2 Nephi 27

2016 notes:

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

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

(2 Nephi 27:22)

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

2020 edit:

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

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

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

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

(2 Nephi 27:6-7)

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

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

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

(2 Nephi 27:20)

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

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

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

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

(Joseph Smith- History 1:63-65)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2 Nephi 27:23-26)

 

2 Nephi 26

2016 notes;

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

(2 Nephi 26:1)

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

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

(2 Nephi 26:12)

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

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

(2 Nephi 25:29)

2020 Edit:

Several things stood out to me today.

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

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

(2 Nephi 26:7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2 Nephi 26:20)

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

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

The next few chapters will build upon these themes.

 

 

Mosiah 4

There’s one running thread through this chapter that has caught my attention before, and really stood out today. It begins in verse 1 & 2:

And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them.

And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.

Following King Benamin’s remarks in Mosiah 2-3, the people respond with sorrow and humility, and ‘viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth’. In that state, however, they then cry for mercy in the name of the Lord, and in verse 3 that request is granted.

I don’t have any absolute figures for any of this – it’s simply a phenomenon I’ve observed and heard – but it seems many in our current era are inclined to affirm that they are good people, that they don’t have anything particular to repent of. There’s people who run to the opposite extreme of course (and eras in which that is more common), who may suffer from what Catholic theology (and modern psychology) has termed scrupulosity. And that can be a serious problem: I remember when it dawned on me that such feelings can be a form of “sorrow of the world” as being sorry we got caught or such like, because such feelings can still trap us and thus “worketh death”, while “godly sorrow” produces change (see 2 Corinthians 7:10).

But feeling that we’re without sin, that we’re good and don’t have anything to repent of can also be damning. First, such notions are simply not true: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, see also Alma 34:9), and “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). But secondly, if we don’t have a consciousness of our sin, then how do we recognise that we even need the Saviour? How do we call upon the power of his atoning sacrifice if we don’t feel a need for it? How do we even appreciate what he has done for us if we don’t think it’s necessary? A consciousness of sin, while an unpleasant feeling, is the very thing that impels us to seek change and lead us – as it led King Benjamin’s people – to seek mercy through Christ. It strikes me that it is perhaps one of the first and most fundamental steps of our repentance.

Yet this chapter goes further in verse 5:

For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state

This is talking about the same experience of King Benjamin’s people, but it also describes sentiments I suspect it’d be most unlikely to be urged in your average Sunday school lesson: ‘a sense of your nothingness’ and ‘your worthless and fallen state’.

The idea of realising our ‘nothingness’ is not only found here in the scriptures: In the Pearl of Great Price, Moses remarks upon the conclusion of one visionary experience that ‘[n]ow, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed’ (Moses 1:10). This sensation, this realisation, is not the sum total of all we are supposed to feel in regards to ourselves and our relationship with God. But it is perhaps an element that receives little modern attention.

Back to Mosiah 4, and again King Benjamin goes further, describing what we should remember not just at a moment of conversion, but throughout our lives:

And again I say unto you as I have said before, that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.

(Mosiah 4:11, my emphasis)

Again, this is not found only here: Alma in Alma 38:14 counsels his son Shiblon to ‘acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times’. But I suspect that at the present time such passages are often passed over quickly; they are hard passages, with hard counsel. But they clearly appear to be quite essential, with King Benjamin teaching that we should always remember God’s greatness, and in contrast our own nothingness and unworthiness if we wish to retain a remission of our sins (and we surely do).

Now I do not think that these verses are preaching a kind of self-hatred: while I do not find many scriptural passages that support the modern emphasis on self-esteem, self-hatred does not seem to be encouraged. Furthermore, we are also often counselled to seek and feel God’s love towards us. In some way, then, we are being encouraged to simultaneously realise our own nothingness and unworthiness, and thus our utter dependence upon God and his mercy, and that we do not earn any blessing from him, but at the same time feel of his love and realise that, in the words of Elder Uchtdorf, ‘compared to God, man is nothing; yet we are everything to God.’

