On humility in the face of ignorance: Coronavirus edition

Two interesting articles on the Coronavirus issue, one in the Lancet by the epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, and then an interview with him in the American Institute of American research. He’s worked for the WHO, been chief scientist for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and been an advisor to the Swedish government during the present crisis.

It’s well reading both articles, which comment on the approach Sweden pursued avoiding a lockdown (and which the UK was pursuing until the report from Imperial University) compared to those that have. Sweden does have a higher mortality than surrounding Norway, Finland and Denmark… but less than the UK, Spain and Belgium.

There could be a variety of factors for that, of course. He points out that a lockdown can slow spread (and thus reduce pressure and give time for health care to gear up), but ultimately does not stop the spread, and suggests that “[t]here is very little we can do to prevent this spread: a lockdown might delay severe cases for a while, but once restrictions are eased, cases will reappear. I expect that when we count the number of deaths from COVID-19 in each country in 1 year from now, the figures will be similar, regardless of measures taken.”

I think that last point speaks to something that is very unappreciated in a lot of the debates around responses to the Coronavirus. We seem to assume – perhaps based on living in a fairly comfortable and controlled environment compared to most of human history – that things should be under control. We especially tend to place a lot of faith in the power of government and human agencies to control things, and when things don’t go according to “plan”, we look for someone to blame. But a lot of things – and this episode should be a reminder of that – are not under our control, or anybody’s.

The “looking for blame” approach is particularly corrosive when there’s simply so much that we don’t – and those making the decisions – didn’t know. When the Imperial report was released, the (UK) Government had the choice of sticking to previous policy (based on what other experts were saying), or reversing course and going for the lock-down. They chose the latter. In retrospect, there appears to be some flaws with the model Imperial used, and perhaps Prof. Gieseke is right. Moreover, the economic damage in itself will also carry a cost (and not just a financial one – recessions and depressions lead to death too). But there was no way for anyone to be sure, and there still isn’t.

If they’d have chosen one way, they’d have been crucified by one part of the people and media, and by choosing another way, they got blamed by a different segment. Indeed, even now you have one segment suggesting that the lockdown wasn’t brought in soon enough, and thus “the government” is to blame for deaths, while another segment is pointing to the consequences and demanding opening up happen sooner. And yet it is still the case that no one can be entirely sure of the result of either course, or indeed realise that many things may be out of human hands entirely.

In short, what I suggest is that – while taking steps we can to keep ourselves as informed as possible – we approach all these things with a degree of intellectual humility.

Academic Freedom Under Threat: What’s to be Done? Session 3.1 – YouTube

A very interesting presentation about the bias towards particular political/social viewpoints (and bias – to the extent of willingness to affect hiring decisions and paper reviews – against others) within Anglo-American academia, especially within the Humanities and qualitative Social Sciences, from a conference held in Oxford.

via Academic Freedom Under Threat: What’s to be Done? Session 3.1 – YouTube

One particularly interesting finding discussed (at around the 20:50 mark) is the extent to which academics admit their colleagues or they themselves would discriminate against conservatives in matters of reviewing papers, hiring decisions and so forth. 37.5% admit that they personally would discriminate against conservatives in academic hiring.

Even experts are ignorant – UnHerd

There’s an interesting article on UnHerd today, about a book called The Hidden Half: How The World Conceals Its Secrets by Michael Blastland, which apparently examines how strange reality really is, and how little we sometimes know about it (or even how little know we know about what little we know).

Some highlights:

So what caused these differences if not genetics or environment? Answer: we don’t know. And most laypeople – myself included, before I’d read Blastland’s book – didn’t even know we didn’t know. You, like me, probably thought that the argument in science was between genes and environment; not between genes and environment and… this other thing. Yet this other thing – this hidden half, called “enigmatic variation” – doesn’t just apply to crayfish. As much as half of human variation can’t be accounted for, writes Blastland, by either genetic or environmental factors.

 

You all know by now, for instance, that economic forecasting isn’t hugely reliable; perhaps it seems obvious that that’s in the nature of the thing. Animal spirits, irrational exuberance and all that, right?

