Leaving aside disagreements about Elder Holland’s tone and speculations about the talk’s effect on believers and skeptics—not that those are unimportant, but that they’re being vigorously played out elsewhere—I want to make a narrow point about the philosophical underpinnings* of his talk. Bloggers and commenters have compared Sunday afternoon’s “Safety for the Soul” with Elder Holland’s remarks in the 2006 PBS documentary “The Mormons,” most people observing the differences in tone between the two. But I was struck on the contrary by the continuity between Elder Holland’s comments on Book of Mormon authorship in both venues. He said on Sunday:
For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator.
Compare that with an excerpt from the published transcripts of the 2006 interview:
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.
The argument in both passages seems to be the same: naturalistic authorship theories fail, thus Joseph’s claim of divine inspiration must be true. Elder Holland makes a kind of “god-of-the-gaps” appeal, in other words: at the limits of human knowledge, there lies evidence of God. I defended this rhetorical move in a post a few years ago, and I think the points I make there are relevant to this more recent talk, as well. In the earlier post I basically argue that while there are problems with traditional “god-of-the-gaps” arguments, Elder Holland’s version can be justified in the context of Mormonism’s verificationalist foundations—all spirit is matter, God is a material being, and ultimate reality is knowable. Of course, if you reject that reading of Mormon epistemology—and it’s not the only possible reading, of course—then Elder Holland’s claim gets a bit more difficult.
In the conference talk, Elder Holland pairs the point about authorship with testimony of the Book of Mormon based on revealed knowledge:
But my testimony of this record and the peace it brings to the human heart is as binding and unequivocal as was theirs. Like them “[I] give [my name] unto the world, to witness unto the world that which [I] have seen.” And like them, “[I] lie not, God bearing witness of it.”
Elder Holland implies, though he does not quite state, that confirmation of the book’s divine origin has been directly revealed to him in some spiritual way. This points up the epistemological differences between his two kinds of testimonies: one is based on reasoned judgment, the other on revealed knowledge. Both ways of knowing have their advantages and limits: reasoned judgment is transparent and, to some extent, transferrable from person to person, but it is always vulnerable to new evidence and only as good as one’s own rational faculties. Directly revealed spiritual knowledge is safe from falsification and independent of one’s own intellectual failings, but it is opaque and non-transferrable. So I suppose you pick your poison, or else you base your commitment to the Church on both.
*I am not actually a philosopher, but a mere literary shadow on the wall of the cave, and maybe I have got the philosophy mixed up here.