Archive for the ‘Paul Nurnberg’ Category

“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
–Matthew 22:37 (NKJV)

by Paul Nurnberg
An Application of Textual Criticism
The year before I left the LDS Church, I received as a gift Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, published by Yale University Press. That first night, I read the introduction in which Skousen describes his decades of research aimed at reconstructing the earliest English text of the Book of Mormon by comparing the various early manuscripts and stripping away changes made by Smith’s scribes and later editors. It had only been a couple years since I’d been introduced to the science and purpose of Textual Criticism. Here, I was seeing it applied to a Mormon text for the first time. While I was eager to get to the resultant textual reconstruction to see what insights Skousen’s work had uncovered, I re-read the 35 pages of Introduction and Editor’s Preface that first night. It had unlocked in my mind several questions that had been sitting on the shelf of my mind for a few years, and now weren’t going to let go.

  • All of that work to arrive at the earliest English text, but to what end?
  • Aren’t there still cultural and time gaps between modern readers and the supposed ancient authors that can never be bridged due to the fact that the golden plates aren’t extant?
  • On what basis were subsequent changes to the English text of the Book of Mormon made, if they weren’t original, and there is no recourse to an original language manuscript?

As I’ve engaged with Latter-day Saints on these questions, answers have varied, but mostly those I’ve encountered have held to the idea that original language manuscripts for the Book of Mormon aren’t needed, because Skousen’s work gets us as close to the source of Joseph Smith’s inspired translation as we’re going to get. This raises a couple related questions:

  • Who was inspired, the supposed ancient authors of the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith?
  • If both, then does Joseph Smith’s original manuscript also contain errors?

Approaching Inerrancy
Like my view of Scripture, my understanding of the concept of Biblical inerrancy was informed by my upbringing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The title page to the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith said was translated from the last leaf of the golden plates, contains a statement and a warning about mistakes in the text. It reads, “And now if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men; wherefore condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment seat of Christ.”[i] Not only did the Book of Mormon’s supposed ancient authors predict how its detractors would react to it (“A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.”[ii]), but also predicted that it would be put under scrutiny for errors and warned against rejecting it on that basis. The passage about how “gentiles” would react to the Book of Mormon had struck me as the manipulative, self-serving justification of a modern author trying to foist his own work on the world as ancient Scripture since that notion had unlocked in my mind sometime in early 1999 when I was sitting on a bed in an apartment in Budapest, but I’d pushed it aside. The title page warning now struck me as similar.

When asked why the eighth Article of Faith doesn’t contain a disclaimer for the Book of Mormon like it does for the Bible (“as far as it is translated correctly”), Latter-day Saints will often argue that it’s not needed because the Book of Mormon was translated “by the gift and power of God” so its resulting translation is perfect and exactly as God wants it. That aligns with Skousen’s work to try to identify the earliest text. Presumably, the closer Skousen gets to the original English text, the closer he gets to the perfect English text—but not to the ancient version of the text, if such were indeed to exist.

Ostensibly, both the ancient authors of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith in translating it, were inspired in what they wrote. Skousen’s entire exercise would be futile without that assumption! Why, then, does the title page contain the escape hatch it does? It suggests that despite God’s involvement if humans are involved in the production of Scripture (either in writing the original texts or in translating them with God’s help) there will unavoidably be errors.

The translation process as described by David Whitmer suggests that Smith put his face in a hat and the translation of the characters on the plates was shown to him on his seer stone in the hat, one character from the plates and its interpretation at a time, and that the next character’s interpretation would not appear until the scribe had recorded it correctly.[iii] Such a verbally inspired translation process should not have resulted in any errors needing correction by later editors, but that is not what we have with the Book of Mormon, necessitating Skousen’s work to arrive at the earliest text.[iv]

Where Christians can logically reason to the inerrancy of Scripture from God’s perfection, Mormon Theology seems to lack a robust concept of inspiration powerful enough to overcome human frailty, else Latter-day Saints would also reason to a position of scriptural inerrancy, but even the supposed inspired translation of the title page of the Book of Mormon prevents them from doing so. The Book of Mormon, from the title page to the supposed worries of its ancient prophet Moroni is rife with the concerns of a mind seeking to convince the world that what he is producing is Scripture on par with the Bible.[v]

The Helaman 1–15-16 manuscript from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon known as “O”. The “O” manuscript contains the transcriber’s handwritten record of what Joseph Smith dictated via the infamous peep stone in the hat “translation” technique.

