Internet challenges and responses
Challenge A: I have been hearing that things on the internet conflict with what the church teaches and I think I should do an intellectual investigation.
Response: The internet is populated with a lot of challenges raised against the Church, the prophets, the scriptures and Church history. Most of them are false or have distorted the truth.
Challenge B: But we should probably all investigate them to see what the truth is.
Response: Doing such an investigation is a major undertaking that would require a great deal of time and careful study on each of the challenges, on both sides.
Most people will not have the time to do it and most cannot handle false accusations without feeling sickened by the mere accusations. Many do not have the adequate intellectual skepticism required to patiently work through them. It requires a great deal of very careful thought and analysis, often months for each challenge, which should be taken one at a time. One who chooses to engage in such a process cannot be intellectually lazy and must not be spiritually reckless as they work through the challenges raised. Many have lost their sealing blessings by not following these principles.
Most people will do just fine making a spiritual inquiry for the truth as Alma describes it, planting a seed of belief and nurturing it through study, prayer, practice and self evaluation. If the principle is true, such results in a self actualization that confirms the truth of the thing being lived.
Challenge C: But I have already read some of it and it is troubling me a lot.
Response: There is some recently available help on a website entitled mormon challenges.org
Challenge 1: But I feel betrayed, like I have been lied to.
Response: Some people have left the Church because they don’t know where to look for answers or by the time they find answers, they feel it is too late–they feel betrayed. This is the first of a series, entitled “Mormon Challenges,” which attempts to provide reliable concise responses based on careful research on issues, for example, about the Book of Abraham and how Joseph Smith translated it, or the first vision and how Joseph Smith described it in various accounts.
Challenge 2: I feel the Church has deliberately withheld information.
Response: There hasn’t been a plot. People who put the manuals together aren’t historians and so readily available information hasn’t been woven into the lessons.
Most of the questions have been answered in books written by careful research scholars. The videos on the Book of Abraham, the First Vision, DNA and the Book of Mormon, and so on, found on mormonchallenges.org present succinctly the latest research of scholars in response to these challenges.
Challenge 3: Hasn’t the Church distrusted historians?
Response: Many historians haven’t prepared themselves to help write lessons for the Church.
Too many historians think naively about the philosophy of history. A more informed generation of historians is emerging. Most people come to church classes to learn something useful in living their lives, something edifying, and only the best historians, like those in the Old Testament who wrote about King David or prophets like Jonah, know how to write honest, edifying history.
Challenge 4: Scholarly history can’t include saying that Joseph Smith was a prophet or that he had supernatural experiences.
Response: We now have internationally respected historians in the Church, like Richard Bushman, who believe histories can include people presenting their views of themselves, including Joseph Smith.
People, who start with the irreligious assumptions that Joseph Smith couldn’t have been a prophet and therefore can’t be spiritual experiences, gravitate towards various explanations they consider more plausible for his behavior. Some think that he must have been a fraud, and what he accomplished, the Book of Mormon, for example, was probably hobbled together from bits and pieces of other sources.
But these explanations are quite implausible. Believing scholars find the Book of Mormon too unified to be pieced together. And if Joseph Smith was a fraud, there were a lot simpler ways of proceeding. He could have just come up with a book. He didn’t have to say there were plates and get people to say they saw them too. What makes Joseph Smith such an interesting historical figure is that it is so hard to explain what he did without letting people decide for themselves– was he a prophet?
Challenge 5: There are just so many sources then and now saying Joseph Smith was a fraud. Response: We can’t believe every source we read, even old ones.
Every witness has to be carefully looked at. There is a tendency for people to consider what was printed a hundred years ago or more to be more reliable. Older unreliable published representations, although repeated and re-printed, are still unreliable. There is no reason to assume that people were better informed in past times or less biased or prejudiced.
Besides plain prejudice, the background assumptions in the minds of those who report events can drastically bias the report. Assessing the worldview of a source becomes as important as assessing the “information” the source provides.
