Autobiographical Notes on My Testimony
by Daniel C. Peterson
Some of you may know there was a cartoon done of me in Sunstone recently, a very flattering article about me. “Dannibel Lecter” right? (Laughter) I contacted Dan Wotherspoon about that; I wanted to know if I could get the original for framing. This will probably have to take the place because he told me Sunstone didn’t own the rights so I’d have to buy it from the artist and I’m not sure I like it that much.
What I thought I’d do today, and it strikes me as in some ways an awfully brittle and shallow thing to do after this last presentation which I regard as really in many ways very, very moving, is to offer–and I always have doubts about what I’m about to do when I start to do it–but I thought I’d offer a kind of what might come across as a kind of intellectual historical testimony. A kind of autobiography, a kind of overview of FARMS with which I’ve been involved for quite a long time, and just make some observations along the way in a kind of narrative fashion.
And you can see this as a kind of testimony. A testimony of someone who has been involved on a kind of intellectual and academic level with Mormonism for quite some time and who still finds it incredibly interesting, stimulating and even liberating and exhilarating.
I was born and raised in southern California. I was raised in a part-member family; my father was a non-member and my mother a partially active member. I can remember that my first serious thoughts about religious topics were essentially agnostic. I did not see anything particularly convincing about the Church that I was occasionally taken to–the LDS Church–or any other. It didn’t strike me as very interesting. In fact, what I can mostly remember about Church was that it seemed to me a virtually interminable series of incredibly boring meetings which is not an attitude I’ve changed altogether! (Laughter) And I realize that may be a reflection on my spiritual state, but nonetheless that’s there and that’s the fact.
I was kind of, maybe an exhibitionistically precocious kid at some points. I can remember reading Dante, and Bertrand Russell, and Nietzsche and so on at very young ages–probably not understanding much.
My father owned a construction business. I grew up in a pretty working-class family and so I made a point of reading Karl Marx at lunchtime–it seemed the thing to do. (Laughter) I mean I was a member of the working class, why not read Marx? It was interesting to me that none of the people around me found it even slightly interesting. The real working class didn’t seem to care about Karl Marx. They were all busy planning their weekend adventures in their campers and motor homes.
But I can remember, too, feeling at a very young age a kind of inchoate yearning for something a little better than what I could sense in the world around me; and this maybe is at the base of my eventual interest in the gospel even despite what I saw as the obstacle of the Church in those days. And it expressed itself to me in a number of ways. For one thing, there were certain landscapes that seemed to me just to point to something beyond themselves. It’s hard to explain what this is like, maybe some of you have sensed it, there are certain landscapes that really speak to me.
I just came back last week from a trip to Europe. I’ve been traveling an awful lot the last three months and if I fall asleep up here I apologize. I’ve been more out of the country than in and I’m not sure what time zone I’m in right now.
But for me one of the places that I spent time in, deliberately spent time in, is an area called the Berner Oberland in the Swiss Alps–that’s where I served my mission and I still regard it as the most beautiful place on the face of the earth. I mean this landscape to me is just unbelievably beautiful.
Nevertheless there’s something about it that doesn’t satisfy. It sort of like Thomas Henry Huxley who, after a performance of Hamlet, is supposed to have said, ‘That was an absolutely brilliant performance,’ but then the next thought was, ‘but is that really all there is?’ That somehow even something as good as that didn’t quite satisfy.
And to me, these landscapes, I could name some others, there’s a place in the Italian Alps that really gets me, the Canadian Rockies. For me it’s mountains–alpine scenery. There’s a sense in which I think, ‘gee, I would like to possess them in a way that simply owning them would never do.’ That is there’s something–I realize I’m just a “passer through” and that there’s some place–C.S. Lewis talked about it as the yearning for pure “Northerness” (have you ever read his autobiography Surprised by Joy?) where he said there were certain landscapes, for him they were evoked by the music of Wagner. Wagner can do that to me too (even though I realize he was a swine and a sort of proto-Nazi). Occasionally his music, or, there’s one chord in Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that just seemed to me to suggest something beyond themselves, something that you want to get to.
And to me, as for C.S. Lewis, what this is really talking about is a yearning that can’t be satisfied by anything in this life. That the best things in this life, the best art; the best music; the best landscapes; the most beautiful places; don’t quite do it–that we were created for something else.
A great line from St. Augustine, opening passage of his Confessions where he says, “Our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee,” addressing God. And I think that’s absolutely right. That certainly has been true for me. That there’s nothing in this world that quite satisfies.
I’ve been bothered by an acute sense of transience since I can remember. I look at flowers and I find them more depressing than anything else because I know they won’t last. I spend a lot of my career looking at crumbling documents and the ruins of buildings and can’t help but think that the people who built them and who thought they were so wonderful have been gone for a long, long time; and it’s as if, almost, they had never lived. That sense that we pass and that we’re not really at home here. To borrow the clichÈ’d old line from the sort of country spiritual, “We’re pilgrims and strangers” is really, acutely true for me.
I can remember, too, staying home once from high school–I did this on a regular basis, I was very ingenious at excuses. I can’t remember whether this was a legitimate absence or not, probably not (law of averages). And I was reading a book that we’d inherited from my grandmother called Added Upon by Nephi Anderson. Some of you may be familiar with this. I do not believe I could read it now but nevertheless at that time I picked it up and I read it; it was a product of the home literature movement in the Church around the opening of the twentieth century and it’s an account of the Plan of Salvation, basically. I had somehow never heard the Plan of Salvation in Church meetings. They must’ve explained it but it had not spoken to me.
Suddenly I saw it here, the idea of pre-existence–going through this life as a test, the spirit world, exaltation in the life to come–all these sorts of things seemed to me unbelievably powerful and I remember thinking why hadn’t anybody ever told me about this? That seemed to me and still seems to me the most powerful vision of human destiny that I can imagine; more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen.
I had experiences at that time, and they’ve continued from time to time, where I caught just glimpses, I think–what Latter-day Saints would refer to as spiritual witness–of things to come. Little glimpses into, to me, into the spirit world. Little, you know, significant dreams. I remember a really powerful dream about the death of Joseph Smith. I woke up oppressed. Just really, really depressed and oppressed as if I had been there–not at the death but at the funeral. I went to school that morning and found out that David O. McKay had just died, and I don’t know if it was sheer chance or not. I don’t think so; it didn’t feel like it to me. And that, to me, was a kind of testimony that David O. McKay was in fact the successor to Joseph Smith. You can take that for what it’s worth.
I understand atheism. I think I was one probably for a while; certainly an agnostic. I’ve never understood the joy that some people claim to feel at atheism.