I don’t know that I can make any great claims of knowing how to balance those realisations, but I am confident that both are necessary: we need one to avoid pride, and so that we know we need help and change and grace and who to seek it from, and we need the other to avoid despair and discouragement, and so that we know we can leave judgment in the hands of God and need not seek to punish ourselves for our own sins. With that in mind, we surely need to read such passages as the above carefully, and seek to follow them, rather than pass over them swiftly.

A couple of final, tangentially related points: this chapter goes on to detail our need to help and serve others, beginning with children (and our obligation to teach them), and then towards those seeking our assistance. I find it striking how it links our response to those who beg of us to God’s response to when we beg of him, and so how our acts of service are likewise connected to seeking to retain a remission of our sins:

And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.

(Mosiah 4:26)

However, allowance is also made for capacity, thus those who have sufficient, but not enough to aid the beggar are addressed (v. 24), and then the general principle is also addressed (v. 27):

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.

The image this conjures up for me is one of a marathon, and I believe this is a helpful image to have in mind. If someone tries to sprint a marathon, they’ll lead at first, but then their strength will ebb and they will not finish the race. Likewise, this life is a marathon, in which our means and energy are often limited, and if we are unwise, and “sprint”, we may exhaust our strength and lack the capacity to serve at a later date. We must therefore not let our zeal outweigh our wisdom, but carefully pace ourselves where appropriate to ensure that we are in a position to serve diligently up until the finishing line.

2020 edit:

Several brief notes, as I’ve already written a fair amount on this chapter about 8 months ago.

Verse 2 stands out again, this time not for how the people viewed themselves and their consciousness of their sins, but for the simplicity of their response: they called on God for mercy, asking that they might receive forgiveness through the atoning blood of Christ. I’m reminded of Alma 34:17 (in which Amulek urges much the same), and wonder if – when we think about repentance – the simple process of asking God for mercy and forgiveness is so straightforward it sometimes gets overlooked. Along with that, it’s perhaps important to remember that forgiveness is the not the product of some process we can produce via checklist, but a gift we are asking for.

I was struck also by the emphasis on not just obtaining a remission of sins, but of retaining a remission of sins (vv. 11-12 and 26), and what is necessary for that. I was reminded of Alma 5:26 (and indeed much of that chapter):

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?

We may have had powerful experiences in the past, like the people of King Benjamin experienced in verse 3. But how do we feel now? Do we continue to experience such feelings (in whatever degree)? Have our lives changed, and do we live up to the desire to do good we had in those moments?

I’ve also been thinking about the list of things that King Benjamin tells his people to believe in in verses 9 and 10:

Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.

And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them.

There’s a number of different things we’re commanded to believe in here, presumably not only because they’re true but because whether we believe in them has an effect on our salvation:

  • God’s existence. The importance of that seems obvious
  • God created all things, both in heaven and in earth. I feel I need to ponder more to understand the salvific significance of believing this (though I believe it must be important, or it wouldn’t be on this list)..
  • Believe God has all wisdom. If we don’t believe God has all wisdom, we may be inclined to doubt his guidance, to suspect there may be something he doesn’t know, or that we know better. Believing he does is thus crucial to trusting him and his counsel. Likewise wisdom is also grounded in goodness, not just knowledge, and so to believe he has all wisdom is to believe that he has the will to help us,
  • Believe God has all power, in heaven and in earth. Interesting that like his role as creator this mentions both heaven and earth. The importance of this one appears straightforward to me: if we believe God lacks power, then we may well conclude he is unable to intervene on our behalf. But God has all power, and so has an infinite capacity to help us.
  • Believe that man does not comprehend all the things the Lord can comprehend. This appears to overlap with the point of wisdom, but I think particularly speaks to the fact that – even at best – we can only have a partial understanding of God and his plan for us. No matter how much we learn, there’s going to be things about life and the gospel that we don’t have all the answers too, or which don’t make sense to us. Thus I take believing in this as a recognition that we need to be humble, and particularly to always acknowledge and follow God’s wisdom as being superior to our own. I’m also reminded of the statement by Harold B. Lee that “it is not the function of religion to answer all the questions about God’s moral government of the universe, but to give us courage through faith to go on in the face of questions to which we find no answer in our present status”.
  • Believe we must repent of our sins, forsake them, humble ourselves before God, and ask him sincerely for forgiveness. This seems to cover ground I mention above, including the fact that we need to believe we all have sinned, and so all need to repent, and the importance of actually humbly asking God for forgiveness. But it also emphasises that repentance is change too: we need to believe we must forsake our sins (as opposed, one presumes, to thinking we can be forgiven but continue in them). And I think the point about believing we need to ask God for forgiveness also addresses another thing we must believe: we must believe he can and is willing to forgive us, and that when he forgives us our sins are swept away.