The word of non-biased eye witnesses could be useful. If Joseph Smith had been a fraud, you would expect some of the eye witnesses of the Book of Mormon plates to have exposed him, especially after they left the Church. But they did not.
Challenge 6: Many of the things Joseph Smith came up with went way beyond the ideas in the Book of Mormon. He seemed to be making things up as he went along.
Response: Many of the important doctrines taught later by Joseph Smith are actually foreshadowed in the Book of Mormon.
The pre-mortal existence, for example, was embedded in the experience of the brother of Jared who saw the Lord before he was born. For another example, the doctrine of foreordination described by Joseph Smith was referred to in Alma’s teaching about the fore-ordination of those ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood. But, as we would expect from a prophet, greater clarity on these subjects and many more came later.
Challenge 7: The Book of Mormon writers seem to know too much too early about Christ.
Response: The knowledge of Christ in the Book of Mormon is always treated as special, and the editor, Mormon, came after Christ and emphasized it.
The Church affirms that prophets, before and after the mortal life of the Savior, knew about Him and His mission.
Challenge 8: There are just too many links in Joseph Smith’s teachings with the surrounding culture. He seemed to have just been borrowing ideas.
Response: Many of the questions Joseph Smith took to God for answers naturally came from his time and culture.
If we remember that Joseph Smith saw himself as restoring what Adam and other prophets once had, then we won’t expect total novelty and won’t be disappointed to find links with the best in his culture. Joseph Smith considered it his prophetic role to recognize truth, clarify it and place it in its proper context, while correcting false traditions. This necessarily involved much of the culture, symbols and rituals of his generation.
In fact, if we recognize God’s desire to reach the people of a particular time and culture, it is not surprising that Jesus used the lilies of the field, the sparrow, the non-productive fig tree, the widow’s mite, and the olive trees to teach his messages. Likewise, it is not surprising that Isaiah frequently referenced ideas of the Assyrians and the Babylonians to teach God’s messages to his current generation. Then, why should it be surprising to us that the Lord would inspire Joseph Smith to use much of the culture, symbols, and ritual of his generation to reach the people of his day? Like a bird that builds its nest to nurture and train its young from the twigs, paper, rags and materials of its environment, God is tenderly customizing the presentation of his gospel for the generation he is trying to reach.
Challenge 9: But doesn’t the Church teach that there was an apostasy and all was lost.
Response: As we find in the Doctrine & Covenants and the Book of Revelations, the truth was not fully taken away from the earth.
For, as we find in Revelations 12:14, the truth “was given wings” that it “might fly into the wilderness,” where it was “nourished” for a time, until the Lord says in D&C 5:14, “the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness.”
God has made abundant provisions for there to be sources of inspiration throughout history and throughout cultures. Mormons don’t have a monopoly on truth. Truth is scattered, as one of the current apostles puts it. And Joseph Smith’s role, with divine help, was to identify and clarify the truths to be taught in the restored Church.
Challenge 10: Things are just so unclear in religious history, not obvious and reliable like current scientific thought.
Response: Science is often taught as if it is agreed upon by all scientific researchers, but often it isn’t agreed upon.
When we get into advanced classes, we become acquainted with the controversies about the basics in the sciences.
Challenge 11: Science builds on agreement, on observations, what can be seen by anyone. That is what religion should do.
Response: Science is built by proposing and putting to the test various hypotheses, hypotheses that will hopefully explain more and not be false, in which case they are accepted as theories, theories which are not necessarily believed by everyone. True religion has some similarities, but also some dissimilarities.
The Book of Mormon itself, for example in Alma, Chapter 32, explains that religious truth needs to be subjected to experimentation and put to the test. And the Lord says he will help his faithful saints “see” the truth for themselves. Seeing and feeling the results of applying the teachings of true religion is a valid test, just a different kind of test, a personal test. The adage that “the proof is in the pudding” has relevance here, but it is complicated in that we ourselves are the pudding. In other words, the religious experiment is on our own souls, the recipe is a recipe for the enlargement of our souls and for our personal happiness. But interestingly enough, others around can notice the differences and can become happier as a result of the changes in our lives. So it is not simply personal. It is interpersonal. The Mormon religion is communal, not private, or individualistic.
