A Brief Note on History, Angels, and Such

May 23, 2014 | 24 comments
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Let’s say that the historicity of the Book of Mormon could be demonstrated irrefutably. (Say that Nephi returned in a cloud of glory, held a press conference, and pointed us to incontrovertible archeological proof.) Would I tune in to watch? Yes. Would this convince me to join or stay in the church?

No. Not even close.

Let’s say that the existence of supernatural beings like angels or life after death could be demonstrated irrefutably. Would this convince me to join or stay in the church?

No.

Let’s say that an angel personally visited me and commanded me to be a Mormon. Would this get my attention? Yes. Would this convince me to join or stay in the church?

No.

There is only one thing that could convince me to join or stay in the church: the extension of grace, the reception of forgiveness, the discipline of consecration, the reality of conversion — and all of it here and now and in plain sight.

That is the only thing that would convince me.

Does existence or historicity prove anything about redeeming power?

No. Nothing. Zero.

Only redeeming power proves redeeming power.

 

24 Responses to A Brief Note on History, Angels, and Such

  1. Morgan on May 23, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    Adam, I love. Would you say a little more? What is it, for you, about the Church that makes it uniquely a vessel of that redeeming power. Or is there anything unique here?

  2. Russell Arben Fox on May 23, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    There is only one thing that could convince me to join or stay in the church: the extension of grace, the reception of forgiveness, the discipline of consecration, the reality of conversion

    That’s four things.(Or isn’t it?)

  3. Brad on May 23, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Absolutely superb.

  4. Davidg on May 24, 2014 at 5:23 am

    Grace = grace.

  5. RJH on May 24, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Good stuff and I agree. “The church is true” is only a compelling statement to me inasmuch as it reflects one thing: the church’s ability to guide the soul back to God. Is that true or not?

  6. Bradley on May 24, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Amen amen

  7. Steve Smith on May 24, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    “Does existence or historicity prove anything about redeeming power? No. Nothing. Zero. Only redeeming power proves redeeming power.”

    I’m sorry, but you’ve lost me. What exactly does this mean? In some ways it seems like circular logic much along the lines of “the church is true because it is true.” What would prove redeeming power is 1) the existence of a being that possesses power against some counteracting force to “buy back” or retrieve people from a sort of ransom in some capacity, and 2) the existence of an actual predicament that was preventing people from returning to a particular place and/or to a particular being. Power just doesn’t exist on its own in a vacuum. The mere mention of power presupposes the existence of two or more independently operating beings who have a relationship of some sort. And the mere mention of redemption presupposes the existence of beings or property who are detached from their possessor as well as the existence of some sort of stipulation to bring them back. So yes, being able to actual see god and the afterlife (and know that we are actually seeing god and the afterlife and not just hallucinating) would be invaluable. If LDS leaders could routinely point to that kind of evidence, I don’t think that they would have much difficulty in converting literally millions of people almost overnight.

    The fact is that many LDS people are active and actively believing in the church, its leaders’ words, and its central doctrines because they believe that all of these actually correspond with an external reality (of course, I can’t speak for you, nor am I trying to). I don’t think that it is a far cry to say that vast majority of believing LDS literally believe that an anthropomorphic god exists, that Jesus literally resurrected, that some sort of divine spirit exists, and that they are literally managing human affairs.

  8. Carl C. on May 24, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    I must disagree, respectfully. Perhaps this represents more how our personalities work, but if there were some irrefutable proof that, say, Islam, was the One True Religion ™, then no matter how much grace, truth, power, and enlightenment I have received from Mormonism (and I have received much grace, truth, power, and enlightenment from Mormonism, and could probably continue to receive much after discovering this truth about Islam), I would not be able to get rid of the fact that I knew, in the end, that it did not represent the complete picture.

    “Does existence or historicity prove anything about redeeming power?”

    Yes.

    The question you should have asked here, I think, is “Does knowing existence or historicity automatically tie one into redeeming power?”

    That answer is “no.”

