long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

What is a Gospel Topics Essay?

A lot of Church members are wondering, what are the Gospel Topics essays, exactly?

One thing is for sure; they generate more ambiguity than they resolve. (My proposed remedy is at the end of this post.)

Living with ambiguity is part of the human condition. We can all accept that, even in the Church setting.

However, having academics enforce their personal views on the ground that they've been hired by prophets to guide the Church is definitely not part of the human condition.

These essays have created that condition within the Church today. I'm curious if that is really the intent of these essays.

I don't think it is.

But a lot of people do. And I'd like to know if they are right.

There is a description here: https://www.lds.org/topics/essays?lang=eng

Here's what we know about the essays:

1. They are anonymous, but use material written by a small group of well-known scholars.
2. They have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.
3. This is their purpose:

The purpose of these essays... has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org, where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties.

What does all this really mean? Do the essays merely represent the anonymous authors' opinions? Are they posted merely for our consideration, or do they reflect the beliefs and teachings of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve? Are the essays Church doctrine?

I'm curious about this because lately several LDS scholars have claimed that criticizing their academic writings is equivalent to criticizing the leaders of the Church, because the leaders of the Church have hired these academics to guide Church members.

That sounds like an outrageous position--no one I know of has sustained these academics as prophets, seers, and revelators--but it's easy to understand why these academics have assumed the authority they are claiming because of the way these essays are presented and framed.

Aside from the issue of the authority of these essays, there are two serious problems.

1. The essays are not completely accurate, they reflect a specific academic point of view, and they are incomplete.
2. The essays question, and in some cases appear to change, long-accepted doctrines taught by prophets and apostles.

Here's an example from the DNA essay.

Scientists theorize that in an era that predated Book of Mormon accounts, a relatively small group of people migrated from northeast Asia to the Americas by way of a land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska.4

Khan Academy and Gospel Topics version
The phrase I bolded here is a euphemism for what the cited article says; i.e., the so-called "era that predated Book of Mormon accounts" is actually 10 to 30 thousand years ago, with 15-17 kya as the approximate date of entry into the Americas of the two haplogroups specifically studied.

From this essay, are Church members expected to believe that Asians migrated to the Americas 15-30,000 years ago?

This in turn means that the first humans (homo sapiens) evolved around 200,000 years ago in Africa. Not exactly what the scriptures, including the latter-day scriptures, teach.

One response Church members could have goes like this. Scientists have always theorized about lots of things, including the age of the Earth, the age of the first human, and other issues. The theories of men, even when mingled with scripture (on lds.org), are irrelevant to gospel truths as taught in the scriptures and by the prophets and apostles.

Another response goes like this.

The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have approved these essays and encouraged us to study them. They believe what these essays teach. Therefore, we should be studying scientific theories in a gospel setting and use science to interpret the scriptures, the way the authors of these articles do.

Of course, the conflict between science and religion is usually explained away as "true science doesn't conflict with true religion." But in the Gospel Topics essays, we are presented with a conflict, right on lds.org, that cannot be reconciled. Either science or religion must yield.

The essays don't attempt to reconcile conflicts between science and the teachings of the scriptures and the prophets and apostles. Does that mean each member of the Church is entitled to his/her own views, or are we expected to accept the scientific theories taught on lds.org and sublimate (put on the proverbial shelf) the cognitive dissonance that results?

And are we expected to adopt as our own the views of the academics who wrote these essays?

The problem is accentuated by the way the teachings of past prophets and apostles are ignored and/or misrepresented in these essays.

There are lots of reasons why I pose these questions, but among them is, what do we do when we see obvious errors in the essays? There is no forum or mechanism for proposing changes.

Once we're out of the realm of scripture and prophets, truth is best derived from careful and informed consideration of multiple perspectives and viewpoints. These essays reflect the opposite of that; they present one point of view, in some cases dogmatically, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

At a minimum, these essays should be revised to offer a variety of perspectives and interpretations for readers to consider.

Unless, of course, the essays actually do express the beliefs and teachings of the prophets and apostles.

In which case they supersede the scriptures, because the living prophets and apostles are more important than the dead ones.

In which case....

Well, from the example I gave above, we can all reach our own conclusions.

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