“Love Wins,” and Charity Loses

A great article has been put online, first presented by Ralph Hancock (a professor of political science at BYU) at the 2016 FAIRMormon conference in which he discusses the modern ideology of “love” and the confusion some have had between such concepts and the ideal of charity, and the consequent belief that obedience towards God is less or unimportant. Read it here: “Love Wins,” and Charity Loses – FairMormon (link courtesy of Daniel Peterson’s blog here).

Personally I am reminded of Matthew 22:35-40:

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

This is the first and great commandment.

And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Love is certainly central to Christ’s teachings, but it should never be forgotten that loving God comes first.

Hell!

There’s a quite misguided article on hell by some member at the Huffington Post (thanks to Dan Peterson’s blog for the link), in which she basically claims we don’t believe hell exists (“The short answer to this is simple: No”). She admits that while Mormons “casually” refer to hell, and even concedes that the Book of Mormon “mentions” it. However, she claims that really it’s used either in a metaphorical sense, refers to “spirit prison” (which she claims “is also not a place that God has created for sinners” but “is a place where those who die in ignorance of Christ go”), or lastly “outer darkness” as a destination for the devil and his angels and unspecified “sons of perdition”. “God does not punish us” claims the author.

There’s bits of truth here mixed with folk doctrine and some real misconceptions, but these are widespread misconceptions. I remember as a missionary teaching around one family’s home, where my companion at the time (a good man and teacher – I enjoyed serving with him) made the claim that we did not believe in hell. After the discussion when we were alone again I brought it up. “Er… we do believe in hell. In fact we believe in lots more hell than most people. We just don’t think most people are going to be there permanently”. More recently I’ve had the opportunity to notice that despite it being more than a decade since I got home from my mission, the same phrases keep getting repeated (such as “spirit prison isn’t a place of punishment, it’s simply a place of learning), even though they cannot be found in either the scriptures or things like Preach My Gospel (which basically paraphrases Alma 40 on the issue). On a side issue, finding out how such notions get transmitted nearly word for word despite zero official support would be an interesting topic in itself.

However, it is on hell itself that I address myself. The following points seem to be misunderstood, and yet easily established from scripture:

 

A) God does punish sinners

Perhaps the most fundamental misunderstanding here. The author of the linked article bluntly claims the opposite, but this is (as also noted by one commentator on Daniel Peterson’s blog, who quotes some of the same passages) quite unscriptural. Take the following scriptures:

And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him. Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement—

2 Nephi 2:10

Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul.

Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?

Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.

Alma 42:16-18

For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—

Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.

Endless punishment is God’s punishment.

Doctrine and Covenants 19:10-12

And I will punish the world for evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay down the haughtiness of the terrible

2 Nephi 23:11//Isaiah 13:11

At present this punishment is largely deferred (thankfully!) as we are experiencing a probationary state to give us time to repent (Alma 12:24). But God most certainly will punish wickedness; in fact to do otherwise is to be merciless to the victims of sin.

 

B) Hell Exists, and God has prepared it for those who do not repent

Hell is not just “mentioned” in the Book of Mormon: the word is used 59 times, more than in the Old Testament and New Testament combined (31 and 23 times respectively). Both the Book of Mormon and other latter-day scripture speak of it being prepared by God for the wicked:

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

And, behold, there is a place prepared for them from the beginning, which place is hell.

D&C 29:38

Wherefore, they have foresworn themselves, and, by their oaths, they have brought upon themselves death; and a hell I have prepared for them, if they repent not;

Moses 6:29

(1 Nephi 15:35 speaks of the devil being the “preparator” of hell, but Royal Skousen argues – quite convincingly in my opinion, in the light of passages such as Moses 6:29 and D&C 29:38 – that this is a scribal error and “proprietor” is intended).

 

C) Hell does sometimes have a broader meaning

“Hell” is sometimes used in other senses. Thus we find it used as a label for the forces of the opposition (as in D&C 6:34 or 88:113), or some other despairing situation (as by Jonah in Jonah 2:2). Jacob uses the term hell to mean “the death of the spirit” (2 Nephi 9:10). One particular notable use is by Alma when teaching the people of Ammonihah:

And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.

Alma 12:10-11

Here Alma is using the “chains of hell” to describe not a place, but a condition, where someone has rejected the word, lost what they already have and is held captive by the devil’s will. However, I’m not sure Alma would quite agree that what he is describing is “metaphorical”. I suspect he would describe it as a very real spiritual phenomena (and one we can see elsewhere in the Book of Mormon).

 

D) Hell also refers to the destination of the spirits of the wicked go after death

Alma describes:

And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.

And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil—for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord; for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house—and these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil.

Alma 40:12-13

We seem to shy away from such descriptions, but Alma does not: indeed he describes the destination of the wicked as “outer darkness” (a term we moderns seem to have solely associated with the sons of perdition, although of the six times the term is used in scripture – Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 25:30, Alma 40:13, D&C 101:91, D&C 133:73 – not once is it so associated; in fact all the uses in latter-day scripture clearly have reference to broader groups). This is “spirit prison”. This is hell.

