The November 25th show of “Unbelievable” featured a conversational debate between two former Mormons-turned-Christians (Lynn Wilder and Corey Miller) and current Mormon James Holt.
While Holt was an amiable bloke, I did not find that he had substantive criticisms to Wilder’s objections. For example, Wilder pointed out that Joseph Smith was an infamous polygamist who was notorious for marrying the wives of his male followers. Holt replied by noting that Mormons have explored responses to that problem. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain what any of those responses were!
Wilder also raised the problem of racism as the Book of Mormon regularly associates dark skin with sin. She notes, for example, that the Lamanites were cursed with dark skin because of their sin. All together she claims there are 26 Mormon scriptures that refer to dark skin as a curse. This is a serious problem if the Book of Mormon is, as Mormons claim, a “perfect” book. I found Holt’s response to these points unconvincing.
The description thus far would suggest that I found Wilder’s presentation to be more persuasive and that is true. But occasionally she opened herself up to objections that could readily have been exploited by a more skilled debater. For example, she contrasts the God of Mormonism — a finite physical being with limited knowledge and power — with the God of the Bible which, Wilder claims, is a spiritual being that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.
However, this lofty description is far from obvious if the Bible is our only theological source. (To be sure, it isn’t, but Wilder’s description only references the Bible.) After all, the Bible regularly describes God as gaining new knowledge, changing his mind, having regrets, and so on. It also describes God as having a body, face, arm, finger, back, sitting on a throne and walking in the garden. To be sure, Wilder may choose to interpret those descriptions as instances of anthropopathism, anthropomorphism, and/or accommodation. Nonetheless, the point remains: it is far too simplistic to claim the Bible teaches that God is a non-physical being that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.
Here’s a specific example of what I’m talking about. Wilder describes how in the Mormon Temple in which she served, God was described as needing to send people down to earth to discover what is happening. This is supposed to contrast with the omniscient God of the Bible. But in Genesis 18:21 God says he will go down to Sodom to see whether their sin is as great as he has heard. God then ultimately sends two angels to do the welfare check. Texts like this look far more like the Mormon description of God than Wilder’s tri-omni deity.
Wilder later returned to her point that the presence of racism and polygamy would not be an issue if it was simply a historical issue. But in Mormonism, she claims, it is “actually a scriptural issue” and therein lies the problem. Frankly, I’m not clear on the difference between historical and scriptural. Perhaps she is seeking to contrast that which is merely recorded with that which is taught.
Regardless, at the 25 minute mark into the program Wilder lays down the gauntlet with the following contrast:
“the God of Mormonism can change and does change and does change his mind and kind of updates with the culture. The God of the Bible got it right from the beginning, knew the end from the beginning, sees all things, is outside of time and space. And so you have an unchangeable God.”
But this is simply not true. The Bible includes many different pictures of God which reflect change — perhaps evolution? — over time. For example, compare the strikingly immanent-human descriptions of God in Genesis with the lofty descriptions in Deutero-Isaiah or Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17.
The Bible also reflects development in ethical understanding. Consider, for example, that the Psalmist exults in the Law of God as beautiful and perfect in Psalm 119. And yet, this law includes such mandates as pelting wayward children to death with rocks and amputating the hand of a woman who interferes in a fight between two men. And the Bible also assumes throughout the legitimacy of slavery as an institution. Then there are the passages which describe God commanding genocide and ethnic cleansing and the texts that appear to reflect patriarchal attitudes that are foreign to our worldview today, and the alleged anti-Judaic themes of the Gospel of John, and so on.
The bottom line is that upon closer examination Wilder’s vivid black and white dissolves into a sea of real-world grays. This is unfortunate because this type of contrast was wholly unnecessary to mount a powerful critique of Mormonism.
I haven’t said anything to this point about Corey Miller’s presentation. The reason is because I didn’t find it particularly helpful. He initially presented an unconvincing critique of Mormon epistemology (in particular, the fabled appeal to the burning in the bosom). But as Justin Brierley rightly pointed out, Christians argue in like manner by appealing to subjective experience as the prima facie ground under which they reasonably form justified beliefs about God.
My favorite example of this comes from Charles Darwin’s autobiography where he recalls a Mrs. Barlow who told his father that she knows sugar is sweet and she knows her redeemer lives.
This isn’t just lay piety. Alvin Plantinga (among other epistemologists) has presented a highly sophisticated defense of properly basic belief informed by the best of contemporary epistemology. Here’s the key point: Plantinga’s proper function account could inform Mormon belief as surely as Christian belief. If I were Miller I would have acknowledged that fact.
But that’s not the end of the story. Next, I would have pointed out that justification based on a subjective experience is only prima facie and can be undermined (i.e. undercut or rebutted) by defeaters. At that point, Miller could have presented those defeaters as a means to undermine the prima facie justification Mormons have from their subjective experience.