In Kevin Christensen’s review of Revelatory Events, he refers to a person who said on a board “that Revelatory Events gave her a way to explain away the claims of Joseph Smith and all other religious claims in purely secular terms and let her walk away from the community, assured she was leaving behind nothing valid or of value” (70-71). For a whole lot of LDS, accepting Taves’s conclusions would simply mean the church isn’t true.
Taves actually attempts to address this issue by the way she framed the book as a study of “paths.” Taves looks at Mormonism, AA, and A Course in Miracles to determine how experiences of the founders turned into spiritual paths, or the way of life that these groups encourage their adherents to follow. Taves suggests that having such paths is generally beneficial. Says Taves,
Although I think—and will argue—that the sense of a guiding presence emerges through a complex interaction between individuals with unusual mental abilities and an initial set of collaborators, an explanation of this sort says little about the content of what is revealed or the value of the spiritual path that emerges. If—as I believe—presences that articulate and guide a group toward collective goals can be understood as creative products of human social interactions rather than actual suprahuman agents, this does not undercut the human need to work out answers to the larger questions these paths seek to address. It just requires us to generate other methods for evaluating the value of the goals and the merits of the paths as means of obtaining them. (xii).
Though Taves doesn’t propose what those methods might be, she does conclude the book by declaring that while people will debate the merits of following Mormonism, AA, and A Course in Miracles, “the power of the paths to transform is—in my view—quite apparent” (295).
At the same time, it was this very point that Christensen challenged based on the woman that seemed to leave Mormonism because of Revelatory Events (no doubt the process was more complicated and I haven’t seen the comment). The woman, said Christensen, apparently saw no “worthwhile power [within Mormonism] to transform.”
Still, Taves’s proposal seems worth examining. Are there merits to being LDS here and now? Is it a good path?
Taves remarks on the merits of paths reminds me of what Richard Bushman said at the Maxwell Institutes tribute to him a few years ago. In his remarks, Bushman declared his belief in Book of Mormon historicity, but said that his choice to follow Mormonism came down to the fact that for him, “I find that when I live my life in the Mormon way, I’m the kind of man I want to be.” (May not be an exact quote). Mormonism’s merits, Bushman said, was the effect it had on him here and now.
Is this a useful way to view Smith’s merits? Though such a method isn’t really quantifiable, it does line up with scriptures like John 7:17. We can learn the truth by following the path.
Is such a thing possible without ancient gold plates? Taves seems to be pushing in this direction when she refers to Emile Durkheim’s research on sacred objects: “When a belief is shared unanimously by a people, to touch it—that is, to deny or question it—is forbidden.” Such a prohibition, says Durkheim, “proves that one is face to face with a sacred thing” (292-93). Taves continues, “The believer’s mistake, according to Durkheim, ‘lies in taking literally the symbol that represents this being in the mind, or the outward appearance in which the imagination has dressed it up, not in the fact of its very existence. Beyond these forms, be they cruder or more refined, there is a concrete and living reality” (295). For Taves, the paths these groups created is the “concrete living reality,” and thus Taves seems to propose the possibility for Mormons that Smith’s claims about plates and ancient Nephites are less important than living their lives “in the Mormon way.”
As Christensen noted, there can be a lot at stake here for Mormons, but perhaps the woman’s response that he referred to isn’t the only way for Mormons to engage with Revelatory Events.