The examined faith

Christianity Today has a portion of its regularly updated weblog devoted to a new Frontline documentary on Mormonism. Apparently it has gotten quite favorable reviews, except for the usual strident insistence on behalf of some church members that nobody EVER gets Mormonism right. But one comment in particular stands out from one of the media reviews:

"The documentary, narrated by David Ogden Stiers, also suggests that the Mormon religion, simply by virtue of its recent origins, is subject to greater scrutiny than other faiths. The ancient religions were established at a time of imprecise science and murky record-keeping. While there might be contradictory scientific evidence, it isn't strong enough to shake the faith of most adherents.

Smith, however, is a relatively contemporary figure. In addition to official church accounts, there is no shortage of articles, diaries and journals to confirm or dispute his words and deeds. While the real motives of Moses and Jesus, seen through the gauze of centuries, are assumed to be pure, no such filter exists to protect Smith from steely-eyed scrutiny."

It is certainly true that we have many more contemporary sources for the emergence of Mormonism than we do for Judaism, Christianity or Islam. But I would question the relevance of 'imprecise science' for the scrutiny of the faith-claims of a religion like Christianity, or Mormonism for that matter. What 'contradictory scientific evidence' could this commentator be referring to? For Christianity I assume it would be an account of Jesus' life which differs dramatically in what it claims that Jesus did (or didn't do) or said (or didn't say), or the discovery of the 'Jesus family tomb'. But we have no such evidence. To be sure, some people will automatically pounce and talk about the apocryphal Gospels, but these were written much later than the canonical Gospels and in most cases seem to be dependent on them. And it is not true that Christianity received less scrutiny in its early days than Mormonism. If the Gospels and Acts reflect apologetic interests at all (something surely not even the most liberal scholar would doubt), we can get a pretty good picture of what kinds of counter-claims were being put forward in response to the emergence of Christianity: that Jesus was a magician in league with the Devil, that he was illegitimate, that he was a political instigator and trouble-maker, that his disciples stole his body in order to claim he was resurrected, that they had little learning and were just commoners, etc. Not to mention the pagan critiques of the 2nd Century, including Celsus, Lucian, Galen and others.

But more to the point, we still have no universally agreed-upon way of adjudicating supernatural claims. All the contemporary scrutiny applied to Joseph Smith could not disprove his alleged visions. Similarly even if we had many more contemporary records for Jesus and early Christianity, unless they were in radical contradiction to the claims of the Gospels, Acts, Paul and the other epistles, we probably still could not prove or disprove the disciples' claims to have experienced the risen Jesus. So outside scrutiny in and of itself does not have much relevance for assessing the truth claims of Christianity or any other religion.


Steven Carr said…
JD Walters is correct.

What sort of evidence could dispute the claim that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, or that a man of Macedonia appeared to Paul, or that Jesus became a life-giving spirit at the resurrection, or that Paul really did go to the third Heaven?

Even the counter-claim, JD puts forward 'that Jesus was a magician in league with the Devil,', how could evidence for or against that ever be found?
Anonymous said…
You completely misread my post, as usual, Steven. There is all sorts of evidence that would cast doubt on particular claims to supernatural encounters. If a vision involved a specific future prediction, for example, which failed to take place, we should seriously question whether the person who made the claim to that vision actually had access to preternatural knowledge.

My post was mostly questioning the value of having lots and lots of outside 'scrutiny' for accurately determining the origin of a religious faith. Outsiders might see Joseph Smith taking multiple wives to himself and disapprove of that. But how could that in itself judge whether Joseph actually had a vision of the Father and the Son in Palmyra, New York?

"What sort of evidence could dispute the claim that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, or that a man of Macedonia appeared to Paul, or that Jesus became a life-giving spirit at the resurrection, or that Paul really did go to the third Heaven?"

Joseph claiming that he never had such an angelic visitation, for one thing. The problem with your question as it stands is the ambiguity between making claims of experience (i.e. people claiming that they experienced a vision, etc.) and making metaphysical claims (i.e. instead of saying, "I saw an angel", you say "An angel appeared to me"). My comments about the relevance of lots of contemporary scrutiny has mostly to do with claims to experience. How one goes about judging the metaphysical value of such experience was beyond the scope of my post.
Steven Carr said…
So if an angel appears to somebody and in their surprise they don't hear properly what the angel is saying and misintepret a prophecy, then JD claims there is good evidence that no such angel had been met?

How can that be?

If I misinterpret a post by Walters, is that good evidence that Walters never posted anything?

And Walters claims that if X denies a miracle happened, then the miracle has been refuted.

I don't think he understands the mind-set of believers.

If one of the people Jesus healed denied that he had ever been ill, then Jesus must have ordered him to remain silent.

Result - believer's claims can never be disproved.

To take a more recent example, how does Walters intend to subject to 'careful scrutiny' the claim that the Virgin Mary appeared on the side of an office building in Clearwater, Florida?

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