However, there seem to be a misunderstanding that may explain why people try to soften this. As in the linked article, there seems to be this belief that all who are not members of the Church, including those who were simply ignorant, are going to spirit prison. But Alma simply divides between the “righteous” and the “wicked” (indeed “evil”!). He nowhere states that this includes righteous non-members, particular those who simply lack knowledge of Christ. Likewise Joseph F. Smith, in his vision, speaks of Spirit Paradise as the home of “the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh” and “the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets”.

We furthermore have an actual example, in the thief on the cross:

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.

But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?

And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.

And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

Luke 23:39-43

It is highly unlikely that the thief on the cross had been baptised or received other essential ordinances, nor presumably had his life been an unspotted one. But Christ tells him: “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise”. Doubtless the thief had a lot more learning to do and things to do to be ready for heaven itself, but it seems his heart was right enough that he could escape hell. There are things to be learned and ordinances to be received, but the righteous dead need not wait for those in hell.

And really, if members think their ancestors are waiting in hell for them to get their baptisms by proxy sorted out, even delaying Temple attendance by 24 hours seems an outrageous sin (and quite unjust)!

 

E) All are ultimately saved from hell, save the “sons of perdition” and the devil and his angels.

One measure of quite how many people are going to pass through hell is that this is listed as a defining characteristic of those who receive a telestial glory. I’m not exaggerating:

And again, we saw the glory of the telestial, which glory is that of the lesser, even as the glory of the stars differs from that of the glory of the moon in the firmament.

These are they who are thrust down to hell.

D&C 78:81, 84

However – since again there seems to be some confusion on the matter – this is not a reference to the telestial kingdom itself, the glory of which “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89 – despite hypothetical spiders?). Rather we learn of these people:

These are they who are cast down to hell and suffer the wrath of Almighty God, until the fulness of times, when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work;

D&C 76:106 (my emphasis)

The telestial kingdom is what comes after hell, and the future inhabitants of the telestial kingdom must spend some time in hell – in spirit prison, awaiting their resurrection – for their sins “until” Christ has perfected his work. But their time in hell will come to an end, because of the efficacy of Christ’s atonement. For:

That through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him;

Who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him.

Wherefore, he saves all except them—they shall go away into everlasting punishment, which is endless punishment, which is eternal punishment, to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment—

And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows;

D&C 76:42-45

With the exception of the “sons of perdition”, the devil, and his angels, all mankind will be ultimately saved from hell. This is not because of the article’s mistaken claim that “God does not punish us”, for God is just, and will punish unrepentant sin. There is no cause for complacency, or believing that we can sin “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 28:8). God is a holy and a just God, who “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). He will require a reckoning from us and we are accountable to him, as much as we will want the same of those who’ve sinned against us. But he couples those traits and holds them in perfection alongside his equally perfect love and mercy: seeking to save, but not permissive and an enabler of evil.

 

But God ceaseth not to be God

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

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

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

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

 

Alma 42

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

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

 

Justice is not a law

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

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

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

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

 

Misreading the chapter

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

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

 

Logical Inconsistencies

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

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

 

What makes God God?

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

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

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

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

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

Edit:

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

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

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

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

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

Theological Musings on the Existence of Spiders

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

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

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

xrafstar.jpg

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

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

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

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

 

(Honestly, it’s your last chance…)

 

(Okay, here it is:)

 

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

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

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

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

On the ‘spiritual’

Today I ran across an assertion I’ve seen numerous times: the claim that adopting so-called critical approaches to scripture (approaches that – for the purpose of using the scriptures religiously – require the devotee to read the scriptures in a metaphorical or allegorical fashion) leads to “greater heights of spiritual growth”. I’ve come across this assertion on a number of occasions, all expressing the idea that if we take the scriptures in a more symbolic fashion, usually in connection with the idea that we should not believe events in the Book of Mormon or Bible actually happened, then one does not lose out ‘spiritually’ but instead apparent expands in spirituality.

Yet in all this, no one stops to explain what they mean by ‘spiritual’. It’s left as a rather woolly term. And in all fairness, it tends to be used in a fairly woolly way on lots of other occasions. What do we mean when we talk about wanting to be ‘fed spiritually’ at some meeting? What are we referring to when we talk about having some ‘spiritual’ experience or impression? When we talk of our ‘spiritual’ needs, or wanting to become strong ‘spiritually’, what on earth are we talking about? When we talk of our reading of the scriptures building our personal ‘spirituality’, what exactly are we trying to accomplish?

 

First things first: Spiritual does not mean allegorical

Perhaps the first place to begin is with what it is not, but where there seems to be at least some confusion. Some of this confusion can be seen in treatments of 1 Nephi 22, where Nephi (having quoted Isaiah 48-49), proceeds to answer some of his brothers’ question and provide an interpretation. Nephi’s brothers begin by asking:

What meaneth these things which ye have read? Behold, are they to be understood according to things which are spiritual, which shall come to pass according to the spirit and not the flesh?
(1 Nephi 22:1)

Now a number of commentators – critics and LDS scholars alike – have seen this as addressing the age-old debate between literal and allegorical meanings in scripture. However, while these can overlap, reading Nephi’s response reveals that the distinction here is not the same. Nephi begins by saying:

Behold they were manifest unto the prophet by the voice of the Spirit; for by the Spirit are all things made known unto the prophets, which shall come upon the children of men according to the flesh.
(1 Nephi 22:2)

Thus Nephi begins by first asserting that the contents of such prophecies – whatever their application, spiritually or temporally – was made known “by the spirit”, meaning here supernatural communication by means of the Holy Ghost. Thus Nephi’s response is to first undermine the distinction his brothers’ have set up by, by linking spiritual to the means by which scripture was given, even when its contents concern ‘the flesh’.

