Greg Prince spoke at Sunstone in a talk titled “Own Your Religion”. I highly recommend paying $5 to get access to the audio at the Sunstone website. And hopefully Dr. Prince will release the transcript of the talk, but for those that weren’t in attendance, here is a summary of the talk with selected quotes.
Dr. Prince is very important to me. I went through a painful faith crisis and deconstruction phase 8-12 years ago, followed by a faith reconstruction phase that is based on a new paradigm that appreciates the beauty and truth of the LDS Church outside of historical and factual accuracy of scripture and historical claims. I’ve been trying to popularize this paradigm and reach out to others in faith crisis, and a lot of times am met with a “uh what? This makes no sense.” Dr. Prince has a view of the LDS Church which is the most like mine I’ve encountered, and this talk was very powerful to me.
He introduces his talk talking about the historical challenges with a literal and fundamentalistic view of Mormonism.
By democratizing data, the Internet has given easy and often unwelcome access to Smith’s foibles and the response of many church members who never bothered to study him deeply has been to denounce him in the church he founded and then walk away, but that is throwing the baby away with the bath water.
Think of the role that a founder of a religious tradition plays. It has two parts. First, he or she must have the vision, some kind of encounter with the infinite that is apart from the ordinary…The second part, perhaps the more difficult is to make that vision available to a community of believers, to give them direct access to the infinite. That’s where it gets tricky and it is why most religious movements do not survive long following the death of their founders, and it’s where Joseph Smith excelled.
He then goes into the problems but also the wonders of two of those symbols.
First the Book of Mormon. Even though it was presented as an actual history, viewed through a scientific lens, the Book of Mormon appears to be obviously non-historical. Dr. Prince goes into a few of those areas.
1) Archaelogy. No evidence found for BOM. Lots of evidence found that seems to disprove it.
2) Language. We can trace language evolution just like biology, and we don’t see any evidence in Native American languages of any kind of Hebrew influence.
3) DNA sequencing. DNA study of Native Americans does not support an influx of Middle Eastern DNA in the BOM time period.
4) Anachronisms. There are many anachronisms in the book, such as the Deutero Isaiah problem or the highly developed Protestant Christology, and many of the themes are somewhat narrowly focused in Joseph Smith’s time and setting, such as the discussion of infant baptism.
So, that’s the problem. But what is the book and why is it important?
What is it?
Denise Hopkins, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Wesley theological seminary, read the book of Mormon and said it is a book length midrash on the King James Bible. Midrash is the longstanding Jewish tradition of scholars reading the Hebrew Bible and under inspiration writing commentaries on it.
Why is it important?
(I ask people about the Book of Mormon) What did you experience as you read it? The floodgates open and stories of personal conversion emerge. Therein is the timeless value of the book, what it does transcends what it is. No other aspect of Mormonism has brought more people to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile, that Jesus is the Christ. And yet many become so hung up on issues of historicity.
A second symbol that allows LDS to share with Joseph in experiencing the divine is the First Vision. It too has historical problems that can cause literalists or those taught in a black and white way to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The 1838 account is the one canonized that most LDS grow up knowing and teach to investigators as missionaries. The 1832 account has been popularized recently in the internet age. The church is trying to teach them both in a way that minimizes the differences and maintains a literal-fundamentalistic (revelation is perfect) perspective, but that’s difficult.
- written in Joseph’s own hand
- saw one personage, The Lord
- purpose was to worship God and seek repentance
- language implying more of a visionary experience
- no language or information related to starting a new church, or implying LDS exclusivity
- written in collaboration with other Church officials
- saw God the Father and Son Jesus Christ
- purpose was to find out which church was true
- main outcome was the call to become a prophet and start a new church which would be God’s exclusively one true church
- language implying more of a material, physical experience
So, just like the Book of Mormon, we have a problem with how is viewed. But what should we believe about the First Vision and why is it important?
From a previous Greg Prince interview:
Joseph touched the face of God. He somehow had access to the divine, to the infinite. 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.
Back to the Sunstone speech.
