Greg Prince, in a podcast interview at Mormon Stories with John Dehlin, articulated what I have referred to as New Mormonism. New, as contrasted to the old version–the fundamentalist type Mormonism that some feel is being proven false by “CES Letter type issues”, ie Book of Mormon historicity, multiple First Vision Accounts, Book of Abraham translation, etc. This New Mormonism is the brand of Mormonism that Patrick Mason refers to as being the kind of sustainable Mormonism that will endure in the future.
Prince is a former highly acclaimed dentist and medical researcher, but has gained notoriety as a Mormon historian and author of books such David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Through his long study of Mormon history and scripture, his testimony has remained strong, but it has shifted from a literalist-fundamentalist type testimony to a more faith-based, more nuanced testimony of Joseph Smith and the restored gospel.
I highly recommend listening to the podcast interview in entirety. The interview was four hours long, so queue it up on your podcast list for your gym workouts this week. This post will focus on the last half–the portions that deal directly with New Mormonism.
Prince relates this interesting story about how he, Lester Bush, and Tony Hutchinson met in the 70’s, and would meet together and research and discuss Mormonism.
Lester Bush in 1973 published an article in Dialogue on blacks and priesthood that changed the church. We wondered for years what was the effect of that on the church, particularly on President Kimball.
Then many years later he met Jordan Kimball, Spencer W. Kimball’s grandson, at an event. Jordan told Prince he found his grandfather’s copy of that article. He said his grandfather would mark things up with a red pencil, highlighting, circling, making comments in the margins. And virtually that entire article was highlighted. It was his opinion that that article had a large effect on Pres. Kimball, leading up to the revelation five years later in 1978.
Difference between faith and belief, which is a critical piece to understand in this intellectual version of religion:
Tony Hutchinson made me aware of a book written by an American who grew up in a missionary family in China. His name is Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and the book is called “Faith and Belief.” Because he grew up around Eastern religions he had a very clear understanding of the difference between east and west and the whole point of his book is that Western religions muddy the water. If you want to see what faith really is look East, he says. The Eastern religions imbue intense faith in their community of believers, but they don’t have a belief system. You don’t have to sign off on articles of faith or a catechism, if you’re Buddhist. And yet Buddhists often have enormous faith. So he says, what is faith? And he said it has nothing to do with a belief system, it has to do with, one synonym would be surrender. Your willingness to acknowledge the existence of a higher power and willingness to surrender your life course to whatever that power is.
On Joseph Smith:
To me any religious leader including Joseph Smith is judged in terms of how effective he or she is on the basis of two things. One is, does that person have the vision, with a big V? In other words has there been some type of unusual contact between that individual and deity that makes this relationship different. And number two, can that religious leader give the community of believers access to that vision? That’s it. Joseph Smith was extraordinary, I think, on both counts.
Describing LDS scripture and catechism as a set of symbols attempting to connect believers with God (and a little bit here on Book of Mormon Historicity):
There were other religious figures at the time who were having similar visionary experiences. But they didn’t launch these organizations that have endured. His genius was his ability to put together a set of symbols that allowed the believers to have access to that vision. Period. That’s how I would sum up Mormonism. …Those symbols can be statements of belief. They can be visual symbols. They can be canon, they can be whatever. We stumble over those things when they don’t exactly comport to the worldview that we have formulated. People get absolutely unglued if they perceive any threat to a non-historical Book of Mormon…It’s a hill they’re willing to die on. And I’m sitting there thinking that’s a stupid battle; you missed the whole point.
Trial and error of Joseph Smith:
Joseph Smith was figuring out through trial and error often what’s going to work with this community. To convey his vision to them so that it becomes part of theirs. And he was extraordinarily successful at that.
Dehlin trying to understand Prince’s vision of what Joseph was doing:
JS: And what’s the central message?
GP: The central message is to touch the face of God.
JP: What does that mean?
GP: That you somehow have access to the divine, to the infinite. What does that mean? That’s as difficult a question to answer as we have. That’s what he wrestled with. How do I take the infinite and convert that into the finite? And the answer is you can’t. Now a trivial example of this is when we sit in a testimony meeting the people who are getting up at the podium are trying to impart to the congregation their own vision. They’re trying to say this happened to me, but the only way I can share with you is through these clumsy, verbal symbols. But if you’re on board, maybe you can pick up a little bit. And I think most Mormons have experienced that…This is what Joseph Smith was trying to do, and what he did extraordinarily well. He allowed his community of believers to touch the face of God. It doesn’t matter to me what that face looks like. It doesn’t matter that in his telling of visionary accounts the story changed. I got no problem with that.