Nephi then states “the things which I have read are things pertaining to things both temporal and spiritual”. Nephi thus embraces both sides of this apparent divide, as he had done earlier (in 1 Nephi 15:31–32) when discussing the interpretation of his father’s revelations. But again, this is not the literal versus the allegorical, as further reading makes clear. Nephi goes on to cite the words of Isaiah 49:22, that Israel’s “children have been carried in their arms, and their daughters have been carried upon their shoulders” as something “temporal” (1 Nephi 22:6), but the interpretation offered in verse 8 is not literal: the shoulders are metaphorical for the ‘marvelous work’ the Lord is to perform amongst the Gentiles which will bless the house of Israel. Temporal does not mean literal, and spiritual does not mean allegorical.

 

‘Spirit’

If spiritual then only has an occasional overlap with the allegorical, what are we really referring to. This is really a question of what we mean by ‘spirit’. We may not have a full understanding of what that is, but one thing we learn from modern revelation is that man is spirit:

For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy;
(Doctrine and Covenants 93:33)

We are thus composed, at the present time, of both spirit and element. Spirit is distinct from element, so that while it is not immaterial it is more “fine or pure” (D&C 131:7-8). The bit of us composed of spirit is the bit of us that preceded our mortal incarnation (Abraham 3:23), and it is the placing of this in our mortal bodies that makes us, spirit and body, “a living soul” (Abraham 5:7). These two will be separated at death, and our spirits will continue to exist after death, and then at the resurrection our spirit and element will be reunited in an immortal, incorruptible state (2 Nephi 9:13), to be judged. Thus ‘spiritual’ can often bear the meaning of eternal, compared to that which is merely mortal and temporary, as in 1 Nephi 15:31-32 and Alma 11:45. Those who are resurrected in glory are likewise referred to as having a “spiritual body”, even though it will be eternally united with element (1 Corinthians 15:44, D&C 88:27).

But we are also not the only things that are spirit. Other living things were likewise created spiritually before they were created physically (Moses 3:4-7). And there are other things which, like us in our premortal state, are spirit but do not have a body of element: those not yet resurrected are spirit (D&C 129:3); as are those who rebelled, the devil and his angels who have lost the opportunity for bodies (D&C 50:1-3). Then there is the Holy Ghost, who is a “personage of spirit” so he might “dwell in us” (D&C 130:22).

Thus there are many things which are spirit, which are very real but which we generally cannot perceive – indeed, even though the Father and the Son have glorified bodies they too can only be perceived by “spiritual eyes”, it being necessary that we and our “natural eyes” be “transfigured” (Moses 1:11). ‘Spiritual’ can refer to matters that concern our eternal fate (as we are spirit), but can also refer to our interactions with these unseen realities. And these unseen realities affect us to a greater degree than we in the modern age are likely to think. ‘Spiritually’, there is not just us, acting in complete and self-assured autonomy. Rather our ability to choose is partly dependent upon the fact that we are being “enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16); not just by our own internal tendencies, but by God through the Holy Spirit on one hand, and the devil and his angels on the other.

Thus ‘spiritual’ phenomena is often referring not to something going on in our own heads, but actual contact with an unseen but very real world. It’s perhaps important to know that other spiritual phenomena exist (in the same way that the first principle of the Gospel is not faith, but faith in the Lord Jesus Christ), but the ‘spiritual’ interaction that the scriptures (and presumably us) refer to most and which is certainly the most desirable is interaction with Divine power and knowledge, principally by the means of the Holy Spirit. When Moroni gives his promise as to how we can know the truth of the Book of Mormon and all things, it is because he is promising that God will reveal it to us by means of an actual entity, the Holy Ghost (Moroni 10:4-5). This is what Alma is referring to when he states that he knows not of himself, “not of the temporal, but of the spiritual, not of the carnal mind, but of God” (Alma 36:4), for he had contact with Angels and had eternal truths “made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God” (Alma 5:46). Being strong in the spirit refers not to any innate state, but rather the communication of real power and knowledge from a Divine being:

And the priests were not to depend upon the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit, having the knowledge of God, that they might teach with power and authority from God.
(Mosiah 18:26)

Ammon said unto him: I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God, and I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people, that they may be brought to a knowledge of that which is just and true;
And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.
(Alma 18:34–35)

 

The Real

Thus when we talk of having ‘spiritual experiences’ or being ‘fed spiritually’, we are not talking about something that is solely an internal process. Rather what we are seeking is actual communication and contact with an external source: God through the Holy Ghost. When we talk of being “spiritually begotten”, we’re not talking about some change or resolve we’ve managed to do all by ourselves, but that “the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent” has intervened and “wrought a might change in us” (Mosiah 5:2,7). When we speak of being ‘strong spiritually’, or building our own personal ‘spirituality’, we are not talking of just some innate characteristics, but being in close communion with an external source of power and righteousness, even the omnipotent and omniscient creator of Heaven and Earth.

