Prophetic credentials, prophetic content (Sam’s rebuttal)

My friend Sam called me yesterday and he came right to the point. “I’ve been reading your report of our conversation last week, and I’ve also been reading some of the responses, and I think that there is some confusion that I would like to clear up.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, you remember that I took the view that even in the worst case hypothetical scenario– even if it could somehow be proven that Joseph Smith’s claims were fraudulent– there would still be good reason for people to remain faithful members of the church. The church’s teachings about God and Christ and salvation– and how to live– would still be true. The fellowship and service would still be uplifting. And so forth.”

“Yes, I remember.”

“Well, a common refrain among the commenters was that the historical claims are our basis for believing what the church teaches, so if those claims were disproven we’d no longer have any reason to put any trust in those teachings, or in the church.”

“The commenters raised a lot of different points. But I think that was one of them, yes.”

“And I think that’s a mistake. I think it reflects a fundamentally mistaken view of how and why we believe.”

“How so?”

“Here’s one way of putting the point. The picture in that objection is of a prophet– Elijah, Joseph Smith, Thomas S. Monson– who comes proffering his prophetic credentials and also a message containing some particular content. ‘I’m a prophet– here are my credentials– and I’m here to proclaim message XYZ.’ And if the credentials don’t check out, then we have no reason to believe the content of the message.”

“Okay. I hadn’t though of it that way, exactly, but I take your point. And this is a mistake because . . . why?”

“Because in reality, that just isn’t how it works. It’s not like someone shows up preaching some strange message but he flashes his prophetic credentials and the rest of us think, ‘Well, who would have thunk it?– but it appears that he’s a prophet– his credentials check out– so I guess we have to accept what he says, even though it seems pretty bizarre.’ That’s not how these things work.

“No, it’s the other way around. The contents are the credentials. We don’t believe the content because the credentials are compelling. We accept the prophetic credentials because we believe the content– because we sense that the content is true and of God.

“If the commenters would reflect, they would realize this. Aren’t people always saying (and didn’t Jesus himself say) that ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’? This is inspired counsel, and it assumes that we already or perhaps innately have some sense of what is true and good, and that we recognize God’s messengers by ascertaining that what they teach lines up with what we already understand to be true.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said. “If we already know what is true and good, why do we need the prophet anyway? All he will do is confirm what we already know. What’s the good of that?”

“I understand the objection,” Sam replied. “But it’s superficial. Think about this realistically. You have notions about what is true and good. You do.  You get these from your upbringing, your experiences, your own thinking. From reading scriptures. From prayer and inspiration. But you also know that your understanding is limited, and dim. You see through a glass darkly. Then you hear someone teaching what you already know is true, but teaching it confidently and clearly. Or maybe you were only half-conscious of the truth, and you hear it preached, and you think, ‘Ah, yes! I’ve known that all along, sort of, but I didn’t really become conscious of it till now.’ And you go on to conclude: ‘This is someone I can trust. Someone who seems to be in tune with the truth, and with God, and who can fortify and fill out what I understand but very imperfectly. This is someone I can follow with confidence.’

“Let me try to make this more concrete. I’ll use my own experience as the example. I listen to General Conference, say, and (except when I’m feeling proud or ornery going in) I think, ‘These men are teaching the Gospel– as I listen, I feel that what they are saying is true– and they’re teaching it clearly and with conviction. With authority. These are people that it would be good to follow.’

“Then I look around the world, and I see a lot of darkness, and confusion, and error. Yes, there are bright spots– other teachers who also seem to be in tune with God and the Gospel. Just for myself– don’t laugh– I’ll mention two: Billy Graham, John Paul II, and an Argentine preacher who I sometimes hear on Christian radio–”

“That’s three,” I interrupted. “You said two.”

“Sorry. You know I’ve never been good at higher math. But I learn from people like these– and I’m happy to do so. And yet, meaning no disrespect, it also seems to me that most of the Christian churches today have serious problems that can compromise or cloud their message. Sexual scandals. Doctrinal disputes. A tendency just to go along with and bless whatever worldly trends we see around us. And I don’t know of a place I can go to– an institution, I mean– and be as confident of hearing essential Gospel truths as I can with General Conference.

“So to me, the content is the credential. The content of what the church is and teaches today, I mean: I don’t have to make judgments about nineteenth century teachings about polygamy or whatever. I can remain agnostic about those matters.

