Saturday, November 10, 2012

Is God a Hypothesis?

I recently went to a philosophy conference on Friedrich Nietzsche up at Salt Lake Community College. A professor of mine was the keynote speaker, and Jessica and I rode up with him to hear him speak. After his lecture, we went into a session about Nietzsche and the philosophy of religion to hear some student papers. The papers were OK, I guess, but one stood out in particular. The last speaker gave a talk entitled, "God is not dead,  but dying,"  a play on Nietzsche's famous comment that  "God is dead...and we have killed him" (the Gay Science).

From the introduction of his talk, I found that I disagreed with nearly every sentence the presenter read. He argued, following Nietzsche, that religion was a dying phenomenon. Science, time and time again, he argued, disproves religious beliefs and assumptions. Religion is displaced by science. For example, science proves evolution is true, yet Christians still hold to creationism and intelligent design without any support or merit. He continued by arguing that the Bible is a twisted figment of some ancient imaginations. Religion is just an irrational and false remnant of our ignorant past, a bane to true progress, and a disease of the modern world. Since the upswing of science in modern times, we now (or should) realize that religion is useless, a false system, a damaging system, and a dangerous one. Religion is throwing its final punches in a long fight with science, but soon science will prevail. In addition, the presenter argued that religious morality has been undermined. We don't need these imposing demands that constrict our choices. We have real freedom, we are not controlled by anyone; religion and God can't enslave us anymore. How dare religion impede the freedom of the individual by demanding belief, morality, and other such crocks. We have moved into the modern age--these ridiculous things are no longer necessary. In accordance with these self-evident truths, the gov. should actively pursue a policy of "freedom from religion" to rid public life of this backward system. In fact, the gov. is already doing that, and the presenter prophesied that it would not be long before all religious sentiments were dead and useless. As a modern society, we have no more use for God.

After he finished, I sat there mulling over all of the ridiculous things he said. For one, I could not believe, again, that so many people believe these obvious caricatures and extremely weak arguments. This type of atheism is closer to fundamentalism than rationality. Not only that, but I was extremely surprised that his paper got accepted to be presented at a philosophy conference. It made shallow and artificial arguments against an extremely complex issue.

I really wanted to speak up and defend religion against this shallow attack, and I wish I had, but I could never decide where to begin. I was literally dumbfounded by this paper: I didn't know which part to discuss first because I could not decide which of his many assertions I should respond to. I had problems with his ideas about freedom, morality, history, reason, science, religion, and religion's interaction with science. I had major qualms with his arguments about how to interpret the Constitution, his predictions for the future, and pretty much everything he said. His prediction struck me as a bit odd as well: God was just about to disappear from modern life because science has made him irrelevant. But Nietzsche argued that "God was dead" over a hundred years ago. That prediction, or assessment, was totally off. Why believe this one?

His paper is in no way reflective of all atheist arguments: there are some extremely smart atheists who make solid arguments. But that isn't the issue I want to discuss. Instead of responding to all of his comments here, which would take a long time, I want to focus on one question: is God a hypothesis? Can science disprove the God-hypothesis?

A number of books, such as Victor Stenger's, argue this very issue. According to Stenger, God is a failed hypothesis, proven false by science. Stenger's argument is very similar to the types of assumptions made by this presenter. According to many atheists, God is a scientific hypothesis made by religious people to explain natural phenomena. We believe because we think that the evidence, or the natural world, needs God as an explanation. In other words, many atheists take religion to be a scientific theory: we observe the world and postulate God as the explanation for many different events because he seems to be the best candidate.

In short, is God a scientific hypothesis? Not really. I do not mean to suggest that therefore God has nothing to do with science or the reverse. What I am saying is that atheists, and many believers, do not understand religion at all.

I believe that God created the world. Why do I believe that? It's not really a scientific hypothesis, not at its core. I have not done a thorough survey of the geological, evolutionary, and physical history of our world/universe. I am not postulating God as the most obvious explanation to cover all of the facts. Nonetheless, I do not believe that science disproves God's role in creation, but that is not the point.

The point is this: God is not a scientific hypothesis, at least not in the most authentic aspect of religious life. Religious people do not believe in an explaining hypothesis. We believe in a personal God, one who reveals himself to us, who calls us, and we respond to his call. We believe in God because of our experiences with him, our intimate knowledge of him, and our relationship to him and his children. That is our justification for believing in God. That is religion. As a result of this relationship, we trust that God created the world because he told us he did in the holy scriptures. So then what about all this business of science always disproving religion? What can science disprove? Science disproved the belief that evolution never happened. OK, great. Now what? My relationship with God was never predicated on the falsehood of evolution. Sure, evolution can inform my understanding of the world, of God, and even throw in a few confusions and difficulties. But can science disprove religion?