Flunking Inerrancy
In the first article in this series, I affirmed a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.[vi] A friend with whom I served on the LDS Mission wrote to me to share his thoughts on my article. One of his statements reminds me of a sentiment I have seen often from Latter-day Saints. He said, “I don’t think I can ever conceive of anything as ‘God’s inerrant word.’”

As I transitioned out of the LDS Church and continued to discuss religion with others online, I found that Latter-day Saints often reacted with incredulity to the concept of Biblical inerrancy. I think this stems somewhat from what is stated in the eighth Article of Faith: “We believe the Bible to be the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly. We also believe the Book of Mormon to be the Word of God.” This ties the reliability of the Bible with the reliability of the translation, in some ways confusing what Christians are affirming when they hold to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. I also think it stems from the idea that human involvement in the production of Scripture necessarily entails error because as the title page of the Book of Mormon suggests, to “err is human.”[vii] Latter-day Saints come by a misunderstanding of the doctrine of inerrancy honestly.[viii]

One thing that discussing the concept of Biblical inerrancy with Mormons online circa 2010-11 taught me is that I didn’t have a firm grasp of the concept of Biblical inerrancy myself. I knew that it was something that many Evangelical Christians affirm, but as Latter-day Saints (at least one of them a Biblical scholar not just laypersons) presented me with their arguments against the concept, I often found myself either agreeing with them or flummoxed as to how to respond.

It wasn’t until I began attending a Christian Seminary, studying for an M.Div. in Biblical Studies that I encountered two clarifications that gave me solid footing for understanding the concept of Biblical inerrancy, and could see that many of the arguments made against the concept are rooted in a misunderstanding of what is being affirmed.[ix] Two clarifications that helped me to have a better grasp of what an affirmation of inerrancy entails are:

  • Infallibility (the idea that the Bible is incapable of failing) is the stronger concept than inerrancy
  • Inerrancy (the idea that the Bible contains no errors) applies only to the original text, not to later copies or translations

I affirm both the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. Here’s why.

  • The Bible teaches that God’s word is truth (free from error)
  • The utter reliability of God’s Word has been the consistent teaching of the Church from the earliest times
    • “You have studied the Holy Scriptures, which are true and inspired by the Holy Spirit. You know that nothing contrary to justice or truth has been written in them.” – Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians (between 70 – 96 CE)[x]
    • “[. . .] the Scriptures are indeed perfect since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit [. . .] – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter 28 (between 174 and 189 CE)
    • “For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.” – Augustine Letter From Augustine to Jerome (405 CE)

An elegant argument can be made for the infallibility and inerrancy of the Biblical autographs. One of my theology professors lays out the argument for the inerrancy of the Bible as a logical syllogism supported by the Bible’s own teachings:

  • Premise A: Every word of God is true (Titus 1:2; John 17:17; 2 Cor 6:7; Col 1:5; 2 Tim 2:15; James 1:18)
  • Premise B: The Bible is the Word of God (2 Tim 3:16; Mt 15:6; Mk 7:13; Rom 9:6; Psalm 119:105; Rom 3:2
  • Conclusion: The Bible is inerrant[xi]

Another of my favorite theologians, R. C. Sproul, puts that syllogism this way:

  • Premise A: The Bible is the infallible Word of God.
  • Premise B: The Bible attests to its own infallibility.
  • Premise C: The self-attestation of Scripture is an infallible attestation.
  • Conclusion: The Bible is the infallible Word of God[xii]

However, Sproul rightly notes that the syllogism as structured above leads to the charge of circular reasoning. The conclusion is contained within the first premise. This pre-suppositional method of argumentation is wholly a theological enterprise, and I don’t have any problems with it and can affirm it on those grounds. But it doesn’t describe how I came to trust the Bible as infallible and inerrant.

A portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This, and all I have laid out in this article about the historical reliability of the Bible when compared with the Book of Mormon, is why I hold to the classical approach to Biblical infallibility and inerrancy. It also can be structured as a logical syllogism:

  • Premise A: The Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document.
  • Premise B: On the basis of this reliable document we have sufficient evidence to believe confidently that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
  • Premise C: Jesus Christ being the Son of God is an infallible authority.
  • Jesus Christ teaches that the Bible is more than generally trustworthy: it is the very Word of God.
  • Premise D: That the word, in that it comes from God, is utterly trustworthy because God is utterly trustworthy.
  • Conclusion: On the basis of the infallible authority of Jesus Christ, the Church believes the Bible to be utterly trustworthy, i.e. infallible[xiii]

The first premise allows for the study and wrestling that I’ve done with regard to the historical reliability of texts claimed to be Scripture. The rest of the premises argue from that to various theological positions leading to the conclusion. This classical structure marries the two facets of my religious experience: mind and heart. I can love God with my mind and be justified in loving God with my heart. It leaves room for the work of the Holy Spirit in me through my studies. It escapes base fideism and allows for the evaluation of evidence and reasoning to play its part in my religious convictions. Historicity matters!

NOTES
[i] Times and Seasons, Vol. III, No. 24, “Truth Will Prevail” accessed from http://www.centerplace.org/history/ts/v3n24.htm#943
[ii] 2 Nephi 29:3
[iii] See David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ
[iv] This problem was also identified by LDS Scholars David L. Paulsen and R, Dennis Potter in their response to Owen and Mosser’s review of How Wide the Divide: A Mormon & An Evangelical in Conversation. See their discussion of the issue as handled by Stephen Robinson on pp. 231-235 https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1408&context=msr
[v] Ether 12:23-29
[vi] Continuing the Tragic Quest https://beggarsbread.org/2019/03/03/12289/
[vii] Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, accessed from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69379/an-essay-on-criticism
[viii] The Gospel Topics entry on Bible, Inerrancy Of states the following:

Latter-day Saints revere the Bible. They study it and believe it to be the word of God. However, they do not believe the Bible, as it is currently available, is without error.

Joseph Smith commented, “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, chapter 17)…

As the Bible was compiled, organized, translated, and transcribed, many errors entered the text. The existence of such errors becomes apparent when one considers the numerous and often conflicting translations of the Bible in existence today.

So while Joseph Smith, as quoted here, explicated a view that is close to what Christians mean by inerrancy, the view argued against in this brief article from the LDS Church’s website is a straw-man. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/bible-inerrancy-of?lang=eng
[ix] Hat tip to my theology professor and the Dean of the Seminary while I was there, Dr. Johnny Pressley, for the clarity with which he (and Dr. Cottrell) presented theological concepts. They both achieved within me a clarity of thought and enunciation of theological concepts for which I will forever be grateful and which I will forever be chasing.
[x] Most scholars date this writing to the last three decades of the first century CE.
[xi] Jack Cottrell, Solid: The Authority of God’s Word, College Press Publishing Company, Joplin, MO 1991, 40-41.
[xii] R. C. Sproul, Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine, P&R Publishing, Philipsburg, NJ, 2005, 69.
[xiii] Ibid. 72-73.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
–2 Timothy 3:16

By Paul Nurnberg
Finding Hidden Books
Recently, I listened to an Episode of Mike Licona’s Risen Jesus Podcast. He was discussing three methods of approaching ancient texts that he defined as follows:

  • Methodological Credulity – One comes to the text assuming that it is reliable, that it is reporting truth until one is shown otherwise. The default position is: this text is true.
  • Methodological Neutrality – One approaches the text with an attitude of neutrality, not assuming it to be true or false. The default position is: openness to the text being true or false.
  • Methodological Skepticism – One approaches the text with the attitude that one has to be convinced that it is true. The default position is: this text is false.[1]

Having been born into a Mormon family, by default I inherited a certain view of what constitutes Scripture. More specifically, I inherited a set of books that the LDS Church holds as its “standard works” or canon. Chief among these was the Book of Mormon. That was the book that had been, according to the narrative, preserved by God, prophesied by Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 29:4; Ezekiel 37:16), and had been brought forth in the last days to convince Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, like those of old.

The story — that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel and led to find a set of golden plates in a hill near his home in upstate New York — always seemed audacious to me. When I was growing up, I accepted this narrative as true — that actual metal plates had been buried in a hill which contained the history of an ancient American civilization, which had its origins in a family who left Jerusalem during the reign of King Zedekiah, and whose patriarch, Lehi, had been a contemporary of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah; and that these plates had been delivered to Joseph Smith after four years of testing his resilience, sincerity, and obedience, and that he translated the writings on the plates into English from a language called in the text “Reformed Egyptian.” I believed that the Book of Mormon published to the world in 1830 was, in fact, the Word of God — delivered by a prophet to prepare the way for Jesus’ return. Smith’s explanation for why the source text — the plates themselves — were no longer extant, seemed equally incredible to me.

