Seafloor Spreading, or Why I’m Mormon

Diagram by Phyllis Newbill

Diagram by Phyllis Newbill

Let’s acknowledge that beginnings are important. This is one reason why we care so much about history.

So let’s go back to beginning. Let’s go back to the origin, to the source, to what the Greeks called the arche.

But how? Where is the origin?

There are two ways to think about this.

Consider seafloor spreading. Molten rock wells up between two plates and pushes them apart. Exposed to ocean water, the rock cools and hardens at the lip of the crack. As more molten rock wells up, the process repeats and previously cooled rims of rock get pushed out and away from the live heat, from their point of origin. The more this process repeats, the farther the earliest layers end up from their point of origin.

Now, you can think of the origin as fixed in the past such that, with each passing year, the present moment gets pushed farther and farther away from the heat and light of the source.

Or you can think of the origin as fixed in the present such that, with each passing year, the past gets pushed farther and farther away from the heat and light of the source.

That is to say, you can take the point of origin to be either (1) past tense, or (2) present tense.

Is the origin a one time event locked in the past? Or is the origin an ongoing event that causes each present moment to be live and present?

In the first case, the best we can do is archeology. Everything depends on what happened back then, a time inaccessible to us except indirectly. The thing that matters happened a long time ago to someone else and now its past and our job is to enshrine it and ride the diminishing force of its wave.

In the second case, the past can teach us tangentially about the molten moment that is the present—the original moment that is ceaselessly irrupting at our feet—but the point of origin is not something that happened back then, it’s something that’s still happening here and now. The origin that irrupted in the past and made it matter is the same origin that is irrupting now.

If this second case holds, then the past matters but it’s not decisive. The past matters, if it matters, because it registers some connection to the point of origin.

But that origin isn’t fixed in the past, it floats along with us in the present. And our fate is not determined by the past but by the present.

Here, it is decidedly not the case that my connection to the point of origin is mediated by history. It’s just the opposite.

Here, it’s the case that my relation to history is mediated by my connection to the point of origin, by the source itself as it’s irrupting here and now.

(This is not a metaphor. And if there’s something abstract here, it’s the inferred past, not the concrete present.)

People might say: if Joseph Smith saw God a long time ago, that will decide for me if I’m a Mormon.

I say: if Mormonism connects me to God, then I’ll see what is given (or withheld) for me to infer about Joseph Smith and what followed.

My relation to the raw point of origin doesn’t depend on the past. Rather, what can be made of the past depends on what my exposure to the raw point of origin, here and now, compels me to do and think.

This raw point of origin is grace.

It’s Spirit.

It’s the world pressing continually into my eyes, my hands, my heart, my mind.

And that’s why I’m Mormon—not just yesterday, but today.

45 comments for “Seafloor Spreading, or Why I’m Mormon

  1. The past isn’t going to change, though our understanding of it may change. But the spirit blows where it pleases, and we hear its sound, but cannot tell from whence it came or to where it goes. Will you still be a Mormon tomorrow?

    I don’t mean that as a wisecrack. On the contrary, I admire your approach. I’m just saying that the past can be trusted to stay put. The Spirit, not so much. What I admire about your approach is its courage.

  2. Oh, but the past can call us to action in the present. Don’t let’s forget that the past can serve as the Law, calling us back into the living present when we slip off the point of origin. This, too, is a manifestation of grace.

  3. I’m a Latter-day Saint because of the past. The God of Abraham, the God is Isaac, and the God of Jacob is still God today. So many times in his writings, Moses told the people to remember the past. The same Jesus Christ that was written about in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John put forth His hand in these latter-days and called the Prophet Joseph Smith to start the great work of the dispensation of the fullness of times. Joseph Smith was a prophet, regardless of whether or not we choose to believe. Jesus Christ did walk the earth, regardless of whether or not we choose to believe. Moses was a prophet, regardless of whether or not we choose to believe. Our dispensation is not wholly today, wholly disconnected from the past — I try to see it as one great whole, and the miracles of today we’re promised in the past.

    Yes, the Holy Spirit does testify to me today that Mormonism today is true — but for me, I cannot dismiss the past as irrelevant.

    To me, if Mormonism connects anyone to God, it also connects him or her to the past. I cannot be a complete and authentic Latter-day Saint if I reject the past.

  4. This is very lovely and I feel much the same way. But even still, and not to be flippant, but couldn’t (essentially) the same be said by Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Gnostics, Atheists…?

