Mosiah 26

This chapter records another stage in the dramatic changes that are happening in Nephite society at this time, as a sizeable proportion of the younger generation, who were not in a position to understand King Benjamin’s sermon from first hand experience, reject his teachings and (presumably) the associated covenant, and also reject the Church. Thus you have the definite emergence of a degree of religious pluralism at this time, some (indeed it seems virtually all who accepted King Benjamin’s teachings) joining the Church, but a significant part of the population (though still a minority, v. 5) remaining separate.

The part of this chapter that particularly stood out to me today, however, was the statement in verse 3:

And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.

There’s plenty of scriptures that emphasise the importance of belief, and that understanding the word of God is not simply a matter of intellectual comprehension (I think, for instance of 1 Corinthians 2:11-14, but there are many more). But I think this verse is the one that most starkly connects belief with understanding, in a way that really stood out to me today.

I think on some level that continues to surprise me. For instance, I find it relatively easy to understand why people might not believe the Gospel, but find it much harder to comprehend why people might find it, or particular scriptures,  hard to understand. So much of it seems clear and simple. And when it comes to other topics, I think we generally work on the assumption that we don’t need to believe a concept to understand a concept; I’d have hardly got a masters in Islamic studies if I’d thought otherwise, for instance. Likewise, in many scientific fields there’s a variety of competing hypotheses, and again it is presumed that those participating in those fields can understand the hypotheses without believing in them all first (especially since competing theories generally can’t all be true at the same time).

And yet here it is outright stated, and heavily supported elsewhere, that the gospel and the word of God is not like this. When it comes to the gospel, belief and understanding are intimately connected; some part of the gospel that might seem easy to comprehend to us, according to this verse, may appear bewildering to someone who does not believe. And I have seen this; indeed I know several people who’s understanding of the gospel appears to have gone backwards, so that they now know less than they once did, and are baffled by what they once easily understood. And yet it still seems a strange phenomenon to me, even though on some level I know it’s true and seen it happen. How can people find such clear things confusing? Especially when they once understood them?

I guess the key thing to recognise is that our understanding of the gospel is not simply a matter of study and the workings of our own mind, but also of faith and illumination by the spirit. Things that may appear clear to someone who believes and has the Holy Ghost to assist them may not be so to someone working solely with their own unaided and unbelieving mind. As 1st Corinthians 2:14 states: “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”. At the same time, it’s interesting to think of faith and belief as not opposed to knowledge, as some occasionally make out, but as a faculty that can peer through, that can perceive otherwise unseen things and which can lead to knowledge.

On humility in the face of ignorance: Coronavirus edition

Two interesting articles on the Coronavirus issue, one in the Lancet by the epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, and then an interview with him in the American Institute of American research. He’s worked for the WHO, been chief scientist for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and been an advisor to the Swedish government during the present crisis.

It’s well reading both articles, which comment on the approach Sweden pursued avoiding a lockdown (and which the UK was pursuing until the report from Imperial University) compared to those that have. Sweden does have a higher mortality than surrounding Norway, Finland and Denmark… but less than the UK, Spain and Belgium.

There could be a variety of factors for that, of course. He points out that a lockdown can slow spread (and thus reduce pressure and give time for health care to gear up), but ultimately does not stop the spread, and suggests that “[t]here is very little we can do to prevent this spread: a lockdown might delay severe cases for a while, but once restrictions are eased, cases will reappear. I expect that when we count the number of deaths from COVID-19 in each country in 1 year from now, the figures will be similar, regardless of measures taken.”

I think that last point speaks to something that is very unappreciated in a lot of the debates around responses to the Coronavirus. We seem to assume – perhaps based on living in a fairly comfortable and controlled environment compared to most of human history – that things should be under control. We especially tend to place a lot of faith in the power of government and human agencies to control things, and when things don’t go according to “plan”, we look for someone to blame. But a lot of things – and this episode should be a reminder of that – are not under our control, or anybody’s.

The “looking for blame” approach is particularly corrosive when there’s simply so much that we don’t – and those making the decisions – didn’t know. When the Imperial report was released, the (UK) Government had the choice of sticking to previous policy (based on what other experts were saying), or reversing course and going for the lock-down. They chose the latter. In retrospect, there appears to be some flaws with the model Imperial used, and perhaps Prof. Gieseke is right. Moreover, the economic damage in itself will also carry a cost (and not just a financial one – recessions and depressions lead to death too). But there was no way for anyone to be sure, and there still isn’t.