But economic reporting, it turns out, is just as dodgy. Not only do we not know what’s going to happen, we don’t know what did happen. ONS figures for the economy two or three years ago continue to be revised in light of what has followed – and are often subject to confidence margins that can make the difference between a boom and a recession (Blastland cites one where a fall in unemployment of 3,000 was sombrely reported with a confidence margin of +/-77,000 – i.e. the figure could be a rise of 74,000 rather than a fall of 3,000).

 

And then there’s the “replication crisis” in the social sciences, where results on which whole subsequent fields of research have been built turn out to be, literally, junk science. Again, as many as half of the accepted results in the whole of social science or medicine are feared to be unreliable or plain wrong. The experiments simply don’t replicate. Even medicines that we know work may only work for a tiny percentage of patients – and we can’t predict which ones and we don’t know why.

Read more at Even experts are ignorant – UnHerd

The disappeared paper and the Grievance Studies Scandal

Some recent articles that reflect on the current (poor) state of academia.

On one hand, here’s an account of a paper which was ultimately suppressed and removed after publication, after some academics found it politically unacceptable (that is, they did not address the actual arguments or content of the piece: they simply disagreed with its conclusions and so strove to make it disappear):

Academic Activists Send a Published Paper Down the Memory Hole – Quillette

On the other hand – and on a related theme – there’s the recent academic scandal in which several authors have attempted to expose some of the problems currently pervasive in academy (especially in certain portions of the humanities), by seeking to publish fake, and deliberately ludicrous, articles in several academic journals. Which they successfully did. To quote from the following article:

“To date, their project has been successful: seven papers have passed through peer review and have been published, including a 3000 word excerpt of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, rewritten in the language of Intersectionality theory and published in the Gender Studies journal Affilia.”

Source: The Grievance Studies Scandal: Five Academics Respond – Quillette

Apparently the sort of sentiments one finds in Mein Kampf are far more acceptable to a number of academics, provided they’re directed at the right targets (the linked article – which is mostly the reactions of some other academics – doesn’t in fact mention one particularly egregious case, in which the authors pretended to argue for a pedagogic technique in which some demographics – white males for example – should be ignored in class and even kept on the floor in chains. Apparently some of the peer reviewers felt that the authors’ paper was too sympathetic to such demographics).

It should be increasingly recognised that there are growing portions of academia, especially within the humanities, that are both intellectually corrupt, and politically in thrall to what are ultimately evil ideologies.

Link: Transgenderism and the Social Construction of Diagnosis – Quillette

An interesting article on Quillette about a topic I’ve touched briefly on before (well, one link here and some theological considerations here), namely transgenderism, in this case about the significant increase of adolescents being diagnosed with gender dysphoria. As the article makes clear, Western society’s increasing willingness to perform severe and irreversible medical interventions on said adolescents may have the consequence of sterilizing thousands of people who may feel very differently in adulthood. Critiquing this state of affairs, however, is becoming increasingly difficult as academic journals hew to a new orthodoxy on such issues. The article also had a number of interesting points on mental illness generally (including the interplay of biology and social factors):

Last week saw another attempt to silence debate and research whose findings diverge from an accepted orthodoxy. In the Advocate, transgender activist Brynn Tannehill decried a 2017 abstract that appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health, stating that the research into rapid onset gender dysphoria or ROGD was “biased junk science.” The research that Tannehill so strongly objected to was undertaken by Lisa Littman, MD, MPH. Littman surveyed parents about their teen and young adult children who became gender dysphoric and transgender-identified in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all the friends in a pre-existing peer group became transgender-identified in a similar time frame, an increase in social media use, or both. The findings of the research support the plausibility of social influences contributing to the development of gender dysphoria. The full research paper has not yet been published. Tannehill subsequently posted the article to the Facebook page of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). A discussion ensued in which some commentators asked WPATH leadership to request that the journal …

Source: Transgenderism and the Social Construction of Diagnosis – Quillette

Link: “Wilfrid Laurier and the Creep of Critical Theory”

Here’s an excellent article on some increasing – and disturbing – trends in academia, especially in the humanities. In a recent case at Wilfrid Laurier University (in Canada), a Graduate teaching assistant was reprimanded for presenting a televised debate about transgendered nouns, principally because she did not condemn one side of the debate first, and thus help the students reach the correct conclusion (more on that case here). In that particular case, the University has only apologised because the Graduate student involved happened to covertly record the meeting and released it publicly, leading to the unfortunate lesson (in the words of the Graduate student herself): “make sure to secretly record all meetings or they won’t take you seriously.”

