Joseph Smith, On His Own Terms

Stephen Marshjoseph, Mormon, orthodox, testimony, thought 20 Comments

In studying Joseph Smith in the 1970s I was struck by how often Joseph Smith would remind the brethren that they did not know as much as they thought they did. He was also clear that he was much more human than they thought and that he did not know as much as he hoped to know or thought he did. He was sharply aware that his knowledge was limited by his language, his experience and his context and that what he could teach and communicate was further limited by the language, experience and contest of his listeners. He also knew that there was knowledge, truth and value he did not have and would surprise audiences (much like Brigham Young did) by pointing out that Methodists and others had truth that he lacked. (cf Discourses of Brigham Young, page 248).

Joseph also liked and enjoyed speculation on Gospel Topics, both his own and that of others. D&C 77 stems from mistaken speculations of another. What is striking about the narrative is that Joseph was pleased with the brother, not offended. Joseph was also grateful for audiences that would let him speculate, make mistakes and not react in outrage. In recorded sermons, we have him telling audiences exactly that.

He also took it as given that:

  • when he speculated and relied on logic, he would make mistakes and
  • he would make mistakes that would be obvious to listeners.

Now there is a lot to be said about speculating with an audience when the Spirit is present. On the plus side, if a speaker listens to the Spirit as they speak they can learn from where the Spirit guides the discussion. A speaker can learn from hearing, feeling, seeing, hearkening to what of that which is said that the Spirit supports and what it does not support.

On the negative side, it is easy for an audience to mistake speculation for truth and to miss errors when they occur. It is easy for a speaker to perceive the Spirit as an aid or a tool supporting the teaching rather than as a guide and to ignore the times it wanes. Others can draw conclusions that are misleading or that build with logic on a mixed foundation. Even more so when we remember that God’s conversation with us is limited by the limits of our vocabulary and language.

There is reason that God told the brethren to “say nothing by repentance to this generation” (D&C 6:9; 11:9; and cf D&C 14:8 and especially 19:21).

If Joseph Smith was so certain of his own fallibility, I often wonder why we are so often so certain that we know so much more. I wonder what we can be certain of if we are not masters of the core of faith, hope and love.

Think about how often people try to force an interpretation or teaching rather than listen to it in order to learn where it is wrong or where it needs evaluation or correction. If we paid more attention to how teachings and doctrines led us into the true mysteries, to strong faith, greater hope, deeper love, we might learn much more from the Spirit than we can ever gain from logical proofs based on what we think others knew.

To truly learn from early sermons and doctrines we need to reflect not on what we think we know and where the obvious logic takes us, but on what we do not know and what the Spirit might teach us if we do not blind ourselves to the Spirit, supposing we are wise. Few things are as obvious as we might think they are. I truly believe that by being certain of our logic and knowledge, we cut ourselves off from what God could and would teach us.

That is what Joseph Smith tried to teach us to find, what he meant his life to mean on its own terms, what he did when he lacked knowledge.

So, what doctrines am I certain of? That Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. That Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. That the Book of Mormon is the word of God and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is true. I am also certain that now abideth faith, hope and charity and the greatest of these is charity. There is a world of speculation available for entertainment, but seeking to serve the pure of love of Christ should be our true doctrine.

Comments 20

  1. Stephen,

    I always hesitate before commenting on your posts because you seem to cover all of the angles of a topic thoroughly. You must be fun in Gospel Doctrine!

    So let me ask you about your bolded sentence above. Do you mean to say that certainty is the enemy of education? Or do you mean to confine your remarks to “things of the Spirit”, so to speak? I am never sure about this dichotomy we set up where we learn about some things through one method and other things through another method.

    In my thinking, what we learn in one body of knowledge has an impact on what we hold to be likely in another. For example, if the scientific method shows us in repeated demonstrations that objects of different masses fall at the same rate, I have to apply that knowledge to reading a narrative where the opposite is alleged to have occurred, regardless of how reliable the narrator is in other respects.

    Then again, I may be preaching to the choir. I honestly can’t tell. You talk about evaluation and correction, which presupposes that degrees of certainty can be achieved regarding some speculative doctrines, whether true or false, but also say we should not be certain of “our” logic and knowledge. But can logic be possessed by an individual? I thought that one of the strengths of logic was that it was universal, and therefore compelled assent when based on shared operating assumptions.