‘Spiritual’ is not an euphemism. We are not more ‘spiritual’ because we feel our feelings are more elevated, or because we feel more ethical, or our emotions feel calm. It is not something we can produce from within the confines of our own psyche. It is not something we can generate with our intellect or with a particular mental paradigm, but only as we are brought into contact with a real and external spiritual force. If we speak of being able to ‘grow spiritually’ but do not mean real spiritual matters, we are talking of something of our own imagination. If we read the scriptural accounts of revelation and miracles metaphorically, we have robbed them of their paradigmatic power that we too can experience the same revelations and miracles. If we talk of ‘growing spiritually’ but deny the existence of actual supernatural miracles (and I have yet to come across any who insist on reading the scriptures metaphorically and symbolically who hold onto the reality of miracles), then our ‘spirituality’ “is vain” (Moroni 7:37), and we are in danger of having “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5, Joseph Smith-History 1:19, compare 2 Nephi 28:5,26, Jacob 6:8, 3 Nephi 19:6, Mormon 8:28, Moroni 10:7,33), one of the major warnings aimed at our times. This is a loss: what is an imaginary meal compared to a real steak?

I have had the real steak. I’ve been privileged to experience and witness many miraculous and wonderful things, far more than I possibly deserve (and I don’t deserve a lot). And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Spiritual things are objectively real, these unseen realities are real, and this detached and imaginary ‘spirituality’ cannot compare to the actual revelations and miracles of a very real God. And we can’t fabricate spiritual growth in our own minds; rather we are ‘spiritual’ inasmuch as we have faith, humble ourselves and repent, and so open ourselves to the spirit of the Lord. We are ‘fed spiritually’ insofar as we really see real spiritual things, as we experience real miracles, as we hear the Holy Spirit and as we experience actual power from the spirit to do things we could not do by ourselves. And we are spiritually blessed as we receive actual revelations not from our psyche, but from our actual Father in Heaven and God through the means of his Holy Spirit, even about things no man knows.

The learning of men and the knowledge from God

2 Nephi 25-30 is a fascinating passage of scripture (there’s a reason it’s going to be my final case study for my thesis), and one of the most fascinating things in it is the tension it develops though the whole passage between two different sorts of knowledge. On one hand is the learning of men, and on the other knowledge from God. Thus the meaning of Isaiah is “plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4), and the restoration of Israel will happen in part because of God revealing his words to them (2 Nephi 25:18). When it comes to the sealed book the learned man cannot read them, while by the power of God the unlearned man will, for:

…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)

The Book of Mormon then warns against those who will contend against each other, which

…shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.
(2 Nephi 28:4)

and warns those who are

…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…
(2 Nephi 28:15)

and that

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.
(2 Nephi 28:31)

Yet for those who humble themselves, and seek knowledge from God, knowledge becomes of saving importance, and it is such knowledge that leads to the paradisiacal conditions of the Millennium:

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Wherefore, the things of all nations shall be made known; yea, all things shall be made known unto the children of men.
There is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed; there is no work of darkness save it shall be made manifest in the light; and there is nothing which is sealed upon earth save it shall be loosed.
Wherefore, all things which have been revealed unto the children of men shall at that day be revealed; and Satan shall have power over the hearts of the children of men no more, for a long time. And now, my beloved brethren, I make an end of my sayings.
(2 Nephi 30:15–18)

Knowledge, then, saves us… if we have sought it from the right source. Now I do not believe the Book of Mormon condemns other learning (see 2 Nephi 9:28-29), but it warns against pride and against uninspired approaches, and particularly attempts to discern sacred things without using sacred means.

I believe this has many implications for how we approach a lot of things, and at this time am particularly thinking about how this should affect how we approach the scriptures. I’ve certainly expressed my concern before at approaches to the scriptures that I feel are overly academic, which apply study but do not apply faith as we are commanded to do. But with all such things we should of course worry most about what we are doing, and so in this case how we personally are seeking to understand God’s words. There’s a lot of well-meant advice out there on how to read the scriptures, but as I’ve suggested before, I believe studying the scriptures is not just an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual discipline to which we must apply our whole souls. And this may mean the most important question when it comes to reading the scriptures is not how much we engage the mind (though I’m never opposed to that!), but how much we seek the spirit. Rather than just seeing the words, how often do we seek and find revelation to help us understand the words? For the promise is there, as Nephi said:

Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.
(1 Nephi 15:11)

He hath given a law to all things

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—

The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things. (Doctrine & Covenants 88:12-13)

He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.

And again, verily I say unto you, he hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons;

And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets. (v.41-43)

The nature of miracles sometimes gets some discussion in LDS circles. Of course, most of the modern world has dismissed the possibility of such things, but the Book of Mormon strongly emphasises not just the existence of past miracles, but the reality and indeed the necessity of present day miracles (Moroni 7:37-38, compare Mormon 9:20), for faith works miracles, and an absence of miracles is due to unbelief.

The question is often raised as to how such miracles relate to physical ‘laws’ – after all, such miracles as raising the dead, transmuting water into wine or walking on water violate physical laws as we understand them. And some LDS folk have suggested that there is no such violation here – all that is happening is that God understands some ‘higher law’, and works within that.