Again, I think the fundamental error made by atheists, and too often by those who defend religion, is to argue that religion is just some scientific hypothesis. To argue in this framework, religious people normally argue that science doesn't really show or does show that God exists. I think there is a place for these arguments, but they have to be an introduction to the main argument: I do not believe in God because of "natural" evidence. I did not start observing the world and then suddenly conclude, "Yes, God is the best explanation; I guess I'll believe." Scientific observations can be thought-provoking; maybe they can even get me to ask whether there is a God or start believing that there is one. But this is only a very small first step.The God I believe in is the God of the Bible and the Book of Mormon; the God who reveals himself to me. He is not the God that I infer.

Reason can suggest God's existence, defend God's existence, but reason alone is not religion. The point of religion is to put you into contact with God, not simply to believe that he exists. I want all people to trust God, to know God, not just believe that-God.

Consider this thought experiment. Let us assume that God is just a hypothesis made by religious people to explain the world. Further, let's assume that we have a knock-down, infallible proof for God's existence. This proof is so strong that only the most unreasonable people will not accept it. All of a sudden, nearly everyone, atheists included, believe that God exists. Well, if God were a hypothesis, this would be the great desire of all religious people. If God were a hypothesis, then this proof would make us all believers. But is this what religion claims? Is this the faith spoken of in the Bible or the Book of Mormon? No. Even if everyone believed God to be a true hypothesis, that alone would do little to create the faith spoken of in the scriptures. Faith is not some intellectual assent to a proposition trying to account for the world. Faith is a loving relationship with God, an inter-personal knowledge, a relationship of trust and responsibility. That is the point of religion. That type of faith cannot come from reason alone. Faith, at its most basic level, is a trusting relationship with Deity. That is what religion is all about. If that is religion, then God is no hypothesis.

Does this suggest that religion is irrational? I can't see how. Is my relationship to my wife irrational? I have a relationship of love, trust, and responsibility to her that isn't really based off reason. I do not follow her around observing her behavior and then drawing conclusions--that's not love (if you're doing it right). The ultimate point is this: religion is about a personal relationship, not necessarily an intellectual one. Reason, scholarship, and knowledge are all important and I would say fundamental to religion, but they are not its origin nor its end.

So to my non-religious friends: I invite you to know God, not just know about him. God is not just another hypothesis, he is a person. He is your and my Father. Religion is not the ultimate exercise of reason, it is the response to a revelation from a revealing God. God is not the logical conclusion of pure unaided reason, the great "therefore" of the perfect argument. Instead, He is the great "I am" of the scriptures. That is the God I love and worship.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Salvation in the Old Testament?

Today while in Sunday School, we were discussing the Old Testament and its relationship to the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Gospel (more generally). At one point, the teacher said that there was no salvation during the Old Testament period, none whatsoever. This, she stated, was the miracle of the Atonement: there was absolutely no salvation prior to Christ's advent.

This really puzzled me. No salvation in the Old Testament? Why do we even hold onto it then? Just to show ourselves how far we have come from that lifeless period?

I tried to understand just what she meant. I knew she was trying to say that Christ had not come yet, and thus the Atonement was not yet complete (still not the right expression, in my opinion). I understood the sentiment, but the wording was terrible.

First of all, what is salvation? If salvation means repenting from sins and changing to become more like God, then salvation is all throughout the OT. If it we were not, why would we ever see words like repentance or forgiveness? Obviously, there is repentance and forgiveness going on. Are we trying to say that all of this is an outright error or lie? Unlikely. So, salvation in this sense is occurring.

Maybe salvation means God intervenes in the world to help his children. Well, that happens all the time in the OT! Indeed, you could make the case that God's interventions are far more explicit in the OT than in the New (I understand the nuances here). So if salvation means God's intervention on behalf of his children, then salvation is in the OT.

If we understand salvation very generally, it means to come closer to God (in any way imaginable). If this is the meaning of the Atonement, then Christ didn't just perform the Atonement, he is performing the Atonement, he has been for ages, and he will be for ages to come. Christ's Atonement is whatever he does that helps us become like him, to become like God, to grow and progress in righteousness, to repent, to love others, and so forth. If this is the case, then all of Christ's teachings, actions, words, all the assistance he gives us, our ability to repent, our ability to love, our ability to grow and progress, all of this is the Atonement of Christ, and he has been doing all of that for a long, long time. In other words, Christ's mortal ministry was the epoch of his Atonement, not the Atonement in its entirety.

