Saturday, October 28, 2006

Third Nephi: My First Look at Mormon Beliefs

It may seem that this installment is somewhat superfluous. By the end of my last article I have fully rejected that the Book of Mormon is inspired Scripture. You may be asking “Why continue to talk about the Book of Mormon?” and I would answer, “Maybe we can glean some truth from the Book of Mormon.” It might not be credible Scripture, but neither is The Republic and we can still learn truth from Plato. The Elders told me that everything taught in the Bible is analogous to what is taught in the Book of Mormon. They claim that the two records make it more difficult for false schisms to form by stabilizing one another. So let us examine the two books and see if they are really as closely aligned as we would be told.

The first section I read in the Book of Mormon was the account of Jesus’ appearance in the Americas (3 Nephi 11). To summarize: a great number of people are gathered together discussing the meaning of the past few days’ signs (these signs were prophesized to signal the arrival of Christ). A loud voice from Heaven calls three times (it was unintelligible the first two times) saying “Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name—hear ye him” (3 Nephi 11:7). Do you remember hearing something like this before (Matt. 3:17)? After they hear the voice, the glorified Jesus descends from the clouds and stands among the people. Everyone gets a chance to pass by and feel his wounds. He preaches to the crowd and baptizes them. He picks out twelve specific men and gives them the authority to baptize and spread the gospel. Chapters 12 through 14 pretty well mirror chapters 5 through 7 of the book of Matthew, which (for those of you like me who aren’t Bible scholars) is the Sermon on the Mount.

Let’s take a moment to look at these chapters with a discerning eye. The first thing that I noticed was Jesus’ entrance into the New World. His choice of entrance is just about as opposite as you can get from the way he came onto the scene in Judea. In the Old World, He entered in with no fanfare in a shed in a little town called Nazareth. He lived a fairly uneventful thirty years before beginning his ministry. During his ministry he often told the disciples not to proclaim him the Messiah (Matt. 8:4; 16:20; Mark 8:29-30; Luke 9:20-21). But all those previous ways of doing things go out the window as Jesus crossed the Prime Meridian. Instead of a quiet ministry beginning in rural South America, Jesus comes in like it’s the Second Coming. It seems that from the beginning this might not be the same Jesus of the Bible.

The fact that the chapters which retell the Sermon on the Mount are nearly identical to the account in Matthew is a source of little interest. Maybe if Joseph Smith had never read Matthew, then this would be of great importance. The only interesting point in those three chapters is the addition of a Beatitude. In 3 Nephi, the first beatitude is not “Blessed are the poor in spirit” but rather blessed are those that are baptized (12:2). This beatitude is conspicuously absent from the Biblical account. Of course, this addition doesn’t prove that the Book of Mormon is totally different theologically from the Bible, Jesus did preach about baptism; but it does begin to show the disproportionate amount of importance that Mormonism places on good works, in this case baptism.

In addition to reading those chapters, I also skimmed through the histories that recorded the events before Christ’s appearance. It seems that even before he was born the people in the New World knew that the Messiah’s name would be Jesus. Even more surprising is the fact that they actually understood the purpose of the Messiah! Almost two thousand years after his appearance there are still a great numbers of Jewish scholars who don’t understand the purpose of the Messiah. So how did the people here understand and believe everything about Jesus’ necessary sacrifice? Remember that during Jesus’ time most Jews thought that the Messiah was going to be a political savior not a man who would die on a cross. To fully appreciate this problem, please allow me a short tangent so that I can propose an adequate analogy to illustrate my point.

The progression of revealed religion and mathematics has a great deal in common. Both started off with a very basic understanding. The idea that a God even existed is as enormous a leap as the discovery that there exists a number called zero. In our modern day we take zero for granted, but it was quite a feat to come up with the concept of zero. As time progressed so did math and religion. Math added new functions like addition and division. Religion discovered the new ideas of good and evil. Even more time passed and both branches of knowledge continued to advance. Mathematicians found algebra, geometry, and calculus. Theologians (or their ancient counterparts) were shown Jehovah, the sacred act of the sacrifice, and finally the Great Act of the Sacrifice of God Himself for the sins of mankind. When we look back at these discoveries through time, we lose the appreciation of the monumental changes in thought that it took to move on to the next level of development. In addition to this loss of awe, we have taken for granted that we need each step in the progression to get to where we are now. Without basic algebra we wouldn’t have discovered calculus. In a like manner, without exposure to the early Judaic beliefs and practices we would not be able to understand Christ’s sacrifice. That is part of the reason I believe that we have the Old Testament. It tells us where we came from spiritually so that we can understand critical points of doctrine, such as, why Jesus died.

It seems to me that the people in the New World were at the level of basic math in their spiritual lives when the Jews arrived around 600 BC. They quickly advanced to algebra with guidance from the displaced Israelites. And when Christ arrived they made another enormous jump-- from algebra to calculus III. Now it is possible that they were capable of making these huge leaps in understanding, but I doubt it. If you throw the average Algebra student into an advanced calculus college course he will be able to follow some of the lecture. But at the end of the day you will have a very confused kid. In the same way, I think that the people of the New World would not have been able to understand Jesus as quickly as they purportedly did.

