“The place of martyrdom”

There’s a rather intriguing piece of wordplay in Alma 14. After being arrested by the authorities in Ammonihah, Alma and Amulek are taken to somewhere the text calls “the place of martyrdom” to witness the burning both of the scriptures but especially the wives and children of those who had believed their words, an understandably horrific scene. Where the wordplay comes in is that the word martyr is derived from the Greek word μάρτυρ (martur), meaning witness. Its later meaning of dying for the faith derived from the fact that many of those who bore witness to the faith in the early Christian period paid the price with their own life:

And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:

And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

(Revelation 6:9-10; the Greek word translated as testimony in verse 9 is μαρτυριαν – that is in transliterated form: marturian)

Which leads us on to Alma and Amulek:

And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.
10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.
11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

(Alma 14:9–11, my emphasis)

Alma and Amulek are lead to this “place of martyrdom” precisely so they can “witness” those being burned by fire. As if to emphasise that this choice of word is not a coincidence, we then have Amulek lamenting that they must “witness” this atrocity, and Alma assuring him that the  blood of those so murdered will “witness” against their murderers when God judges them at the last day (that it is also said to cry also appears to echo Revelation 6:9-10 quoted above).

The immediate and then persistent use of the leitwort “witness” argues against this being a mere accidental choice of words: it is indeed a place of martyrdom, in the original greek sense, for Alma and Amulek both witness the price their converts are paying for their witness, and the crime committed at that place will be a witness against those who persecuted them.

How this piece of wordplay ends up here, of course, is another question. Critics are likely just to ascribe it to Joseph Smith, but I’m confident that he both lacked the knowledge and the sheer time for this sort of thing (in the same way that its taken me far longer to write a chapter examining Jacob 5’s use of the Bible than it took to dictate the entirety of the Book of Mormon). Furthermore, were any human author of the time responsible for this sort of cleverness (and many other such examples), you’d think they’d point it out. They didn’t and haven’t: in fact I can’t find any record of anyone else spotting this.

On the other hand, this wordplay rests on the history of the word μάρτυρ in Greek and its subsequent course in European languages including English. So what precisely is going on here? On one hand, I have been inclined at various points on the basis of this and a few other details to indulge in wild speculations on Greek influence in the book of Alma. But that’s necessarily extremely speculative, and in any case the description here (including whatever meant “place of martyrdom” on the plates) was written by Mormon, hundreds of years later. It should also not be forgotten that the Book of Mormon is doubly inspired (i.e both in composition and in translation), and in the Book of Mormon’s case that inspiration can and does extend to quoting people hundreds of years in the future (see 1 Nephi 10:7-8).

For a more emotive take on this passage, and an understanding as to why Amulek in particular was so pained, it might also be worth considering that there is every possibility that his own wife and children (Alma 10:11) are amongst the martyrs.

“The line separating good and evil”

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

“…to do noble and true things”

It is not to taste sweet things, but to do noble and true things, and vindicate himself under God’s heaven as a God-made man, that the poorest son of Adam dimly longs. Show him the way of doing that, the dullest day-drudge kindles into a hero. They wrong man greatly who say he is to be seduced by ease. Difficulty, abnegation, martyrdom, death, are the allurements that act on the heart of man. Kindle the inner genial life of him, you have a flame that burns up all lower considerations. Not happiness, but something higher: one sees this even in the frivolous classes, with their “point of honour” and the like. Not by flattering our appetites; no: by awakening the heroic that slumbers in every heart, can any religion gain followers.

Thomas Carlyle

Why I am voting leave

I am voting for the UK to leave the European Union in Thursday’s referendum. This will be of little surprise to anyone who’s spoken to me on the subject at any time over the last twenty years. However, as the referendum approached I wanted to elaborate on my decision, particularly as I’ve seen some people express some confusion over the whole topic. There seems to be some sort of belief in some quarters that if we had all the “facts”, that there would be a single obvious correct decision. But that’s not how human beings or politics work. The issues at stake in the referendum are not simply a matter of empirical facts, they’re about principles. I happen to believe that some principles are more correct than others, but it’s not the sort of thing one can establish by simple numbers.

 

First principles

It’s worth establishing some basic principles that go into my thinking:

  1. The worth of the individual human soul is supernal. As a Christian and a Latter-day Saint, I believe human beings to be eternal, and and that the exercise of our agency plays a crucial part in fulfilling the purpose of our life here on earth (D&C 101:77-78). By political conviction, I believe that freedom under a just law is essential to allowing human beings the opportunity to express their full potential.
  2. In contrast, all governments, nations and political institutions will have an eventual end. No state lasts forever. For this reason I am patriot, not a nationalist, as there are principles that are more important and longer significance than national aggrandizement. In the long run both the EU and UK will cease to exist. Combining that with the above leads to:
  3. The legitimacy of government depends upon the extent to which it protects liberty (especially of conscience) and life. Government was made for man, not man for government. Any government that does not serve these purposes is not legitimate, no matter what it is based upon or how it is selected. Democracy, after all, is not the same as liberty; where those conflict, I come down squarely in favour of the latter.

