Jana Riess: Truth Doesn't have to be Empirical

Jana Riess has recently published a book called Flunking Sainthood in which she decides to spend 1 month participating in various spiritual rituals. For example, she spent one month fasting from sun up to sun down as a pious Muslim would do during Ramadan (though she picked the month of February because it had the fewest days), she spent another month observing the Sabbath as an Orthodox Jew would, she spent another month in mindfulness prayer, and many other spiritual practices from a variety of religious traditions. I really enjoyed the book–she has a witty sense of humor, but she claims to have failed nearly every spiritual practice for a year.

John Dehlin recently interviewed her on Mormon Stories. In part 2, he discusses her book quite a bit, but in part 1, he discusses her background and perspectives on various issues. Jana grew up in an atheist family. As part of her “rebelious” youth, she went to church, eventually settling down with the Presbyterian faith. She felt called to the ministry and attended seminary to become a pastor. During her time in seminary, she converted to Mormonism. She has a Ph.D. in American Religious History from Columbia University.

There are some people who believe that the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham are frauds.  John questioned Jana about this line of reasoning, and I thought Jana gave some interesting insights (1) into the idea of a Mormon Midrash, and (2) truth doesn’t have to be empirical.  I wanted to quote from their interview, starting with about 30 minutes left in part 1.

John Dehlin, “The Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon were like top 5 issues for people that have caused them to leave, and a lot of us just have the assumption that the only people who haven’t left are those who don’t know about Book of Mormon and DNA and the Book of Abraham, and everybody else has left, you know.  How in the world do you stay knowing about that stuff?”

Jana Riess, “Well, I don’t know that this is going to be a satisfactory answer to be honest with you because one of the things that I have found is that some of the people, most of whom are men, who get very exercised about  being in the know about what really happened with the Book of Abraham, etc. are not persuaded by arguments that rest on spirituality.  They only want arguments that meet them point for point, saying—again this is an either/or proposition as well—the whole way they approach the question.  If the Book of Abraham is not a divine translation of this ancient document, if it is in fact an ordinary funerary document that Joseph Smith completely expanded, embellished, elaborated on or if you are looking at a more cynical view, just simply lied about, then what do we do with the rest of our faith?

Well, let’s step back first of all and think about how important is the Book of Abraham to the Mormon faith in general?  I don’t think it’s terrifically important, but that’s just me.  But we need to have a tradition of midrash.  We need to have a tradition where we can look at a prophet in the way that Jews have looked at prophets of old and say, ‘this is a midrash’ on a revelation, or this is a midrash on an earlier work of scripture.”

John, “What does that word mean?”

Jana, “Midrash, well it’s basically any expanded teaching.  I don’t know what the exact definition would be, but an expanded teaching is something where in midrashim, you are taking a core text and then thinking about it cosmically, you’re thinking about it theologically, and you could look at, for example, the entire Pearl of Great Price as a midrash. You have Moses as a midrash on Genesis, right?  If you think about it in those terms, the literal nature of it is less important than what the book is trying to teach us about who we are as children of God.  I think that is where we need to be looking, and I frankly don’t give a hoot about some of the arguments about historicity, DNA, the more troubling avenues is of course Joseph Smith, the more troubling aspect is not the scripture itself, but what Joseph Smith said about and whether he can then be relied upon as a prophet of God.  Based on my work on the Hebrew Bible, I would say yeah.  Have you looked at those guys lately?

I mean we have this completely ridiculous idea of what a prophet is supposed to be.  No human being can measure up to that and there’s certainly no biblical example that does, and yet we conveniently forget about it. We come up with these stupid Gospel Doctrine lessons that encourage us to look at people in the Old Testament as if they were perfect and they we look at our own leaders to be perfect as well, and when they aren’t, well we leave.

John, “Right.  And then that all is a compelling, you know, a viable intellectual response and I want to dig into that a bit in a second.  But, it sounds like what you were also gonna say is there’s a strong spiritual component to it as well, is that right?”

Jane, “Yes there is, and I worry that we don’t emphasize deep reading of scripture in the way that we ought to.  We talk about reading the scriptures all the time.  Don’t get me wrong, and I think that’s an important devotional practice.  I think our church actually does a fairly good job of encouraging people to dig into the scriptures every day.  But we’re doing it for that informational thing that I was talking about before.  We’re doing it so we can learn the scriptures, we have the same thing when we go to the temple.  The temple is not a worship experience.  The temple is a learning experience, instruction.  That’s not at all the same.

