I have a bad habit and I suspect I’m not alone. I’m easily influenced by the thinking of people I like.
When I was a teenager, I discovered an author I really enjoyed. I read his books and loved them. I read every word in those books, even the foreword or afterword, or wherever he wrote about his writing process. Then I discovered his blog. I read it voraciously.
And he didn’t just write about books. He wrote about movies and politics, too. The politics stuck in my mind. I must have talked about them with my parents, because at some point my dad gave me a warning: don’t rely on one person for your political views. (Or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words.)
That lesson has stuck with me, despite my faltering attempts to implement it. If I recognize that I am a little too fixated on one person’s view of a subject, I search around for a different perspective to balance it out. This applies, of course, to more than just politics. The world is a big place and no single person gets it all. Somewhere in this mist is a path towards that light, with a firm, immovable pole – an iron rod – we can hold too that will keep us on the path.
Readers of the Book of Mormon will recognize Lehi’s dream here. As we read the chapters discussing it this week, I thought about how Joseph Smith must have felt as he translated this portion of the Book of Mormon. You see, his father had a similar dream. There’s a passage in these chapters, repeated a few times later in the Book of Mormon, that says “[God] is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Perhaps that struck Joseph Smith as he pondered on the fact that God sent his own father and the ultimate father figure of the Book of Mormon (most of the book is about Lehi’s descendants) a similar dream.
Others have a different reaction. They see this as evidence that Joseph Smith is the author, rather than just the translator, of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith drew from his own experiences (such as his father’s dream), his own questions (some of the passages of the Book of Mormon address pressing theological issues of Joseph’s time), and his knowledge of the Bible (significant portions of the Book of Mormon quote the King James Version of the Bible) to write the Book of Mormon.
When trying to understand religious questions, such as the truth of the Book of Mormon or the existence of God or the problem of pain, we can feel like we are in a dark mist, obscuring our sight. We look for an iron rod. We may come across someone who says something that makes something solid out of the mist around us. We may treat those words like that pole – we hold tight, thinking that these words will lead us out of the mist and into the light.
As a teenager, I saw some confusing things about the world. I read that author’s blog and clung tight, thinking it was leading me toward light. It did have some light. But in the years since, I’ve also recognized where he got some things wrong.
I only recognized those problems because I looked to other viewpoints and questioned the one I was already following. Had I continued to treat his words as the way to truth, I would be more lost in the mist, rather than (as I like to suppose) a little closer to the light. I found that what I had thought was an iron rod had rusted to pieces and left me grasping mist.
The reason some people’s words capture us more than others is because the things they say just make sense. They make sense because our individual paths, the iron rod we try to construct for ourselves, align. For some, a guiding principle is that “God the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” He will send a similar vision to Lehi and Joseph’s father; He will provide answers from ancient prophets to modern readers; He will speak the same words to both Biblical and Book of Mormon prophets (and prompt them to copy portions of the scriptures they had).
Others whose guiding principle is, perhaps, that anything that can be explained without the supernatural must be explained without it, will see Joseph Smith as using the resources at hand to construct a narrative that fit his own purposes. Each possible source will be more acceptable than God or His Spirit.
We only see, as Paul says, “through a glass darkly.” We have limited time, limited intellect, limited understanding. We piece together truths as best we can so that we can function day-to-day. But we need to take care to investigate our guiding principles. These two groups look at the same facts and interpret them very differently because that rod they cling to – the principle that guides them through life – is very different. What paths are we constructing for ourselves and why? How closely do they align with the path and iron rod that leads toward truth? How do we avoid the rod that will rust in our hands and cling to the one that actually leads to the light?