Restoring the Paths to Dwell In – Part I

July 24, 2013 | 13 comments
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Stanley & Violet KimballI’d never seen anything like it. It wasn’t just Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (which was opened on the living room coffee table with a pen resting on top). There was a pile of anti-Mormon literature in various stages of being read sitting around the room. At first I didn’t know how to react – it was the gigantic pink elephant in the room that I tried hard to pretend wasn’t there. But eventually I couldn’t ignore it, so I – a young and very perplexed missionary – asked Bro. Kimball, “Why are you reading all of this anti-Mormon literature?”

I had recently gotten into Mormon history. My MTC teacher had fired my soul with Madsen-style stories of Joseph Smith, but once in the mission field I realized that I knew next to nothing of Church History. I’d just asked my parents to send me a copy of the CES Church History Manual (I didn’t know of another resource to ask for, and it was large and looked scholarly to me). A zealous new convert to the world of Church History, I was thrilled to attend Stanley Kimball’s fireside on Church History in the area. I was even more thrilled with the dinner invitation we received.

“Well, let me show you,” he said. We walked downstairs and he showed me the bookshelves, the shelves above the washer and dryer, the stacks of books here and there. It looked like (and probably was) every issue of Dialogue and BYU Studies that had ever been printed, together with lots of history books and the largest library of anti-Mormon literature I’d ever seen.

That’s when he told me about “mind service.” (“What’s that?” “Oh, you know – we’re supposed to serve God with all our might, mind, and strength. Most people forget about the mind part.”) I asked him if he were refuting anti-Mormon lies. (I didn’t know the word “apologist” at that point, but I had something like that concept in my mind right alongside concepts like “hero.”) He chuckled and said something about being more interested in learning the facts of history. Well, I’d read enough anti-Mormon literature since getting into the mission field that even my rather uneducated self could see how shady its claims and scholarship was, so I challenged him on the point.

Stanley was very nonchalant in his response, stating that not all anti-Mormon literature was the same, and that the Tanners and others had been prodigious at stealing copies of things out of the Church archives and publishing what the Church didn’t make available to scholars. “Some of them are painstaking about accurately disclosing material from the archives – there’s great stuff in here. It’s just their conclusions and the narrative they tell that you’ve got to be careful about.”

I was dumbfounded. There really wasn’t anything in my world at that point that allowed me to directly assimilate not simply the things he was saying, but the casual manner in which he was saying it. That was perhaps what made the most significant impression on me. How nonchalant he was about it. He wasn’t filled with righteous indignation over the Tanners – but rather a sort of personal and professional curiosity. Nor was he hurt and scandalized by or condemning of the Church’s policies regarding the archives.

“How many people know about this stuff?” “You mean, how many people really know the ins and outs of our history?” “Sure.” “Well, if you want to talk about people who really know it – not many. Perhaps one or two hundred.”[1] “What about our Church leaders – they know about it all, right?” “Oh, well, some of them know more than others. They’re not historians you know. But some of us keep pestering them about stuff, trying to encourage them to quit showing pictures of Joseph reading off of Gold Plates and that sort of thing.”

That was it. Well, no, in my few treasured discussions with Stanley there was a lot more, but for what I’m trying to say now – that was it. That was the iconoclastic moment where my paradigms and categories shattered. I certainly didn’t do anything like abandon my orthodox ideas and zeal, and Stanley wasn’t encouraging me to do so. “Look, you don’t really need to worry about any of this now – right now you should be like I was at your age, faithfully engaged in being a missionary. Plenty of time to sift through and come to know the real ins and outs of Church History later.” I largely tried to follow that advice.

But Mormon history was no longer a story about good guys verses bad guys. I knew there was a much more complex reality, and that the relationship of the Church to its own history was in a period of transition. These two facts were captured in moments like the one when Stanley showed us a new Church History video that he had just been sent a copy of in the mail that day. He was like a little kid, all excited. He fast-forwarded to the part where they interviewed him. I watched him candidly relate the fact that many of our Mormon Battalion heroes, after the rigors of the long trail and finally settling into Southern California, often got themselves into trouble drinking, smoking and carousing. “Huh,” he said. “I didn’t expect them to keep that part in there. I mean, they didn’t keep everything I said, but that’s a lot more than I expected.”[2]

What I want to emphasize here is that in Bro. Kimball I found a timely role model for exploring the wilds of both Mormon history and theology. The specifics that he modeled – openness, candor, faith, resilience, independence, generosity, intellectual rigor, a deep love of the Restoration – might be less important than the simple fact that as my understanding began to irrevocably shift, I had a model. To be honest, among the most difficult things in my life has been the lack of role models. But at various critical junctions I’ve found faithful women and men whose circumstances, if different than my own were nonetheless similar enough to teach invaluable lessons. They have been an important and intimate blessing in my life and an essential part of my salvation.