Challenge 12: But religious believers want their ideas to be true and that defeats an honest test.
Response: So do scientists–they want their ideas to be true, but that doesn’t defeat their tests.
After the quantum physics revolution, scientists no longer believe that observation is independent of the observer. What we are looking for, what we are testing for, affects what we find. This has all been factored into science.
Mormon scripture, like Doctrine & Covenants 9:8-9, teaches members to study and search and try to answer their own questions, come up with their own solutions, and take those to the Lord. Many members report going to the Lord hoping their answers are right and finding themselves with a stupor of thought, indicating that the Lord disagreed. In other words, a proper spiritual test allows for a safeguard against wishful thinking.
Challenge 13: But science has consistently provided reliable answers, not religion.
Response: The history of science is strewn with wrong answers.
It usually takes a long time before we can be confident that our (preliminary) scientific findings are “true.” And scientific conclusions are often subject to revisions. Truth according to science itself, remains tentative and piecemeal.
Truth is discovered over time, especially the full truth with all its nuances. It requires patience because many of the answers may well not be learned in this life. It would be unfortunate to let our lack of answers to some questions rob us of the happiness and comfort from knowing answers to some of the most important questions. For example, a young couple who has lost a child in death, and is comforted by a faith and knowledge that there will be a resurrection, need not feel discouraged that they do not know scientifically how the resurrection will occur. Likewise, the apostles of Jesus rejoiced to see the resurrected Savior who entered the room through closed doors even though they never understood how He had passed through the walls or ceiling of the room. Not knowing how Jesus could walk on the water didn’t prevent Peter from leaving the boat and also walking on the water. But doubting did.
It is Mormon doctrine that Satan tempted the sons and daughters of God to require a knowledge of their personal outcome before accepting God’s plan to come to earth. Likewise, he tempted Adam and Eve with the lie that they could easily acquire knowledge like God’s. He continues to tempt us to seek sure knowledge through unrealistic expectations of science, and even to require that God tell us or show us all the truth now, lest we conclude that God doesn’t care or doesn’t exist. Mormons believe that God does care, but that he expects us to live by faith as we gradually gain knowledge, especially based on its effect on our souls.
Challenge 14: It’s just hard to believe we can come up with satisfying answers to the many concerns about Mormon history.
Response: If we choose to seek answers, it is important to have realistic expectations.
We should not expect to be able to intellectually prove that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. It is a recipe for the development and happiness of the soul, so Jesus said that if one would know the truth they should live the doctrine. The truth of the restored gospel lies in what it makes of us and this is the surest evidence.
We should only hope to intellectually prove that it is possible or perhaps likely that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true and that the Church of Jesus Christ is the Lord’s endorsed Church. In other words, we can hope to preserve the intellectual space within which to comfortably exercise our faith and acquire spiritual confirmation.
It is worth noting that even if we intellectually knew something were true, that would not provide us with fulfilling peace. Ultimately, it will be our attempt to develop a closer relationship with God through prayer, study, meditation, application of His teachings, covenant making through the ordinances, and true service to our fellowmen, that will reveal whether something is true or from God. It is this same quest of the soul that will bring an abiding peace and happiness.
As Teryl Givens has said:
“There is something to predispose us to a life of faith or a life of unbelief. There is a heart that in these conditions of equilibrium and balance—and only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally “enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16)—is truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness. Why, then, is there more merit—given this perfect balance—in believing in the Christ (and His gospel and prophets) than believing in a false deity or in nothing at all? Perhaps because there is nothing in the universe—or in any possible universe—more perfectly good, absolutely beautiful, and worthy of adoration and emulation than this Christ. A gesture of belief in that direction, a will manifesting itself as a desire to acknowledge His virtues as the paramount qualities of a divided universe, is a response to the best in us, the best and noblest of which the human soul is capable. For we do indeed create gods after our own image—or potential image. And that is an activity endowed with incalculable moral significance.”
