Nephites and Lamanites Redux

November 30, 2003 | one comment
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Other things have been keeping me busy, but Nate reminds me that I have yet to follow up on my comments about Native Americans and Lehite descent. Nate suggests that:

Yes it is true that lots and lots of Mormons think that the Book of Mormon provides the only account for Native American ancestry. Yes it is true that there are probably a whole lot of general authorities that subscribe to this view. So what?

I find this assertion absolutely baffling. “A bunch of general authorities — the people we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators; the people who are in direct contact with God – subscribe to a certain view of scriptural interpretation. And Nate’s response to this is “So what?”?? Wow.

Let me make what is apparently a radical assertion — when a general authority speaks about scripture, I believe those statements are to be accepted as controlling. I have great respect for professional Mormon scholars, but, with all due respect to Noel Reynolds, Terryl Givens, and their colleagues, I believe that the premier expositor of the Book of Mormon is neither Reynolds, nor Givens, nor Sperry, nor any of the others like them. I believe the premier expositor of the Book of Mormon is Gordon B. Hinckley. He is the Prophet, and the Book of Mormon is a work of scripture. He is the source we have who is actually in contact with the Author.

(Side note: If one does not think the general authorities have anything useful to say about scripture, then in what areas does one believe they are authorities in? Isn’t scripture the most obvious — whether or not one believes the general authorities are experts in politics, or science, or law, one has to believe they are experts in scripture.)

Thus, I acknowledge that Mormon scholars have produced arguments in favor of non-Lehite descent. I reject those arguments, since more persuasive expositors of scripture have asserted the opposite. However, rather than arguing “The general authorities ascribe to Lehite descent, but so what? Sperry and Givens disagree”, as Nate has, I reply “Sperry and Givens ascribe to non-Lehite descent, but so what? The general authorities disagree.”

As far as characterizing the Historian’s position as intellectually dishonest, I stand by that characterization.* Note that I was adding to Dave’s discussion, which was that:

When The Historian holds out theories of “Mormon scholars” (i.e., FARMS) as representing anything like actual Mormon beliefs or statements on the origin of Native Americans, I think he is being disingenuous.

I think that we can all agree that the Historian’s letter purported to represent “Mormon belief” (arguing that it was refuting a “supposed” Mormon belief). Given the apparent schism between the position of Mormon intelligentsia and that of most Mormon leaders and members, is it honest, as the Historian writes, to expect that other churches, when discussing Mormon belief, discuss only the views of the intelligentsia, and ignore beliefs which are endorsed by church leaders and accepted by most members?

I think it is unreasonable to expect other churches to discuss only FARMS-published scholarly church writings, ignoring the beliefs of the masses and of the church leadership. And I think that characterizing a position accepted by leaders and most members as a “supposed” Mormon belief, due to the clash between this belief and the views of the intelligentsia, is intellectually dishonest. There may, of course, be room for disagreement on that topic. (After all, commenter Dave only thought that characterization was disingenuous).

Well, that’s enough on this topic for a while (I hope). Thanks for all the comments; this is as always a fascinating topic.

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*Note: The Historian also raises a strange, tautological defense, arguing that all “informed” Mormons agree with him, because any who do not (and he admits that many do not) are necessarily “uninformed”. If his definition of an informed Mormon is one who agrees with the Historian’s position, I must concede that all informed Mormons agree with him.

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UPDATE:

Dave notes in his comments that I am using his “disingenuous” characterization without its qualifier (that it might be justified under the circumstances). Dave also argues in an informative post on his blog that the Historian is not being intellectually dishonest; however, Dave has evidence that the limited geography hyposthesis is not a unanimous view even among FARMS Book of Mormon scholars.

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One Response to Nephites and Lamanites Redux

  1. Restoring Lost Comments on November 25, 2004 at 11:18 pm

    [Restoring Comments Inadvertently Lost in the WP transfer] :

    Kaimi, you keep quoting my comment about The Historian being disingenuous. You should also note that I added (in my comment, gone in the move to MT) that given the context of The Historian’s letter that tactic might be justified. It’s not like attorneys have a monopoly on shading the facts to fit their arguments. Go read my short blog chez moi for more.
    Calling it “intellectual dishonesty” is too much, I think. At least the limited geography hypothesis recognizes the glaring inconsistency between the facts of Native American origins recognized by scholars in several fields and the claims made by the Book of Mormon and its proponents. I don’t endorse it, but those who do at least try to make their beliefs fit the facts.
    Comment by: Dave at November 30, 2003 05:38 PM