  5. Marsha,

    The principle is true for all believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — our God acts incrementally, always adding to the past (but never forgetting the past), here a little, and there a little. I would say in this regard that the difference between me and a Roman Catholic, for example, is that I have accepted a little more from the same God — and we’re both connected to the same past. Mormonism is not a wholly new creation.

  6. To sum up: You’re Mormon because it works for you, whether or not it’s “true” in the traditional sense – and by traditional I mean the sense that the Church itself espouses.

    I like your stuff Adam, and I bought and enjoyed “Letters to a Young Mormon”, but the problem with this kind of approach, in which the veracity of certain truth claims is of secondary importance to the lived experience, is that if I openly express my doubt about them, a certain kind of Bishop will withhold my temple recommend.

    Luckily I don’t have this kind of Bishop, but I have friends who do, which reinforces to me that institutionally, Mormonism is not ready for a more nuanced view of what defines ‘belief’.

  7. #1 says, “The past isn’t going to change, though our understanding of it may change.” But at any given moment, our understanding of the past is, functionally, the past. So if our understanding of the past changes, the past changes. More fundamentally, the meaning of the past is substantially defined by its causal resonance in the present. As the present changes, the past also changes. Most people can recognize this in their own lives. Our past changes over the course of our lives, e.g., as when experiences once loathed become treasured memories or when what was a moment of triumph becomes an embarrassment. So what actually happened in the past? That is always not yet determined. The atonement, in particular, remakes the past. The moment in which we were most full of sin may be transformed into the moment in which we awoke and became clean.

    It is foolish to accept as hegemonic a past constructed by the natural man when we can be connected to a Savior who will beneficially remake every moment of our lives if we receive him. Adam’s metaphor (which is not a metaphor) beautifully expresses this truth.

  8. Adam
    You seem to skip over some definitional work which makes it difficult for me to bring your perspective into view beyond a theory of relativity – its not clear whether you are drawing distinctions between ‘past’ and ‘history’ or conflating them; or ‘grace’ and ‘spirit’; or the ever-pressing world and ‘grace’ and ‘its spirit’. Where do these things lie, what be they?
    Is this expressed position a kind of existential determinism framed as ongoing connections in the here and now – ‘our fate is determined by the present’?

  9. #10 ” …Mormonism is not ready for a more nuanced view of what defines ‘belief’”

    Au contraire, dear sir, Adam Miller’s approach is the only one left for a church suffering both epistemic and teleologic closure. Science has no place in our system, so other explanations must be advanced.

  10. I’m LDS because of how the atonement has purified me. It happened in the past, and I’m probably due for some purification again. But since I can remember how it happened to me in the past, I have faith and hope that it will happen again in the future. That’s what keeps me around.

  11. P (13) again I think you’re misrepresenting Adam’s claim. He’s talking about what the origin is. Further it’s far, far from clear this is opposed to science. I fully embrace Adam’s claim and think he has it completely correct. It’s not at all clear this is anti-science. Rather it seems to me to be what makes science as science possible. Science, after all, isn’t just a history of what’s been done in science nor is it the sociology of scientists but rather it’s a way to arrive at knowledge. That source or origin of how we know thus is key and is what lets us understand the history or sociology of science as being more than just a listing of what humans do or have done as if it were on par with any other human behavior.

    To label this epistemic or teleological closure is to completely invert Adam’s argument. Adam’s whole point is how to avoid closure by looking to the origin where the opening happens.

    SJames (12) I think Adam’s asking what makes the historical events possible as a religious encounter. It’s that origin of the type of experience that’s important and is what informs how we are to interpret the historical events. To draw an other science analogy an understanding of chemistry transforms how we see past events and gives them a meaning different from what say ancient superstitions or worldview would tend to give them. Consider how we view pseudoscience such as alchemy. If we don’t have an understanding of the origin of the phenomena in question we’ll simply misinterpret events.

    Adam (10) I think Adam’s whole point is that it’s not about “what works for you” i.e. relativism. Rather it’s about what’s actually the origin of phenomena. As such the meaning of such events as Joseph’s vision in the forest depends upon the origin of that phenomena. It inherently matters whether it was a mere psychological delusion, a lie or a real encounter with the divine. That origin if not understood means we miss what is going on. Adam’s whole analogy with plate tectonics is about understanding the underlying phenomena which is the origin. (Adam’s going a bit deeper than that too)

  12. Clark, we are a population that has been told for almost two centuries to disregard or distrust contrary evidence. As a result, at least half of us are either depressed or crazy. Therefore, ideas/theories/proposals like Adam Miller’s elicit suspicion in some quarters, i.e., what do they want us to believe now, “they” being church authorities or their official/unofficial stand-ins. Sorry if that’s simple-minded or knee-jerk, but it’s been a long time coming. As Geo. Packer said in this morning’s New Yorker re: the ongoing Republican log-jam in the House (even though GOP actually controls both house and senate) “You can’t spend decades encouraging irrationality and ignorance, then declare a return to sanity when it’s convenient.” (Threats to Homeland Security)

  13. P (16) to start I just don’t buy in the least your premise. Second while the way Adam couches his ideas are unusual they typically are pretty mainstream ideas.