I’ve never been entirely happy with this approach, which seems to subordinate God to physical laws, and reduce the supernatural to the natural (the very tendency the Book of Mormon, with its emphasis on the power of God, appears to argue against!). And, as verse 42 above indicates, it is God who gives law rather than the other way around. But upon rereading the above verses, I am struck that much much more seems to be offered here. Our very model of immutable physical laws, separate from God, is itself an artefact of many centuries of Western culture, as can be seen in notions of God as a ‘watch maker’, who sets up the universe and then lets it run itself, and later concepts that ditched the watch maker.

Yet that is not the perspective of Section 88. Notice here that the light of Christ, which is ‘the law by which all things are governed’ and the ‘power of God’ (v.13), and which amongst other things is the power by which the sun, moon and stars were made (v.7-9) and regulates their motions (v.42-43), is depicted as proceeding ‘forth from the presence of God’. It is not a one time thing, done in the past, but something in the present. The physical laws operate not because they were set down in the past, but because the power of God, which gives life, light and law to all things, acts upon them now. Any such physical laws by which the universe operates do so because of the continuing present will of God. Law is thus not something separate from God, let alone above him – it is the present operation of His will upon the physical universe.

If this is true (and the above verses suggest it is), then there are no such thing as immutable physical laws. Physical laws operate because God presently wills it, and if he ceased to do so they would not. Miracles are where God wills differently, and when he does the physical universe obeys (Helaman 12:7-8). And rather than everything being confined under rigid, naturalistic law, even the operation of supposedly ‘natural’, ‘physical’ laws are actually further examples of the supernatural and the power of God. Perhaps this is why Section 88 goes on to proclaim:

Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. (v.47)

Defending Deuteronomy

There’s some ideas about the Bible that have become unaccountably popular amongst some LDS scholars, and principally among them are those of Margaret Barker. Her ideas of a ‘Temple Theology’ prior to the Babylonian exile that was suppressed, with King Josiah and the ‘Deuteronomists’ as the chief villains, has proven attractive to some, but I’ve been unconvinced by it for a long while. For one thing, I believe it has serious metholodogical issues, as Barker attempts to use sources like Pseudoepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls to examine the beliefs of many centuries earlier. But I also believe that it has significant flaws from an LDS perspective that in many cases have been overlooked, and which have serious implications. Since the Interpreter has decided to do a couple of articles on it (one from Bill Hamblin, disagreeing with at least part of the thesis, and Kevin Christensen, supporting it), I thought I’d explore at least some of those, principally in addressing some of the arguments used by Kevin Christensen.

Deuteronomy and the Book of Mormon

The implications of this argument should be apparent to anyone who reads Christensen’s article. Large parts of the Bible are held to be the responsibility of the ‘Deuteronomists’, supposed reformers working at the time of King Josiah, and whom, if they are suspect, make their works suspect, especially since there’s no direct evidence of the very existence of Deuteronomists – their existence is inferred from these works. There’s the Deuteronomistic History, from Joshua to 2nd Kings, which many biblical scholars claim was composed as an integrated work by drawing upon and redacting earlier sources. Then there is the Book of Deuteronomy itself, which has been associated with the ‘book of the law’ found in 2 Kings 22:8-11, and which many biblical scholars claim was even written at the time to justify the reforms (I see a number of problems behind that claim, but I’ll leave it to one side for now). Thus this would question the inspiration and canonicity of those biblical books.

And Christensen appears to follow this argument, alleging several sections of Deuteronomy itself (he singles out Deuteronomy 4:6, 4:12, 29:29 and 30:11-12) as contradicting the teachings of this alleged temple theology. Since Christensen believes the Temple theology not only existed, but was true and part of the background for the Book of Mormon, that implies that Deuteronomy is not just mistaken on these points, but false. While Christensen admits to extensive harmony between ‘Jeremiah and Josiah’, he also sees these points of significant tension, and believes they exist ‘between Deuteronomy and Lehi’ as well. And these are not minor matters – Barker paints this as a serious suppression of what was taught before, and so does Christensen, who says they ‘touch the heart of the temple’. In short, Deuteronomy is the product of an apostate movement.

Yet there are serious difficulties with this from an LDS perspective. Let alone the fact that the Saviour quoted Deuteronomy with great frequency (along with Psalms and Isaiah, the most quoted biblical texts by Jesus in the Gospels), there are huge problems with summoning the Book of Mormon as some sort of prosecution witness. The Book of Mormon not only describes the Plates of Brass as containing ‘the five books of Moses’ (1 Nephi 5:11), but also explicitly quotes from Deuteronomy. 1 Nephi 22:20 & 3 Nephi 20:23 (both quoting Deuteronomy 18:15-19) are the clearest examples of this, but 2 Nephi 11:3//Deuteronomy 19:15 also has a clear connection, as does possibly Mormon 8:20//Deuteronomy 32:35-36. This is explicit quotations alone (that is, places where the Book of Mormon makes clear it is referring to an outside source), let alone other connections. The ideological connections between the two books also seem clear, with both books clearly marking out blessings and cursings attached to a land, depending upon the righteousness of the people. Christensen argues that ‘“Nephi qualifies remarkably well as a representative of the wisdom tradition as Barker reconstructs it”’, but I am unconvinced, and moreover see Nephi’s emphasis on the importance of keeping the commandments of God and attendant blessings as being much more closely aligned with Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history than Christensen appears to allow.

