Sign-seekers in a materialistic Mormon universe: not such an adulterous generation after all?

Unlike traditional Christians, Mormons are philosophical materialists. They imagine a unified cosmos consisting only of matter, bounded by space and time, operating under natural law. Founder Joseph Smith is quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter.” (D&C 131:7). He set Mormons apart from philosophical dualists by arguing that there is no substance other than the material world, even if matter is invisible to mortals or not yet understood.1 The Mormon cosmos is wholly natural and follows fixed laws; there is no supernatural. Without distinct natural and supernatural realms, it never made sense for Mormons to distinguish natural or scientific truth from spiritual truth. Within Mormonism, natural and spiritual truth collapse into a unified whole. Smith claimed, “Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth” (Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53–5), thus suggesting he viewed science as a branch of Mormonism, and vice versa.2

However, in practice Smith never truly unified his model for constructing truth about the universe. By the time he died, Mormonism still had two distinct knowledge models. In the first of these models, inherited from early modern scientists, evidence leads unidirectionally to established conclusions. This is often called the scientific method. In the second model, which Mormons inherited from Christianity, signs follow faith—which, when expressed in secular terms, means that conclusions lead unidirectionally to evidence. But these two models are mutually exclusive, and in fact antithetical.

Imagine a scientist who operated by first proposing a hypothesis, undergoing some mental exercise to eliminate all doubt in her mind, publishing the conclusions, and only then looking for experimental signs to verify the hypothesis. For a scientist, this would be ludicrous. Before establishing any conclusions, scientists believe they have to seek for signs, based on the observable data, that their hypothesis is correct. In the scientific worldview, signs precede faith.

Not so, for matters regarding the distinct spiritual universe of Christianity. Christians are taught that they must first reach a firm conclusion about the supernatural realm, and then signs will follow as a reward for believing strongly enough. In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus’ faithless sectarian foils asked him for a sign of his authority, he derided them (Matt. 16:1–4). “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign,” He said, before abruptly leaving the scene.

Mormonism’s exclusively naturalistic cosmology was a late development, but by then, the Christian model of constructing truth about matters relating to the supernatural realm was well established within Mormonism. The Book of Mormon, for example, echoes Jesus’ condemnation of sign-seekers on at least two occasions. When a skeptical character named Korihor asked his religious leader Alma for a sign, Alma summoned the powers of heaven to punish his impertinence by striking him mute. (Alma 30:43–60.) When a similar character Shechem asked a similar religious leader for a sign, he was struck with a death curse (Jacob 7:1–23). Mormons, like many traditional Christians, are taught that “sign-seeking” is a devilish pursuit. In fact, Joseph Smith once said he had a revelation telling him that anyone who wanted a sign was literaly an adulterer—that is, someone who cheats on his or her spouse. (History of the Church 5:268).

In both Mormonism and traditional Christianity, it is not that the ostensible supernatural signs themselves are thought to be evil, just the sequence of those signs in relation to faith. Mark’s gospel includes a laundry-list of signs that were supposed to follow Christian believers (Mark 16:17–18). But even then, the bible is inconsistent on the proper sequence of signs and faith. Moses demonstrated signs with Aaron’s magic rod to convince the skeptical Egyptians that he had the powers of Yahweh (Exodus 4:1–17). The bible is replete with stories of miracles designed to promote belief in heavenly power or the authority of the miracle-worker. See, e.g., Ex. 4:30–31; 1 Kgs. 18:37–39.

Like the bible, Mormon teaching and scripture are inconsistent as to whether signs may legitimately precede faith. The Book of Mormon tells a story of a prophet promoting Christian faith among non-believers by predicting heavenly signs marking the occasion of Jesus’ birth (Hel. 14:12–13, 28–29). Before Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, he arranged to have eleven of his family and friends sign declarations that they had seen the magic plates, as evidence of their authenticity (D&C 5:11–13). The Book of Mormon itself was put forward as a sign to unbelievers of Smith’s prophetic authority, and the book contains stories of faith after signs. For example, a disbeliever and Christian persecutor named Alma the Younger saw a striking vision echoing that of Paul on the road to Damascus (Mosiah 27). The purpose of this vision was to bring Alma to “the knowledge of the truth,” and to “convince [him] of the power and authority of God” (v. 14).

In modern Mormon theology, these scriptural inconsistencies are smoothed over and ignored. On religious matters, the official story is that signs are supposed to come only after a conclusion has been firmly reached. Otherwise, the signs will condemn a person who observes them. Mormon scripture reads, “He that seeketh signs shall see signs, but not unto salvation…. But, behold, faith cometh not by signs, but signs follow those that believe. Yea, signs come by faith, not by the will of men, nor as they please, but by the will of God” (D&C 63:7–12). The Book of Mormon claims, “Dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). Thus, Mormons can legitimately receive signs, but only after they already believe in the heavenly power the signs demonstrate. Thus, the signs cease to function as signs—they don’t actually signify anything that the observer does not already know and agree with. The sign has no information content. It is redundant.

It seems that this redundancy is exactly how signs of God’s power are intended to function in Mormon practice and scripture. When Korihor asked Alma for a sign in the Book of Mormon, Alma answered “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (Alma 30:44). One who already firmly believes in one or more intervening deities might, indeed, see the hand of God in the motion of the planets. But a non-believer might only see only Newton’s laws of gravity, or Einstein’s relativity. Similarly, a believer might understand the rainbow to be a sign confirming Yahweh will not flood the earth again as he did in Noah’s day. But a non-believer may only see the rainbow as an optical phenomenon caused by refracted light, without a deity’s intervention. Likewise, when a person recovers from a serious illness after a faith healing ritual, the convinced believer might assign the recovery to God’s doing, whereas the non-believer might only see the work of competent doctoring, modern medical care, and a bit of good luck. Perhaps believers and non-believers can agree that signs follow faith, if by “signs” non-believers mean confirmation bias.

But what is the point of post-faith signs in Mormon theology, if they serve no function other than to confirm, ambiguously, what someone already thinks he or she knows? In traditional Christianity, having two distinct and contradictory truth models has a certain logic. In the physical world, conclusions follow evidence, whereas the opposite rule holds for matters of the non-material world where God and his angels primarily live. But it is hard to see how these two truth models could ever be compatible in the material Mormon universe where all truth may ostensibly be circumscribed into one whole.

Unlike traditional Christianity, Mormon cosmology is all natural. If any part of the Mormon universe is accessible to sign-seeking according to the scientific method, then one would think that all of it must be. Thus, how is it possible, within the Mormon cosmology, that some questions and truth claims are inaccessible to experimental verification until after the observer already firmly believes? This seems like a serious dilemma for scientifically-oriented Mormons. Perhaps Mormon sign seekers are not such an adulterous generation, after all.

1 An overview of Mormon materialism may be found in Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, pp. 5–8.
2 Similarly, Brigham Young wrote, “It is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law” (J.D. 13:306). The influential Mormon leader Parley P. Pratt similarly claimed, “The laws of nature are the laws of truth. Truth is unchangeable, and independent in its own sphere. A law of nature never has been broken. And it is an absolute impossibility that such law ever should be broken.” (Key to the Science of Theology, p. 100).