Prince spent considerable time trying to explain this concept of how theology is usually formed. There is a pattern. We see it universally in all religions. First there is an historical event. Then, from there theology is defined as the mystic/prophet/guru (or a follower years even generations later) reinterprets the original historical event. The theology expands and the telling of the historical event tends to change. Dehlin, looking at this with a binary view, has a hard time not seeing this as “fraud.” So, Prince kept coming back to this to try to explain it to him.
GP: It’s history becoming theology. Once it’s launched into the theological realm, don’t try to hold them to historical criteria, because something else has already happened there. But we get hung up on that all of the time, and I just shake my head and think where we going? We’re missing the point in all of this.
JD: You’re referring to people who leave the church.
GP:Even those who stay in but stay in at the cost of trying to convince everybody else that there’s only one way to understand all of this and it’s extreme orthodoxy. That to me is as damaging as people who leave.
Talking about a similar process with the evolution of the priesthood doctrine and the telling of the Melchizedek priesthood restoration event.
JD: For a lot of people that’s a real sticking point for them. I guess in their mind Joseph made it up afterwards and then tried to retrofit it. Like when people have a problem with the restoration and when things happened. Isn’t the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood a real problem for people? Because there’s no date, right?
GP: Yeah that’s right and the fact that he’s not naming names early on and he is later.
JD: So they think he’s kind of making it up like the First vision’s growing right?
GP: I wish they would sit down with a biblical scholar and get schooled. Because that’s part of the historical precedent becoming a theological narrative. And whatever we have now, even though it’s couched in historical language, tends to be a later theological embellishment of an earlier, historical event. We don’t have access to the original event. The first vision, date it when you want 1820, 1823 you know the controversy about that. Nonetheless, the very first account of it is actually hidden in plain sight. It’s in Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants, verses 4 and 5. But until you compare that to the 1831 account that was in the early church history you don’t realize he’s saying the same thing in fewer words. But even that earliest account is a decade after when we think the original historical event occurred. If there was this much change from 1831 to 1838, then how much change would there be between 1831 and whatever the original incident was. And the answer is, we have no clue. We will never have access to what the historical event was or what he was saying about it at an earlier date. So you deal with what you’ve got, and make the best of it.
JD: But for you, the fact that it’s changing, either the story of the First Vision or the story of the Melchizedek Priesthood. You don’t care because that’s sort of unknowable historical facts that inform of an eventual theology. And it’s really the theology that matters not historical facts.
GP: I care a lot about it because looking at the evolution of it teaches you a lot about how this process happens.
JD: But for you it’s not a sign of fraud.
Prince then goes to the Bible to help make his point. Introducing New Testament textual criticism, ie how the gospels seemed to build on each other, with the latest writings being more miraculous than the earliest. So, which of these is the truth?
On a historical basis, who knows. But on a theological basis, what you’re seeing is the evolution of the theology. So, who’s telling the truth? It’s possible that all five of them are telling the truth. It’s possible that none of them is telling the truth in terms of any historical event. We don’t know. That’s what our people have a difficult, difficult time trying to crack into. And I just want to scream at them occasionally. And say “don’t you guys get it? Why are you fighting these fights that have no meaning at all? You’re missing the point entirely.”
On treating scripture literal vs metaphorically:
When the Hans Mattson story broke in the New York Times,… it elicited a letter to the editor about three days later from Harold Kushner, the Jewish Rabbi who wrote the book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” …he said, “I have read the story of Hans Mattson, and I would hope that the Mormons could learn from the Jewish experience of distinguishing literal scripture from allegorical scripture.” And he was right, but we don’t get. The class average among Mormons is it’s all literal and that’s only going to get you into a mess, that you never get out of. It’s time to grow up.
Prince then talked about the evolution of how the church became so cemented in literal and fundamentalist views. In the early 20th century, scientific understanding in many areas was exploding. Darwin and evolution. Bible scholarship. Anthropology. This information was a huge, perceived threat by some Christians, including the leadership of the LDS church. Joseph F. Smith was a powerful voice, who was fiercely anti-evolution and supported literalist views. His book Gospel Doctrine in 1919 was “the first book that formalized Mormon fundamentalist theology.” His son, Joseph Fielding Smith who started working in the Church History Office in his early 20’s, started publishing books at a young age, and spent 60 years as an apostle, from 1910 – 1970. His son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie carried the torch, publishing Mormon Doctrine in 1958. Prince understands why the church did this but sees it as a mistake. He sees the church making attempts to reverse this. ie Mormon Doctrine being taken out of print, the church publishing the historical essays, etc.