Mischaracterising Deuteronomy

The specific points upon which Barker and Christensen criticise Deuteronomy also seem to misunderstand Deuteronomy in those specific passages. Thus Deuteronomy 4:6 (“Keep therefore and do them [the statutes and judgements of the Lord]; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”), is not substituting the Law for wisdom – but emphasising the wisdom of keeping the commandments, that real wisdom lies in obeying God. After all, the Book of Mormon makes similar comments, that “O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God.” (Alma 37:35). Likewise Deuteronomy 4:12 does not directly contradict Exodus 24:9-11, because the former is addressed to all Israel, not the seventy elders of Exodus 24. Nor does Deuteronomy 30:11-12 deny revelation, but rather emphasises (again in the context of obedience) the accessibility of the the commandments – ‘it is not in heaven’, but neither (in v. 13) is it ‘beyond the sea’, because ‘the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it’ (v.14 – the emphasis on doing it being present in both verses 12 & 13 also)!

Likewise, while Deuteronomy 32:8-9 according to a reading found in the Dead Sea scrolls does read ‘sons of God’ instead of ‘sons of Israel’, it does not follow if that reading is correct (Christensen assumes it is, which since he assumes Deuteronomy is the product of those ‘suppressing’ ‘temple theology’, raises questions as to how it somehow expresses the suppressed theology) that what it is necessarily describing is an apportioning out of the nations to different gods, nor does it necessarily follow that ‘the LORD’ (‘Yahweh’) in verse 9 is being described as one of the sons of ‘El Elyon’ (‘the most High’, since verse 8 actually only uses the word ‘Elyon’), since it could easily be read as an alternative name for ‘the most High’). Here Christensen may be influenced by the tendency amongst Latter-day Saints to believe that ‘Yahweh’ – ‘the LORD’ in the KJV, but also anglicised as Jehovah, must refer to Christ. However, this distinction in names is a modern LDS practice, and quickly falls apart when applied to scripture. Thus Psalm 110:1, quoted by Christ in relation to himself (in Matthew 22:44 and Luke 20:42), reads: “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” As Christ himself applies the verse, ‘my Lord’ (‘Adonai’) is a reference to Christ, which means that ‘The LORD’, ‘Yahweh’, can only apply here to the Father. Likewise Deuteronomy 6:4 (‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD’) quickly becomes nonsense if Elohim is taken as referring only to the Father and Yahweh only to the son, while in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, Lord (presumably an equivalent term) is used seemingly interchangeably or applying to both, while in Abraham 3:27 (and throughout that chapter), Lord is clearly referring to the Father.

Jeremiah

A major part of Barker’s and Christensen’s thesis depends on supposed indications that Jeremiah opposed at least a portion of the Deuteronomistic reforms, and that Jeremiah did not condemn practices supposedly part of this ‘temple theology’. Thus Christensen appeals to Jeremiah 1:18, which speaks of Jeremiah becoming ‘…a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land.’ This is to my mind some of the best evidence for this supposed tension between Jeremiah and Josiah. There are several problems however. Such a description can more easily be applied to Jeremiah’s relationships with Josiah’s successors who – at least from the perspective of the Deuteronomistic historian, who described them as wicked – did not follow Josiah’s ideas. Indeed much of the book of Jeremiah describes his relationships with those kings, with little for Josiah himself.

Christensen also appeals to several parts of Jeremiah to claim some condemnation of rejection of hidden wisdom on the part of the Deuteronomists. Yet Jeremiah 8:8-9 is in the context of a condemnation of idolatry (see v.2 and v.17 of that chapter), acts hardly encouraged by the Deuteronomists (indeed, Barker and Christensen think they went too far with that act!). Jeremiah 9:12-13, meanwhile, far from strengthening his argument possibly undermines it with its concern for law, as the words ‘Who is the wise man, that may understand this?’ are followed in the following verse by a condemnation that begins ‘And the Lord saith, Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein;’ (my emphasis)

Christensen also argues that Jeremiah’s condemnation of those burn offerings and make cakes to the Queen of Heaven in Jeremiah 44:17-19 should be compared ‘with his complaints about those who trusted in the temple without taking care to “thoroughly amend your ways and your doings,” that is, trusting ritual without repentance and sacrifices without personal obedience.’ This is an extraordinary claim, suggesting that Jeremiah saw nothing innately wrong with the worship of the Queen of Heaven, and indeed by the analogy that ‘Jeremiah does look forward to valid worship in the house of the Lord’, that such worship is in fact divinely authorised. He misses Jeremiah’s far more pungent denunciation of such practices in Jeremiah 7:18-20:

The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.

Do they provoke me to anger? saith the Lord: do they not provoke themselves to the confusion of their own faces?

Therefore thus saith the Lord God; Behold, mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the ground; and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched.

