Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Baptism, 300 days later

Three volumes sit on my office desk: an enigmatic combination that shows a picture of me.

Unloaded haphzardly, leaning off my dark brown folding table sits a thick, light-tan hardcover with curly black lettering:.Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman.

On top, at an angle: a thinner paperback, the cover of dark brown tones with block white lettering. An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer.

A few inches away, two thousand thin, silver-gilded pages are crammed between blue leather covers, with ribbon bookmarks protruding at either end.

It’s as if my quad of Mormon scripture is sitting quickly, slightly distant from a quarrel. Waiting for the conclusion.

And it is a quarrel.

The Bushman bio of Joseph is known colloquially as Rough Stone Rolling. Or sometimes just RSR. It’s the result of eight years of research by one of the premier Mormon intellectuals. Bushman – Brother Bushman, I suppose – is an academic historian, a tenured Columbia prof who specializes in early American history. Or was, until he took off on Joseph Smith studies and became a Mormon studies chair.

More relevantly, Rough Stone Rolling is a premier ‘cultural history’ of the founder of my new religion, a figure usually referred to simply as ‘Joseph’ or ‘the Prophet.’ I first heard of the book from Brandon Reed, a senior at Stanford, a Mormon, and my home teacher; he and his companion Jeff Brown visited me in my dorm room once or twice a month to make sure I was all right and to deliver a spiritual message. When I expressed an interest in Joseph Smith, Brandon recommended the book.

Bushman might be a believing, practicing Mormon, but Rough Stone Rolling is neutral on (or, as one hostile reviewer wrote, “plays pitty-pat with”) the question of authenticity. Was Joseph Smith, as Mormons phrase it, a “true prophet of God”? Bushman doesn’t answer the question, or attempt to.

Bushman does a superb job following Joseph the man the religion he founded, through persecutions and plural marriages, the dissenters and the heretical discussions of divinity.

But he does more.

Bushman sketches in great detail the backdrop against which these actions played out. The visionary seeker element of New England culture. The democratic, individualist ethos of the new republic. How did the new religion reflect its surroundings, personally, culturally and theologically? How did Joseph Smith forge a different path?

I found the book fascinating. In many ways, the author is the person I aspire to be. Thoughtful and believing. He’s struggled to interface the values of academia and the values of Mormonism for fifty years, and seems to have turned it out pretty well. The fruits of the gospel, and the fruits of scientific pursuit both taste sweet to me. I refuse to choose between them, and the religion I have found tells me I don’t have to. For “the glory of God is intelligence,” as a revelation (purportedly) given to Joseph Smith goes.

But before I lose myself in vague odes, let’s return to my desk.

Rough Stone Rolling is the compromise I hope to find, that the many mishaps and embarrassing parts of church history are compatible with belief. That an honest narrative is compatible with my testimony.

And if Mormonism is a protected tent, constructed to shelter against the ravages of the world and offer hope, Rough Stone Rolling gives the hope that entering that tent, one can find sweet fruits there; tools for building a better world, keys to enlighten understanding.

An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins is an attempt to tear open the flap of the tent and shine confusing, disorienting lights in. Or an inspection of the structure of that building, with the conclusion that the foundation is worthless.

It was sent to me by my mother, who’s been learning about Mormonism since I was baptized. Well, I think mostly from sources like the Internet group she’s joined, “Mormons have my child.” It was the second of three books she sent me to try to persuade to give up Mormonism, books that ‘tell the truth’ about Mormonism.

Why do I use the scare quotes? Maybe it’s because I’ve lost my rationality; I’ve substituted a visceral instinctive reaction for reasoned logic. I don’t like cognitive dissonance. I want to believe that Joseph Smith is a prophet, that I was once a spirit with my Heavenly Father (and Mother) and that they prepared the world that we could progress and be like them. I do believe that.

The book on my shelf, and a couple others like it, mark my failure to demonstrate to my family that I’ve found sweet fruit in my new religion. That it makes me a better person, cliche as that phrase might be. The unimpeded search for knowledge is probably number one on my parents’ lists of virtues; I must show them Mormonism enlightens and not diminishes my understanding.

I’ve read a couple chapters in An Insider’s View so far. I found a few things I didn’t know, but mostly slanted facts and narrative. Then I read about five intelligent-sounding negative reviews and deconstruction of the book. I feel weird about opening the book, as if it will destroy cherished desires. And then I feel embarrassed for feeling weird, because being afraid of the truth is the ultimate in cowardice.

