At the core of the Mormon founding story is Joseph Smith, a 14 year old boy living in the midst of a religious revival in upstate New York when he received a visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ and was told to join none of the churches. Instead, over the following years, he was directed to translate the Book of Mormon, a record written by ancient inhabitants in America, and then restore God’s church on the earth, the same church that was led by Christ in the New Testament. The telling of this first vision as Mormons like to call it has been canonized in Mormon scripture as part of the Pearl of Great Price.
For church members, a lot rides on how much of what Joseph Smith did and said is actually true. A recent prophet and church leader Gordon B. Hinkley put it this way in an address he gave to the general membership of the church:
Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.
This first vision experience is at the core of the message I taught investigators as a missionary for the church in Alabama. It was in our opening message, that Joseph Smith prayed to find out which church he should join and in response to that prayer, God the Father and Jesus came and directed him to join none of them.
The first Sunday of every month, we have no assigned speakers. Rather, the time is turned over to the congregation to stand and declare their testimony. That Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus in the groves of trees is a fundamental part of most testimonies month after month.
What to make of this? What exactly do we mean when we say the church is true?
Full disclosure, I’ve done this. I have stood up in testimony meeting and at times with great fervor have announced the simple declaration, “I know the church is true” and at these times, I’ve felt something associated with this assurance, which has in my mind confirmed the words.
So, let’s dig into this idea of Mormon truth. Terryl Givens provides some helpful Mormon historical context in his book The Crucible of Doubt.
Many readers of Joseph Smith’s First Vision account feel the sting of a wide-net rebuke, with its reference to the Christian creeds as ‘an abomination’ in God’s sight. Harsh to modern ears, however, Smith’s language fits right into his cultural milieu. Religious discourse of prior ages was a vigorous and, by modern standards, shockingly abrasive and nasty hurly-burly of insults and slurs.
In that chapter, Givens describes the hyperbolic religious language at the time that influenced Joseph Smith’s own writings. But then, sites other writings of Joseph Smith that is more expansive and generous, describing holy men (and women) not found within Mormonism and that how the gospel had never really left the earth but was hidden in the wilderness.
I love this:
It appears that when God lacked prophets, He spoke through poets and musicians, sages and simple men and women of faith and goodness. He spoke through Michelangelo’s Pieta and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. He spoke through wise men such as the second-century Origen, who taught of our premortal existence in God’s presence, of a God who felt our pain as His own, and of a Father’s love so infinite that it would embrace the whole human family….
And God continues to talk to us in this way, through prophets and poets and musicians and sages and simple men and women of faith and goodness. In many ways, the gospel is still in the wilderness.
Adam Miller in his book Rube Goldberg Machines, talks about testimony and Mormon certainty in ways that I find helpful and inclusive and possible both within and without Mormonism:
A testimony involves a sincere clarify of an ‘I know’ because it is , in its naked purity, subtracted from every sign. It is subtracted from every objective sign because it declares the restoration of possibilities that the facts of the world exclude. A testimony is a bolt of lightning that splits the night in two. Testimonies contravene the stubborn inertia proper to this world. Here, the lost and impossible possibilities revealed by a testimony take hold of and recondition the world. This, though is fundamentally different from the world taking hold of and conditioning a testimony. A testimony conditioned by the world is a sign. Testimonies are not essential because they reveal how things are in the world (this is the task of science). Testimonies are essential because they reveal, in light of the Atonement, how things can be.
Testimonies have to be centered on grace, on the atonement. On a spiritual experience that invokes sanctification and purification. We live in a world with consequences, but testimony describes our experiences when those consequences are circumvented, when we become whole despite ourselves. If we say, then, the church is true, if our testimony is based on an institutional church, for it not to be a sign, it has to be a declaration of an experience with grace within the church. When we say the church is true, we are saying we have experienced Christ at church.
To say the church is the only true and living church is to repeat the hyperbolic language of the early 1800’s Joseph Smith was immersed in. To say the church is true in the way Adam Miller describes is to say we’ve experienced a sanctifying experience that brought us out of this world into an eternal one. It’s to experience living in deep time, it’s to experience an early resurrection.
But there is one more dimension of truth I’d like to point out outlined in an “On Being” interview with the physicist Frank Wilczek. And I think it’s relevant here:
“You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.”
“And I think that’s the essence of complementarity, that you have to view the world in different ways to do it justice, and the different ways can each be very rich, can each be internally consistent, can each have its own language and rules, but they may be mutually incompatible. And to do full justice to reality, you have to take both of them into account.”
So, adding this idea of complementarity. If Mormonism can indeed be true, in a fully rich and deep way, than even here, it leaves open the actual possibility that other traditions, other ways of living faith, other ways of seeing and living in this world, can also be true in ways that seem incompatible with Mormonism.
What I’m after here is a recognition of a world that I actually experience day to day, that I’ve had deep, meaningful religious experiences both within and without Mormonism. Both at church on Sunday, and in the concert halls on Saturday. But more than that, I’ve disagreed with prophets and have learned truths from the devil himself.
What I’m offering is a world of complexity, mystery and a recognition that there is more that we don’t know than we know. If that is the world we’re living in, where we have the opportunity to experience deep time, have plenty of walks in darkness, have moments of confusion and doubt, I think we need to accept our own weakness and live in this world with humility and a willingness to learn, both within and without our traditions.