1 Nephi 19

For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels.

1 Nephi 19:7

I’m not entirely sure why this verse stuck out to me today. I think there’s a lot it can be applied to. So much of our receptiveness to the gospel seems to come down to what we really want: what we “esteem to be of great worth”. And people vary so much in this respect, so that what one person values beyond price is regarded and treated as trash by another. Yet there is also an eternal hierarchy of values, so that while worldly and temporary things may be held to be most precious by some, they are still merely temporary and ephemeral. Likewise some may disregard eternal things – even God himself – that means nothing for their true eternal worth and value. It is incumbent upon us, then, to try and align our vision correct and not be distracted by other people’s valuations, so we can perceive what is truly valuable and what is not.

1 Nephi 9

1 Nephi 9 is another piece of editorial commentary by Nephi. In my thesis I briefly look at how the Book of Mormon really consists of a number of layers, with things like sermons or Lehi’s vision embedded in a narrative, but that the narrative itself is almost punctuated by the narrators such as Nephi or Mormon (who, incidently, wrote most of the Book of Mormon; a pet peeve of mine is when people quote something from the book of Alma and fail to realise it is Mormon who is speaking).

Anyhoo, what caught my eye today was the following:

Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.
But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words. And thus it is. Amen.

1 Nephi 9:5-6

Nephi was obviously commanded to make the small plates for a good reason, but that reason (the 116 missing pages) lay thousands of years in the future. Obviously that says a lot about God’s omniscience, but Nephi never knew that reason. Likewise the Lord often has us doing things for reasons that appear unfathomable. And that can be uncomfortable, especially when stuff happens that appears to make what we want or what we think the Lord wants further away.

I have to confess that while I’ve gained an appreciation for the hymn Lead Kindly Light in the last decade, I’m not at the stage where I can bring myself to say “I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me”. Because I often still find myself wanting to see the distant scene, wanting to know how everything fits in, wanting to know that I haven’t irreversibly messed up and that there is still hope. But I gather, both from scriptures like this and my own experience, that often God wants something different. What He wants is for us to obey Him, to keeping taking those single steps into the darkness, trusting in his power and that all His actions are “for a wise purpose in him”, even if we know it not.

“Behold ye are worse than they”

And now when ye talk, ye say: If our days had been in the days of our fathers of old, we would not have slain the prophets; we would not have stoned them, and cast them out.

Behold ye are worse than they; for as the Lord liveth, if a prophet come among you and declareth unto you the word of the Lord, which testifieth of your sins and iniquities, ye are angry with him, and cast him out and seek all manner of ways to destroy him; yea, you will say that he is a false prophet, and that he is a sinner, and of the devil, because he testifieth that your deeds are evil.

But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet.

Helaman 13:25-27 (My emphasis)

I happened to read this today, and it seems particularly applicable in an age when – to quote Elder Holland – “if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it“.

Not Luz

There was a man in a land that was not Luz. And the Lord, looking upon the man, saw Satan approaching.

And the Lord said unto Satan, “Whence comest thou?” Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, “From wandering in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.”

And the Lord said, “Consider this man. He has often fallen short, and oft stumbled. Yet he has always put his trust in me, and never denied me.”

“Of course he does!”, replied the Devil. “Does he trust you for naught? You have given him so many assurances of what is to come: of his purpose and meaning, of hopes of love and marriage and family, of your own care for him. Even if he finds them hard to believe, you give him comfort about what is to come, and he knows you can and have told him of these things. Remove them from him, strip him of his hopes and assurances, give him doubt that he can or has ever heard your will, rob him of any knowledge of your love and he will deny you to your face.”

“Behold, he is in thine hand”, said the Lord.

And the man was plunged into thick confusion. He no longer knew whether he could tell the difference between an impression from God and his own thoughts, desires and fears. He no longer knew if he could trust the assurances he had relied on. He feared his labours had been in vain, and that he had spent ten years following a false path. He feared he could not correctly hear the answers to his prayers and that he had been falsely guided, decieved by the devil or his own thoughts. He worried that he was a failure, and that even God misliked him.

And the man was grieved at heart and vexed in spirit. He wished for death, and his mind put forth designs for it. But he prayed unto the Lord:

“Lord, I do not know thy will and I am sick at heart. Please save me from despair, for I am alone! Lord, I know that thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie. I know that thou hast all power, and can tell me of thy will. I know that thou knowest all things, things past and things to come, and so can guide me right. Please guide me now, and help me to know what is true and not be deceived.”

And the man remained despondant and low in spirit. He feared he could not trust any answers for he knew not where it came from. Yet he continued to pray:

“But may thy will be done. For I know that whatever thou willest – even if it be my ill – is right.”

Thus it was that the Devil was confounded, and the Lord was vindicated, and in time the Lord gave the man peace and clarity.

