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Mormon Scholars Testify: Matt Walters
|Mormon Scholars Testify: Matt Walters
|Year of Publication
|3 April 2018
|Last Update Date
|Mormon Scholars Testify
|Criticism; Jesus Christ; Personal Revelation; Science; Testimony; Truth
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When Dan Peterson invited this entry, I thought he was just going easy on family, and immediately challenged his definition of “scholar.” He was generous. I reflected. If the word “school” is related to the Greek word for “leisure,” only freshman year lived up to it. The remainder was a personal Mt. Everest. As I neared the goal, however, countless higher peaks came into view, and it became apparent that a Ph.D. is merely a lower threshold for expertise in a thin slice of a narrow field—only four years of study in what takes a lifetime to partially understand. I started the climb thinking it would land me at the very top, make me king of something, and it sort of did—a hill in studentdom.
So from that perch in an unrelated field I’m supposed to champion God and religion against the likes of Oxford mathematician Stephen Hawking, whose theories on creation I hardly understand? Or defend Mormonism when a person like Mark Twain calls the Book of Mormon “chloroform in print,”1 and Yale professor Harold Bloom recommends against giving it a close read?2 A sense of humor can’t resist observing that perhaps Bloom took his own advice, and that Twain was numb while reading. But they’re in company with others like historian Paul Johnson, who dismisses Joseph Smith with a line that gives the impression he was holding his breath.3 Closer to home, a research scientist with M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, concerned for his secretary’s soul, gave my wife a pamphlet with a sketch depicting Mormon missionaries as neatly-attired zombies. Even my close high-school friend, now himself an M.D., once firmly prohibited me from adding to a shared observation with a verse from the Book of Mormon. If academic status or reputation decides the case, I lose. And feel oddly like a leper.
Fortunately, there’s a pattern. H. L. Mencken observed that “all the durable truths that have come into the world within historic times have been opposed as bitterly as if they were so many waves of smallpox.”4 Whether Mormonism is true or not, because it contains much that is fantastic, peculiar, shocking, and heretical even to traditional Christianity, many forgo legitimate assessment and behave as though all things Mormon should be quarantined. But half the story engages half the brain, and forgetting to consider what we don’t know can lead us to ridicule and vilify what the part makes of the whole.5 Instinct and reason naturally recoil from stories of angels, prophets, golden plates, and polygamy, so it’s no surprise that Mormonism has, over the years, collected a healthy coating of tar, feathers, and rotten fruit. Many still discover something of great value beneath that surface, but those who look only superficially will likely react as to Frankenstein’s monster.
This entry is too late to persuade anyone distrusting of zombies, so I see the effort as more of an evolving journal entry to document for my children some thoughts and experiences with “testimony,” and an experiment to develop what logic there might be in my beliefs. To anyone outside of the church who might chance to read this, my role would be something of the tribesman recounting lore around the fire to the visiting anthropologist. Those who try to understand native thinking in this way will at least address the requirement of scholarship to understand original sources, which in this case includes Mormons as well as their book, since the significance of a thing is its effect upon those who find it significant. The perspective of those who belong to a religion explains why that religion exists. The perspective of those who don’t explains why it wouldn’t. With no Mormons to give it notoriety, few would bother with the book. Similarly, the primary value to outsiders in studying the Tanakh, New Testament, or Qur’an, is to learn how and why they influence Jews, Christians, and Muslims. When we approach scripture in ways different than believers, we are most likely to discover not what they do, but what we are predisposed to find. Until we can in some measure feel what they feel, we can be sure we don’t see what they see.