As the first article discusses, however, this is not an isolated incident. Under the banner of ‘critical theory’, academics are increasingly acting  as ideologues in service to an ideology that explicitly rejects freedom of speech and thought. Some senior academics increasingly see it as their role to ensure students reach the right, “critical” conclusions, and are prepared to punish those who risk otherwise. And similar trends can be seen in the Entertainment and News industries. In each case, the demands of pursuing a new orthodoxy are overriding what were previously regarded as the most vital functions of these institutions.

The article may be read (and is well worth reading) at Wilfrid Laurier and the Creep of Critical Theory

Free e-book: The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible

As readers of my blog may be aware, I’ve been engaged in a PhD examining the Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. I submitted earlier this year (2017). However, to the great surprise of not only myself but also my supervisors, it was rejected with the instruction to rewrite it and resubmit for examination in 2019. I have significant cause to believe that this was an unfair and an inadequate assessment of my thesis, while the requested revisions would utterly change the character of the thesis and cannot be made in good faith, even if I could continue. Lacking other effective recourse, I have thus decided to release my work – with only very slight revisions – to a wider audience, and let the reader judge for themselves.

The book is available both for purchase as a paperback, and for free as a bookmarked PDF. The PDF version may be downloaded from the following link: The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. For those wanting a hard copy, the Paperback is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and various European Amazon sites, and should hopefully be available from other channels soon.

From the book description:

The Book of Mormon is an influential and controversial book. It launched a religious movement, is believed by millions to be scripture, and is derided by others as fraudulent. Despite this (or perhaps as a result), the book’s contents have been subject to both academic neglect and popular myth.

This book challenges some of that neglect by examining the Book of Mormon through the lens of its relationship with the Bible: a work which the Book of Mormon openly quotes and expects to be read alongside, and the only text which everyone agrees is connected to the Book of Mormon.

Through close examination of the Book of Mormon text and biblical parallels, including three substantial case studies, this book addresses questions such as:

How and why does the Book of Mormon draw upon the Bible?
Why does the book quote parts of the Bible at great length?
Why do quotations often differ from their biblical counterparts?
How does the Book of Mormon suggest the Bible be read?

Also included in an appendix is a textual comparison of each explicit biblical quotation in the Book of Mormon with the KJV.

(I’ve also added this post as an extra page so it remains available).

Why “history” matters in the Scriptures

I’ve seen notice of a podcast with an LDS scholar, which will apparently discuss the issue of genre within the Bible, and which apparently makes the claim that:

Despite comfort with parables, some Christians become unsettled thinking about elements of the Bible as being non-historical. [The guest] points out that this hesitancy is inherited from Enlightenment thinking, which regarded revelation as truth and truth as scientific or historical fact.

I’ve seen this claim and ones like it multiple times; I briefly touch upon some of these claims here. Related claims tend to revolve around the idea that ancient peoples did not adhere to modern standards of historiography, that the “truth” or spiritual value of scriptural events does not depend upon them being “historical”, and that this is simply a matter of modern biblical scholars learning about different genres and their literary markers.

As a summary of the issues, however, this is incomplete and distinctly less than accurate. Indeed it seems to omit precisely what is of most importance to people and what is of most consequence to our understanding of the scriptures and God

It’s true that many people in the past didn’t adhere to modern standards of historiography. But that’s also irrelevant: when most moderns talk about “historicity”, they’re not talking about historical conventions, or even about accuracy in the details, they’re talking about whether particular events actually happened or not.

Now, on some topics, the reality of particular events may not have much consequence, and we may indeed be able to be inspired equally whether that thing happened, or whether it is simply like a parable. However, there are some subjects where the question as to whether something happened or not matters. If, for example, there were no historical person called Moroni, then who appeared to Joseph Smith? If the Nephites or Lamanites did not exist, how can their descendants be spiritually and physically restored? If Christ did not appear post-resurrection at Bountiful, than how can the Book of Mormon be an additional witness of his resurrection? And if Christ did not rise from the dead, then how can we be resurrected and what hope is their in the Christian gospel?

