Back in January 2015 when I had a distinct impression to do a web search on the Book of Abraham, I ended up at MormonThink.com first. I have a very logical brain, to say the least. When it was laid out for me that the source papyri that Joseph Smith claimed to translate have nothing to do with Abraham, and that everything described by Joseph Smith on the facsimiles is incorrect, my brain immediately concluded that the Book of Abraham wasn’t literally true. And if the Book of Abraham was false, what did that mean for the Book of Mormon, also claimed by Joseph Smith to have been translated from Egyptian? My brain could see nothing but fraud.
I soon found the CES Letter, which is a long document written by Jeremy Runnells that spells out many questions and problems he has with orthodox Mormon truth claims. This document can be very convincing to those who are starting to doubt the LDS church’s claims, because it lays out many issues in a very persuasive manner. FairMormon, an LDS apologist website, wrote a rebuttal to the CES Letter, and then Runnells came up with a rebuttal to their rebuttal. An apologist like Dan Peterson will say the CES Letter is unfair because it’s a “big list” that lists issue after issue. The idea goes that if an apologist gives a good answer on question, then a big list will say “Yeah, but what about this next issue?” Someone who agrees with the CES Letter will say that the LDS Church has hidden all of these issues until recently when the lds.org Gospel Topics Essays came out. And even then, the church doesn’t advertise these essays in General Conference or at church.
I don’t find every issue in the CES Letter convincing. The very first issue he comes up with, King James Version errors in the Book of Mormon, was already answered to my satisfaction in seminary in high school. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but my seminary teacher said it was probably easier for Joseph Smith to just read out of the King James Version Bible when he got to Bible verses quoted by the Book of Mormon, rather than Joseph Smith having to concentrate to translate passages that already existed in English in the KJV. That made sense to me then, and it still does today. However, overall, I do see the issues that Runnells brings up more the way he sees them than how FairMormon sees them. When I look at the many issues that confront the truth claims of the LDS church, including the translation and historicity of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the priesthood and temple ban for those with African heritage, multiple contradictory versions of the First Vision, priesthood restoration, the temple and Freemasonry, and more, I find it impossible to ever have literal beliefs in the truth claims of the LDS church. I never did read the CES Letter all the way through. I used it as a jumping off point to do my own research. I read all of the lds.org essays, and all they did was confirm the information that the CES Letter and MormonThink.com were telling me.
Not Everyone Sees the CES Letter the Same Way
I know there are people who have read everything I have (and more!) and still are able to keep their literal beliefs in the LDS church’s truth claims. I don’t think they’re dumb or misled, and I hope they don’t think that about me either for not believing. Couldn’t there be room for both points of view, and everything in between? I have been to progressive Christian congregations were some people there believe in a literal Jesus Christ who is deity, and some who don’t. Why would anyone who doesn’t have literal beliefs in Jesus want to go to a Christian church? Well let me tell you, because I’m that someone! I find the stories in the New Testament of Jesus to be transcendent. I see that these stories, and the symbolism of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, to have real power to help people live better lives–Christlike lives. And if those stories and ideals help people to be better, to make the world better, does it really matter if the stories are literal or not? I maintain it doesn’t matter. And I would say the same thing for the Book of Mormon, or the Book of Abraham. It doesn’t matter if they are historical records or not, if their stories and messages inspire both literal believers and non-literal believers to live better lives, and to improve the world around them.
It’s OK to Not Believe, If You Keep Your Mouth Shut
Unfortunately, the LDS church doesn’t currently allow for non-literal believers. I was told it was OK to not believe the church was true, but I had to keep that to myself. What kind of a community is that? It’s not one that I felt was very welcoming to differing opinions. Jeremy Runnells was called to a disciplinary court for publishing the CES Letter. He would have been excommunicated except he could tell the fix was in, so he resigned before they could announce their decision.
A Proposed Truce Between Literal and Non-literal Believers
I think the church could diffuse all the angst over the CES Letter if it made room for non-literal believers. Church leaders wouldn’t have to give up their own beliefs, but just allow for those who want to stay in the church but don’t think it’s the one true church. Progressive Christianity has already figured out how to do this. It’s true that orthodox Christians (or Mormons) might not like that point of view, but isn’t it better to just focus on what the message of Christianity inspires us to do, rather than whether the Bible stories literally happened the way orthodox believers say they happened? Here’s a sample of how I imagine a meeting between Jeremy Runnells and his Stake President could have gone if the church allowed for non-literal believers, and if they trained their leaders how to deal with them. (I don’t know either Jeremy or his Stake President, so this is just fictional wishful thinking on my part.)
Stake President (SP): So Jeremy, I read your CES Letter. That’s quite an undertaking you did to create it.
Jeremy Runnells (JR): Yes, I spent a lot of time on it. I am looking for official answers from the church for the questions I pose in my letter.
SP: I’m assuming you’ve already read FairMormon’s response to your letter, right?
JR: Yes, I read it, and I wrote a response to their response. I feel like their answers don’t really help, and they’re not an official arm of the church anyway. Will the church ever officially answer my questions?
SP: Well, I don’t think that’s really necessary.
JR: Why not?
SP: Because some people will look at the historical record, or read the Gospel Topics Essays, and come away with their literal beliefs in the truth claims changed, or even shattered. Others can look at the same information and have their testimonies strengthened.
JR: Strengthened? How is that possible? For me it looks like the church isn’t what it says it is.
SP: Yes, I understand you see it that way. And so do many others. I don’t personally see it that way. I still have a testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is true.
JR: I can never believe that again! I can’t un-see what I’ve seen.
SP: Yes, I know that’s how you see it. But what if I told you it’s OK that you see it that way?
JR: How can that be OK? Church leaders have said before it’s either all true or all a fraud.
SP: Yes, it’s unfortunate they used that kind of language in the past. Life is rarely made up of “either/or” questions, though. You’re not the only non-believer in our stake. No one else in our stake has been as vocal as you’ve been, but they do exist.
JR: Why would they still want to come to church if they think it’s a fraud?
SP: Because we’re trying to make room for all spectrums of beliefs. It won’t be easy, and it will take time for orthodox believers to accept beliefs like yours. But in the end, maybe we can learn from each other, and serve and love each other the way the Savior taught us. If you’re willing, we would love to have you join us for Sunday meetings. You could come to as much or as little as you like, obviously.
JR: Will I be allowed to express my own opinions?
SP: Sure, but we hope you won’t personally attack others’ opinions.
JR: When I hear people say “I know beyond a shadow of doubt the church is true,” or “I know the Book of Mormon is true,” I feel like they will be attacking my beliefs.
SP: We’re going to try to quit dwelling on whether the church is true or not. That kind of a culture change is going to take time too. What’s true for me might not be true for someone else. What can be true for both of us, is when we serve or ward or our community, we know we’ll be making the world a better place. If we do what Jesus taught, whether you believe in Jesus as a literal savior or a symbolic figure, we all can benefit. Either way the world wins when we serve!
JR: President, you are blowing my mind. I’m pretty sure this has to be a dream…
Yes, this conversation isn’t real, but I wish it were. Who cares if the stories are real or not, as long as the results for improving the world are the same either way?