  2. Stephen,

    I have to agree with what John N. wrote. I can understand from a Mormon perspective to set aside logical thinking when it comes to spiritual matters, but I think that most of what one accepts regarding anything really has to do with some sort of logic, whether fuzzy or accurate. With that said, it seems that there is bit of a contradiction in your post when you wrote:

    “On the negative side, it is easy for an audience to mistake speculation for truth and to miss errors when they occur. It is easy for a speaker to perceive the Spirit as an aid or a tool supporting the teaching rather than as a guide and to ignore the times it wanes. Others can draw conclusions that are misleading or that build with logic on a mixed foundation.”

    To me this is saying that it is hard to decipher spiritual truth from spiritual and well-intentioned speculation. It seems to say that spiritual promptings are vague and that similar feelings can be misinterpreted to mean one thing or another. So, how is one to discern true spiritual promptings from human-based emotionality? Why is this process so vague? Therein lie the contradiction because one must use some sort of logical thought process in order to make sense of the “prompting.” After all, as you said, this spiritual reasoning must be used through the physical faculties.

    Personally, this is another reason why I lost my belief. Something so vital to one’s salvation is dependent upon a vague and often misinterpreted “feeling.” Logic has served the human race very well and to simply dismiss it for emotionality, even in terms of spirituality, is to deny a tool that was given (whether you believe by God or evolution) to humankind. I understand the process of faith, having gone through it for most of my life, but I also understand that faith and fact are inherently contradictory elements. Therefore, one cannot have explicit knowledge that a religion is absolutely true simply through faith. I believe one can FEEL it is true, but I disagree with the absolutism of KNOWING it is true.

    These are just my own personal observations and opinions. I am not trying to convince anyone here, knowing full well that the journey to disbelief or belief is very personal and introspective.

  3. I have to second Tony’s comments. I will cover this a little more in my next post, but on the topic of logic vs. spirit… what one person calls “logic” another may call their manifestation of the confirming Holy Spirit. Some folks describe the Spirit, even President Hinckley if I remember right, as being a calm and peaceful feeling and a clarity of thought. Having clear and distinct thoughts come into your mind is often the description of the witness of the Spirit, and it is often the description of a logical epiphany. Tough call?

  4. Post

    “certainty is the enemy of education” — now, just to learning. I guess if I’m certain about things, I don’t think I need education.

    As to logic, what has fascinated me in the study of philosophy (and these days I’m doing some refresher readings, which has brought it all back) were the huge logic gaps in what everyone took for logic. Most types of logic have grammars that fill in the gaps. I teach the concept by referring to Rush Limbaugh and Diane Ream (hmm, I may have her confused with Ream’s Supermarket) on NPR. Both seem to have perfect logic to those who agree with them, maddening gaps to those who don’t. In reality, both speak from presuppositions that fill in the gaps. They, just like philosophers through the ages have presuppositions that allow them to have gaps and be unaware of them.

    On the negative side, it is easy for an audience to mistake speculation for truth and to miss errors when they occur. It is easy for a speaker to perceive the Spirit as an aid or a tool supporting the teaching rather than as a guide and to ignore the times it wanes. Others can draw conclusions that are misleading or that build with logic on a mixed foundation

    Ok, an audience that is not strongly in tune with the Spirit hears speculation. They may very well just assume that whatever is said is the truth. Brigham Young challenged his audiences not to just listen to him and accept blindly his guesses, but to seek the Spirit and knowledge, so they would know truth from error. But if I listen passively, I can find myself taking it all as truth. Somewhat like Germans in the 1970s when listening to General Authorities. They missed the jokes and took them for part of the instruction, glaring at the Americans in the regional meeting who laughed at the jokes.

    Next, as a speaker, it is easy for me to think of the Spirit as something that is there to just bear witness and support me. So I bear testimony of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the need to abstain from Chocolate and the value of Home Teaching. If I’m listening to the Spirit, I’ll note it cuts out when I diverge onto discussing chocolate. So, do I figure it let down on the job a little while I was teaching or do I listen and correct myself? Do I just push harder on the chocolate part? I can tell you that many people don’t get the hint when they have that experience. To them, though they would be appalled if I put it this way, the Spirit is just another prop or tool, like the public address system or a powerpoint slide.

    Finally, if I’m in the audience and the Spirit is there part of the time and not there part of the time, do I just treat it all as true and extrapolate from what logic takes me to? Do I wonder what is perfect and imperfect in the presentation.