You see, yeah, they get it. They realize they got to start dismantling what had been constructed before. But the construction a century ago made sense. They thought there they were in a battle to the death with the biblical scholars, not realizing that in fact that biblical scholarship would take the entire field to a higher and much firmer plateau. Which is where I think Mormonism will get if we ever stop holding ourselves back.
That’s a very interesting line. “not realizing biblical scholarship would take the entire field to a higher and much firmer plateau.” This is where I see New Mormonism taking the church. There’s no need to defend the unsustainable brand of Mormonism that is vulnerable as historical information comes to light. LDS scholars like Richard Bushman, Patrick Mason, Terryl Givens, and Grant Hardy will take Mormonism to a higher and much firmer plateau.
Again back to the fraud accusation.
JD: Someone’s going to say Joseph’s making this up as he goes along. For them that’s going to be a concern. For you, you say of course he’s making it up as he goes along.
GP: He’s giving it flesh as he goes along. If you want to call that making it up, alright he made it up. But he didn’t make up the essence. He was working on the form of it, but the essence was there from the beginning.
On the possibility for accurate history, such as his publications or the church’s essays leading to faith crisis. This really is the challenge the church faces. They know what to do. But how to do is not that simple.
How do you deploy that in such a way that you are answering the questions of this group without knocking over this group. And the answer is you run a risk that some people will read it and get unhinged.
Belief in God:
JD: A lot of our listeners who are curious to know your beliefs. So I think you’ve made it pretty clear you believe in God.
GP: Yes. Let’s go back to interview number two of this threesome. Separate faith and belief. Because you just confused the two of them again. Faith is not adherence to a script of statements. It’s acknowledgment of a higher power to which you can relate and in essence, a willingness to surrender your life to that higher power to whatever extent that means.
After a discussion of how faith in God doesn’t mean necessarily that he’s going to fix everything in your life.
JD: Then what does a person who has faith get that the person who doesn’t have faith doesn’t?
GP: I think it’s the internal peace and somehow that communion with the infinite that transcends whatever mortality brings to us it’s that transcendent state.
More on the First Vision:
The added dimension of his was that it morphed from whatever the historical antecedent was into a theological narrative that went in lockstep with his developing theology of deity. So as that theology evolved, then whenever he retold the first vision he locked it in at this level–not at this level.
John continues to ask questions on the specifics of the First Vision, and why there are multiple accounts that are not in harmony. Prince sees this as a normal, consistent process. There is an original historical event, and then this grows into theological narratives that grow out of this experience.
How do you put onto paper an out of body experience that’s totally unrelatable to anything you have ever experienced before? Then couple that with founding a faith tradition that is evolving in its own trajectory and bringing those two together repeatedly over time. That’s the First Vision. So yes, it is changing, and you got two personages where you had one earlier, but that’s not the most fundamental change. The biggest whopper is okay the first account says I already concluded from my study of the Bible that all the churches were wrong. 1838 says well I read the Bible, and it was obvious you couldn’t conclude that (that all the churches were wrong, and thus was told this by God). They’re diametrically opposed. You can’t harmonize those.
More on First Vision:
GP: What drove him to pray? I was a sinner. I wanted forgiveness of my sins. What was the message of the first vision to him? Your sins are forgiven…But then it became an institutional narrative. It became the creation narrative of the church, and so it changed materially.
JD: So what are your beliefs in all of this?
GP: My belief is that he had some authentic experience that channeled the divine…but I don’t know the details to that…. I’m trying to think of how 14-year-old or 15-year-old or whatever he was kid can digest any of this stuff and try to make sense of it. But as he comes back to it, he’s making more sense of it as a theological statement. I believe there was an encounter between him and deity. Period. Details? Stay tuned. I don’t know.
As for the specific point on whether God told Joseph that all other churches were an abomination and told him to start his one true church, Prince says he doesn’t believe God said that, but approaches that as a matter of faith as a theological, creation statement for the church.
JD: So for you the idea that the LDS church is the one true church. That’s not part of your beliefs?
GP: I have interacted with enough other churches at a fairly sophisticated level… I’m not about to point fingers at them and say there is not truth there. Who’s got the most truth? I don’t know. It becomes a question of: show me the walk.
John asks if he believes an angel delivered gold plates to Joseph Smith that were an ancient record of Native Americans.