Of course, belief alone isn’t enough, as King Benjamin promptly points out: “and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them”. But our sincere beliefs do affect our attitudes and our actions, and it seems striking to me that these beliefs all centre around the factors that cause us to trust (or not) in God, and prompt us to repent, change and seek forgiveness.

The Omniscience of God | Religious Studies Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helaman 16

Wherein Samuel the Lamanite’s account concludes… perhaps it’s best to get this out of the way first:

samuel the lamanite and stormtroopers

Anyhoo, there are several interconnected things that caught my eye while reading this passage today. Firstly, a verse that has caught my eye before:

And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

(Helaman 16:14)

Angels appearing declaring “glad tidings of great joy”, announcing the coming birth of Christ, and appearing to “wise men” seems obviously connected to the accounts in the biblical gospels. This is one of the passages which fuelled my rather speculative post about possible identities for some of the wise men that I wrote several years ago. However, reading it today caused me to reflect on what the existence of such wise men in this account can mean for us. It’s interesting to compare to the attitude of the majority of the people:

Nevertheless, the people began to harden their hearts, all save it were the most believing part of them, both of the Nephites and also of the Lamanites, and began to depend upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom, saying:
Some things they may have guessed right, among so many; but behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which has been spoken.
And they began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying:
That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come; if so, and he be the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, as it has been spoken, why will he not show himself unto us as well as unto them who shall be at Jerusalem?
Yea, why will he not show himself in this land as well as in the land of Jerusalem?
But behold, we know that this is a wicked tradition, which has been handed down unto us by our fathers, to cause us that we should believe in some great and marvelous thing which should come to pass, but not among us, but in a land which is far distant, a land which we know not; therefore they can keep us in ignorance, for we cannot witness with our own eyes that they are true.
And they will, by the cunning and the mysterious arts of the evil one, work some great mystery which we cannot understand, which will keep us down to be servants to their words, and also servants unto them, for we depend upon them to teach us the word; and thus will they keep us in ignorance if we will yield ourselves unto them, all the days of our lives.

(Helaman 16:15–21)

It’s interesting here that the basis of their concerns expressed here is truly baseless, for (SPOILERS!) Christ will appear to the people here after his resurrection. Firstly, its useful to know that provoking such “foolish and vain” worries is a Satanic strategy, that he too will aim to disturb us by getting us to worry about things we actually don’t need to worry about. Secondly, the people here use this worry to rationalize away belief and explain away “the signs and wonders” (v. 23) that they witnessed. It’s interesting to compare this with the wise men mentioned here (as well as the biblical wise men, who perhaps overlap), who – rather than seeking to rationalize away seeing God’s hand – could see God acting even in events that many people couldn’t. Millions must have seen the star, or whatever astronomical phenomenon it was, that accompanied the Saviour’s birth. But only a few were in a position to see what it really meant. Perhaps, then, one important thing we can learn from this is that we can emulate the example of such wise men, so that rather than rationalizing away the experiences we do have, we too can be blessed to see God’s hand in things others might dismiss as mundane.

Odin and the Well of Mimir

AND so Odin, no longer riding on Sleipner, his eight-legged steed; no longer wearing his golden armor and his eagle-helmet, and without even his spear in his hand, traveled through Midgard, the World of Men, and made his way toward Jötunheim, the Realm of the Giants.