The most unique thing about Christ's mortal ministry was that he suffered for our sins. This is an extremely significant part of the Atonement. In this sense, prior to his mortal advent (i.e., OT times), this had not been performed, it still needed to be performed. But obviously the Lord allowed the people of the OT to repent and even to be forgiven. So how do we work this? As far as the specifics, I'm not totally sure. Here is the important point, though: OT peoples could be and were forgiven because of the future Atonement.

One more point: there was no resurrection prior to Christ's resurrection, so if salvation is linked to resurrection, there was no salvation prior to Christ. Here I think we need to be more specific. Salvation is a very general term that gets used in a number of different ways depending on the context. If we held that salvation only comes after resurrection, then we could never have salvation in this life, ever. In that sense, no one before the time of Christ, in the time of Christ, or after the time of Christ received any salvation whatsoever. That is too limited of a usage. Instead, we should view salvation as a broad scheme that we receive in parts. When we are forgiven of our sins and we successfully repent, we have  received a portion of salvation. When Christ intervenes in our life to help us, we have received a portion of salvation. When we are resurrected, we will have received a portion of salvation.

Salvation is an inclusive term, referring to all of God's designs and plans to change his children into saints. It happens in this life, after this life, and even before this life. As such, salvation has taken place and is taking place throughout the entire world. The Old Testament is no exception.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

What I Learned from my Atheist Friends

During the summer of 2011, I studied in Jerusalem for two months learning Biblical Hebrew and traveling in Israel. It was so fascinating for me to meet and talk with so many educated and "simple" people about the nature of their beliefs. You can literally find a person representing every major world religion in Jerusalem, and you will also find large congregations of churches you have never even heard of. I learned so much by engaging these religious people in open dialogue. I LOVED it.

Following my time in Israel, I attended a philosophy seminar in Kirchberg am Wechsel, Austria, for around a week. The seminar was about a book called "On Certainty," written by the philosopher Ludwig van Wittgenstein. The book deals mainly with the usage of "know" and "certainty" in our language and the logical role they play in our speech. Beyond that, what I found to be the most enjoyable part of my stay in Austria was the completely new environment. I quickly discovered that I was the only religious person at the summer seminar - every other person I encountered, including the two professors running the classes, were "devout" atheists. If there were other believers, they certainly never made themselves known.

This environment was both challenging and exciting. I was able to talk about faith and God with so many people. At one point, during a dinner, I think I was debating around 10 students at the same time. They were from across the world, though the majority came from Europe. All of them were extremely bright and intelligent, and most of them were in graduate programs for philosophy. When I spoke with these other students, most of them were very respectful and kind, though a few were hostile. My experiences with them, contrary to what some might think, were truly profound. Many of them asked me questions that I had never really considered, or old questions that I saw in a new light. I wrote down a lot of the questions they threw at me, and many of these questions I have yet to answer. They really opened my eyes to a lot of issues that I hadn't even considered, and I'm grateful to them for that.

Nevertheless, I found that these discussions confirmed and revivified my faith rather than destroyed it. They really taught me things about God, faith, and belief that I had never considered. They also showed me the value of having a thoughtful and deep understanding of your own faith and the absolute need for religious people to defend themselves. It surprised me how many of the students didn't really understand religion. They dismissed it so quickly because they felt it was so intellectually weak and irrelevant. I think that if they had encountered more religious people who could speak to their concerns, reasonably and intelligently, they would be more likely to believe. I was convinced that there was a role for people like me--a believer, philosopher, historian, and skeptic. I could really do some good by speaking up because religion can be intelligently defended.

Let me give you a sense of the types of questions I was able to address. Most all of them were of two types: (1) they were good questions that I felt I should ask myself and consider; or (2) they were caricatures of religion or terribly misinformed. Let me give an example of both to explain what I mean. At one point, I was discussing why I thought a belief in God was important. One of the students there asked me, "My life is great, I am happy, and I feel that my life has meaning. Why do I need God? What does a belief in God give me that non-belief cannot?" Rather than feeling that his question was ill-conceived or devastating, I thought it was a wonderful question! I wish everyone would ask the same thing: why should I believe in God? What can a belief in God do for me? I gave him some thoughts about the subject, but I do not claim to have a definitive answer. I wrote this question down so that I could ask it to myself over and over again: why is it so important to believe in God? What difference does it make? By asking myself this question I found my faith to become deeper and more progressive. Deeper in the sense that I started to understand how important my belief in God truly was; progressive because I felt that I could continually ask myself this question, day after day, and find new ways that my belief in God, my relationship with him, affected my life for the better. What a great question.