I said that the story seemed farfetched to me. It did! Smith’s claims are recognizable as bold, even for one predisposed by upbringing to take an approach to them of methodological credulity. But I didn’t have any reasons when I was young to seriously doubt the narrative. Everywhere I turned there were adults I knew, loved, respected, and trusted who believed whole-heartedly in that story and the resultant text. I didn’t see compelling reasons to take a different approach than to believe what was presented. My mother believed it and her family had roots in the LDS Church that went back to the 1860s and included the leaving behind of home and family in Denmark to cross the American plains pulling a handcart — dedication to the cause. My father believed it, and he had left the Lutheran Church to join the LDS Church, subjecting himself to a lifetime of serious and sometimes heated discussions with his born-again-Christian brother. These played out over the phone and I recall often eavesdropping on my dad’s side of their conversations.

I’ve been a bibliophile from a young age. I come by it honestly. My parents built a large library of books in our home. My dad’s bookshelves had two shelves at the bottom that were behind closed doors that latched magnetically, and three shelves above that were open to view. One night while perusing his library, I found among the books that were behind closed doors, a book titled “The Book of Mormon on Trial” by J. Milton Rich. Curious, I flipped through this comic book style Mormon apologetic work. I don’t know how my dad came to have the book, but the titles of the other books that were stashed away with it in the bottom shelves taught me early the meaning of “putting something on the shelf.” I am not suggesting that the possession of books that present a defense of one’s beliefs automatically suggests that one’s faith is unreasonable or indefensible. Rather, I am describing what I learned from this experience — that faith entails reasoning through the arguments both for and against one’s beliefs.

Inside the Shrine of the Book in West Jerusalem. This museum houses the famous Isaiah scroll and other Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts dating back to 150BC.

Out of the Dust
Once when I was a teenager, during a particularly boring Sunday service, both I and my older sister ducked out to “go to the bathroom” and ended up sitting together on a sofa in the foyer. I was leafing through my quad (one thick volume that contained all of the LDS canon) and looking at the maps. The Bible had maps of the Mediterranean showing where the Apostle Paul had journeyed, but the Book of Mormon didn’t have maps. My sister told me about the conversation they’d had in Seminary about whether the Nephites inhabited all of North and South America or just a small portion. Her High School Seminary teacher always brought the goods!

My mom did family history research for others, spending long days at the Family History Library downtown Salt Lake City. During the dog days of summer, when boredom with suburban life would set in, and I’d pine for the regimen of school, and I’d often go with her. I’d walk the stacks, looking through books or drawers of microfilm, or I would find the picture books with coats of arms and practice drawing the one for Nürnberg, with its black eagle on a yellow background and red bands[2]. As a teenager, I geeked out on that historical connection to my family name. I was excited by history in general. Many of those summer days, I would go next door to the Church History Museum or walk up the hill by the Deseret Gym, past the spot where I later learned Mark Hofmann nearly blew himself into eternity, to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum.

The museums enthralled me. In the exhibits, I could see artifacts from the lives of the founders of the LDS Church and of the Mormon pioneers. Among the tangible relics, I saw the pocket watch that saved John Taylor’s life in the firefight at the Carthage Jail in Illinois, where Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob. The exhibits there connected me with my heritage in a way that both grounded me to my people and to my story.

In March of 1997, as I was preparing to leave on a mission for the LDS Church. BYU was hosting the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, and I went to Provo to see it. As I stood in front of a long display case that held the traveling reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll, I listened to the self-guided tour cassette on a Walkman describe this ancient text. I learned of the import the Dead Sea Scrolls held for Biblical Scholarship because they pushed the dating for the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible back by nearly a millennium. The Biblical record was indeed ancient.

Standing there on the campus of BYU, I had what I would describe as a first brush with methodological skepticism towards the Book of Mormon. I thought of the missing plates contrasted with the Great Isaiah Scroll. It was a jarring juxtaposition because the Book of Mormon uses Isaiah 29 in 2 Nephi 27 to suggest that Isaiah was prophesying the coming forth of the Book of Mormon “out of the dust.” But there I was, standing before an ancient text that actually had come forth out of the dust. It wasn’t sealed. Scholars actually could read it and compare it to the other known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. Differences though there may be, the process of Textual Criticism could be applied. The Book of Mormon plates were nowhere to be found, and according to the narrative, shouldn’t be expected to be discovered. Scholars could not read them.