“So, why isn’t this good enough? Why can’t a conviction that the church today is teaching and practicing God’s will stand on its own without having to depend on claims about what did or didn’t happen two centuries ago? Why would I think ‘You know, this church seems to be a source of living and essential Gospel truth, but the received account of how it came to be this way has some questionable elements, so I’m going to reject it’? What sense would that make?

“And, for that matter, why does anything have to depend on claims of exclusivity? I’ve already acknowledged a) that I find inspiration and Gospel truth in non-church sources (non-LDS sources) and b) that I don’t have as much confidence in other institutional sources. But suppose there is some other institution– maybe even one I don’t know about– that reliably teaches Gospel truths. So much the better: Other people are also being blessed with the Gospel.  Why should that possibility reduce the commitment I feel to this church– to a church that I happen to have found and that I’m confident is a source of truth, and a sort of embodiment of Gospel truth?”

“Well,” I responded, “you know that some people say they don’t find current church teachings attractive. They think the church is out of date on LGBT matters, or women and the priesthood, or other things. They listen to the conference talks and feel alienated, not uplifted. What you’ve just told me won’t have much appeal for them.”

“You’re right; it won’t,” Sam said. “With those people, we’d have to have a whole other kind of conversation. Although do you seriously think those people are going to be drawn into commitment by the historical claims? And in any case, you recall that this whole discussion began with you and me saying it’s sad when people who think the church is good, and who may even love it, become disaffected because of difficulties with historical claims about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and such. Those are the people and that’s the mistake I’ve been talking about.”

I had some questions I wanted to ask. Mainly, I wondered whether in focusing so much on the present church, Sam wasn’t overlooking our need to fit our beliefs into an overarching story– a story that runs backwards and forwards in time and that hangs together and makes sense to us. This need was manifest, I suspect, in the commenters’ objection that Sam was responding to. But I was already late for a class, so I told Sam I would think about what he had said, and perhaps convey it on to others who might be interested.

16 comments for “Prophetic credentials, prophetic content (Sam’s rebuttal)

  1. Interesting. I think were I diverge from Sam’s thoughts is in this need for devotion to the prophet as the goal. For me, the goal of a religious life is devotion to deity. So words like ‘loyalty,’ ‘trust,’ and ‘follow the…’ are misplaced. Those belong to God, not a fellow human-being who also ‘sees through a glass darkly.’ (Side note: that entire chapter of Cor was the foundation upon which I rebuilt my faith.)

    I see prophets as sign holders, pointing the way to where God is. And in that sense, I let go of the difficulties of history and such because I don’t need for my faith. Prophets can be humans, making all the same mistakes of biases and brain-function as the rest of us (hence history). You don’t have to be perfect to hold a sign and point. But prophets have moved from being sign-holders to also managing a religious government, and that’s where they lose me (and where loyalty, trust, following come into play).

  2. “This is someone I can trust.” There’s the crux of the problem — trust to what extent, to do or say what. E.g., I can trust some Church leaders to teach of Christ, of love and service, or even to have good intentions, while at the same time I cannot trust them to tell the truth about history or current culture (even if only because they don’t know it) or to make sensible policy decisions, or to teach principles without damaging generalizations and exaggeration The result is they are not “someone I can trust” in the absence significant qualifiers.
    It is not easy for most to parse out what to trust and what not to trust, and in any event I wonder if not trusting “in the arm of flesh” just might include the prophets — except when their words and deeds are otherwise confirmed.

  3. Interesting “conversation.” But the Church’s claim to being “true” (whatever that means) rests completely on our claim to have received authority from heaven. Unfortunately, the whole priesthood restoration story is full of holes, anachronistic accounts and terminology, and inconsistencies. It is significant, I believe, that Joseph Smith did not mention priesthood authority at all in his establishment of the Church. Indeed, the term priesthood does not even appear in the early Church documents for several months after the establishment of the Church. It appears in the Book of Mormon, but the word has a completely different meaning than it later came to acquire. Everything we do or teach in the Church today rests upon that priesthood foundation, but that foundation is anything but firm and reliable.

  4. What is the job of a prophet? To point to himself as the one to follow, or to point to Christ as the one to follow? The Mormon “prophets” have been pointing to themselves for as long as I can remember. So, exactly Sam is 100% right that we should look to the content of what the person is saying before deciding if they are truly a prophet or not. It would be wrong to look at anyone’s credentials and judge if he is a prophet or not based on that.