In addition, my atheist friends asked me some questions that I was surprised to hear. They said things such as, "You just believe in God blindly, you follow him blindly, you have no evidence." To this, I responded that I have plenty of evidence for God and that I didn't believe anything blindly. On the contrary, my entire faith is based on questions: I ask questions of God, he responds. My faith isn't blind, it's a trust. I have a relationship with God. I have religious experiences where I feel his presence, his love, his counsel, his protection, and his care. That is my most basic evidence.

While answering these questions, I discovered that many of these students, who were extremely bright and intelligent people, had never really encountered a person who could clearly and reasonably articulate their reasons for believing. Many of their questions were surprisingly easy to answer (though not all of them!). For example, many of the students also challenged my belief in God by referencing evolution. They said that evolution disproved God and all need for religion. I told them that evolution did nothing of the sort. Even if I accept evolution as true, it in no way disproves God's existence. In fact, the bible can affirm evolution without undermining its message. To show an example, I quoted Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew, explaining how the verb ברא, which we normally translate as "create," can also be translated as formed or fashioned, as a carpenter forms a chair from wood. This understanding means that God's creation of mankind didn't necessary happen in an instant or out of nothing. Rather, he formed man from existing material. Perhaps this refers to evolution and the process of natural selection, perhaps not. The point is that evolution really doesn't have much to say about God's existence, and so it could not be used to disprove his existence.

In addition, most of the students had never encountered a Mormon or even heard of a Mormon. This was particularly surprising, but it also gave me a real opportunity to explain LDS beliefs. At one point, someone challenged me by stating that the bible had clear historical and other types of errors within it. How, they asked, could I possibly believe that such a book was infallible? To my delight, I responded that the bible, and any other work of scripture, is not infallible! They all have errors; that is not the point. They still represent great, inspired people who wrote down eternal truths about God, salvation, and the savior Jesus Christ. This response really took them off guard. This seemingly knock-down argument against the bible simply didn't mean anything to me. I never took scripture to be inerrant, so why would errors bother me?

The conference lasted a week, and I had a lot of great opportunities to question, defend, and explain both my faith and religion in general. I learned some wonderful things, which I will try to summarize:

(1) Atheists can ask wonderful questions that can really deepen my understanding of belief, challenge my beliefs, and make me appreciate my faith. These questions can bring me closer to God and can bring me closer to the truth.

(2) I do not have, nor do I claim to have, all the answers. Many of the questions posed by my friends were good ones that I have no answer for, though I want one. Nonetheless, I do claim to have some important, eternal truths, and those truths are defensible.

(3) Many bright, intelligent people have never really understood religious belief or have never encountered a religious person who could articulate their beliefs reasonably and persuasively.

(4) Learning, questioning, seeking, and critiquing are all wonderful methods to deepen and defend our faith. If our beliefs are true, they will stand up to honest questioning.

(5) There is a real need for religious people to educate themselves and defend what they hold dear. Many people, intelligent people, reject religion because they have never really seen its worth. We need to educate ourselves and think about our beliefs so we can explain them, defend them, and show the world their value.

(6) Mormons, in particular, can solve many of the problems that non-believers have with religion. We do not believe that scriptures are infallible, we do not believe that prophets are infallible, and we do not accept many  of the traditional creeds that non-believers find so offensive. In addition, our religion, like others, is founded upon questions, upon seeking answers, and upon finding truth. We have a great deal to offer the world, and we should be more diligent in our studies and more vocal in our defense.

"I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist's attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word 'bosh!' Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow 'scientific' bounds. Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament,--more intricately built than physical science allows." (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Redeeming the Dead: Modern Perspectives

Here is part two of the radio show. In this episode, I talk about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and LDS teachings about redeeming the dead and proxy work. I also address some recent controversies surrounding the LDS church and baptism for the dead. Enjoy!

Redeeming the Dead: Ancient Perspectives

Here is an interview with me discussing the topic. There is a lot of fascinating history here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Only True Church?

