Conservative / Moderate / Liberal / Radical: "Middle" Views of Revelation
I think it is possible that these reviewers' willingness to typecast me as holding "naturalistic" (atheist) positions may once again be a result of their unwillingness to accept a moderate religious position in Mormonism.
It may be worthwhile to outline another far-right, moderate, far-left, schema here. First of all, far to the left is naturalism as defined by Webster's -- the belief that all religious phenomena are caused by natural forces, a radical rejection of any supernatural, divine influence at all. This is, of course, atheism. Far to the right would be the view of religious phenomena as completely the result of supernatural intervention, with no shred of human synthesis in any way, either from the prophet's mind or from the culture he is part of.
I propose that there is a tenable middle ground between these two extremes, just as in the evolution question (see above). Actually, there are many possible middle grounds. First, God will use the personality of the prophet when giving revelation. Thus, an analysis of a prophet's personality, psychology and character is not by definition atheistic. Second, God can use the prophet's culture to influence him. The prophet interrelates with it. True, he will react firmly against some aspects of it; but he will be nurtured by other aspects of it. Richard Bushman's Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormonism reflects Joseph Smith's early preoccupation with scrying and treasure seeking -- but it shows how some aspects of the phenomenon worked toward Joseph's "gift of seeing" while other aspects of it worked against his prophetic mission.
In fact, I suggest that any apologetic that attempts to defend the far-right position -- no human or social intermixture at all in religious phenomena -- will be doomed to failure for all observant, thoughtful persons. One example of this from another religion is the Protestant doctrine of the Bible as inerrant. A wealth of evidence argues against this, if you read the Bible seriously. Some thirty-seven different authors wrote the books of the Bible (give or take a few), and their personalities are clearly imprinted on their books, even when they are speaking with inspiration. Moreover, their differing cultures give their books entirely different atmospheres. The contrast in world-view between the stories of Abraham in Genesis and the Hellenistic background of Paul is unmistakable and striking. Some inspired authors disagreed with each other, indeed had major conflicts (e.g., Peter and Paul in Galatians 2, one thinks also of the books written by Paul and James, with their contrasting views on works). Some prophets had dramatically different methods of operating. There are stark contradictions in the four Gospel accounts, as we would expect in any historical documents. Then there are problems in textual transmission, after the Bible was written and collected. All ancient manuscripts of the Bible disagree with each other. We can assess differing readings of specific words and phrases only on the basis of probability, not with certainty. The Bible is undoubtedly not inerrant; but its inspiration co-exists with its errancy. It is the same with any religious phenomenon. The extreme conservative idea that a prophet is not influenced in any significant way by his environment will also be rejected by thoughtful believers. It is absurd to try to study prophetic writers outside of their environments, for they were interacting with their environment throughout their lives. So Richard Lloyd Anderson's excellent book on Paul gives us a great deal of insight into Paul's culture, which in turn gives us insight into his writings. Understanding Paul's cultural background -- his training as a Pharisee, his Hellenistic education -- helps us understand what part of his thought was inspired, unique. It also shows what part of his thought was inspired and derived from pre-existing influences, such as the Old Testament scriptures, and the just- crystallizing oral traditions about the teaching of Jesus. And it also shows what part of his thought was human, time bound, culture bound (one thinks of his emphatic ban against women speaking in church, obviously not an eternal principle).
Thus the idea that a prophet is hermetically sealed off from his environment, lives in a cultural vacuum, is a fallacy. A prophet continually interreacts with his environment. And to say that his inspiration is totally separated from his environment is equally wrong.
Here are some possible synthesizing positions that are worth considering when considering the subject of revelation and environment: (1) A prophet can be deeply impressed by something in his environment. This can act as a catalyst; he can ask God about the issue and receive revelation. But there is no reason to say that God did not prepare the catalyst also. (2) God can prepare something in a prophet's environment as "raw material" for his prophetic expression and vision. For instance, the phrases of the King James Bible were used by Joseph Smith when he received his revelations. The King James predated Joseph Smith; he was familiar with it. He used it in the Book of Mormon and in his Doctrine and Covenants revelations. This is not unusual -- in the Bible, prophets often built on the words of earlier prophets. The Book of Revelations uses whole passages from the Book of Daniel. The totality of its vision is very different from the totality of Daniel's vision, but many phrases are exactly the same. This middle position is not an attack on revelation and the supernatural. It is merely a perspective on how revelation and the supernatural work.