Challenge 15: There are just so many different challenges.
Response: We have to deal with one challenge at a time and not feel over-whelmed.
Some websites try to dog pile a series of challenges to make us feel overwhelmed. At most Boardwalks there is a game called whackamole where artificial gophers pop their heads up and the player must quickly hit them down. We can’t get so caught up with playing intellectual whackamole that it consumes our lives and interferes with living a fulfilling life. We don’t have to whack down every intellectual gopher. We can do a balanced search on one issue at a time. There are many different sources such as FARMS, the Maxwell Institute, FAIR and Moregood. If you are interested in a concise response to many of the challenges raised, along with relevant scholarly analysis, you might want to go to mormonchallenges.org.
Most importantly, we must remember that if, in the name of intellectualism, we reject the role of the Holy Ghost in our search for truth, we have rejected the testifier of Jesus Christ and we will, in time, lose our assurance of His divinity, of His resurrection and of His plan of salvation. We will be left with no religion at all. After all, Jesus himself said that he would not leave us alone, but that he would send us the comforter and that he would lead us into all truth.
Challenge 16: I still feel like the role of reason is so important. I worry that Mormonism expects me to dismiss my intellect and rely solely on emotions.
Response: No, we needn’t abandon reason in our search for truth. In Doctrine Covenants 50:10-12, the Lord says come let us reason as one man reasons with another and I will show you my strong reason. He also says, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart. And then interestingly adds: by the power of the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and dwell in your heart. He also states that “He [the Holy Ghost] shall lead you into all truth.”
We can learn truth by using all our abilities: to reason, feel, intuit and analyze. In the process, if we remain open to God’s communication, as He sees fit, He will confirm or disaffirm our thoughts through revelation. We can seek this communication, especially when it comes to the most important personal truths. In other words, we can patiently seek line upon line revelation, which according to God’s timing, will be revealed when it is expedient and He sees it as appropriate. Sometimes this revelation might come to us as an audible voice, but most often it will come to our spirit as a “still small voice.”
Some neurologists and psychologists studying these two processes believe that they might actually engage different parts of the brain. In a recent experiment, they concluded that those who believe in deity can be turned into atheists by engaging them in left-brain deductive reasoning only and persuading them to abandon the intuitive or emotional intellectual processes characteristic of the right brain. This seems akin to Mormon teachings that to learn the most important truths, a person must choose the Holy Spirit as their guide and not be deceived (Doctrine and Covenants 45:57). This would suggest that if we attempt to discover God and truth by building a deductive reasoning model alone, we will fail just as those who tried to build the tower of babel to reach God failed. Their approach resulted in the destruction of their ability to establish and maintain relationships between them. Likewise, a solely deductive reasoning model will crumble the foundations of our relationship with God and also with family and friends.
Accordingly, philosophers, psychologists, and neurologists are increasingly coming to a more inclusive, more traditional, even spiritual understanding of reason. The older sense of “mind” is intent, as in “I have a mind to tell you off.” And the older sense of “heart” is the core of our understanding and soul, as when Solomon asked for an understanding heart and was given wisdom. Truth isn’t found just by deduction from indubitable rule-like principles. Finding truth involves our intent, our whole understanding, our minds and our intuitive and emotional capacities. This is the view that philosophers and scientists are coming to. It is a view that Mormons resonate with, who believe that fundamentally we are integrated beings–heart, soul, mind, and body.
Science itself makes an appeal to what philosophers call pathos and ethos, though these are emphasized more in religion. For instance, both make appeals to authority, appeals to character, and appeals to collective testimony (ethos)—which involves the kind of faith-as-trust philosopher Jim Faulconer emphasizes as characteristic to religion. Additionally, both recognize feelings of intuition (pathos). The American philosopher of science Charles Peirce maintained that many of the greatest discoveries in science came first in the form of a feeling.
Challenge: 17: But when I pray, I don’t feel I get answers.
Response: Sometimes we ask questions on matters that we consider the most pressing, but they aren’t the most important or pressing to God.
Our insistence on asking about a particular subject can block our ability to communicate with God and learn the most pressing truths He may wish to teach us at that time. While a willingness to sincerely discuss our inner thoughts and feelings is key to opening the doors of inspiration, we must also be open to a possible different agenda of God’s desired communication. For God, the most pressing communications are almost always about our personal nature. For this reason, the most important answers God wants to give us are the truths about the soul, and this is inherently connected with our natures. For this reason, our nature will limit our ability to understand the results of the experiment—to see for ourselves the truth we are seeking. So, we are rightfully caused to introspect and ask questions about whether we are willing to listen and follow a new way, or if we are willing to reject certain prior ways, all so we can better understand the most important answers or truths God wants to convey, or the word upon which the experiment is to be performed. As we do so, finding our way, and learning additional truths becomes more natural.
In the end, getting answers to our prayers depends on sincerely coming to prayer doing the best we can to see that our lives and attitudes are in harmony with what we already know comes from God; first studying out our own questions, making a decision, and presenting it before the Lord, like the brother of Jared proposing the idea of God touching the stones to light the vessels; being willing to act on the inspiration we might receive, showing patience and being humble to hear God’s thoughts on any subject He wants to discuss. Under these circumstances, we learn to feel, recognize, and understand His communication and answers.
Challenge 18: I am being asked to trust God, but I’m not sure I can, given all the confusion, evil, and suffering in the world.
Response: This question has troubled theologians for thousands of years.
Orthodox Christians believe that God is the creator of everything, which leads to the problem of how to explain the evil and suffering that clearly exists in the world, including the confusion about religion. Joseph Smith taught that existence is pluralistic, that we and matter itself have always existed, that God works with us, helping us move along and grow, respecting our agency, as we seek our happiness. God is not the source of everything that happens. Likewise, God did not create the condition that agency is necessary for happiness. That condition was hard wired into the fabric of the universe in which God and we both live.
Mormons believe that the answer to this challenge also lies in the fact that God has a purpose for His children, which is best accomplished when they have the freedom to exercise their moral agency, meaning to make choices. This means that as men choose evil and violence, selfishness and greed, there will be suffering and pain. But it also means that as men choose goodness, service, and kindness it will bring happiness and peace. Fundamentally, God respects this moral agency so His children can learn and grow in this mortal experience. There are to be natural consequences to men’s choices which assist in the learning process. It is in this kind of environment that faith can best flourish. For this reason, God seldom interferes with this natural process. Instead, He inspires, counsels and nudges men and women to be their better selves.
In His earthly ministry, Jesus showed that same respect for moral agency. Men could accept or reject him. He invited them, He tried to persuade them, but He did not try to force them. As Jesus respected their moral agency, He himself, suffered at their hands. In the end, He exercised the ultimate self-control of His power, because of His commitment to these principles. He chose in the face of evil, to suffer death and anguish, with the intent and purpose to increase man’s ability to choose anew after having chosen wrong. And from His unselfish choices, Jesus expanded mankind’s ability to choose, by conquering death and relieving spiritual anguish for those who will.
As to societies and cultures, God encourages them to progress in meaningful ways by offering inspiration to individuals and leaders. But it can take generations for a society to begin to approximate better ways, the divine ways that God desires and knows will optimize human happiness. An example is the European development from feudalism to monarchy to the gradual rule of law, starting with the Magna Carta, and finally leading to representative government and democracy. Along the way, there will be times of great suffering and injustice, but God, in his respect for agency, will not attempt, nor could He force, societies to be just and fair. They must be inspired and choose to do so.
Challenge 19: At least, we should be able to expect that God’s prophets will always take a stand for what is right. But that has not happened. Some examples are slavery, Blacks and the Priesthood, and women’s suffrage.
