Joseph Smith and the Worst Case Scenario

My friend Sam and his family came over yesterday evening; and after dinner Sam and I, social misfits that we are, slunk off and went out on the deck to talk. (Yes, it’s February, but it’s also San Diego.) We started off wondering whether BYU’s narrow one-point win last Saturday over lowly USD (my school) would hurt their chances of making the NCAA tournament. But then somehow the conversation wound around to people we know who have “left the Church,” as we say, because of doubts about Joseph Smith. In a couple of cases these were seemingly faithful members, and their departures have had painful consequences both for their families and for their own lives. I commented that this seemed sad, and Sam said, “Yes. Tragic, really, because so unnecessary.”

“Unnecessary why? Because there are satisfying answers to the questions about Joseph Smith?”

“There may be,” Sam said. “But even if there aren’t, that’s not a good reason to leave the Church.”

“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” I answered. “I didn’t take you for one of these ‘Mormon is who I am, doesn’t matter whether it’s true’ members.”

“I’m not,” said Sam. “Truth is the essential thing. It’s just that the truths of the Church and the Gospel aren’t dependent on the truth of claims about Joseph Smith. Joseph isn’t like Jesus. We never believed that we are saved through Joseph Smith. Joseph was just a messenger. What matters is the message. So it doesn’t ultimately matter if the messenger was flawed. (I understand that the Church is more than just a ‘message’, but you get the point.) 

“Here’s an example,” he continued. “That bread we ate for dinner; it was delicious. Your wife said she bought it at Garbaldi’s bakery. Suppose we learned midway through the meal that Garbaldi is a crook and a gangster. Wouldn’t it be just stupid to throw away the bread? The goodness of the bread and the moral character of the baker are distinct things.”

“Okay,” I said, “but it isn’t a good example. Because in the case of Joseph Smith, the messenger and the message are closely intertwined.”

“We say that,” Sam acknowledged. “But we shouldn’t, because they don’t need to be. To illustrate: let’s take the worst case scenario. Let’s suppose that incontrovertible evidence were somehow to emerge proving that Joseph Smith was a simple fraud. I don’t believe he was, you understand– let me be clear about that– I’m just doing what you law teachers do, imagining far-fetched hypotheticals to test a point. But let’s suppose. The evidence shows, let’s say, that Joseph and Oliver found some dusty old book along the lines of the Spaulding manuscript or View of the Hebrews but even closer to the actual Book of Mormon, and they thought ‘You know, we could make some money with this,’ and so they invented a story and fabricated plates and all that.

“This would be a very disconcerting discovery, obviously. But how would it change anything that people love in and about the Church? The teachings would still be true– the basic doctrinal and moral and spiritual teachings, I mean. The fellowship and service would still be good. The hymns would still be inspiring. We could even still take pride in a heritage of courageous forebears who faithfully crossed the plains at tremendous sacrifice to themselves. I understand: a lot of people probably would leave the Church once the fraud became incontrovertible. But they would be making a tragic mistake– gratuitously giving up on so much that is true and good.”

“But surely you can see, in your worst case scenario, that the truth of our beliefs and our doctrines would be fatally undermined?” I objected. “How could we go on after that sort of discovery, as if everything were still intact?

“Take the ‘witness of the Spirit’ that many people talk about in testimony meetings. Why are they faithful members of the Church? Because they prayed and received a spiritual witness that Joseph was a prophet and the Book of Mormon is true. All of that would be gone.”

“No, it wouldn’t be,” Sam answered. “They might draw that conclusion, but they would be making a mistake.

“Let me be clear,” he went on.  “I believe as much as anyone in spiritual witnesses. In divine inspiration. But inspiration isn’t self-interpreting. And we often find that we need to reinterpret a spiritual experience that at the time seemed to mean X but later comes to mean Y.