But God ceaseth not to be God

I frequently run across the claim, often given by members of the Church themselves, that LDS doctrine teaches that God is limited, that He is bound by moral or physical laws to which he is subject and which have power over him. These ideas have a long pedigree, but continue to pop up: For some recent examples, consider the references to “ultimate reality” being “constituted by moral natural laws as well as physical natural laws” that are “prior to Divine Will” in this interview by Ralph Hancock of Terryl Givens, or in a very recent example, the comment following this article on having confidence in the prophets attempts to disagree with the article by suggesting that there are “celestial limitations” such as “there are physical and moral laws that he cannot break (or he would cease to be God)”.

I have never been happy with these ideas. I dislike the implication that places something else (such as impersonal moral and physical laws) as the ultimate arbiter of the universe, which implies we are worshipping the wrong being. I dislike the formulations that result, such as the idea of God as the “ultimate scientist” who has simply discovered more laws, and that in consequence there is no such thing as a truly supernatural miracle. I find such notions contrary to the very emphasis the Book of Mormon places upon the power of God and the reality of miracles. It seems to me to be very bizarre that on one hand we have the Book of Mormon insisting upon God’s power and capacity for miraculous intervention, and that Christ himself at one of the fulcrums of the Restoration puts the issue as being one where people “hav[e] a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof” (Joseph Smith-History 1:19), and yet Mormon philosophical discourse is filled with discussions of God’s supposed limitations. I can’t help but feel that if Latter-day Scripture (and General Conference et al) is pointing one way and “Mormon philosophy” is pointing another, there’s something severely wrong with the latter.

I discuss briefly some of the issues when it comes to “physical” laws here. In short, Section 88 is very explicit about God being the source of law for all things, and God’s power being the power by which all things are governed (D&C 88:12-13,41-43). In fact Section 88 appears to be pointing at a very different set of metaphysics than by those who presume unchanging physical and moral laws form the ultimate reality. The latter appears to be a simple extension of very common Western metaphysics (as witnessed by those – such as Stephen Hawking – who assert such such laws can entirely explain the existence of the universe, when those very laws postulate initial conditions under which physical laws break down). Section 88 seems to have more in common with Islamic metaphysics than Western metaphysics. We should certainly not assume our culture has gotten such questions right, and we should be very careful about imposing our cultural expectations upon what scripture actually says.

But I believe many of these issues are not just down to importing Western metaphysics, particularly when we start talking about “moral laws”. While there may be other issues (I think people underestimate precisely how conditional human agency is as described in 2 Nephi 2), I think that when it comes to the assertion that there are overriding “moral laws” that this is due to the misreading of one chapter in particular: Alma 42.

 

Alma 42

The influence of this chapter can even be seen in the comment cited above, which paraphrased Alma 42:13 (and 22 and 25) with its talk of God ceasing to be God. There has been much speculation, based on this chapter and particularly the refrain that “if so, God would cease to be God“, that God can, in essence, lose His divine status. Since it is repeated three times in reference to the notion of “justice” being “destroyed”, some have argued that this entails a law of justice supreme above God Himself which if not obeyed may in a sense “demote” God. Most arguing this appear to have suggested that justice is a “natural” law, akin to gravity, and seemingly self-regulating (ignoring what Section 88:42-43 describes as the ultimate source of gravity). Cleon Skousen, however, takes a different tack, asserting that God’s power is dependent upon the obedience of matter and of ‘intelligences’ within it which, however, will cease to obey should He prove unjust, depriving Him of power.

Yet these ideas are wrong. They are, as I plan to show, logically inconsistent, carry implications at odds with what we know of God, His works and His character, and I believe seriously misunderstand Alma’s statements. Above all else, however, they seem to lack a full understanding of what makes God God.

 

Justice is not a law

Firstly there seems to be a profound misunderstanding in the sense of justice as this eternal, self-regulating, natural law. As previously stated, scripture affirms that God who gives law to all things (D&C 88:42). There are no “natural laws” independent of God: they were given in the first place and sustained by the power of God. If justice, however, has the power to “demote” God, or if God’s power is somehow dependent upon justice, then that justice and the laws it enforces are more powerful that God. God would seemingly have no power to make or change laws. Moreover we would seemingly be in no need of a God – why would God need to give or enforce law if there were a natural, self-regulating one?

Yet there is no sign of such a natural, self-regulating, force enforcing justice. Alma 42 itself points out that “there is a law given, and a punishment affixed” (v.22). But those laws and that punishment are given by God. It is God who shall judges us at the last day, it is “the justice of God” which consigns unrepentant sinners “to be cut off from his presence” (Alma 42:14). It is in the hope of God’s justice that we put our trust, because from the perspective of this life only, the wicked and tyrannical often escape the penalty of their crimes while the innocent suffer. But our trust in the eternal operation of justice is based on God’s interventions and actions. Were God not to judge us, there is no impersonal force that would take over the task of eternal judgement for us, or for Hitler, or for anyone else.

Moreover justice is not a law, in and of itself, but is a moral ideal (though oft-misunderstood). Indeed, the phrase “law of justice” is not to be found in the scriptures (Alma 34:16 comes closest, but the “whole law of the demands of justice” is not the same thing). Justice is ensuring that the wicked are punished in proportion to their crimes, and that the righteous are blessed for their obedience, and that those who suffer receive a fair recompense. It is true that as an ideal, justice can only be maintained when law has been given, as Alma points out: “And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?” (Alma 42:21). But there can be just laws and unjust laws. Law can be administered justly or unjustly. God, however, gives both just laws and administers them justly. Yet there would be no need for Him to do so were there some impersonal “law of justice”. And if God gives and sustains law by His power, how can He be dependent on or subservient to it?

Skousen’s interpretation is a little different, but has its own problems. His idea places final moral judgement – judgement over God and whether His acts are “just” or not – not in the hands of a perfectly good and omniscient being but in the hands of “intelligences” even more limited than mortal men. Can the full justice of an act ever be measured without both impeccable character and full knowledge of the consequences of the act? Yet while God’s capacity for knowing what is just is surely rooted in both His goodness and in His omniscience, Skousen places supreme moral authority over the universe into the hands of the largest and logically most ignorant committee ever conceived. Universal mob rule has never been so literal.

 

Misreading the chapter

Another problem with these interpretations is the way they misread the chapter as a whole. Two points here are worth pointing out. Firstly is the question of who the chapter means when it speaks of God. Many espousing the the ideas I’m discussing seem to suppose that it refers to God the Father. Yet this cannot be entirely the case, for the chapter itself states “God himself atoneth for the sins of the world” (Alma 42:15). This then speaks of God the Son, or at least the entirety of the Godhead.

More importantly, however, is the question that motivates the existence of the entire chapter. Alma 42 is the final part of Alma’s counsel to his son Corianton, who has gone astray somewhat, and needed correction and has some concerns. And in the very first verse of this chapter we learn that Corianton doubts “concerning the justice of God” (Alma 42:1), specifically in reference to the punishment of the sinner. This chapter is therefore not attempting to explain (as some have supposed) the atonement of Christ. Rather the question being addressed is whether God is just. The Atonement is used here to explain the justice of God, not the other way around. And this remains the key point throughout the chapter, for in verse 30 Corianton is enjoined to “deny the justice of God no more“. Yet the interpretations offered above would have Alma’s defence of the “justice of God” be the assertion that God is just because He is kept in line by some law superior to Himself. Yet the claims that God is just only because he is forced to be by an impersonal law or that his power is subject to the veto of the rest of the universe are terrible defences. The claim that God is just because He is forced to be is a poor service to God’s character, and seems to deny God of the very agency which He gave to man (Moses 4:3).

 

Logical Inconsistencies

These approaches are also logically inconsistent. To take a key example, it is worthwhile noting the “if” in all three statements – if the works of justice are destroyed, God would cease to be God. It appears then that the works of justice can be destroyed – such is the precondition. But if justice was a natural law, supreme above even God – indeed if He were dependent upon it – this would be impossible. How can God destroy the works of justice, if he can be overridden and demoted by it?

A similar logical inconsistency lies when we try to probe the meaning of the statement that “God would cease to be God“. Both the concepts described above are logically inconsistent on this very point. They argue strongly that God’s power is limited – that there is something or someone that can deprive Him of it. Yet they also define God “ceasing” to be God as meaning God losing His power, thus they define God in terms of power. They are therefore in the position of arguing simultaneously that power is the defining characteristic of God (since to lose it is to cease to be God) and yet to argue that He isn’t defined by power, since His power is dependent on and subservient to the approval of something or someone. This is contradictory.

 

What makes God God?

To understand what Alma was getting at in Alma 42, and to resolve the conundrum these ideas leave unanswered, we must ask ourselves the question what makes God, God?

The Apostle John states amongst other things that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “God is light” (1 John 1:5). God is also described in other places in terms of His knowledge of all things (2 Nephi 9:20), His wisdom (Mosiah 4:9), His goodness (Mosiah 5:3), His eternal nature (Mormon 9:9), His truthfulness (Deuteronomy 32:4), and indeed His mercy (Alma 26:35) and His justice (2 Nephi 9:17). God is described in more terms than that of just power including that of His character – and justice and mercy are included amongst those attributes. I suggest then we should view God in terms other (or rather, in addition) to that of raw power. We might then ask ourselves the question – would God still be God if he lacked any one of these attributes?

It is this that seems key to the whole matter. Elsewhere, in Alma chapter 12, Alma teaches that the “works of justice could not be destroyed, according to the supreme goodness of God” (Alma 12:32). God, it appears, cannot destroy the works of justice not because He lacks the power, but because it would be contrary to His “goodness” – His character. Abinadi speaks in a similar fashion when he states that God does not redeem the unrepentant “…for he cannot deny himself; for he cannot deny justice when it has its claim” (Mosiah 15:27). Here to deny justice is not equated with disobedience of some external law but rather a denial of Himself – again a denial of His character. Justice then is not some supreme all-powerful law of nature, but an attribute which in mankind is an unrealised ideal but in deity a fully realised attribute, as also is His goodness and mercy (it is strange that those advocating a natural law of justice appear not to conceive of a natural law of mercy capable of similar demotions). So I suggest that God would cease to be God if He were not just because justice is an essential part of His divine character, even if He were still omnipotent. God is God not just because of His omnipotence and omniscience (though He is those, and they are essential) but also because of His goodness, love, mercy and justice. We believe in God as God because He is good. Were He to lack those attributes, we could not have faith in Him. An unjust God, as I have said before, would be a terrible thing.

I believe this is a more accurate understanding of what Alma was saying in Alma 42, and such an understanding carries important consequences. Firstly, with all the emphasis that ancient and modern scripture put upon the power and capacity of God, I feel it is spiritually unhealthy and perilous to our faith to have some sort of understanding that (aside from its other issues) convinces us to think of God in terms of supposed limitations, limitations that scripturally do not exist and in an age where Christ himself asks whether faith shall be found on the earth (Luke 18:8). Secondly, I believe this helps us better understand the Atonement. The Atonement is not some method of cheating justice, some scheme to get past a natural law. Rather the Atonement establishes both justice and mercy. Jacob teaches earlier in the Book of Mormon that without the Atonement all mankind would be subject to a total and universal damnation (2 Nephi 9:7-9), which would hardly be just to such as infants. Jacob also reveals that the Atonement “satisfieth the demands of justice” (2 Nephi 9:26) by rescuing those without law from an undeserved fate. The Atonement does not cheat justice, rather it provides means “that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).

Thirdly, and growing from the other two points, this understanding shows better, in my view, Alma’s point: that God is so impeccable in His character, so just and yet so merciful, that He has gone to enormous lengths to reconcile those divine attributes. God is just, and merciful, and perfect, and Alma teaches his son to no more “deny the justice of God” but rather “let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart” (Alma 42:30). This is a God whom we need not doubt and think of as limited; rather, knowing the full perfection of His character and his power, we can have even greater faith in Him. We worship God, we have faith in God – indeed we can only accept God as God – as we come to know not only of His power and knowledge but also of His perfect, unwavering character. And it is as we come fully to realise the perfection of His character that we will increase in our faith and trust in Him and better realise the object of our goal – not the mere obedience to natural laws, but the perfection, through Christ, of our characters and very beings.

Edit:

There was some disagreement with this blogpost on facebook, arguing that this was mainly an issue of semantics, appealing to the idea of eternal regress of divinity (i.e the idea loosely based on the King Follett discourse that God was made a God by another God, and so on forever), and suggesting that God may embody justice through his choices though it be an independent law. My reply is effectively as follows:

1) Obviously I disagree that this is a mere issue of semantics – ideas have consequences, and semantics don’t usually require counterarguments.

2) On supposed LDS beliefs in eternal regress, I asked for chapter on verse on this. Because the King Follett discouse a) isn’t canonical scripture and b) does not go that far. The KFD cites John 5:19 as its prooftext, which would make the Father’s incarnation similar to that of the Son’s. The Son, of course, being divine prior to his mortal birth. But that whole topic (i.e on a mortal incarnation of the Father) is one on which very little has been revealed, which is precisely why President Hinckley said we didn’t really know very much about it. But even if one grants an eternal regress scenario, it is still divinity that is the eternal constant and any eternal laws are those given by divinity – they are not independent (there’s also the issue that this thinks of eternity as simply time going forever, but that’s an issue for another day).

3) This still leaves what Section 88 says about God being the provider of Law to all things, which is a canonical revelation. Now I’d certainly describe God as embodying justice and mercy et al – in an earlier version of this article I used that very term. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are ideals, and not actual objects, nor make justice a law, nor make it a force *independent* and *superior* to God.

4) Finally there was the suggestion that this doesn’t make any difference. Yet I’ve seen plenty of examples, where people were talking of God being limited, or that there’s no such thing as actual miracles (especially when the BoM spends so much time warning against such ideas) to see that if taken to their conclusions certain ideas can be damaging to faith. Yes, what we need to most understand is that God’s promises are sure. But to know that requires us to know He has both the desire and the capacity to fulfill them.

Theological Musings on the Existence of Spiders

Warning: The below is highly speculative, albeit in my opinion based on sound reasoning…
Also some readers may find some pictures rightly alarming…

I freely admit that I am not the greatest fan of spiders. I don’t really mind the little ones, but the big and fast ones that make a beeline for my feet are another matter. Likewise those sorts that end up spreading over the entire garden when they have shape, size and colours that have no business being in an English garden. I am not incapacitated when such creatures make their surprise attacks, but I do strongly feel that such actions warrant immediate action via means of my copy of Josephus.

However, the existence of such creatures and others has been a subject I have pondered over the years. The ancient Zoroastrians believed that animal life was in fact divided: thus on one hand there were good creatures created by Ahura Mazda, the wise Lord, such as the dog or the cow which were to be protected and cared for; on the other hand were the xrafstar, the evil animals, who where created by Ahriman, the evil one. And on one holy day each year they’d make a special effort to go out and kill such beasts.

xrafstar.jpg

I’m not quite certain why the poor tortoise ends up on the list…

Now of course Latter-day Saint doctrine doesn’t attribute the ultimate creation of anything to the adversary, but I have wondered if the Zoroastrians (who are very interesting from an LDS viewpoint, and who have quite a bit right) were maybe onto something. For I look around at the natural world, and some bits are pretty horrifying. Now we understand that we live in a fallen world, and so just as Humans beings naturally are “enem[ies] to God” (Mosiah 3:19), creation itself is currently under “the bondage of corruption” and “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Romans 8:21-22).

However, when I look around at nature, I begin to wonder if everything necessarily fell the same distance. On one hand, there are many parts of nature which bear witness to a benevolent creator. One might look at things like Elephants, or say Swans. Swans are part of a fallen world, but are one of things that beautify it. They mate for life, and look after their young. In both appearance and their life habits the hand of a loving creator may be detected.

On the other hand (and readers of a gentle disposition may wish to skip this next picture), I see things like this:

 

(Honestly, it’s your last chance…)

 

(Okay, here it is:)

 

Meet the Brazilian Wandering Spider, an exceptionally nasty piece of work whose bite not only contains a neurotoxin, but also affects the serotonin receptors of the sensory nerves so that the victim really feels the pain. This need not be are only example. There’s countless horrible organisms. There’s a large part of Australian wildlife. There’s the various parasitoid wasps such as the Glyptapanteles, which not only lay their eggs inside other creatures, but the victim is “mind-controlled” while the larvae eat their way out. What loving creator created that, I ask you?

Hence my supposition that certain organisms may well have fallen further from the design of a benevolent creator than others. There is, however, another side to this in LDS doctrine that I believe may strengthen such a supposition. We understand from the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price that it is not only Man that has a spirit, but that God “created all things… spiritually” (Moses 3:5). Likewise in the book of Moses it is not just man that receives “the breath of life” but “the beasts of the field and every fowl of the air” likewise do and “they were also living souls” (Moses 3:19). We furthermore learn from the Doctrine and Covenants that animals too will inherit an afterlife, some of which receive glory “in their destined order or sphere of creation, in the enjoyment of their eternal felicity” (D&C 77:2-3, commenting on the beasts seen in Revelations 4:6). This won’t be the same destiny as human beings (especially those that inherit eternal life), but the implication of D&C 77:2 (and Revelations 4) is that this may well share some of the same space.

However, to my mind it makes little sense that all animals will have their eternal destiny in the celestial kingdom, and that it is only human beings who will live in other kingdoms. I may well be very wrong about this (for little has been revealed and I am definitely speculating), but it makes sense that just as humans end up in different kingdoms to receive their different degrees of glory, the resurrected animals too will be divided amongst different kingdoms. And while animals do not have human agency, the higher life forms might even have some gradation, as there are (for instance) good dogs and bad dogs. For the lower lifeforms, however, it would make sense that they are assigned as classes or species.

In other words, if you’re looking for additional motivation not to end up in the Telestial kingdom, consider that you may end up sharing it with zillions of immortal wasps and spiders…

The Same God

Some employment dispute at Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant college, has attracted some commentary on whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God (with a staff member apparently being dismissed because they asserted this was indeed the case). There may well be more to the employment dispute itself, but I wanted to discuss the proposition itself that Christians and Muslims worship different “gods”, which has attracted a number of evangelical defenders. This defence should be little surprising to any Latter-day Saints who’ve come across evangelical claims that we worship a “different” Jesus. It is surprising, however, how otherwise thoughtful and level-headed commentators have sought to defend the claim, as David French does here. While I agree with this author here that one should be careful about allegations of bigotry, I do think a number of comments can be made in response, as follows:

  1. French argues his case, as a number of others do, on the basis that Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. The issue comes that Jews, at the very least, also do. Do Jews also worship a different God?
  2. Some evangelicals (such as Al Mohler, a prominent Southern Baptist), accept that implication, which is at least logically consistent if supercessionist. That view, however, is inconsistent with what the New Testament itself says where, for example, Paul himself speaks of how he worships “the God of my fathers” and has “hope towards God, which they themselves [his opponents] also allow” (Acts 24:14-15). Paul recognises that the religious authorities in Jerusalem regard him as following “a heresy”, but doesn’t claim that he is worshipping a different God. In fact Paul goes further when addressing the Athenians, a pagan people, when he identifies the “unknown God” who they “ignorantly worship” with the True and Living God (Acts 17:23).
  3. Others, recognising the major problems of supercessionism, assert that Jews and Christians do worship the same God. However, this is logically inconsistent. Both Jews and Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus and Trinitarianism. Muslims at least accept the prophethood of Jesus, so might be seen to be preferable by those terms. If someone is making the claim that Muslims and Christians don’t worship the same God because the Muslims reject the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, and yet rejects the same claim when applied to Jews who reject the same things, then there is clearly some logic being applied that is not being spoken out loud. It’s up to those making the claim to clarify their position.
  4. Of course, a number of Christians, while accepting the divinity of Christ, also reject Trinitarianism, including Latter-day Saints but also many others, including Oneness Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the present, and Arians and others at the time of the great controversies in the Fourth century (not to mention all those before Trinitarianism was formally defined). True to form, at least many evangelicals in the comments seem inclined to say they don’t worship the same God either. This in spite of the fact that the New Testament doesn’t teach Trinitarianism, and the fact that in my own personal experience many self-proclaimed Trinitarian evangelicals are actually modalists (i.e, they believe the persons of the Godhead are actually roles of one being, who manifests differently as the Father, Son or the Holy Ghost).
  5. Some base this claim on different texts: namely that as Muslims have the Qur’an (and, as some are quick to add, Mormons have the Book of Mormon), they must worship different Gods. To which doubtless Jews could add that the Christians have the New Testament too, and since Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have different scriptural canons, the implication is that they all worship different Gods. While there are evangelicals who pursue this approach, this is clearly nonsense.
  6. This is nonsense because one can believe different things *about* someone, and yet still be talking about the same person. Someone might believe Elvis got abducted by aliens and is still alive, but while that’s nonsense, they’re not talking about a *different Elvis*. As a Latter-day Saint, I definitely believe different things than an evangelical Protestant does (although they generally don’t understand, and sometimes misrepresent what those differences are). But when I talk about Jesus being the Son of God, being born in Bethlehem, and who was crucified for the sins of the world and rose again on the third day, I’m not talking about some other guy who happened to share the name and did some of the same stuff.
  7. This is not to underestimate some of those differences, some of which are big and very important. I do not believe, for example, as some varieties of Calvinism do, in a God who created people so he could predestine them to hell. As a latter-day saint, I affirm the divinity of Christ, and believe Jews and Muslims to be mistaken on that issue. Likewise with those Christians who believe in a God without body parts or passions, or the many moderns who believe in a God who may exist but does not reveal himself or work miracles (the mistakenness of this opinion being one of the major themes of the Book of Mormon). But that doesn’t mean we’re not speaking about the same deity. Paul again goes even further, stating that God “hath made of one blood all the nations of men” and that “they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God wants us to repent, but will bless all those who humbly seek after him according to what knowledge they have.
  8. I have no idea why evangelicals in particular seem so keen to claim others worship “different gods” or a “different Jesus”. It’s doubtless behind whatever trend leads them – rather uniquely – to set up organisations and paid ministries dedicated not to preaching their own beliefs, but attacking the specific beliefs of other groups. One would hope in their desire to follow the Bible they’d recognise the example of Paul above, and consider that its more important to get right, and hopefully lead others in that direction, than to prove others wrong. That’s really for them to sort out though, although in my more mischievous or peevish moments I can’t help but wonder at how they claim the mantle of “biblical” or “orthodox” Christianity, when their beliefs and institutions are so much younger than the Catholics, Orthodox and so forth.

As for my own brief suggestions on studying the religions of others, they can be found here.

 

The Conductor of History

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing?

(Alma 37:45)

When reading the scriptures, types and typology are perhaps one of the most elusive but rewarding things we can discover. Particularly when reading those passages others might dismiss as simply “stories”, we should pay attention not only to what principles those stories might teach us, but also the ways that people, objects or events may be a ‘type’ that prophetically prefigures a future or eternal ‘antitype’. Thus ‘all things which have been given of God’, such as the Law of Moses or the bronze serpent of Moses typify Christ (2 Nephi 11:4, Alma 25:15, Alma 33:19). The Liahona not only guided Lehi and his family to the promised land, but serves as a type of ‘the words of Christ’ which can guide us ‘beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise’ (Alma 37:38-45).

A crucial thing about types is that these are not allegorical or symbolic readings, an artifact of either the writers or the reader. Rather the idea of types is founded on the conviction that – just as God can communicate directly through revelation – He can also reveal Himself and His works through everyday and historical events. Thus God on some level orchestrates these events so they may teach His intended messages, in some cases to audiences very far removed in space and time from the original events.

This idea of God orchestrating events to this level might be a trifle unsettling to Latter-day Saints, who obviously also have a conviction of human agency. Some might wonder how, even with God’s perfect foreknowledge of all things, God can be ultimately in charge of what happens. The idea of God as the ultimate ‘author’ of human history may appear to give insufficient acknowledgement that – unlike the fictional characters of an author who think, feel and act at the author’s whim – God has permitted us the power and ability to act for ourselves.

I was thinking about this when my mind lit upon an analogy that I feel fits better, that of God being the conductor of history. He, through His own choice, doesn’t control the musicians as puppets and we are not mere extensions of His will. But he knows us, and has past, present and future continually before His eyes. And thus, though he grants us agency, he remains in control of the final piece because he does dictate when and where we play.

“Choosing to be happy” and emotional integrity

I quite frequently run across the idea that happiness is a choice. In some sense this is very true. There’s definitely some choices that can prevent us from being happy, especially in the long term, for “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Our eternal happiness is dependent upon our ultimate choice, with “one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness’ (Alma 41:5), and ‘joy or remorse of conscience” being given to us “according to [our] desires” (Alma 29:5). It’s also true that from an eternal perspective we can “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” even when we are persecuted and mistreated (Matthew 5:11-12) although it’s clear here this is talking in the sense of being fortunate in the knowledge that we are experiencing the same as the prophets and will be blessed like them, rather than actual emotional contentment from abuse. Likewise we can “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations [trials]” (James 1:2), providing we realise its talking of [i]being[/i] fortunate, and not necessarily [i]feeling[/i] overjoyed.

However, this notion of happiness being a choice often seems mixed up with other ideas. There’s the idea that our attitude alone can dictate our happiness, meaning our emotional state, and that positive thinking can guarantee happiness. There’s the belief that somehow God has promised us continuous happiness in this life. Related to both the above is the idea that we should always be feeling happy.

There are problems with all this. It is certainly the case that we need to keep perspective, count our blessings, and refrain from dwelling on our miseries. But the idea that a positive attitude alone is all that is necessary to guarantee continual emotional happiness is solipsistic, seeming to assume that there is nothing anyone else can do (even God), or that can happen to anyone else, that can affect our emotions. But this is untrue. Likewise, there are some emotional trials that positive thinking alone cannot fix, as Elder Holland points out regarding depression: “no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively”. If we believe that God has somehow promised continual emotional contentment in this life, then when the inevitable emotional disappointments happen we may think God has somehow failed us. Or, if we believe that our emotional state is always and readily under our control, we may believe that if we are feeling unhappy we have chosen to do so, and even that feeling unhappy is thereby a sin.

Unhappiness is not a sin

As said, it is important to retain perspective, be grateful to the Lord for our blessings (D&C 59:7) and be able to see his hand in all things (59:21). But ‘negative’ emotions will come, and these are not necessarily sins in themselves or the result of sins. Jacob (as I’ve mentioned before) speaks of ‘mourn[ing] out our days’, while Alma, leaving Ammonihah for the first time, was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul” because of the people’s failure to repent (Alma 8:14). Mormon even speaks of being “without hope” where his people were concerned (Mormon 5:2). None of the feelings of these men were sins.

Then there is the example of the Saviour himself, who was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The image we have of the Saviour may cause us to forget that he experienced the full gamut of emotions we do. Sure, he loved (Mark 10:21, John 11:5) and felt compassion (Matthew 20:34). But he was also felt anger (Mark 3:5, Mark 10:14), wept (John 11:35, Luke 19:41), felt amazement and anguish (Mark 14:33) and deep distress (Luke 12:50). It is difficult to imagine all these emotions coexisting with a permanent feeling of happiness. And in all this, if we have seen Him we “hath seen the Father” (John 14:9), for as we learn from Enoch’s vision even the God of heaven feels indignation, anger and weeps for His children (Moses 7:28-34).

Emotional honesty and “bridling” our passions

It is okay to experience times of unhappiness and disappointment. By so doing we walk in the path of many of the best people who have ever walked on this earth, including the Saviour himself. It’s part of the purpose of this life, to experience trials and be tested, and the path of discipleship, as President Monson has stated, involves following the Saviour along paths such as those of disappointment and pain. And it’s important to be able to admit when we are, even just to ourselves. As Elder Cook quoted (also from the October 2014 General Conference) “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are'”? Pretending to be happy is not going to make us be happy.

That sort of pretending can hurt us more than we realise. Sure, sometimes we must simply grit our teeth and persevere. But sometimes unhappiness and emotional discomfort, like physical pain, can teach us that there’s something we should change, about ourselves or our circumstances. Sometimes its right and proper to seek help from others. At other times, they are simply part of the coin of love, when we feel the distress of those we care about. In this way we can perhaps begin to understand in the smallest way how our Lord God feels.

Denying these feelings any place cuts us off from that. It can deprive us of the power we can gain from an emotional integrity, where we can admit to ourselves and God how we are truely feeling, and honestly lay those feelings at his feet (I have long been impressed by the honesty of the Psalmists, something I feel we can only benefit from in our prayers). Furthermore, as a friend pointed out to me last year, we are not asked to suppress or eliminate our emotions. Rather the scriptural instruction is to “bridle” our “passions” (Alma 38:12): a bridle does not kill a horse or stop it in its tracks, rather it allows us to steer it, to turn its strength and power to our advantage.

We are not promised continual happiness in this world. While “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25), we must also taste misery so we might have joy (v.23) and “in this world your joy is not full” (D&C 101:36). A fulness of joy awaits us in the next life (D&C 93:33). What Christ does offer us, however, is peace (John 14:27), peace that will not preserve us from all sadness and heartache, but which can help us endure them. And – as I have very much experienced this past year – even amongst deep sadness we can have supernal moments of joy.

Job, Jacob, the problem of evil and the “end of history”

The Interpreter has posted an interesting article on Jacob and the problem of evil, here.

I think it has some thought-provoking ideas, but also had some reactions to its comments on Job, its application of Zeno’s allegory of the Olive Tree (Jacob 5) to the problem of evil, and particularly its application of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis to the allegory which I feel sits at odds with what the allegory is actually talking about. So I ended up commenting, and as often happens the comment grew rather larger than I was expecting, so I’ve reproduced my main comments on it below:

1) I don’t think that Job 42 merely has an intimidated Job accept what has happened as unfathomable mystery. He admits his previous lack of knowledge (“Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” v.3), but his following statement that “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee” (v.5) suggests that his direct experience of seeing God has taught him something that could not be put into words, and it is the seeing that has given him peace. It may remain an unfathomable mystery to the reader, but not, I believe, to Job.

2) Regarding the Allegory of the Olive Tree, there seems to be a bit of a conflation of different evils and different goods here. The issue of the corruption of the fruit can only refer to Human evils (the only sort that can really be addressed with reference to agency), but not to others, such as those that Job experienced. Likewise that God is doing everything to produce good fruit isn’t the same as ensuring that only good things “enter the lives of his children”; after all, what theodicy in many cases boils down to is the question of why bad things (including many things not caused by any human agency) happen to good people. The distinction between these can be illustrated by the very fact of the poor ground mentioned in this article: the branches planted in the poor and the poorer spot of ground bear good fruit (Jacob 5:21-23), while that planted in a good spot of ground bears wild and tame fruit (v.25). There’s a difference between trying to get people to do good things and ensuring that good things happen to people, and it seems this distinction could be better elaborated. Human agency didn’t pick the poor spot of ground, and many the evils we experience in this life are not directly due to any human agency. God *does* permit many of those sorts of evils, but he also knows what he is doing, hence ‘counsel me not, I knew it was a poor spot of ground’ (Jacob 5:22).

3) I think the equation of what is happening to the tree with Fukuyama’s “End of history” thesis and democratic capitalist states is mistaken:

A) Firstly, in Zenos’ allegory the balance between the root and top is not presented as a spontaneous development of the tree (that is to develop all kinds of fruit, *all* of them bad (v.32) – it is the deliberate result of the those pruning the tree following divine direction to ensure the bad is cleared away as the good grows (v.65-66). Verse 73 records their actions and verse 74 the final results, which are not part of the overall conditions of the current dispensation but rather the millennial state (v.76). There is certain nothing in the allegory that demands this “must be attributed to a change in human consciousness and social practice”, particularly since it is describing a process of divine judgment and the gathering of Israel (a central concern of the Book of Mormon).

B) As Bushman points out in “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution”, the equality Mosiah is talking about in Mosiah 29 is moral accountability (Mosiah 29:30-32,34), as seen by the conclusion of that very verse 38: “and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins”, rather than a posited “open access state”.

C) The picture painted by the Book of Mormon and other scripture certainly doesn’t seem to depict the “end of history”, least of all the picture implied here of a gradual spread of democratic capitalism marking time till the second coming inaugurates a new order. The Book of Mormon (and the allegory in Jacob 5) is centred upon the dramatic divine intervention that will gather Israel and bring judgment upon its oppressors *prior* to the Second Coming (indeed, when the Book of Mormon talks of restoration, it is mostly talking of the restoration of Israel, not the Church). Certainly at least one competing social system will emerge prior to the Second Coming – namely Zion itself. And it is divine power, not “societal commitment”, that will protect the saints.

D) The “end of history” has had rough treatment at the hands of history in the last few decades, and frankly shows every sign of having it rougher yet. *Democratic* capitalism is not expanding, but has been retreating in the face of rival models. If people in previous ages have apostatized from the Gospel, after all, it seems somewhat unlikely that they cannot “apostatize” from democratic capitalism. And it appears to be a big assumption that any “firm societal commitment to mutual recognition and toleration of even unpopular beliefs and practices” will continue. In the West, every sign seems to point in the opposite direction.

I guess as a final comment (that didn’t end up in my comment on the article) I just want to add to that final point (I’d originally began only planning to mention the Job bit!). The allegory in Jacob 5 does depict an “end of history”, it’s just not the end of history Francis Fukuyama talked about: it’s about the gathering of Israel and the cleansing the vineyard, and concludes with the millennial state and mention of the final judgment and the burning preceding the new heaven and new earth. Its scope is far grander than democratic capitalism or any other mortal and perishable social set-up.