It’s entirely possibly, of course, for people to share the same principles but disagree about the means, and for people of good faith to disagree about what political policies would best meet good principles. However, I believe that there are several principles connected with the above that would be best served by leaving the European Union.

 

Why leave the European Union

 

Accountability

I believe the ability to hold governments and their officials accountable is an essential part of their being able to serve their purposes as outlined above. I see, however, little evidence of any such accountability where the European Union is concerned.

Accountability is not precisely the same as democracy: it’s possible for a system to be democratic, and yet not accountable. It’s the downside of at least some proportional representation systems, such as the closed-list system we use for MEPs in this country (though that’s our fault, not the EU’s). MEPs are allotted according to the party vote, and then individuals become MEPs according to their position on a list by their respective parties. Of course, that makes it nearly impossible for the public to remove any particular individual from their position so long as they’re in good standing with their party. Similar difficulties can be seen on the continent, where the coincidence of PR and a tendency towards grand coalitions in some countries mean that the same governing coalition can be perpetuated for decades, no matter the election results.

On to the EU. The primary role in proposing, initiating and executing EU legislation resides with the European Commission, an unelected body who combine the role of the Executive (think the Prime Minister, or the US President) and the civil service. The idea that they somehow count as elected because they are selected by national governments should be immediately fallacious to anyone considering similar such nominated posts (such as in Quangos) in this country. Our commissioners in particular often end up being politicians who have been rejected by the electorate at home: a near perfect demonstration of unaccountability, where their accountability to the electorate at home has been rewarded with new powers abroad. The Commission is theoretically accountable to the EU Parliament, but the Commission enjoys broad powers in shaping how legislation is implemented, while the Parliament itself is also a subject of concerning between the party groupings and turn out figures for its elections.

Another example of how this lack of accountability manifests itself can be seen in responses to other referendums. The Republic of Ireland voted no via referendum for both the treaty of Nice and Lisbon; in both cases a second referendum was held shortly thereafter that provided a yes result. The French and Dutch referendums on the EU constitution were effectively rendered null and void when said constitution was largely incorporated via the treaty of Lisbon. And of course both the Brown government and Cameron reneged on pledges regarding referendums on the EU constitution and Lisbon treaty respectively. Such unaccountability makes it more likely that government can serve its own interests, not those of the people it is supposedly serving, and more likely that it can become corrupt.

As I shall elaborate on below, however, I do not think this unaccountability can be corrected. It’s an inevitable part of such a system.

 

Self-government

A second major reason I believe it is important to leave the European Union is the principle of self-government. In order to preserve freedom, to help ensure local government and to encourage people to make the fullest use of their potential, government decisions should be made as close to the people affecting them, and ideally by them, as possible. It’s good for people to govern themselves, rather than have solutions imposed upon individuals, families or communities. This is also a matter of efficiency: it is impossible to micromanage everything from the centre, since such efforts cannot respond to local situations, or even obtain good enough information to properly be aware of them. Attempts to fix problems inevitably become bureaucratic exercises in reporting, which consume time and energy and make things even worse. We see that happen in the UK  as it is.

Theoretically, the EU subscribes to the principle of “subsidiarity”, which embraces this idea that decisions should be made closest to the people affected by them. However, in practice the EU sees no problem in legally imposing uniform regulations, often involving the smallest matters, across the EU. In practice, then, regulations and rules are often made at an even higher layer of administration than they otherwise would be. The logic of “ever closer union” (as coined in the 1957 treaty of Rome, establishing the EEC) leaves no stopping point for efforts to try and enforce uniformity. Decisions that should be the remit of the national government, or lower still, are deemed to require uniform rules across an entire continent.

This lack of self-government can be seen in other areas. Remain campaigners sometimes mention EU spending projects. Yet – since the UK is net contributor – what these represent is the UK providing funds to the EU, of which the EU provides a portion back to spend in a fashion authorised by EU officials. Any such projects could have easily been paid for without sending the money to Brussels, and without the conditions and strings that get attached. Do those mentioning these projects feel that EU officials are the people best placed to determine the priorities for the people of the UK? Likewise there is mention from the political left of labour laws and so on. But not a single one of those laws could not be made at home. The implicit concession in such statements is that they feel they are unable to persuade the British electorate of the advantages of these laws, and so they must be imposed from abroad. I’m not sure that’s a political argument to boast of: “we can’t get British citizens to agree with us, so we must stay in the EU so our political preferences can be enforced by foreign officials.” It’s rank hypocrisy when it comes from the SNP, who campaign for Scottish self-government, but feel the English must not have it as they’re not left-wing enough (and yes, if the Scottish people wanted to exercise self-government outside of association with the UK, I think that would be perfectly proper, provided it’s their own choice).

