[Note: Like the previous two letters in this series, a draft of the following was written between my first and second meetings with the LDS missionaries. I wrote the three letters because writing helps me to get clarity about what I'm thinking and also because I hope to inspire good conversation. My intention is to gain greater understanding by raising sincere questions about things that don't make sense to me in a way that is respectful and not bashing. I hope I have succeeded in maintaining such an attitude here.]
Dear Mormon Missionaries,
When we met the first time a few weeks ago, I asked the two of you how you make sense of LDS incongruities with historic Christianity as well as apparent inconsistencies within LDS history.
Given these apparent incongruities and inconsistencies, I asked, how did you come to believe that Mormonism is the true faith?
At the time, you gave a very interesting answer: Elder B said he prayed and had a supernatural experience that seemed to confirm the Mormon faith to him. This is an answer I have heard on several occasions from LDS representatives.
And after your experience, I wanted to know, did you also come to answers or explanations of the doctrinal incongruities. Neither of you had come to nor were able to give answers or explanations at the time for the incongruities I described.
I asked if that bothered either of you that there were significant incongruities within and without for which you could give no account.
Elder A explained that Latter Day Saints teachings are a matter primarily of faith and not of reasoning.
If it’s a matter of a personal faith experience, I wondered, how do you adjudicate the contradictory claims of such subjective religious experience? For example, I pointed out that individuals of various faiths have personal mystical experiences that, in their minds, confirm the validity of their respective religions.
How would you recommend the Mormon faith to me when others could recommend faiths as diverse as Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism to me each on the same basis of their own personal faith experiences? We also factored in my own religious experiences that seem to confirm for me the faith that I currently hold.
Why should I accept Mormonism on the basis of your experience?
Of course, you didn't want me to accept it on the basis of your experience; you wanted me to read the book of Mormon myself and pray and ask God to show me if it were true.
I wanted to know why should I spend time reading the Book of Mormon, when I currently have little reason for thinking that it is true and several reasons to suspect that it is false including my own religious experiences within my current faith tradition?
We agreed that neither you nor I felt compelled to read the Koran and pray and ask God if it were true in order to rule out the Muslim faith for ourselves. Is this a double standard?
I suggested that it would be reasonable to expect you to first provide me some reasons to think that Mormonism is true such that I would be motivated to continue to investigate. You agreed.
Christianity, after all, is the religion of evidence, firmly and inextricably rooted in the history of time and place. The Gospels tell us that Jesus was born in the days of “Caesar Augustus . . . while Quirinius was governor of Syria,” and that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. The names, the times, the places are all independently verifiable historical facts.
In this vein, Saint Paul makes it clear that Christian belief is based on the historical evidence of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Saint Paul makes reference to more than 500 eyewitnesses, contemporary with his original epistolary audience, to corroborate the veracity of the resurrection and concludes that, if the evidence is faulty and the history inaccurate,
if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, [. . .] and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. [. . .] If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:3-19, esp. vs. 14-19)
I find what Saint Paul says as interesting as what he does not say. Why does he not simply urge his readers to pray and ask God to reveal to them whether Christianity is true and whether Jesus rose from the dead (or remind them of such personal experience that they may have had at conversion)? Certainly God has the power to give direct special revelation to whomever he chooses. So why would God's chosen apostle Paul—who himself had received a powerful direct revelation of the resurrected Christ—present an argument from eyewitness testimony/historical evidence?
This is the same Paul who draws on the sacred and secular traditions of his various audiences in order to present sophisticated and compelling arguments for the faith. For example, in Acts 15, Saint Paul uses different apologetic approaches with different groups. First he goes to the Jewish synagogues in Thessalonica and Berea and "reasoned with them out of the scriptures [the Old Testament Law and Prophets], opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead" (Acts 15:2b-3a). In Athens, in contrast, Saint Paul "disputed [. . .] daily with them that met with him" (15:17), eventually presenting a philosophical argument in Mars' hill wherein he cited the Greeks' own religious and literary traditions in order to make his case (15:22-31).
In light of an apparent apostolic tradition of missionary work that unites both reasoning and faith, why do Mormon missionaries seem to emphasize the latter in contrast with the former?
When I met with you for the second time (by appointment) and third time (by happenstance), you maintained a position of faith on the basis of your personal religious experiences and the claims of Joseph Smith and did not have any further explanations for the incongruities I had wondered about. Since it is the claims of Joseph Smith that are under consideration, it would be rather circular for me to believe that his testimony and revelations are true because he says they are. So that leaves subjective religious experience as the recommended basis for belief.