Jeremiah here is clearly not describing this as an otherwise acceptable practice. Likewise from an LDS perspective have such practices ever constituted an acceptable act? Quite the opposite, as made clear repeatedly, for as Doctrine and Covenants 20:19 states, God gave mankind ‘commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they should worship.’ Likewise, trying such things will quickly get you excommunicated today. Similar comments apply to Christensen’s claim that Lehi ‘had his vision of the tree of life (1 Nephi 8), the great symbol of wisdom that Josiah had recently removed from the temple and burned (2 Kings 23:5).’ Not only do I highly doubt Lehi would have equated his vision with Asherah, but the typo here of 2 Kings 23:5 is highly entertaining (v.6 is clearly intended), since verse 5 refers to Josiah putting down the priests that ‘that burned incense unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven’ – all part of the parcel with the Asherah worship. Likewise, the Asherah itself was only placed there in the reign of King Manasseh, Josiah’s father (2 Kings 21:7).

Christensen also accuses Josiah and his reforms of the killing of the prophets (again emphasising that he does not merely see Josiah and Jeremiah as having mere disagreements), claiming that ‘Jeremiah had also described the violence against prophets as something very public: “Your own sword hath devoured your prophets like a destroying lion . . . also in thy skirts is found the blood of the souls of the poor innocents: I have not found it by secret search but upon all of these” (Jeremiah 2:30, 36)[sic – actual source is 20:30 & 34]’, and that ‘the most conspicuous account of extensive public violence conducted by the people in power is that of Josiah’s reform in 2 Kings 23:20‘. Yet Christensen again misses King Manasseh, the likely reference, who ‘shed innocent blood very much’ (2 kings 21:16, cf. 2 Kings 24:4), which not only shares the idea of innocent blood being shared, but whose reign Jeremiah himself explicitly states is the reason for the forthcoming exile: ‘And I will cause them to be removed into all kingdoms of the earth, because of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah king of Judah, for that which he did in Jerusalem.’ (Jeremiah 15:4)!

Looking beyond the mark

Christensen also appeals to Jacob in the Book of Mormon, noting particularly Jacob 4:14:

But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.

Yet there are problems with Christensen’s appeal here. He describes Jacob as a ‘temple priest’, a rather overwrought description considering Jacob is described as teaching one sermon in the temple (Jacob 2-3, as described in Jacob 1:17, 2:2, 2:11), and in fact specifically mentions in the latter reference that Jacob was commanded ‘get thou up into the temple on the morrow, and declare the word which I shall give thee unto this people’. Teaching at the temple has a long scriptural history – it doesn’t make those figures ‘temple priests’. Such a description however highlights what I suspect is both a major reason for the appeal of Barker amongst some LDS scholars, and a major part of the problem; namely the desire of some to find similarities to current LDS temple worship in previous dispensations.

What’s aggravating about this is that there is little to no need to do this. As Doctrine and Covenants 84:23-25 states, in reference to higher priesthood, and the ordinances by which ‘the power of godliness is manifest’ (v.20) of which the temple ordinances are part:

Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God;

But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.

Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also;

The Israelites as a whole (there were individual exceptions) did not have access to the higher priesthood, nor the associated ordinances of the temple. Likewise, while it is likely that (having no Levites among them), the Nephites priesthood authority was that of the Melchizedek priesthood (Alma 13:6-9), there is nothing in the Book of Mormon to suggest that Nephites generally had access to temple ordinances as we’d understand them before the coming of Christ – they used them like the Israelites did, to perform the ordinances of the Mosaic law (Mormon’s comments relative to the Saviour’s teaching on Malachi 4 in 3 Nephi 26:8-11 suggest things changed at that point). This shouldn’t surprise us – that such things weren’t available or were unknown earlier is part of the very point of this dispensation (D&C 128:18). Yet it seems some scholars’ eagerness to find evidence for something we shouldn’t expect to find there leads them to project present day LDS temple worship on previous dispensations (as here too). This should be very much avoided, not just because its mistaken, but we should also be careful to avoid the possible danger of gospel hobbies. The temple serves vital purposes, but it is not the sum total of the gospel, and we shouldn’t expect to see it everywhere we look.

This applies likewise to Jacob’s very own words. Christensen argues  ‘Jacob’s “mark” must be a reference to the anointed high priest of the first temple. Those who received the anointing were those who took upon themselves the name of the anointed, the Messiah.’ Yet there is no must about it. The evidence strained: Barker is appealing to the Babylonian Talmud, which is over a millenium later than the first temple period. Even if one were to accept that as relevant, why should a diagonal cross be decisively associated with the Messiah? Jacob’s words do not require a temple-centric reading here. To return to Jacob 4:14:

But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble. (My emphasises)

There is no need here to understand the mark here as a sign, but rather as a target, goal or object, who is Christ. The danger portrayed here is not that of scriptures being ‘edited during transmission’ as Christensen alleges, but of looking beyond the simple and seeking  things ‘they could not understand’ – desires which God ultimately granted, but giving them ‘many things which they cannot understand’. This not only hardly tallies with an accusation against Deuteronomy (where the clear emphasis on obedience and covenantal loyalty is simple, especially compared to the temple theology expressed by Barker), but seems to warn in the other direction.  The most important things are simple, and plain, it warns – and we should refrain from trying to overcomplicate it for our own intellectual amusement or God might grant us our wish.

Edit: Edited to clarify re gospel hobbies.

Who is my neighbour?