    “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”
    -James 2:19

    Clearly one can know and not be tied into redeeming power. In my hypothetical scenario, however, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much light I was receiving, no matter what truths I had learned, the fact that I KNEW that Mormonism did not represent the actuality of God and God’s plan would be a splinter in the back of my mind. Eventually, that splinter would need to be reckoned with, and I would have to say sincerely, that there is no God but God, and Muhammed (PBUH) is His messenger. And then I would hope that God could bring me into his redeeming power. I would perhaps be like CS Lewis, a “dejected and reluctant convert,” but as we can see in CS Lewis, being a reluctant convert at first does not mean you will always be reluctant.

  9. Martin James on May 25, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Yes Adam but is everyone’s feeling of redemption evidence of redeeming power?

  10. Kimball on May 25, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    If an angel came to me in a cloud of glory and showed me incontrovertible proof that crystal meth was perfectly safe, would that convince me to use it?

    No.

    Let’s say scientists conducted a thousand carefully controlled experiments and published peer reviewed proof that crystal meth was a uniformly positive influence on human life and won a Nobel Prize for it. Would that convince me to give it a try?

    No.

    What if God himself came down to me and commanded me in unmistakable terms that if I didn’t start using meth I would be destroyed on the spot? Would this get my attention? Yes. Would it be enough to get me to become a meth head?

    No.

    Does scientific analysis and extrinsic motivation prove anything about the sensation and wonder of being high?

    No. Nothing. Zero.

    Only being high proves being high.

  11. Adam Miller on May 25, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    Kimball, why think that redeeming power is individual, internal, and subjective (like the sensation and wonder of being high) rather than social, historical, and publicly demonstrable?

    Clearly, being historical and demonstrable doesn’t, in itself, make something redemptive.

    But I’m more than happy for something redemptive to be historical and publicly demonstrable. In fact, as I mention above, I insist that such redeeming power be publicly demonstrable if I’m to take it seriously.

    Nephi’s existence being historical and publicly demonstrable is one thing (good for Nephi!) but it doesn’t matter one iota to me if it doesn’t demonstrate redeeming power. And if it does demonstrate this power, it’s the power that matters, not Nephi.

  12. Mark Rasmuson on May 25, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    I cannot be sure what is being communicated in this post! I agree with post #7. Even post #11 does not really clarify the meaning of the message. (This is not okay for a website audaciously titled “Times and Seasons.” You have a high standard to meet!)

  13. Matt on May 25, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Adam,

    Man…you think on a different plane. But, I like it. Please feel free to correct my attempt at “translating” your meaning.

    Everyone else,

    I too was a little put off by the brevity and lack of clarity of the post. What he says is seemingly counter to traditional Mormonism. Traditional Mormonism, at least the one that I was brought up with, told me to seek truth (history included) through study, rationality and prayer. Truth is of God. As missionaries you explain that God will let you know that the Book of Mormon is “true” (historicity included) therefore Joseph Smith was the Prophet of God, and you will know that this is God’s kingdom on earth.

    In a nutshell, traditional Mormonism relies on rationale and logical chains…a lot.

    A favorite quote of mine that will resonate with many of us.

    “Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”
    -Austin Farrer

    This is still true for me in a lot of ways.

    After reading Adam’s post a few times I realized that this post echoed of a previous essay that Adam wrote called Atonement and Testimony (found in Adam’s book Rube Goldberg Machines). In the essay Adam argues that testimony must be stripped of every outward sign. Signs being “Every kind of mundane experience, story, example, or illustration.” He says, “A testimony must be purified of every sign precisely because a testimony expresses a kind of unconditional certainty that is foreign to every objective sign that belongs to our thoroughly conditioned world.” In a lot of ways we spend much of our time rationalizing our way into gaining a “testimony”, but Adam explains that a testimony is only gained through an actual experience with the atonement or God where there is no objective proof or sign at the end. You are left with a strong knowledge of your experience and that is it.

    This is what I think Adam is saying in this post: “I have found redeeming power through the LDS Church therefore I stay. No Irrefutable fact (sign) is the cause, but solely redeeming power.”

    Adam does not appear to making truth claims for the Church. He does not say that one cannot find redeeming power in other places, but simply that he has found it here.

    In short, Adam has found God through Mormonism.

    As a side note, I can’t help but think that this post is partially instigated by Miller’s interview on Mormon Stories. John Dehlin was/is heavily focused on historicity and truth claims of the Church and understandable so. Adam was nailed with hard question after hard question all revolving around truth claims and historicity. He did well, but it seemed to me that Adam almost spoke a different language than John.

