117–118: Truth in Revelation and Scripture

August 8, 2012
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What does it mean to still claim that scripture is “true” or “inspired” when we fully recognize that much of it is fictional (parable, allegory, poetic, mythic, clearly “shaped” to achieve certain effects) or when some scriptural claims clash with other scriptural claims or with historical and scientific facts? Once revelation or scripture has begun to shed for us some of their “authoritative” status and become more obviously a product of human hearts and minds or a divine/human admixture, why does or should it remain compelling? What are other ways to read and gain from prophetic utterance or scripture that don’t view them as the exact words of God?

In this episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Charles Harrell, Wade Greenwood, and Eric Samuelsen explore various kinds of “truth” and the different rules that govern them. They begin with recently raised issues raised about the standards of truth required by journalism versus more artistic endeavors such as storytelling, drama, and other art forms before turning to the connections the insights gained from these areas have with scripture and prophetic inspiration. They explore insights from theologians from other traditions who have wrestled with similar questions, including various types of inspiration—verbal, conceptual, and motivational—and pre-critical, critical, and post-critical lenses through which one might assess its importance and power. Other questions: Should scripture and the type of inspiration claimed by prophets be seen as wholly “other” from the kind of inspiration we feel from time to time in our own lives? What are the drawbacks and gains from viewing it as radically different or quite similar? Given each of their own study and reflection on scripture that highlights the very human fingerprints that permeate it, why do the participants still love and claim to gain much from their continued encounters with it?

We look forward to you listening to this episode and then joining in the conversation below!

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Links to podcasts mentioned in this episode:

This American Life #454 Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory: http://www.thisamericanlife.or…

This American Life #460 Retraction: http://www.thisamericanlife.or…

Radiowest- The Truth of a Matter: http://www.kuer.org/post/32112…

Many interesting essays about truth and storytelling can be found in the September 1991 Sunstone magazine issue dedicated to the Paul Dunn controversy: https://www.sunstonemagazine.c…

On Being with Krista Tippett (Speaking of Faith) episode, “Days of Awe” with Rabbi Sharon Brous, in which she reflects with affection on the power of myth, ritual, and scripture–even when parts drive her crazy: http://www.onbeing.org/program…

 

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14 Responses to 117–118: Truth in Revelation and Scripture

  1. Wade
    August 9, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Links to podcasts mentioned in this episode:

    This American Life #454 Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/454/mr-daisey-and-the-apple-factory

    This American Life #460 Retraction: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction

    Radiowest- The Truth of a Matter: http://www.kuer.org/post/32112-truth-matter

    On Being with Krista Tippett (Speaking of Faith)- Days of Awe with Rabbi Sharon Brous: http://www.onbeing.org/program/days-awe/82

    Many interesting essays about truth and storytelling can be found in Sunstone Magazine September 1991: https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/issue-details/?in=83

  2. davedd233
    August 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    This was a terrific topic. Thanks for everyone for participating. I have a few questions about scripture. I have had experiences in my life where I have felt that “brush up against truth.” It has happened in the LDS canon of scriptures, sacred texts from other faiths, novels, films, personal experiences, etc. So how does truth received through scripture differ from truth received through other sources? Or does it differ at all? If not, is there anything unique about scripture–LDS scripture in particular–and its relationship to us as truth-seekers? Do scriptures have more value in our quest for truth, or do they simply serve as a sort of cultural adhesive?

    • conorbhilton
      August 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      I think that the truth which is received is valued the same, there is nothing unique about truth obtained from scripture. If you look to statements by John Taylor and Brigham Young, among others, they support the idea of Mormonism serving as a gathering point for all truth, regardless of the source. I do believe there is a certain value to be placed on scripture over other sources as a soundboard for truth. Scripture, as being canonized, gains an approved status, that it is in fact inspired. What truths are to be drawn from this inspired source, is up to us, but the fact that scripture is given some level of assured ‘inspired’ status, makes scripture an excellent starting point for truth-seeking. Also a constant check to see if new truths fit in with the truth you gain from scripture. 

      • C. Harrell
        August 10, 2012 at 9:28 am

        I am completely on board with the Mormonism that is “a gathering point for all truth.”

        “that it [scripture] is in fact inspired”

         

        We know Joseph Smith said of the Song of Solomon that it “is not inspired.” He further qualified the assertion of 2
        Tim 3:16 that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable
        for doctrine” by changing it to read “all scripture given by inspiration of
        God, is profitable for doctrine.” The implication, of course, is that not all scripture
        is given by inspiration of God and therefore may not be profitable for doctrine. Brigham Young often challenged the inspiration
        of the Bible and on one occasion said that it contained not only the words of
        God, but the “words of…men” as well as the “words of the devil” (JD 13:175). I would agree that scripture is a good check point, but we are still left with the challenge of assessing which parts are truly inspired and, even then, whether they can be taken as the absolute truth. 