No longer was he called Odin All-Father, but Vegtam the Wanderer. He wore a cloak of dark blue and he carried a traveler’s staff in his hands. And now, as he went toward Mimir’s Well, which was near to Jötunheim, he came upon a Giant riding on a great Stag.

Odin seemed a man to men and a giant to giants. He [p. 78] went beside the Giant on the great Stag and the two talked together. “Who art thou, O brother?” Odin asked the Giant.

“I am Vafthrudner, the wisest of the Giants,” said the one who was riding on the Stag. Odin knew him then. Vafthrudner was indeed the wisest of the Giants, and many went to strive to gain wisdom from him. But those who went to him had to answer the riddles Vafthrudner asked, and if they failed to answer the Giant took their heads off.

“I am Vegtam the Wanderer,” Odin said, “and I know who thou art, O Vafthrudner. I would strive to learn something from thee.”

The Giant laughed, showing his teeth. “Ho, ho,” he said, “I am ready for a game with thee. Dost thou know the stakes? My head to thee if I cannot answer any question thou wilt ask. And if thou canst not answer any question that I may ask, then thy head goes to me. Ho, ho, ho. And now let us begin.”

“I am ready,” Odin said.

“Then tell me,” said Vafthrudner, “tell me the name of the river that divides Asgard from Jötunheim?”

“Ifling is the name of that river,” said Odin. “Ifling that is dead cold, yet never frozen.”

“Thou hast answered rightly, O Wanderer,” said the Giant. “But thou hast still to answer other questions. What are the names of the horses that Day and Night drive across the sky?”

“Skinfaxe and Hrimfaxe,” Odin answered. Vafthrudner [p. 79] was startled to hear one say the names that were known only to the Gods and to the wisest of the Giants. There was only one question now that he might ask before it came to the stranger’s turn to ask him questions.

“Tell me,” said Vafthrudner, “what is the name of the plain on which the last battle will be fought?”

“The Plain of Vigard,” said Odin, “the plain that is a hundred miles long and a hundred miles across.”

It was now Odin’s turn to ask Vafthrudner questions. “What will be the last words that Odin will whisper into the ear of Baldur, his dear son?” he asked.

Very startled was the Giant Vafthrudner at that question. He sprang to the ground and looked at the stranger keenly.

“Only Odin knows what his last words to Baldur will be,” he said, “and only Odin would have asked that question. Thou art Odin, O Wanderer, and thy question I cannot answer.”

“Then,” said Odin, “if thou wouldst keep thy head, answer me this: what price will Mimir ask for a draught from the Well of Wisdom that he guards?”

“He will ask thy right eye as a price, O Odin,” said Vafthrudner.

“Will he ask no less a price than that?” said Odin.

“He will ask no less a price. Many have come to him for a draught from the Well of Wisdom, but no one yet has given the price Mimir asks. I have answered thy question, O Odin. Now give up thy claim to my head and let me go on my way.” [p. 80]

“I give up my claim to thy head,” said Odin. Then Vafthrudner, the wisest of the Giants, went on his way, riding on his great Stag.

It was a terrible price that Mimir would ask for a draught from the Well of Wisdom, and very troubled was Odin All-Father when it was revealed to him. His right eye! For all time to be without the sight of his right eye! Almost he would have turned back to Asgard, giving up his quest for wisdom.

He went on, turning neither to Asgard nor to Mimir’s Well. And when he went toward the South he saw Muspelheim, where stood Surtur with the Flaming Sword, a terrible figure, who would one day join the Giants in their war against the Gods. And when he turned North he heard the roaring of the cauldron Hvergelmer as it poured itself out of Niflheim, the place of darkness and dread. And Odin knew that the world must not be left between Surtur, who would destroy it with fire, and Niflheim, that would gather it back to Darkness and Nothingness. He, the eldest of the Gods, would have to win the wisdom that would help to save the world.