Recently I have been researching and writing on the question (or problem) of pluralism. Members of the LDS faith, myself included, often hear and use the phrase "the only true church" to refer to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Normally I construe this to mean that (1) our church possesses more truth than any other faith, (2) it embraces all truths from any faith and disregards the origin of any idea in dictating its verity, therefore allowing for a huge doctrine. and (3) the living priesthood, or authority to act in God's name as a church, resides only with our current prophet and leaders.
This is all good and fine, and well, I agree with it (hence why I am a member). But the vexing question remains: how can we explain so many good hearted people who diligently seek after God, but reject Mormon beliefs? I believe that there are people in the world who diligently seek after truth and may still reject the Mormon message continually. I further believe that their reasons for rejecting it would not be based on inadequate understanding, or a lack of worthiness. For some reason, honest and loving people reject my faith but believe whole heartedly in their own. Are we willing or obligated to deny the legitimacy of their beliefs? Is the existence of so many different religions and creeds a regrettable fact? Does our affirmation of being the only true church bind us to such a position?
Obviously this is a highly nuanced question, and one which I am working on, but I want anyone to share their opinions on the subject. I will post more thoughts later.....I want Chipotle

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thoughts on Distinction

Recently I have been studying a work of American philosopher William James entitled "the Varieties of Religious Experience," one of the most fascinating and thought provoking works on the "religious propensities of man." While studying his first lecture, I came across a fundamental and primary distinction which has enormous import for the study and understanding of religious issues. I believe it will open many new insights on old issues as time progresses.

In his first lecture entitled, "Religion and Neurology," James outlines the basic course of his study: to comprehend the religious feelings and impulses, or the "propensities," which men may possess. Before proceeding too far in his discussion, he provides an important insight into the academic study of religion which I will quote at length:

"In recent books on logic, distinction is made between two orders of inquiry concerning anything. First, what is the nature of it? how did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it is once here? The answer to the one question is given in an existential judgment or proposition. The answer to the other is a proposition of value, what the Germans call a Werthurteil, or what we may, if we like, denominate a spiritual judgment. Neither judgment can be deduced immediately from the other. They proceed from diverse intellectual preoccupations, and the mind combines them only by making them first separately, and then adding them together." (Varieties of Religious Experience - Lecture One, 13)

Let me make this clear before I enter into a discussion on how important this distinction truly in the study of religious ideas. Whenever we encounter an idea, James remarks, when can begin by asking two things of it: (1) What caused this idea? What was the environment in which it came about? How did that environment affect its development? How did it come about? What factors made it develop? In short, it places the idea into context with regards to its origin. (2) Now that we have this idea, what is the importance of it? What does it mean? What significance does it have? What is its ultimate meaning?
James uses as apt analogy to explain this. Christianity has for hundreds of years elaborated on the meaning and importance of the New Testament canon. It has used scriptures to teach and explain morality and to instill faith within its membership through commentary on scripture. This, according to James, is a spiritual judgment of the meaning of scripture. Christian theologians take a scripture and look for its ultimate significance and meaning for the life of a believer. Now let us look at a judgment of the other kind. Instead on commenting about the spiritual significance or meaning of a scripture, we can look at something entirely different. We can study the original language in which it was written, the historical time period in which it was composed, how it may have been immediately received by those to whom it was written, what the motives were for writing the text, and whether it had any precedents. It seeks to understand the context and origin of the passage, rather than to derive any sort of spiritual or moral significance therefrom.
Now, the reason that James makes this particular distinction is to refute a certain school of thought that seeks to demean the religious propensities of man by dictating their cause to mental or physiological distortions, which he calls medical materialism. According to medical materialism, the visions of Mahommed, Jesus, Paul, or Joseph Smith are all due to epilepsy, schizophrenia, a disrupted liver, or perhaps a ruptured spleen.
First, James said, let us assume that medical materialism holds true. We now hold that all of the visions, revelations, thoughts, teachings, etc. which claim to be supernatural are in reality due to some medical disease or condition. For James this only answers the first judgment, that of an existential nature. In other words, this only tells the origin, context, etc. of the ideas which Jesus, Joseph Smith, or whoever produced. However, it doesn't speak in anyway of its meaning, significance, importance, or truthfulness. In other words, simply because an idea may come from an epileptic seizure doesn't necessarily mean that the idea isn't true. This is known as the Genetic Fallacy:

