the cultivation of multiple religious identities and the fragmentation and diffusion of religious authority and what that means for Mormonism. (See here, here, and here for my previous discussions of this topic.)
I hope that we will be dialoguing about how to continue to seek a more productive balance between individual and institutional authority/inspiration. I hope that we will be dialoguing about how Mormonism’s strength comes not through its cultural, intellectual, behavioral, or theological uniformity but rather through its diversity.
I hope that we will be dialoguing about how to decentralize authority and delegate more autonomy to regional and local leaders as Mormonism becomes an increasingly international and non-American religion.
I hope that we will be dialoguing about how to productively and constructively (but not defensively or destructively) respond to the continuing advance of secularism in modern society.
And I hope that we will still be dialoguing about how the search for truth is at the core of what it means to be a Mormon.
Can you possibly mention anything about Josephs Smith connection or knowledge of the Zohar and Kabbalah? Did it at all influence the Teachings within the Early church? How? Hope to hear some feedback if possible!Does it also connect with the State of Israel in any way?
Given the prevailing but in 1987 already somewhat troubled idea that the Book of Mormon was a straightforward “translation” of golden plates inscribed by post-Exilic Jews— and an “inspired” and quite literalistic “translation” at that— it’s not hard to appreciate how Blake Ostler’s “both/and” position regarding human participation in the prophetic event might have opened a kind of safety valve and let some of the pressure out.
But isn’t his statement, which you quote above, still about as completely disingenuous as could be?
Smith, he accepts, “translated” the BofM from golden plates, but his “human presuppositions” intruded into his final product. He could not but have tried to make it “meaningful to his contemporaries”. And thus, voilà dear reader, its complete incongruity with any alleged Semitic or Native American origin is resolved to any reasonable skeptic’s full satisfaction, right?!
Well, not so fast there, buddy. If you hand me any ancient text— let’s say Paul’s Letter to the Romans, or the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Ṛg Vēda Sāṃhitā or Beowulf, and I “translate” it— it’s not going to come into English loaded with all kinds of 21st century American presuppositions and artifacts, nor respond to all kinds of 21st century issues and questions. No less would a text from a centuries-BC culture transitioning (as the story goes) from a Hebrew past to a Native American (“Lamanite”) future reproduce the worldview of an 1820s American Protestant frontiersman. There is absolutely nothing Semitic in the BofM— nor, for that matter, in any Native American culture!
And this is not just a question of “presuppositions” bleeding into Smith’s “translation”. The “presuppositions” are such and so material to the work as a whole that it is quite clearly and simply not a translation at all!
The Book of Mormon is in fact an early American novel about “Hebrews” and “Indians”, as an American frontiersman, familiar neither with Hebrew culture of any era except what he had read in his KJV, nor with historical Native American cultures except perhaps as rumored in his settler milieu, might envision them. His novel is chock full of ideas and issues that come straight out of early 19th-century American Protestantism.
Nor is this a matter of the occasional stray expression borrowed from Shakespeare or some other literary source. Rather, the book wrestles constantly and not necessarily even consciously with all kinds of religious issues and trends that were rife in the Burned Over District— but which were completely alien and unknown to the cultures of the Bible or of Native America. Absolutely nothing about the book suggests that it is a “translation” of a document written by post-Exilic Jews or their descendants, nor by the ancestors of any Native Americans, nor by any civilization that existed anywhere on earth, for that matter, 2000+ years ago! It is an American frontier novel, through and through.
It was not just “impossible for [Smith] to escape the influence of his culture and the necessity of rendering the translation in a conceptual framework meaningful to his contemporaries”. A Salt Laker translating Isaiah from the original Hebrew simply does not find the “conceptual framework” of contemporary Utah— nor its religious context— in Isaiah! Such a translator and her readership might interpret Isaiah so as to apply it to local issues, but the more one learned about Isaiah’s own milieu, the more the book would come into focus— even in translation— as really being a product of 6th/5th-century BC Israel. The KJV was published in 1611, but despite its English, it’s fully and deeply Hebrew. Eugene Petersen’s translation (The Message) could not be more vernacular, and yet for all that, it too is straight out of the Ancient Middle East.
That is just not the case with the supposedly 6th-century-BC-and-forward “records” of the Nephites!
One might claim that Smith’s 19th century American novel is “inspiring”, if not exactly “inspired” in the way usually claimed. Or one might even call it “inspired”, despite having a manifestly recent and very human origin. One might find it an instructive or illuminating help on the spiritual path. But one cannot claim, as Ostler still wanted to, that it is in any way a translation of a document written by (post-)Semitic persons even after a separation of several centuries from their point of origin— not even if the “translation” was supposedly “affected” by the translator’s presuppositions! One cannot claim that the claims made for it were true!
Both the BofM and the KJV purport to be “translations”. Does the KJV presuppose and respond to religious and social issues and trends in Jacobean England? To be sure, the occasional choice of wording does sometimes impose a peculiar slant on the Text— but only here and there. People have certainly applied passages (often out of context) to contemporary issues— but the fundamental structure and message of the KJV remain 6th/5th-century BC Hebrew Exilic, and this only comes into sharper focus the more you study it. By contrast, to make the same claim for the BofM, supposedly written by contemporaries, if not relatives of the biblical writers— starting from about the same time— well, forget about any Semitic roots coming into “focus”. You have to go really fuzzy and blurry to see that at all.
Ostler was gallantly attempting to save the appearances— not to save his faith— even if it required him to hammer a square peg into a round hole while whistling in the dark— but the peg just didn’t go!
What would happen if we just admitted the nature of the situation and to started rebuilding from there? Surely that was Ostler’s own instinct. And to be sure, we can’t blame him for blanching a bit as he stared into what must have seemed like a very dark abyss indeed. But after 30 years and the internet, surely we’re both more used to it, and less able to pretend.
So why pretend? It ain’t what they said it was. What it is, is interesting, in whatever way you understand “interesting”. So, what to do now?
(Sorry, that should be “if not to save his faith”, in the third to last paragraph, above. Wish we could edit!)