    Let me give an example, from my own life.

    On my mission we taught a young black man who was in a coop at Hooker Chemical as a chemical engineering student. It came time to tell him about the Priesthood. It was a massively powerful spiritual experience, unlike anything I had encountered up to that point, like being in the midst of a fire. It was clearly obvious to me that God was communicating around my companion, who was talking, but it was 99% noise. He knew it too.

    So, I could have concluded, since the Spirit was so powerfully strong that what my companion’s words said said were true. That would have been silly, as God made that mistake pretty much manifest (which is in accord with teachings about how or ability to understand is limited sharply by our knowledge, context and language). Later, I listened to Richard tell his brother about the experience. He explained that not having the Priesthood was a powerful blessing, not a punishment or a deprivation. That was interesting, and it was very true as far as the Niagara Falls Ward was concerned. A Richard without the priesthood transformed the ward in a way a Richard with it would not have.

    Could I generalize from that event that for all Blacks, not having the Priesthood was a powerful blessing? I could, but it would not necessarily have followed. Especially as when I was confirming Richard I had the surprising information given to me that Blacks would get the priesthood within the lifespan of a General Authority whose grand daughter I had met. Which is why I was not surprised when it happened, and which I never mentioned to anyone as it was not my place to mention that.

  5. Post

    I’ve also had experience about listening when the Spirit cuts out. I had a room mate we were sharing the gospel with. He got used to hearing the Spirit. I was going on one day and it faded out. He brought me up short with the comment that I must be wrong. I was sure I wasn’t, but then I stopped. It turned out I was wrong, and I learned from the experience.

    I’m not saying the Spirit is vague. I’m not saying to abandon logic.

    What I am saying is that we often have huge holes in our logic, especially when we apply it to spiritual things. Not to mention, we often read and think without thinking to apply the Spirit at all.

    That leads people astray when they read speculations. Consider, what did Brigham Young really think about pigs and pork? He was all over the map (everyone should have a pig, no one should eat any pork products, etc.). I don’t think there was a strong spiritual principal in his teachings, discussions and feelings about pork, just some casual logic and a personal dislike for the flavor.

    I think we need to apply stronger logic than we usually do, rather than just assume things.

  6. Post

    This is terrible of me, but take a look at this essay:

    A true believer will reject any theory that appears to show God as unmerciful or uncaring. An atheist rejects all miracles as misunderstandings at best, and outright falsifications at worst. But they are doing the exact same thing. They are rejecting information about the world, not because it is false, but because it does easily fit into their view of what the world is.

    The essay there has a lot more that might help make more sense out of the difference between logic and what people think is logic.

    But, if you take Joseph Smith on his own terms, you take him as someone whose words are to be explored, learned from and as a beginning place, not an ending place.

    That is a fascinating approach, and one that leads places that require work, but that have promise.

  7. Stephen,
    In the narcissistic world of blogging, I am all over any lesson we can gain in humility. Our certainty can so often be the enemy of growth, new perspectives and spiritual truth.

  8. Stephen,

    This post was dead on. I loved this quote: “I truly believe that by being certain of our logic and knowledge, we cut ourselves off from what God could and would teach us.”

    I think something as simple as assuming the movtives of another fall into this category and illustrate the point. If I assume an action has a bad motive, it cuts me off from all other reasonable possibilities that might be available as an explanation and I become incapable of even considering the possibilities.

    I recently read Richard Bushman’s “On the Road with Jospeh Smith” and this really drove the point home for me. If you assume Joseph is a fraud, you never stop to really think about what religious ideas he brought to the table and you can never really see certain aspects about Joseph Smith because you are too certain you *know* he is a fraud and that no fraud can have something worth saying. I highly recommend this book. I’m not doing Bushman’s ideas justice with this simple post.

  9. I think that Joseph would be shocked to discover his words have been dissected, studied, fought over, discussed ad nausim, etc. He would be surprised to discover that each word he uttered is considered by some church members as scripture. He would be dismayed, I think, that some will not think for themselves.

    I have often thought that church members profess things they hope are true and have never “studied it out in their mind” but relied on the certainty of others.