Today’s departmental research seminar on loosely on the future of political theology, and more specifically on reapplying Augustinian thinking to what the visitor saw as the present world situation. I always find such seminars an unsual experience, because the presuppositions everyone else there is working on are ultimately feel so alien. Indeed as I have come to realise since my first year as an undergrad, the things I know through the restored Gospel come with some very different presuppositions than modern western culture or general Christendom, and lead to a very different place. I sometimes feel it very difficult to interact with arguments built on very different foundations.

However, there were some specific claims made in today’s seminar that caused some quick reflection. I certainly question the optimistic depiction of the present world situation, as I do Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. While it’s true that the material situation of much of the world has improved over the last century, I believe there’s a big “if” around “if present trends continue”. I also severely doubt claims that human beings have become less violent over the last five centuries – I wonder how such claims are assessed, and the history of the twentieth century should be a sober reminder of what human beings are capable of.

However, I think there are even bigger question about the claim that there has been some kind of “moral revolution”; that modern people (presumably meaning the West, but there was no discussion about location) being more concerned with universal moral problems worldwide, such as poverty, disaster relief and so on. This appeared to be little disputed by some of the academic staff present, with the idea that concern for (generally perceived in terms of donating to charities) people far away may have an affect on nearby relations too.

I doubt all this. For one thing, I look around me, in the many different places I’ve been, and while I’ve met some genuinely good people (and I don’t include myself in that number!), I see little evidence that people generally are more moral now than before. Yet aside from this, it’s particularly this claim to universal moral concern I find dubious. Are people more moral because they’re concerned about people they do not know or cannot see? Possibly, though I feel it is impossible to really love someone without coming to know them, and more importantly I see little evidence this is reflected in better treatment of the people we do see, in the way we treat our families, our neighbours, those people who need service and are right before our eyes. Does giving money to a charity to people whose identities – because we do not know them – are little more than a fictional construction in our head compensate for lack of service, apathy or even hatred of those people we interact with every day? To draw upon John, if we do not love not our brother who we can see, how can we love our brother whom we have not seen?

Charity, meaning the pure love of Christ, is not a strength of mine, and its one I’m working on. I also don’t think that concern for the general welfare of humanity is a bad thing. Yet it strikes me as a very effective deflection if such a generalised concern for people as an abstract distracts us from actually developing charity for the very real individuals in front of us.

The real posthumanism

So I’ve recently been thinking about posthumanism, and particularly transhumanism – that is the idea that the human condition can be surpassed, and particularly avoided by technological means. In transhumanism this usually runs along lines of predicting a technological singularity, involving the creation of advanced AIs who will then lead to a cascade of technologies that, among other things, abolish death. It’s pretty clear to me that this is, in a sense, religion for atheist technophiles, the aptly named “rapture of the nerds”, complete with messiah and forthcoming new age that will bring life for believers. The existence of a so-called “Mormon transhumanist society” doesn’t really falsify that, since it turns out that tends to go along with rejecting essential LDS ideas about the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ (as opposed to technology) bringing resurrection to all mankind, let alone ideas about God.

Now there’s lots that could be discussed about these ideas. On one level, they could be potentially scary – people wanting to create super-intelligent AIs and turn themselves into machines does sound a little like something out of a technological dystopia, particularly with the somewhat naive hope that said new AIs would rain gifts rather than nuclear weapons down upon humanity (has Terminator taught us nothing? More to the point, wouldn’t Terminator give the AI ideas?) That is, it would be scary if I considered it all that possible at all. I don’t – progress is not inevitable, technological progress is not inevitably exponential (indeed in lots of fields it has slowed down), I severely doubt strong AIs are possible, and I don’t believe uploading someone’s memories, even if possible, entails immortality (if possible at all, it’d just be creating a AI with a copy of your memories, particularly evident if you leave the original alive…)

That said, I can understand some positive reasons as to why the idea would be attractive. The human condition comes with a lot of frailties. Death seems to be the one mentioned most in transhumanist circles, but there’s also sickness generally. I can definitely understand that one – I’m not dying, but I’ve certainly felt pretty grotty the last few days, and sure wish I could surpass that limitation. Then there’s the various weaknesses we have, the limitations on our abilities, on our minds and our bodies. When put in those terms, the desire to exceed the limits imposed by our present existence can be understandable.

Yet, as I have realised the last couple of weeks, it is the restored gospel that has this, and indeed the only real way to do this. We understand from revelation that we lived prior to our earthly existence, prior to assuming our earthly, mortal existence (D&C 93:29, Moses 3:5, Abraham 3:22-26). Our life as a human being is to help prepare us for eternity (Alma 34:33). Our personalities will in some fashion persist (Alma 34:34), as will our social relations (D&C 130:2). But much of what is the human condition is temporary. Rather, if we are faithful we can progress, receive all that the Father has (D&C 84:38), “receive of his fulness” (D&C 93:19) and become “gods”, “from everlasting to everlasting”, and having “all power” (D&C 132:20).

Our mortal existence then is somewhat like that of a caterpillar – limited, but a stage of existence through which we have to progress, and which through the gospel we may transcend completely. This is the only real hope for a genuine transcending of the human condition. In comparison, transhumanism offers to augment the caterpillar. It has no real power to turn the caterpillar into a butterfly.