Meta: I’m trying in this series to get at how we think about issues. That’s different than examining the issues themselves. Hence “meta” — to think about our thinking.
One day Mormon missionaries came to my door. I invited them in. I’ve always had an affection for the LDS (Latter Day Saints). They encouraged me to read the Book of Mormon and to check my heart to see if their scriptures were true.
I replied that my heart is often a reliable guide to relational truth (friendship and love), but not philosophical or religious truth. Nevertheless, they insisted, so I engaged the conversation.
I asked how they know the Mormon faith is true. For example, do the three concepts of the afterlife — the telestial, celestial, and terrestial kingdoms, have any basis in fact?
They answered that these things were revealed to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni.
But how, I asked, do we know this Moroni exists, that he appeared to Smith, and that Smith got it right? And why did it occur in the early 19th c. in upper state NY?
The conversation wound down quickly at this point, and my guests departed with a polite smile.
Zooming out, my interest in religious truth claims, such as Mormonism, is guided by larger principles for “true belief.” That is, my beliefs will be most likely true if they satisfy certain criteria, of which I’ll mention three:
Coherence: I might ask the LDS whether it’s coherent to claim, as they do, that God’s revelation can be first centered in Jesus Christ and the Bible, then “updated” (including significant changes) by Joseph Smith.
Explanatory ability: And I might ask if Mormonism has a comprehensive explanation of God, creation, history, and the nature of humankind, and if it all fits together (back to coherence).
Evidence: Thirdly, I may ask for material/historical evidence that Joseph Smith received a revelation from an angel in the form of gold plates and why Smith was the only one able to interpret the correct meaning therein.
Then, if I’m a person of good will, I’ll listen with an open mind to my Mormon counterpart. I had the opportunity for this a few years ago when I visited the Institute of Religion (Mormon training site) at the University of Utah and met with a leading professor. In his manner and grace he could not have been more excellent. Yet, I found his religious explanations falling short of the three criteria just mentioned.
In the next post I’d like to suggest an additional — absolutely crucial — element to enable the religious truth seeker to seek well.