With regard to doubt, perhaps the most important role they have played has been helping me to see that the options which the world arrays before me as defaults are not always the only or best options to pursue.



[1] I don’t know if this guess was anywhere near accurate at the time, especially since I do not know what exactly he meant by really know.

[2] I have no idea what video it was. Can anyone send me a reference?

13 Responses to Restoring the Paths to Dwell In – Part I

  1. Carey Foushee on July 24, 2013 at 11:17 am

    “…history was no longer a story about good guys verses bad guys. I knew there was a much more complex reality”

    I think that we’re also starting to grapple with that in the stories/myths we tell. Think of all the great new television programs that have complicated heroes.

  2. Howard on July 24, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    If the gospel was restored by Joseph Smith (and I believe it was) it occurred via what many call the “supernatural”. In other words by spiritual means we are not very familiar with. So many parts of this history appear to be illogical. Few are converted based on the logic of it, many are converted via spiritual conformation. Therefore belief in Joseph’s version of the gospel is faith based not logic based. Therefore defense of these faith based beliefs are not well served by apologetic arguments. Rather apologetics serves the purpose of lulling the until now unquestioning faithful members back into complacency.

    Leaving out the sophistry often used the very concept of apologetics is intellectually dishonest at it’s very core because it assumes a conclusion and sorts for evidence supporting that conclusion while ignoring evidence in opposition. It is really more like a criminal defense than it is any kind of search for the truth.

    Faith based arguments cannot prevail in logic based forums. The best they can do is argue foot-in-the-door plausibility and rarely can they approach probability. So aside from lulling the faithful apologetics amounts to mental masturbation. Simply bear your testimony and be done with it, that’s the best you can do. If your testimony or conversion story is compelling it will have much more affect than FAIR’s latest spin.

    Sure occasionally an ill informed activist will raise a stupid assertion and the apologists win one for the Gipper but by now activists have generally narrowed the challenging questions to those that apparently have no logical answers. This in itself then becomes a challenge. If the LDS church is led via frequent revelation from the Lord directly to Thomas S. Monson and 14 others why are there no answers?

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    Howard, I disagree with your opinion about the intellectual honesty of apologetics on behalf of the restored gospel. By and large, the typical product of anti-Mormon propaganda (and I mean propaganda in the nicest way possible) displays a combination of intellectual dishonesty or just plain ignorance. Pointing out the truth is all Mormon apologetics needs to do, by and large. Faithful Mormon historians and scholars in other fields don’t have a problem with real facts. I don’t see them trying to create pictures that are inconsistent with real facts. Rather, I see them pointing out that the real facts do not contradict what Mormons are really asked to believe.

    I am not saying there are not myths in Mormon history, or about Genesis or other parts of the Bible. Sometimes those myths have been embodied in a talk by a Church leader or even a book. We need to understand that we have no obligation to believe that every concept ever held in the mind of a General Authority was put there by God. God is apparently pretty tolerant of our own imperfect understanding, which is probably a good thing for those of us who are ourselves less than perfect. We are all “in process”. A person who demands that GAs must be practically perfect in every way, on every day (including having a perfect knowledge of all aspects of Mormon history, and of every nuance of doctrine) are demanding something of them that he never demands of himself.

  4. Howard on July 24, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    RTS,
    Who are you referring to here? A person who demands… etc. I don’t understand how this fits into this discussion.

    Anti is only part of the issue and while you can make the case that they makeup and spread lies about the church that kind of defamation can easily be countered with the facts and it should be. But countering outright lies isn’t really apologetics is it?

    I’m talking about defending uncomfortable parts of Mormon history and doctrine.

  5. Mike on July 24, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    So, unless you have answers to EVERY question you will assume . . . What? That the church isn’t true? That prophets aren’t really called of God? If there were no unanswered questions there would be no need for faith, and how could we be “proved” without faith?