(1) The cause (origin) of N's belief that P is C
- Hence P is false
This is a known fallacy. Simply because we know that N believes, say, that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago (P), because an epileptic episode (C), in no way means that such a belief is false. Or, even if Christ's visions and teachings were the result of schizophrenia, it gives little if any indication of their meaning, significance, or value. The two judgments are of a different kind.
I believe that such a distinction should be fundamental in the way in which anyone is to approach religious issues. Taken on one level, this a good way to approach scripture study. When reading a given passage, we can ask what its origin is, who composed it, what environment it was created within, what its original purpose was, the history behind it, etc., placing the work in context. We can then ask what meaning any of it has for us as readers, and how significant it is to our lives. Though I do believe that both judgments (existential and spiritual) do in some way relate to each other, it is important to separate the two to make sure that one doesn't override the value of the other. Only after making separate judgments can we examine the relation between the two.
On another level, this distinction is liberating. Regardless of the origin of any idea, belief, etc., it never says much about its importance or significance. Such a simple idea can be applied in so many different ways, and I believe it is important for everyone to understand. A few simple examples will suffice.
For one, it there is no evidence at all beyond the Biblical record that many events actually took place - historically they are completely unverified. There is also evidence that Israelites took some of their beliefs from Canaanites, or other cultures surrounding them. Many scriptures in the Old and New Testaments do not come from a spiritual or divine "vacuum" like many of us would hope. Instead, they can err, show bias, historical inaccuracy, contradictions, and parallels with contemporaneous cultures. Modern scriptural exegesis is quick to show the more "mundane" and "realistic" aspects of scriptural records. Clearly they were not written in divine vacuums, without influence from the cultural world. How then do we appreciate scripture?
James remarks: "If our theory of revelation-value were to affirm that any book, to possess [worth], must have been composed automatically or not by the free caprice of the writer, or that it must exhibit no scientific and historic errors and express no local or personal passions, the Bible would probably fare ill at our hands." The Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, all scripture, would fail at this task. In many ways they reflect the author's mindset at the time, the questions they had, their vocabulary, phrasing, and structure reflect their own historical and cultural struggles. The wording is far from perfect, and scripture can contain many errors (historical, scientific, bias, etc.). However, this says nothing of their spiritual significance or meaning. James continues, "If, on the other hand, our theory (of revelation-value) should allow that a book may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled person wrestling with the crises of their fate, then the verdict (of its value) would be much more favorable." Such a view seems much more to resonate with higher studies of religion. Joseph's revelations were normally in response to questions he had at the time, and reflected his attempt to understand the world in which he lived. It chronicles the mental grappling of a man deeply connected to the unseen world, with propensities for revelation far greater than most men may hope to attain.
"You see," says James, "the existential facts (of scripture) by themselves are insufficient for determining the value (of anything)." The Bible, or any book of scripture for that matter, would never hold up to a test that demanded it be removed from the world in every imaginable way. Rather, the more significant texts and scriptures in my mind are those that are intimately linked with those who grapple with grand questions and seek answers through inspiration. We can obviously note their imperfections, errors, and mistakes, but it in no way diminishes the significance and importance of their writings. If anything, it is precisely for this reason that we should pay close attention: people like us are making progress on matters of divine nature. Simply because I can see that Joseph's revelation reflects some trial he was enduring, or perhaps his theology reflected some of his day, or perhaps even that he got some of his theological ideas from other people, in no way diminishes their meaning. The origin of his beliefs do not bear on their significance.
Take the Book of Mormon for another example. Let us assume that it is a complete fraud, that Joseph made the entire thing from an overactive imagination that perhaps linked to some physiological disease. That speaks only of its origin, or the existential judgments. Now, let us look at the spiritual judgments. It causes bad men to become good, and good men to be even better. It teaches good moral values, and instructs men to come unto Christ. Even if it were not a divine book, it still teaches good things. And even more radical, even if its origins were deceitful, those ideas could still be true. If we asked someone to judge the Book of Mormon on moral, Christological, or theological grounds alone, ignoring its origin, it would surely rank highly as one of the most important religious books in American history. It is precisely for that fact that we must take the book seriously. After realizing its importance, then we can question its origins (which admittedly are less important than the verity of the message which it teaches).
Ultimately, even if Joseph was an epileptic, Jesus did have a ruptured spleen, and Paul was a schizophrenic, their ideas and beliefs could still reflect ultimate truths with a great deal of pragmatic meaning if we were to accept them. I hope these somewhat jumbled thoughts can open some greater discussion on the value of this distinction.