And it’s really the principle of self-government that I see affecting things like immigration. I’m in favour of restricting immigration, but I could see circumstances where it’d be better to open it up. But such a decision, which can significantly affect the social and cultural make up of a nation, should be made by those affected by it. Whether we want to increase or decrease immigration isn’t really the key point; the key point is that whatever we want to do, that decision should be made by the British people

 

Identity

There’s a third reason I personally am favour of leaving the EU, which comes down to a simple matter of identity.

Identities can overlap, of course. The Scottish referendum two years back hinged on how people weighed their identities as British and Scottish, and whether they saw them as compatible. I myself, after personally seeing myself as “me”, have identities as a follower of Christ, as a Latter-day Saint, as English, as a Westerner and as British. Some of those take priority over others – I see myself as English more than I see myself as British – but those don’t cancel each other out.

What I don’t see myself as is “European”.

I’m sure some people do, and I won’t speak for them. But I don’t feel “European” in any more than a geographical and ethnic sense, which isn’t much in my book. I find myself largely agreeing with Bismark, that Europe is a “geographical expression”. Culturally I find more in common with my coreligionists, or my fellow English speakers, than people who simply share the same continent as myself. And whenever attempts are made to codify “European values”, I can’t help but find I don’t fit in (though that might be because said values tend to be less “European” values, than “Guardian readers” values). I can’t think of anything other than geographical location that I share with other Europeans, but not with an inhabitant of North America or Australia or wherever. And that’s not going to change: we’re voting to leave the European Union, not to tow the UK further into the Atlantic.

As said, I’m sure others feel differently. But I don’t believe there’s a huge majority of such people. And that’s a problem that ties into the above concerns with accountability and self-government. The EU is structured as a (rather deficient) democracy. But there is no European demos (people). Rather there are lots of different peoples with very different interests. Thus there is no single “public” to hold EU leaders to account, no single public to debate issues (just think of how media is divided, even just by linguistic issues). In practice, the EU can’t function as a democracy; the bureaucracy is simply an inevitable consequence. Likewise any decision made at the EU level will smack of undermining self-government, and any decision will be one national interest prevailing over another. No EU leader is in a position to try and persuade the European people, because there is no unified European people to persuade. And as I am not a European, I reject the notion of any “European” government presuming to rule over me.

 

Other matters

There’s a couple of things that I haven’t addressed above, mainly because I don’t see them as the most important issues, but I’ll briefly mention them here.

Firstly, there’s concerns that voting to leave is an expression of xenophobia. It’s aggravating when those accusations come from people less acquainted with foreign affairs than oneself, and from people on the internet who seem to lack the ability to spell in English, let alone other languages (Boris Johnson seems to express similar frustration here, pointing out amongst other things that his family “are the genetic equivelent of a UN peacekeeping force”). Are there likely to be xenophobes supporting the Leave campaign? Yes. Then again, there’s unreconstructed Stalinists supporting the Remain campaign, but I’m not accusing Cameron of wanting to finish off the Kulaks.

There’s also suggestions, spread by our Prime Minister alas, that the European Union has kept the peace since World War 2, and that leaving the EU presents security risks and could even lead to a world war. Which is nonsense. Setting aside the 3rd World War for the moment (which alas is likely to happen at some point in the future, though will probably not be affected one way or the other by Brexit), the peace in Europe was secured by the military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, and particularly the threat of escalation to nuclear warfare. It was MAD (mutually assured destruction), not the EEC, which stopped a shooting war from happening in Europe. Notice that when the Cold War ended shooting wars did start up again in Europe (Yugoslavia, anyone?), and it was US military intervention, not European treaties, that ended them. The United States and Russia (though the latter is much diminished) are still the major military players on the European scene, and the EU has benefited from relying on the former’s security umbrella. That security umbrella is now looking rather leaky, but due to political developments in the United States rather than anywhere else, and in or out, the UK will likely need new security policies.

Thirdly, some speak of us losing influence, by losing our vote on European forums. This seems postulated on two doubtful assertions: 1) That seeking to exert influence over our neighbours at the price of our own self-government is beneficial to the British people. 2) That we get our way in these arguments. One look at our track record in attempting to secure reform of the Common Agricultural Policy – or for that matter one look at Cameron’s attempts to secure a deal to keep Britain in the EU – should show we rarely secure such influence. There is no great influence to be found in joining a club to be consistently outvoted. And some of those making this argument – such as the US government – don’t really have our interests at heart. They simply want us to be the American trade delegate in the EU, a position they feel we should be honoured with. I disagree.

