My friend Sam called me yesterday and he came right to the point. “I’ve been reading your report of our conversation last week, and I’ve also been reading some of the responses, and I think that there is some confusion that I would like to clear up.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, you remember that I took the view that even in the worst case hypothetical scenario– even if it could somehow be proven that Joseph Smith’s claims were fraudulent– there would still be good reason for people to remain faithful members of the church. The church’s teachings about God and Christ and salvation– and how to live– would still be true. The fellowship and service would still be uplifting. And so forth.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well, a common refrain among the commenters was that the historical claims are our basis for believing what the church teaches, so if those claims were disproven we’d no longer have any reason to put any trust in those teachings, or in the church.”
“The commenters raised a lot of different points. But I think that was one of them, yes.”
“And I think that’s a mistake. I think it reflects a fundamentally mistaken view of how and why we believe.”
“Here’s one way of putting the point. The picture in that objection is of a prophet– Elijah, Joseph Smith, Thomas S. Monson– who comes proffering his prophetic credentials and also a message containing some particular content. ‘I’m a prophet– here are my credentials– and I’m here to proclaim message XYZ.’ And if the credentials don’t check out, then we have no reason to believe the content of the message.”
“Okay. I hadn’t though of it that way, exactly, but I take your point. And this is a mistake because . . . why?”
“Because in reality, that just isn’t how it works. It’s not like someone shows up preaching some strange message but he flashes his prophetic credentials and the rest of us think, ‘Well, who would have thunk it?– but it appears that he’s a prophet– his credentials check out– so I guess we have to accept what he says, even though it seems pretty bizarre.’ That’s not how these things work.
“No, it’s the other way around. The contents are the credentials. We don’t believe the content because the credentials are compelling. We accept the prophetic credentials because we believe the content– because we sense that the content is true and of God.
“If the commenters would reflect, they would realize this. Aren’t people always saying (and didn’t Jesus himself say) that ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’? This is inspired counsel, and it assumes that we already or perhaps innately have some sense of what is true and good, and that we recognize God’s messengers by ascertaining that what they teach lines up with what we already understand to be true.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said. “If we already know what is true and good, why do we need the prophet anyway? All he will do is confirm what we already know. What’s the good of that?”
“I understand the objection,” Sam replied. “But it’s superficial. Think about this realistically. You have notions about what is true and good. You do. You get these from your upbringing, your experiences, your own thinking. From reading scriptures. From prayer and inspiration. But you also know that your understanding is limited, and dim. You see through a glass darkly. Then you hear someone teaching what you already know is true, but teaching it confidently and clearly. Or maybe you were only half-conscious of the truth, and you hear it preached, and you think, ‘Ah, yes! I’ve known that all along, sort of, but I didn’t really become conscious of it till now.’ And you go on to conclude: ‘This is someone I can trust. Someone who seems to be in tune with the truth, and with God, and who can fortify and fill out what I understand but very imperfectly. This is someone I can follow with confidence.’
“Let me try to make this more concrete. I’ll use my own experience as the example. I listen to General Conference, say, and (except when I’m feeling proud or ornery going in) I think, ‘These men are teaching the Gospel– as I listen, I feel that what they are saying is true– and they’re teaching it clearly and with conviction. With authority. These are people that it would be good to follow.’
“Then I look around the world, and I see a lot of darkness, and confusion, and error. Yes, there are bright spots– other teachers who also seem to be in tune with God and the Gospel. Just for myself– don’t laugh– I’ll mention two: Billy Graham, John Paul II, and an Argentine preacher who I sometimes hear on Christian radio–”
“That’s three,” I interrupted. “You said two.”
“Sorry. You know I’ve never been good at higher math. But I learn from people like these– and I’m happy to do so. And yet, meaning no disrespect, it also seems to me that most of the Christian churches today have serious problems that can compromise or cloud their message. Sexual scandals. Doctrinal disputes. A tendency just to go along with and bless whatever worldly trends we see around us. And I don’t know of a place I can go to– an institution, I mean– and be as confident of hearing essential Gospel truths as I can with General Conference.
“So to me, the content is the credential. The content of what the church is and teaches today, I mean: I don’t have to make judgments about nineteenth century teachings about polygamy or whatever. I can remain agnostic about those matters.
“So, why isn’t this good enough? Why can’t a conviction that the church today is teaching and practicing God’s will stand on its own without having to depend on claims about what did or didn’t happen two centuries ago? Why would I think ‘You know, this church seems to be a source of living and essential Gospel truth, but the received account of how it came to be this way has some questionable elements, so I’m going to reject it’? What sense would that make?
“And, for that matter, why does anything have to depend on claims of exclusivity? I’ve already acknowledged a) that I find inspiration and Gospel truth in non-church sources (non-LDS sources) and b) that I don’t have as much confidence in other institutional sources. But suppose there is some other institution– maybe even one I don’t know about– that reliably teaches Gospel truths. So much the better: Other people are also being blessed with the Gospel. Why should that possibility reduce the commitment I feel to this church– to a church that I happen to have found and that I’m confident is a source of truth, and a sort of embodiment of Gospel truth?”
“Well,” I responded, “you know that some people say they don’t find current church teachings attractive. They think the church is out of date on LGBT matters, or women and the priesthood, or other things. They listen to the conference talks and feel alienated, not uplifted. What you’ve just told me won’t have much appeal for them.”
“You’re right; it won’t,” Sam said. “With those people, we’d have to have a whole other kind of conversation. Although do you seriously think those people are going to be drawn into commitment by the historical claims? And in any case, you recall that this whole discussion began with you and me saying it’s sad when people who think the church is good, and who may even love it, become disaffected because of difficulties with historical claims about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and such. Those are the people and that’s the mistake I’ve been talking about.”
I had some questions I wanted to ask. Mainly, I wondered whether in focusing so much on the present church, Sam wasn’t overlooking our need to fit our beliefs into an overarching story– a story that runs backwards and forwards in time and that hangs together and makes sense to us. This need was manifest, I suspect, in the commenters’ objection that Sam was responding to. But I was already late for a class, so I told Sam I would think about what he had said, and perhaps convey it on to others who might be interested.