    *****

    Kaimi writes, “when a general authority speaks about scripture, I believe those statements are to be accepted as controlling,” and “one has to believe they are experts in scripture.” Where to begin? On the most uncontroversial level (and without reference to the Lehite descent issue which prompted Kaimi’s post), we might acknowledge that scriptures are susceptible to multiple interpretations. If a GA offers one of those interpretations in the context of a particular teaching moment, surely that interpretation would not foreclose other interpretations. So Kaimi can’t mean “controlling” in the sense of “the final and exclusive word.”
    A bit more controversially — though only a little bit — I think we could all concede that GAs have not been entirely consistent in their interpretations of scripture. In the event of conflict among GAs, which one wins? We certainly do not apply a rule of “most recent pronouncement wins.” The hierarchy of the Church probably gives us some assistance here. Apostles may trump Seventies, and the Prophet trumps the Apostles. Of course, with all of these issues, there is that testy question — which usually arises when we disagree with the Prophet — of whether he is “speaking as a Prophet” or “speaking of himself.” I certainly feel no obligation to live every GAs opinion of the good life, even if obeying such contradictory commands were possible. (Recent example: the Church recently released a videotape for CES of Elder Scott and Elder Eyring discussing teaching. Elder Eyring said he felt uncomfortable with teachers asking students in class if they felt the Spirit. He said everyone feels the Spirit in his own way. Is this “controlling” over statements that the Spirit comes as a burning in the bosom? Over past instruction to point out the Spirit?)
    Most fundamentally, why would we feel the need to think of the GAs as “experts in scripture”? My assumption is that they get a lot of their information about the scriptures from scholars. For example, read the introduction to Jesus the Christ, where Talmage acknowledges his debt to various New Testament scholars, including non-Mormon scholars.
    In addition, GAs clearly get some of their information about the scriptures from each other. If the initial reading of a particular scripture is faulty, that error can be perpetuated. (For example, where did the notion come from that “thee” and “thou” — the “language of prayer” — are an elevated form of expression rather than the familiar form of “you”? Yet how many times have we heard this talk in General Conference? At least twice in my remembrance.)
    Moreover, I wouldn’t even think that most GAs would be particularly adept at discerning among various interpretations of the scriptures. Just read the Bible dictionary to see all the places where the authors (lead by Elder McConkie, I believe) hedge on the correct understanding of the scriptures. For example, in Sunday School today, I looked at the entry for the Book of James — a very controversial book of scripture in larger Christendom. The Bible Dictionary is not definitive about authorship (is James the brother of Jesus?). Couldn’t someone just ask God and get an answer to that? Unfortunately, that’s not how this works. We have to slog through the evidence just like everyone else. The only difference between us and non-Mormons on this is that we are building on a firmer foundation, having received guidance from time to time from modern-day prophets.
    Given all of that, what are GAs good for? I believe that they are inspired administrators, whose job includes providing guidance that is tailored for our times based on their own experience, study, and revelation. As hard as they try, however, they are sometimes wrong, and it’s my job — in partnership with them — to work on my own spiritual journey.
    Comment by: Gordon at November 30, 2003 06:14 PM

    *****

    Kaimi, I really don’t see this as an issue of dueling authorities the way that you seem to see it. First, it is not clear to me that the purpose of prophets is to offer authoritative interpretations of scripture. After all, revelation is about adding new scripture. Obviously, there are qualifications on this. For example, I take interpretations of scripture having to do with church practice — e.g. qualifications for baptism — to be authoritative. I would also carve out some special status for a few of official, formal interpreations. (I am thinking here of the “Doctrinal Exposition on the Father and the Son” and other such documents.) However, there are some problems with a more general authoritative interpretation model. First, how do I know which interpretations are authorititative and which are not? Second, how do I deal with contradictions? Third, how do I know that the two answers that Kaimi might trot out to the first two questions are correct? For example, am I required to accept all of Bruce R. McConkie’s interpreations of the New Testament as authoritative? What about where those interpretations conflict with the ones offered by James E. Talmadge? That said, I am more than willing to say that I ought to extend some deferrence to GA interpretations, perhaps even some assumption of correctness. On the otherhand, I simply think it is a mistake to view prophecy as a kind of authoritiative hermeneutics.
    Second, I think that the issue of “informed” Mormon opinion is a bit of a red herring. Who counts as informed? Who does not? I still think that the Historian’s original characterization was fair; however, I am also more than willing to concede that there are those who disagree with it and that alot of members are unaware of these debates. How many qualifications do you have to make in order to not be accused of lying? People in Mormon studies debates get so eager to accuse the other side of shading the issues or somehow rhetorically cheating, etc. etc. Give me a break. That is not the real issue. The issue is which interpetation of the Book of Mormon makes the most sense on the merits. Also, there is a way in which the issue gets shifted from substance to sociology. Thus, one makes a claim about what you think is the intellectually dominant position, and it gets translated into a claim about sociology, that is about what “most Mormons” believe. This then allows one to launch into the gratutious ad hominem.
    An analogy: I think that I can safely say that the dominant opinion among informed law and economics contracts scholars is that the idea of efficient breach is not tenable, because it fails to appreciate the investment incentives created by expecation damages. However, some prominent law and econ names (e.g. Richard Posner) continue to subscribe to the efficient breach theory. Furthermore, it is the one economic argument about contract law that you can be certain will be contained in introductory textbooks on contracts. You can also be almost certain that the economic criticisms of efficient breach (as opposed to deontological criticisms) will not be included in introductory textbooks. So should I accuse Richard Craswell (Stanford Law Professor and leading law and econ contracts scholar) of intellectual dishonesty when he claims in The Theory of Contract Law (Peter Benson, ed. 2001) that the notion of efficient breach has been largely repudiated by informed law and econ scholars?
    My answer: Nope.
    Comment by: Nate Oman at November 30, 2003 07:49 PM