(3) In looking at prophets, we should not ignore Joseph Smith's "A prophet is not always a prophet" principle. Prophets, when they are not acting as a prophets, can make mistakes; they retain their free agency after their calling, as the Book of Jonah abundantly shows. Again, we might mention Galatians 2, which shows Paul rebuking the supreme leader of the New Testament church (in Mormon terms, the church's "prophet" at the time), and in fact accusing him of moral cowardice. Even the great Moses sinned, and was not allowed to enter the promised land. This principle allows us to accept human elements of prophets, their mistakes, without enshrining their mistakes. So prophets can have personal limitations, and they can have some of the limitations of their culture, and still be inspired at other times. This is not an atheistic position. It merely asserts that some aspects of prophetic lives and writings are inspired and eternal, while other aspects are culture-bound and personality-bound. If we were to regard Jonah's loveless thirst for the destruction of the people he prophesied to as a perfect, or admirable, attribute, we would be making a terrible mistake. I would go a step further and say that, while prophets can be inspired, their human expression of their inspiration is always limited, is never absolutely perfect. Joseph Smith reworking sections of the Doctrine and Covenants is an example of this. Limitations in the revelations of the Old Testament show that no revelation is ever absolute, but always has human and cultural elements. This is not to deny that inspiration does not occur in the books of the Old Testament. Aspects of it are eternal; other aspects are culture-limited. Some have characterized this kind of reading of scripture as "grocery shopping" -- choosing what is easy and comfortable from the scriptures and ignoring what is difficult. On the contrary, the insightful reader will recognize the eternal parts of the scriptures and be as bound by them, and inspired by them, as ever. Furthermore, this kind of reading keeps us from being passive, unthoughtful readers -- it shows us that we must use our moral agency as we read. There are enormous dangers in regarding the culture-limited phenomenon (such as women not speaking in church, or archaic Palestinian holy war) in religious history as an eternal principle.
In my particular moderate perspective, revelation can come in complex ways. One oversimplified view of revelation is that it always comes in pristine, final form to a person at the top of the hierarchy, then is merely handed down to those lower in the hierarchy. In fact, revelation sometimes comes to those lower in the hierarchy, then these influence those higher up. (For example, a counselor can influence a president.) Often church leaders must struggle with an issue, research it, talk about it, debate the issue, change from incorrect to correct positions, sometimes in generational time frames, before final inspiration comes.
Such "moderate" perspectives allow us a fascinating view of complexity in the church. One oversimplified view of the church is that all church leaders believe exactly the same correct thing at all times; they are seen as opposed to church "enemies" who are completely evil. Actually, anyone with any background in church history knows that church leaders have often disagreed, sometimes strongly and heatedly, among themselves. This is not true merely of modern leaders; it is also true of the early apostles in the primitive church, as when Paul "withstood Peter to his face." (Galatians 2.) Thus we can view church history as showing not simple monolithic perfection unified against monolithic evil outside the church; but as tensions within the leadership, different currents and dimensions of thought and action in the leading quorums in the church. Among our modern leaders we will find acerbic Jonahs and gentle, otherworldly Johns; there will be forward-looking, inclusive leaders (such as Paul) coming into conflict with more traditional leaders (such as James). On an individual level, sometimes a church leader will be wonderfully right and farseeing on one issue and culture-bound on another issue. So not only is there a complex view of church history, but a complex view of every church leader.
Therefore, my views on history and religion are completely theistic, though my view of how God works in history may be more complex than that of the conservative on the far right. I have no objection to Anderson, Faulring and Bachman if they disagree with my particular moderate positions, and hold to positions to the right of me. But I do object when they label me as naturalistic / atheistic or allied with John C. Bennett.
I am on record elsewhere warning about the dangers of ad hominem attack in religious scholarship (or rather, mixed with scholarship, as it is not scholarship), in both conservative and liberal writing. As I stated there, ad hominem is extremely easy to write; anyone can call anyone anything. However, careful, constructive scholarship -- the plodding collection and assimilation of data, assessing data in a balanced way -- is difficult. It will always be seductively tempting to replace meticulous research and writing with emotionally satisfying, shallow, partisan ad hominem attack. Even when some token scholarship is combined with ad hominem, the ad hominem has all the emotional force. Scholarship is devalued.