You explained that, as missionaries, you are trained to lead people in the process of pondering and praying and that you are not equipped to provide (or perhaps even interested in providing) other evidences or answers to questions such as mine. (I also note that you do not have access to the Internet during your mission and therefore cannot do any independent research on questions that are raised in your conversations. Why is this?) I expressed sincere sadness that your missionary training and approach would be what seems to me, rather one-sided.
The God I know from Scriptures, from Christian tradition, and from my own experience, is a God who created and values all my various capacities, who invites me to engage with him fully, completely, and holistically with all that I am. Faith and reason are not at odds with each other in God’s orderly cosmos. It seems to me, then, that subjective religious experience is a necessary but not a sufficient ground for faith and belief.
I expressed that, while God is ultimately a mystery and faith is essential to our relationship with him, I am uncomfortable with any religion that asks me to leave my mind or “logic” at the door.
At the end of our first meeting, I told you honestly that your appeal to pray and ask God if Mormonism were true felt somewhat manipulative to me; although I am sure that was not your intention. For me to pray that prayer would seem to me to be insulting God by second-guessing the natural and supernatural revelations he has already made plan to me.
If I perceive significant objections to Mormonism and I currently experience God in my present faith while also having good reasons for believing as I do, why would I ask God if something contradictory is true? Wouldn’t that be akin to asking God to reveal to me whether 2 + 2 equals 5? He has already revealed to me through the natural revelation of reason that 2 + 2 equals 4, and that, therefore, it does not equal 5.
Why don’t Mormon missionaries simply pray that God would grant us wisdom and guide us into all truth? Why aren’t Mormon missionaries trained and equipped to provide corroborating evidence that LDS claims are true?
In any other area of life, wouldn't I be considered imprudent if I formed beliefs on the basis of personal phenomenology to the exclusion of other evidence? Why would we think that our process of belief formation in the area of religion would be fundamentally different from how we form beliefs in the rest of life? Using reason seems one important way we are to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1).
When I ask for corroborating external evidence, I am perplexed when no such evidence is provided. I am doubly perplexed when I am then cautioned against over-relying on reason or logic or being “carnally minded.” Surely you would not say that Saint Paul was being carnally minded when he presented arguments and evidence that his audiences would understand and find compelling?
If I discover reasons to suppose that my current beliefs are false or inadequate and that the LDS church offers a truer picture, I will pursue it.
So I continue to ask my third and final question: What corroborating evidence or reasons are there, besides personal experience, for thinking that the Mormon faith is true? For example, are there corroborating reasons to suspect the early Church experienced apostasy? Is there any archeological, historical, or DNA evidence to support the historicity of the stories recorded in the Book of Mormon? Is there external (non-LDS) corroborating evidence to show that the “reformed Egyptian” manuscript Joseph Smith used as his source for the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price is correctly translated? Etc. If my current beliefs are false, I want to change them and conform myself to the truth.
I want to be quick to reiterate what I have said a few times during our discussions: while I have questions and doubts about the LDS faith, I am not attacking any LDS members personally. I deeply sympathize with where you are at and respect the good will and zeal that motivates you to serve God and practice the faith that you've been taught. Every Mormon believer I know is warm, generous, and friendly. I am fortunate to have several Mormon neighbors who make living where I do very pleasant. I am grateful to be able to share many familial and social/civic values with the LDS community and am glad to work together on matters of mutual concern politically and around the neighborhood.
As we ended our third conversation, Elder A said that he loved the Book of Mormon, and I believe that love is real and sincere. As I said when we parted, if you truly believe that Jesus is there in his fullness in the Mormon faith, that is where you should be.
I cannot know to what degree your belief is honest and well-founded, but I am sure that what it means to have well-founded belief changes as we mature and age and encounter new evidences for and against our beliefs. A child is certainly justified in believing what his parents teach him simply on the basis of it coming from them. Adult belief, in contrast, requires further justification.
I believed you when you said that you were on a journey and that you intend to learn more and more about what you believe and why. Such an attitude is commendable, and I hope that I, and everyone who reads this letter, will embrace the same in our own lives.
I do enjoy debating and sparing, but our conversation is not about that; it's about what is true. It is a discussion worth having because what is at stake is, well, everything of value in this world and the next.
Yours in Christ,