    *****

    The majority of the comments once again seem to be making an odd “switch.” I certainly accept the GAs as master scriptorians. But scriptorians of what sense? This whole line of thinking seems to make an assumption about the purpose and meaning of scripture which is tied to the history behind the scriptures. Yet this doesn’t even seem to be the focus of the scriptures themselves. Thus this all seems a rather weak house of cards.
    One of the best talks on how the GAs see scripture was given by Elder Oaks about 10 years ago. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite GA talks and one I coincidentally used in my Priesthood lesson today.
    http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Ensign/1995.htm/ensign%20january%201995.htm/scripture%20reading%20and%20revelation.htm
    Comment by: Clark Goble at November 30, 2003 08:40 PM

    *****

    Nate asks:
    “Should I accuse Richard Craswell (Stanford Law Professor and leading law and econ contracts scholar) of intellectual dishonesty when he claims in The Theory of Contract Law (Peter Benson, ed. 2001) that the notion of efficient breach has been largely repudiated by informed law and econ scholars?”
    Probably not. It may be a closer call if someone not familiar with law and economics scholarship was asked to critique that point, and Craswell attempted to dissuade him by writing that no informed scholars held this “supposed” belief.
    To be clear, my gripe is more with “supposed” than “informed”. “Supposed” has a strong negative connotation and implies that the belief is an erroneous third-party perception. This is the type of characterization which should be reserved for inaccurate third-party perceptions. If a critic attacked a supposed Mormon belief in modern polygamy, such critique would be accurately characterized as a “supposed Mormon belief.”
    In contrast, the use of the term in the letter (“a supposed Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from Israelite origin”) does not strike me as a correct use of the word “supposed,” with all if its implications. Even if one accepts the Sperry position, much of the “supposing” here is not being done by third parties, but by church members themselves.
    My counter-analogy is this: Imagine that I am a student at Columbia, and most Columbia students hate law-and-economics. I am aware of this general attitude. However, I think that they are wrong to hate law and economics, and that once fully informed, they will come to law L & E. I am asked about Columbia students’ attitude towards L & E. I respond by discussing a “supposed dislike of law and economics among Columbia students.” Is such a characterization accurate?
    Comment by: Kaimi Wenger at November 30, 2003 09:04 PM

    *****

    Another data point: After my father read this discussion, he informed me that as a missionary way back in the distant mists of pre-history (ie the 1960s), Elder McConkie told a gathering of missionaries that they were not to tell people that all American Indians were decended from Lamanites, since that was not church doctrine.
    BTW, I think that Clark’s point about the nature of the scriptures is well taken. These sorts of historical debates are largely peripheral to what the scriptures are about. I guess what got me riled up was the suggestion that the Historian over at the Metaphysical Elders was somehow being dishonest. It struck me as an unjustified ad hominem, and one which simply does not describe him. Hence my pummelling of this particular dead horse.
    Comment by: Nate at December 1, 2003 01:19 AM

    *****

    Nate, did Elder McConkie say anything to your father about whether General Authorities were to be considered experts as to the interpretation of scripture? ;-)
    Comment by: Gordon at December 1, 2003 01:37 AM