That last concern, of course, was famously discussed by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:14-19), who lived some time considerably before the Enlightenment. The eternal significance of some events depends a great deal on whether they happened or not, and people have indeed considered this issue long before the Enlightenment rolled around. Claiming people’s concerns are simply an artefact of the thinking of that era is a way of dismissing, rather than addressing, the issues involved, issues which can have significant consequences on our understanding of the gospel, or whether there is a gospel at all.

It is also less than accurate to depict academic biblical studies as simply following generic markers. There are varying views within the academy on a range of such issues. However, key individuals within biblical studies have sought to depict events like the resurrection as non-historical, and these arguments have not rested solely on the issue of genre. Indeed, in some cases, their ideas of biblical genre have been considerably influenced by their other ideas and beliefs. Rudolf Bultmann’s rejection of a literal resurrection and his project of “de-mythologising” the New Testament, for example, rested in significant part on his conviction that modern peoples (presumably including himself) could not believe in such events (or as he put it: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament”).* It is as inaccurate to characterise this approach as emerging simply from genre of the New Testament writers, as it is to depict such issues as having no real spiritual consequence.

 


* Some of Bultmann’s successors (at least amongst some internet commentariat I’ve come across) seem to believe that ancient peoples could not possibly believe such things either. However, as far as I’m aware, biblical studies generally still accepts that many past peoples believed in supernatural events, and of course later ancient readers, including Jesus himself, certainly did.

 

The things that are written

I originally wrote much of the below as an article for another site but, as it seems they have decided not to pick it up, I am hereby publishing it anyway. With the passing of Elder Packer, this seems somewhat appropriate considering his love of the written word of God.

At the time I wrote it, there had been a lot of arguments among LDS circles online as to the ‘historicity’ of scripture, meaning the extent to which the events recorded in scripture actually happened. At the time, these had attracted some heated arguments, which is understandable because they end up carrying a lot of implications. Whether certain events happened is of vital importance to our faith. For example, whether the resurrection of Christ happened is not just a historical question of interest only to those who wonder at the disposition of the Saviour’s body, but is an event that has consequences for the future destiny of our bodies and souls. As Paul states, ‘if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Christ’s resurrection didn’t happen, then neither does ours.

But as important as these issues are, I noticed that there seemed to have been some other basic issues involved that escaped (and continue to escape) notice. The really big issue is what we mean by the very terms scripture and inspiration. What we mean when we say that certain books are ‘the word of God’ (8th Article of Faith) shapes our whole approach to scripture and how we read it. And this is not an academic question, but one with potentially eternal consequences. Yet some of those debating historicity appear to have used these terms without realising that others held very different, and incompatible, definitions for them. Thus one individual, who argued that the question of historicity could be separated from the spiritual worth of the scriptures, stated:

The historicity of scripture is not a matter of faith. It is an issue of critical analysis and academic inquiry. On the other hand, the inspiration of scripture, meaning its ability to assist readers access divinity, can never be a matter of critical analysis and academic inquiry. Instead, much like beauty, inspiration is found in the eye of the beholder.¹

What should be noticed here is how inspiration has been redefined as a reader-centred activity. The inspiration of a given book is to be weighed by the extent to which the reader is able to find something helpful in it (and ‘access divinity’ is a particularly woolly expression of this). But this is not a universal view. Crime and Punishment and Lord of the Rings have had a powerful effect on my life, and led me to be a better person, but I would not define them as scripture. Nor is it likely that the other participants in these discussions shared this definition of inspiration. The implications of this view follow rapidly: inspiration ‘is found in the eye of the beholder’. The suggestion is that it is what the reader does, and not an objective quality in the book itself, that makes a book scripture.

This view is not new. Liberal Protestant theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith made a similar argument in his book What is Scripture?. Claiming that ‘scripture is a human activity’ (although being careful to clarify that this isn’t a statement about authorship), Smith argues that it is the relationship between a text and a community that makes a text scripture (p.1, 17-21). Thus ‘scriptures are not texts’, because their scriptural status is not dependent upon anything innate to a work, but is rather conferred upon it by the reader treating the text in a certain way. This idea has been very influential in academia, particularly for those who wish to divorce the possible value of a text from the question of its origin.