  14. Just to avoid ambiguity, the reason I think it’s mainstream is that the Church has always taught if you want answers go to the source. That’s all Adam means by origin. He’s using a rather nice analogy to make that point. But this has historically been the way the Church has used the story of the First Vision. What’s key to the story of the First Vision in an LDS context is that Joseph went to the origin in order to understand the manifestation (the scriptures).

    Again this is a long standing foundational issue. As I mentioned in the other thread there’s of course disagreement over what to do if, upon going to the source, we appear to have difference answers. However it’s quite long standing that the whole emphasis of the church is to go to the source.

  15. All of these Adam Miller posts make me ask the same question: how do you test your hypothesis? Have you actually joined another religion or at least removed yourself long enough to compare and contrast? If not, how you do you know your religion, your tribe, is not the object but the shadow?

  16. I think the concept of being born again ties neatly into Adam’s idea of origin as present tense. Each week the renewal of covenants is supposed to act as a mini-rebirth. While this idea works for one aspect of spiritual development, our human experiences (and even the doctrine of learning “line upon line”) implies that what happened in the past forms the foundation upon which spiritual progress can be made. Intelligence must at some point be housed in a spiritual body, and that spiritual body must one day be housed in a physical body. Death must occur, followed by resurrection. Even with believing that God views past, present and future as happening at the same time, spiritual progress in this life is often based on testimony of spiritual manifestations in the past. Like ji said, the Mormon experience is tied very strongly with remembering the “great things” God has done for his children in the past, proof that He is capable of fulfilling the promises made in the present. There are times when leaders advocate trusting in your own spiritual experiences rather than evidence of spiritual manifestations in the past, but not enough to override leaders advocating that testimony of past spiritual manifestions are necessary to access God’s power in the present.

  17. Adam Smith #19, mirrorrorrim on “Questions & Doubts” #62 is doing exactly that, at this pt. with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have suggested he also visit snake handlers, then return & report. Stay tuned. As far as object/shadow, all of these desperate faiths (including ours) are obviously shadow. Only that great (and greatly compromised) mother church can claim otherwise.

    Clark Goble #18, there are many “sources.” One of these might be Wightman’s The Origins of Religion in the Paleolithic (2015), another stand-in, of course, this time for science itself.

  18. P (21) I agree that a fundamental issue is discovering the source, its nature and when one is in contact with it. Atheists will of course deny there is any transcendent source beyond just encountering the world in our day to day experience. It seems fair to ask Adam about that. At some point the question of discussions of justifications enters in.

    In this case though you’re less disagreeing with Adam’s structure than his analysis of the origin itself on its own terms. Clearly I think the believing Mormon can (or at least theoretically could) deal with that discussion. I’m doing a series of posts at my blog leading up to that. I’m curious if Adam addresses this issue here.

  19. Clark #22 since it is likely, yea, even exceeding likely, that none of the miraculous events we have been taught literally happened in fact literally happened, I don’t know if Adam’s contingent de-contiguous contemporized continuum of multi-dimensionality is so much corrective as symptom. My (somewhat uneducated) guess is that a fair & thorough reading of Aldous Huxley, Carlos Castaneda and maybe Lewis Carroll will turn up constructs analogous to his. In the context of LDS faith-maintenance, that’s a good thing only if we also fling wide those doors of perception.

  20. Clark: ” I think Adam’s asking what makes the historical events possible as a religious encounter. It’s that origin of the type of experience that’s important and is what informs how we are to interpret the historical events.”

    I think that’s really well said. I’d just interject — historical events also have the power to call us to the “origin” or source. And, so, sometimes we can find ourselves pinging back and forth between the two as our perception becomes more clear.