During this most recent trip to Europe, we spent the better part of the day at the Concentration Camp called Mauthausen just on the Danube not too far from Linz in Austria. It was a Concentration Camp that my father was involved in the liberation of at the end of World War II as part of Patton’s Third Army, and I’ve gone there several times. This was the first time since my father’s passing and it was kind of a pilgrimage for me. And every time I go there I find it incredibly moving. That, first of all, that human beings could build a hell in such a beautiful landscape is just unfathomable to me. But then the other thing to me is I cannot understand why someone would find it liberating to know, or to believe, that this life is all there is and that therefore the people who ran that camp got to write the last act of the lives of those they killed there. Well over 100,000 people were tortured to death in that camp.
Or, to put it more close to home right now, that Mark Hacking got to write the last act of the life of Lori Hacking. This does not seem to be good news to me.
And yet I meet people from time to time who tell me it’s wonderful, it’s good to know that there is no truth to religion; that there is no life to come. I find this unfathomable.
I had a patriarchal blessing when I was in high school from a patriarch whom I’d never met, never had any contact with him thereafter. I was about 15 or 16. And my motives for going to him for a blessing were not good. I have to admit looking back on it now I had thought that patriarchal blessings were given in the temple and I thought it would be really neat to get in! (Laughter) So I applied for a patriarchal blessing and then I found out he was giving it at the chapel in Alhambra, what a boring–I mean, I’d been there dozens of times. That wasn’t interesting to me.
But the patriarchal blessing was fascinating and I’ve gone back to it many times and have been struck by how much he knew about what would subsequently happen in my life and one of the things he talked about was a desire to stand up and defend the Church which I wasn’t conscious of at the age of 15, I wasn’t even interested in it. And yet it’s turned out to be true, but that’s not a motivating force for me. That simply seems to me to be right. And my patriarchal blessing, I can’t speak to everybody’s, but it has seemed to me a genuinely prophetic document from a man that I didn’t know and who didn’t know me; a remarkable thing.
Well, I wasn’t interested in going to BYU. I applied to BYU, got in. I really wanted to go to Cal Tech, which was not far from where I grew up. Let me tell you a little story that happened to me.
A man came out to interview me from Cal Tech, from the mathematics faculty there, and unfortunately the day he came to interview me I had just been thrown out of my physics class. It was an unfortunate experience–the teacher was showing a film about physics and anyway we were playing Frisbee with tortillas while the film was going and he stood up at the wrong time and I hit him in the head. (Laughter)
So when the man came to interview me, I was to be called out of my physics class, but I was actually sitting in the principal’s office, which was embarrassing because I was also student body president. It was not a good day.
The interview went really well, I thought, until a certain point when he said (and I guess I must’ve written this on my application), he said, ‘Well I see that you’re–what is this? Secretary of your priest’s quorum? What is that?’
Well I started explaining what it was and then he got into the issue of what we just talked about–the question of blacks and the priesthood. And this was somewhat before the revelation of 1978. And he wanted to know how I could explain this. It sounded awfully racist to him. And I was thinking, well not only does it sound awfully racist but I’m toast! This is not what I want to talk about in my application interview for Cal Tech.
And he asked really awkward questions and I struggled and struggled and struggled; and then at the end of it he said, ‘Well, you did reasonably well. My name is Peter Crowley,’ I mean I already knew that, ‘I’m in the mathematics department at Cal Tech and I’m the advisor to the priest’s quorum in the South Pasadena Ward!’ (Laughter) I’ve never forgiven him for that; it was absolute cruelty.
I don’t know whose decision it was, whether it had something to do with that or not, but I did not get into Cal Tech, which was good because I really would’ve hated it because it turned out I didn’t want to be a mathematician or a cosmologist; I wanted to be something else. So I decided to go to BYU.
And, I started off as a mathematics’ major, soon discovered that while I admired mathematicians I didn’t want to be one. In the meantime I had enrolled in a Greek history class. I loved that, absolutely loved it, so I switched over and majored in Greek. Came under the spell of Nibley of course.
I’d been reading Nibley for some years and for most–many of us involved in FARMS–Nibley is the guy who’s responsible for that. I mean, at some point or another we came under his spell and I’d have to say that ever since then I’ve been looking at his work and trying to do some of my own. I realize that Nibley is capable of error; he is not inerrant. This or that point will be wrong, many points will be wrong. A lot of the substance will be wrong. But I’m convinced that the pattern and the general approach are precisely right. I’ve just been fascinated in trying to carry on with some of the work that Nibley began.
I found BYU fascinating. It was a smorgasbord. I nearly, well, my principle was to sign up for a class and then immediately lose interest in the topic of the class because there were so many other things, so I spent time going to every lecture but the ones I was enrolled in; going to every seminar; attending every play; every lecture; reading all the books except the ones I needed to read. So it was a kind of a checkered undergraduate career. A’s and, well, I specialized in “vowels.” (Laughter)
Fortunately I was saved from myself by being called on a mission to Switzerland, which was a fascinating experience for me. I learned quite a few things in Switzerland. I became sort of an expert on dealing with critics. I don’t know why. Got drafted into all sorts of situations.
One experience, in particular; I remember tracting out a woman in Beatenberg, just above the Thunersee, Lake Thun, in Switzerland. A beautiful place up on a mountainside there and there’s a Protestant Bible home there, an evangelical biblical college there. Tracted this woman and the woman said, ‘My husband isn’t home yet but he should be home in about five minutes and then he’ll tell you where you’re wrong.’
I thought, ‘Oh this sounds interesting. Let’s stay around.’
Well he came in and he sat us at a big seminar table in his home and he brought out a stack of books, including Greek lexicons and all this sort of thing, and then he looked at us and sort of smirked and laughed, and said, ‘Well, you don’t know Greek do you? Ha-ha-ha!’ You know, going to nail these ignorant Mormon missionaries.
Well, I had by then transferred to a Greek major and so I pulled my little Greek New Testament out of my pocket which I just happened to have with me and I said, ‘Well it’s my specialty at the university.’
And I wish that I had had a camera because the smile faded from his face, he never brought up the Greek lexicons, no manner of Greek ever came up. Now he probably could’ve killed me because I’d only had, I think, first year Greek at that point. He probably was a lot better than I was but the thing was he didn’t know that he could kill me and that was what it was all about. It was about intimidation and bluffing. And I bluffed back (feeling quite nervous) and he folded.
Well I’ve learned since then that bluffing is a great deal of anti-Mormonism. People claiming to know things they don’t know, people trying to intimidate the yokel Mormons and sometimes you just have to stand up to them.
It was in Switzerland that I met some notable people; Stephen Ricks and I were missionary companions for example. We didn’t do a lot of useful missionary work I think; of course, I’m not sure whether in Switzerland that was even an option. (Laughter) But I remember some mornings getting up and knocking on a door and then we’d get into a conversation and it would be twenty minutes before we knocked on the next door. And then maybe there would be another door that morning. Meanwhile, we were having a fascinating conversation about this or that work of Nibley or ancient Egyptian temple ritual or something like that, and a friendship began with that that has gone on and on for a long time, so that for me coming to the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at BYU and coming to FARMS was sort of like a perpetual missionary reunion.