  14. DP on May 27, 2014 at 12:01 am

    Adam… Perhaps I am slow to see what you would say in a slightly different way, if say, Nephi were not real… That Joseph Smith did in fact make up the stories of the BofM, and that he did lie about his experiences in that he misled people about the origins of the book and his divine manifestations…

    And yet one might still find grace by engaging with his writings.

    Would that still count for you Adam? Grace = Grace.

    In other words… There are those who want it to be an option within the church to talk about the BofM as sacred literature but not as actual history. But GA’s such as Elder Holland are stern in their rejection of this view. Do we need to be so concerned about this?

    What do you say about this view of the BofM and of Joseph Smith vis a vis grace?

    And as a follow up… If grace is what matters (Which I agree with), then why does it matter how we find that grace or by what religion?

    Thanks for your time.

  15. Josh Smith on May 27, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Mr. Gorgias, er … Adam Miller,

    I’m just curious. Now that you’ve concluded that your subjective consciousness is all that really matters, what is the point of communicating your views with others? Seriously. What’s the basis for communicating ideas after one has discarded existence?

  16. DQ on May 27, 2014 at 11:59 am

    To persuade others to come out of the cave, however difficult and fruitless it may be. In other words, one might just as well say, when thou art converted, go and strengthen they brethren — knowing full well nothing “you” do can convert them.

  17. Steve Smith on May 27, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    “I’m just curious. Now that you’ve concluded that your subjective consciousness is all that really matters, what is the point of communicating your views with others? Seriously. What’s the basis for communicating ideas after one has discarded existence?”

    Indeed. This sort of creeping postmodernistic narrative and advocacy of a coherence theory of truth (or in Adam Miller’s case, more of a deflationary theory of truth, in which truth has no property) in Mormon apologetics is rather perplexing. Especially because it just doesn’t seem to jibe with the narrative that the LDS leaders are actually promoting, which is a narrative that holds that the doctrine is literally true because it corresponds with an external reality that we are only aware of because of revelation (and revelation is taken to mean an external higher power actually making some reality known to a receiver). The majority of believing members and leaders don’t think like Adam Miller. The correspondence of LDS church doctrine with existence and historicity means everything to them. They cling to every last little instance of historical data they can find that seems to confirm existing doctrinal claims. When the leaders and members claim, as they so frequently do, that they “know” x doctrine to be true, I’m pretty sure they mean that they know it to be actually true. There is a similar trend of postmodernistic thinking spreading among the Protestant community, one that prominent theologian William Lane Craig decries: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvcRDNVxvwY.

    I also listened to Adam’s recent interview with John Dehlin. They do indeed speak a different language. Dehlin kept pushing the issue of whether we should be troubled because many of the church’s claims about history don’t appear to correspond with what is known through modern historical and scientific research. His response seemed to be this sort of appeal to the idea that reality is so elusive that we shouldn’t be drastically concerned with it.

    History matters. There is something that really happened in the past that we can have a good idea of through researching historical documents and archaeology. The nature of existence also matters. It is very important to know what things are going to either improve or deteriorate our collective and individual moral and physical well-being.

  18. Cameron N. on May 27, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    I don’t think anyone disputes that history matters. They only dispute the feasibility determining non-scriptural history in a way that even comes close to the full picture. Slap a post-modernist label on that if you want. I don’t think that makes that viewpoint intangible.

  19. DP on May 27, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    Well… Just as our leaders have said. Either Joseph saw what he said he saw and is who he claimed to be, or he isn’t, and he is a fraud, and he should be exposed. Both Pres. Hinckley and Joseph Fielding Smith spoke in this way. As our science and history improves it seems more and more that Joseph was deceptive in his claims.

    I am nevertheless a believer and my beliefs in God extend beyond the tent of mormonism. They have too for the sake of my faith. And mormonism is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the puzzle–at least the way modern leaders speak.

    I agree that Adam speaks in a very different way than our leaders. I wish they would speak more like him. Or even more like the Pope.