  21. “since it is likely, yea, even exceeding likely, that none of the miraculous events we have been taught literally happened in fact literally happened”

    I disagree. I think most of the miracles we find recorded in the scriptures do actually have a basis in history (or in reality, if “history” means something for which there is a record acceptable to academics). For example, I believe there really was a Jesus, that He really was crucified, and that He really was resurrected. I believe there really was a woman with an issue of blood who was healed. I see this as real history, even though not provable by historians.

  22. I think the better analogy is that of large tree with rotten roots next to your home. You may like how the tree gives you shade in the summer and protects you from wind in the winter, but, it has rotten roots and sooner or later the nice tree is going to fall on your house and cause a lot of damage. So, the logical solution is to chop it down and put in a different tree in its place

  23. Another attempt to separate oneself from the troubling story of the church’s origins. Yes, of course, perceptions of origins change over time and across space, but the fine details of history are unalterable. Say I’m wrong, but sometimes I get the sense that this sort of rhetoric emerges because one has discovered that the origins when taken at face value are inexplicable and unjustifiable. No one is ever in too deep to make a change. Consider Jerry DeWitt.

  24. Consider also, Hugh Nibley. Interesting indeed how little we hear of this once-preeminent LDS scholar in our current history/historicity debates. He may very well have been a psychological victim of the enforced orthodox literal-ness that prevailed during his time, attempting mightily to fit the round peg of BoA into the square hole of reality.

  25. P, I think the reason you don’t hear of Nibley as much is simply because his work is dated. In fields that are under active development it’s quite common for arguments from 50+ years ago to not be quoted as much. The idea that it’s because of “enforced orthodox literalness” seems dubious in my opinion. It’s true Nibley didn’t like the small mesoAmerican context from what I could see. (He handed out a handout in my class on how far people could run over a week, for instance) I think Nibley just wrong on that. I don’t think that is an example of literalness though. If anything I think those arguing for a narrower geography are being much more literal. (Of course this merely highlights the ambiguity and unhelpfulness of the term “literal”)

    All that said, people still seem to be reading Nibley, FAIR, The Interpreter and others of that ilk. There just isn’t a single major figure as there was in the 70’s. (Which is a good thing in my book)

    Steve, why do you take every post that doesn’t deal with the topic you fixate on as evidence that they are “attempting to separate oneself” from it? Do you post equivalent quips on every post at T&S that doesn’t deal with the topic you focus on? Adam does a post on God as the origin that gives meaning and you immediately see it as trying to deflect inquiry? Would it be inappropriate were I to say you are trying to separate yourself from the story of Church’s origins in preference to a few historical events during the early days of the Church which aren’t its origins at all and pretend they are? Why the deflection? Seems to me where Adam points our concern is spot on and you don’t want people to look there.

  26. Clark #30 RE: your third paragraph, see #16 above. There IS an attempt to separate from literalist claims, that’s very obvious. I think this is generally a good thing, though I have questions regarding honesty.

    As for Nibley’s work being “dated” – please tell me where apologetics has actually advanced since Nibley. Looks to me like it’s gone backwards. Witness the warm&fuzzy history-less theories of Miller, Bokovoy, Givens, et al –

  27. P, don’t want to go down a rat hole too far afield from Adam’s post. I think the whole mesoAmerican limited geography is a huge change from Nibley. I also think John Gee’s treatment of Abraham (whether you think him wrong or not) is a reasonably big development from Nibley. I also think a lot of close readings of the text have developed since Nibley. But none of that’s really relevant here.

    I don’t see Adam attempting to separate from historical claims. (Again I find the term “literalist” singularly unhelpful due to its ambiguity) Perhaps that’s an incorrect reading of Adam. But certainly I don’t see anything in the posts he’s made that detracts from historical views of scripture. He’s just focusing on something else. If one takes any discussion not about historicity as an attempt to deflect or obscure then of course you’ll take him as doing that. But that’s just a ludicrous approach to take on topics IMO.

  28. Clark #32 first paragraph. Oh, please. Not what I’d call “progress” in any way, shape, form. Again, I see “backwards”

    However, your point para two is well-taken in that I and others here are inordinately suspicious of any discussion that seems to attempt to downplay historicity. Would that such were not so, and that we all would/could be more open to an expanded LDS metaphysic. Poisoning the well has consequences for everybody, as both orthodox scholars and so-called intellectuals know.

  29. If progress is to be taken only as it heads to your conclusions, then of course apologetics hasn’t “progressed.” (I’m not sure you can say it’s gone backwards unless you find Nibley more persuasive than the limited geography)

    As for “more open to an expanded LDS metaphysics” I’m not sure what you mean. If you mean, “it’s all fiction” then I’d consider that backwards. Certainly from a purely secular view the church wouldn’t exist terribly long were it to embrace such a view.