This short entry is no doubt far from the entire story, but I think that even from this small sample we can see that the Book of Mormon does not accurately portray the Jesus in the Bible or the required progression of thought needed to understand Christ’s mission. There may be something yet for us to learn from the Book of Mormon, but the odds are that it won’t be much.

A Brief Introduction to Mormonism

Wednesday morning last October started as Wednesdays usually did. I awoke, showered, had some breakfast and sat down to finish up some Physical Oceanography homework for the next day. As I worked, a knock came at the door. I rose and answered it. To my surprise two nicely dressed gentlemen in their twenties introduced themselves as missionaries of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints. They asked if they could come inside and talk to me. I agreed and they entered as I scrounged up three chairs.

Once we were comfortably seated they proceeded to go through their rehearsed speech. They asked if I had heard of Jesus, salvation, Joseph Smith, prophets, etc. I told them I had and what I didn’t know, they kindly filled those blanks. They shared with me Scriptures from the Bible as well as from the Book of Mormon. At the end of our hour long meeting they gave me my own copy of the Book of Mormon and asked me if I would take some time to read some of it, and pray about its veracity. I told them I would.

Let’s fast forward a few days to the point where I have read a bit of the Book of Mormon and have had the chance to meet again with the two Elders (that’s their title as they are in their 2 year missionary journey). They believe that the Book of Mormon is the inspired record of Jesus in the New World. Here is the basic storyline: around 600 BC a group of Jews flee Jerusalem as the Babylonians are invading and end up in the New World by boat. They build up a civilization that is taught about Jesus Christ. In 33 AD, Jesus, in his resurrected form ascends down on their Temple. He teaches them, they all believe, and He returns to Heaven. They all live in peace and harmony for awhile, but after about 400 years the people have become so evil that they self-destruct. Before they do, the son of Mormon, Moroni, buries the records of this civilization, which are in the form of golden plates, so that they won’t be destroyed. During the early 1800s, Joseph Smith is praying and asking God to show him the one, true church. The answer that he gets is that they are all wrong. So God, a resurrected Moroni, angels, among others, in a series of appearances showed Smith the golden plates with the Book of Mormon on them. He was given the ability to translate the plates into English, and we have what is known as the Book of Mormon. Smith founded the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1830. Soon after founding the church, Smith and his followers were persecuted and moved to Illinois where Smith and his brother were murdered by a mob. Brigham Young became Smith’s successor and led the Latter-Day Saints to Utah where the headquarters of the Church remains to this day.

Mormons hold that both the Bible and the Book of Mormon are inspired Scriptures. However, there are some big differences in the two. Unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon cannot show us the original manuscripts from which the English translation comes. The plates from which the translations were made have been taken by the messenger who first gave them to Joseph Smith. I have been told that you must pray and ask God for the knowledge that Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is true. God does grant us wisdom if we ask (James 1:5). But God also calls us to use our minds so that we may know the truth (1 Thessalonians 5:21). God does give wisdom, but wisdom is the correct use of knowledge and God does not command us to ask for knowledge. We must seek out knowledge for ourselves.

So let us objectively look at the claims for the Book of Mormon. As I have already stated, there are no original manuscripts of the Book of Mormon. Maybe there are third party pieces of the Book of Mormon. Even if we didn’t have the manuscripts we could still reconstruct all but a handful of verses of the entire New Testament. But there are no letters containing pieces of the Book of Mormon. No ancient commentaries on this book have been unearthed. There aren’t even any writings that refer to the Book of Mormon, before the 1800s of course.

The Book of Mormon may not have original manuscripts or third party fragments like the Bible. But both books include lengthy sections of history. Now it is well known that the places mentioned in the Bible exist. You may have even heard of Jerusalem or Rome. The Bible also speaks of people, like Paul, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Abraham, Moses, and Solomon. There is a plethora of third party confirmations that these people actually existed. Ancient records and inscriptions outside of the Bible talk about them. The Bible also includes events, like the Roman rule of Judea in the 1st century AD, the exodus, and the exile. Many of these events have external confirmations that they in fact happened. So maybe the Book of Mormon has such confirmations of the places, people, and events which make up the history it reports. But, as you may have already guessed, there is no such confirmation.

Now I will grant the concession that I am no great student of the Book of Mormon, and (believe it or not) I know far from everything. There could be some evidence for the Book of Mormon, but the missionaries that I have spoke with have not been able to cite any real evidence. Their best attempt has been to tell me that they know that there is “all kinds of evidence,” for the Book of Mormon; they are just ignorant of it.

For the Elders, the credibility of the Book of Mormon stands on one thing: faith. They have prayed and asked God if the Book is true. And in their own ways they have received affirmative answers. I cannot dispute the credibility of their experiences. Their experiences are in the realm of the Subjective where Lady Reason has no sway. But I can relate to their belief. My own conversion to Christianity was largely subjective. I felt the Holy Spirit move and after much diligent work on His part I acted. But as time passed I was not satisfied that I had felt something that May evening a decade ago. I studied to see if the story that the Bible told was indeed true. I wanted to know if my subjective feelings were based on an objective reality. After some time I found the answer that I sought. There is indeed a Jesus and he did die. More so than that, He was resurrected. I came to see that my faith is not placed in a feeling that can come and go, but in a God-Man who lived and died on this Earth, rose, ascended and is coming back. Without credible objective evidence to support it, Mormonism appears to be a religion based on subjective feelings that have no roots in reality.