"Joseph Smith's First Vision" in the Palmyra Temple.
Editor's note: First in a series.
Perhaps it was the ubiquity of the Living Scriptures videos during our formative years, but it sometimes became easy to perceive the critiques of the gospel as being ridiculous and even cartoonish.
Like the clownish henchmen of an after-school cartoon, critics would foolishly devise a plan to trick, contradict and take down our prophetic heroes, but would inevitably come up short. The Korihors and Nehors of the Book of Mormon became a sort of Pinky and the Brain who were easier to laugh at than to take seriously as a threat to take over the world, let alone the household of faith.
Growing up, we realized that many of the attacks on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did indeed fall into this clownish and even comical realm. Attacks more informed by the "Big Love" TV show than the historical record bring more chuckles than despair. They simply are not true and can be dismissed out of hand.
But the Korihor of the Book of Mormon is not moronic. He appeals to our intellect and pride with all the sophistication of a smooth-talking lawyer crossed with a patched-elbow-jacket-wearing professor. He brings a set of criticisms that are altogether more challenging and difficult to answer — questions that create dissonance in our souls and require more research and prayer than dismissive laughter.
These are questions that come to us as serious affronts to our faith and pose to us the question, “Do you really think you can be smart and Mormon?”
The answer to this often soul-agonizing question is an unequivocal “yes.” You can be smart and Mormon, and the God we worship wouldn’t have it any other way. But this is often not evident for those swallowed up in a crisis of faith.
It is primarily for these members that we write this article, with hopes it will provide a few things to keep in mind when dealing with serious affronts to our faith.
Any time we are confronted with something that seems to challenge our faith, we should take a step back and check our assumptions. In other words, we should understand what we know and how exactly we came to that knowledge.
For example, what sort of picture comes to mind when someone mentions Jesus? Who was he? What do you see him doing and saying? What does he look like? How tall is he? What color hair does he have? How does he dress?
Because such questioning could go on forever, we need to decide which questions are central to our faith and continued participation in the church. These may include questions such as: Does God exist? Is the Atonement of Jesus Christ real? Did Joseph Smith restore a fullness of the gospel? Does President Thomas S. Monson have the authority to lead God’s church?
In thoughtfully selecting the questions we concern ourselves with, we prevent ourselves from being paralyzed by a lack of knowledge.
Take the subject of prophets, for example. Mormons learn from their youth that they live in a world where people are confused and that the only tenable course is to follow the prophet because he knows the way. But teaching the necessity of following the prophet can sometimes be confused with the non-doctrinal idea of prophetic infallibility — that, as a human being, the prophet could never make even the slightest mistake.
(We’re not saying it would be better if LDS children across the globe made a slight revision to the Primary hymn and instead sang “Follow the prophet! Follow the prophet! He knows the way, but this doesn’t mean he’ll never be wrong.” It doesn’t rhyme. The rhythm is bad, and any accompanying gestures would undoubtedly be awkward.)
But what do we do when we come across a historical record that suggests a past prophet seems to have been wrong about something, or taught a doctrine that may have since been repudiated?
Joseph Smith reminded the Saints, "I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught." Though we might give lip service to the idea of prophetic fallibility, it remains difficult for some to square this idea with an idealized view of prophets’ purpose. What does it mean when Joseph says there are no errors in the revelations he taught? In the least, it means the revelations given to Joseph that mark the path to God are true and detail the rites and doctrines essential to a faith strong enough to lead to eternal salvation.
Joseph and subsequent prophets recognized that though they were chosen and inspired by God, they were subject to the flawed judgment that besets all human beings. With this in mind, it would seem hasty and even foolish to abandon one’s faith because of errant statements a leader made on a subject peripheral to salvation. It is, to borrow a phrase, to act as if that which is built upon the rock is built upon the sand.
It should be noted that “peripheral to salvation” does not mean altogether unimportant. For these matters, our faith in the gospel’s redemptive core should give us hope that the church’s living head will continue to give light and knowledge as we are ready and as he sees fit.
Dinah Craik has written beautifully on the subject of friendship, saying that intimacy demands “a faithful hand” that will “take and sift (one’s words), keep what is worth keeping and then with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.” Elder Neal A. Maxwell counseled church members that they owe this same remarkable maturity — and yes, kindness — to their church leaders.
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To be clear, this does not give members license to blow away uncomfortable or inconvenient teachings. Rather, it is a call for them to distinguish between “utterances of the moment,” “considered opinion” and prophetic revelation instead of throwing out that which is of infinite worth with everything else. Likewise, it requires Latter-day Saints to reconsider the whole of God’s plan and remember that “no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing” — including those of God’s chosen servants at their most uninspired moments.
God is able to do his work.
Jacob Rennaker is a doctoral candidate at Claremont Graduate University where he is studying the Hebrew Bible. Brandon Dabling is also a doctoral candidate at Claremont Graduate University where he is studying political theory and American government.