  3. Ryan Comins
    August 10, 2012 at 2:42 am

    I’ve just finished the first part. Another brilliant podcast from mormon matters! well done Dan and all the other panelists! This is a subject I’ve thought a lot about in the past. I want to run by you a theory I have (borrowed from a website which I no longer have). Basically it says that within mormonism and wider christianity, the tension between the authority of the church and that of scripture has been resolved in three different ways: the protestant’s sola scriptura, where scripture is the only legitimate authority on scriptural truth; prima scriptura, where both church and scriprure are valid sources of inspired truth, but if they are ever in conflict, we should go with scripture; and prima ecclesia, again where both church and scripture are inspired sources of spiritual truth, but if there is a conflict between them, the church has the higher authority. My own position could perhaps be described as ‘sola spiritus sanctii’ (not sure if the latin grammar is correct there), or ‘the holy ghost alone’. I think that much of the scriptures are inspired, and that many church leaders are inspired, but I think it makes more sense to go directly to the source of that inspiration yourself, rather than through human, imperfect intermediaries. Just like chinese whispers, something often gets lost in transmission when God has to work through humans to pass on messages to His other children. So I don’t feel obliged to accept a principle or doctrine just because it happens to be enshrined in ‘holy writ’, nor simply on the basis that it was once, or is currently, taught by a general authority, unless what is being taught agrees with and is confirmed by the truth I have personally learned and received from the holy ghost. This is similar to the dominant liberal quaker view of scripture – the Biblical authors were inspired, but the Bible is not the Word of God. As outlined in John 1, Christ is the Word of God. And through personal revelation, which we are all entitled to, we can receive direct guidance from the Word of God (Christ), the same Word of God that inspired the Biblical authors. I’d like to think this idea has a home in mormonism, but it has always been in competition and tension with the emphasis on restored priesthood authority, and the emphasis on the vital importance of restored scripture (eg the Book of Mormon). I fear these other two strains of mormonism have more or less won out and become dominant in our culture and tradition, which saddens me greatly. What do you think.

    • Carey
      August 15, 2012 at 1:57 pm

      Ditto that!

  4. C. Harrell
    August 10, 2012 at 10:09 am

    Ryan,I concur with your observation that there has been a shift from relying on the Holy Ghost as the source of truth to relying on priesthood authority. Church manuals seldom ask what members think a passage of scripture means. More often they simply quote Church authorities. Joseph Smith’s criterion for judging truth was that it “tastes good,” not that it had been approved by correlation. He urged Saints to be led by the Spirit which would reveal the truth of all things. The question to be asked, however, is whether “feelings” are absolutely reliable. Is it possible that what tastes good to one person might have a bitter taste to someone else? I rather like the Wesleyan quadrilateral for assessing truth: Scripture, Tradition (i.e, authoritative teachings through time), Experience (which could include spiritual experiences) and Reason.  This method of theological reflection is aimed at insuring that extremist views in each dimension are countered and balanced accordingly.I would be curious to know how others arrive at religious truth and if there is a different way to arrive at the kind of experiential truths referred to in the podcast. 

  5. UTManMI
    August 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    This episode reminded me of this section in Preach My Gospel (p. 199):

    When you say, “I know that __________ is true,” what do you mean? What other words can you use to convey your convictions?

  6. Ryan Comins
    August 10, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Charles, thanks for responding. For me personally, my spiritual experiences are defined by more than just a ‘feeling’, although emotion is certainly an important part of it. However, I definitely recognise that our spiritual exsperiences are highly subjective, and the knowledge I gain through my experience may not equal or correspond to the knowledge someone else gains from theirs. To this I would respond that I only believe these spiritual experiences are valid for the person experiencing them, not necessarily for others. We cannot live on borrowed light. The thing I perhaps love the most about Joseph Smith was his invitation for others to follow his example in inquiring directly of God, “who giveth to all men liberally”. Throughout his life, a key theme of his preaching was that we can seek wisdom from God directly, ourselves, as evidenced by the high prevalence of spiritual gifts such as prophecy, visions and the ministry of angels among the early saints.
    Basically, I do believe that the spiritual experiences I have had (which I would not describe as mere ‘feelings’) throughout my life, are reliable for me. But I would not ask others to accept my opinion as the word of God simply because it is based in spiritual experiences with what I believe to be the divine. Instead, I would encourage them to take the issue to God themselves, and have their own spiritual experiences. The reason for this is because I believe that human communication can never adequately capture or convey the experience of communion with the Divine, or the insight gained during these experiences. My own experiences, and the experiences of others that I have read, can only adequately be described as ineffable. This means that whenever we try to pass this knowledge or insight on, it becomes somewhat garbled. Furthermore, because we are human and speak with limited human understanding, wisdom and knowledge, we are likely to perhaps misinterpret or misunderstand the message being conveyed, which further amplifies the likelihood that the message, knowlege or insight will become garbled or corrupted somewhat. Thus, I think the safest way to avoid the likelihood of a chinese-whispers-like scenario, with the pure insight becoming more and more altered with every imperfect human attempt to retell it, is to go directly to God, have our own spiritual experiences, and gain our own inspiration on these matters.