What you see is the process by which a historical account became theological. Joseph Smith is in good company in doing this as one can readily see by examining the Christological narratives in the New Testament which evolved in the linear direction. Over time, try that sometime. Look at the Christology of the earliest writer, Paul then Mark then Matthew and Luke, who wrote simultaneously and then John. The Christological event moves back, back, back in time until John, the latest writer, says, Jesus was God before he was born. The same thing is going on in The first vision,
Part of the reason why being too literal is bad is because when faced with XYZ science and history, we’re tempted to toss it all out. But another reason the literalistic, ultra-certain view is bad for us, is that it reduces the amount of mystery about God and religious doctrine. Being overly certain stops one from the searching and seeking that religion should. Too often the answer to a question is to look up what some LDS prophet or apostle said about it (which very well could have been speculation or conjecture) rather than struggle and search ourselves.
(We should) place mystery back where it belongs at the forefront of religion for over a century. The primary theology pervading the LDS church has been fundamentalism, which includes absolute scripture literalism coupled with answers for any question you can think to ask. This approach is problematic because the scriptures are not always literal or inerrant and indeed many contradict other scriptures. It is problematic because many of the answers are bogus, but it is most problematic because it pulls us away from the vital essence of religion, the mystery and majesty of God.
Dr. Prince gave some background on the apostasy of Hans Mattson, a high level church leader in Sweden, who went through a public faith crisis and took many with him out of the church. This was reported on the front page of the New York Times. A well known Jewish Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote an opinion piece on this a few days later with a message to Mormons. Roughly: “You have a great religion, don’t ruin it by chaining yourself to literal scriptural interpretation.” Prince quoting Kushner:
Might I suggest that they use the tactic used by many modern Jews dealing with biblical narratives that defy credulity. From a six day story of creation to Jonah living inside a large fish, we distinguish between left brain narratives meant to convey factual truth and right brain narratives meant to make a point through a story. The message will be true even if the story isn’t factually defensible.
If you seek to own your doctrine as Rabbi Kushner suggested, learn to differentiate literal scripture from allegorical, scripture and doing so, appreciate the power of myth, which is one of the best means through which we learn truth, even though the stories within the myth may never have occurred, the time and means through which the earth was created are for science to determine, but the myth of the creation narratives does what science cannot do. It answers the why.
Quoting Kushner again:
My answer to someone who asks, do you believe the story of the six days of creation is true, is yes, I do, but not from a factual sense.
I would say the same to question whether the Book of Mormon is true.
Dr. Prince goes on to list a few important principles in understanding LDS doctrine and revelation.
- Continuing revelation which is bedrock within Mormonism means progress, and that means that new scripture can supersede old scripture. Don’t cherry pick certain scriptures to justify bigotry, injustice, and cruelty.
- Learn the difference between the “Word of God” and the “Words of God”. God is infinite and beyond our comprehension. “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” All written formulations that invoke the name of God bear the limitations of the humans through which they imperfectly passed. We are products of our own times and scriptures written centuries ago by people who reflected then common wisdom may be outdated in a data driven world.
- Understand that all doctrine is evolutionary. I have yet to encounter a single, significant doctrine within Mormonism that has undergone no change since the earliest days of the restoration. It is literally an article of our faith that we don’t have it all and that we believe that there is much yet much yet for God to reveal. Rather than denying or fighting doctrinal evolution, we should welcome it and pray for more.
Dr, Prince provided four realities that we as a church need to accept and incorporate into our worldview.
Reality #1: Fallability of LDS leadership, scripture, and doctrine
So reality number one is that we are all imperfect, but on a good day, we reach beyond ourselves and try to make the church and the world better imperfections in our leaders should not deflate us. Instead, they should reassure us that we’re in this together and that there is room on the bench for all reality.
This leads to a question about LDS truth exclusivity.
This again from my interview with Rabbi Kushner. I think if we had enough data points, we would probably find that most, if not all religious traditions at some point in their maturation process either said, we are better, we are the best, or we are the only. I think that the ones that I would consider more mature have softened those stances.
Kushner: Yes, due to reality.
Prince: The Mormons unfortunately immediately populated the top one and have been very reluctant or incapable of vacating it.
Kushner: To say our religion is the best, is like saying our baseball team is the best. It’s not a statement of fact. It’s a statement of loyalty. I think what we want people to believe is this religious system works for me.
Reality #2: We can accomplish more by cooperating with other religions
So reality number two is that we are in this together and once we drop our defenses and joined forces with other faith traditions, we find that there is no limit to the good that we can accomplish working together.
Reality #3: A Church being good is as important as it being true
Reality number three is that institutional religion has only three cards to play and for millennials, one of them “truth claims” is off the table. That leaves only two: moral authority and community. People, and particularly younger people want a church that walks the walk, that takes a stand for values and that tries to make the entire world better. They don’t want empty talk and neither do I.