Response: Clearly God wants freedom and equal rights for all. But, if God were to openly oppose, through His prophets and Church, all which is wrong with a society, His prophets and Church would likely come under constant and intense attack and lose their ability to gradually influence for good the societies in which they live. Even Jesus did not take on the evils of slavery or equal rights for women during His mortal ministry.
By analogy, democratic governments cannot impose democratic institutions on other societies. Democratic nation building is a slow and gradual process, often requiring a struggle and growth on many fronts. It just cannot be done any other way. Likewise, God is in the process for the long run, to win the war for the benefit of all His children, even if He loses some battles (because of His respect for moral agency) along the way.
There is often a delicate timing to preserve and maximize the influence of His Church and prophets in the process. For example, the time to preach the Gospel to all nations came, but not until after Christ’s resurrection. In the end, all of God’s children will have all of His blessings, if they so choose.
Challenge 20: But can’t we at least count on God’s true prophets to understand His ways and desires, even if the world does not.
Response: Yes, the prophets have had a much clearer vision of God’s ways than the world has had. But, even the prophets are not given a full understanding at once.
It is also a process for them. They too patiently seek line upon line revelation, which is given in the Lord’s own timing. They live within societies with cultural norms and practices and God reveals to them, when the time is right, those things He wants them to teach. The vision given to Peter, that taught him not to consider any of God’s children that He brings to be unclean, was just such a teaching. It came when the apostles were to go through-out the world and teach to all nations, kindreds and tongues. We learn from Joseph Smith that usually the Lord does not reveal His truths until He is asked; hence revelation is often dialogic in nature. God says come let us reason as one man reasons with another. Likewise, we learn that God teaches “line upon line, precept upon precept” and a man is given light and if he lives true to that light, God will cause the light to grow brighter and brighter until there is no darkness within him.
So, yes, God teaches His prophets, but even with them, it is usually gradual and gentle, and in response to an inquiry prompted from their environment or culture, and then often only after they make a personal effort. It comes when they seek line upon line expedient revelation. So it is with us too.
Challenge 21: But when a prophet does speak, we should be able to count on him to be speaking only the truth and God’s will.
Response: That is not what the Church is teaching.
In the April General Conference of 2012, Elder Christofferson, explained that doctrine is decided by decision of those in authority under divine revelation. Just as it was in the early church, when the apostles, in response to Peter’s dream that the gospel be taken to the gentiles, sent a letter announcing their decision, saying “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us,” or “in other words, this decision came by divine revelation through the Holy Spirit.”
He quotes Joseph Smith saying “A prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.” And he tells the story about Brigham Young saying one thing in the morning after hearing about Johnston’s army coming to the territory and then in the afternoon saying that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, which was the opposite from the morning talk.
He quotes President J. Reuben Clark: “Even the President of the Church, himself, may not always be ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’ when he addresses the people. This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly speculative character) where subsequent Presidents of the Church and the people themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”
Challenge 22: So how can we know when the prophet is moved upon by the Holy Ghost or not? Response: Elder Christopherson quotes President Clark asking the same question: “How shall the Church know when these adventurous expeditions of the brethren into these highly speculative principles and doctrines meet the requirements of the statutes that the announcers thereof have been ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’?”
And he quotes President Clark’s answer: “The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.”
There is so much to be learned about the process of learning itself and being inspired, since it is a personal experience and will hopefully go on forever. Mormons believe, at their core, that the glory of God is intelligence and that the mind and the heart must be involved in this process. They also believe that the depth and speed of their learning is in a real sense dependent on the earnestness of their search, the will and timing of the Lord, and even the purity of their own souls. And since the nature of a person can be purified and sanctified over time, so as well can one’s learning capacity. Mormons also believe that faithfulness, or a willingness to hold to that which has already been confirmed in their minds and hearts as true, is critical in order to not sink in the waters of Galilee. And most importantly, they believe, as Joseph Smith taught, that in apparent conflict, often lies deep meaning, but that true learning requires a firmness of mind and heart, which will be rewarded to the patient, with peace in this life and eternal life in the life to come.