Despite that first encounter with methodological skepticism, with my mission approaching, I knew that a spiritual witness of the book is what my church leaders prescribed. So I settled into an attitude of methodological neutrality and studied the book extensively. I didn’t then concern myself with scholarly, critical approaches to the Book of Mormon. Rather, I approached it like I hoped those I met on my mission would, I read it and prayed to know if it was true.

On a hot summer day in 1998, as a Mormon missionary knocking doors in Szeged, a beautiful university city in southeastern Hungary. One man spoke with us from his front window, seemingly uninterested. When we told him about Joseph Smith and the golden plates, he suddenly became enthusiastic and asked, “Do you want to read a real book pulled from the dust of the earth?”

My companion and I exchanged puzzled glances and the man disappeared into his house and returned a few moments later with a stack of paper. He handed it to me and said, “I got this from a friend. You can borrow it if you promise to bring it back tomorrow.”

Never one to miss the opportunity to bargain, I told him I would read his stack of papers if he would take a copy of the Book of Mormon and read it. He agreed. That night I sat on our balcony reading. The packet of photocopied material he had lent me was a translation of the “The War Scroll,” found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Each page was bisected with Hebrew script on one side and the English translation on the other. I was mesmerized by the description of the eschatological war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The packet lacked a contextual description of the work, and I was so steeped in Mormon cosmology, that I tried to make sense of what I was reading as a description of a primordial War in Heaven. The dots weren’t connecting, but I stayed up late trying to make it fit. Reading that non-canonical work from the Second Temple period was a formative experience. It helped me to see that even the evidence for a small Jewish sect could be unearthed and provide valuable historical and cultural insights into their beliefs and practices—evidence of their existence.

Throughout my two-years in Hungary, I studied the LDS Standard Works (Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and the King James Bible). I used the LDS Institute manuals, designed as curriculum for Mormon college students, as study aids. While studying the Old and New Testaments, I was fascinated by the cultural insights the manuals provided that helped to illuminate the context of the Biblical narrative. Even the manual for the Doctrine and Covenants provided valuable 19th-century cultural context for each section in that book. As I studied through the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, however, I was troubled by the paltry size of those manuals. They contained only summaries of the narratives and teachings of each book supplemented by quotes from LDS General Authorities.

The Pearl of Great Price is only 61 pages long. It makes sense that the commentary for such a brief work would be less substantial than for the Bible. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, claims to be an epic covering roughly a millennium of history—more when you count the Jaredite narrative—and fills 531 pages. The cultural commentary for that book should have been weighty. But it wasn’t.

By the end of my mission, I would sit on my bed during morning personal study, and daydream about becoming an archaeologist and finding the evidence that would vindicate the Book of Mormon as ancient history. When I returned from my mission, I subscribed to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, then published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). With each issue, I was dismayed as the articles would walk back from premature claims made by previous generations of Mormon archaeologists about ancient Mesoamerican artifacts such as Izapa Stela 5. While I was glad for the forthright dedication to accuracy, I began to have serious doubts about the Book of Mormon as a historical narrative about real people who existed in the ancient past.

Photo Credit: British Library

The Codex Sinaiticus was handwritten well over 1600 years ago. This manuscript contains the entire Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.

Fast forward about a decade to 2007 and I was finishing up a business degree at a small Catholic college near my home in northern Kentucky. One of the requirements for graduation was to complete a religion class. I signed up for Intro to the New Testament. The class was taught by a priest who rekindled in me the fire I had felt years before when studying the New Testament. We used “Understanding the New Testament and Its Message: An Introduction” by Vincent P. Branick as our course text. Beyond providing a cultural framework for understanding the New Testament, Branick discusses the textual issues: oral tradition and two-source theory, the “Synoptic Problem,” as well as Text, Form, and Source Criticism. I was fascinated! Why? Because the New Testament can be studied as history and as a historical text. Unbelievers argue that Jesus’ miracles, resurrection, and other supernatural elements of the narrative are hagiography, but all but the most skeptical scholars agree that the New Testament is focused on the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

Taking that class was the nail in the coffin of my belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. One simply cannot study the Book of Mormon in historical and cultural context the way one can the Bible.[3] Although I have been charged with “trusting in the arm of flesh” because I have sought to understand the Word of God as history, and have rejected works that do not display the same traits as the Bible, the very point of the Gospel is that God acted in history to accomplish His plan of salvation.

