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A Notion of Truth for Questioning Mormons

by Sharon Lindbloom
7 January 2021

In the Bible, Pilate famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). If he had asked that same question of LDS historian Richard Bushman, Pilate would have been told that truth is whatever works to bring any given individual to what they themselves consider “a good life.” In an interview published in The Salt Lake Tribune last week (31 December 2020) Dr. Bushman explained,

“We have a very confined notion of truth that’s really defined for us by science, which requires evidence or proof to be accepted. In ancient times, truth was connected to goodness — truth was what led you to a good life. And, for me, that’s always been more important. I’ve always valued the truth that led me to the right kind of life, the one which makes me a good father and husband and prompts me to help people be good. With that kind of truth, I’m very much willing to say, I know the [restored] gospel is true.” (Interview conducted by Peggy Fletcher Stack, “What you may not know about Mormon historian Richard Bushman — for one, he was agnostic when he went on his mission,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 31 December 2020)

Put another way, what Dr. Bushman is saying is that Mormonism leads people to be good parents and spouses, leads them to what he considers to be “the right kind of life.” Mormonism works for him, to help him live the kind of life he finds valuable; therefore, apart from any  consideration of who God actually is or how He fits into the equation, Dr. Bushman is willing to say Mormonism (i.e., the restored gospel) is true.

But interestingly, Dr. Bushman isn’t willing to say that the Book of Mormon is true. When he was young and on his LDS mission he was asked to give his testimony of the Book of Mormon:

“I just said, ‘I know the Book of Mormon is right.’ I was prepared to commit myself, which I did, and never wavered from that. But I have had continual questions ever since. They’ve never gone away.”

Dr. Bushman continues, “I don’t know what I meant by that. It was just the word that came to me rather than ‘true.’ When I read the book, I believed those things were happening. I could picture them happening. They seemed very real to me. So I’ve just always said it was right. I have a little difficulty with the word ‘true.’ I am willing to say it’s true for me and it is something I’m willing to grasp.”

This sounds to me like Mormonism’s truth claims don’t stand up under what Dr. Bushman describes as a “notion of truth…which requires evidence or proof to be accepted.”

Not everything can be proven by science, of course (e.g., the LDS doctrine that says men can become Gods who create, populate, and rule their own worlds), but it is entirely reasonable to look for evidence that will support any given truth claim–especially when that truth claim is tangible (e.g., the Book of Mormon).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims that the Book of Mormon is true, that it is a historical document: The people and civilizations written about in the book really existed.; the wars (etc.) really took place. In addition, the church claims these truths: That the book was anciently written in Reformed Egyptian, engraved upon gold plates, buried in a hill in what is now upstate New York, found by Joseph Smith in the 1820s, translated by him into English, and then taken away from the earth by the angel Moroni. Yet there’s no real evidence to support these truth claims. In this regard (as well as others), the Book of Mormon has a problem.

As an historian–and a Mormon–Dr. Bushman says,

“The Book of Mormon is a problem right now. It’s so baffling to so many that Joseph was not even looking at the gold plates [to translate them]. And there’s so much in the Book of Mormon that comes out of the 19th century that there’s a question of whether or not the text is an exact transcription of Nephi’s and Mormon’s words, or if it has been reshaped by inspiration to be more suitable for us, a kind of an expansion or elucidation of the Nephite record for our times. I have no idea how that might have worked or whether that’s true. But there are just too many scholars now, faithful church scholars, who find 19th-century material in that text. That remains a little bit of a mystery, just how it came to be.”

If truth is defined as “what works for me, to lead me to a good life,” it doesn’t really matter if there were real gold plates, or if Joseph Smith actually translated the words of an ancient prophet, or if the Book of Mormon is really from God. Because if it “works for me,” it is deemed right and true enough.

In this case, perhaps a Latter-day Saint would feel comfortable professing Mormonism or the Book of Mormon as true (or “true for me”), but once he leaves this “good life” and finds himself standing before Almighty God, that truth must not only work for him; it must also “work” for God.

The concept of “truth” in the Bible is presented with a “common sense” view. That is, the view that an idea, belief, or statement is true if it matches, or corresponds with, reality (see Aaron Brake, “What Is Truth?”). The Biblical text does not suppose that truth is relative (as is Dr. Bushman’s pragmatic approach), but rather that truth is real, and tied to a universal reality. For example,

“Our belief in the resurrection is not true simply because it works for us (the pragmatic view) nor because it is consistent with our web of Christian belief (the coherence view). The Christian belief in the resurrection of Christ is true because it is an objective fact of history that corresponds with reality! Indeed, how could the early Christians point to the empty tomb as verifiable evidence of the resurrection unless, in fact, the tomb was empty?” (Aaron Brake, “What Is Truth?” See 1 Corinthians 15:14ff)

In the Bible God tells us that in the last days people will perish “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved… all may be condemned who did not believe the truth…” (2 Thessalonians 2:10, 12). And what is this truth? The Old Testament identifies God as truth (Isaiah 65:16). The New Testament identifies Jesus as truth (John 14:6) and God’s word as truth (John 17:17). These pronouncements are not subjective, granting permission for people to create a God and a holy book that happen to “work” for them. God Himself is truth, and eternal life is knowing this one true God (John 17:3). There’s no room for mistakes here, no clinging to a god-idea that we’ve embraced because it “works” for us. The true God, the one who holds eternity in His hands, must be approached in truth (John 4:24).

Is the Book of Mormon true? Is Mormonism’s restored gospel true? If the idea of objective, evidentiary, verifiable truth must be abandoned and replaced with something that is true-for-me in order to answer in the affirmative, these are not “truths” that will set anyone free (John 8:32).

Jesus loved to proclaim freedom-granting truths: “Truly, truly, I say to you,” He taught, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

This is something worthy of consideration. In the discernment devotional Water Round the Altar (Day 4), former Mormons Brett and Kathleen Baldwin wrote something that is both right and true:

“Believing truth is believing God; believing God is believing truth. It is impossible to separate the two. To love God is to love the truth; to refuse to love the truth is to refuse God and His gift of salvation. Therefore, let us love God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds (Matthew 22:37).”

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