We don’t have any corporate worship in Mormon culture, and that’s a huge problem.  I think if we have more authentic experiences of worshiping in community, of reading the scriptures together in community, not in the Gospel Doctrine sense where we’re there to learn about so and so, but in the sense that we have a small group of people who get together, who read the scriptures, who pray together about the needs in their lives, that is a completely different understanding of the scriptures, and we don’t do that.  I have no idea why we don’t.

John,”Hmmm.  And yet you feel it sounds like your Mormon-ness has been overall spiritual edifying for you and that’s part of what’s kept you around, right?  So have you just had to supplement on your own?”

Jana, “I do a lot of supplementing, yes. [chuckles]  That’s well said.  Yeah I do, I do a lot of supplementing.  I think that’s one of the blessings of having not grown up in this tradition.  I worry about people who basically feel that they have to leave Mormonism because they are convinced that the world out there is so much better, right?  It always is going to look that way.  Sometimes it actually is that way, but they don’t understand that it is possible to learn from other traditions without leaving your own, and instead to bless and enrich your life as a Mormon.  You know I’ve been enriched as a Mormon by studying Buddhist texts from Tibet, and about mortality and Tibetan prayer beads and how they sit and think about death, because the prayer beads are actually made of human bones and skulls, and they sit there and they touch them. They think about ‘yeah, I’m going to die.  How does that change the way I live now?

I want to clarify that I don’t actually have such a rosary, I don’t have anything that’s constructed out of human bones and skulls [John chuckles], but the idea of it, just the idea of it has transformed my spirituality and how I think about prayer and mortality, the fact that this is sooo fleeting.  We are here for such a short time.  We have to think about that every day.”

John, “Hmmm.  I’m going to kind of use this as a way to close this first hour, so don’t think that I’m going to now dig into some big deep exploration of this, but well, I guess I have two questions.  One is, um, I won’t ask them at the same time.  So the first question is what about the person that says to you, No Jana, either the Book of Abraham is what Joseph Smith said it was, or it’s a fraud.  Either the Book of Mormon is what Joseph said it was or it’s a fraud, and truth actually matters, facts matter.  A fair reading of the archaeological, anthropological, genetic, whatever evidence of the Book of Mormon, and a fair reading of the text, the funerary text that Joseph claimed to have translated the Book of Abraham from, you know, points that it was not true.  If it’s not true, I’m outta here because it’s based on fraud and deception and isn’t what it claims to be.”

Jana Riess, “But you are defining truth in this incredibly narrow way when you do that – not you personally, but anyone who does that.  You are defining truth in the way that enlightenment philosophy has taught us to define truth which is that it is factual, that it is historical, that it is epistemologically verifiable, right?  Well truth does not have to be factual, historical, or epistemologically verifiable.  It’s awfully nice when that happens because we can explain it to our friends and not sound like spiritual idiots.  But I’m afraid it doesn’t always work that way.  I think it bothers me—God bless the people at FAIR, I think they do wonderful work and it’s very persuasive for some people, but they’re not asking the bigger question—at least sometimes, about ‘why is this important?’

I once heard a fantastic sermon when I was in seminary.  It was called ‘The Second Question.’  The preacher, this professor had been to a magic show by Penn and Teller, and the guy behind him just basically spoiled the experience for the preacher by saying, ‘Oh, I know how they did that. I know how they did that.’ At one point in the show, either Penn or Teller said, ‘probably there are some people out there who are saying to themselves, ‘I know how they did that, but that’s not the important question.  The important question is ‘why do we do that?’ Why do we do this every day?  The preacher then extrapolated from that this whole sermon called ‘The Second Question.’

If we were to apply that to this situation—for example using Book of Mormon DNA as our test case, right?  The problem with the Book of Mormon DNA is that it demonstrates that you have this understanding of the Book of Mormon that simply cannot be factually true.  They’re right—it cannot be factually true in that sense.  Why does it have to be factually true? This is where I really disagree with Terryl Givens that you had one your show, and I love Terryl, and I think his work has been so important.  I think it’s awesome that he came on your show, but Terryl sets up this situation in [his book] By the Hand of Mormon where he says, “if you don’t believe it happened this way, everything else falls apart.  The rest of it hinges upon the literal nature of this, and I think that when we do that, we are setting everyone up to fall.  Because first of all, it may not be factually verifiable, but why do we care about that?

I think we care about it to a ridiculous degree because we are concerned about how it all sounds to other people. We’re a persecuted religious minority; we’re very sensitive about how our faith plays in Peoria, which by the way, it doesn’t, because I grew up near Peoria, and I can tell you it totally doesn’t.  So the apologetics issues and the questions that are asked, let’s get to the second question, and let’s look at some of these scriptural texts prayerfully, and ask God before we even start reading what do you want to teach me from this?  How does this have bearing on my life?  That’s a very transformative way to approach the scriptures.”

