Some feel the things of the heart — our personal spiritual experiences — are more reliable gauges concerning divine matters than the things of the head.
The Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas dedicated years to his air-tightly argued theological tour de force only to suddenly abandon it near its completion. Aquinas experienced a spiritual revelation so powerful that later he reported to his secretary he had “seen things that make my writings like straw.”
Theophany, it would seem, trumps theology.
And yet perceptive readers of Aquinas can’t help but wonder whether all those years fusing faith and reason, grappling with Athens and Jerusalem, may have in fact served as preparation for the numinous experience that would cause even him to take a philosophical breather.
“It should be noted,” Latter-day Saint apostle Elder Jeffrey R. Holland recently stated, “that truly rock-ribbed faith and uncompromised conviction comes with its most complete power when it engages our head as well as our heart.”
Several years back I accompanied a prominent columnist on a visit to BYU law professor John Welch — affectionately known as “Jack.”
In addition to teaching tax law, Welch is well-known in the concentric worlds of LDS thought and biblical studies. He’s also the longtime editor-in-chief of BYU Studies Quarterly.
Our conversation was cordial and the columnist was genuinely interested in professor Welch's wide-ranging academic work on ancient Christian texts and all-things Mormon. At one point, however, the columnist politely mused about the LDS faith’s need to provide more evidence of the ancient origins of its sacred text, the Book of Mormon.
He then paused and observed that, on the other hand, the Book of Mormon’s unique claims present the LDS faith with a singular advantage over other traditions — if, for example, someone made a concrete discovery evidencing the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon, it would prove the faith’s veracity and cause even him to convert.
We were on a tight schedule, and the circumstances didn’t permit professor Welch to explain that he had in fact made just such a discovery a half-century earlier. Last Wednesday eminent scholars descended on Provo to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day Welch discovered the ancient Hebraic literary form of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.
As a young LDS proselytizer in Germany, Welch convinced his companion — he claims no bribery was involved — to attend a local lecture during their “preparation day” (the day Mormon missionaries typically use to do laundry, play basketball and weep over dear john letters).
The topic of the lecture was a treatise titled, "The Literary Art in the Gospel of Matthew." The book detailed examples of the Semitic literary form of chiasmus in the Gospel of Matthew — a gospel aimed at convincing fellow Jews that Jesus was the long-anticipated Messiah.
The poetic form is defined by phrases or concepts that appear in one particular order and then repeat in the reverse order — A, B, C, D, D, C, B, A. Chiastic structures, it’s said, help emphasize a central theme both through repetition and its structural nub.
Welch went and bought the book and enjoyed learning more about the Jewish literary form.
And, then, like any good missionary, after preparation day he went back to work.
A few days later — on Aug. 16th to be precise — the young Elder Welch awoke with a clear verbal impression — "if it is evidence of Hebrew style in the Bible, it must be evidence of Hebrew style in the Book of Mormon."
The true miracle, Welch says, is he got out of bed. Holding the Book of Mormon he thought: "All right if it's here, where?" He opened to where he had left off reading the day before.
It didn’t take him more than a page:
"Therefore he findeth himself on the left hand of God.
I would that ye should remember also, that this is the name
that never should be blotted out, except it be through transgression;
therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress,
that the name be not blotted out of your hearts.
I would that ye should remember to retain the name
that ye are not found on the left hand of God." (Mosiah 5:7-12)
Some contend that chiasmus isn’t hard to find. Just look at, say, a Dr. Suess book or a computer manual. Are those also of Hebraic origin?
Two Latter-day Saint physicists, Farrell Edwards and Boyd Edwards, put this notion to the test, using a series of sophisticated statistical models to determine the likelihood of chiasmus appearing in the Book of Mormon by chance.
For the most complex chiasm in the Book of Mormon — Alma 36: 1-30 — the likelihood of it appearing by chance was less than the likelihood of the archetypal chiasms appearing by chance in the Old Testament (0.00000049 compared to 0.0000074).
It makes you wonder: What's the likelihood that an American-raised Mormon missionary stumbles into a lecture about chiasmus in a small German town during his one day off? What's the chance he finds a near perfect example of it in the Book of Mormon only a few days later?