Finally I have not commented on economic issues. That’s partly because things here are more balanced. Leaving the EU will not lead to economic utopia, and will probably require hard work. On the other hand, staying in the EU won’t lead to economic utopia either. The EU is a major destination for our exports, and potential new trade barriers could cause problems with that. On the other hand, the EU exports more to us than we send to them, so punitive restrictions would punish them more than us (and if our fellow EU members are petty and nasty enough to punish us even if it hurts them, that’s another reason to leave). On the Remain side of the ledger, however, is the risks posed by the Euro and economic troubles in Southern Europe dragging the whole thing down. It should be remembered that many of the so-called “experts” (some of whom were not experts at all: there are few job qualifications for a politician) who are claiming leaving the EU will lead to ruin are the same people who argued back in the 1990s and early 2000s that staying out of the Euro would also be disastrous. Their judgement is self-evidently faulty, and a number of nations have paid the price.

There are economic risks either side, and those who are hoping to have an option without economic risk will be forever disappointed. Moreover, “man shall not live by bread alone”: even if only leaving posed economic risks, they would be worth taking because the principles of self-government and accountable government are worth far more. We have a unique opportunity to exercise that self-government for ourselves, and hopefully use it to secure a freer and more accountable government for the future.

 

Linked article: “The Ammonites Were Not Pacifists”

There’s an excellent article at the Interpreter website on the Ammonites and the question as to whether or not they were pacifists. I think it’s not only a good article on its subject, but also a good example of the sort of thing I’d like to see more of: it’s not just about some niche area that may be interesting from a historical or cultural perspective, but rather about something which has important implications for what the Book of Mormon is trying to teach us (in this case on the topic of just war).

 

Why go to church

I’ve recently seen several posts, giving various reasons why people found it emotionally difficult to go to church and in some cases had stopped. It’s happened to coincide with a few things in my personal study, so I thought I should touch on the topic. It’s one where – for all the difficulty I have with empathy – I think I’m in some position to understand. I too find church difficult at times. Part of this is simply due to the fact that I find groups difficult anyway (thankfully people in my ward are very understanding about this). On some occasions, however, I do run into the same difficulty that I’ve seen mentioned: namely the emphasis the Church places on the family. I’m a 35 year old never married male, in a Church where one prominent leader taught that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home”*. Nor do I particularly have a litany of successes outside the “home”. So when the topic turns to families, or eternal marriage, or whatever, it’s hard not to feel like some sort of failure. And I know there’s quite a lot of people in different circumstances who experience similar feelings of falling short.

I’ve seen some attempts to regard this as some sort of cultural difficulty, as opposed to a doctrinal matter. Yet I do not believe that can resolve everything. While there are definitely sentiments and so on out there that are the product of culture, culture isn’t exactly something that can be easily or swiftly steered, and certainly isn’t easily amenable to central direction (I can only imagine that governments would love to if they could). Furthermore, this isn’t just an issue of culture: the importance of the family, the covenant of eternal marriage and so on are matters of doctrine, and they’re ones the world needs to hear. At a time when such matters are increasingly depreciated in Western civilisation, the Church would be failing in its divine responsibility were it not to speak frequently on these topics. The Church’s message is true and needed, even if it may cause discomfort in those who’d like those blessings but who have not received them. There’s a dilemma here that reminds me of Jacob 2 and 3, where (as I mention) Jacob is left having to give a message that may cause some distress because other people need to hear it.

And, after all, this is not the only such thing that may cause discomfort in attending church. I’ve mentioned my own personal difficulty around groups of people. Others may feel they don’t fit in, or face some other anxiety about their situation. Many have their crosses to bear, in many cases through no fault of their own. While others can perhaps make these things easier, ultimately some individuals will be faced with choosing between attending church and incurring some discomfort, and choosing not to.

I can understand the latter decision. But I believe it is a mistake, and one perhaps grounded in a misunderstanding of what attending church is supposed to do. From the way that I’ve heard a number of people speak, there seems to be an expectation that attending church is something we do for our sake, so we feel uplifted or edified or so on. With that expectation, it is understandable that people may conclude that if it is not doing that, well, why go?

It is true that one of the purposes of meeting together is to be “instruct[ed] and edif[ied]” (D&C 43:8) and “speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls” (Moroni 6:5). But if that were the only reason, well we’d often fall short. To quote Bruce R. McConkie:

…We come into these congregations, and sometimes a speaker brings a jug of living water that has in it many gallons. And when he pours it out on the congregation, all the members have brought is a single cup and so that’s all they take away. Or maybe they have their hands over the cups, and they don’t get anything to speak of.

On other occasions we have meetings where the speaker comes and all he brings is a little cup of eternal truth, and the members of the congregation come with a large jug, and all they get in their jugs is the little dribble that came from a man who should have known better and who should have prepared himself and talked from the revelations and spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sure, it’s an opportunity to be uplifted and enlightened, and when that happens: great! But the Lord has chosen in his wisdom to staff the place with very imperfect volunteers, and so we don’t always deliver what other people need. We should try harder, of couse. But if we were to assess the Church as if we were some sort of consumer, expecting a service to be delivered, then we are bound to be disappointed.

But that’s not why the Lord has us meet together, certainly not as mere recipients of a service. Setting aside the fact that the Lord also expect us to seek to teach and encourage others also, the scriptures give us a number of other key reasons to worship together.

Firstly, it’s a commandment. If we believe in a God who has given us commandments, we have to take seriously scriptural statements that “the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft” (Alma 6:6), or (as part of a modern decalogue) the commandment “and that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day” (D&C 59:9).

Secondly, as in the verse quoted above, its an opportunity to participate in sacred ordinances, most especially that of the sacrament. Participating in this is likewise a commandment, one we are to “always observe to do” (3 Nephi 18:6-7, 10-12, D&C 20:75), and a major reason for the Church to “meet together oft” (Moroni 6:6).

Thirdly, and encompassing the points mentioned above, we are to gather together not to receive a service, but to worship. The “children of God” were commanded to meet together often to “join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God” (Alma 6:5–6). They “assemble[d] themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually” (Alma 15:17). The church established by Alma at the waters of Mormon had “one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themselves together” (Mosiah 18:25). As the commandment in Section 59 elaborates (v.10):

For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;

None of these other purposes really depend upon what other people do or feel or say. Other people might be insensitive, or unthoughtful, or unsupportive or even judgmental (though I often find people worry about being “judged” by a congregation who are actually far more worried about their own problems). We may not fit in; they may not like us; we may not enjoy it; we may not feel we have gotten the right “experience”; it may be uncomfortable or even painful. But none of that matters.

This is not to detract from the fact that attending church may require much more from some people than it does others. I sympathise with those facing that. I also know the Lord is just and merciful, and I have no doubt that He will recognise that, and judge (and bless) accordingly. But perhaps it will help us if we recognise that going to church is not about what other people do or feel towards us, or even about how we feel and whether we feel good or uplifted. It’s about about obeying and worshipping God, and Him only. Other people are involved because He has commanded us to worship collectively, and as part of our worship He has expectations as to how we treat them and the rest of his children. But whether we enjoy church or not, whether we fit in or not, whether we feel uplifted or not: none of this can stop us from paying our devotions to the Most High. And if we attend and reverently offer our worship, despite our difficulties, then we are doing what the Lord requires of us.

 

* Postscript: Interestingly, it seems that David O. McKay did not coin this particular quote, but was actually quoting a particular author. President Harold B. Lee also offered a paraphrase of this particularly quotation, which may be encouraging for those who are trying but feel like they are meeting little success in family life: “Remember, paraphrasing what President McKay said, “No success will compensate for failure in the home.” Remember also that no home is a failure as long as that home doesn’t give up.” (Emphasis from linked blog).

Odin and the Well of Mimir

AND so Odin, no longer riding on Sleipner, his eight-legged steed; no longer wearing his golden armor and his eagle-helmet, and without even his spear in his hand, traveled through Midgard, the World of Men, and made his way toward Jötunheim, the Realm of the Giants.

No longer was he called Odin All-Father, but Vegtam the Wanderer. He wore a cloak of dark blue and he carried a traveler’s staff in his hands. And now, as he went toward Mimir’s Well, which was near to Jötunheim, he came upon a Giant riding on a great Stag.

Odin seemed a man to men and a giant to giants. He [p. 78] went beside the Giant on the great Stag and the two talked together. “Who art thou, O brother?” Odin asked the Giant.

“I am Vafthrudner, the wisest of the Giants,” said the one who was riding on the Stag. Odin knew him then. Vafthrudner was indeed the wisest of the Giants, and many went to strive to gain wisdom from him. But those who went to him had to answer the riddles Vafthrudner asked, and if they failed to answer the Giant took their heads off.

“I am Vegtam the Wanderer,” Odin said, “and I know who thou art, O Vafthrudner. I would strive to learn something from thee.”

The Giant laughed, showing his teeth. “Ho, ho,” he said, “I am ready for a game with thee. Dost thou know the stakes? My head to thee if I cannot answer any question thou wilt ask. And if thou canst not answer any question that I may ask, then thy head goes to me. Ho, ho, ho. And now let us begin.”

“I am ready,” Odin said.

“Then tell me,” said Vafthrudner, “tell me the name of the river that divides Asgard from Jötunheim?”

“Ifling is the name of that river,” said Odin. “Ifling that is dead cold, yet never frozen.”

“Thou hast answered rightly, O Wanderer,” said the Giant. “But thou hast still to answer other questions. What are the names of the horses that Day and Night drive across the sky?”

“Skinfaxe and Hrimfaxe,” Odin answered. Vafthrudner [p. 79] was startled to hear one say the names that were known only to the Gods and to the wisest of the Giants. There was only one question now that he might ask before it came to the stranger’s turn to ask him questions.

“Tell me,” said Vafthrudner, “what is the name of the plain on which the last battle will be fought?”

“The Plain of Vigard,” said Odin, “the plain that is a hundred miles long and a hundred miles across.”

It was now Odin’s turn to ask Vafthrudner questions. “What will be the last words that Odin will whisper into the ear of Baldur, his dear son?” he asked.

Very startled was the Giant Vafthrudner at that question. He sprang to the ground and looked at the stranger keenly.

“Only Odin knows what his last words to Baldur will be,” he said, “and only Odin would have asked that question. Thou art Odin, O Wanderer, and thy question I cannot answer.”

“Then,” said Odin, “if thou wouldst keep thy head, answer me this: what price will Mimir ask for a draught from the Well of Wisdom that he guards?”

“He will ask thy right eye as a price, O Odin,” said Vafthrudner.

“Will he ask no less a price than that?” said Odin.

“He will ask no less a price. Many have come to him for a draught from the Well of Wisdom, but no one yet has given the price Mimir asks. I have answered thy question, O Odin. Now give up thy claim to my head and let me go on my way.” [p. 80]

“I give up my claim to thy head,” said Odin. Then Vafthrudner, the wisest of the Giants, went on his way, riding on his great Stag.

It was a terrible price that Mimir would ask for a draught from the Well of Wisdom, and very troubled was Odin All-Father when it was revealed to him. His right eye! For all time to be without the sight of his right eye! Almost he would have turned back to Asgard, giving up his quest for wisdom.

He went on, turning neither to Asgard nor to Mimir’s Well. And when he went toward the South he saw Muspelheim, where stood Surtur with the Flaming Sword, a terrible figure, who would one day join the Giants in their war against the Gods. And when he turned North he heard the roaring of the cauldron Hvergelmer as it poured itself out of Niflheim, the place of darkness and dread. And Odin knew that the world must not be left between Surtur, who would destroy it with fire, and Niflheim, that would gather it back to Darkness and Nothingness. He, the eldest of the Gods, would have to win the wisdom that would help to save the world.

And so, with his face stern in front of his loss and pain, Odin All-Father turned and went toward Mimir’s Well. It was under the great root of Ygdrassil–the root that grew out of Jötunheim. And there sat Mimir, the Guardian of the Well of Wisdom, with his deep eyes bent upon the deep water. And Mimir, who had drunk every day from the Well of Wisdom, knew who it was that stood before him.

“Hail, Odin, Eldest of the Gods,” he said. [p. 81]

Then Odin made reverence to Mimir, the wisest of the world’s beings. “I would drink from your well, Mimir,” he said.

“There is a price to be paid. All who have come here to drink have shrunk from paying that price. Will you, Eldest of the Gods, pay it?”

“I will not shrink from the price that has to be paid, Mimir,” said Odin All-Father.

“Then drink,” said Mimir. He filled up a great horn with water from the well and gave it to Odin.

Odin took the horn in both his hands and drank and drank. And as he drank all the future became clear to him. He saw all the sorrows and troubles that would fall upon Men and Gods. But he saw, too, why the sorrows and troubles had to fall, and he saw how they might be borne so that Gods and Men, by being noble in the days of sorrow and trouble, would leave in the world a force that one day, a day that was far off indeed, would destroy the evil that brought terror and sorrow and despair into the world.

Then when he had drunk out of the great horn that Mimir had given him, he put his hand to his face and he plucked out his right eye. Terrible was the pain that Odin All-Father endured. But he made no groan nor moan. He bowed his head and put his cloak before his face, as Mimir took the eye and let it sink deep, deep into the water of the Well of Wisdom. And there the Eye of Odin stayed, shining up through the water, a sign to all who came to that place of the price that the Father of the Gods had paid for his wisdom.

via “Odin Goes to Mimir’s Well: His Sacrifice for Wisdom”, The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum (at sacred-texts.com)

O ye fair ones

Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.

(Mormon 8:35)

I am driven to read and understand the Book of Mormon and the other scriptures for a number of reasons. Doing my doctoral thesis on the topic is part of that. But more importantly than this – and a major part of the reason I’ve been willing to spend years on this in the first place – is the fact that I’ve had a spiritual witness that it is scripture, that it is the word of God. As such I know that they contain principles of eternal worth, as well as things that are prophetically relevant to our present day.

And, as I’ve mentioned before, there are parts of the Book of Mormon that I believe have never been more relevant than they are today. While part of the message of the Book of Mormon is one of hope and deliverance for scattered Israel (including the descendents of the Lamanites), that deliverance is coupled with the promise of judgment upon the proud, the wicked and the Gentiles that have oppressed them:

For behold, saith the prophet, the time cometh speedily that Satan shall have no more power over the hearts of the children of men; for the day soon cometh that all the proud and they who do wickedly shall be as stubble; and the day cometh that they must be burned.

For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous.

Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by his power, even if it so be that the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved, even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire. Wherefore, the righteous need not fear; for thus saith the prophet, they shall be saved, even if it so be as by fire.

(1 Nephi 22:15-17)

I’ve likewise discussed before how this warning applies particularly to the Gentile nations of the West, and especially to the United States. The accounts of the destruction of the Nephites and afterwards (in the book, earlier chronologically) the Jaredites are there not just because they’re part of the story, but as dire warnings of what we risk. They’re in the book so that “ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31) and “that ye may know the decrees of God—that ye may repent, and not continue in your iniquities until the fulness come, that ye may not bring down the fulness of the wrath of God upon you as the inhabitants of the land have hitherto done” (Ether 2:11).

 

“Be more wise than we have been”

One could examine both the fall of the Nephites and that of the Jaredites at length, but even just a few of their salient features are striking. The Jaredites destroyed themselves in the last of a constant series of civil wars. And while many of those civil wars can be laid at the feet of ambitious princes (it appears it was the custom for the youngest son to inherit, which would promote strife between older sons who could be disinherited and their fathers), at the end it was the communal will of the people that pushed them on into mutual annihilation. Coriantumr, that last and complicated king of the Jaredites, had grown to regret his failure to repent, and offered to “give up the kingdom for the sake of the lives of the people” (Ether 15:3-4). His opponent Shiz demanded Coriantumr’s own life, but we don’t even hear of Coriantumr’s response; rather it is “the people”, both of Coriantumr and Shiz, who were “stirred up to anger” (Ether 15:5-6). It is because of “the wilfulness of their hearts, seeking for blood and revenge” that the Jaredite people perished (Moroni 9:23).

Our account of the Nephites is explicitly censored by our chief witness (Mormon 2:18), but enough slips through (especially in unedited passages like Moroni 9) to provide a sufficient picture. The Nephites faced an external enemy, the Lamanites, who by this stage were prepared to commit atrocities such as human sacrifice (Mormon 4:14). Yet despite this outer peril, it was not this which destroyed the Nephites. “Because of the hardness of their hearts the land was cursed for their sake” (Mormon 1:17), and they sorrowed, not because they were penitent but because “the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin” (Mormon 2:13). They “did curse God, and wish to die”, though “they would struggle with the sword for their lives” (Mormon 2:14; perhaps we might the latter admirable, yet that is perhaps a sign of how far we have fallen). In but “a few years” they became “strong in their perversion”, “brutal”, “without principle and past feeling” and “their wickedness [did] exceed that of the Lamanites” (Moroni 9:12, 19-20).

But perhaps the most crucial turning point came after a ten year truce and the resumption of the war. Lead by Mormon, the Nephites defeated several attacks. Their response was fateful:

And now, because of this great thing which my people, the Nephites, had done, they began to boast in their own strength, and began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies.

And they did swear by the heavens, and also by the throne of God, that they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land.

And when they had sworn by all that had been forbidden them by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that they would go up unto their enemies to battle, and avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren, behold the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying:

Vengeance is mine, and I will repay; and because this people repented not after I had delivered them, behold, they shall be cut off from the face of the earth.

(Mormon 3:9-10, 14-15)

The Nephites fell because of their pride (Mormon 8:27, D&C 38:39), because rather than repent of their sins they desired to avenge themselves upon their enemies, and in so doing so violated God’s commandments (including those restricting warfare) wantonly. “Every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually” (Mormon 4:11), and consequently the Lord’s spirit ceased to strive with them (Mormon 5:16), and when that happens “then cometh speedy destruction” (2 Nephi 26:11).

 

“I speak unto you as if ye were present”

How can one miss the meaning of these passages? Mormon and Moroni write with one eye on their past and present, but always with one eye to the future they are seeking to warn. For the Gentiles too face the same fate unless they repent:

And then, O ye Gentiles, how can ye stand before the power of God, except ye shall repent and turn from your evil ways?

Know ye not that ye are in the hands of God? Know ye not that he hath all power, and at his great command the earth shall be rolled together as a scroll?

Therefore, repent ye, and humble yourselves before him, lest he shall come out in justice against you—lest a remnant of the seed of Jacob shall go forth among you as a lion, and tear you in pieces, and there is none to deliver.

(Mormon 5:22-24)

I have watched the US Presidential campaign with intense concern. On one side there is the increasing madness on the campuses and the anger expressed by those who claim to seek “social justice” even as they detach themselves from any concepts of objective truth. On the other, I have watched as people have embraced a figure who appears to reject every principle they claim they embraced, a man who is an inveterate and pathological liar and one who has boasted of his adulteries. I have seen that candidate advocate torture and insist he will order war crimes, and his ratings go up. I have heard even worse from some of his supporters, many of whom (even those who aren’t actual Nazis) embrace a proto-fascism. I have seen and read many of his supporters talk of their “anger”, their desire for vengeance on their perceived enemies, and their belief that everything – including any kind of moral principle – comes second to raw power and making America “great” again.

It is perhaps little surprising that the word of God says of the latter days that “at that day shall he [the devil] rage in the hearts of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good” (2 Nephi 28:20). I have felt that temptation myself as I have seen these things. But anger and pride will destroy us, as they destroyed the Nephites who sought to make Nephitia great again.

One cannot establish justice – any justice – without truth. One cannot make a nation truly great unless you also seek for it to be good, a principle understood by at least some patriots of old. Yet these seem little understood now. On the right, a few voices still speak out speaking against Trump. My respect for those voices – figures such as the Bush clan, Mitt Romney, Senator Ben Sasse or political commentators such as Jonah Goldberg – has increased significantly. But they seem increasingly lonely as much of the ‘base’ and political establishment fall in line, and they are vilified as “evil”; truly we live in an age in which men “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). Our societies are embracing evil.

I cannot claim to know with perfection what the future brings, but I am pessimistic as to the future of the United States and the West as a whole. I believe events like this present election have been a test, and a test that collectively is being failed. But I also believe there is an individual test here, and where people stand on many of these things will be remembered and accounted for. I have been very glad to see that many Latter-day Saints have rejected the siren song of Trumpism, and I hope Utah and other places continue to do so. For those members who I have seen embrace Trump’s campaign, who I have seen express the view that all acts are acceptable in warfare because the only thing that matters is winning, and who have embraced a campaign built on national aggrandizement without principle, I hope that they look again upon the Book of Mormon. I hope they look and see an all too familiar path and turn away from it, because to support these things is to pull down the wrath of God upon ourselves.

There may be little hope for the West as a whole. All civilizations are ultimately mortal. Yet there is still hope, and always is, for the souls within, which are truly eternal, and so we must continue to labour (Moroni 9:6). But this is a period in which – in many different ways – those souls will have to choose, and many of those choices will have eternal significance, regardless of where the rest of society goes. There is also a work that perhaps we should now turn to with increasing seriousness and determination, namely the work of building Zion; something, which should now be apparent, which is not the culmination of the West but its replacement. I plan to turn to that sometime in the next couple of posts. In the meantime, however, one can perhaps still mourn for the tragedy of where our civilization is and where it appears to be going. In Mormon’s words:

O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you!

Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss.

O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen!

But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return.

(Mormon 6:17-20)

C.S. Lewis: “You have never talked to a mere mortal”

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis

“The Visions of Joseph Smith”

I ran across the following devotional after being asked a question about the first vision and thought it was interesting enough to share. Several snippets:

Visions can take various forms. Personal visitations or appearances of deity, angels, or even Satan and his emissaries certainly come under the heading of visions. Visions can also include seeing vivid images where the veil is lifted from an individual’s mind in order to see and comprehend the things of God. Certain dreams could be considered visions, particularly when heavenly or spiritual messages are conveyed. Finally, certain revelations received through the Urim and Thummim mediums such as the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone may also be classified as visions.

While the visions received by Joseph Smith were also revelatory experiences, revelations were not always visionary. Hence, in researching Joseph Smith’s visions, I attempted to distinguish between visions and other kinds of inspiration or revelation. More often than not, when a vision was involved, the wording of the source material indicated that a vision–not a more general “revelation”–had been received. However, in some instances, the visual nature of the experience was not quite clear.

Three major points became apparent as I researched Joseph Smith’s visions. First, and perhaps most remarkable, is the sheer number of visions the Prophet received. The majority of these visions are not found in the standard works but pervade the Prophet’s own history and the records kept by contemporaries who were present when a vision was received or when Joseph Smith spoke about his sacred communications. As I began collecting the accounts of the visions, I realized that any attempt to total the number of visions would risk excluding some, since evidence of visions relies upon documentation, and some visions may have been purposely unrecorded. Of one vision Joseph remarked, “I could explain a hundred fold more that I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them.”

Second, the Prophet was privileged to receive so many visions that is appears they became almost commonplace experiences for him. For example, in 1843 he said, “It is my meditation all the day, and more than my meat and drink, to know how I shall make the Saints of God comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind.” Perhaps because his visionary experiences were so frequent, he often left out details or failed to record certain events altogether.

Finally, in a number of instances, others witnessed Joseph Smith’s visionary experiences or were present when the Prophet had visions, often seeing the manifestation with him. The recorded statements of these witnesses and co-participants give additional testimony and credibility to the reality of the Prophet’s seeric experiences.

The remainder can be found at the BYU Hawaii website at “The Visions of Joseph Smith” | Devotionals and Speeches