John, “So you’re saying, ‘Forget if Mormonism is factually, historically what it claims to be.  Live it, and if it transforms your life, then you’ve enjoyed a transformed life.  Is that what you’re saying?”

Jana, “I don’t think it’s quite as reductionistic as that.  This is not Pascal’s wager where we are just saying I am going to live as if this were true and see what happens.  Because there is an element beneath this entire experience that is that seed of faith, that yearning, that desire to believe, and that undergirds everything else.  That undergirds every spiritual question.  I think that you’re right that you say, at some point there is this point where it’s a leap of faith, and you do take that faith, leap on faith, as they say for better or for worse.

You have to do it with both eyes open, and this is where I look at some of the people I know in charge, and it all just seems to come so easily to them and of course this is all true, and I was raised on this with mother’s milk and how dare you ever question this.  That is so immature.  That is as immature as it is for someone to say, well this one thing wasn’t factually true so I’m throwing it all out because it’s all lies.  We have to grow up. That’s the whole point of Mormon theology where the burden is upon us with our agency that we need to search for truth.”

John, “Right, so you’re not saying truth doesn’t matter, you’re saying there’s gotta be a core hope or belief that at some level there’s some validity of truth to what’s going on, and then from there the struggle is part of the point.”

Jana, “YES IT IS!!! Well said.  The struggle is part of the point.  I think when Pilate makes this comment that just seems like a throwaway afterthought, ‘ha, what is truth?’ as though that’s this kind of cynical approach, I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt here. I’d like to think that there’s a part of Pilate that really wants to know, what is truth to you, Jesus?  Because you’re totally blowing my mind.  Why don’t we have that curiosity ourselves?

There’s a Gnosticism to people who say ‘I have discovered the real truth’, whether it’s the conservative Mormons who believe that they have discovered the real truth and everything else is crap outside the church, or it’s disaffected former Latter-day Saints who say I’ve discovered the truth about the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham and everything else is crap.  That’s Gnosticism. When we believe that some sort of sacred, secret teaching has awakened us and opened our eyes and that everyone else is in the dark, that is not Christianity.”

John, “And for someone who didn’t believe in Christ, what would you appeal to?  It’s just not what, mature, or broad-thinking, or enlightened?”

Jana, “Mm Hmm.  That’s a good question. Yeah, I think it is not spiritually mature.  If we, as progressive people want to be able to say that we are in fact progressive people, we need to entertain other points of view, and I find that on both of those extremes, there’s often a hardness and a coldness to investigating new truth, and I worry about that.”

John, “Right.  Isn’t that if I’m just going to play pro-LDS for a second, Isn’t that one of the beauties of what Joseph Smith left us, is a legacy of, we will follow the truth and be willing to accept new truth when it comes?”

Jana, “You know, I am so pleased that you brought that up, because unfortunately, we don’t live that way.  It comes in even how people talk to me about my conversion.  I converted in 1993.  That’s the official story, right?  But I am always converting.  I am on a journey of conversion and I’m not the same Christian that I was in 1993 when I became a Latter-day Saint Christian, and I won’t be the same Christian in 18 years from now.  I am always converting, and I hope that I am always going to be open to new truth and wherever God leads me.”

What are your thoughts on a Mormon Midrash, the Book of Mormon, Abraham, and truth doesn’t need to be empirical?

15 comments on “Jana Riess: Truth Doesn't have to be Empirical

  1. […] you’re interested in more of the interview, I transcribed a bit more at my website.  What are your thoughts on a Mormon Midrash? […]

  2. The first thing I’ll say is: thank you for transcribing all of this. I rarely get time to listen to podcasts, but I can read a lot quicker than I can hear, so I think every podcast should have transcripts…but of course, that’s tough work.

    As for the actual points of what Jana was saying, for the most part, I just don’t get it. For example, Jana says:

    If you think about it in those terms, the literal nature of it is less important than what the book is trying to teach us about who we are as children of God.

    But the book can only teach us about “who we are as the children of God” if God literally exists and if God literally has specific identities for us as his/her/their children. If the scriptures are not “literally true,” then where are you going to get to ANY of the rest of that stuff? Or if Mormon scriptures aren’t literally true (but perhaps some other religious tradition is), then how are you going to get to the truth from Mormonism when you should be looking elsewhere?