  10. I cannot dispute the fact that people have faulty logic and use logical fallacies to hedge up their logic and justification. I can further see that by apply logic to certain thing spiritual is also difficult due to the nature of the experience and theology in general. In simplistic terms, logic should be validated through support, evidence, and fact, which are missing from a spiritual experience because it is personal in nature. When spirituality is applied to a group, again it is still contingent upon the common and general beliefs of the group, the ambiance, the reactions of the group, and group dynamic in general. Yet, the individual or even a conscientious observer who know what to look for can examine these experiences in a logical way as well. There are natural explanations for supposed supernatural experiences. That, however, does not mean that the logical conclusion is correct, nor does it mean that logic and the scientific method work for every phenomenon. Our knowledge is still limited, but humanity is steadily making progress.

    Regardless of the doctrine or speculation being espoused, we as listeners still have to make a logical decision based on what it felt or thought. A+B=C. I felt this when I heard that, ergo it is this. If someone strongly feels “the spirit” when hearing speculation, who are we to say that it isn’t true, especially for those individuals who felt that powerful emotion upon hearing the speculation or doctrine with which we may disagree. If we debate the emotionality, doesn’t it become kind of pointless? My feeling is better/stronger than your feeling? If one does debate it, they have to rely on logic to do so.

    So, logic is used whether we know it or not, for better or for worse. It may be faulty or crystal clear, but the thought process is in full function when interpreting, accepting/rejecting, and pondering talks, even if they are speculative or dogmatic.

  11. I see now we’re using different meanings of logic. I mean conclusions which follow from premises, however those premises are arrived at. Stephen, you seem to mean “rational thought” or “evidentially-based conclusions” when you write “logic”.

    I’m paraphrasing, but Joseph said he wouldn’t blame anyone for not believing his own story, that he wouldn’t believe it himself if he hadn’t lived it. I take comfort in this statement that if he has any say on the other side, he will intercede on the side of mercy for those who follow where logic leads them, whether it is in or out of the Church. (It’s kind of a Catholic patron saint idea that the church triumphant has a role in our salvation, but I think its interesting to think about.)

  12. I think spiritual experience can be a form of evidence, although not purely scientific, but in many cases strong enough for an individual to make a leap of faith. In science, leaps of faith are taken all the time based on small amounts of evidence that make it reasonable to hypothesize in a direction. In this sense, I think that you can integrate spiritual experiences with a logical analysis and have a reasonable foundation for faith.

    “If you assume Joseph is a fraud, you never stop to really think about what religious ideas he brought to the table and you can never really see certain aspects about Joseph Smith”

    Likewise, if you believe Joseph is a holy man in the image of church literature and art, you may not be able to see where certain aspects may be questionable.

  13. Post

    “On the Road with Joseph Smith” is a great book. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and how much of Bushman’s testimony comes through in it.

    who are we to say that it isn’t true, especially for those individuals whose language, context and experience are different from ours? Excellent point.

    conclusions which follow from premises, however those premises are arrived at. Stephen, you seem to mean “rational thought” or “evidentially-based conclusions” when you write “logic”.

    Not really. I mean logic to denote the process by which conclusions follow from premises. However, many logic chains I encounter either have faulty structures or are built upon indeterminate foundations that are being treated as determinate and fixed. I want people to apply a more rational and complete logic than they do and to understand the evidence they deal with.

    My bottom line was that if you believe Joseph is then you may not be taking him on his own terms, as he tried to explain himself.

  14. I guess my take is that belief systems, religious or otherwise, are actually just a moral choice and are never really based on logic or reason. This idea seems to bother many people. But it seems to me that we never actually have enough facts to “logically” (and by this I mean propositional logic based on proofs) derive anything. We are forced to make assumptions before we can even start the logical analysis and it turns out these assumptions are unproven (though we may claim they are) and unprovable (though we may claim they can be).

    If what I am saying is true, and personally I do believe this at least to some degree, then all arguments about a belief system can be boiled down to an unshared set of assumptions that likely neither side will admit they can’t prove or disprove. So belief is really just a moral choice and even open discuss and dialog may in fact be an illusion in many cases.

    Consider the stance of those for and against abortion as an example here. The real difference between the two sides the media portrays is between “it’s a baby” and “it’s the woman’s body.” (The media never portrays any of the myriad of middle of the road views on this issue which I believe make up the majority of people.) Given those two different assumptions, which can’t possibly be proven or disproven, there is no middle ground for discussion, compromise, or debate.

    So why do we waste time talking about their supposed “debate” at all? For all intents and purposes both of these camps have removed themselves from any dialog. We might as well just accept that those two camps both have valid, though mutually exclusive, points of view based on differeing assumptions. How do you even go about holding a discussion with either camp given their underlying assumptions?