This applies to just about anything that requires new perspective to perceive. Take fishing, for example—an activity which, for most of my life, I would have described much as Twain and Bloom did the Book of Mormon: boring, dumb, and a waste of time. Conversation with fishing lovers has been insufficient to sway a perspective formed through slight experience, and dominated by the specter of fish guts after the trout farm when I was sixish; empathy for things impaled on a hook, including my sister’s finger; impatience with the idea of just sitting there holding a pole when there’s so much else to do in, on, or around the water; and the incomprehensibility of maiming with a hook and then lovingly releasing food you’ve wasted so much to catch. Without children pestering me to take them, the love of fishing would probably have remained a permanent mystery, but through my struggles to help them catch something, I’ve discovered fishing to be more complex and engaging than previously imagined, and myself less intelligent relative to fish. Coming to grips with fish guts and my daughter’s threat to release anything she catches is yet to be determined (as it requires success outside the trout farm, where release wasn’t an option and a small charge for cleaning postponed the inevitable), but as of now, by setting aside prejudice and aversion, and by reluctantly (at first) following the path of enthusiasts, I’m beginning to see how it’s possible for a person to be both sane and (sorry) hooked.
Distrust of my own such prejudices largely results from observations of how not to evaluate Mormonism. Like the colleague who, as I attempted to explain a Mormon belief, squinted with skepticism and countered me after every sentence. Or the fellow who related to me that, after missionaries had “testified” to him that the Book of Mormon is true, he “testified” right back that it isn’t. “Have you read the book?” I queried. “No.” I’m not sure what exactly these two did know, but true understanding of a religion assimilates all perspectives, beginning with the first. And first-hand knowledge of one tribe isn’t learned around the fires of neighboring tribes. Primary understanding of Mormonism is found within the Mormon Church, not the church or the coffee shop next door.
So, my scholarship need not compete with a Hawking or a Bloom. Our stations simply offer different perspectives. From what little I’ve read, Hawking seems to be atheistic, and Bloom appears to have approached the Book of Mormon from the perspective of a Jewish gnostic.6 Twain seems to have approached it as a favorite whipping-boy for an east coast audience, and Johnson’s brief treatment didn’t require him to approach it. Something spooked the research scientist into bypassing original sources, and my high-school friend, as I later learned, had also attended the church of the zombie pamphlets. But I was born and raised on the hills of Mormondom, and this is what I see.
At eight I was baptized, and, at eighteen, still obeyed church and parents with indifferent regularity. Mom and dad planned college at BYU, a two-year church mission, a degree in civil engineering, and a career working in the family construction business in Southern California. I didn’t see or think differently, went where pointed, and in the fall of 1989, found myself reclined in a freshman dormitory at BYU, indifferently reading the Book of Mormon—required reading for a required class.
A peculiar ritual occurs on the first Sunday of each month in a Mormon church: “fast and testimony meeting.” Members “fast” (voluntarily starve themselves of two meals), donate the savings to help the involuntarily starving, and during church services, they’re given access to center stage to express religious convictions (testimony). Many testimonies include the statement “I know this church is true” without an explanation of what exactly that means. The integrity of some who said this there was good reason to trust, and the honesty of others there was no reason to suspect. So, for the time being, I took their word for it. Nevertheless, when they would say this, I would often reflect, and follow the thought inward to see what response there might be, as though listening for an echo. But to the statement “I know this church is true,” came only the reply “I don’t.”
That day at BYU, I read the last several chapters in what is titled the Second Book of Nephi. According to the text, Nephi was a prophet who lived some 600 years B.C. He states his purpose: “. . . we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26). After several pages of that flavor, I entered the chapter where Nephi closes his account—with a testimony. His final words assert in simple and forceful language the divinity and mission of Jesus Christ. As I read, a powerful feeling came over me, and my own mental narration gave way to the intense impression that the words actually originated from this Nephi, and that they were true. This perception was so real that it was described quite precisely by his words “I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust” (2 Nephi 33:13).
Understanding continued to flow into my mind. There appeared to my thoughts three occasions from previous years during which I had experienced the same powerful emotion without understanding what it was or what it meant. As though someone external to me silently whispered an explanation to my thoughts, those three past events linked themselves to the present moment, and I comprehended perfectly that this feeling and flow of understanding was from the Spirit of God I had so often heard of. The Spirit had literally identified itself to me. So singular and unexpected was this event, so suddenly and so dramatically had light and understanding burst upon darkness and uncertainty, that after so many years of not knowing, I knew. For so many years I had no idea what I was looking for, but I had found it. I had approached the Book of Mormon in the manner prescribed by believers, and discovered what I was prepared to find. My excitement over this discovery, this awakening, this revolution in understanding, this revelation, was such that I had to convince myself not to go down the hall broadcasting to everyone that I had just received a testimony, for others may have treated the news . . . with indifference.
Two strong patterns emerged from this experience. First was the connection, as though among torches passing a flame, between so many instances of testimony (now more rigorously defined as “knowledge gained through the Spirit”). Nephi’s testimony, those of church members, and finally my own, all centered on the role of Jesus Christ as Savior, as would be expected from Revelation 19:10, which states that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Second is the pattern of communication through the Spirit found in the Old Testament (Numbers 11:29), New Testament (Matthew 16:17, 1 Corinthians 2:10-13, Luke 24:32, Ephesians 1:17-18), the Book of Mormon (Jacob 4:6, Alma 5:46, Moroni 10:3-5), and Joseph Smith’s written revelations (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2-3, 9:8-9). I have also observed the pattern described in familiar terms by Joseph Smith, many other church leaders, and many common church members like me.
I now understand why when as a youth, after awaking from a nightmare and instinctively reaching for the scriptures, a soothing calm displaced sickening darkness and restored peaceful rest. I understand the experience of a non-religious acquaintance who said that when she read the Book of Mormon, she felt that it “spoke” to her. I know what it was that a Korean friend and grad-school colleague felt when he says that an overpowering sensation came over him when he “accepted Jesus as his Savior.” I know why my Brazilian friend and grad-school colleague, after she began to study the Gospels for the first time in her life, came to a moment when she couldn’t stop crying. I recognize why there was such a good feeling in the temple when I went there as a young teenager, and why a good feeling was present while listening to the leaders Mormons call prophets and apostles.
Truth keeps going. Scientific understanding gradually and continuously expands by holding to what is known and reaching out to discover the next and unseen rungs of the ladder. Newton developed his three laws of motion by standing on the shoulders of giants, and by standing on Newton’s shoulders, the efforts of millions, through a million advances in mathematics, science, and engineering, have led in continuous and well-defined steps to wonders like the Space Shuttle. Each scientific advance is the discovery of exactly what the scientist is prepared by his training and effort to discover. And with each advance, something that had been hidden in shadows of uncertainty becomes illuminated as it links logically and harmoniously to every adjacent point within a continuous fabric of understanding. If it’s true, there’s an equation for it, because it consistently relates to other truths within the fabric, according to established patterns.
During the last twenty years since that day in the dorm room, I have observed that, according to well-established and repeatable patterns, understanding gained through the Spirit advances in exactly the same manner as scientific understanding (Isaiah 28:10, 2 Nephi 28:30, Doctrine and Covenants 50:24 and 52:14). But spiritual learning, as it depends upon spiritual growth and progress, leads to a much more desirable end than scientific learning: happiness. The Spirit of God, by enlightening the mind, helps us to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, and by bringing light to the soul, gives us the desire to live it. The question of whether Mormons are Christian depends upon how you define “Christian,” but 3 Nephi 27:13-20 in the Book of Mormon provides what is probably the most official definition of Christianity to Mormons. And how does it lead to happiness?
The answer is equilibrium, meaning the state of balance or harmony among all things that interact. Laws of physics govern equilibrium of matter. The gospel of Jesus Christ governs the equilibrium of everything. And as happiness is an optimal state of human equilibrium, the gospel leads us to it. We have internal equilibrium when we master our thoughts, actions, and passions. We’re in equilibrium with others when we conduct ourselves according to ideal patterns exemplified by Christ, and we’re in equilibrium with God when we’re in equilibrium with all of creation. When there are no vices that enslave, no disputes that divide, and no misdeeds to regret, we experience happiness, or what Victor Hugo calls the general serenity of a clear conscience.8
According to this definition of happiness, sin may be identified simply as anything that upsets or prevents the state of optimal equilibrium in an individual, family, or society. Through continuous improvement (repentance), we may restore equilibrium with God by getting back on the right track and righting our wrongs. But we can’t exactly right a wrong, because time seals up our actions so they can’t be undone. This fact is likely at the root of why there needs to be a Savior such as Jesus Christ to reconcile us with God, upon whose universe we leave the blight of our disobedience. And since Christ is a God whose atonement for all mankind is an infinite and eternal sacrifice, there must be an equation of equilibrium that describes how the effects of our sins may be erased through Him. And I suspect it involves a singularity. My own experiences confirm that there is real and enduring equilibrium of the soul that comes through the process of repentance as defined in scripture; through conforming oneself to the example set by Christ as documented in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and through humbly seeking forgiveness from God in the name of Christ. With continued faith and obedience, Christ’s atonement eventually washes away guilt and restores equilibrium.
Despite what Mormons like me say about what we’ve learned through Joseph Smith, many arguments have been forwarded to demonstrate that Joseph Smith was a fraud, and that the Mormon Church is led by false prophets. Some of these writings are academic in nature, and some that I’ve read are far from zombie pamphlets, having as perhaps their only flaw a narrow focus on scandalous, dubious, and controversial material that has nothing to do with why Mormons like me are Mormon. Are Mormons guilty of cognitive dissonance when we discount or ignore such material when it is true or convincing? The creativity of human reasoning allows both pro- and anti-Mormon arguments to sound plausible, and there are many of each. But of God, we may know as true only what the Spirit indicates is truth. All other arguments provide temporal evidence of spiritual truths that by definition they can’t prove or disprove. For this reason, evidence of textual, archaeological, or other oddities in the Book of Mormon, for example, must defer to what the Spirit has revealed.
Because arguments can be constructed for or against anything, it’s impossible to evaluate a whole puzzle by comparing, one at a time, alternative versions of each piece of the story. In performing fracture control for components of the white solid-rocket motors that provide the main thrust to the Orbiter during the first stage of flight, it is necessary to assess the potential effects of cracks located in parts of the structure that are highly loaded. We assume a conservative estimate of the material’s resistance to cracking, then assume that the largest crack possible went undetected during inspection procedures, then that the cracked material is as thin as possible, that the crack is in the worst possible orientation, and that loads are as high as they can theoretically be. Simultaneously accounting for all these conditions provides a high degree of confidence that if there is a crack in such a location, it won’t cause a catastrophic failure. But it isn’t necessary to assess such theoretical cracks for impact from a piece of ice or a seagull. Including such unlikely events in a fracture assessment would stack improbabilities to the point where the failure scenario becomes so unlikely as to be non-credible, so the Space Shuttle flies without them.
It’s possible to stack arguments about Mormonism in the same way: Joseph Smith was a fraudulent, money-digging mountebank; he deceived his wife, mother, and many others in producing the Book of Mormon with the help of ghost writers and plagiarized material; he wrote a book that forcefully champions Christ-like behavior while being himself a devil; he tricked many adults into seeing golden plates with ancient-looking characters; he induced others to see an angel who showed them the golden plates in such a convincing way that they never denied it even after falling away from Joseph Smith and the church; he tricked several others into thinking they saw angels; being an unlettered farm boy, he produced writings filled with rich, coherent, and satisfying answers that clarify millennia-old doctrinal questions, and lead to more and more understanding of the same nature; he established a religion and community of gullible dupes by the age of thirty-nine; he tricked me to experience what I did in the dorm that day; he brainwashed me into thinking I’ve observed the Mormon Church function on the same principles of revelation as established in the Bible; etc., etc., etc. Individually, these issues may be argued in such a way as to paint a damning picture. But as improbable as angels, revelations, and golden plates are, stacking the above possibilities creates a picture even more difficult to believe. Based on what I’ve experienced, the combination of these arguments is simply non-credible, like theories that the moon landings were fake. Despite the plausibility of individual arguments of moon-landing conspiracy theories, taken together they would require an impossibly monstrous cover-up. And despite the theories, NASA chugs along with space exploration just as though it actually does have moon voyages under its belt. In similar fashion, the Book of Mormon chugs along, churning out answers and inspiration just as though it had been given by revelation, and the Mormon Church chugs along just as though it were guided by true prophets.