    But is the prophet’s character part of his credentials, or his content? If he commits fraud by claiming to have a magic rock that he can use to find buried treasure, is this part of his character something we can look at in deciding if he might be a prophet worth listening to or not? What if he cheats on his wife? What if he lies about polygamy?

    But anyway, I disagree with Sam on his conclusions. I look at what Joseph taught, and while it has some good ideas, it also has some horrible ideas. So, when he starts teaching that polygamy is/was commanded of God, we’ll, my inner sense of what is really of God says that polygamy never did come from God because it treats God’s daughters like breeding cows. Even in the Bible, the women living polygamy were unhappy about it. They had no worth as a human being, only on whether they could produce children, so they gave their husband their slaves so they could claim the children of the slaves as their own, because they owned the mother, they owned the children. Both Sarah did this as well as Leah and Racheal. They were measuring their worth as human beings by how much their womb could produce. Sam as a man can afford to be agnostic about it maybe. But as a woman, I need to know if God values me for anything but how many babies I can pop out.

    And the current men who lead the church? Do I get to look at their character as well as what they say? Do I get to look at how well they follow the teachings of Christ? Do I get to look at 100 billion dollars in the bank and starving children all over the world? Do I get to consider the science that says being gay is inborn and decide Boyd Packer doesn’t know what he is talking about when he insists it is a choice? Do I get to look at the over all package of them saying pay your tithing even if that means you can’t afford food and say that Jesus would never tell someone that. I don’t expect my “prophets” to be perfect, but I do expect them to be kind and loving. So, do I get to consider character as part of whether or not they are men of God?

  5. Wally,

    The claim that “Joseph Smith did not mention priesthood authority at all in his establishment of the Church” is a falsifiable statement. I submit that D&C 20 is largely a discussion of priesthood authority and office. If that is true than your claim is false.

  6. People who think the church is good but learn new information shouldn’t reevaluate if their thinking that the church is good is correct because they can’t be wrong or…? Makes no sense.

  7. Well-said, Anna. Much more could be expressed regarding the odiousness of BKP. Who’s idea was it anyway to call them all prophets seers & revelators? How does that work when they deliver contradictory messages?

  8. People have every reason to leave the church because they begin seeing the Book of Mormon as fictional or because of Joseph Smith’s secret polygamy and the other historical and doctrinal reasons that people commonly leave the church over. In your next conversation with Sam, ask him what he thinks Mormons are supposed to believe? It has to be more than just moralistic therapeutic deism. I was raised my whole life to root much of my identity in the historicity of the Book of Mormon and how that proved JS’s prophethood, and about every other Mormon I know was too.

  9. Brandon,
    I don’t think those are the reasons people leave. I guess we know large numbers of people who work through those issues and stay. We know others who don’t deal with those issues at all and leave. It is complicated….

  10. Yes to what Anna said. Sam says, “With those people, we’d have to have a whole other kind of conversation.” What does that conversation look like? If members of the church in the past couldn’t trust the content of leaders (polygamy, slavery, temple rites as literal restoration of ancient practices, etc.) as having good fruits or being from God, then why trust what leaders say now about these topics?

    What leaders said then and say now is a mixed bag. There are wonderful gospel truths from God, and doctrines of men mingled with scripture. So is it just a balancing act where you trust the leaders’ or the church’s credentials because a lot of their message is good? But then why fully participate as a member if a decent amount of what they say isn’t from God? What is the motivation for full commitment to an institution with “ok” credentials?

  11. Once again, Steven Smith and his friend Sam ask big questions. Good post, and good comments. My thoughts:

    Anna asks, but is the prophet’s character part of his credentials, or the content (of his message)? My answer is, not trying to be flippant, yes. I don’t think the two can be separated. I am disinclined to accept Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of 1980s notoriety as God’s spokesman, because they were such obvious money-scamming fraudsters. I am disinclined to accept any religious messenger who advocates violence against non-believers.

    Armand Mauss is a Mormon intellectual who did a lot of pioneering research on the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood, back when such research was difficult. He wrote a book, “A Tattered Passport and Shifting Borders,” describing how he balanced his faith and upsetting information about the Church. He made the point that he was never too disappointed in Church leaders, because he had learned on not to expect very much of them, as persons. Good advice. A man can be sent from God AND a personal disappointment.