If they’d have chosen one way, they’d have been crucified by one part of the people and media, and by choosing another way, they got blamed by a different segment. Indeed, even now you have one segment suggesting that the lockdown wasn’t brought in soon enough, and thus “the government” is to blame for deaths, while another segment is pointing to the consequences and demanding opening up happen sooner. And yet it is still the case that no one can be entirely sure of the result of either course, or indeed realise that many things may be out of human hands entirely.

In short, what I suggest is that – while taking steps we can to keep ourselves as informed as possible – we approach all these things with a degree of intellectual humility.

Ponder upon…

I perceive that ye are weak, that ye cannot understand all my words which I am commanded of the Father to speak unto you at this time.

Therefore, go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand, and prepare your minds for the morrow, and I come unto you again.

(3 Nephi 18:2-3)

I’ve been thinking of this passage lately, in connection with the first vision & so on we’ve been directed to think about for conference.

Here it’s interesting that the Nephites – after hearing the Saviour personally – had to go home, ponder and pray, not just so they would be prepared for his words the following day, but so they could gain a greater understanding of what he’d already taught them.

Similarly, it’s quite clear to me that Joseph Smith’s understanding of what he had been taught in the first vision, and his grasp of its significance, expanded in the light of later perspective. His earliest accounts focused on what it meant for him as an individual, such as the personal forgiveness of his sins (there’s a trace of this in D&C 20:5). His comprehension, and what he learned from that initial experience, expanded with time, after many more revelations, trials, and the experiences he had.

This is a pattern that can be seen elsewhere too: Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean, and the above-mentioned Nephites. Even an experience like hearing the Saviour face to face, as powerful a teaching experience as that surely was, required later reflection, pondering, prayer and surely more revelation to unfold into a full (or fuller) understanding of what that initial experience could teach them. And perhaps there’s a general principle here for us, as we think upon the first vision and prepare for General conference.

2 Nephi 28

2016 notes:

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

(2 Nephi 28:4)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the themes of 2 Nephi 25-30 is the way a contrast is built up between human learning and the knowledge from God, and this is an example, where contending priests are condemned for teaching by their learning while denying the Holy Ghost and true inspiration. I find it cautionary: in my approach to the scriptures, and when I discuss them with other people, how often do I rely on what I think I know rather than being open to the spirit to teach me things I don’t?

For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

(2 Nephi 28:20)

2 Nephi 28 also spends quite a bit of time talking about the different tactics of the devil, including flattery, complacency and in this case rage. A lot of present political developments are currently predicated on rage, of course, with people being “angry” and demanding that their anger be validated. And I’ve found in turn that there’s a strong temptation to be angry in turn with certain movements. Such unbridled anger, however, is a tool of the devil, and we/I have to be careful not to let him use such tools against us.

2020 Edit:

This is a very powerful chapter, the culminating point that the last three chapters have been building up to. Here we have many of our modern errors, particularly in religion laid bare.

Notice, once again, the issue of denying the power of God and the existence of miracles, and a reliance on human learning instead of divine inspiration, recurs again:

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men;

Behold, hearken ye unto my precept; if they shall say there is a miracle wrought by the hand of the Lord, believe it not; for this day he is not a God of miracles; he hath done his work.

(2 Nephi 28:4-6)

Verse 4 caught my attention again, as it did back in 2016. In 2016, however, my principle focus was thinking of my own study of the scriptures. When I read it this time, I was struck that a key part of the issue is that the contending priests will “teach with their learning”, and was reminded of the following passage in Section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

And if it be by some other way it is not of God.

And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

If it be some other way it is not of God.

(D&C 50:16-20)

Teaching the gospel is not like teaching other subjects. There may be overlaps in terms of skills and techniques in terms of effective teaching, but it is not the case, when teaching more “secular” subjects, that being inspired by the Holy Ghost is not only expected, but mandatory. It caused me to likewise reflect on the experience of teaching the gospel, meaning both in classroom settings and in things like sacrament talks. It seems that unless we are guided by the spirit, and communicate in such a way that those we are teaching can feel the spirit, than no matter how “correct” the content of our teaching, it is not of God. We must teach so that those who are in our audiences and classes are in a position to feel the spirit. That goes for Sunday School & Priesthood and whatever classes too: no matter how correct the teaching, nor how emotionally touching, nor how good the comments, unless those in the class have had the opportunity of a spiritual experience, it is not of God. I feel we may all have some way to go on this score (I certainly feel I have a better idea of what to speak about in teacher council meetings).

