The Book of Mormon is an absolutely remarkable text of religious psychology. At various points in the text, certain terms are used to make fine distinctions between very specific states of mind and heart. And the consequences of these states of mind and heart are spelled out in terms of social trends in communities.
When I say I know the Book of Mormon is true, part of that statement includes my conviction that it conveys real history of real people and real phenomena. The other part of that statement is that its unique picture of religious psychology is accurate. This morning, my reading in 3 Nephi reinforced this conviction in me.
In the Book of Mormon, the decade leading up to the visit of Christ in the Americas is a tumultuous time. The people seem to believe, then lapse into apostasy, then repeat that cycle fairly quickly.
But let’s look at specific words and phrases chronicling these trends.
3 Ne 5:1-3
And now behold, there was not a living soul among all the people of the Nephites who did doubt in the least the words of all the holy prophets who had spoken; for they knew that it must needs be that they must be fulfilled.
And they knew that it must be expedient that Christ had come, because of the many signs which had been given, according to the words of the prophets; and because of the things which had come to pass already they knew that it must needs be that all things should come to pass according to that which had been spoken.
Therefore they did forsake all their sins, and their abominations, and their whoredoms, and did serve God with all diligence day and night.
What we see here is a people giving mental assent to propositions, in response to observed evidence. In other words, they are being intellectually convinced by things they are seeing, and that is leading them to live the gospel diligently.
Sounds great, right?
Not so fast.
3 Ne 6:4-14
And they began again to prosper and to wax great; and the twenty and sixth and seventh years passed away, and there was great order in the land; and they had formed their laws according to equity and justice.
And now there was nothing in all the land to hinder the people from prospering continually, except they should fall into transgression.
And now it was Gidgiddoni, and the judge, Lachoneus, and those who had been appointed leaders, who had established this great peace in the land.
And it came to pass that there were many cities built anew, and there were many old cities repaired.
And there were many highways cast up, and many roads made, which led from city to city, and from land to land, and from place to place.
And thus passed away the twenty and eighth year, and the people had continual peace.
But it came to pass in the twenty and ninth year there began to be some disputings among the people; and some were lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches, yea, even unto great persecutions;
For there were many merchants in the land, and also many lawyers, and many officers.
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.
Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God.
And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land save it were among a few of the Lamanites who were converted unto the true faith; and they would not depart from it, for they were firm, and steadfast, and immovable, willing with all diligence to keep the commandments of the Lord.
It did not take long for the people’s religious convictions to unravel, along with the peace and prosperity of their society.
Except among a few people who were converted unto the true faith.
Here the Book of Mormon has made some powerful distinctions. The people had become unified after a war with the Gadianton Robbers; the were getting along, and then came to believe all the same things. But their faith wasn’t really faith; it was acceptance of propositions. In what I think is one of the most important commentaries in recent memory, Nathaniel Givens talked about the fragility of “faith” that is propositional:
We have to conclude that presumptuous certainty—even when it happens to land on correct propositions—is not faith. If you “believe” in God for the wrong reasons (i.e. self-flattering or convenient ones), you may as well not believe in God.
Religious “faith” that is mired in presumptuous certainty is brittle and fragile.
How many people out there today assert their particular religious dogmas (whatever they happen to be) as a form of presumptuous certainty? They have answers, of a sort, but they do not have faith.
So how fragile was the propositional belief set adopted by the peoples in 3 Nephi?
3 Ne 7:8
And thus six years had not passed away since the more part of the people had turned from their righteousness, like the dog to his vomit, or like the sow to her wallowing in the mire.
6 years. That’s all it took for everything to come apart.
Contrast that with what we see in the Zion community of 4 Nephi:
And it came to pass in the thirty and sixth year, the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.
And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.
Here we have another explicit reference to conversion, in contrast with the communal belief based on intellectual responses to signs that we saw in 3 Nephi 5. And the people’s unity in faith — as well as their unique cohesive social arrangements — lasted not 6 years but 200 years.
Belief is about giving our mental assent to propositions. This is important, let’s be clear: the scriptures are full of passages that stress the importance of belief, and warn of severe spiritual consequences for unbelief. But belief is not the same as conversion, which is a deep inner transformation described more in terms of letting go and spiritual surrender to God.
For those unclear about the distinction between these two, I recommend reading the entire Book of Mormon and studying every reference to belief, and also studying the process of conversion. In Christian religious psychology, these are very distinct experiences and the Book of Mormon is an amazing resource — maybe the best — for understanding them.