We now have working with us, for example, our Director of Development, Ed Snow, who’s sitting on the back row back there who was also a missionary in Switzerland–so it’s like old home week. A lot of fun there.
I came back, graduated from BYU in Greek and decided I wanted to do something else. I had become very interested in Arabic and so I decided that I wanted to go over to the Middle East and study.
I applied to the American University in Cairo. I should’ve learned a lot about Egypt from the way this worked out. I applied to them, they didn’t respond. The deadline passed for my going over. I kept writing to them and saying, ‘Please, let me know if I’ve been accepted.’ No response.
I finally remember writing them a letter and saying, ‘If you’ve turned me down, I can handle it. Just tell me one way or the other.’ Well they never responded and finally I joined up with the BYU Semester Abroad program with Kent Brown, went over, worked out my own special sort of graduate program. We went to Egypt, I dropped in at the Admissions Office at the university there and they said, ‘Oh yeah, we accepted you. Here’s your letter.’ And it was dated that morning, they had written it out because I had called and said I was coming. (Laughter) And, it was accepting me to a term that had begun two months previously. Well this is very nice, thank you, great.
So I spent time in Jerusalem and in Jerusalem that was another great experience. I remember I was teaching the gospel doctrine class there in Jerusalem and, some of you know this story, when I was in high school lots of people did wholesome activities–I spent a lot of time studying guerilla warfare. I was very interested in guerilla warfare theory.
I read Che Guevara, and Mao Tse-tung, and Vo Nguyen Giap, and all the great Marxists theorists of guerilla warfare, and I didn’t really know why; I just found it really interesting. I told somebody this story that it later got me in trouble at BYU because I was involved in the Honors Program and they used to have us fill out an “Individual Curriculum Planning Form” where we had to tell what courses we were taking, what our career goal was and how the courses were preparing us for that. I hated filling out the forms; I’ve always had sort of an anarchistic streak in me–I’m something of a Libertarian. So I tended not to turn those in and that tended to make them angry, and so finally they were really on me once and I turned one in, I think it was not long after Patty Hearst had been arrested after her involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army (some of you will remember that). She had given her career as “urban guerilla.”
Well I thought, ‘Now that’s a good job description.’ (Laughter) So, I turned in my form and said that my career goal was to become an urban guerilla and then I made up a list of courses that I was taking: ROTC courses, civil engineering bridge-design courses and things like that, and sent it in. And I discovered that the administration of the Honors Program at the time was severely humor impaired because I spent the better part of the next couple of weeks having interviews with various dignitaries at BYU. This was only the first of at least two times that that’s happened–the subsequent time as a faculty member, but I won’t get into that one. That’s when I first met Elder Holland. (Laughter)
But in Jerusalem it came in handy because I was teaching gospel doctrine there and we were getting to the section at the end of Helaman and the beginning of 3 Nephi where the Gadianton robbers are very active and it suddenly dawned on me that what you had in the case of the Gadianton robbers was an absolute textbook, by the book, example of guerilla warfare theory in practice both in their successes and in their failures. So this was the genesis of an article that I later put together on the Gadianton robbers as guerilla warriors which I still think is pretty good, actually. I think there’s a lot more going on there than we have normally seen and that it’s quite foreign to Joseph Smith’s own military ideas–which seemed to have involved dressing up and parading in front of the Nauvoo Legion on his horse, Charlie, and all of the romanticism that went along with, you know, growing up shortly after the Revolutionary War with fife and drum. There’s none of that in the Book of Mormon, it’s grim, realistic, un-heroic, un-romantic, un-chivalrous warfare in the Book of Mormon; quite unlike Joseph Smith’s possibly romantic notions.
Okay, came back, got married, dragged my wife off to Egypt–it seemed like a good way to test the waters, either the marriage would work or it wouldn’t, right? I learned later that she thought she was going to be going over and actually pounding out our laundry on rocks by the Nile, so there’s a certain heroism in her willingness to go.
But just before we left for Egypt, I remember we were at my brother’s house and we had missed his ward meeting and I decided to look up and see what other meetings were available for us to go to on a Sunday. I looked up in the directory and there was an entry for the Church of Jesus Christ of Ex-Latter-day Saints. I thought, ‘Now that’s interesting. I’ll give them a call.’ So they had a little message thing where you could leave a message on a recording and I did, expressing my opinion, by the way, of the way they’d listed themselves in the phone book. And that led to an interesting correspondence but it also led–it was maybe the first really clear illustration I’d had of the willingness of some anti-Mormons to, in my opinion, deceive; to package their materials in such a way as to seduce the unwary. I’ve seen plenty of illustrations since.
I should say that I’d already seen an illustration, too, of how bad some of them can be, on my mission. I had the occasion of visiting with the man who was by all accounts the ‘grand guru’ of anti-Mormons in Switzerland (whom I will not name, he’s departed, I learned during this last trip) but I had occasion to actually visit him in his home–the mission president being out of the country. A letter came to mission headquarters and I, being sort of free, decided that we would go out and visit him and I was amazed at how little he knew. This was the man who appeared on television, who appeared on the radio, who wrote articles about us in the newspapers–he had not even read Jesus the Christ, and yet he was the “great academic expert.” You learn a lot of things from those encounters.
We went off to Cairo. Now this has been the genesis of my real career–being involved with Islamic studies. There are a number of things that I could say about that, but let me just say this; there are a couple of things that I formulated while I was there. First of all, it is important to me in understanding other religions and expecting other people to approach mine the same way–that people put their best effort into really understanding what they’re looking at rather than forming judgments prior to understanding.
And I had an experience there that sort of brought this home to me. An Egyptian friend of mine, very articulate, well educated young fellow, a chemistry master’s student, took me off to visit one of his professors at the University of Cairo. We got to talking about religion, of course. The fellow wanted to know was I a Muslim? And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Why not?’ which always struck me as a rather awkward question in Egypt, and I decided to be affirmative about it and say, ‘Well I’m a Christian. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He atoned for our sins.’
He said, ‘How can you possibly believe anything so stupid as that?’ He said, ‘How can you possibly believe that God has a son? Anybody with any brain in his head knows that God doesn’t have a son, first of all. Secondly, anybody with a brain in his head would know that God would never have to send His son to earth to buy Himself off and torture His son to death.’
And I said, ‘Well you know, put that way it doesn’t sound very rational.’ But that is in fact, somewhat, what I believe. That’s pretty much what I believe. The lesson I drew from that is simply this: that, first of all, it’s possible to caricature any other belief, even one that’s pretty serious and has a lot of merit to it, and make it look stupid.