The chapter then goes on to hedonism (it certainly has the modern age pegged):

Yea, and there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.

And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.

(2 Nephi 28:7-8)

The first verse seems an outright hedonistic attitude. What I find interesting is the second verse (v. 8), which seems to address a more moderated approach: one that still says “nevertheless, fear God”, and even foresees suffering “a few stripes” (so it acknowledges the possibility of wrong), but only to a degree. Perhaps the most crucial words there are “a little”: it is believed God will justify “a little sin”, and he may punish “a little”, but at last all shall be saved, so fear God… “a little”. It reminds of the comment in The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis), where Screwtape (a demon, counselling another demon) states that “a moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing”. Nephi’s assessment of the idea is blunt: “false and vain and foolish doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:9).

2 Nephi 28:11-15 is striking:

Yea, they have all gone out of the way; they have become corrupted.

Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up.

They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.

They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.

O the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!

Pride, false teachers and false doctrines have caused all manner of sin and condemnation falls upon those responsible for such things: the wise, the learned and the rich. Still, repentance is possible, but God’s judgment is coming and must fall on the kingdom of the devil, and those within must either repent and be freed or perish with it (vv. 16-19).

There is then a recap of various satanic strategies. In some cases, as mentioned above, Satan will provoke rage and anger. In others he will do the opposite, lulling into complacency:

And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

(2 Nephi 28:21).

Others he will lead astray by teaching that neither hell nor he exist:

And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.

(2 Nephi 28:22).

The verse stands out to me, because this sort of idea seems not only widespread outside the Church, but I’ve heard some within the Church hold to the same mistake (that there is not hell). I even ended up writing a post on the topic when one such member decided to claim such (and claim said opinion was what “Mormons” believe). But this is really true of everything this chapter is talking about: these are not just problems “outside”, or which categorise the situation before the restoration of the gospel, but pervasive modern ills to which Satan would have us subject too. This is likewise true of the fact, taught in verses 27-30, that those who reject some of God’s revealed words will lose “even that which they have”. We can’t pick and choose with God’s revelations and teachings: past, present nor future.

These ills all risk the same fate:

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and be judged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

(2 Nephi 28:23; I imagine at this point it might get difficult to teach that there is no hell).

These ills also have, at least in many cases, the same source, which I think can be linked to this penultimate verse:

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.

This is not the first time this statement about trusting the arm of flesh has appeared in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Nephi 4), nor the first time it has appeared in scripture (see Jeremiah 17:5), but here its application is clearly visible where trusting man, making flesh our arm, is equated with “hearken[ing] unto the precepts of men”. And much of the tendencies described above perform the same substitution: God’s power, knowledge, judgment and blessings are denied, and instead there is a reliance upon human learning, capacity, riches and impulses. And indeed, that is characteristic of pride – which lies at the root of much of this – to vaunt ourselves against others, and especially against God himself.

2 Nephi 27

2016 notes:

There’s so much in here, but I have time to pick out only a couple of verses:

Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.

(2 Nephi 27:22)

This one’s interesting because I suddenly realised it addresses a question I hadn’t thought about all that much (one of those “was this always in there?” moments). The question being why Joseph Smith had to give the plates back. The reason is given here :”that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read” (my emphasis). Never mind people attempting to retranslate the Book of Mormon itself: the concern given here is over the sealed portion, which the Lord has kept back at this time.

2020 edit:

This chapter (as did last chapter) includes a fair amount of Isaiah 29, although quoted without explicit markers (unlike, say 2 Nephi 12-24//Isaiah 2-14), but also significantly interspersed with Nephi’s own commentary and prophecy. Thus so in this case, where the chapter opens with an account of the wickedness of the nations in the last days and the forthcoming judgment to coincide with Christ’s second coming.

The chapter then moves on to talk about a forthcoming book:

And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.

And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.