    In the comment threads on W&T and T&S, I often sense a level of personal disappointment that sometimes spills over into anger, as people learn that Church leaders and history have feet of clay. There is a Mormon culture that practically deifies its leaders. Why can’t we just accept them as men of God (minus the occasional wolf) with feet of clay, who are trying their fallible best? Not just the nice ones, but also the obnoxious ones.

    I am fortunate that I have been able to keep my faith, even after processing a lot of information about church leaders that is upsetting. I do not claim credit for that; God blesses me with a personality that defaults to seeing the glass as half full, rather than half empty.

    1Cor. 12:7-11 deals with the gifts of the Spirit, and makes clear that faith is ONE of those gifts, existing alongside several others. DC 88:118 acknowledges that not everyone has faith. We are therefore to seek diligently, teach words of wisdom, seek learning by study and by faith. Not everyone is blessed with faith. This is not condemning to us.

    The scriptures also teach us that we cannot approach God, unless he first draws us to him.

    The bottom line for me is that God loves us, and has deliberately placed us in a messy world short of ideal situations and easy answers —specifically with questions of Church history. He will still accept us, and our fallible efforts. I do not think He uses doctrinal purity tests to judge us. He will gladly accept all but the most stubbornly unwilling. Mormonism is close to Universalism in many ways.

    One last thought: 67 years old, and I have learned the hard way to be distrustful of surfaces that are too smooth and situations that are too neatly packaged. I am more inclined to accept scarred surfaces and situations with some messiness. I think this applies toMormonism.

  12. Where does the Holy Ghost fit in with all of this thinking about “notions about what is true and good”? Aren’t we supposed to be able to know (not simply believe) the truth of all things by the power of the Holy Ghost?

    Of course, it’s strictly a rhetorical question on my part. It seems to me that if A) there really is a Holy Ghost to listen to and B) the members are actually listening. things in the Church would be a bit different; for starters, I strongly doubt that Trump would gain a 52% approval rate among the American membership. At any rate, I’ve come to the conclusion that A is false, so there’s no B to even have to consider. We all love when someone comes along saying they have the answers and that only they can fix it (which kind of puts Joseph and Donald in the same boat), but my skepticism knob has been dialed all the way up to 11 for a while now, and it’s probably become a permanent way of viewing the world for me.

  13. ““Because in reality, that just isn’t how it works. It’s not like someone shows up preaching some strange message but he flashes his prophetic credentials and the rest of us think, ‘Well, who would have thunk it?– but it appears that he’s a prophet– his credentials check out– so I guess we have to accept what he says, even though it seems pretty bizarre.’ That’s not how these things work.

    “No, it’s the other way around. The contents are the credentials. We don’t believe the content because the credentials are compelling. We accept the prophetic credentials because we believe the content– because we sense that the content is true and of God.”

    Actually, for many believing LDS’s, that just IS how it works. Very current case in point: in the last week or so, two significant events have taken place which concern the Church and the gay community. In one, the entire paragraph concerning homosexual activity was removed from the BYU Honor Code. In the other, the new handbook of the Church contains guidelines in relationship to transsexuals ( I must confess that I’ve read every article I can find on the second one and I’m still a bit confused, but it does seem to be expanding the things that transsexuals can do within the Church, and possibly the temple). Anyway, while some are applauding the actions as a more open approach to the gay community, other life-time members are confused and feel that this contradicts pretty much what prophets, seers, and revelators have taught for the last 50 years.

    But no one around me, among my “active” friends, is saying anything negatively about this publicly. Why? Because of the credentials of the man who said it. In other words, we DO accept the content because the credentials are compelling. We are taught constantly to follow the living prophet, and even though our favorite prophet of all time may be named Hinckley or Monson or Kimball, and they never taught the things that are now in the handbook and they supported the things removed from the honor code, it don’t matter none. Those gentlemen no longer hold the credentials. A gentleman named Nelson does.

  14. Thanks for the comments, and apologies for having been so unresponsive. My excuse is that the dog ate my . . . I mean, my laptop was in the shop, so I wasn’t able to post anything.