    Jana wants to say that “truth does not have to be factual, historical, or epistemologically verifiable,” but she doesn’t do a good job of explaining what it would be other than these things.

    She talks about it being “immature” to throw it out because it’s lies, but what really does “growing up” look like? Does it look like doing ridiculous, peculiar things in your life because a book (that is literally false) told you to? How is that mature?

    It just seems to me that it’s people trying so hard to cling to what they’ve always clinged to, rather than leave it to seek the truth.

  3. p.s., did I miss the button to subscribe to comments by email or to subscribe only to one post’s comments?

  4. Great post, and I think Jana is very wise. My only comment would be that her last name is Riess rather than Reiss. Andrew S. there’s a space between fundamentalism (whether religious or scientistic) and frank post-modernism that I think is reasonably true, and getting to that place I think is what Jana is proposing. On that model growing up means finding space separate from the poles of fundamentalism and post-modern nihilism.

  5. Smb,

    I guess I just see too many appeals to postmodernist concepts in these kinds of “nuanced” testimonies to try to create a foundation for something that isn’t postmodern and I don’t understand how people who do that justify it.

    What is the space in between, and how are you going to distinguish it?

  6. Andrew, is there a plugin to subscribe to comments? If so, I don’t have it installed, but would be happy to do it if you have a recommendation.

    But the book can only teach us about “who we are as the children of God” if God literally exists and if God literally has specific identities for us as his/her/their children. I can’t speak for Jana, but as I understand her comment, she believes in a literal God, and we are literally his children. But she doesn’t necessarily believe that Book of Abraham/Mormon are literal translations.

    If the scriptures are not “literally true,” then where are you going to get to ANY of the rest of that stuff? Or if Mormon scriptures aren’t literally true (but perhaps some other religious tradition is), then how are you going to get to the truth from Mormonism when you should be looking elsewhere?

    Janet explains right after this (perhaps I’ll finish the transcription), that God can give revelation through various channels. (She doesn’t think Mormons have a stranglehold on truth.) In that sense, if it is a pure revelation that is meant to teach us something, it may not be verifiable, yet still truth.

  7. MH,

    In your plugins search dealie, you should be able to find “subscribe to comments” by markjaquith.

    Or try Subscribe to Comments Reloaded by coolmann.

    Wheat and rates uses a combination of markjaquith’s subscribe to comments and a different plugin called Subscribe to comments Now!

    That second plugin lets people subscribe by email even if they don’t post a comment first.

    Will get to rest of message soon.

  8. Andrew S, I think there are a variety of competitive epistemological systems that allow space for this kind of belief. So many of us are heirs of the Scottish Enlightenment (via American Protestantism) that it’s hard to break out of the two fundamentalisms or to imagine that it’s possible to do so. You’re right, though, that there aren’t that many published devotional volumes that speak directly to that. I am slowly working through what I hope will be a useful and non-postmodern relational theology that I think fits well in this space, but I agree with what I see to be your call for more and better work that will allow space within Mormonism for different types of people.

  9. P.s. MH, while you’re getting different plugins, can you get the WPTouch plugin? Your current mobile plugin is kinda annoying, because it will let me either view or post a new comment, but not do both at the same time.


    I think it’s interesting when people ground things in different epistemological frameworks, but I think the church wants to have things both ways. They don’t merely want a relational truth, or a coherentist truth. No, the church also wants to proclaim that it had objective, correspondence truth. When people try to make various aspects of Mormonism work by goingto different concepts of truth, they do so by going against the church.

  10. Andrew, I installed a few plugins–let me know how they work for you.

  11. Mh, this post outlined exactly how i view the scriptures. Can i copy this and post it to my fb profile. I have tried expliaing my views to my friends but this article does it better than i ever could.

  12. Astral_LDS, Sure, I’d be happy if you posted a link to the post, especially if it brings more visitors! (Maybe we should become Facebook friends!)

  13. […] for atheists to keep their children away from religion.  This corresponds immediately after their conversation that I transcribed previously. John, “Yeah, right.  Ok in this last part of the segment I am just going to bring it back to […]

  14. […] to keep their children away from religion.  The quote below corresponds immediately after their conversation that I transcribed previously. John, “Yeah, right.  Ok in this last part of the segment I am just going to bring it back to […]

  15. […] For a bit of background, Jana Riess was raised by an atheistic dad, and her mom wasn’t very religious either.  Yet, Jana felt pulled toward religious faith, joining with the Presbyterians before embracing Mormonism.  John questioned why it is hard for atheists to keep their children away from religion.  This corresponds immediately after their conversation that I transcribed previously. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: