I’m often confronted with the demand that I prove the Book of Mormon true. Surely, if I possessed real evidence for the Book of Mormon, historians and archaeologists would be falling all over themselves with eager excitement.
In my view, that demand fundamentally misconceives the Mormon concept of this mortal life. Moreover, it misunderstands the nature of the case that advocates of the Book of Mormon (such as I am) have been making.
Latter-day Saints understand this life to be a test in which, among other things, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). After all, “hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?” (Romans 8:24). “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
We don’t expect coercive proof of the kind found in mathematics (and virtually only in mathematics). We’re not counting on decisive, secular, public evidence to demonstrate Mormonism true “beyond reasonable doubt.” Probably by divine design, such evidence isn’t available to us. Instead, we’re here for testing in what specialists call “decision making under uncertainty.” Confident conviction, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach, comes through a personal, individual witness from the Spirit, not by sifting through academic arguments.
But this isn’t to say that no public case can be made, or that no secular evidence exists. And it’s certainly not to say that believers must forsake reason in order to have faith.
So, now, to my second point: Some critics misunderstand the character of the arguments that advocates of the Book of Mormon typically make.
We don’t claim that a handy cluster of arguments exists, let alone a single all-powerful world-conquering proof, that would compel unbelieving scholars to convert if only they paid sufficient attention.
Rather, what we’ve sought to do over decades (with, in my admittedly biased opinion, considerable success) is to advocate and defend the claims of the Restoration by means of the patient, painstaking accumulation of often fairly small and specific arguments. (It’s no coincidence that that’s also what this column usually seeks to do, a few brief paragraphs and one or two points at a time.)
Sometimes, this involves what I’ve termed “negative apologetics,” by which I mean not personal attacks on critics (as a few have misinterpreted me to mean), but, rather, defending the gospel by rebutting criticisms. More often, and far more to my liking, it consists of “positive apologetics,” of making affirmative arguments suggesting that reasonable people can accept the claims of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
Taken individually, many such arguments and observations may seem insignificant. It’s only when they’re seen to be meaningful parts of a larger picture that, we hope, they’ll be recognized as important indicators and clues.
A comparison might help: Consider a painting. Just about any painting will serve the purpose here, but 19th-century French “pointillism” provides perhaps the most obvious illustrations, and Georges Seurat’s 1886-1888 “Gray Weather, Grand Jatte” offers an exceptionally good example. If you examine it up close, you’ll see only meaningless daubs of colored paint. Only when you step back and see the pattern formed by hundreds and hundreds of such applications of color can you begin to understand what the overall painting is about.
So, too, with arguments for the Book of Mormon and the claims of Joseph Smith. None of these arguments, standing alone, is decisive — though, quite frankly, I think that some (such as those based on the testimonies of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon) come remarkably close. But there are so very many of them! To alter my metaphor, a single drop of falling water makes only a slight impact. Very many such drops over time, however, sustain mighty forests, sculpt rock, form the Grand Canyon.
The Book of Mormon’s impressive parallels to the ancient Near East, the humanly inexplicable peculiarities of its English translation-language (regarding which a conference will be held at Brigham Young University on March 14; see mormoninterpreter.com/events/2015-exploring-the-complexities-in-the-english-language-of-the-book-of-mormon/), its subtle complexity, its seeming ties to Preclassic Mesoamerica, the astonishing speed of its dictation, the solid statistical evidence that it was written by multiple authors — these are individual elements of what I personally judge to be a very substantial cumulative case.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.