Reality #4: Science
Reality number four is science matters a lot where science can speak.
DeMille said, we cannot break the 10 commandments, we can only break ourselves against them. Similarly, we cannot break scientific truth. We can only break ourselves against it.
Dr. Prince then lays out three areas where science has affected or is affecting the LDS Church to seek revelation to progress and change.
- Race. 19th century understanding of race stemmed from outdated and misunderstood interpretations of the Bible. With better science came reinterpretation of scripture and progress.
- Book of Mormon. Scientific and historical understanding is forcing us to reinterpret how we understand the Book of Mormon. Faithful scholars like Richard Bushman, Sam Brown, Nick Frederick, are leading the Church to explore areas accepting much 19th century content appearing in the Book of Mormon by way of revelation or an expanded translation. The Church appears willing to go this direction.
- Homosexuality. Science is changing how we understand homosexuality. There is hope among many LDS LGBT+ supporters that better understanding of science will lead to prayer and revelation and new policies and doctrine in a similar way
I would add, and I’m sure Dr. Prince would agree that there are many other issues science and better understanding can lead us to better policies and doctrine, especially female equality issues.
He ends his talk with a call to “own our religion”. In this portion, he introduced a phrase I believe he coined recently “trickle up revelation”. This is the power of the LDS community to work out ideas and policies and answers to questions, and then they get pushed up to leaders who can pray over them, receive revelation, and establish them formally in the Church. He quoted President Spencer W. Kimball.
Now my brothers and sisters that seems clear to me indeed this impression weighs upon me that the Church is at a point in its growth and maturity when we’re at last ready to move forward in a major way. Some decisions have been made and others pending which will clear the way organizationally, but the basic decisions needed for us to move forward as a people must be made by the individual members of the church.
Dr. Prince admonished us to be serious about our callings, prepare when we have lessons, read, have influence locally and in your sphere. He provided an anecodote in how the Young Adult program came about.
In 1972, the LDS Students Association president in the Long Beach East stake, a stake almost adjacent to ours saw that there was a void. People were getting married at an older age and so students were graduating from college, but they were still single and there was nothing in the church curriculum for them. So they started their own program. They didn’t ask anybody’s permission and they called it Young Adults.
They implemented it, and it was successful, and then it got pushed up to Salt Lake and made a formal policy across the Church. This is “trickle up”.
I will defend “trickle up” as the most potent force within the LDS Church. If you look historically, you can verify that because every cell of the organization, without a single exception, started from the grassroots and worked its way up. So (the question is) how to pierce the bubble? (How can normal members affect change) I can’t give you the specifics, but I can say historically it is a very, very powerful force. When people at the grassroots are doing something that turns out to be right and they’re not asking permission to do it, it may in fact go all the way up. I see no distinction between organization, policy and doctrine. You can draw lines on them buy those lines. I think it’s all flexible and I think history will back me up on that.
In the Q & A, he was asked how much people should speak up, when taking a different perspective on these things than fellow members.
There is a moral imperative at times to speak out. And if you’re afraid of the consequences of speaking out, then get off the field. I don’t do it irrationally. I try not to do it thoughtlessly. If you are totally risk averse in life, you’re not going to lead a very interesting life, and you probably are not going to make much of an effect for good in the world. That’s my answer.
In closing, I’ll go back to an anecdote Dr. Prince shared to get at what’s really right about Mormonism.
You also realize that the secret sauce of Mormonism has always been the laity. You and me sweating it out in the trenches day by day. Consider this simple entry from the 8th ward historical record trial before the Bishops Court, June 10th, 1856 of Charles King and Elmira Tufts. In the complaint, Charles King says that Elmira Tufts owes him $2 for setting two tires on her wagon wheels, which she refuses to pay him. The court heard the evidence that was given and decided that Mrs Tufts pay the plaintiff $1 and that they take each other by the hand and live their religion.
Beautiful. That’s our religion.
We have a beautiful religion. It’s under fire right now due to modern science and historical information that make many of our historical-literal claims impossible or implausible. A strength of our religion is that we believe in revelation and progress. We can drop what doesn’t make sense and shift into a more mature religious view. Just like we’ve done for the global flood, we can shift an implausible foundational claim from having literal to metaphorical value. We can embrace science, and take the best of our religion and progress and move forward.