    Probably the trail has gone cold by now, so I’ll just say a few things. The challenge, as Sam and I understand it, is that the church’s historical account of itself has been subjected to powerful challenges. How to respond? The possibility Sam is exploring suggests that we might hold onto our present perceptions/understandings of what is true and good while detaching those perceptions/understandings from (and perhaps remaining open-minded or agnostic about) some of the historical claims. Some members (like Sam) already do that self-consciously, I think; many more do it instinctively. If the historical questions arise (and I myself don’t bring them up with members who aren’t already aware and concerned), people are likely to say, “I don’t worry about that. The church is a really good life for me.” Or something to that effect.

    Some of the comments basically just assert that the truth of the present teachings depends on the historical claims. That might be right, but this is precisely the position that Sam began with and attempted to respond to. I don’t see how merely reasserting the necessary dependence is to engage with his position.

    One comment argues that it would be irrational to disregard new information. But Sam never said we should disregard new information. He just said that the truth of the present teachings is not dependent on the historical claims. Nothing in that position means that he would not consider new information relevant to the present church and its essential claims. For example, if there were evidence of Renaissance pope-like debauchery, or something of that sort . . . . But among all the criticisms of the present church, I don’t recall ever hearing that sort of accusation. For some people, the 100 billion dollars may fall into this category, though. etc.

    A couple of comments expressed concerns about prophet worship, or blind obedience. Sam would also find those things objectionable (and so would I). But I think Sam’s position has built-in protections with regard to those concerns. In Sam’s view, he already has an at least inchoate or imperfect understanding of the truth, which has led him to embrace the basic Christian message; and he develops a commitment to following an institution– the church– because it seems to teach more clearly and helpfully and authoritatively what he already believes to be true. So he doesn’t have any commitment to “follow the prophet” for his/its own sake (whatever that might mean); he is committed to the church only because he has concluded that the church is a reliable source of truth and a conduit for the Christian Gospel. On this premise, if the church came to deviate from his understanding of the truth in any significant way, he would no longer have reason to put his trust in the church. So he isn’t advocating any sort of “blind obedience” of the kind that a few hard-liners may favor and that in any case critics like to caricature.

    In the end, I have doubts about the viability of Sam’s position. But among the possible responses to historical challenges, I think it may be preferable to some of the alternatives.

    Of course, if you don’t find the church’s teachings and life attractive anyway, or if you don’t have a sense that God is at work in the church, you presumably won’t have much motivation to engage in these efforts in the first place. But if you do think God is at work in the church (as Sam and I do), then you have reason to think about how to reconcile what you are convinced is true and good with challenges to the received account. That’s what Sam is trying to do.

  15. What Sam is saying is that “if the church is good, who cares if it is true.” With “good” meaning “ relevant in your life and leading you closer to God” and “true” meaning based in reality, on history that happened.”

    I started from an opposite position, that “if the church is not good, who cares if it is true.” But I decided that you can’t separate the two. From your perspective If it is based on lies that Joseph Smith told, about the first vision, about having gold plates, about translating instead of making up, then it will point to falsehoods and teach lies about who and what God is. From my perspective, if it was making me hate God, then I have to assume that it is not based on revelation that comes from a God of love. I just don’t see how you think factual reality can be separated from what is really good for you. If a scientist bases his finding about a new medicine on falsified experiments, are you going to trust that his medicine will cure you? How is religion different?

  16. Good points by Anna.

    I hope sometime Sam does address the people who don’t find current teachings attractive. He may be right that some of those people wouldn’t be drawn in by historical claims, but oddly enough there are a lot of LGBT folks, feminists, etc. out there who have very strong testimonies of Joseph Smith and the restoration, and the Book of Mormon, and that’s part of what’s so difficult for them.

    As for me (since I raised that issue in comments on the earlier post), I suppose I stay because I still view church as an important way to connect with God and others, and to serve and sacrifice. It is also an important part of my family heritage (although I do not feel family or social
    pressure to stay, as many might). I actually have a lot of reasons to stay and generally enjoy and even cherish my participation and membership (although more at a local level—I’m definitely in the camp that feels alienated, angry, or frankly bored during general conference).

    I think for me the question is not so much whether to stay but *how* to stay. How to continue to engage and participate in a church community while still maintaining integrity to what I believe to be right when that can be somewhat or very much at odds with what many people around me in the pews believe, and when the church demands a lot of institutional loyalty that I think is somewhat undeserved and dangerous. I think a lot of people like me would like to stay but have a very hard time negotiating their participation when they don’t fit the mold and so ultimately disengage and leave.

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