Yet despite its influence, Smith’s approach and his focus on the reader suffers from a number of drawbacks. He appears to hold that merely because a work is referred to as scripture in an academic sense it must also be scripture in a theological sense, conflating the sociological with the supernatural. He also devalues the content of the text in favour of a vague sense of the ‘holy’ (p.230-235). Overt meanings are ‘superseded’ in favour of something ‘transcendent’ (shades here of ‘accessing divinity’) that Smith believes cannot even be articulated, the feeling of which takes priority over all other forms of engagement with scripture, including actually reading it. Thus, compared to the feelings of the reader or even non-reader, the content is ultimately left rather superfluous, a very unsatisfactory position. And the very idea that it is what the reader does that makes scripture scripture seems ill-fitting with statements from Latter-day scripture that appear to teach the opposite, such as Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 where it is inspiration from the Holy Ghost that makes something scripture, an innate quality that makes something scripture from the start.

LDS proponents of these ideas appear to have appealed to idea of the fallibility of human beings, and the admission in the Book of Mormon that it may contain ‘the mistakes of men’ (Book of Mormon Title page). It is certainly true that the Book of Mormon does not teach that scripture must be completely without any kind of error. But its depiction of the process of receiving and recording scripture goes far beyond this. A closer look is warranted.

The receiving and recording of Scripture in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is particularly vocal about the process of its own creation, far more so than the Bible. We do not know the identity of the author(s) of Joshua to 2 Kings for instance (the putative “Deuteronomistic historian”, first theorized by Martin Noth as the author of the whole unit, remains nameless and conjectural), but we are left in little doubt throughout the Book of Mormon as to who is narrating at nearly every point. Likewise the Book of Mormon also describes the creation of the very medium upon which it is recorded, the chain of transmission for its major sources and the selection of material to be written in it (e.g. 1 Nephi 6, 1 Nephi 19:1-6, Words of Mormon 1:3-7, 3 Nephi 5:8-18 and many more). The Book of Mormon’s self-consciousness about its own composition thus offers valuable insights into the process of scriptural composition.

These details have been neglected in this discussion. While – understandably – some LDS scholars have been keen to apply the possible insights of biblical studies and related fields to the Book of Mormon, insufficient attention has been given to the way in which the Book of Mormon’s claims undermine many of the key assumptions that lie behind these ideas. Now someone could conceivably reject the Book of Mormon’s own account of itself (as those who reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon must), and yet seek to try and retain some measure of ‘spiritual value’ in the work. But in that case they could not claim to accept the Book of Mormon as inspired or as scripture in the same sense that the Book of Mormon itself uses those terms.

For the Book of Mormon makes very strong claims in these regards. As much as the making of the Book of Mormon, with its named individuals painstakingly placing words on actual metal plates and passing them down hand by hand, is very human, it is also very divine. As just a cursory look reveals, the making of the records is stated to be under divine command (1 Nephi 19:2-3, 3 Nephi 5:14), as is the selection of the contents (W. of M. 1:6-7, 3 Nephi 26:11-12). The preservation of the records is an act of divine power in fulfilment of promises by God (Enos 1:15-16, Mosiah 1:5, Alma 37:4). The authors claim prophetic foresight of their future audience (Mormon 8:34-35), and to have been given and be writing the very ‘words of Christ’, in some cases receiving instruction ‘face to face’ (2 Nephi 33:10, Ether 12:39). Thus the opening words of the Book of Mormon claim that it was ‘written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and revelation’ (Title Page).

Perhaps the most illustrative episode of how the human and divine interact in the composition of the Book of Mormon takes place in 3 Nephi 23, where the risen Christ inspects the records kept by Nephi. The Saviour spots that a prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite had been omitted and commands its inclusion (v.9-13). What is of interest here is that a human error has occurred – ‘it had not been written’ (v.12) – but the Saviour affirms that he had commanded Samuel to utter his prophecy (v.9), the disciples that it came true (v.10), and under the direction of risen Deity the mistake is corrected (v.13). Thus the very words of Samuel the Lamanite were inspired in that they were directly commanded by God, and – despite the involvement of fallible humans – the record-keeping process is likewise under divine supervision.