  20. Eric Russell on May 27, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    I think the question of whether the evidence of the truth of the church’s historical claims keeps us in the church is the wrong question. That is to say, I don’t think it’s a particularly interesting one. The question is whether irrefutable evidence of the falsity of the church’s historical claims would keep you out of it.

  21. DP on May 27, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    That is an interesting question. If there were irrefutable evidence to show that Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Mormon etc. and was in fact a fraud, would that cause me to leave the Church? I think that is what you were asking.

    I suppose for many, the answer is yes. Because they already feel they have that evidence and have made that decision.

    For me the answer is complicated. I’m not sure the answer is “yes, absolutely” as it seems it should be because the value of the Church in giving me grace is significant. My life has been touched by grace because of the B of M, the D&C, General Conference etc. It has also been touched by pain or other problems because of all of the same things.

    In the end it is my culture and I find value in it’s complexity.

    I think if there were irrefutable evidence to the falsity of the Church’s claims it would probably embolden me in my social rebelliousness say, for example, when I see a Bishop as acting out of line, or when the GA’s seem to promote a position I find unjust or even unrighteous. I think I would feel less concern about being excommunicated and I would think of the ordinances more as social capitol and reliant solely on my individual intention than on any special authority given by God. I would feel more flexibility in my Sabbath observance; for example, I might spend more time doing those things which feel more genuinely spiritually renewing than going to Church.

    In a way… I think I would head down a path that Adam is already suggesting. I would seek for a more honest and straightforward spirituality that did not rely on what others have to say… but more on my experience with life itself and the people around me.

    One thing that holds me in the Church currently is I wonder about raising our children–four of them ages 4-11. I find the Church has value for them. But It also scares me because I’m afraid for some of the false traditions or dogmas they might pick up or that might hurt them. So, in some ways I want to stay in the Church for their sake. At the same time, I worry about keeping them in the Church around people who might teach them something that causes them to have anxiety, stress, and depression they need not endure.

    This is a very interesting question for me to ponder for myself for a long time… perhaps a lifetime. Thanks for articulating it.

  22. Josh Smith on May 28, 2014 at 9:40 am

    DP (#21): You’re not alone. Holy moly. I’m right there with you. I also find that studying history moves me towards trusting more in my own “experience with life and the people around me.” Also, I think about raising my children and the value (and dangers) of raising them in the Church. In short, thank you for posting DP.

    Eric Russell (#20): “Irrefutable evidence” is a myth. … But, I love hypotheticals. I’m in.

    Whether irrefutable evidence of the falsity of the church’s historical claims would keep you out of it?

    Nope.

    Family. Those I love would come to their own conclusions about the veracity of the historical claims. I trust my family enough to give them all the room they need to come to their own conclusions. And, I have enough of a sense of humor to survive 3 hours of anything once a week … for the sake of my family.

    Community. The community of the saints is priceless. Last week my family pulled into the church parking lot. As we pulled in, we saw one of our good neighbors, who we probably wouldn’t know but for church, hiking across his dandelion ridden field in a shirt and tie. Good, good people. Historical claims aside, the Church produces marvelous results in the souls of people. And it’s invaluable to know your neighbors.

    Youth program. The Church cares about its youth like no other organization on earth. It puts its time and money into its youth. There is no better organization on earth for mentoring youth than the LDS Church.

    Music. The music of the Church heals my soul.

    Dilution. There are areas where I part ways with the LDS Church. Thus far, I’ve found that the elements of Church that might be doing more harm than good can be diluted with other activities and groups outside of Church. That is, membership in a broader society dilutes some of the Church’s poignancy–in a good way.

  23. Adam G. on May 28, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    Yeah, I think the angel thing would have an effect on me. The other stuff too. Denying that it would denies corporeality and sociality, like I’m a hermetically sealed box whose only interesting elements are self-contained mental processes.

  24. Adam Miller on June 2, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Thanks, Adam G. See comment 11 above.

    Why be convinced by an angel? A good angel would convince me, but it wouldn’t convince me because it was an angel. It would convince me because it was good. Same with history. Being historical wouldn’t convince me. Lots of things are historical.

    And the same goes for the supernatural. Satan is reportedly powerful and supernatural and historical. So what?

    I’m convinced about the church but I’m convinced by its goodness.

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