  7. Ryan Comins
    August 11, 2012 at 7:31 am

    Ok, so I’ve listened to the whole podcast now, and I just wanted to say I really loved your ‘spiel’, Dan. I am personally uncomfortable with the idea that we are all ‘prophets’, simply because for me, ‘prophet’ is a term of special distinction. If everyone is a ‘prophet’, then the term loses all meaning. Buddha, Moses and Joseph Smith are all merely like us, whereas I feel that in actual fact the experiences that they had with the divine far surpassed my experiences in terms of degree and intensity. I like to reserve the term ‘prophet’ for those who have had a special, profound, intense relationship and experiences with God that far exceed the experiences I have had.
    Having said that, I do believe that the differences between the spiritual experiences of ‘prophets’ such as Buddha and Joseph Smith and my own experiences are merely differences of degree and intensity, not nature – much in the same way that Mormonism teaches that the difference between us and God is merely one of progression rather than Him and us being completely different types of beings. Thus, I hold open the possibility that one day, I may grow in my relationship with divinity to the extent that I can and do have profound spiritual experiences of the same degree and intensity as Joseph Smith and the Buddha, but until that day, I’m uncomfortable referring to myself as a ‘prophet’. Do you agree, Dan, or do you feel that the experiences you have and the experiences that, for example Joseph Smith had, are identical (or at least similar) in both nature and intensity? Is what the ‘prophets’ experience really identical to what we experience, or do you allow that they may be experiencing what we experience, but in a more intense and profound way? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, Dan.

  8. Mike
    August 14, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    These types of discussion frustrate me. I ask myself if we have to go through all this effort to understand scripture, if we have to read between the lines of what a prophet says, if we have to nuance beliefs from literal to metaphorical, where is the value in that? Seems like such a waste of time to try and make something relevant that is most likely just the meandering of mens minds. If you were to treat scripture and revelation as something akin to poetry perhaps I could see the value, but when you try and make it more than it really is it just seems an exercise in futility. If this is the way God works then he is got to be a very inefficient being. It seems to me a group of smart individuals could come up with a creed or set of instructions for living that would far outpace anything we get in scripture or revelation and without all the trappings of divine guidance. But then maybe it takes the stamp of God on something to get people to follow and behave.

    • Ryan Comins
      August 15, 2012 at 3:07 pm

      I guess if you really see scripture as something that is “most likely just the meandering of mens minds”, then yes, there probably is very little value in reading it. However, I personally have found when reading that there are often very deep and poignant concepts in there that resonate with my soul, and make it worth reading and digging deeper. And I have found that often, such deep digging results in satisfying and enlightening experiences that I choose to regard as spiritual, and it is these experiences that make it worth the time and patience required to really explore the deeper depths of some of the beautiful concepts that scripture has to offer.

  9. Michael Johnson
    August 16, 2012 at 2:22 am

    I really don’t like the way TBMs who should know better try to redefine the language to fit their beliefs.

    You can learn lessons from fiction. You can be prompted to think about your own behaviour when told stories and parables. You can appreciate great quotes and good story telling. However, you are still aware that there is nothing true about the stories. Fiction is never called truth anywhere but with those with a religious mind.

    People who try to explain away the obvious flaws and inaccuracies of scripture by saying that “truth” can be acquired through any story – even if it is a work of fantasy or an outright lie – forget everything the supposedly inspired leadership of the LDS church have said regarding scripture, particularly the Book of Mormon. It’s very clear that LDS church leadership want us to believe the BoM is an accurate history of Semitic tribes and their original settlement of North America. This “most correct book” and the “fullness of the gospel” has NEVER been called a parable or an inspired fiction.

    You either believe the BoM is fact and a true history, or you are in apostasy. There is no “middle way” with Mormonism. If you claim it is a work of fiction that transmits truth you oppose church leadership and are grasping at straws to attempt to remain a believer.

  10. Brian Petersen
    August 17, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Really enjoyed this podcast. This and the Problem of Evil that I’m listening to right now are two topics that I’m thinking about constantly. But I do have a problem i can’t seem to get an answer to.

    As a background… I no longer believe in the historicity of the BOM as an ancient document. But a lot of folks, including thoughts in this podcast, say that shouldn’t be a problem.

    I can get behind the idea of practical truth and goodness and all
    that. There’s a lot of good in the church and in the BOM
    that can be learned, even without a belief in God. But, to me, this concept seems to level the playing field so much. I tend to think of a good
    general conference talk on the same level as a good life coaching lesson
    I hear on Oprah. Good is good.

    When you discussed “what makes scripture?” it got into this a bit, but I still have questions. If I don’t believe
    in the historicity of the BOM as an ancient document, nor necessarily
    believe that is was directly inspired fiction from God, then where does
    that leave me on how I approach the book? I understand the value and
    lessons to be learned from a close reading of it, and I am enjoy
    that as I’ve gone through Jared’s MS Sunday School. But is it any different than doing a close reading on The Lord
    of the Rings? Or the works of Shakespeare?

    Where does literature end and scripture begin? And why should I re-read the BOM every years instead of re-reading “Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” a book I find great value in.

    And expanded to people… where does Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil end and Dallin H. Oaks begin?

    The playing field just seems to be leveled completely.