  15. First off, I agree with most of what you are saying, Clay. I only have one bone of contention, if you will.

    Clay: “In science, leaps of faith are taken all the time based on small amounts of evidence that make it reasonable to hypothesize in a direction.”

    I think that this is an often-used argument to compare science to religion, but it is also an inaccurate analogy. First, expectations, predictions, hypothesis are what leads a scientist. They don’t have faith as one in religion has. A scientist will expect observable, predictable result or falsify her hypothesis. Secondly, once the hypothesis is made and validated and attempted again, other scientists TRUST that similar results will occur. In looking at evolution or astronomy, scientist will make the prediction and trust that the science behind the prediction is accurate. If the prediction is unfulfilled, then that means some rethinking, retooling, reevaluation is necessary.

    When it comes to faith in deity, one cannot always get predictable results. So instead of reevaluation, we have the tendency to justify it through either our own fallibility or assume that deity has answered in the negative. One can pray for a sickness to get better; sometime it will over time, sometimes it won’t. If a person takes a medication that is used specifically for the infection, a predictable result often occurs, as long as other variables do not interfere (e.g. more than one type of infection is present, health of patient, other medication being used, etc.). The faith is not the same. Although one could say, “I have faith in the scientific process,” it is not the same as having faith in a supernatural entity. One produces reliable result or changes based on previous attempts (trust); the other is unpredictable and unchangeable, yet one still holds that this deity exists regardless of past performance (faith).

    Sorry for the long-winded reponse, and I hope this isn’t going into thread-jacking.

  16. Tony,

    I think you are partially arguing semantics when differentiating a scientist’s “trust” from a believer’s “faith”, but overall your point is taken. However, I’m not arguing for as full a comparison of science and spiritual faith (I’m not even talking about religion) as you are rebutting. I agree that once you get into proving a hypothesis the parallel ends.

    I’ll let the subject go for now, but I have a post coming up soon that will allow for more discussion on the challenge of faith and logic.

  17. I am, most likely, arguing semantics but also context. I think perhaps “confidence” is a better fit than “trust.” But my argument is that religious faith should not be compared to scientific inquire, which you have clarified. I think we agree more than disagree on this topic, so I will back off. :0)

  18. Post

    For fun on science and logic, read:

    I’ll have to agree to disagree about spiritual truth and what the witness of the Spirit means, but I do think that we can agree that we learn a great deal if we approach things with the thought that we don’t know as much as we think we do and that the conclusions that we think are obvious may not follow.

    I need to write on indeterminate foundations.

  19. NM TONY, i also second you thought provoking comments in #2. thank you for sharing.

    I have been wrestling with this topic for at least the last six months now.

    It all started with a heated disussion during the Gospel Doctrine lesson covering the Day of Pentacost. The majority believed such experiences then and now trump personal revelation.

    As a result of this (GD lession) discussion I decided to run my own experiment in a Sacrament talk I gave two week later. My goal was to observe and inquire(afterwards) the congregation’s response to a personal story illustrating the purpose of perseverance. I put a lot of emotion into telling the story, even strategically pausing twice, as if i were to contain my “overwhelming emotions.” I immediately noticed the usual bunch of sensitive parishoners exhibiting outward manifestions of being “moved.” And thoroughout the remainder of church services and over the course of several weeks i fielded comments regarding the talk (and in particularly the story) and how they were “moved” (mostly by the spirit and some by “human-based emmotionality” upon my further inquiry).

    I Did fail to mention that the “personal” story I shared with them was a complete FABRICATION.

    But, How was it possible that the Holy Spirit testified to the truthfulness of my fabricated truth?

    Should not have at least some of the parishoners, that i witnessed weeping during the telling of my fabricated story, been witnessed to with feelings/emotions contrary to their “warn-fuzzies?”

    NM TONY asked: “So, how is one to discern true spiritual promptings from human-based emotionality?”

  20. tb,

    The only way to separate true spiritual promptings from purely human emotions is to use your brain. There are many ways to do this. Based on what we know or think we know about the character of God, nature of the universe, etc., we extrapolate that some experiences are spiritual and some are not. The categories we choose are our choice, and can always be reinterpreted at a later point. Then again, we never really know anything this way, because our initial assumptions may be wrong, which I guess gets us back to Stephen’s point about being teachable and humble…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *