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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Some Final Thoughts on Seer Stones

Yesterday's news regarding the release of photos showing the stone that Joseph Smith allegedly used to translate the Book of Mormon has, over the past 24 hours, spread far and wide.  News outlets from all over the world have reported on this story, which has been greeted by readers with a plethora of different opinions.

When I saw this image for the first time yesterday afternoon, memories of my dad came flashing back.  I recalled an occasion from my youth in which we were attending a family gathering at my uncle's home.  As is often the case in my family, several aunts, uncles and cousins began talking about "deep" Mormon doctrine.  In the course of the conversation, one of my uncles brought up the fact that Joseph Smith had used a seer stone to assist him in translating the Book of Mormon. Another uncle, determined to defend the "purity" of the faith, rebuked the first uncle for his "apostate" suggestion that Smith used a simple rock to produce the Book of Mormon.  The conversation continued in this way, with each uncle asserting and opposing their respective viewpoints.

It was on the drive home that I asked my dad about the supposed seer stone.  Naturally I was curious and wanted to know if there was any validity to the claim.  My dad's response was simple but profound.  To paraphrase him (I don't remember his exact words after these many years) my dad replied, "I honestly don't know but it shouldn't matter.  Whether Joseph produced 500+ pages using the Urim and Thumim (the traditionally taught method of translation) or a seer stone, the result is equally impressive."

Fast forward to today.  The story of the seer stone has been greeted by skeptics as proof of the petty silliness of the Mormon message.  After all, who looks at rocks and expects to receive revelations! For the believer, the reception of this news is somewhat complicated.  To be sure, some members of the LDS faith (like my uncle) already knew about the seer stone.  To them it's no big deal.  But to many others, the news that Joseph Smith put a rock in his hat, then buried his face into said hat to receive divine revelation from a rock is problematic for their faith.  Some of the many questions this new news brings to mind are:
1.) Why did the church wait so long in divulging the seer stone to begin with? This was never taught in a single lesson manual. 
2.) If Joseph Smith simply looked in a hat at a rock, why did Nephi need to kill Laban to get the plates?  
3.) Why does the Book of Mormon contain so many anachronisms and other errors? If Smith was receiving divine revelation from the seer stone, wouldn't God make sure the message was correct? 
These are just a few of the many questions that good, honest, critical thinking members of the church have in regards to the Book of Mormon and its translation.

It is not my desire to necessarily answer these questions here today. I understand and respect why so many have issues with this and other Mormon historical/theological/doctrinal problems. It is naturally troubling to stumble upon ideas or previously unknown facts that challenge our preconceived notions of the world, especially when that world notion reports to be "the only true and living church" in the world.

With that all being said (and this is specifically meant for those who struggle with this or other church issues), I would urge you to look at your own personal epistemology.  Epistemology (sounds like a big scary word) is essentially the study of how we arrive at truth.  It is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from crazy opinion.  In short, it is how we weigh conflicting sets of evidence against one another in order to better arrive at what we choose to believe as truth (notice how I said "what we CHOOSE to believe as truth" as opposed to what is absolute factual truth).

We live in a world of relativity and paradox.  We can find all around us ample examples of how perception determines reality.  For example:

This simple but comical example of how perception influences reality has legitimate lessons that we can extrapolate to my blog topic today.  How you choose to PERCEIVE the Book of Mormon is going to have a very real and lasting impact on the REALITY you choose to embrace.  For example, if news of the seer stones becomes too shocking to your world view (because, hey, who is crazy enough to believe that rocks have magical powers), chances are you will choose to perceive the Book of Mormon as a hoax.  That will become your reality.  If, however, you choose to perceive the seer stones and/or the Urim and Thumim as having a divine purpose, chances are you will repeat something similar to what my dad told me so many years ago: "I honestly don't know but it shouldn't matter.  Whether Joseph produced 500+ pages using the Urim and Thumim or a seer stone the result is equally impressive."  Such is the case with faith.  Whether we want to admit it or not, both skeptic and believer alike are, as Paul put it, "see[ing] through a glass, darkly."

I realize that skeptics will accuse me of discarding so many of the facts that they regularly employ to disprove the Book of Mormon. I have no desire to make light of factual historical/scientific data or other observable realities.  These are all important considerations in any quest for truth.  But I also hope that people will, as I mentioned above, reevaluate their own personal epistemology. There is a case to be had in the fruit of the Book of Mormon, regardless of its ultimate origin.  As the great historian Richard Bushman (author of Rough Stone Rolling, the best bio of Joseph Smith ever written), once said, "The Book of Mormon is either a work of divinity or a work of genius. Both of those possibilities should make us marvel." 

As for those who complain about the church's obscuring of its own history (i.e. not revealing the seer stone for 180+ years) I simply say, I understand your contempt. As somebody who places a high price on historical integrity I too have struggled with many of the historical/doctrinal claims that the church has, at times, hidden from its members (via Correlation or other means).  But that is PRECISELY why I am so happy about yesterday's news.  Times are changing and the church is, in my opinion, becoming increasingly transparent about its past.  I tip my hat to them for it.

In addition, keep in mind that the obscuring of historical facts is not just a Mormon problem but a human problem.  We all do it because we all develop our own preferred narrative for past events (remember the whole perception becomes reality bit?).  Case in point: just look at Christmas.

For anyone who knows me, you are more than aware of the fact that Christmas is my all-time favorite holiday.  I anxiously count down the days each year.  There's something about the trees, lights, smells and cheer that I find intoxicating.  And though I love this holiday more than any other, I also am aware of the fact that the historical narrative we all choose to accept when it comes to Christmas is VERY distorted.

For example, Christmas trees were a pagan practice that were originally rejected as an abomination (reference Jeremiah 10:2-4).   In addition, other practices like mistletoe, wreaths, lights, etc. all have pagan roots, as opposed to the traditionally believed Christian origins (see my post on Christmas by clicking here).  Heck, our Nativity scenes are, from a historical perspective, a complete joke!  First, Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, and the idea of a pregnant Mary being toted around by Joseph who was trying to find a room in the ancient world's version of a Holiday Inn so he could follow Caesar's degree regarding a "tax" is all an accepted historical myth.  In reality, the Nativity was MUCH different than what we portray today.  

Does that mean we need to discard Christmas?  Or the Nativity?  As a Christmas fan I will be the first to declare "hell no!"  Yes, we should all educate ourselves more about the true nature of Jesus' birth and the origins of Christmas.  But learning such truths doesn't mean you have to sacrifice the celebration of Christmas as a whole.

Such is the case with Mormonism and the Book of Mormon.  Yes, members of our faith are woefully lacking when it comes to a knowledge of our church's history,  I partially blame Correlation for this. But learning the truth behind the Book of Mormon's translation does not automatically mean you need to discard the book itself or Mormonism as a whole.  The choice is ultimately up to each of us to determine our own epistemology based on our own perceptions.

In conclusion, I leave you with the following short poem, which I believe relates directly to the topic at hand:

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see.
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be
In every work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend,
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due. 
-Alexander Pope

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