Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why geography matters

I've done three presentations in the last 10 days (bookends to a trip to Yellowstone with two of our grandsons) and a recurring question is, "Why does Book of Mormon geography matter?"

I've addressed this before on this blog but there's a key point to emphasize.

For some people, geography doesn't matter because they have a spiritual witness that supersedes any "physical" witness. That's axiomatic: if one is active in the Church, presumably it's because one has a spiritual witness. However, not every member of the Church is active; people have different spiritual gifts (D&C 47). Some need a physical touchstone, a tangible evidence of some sort, or some form of corroboration of the reality of the Book of Mormon text. They think, "How can I trust the spiritual messages of the book if I can't trust the physical messages?"

The two big problems with the Mesoamerican model for Book of Mormon geography are 1) there is zero evidence of the Book of Mormon narrative there and 2) the proponents insist Joseph didn't know much about the Book of Mormon. Regarding point 1), I have read all of Sorenson's works and most of what FARMS and the Maxwell Institute have published, and the best they can do is find analogies or plausible similarities. They have to adjust the Book of Mormon text to make it fit, such as changing the meaning of "north," changing the meaning of "horse," "sheep," and other plants and animals, etc. But even then, they explain that there is no evidence of Book of Mormon culture or people in Mesoamerica because Lehi's group was so small it essentially vanished. It's difficult to separate the Mesoamerican theory from the assertion that the Book of Mormon is fiction; i.e., insisting the Book of Mormon events took place in an area and culture that have nothing to do with the Book of Mormon narrative is equivalent to saying the Book of Mormon is purely an allegory or parable. Regarding point 2), to justify the Mesoamerican theory, proponents insist Joseph Smith did not understand the Book of Mormon (but the Mesoamerican proponents do) and merely speculated about its setting, that he didn't learn about the Nephite culture from Moroni, etc.

Both of these problems are serious issues for those who study the Book of Mormon. Undermining the credibility of the translation regarding directions and animals also undermines the credibility of every other aspect of the book, and undermining the credibility of Joseph's own statements about his revelations and familiarity with Book of Mormon people undermines the credibility of everything else Joseph said and wrote. The Mesoamerican theory is a major deterrent to honest investigators and a major factor in people losing faith in the Book of Mormon. This reality is reflected daily on the Internet for anyone to see (not to mention in every group I address).

Here's an excerpt from my book Moroni's America, to be released on July 1st for the 4th of July weekend:

Since 1830, the existence of the Book of Mormon itself was sufficient for millions of people to accept it as a revelation from God. There were no viable explanations for its existence other than pure serendipity (itself a miracle) or Joseph Smith’s own explanation. Claims that Joseph copied it, collaborated with others, or even wrote it himself have all been advanced and exposed as highly implausible, at best. And yet, for most people, any shred of possibility that Joseph Smith composed the book is sufficient to reject it. Such rejection is far more palatable than the alternative of acceptance and all that entails. Accepting the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon requires first, acceptance of metaphysical reality—that God exists and intervenes in human affairs—and second, acceptance that whatever one had believed that contradicted Joseph’s explanation was incorrect.
Those are difficult propositions, no doubt, in any age of the world.
But now, in 2015, the mere existence of the Book of Mormon is hardly persuasive. There are over 150 million copies of the book in existence but only around 7.5 million people who actually believe its claims (assuming an activity rate of 50% among nominal Mormons, which might be high). Pure faith has become less and less prevalent in light of scientific advances that have explained so many things that were once the province of faith alone.
Which is what makes the Book of Mormon all the more convincing.
Critics have long focused on the inconsistency between Book of Mormon claims the Mesoamerican setting that has long prevailed in the Church. To their credit, they were largely correct. The Book of Mormon events did not  occur in Mesoamerica (or anywhere south of Texas). That the Mesoamerican theory was initiated by an overzealous Mormon missionary whose efforts succeeded for over 170 years may reflect on the work of LDS scholars (who, by and large, sought to vindicate what they thought were Joseph Smith’s teachings), but can have no bearing on the Book of Mormon itself.
Only now, in 2015, can we see the Book of Mormon for what it has always been: an incredibly complex history of the Native American Indians who inhabited what was, in 1830-1842, the United States of America. Only now, with the benefit of modern archaeology, geology, and other tools can we understand what the Book of Mormon was saying about its time, place, and people.
The timing could not have been better. As I write, we live in a society and world that largely rejects any claims that are not supported by solid evidence. Rightly so. Science has exposed hundreds of false ideas and beliefs. But it has verified others. That science would establish the historicity of the Book of Mormon is an outcome that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. But now that it has happened, detractors are put to the test.
This list does not represent any order of priority or importance, any more than David Whitmer’s testimony is more important than that of Martin Harris or Peter Whitmer. Every witness is unique. Each contributes a separate perspective. But when combined, the witnesses lead to a united conclusion: The Book of Mormon is true, and the history it relates took place in America—Moroni’s America.
List of witnesses
Primary witnesses
1. Teachings of Joseph Smith
2. The text—parallel structures
3. The text—how it all fits
Secondary witnesses
4. Destruction in 3 Nephi
5. Nephite society
6. The law of Moses
7. The promised land
8. Nephite infrastructure
9. Archaeology
10. History
11. Anthropology, including DNA

These eleven witnesses rely primarily on the text of the Book of Mormon, supplemented by other scriptures, to frame both internal and external evidence. The witnesses address the scientific requirements of the text, including archaeology, geology, anthropology, and topography. Since its publication in 1830, archaeologists have insisted the Book of Mormon is useless as a guide. That was true when they were looking in Mesoamerica. Now, in 2015, that has changed.
Someone once asked me, “How much evidence does it take to prove something?” My answer: “It depends on the individual.”
Any standard of proof is subjective. That’s why we use juries in courts of law and peer reviews in science. Proof is whatever is sufficient to satisfy an individual about the truth or falsity of a given proposition.
Who will accept the evidence? Who will persist in rejecting objective data to avoid the uncomfortable implications?

Only time will tell, and each individual must decide. 

1 comment:

  1. Great summation of the reasons that it matters that we know all we can about the Book of Mormon. You are right on when saying it's important for those who need a bit of a push towards physical proof. I know for me as one who has always loved the Book of Mormon and one who believed in the Meso therory only a few years ago, it matters to me. When I read the Book of Mormon it makes it very personal to know when the Sidon river is mentioned I know it is the Missississippi and it keeps me focused and understanding what I am reading more and more. It's exciting to finally know with my own confirmation that there is ONLY ONE CUMORAH and that Moroni is truly the guardian of the United States of America. My testimony with the Heartland model has GREATLY strengthened my testimony and I appreciate you and others for helping me understand this.