I know in whom I have trusted to lead me in my studies. I thank God for my mind that has ever sought Him, and the Holy Spirit for teaching me in the way that He knew would be convincing to me and prepare me for the gift of a new heart. I praise Jesus, my Savior, forevermore. I can never go back. As Peter testified, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16 ESV). Historicity matters!

NOTES
[1] Risen Jesus Podcast S3E5 Methods of Approaching Ancient Text
[2] https://www.heraldry-wiki.com/heraldrywiki/index.php?title=N%C3%BCrnberg
[3] I am not convinced by Brandt Gardner’s arguments in Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History.


Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
But nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old
planet earth.
—Ecclesiastes 1:2-4 (The Message)

by Paul Nurnberg
Accepting the Labels
I’m a quester. A seeker. I accept those labels, because “he who seeks shall find.”1 Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Ecclesiastes renders the Hebrew qoheleth as “quester” (typically preacher). This word choice highlights a reality that surprised me as I completed graduate studies at a Christian seminary. Namely, many of my fellow students—often vocational ministers—were also seekers. That is, they were intensely interested in seeking and knowing God’s truth and had passed through crucibles of doubt and suffering that ultimately drew them closer to God. Such is true of most of the believers I count among my spiritual mentors. Petersen’s rendering of the opening verses of Solomon’s realist musings powerfully capture the tragic quest of seeking to know and grow closer to the heart of God and the disillusionment one feels when one’s faith universe implodes.

In 1984, Mormon thinker, professor, literary critic, and yes, theologian, Eugene England published his first collection of personal essays, Dialogues with Myself. In the first essay in that collection, “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest” England quotes from and shares his thoughts on an essay  entitled “Tragedy as Religious Paradox” by the former chairman of the English Department at BYU, P.A. Christensen:

. . . the emerging and unifying element in the richly diverse tragic tradition is the focus on that ultimate desolation, available to us all, when by accident or our own questing we come to feel “the universe has lost its meaning, its moral bearings, its spiritual security.” Tragic man, the subject of our greatest literature, unwilling to rest with simplistic and thus secure conceptions of the universe, pushes at the paradoxes of his mind and experience uncover, “lives precariously on the growing margin of knowledge,” and challenges—or obeys—the Gods of his conceptions in ways that bring, in either case, suffering and loss out of all proportion to his actions. Yet tragic man persists in testing the paradoxes and enduring the suffering. Perhaps he does so because that is the process of all significant learning, of breaking out of confining concepts, out of old seed husks into new life, the process of dying in the old man so a new one can be born; perhaps he does so because it is the ultimate way of courageously confronting the real universe.2

England’s life and letters have been celebrated by a certain subset of progressive and liberal Mormons since he co-founded Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought at Stanford in 1966. Since his death in 2001, younger generations of progressive Internet Mormons have paid homage to England through blog posts and podcasts.3

Mormon thinker, professor, literary critic, and theologian, Eugene England.

I learned of England’s writings posthumously. As a young LDS return missionary in 1999, I began a long quest of seeking and discovery. I began discussing Mormonism online—debating my beliefs and epistemology with others of similar disposition. In 2002, as my religious views began to lean towards the unorthodox in Mormonism, I was in spiritual turmoil. The universe was reeling. It was no longer a secure place. A friend recommended England’s book of essays Making Peace, which I purchased and devoured.

My journey has taken me out of the LDS Church, but the drawing of God to his Son, supported by the evidence for Christianity, has continued to be compelling and convincing to me. I’ve since found a new spiritual home. The tragic nature of being a quester is that one risks losing everything. Just ask Job! As an ex-Mormon, I’ve experienced my share of loss—of friends, of trust and intimacy in family relationships, and of community. Over the years, I’ve witnessed many other young Mormons go through their own quests, a few were family, friends or mission companions, some were merely online acquaintances—all tragic. Some have lost spouses and children to painful separation and divorce, some have lost their sense of community, and many have lost faith in God altogether.