The other thing is simply this, that there have been thousands and hundreds of thousands of brilliant people in the history of Christendom–Thomas Aquinas, Kirkegaard, people like that–who believe just about that; and so it seems to me if you can’t understand why intelligent people, spiritually sensitive, serious people, believe in something that clearly they did believe in, then the problem is with you more than it is with them. You haven’t ‘got it.’ You haven’t made a serious effort to try to understand why they would find that meaningful.
And, I’ve been really fond since then, learning of Krister Stendahl’s three points about understanding other religions; some of you have heard me talk about this before I think. Stendahl–this was a case where the Stockholm Temple was being constructed and there was some opposition as there often is to the building of the temple, there in Stockholm. And so Krister Stendahl, who was the former dean of the Harvard Divinity School but was at the time the Bishop of Stockholm, offered to come and speak and give a press conference and he asked if he could do it at the LDS stake center adjacent to the temple grounds.
Now I think a lot of people must have assumed that being Bishop of Stockholm, a Lutheran Bishop, he would come and denounce the temple although the choice of the stake center as a venue to do that was probably a little odd and disconcerting.
Well, when he got there, first of all he endorsed the building of the temple, he has lots of LDS friends and was more than willing to do this. But then he laid out three principles for dealing with other religions, which I found very instructive, and I may have even tried them on you here before. If so, I apologize, but they’re really worth repeating. They’re pretty obvious on one level and not so obvious on another.
The first principle was, if you want to learn about a religious faith, don’t go to its enemies, go to its adherents. Now that seems obvious to me but a lot of people violate that on a regular basis.
The second one was if you’re going to compare your faith to somebody else’s faith, don’t compare your best with their worst. It’s not fair to say for example, ‘Well we Christians have Mother Teresa and you have Osama bin Laden.’ That’s not quite fair. (Laughter) They have their Mother Teresa’s and we have our Osama’s. Every religion has bad people and every religion has good people and you should try to compare best with best.
The third one, the one that I find most interesting, is he says, ‘always leave room for what he called holy envy.‘ What he meant by that was you should always be willing to look at another religious faith and say, ‘What is it that they do really well? That they have that I really admire and that I would love to see incorporated into my own religious faith, practice or belief?’ And if you do that then interreligious dialogue becomes not so much a matter of being politically correct or being polite or preening yourself on how very tolerant you are. It becomes an occasion for learning and for growing from learning from other people. And I think that’s an extraordinarily valuable lesson to learn.
While I was in Cairo I discovered that, maybe what I’d not realized so fully before, that Mormonism was an extremely useful lens through which to view other religious traditions and through which to formulate questions.
I had the occasion, during a class with probably one of the most remarkable academic curmudgeons I’ve ever known, there was a professor there at the American University in Cairo, to write a paper on the akhi and futuwwa movement in medieval Islam. I won’t go into a long explanation of this, they’re kind of related to the labor guilds that grew up in later Islam. But they originated as religious mystical movements, Sufi movements really, and they had interesting rituals involving clothing–and, well I won’t get into all that, but they were very interesting for a number of reasons. They have temple aspects to me and they have guerilla warfare aspects. One group, who were devout mystics, also called themselves ‘robbers’ and they would hide up in the mountains and launch raids down on dissident groups and things like that–it was just really interesting on a lot of levels.
I wrote a paper on this and this curmudgeonly professor loved it but he wanted to know why I had devoted so much time and energy to what he regarded as the biggest non-subject in the history of Islam. I couldn’t tell him that I was already busy grinding my Islamicist/apologist axe and the things that really interested me about them were that they seemed so parallel to things that I could see in the Book of Mormon or in ancient history as I viewed it as a Latter-day Saint. That led eventually to some of the research I’ve done on, well, not only the Gadianton robbers but some unpublished things that relate to that topic that I hope to get to eventually.
It was also in Cairo that I met Bill Hamblin, for better or for worse, we’ve led each other on a continuing spiral downward ever since. (Laughter)
Came back to the United States and began graduate study at the University of California at Los Angeles. I had always been trained up till then in Sunni places, regarded Iran as the world’s largest open-air lunatic asylum, Shiites as basically insane; so it was only right that my advisor in graduate school be a Shiite. And so then I did my dissertation on a Shiite topic and not only Shiites but the weirdest of the Shiite’s groups, the Ismaili Shiites, who gave us the very word assassin–just a lovely group in so many ways. (Laughter)
That was an eye-opening experience for me. I had good friends in graduate school, some of you will laugh; one of my best friends with whom I had endless very inspirational gospel discussions, a fellow by the name of Todd Compton, was working on a degree in classics at the time. Terry Zinck was there working in Ebla Studies, still has some great things to publish on that.
While I was there I thought at one point, and this is relevant, there actually will be some substance to this talk I’m leading up to it, don’t worry. Or maybe I’ll run out of time and I can use it for next year, I’ll have a topic! (Laughter)
But I decided in one course that I wanted to do something on the Qur’an, I wanted to look at one particular passage in the Qur’an. You may remember, some of you, that Hugh Nibley wrote an article and published it in Revue de Qumran a number of years ago called “Qumran and the Companions of the Cave.” And I thought, well, okay, Islamic studies and Arabic was just a sideline for Nibley. I’ve heard for a long time (and so have you probably) that Nibley’s work really isn’t that good. That if you checked the footnotes it doesn’t hold up, you know. He wasn’t that good a scholar, he’s sloppy, and he’s careless, and you can’t trust him, and he’s just a dishonest Mormon apologist. So I thought (you know, which now I am) (Laughter). So, anyway…
But it seemed to me a good opportunity to look at that passage. There’s a passage in one of the Surahs of the Qur’an, one of the chapters, that talks about the Companions of the Cave and Nibley argued that this was a garbled recollection of the Dead Sea Scrolls community and he had cited a number of Arabic sources.
I thought it would be child’s play for an Arabist to check out Nibley’s footnotes and then expand beyond them to see if his argument really held up. Well, what really struck me about it was, when I started getting into the article, how many Arabic sources he had looked at; how much work he had done and how precisely right it was.
Now I can only say that it was right to a certain extent because I didn’t get through it all. I just thought, yeah, of course he wasn’t very good at this; this was just a hobby of his. Well, it may have been; it just shows how much better he is than I am. But, I found, in that case where I looked at a piece of serious Nibley writing, that he was right on every point that he made, that his footnotes were meticulously accurate, that he had really gotten the Arabic sources down, which really impressed me. And so now when people say, ‘Yeah, well he just misrepresents his sources.’ I suggest they go have a look at the (Inaudible) or something like that if they want to check it. They usually don’t.
One of the great events for me during that time at UCLA was the publication of Keith Norman’s doctrinal dissertation in 1980–well it wasn’t published, but distributed–with the catchy title (and some of you have heard me talk about this) “Deification and the Content of Athanasian Soteriology.” Isn’t that a lovely title? What this is about is the phrase that was so recurrent in early Christianity, essentially ‘God became man so that man could become God’ which goes back to earliest Christian times. We don’t know where it started, it’s already being cited in the first few centuries as an old statement that everybody knows and it turns out to have been fundamental to St. Athanasius of Alexandria who was the father of the Nicene Creed, effectively. And his arguments for the Nicene Creed were based on the need to keep that statement true, that ‘God became fully man so that man could become fully God.’
