We tend to think that fundamental questions are important and therefore that they ought to take up much of our intellectual effort. This view may be mistaken. Consider, for example, Islamic law.
Islamic law is interesting precisely because it is not endlessly obsessed with fundamentals. Rather than focusing its efforts on an apologetic for the truth of the Qu’ran or the genuineness of Mohammed as a prophet, it has focused its efforts on the elaboration of meaning. The result — given a dozen centuries or so — has been an incredibly rich body of thinking about religion, interpretation, authority, the good society, right conduct, adjudication, and a host of other topics. The volume of sophisticated literature on what Islam means dwarfs the body of sophisticated literature on whether or not Islam is true. This does not mean, of course, that there are not arguments for the truth of Islam. In a sense, any serious attempt as interpretation will be apologetic.
Drawing the analogy to Mormon thought, the lesson — if lesson there be — is that we may learn more if we focus less on fundamentals. Questions such as “Is there a God?” or “Was Joseph Smith a prophet?” or “Is the Book of Mormon true?” are undoubtedly important. However, in a very real sense these are beginners questions. They are the threshold of Mormon thought rather than the sine qua non of its content. Yet they continue to garner a lion’s share of our intellectual interest. The literature on the historicity of the Book of Mormon is voluminous, sophisticated, and shows no sign of abating its growth. In contrast, the literature Mormonism as a lens for thinking about other issues in philosophy, ethics, law, historical interpretation, economics, political theory, comparative religion or theology, and the like is small and often crude. Yet ultimately, Mormon thought will be valuable and interesting not because of what it tells us about the threshold issues but rather what it offers us once we have gotten over the beginners questions.