If the above resonates with you, if the universe has lost its meaning, bearings and spiritual security; my hope is that you will decide to continue the tragic quest with me through this series of posts. I understand the pain, loneliness, fear, and rejection that comes from deconstructing one’s faith. I also know the comfort, companionship, assurance, and intimacy that comes from renewal of faith. I hope that you will one day find the words of my apostolic namesake to be as affirming of your journey and transformation as I do now— “. . . whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”4

Pinned to the Spot Where I Stood
My mind screamed: RUN! FIRE! GET OUT! For a moment, I stood there in the darkness—pinned to the spot where I stood by fear—however irrational it seemed. Smoke swirled around the neon green exit signs, glowing brightly, but providing no reassurance. I’d been to enough local rock concerts to recognize the unmistakable smell of artificial smoke and the hiss of smoke machines, but I should back up a bit.

When I was a sophomore in high school, the LDS Seminary teachers at my school in West Jordan, Utah planned a special devotional. In the days leading up to it, we were told that rather than meeting in our classrooms, we would meet in the large subdivided room that was used for devotionals. When the day arrived, I left the school building, crossing the parking lot to the seminary building.

The side entrance was locked, which was unusual. A seminary teacher standing nearby told me that I must enter through the front doors. This change in routine was confusing, but I made my way to the front of the building where a line was forming and waited with my classmates to get into the building.

The glass double doors were obscured. Smoke drifted from beneath a heavy black curtain, which was hung to block our view inside. The whole experience had an ominous feeling. Near the door stood another of the seminary teachers, admitting students one at a time through the curtain. I watched the teacher speak briefly to each student and admit one every thirty seconds or so.

I soon realized that whatever devotional the teachers had planned would not be completed in the fifty-five minutes allotted for third period, especially if they kept up the pace of one-by-one admittance. I wondered about the purpose of this exercise. When it was my turn to enter, the “seminary bouncer” greeted me and asked me to extend my right hand through the curtain. I was told that I would feel a guide take me by the hand, that I should trust the guide, and do as he instructed.

It was a surreal and somewhat unsettling experience, but I followed the instructions and reached my hand through the curtain. As soon as I did, someone inside grasped my hand and gently drew me into the building, which was smoky and dark, and my eyes struggled to adjust. My guide placed my hand on a cold railing, wrapping my fingers securely around it. He gave some brief, whispered instructions. “Hold fast the iron rod,” he said. “It will safely guide you through.” Then he left me. And that is when I stood in place, illogically terrified, before finally moving.

I lumbered through the dark, holding onto the rod, which led to the devotional room, where I was instructed to sit quietly and ponder the experience. A CD loop played Joseph L. Townsend’s Mormon hymn based on 1 Nephi, chapter 8 in the Book of Mormon:

Hold to the rod,
the iron rod;
‘Tis strong and bright and true.

The Iron Rod is the word of God;
‘Twill safely guide us through.5

At sixteen, I couldn’t really grasp the significance of that experience for my spiritual life. It was, at the time, a direct and physical experience with fear and despair—one paradoxically tied to my religious experience. Since then, it has come to be a formative event in my life of faith. Not because anything transcendent happened that day, but because of the experiences I’ve had in the ensuing years.

“Hold to the rod, the iron rod; ‘Tis strong and bright and true.”

Theologians Don’t Know Nothing
The seminal Wilco song Theologians begins with these enigmatic lyrics: “Theologians / They don’t know nothing / About my soul / About my soul. / I’m an ocean / Abyss in motion / Slow motion / Slow motion. / Inlitterati lumen fidei / God is with us everyday / That illiterate light / Is with us every night.”

That indecipherable Latin line leaves the listener deliberating just what Jeff Tweedy is lashing at. On one hand, he seems to be conveying a post-modern approach to truth, which disdains the idea that God has revealed propositional truths of the type that theologians discuss and define—or even that there is a God to reveal propositional truths. On the other, he seems to be suggesting that the light illiterate is with us every night as it was with the ancient Israelites.6

It’s a fascinating line, given that the title for their album A Ghost is Born is taken from the lyrics to this song and the lyrics contain a reference to Christ’s ascension. Perhaps, one should consider the text from the album’s cover design (Wilco ≤ A Ghost is Born) in light of John 8:12, the way Jesus in John’s gospel uses the theme of light to point back to the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the wilderness by night, and John Lennon’s controversial statement to the effect that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus now” to fully grasp what may be going on here.

In several ways, this song and the album cover art is a microcosm of my walk with God. Paul Nurnberg ≠ Jesus (see 1 Cor 2:2). Now seems like the right time to finally begin this series of posts that have been rattling around in my head and taking shape for two decades.

