"Even if we can’t be sure that all of the stories are historically factual, I love the message – the heavens are open! And young, troublemaking boys can get answers to their prayers."
In the past couple months, my wife and I have visited several of the Northeastern Church history sites, and I feel like sharing some of my feelings about these recent adventures exploring our heritage. We visited much around Palmyra and several places in Kirtland (including Burger King and Cici’s Pizzeria). In Palmyra we saw the Smith farm which included the log cabin, the frame home built by Alvin, a cooper’s shop, and a barn that was transported from Mendon because it belonged to Brigham Young’s family. Adjacent to the Smith Farm is the Sacred Grove. We also visited the printing press where the first edition of the Book of Mormon was printed. And the Witmer farm where it is believed the plates were mostly translated, where the 3 and 8 witnesses attest they saw and handled the plates, and where the church was organized with just a handful of members. In Kirtland we visited the Kirtland Temple, the Whitney Store, the Whitney house, the Johnson Inn, the saw mill, the ashery, the Isaac Morley farm, and the gravesite for the Smith’s infant twins who passed away there.
I love our history! It is fascinating that we (in the Northeast) live so close to the origins of the Church! It is amazing that the Church, with such humble, bizarre beginnings has grown to be what it is today. Even if we can’t be sure that all of the stories are historically factual, I love the message – the heavens are open! And young, troublemaking boys can get answers to their prayers. Again, whatever scholars have uncovered about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, I find it infinitely interesting. For one, because it even exists; and secondly, because I find so much of value in its pages. Lehi and Nephi’s vision of the tree of life – a metaphor for the love of God, the allegory of the olive tree, Enos struggle before God in the wilderness, Jacob’s broken-hearted condemnation of the greedy and the womanizing religio-political leaders of his time, King Benjamin’s sermon on helping the poor, Moroni’s promise, and so on.
I have confronted many things in recent years that have caused me to re-evaluate and rebuild my faith – it is not the same as it once was (I am being intentionally vague). But let me just say that I was impressed with the testimony of Sister Lovell who showed us around the Smith farm. I could relate well to her tender feelings about the gospel and her sense of the powerful nature of the stories she shared – particularly her testimony as we stood in the second floor of the Smith log cabin. While at the printing press, I was asked to read Moroni’s promise toward the end of the presentation, and again I was very moved as I spoke those words out loud. I felt quite vulnerable (almost to the point of tears). The Community of Christ (RLDS) tour guide offered a powerful account of the events reported at the Kirtland Temple dedications. The Restoration Branch from Independence (an offshoot of the RLDS Church) members said the tour guide’s testimony inspired them (beyond their wildest expectations – they aren’t too fond of the Community of Christ), and they spoke hopefully about a time when all Mormons would again be united. The LDS missionaries in Kirtland – particularly the elderly missionary couple at the Morley Farm – bore sweet testimonies of the devotion of Isaac Morley and others. In the face of all of this I could not help but be truly moved. I am not sure that it proves anything. I know some really want me to just take that next step (or leap) and say that it proves everything. That is not my reason for sharing these feelings. What I can say is that Mormonism means the world to me. Okay, maybe not the world – but really a great deal – so much that I cannot think of anything more fitting with which to compare its value.
I think these feelings which I have attempted to express are a core part of the Mormon experience, or they ought to be. You can’t understand Mormons unless you get some sense of the meaningfulness of such experiences to those who share in them. These experiences are often the reason Mormons go on missions, pay their tithing, serve in demanding callings, and so on. Of course there are other motivations: peer pressure, trust in parents, loyalty to tradition, social benefits, fear, ego, etc. But these spiritual experiences probably affect every aspect of Mormons life, and decide the direction of Mormon culture as much as any other single factor. For me, although the precise shape of my faith has changed, and it radically differs from traditional Mormon faith in some ways, the power of these stories continues to move me. This experience of the divine, in connection with the retelling of these stories, keeps me grounded - in a kind of shared experience with the rest of Mormons around the world.
I feel I can say these stories are 'essentially' true, even if I question whether they are historically factual (to borrow a phrase from Marcus Borg). While I found myself getting a little swept up in the moment during the presentation in the Kirtland Temple, I about started down a train of thought recalling all the historical problems. I was afraid I might ignore my historical knowledge if I allowed myself to get carried away in that experience. But on the other hand, I didn’t want my historical knowledge to hamper that experience. I stopped the skeptic train of thought, call it “post-critical naiveté” (another Borgism). I said to myself, I want to feel this to the fullest, and at the same time I want to retain and add to my historical knowledge. Finally, Richard Rohr’s new age, wishy-washy, paradoxical wisdom sayings started to sound about right. Hold the contradiction, I said to myself. Hold the contradiction. And what a sweet experience it was! Both heavenly and sublimely human.