And so, with his face stern in front of his loss and pain, Odin All-Father turned and went toward Mimir’s Well. It was under the great root of Ygdrassil–the root that grew out of Jötunheim. And there sat Mimir, the Guardian of the Well of Wisdom, with his deep eyes bent upon the deep water. And Mimir, who had drunk every day from the Well of Wisdom, knew who it was that stood before him.

“Hail, Odin, Eldest of the Gods,” he said. [p. 81]

Then Odin made reverence to Mimir, the wisest of the world’s beings. “I would drink from your well, Mimir,” he said.

“There is a price to be paid. All who have come here to drink have shrunk from paying that price. Will you, Eldest of the Gods, pay it?”

“I will not shrink from the price that has to be paid, Mimir,” said Odin All-Father.

“Then drink,” said Mimir. He filled up a great horn with water from the well and gave it to Odin.

Odin took the horn in both his hands and drank and drank. And as he drank all the future became clear to him. He saw all the sorrows and troubles that would fall upon Men and Gods. But he saw, too, why the sorrows and troubles had to fall, and he saw how they might be borne so that Gods and Men, by being noble in the days of sorrow and trouble, would leave in the world a force that one day, a day that was far off indeed, would destroy the evil that brought terror and sorrow and despair into the world.

Then when he had drunk out of the great horn that Mimir had given him, he put his hand to his face and he plucked out his right eye. Terrible was the pain that Odin All-Father endured. But he made no groan nor moan. He bowed his head and put his cloak before his face, as Mimir took the eye and let it sink deep, deep into the water of the Well of Wisdom. And there the Eye of Odin stayed, shining up through the water, a sign to all who came to that place of the price that the Father of the Gods had paid for his wisdom.

via “Odin Goes to Mimir’s Well: His Sacrifice for Wisdom”, The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum (at sacred-texts.com)

2 Nephi 30

And now behold, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you; for I, Nephi, would not suffer that ye should suppose that ye are more righteous than the Gentiles shall be. For behold, except ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall all likewise perish; and because of the words which have been spoken ye need not suppose that the Gentiles are utterly destroyed.

For behold, I say unto you that as many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord; and as many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off; for the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son, who is the Holy One of Israel.

(2 Nephi 30:1-2)

I’ve mentioned before that a key theme of the Book of Mormon – including 2 Nephi 25-30 – is the restoration of Israel and conversely judgment upon the Gentiles who have oppressed them. Yet these verses help correct any misapprehension we may have of that: Israel will be restored, collectively. On an individual scale, however, it is personal repentance and faith that make the difference. We will not be saved based on who our ancestors were, nor on what our nationality is, nor on nominal membership of the Church; we cannot be complacent and think everything is okay because we belong to the “right” group. We are all going to be held accountable, for God is just. Likewise He mercifully extends his salvation to all, on the same conditions.

2020 edit:

A significant part of this chapter starts quoting, without citation markers from Isaiah 11 (quoted earlier explicitly in 2 Nephi 21). Yet we see here how it all ties in, both with what Nephi is saying in this chapter and in capping what has been taught in previous chapters. Thus after speaking of God restoring Israel and beginning his work, Nephi moves onto quoting – with some interpolations – those parts of Isaiah 11 speaking of the Lord coming in judgment, and then the paradisical state of the millennium (2 Nephi 30:9-14//Isaiah 11:4-8). And then he continues by quoting Isaiah 11:9, which is likewise speaking of this paradise:

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 the 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)

Notice how verse 15 (quoting Isaiah 11:9) introduces this idea that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord”, and then Nephi riffs on that theme: thus all things shall be made known, all secrets shall be revealed, and all things which have been revealed will be revealed. In 2 Nephi 25-30 generally, there’s been this thread of knowledge, and a tension between the learning of men and the knowledge that comes from revelation from God. Thus Isaiah is difficult to understand, but plain to those filled with the spirit of prophecy. There is the sealed book that the learned man cannot read, but which the unlearned can by the will of God. Then there’s been the problem of men relying on their own learning, and teaching it as doctrine, rather than the knowledge that comes through the Holy Ghost. Here, however, he points to this promised paradise as being an age in which revealed knowledge will fill the earth, in which all things can and will be made known, and which will be so freely available it is compared to the oceans. If mankind rejecting revelation and relying on their own learning has been amongst the causes of the spiritual ills besetting the last days, one of the conditions of the millennial age is that revealed knowledge will flow like water.