    *****

    Perhaps I have been too hasty or too strong in my characterization. I remain deeply suspicious of the “supposed” characterization. However, out of respect for Nate, let me suggest that the following may be a statement which adequately represents my position, but which does so in a way which is less combative and has less potential to be viewed as an ad hominem attack:
    “The Historian may wish to be more careful using terms such as the ‘supposed’ beliefs of members, in situations where such characterizations could lead a reader to draw conclusions which are arguably not adequately supported by the facts.”
    How is that for lawyerspeak? :)
    Comment by: Kaimi Wenger at December 1, 2003 01:51 AM

    *****

    Your time at Cravath has not been wasted! :-)
    Comment by: Nathan Oman at December 1, 2003 12:23 PM

    *****

    Gordon wrote, “did Elder McConkie say anything to your father about whether General Authorities were to be considered experts as to the interpretation of scripture”
    I suppose that, given the disagreement by many other GAs towards Elder McConkie’s various exegesis that he’d have to say no. Presumably there were many apostles and 70′s he disagreed with and wouldn’t want people following. (Hugh B. Brown?)
    Comment by: clark at December 1, 2003 02:01 PM

    *****

    For more information on this unprecedented, ever-widening rift, see:
    http://www.fiber.net/users/drshades/imvscm.htm
    Comment by: Dr. Shades at December 2, 2003 12:26 AM

    *****

    This may be a bit bold, but in defense of Nate, Kaimi, I’m not aware of any reason to consider General Authorities necessarily as master scriptorians. I’m certain that some are, but I don’t think that it’s a qualification of Apostle-hood by any means.
    I’m not privy to all the considerations involved in selecting GA’s, but things I would imagine are important, such as personal testimony, church experience, closeness to the Spirit, and individual ability can be largely exclusive of scriptural knowledge.
    Did Joseph Smith become an expert on all things scriptural the instant of the First Vision, when he became a prophet? God could certainly inspire him to know things about the scriptures (and undoubtedly did throughout Joseph’s life), but I see no reason to believe that scriptural knowledge is accumulated through anything but a process that includes study and inspiration. A person’s Church position or calling isn’t inherently a factor — it doesn’t just “happen”. On the other hand, if a prophet does specifically say, “The Lord has told me that. . . “, it is probably safe to assume that the Lord actually has. Curiously, however, that preface is rarely actually used (at least to my recollection).
    In fairness, I consider GA’s to be generally reliable on the scriptures, and I’m not automatically skeptical of any word that comes from their mouths. I believe that GA’s are likely much, much further along in the knowledge-gaining process than I am, and should be respected.
    Still, there are times when the Brethren couldn’t possibly mean what they say. Take, for example, a passage from For the Strength of Youth (approved by the First Presidency) that says: “Do not attend, view, or participate in entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way.” In any way? I guess that eliminates every single movie I can think of, from Disney movies where Bambi’s mother get’s killed violently to Seminary videos that deal with the topic of sex or show Book of Mormon battles. It’s true that media can affect us, and we need to be careful about the entertainment to which we subject ourselves and our families, but this passage can’t be meant to be taken literally. We have to take this counsel for what it is: counsel, and factor it into our decision making along with our own judgement and the Spirit.
    Another example of this (to me, at least) is an article in the February 2003 Ensign in which Elder Russell M. Nelson says that God’s love is not unconditional. The semantics of that statement bother me a little bit. He does provide insightful information in his article, but in my mind what he really means is that God’s blessings are conditional.
    This issue can be a topic for another discussion sometime, but my point in bringing it up here is show that the words of Apostles don’t necessarily transcend context, imperfections in language, or even personal biases.
    If there’s an infallibilty doctrine in our church that I’m not aware of, maybe all this makes me a bad Mormon. But I don’t feel like this is a disrespectful or irreverent attitude. To reissue my disclaimer, I have great respect for General Authorities and view them as God’s inspired representatives. In the hierarchy of authority, I respect the decisions they make regarding the church and I sustain and support them. I just try to keep in mind that they are human beings, after all.
    While it may be true that it could seem a little harsh to dismiss General Authorities with a “So what?”, if there is sufficient evidence to contradict them (especially on a matter such as this that doesn’t seem overly relevant to salvation), then I have no problem joining in the dismissal of their views.
    Oh- for the record, I’m with the Historian in being under the impression that people who are “informed” (in the sense that they’ve looked into the issue in depth) consider Lehi’s descendants to be just one of many, many ethnicities that contributed to the Native Americans’ ancestry.
    Comment by: Logan at December 2, 2003 12:06 PM