In all of this, there is no suggestion that the inspiration of scripture is to be found in what the reader does to it. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the Book of Mormon is keen to assert that many readers will get it wrong. ‘For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and the soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet’ says Nephi (1 Nephi 19:7), who elsewhere goes on to state that ‘there are many that harden their hearts against the holy spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore they cast many things which are written and esteem them as things of naught’ (2 Nephi 33:2). The worth of scripture is not assessed by the reader, but rather the standing of the reader by their receptiveness to scripture (2 Nephi 28:29-30). Both Nephi and Moroni state that they will stand as witnesses at the final judgment that the Book of Mormon itself is true, regardless of the reader, ‘for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words at the last day’ (2 Nephi 33:11) and ‘ye shall know I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you’ (Moroni 10:27). Inspiration is certainly not in the eye of the beholder, for many beholders will get it wrong, and the Book of Mormon remains scripture whatever its readers make of it.

Nor, for that matter, are inspiration and revelation as shown within the Book of Mormon about something wholly other, ‘transcendent’ or completely beyond nature. Nephi is guided to food (1 Nephi 16:23-30), is directed to ore and given instructions on how to build a ship (1 Nephi 17:8-10) and his family led to an actual place. Alma the Elder is informed of his pursuers (Mosiah 23:24) while his son receives revelation on the location of an army (Alma 43:24). Above all, the risen Christ in 3 Nephi is not some spectre, but has an actual body, and a full crowd ‘did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet’ (3 Nephi 11:15). And these revelations and divine encounters are paradigmatic, ‘for he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as times to come’ (1 Nephi 10:19). Thus revelation in the Book of Mormon has content, beyond the vaguely ‘transcendent’, sometimes involving things in the material world, and while such accounts can have symbolic meanings too (as the Book of Mormon itself applies to the Liahona in Alma 37:43-46) the reality of these revelations is intended to serve both as a demonstration and a model for what should be happening in the lives of its readers.

While the Book of Mormon is more explicit about its own creation than it is about the Bible (and has the advantage of its translation being ‘by the power and gift of God’, Title Page), it does not hesitate to make similar claims about the Bible. Isaiah saw the redeemer (2 Nephi 11:2) and according to the risen Saviour all his words will be fulfilled (3 Nephi 23:3); Malachi was given his words by the Father (3 Nephi 24:1). Like the Book of Mormon itself, Isaiah is seen as writing towards future audiences, for it is particularly in ‘the last days’ that people shall understand his prophecies (2 Nephi 25:7-8, a claim that conflicts with the assumptions about the “intended” or “contemporary” audience). The Book of Mormon aims not to challenge the Bible, but to ‘establish the truth’ of it (1 Nephi 13:39-40); it ‘is written for the intent that ye may believe that’ (Mormon 7:9). The difficulty with the Bible as described in the Book of Mormon is that ‘plain and precious things’ have been removed (1 Nephi 13:28), not that the remainder has been corrupted (attempts to suggest Jacob 4:14 to imply more thoroughgoing changes fail to note that the verse is referring to God’s actions relative to scripture, not man’s). According to the Book of Mormon the Bible is incomplete, but is true and inspired by God in the same sense that it talks about itself. Any approach to the scriptures which preserves the former but marginalises the latter runs into severe difficulties with the Book of Mormon’s own claims, including that the two shall ‘grow together’ (2 Nephi 3:12).

Finally, too much can be made of those passages in the Book of Mormon that make allowance for human weakness. Most couple the admission with warnings to ‘condemn not the things of God’ (Title Page, see also Mormon 8:12, Mormon 8:17 and Mormon 9:31), suggesting that the sight of human involvement should not cloud the view of the divine hand in both the book’s composition and compilation. Certain passages make allowance for error but without requiring it, as Mormon 8:17 does with ‘but behold, we know of no fault’, though other passages do concede ‘imperfections’ (Mormon 8:12). However, when we examine examples where allowance is made for specific sorts of flaws, these flaws have a more limited scope than it seems some have assumed.

