Is it really such a bad place to be?
Over at his blog, DMI Dave draws attention to the extended interview transcripts from “The Mormons” at the PBS website. Dave has mined these transcripts for especially interesting bits, and he proffers the following, from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, on the origin of the Book of Mormon:
I dismiss out of hand the early criticism that somehow this was a book that Joseph Smith wrote. The only thing more miraculous than an angel providing him with those plates and him translating them by divine inspiration would be that he sat down and wrote it with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook. There is no way, in my mind, with my understanding of his circumstances, his education, … [he] could have written that book.
Insofar as I understand Elder Holland’s remarks here, I read him to be making a kind of argument from incredulity: naturalistic explanations for the origins of the Book of Mormon are unconvincing, he suggests, and thus the book’s origins must be divine. He’s making the God-of-the-gaps move, in other words, pointing out a lacuna in current rational consensus, and filling in the blank with an act of God. The logicians among us will be quick to point out the fallacy of the argument from ignorance; someone will surely pronounce below that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The God-of-the-gaps has taken it on the chin of late, as well, particularly from the new and newly bellicose atheists.
I find it difficult to refute these criticisms: the argument from ignorance is faulty, in its classic form; furthermore, the glad tidings of science have indeed required religion to relinquish some claims and sublimate others to the states of metaphor and historical residue. Defenders of religion and dovish scientists respond that faith is most secure when it is insulated from rational inquiry by an epistemological firewall, what Stephen Jay Gould, in the context of the evolution fracas, has called the “non-overlapping magisteria” of religious and scientific accounts of the universe. And they’re right, too: faith probably is less vulnerable when it retreats within the pale of intuition and subjective experience, rather than holding its stead in the empirical world where it risks falsification.
But if it is risky for religion to make falsifiable claims—that is, if it is risky for Elder Holland to make historical and textual rather than merely interpretive comments about the Book of Mormon—this is also perhaps the braver and more coherent course, particularly for Mormonism with its known and knowable grounds of faith: dialogical, propositional, interpersonal communication with God, who is fundamentally natural and material, and observation of God’s works in the material world. The historical and textual gap in which Elder Holland finds the divine origins of the book is not occupied by an irrational appeal to the unknowable, but rather by an alternate hypothesis that may be bolstered by external empirical evidence at some point in the future. Of course, such evidence may never be forthcoming; therein lies the risk.
The evidentiary, verificationist ground to faith has its own internal challenges, to be sure: how, for instance, if miracles are not supernatural disruptions of natural law but rather providential exercises of the same, is one to recognize the work of God? These questions are real, but they invite answers rather than evade them, and it is this Mormon confidence in the knowable that makes the gap, perhaps, a more hospitable home for the divine.