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From Scandal to Wonder

Mormonism is a scandalous religion. The word scandal comes from the Greek term σκάνδαλον (skandalon). In the New Testament, it is translated as “stumbling block.” The central scandal of Mormonism lies in the outlandish claims it makes about its own origins: angels and visions, gold plates and miraculous translations, men claiming to speak with the authority of God. My parents are descended from nineteenth-century Mormon pioneers, and I cannot recall a time when I did not attend Mormon services and activities each week. Accordingly, I only became gradually aware of Mormonism’s scandalousness. It is not that I discovered new facts that had been hidden from me. Indeed, my parents were active participants in scholarly discussions of Mormonism, and I grew up in houses stuffed to overflowing with books on Mormon esoterica. Rather, over the course of my teens and early twenties I came to understand how fanciful the core claims of Mormonism—the ones made week in and week out in Sunday school classes and sacrament meetings—must seem to those not reared within the faith. As I acquired the capacity to see my own religion through the eyes of another, the core story of the Restoration became my stumbling block.

I have never doubted that there is a God. To be sure, I believe that there are plausible reasons for rejecting the existence of God. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and I can articulate the objections to the classical philosophical arguments in favor of theism. Indeed, I find many of these objections compelling. Still, try as I might, I have been unable to make atheism a viable alternative in my life. I can’t help but experience the world as a creation of God. It is not that I see a beautiful sunset, a crashing ocean, or a stunning mountain range as evidence in support of an argument whose conclusion is “There is a God.” Rather, it is that before the beauty of creation, my reflexive reaction is gratitude to God. I can only suppress this response by a conscious act of will. Unless I affirmatively remind myself to think and believe as an atheist, I believe in God. This may be no more than the work of habits instilled at an early age, an ingrained mental tick that turns naturally toward theism. I have no a priori reason for supposing that it isn’t. Nevertheless, I find myself as a believer and ultimately, I assume that the soundness of my faith will be revealed less in the story of my psychology than in the outcome of the life that my faith has led me to wager.

Unlike a life of atheism, I am quite capable of disbelieving Mormonism. Indeed, in my late teens and early twenties I had bouts of intense doubt about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. While there was one night when I prayed over my doubts and felt a flood of light and fire, it would be a mistake to tell my story in terms of a dramatic resolution of my questions. Indeed, many of my questions remain and over the years I have added some new ones. What came out of my experiences, however, was a commitment to Mormonism. I gained a conviction that the core claims of divine restoration through Joseph Smith were true and, more importantly, I became convinced of the requirement that I live my life in light of that conviction. Mormonism became more than a genealogical identity or an exercise in nostalgia for a pioneer past. Rather, it is the structuring basis for how I choose to live my life.

Today, I find that angst over the scandal of Mormonism has largely disappeared from my spiritual life. I continue to have doubts and questions, but they no longer seem to have existential implications. I am a believing Mormon, and I don’t expect that to change. Rather, I find that the scandal of Mormonism has, for me, taken an ironic and even mischievous turn. Mormonism has become scandalous in the sense of being audacious, exciting, and iconoclastic. Within the largely secular world of the academy, I like to think that being a Mormon gives me a certain edginess. (At least to the extent that someone as bland as a law professor can have an edge.) With this rising confidence has come a shift in the sorts of questions that I direct at my faith. Questions such as “Was Joseph Smith a prophet?” or “Is the Book of Mormon true?” are increasingly replaced by questions such as “What does it mean for Joseph Smith to be a prophet?” or “What is the Book of Mormon saying?” Having committed myself to the truth of Mormonism, I find I am more interested in discovering its meaning than continually re-evaluating that act of commitment.

As an academic, I am a scholar of the common law. This is the vast corpus developed over the centuries by English and American judges that provides the basic rules of contract, property, and personal security. My legal studies have deepened my appreciation for Mormonism. It is not that my religion provides me with a set of neatly prepackaged answers to the endless succession of difficult choices that the law presents. It does not. Rather, studying the common law has given me a set of mental habits for thinking about my religion. Over the centuries, the common law has attracted a fair bit of intellectual tongue clicking. T.E. Holland, a nineteenth-century legal intellectual, for example, derided the common law as “chaos with a full index.” Upon closer study, however, the common law has a subtle grasp of human nature and a complex internal order that belies the critics who see it as little more than a succession of historical accidents. Out of the welter of seemingly unrelated particular cases emerges something of great usefulness and even beauty.

Mormonism is, by historical standards, a very young religion, and when compared to the elaborate and subtle intellectual traditions that one finds, for example, within Catholicism or Islam it seems disorganized and underdeveloped. For me, however, this is what lends my faith its intellectual excitement. To be a Mormon scholar is to stand on the threshold of a great adventure. Only rarely in human history is anyone vouchsafed the opportunity to be present at the birth of a new religious tradition, and while Mormonism is more than a century and a half old, that is, in historical terms, still new. I am certain, however, that Mormonism has the resources to grapple with the most difficult problems of life and mind. Like the common law, the apparently disorganized welter of Mormonism offers great intellectual opportunities to those who are willing to approach it with charity and respect. In the scriptures, teachings, and practices of the Restoration I find continents waiting to be explored.

If my first self-consciously intellectual engagement with Mormonism began with awareness of the extent to which it presented σκάνδαλον (skandalon), my current faith is defined by a different Greek word: θαυμάζω (thaumazō). Thaumazō can be translated as “wonder.” According to Aristotle all true philosophy begins in thaumazō, a sense of the marvelousness of the universe and the desire to understand it. Before reason or angst there is thaumazō, and it is this that gives rise to intellectual adventure. In light of Aristotle’s claim, I find it striking that in the Book of Mormon God refers to the latter-day restoration as “a marvelous work and a wonder.” I have a testimony of the truthfulness of the Restoration because of the witness of the Holy Spirit in answer to prayer. I have a testimony because of the blessings that living as a Latter-day Saint has brought into my life and the lives of those that I love. As a scholar, however, I also have a testimony of the Restoration because of the wonder it provokes, and I expect to spend the rest of my life and the life to come learning what it has to teach me.

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Nathan B. Oman is an associate professor at William & Mary Law School. He was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. As an undergraduate, he attended Brigham Young University, where he was a Presidential Scholar, the highest academic scholarship offered by the university. After serving as a missionary in the Korea Pusan Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he graduated from BYU, cum laude, with a B.A. in political science and minors in Korean and philosophy. After graduation he worked on the staff of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell before attending Harvard Law School. While in law school he served as an editor for the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, as well as a member of the articles committee of the Harvard Law Review. After graduation cum laude with his J.D., he clerked for the Honorable Morris Shepherd Arnold of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and practiced law in Washington, D.C. before entering the academy. In addition to teaching at The College of William & Mary, he has been a visiting professor at the University of Richmond and Cornell University.

His legal scholarship has focused on the philosophy of contract law and Mormon legal history. His work has appeared in Harvard Law Review, Michigan Law Review, Georgetown Law Journal, Minnesota Law Review, and other law journals. In addition, he has published articles on Mormon history and Mormon theology in FARMS Review, Element: The Journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and BYU Studies. Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he has served as a young men’s president, Sunday school teacher, ward clerk, and elders’ quorum instructor.

He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, with his wife, Heather Bennett Oman, their two children, and a friendly but psychotic Labrador retriever named Maggie.

Posted February 2010