This was an amazing revelation to me. I had always thought up until then that the idea of exaltation was a wonderful doctrine but you wouldn’t find much evidence for it in early Christianity. It turned out, Keith Norman, LDS grad student at Duke, was able to show me that it’s all over the place.
And of course since then we’ve found a lot more–it is literally all over early Christianity. One of the greatest eye-opening intellectual revelations I have ever had was to see that and to realize that on this one, the Latter-day Saints win–now that’s just hands-down, we win.
Now people have told me, ‘Well your doctrine of deification is not exactly like that of the Early Christians.’ To which I usually respond, ‘Well your non-existent doctrine of deification is utterly unlike that of the Early Christians!’ (Laughter)
Well, this was an amazing thing for me. So that my dissertation actually became a dissertation on the topic of human deification in an eleventh-century neo-Platonic Arab philosopher; really obscure stuff. I won’t get into that, but this author was writing during a time when a ruler of Egypt was claiming–or at least deification was being attributed to him. This is the rise of the Druse movement and he was trying to combat that idea that a human could become like God. The topic naturally interested me.
There again, though, I was seeing Islam through an LDS lens. I mean, the problems–things jumped out as significant to me because of the very fact that I was a Latter-day Saint, so when I hear the charge that Latter-day Saints put on blinders and can’t see the world or that it restricts their intellectual curiosity, I just have to say, ‘That certainly hasn’t been true for me.’
I have found questions leaping into my awareness because of the point of view that I’m coming from. It has made looking at these topics extraordinarily exciting for me. It gets me in trouble sometimes.
That topic actually came to me when, just after I had actually taken a job at BYU. I hadn’t finished my dissertation yet. Truth be told, I hadn’t really decided what it was about yet. And I remember going to deliver a paper at a conference in Baltimore, the Middle East Studies Association, and I had writer’s block. About the only time I’ve ever had it; I’m normally capable of writing vast quantities of at least nonsensical prose very rapidly, but this time I just couldn’t come up with anything. On the plane, on the way out to Baltimore, I was feeling terrified. It got even worse when I arrived at my session–I still had nothing to say, I had no paper. This has never happened to me before or since, fortunately I was the third person on the program. There was a presenter from the University of Berlin and another one from Berkeley who spoke first and by the time they had finished the thesis of my dissertation had arrived. I had the idea, I got up and I spoke–I loved it because afterwards several people complimented me on the fact that I didn’t read my paper and I had made eye contact with them. (Laughter) I had no alternative; there was no paper!
But it was almost a kind of revelation, I think, that suddenly this whole thing just crystallized for me sitting there, panic stricken, in a session of the Middle East Studies Association in Baltimore.
But it got me in trouble later on. I was giving a paper based on it in a meeting in Paris and, talking about human deification and all this sort of thing, and a professor in the audience came up to me afterwards and said, ‘The leaders of your Church would be really interested in this.’
I thought, ‘What? I hadn’t said anything about Mormonism. This was pure Ismaili Shiite Islam from the eleventh century.’ Well it turns out he comes out skiing in Utah every year and he’d learned something about Mormon theology and knew something about this idea of human deification. I thought, ‘Well, drop that subject. I won’t bring that one up again. They’re on to me.’ So now I do other things.
But I was hired at BYU to teach Arabic and Islamic Studies–not hired as an apologist. I love to see accounts on the Internet of how much money I make from apologetics; I always get a kick out of that. I’m delighted to tell my wife. But I was actually hired to do Islamic studies, and I was delighted that at BYU I was offered immediately the chance to teach Islamic philosophy, which is not offered very often anywhere. But BYU is one of the places where, at least historically, has offered it. Until very recently, now that I’ve become a bureaucrat, I can’t teach the class just at the time when we’re producing the first textbooks–that’s the Islamic translation series that we’re doing–that would really make it a good class. It’s kind of frustrating; a catch-22.
But BYU is supportive in other ways. It’s given the opportunity, something I never would have expected, to launch the Islamic translation project which is the other side of my life; the real scholarly side of my life. Some of you are aware of that.
BYU has been unbelievably supportive in that. It has been a tremendous opportunity. We’re building relationships all around the world and we’ve been able to expand it beyond the Islamic Translation Series to a series of works on Moses Maimonides, the greatest rabbi of the Middle Ages; the Eastern Christian Text Series, which is just beginning. Something called the Library of the Christian East that I hope will be launched before the end of the year. Wonderful books; no trace of Mormonism in them, but a real contribution to world scholarship, I think, on those topics and I’m just so pleased that BYU and the Church have been so supportive of that. I have to pay tribute here to Elder Maxwell who was an absolute pillar of support in these projects from the very beginning. A wonderful, wonderful person who will be greatly missed.
One of the high points of my tenure at BYU was teaching a course for the Honors Program on Heavenly Ascensions with Bill Hamblin. That’s another topic that cries out for better attention. There are stories all around the world of human ascensions into the presence of the divine. The famous story of Mohamed’s Mirage (inaudible) and they are almost identical all around the world.
They have to do with ascending up through the various heavens, sometimes being asked to give answers and various very symbolic gestures and so on to ascend through the heavens; ascending into the presence of God or the gods who are always conceived of as anthropomorphic in these stories except in the spiritualized mystical accounts.
And often human deification at the summit of it and it has always seemed to me to have obvious echoes of certain things that we do and believe. My hope is to publish a collection of those ascension texts with annotations for a non-LDS audience, but I think Latter-day Saints will get the point.
The other great thing from my involvement, and this is where I think it might become interesting to you for the first time, is the opportunity of having become involved with FARMS after coming to BYU. FARMS was founded, of course as you know, by Jack Welch in California and then brought up to BYU.
Several of us had perceived the need for something like the Foundation for Ancient Research in Mormon Studies early on. I remember in Jerusalem the first time finding a copy of John Tvedtnes’ paper on “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles” in one of the files of the Jerusalem Branch and thinking, ‘My word, this thing ought to be circulated. What’s it doing here in mimeograph form in the Jerusalem Branch? Nobody will every see it here.’ I’m glad to say that it’s now been published.
I remember talking with Bill Hamblin whom I first met in Cairo and talking about the need for this kind of an organization, but it was really Jack Welch who got it going. Jack, I think, was raised up to do this and I don’t say that lightly; I actually believe it more than half seriously. Jack is just your typical Latter-day Saint attorney with a specialty in tax exempt foundations who also studied Greek and Latin and Ancient History at BYU and Oxford. I mean it seems to me that if he hadn’t–I mean he was designed to create FARMS, and so he did, and FARMS is a great thing, I think.
