Shiz versus Coriantumr

A major, but often ignored, theme of the Book of Mormon is the collapse of societies and civilizations. The book concludes by recounting the destruction of both the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations. As I’ve written before, I believe there’s a lot in those accounts that is relevant for the situation we find ourselves in today. There are important differences between the two accounts, however. With the Nephites, they were destroyed by an external adversary, due to their pride, wickedness, and failure to repent despite the mercy the Lord had previously extended to them. While one could see the Nephite-Lamanite divide as a case of polarization, the Lamanites were ultimately spared. In the Jaredite case, however, the conflict was internal, and both sides destroyed themselves in an act of civilizational suicide.

It is perhaps particularly applicable to the social and political climate in which we find ourselves today, that the Jaredites never stopped in their conflict to wonder whether they had any other options. After another period of prolonged conflict, their choices devolve into two: Shiz or Coriantumr. Doubtless there were Jaredites who were exclaiming that everyone must choose, and that it was a binary choice. It was certainly the case that many Jaredites chose their side because of their terror of the other:

And there went a fear of Shiz throughout all the land; yea, a cry went forth throughout the land—Who can stand before the army of Shiz? Behold, he sweepeth the earth before him!

And it came to pass that the people began to flock together in armies, throughout all the face of the land.

And they were divided; and a part of them fled to the army of Shiz, and a part of them fled to the army of Coriantumr.

(Ether 14:18-20)

After all, do you want Shiz/Coriantumr to win? If you don’t choose Coriantumr/Shiz, then all you’re doing is helping Shiz/Coriantumr! At least, many say such things today, and it’s entirely possible that at least some Jaredites said something similar.

Now sometimes there are only a few available choices, and one must try to choose the better one in difficult circumstances. But sometimes, neither choice is correct. Witness Nazism vs Communism on the Eastern front, where two genocidal and evil ideologies faced off, and some choices could be based on but little than “who doesn’t want to kill us right now?” In some cases, there are no good choices. But what would certainly be incorrect in such circumstances is to conclude that, because the other is evil, the other must be good and be embraced. This is a perennial temptation through the ages, a pattern in which we are tempted to accept the evil in one thing merely because it is opposed to another evil thing. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

[The Devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.

The Jaredites became so consumed with their hatred for the other side, they never considered that they didn’t have to choose a side, and that by choosing a side, they would end up destroying both sides. But that was the result of their decisions, even over the heads of their leaders. In perhaps the most interesting part of the account (and one I’ve discussed before), we learn that Coriantumr, though he had rejected repentance earlier, had begun to regret that when faced with the destruction that was happening, and went as far as offering to “give up the kingdom for the sake of the lives of the people” (Ether 15:3-4). Shiz demands Coriantumr’s life as well. It’s possible that Coriantumr rejected that, but any response of his is not recorded. Instead we read (Ether 15:6):

And it came to pass that the people repented not of their iniquity; and the people of Coriantumr were stirred up to anger against the people of Shiz; and the people of Shiz were stirred up to anger against the people of Coriantumr; wherefore, the people of Shiz did give battle unto the people of Coriantumr.

The resumption of hostilities – the final resumption that will conclude in the death of every combatant save Coriantumr – is thus ascribed not to Coriantumr’s reply, or even Shiz’s bloodthirstiness, but to the anger of “the people” of both sides. The people of Coriantumr himself were prepared to keep killing and dying in his cause, even if he himself was prepared to concede at least his position to spare the people.

The only other individual, save Coriantumr, who survived was Ether, who did not pick either side. Yet it was Ether’s legacy – his writings – that continued, which survived the destruction of his whole civilisation and which were preserved for future civilisations to come. It was Ether who ultimately made the most difference, and did the most good, by not choosing either side, but by choosing something higher.

We live in an age in which political and cultural rivals and opponents are increasingly regarded as evil and are called enemies, in an age in which we are increasingly told we must pick a side, and in which increasing numbers are embracing extremism out of fear and hatred of others. This is a familiar account, and one that may well have a similar result. The leap towards violence seems so much smaller once one is dealing with enemies rather than mere opponents you might disagree with. Yet whatever the wider society does, we do not need to embrace evil to fight evil. We can reject such a binary choice. We can choose differently. We can choose higher.

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Alma 29

Well between a bunch of different things (not least trying to finish my PhD thesis), the series of posts I was doing on my personal reading of the Book of Mormon sputtered out, and so my own reading is now completely out of sync with where I left the posts. I can’t commit to any regular posts until I’ve actually submitted my thesis, but I guess what I can do is the occasional post from time to time as something captures my mind. Eventually I’ll do something on every chapter, I guess it just won’t be in any chronological order.

Anyhoo, I was motivated to write this post by something I ran into while reading Alma 29, a fairly well known chapter. In this chapter, Alma the younger famously writes:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

However, he then goes on to state:

But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.

(Alma 29:3)

What caught my attention this time round, however, was that the verses that follow to explain this reasoning (i.e. that this desire is incorrect)… don’t at first glance seem to explain this:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

(Alma 29:4–5)

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to explain things. Why is Alma’s desire a sin, if God grants men according to their desires? And what relevance is this whole thing about the choice between good and evil coming before all? Why is Alma’s desire wrong?

It was while reading this and thinking it over that the realisation came that Alma’s desire isn’t an abstract one. To return to the first couple of verses again:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

Compare with the following account of Alma’s earlier life:

And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king—
11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;

(Mosiah 27:10–11)

Or his own description of his experience to his son Helaman:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

(Alma 36:6–7)

Alma’s not talking about some abstract desire to be some repentance declaring angel: he’s using the very words used (including by himself) to describe the angel’s visit to him. His desire is that he could do for other people what that angel did for him: what some people might superficially think of as making them repent.

Hence Alma’s explanation as to why this is wrong. It’s not just that it’s wanting to do more than what God desires. It’s also unnecessary. God has provided that good and evil come before all, that all will ultimately be fairly tested (even if some of that is after this life), and grants unto all according to their desires for good and evil. For some, that might include an angelic visit. But God makes ample provision for everyone, without the need for universal angelic visits, as Alma goes on to explain:

Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?
Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.

(Alma 29:6–8)

“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

1 Nephi 14

And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day that he shall manifest himself unto them in word, and also in power, in very deed, unto the taking away of their stumbling blocks

1 Nephi 14:1

In the context of Nephi’s vision, this is particularly talking of the stumbling of the Gentiles due to the loss of the ‘plain and precious things’, and the potential rectifying of that if they repent when God begins his ‘great and a marvelous work’. But reading it today it also feels like there is a general principle here (also elaborated on in Ether 12). We all have ‘stumbling blocks’: our weaknesses, mortal imperfections, frailties of the flesh and things we’re just not good at. And those can be frustrating, particularly when they appear to hinder us from achieving what we want, or even from doing what God wants us to do. But such stumbling blocks can and will be taken away, if we ‘hearken unto the Lamb of God’, through a manifestation of His words, His power and His acts.

For the time cometh, saith the Lamb of God, that I will work a great and a marvelous work among the children of men; a work which shall be everlasting, either on the one hand or on the other—either to the convincing of them unto peace and life eternal, or unto the deliverance of them to the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds unto their being brought down into captivity, and also into destruction, both temporally and spiritually, according to the captivity of the devil, of which I have spoken.

1 Nephi 14:7

Ultimately – and particularly in the present age – we are faced with two choices only. The Lamb of God’s ‘marvelous work’ will serve to sort us one way or the other. We should not be surprised if opposition to that which is good increases at the present time, even as the kingdom of God itself grows. There will be a growing divide, a sifting, and so we shouldn’t expect everyone to be convinced towards righteousness. What counts is which direction we go.

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.