In addition, ad hominem deflects focus from the original problems, the real problems. In other words, we have the problem of Joseph Smith's polygamy. Rather than deal with this problem constructively, by doing good scholarly work on the subject, the ad hominem policy simply advises personal attack on anyone who does deal with the issue. On a short term basis, this deflects attention from the issue; but on a long term basis, the underlying problem remains. For instance, Joseph Smith married a fourteen year old girl polygamously as a result of a dynastic arrangement with her father, an apostle. The documentation for this is not in doubt; I do not believe that Anderson, Faulring or Bachman would disagree in any way. Even if there was no sexual consummation in the marriage (and, as I have stated previously, my best guess is that there was no sexual consummation) -- this is still an event that has problematic aspects. If Anderson, Faulring, and Bachman deal with it by labeling me an atheist or a modern John C. Bennett, the underlying problem still remains. This is not a wise, long-term solution to the real problem.
Why would such writers as this -- whose past writings I have respected -- unfactually characterize me as atheist? This is a question I've pondered a great deal since the Anderson, Faulring and Bachman's reviews appeared. The only answer to that question that allows me to see these writers in any kind of sympathetic terms is a deepened realization of how difficult the issue of Joseph Smith's polygamy is for conservative Latter-Day Saints, who have tried to set it aside for so many years. The typical heightened view of Joseph Smith many Mormons hold to, and the Joseph Smith who was a polygamist, do not seem to be the same person. So, instead of seeking to create a holistic view of Joseph Smith including a full, frank examination of polygamy in his life and thought, the details of his plural marriages have usually been avoided.
In addition, I realize that sometimes people who are extreme conservatives do not respect the faith of people who are liberal, or moderate, or even conservative but less conservative than they are. (In fact, in some circles, I am viewed as a conservative. Many who write and read Mormon history have no connection with the Mormon church; some of them view me with suspicion, when I profess belief in God and my participation in LDS church activity.) When I included the statement I did in In Sacred Loneliness about my faith, obviously, I did not take forty pages and discuss all the ramifications of my spiritual experiences. (It was not the appropriate place to do so, though I felt readers should know my Mormon background and perspective.) A person's heart, soul, experience, and faith is a very complex thing. Nevertheless, for extreme conservatives, faith that is not exactly like theirs is rejected as valid faith at all. While I understand there is a gap in understanding between liberal, moderate and conservative (and certainly, I believe that the extreme conservative's faith is often oversimplified), the conservative's leap to characterize a moderate author as "atheistic" -- unless there is clear evidence of atheism (such as a statement admitting atheism by the author) -- seems to me to be unworthy of conscientious scholars or church members.
One aspect of ad hominem that is particularly destructive and undisciplined is its lack precision. For instance, Bachman typecasts me as a John C. Bennett figure -- Bennett is the archetypal figure of evil in Nauvoo history. But in bringing up Bennett's name, he conjures a whole constellation of associations, all of which will apply to me in the reader's mind. At the risk of taking Bachman's ad hominem more seriously than it deserves, I will point out a few of Bennett's aspects that do not apply to me. First, I have never held high office in the church, so cannot be accused of being the politically ambitious kind of person that Bennett was. Second, my book was written as a result of years of patient work in archives, libraries, and genealogical centers (culling mostly sympathetic sources, diaries, autobiographies). Bennett's book was not. It was a quickly written journalistic exposť. Third, Bennett's book is typically anti-Mormon in its lack of balance. As I show above, my book is full of balance. Bachman makes none of these distinctions. A conscientious scholar should have.
The Moderate in the LDS Church
Finally, as our church has become increasingly polarized, one wonders if the moderate will survive. If the far right grows increasingly aggressive, militant, anti-intellectual and intolerant, the LDS moderate could be forcefully distanced from the community. While obviously the far right would see this as a victory, I suggest that the moderate can be a stabilizing force. One hopes that the LDS church will not split into extreme conservative and extreme liberal wings -- one thinks of the division of American Lutheranism into "conservative" and "liberal" denominations, or of the tripartite split of American Judaism. Time will tell. Return to Beginning