(On the other hand, reading lots of books with a different starting premise than yours is often not very helpful. From a libertarian political standpoint, I put down John Kenneth Galbraith’s Affluent Society simply because I found it pretty boring, filled with liberal straw men. Or when my friend Sonja send me a link me a video about how we waste too much stuff, and I spent 10 minutes watching part of the video and then an hour and a half writing a response, debunking the arguments with arithmetic and basic economics.)

So when I say ‘maybe’ three paragraphs ago, I’m not setting up a straw man so I can knock it down. I’m deeply concerned. Still, my limited experience is that so-called ‘anti-Mormon’ tracts often mislead, and I’ve become cautious about accepting their claims for reasons entirely unrelated to my desire for them to be false.

To be honest, what I really want is to come up with a scientific test for historical facts. How many embarrassing historical incidents should occur in 200 years – keep in mind Mormonism’s history all takes place in the well-documented modern era – in an enterprise inspired by God?

Even with heavenly guidance, there’s going to be absorbing of contemporary racism. After and with violent persecution from neighbors, good people may do really bad things. The normal seeds of error may result in leaders saying some silly things. (I could add many more links, but you get the idea.)

Ideally, I’d like some number. Expected magnitude of errors: 305.7. Actual magnitude of errors: 322.9. If we run a t-test, is the second figure significantly greater than the first? If so, ‘the church is not true.’ If not, the church could be true.

Of course, there’s no way to come up with such a figure; no way to run that kind of test. My heart yearns for the simple statistical models of textbooks, of easy tests to determine that truth.

Which brings me to the third book sitting on that table: my Mormon scriptures. (Patience, you’ll see why.) Enclosed between the blue leather covers are the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants (revelations supposedly received by LDS leaders, mostly Joseph Smith), and a few other texts, known as the Pearl of Great Price.

Why do I believe? The historical stuff is nice, but because when I pray, when I go to church, when I open my scriptures, I find God. I find light, and I find truth.

Of course, I could be making up all my feelings. Maybe there is no God, or another religion is the most correct one. (For the record, I usually estimate that probability as between 10 and 50 percent, depending on my mood. I’m a fallible human being, and am quite capable of making mistakes, even big mistakes.)

The job of sifting through the historical stuff is to learn more about the fruits of my religion. But it’s also to learn whether belief is plausible. As one bloggernacle participant (figure it out) put it: "the goal of apologists is to knock down obstacles that might prevent others from taking their spiritual quest down avenues the former have found fruitful.”

From the two volumes sitting one atop another, I learn whether these obstacles have validity. Otherwise my reading of the third is likely a waste of time.

And that brings me back to the tests. There is such a test of validity. Two, in fact; both in the Book of Mormon.

The first is at its end.

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you.” (Moroni 10:4)

Pretty simple: you sincerely ask to know if the Book of Mormon is a true book, and God will answer you.

But the second is more complex, and perhaps more useful. This is the core of a deep, insightful, and powerful sermon by Book of Mormon prophet Alma:

“Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts. And when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.” (Alma 32:28)

Note the switching from “true seed” to “good seed.” In the surrounding passage, Alma uses the word “true” twice before he switches to “good,” which he then uses thirteen times in eleven verses.

What does that mean to me?

I sometimes wonder about truth claims, to what degree the seed is true.

I’m most sure the Book of Mormon was inspired by God; it does not inexorably follow that the current LDS church leader, Thomas S. Monson, is a true prophet, or that the church is the most correct of all religions, or that I should follow any particular counsel that’s given over the pulpit on some given Sunday. (Also keep in mind here the talks are all given by ordinary church members.)

But I’m even more certain about the good seed part.

Since August, I’ve started keeping a regular journal, a journal that has helped my life become deeper and richer.

I’ve found the strength to shun certain sins that plagued me. I’ve found the strength to fall to my knees and pour out my heart and my weaknesses.

I’ve found myself in the scriptures and speeches by church leaders; found beautiful and useful ideas that have helped build my life. (This needs a whole ‘nother essay, not least because thinking and writing these things helps me to understand them better. I’ve already written one.)

I’ve found a loving community, of good people trying to be better. Flaws and imperfections here hurt me hard, people holding attitudes I find unkind and unloving.

(C.S. Lewis’s dictum helps somewhat: "If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?")

And yet, I seem to have a wide grin on my face corresponding with my Mormon friends; and campus family home evenings seem to call me upwards.

I’ve begin to come to grips with my divine potential, yearning to do good and striving to improve. With my fallen nature, often lazy and sinful. With the struggle to feed the first me, and starve the second.

My soul has been enlarged; my understanding enlightened.

Ultimately, the test as to whether my new religion will be a success rests on - assumes - truth but strives for goodness, blending mind and heart. It is a standard simple enough to make it into a children’s song.

“Teach me all that I must do, to live with Him some day.”

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