  30. “Metaphysic” only in the sense of a larger/deeper conception of LDS origin theories. Not the best word, sorry, though at the same time a kind of mea culpa/olive branch to a bro in the gospel-

    Unfortunately, modern apologetics hasn’t led to ANY conclusion, much less something I’d care to advance.

  31. I don’t think apologetics was ever designed to provide that sort of thing. At least in a scientific sense. At best it can show how faith and public evidence can be reconciled and the best readings that fit with the scientific data.

  32. Clark: “Steve, why do you take every post that doesn’t deal with the topic you fixate on as evidence that they are “attempting to separate oneself” from it?”

    Steve can, no doubt, defend himself. But, I just wanted to say that it seems like every post thus far from Adam has challenged the (shall we say) “historical” way of looking at historicity — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing per se. But even so, when he’s in lock-step with some of the younger, upcoming scholars on the question of historicity it’s hard not to see his posts as conveying (in some measure) the newer, softer approach to such a hugely divisive issue.

    That said, I still do enjoy Adam’s posts — wonderful food for thought.

  33. Sorry, at the moment I don’t like this metaphor. This metaphor is a rejection of the past, unless of course, it fits our preconceived models of God and religiosity, then we can conveniently declare these elements as being somehow more closely connected with the light, which light is more intimate with us at the moment than the past peoples. I partly agree with Steve Smith’s criticism, but for a completely different reason. Why have a restoration of all things if those things are just cold dead stones in our geologic past?

  34. Meanwhile, Old Man a few “cold dead stones [from] our geologic past” would be a good start. Without those the rest of this is a variation of Alice in Wonderland, isn’t it? I, too, appreciate the imaginative work of Adam M and his cohort, those hearts are in the right place, but they’ve skipped a step and as a result may have taken a wrong turn.

  35. Well, my considered answer is — BOTH, past and present, are an origin in the best and truest sense of the word. This is the depth and beauty of the truths regarding eternity and human genesis and potential as restored by Joseph Smith (described so well by Teryl Givens, “Lightning Out Of Heaven”).

    And as yearned for by R.W. Emerson at the very time (give or take or year) the Prophet learned and revealed these insights (e.g., pentecostal Kirtland Temple dedication…).

    “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an *original relation to the universe?* Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? *The sun shines today also.* There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”

    “Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith throttles the preacher; and the goodliest of institutions becomes an uncertain and inarticulate voice. It is my duty to say to you, that the need was never greater of new revelation than now. From the views I have already expressed, you will infer the sad conviction, which I share, I believe, with numbers, of the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct. On this occasion, any complaisance would be criminal, which told you, whose hope and commission it is to preach the faith of Christ, that the faith of Christ is preached. The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. ***The true Christianity — a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man — is lost.*** But it is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.”

    Prayer answered.

  36. Clark, there is a pattern of separation exhibited not only by Adam M, but by other bloggers on T&S. The focus appears to be more on perception of history and reality rather than reality itself. I have taken the time to point this out. I think this approach is creative and interesting, although I don’t fully understand all of the points made. This approach may be of some solace and enlightenment to a few intellectual LDS, but I don’t see it resolving a lot of the main concerns about Mormon origins and historicity. I find it interesting that many more doctrinaire commenters (Old Man, ji, and others with whom I don’t normally agree on matters religious) seem to be in agreement with me on the point that reality really matters in the world of Mormonism, not just perception. I can understand, and even empathize with, those like Adam M who focus on perception and symbols, I just wonder sometimes if there were an easier way to opt out of the Mormon church (emotionally, socially, logistically) if many wouldn’t take it and we may not be reading these complex and creative explanations.

  37. #42, perhaps, even, a day of Semi-Annual Conference devoted to a full, unbiased & straightforward examination of these issues. I know that seems beyond the realm of possibility, but wouldn’t it be amazing – no spin, no BS, just the best evidence & information we have, and an honest plotting of where we as a body of Saints go from here.

  38. Adam Miller does not understand how logic works. I could use the same argument for heroin being god. “I’m only happy when I use it, when I stop I feel terrible, all the people that don’t want me to use it have left me, the only people I have left understand me and help me use it. Yes, I know it will kill me, but then I will go to heaven, a devout follower of heroin. I don’t believe in heroin because I used it a long time ago, I believe in it because I used it today.”

  39. Jason, the fact Adam doesn’t address identifying the source doesn’t mean that what he does write about is somehow illogical.

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