I got involved with FARMS very early on. I was advised strongly against it by the people who hired me. So much for the pressure I allegedly get from the Church and BYU leaders to do apologetics–they all told me, ‘Don’t do it, we’ll punish you if you do.’ I once asked one of the people telling me this, I said, ‘Look if I have free time, if I’ve done my Islamic studies stuff enough can I do some apologetics work on the side?’
‘No, it would be better if you didn’t.’
I said, ‘Well would you rather than I watched soap operas during the day?’
‘That would be better!’ (Laughter)
Well I’ve ignored them and so far have managed to keep my job. But I can assure you that getting into FARMS was not a mercenary step for me. I know that people who tend to believe this won’t believe any denial of it, but if there are any of you out there, please believe this: It was not in my financial interest to do FARMS. I did it just because I’m an obsessive compulsive and I really wanted to do it and I tend to do what I want to do and so I did.
But I remember once being on, I think it was Martin Tanner’s radio program. Martin, I don’t if you’re out there, but someone called in and said, ‘Well, you’re only in it for the money.’ And I said, ‘Well I’m not even getting my gas reimbursed for coming up to the radio station.’ And he just said, ‘You’re a liar’ and slammed the phone down. So, there’s no reasoning with people like that.
But FARMS, as I say, I think is a wonderful thing. People accuse us of being desperately out to defend a losing cause, that we’re trying to save the Church, you know, because we think we’re losing and we’re inventing desperate ad hoc rationalizations to save our bacon. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The attitude of those who come together to work in FARMS on the whole–there are, you know, we certainly do try to defend against arguments, but overwhelmingly the excitement of it all is that we’re just delighted at the things we see that we think are evidences for the divine calling of Joseph Smith, or things that allow us to deepen our understanding of the Book of Mormon, or other aspects of the gospel in ways that are just remarkable.
It’s not a desperate rearguard action–it’s the excitement of seeing the gospel in a new way. You know, calling someone up and saying, ‘Guess what I just found. Look at this. Listen to this. I mean does this put things in a new light or not?’ And over and over and over again we’ve found that our studies in ancient history just are suggesting all sorts of new paradigms and ways of understanding the gospel; and thing that, in our opinion, Joseph Smith could not possibly have known in any kind of plausible naturalistic way.
Most recently I’ll allude to something that’s in the news very much–we have the DNA issue. There are people who are saying, of course, that ‘DNA destroys the Book of Mormon.’ So our response has been to say, ‘Well not if you believe in a limited geography for the Book of Mormon. Not if you believe there were other people in the Americas.’
That changes the equation altogether. So now the argument has shifted off into a matter not so much of science, we all agree on the science to a large extent. The Latter-day Saint microbiologists and molecular biologists and geneticists and so on who are responding on this issue are not anti-science. But we’re saying if you have a limited geography and the Lehi group is a very small group then the science is essentially irrelevant, so it becomes an issue of exegesis, hermeneutics, interpretation of the Book of Mormon.
And so there are those who are now saying, ‘Well, once again you’re engaged in a desperate rearguard action to redefine the Book of Mormon, this limited geography hypothesis is a desperate reaction to the challenge of DNA.’ That’s absolute nonsense. The thing can be documented easily several decades prior to the discovery of the structure of DNA. You can argue, I think, in fact that Joseph Smith was already moving toward a limited geography thesis probably in 1842 or thereabouts. This has been around for a long, long time. It’s hardly a desperate reaction to Tom Murphy, whom Francis and James Watson had not even heard of when they found the structure of the DNA molecule. (Laughter)
This is just a question of knowing the history. The thing is documentable and provable; it’s been out there for a long time and it’s driven by the text, not by DNA and not by archaeology, but by reading the text.
But what are some affirmative things on Mormon studies that have come out under the auspices of FARMS or by people associated with FARMS–not always published by us. There are many things that I think are exciting.
I think Jordan Vajda’s thesis on the comparison of Mormon doctrines of exaltation with the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis or human deification is a remarkable thing as much for who said it as for what he says. I don’t know if all of you are familiar with this, Jordan Vajda–Father Vajda–worked on this thesis at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and he actually explicitly refers to critics of the Church, he says, ‘You know, it’s not the Mormons who have a problem with this doctrine of human deification. It’s the people who did “The Godmakers” who have a problem because this doctrine somehow miraculously disappeared in most of Christendom and reappeared in nineteenth-century America with Joseph Smith and they’ve got to explain how that happened and they’ve got to explain why they don’t have it. They don’t have a doctrine of deification.’ Father Vajda has since joined the Church–he was a Dominican priest, he’s now a Latter-day Saint. That’s a remarkable piece and we’ve now published it.1
The recent book Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon with a title which I passed on and still am mystified by; I don’t know what it means. I know what ‘evidences’ of the Book of Mormon are but I don’t what ‘echoes’ of the Book of Mormon are. Anyway, I once thought I did, and I approved the title. But it’s a marvelous collection of sort of state-of-the-art studies of some of the issues pertaining to Book of Mormon historicity. I highly recommend that one. And this is not a defensive mentality, this is one arguing that there’s a lot of good stuff out there that seems to support traditional claims.
One of the most exciting things I’ve seen recently not published under the auspices of FARMS but by people affiliated with FARMS is the work that David Paulsen has done on divine corporeality in “Harvard Theological Review”. Most recently, an article he did with Carl Griffin who actually does work for FARMS, he works for me particularly on the translation projects, in “Harvard Theological Review” on St. Augustine and the idea of divine corporeality. Remarkable stuff. There’s good evidence that early Christians believed that God had a body–that was a widespread belief. St. Augustine grew up as the son of a Saint, any of you from Santa Monica will know about his mother St. Monica. This was no ordinary Christian. Yet St. Augustine didn’t learn until he was fairly old and came under the influence of the neo-Platonic Bishop Ambrose of Milan, he didn’t learn until then that you could be a Christian and not believe that God had a body which seems to me to suggest what his mother was teaching him and what he thought was the traditional typical teaching of the Christian church–at least as he knew it. That suggests, in other words, that that kind of teaching was widespread.
Another book that I just want to recommend, really nothing to do with FARMS, pre-dates FARMS almost is one that’s already been mentioned, Richard Anderson’s book Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses I think is one of the greatest books ever written in defense of the Church and its claims. This is a classic. In fact I was re-reading it again in Sacrament meeting a few weeks ago and a neighbor of mine, Kent Jackson, happened to be sitting next to me and he said, he leaned over and he just said unbidden, he said, ‘Next to the scriptures, I believe that’s the most faith-promoting book in the history of the Church.’ Anyway, I’m not sure I disagree with that statement, so those of you who haven’t read it, I suggest that you go ahead and do so.
Now there are things happening, FARMS has morphed into something bigger–ISPART, the horribly named ‘Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts,’ which is doing great things: digitizing around the world in Beirut, in the Vatican, documents retrieved from the ruins of Herculaneum near Vesuvius as well as the translation projects–but I won’t get into that.