I don’t know. I think the key to understanding the Book of Mormon is the Book of Abraham. I’m surprised that people haven’t gone that direction, because to me it’s obvious what’s going on there. With the Book Abraham you have an ancient artifact, the papyrus, you have the prophet-scribe, and you have a new text. It is the interaction of the first two that produces the third…The Book of Abraham in my view is best described as midrash …midrash is the interplay between the scribe and the sacred text (Bible) that leads to a new text.
An interesting answer to the issue some have in accepting alternate explanations. Joseph didn’t say that’s what he was doing. So why should we interpret it that way?
JD: But that’s not what he told us it was.
GP: Understood. But you see part of the essential function of the mystic is that he or she operates on a level not necessarily understanding himself or herself what’s going on. …If you look at the Book of Abraham as the mid-rash that evolves from the papyrus that doesn’t have to have any material linkage to the content of the papyrus. There’s a key to the book of Mormon.
Prince referenced Christian scholar Denise Hopkins who called the Book of Mormon “Joseph Smith’s book length midrash on the Bible.”
On whether there were gold plates, he says he doesn’t know if an angel delivered the gold plates; that is “inaccessible”. But he believes the witnesses that there is an artifact there. They touched it, felt it.
There is enough of a witness that there was some kind of artifact there. Several people who wrote about it say well “plates were covered, but I could feel them.” There was some kind of artifact in the room.
With the Book of Mormon:
There’s linkage between an ancient artifact that he considers to be a source of canon and the process of him interacting with that, even though that’s through the hat and the stone that produces the text.
John argues that the artifact might not be ancient. Prince: “whatever”. There is solid evidence that there was some kind of artifact, and that Joseph and others genuinely believed it was ancient plates.
There’s an artifact, him, and a new text. That’s the process.
Talking about paradigms:
The problem is that people get hung up on this model, and when it caves in, they don’t have anything left. What you have to realize is that scientists make their living by constructing paradigms and then moving to new paradigms when the old ones don’t work. It doesn’t mean that there was deceit in the old paradigm and maybe, usually, it means that it’s the best we could do given the data that we had. But it’s time to move on to a new paradigm.
Focus on Book of Mormon shouldn’t be historicity, it should be the power of the book:
To me the paradigm of the Book of Mormon that has been mostly neglected is “don’t focus so much on what you think it is; focus on what it has done.”…Since that book came into being, regardless of what it is or how it came into being, it has done something that probably only two other books have done, the Bible and the Quran. And that is that it facilitates that encounter between the finite and the infinite. It gets back to what I said earlier. If you are a religious leader you have to have the vision, but then you have to make that vision accessible to your believers. He gave them that tangible access through the Book Mormon. That was his very first symbol that he handed to them….they took this book, people read that book, and something happened to them that changed their lives…There’s this ferocious fight between the literalists and the non-literalists over the book of Mormon…I just want to say “time out guys. Back off a bit and look at that book for what it does. And then answer the question, so how does it do that?”
Prince’s personal beliefs on BOM historicity:
I don’t see it is an ancient history. I just don’t see that it has a leg to stand on as being history. I’ve heard of hybrid explanations. None of them carry any water with me. I’m content to go with what Denise Hopkins the Professor of Hebrew Bible told me. It’s a book length midrash on the Bible. And I’m fine with that.
This covers the portion of the interview that are key to understanding Prince’s version of intellectual Mormonism. They spent some time talking about social issues and what was the best way to promote progress within the church on social issues. Prince feels that some people, specifically Kate Kelly, push too hard at the brethren for change, and it can cause the opposite effect. He promotes a gentler method that assumes positive motivations in the brethren. He sees change happening, though due to bureaucracies involved with leading an organization of 15 million members, that change may not be as rapid as everyone wants.
I see three challenges of populating this version of Mormonism.
1. It has to be properly defined, such that it is intellectually viable, in an information age, where some traditional-fundamentalistic claims are easily debunked. I see this condition satisfied. I think with the help of LDS scholars like Prince here and also Bushman, Givens, Mason, Miller, Hardy that this is largely accomplished.
2. Articulate the value and benefits of Mormonism in this new paradigm. Some in the former paradigm or those who have left recently only view the benefits of Mormonism as those that are contingent on its exclusivity claims. But those that transition into the new paradigm see Mormonism as offering truth and beauty and as a fulfilling, abundant religion outside the literalist-fundamentalist reward system. That needs to be articulated, to address the question “OK, I understand this, but why should I stay?”
3. Receive endorsement from the brethren and/or local leaders or enough active membership so that members engaging Mormonism under this new paradigm can feel authentic engaging with the church with this belief system.
As Prince said in the interview, “Stay tuned!”