As any RM worth his salt knows, the best way to build a bridge to someone is to find a “common ground”. Find those beliefs you have in common, and build from there. It has been my joy to find that apologists have been successfully searching for common ground with critics and unbelievers for many years with the hilarious result that they are giving up ground to the critics at the same time they feel they are winning the argument.
Consider, if you will, Joseph Smith. Many consider him a charlatan. Others view him as a well meaning country boy who produced some interesting things and birthed a long-lived religious movement. And of course, believing LDS consider him the Prophet of the Restoration, a man who communed with God and restored the one true church.
You might think that discussions between these groups would be rancorous, with little shared belief to be divided among them. That was once my assumption, but I have been surprised to find this is not the case. For, in their eagerness to find common ground, or reasons I can’t understand, appologists have been moving to the middle ground almost as quickly as their fingers can type. “And how do they do that?” you may ask. By using the tools Joseph Smith gave them for an entirely different purpose than he intended.
Consider, if you will, the LDS attitude towards leaders of other religions. Generally, they would consider them to be the following:
-Occasionally Inspired, but usually expressing their own opinions based on their own wisdom and learning
-Not speaking for God
From the Pope to Billy Graham, that’s how LDS generally see them. So let us consider that the baseline for a religious leader that isn’t actually a Prophet.
What if the critics and unbelievers in the Church were able to get LDS to reappraise Joseph Smith and other leaders, and get them to slowly move them towards this description of non-LDS religious leaders. What if LDS started to view their leaders less as “Prophets”, and more as prophets?
This is already happening, and it seems to be the apologists leading the charge. The grease on the wheels is of course the statement of Joseph Smith, wherein he was caught wrestling some youth and explained that his wrestling wasn’t representative of him as a “Prophet”; after all, they shouldn’t expect him to walk around in coat and tails all day reciting scripture. He needed his downtime as much as the next uneducated farm boy. It is recorded in this way:
This morning, I read German, and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that “a prophet is always a prophet;” but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such. [History of the Church, 5:265]
If Joseph could see the future, I wonder if he still would have said it. Or maybe clarified it a little more. Certainly, we can see the distinction between Joseph’s day to day activities, and his duties as a prophet, a seer, and a revelator.*
But now we have seen that offhand comment grow to become an oft used apologetic “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Since Joseph didn’t expand on how to tell, exactly, when a prophet is “acting as such”, subsequent Church members over the decades have had free reign to concoct convoluted and nonsensical conditions to identify exactly when Church leaders are acting like Church leaders. If those conditions aren’t met, all bets are off, and their words can be taken as the vain ramblings of a senile old white guy if you choose.
And here we meet at the common ground between critics and apologists. Because while apologists may feel a rush of triumph every time this trump-card is played (certainly, it shuts up the critics!), the critics shut up only because they have won that battle. Because the ultimate testimony of the exmormon or nonbeliever is that Joseph Smith was never “acting as a prophet”, and the ultimate goal is to help LDS understand that. So everytime a teaching or statement is moved from the “acting as such” column over to the “best guess of an 19th century farmhand” column, that is one less thing to worry about.
*Does anyone ever stop to think about what Joseph Smith actually meant by this? Could it ever have occurred to him that there would be a time when Church members doubted that when he was speaking in a Church meeting or conference on doctrinal subjects, and those teachings were later published after he reviewed them, that he might not be “acting as a prophet”? I mean, c’mon!
I doubt many current GA’s have any question about whether or not they are acting as Prophets when they speak in conference, but to hear the apologists describe it, prophetic speaking, even in conference, is a rare event.