“This happens all the time, in relatively mundane matters. You are agonizing over which job to take, agonizing and praying. And you receive what you take to be a spiritual prompting that you should take the job with Employer A. You take this to mean that Employer A is going to be great, is going to use your talents, etc. It turns out that Employer A sucks, and you quit six months later. But while you are there, you meet a wonderful woman who becomes your wife. You don’t conclude that your spiritual prompting was fake; you just come to understand it to have had a totally different purpose and meaning than you initially supposed.

“Same in religious matters. You are reading Third Nephi, say, and you feel a sense of spiritual confirmation. You take this to mean that the Book of Mormon is true and that Christ visited the Americas. It might mean that. But it might mean that the particular passage you were reading conveys an essential spiritual truth. Or it might mean that God approves of your efforts to learn and live by His will. God might be patting you on the head and saying, ‘Steve, my son, you are pitifully ignorant and confused; but I am pleased that you’re trying.’ Maybe that is what the Spirit was saying.

“Some of these people who leave the Church have had spiritual experiences. We’ve heard them tell about these experiences– sincerely, movingly– in testimony meetings. Then they encounter problems with Joseph Smith, and they forget the experiences, or conclude that they must have been deceived. I’m saying this is a tragic mistake. They should hold onto the experiences, even if these have to be reinterpreted.”

“Well, but what about priesthood?” I asked. “Priesthood is very important to us. And if it could be proven that Joseph was a fraud, what would be left of that?”

“Everything,” said Sam. “Everything that you directly know and care about anyway.”

“No, because—“

“Let me ask you this,” Sam broke in. “Have you given priesthood blessings?”

“Of course,” I said. “Lots of them. Healing blessings. Blessings of comfort. Confirmations. Setting people apart.”

“And in giving those blessings, did you feel the influence of the Spirit?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes quite strongly.”

“Now, given your understanding and what you’ve been taught, you might naturally explain and interpret this feeling by saying that Peter, James, and John appeared to Joseph Smith, who later ordained so-and-so, and so forth. But you don’t know any of that directly. What you know immediately and directly is that you gave a blessing and in doing this you felt the influence of the Spirit. You felt God working through you to bless someone. And if it turned out– still our worst case hypothetical– that Joseph and Oliver conspired to invent the story about Peter, James, and John, what you did and felt would still be real. Some reinterpretation would be called, obviously. Or maybe you could just confess that you don’t know exactly what the priesthood is or where it comes from. But it would be a mistake to reject the experiences you actually had– and that you know you had– just because the assumed explanation turned out to be mistaken.”

“Well,” I said skeptically, “it seems to me that your view is going to require some massive reinterpreting, not just of particular experiences, but of our whole understanding of the Church.”

“Maybe so. Although don’t forget that this was a hypothetical, worst case scenario: I don’t believe the truth will be nearly so unsettling. But my basic point is just this: we have experienced what we have experienced; we know to be good things that are good; and we shouldn’t be pushed off of those important understandings of what is true and valuable just because some received explanation or story turns out to be in need of revision. Even major revision.

“And there’s a more general point here, I think. We say this life is a probationary period, and a test. Sometimes we think of this as solely a test of our wills, or our obedience. Will we jump when the command is to jump? Well, obedience is important, I think, but it’s only a part of the probation. This life is also a probationary period– and an opportunity for progress– for our minds, and our spirits. We go through life trying to collect what we experience and know and believe– through spiritual promptings, through experience in general, even book learning– and we try to put this all together to figure out what we really believe and what is true. It’s an ongoing process of searching and reinterpreting. Reinterpretation is not an unfortunate necessity; it’s an indication that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do in this life. That’s been the story of my life, anyway.”

I had more to say; I thought Sam was overlooking some serious difficulties. But it was getting late, and chilly (even in San Diego), and Sam’s teenage son Heber (who obviously hadn’t wanted to come over in the first place) was demanding to leave. So we called it a night and said we would continue the conversation next time we got together.

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