I consider how silly such belief seems to a world governed by skepticism, and think of the patterns and understanding established by a thousand experiences with the Spirit. I think of Edward Gibbon’s diagnosis of the divine light discovered by an eleventh-century monk as “the production of a distempered fancy, the creature of an empty stomach and an empty brain.”9 The delight of Gibbon’s sublime prose combined with my own sublime paradox forces a smile. During a recent family scripture study, we read of a fellow who preached, in language like Gibbon’s, that belief in Christ is the effect of a “frenzied” and a “deranged mind” (Alma 30:16).”10 “Why do ye look for a Christ?” the man asks, “For no man can know of anything which is to come” (Alma 30:13). With the challenge of that assertion, I paused and reflected, following the thought inward and probing a few personal experiences to observe how they could reply. “Kids,” I stated, “that is not true.”
1 Mark Twain, Roughing It. Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1913, p. 110.
2 “I cannot recommend that the book be read either fully or closely, because it scarcely sustains such reading.”—Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992, p. 86.
3 Of course, there may be another way to interpret “Smith was providentially murdered by a mob…”—Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, Atheneum, New York, 1976, p. 434.
4 “The capacity for discerning the essential truth, in fact, is as rare among men as it is common among crows, bullfrogs and mackerel. The man who shows it is a man of quite extraordinary quality—perhaps even a man downright diseased. Exhibit a new truth of any natural plausibility before the great masses of men, and not one in ten thousand will suspect its existence, and not one in a hundred thousand will embrace it without a ferocious resistance. All the durable truths that have come into the world within historic times have been opposed as bitterly as if they were so many waves of smallpox, and every individual who has welcomed and advocated them, absolutely without exception, has been denounced and punished as an enemy of the race. Perhaps ‘absolutely without exception’ goes too far. I substitute ‘with five or six exceptions.’ But who were the five or six exceptions? I leave you to think of them; myself, I can’t.”—H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Third Series. Cosimo Classics, 2009, p. 129.
5 May Johnson forgive my borrowing the original, and Boswell how I’ve declawed it: “Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend.”—Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, Number 117, 30 Apr 1751. In The Works of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., printed by J. Haddon, London, 1820, vol. v., p. 292.
6 “Harold Bloom,” www.wikipedia.com, 22 Feb., 2011: “He would later come to describe himself to interviewer D. Leybman in the Paris Review as a ‘Jewish gnostic,’ explaining ‘I am using Gnostic in a very broad way. I am nothing if not Jewish. . . . I really am a product of Yiddish culture. But I can’t understand a Yahweh, or a God, who could be all-powerful and all knowing and would allow the Nazi death camps and schizophrenia.’” If this quote is accurate, it’s ironic, in light of footnote 2, that chapter fourteen of Alma in the Book of Mormon provides as satisfying an explanation of God’s perspective of a holocaust as there might ever be.
7 I’ve since observed that, most often, understanding through the Spirit comes regularly and subtly when we approach God according to scriptural patterns. In my case, the faucet had been flowing for so long without my noticing it, that a reservoir burst upon me all at once.
8 Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Penguin Putnam, New York, 1987, p. 554.
9 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ed. J. B. Bury, AMS Press, New York, 1974, vol. vi, p. 529.
10 Did Joseph Smith borrow from Gibbon, or does the language of skepticism never really change?
Matt Walters, a native of Southern California, earned a minor in Spanish and a B.S. in civil engineering at Brigham Young University, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in civil/structural engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He now works at ATK Space Launch Systems performing fracture control for NASA projects, including the white solid-rocket motors that help launch the Space Shuttle.
Posted April 2011
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