Thus although Nephi admits the possibility of error in his selection of the sacred in 1 Nephi 19:6, his warning in verse 7 that men fail to recognise and ‘trample’ the sacred turns this passage more into a warning that readers may fail to acknowledge and obey the voice of God. 3 Nephi 8:2’s dating of the death of Christ appears to acknowledge the possibility of error with its caveat that ‘if there was no mistake made by this man [meaning Nephi son of Nephi] in the reckoning of our time’, but this is a minor matter of chronology, the exact dating of the death and resurrection being minor matters of no consequence compared to its actually occurring. Similarly, Moroni laments that the ‘Gentiles’ will mock ‘the placing of our words’ (Ether 12:23-25) and states that some ‘imperfections’ are due to their choice of language for: ‘if we could have written in Hebrew, behold ye would have no imperfection in our record’ (Mormon 9:32-33). He is thus speaking of syntax and grammar, again comparatively minor matters. There is no suggestion in this that there are any doctrinal errors or mistakes in the Book of Mormon’s teaching. Just because the Book of Mormon does not support inerrancy (the idea that scripture must be without any error, no matter how minor in its grammar or mathematics) does not mean that it automatically provides justification for some theory of errancy where its divine message is inseparably corrupted with the ideas of men. It certainly doesn’t support the idea that the message is so blended that the divine elements can only be sifted out by professional scholars relying on human learning.

In conclusion, the Book of Mormon does not cooperate with Cantwell Smith’s conception of scripture. It makes its demands on the reader (whom, on occasion, it addresses directly) on the basis of the innate qualities it claims for itself, as a work that was written, compiled, transmitted and translated by divine means, regardless of the readers’ reactions. Revelation and inspiration are considered to be objective phenomena that contain content. While the Book of Mormon makes allowance for minor human error it also fiercely maintains the truth and divinity of its message, and its consequent authority over its readers, so much so that it will be an issue at the final judgment.

It is instructive in one passage where Moroni is anxious about his ‘weakness in writing’ how the Lord chooses to respond to his concerns. Amid the Lord’s reassurances, the Lord states that his ‘grace is sufficient for the meek’, meaning not Moroni, for the meek ‘shall take no advantage of your weakness’ (Ether 12:26, my emphasis). Rather, as he goes on to state, for those who recognise their weaknesses and humble themselves and have faith before God, the Lord’s grace will ‘make weak things becomes strong unto them’ (v.27). This has often been read as referring to our personal weaknesses (and surely the principle applies), but the ‘weak’ thing Moroni is asking for reassurance over are not personal faults, but the very book he is writing. It is as we the readers recognise our own weaknesses and humble ourselves that the Book of Mormon becomes strong to us. For as the Book of Mormon teaches elsewhere, ‘out of the books which shall be written shall the world be judged’ (3 Nephi 27:25-26). At the end of all days, we are not going to be measuring scripture, but will be measured by it. If we take scripture seriously, as the word of God, we must begin to let scripture judge us.

 


¹ I’ve chosen to omit names, my usual practice for this blog at moments like this, primarily because I’m trying to make this about the ideas rather than something more personal.

…from them shall be taken away even that which they have

I find it rather dispiriting when I see an LDS biblical scholar approvingly cite Marcus Borg to the effect that the Bible “is a human product, not a divine product”, that it is not “‘God’s revealed truth'” and that with such an approach “at least the problem of thinking of them as expressing the will of God disappears” – and then claims this is “how to save the Bible”. Such an approach saves nothing, of course: it renders the Bible as solely a old text of interest only to scholars. It is completely incompatible with any idea that the Bible “is the word of God“, as well as pretty much everything the Book of Mormon has to say about the Bible too, and so certainly doesn’t “save” either as scripture.

Yet perhaps this is to be expected – many such scholars are the product of liberal Protestant schools and have in many cases simply adopted liberal Protestant beliefs about scripture. And it is sad to say that in many of those schools and in large swathes of Christianity, the Bible which they once had has been lost. A number of these academics may continue to study it as a book, but without belief that it contains the words of God, it is no longer scripture to them, expressing “the will of the Lord“. And yet I think that this too is predicted by the very scriptures they’d consider merely human:

Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
(2 Nephi 28:29-30)

And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell. (Alma 12:10-11)

We sometimes assume that once we know something we know it, but both scripture and experience suggest otherwise: we must always be willing to receive more from God, to accept more of His will and to hear more of His words, or we too will lose what we already have.