Consider, for example, the following sentence that is a reference to the game of basketball: “If you are tall, you can rebound.” Here, the initial clause establishes that being tall is a necessary condition for what follows, which is the ability to rebound. Now, I’m not saying the sentence is true. I’m only summarizing what the expression is trying to say. Regarding its veracity, however, most people would agree that all else being equal—relative athleticism, strength, experience, and the ability to leap and grasp—the taller of any two men will be the better rebounder in a game of hoop.
Let’s now make a small adjustment to the sentence. Add the word “even” to the beginning of it and the result is this: Even if you are tall, you can rebound. Anyone who thought the previous sentence was intuitively correct will find fault in this one. Why? With this change the condition of being tall is disparaged. The meaning of the sentence is, in effect, that the ability to rebound is a fait accompli. It will occur despite one being tall.
This is an important distinction because it’s at the center of what I consider a misreading of an important declaration Christ makes in Matthew Chapter 17. In a passage that begins with verse 14, Jesus performs a miracle His disciples had attempted, but failed, to accomplish. When asked why previous efforts had been ineffective, Jesus answers that it was because of the “unbelief” of His followers. He goes on to say:
For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
Notice that Christ’s words are couched as a conditional statement similar to the one I introduced above. That being said, when people quote the scripture, they tend to disparage faith the size of “a grain of mustard seed” and interpret the statement as though it begins with the term, “Even if.” In doing so, they imply that bigger is better. However one can assume from a literal reading of the scripture that Christ isn’t being critical of a small grain-sized amount of faith, but is presenting a necessary pre-condition for the miraculous in life to occur. It’s possible that He’s describing an ideal!
Perhaps what He’s saying is that faith doesn’t imbue us with power despite its small size, but rather because faith at its most powerful is small and inconspicuous, that it doesn’t walk with a swagger but admits that it doesn’t know. Admitting to a lack of knowledge is the beginning of true learning. On the other hand, when we convince ourselves in an a priori fashion that the Bible is an infallible rendering of reality, then we become apologists to everything it contains, including, for example, its approval of slavery. In this way, apologists don’t discover anything new, because they don’t seek knowledge or wisdom. What they seek is only comfort and confirmation and they’ll obtain both, even if it requires them to ignore facts and discrepancies.
The difference in people who practice true scholarship verses apologetics is remarkable. The difference is especially clear when comparing the accomplishments of the people of my church—the Mormons—verses people who identify as being Jewish. I once heard a Jewish friend of mine say that if you put two Jews in a room, you will have between them five different opinions. That’s because they welcome questions and intellectual inquiry, even if it countermands previously held notions of truth. One of their heroes, the 13th Century thinker Maimonides, coined the phrase “Teach my mouth to say I don’t know.” Maimonides taught that to admit to a lack of knowledge was a noble and courageous act.
To Mormons and other fundamentalist Christian sects, however, doubt and questioning has been elevated to a sin. Disbelief is deemed the fault of individuals, rather than an implication of life’s uncertainty. When scriptures lead to moral ambiguity, it becomes the duty of Christian apologists to ignore the discrepancies. That’s the message of Mormon leaders who have excommunicated church intellectuals for speaking truthfully—but too critically—about the organization’s past. One of its leaders, Boyd K. Packer, has demonstrated his mistrust of intellectual inquiry by saying, “Some things that are true are not very useful.”
How these two differing worldviews translate into a regard for scholarship is clear. There are roughly as many people in this world who self-identify as being Jewish as there are Mormons, but while 185 Jews have earned Nobel Prizes, no Mormon has yet to receive the honor.
Coincidence? I don’t think so.