(2 Nephi 27:6-7)

This book is the records contained on the golden plates, of which an unsealed portion is translated and published as the Book of Mormon, with the rest to appear at some future date (vv. 9-11). Apparently there’s much more in it, for “they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (v. 10).

The chapter then gives an account of some words of the unsealed portion being taken to “the learned”, who is asked to read the words. The learned then requests the book, but when informed that they are sealed will state that they cannot read them (vv. 15-18). In contrast, they will be then delivered to one who is not learned, who shall simply say “I am not learned” (v. 19) and will be told:

Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.

(2 Nephi 27:20)

Now on one hand this is seen as a reference to the well-known account of Martin Harris taking some characters to Charles Anthon. As recounted in the Pearl of Great Price:

Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:

“I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.

“He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”

(Joseph Smith- History 1:63-65)

Charles Anthon here is the learned man, while the unlearned man who does end up reading the words is Joseph Smith.

And yet there is more going on here. This passage is not just about these two men (and the Book of Mormon, and the witnesses). There is a wider theme here distinguishing between the learning of the world, that men have set up in stead of that of God, and the inspiration that comes from God. Thus this chapter has a broader application than this one episode, which is a type of the dilemma we all face in gain a greater understanding, especially of the things of God. Do we rely on our own learning, upon the mortal intellect alone? If so than no matter how learned or knowledgeable we are, we shall find the scriptures and other revelations and sacred matters of God a “sealed book”. Or do we humble acknowledge our deficiencies, in which case we are in a position to be blessed with God’s understanding and inspiration.

This is not to say that knowledge and learning are necessarily bad, far from it: “to be learned is good”, says Jacob, “if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). We are supposed to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). I am convinced that relying on faith alone risks just as much distortion as relying on study alone would. But, as discussed here and in The Book of Mormon & its relationship with the Bible, Book of Mormon prophets relied upon inspiration and their own revelatory experiences to understand the scriptures they read (the so-called “Hermeneutic of Revelation”), and read them with an eye of faith. They did not seek to understand them purely by their own or any other man’s intellect. One of the great sins of those preaching in the latter days is that they will, relying solely on their learning and their human wisdom, and excluding revelation and faith. Likewise, if we approach the scriptures purely from what might be termed an “academic” viewpoint, they will be sealed to us; we might learn many things about them, but we’ll miss the point (and I’ve see some very learned people do this with my own eyes and ears). “[T]he things of God knoweth no man, but [by] the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11), and cannot be forced open by human intellect alone.

Such earthly learning in insufficient to understand the things of God. Thus he will perform his “marvelous work” with his own power, in a way that will baffle those accounted wise and learned among men (note the recurrence of the same themes discussed in 2 Nephi 26):

For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith.

And again it shall come to pass that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him:

Forasmuch as this people draw near unto me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their hearts far from me, and their fear towards me is taught by the precepts of men—

Therefore, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, yea, a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid.

(2 Nephi 27:23-26)

 

2 Nephi 26

2016 notes;

And after Christ shall have risen from the dead he shall show himself unto you, my children, and my beloved brethren; and the words which he shall speak unto you shall be the law which ye shall do.

(2 Nephi 26:1)

Nephi’s particularly talking of Christ’s post-resurrection appearance to the Nephites here, but it applies to us too. I find myself thinking that – though I believe in Christ and try to follow him – how often do I actually treat and think of his words as law?

And as I spake concerning the convincing of the Jews, that Jesus is the very Christ, it must needs be that the Gentiles be convinced also that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God;

(2 Nephi 26:12)

Part of this section addresses the fact that both Jew and Gentile have gotten Christ wrong in some regards. At a time when people increasingly do not believe in the divinity of Christ, I think this verse – and the accompanying message – apply more than ever. It also surprises me when I have met young members of the Church who, while accepting Christ as their Saviour and talk of their “elder brother”, seem to have difficultly understanding him as their God. But this is one of the key messages of the Book of Mormon, as stated on the title page: “that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD”. He is not just a great teacher, or a perfect man, or the Messiah, or our Saviour, or an examplar, though he is all of these things. He is also our Lord and our God. And thus, as Nephi says in the preceding chapter:

And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out.

(2 Nephi 25:29)

2020 Edit:

Several things stood out to me today.