  6. Howard on July 24, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    Well Mike perhaps EVERY goes too far but the church has been content to leave a dozen or so significant questions that are shocking and disturbing to many naive but faithful members in dusty archives for a long, long time and now that are just a mouse click away this problem has become a potent testimony killer! Why? Mostly because they feel betrayed! There are plenty of ways to your faith to be “proved” without these faith killing land mines.

  7. Old man on July 24, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Howard,

    Are you defending uncomfortable parts of Mormon history/doctrine with a faith-based argument? With all due respect, it appears to me that your are much busier stabbing the defenders of Mormonism, even some of the leaders, because you disagree with their strategy. Or are you throwing a tantrum because all of your questions are not being answered on your schedule?

    I apologize for my bluntness.

  8. Old man on July 24, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    James, thanks for the thoughtful post.

  9. Howard on July 24, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Old Man clearly you do not know me!!! Yes, I do defend uncomfortable parts of Mormon history/doctrine with my testimony! I regularly defend nearly all of the Joseph Smith story.

  10. Rachel Whipple on July 24, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    James, I love this post. It can be difficult to navigate the complexities of faith beyond the simple clear cut, black and white narrative. I’m so glad you had a good example at that pivotal time.

  11. Marcus on July 25, 2013 at 11:42 am

    All the arguments aside, this piece contains a marvelous characterization of the demeanor of Stanley Kimball. I had only the most brief kinds of interaction with him, personally. But I absolutely recognized him in this post … he didn’t get all riled up and he had some kind of amazing ballast on board, keeping his keel upright. That’s my memory of the man.

  12. john f. on July 25, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    James, I also really like this post! What a wonderful experience. I can relate as I also benefited from the insights of such people.

  13. Pacumeni on July 29, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    On 2 above, Howard, you seem a little naive about rational discourse. All reasoning has premises and all coherent reasoning rules out certain conclusions apriori. There are lots of accounts of peoples knowing things that they couldn’t know by natural processes as they are currently understood, e.g., the mother in WWII who woke in the middle of the night and said to her husband, our son is in trouble. Let’s pray. And at that precise moment–it later emerged–their son’s life was in imminent and unusual peril. In an adult institute class I attended, nearly every member of the class had similar experiences. Sometimes, this foreknowledge is incredibly specific and detailed. Now I take many of these accounts to be facts. I know some of these people personally. I know them to be honest. Ask a scientist qua scientist to explain these facts. They have only one answer–coincidence. For many of these highly specific instances of foreknowledge, that answer is absurd on its face. It is irrational. But it is, apriori, the only answer someone committed to a scientific materialist paradigm can give. Presuppositions rule out alternative answers.

    It is a good thing, not a bad thing that some kind of neutral, objective reality doesn’t dictate our conclusions. The indeterminacy of knowledge is what preserves our agency. Alma 32 is very good on this topic. In verses 16-19, it explains why God doesn’t give us signs that would compel right action or leave us utterly condemned. Instead, as the rest of the chapter indicates, he lets us choose our preferred set of premises and prove their fruits by experience. Apologists and other believing Mormons start with the premises that God exists, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be. They then reason from those premises. They do what Kuhn calls normal science within that paradigm. Some do the normal science well, others poorly, but the best don’t arrive at forced conclusions. They arrive at the logical conclusion these premises lead to and make the necessary ad hoc adjustments to account for the inevitable discrepancies. All reasoners within any paradigm whatsoever do the same, Kuhn assures us. Unlike someone operating in a materialist science paradigm, those within the faithful Mormon paradigm have no problem explaining things like foreknowledge of something happening to a child on the other side of the world. It is not an unexplained anomaly for them. Howard argues for us to be schizophrenic, to live in two unconnected worlds of faith and reason. This is apparently necessary for him because he has adopted a set of apriori premises from the surrounding culture that are inconsistent with Mormonism, and he wants to base his reasoning on those premises. Thus, he is committed to fideism as the only acceptable foundation for his religious beliefs. It seems to me that the apologist approach is more reasonable. Assume that the domains of religion, history, and science are compatible, that all truth is circumscribed in one great whole, and then develop normal science interpretations that show how all the various parts fit within one coherent narrative, acknowledging as any honest person must that “we don’t have all the answers” that make everything fit for the moment. But our faith commitment to the paradigm that has made our lives meaningful and good, our experience finding answers to earlier apparently unresolved problems, leaves us confident that the unanswered questions also have answers consistent with the weltanschaung we have adopted–necessarily as all other human reasoners have adopted their premises–by faith.

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