Michael MacKay on changing views that seemed set in stone

10.20.2016 | The Maxwell Institute

Review_9.2_COVER(jpg)Joseph Smith translated much of the Book of Mormon by placing a seer stone in a hat then reading the book’s text to a scribe. ((See the Gospel Topics essay, “Book of Mormon Translation,” at LDS.org.)) Once thought by many Latter-day Saints to be an anti-Mormon fairy tale, recent Latter-day Saint scholars have affirmed this story, one that some historians had long known. How do Latter-day Saints reckon with such new information? BYU professor Michael Hubbard MacKay explores that question in an article from the latest issue of the BYU Religious Education Review. He says it’s not always easy to digest new, unexpected, sometimes apparently strange information:
Changing what we think is always a tricky process, especially when it comes to religion. When new information becomes available, we cringe under an orthodox mindset, particularly when we challenge ideas and beliefs that have been ‘set in stone’ for decades. Thomas Kuhn coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to represent this often painful transition in science of shifting to a new way of thinking. He argued that ‘normal science’ represented a consensus of thought among scientists when certain precepts were taken as truths during a given period. He believed that when new information emerges, old ideas come crashing together with new ones, causing a crisis. Once the basic truths are challenged, the crisis ends in either revolution or dismissal. Throughout Church history, we have seen friends and family members have faith crises because of new things they learn about the Church, its members, and our history. Those who have experienced the onslaught of new information understand the gravity of these massive paradigm shifts in our lives. By looking at [the seer stone] example, this article will provide a helpful way of thinking about new information and how to deal with it when it arrives.” ((Michael Hubbard MacKay, “Mormon Paradigm Shifts: Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones,” BYU Religious Education Review, October 2016, 12-17 [.pdf].))
MacKay worked for the Joseph Smith Papers Project during the lead-up to the publication of full-color photographs and historical notes about the seer stone Joseph Smith is said to have used. Together with Nicholas Frederick, he wrote a book called Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones. According to MacKay, the book “discusses the origins of Joseph Smith’s seer stones and explores how Joseph used them throughout his life in a way that goes beyond the Book of Mormon translation. It also traces the provenance of the seer stones once they leave his possession. Additionally, the book looks at how the Book of Mormon helps build a theology of seer stones through its narrative storyline and what Joseph Smith may have learned about his own prophetic gifts from that process. Finally, it explores how Joseph Smith took his experiences with seer stones and created a ‘theology of seer stones’ that became closely linked with his unique doctrines of exaltation.” You can read more here with a free subscription to the BYU Religious Education Review.