Words of Mormon

This was the next chapter on this list, but I actually went into this chapter with one particular segment in mind, since in a recent discussion via email I was asked to outline my thoughts on God’s relationship with time, and its implications for things like his omniscience, and a part of this chapter features. I’ll briefly touch on that in a bit.

Perhaps the first thing I found interesting on this occasion however is how strongly Mormon’s voice comes over at the very beginning:

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.

And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christ that I deliver these records into the hands of my son; and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people. But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them, and somewhat concerning Christ, that perhaps some day it may profit them.

(Words of Mormon 1-2)

If you think that sounds a bit depressing, welcome to Mormon. His is an interesting voice, because it contrasts so strongly with that of Nephi, who has been the voice most often heard in the chapters up till now. Yet it’s still different from Jacob, who also formed a contrast with Nephi. Nephi, while he does face his times of grief and disappointment (such as his reaction to a vision of the destruction of his descendants in 1 Nephi 15, or his own personal struggles in 2 Nephi 4), is fundamentally an optimistic, almost bombastic character. I’ve even joked with people, and to be honest I’m not really joking, that I don’t think I’d have liked him. That’s not a fault of Nephi, by the way, but perhaps simply a case of how different personalities respond to each other. Jacob, as I’ve written about before, seems to have faced struggles with feelings of personal inadequacy, and when he speaks, he speaks in a very different way from Nephi. Contrast their approach to the Final Judgment: Nephi speaks that he has faith ‘that I shall meet many souls spotless at [Christ’s] judgment-seat’ (2 Nephi 33:7), while Jacob – while righteous – mentally includes himself with the wicked by observing ‘we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness’ (2 Nephi 9:14, my emphasis).

Mormon takes a blunt, realistic approach:

And I would that all men might be saved. But we read that in the great and last day there are some who shall be cast out, yea, who shall be cast off from the presence of the Lord;

Yea, who shall be consigned to a state of endless misery, fulfilling the words which say: They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation. And thus it is. Amen.

(Helaman 12:25-26)

Mormon is a lonely figure, fighting to preserve his people but knowing that they are doomed to lose and deserve to lose. For him, the story of the Book of Mormon is fundamentally a tragedy, hence here – the first time we really hear his voice – he opens up by stating that he has seen almost the entire annihilation of his people, and anticipates its completion soon. There is little room for optimism in his experience, much of which he actually hides from us (Mormon 2:18-19). He is not devoid of hope, although he is without hope for his people (Mormon 5:2). Rather much of his hope is very remote: that this book he is working on will do good, that some day it may help draw people to Christ, that day being fourteen centuries after he has written the work, with no one to even read it in the meantime. In some respect he had the opposite experience of Nephi. Nephi faced intense trials, but he and his people got to live ‘after the manner of happiness’ in his lifetime (2 Nephi 5:27), while part of what he felt grief over was a visionary experience about what would happen centuries later. Mormon had ‘been filled with sorrow … all my days’ (Mormon 2:19), while his hope was invested in the revelation of centuries later events.

So its particularly interesting that not only does Mormon’s voice come in at this stage, but its his voice that dominates the rest of the book and indeed the structure of the book as a whole. While he personally cannot be heard in the small plates, he chose to include them, and he now narrates the rest of the book until Mormon 7, something that often seems to be forgotten when people attribute an narrator’s statement to Alma or whoever, when it is Mormon speaking, and we really only hear the others in quotations Mormon has selected. Even Mormon 8 onwards, in which Moroni is the narrator, follows plans Mormon laid out (it is Mormon who states that the account of the Jaredites will be told, in Mosiah 28:19, even though it is Moroni who ultimately tells it). The Book of Mormon is a pessimist’s book. This is not to condemn optimism (I think President Hinckley, for instance, was a great advocate and example of the power of optimism, though he never let that become wishful thinking nor hinder him from speaking unpleasant truths), but it is interesting to think about.

Onto the other matter of time, God’s relationship to it, and omniscience. I’m not going to go into this in depth at this stage, since I plan to address it, and the crucial concept of ‘retrocausality’, in the future. I have already written about the concept of time and explicit examples of retrocausality within the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, and quote this when talking about Enos here, for anyone looking for further discussion of this right now. Suffice to say, there is a strain of philosophical thought, one which some LDS scholars have shared, that believe that complete divine foreknowledge and human agency are incompatible. We cannot truly have the ability to choose, this thought runs, if God already knows what we’re going to pick.

If the possibility of retrocausal events (that is, where the effects precede the cause, such as Enos being forgiven through the Atonement before it happened, or Lehi explicitly quoting John the Baptist centuries before he is born) is admitted, then such philosophical difficulties disappear. Causality, however, is a very strong assumption, and amongst those assuming causality applies universally, some (I’m thinking Blake Ostler, but others have too) have proposed that God is omniscient in the sense of knowing all things that exist. They then argue that future events that are dependent upon chance or choice, that is “contingent”, do not exist yet, and so God does not know them.

While I’m sure many of the people making this argument are well-intentioned, I reject this conclusion. For one thing, what future events are not “contingent”, when we move beyond the bounds of astronomy and geology? This version of omniscience knows very little of the future, especially when we factor in how many choices are in turn dependent on the outcome of the choices before that, and before that. In its crassest form, this idea was put to me by an advocate as “God does not know what people are having for breakfast tomorrow”, and while some advocates may shy away from that description, I do think its an inevitable consequence. Now factor in that someone’s decision on what to have for breakfast may be influenced by what they decided to have the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and may in turn be influenced by parents who were influenced by a lifetime’s worth of breakfast decisions, and so on for countless generations. And this is a comparatively small decision (though perhaps with significant consequences, should someone fifteen generations back choke on a kipper)! What of the big ones? How could any long term view be remotely accurate?

This sits at odds with what we learn in this chapter. Firstly, Mormon outright states that ‘the Lord knoweth all things which are to come’ (v. 7). But beyond this explicit statement that God’s knowledge does include the future, there is the demonstration of it in this chapter, for Mormon makes this comment in reference to the inspiration he is receiving to include the small plates in with his record (as Nephi was similar inspired to begin writing it). Here it is particularly interesting, because it appears Mormon was actually inspired to break his record at this point to make this note, since he hadn’t written the rest of the record yet: note that verse 5 talks about how he ‘shall take’ the remainder of his record from the plates of Nephi (future tense) and in verse 9 states that ‘now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record’. Words of Mormon thus breaks the account at a specific point, namely the small plates being given to King Benjamin, and transitions smoothly into the establishing of peace in the land (see Words of Mormon 18 and Mosiah 1:1).

Why is this significant? Because the material prior to Mosiah was lost, part of the 116 missing pages. The small plates were the inspired solution to this issue. But with Words of Mormon, they cover precisely the right amount of material. If Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had stopped translating a week or so earlier, the transition would not be remotely as smooth. Had they been able to continue translating for another week or so, and so lost the first parts of our current book of Mosiah, then a great deal of sense would have been lost. In other words, the inspiration that prompted the writing and the inclusion of the small plates, and the writing of Words of Mormon to integrate them into the book, foresaw not only that a portion would be lost, but precisely at which point they would be lost fourteen hundred years before they were actually lost. Were 106 pages or 126 pages lost, things would read very differently.

Now factor in all the decisions that affect the precise circumstances of this episode: not only when Joseph Smith and Martin Harris began their work, and ended their work, but every single time they decided when to begin their working day and when they decided to end it. Also every decision that led to them meeting when and where they did. Every decision, in fact, that Joseph and Martin made that led up to that specific moment at that place in the manuscript at that time. And then beyond that, every decision of every single one of their ancestors that factored into where they lived, where they moved too, who they reproduced with, and so on, involving many thousands of people, over many many generations, for over a thousand years. The very mortal existences of this chain of ancestors is “contingent”, relying as it does on the decisions of people in each and every generation. God shows that he knows and takes into account all of this.

As said, I plan to address the concept of God’s relationship with time in a future post beyond what I have already done, and while there’s undoubtedly much we don’t know about in this area, and much we maybe aren’t in a position to understand, believe that we can learn enough to resolve any philosophical difficulties between God’s omniscience and our agency. However, as to the actuality of God’s foreknowledge, I believe this chapter both states and demonstrates that he truly ‘knoweth all things which are to come’.

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The Good News

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Almost two thousand years ago, in a minor province of the Roman empire and in the space of just a few days, the most important event in human history took place. More than history even, for the events of those days will have consequences beyond history and throughout eternity, when many “historical” events will seem mere footnotes. Moreover, those events matter not just two thousand years ago, nor just in eternities beyond the end of time itself, but I find myself reflecting on this Easter on the way they matter today.

It seems a human tendency to want to break things up, and subdivide them, perhaps so we can get our head around them. Thus some depictions of Christ’s redeeming work have focused on the Crucifixion. In Latter-day Saint culture, there’s been a tendency to focus on the suffering in the garden of Gethsemane (I specify culture; the Book of Mormon itself refers to the Cross more frequently than to the Garden). But in reality these are all part of one big redemptive work. It arguably began long before Gethsemane itself, as Christ’s experienced the sufferings endemic to mortal life throughout his mortal life (Alma 7:11). He faced hunger and thirst in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil, sorrow at the tomb of Lazarus, and abandonment by many of his former followers: such happenings and others like them were all part and parcel of him taking upon himself mortal pains so that he might help us in ours.

It is in the garden, however, that the more than natural sufferings clearly began. In addition to his sorrowing “unto death”, so much that he “fell on his face” (Matt. 26:38-39), in some way that we do not fully comprehend he began the process by which he took upon himself the sin of the world, suffering so much so that he sweat blood (Luke 22:44; Mosiah 3:7; D&C 19:18). He was then betrayed by Judas, abandoned by all, unjustly tried and condemned, abused, scourged and then sentenced to death on the Cross. Yet his spiritual sufferings did not end in the garden, for there was more to Christ’s pain on the Cross than the physical agony of crucifixion, and more to his atoning sacrifice that the suffering endured in the Garden beforehand.

Indeed, suffering alone wasn’t Christ’s offering. The penalty of sin is death (Romans 5:12;  6:23), death and hell, or death of the body and death of the spirit (2 Nephi 9:10). In the first our spirit is separated from our body, in the second it is separated from God. The price to redeem us from these deaths required an infinite offering: “not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast” (Alma 34:10), nor simply a discrete amount of suffering, no matter how multiplied. There is no straightforward arithmetic of atonement that allows trading off one life for another, and so only “an infinite atonement [would] suffice for the sins of the world” (v. 11-12). Thus Christ needed to offer up his own, infinite and eternal divine life as the offering: his sufferings alone would not suffice, but his death was required also (Alma 22:14). Not even his physical life could be taken from him without his will (John 19:11), as reflected in the curious phrasing by which Moses and Elijah discuss “his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, my emphasis). But just like the death we face due to our sins is both physical and spiritual, so Christ’s offering likewise required both. Thus, while in Gethsemane he received strength from an angel (Luke 22:43), on the Cross he experienced the withdrawal of the Father’s presence, causing him to exclaim “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

So Christ offered up every drop of his infinite and eternal life. And yet that is not the conclusion of his atonement, for the victory would yet be incomplete. That came several days later, on the day we commemorate with Easter itself. It is on that day that the bands of death and hell were broken, when Christ rose from his tomb. Notice how he tells Mary Magdalene, the first to see him, to not touch him “for I am not yet ascended to my Father”, but for her to go and specifically tell his brethren “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17 – the fact that those who saw him later could touch him suggest that said ascension took place swiftly). His rising was not just taking up his body again, even in perfect form, but a rising into a fullness of both physical and spiritual life, the ascension of his body from the tomb, and his ascension – body and spirit both – to the Father. Thus our redemption is “brought to pass through the power, and sufferings, and death of Christ, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven” (Mosiah 18:2).

There are those, both of Christ’s followers at the time and others since, who have had the opportunity to bear physical witness of his resurrection, to have “heard”, “seen” and “handled” (Ep. of John 1:1). For others, including myself, there is the witness of the Holy Ghost. In all such cases, however, we have the promise symbolised by the empty tomb, a promise that can bring power and peace into our lives now by assuring us of good things to come. It may be easy, looking around the world, to feel a measure of disquiet at the way things are and the way they’re heading. Even when things are good, no society lasts forever. And then in our personal lives, we may – indeed almost all do – experience loss, or grief, or failure, or feelings of failure. We may feel frustration or pain that life has gone in undesired directions, whether due to our mistakes or the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is just rubbish, and sometimes we may simply feel we’ve messed it up.

But the promise of that Easter Morning – the “good news” which is literally the meaning of the word gospel – is that this life is not it. There is more to come than the ephemeral things of this life, and no failure need be final. No matter what setbacks we face, what trials we experience or pain we go through in the present, that empty tomb is a promise that better things are in store if we look to the one who is risen and hold on faithful. It is a promise that we need not be forever defined by our sins nor our failures, nor any other imperfection, for Christ has conquered death and hell, and can put all enemies under his feet.

“To God I cried with mournful voice”

To God I cried with mournful voice,
I sought his gracious ear,
In the sad day when troubles rose,
And filled the night with fear.

Sad were my days, and dark my nights,
My soul refused relief;
I thought on God the just and wise,
But thoughts increased my grief.

Still I complained, and still oppressed,
My heart began to break;
My God, thy wrath forbade my rest,
And kept my eyes awake.

My overwhelming sorrows grew,
Till I could speak no more;
Then I within myself withdrew,
And called thy judgments o’er.

I called back years and ancient times
When I beheld thy face;
My spirit searched for secret crimes
That might withhold thy grace.

I called thy mercies to my mind
Which I enjoyed before;
And will the Lord no more be kind?
His face appear no more?

Will he for ever cast me off?
His promise ever fail?
Has he forgot his tender love?
Shall anger still prevail?

But I forbid this hopeless thought;
This dark, despairing frame,
Rememb’ring what thy hand hath wrought;
Thy hand is still the same.

I’ll think again of all thy ways,
And talk thy wonders o’er;
Thy wonders of recovering grace,
When flesh could hope no more.

Grace dwells with justice on the throne;
And men that love thy word
Have in thy sanctuary known
The counsels of the Lord.

Isaac Watts, Psalm 77 part one (based on Psalm 77)

2 Nephi 19

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

… For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of government and peace there is no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform this.

(2 Nephi 19:2, 6-7//Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)

I’ve spent some time (okay, a lot of time) on this blog lamenting particular developments in the world. And I’m pessimistic about the current future of Western civilization. But the message of the gospel is ultimately one of hope, on both a personal and a collective level. Through Christ, each of us personally can be saved from sin and death, and He promises to “wipe away every tear” of his people (Revelations 21:4), and make right all our sorrows. Collectively, there will come a time when He will reign, and the Earth will be at rest, and governed in peace and justice. Bad stuff may happen in the meantime, but these too will pass; while the immediate future may sometimes be dim, God’s light will shine, and will shine forever. And if we are faithful, we will be blessed to walk in that light forevermore.

2 Nephi 7

Yea, for thus saith the Lord: Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? For thus saith the Lord: Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement? To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you? Yea, to whom have I sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.

Wherefore, when I came, there was no man; when I called, yea, there was none to answer. O house of Israel, is my hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem, or have I no power to deliver? Behold, at my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make their rivers a wilderness and their fish to stink because the waters are dried up, and they die because of thirst.

(2 Nephi 7:1-2//Isaiah 50:1-2)

Sometimes its just gratifying to know that – while we often sell ourselves by our iniquities – we are not cast off forever, and that God always has the power to redeem and deliver.

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.