Likening With Care, Part 10
In a recent online discussion an inquirer called "JeffM" questioned the reliability of LDS scholars:
Mormon scholar Brant Gardner responded with his views on this question, noting his discoveries regarding Quetzalcoatl as illustrative of how his beliefs affect his approach:When a Mormon scholar does his work, does he set his testimony (i.e. witness from God) aside so as to be able to consider evidence both for and against the position he wants to support? If so, fine. If not, then the search for evidence actually becomes a search only to confirm what is already "known".1
I can't answer for anyone else, but I can answer for myself. When I began working on Quetzalcoatl mythology, I started with the assumption that I would confirm the standard LDS interpretation. I soon found that the evidence was quite complicated and that in the end it did not confirm the standard LDS interpretation of Quetzalcoatl. That required me to restructure the way I saw the Book of Mormon relative to that particular issue (and to understand that it has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, so it was a restructuring of folklore more than scripture). I never laid aside my testimony, never picked it up again. Nevertheless, I doubt that there are any secular Mesoamericanists who would disagree with my analysis.
On the other hand, I applied the same methodological rigor to placing the Book of Mormon in a Mesoamerican context. I did it with the same willingness to a conclusion that doesn't fit, but I found that while there were (as with Quetzalcoatl) some ideas that didn't fit, much did. However, I sincerely doubt that Mesoamericanists would agree with my analysis. The difference lies totally in the realm of their assumed approach to religion, and not in the data.2
JeffM's argument that a Mormon scholar's beliefs can influence the results of their findings is certainly true, but it overlooks the concept of all data being theory laden:
[JeffM] A genuine search for answers looks for both confirming and disconfirming evidence in an effort to determine if the hypothesis is valid.
[Gardner] Not quite. Almost all hypotheses have potentially disconfirming data. They cannot be ignored. However, a good historical hypothesis may stand against possible disconfirming data if (and only if) those data are explained inside a coherent and acceptable framework. Hard scientists are quite familiar with some conclusions that don't fit, but which may be explained by errors in the experiment, or other factors.
JeffM also assumes that Mormon studies are generally unreliable or dubious if written by Mormons:The point is that disconfirming data must be considered, but the fact that one person assumes that it is disconfirming does not make it so. The best theories account for the disconfirming data as well as the confirming data. What is dangerous is to ignore disconfirming data.
Non-LDS sociologist Rodney Stark commented on this subject in his 2005 book The Rise of Mormonism:[JeffM] Outsiders like myself are concerned about disconfirming evidence that Mormon scholars don't see because it "can't" exist.
[Gardner] Quite to the contrary. I don't know of any of the LDS scholars who fit that description. They are abundantly aware of all of the [currently available] data. The question you must ask yourself is why you assume the data to be disconfirming without doing the work that tells you whether or not it really is.
Mormon liberals often concern themselves with conflicts between the Book of Mormon and archaeological research. Claims that Lehi and his followers found wild cows and horses do not seem to square with the fossil record. Of course, Christian liberals have long been expressing similar concerns about the biblical account of the Creation and the flood. But if these things worry liberals, it must be noticed that tens of millions of evangelical Christians are not troubled about the flood, nor are millions of Latter-day Saints worried about Lehi's horses.
In the meantime, there are many LDS scholars who are not afraid to frankly admit conflicts or problematic aspects regarding the Book of Mormon in comparison to current archaeological data. This approach was embodied by early LDS scholar and Seventy B.H. Roberts, who produced a rigorous critique of the Book of Mormon. During his investigation he explained:The problem for both Christian and Mormon liberals is that they inevitably project their inability to believe on everyone else. Mormon liberals worry about disconfirmations of the Book of Mormon because they don't really believe that it an ancient and inspired scripture but think that it is something Joseph Smith composed, consciously or otherwise. Orthodox Latter-day Saints, believing the book to the Word of God, are not only able to accommodate some discrepancies but also fully expect archaeologists to find evidence in support of scripture, which is why the church has supported a considerable amount of New World archeology.3
Let me say once for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine. This report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a "study of Book of Mormon origins," for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it.
Brant Gardner is a scholar intent on responsibly using the current data available in his study of the Book of Mormon from both LDS and non-LDS sources. As his findings on Quetzalcoatl demonstrate, he is not averse to following the data where it leads him as best he can despite his religious convictions; an attitude demonstrated throughout his new Book of Mormon commentary Second Witness.I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it.4
JeffM, "Concern about conclusions of Mormon scholars," MormonApologetics.org , Sept. 18, 2008.
Brant Gardner, "Concern about conclusions of Mormon scholars," MormonApologetics.org, Sept. 18, 2008.
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Mormonism, Columbia University Press (2005), 120.
B. H. Roberts to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, March 1923. LDS scholar Kevin Christensen has written several papers discussing issues of skepticism, bias, and research methods in studies on the Book of Mormon. For example, see "Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel's Approach to the Book of Mormon ," FARMS Review 16:1, pp. 287-354.