Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

There Was No Tree Stump–Comfort for the Questioning Mormon

May 07th, 2012 by G.

Read this article by apologist extraordinaire Dan Petersen.

In short, for years he “knew” that the 8 Witnesses had examined the Gold Plates on a tree stump. But when he tried to find a source for what he knew, it turned out to be a painting. No witness at all had mentioned a tree stump.

But–and this is the point–the gold plates still existed even if the tree stump didn’t. His memory of the testimony of the 8 about the gold plates turned out to be correct. His false memory didn’t invalidate everything he knew.

That little story is a parable for three kinds of challenges to our faith.

First, most Mormons have an internal crisis of sorts about revelation from the Holy Ghost. We are afraid when we don’t get answers from that Being, because perhaps we aren’t worthy. And we are afraid when we do, because perhaps we misunderstand or are deceiving ourselves. One of the most unsettling experiences a Mormon can have is finding out that some spiritual impression was false or misinterpreted. So we often don’t seek revelation at all, because we don’t want to call into question the other revelatory moments we have had that are the basis of our testimony and the foundation of all our certainty.

This is an error. Communion with the Holy Ghost is a refining process that makes our receiver more sensitive. Part of that process is trial and error that helps us to sort out our own desires from the whisperings from above. When our interpretation of one impression turns out to be wrong, that only invalidates that one impression. We can revisit our prior revelations and receive re-confirmation from the Holy Ghost, just like Petersen re-read the witness accounts and re-confirmed that they really did see the plates.

Second, we are unsettled when some details of our big picture of the restored gospel turn out to be false. Maybe we learn that Joseph Smith did such and such, or Brigham Young taught so and so. Because our gospel worldview is a gestalt or one big whole, we feel like everything we believe is called into question.

This is an error. Our false or incomplete belief on one subject or incident does not undermine everything we already knew or believed. Nor does it mean that the gospel isn’t a gestalt where all the pieces tie together. It means that our picture of the gestalt erred in some details. Correct them. Move on.

This second point is an instance or an application of the third point, which is the human tendency to view our past and alter our memory through the lens of the present. Memory is a story that is written with the present as the theme. We want to be integrated persons, to make sense of our lives, so we unconsciously change or suppress pass details to fit in with what we’re thinking now. So the spouses who are quarreling vividly remember all the frustrations in their marriage but can’t recapture the sweet memories they have. The Mormon who has just had something he “knew” overturned remembers all his struggles but avoids or perhaps literally forgets the miracles he’s experienced.

This is also an error. It gives too much priority to some facts just because we happen to have recently learned them; it gives too much weight to some feelings because we happen to be feeling them now. Most of all, it is uncharitable and even alienating to our past self. It shears off chunks of who we are in time to avoid a little current discomfort or cognitive dissonance.

Comments (3)
Filed under: Deseret Review | Tags: , , , ,
May 07th, 2012 10:50:04

May 7, 2012

“Truly, the Spalding theory is very much like a zombie: Shoot it between the eyes and it just keeps on coming. Why? Because it has no brain.”

And it only gets better from there. Thanks for this link.

J. Max Wilson
May 7, 2012

Wonderful, wonderful post, Adam!

May 7, 2012

Thanks for that! It’s easy to forget my past experiences in the face of present concerns. It’s interesting that you say it’s being uncharitable or alienating to my past self. I have to keep everything in perspective.

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