September 29, 2008

Method and Skepticism (and Quetzalcoatl...)

Likening With Care, Part 10
In a recent online discussion an inquirer called "JeffM" questioned the reliability of LDS scholars:

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
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:
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
Many Mormons are likely familiar with the concept of some Mesoamericans believing in a "white god" who appeared and promised to return. For some, this has been considered incidental confirmation of the Book of Mormon account of Christ visiting the New World. Gardner self-deprecatingly admits to having had a "fixation" on Quetzalcoatl and has spent years researching the myth. Expecting to find some ties to the Book of Mormon, and despite his belief that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, Gardner's studies resulted in his rejecting a connection between the Nephite record and Quetzalcoatl. His discoveries and analysis can be found on his website here.

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.
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.
JeffM also assumes that Mormon studies are generally unreliable or dubious if written by Mormons:
[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.
Non-LDS sociologist Rodney Stark commented on this subject in his 2005 book The Rise of Mormonism:
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.
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
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:
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.
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
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.

JeffM, "Concern about conclusions of Mormon scholars," , Sept. 18, 2008.

Brant Gardner, "Concern about conclusions of Mormon scholars,", 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.


Kent said...

I just read the introductory chapters of "Second Witness" and I am in awe. I'm going to find a way to buy each book over the next year while I borrow them from the library to digest them immediately. I will be using this set as a reference for the rest of my life.

BHodges said...

I see the series as the most important commentary on the BoM to date. I am also buying them in turn as often as occasion will permit.

rameumptom said...

In listening to Brant speak in the past, I do agree that the Quetzalcoatl tie with the book of Mormon is tenuous at best - at least for many of the issues that some attempt to link them together with.
However, that does not necessarily dismiss all stories about a white god from elsewhere. The stories of Viracocha, which generally are ignored by LDS scholars, include a story where the sun did not shine for many days. After those days of prayer and fear, the sun arose from Lake Titicaca. Viracocha appeared about noon that day, and spent several days among the Inca, performing miracles and teaching. He left over the ocean waves, promising to return again.
Such a story does not have a strong Biblical link, as do the tenuous stories of Quetzalcoatl, but does potentially link to 3 Nephi 8-11.

BHodges said...

Congrats to Larry Poulson, who marks the 20,000th visit to the website Life On Gold Plates!

Brant said...

Congrats, Larry.


It is very hard to know how to use native legends. The Quetzalcoatl material is one of the few data sets with enough information to begin to sort out what is pre-contact and what isn't.

I don't know what to say about the Viracocha tales. They sound interesting, but so did the Quetzalcoatl tales before I knew more about them. The rest of the problem comes from the problem of time and space. There is no geographic correlation that I know of that can reasonably place the Book of Mormon that far south. Therefore, we have the question of how such a tale could be connected to the Book of Mormon.

The element of the Viracocha tale, the darkness before the rising of the sun, fits into native mythological categories even without a connection to the Book of Mormon, so it is very difficult to take as a connection at face value. Much more would have to be done to be able to posit it as some kind of remembrance.

rameumptom said...

I agree there is no "proof" in the pudding regarding any Mesoamerican legends.
As for being an Incan legend, there is evidence of trade between Mayans and Incans. Traditions and stories are often traded between peoples.
Second, who is to say that Christ only appeared to one group? The Book of Mormon has the destructions occurring in the first month (3 Nephi 8:5), and Christ's appearance to the Nephites in the last month of the year (3 Ne 10). Was Jesus visiting other groups during that time who were not related to Nephites? Of course, this is all subjective questioning that none of us can answer.
Another Incan legend, of Tonapa, was an Incan prophet who called the people to repent from worshipping other gods, and to return to worshipping Viracocha alone. His legend states he hung himself on a cross and died singing death songs. This one is more clearly influenced by Christian teaching, as the Spanish author wondered if Tonapa was St Thomas or another apostle.

While the proof is not there of a direct tie, the story shows that ancient Americans did believe in the loss of the Sun for a time, and the return of a white god to the people once the Sun arose.

This suggests that an ancient memory may tie into the Book of Mormon.

Brant said...


The tricky thing about using native legends that have been filtered through the Spanish is that you don't know what or how much has been filtered (as you note, there was a general trend to see St. Thomas in many of these legends).

As for the sun being in darkness, that sounds like a pretty standard creation myth. There is no sun and after a ritually appropriate time, the sun arises with a hero-god, or typically because of the hero-god.

Because it could so easily be a native story with just enough twist on it that we see the Book of Mormon in it, we can't do more than say that it is a curiosity. Being from the wrong place and wrong time doesn't help when we try to use it as evidence that happened elsewhere.

Could there have been a connection? Well, maybe. The connection is so tenuous, however, that it is best not to rely upon it.

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