One was Nephi once again showing a strong emotional reaction to events in the far future (in this case the devastation that would occur in connection to the death of Christ amongst his people):

O the pain, and the anguish of my soul for the loss of the slain of my people! For I, Nephi, have seen it, and it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord; but I must cry unto my God: Thy ways are just.

(2 Nephi 26:7)

Once again it’s interest that his perspective was such, and his visions of these events were vivid enough, that they made the sort of emotional impact one would expect of contemporary events (and indeed that Nephi often doesn’t seem to react as strongly to his present).

Then there’s the statement in verse 8 (which goes along with similar statements in verses 3 and 5):

But behold, the righteous that hearken unto the words of the prophets, and destroy them not, but look forward unto Christ with steadfastness for the signs which are given, notwithstanding all persecution—behold, they are they which shall not perish.

For Nephi’s people approaching the calamities that would accompany his first coming to them (i.e. his post-resurrection appearance), a crucial factor determining one’s safety (and I’m sure this is not speaking in a purely physical sense; that is there isn’t necessarily a guarantee of physical safety here, but on the other hand even more is offered) was one’s reaction to the prophets: those who cast out, stone and kill  the prophets (vv. 3, 5) will face destruction, while those who do not, but listen to them and look forward “with steadfastness” for Christ will not perish. I think it is undoubtedly the case that there is a type in Christ’s appearance to the Nephites for that which is to come in the future.

I also found (although perhaps partly because it relates to topics I’ve already thought about) the following verse sticking out:

And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor.

(2 Nephi 26:20)

There’s several elements here, a listing of various errors that the Gentiles of the last days and their churches will often fall into. A number of these themes will return as a running theme in this passage (meaning 2 Nephi 25-30), but two which catch my attention in particular are:

  1. “they put down the power and miracles of God” – while the Book of Mormon does address the topic of atheism (for example, with Korihor in Alma 30), something it seems to spend even more time warning against is what I sometimes dub “practical atheism”: that is, beliefs that may acknowledge the existence of God, but which deny his power, the existence of miracles or that he is prepared to actively intervene in our lives. It should be noted that the first vision likewise addresses this point, with Christ warning Joseph Smith against those that ‘“… teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”’
  2. They “preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning”: they will set up their own learning as the content of their teaching (in contrast to, as 2 Nephi 25-30 addresses, the knowledge available from God). Jacob in 2 Nephi 9 of course condemns those who are learned but do not hearken to the counsel of God; the error here is in some respects even more pernicious, that some will set up their learning and teach it as if it were the counsel of God. And some will do this to “get gain” (priestcraft), and to “grind uponthe face of the poor”. It’s interesting that these are two items, suggesting that simply getting gain isn’t enough for those it is talking about; they not only seek to enrich themselves, but also to deprive others (something that, unfortunately, rings true with human psychology: unfortunately we only tend to think of ourselves as rich or prosperous not when we are, but when we’re doing so compared to other people).

The next few chapters will build upon these themes.

 

 

Even experts are ignorant – UnHerd

There’s an interesting article on UnHerd today, about a book called The Hidden Half: How The World Conceals Its Secrets by Michael Blastland, which apparently examines how strange reality really is, and how little we sometimes know about it (or even how little know we know about what little we know).

Some highlights:

So what caused these differences if not genetics or environment? Answer: we don’t know. And most laypeople – myself included, before I’d read Blastland’s book – didn’t even know we didn’t know. You, like me, probably thought that the argument in science was between genes and environment; not between genes and environment and… this other thing. Yet this other thing – this hidden half, called “enigmatic variation” – doesn’t just apply to crayfish. As much as half of human variation can’t be accounted for, writes Blastland, by either genetic or environmental factors.

 

You all know by now, for instance, that economic forecasting isn’t hugely reliable; perhaps it seems obvious that that’s in the nature of the thing. Animal spirits, irrational exuberance and all that, right?

But economic reporting, it turns out, is just as dodgy. Not only do we not know what’s going to happen, we don’t know what did happen. ONS figures for the economy two or three years ago continue to be revised in light of what has followed – and are often subject to confidence margins that can make the difference between a boom and a recession (Blastland cites one where a fall in unemployment of 3,000 was sombrely reported with a confidence margin of +/-77,000 – i.e. the figure could be a rise of 74,000 rather than a fall of 3,000).

 

And then there’s the “replication crisis” in the social sciences, where results on which whole subsequent fields of research have been built turn out to be, literally, junk science. Again, as many as half of the accepted results in the whole of social science or medicine are feared to be unreliable or plain wrong. The experiments simply don’t replicate. Even medicines that we know work may only work for a tiny percentage of patients – and we can’t predict which ones and we don’t know why.

Read more at Even experts are ignorant – UnHerd

The Omniscience of God | Religious Studies Center

Since the topic has come up in correspondence, and some things I’m writing (both for a book and for this blog), I happened to come across this article in my reading, and thought it was good enough that I wanted to share it: “The Omniscience of God” by Roger Terry.

I wanted to share it, however, not just for what it addresses about God’s omniscience and relationship to time (though those are very worth reading), but also for some profound points it makes at the end, some profound points that I think often get overlooked in such debates:

Thus far we have talked about God’s omniscience primarily in the sense that He sees everything and has all information present before Him. But all the knowledge in the universe would not make our Heavenly Father a perfect or even helpful God without His other attributes, such as love, justice, mercy, goodness, patience, and kindness. One attribute in particular that enables Him to use His infinite knowledge to bless His children is His wisdom. Wisdom is actually an important aspect, or product, of God’s knowledge. Wisdom, we might say, is knowing how to apply knowledge correctly. Thus, because He has perfect wisdom, God always knows which choice will create the greatest eternal good for His children. His wisdom prevents Him from ever misapplying His knowledge, as we imperfect mortals often do.

President Marion G. Romney, First Counselor in the First Presidency, wrote:

‘Since knowledge is an “acquaintance with, or clear perception of, facts”; and “wisdom is the capacity of judging soundly and dealing broadly with facts; especially in their practical” application “to life and conduct,” it follows that wisdom, although more than, is nevertheless a product of, and is dependent upon knowledge.
The Book of Mormon specifically relates God’s wisdom to his knowledge. Speaking of God’s plan for the salvation of men, Lehi says, “All things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2:24). Thus, . . . God’s perfect wisdom is a product of His knowledge of all things.’

Certainly, His wisdom is a product of His knowledge, but it is also a product of His goodness, for knowledge alone does not automatically produce wisdom. Lucifer had great knowledge, but that knowledge did not lead to wisdom. Indeed, Lucifer’s unwise choices prevented him from attaining greater knowledge. It is God’s perfect knowledge combined with His perfect goodness that makes His perfect wisdom a reality. And because God has perfect wisdom to apply His perfect knowledge, He is able to perform His work and enjoy the associated glory in bringing “to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).

In debates about omniscience and omnipotence, it should be remembered that while these are necessary qualities for God to do all that he promised and for us to have confidence in him, they are not all that defines or characterises God. We likewise should not forget his love, justice, mercy, goodness, patience, kindness and his wisdom.

Read the whole article at The Omniscience of God | Religious Studies Center

Mosiah 2

Several passages stood out to me today.

Firstly, in verse 9:

And these are the words which he spake and caused to be written, saying: My brethren, all ye that have assembled yourselves together, you that can hear my words which I shall speak unto you this day; for I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view.

I was struck by the force of this earnest appeal. The Gospel and the Scriptures are not something that we can simply sit back and engage with cognitively, and hope to understand. Nor is it something we can simply live without giving too much thought to it. To understand and to follow the gospel requires us to use all our faculties: spiritual, mental, emotional and physical. We can perhaps paddle in the scriptures, seeking only that which we already know or live, without rising to the challenge and deploying everything we are and possess to comprehending them and making them a part of ourselves. King Benjamin’s appeal neatly addresses that.

Secondly, in verse 21:

I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

This is a very clear statement that we can’t earn anything from God; we cannot put ourselves in credit with him. Which is a basic but most powerful truth that we may sometimes lose sight of. But what stood to me today was twofold. On one hand, the statements that he is “preserving you from day to day” and “supporting you from one moment to another” gain in significance when we think of these things in the light of what Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants has to teach us about how the power and influence of God is continually extending life and light and law to all things. Were that influence to stop or be paused for any reason, our very elements would devolve into chaos.

On the other hand, I have a renewed personal appreciation of this verse. As alluded to on some other posts, I’ve been experiencing some health challenges lately, which came as a surprise after not needing see a doctor in 14 years. Earlier this year I had a case of flu which became quite serious, and for the first time in my life, really found it difficult to breathe, something I had hitherto taken for granted. But I remembered this verse, about the Lord “lending you breath”, and felt a renewed appreciation for the times in my life I could breathe. Of course, who knows what else I take for granted, but which others struggle with, and which is ultimately a gift or loan from God. For as this chapter also states in verse 25:

Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him that created you.

Everything we have is his.

2020 edit:

Once again, I find my eyes alighting on a verse that it turns out – when I go to edit this post – I’ve already written about. Verse 25 is what really struck my attention today. To quote it for a second time:

And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you.

Notions of ownership, of mine, are deeply ingrained in our society and I believe in the (natural?) human psyche. I myself find that I get very territorial. And yet this verse goes so far the other way: it’s not just that the things we own, our property or clothes or possessions or whatever come from God. We cannot lay claim to owning even the very particles our body is composed of. We didn’t create them, we didn’t organise them, we did nothing by which their rightful title (which surely belongs to the one who did) passes to us. On anything lower than the most obvious scale we don’t even control them: we don’t control the very cells of our body, which work without our conscious will, let alone the chemicals, and then the elements, and then the atomic and sub-atomic particles those are composed of in turn. We cannot dictate that they work, and we cannot dictate when they stop working. All we have, including our very bodies, organs and matter, are on loan.

Which also makes me think of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27). Along with our earthly wealth and position, and along with our gifts and “talents”, our bodies and our lives too must surely count amongst that sum that is given to each of the servants. Which is interesting when we consider the one who buried his singular talent for fear of losing it, and so who ultimately lost all because he did nothing with it. We are, I am sure, intended to be wise stewards of our lives and bodies. But we are not here to simply seek to preserve or perpetuate our mortal existence at any price for as long as possible, to hoard it so as to preserve it from all possible harm. Rather, like those who were trustworthy, and used their talents, we are meant to spend our life for the most good possible, to take this gift that God has loaned us and to invest it in things of eternal value. As the Saviour taught (Matthew 16:25):

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

Jacob 7

It’s about time I finished this book!

Well, I’ve actually read Jacob 7 multiple times since beginning this “reading through” series, but I’ve never actually managed a post on it. The first pause of posts happened right after Jacob 5, something I don’t believe is a coincidence in light of the fact that I wrote about 20,000 words on that chapter for The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. I then went back to do Jacob 6 late last year, but again never quite did the final chapter. This should never be taken as a reflection on those chapters, or Jacob 7 itself though. For one thing, there’s the warning in 1 Nephi 19:7:

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.

Hopefully I’m not trampling Jacob under my feet, as in any case I do see much of value in it, and also believe there’s bound to be things of value that I can’t see. If I were to try and come up with an excuse, it would be that I’ve written about it elsewhere, which is true of Jacob 7 as well. That chapter factors into my consideration of Jacob’s personality here. Furthermore, there’s an excellent article by Duane Boyce, which responds to some recent readings of Jacob 7, which I happen to comment on very briefly here (better to read his article though). So while I do not waver from my opinion that the scriptures can be a boundless reservoir, I must sometimes plead human weakness in finding it difficult to see what else is there.

However, since I do believe they are a inexhaustible well, I decided to make the effort anyway, and read Jacob 7 today.

Several things stood out to me:

  1. Sherem is one of the three figures in the Book of Mormon commonly referred to as Anti-Christs, alongside Nehor (Alma 1) and Korihor (Alma 30). The text itself uses that title only for Korihor (Alma 30:6, 12), but it may be seen as a fair title since the one thing that seems to unite the teaching of these figures is their opposition to the idea of Christ, although this is inferred in the case of Nehor (Alma 21:7-8 indicates that his followers, if not Nehor himself, rejected Christ, and may reflect his teachings. Alma 1 doesn’t comment on the issue, although his teaching that all will be saved does imply less emphasis on sin and thus the need for an atonement, which may be why Book of Mormon prophets teach about that so much). They come from three very different directions though: Nehor teaches a form of universalism (linked to his teaching that Priests teach what is popular), Korihor outright rejects God in favour of materialism, while Sherem in contrast claims to be motivated by the need to keep the law of Moses and reject the blasphemy of worshipping another being (leading to suggestions – and I can’t remember who made it, but it was done a while back, that Sherem may have had Deuteronomy 13:1-5 in mind).
    What struck me while reading this time, however, was the description of Sherem as “learned” and having “a perfect knowledge of the language of the people” (Jacob 7:4). We are accustomed to seeing those as good things, and the whole conceit of things like a debate is presumably that learning and eloquence deployed in such an environment can help lead to truth. But the example of Sherem indicates that such learning and eloquence can in fact be deployed to untrue ends (the track record of actual debates – and human responses to them – suggests likewise). Misused knowledge and artful presentation may be used to advance falsehood as much as truth. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was Jacob, speaking elsewhere, who warned that the learned may assume they are wise and reject God’s counsel, but that to be learned is good “if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:28-29).
  2. Another thing to note is Jacob’s inherent humility in calling upon God’s intervention, which stands out when one compares the episode with Alma’s boldness in a similar confrontation with Korihor (Alma 30:49). I think it is indicative of Jacob’s character that he emphasises “not my will be done… And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine” (Jacob 7:14).
  3. Finally, I note again Jacob’s comments that his people were “a lonesome and a solemn people” and “did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). It makes me wonder what he spoke about with Enos that Enos refers to as “the joy of the saints” (Enos 1:3), assuming no intervening generations. That’s a subject I’ve spoken about before, as linked above, but it does really emphasise that Jacob, despite his righteousness and faithfulness, had a hard life, and that simply because we follow the gospel, we can’t expect “happily ever after”. Well, at least not in this life.

2020 Edit:

For those paying attention to my other posts, there’s this recurrent strain of argument that has, amongst other things, been pushing the idea that Laman, Lemuel, and importantly for this chapter, Sherem, were sincere and pious opponents, motivated by “Deuteronomist” ideals. There’s issues I have with this, and the broader reconstruction of supposed “Deuteronomism” and the implicit or sometimes explicit labelling of the books of Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomistic History, and even in some cases the entire Old Testament as something to be regarded with suspicion.

Anyway, back to Jacob 7: as I mention above, there is a case (I think a solid one) that Sherem has Deuteronomy 13:1-5 in mind, based on Jacob 7:7, in which he publicly claims that he is acting in favour of the Law of Moses, and against what he describes as converting the law into worship “of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence”. Of course, the mere fact that he appears to be reading Deuteronomy 13 in this way doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the passage, any more than there’s anything wrong with the scriptural passages Satan attempted to misuse in his temptation of the Saviour. Hence Shakespeare’s “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”.

This being the case, the question emerges as to how sincere Sherem was. It’s a question that Duane Boyce’s article linked above addresses (responding to other claims on that issue). It should be pointed out that it is entirely possible for someone to be sincere, and yet very wrong about ultimate things. I think Paul, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, was undoubtedly sincere and operating out of a misplaced zeal.

Here I think Sherem’s last words are worth quoting:

And it came to pass that he said unto the people: Gather together on the morrow, for I shall die; wherefore, I desire to speak unto the people before I shall die.

And it came to pass that on the morrow the multitude were gathered together; and he spake plainly unto them and denied the things which he had taught them, and confessed the Christ, and the power of the Holy Ghost, and the ministering of angels.

And he spake plainly unto them, that he had been deceived by the power of the devil. And he spake of hell, and of eternity, and of eternal punishment.

And he said: I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God; for I denied the Christ, and said that I believed the scriptures; and they truly testify of him. And because I have thus lied unto God I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God.

And it came to pass that when he had said these words he could say no more, and he gave up the ghost.

(Jacob 7:16-20)

I think in reading these words it’s quite easy to feel sympathy for Sherem: I did when I first read these words several decades ago. This passage gives every appearance – at a stage in which there is little to be gained from lying – of sincere penitence. But when one approaches the question of “was Sherem sincere?”, one should keep in mind that Sherem – like many of us – is a moving target. By Sherem’s own testimony here, in his earlier teachings he had “lied unto God”; while sincere here, his own account argues that he was less than completely sincere earlier.  That he may be a sincere and even sympathetic figure on his deathbed doesn’t, and shouldn’t, garb earlier words and works with a sincerity and integrity that he disclaims for himself. Yet at the same time, we need not let those earlier acts rob us of the possibility that here, at the last, he was being truthful and sincere.