Another thing that’s relevant to concerns here is the FARMS Review, formerly the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, or what I liked to call RoBotBoM, or the FARMS Review of Books. I think when Jack Welch invited me to edit this thing, to launch it, I don’t think he knew what he was getting into. I’ve created a monster, I think, and I’m delighted to have done so. I think Jack had in mind a series of little short reviews that would guide people to reading books and then they could throw it away. Well, I couldn’t see the point of that. I thought, ‘Who would ever want to buy it.’ It would be sort of like the Penguin Guide to Classical CDs, I never buy one. I go into the record store, find a copy, look up what I’m interested in buying, go buy that CD and put the book back on the shelf, right? Well I thought if you want people to actually read the Review, it’s got to have something in it that’s worth reading for its own sake.
And it started off that way in the very first issue when John Clark wrote a lengthy review with diagrams on Book of Mormon geography–still I think one of the most significant things published on the topic. The Review immediately began to take on critics of the Church. In this way it obviously is created somewhat in the image of its maker. (Laughter)
I have had a polemical streak every since I was a kid. You have to understand that I’m really a cuddly fellow. I’m not nearly as mean as my critics think, although I’m not sure that I mind them thinking that, you know–fear is good, or irritation at least.
But I grew up reading National Review. Some of you may know what that implies. I subscribed to National Review when I was thirteen; I kept the subscription going through my mission ever since then and then I also subscribed to the American Spectator which is even worse. And, one of my models was H.L. Mencken, so this maybe will make some sense to some of you to know where I’m coming from polemically–I enjoy a good spirited round of discussion and I don’t mind a little humor, but it’s often mistaken as being mean-spirited and nasty and there’s not a nasty bone in my little body.
But anyway, the FARMS Review has had an impact on the image of FARMS; there’s no question about that. People will dismiss all that FARMS does by saying, ‘Oh FARMS is nasty and vicious.’ Now, what they’re really referring to is actually not all of FARMS but the FARMS Review, and not all of the FARMS Review, but a few reviews in the history of the FARMS Review, and only a few portions of those few reviews–but it’s enough; if you can use that to dismiss the whole thing, well then, good.
But the FARMS Review, I think, has done a notable work. It has spoken the truth in some cases about operations that needed desperately to have the truth spoken about them. It has provided an avenue for responses to critics of the Church who just didn’t expect it. Sandra Tanner once said to an acquaintance of mine that if they had known that everything they wrote was going to be reviewed they would’ve done things a little differently. (Laughter)
I sometimes think what would’ve happened if there hadn’t been a venue for responding to certain books that are very critical about foundational claims of the Church–what if the Review didn’t exist? It does provide an opportunity to respond, to at least get that response on record.
Most recently I’m very, very proud of Issue 15-2 of the Review which I highly recommend to you if you haven’t had a chance to get it. I think it’s sold out back there, but this is one that deals intensively with DNA, with the Mountain Meadows Massacre and with Grant Palmer’s recent book.
I’ll just mention a couple of other things; I’ll come back to things that are on the horizon. Experiences, back to the really boring autobiographical parts–I’ve had the experience of spending time at other university campuses. I remember a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at Berkeley devoted to the “The Great Chain of Being,” this idea of Arthur Lovejoy’s sort of hierarchy and the world from God down to the world. That was under the direction of Huston Smith. Some of you may be familiar with Huston Smith who wrote a really wonderful book called originally The Religions of Man, I think it’s called, and then in a more politically correct incarnation it’s now called The Great Religions. Marvelous book which does the kind of comparative religion that I’d like to see done.
Huston told me once that he has been criticized–he’s very proud of this–that he has been criticized by adherents of every religion for being partial to some other religion in that book. People have accused him of being a crypto-Jew, a partisan to Hinduism, partial to Islam, partial to Confucianism and so on, and he likes that, being accused of being biased in the direction of every one of those religions.
What it does for me is it gives you a sense of what it’s like to ‘be’ an adherent of one of those religions. For the first time, for me, Hinduism made some sense. I’d never been able to make any sense of it before. I was able to get involved with Huston in redoing his chapter on Islam in the most recent edition of that book and also to recruit him for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which I’m very proud of.
But the thing that struck me about that experience was how well Mormonism stood up among those world religions. There I was in this little NEH seminar out at Berkeley, there were about ten of us, and I was the only Latter-day Saint. I wasn’t there as a Latter-day Saint, I was there as an Islamicist, but there was a Buddhist and there was a Jesuit process theologian, and a Hindu, and a Platonist–a real live Platonist; I didn’t know they existed but there was one there. And, you know people from all those different backgrounds talking about all the great world religions. They all agreed on kind of a unified truth, the perennial tradition that’s behind all of them–and then there were the Mormons who didn’t belong. And I just, toward the end, I was beginning to see myself as sort of an anthropologist you know, just silently observing the natives of the perennial tradition. It was fascinating to me and Huston asked me the last day, ‘Well Dan, you’ve been kind of quiet lately. What do you think about all this?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t believe any of it. All the things you say are part of the perennial tradition I reject. I mean we really do believe that God has a body and things like that which you see as folk religion.’
Even a couple of years later he caught me and said, ‘(inaudible) kind of a closet atheist in our group. Didn’t accept any of our doctrines.’ But what amazed me was how well Joseph Smith answered all the questions that we were agonizing over in that seminar. Here you have this unlearned New York farm boy, not trained, not well educated, not theologically learned and yet for many of the questions that they were raising, it seemed to me Joseph Smith had already provided answers or he had redefined the questions in such a way that they were non-problems. They didn’t exist as problems anymore and I thought that’s an amazing achievement for a guy who, according to Fawn Brodie, was just sort of making it up on the fly and never had a serious thought; it was just a joke on his parents that kind of got out of hand. That’s just not plausible to me–he did too good a job; it makes too much sense. Joseph holds up amazingly well.
Later I was able to do another such seminar at Princeton with John Gager, at Princeton, on religion and magic, and I might just mention this in passing. We were trying to find out whether you could construct a coherent definition of ‘magic’ that differentiated it from ‘religion.’ So you could say, ‘Well, that’s magic and this is religion.’ This is a live issue for a Latter-day Saint, especially a few years ago, and the upshot of this conference was that none of us there could formulate any kind of definition that really worked very well because it would catch certain things that you wanted to call ‘magic’ but then it would also catch the Roman Catholic mass or the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. I mean, you just couldn’t do it, so we finally decided what I had already assumed was the case, that the way you distinguish religion and magic is ‘What I do is religion, what you do is magic.’ (Laughter) Magic is a term used to define religions I don’t like. And so that’s about where it stands.
