The main difference in the case of Joseph Smith is that he had something concrete to show for it: It was the Book of Mormon. It always came back to the Book of Mormon. And the most important function that the Book of Mormon served in the early church was not that it introduced new teachings . . . it was the mere presence of the Book of Mormon itself as an object . . . a visible, palpable object . . .
Joseph describes the plates . . . as a connoisseur describes a fine book in his library collection. There's a kind of attentiveness to the detail -- the physical detail, the craftsmanship of the plates, the nature of the writing, the thickness of the total package -- that is very, very striking, because right away what he is doing is he is turning our attention to the absolute physicality.
What Joseph does there, see, he takes a very important step from which he would never, never retreat, and that is that he creates a foundation from which it is virtually impossible to mythologize or allegorize the foundations of Mormonism. What that means is that it puts the Book of Mormon in a position in which it is very, very hard to find a middle ground, because [with] many of the stories of the Bible we can say, "Well, we don't know that God really wrote with his finger on the tablets of Moses," or, "We don't know that Moses really spoke face to face with God." One can take a kind of distance and say it's the message of the Bible that's important; that God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, and salvation is through him . . .
The same is not true in the case of the Book of Mormon. It's not the message in the Book of Mormon which is true; it's the message about the Book of Mormon. If Joseph really was visited by an Angel Moroni and really was given gold plates, then he was a prophet, and he has the authority to speak on God's behalf. That's how the logic worked. One can't take a kind of distance and say, "Well, maybe he was an inspired dreamer; maybe he was an inspired visionary," because from day one he points to the physicality of those plates, meaning that the foundations of Mormonsim are located in real space and time, not in a prophet's interior world . . .
There's no question that the church rises or falls on the veracity of Joseph Smith's story. Now, as a consequence, some people, for example, the Community of Christ, their president made a statement a few years ago in which he said, "History as theology is perilous." You don't want, in other words, to found all of your beliefs and hopes and religious values on a historical account that may prove to be spurious. To which my reply is yes, history as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ's resurrection is a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That's the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that's a reality that we just can't flee away from . . .
"Mormonism is so young it has no place to hide." That's very true. I had a friend who was a religious scholar who said that for Christianity to thrive, there must always be an empty tomb where faith can enter in. Mormonism doesn't have very many empty tombs. Every compartment that you open in Mormonism has a physical artifact or resurrected being or historical event that calls upon our faith and ascent. There haven't been thousands of years for interpretations and translations and complicated transmission history to intervene between God's word and our reception of that word. What we have is an unmediated presentation of gold plates to us through one prophet figure . . . It is its strength . . .
- -----Terry Givens
Sorry, sorry, kind of a long quote, I know, but I like the point he's getting at: being a believing Mormon is a hard thing. We have no antiquity to hide behind. We can't wax metaphorical and pretend the metaphor is all that matters. We have to either accept the historicity of our faith or we have to just forget it.
This is good. Too much in life is easy. In America, my wage is considered poverty-level, yet, compared to most of time and space, I live in incomparable luxury: I have an automobile; I have a solid shelter with fancy new 21st-century windows; I have plenty to eat; I have floss and Listerine; I am unlikely to die of my current disease; I live without fear of Visigoths appearing at my door.
Yet it is good for things to be hard.
To get back to Mormon history, being hounded and besieged and occasionally murdered was good. If things had been easy, Mormons would be a footnote in Palmyra history and nothing else. Physical adversity made for a strong foundation.
But today, at least here in El Cerrito, not a lot of tar and feathering in my neighborhood. I don't anticipate being driven across the Bay to Sausalito. All is well.
What a silly thing to say.
This is not an age of faith; it is an age of reason. You hit my reset button and I don't go to faith, I go to reason. The year is 2007. Check a calender. So attrition for such reasons is easy to understand--and not even anything new--but is does not suggest the road should be widened or flattened or eased in any way. What worth is there in simplicity? Why climb Mt Everest if it holds no challenge? Why find the source of the Nile if I can do it in Dockers? Why believe something that does not require the stretching of my soul?
Given my current state of health, I cannot be certain that I am proceeding logically here and I definately don't want to chance explaining illogic with further illogic, but logic is not the point anyway: the point is faith.
To me, svithing has never been, primarily, about proselyting my own faith, though of course it is natural that I would svithe Mormon as often as not. But in matters of faith--any faith--I think it is important to ask how difficult your faith is. If all it requires is your general agreement that the sky is high and blue and there may well be something far beyond it, what good can that do you?
Faith is work. Work is power. Power is the source of true faith.
How hard are we willing to work?
last week's svithe