There’s the younger, Mormon me, who spent two years in a foreign land, wearing a white shirt and black name badge—peddling Mormonism’s unique brand of Christian Restorationism to the Hungarian people. The one who was serious and conscientious about his beliefs, while also a bit naïve and laissez-faire about his theology. The one crippled by doubt and feelings of unworthiness. The one who came back to the United States and spent well over a decade discussing and debating the merits and pitfalls of Mormon theology and culture in online forums before finally walking away—setting aside with full knowledge and agency the faith, the community, and the beliefs of his birth, all of which he’d once cherished. The one who understands the deconstructionist, “burn it down” skeptical nature of John Lennon.

And then there’s the middle-aged, non-denominational Evangelical Christian me, who watches with bewilderment and sadness as others, seemingly in increasing numbers, take a similar—and sometimes not so similar—path to mine, only in more public forums, and from more faith traditions than just Mormonism. The one who has graduated with an MDiv in Biblical Studies from Cincinnati Christian University. The one who loves the Bible and affirms it as God’s inerrant Word. The one who loves the writings of St. John of the Cross about darkness and spiritual growth. The one who understands the reconstructionist “find what’s burning inside me” nature of Jeff Tweedy. The one who is passionate about living the examined life; about integration and wholeness—the abundant life given me by that illiterate Light.

Ben Shahn, “Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher”

Enemies to That Illiterate Light
There is something to Jeff Tweedy’s insistence: “that illiterate light / is with us every night.” Theologians aren’t the other. We’re all theologians. When we think about God, we’re all doing theology. The question is whether or not we do it well. Tweedy’s lyrics lead me to conclude the truth of this statement: “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.”7

Integrating the Tragic Quest
What is conceived here is a series of posts on reconstructing faith that I’ve named Dialogues with My Former Self. Part of reconstruction is integration. In these posts, I will seek to integrate every part of my mind, heart, and soul. They will include creative writing, philosophical and theological arguments, and personal experience; an integrative whole. After this first introductory post to kick off the series, we’ll tackle a simple subject: God. In the meantime, enjoy this poem I wrote to encapsulate my journey—my tragic quest.

Nightwatch
Wolves at the cave’s mouth snarling,
but how wolves,
if Nothing?

Childhood fears
soothsaid and smothered by pious lines,
Faith is standing at the edge of the darkness,
and taking one
faltering footstep forward,
only to find the way lighted
one step ahead.

Such is not
faith! If every step were lighted,
too soon,
you would know.

Where the Mystery?
As if,
no one ever took that uncertain step, only
to be shadowed in blackness,
crowded, shrouded in deep
despair, crushing the soul.

πάτερ εὶ βούλει παρένεγκε τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ . . .
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me . . .”

As if,
no one has ever mouthed that pleading prayer, only
to carry a cross, one
faltering step after another, through
a darkened wilderness, lighted only
occasionally but brilliantly by
lightning striking on
the distant horizon;
beaten, broken by the empty
air surrounding their bed.

St. John of the Cross taught me
of the beauty, the healing
found in darkness.

And St. John the Beloved of
the Light to come,
Who has, and ever will,
everything illuminate,
all shadows
cast aside;
every crevice
of the small cave
thrown into radiance.

Every shaky aleph, every rounded
omega, each faltering figure,
arms upstretched, that I
scrawled on the rock
wall with the tip
of a branch
blackened in the fire
I light
to keep the wolves at bay—
because God loves
a madman.

Waltham St. Lawrence, “Ecclesiastes, or The Preacher Ecclesiastes”, book illustration.

NOTES
1 Matthew 7:8
2 Eugene England, “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest,” Dialogues with Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1984), 1-2.
3 For blog posts, see for example Shawn Larsen’s article at Mormon Matters, “Why Eugene England Still Matters” from 2008, or Boyd Petersen’s article at his blog Dead Wood and Rushing Water, “Eugene England and the Future of Mormonism” from 2016. For podcasts, see John Dehlin’s four-part tribute at Mormon Stories “Eugene England’s Life and Legacy” from 2011 and Gina Colvin’s podcast episode at A Thoughtful Faith from 2015, “The Life and Writings of Eugene England.”
4 Philippians 3:7-8a
5 Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1985, 274.
6 See Exodus 13:21
7 For the morphology of this oft-used phrase, see https://humorinamerica.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/the-morphology-of-a-humorous-phrase/

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