[… continued from this post]
What were the obstacles to belief? (Bear in mind that I am explaining this as I recall experiencing it at the time. I don’t necessarily feel the same about all these issues after 20 additional years of studying and pondering. Also this is just a summary but I am happy to elaborate on any part if anyone wishes.)
Mainly, there was just nothing about Mormonism that compelled me to believe. It was an interesting story, and appealing in some ways. But it explained nothing that I felt needed explaining, which wasn’t already explained as well by conventional Christianity. For example I recall my girlfriend and the missionaries talking about how the idea of a 3-in-1 god never made sense to them, and therefore the three separate god/beings of Mormonism had the ring of truth: It resolved a difficulty for them. But for me the Trinity never had been particularly problematic and the idea, per se, of multiple gods, seemed to raise as many questions as it answered.
It’s true that they offered a living prophet, which they argued one should expect from a scriptural religion. But as I saw it, the contemporary Prophets apparently weren’t prophets of the same order as Joseph Smith, or for that matter Isaiah or Jeremiah. In that respect it was hard to see anything about the current Prophet that differed essentially from the Pope: While both claimed to be leaders and guides of their respective churches, and to receive special assistance from God in carrying out their tasks, neither claimed to be receiving ongoing public revelation of the “Thus saith the Lord” variety (by which I mean speaking in the person of God, which was the form of pretty much all of Smith’s revelations); or at any rate, at nowhere near the frequency with which such revelations were given to Smith. As far as I could tell, the LDS Prophet had received two or three explicit public revelations since Smith’s death, and only one of those was in the form of “Thus saith the Lord”.
I don’t say this disproved anything, just that the benefit of a living prophet was less apparent with so little actual prophecy going on. It had been explained to me that “prophecy” could be defined other than as explicit, verbal revelation or foreknowledge from God. But in that sense the Popes also could be considered prophets, as well as any number of Protestant ministers, etc. In response the Mormons might have said that their prophecy was the only authentic one — but that begged the question. The point was that they claimed that ongoing prophecy and a living prophet were things unique to themselves. If the living Prophet were of the order of Joseph Smith, they might have had a point. But he wasn’t (or didn’t seem so to me), so the claim of a living prophet lost some of its potency.
The teachings of Brigham Young also troubled me (I spent many hours reading from either the Journal of Discourses or the Discourses of the Prophet Brigham Young — forgive me, I forget which). For example, as is commonly discussed, he taught that Adam and God the Father were one and the same. I understood that modern Mormons didn’t all believe that, and said it was his personal opinion and interpretation. But it wasn’t much less troubling that the living Prophet would put forth a doctrine, in public sermons to the Mormon faithful, which was false. What good is a living prophet if you can’t trust that what he promulgates in his official capacity is true? How many people were confused or misled by him? Isn’t doctrinal confusion one of the main things for which a living prophet is supposed to be the remedy?
It seemed that if you claimed to have a living prophet, then he should be reliable, pretty much as reliable as the scriptures, since much of scripture is just prophecy written down. Whereas if he’s liable to represent his personal speculations as divine and authoritative, the cure might be as bad as the disease.
There was also the fact that the Book of Mormon was translated into King James Version (KJV) English, with many outdated KJV speech patterns and idioms (Smith’s prophecies too were set forth in this archaic style). If God were going to translate an ancient document for modern people, why render it in archaic and obsolete English? The missionaries suggested it was because it might sound more “sacred” to his hearers, and therefore more likely to convince them of its truth. That’s true, it might (although that motive could also account for it if Smith were not a genuine prophet). But there were also the broad swaths of the books of Matthew and Isaiah which were copied verbatim into the BOM — not merely the text, but specifically the KJV translation thereof. Again this didn’t disprove anything, but like many things it struck me as odd.
There were also the writings of Joseph Smith himself. Were these the writings of a modern-day prophet? I might be reading the actual words of God spoken to an American a mere 150-odd years before. I approached them with a sense of mystery and awe, ready, maybe even hoping, to have my mind blown. Of course, how did I know what God would say to a modern man? It might be mindblowing or it might not. In any event, in the case of Smith’s writings it wasn’t. Meaning no disrespect, the fact was that I didn’t find them such that a modern man couldn’t come up with them were he trying to imitate a prophet. Again this didn’t prove they were inauthentic. But neither did they have such qualities that I felt they must be genuine.
As I said, I took the lessons multiple times over the course of two or three years. But eventually I had to make a decision, and decided that if I had no conviction of its truth after that amount of time, and the amount of thought and study and prayer I had put into it, then likely I never would. My girlfriend kept saying that I must be putting up some kind of a barrier against it. But I felt that I couldn’t go on suspending judgment indefinitely, on the basis of a supposed barrier which was beyond my awareness and my power to do anything about. Besides, if I had an incentive to fool myself the incentive should have been in the other direction, so that we could be married. (I was truly heartbroken.)
If there were other things compelling about it — something exquisitely inspiring in its writings, teachings, church services, even in its buildings or its music — I might have continued suspending judgment for the sake of that thing. But the Book of Mormon and the writings of the prophets were not so beautifully written or inspiring to me as to surpass those of other churches. Its worship services and church architecture were rather bland, at least at the ward we attended. Others might have been different.
Finally, it simply lacked the savor of my grandparents’ Catholicism, or even of the writings of C.S. Lewis. It had a different feel to it: not like the same thing to a different degree, but like something different in its essence, a whole different atmosphere. This too wasn’t necessarily a point against it. Then again maybe it was. My grandparents, C.S. Lewis, and the experience of my mom’s conversion, were what led me to believe in God in the first place. I suppose I expected, perhaps unconsciously, that whatever church I ended up joining must have that same intangible quality, difficult as it was to pin down its exact nature.
Let me say again that this is only a summary of what I perceived to be obstacles to belief at the time. I don’t say that any of these was dispositive in itself. I didn’t feel that Mormonism had been conclusively disproven. I simply lacked a conviction of its truth, and felt that I couldn’t continue suspending judgment indefinitely, and needed to move on.
Some may feel the need to give the other side of the argument on some of these points. Feel free to do so. Be assured that I have no intention of turning it into a debate over the truth or falsehood of Mormon teachings.
[To be continued …]