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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Enos

I’ve not added any post recently as I’ve been quite ill, and have more to come. I thought, however, upon reading Enos this morning and finding it wasn’t on my list that I’d add a few observations upon reading it today. I’m partly cheating, as the last one will simply be an excerpt from The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, but that’s not simply laziness or fatigue, it’s the fact that I can’t help but think of that point when I read this chapter now. But more on that later.

I was struck, as I always am, by Enos 4:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

It’s not the praying all night and day that quite gets my attention, but rather the desire implicit in that “and my soul hungered”. I can’t take any credit for this observation (the Church film produced for Seminary makes much the same point), but the crux of Enos’ experience was how badly he wanted something, and what he was prepared to do to get it.

And that strikes me as something that’s true for all of us, particularly when it comes to matters of the Spirit. We can’t force the Spirit, but much of our experience depends on the strength of our desires. If we want to know if something is true, but only out of mild curiosity, we can’t expect the heavens to open up to us. As James says about those that waver in seeking wisdom from God: “let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (James 1:7).

Why did I particularly think on this verse today? I was thinking of Ward Conference several weeks back, when the question was posed (I can’t remember if by one of the speakers outright, or by myself in my notes in response to something they said): are you closer to Christ than you were a year ago? And I don’t think I could honestly answer yes. Not that I’ve completely wandered off the reservation or anything, but closer? I’m not sure that’s true. But I think it should be, and it’s something I want to be different. In which case, how badly do I want that, and what am I prepared to do?

I likewise had my attention caught on verse 23, a verse that probably gets a lot less attention:

And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things—stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction. And after this manner do I write concerning them.

I guess I found two things interesting about this. One is the fact that what needs to be said to people, and what needs to be stressed, depends greatly on where someone is. Plenty of times people need to be reminded of the love of God. These people were in a different place, and needed to be reminded of the judgment of God. I’m sure what we need to hear varies across our life too. But I was also struck about the elements singled out here: reminding people of death, of eternity, and the judgment and power of God. Unwittingly, these are the very elements I’ve been stressing in something I’m working on (whether that is true in that work’s final form remains very much to be seen).

And now to the final point, which genuinely crossed my mind while reading once again, but which I have better described elsewhere:

However, the Book of Mormon adopts an unusual approach to time not just in how it speaks of future events, but also in how it views cause and effect. Thus Enos, seeking forgiveness of sins some four centuries before the birth of Christ according to the narrative, is told by revelation when he asks how he is forgiven:

And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole. (Enos 1:8)

Thus it is through Christ that Enos is forgiven, but in a particularly retro-causal turn the answer he receives emphasises that the cause of his forgiveness lies far into the future. God himself is not subject to time, for ‘all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men’ (Alma 40:8). Because God is not subject to time, the Book of Mormon sees no logical obstacles to Lehi being able to quote from future scripture, or God informing human beings of future events:

And now I will ease your mind somewhat on this subject. Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand. Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?
Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children?
Is it not as easy at this time for the Lord to send his angel to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children, or as after the time of his coming? (Alma 39:17-19)

Or as described in Jacob 4 itself:

And now, beloved, marvel not that I tell you these things; for why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come? (Jacob 4:12)

It is upon this basis that the book defends its ‘pre-Christian Christianity’: on the grounds that God is able to reveal Christ, his atonement and the ‘plan of redemption’ at any time of his choosing. This includes phrases otherwise unique to the New Testament, such as Lehi’s quotation of John the Baptist in 1 Nephi 10:8, or (for an example especially pertinent to Jacob 5) the quotation of Matthew 3:10 in Alma 5:52, a quotation attributed to what ‘the spirit saith’. The Book of Mormon’s use of ‘plain terms’ is attributed to the result of revelation from a God who is not subject to time and whose use of the ‘same words’ is described as an intentional effort:

The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, p. 264-265

I always like a bit of retro-causality. This one – that Christ’s atonement was so perfect and infinite that its effects could precede its cause, and bring forgiveness to anyone, regardless of where they were in time – is perhaps the most important.