But it was while I was there at Princeton I discovered an article on the consort of God in ancient Israelite tradition which led to an article, really the first of a trilogy, this one was on an Asherah which I located in 1 Nephi–the idea that there are traces of pre-exilic Israelite religious doctrine evident in 1 Nephi in ways that Joseph Smith could not possibly have guessed. I would like to see a criticism of that, I’ve never really gotten a serious one.
What’s going on right now? This might really be the only interesting part of the talk. Let me tell you what’s coming out in the next FARMS Review which went to press yesterday or today. Some really great things; there’s an essay by Nate Oman on secret combinations. There has been a claim made by Vogel and Metcalfe, particularly, that the term secret combinations uniquely refers in Joseph Smith’s environment to the Masons. And so, it’s a dead giveaway of the Book of Mormon’s origins in the conflicts of the late-1820s and Joseph Smith’s obsession with masonry.
And Nate has gone through legal materials, it helps to have been a student at Harvard Law School and have access to all that stuff in that law library there. He has gone through that material all over the place on Masonic context, something I already knew, but he’s documented it greatly.
A wonderful essay by Davis Bitton on how to spot an anti-Mormon book; reviews of Sally Denton’s book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre; and a review of Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven which I was depressed to find all over Europe during this recent trip in two different German translations. It’s really selling well because, of course, it speaks to the European attitude about religion. Lou Midgley has a piece on Signature Books, “The Signature Books Saga,” you’ll love it. It’s just like the Old Norse!
Jim Allen has got a lengthy review on Grant Palmer’s book. Matt Roper and I have done something on Stan Larson’s book Quest for the Gold Plates which is a kind of quasi-biography of Thomas Stuart Ferguson and his apparent loss of faith in the Book of Mormon that I think has some interesting things to say.
There’s a book about due to come out on the Book of Abraham called Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant that I highly recommend. It’s got some very interesting materials on the astronomical portions of the Book of Abraham.
One of the most exciting things (and I’m almost done) is the Critical Text Project that Royal Skousen is working on. The next installment of that will be coming out fairly shortly. This is a landmark work. Absolutely essential to future research on the Book of Mormon and really testimony building in an interesting sort of way; frankly it’s going to account for all of the changes that occurred in the text taking that issue away from the poor Tanners because we found a lot more that they didn’t find. (Laughter) But what it does show is that the original manuscript to the Book of Mormon was consistent and coherent in really remarkable ways.
Royal will be able to talk about that at length and will. I think it puts the Book of Mormon on really solid footing for future studies; an absolutely essential work.
There’s work coming out on the apostasy, trying to look at the doctrine of the apostasy again in new ways. There’s a lot more competence in the Church nowadays in ancient history than there was in the days of James E. Talmage or earlier people who have written on the doctrine of the apostasy. A lot of people well trained in ancient history, the history of Christendom, the history of theology. And we see it in a little different light nowadays, so we’re trying to a more accurate notion of what we believe and what we don’t believe about apostasy.
I think some people will find it gratifying including some outside the Church but it doesn’t surrender any basic claim. It doesn’t surrender the need for a restoration but it does, I think, modify and modulate and moderate some of the claims we’ve historically made.
More work on theosis. A couple of really interesting pieces that I’m hoping will be out within the next year or so on theosis–the doctrine of human deification.
The thing I’m working on right now is my personal passion, something that began as a small book, turned into a large book. I’ve now recast it as two books which are becoming two really big books. It may never be finished. I call it tentatively “The Reasonable Leap Into Light: A Book for Skeptics” and it’s an attempt to show that belief in (a) theism, and (b) Christian theism, (c) Latter-day Saint Christian theism; that belief is reasonable. It’s rational. Not to prove it, but to argue that it’s rational to make that jump. Beyond that it has to be done on a spiritual basis, but it’s rational intellectually, on an intellectual basis.
Let me just close by bearing testimony explicitly about some things. I’ve been teaching gospel doctrine class this last while and I love to do it. It’s my favorite calling in the Church. When they called me to it they were very apologetic and since I had had so many terrible thoughts of the alternatives I was absolutely delighted and had to kind of ‘pretend’ that I, ‘Oh yes, well I’d be willing to do it.’ (Laughter) But you know, rereading the Book of Mormon in that way, it’s different than reading it on your own to me and I am dazzled, as I always am when I read the Book of Mormon, by how very, very deep and well structured and brilliantly put together it is.
I am just baffled when I read people who say or hear people who say, ‘Well there’s nothing to it. It’s stupid, it’s just; there’s nothing there.’ Maybe I’m imagining things but I have a lot of experience studying texts carefully. That’s what I’ve done for a living, that’s what I’ve done in all of my education and the Book of Mormon stands up in good company. It does very well. I’ll just leave it at that.
I’m going through another period of what has been a year-long love affair with the Book of Mormon, I’m dazzled by the book. I cannot believe that anyone can seriously argue that Joseph Smith simply made it up. That is simply not plausible to me, I cannot accept it; I don’t have enough faith or credulity to believe that. I have to fall back on the more simple religious explanation for the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Smith’s character–the more I’ve read about him, the more I’ve read in Dean Jessee’s collections of materials and so on, the more transparently undeniable it is to me that Joseph Smith was a sincere man who really was trying to do the will of God. He doesn’t argue that he did it perfectly, nobody ever has. He doesn’t argue that he didn’t have flaws, he would never have claimed that. But his transparent sincerity is apparent to me on every page. I cannot get away from it. If I’m any kind of judge of human character, I see an honest, sincere man speaking from those pages of those reproduced letters which were not written for publication. He wasn’t pretending to anybody.
Finally, the vision of the gospel, the plan of salvation, remains for me astonishing. The only thing I can compare it to in an odd sort of way–and it’s nothing like it–but I remember reading Hans Jonas’ book called The Gnostic Religion at one point where he laid out the Gnostic myth and it was this vast cosmic thing and it seemed to me that that was the only thing I’d ever seen that was comparable to the Mormon plan of salvation. It didn’t hold up well, I don’t think it’s coherent but it’s dramatic; it’s big. This is a big canvas.
The plan of salvation is like that for me; it is absolutely exhilarating to me. I cannot imagine anybody saying that Mormonism is small or narrow. Latter-day Saints may see it small and narrow, we may force ourselves into a small and narrow viewpoint–that’s what humans often do–but the gospel is huge. The gospel is immense and I agree with B.H. Roberts we haven’t begun to plumb its depths, we haven’t begun to appreciate how very big and expansive and liberal in the good sense of the word it is.
And I just want to bear you my testimony the gospel is true. The Book of Mormon is true, Joseph Smith was a prophet, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s Church. The gospel is true, this was not something that just was made up in nineteenth-century New York or in nineteenth-century America. It cannot be explained that way; I cannot buy that. I bear you my testimony that it’s true, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
1 Jordan Vajda, “Partakers of the Divine Nature”: A Comparative Analysis of Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization. Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), 2002, Occasional Papers, Volume 3.