2 Nephi 9

Yea, I know that ye know that in the body he shall show himself unto those at Jerusalem, from whence we came; for it is expedient that it should be among them; for it behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him.

(2 Nephi 9:5)

I am convinced the scriptures teach us far more about the atonement than we have yet realised. This passage is but an example of this: there is some sort of symmetry at work, by which the fact that the Saviour became subject unto men, and suffered and died at their hands, means that we are all subject to him. Yet while being subject unto him means we are liable to his judgment (2 Nephi 9:15-17), it also means we become subject to the power of his redemption, and that if we believe and repent we shall be freed from both death and hell and inherit the kingdom of God (vv. 18-19, 23).

2020 Edit:

I thought about mentioning first that this is one of my favourite chapters, but as I was reading over it and pondering it my mind I think I’ve come to the realisation that this is my actual favourite chapter in the Book of Mormon. There is so much in it, and so much powerfully said.

This is a continuation of Jacob’s sermon, but here he leaves off quoting Isaiah – which he notes teach about the covenants God has made with the house of Israel (and perhaps above all, their continuing validity and ultimate fulfilment) – to directly address the redemption God will work through the atonement. And while his sermon begain in 2 Nephi 6, I think it’s here that for the first time one really hears Jacob’s rather distinctive voice. A couple of examples:

      1. As I discuss here, Jacob speaks with a characteristic lack of self-assurance, in marked contrast to Nephi. Note how in describing the situation of the righteous and wicked at the last judgment, he mentally includes himself with the wicked (“we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt”) rather than the righteous (“and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment”) in 2 Nephi 9:14, although we know that’s hardly an objective assessment of the man, and it’s rather different from the way Nephi speaks of the final judgment, and different again from the grim realism of Mormon.
      2. There is his concern with the feelings of the audience, the sort of thing perhaps most clearly seen in Jacob 2:7-10. Here it is seen in 2 Nephi 9:47-48:

        But behold, my brethren, is it expedient that I should awake you to an awful reality of these things? Would I harrow up your souls if your minds were pure? Would I be plain unto you according to the plainness of the truth if ye were freed from sin?
        Behold, if ye were holy I would speak unto you of holiness; but as ye are not holy, and ye look upon me as a teacher, it must needs be expedient that I teach you the consequences of sin.

        Again, this seems a striking contrast to how Nephi speaks.

     

The bulk of the chapter itself really covers the core of the gospel, addressing our need for redemption, how Christ’s atonement saves us from death and hell, how we will all face God’s judgment, and our need to repent so that we might face that final judgment without fear and a perfect remembrance of our guilt. As such, there is so much that could be talked about, in a chapter that could be mined again and again.

One important topic is, of course, is Christ’s atoning sacrifice. People have tried to explain this act in a variety of different ways, through reconciliation, through legal metaphors, analogies of creditors and debt, or a transfer of sin and of suffering. I think an important thing to realise is that, as much as we try to understand or explain the atonement by use of earthly analogies, the atonement came first. It was already part of the plan of God before the world was created, and so long before any of these earthly institutions we use to try and understand it existed. And so, in approaching this issue, I think it’s important for us to understand that Christ’s atonement is the original, while any concepts we might use as a lens to better understand it are at best patterned after and are the echo of more eternal realities. Earthly comparisons may help us better understand the atonement, but they cannot completely explain it.

The scriptures therefore talk about the atonement in a variety of different ways. Some speak in terms of reconciling justice and mercy, others focus on a more sacrificial aspect, of Christ as an offering. Alma 7:11-12 extends the point of Christ’s suffering to speak of him suffering and taking upon him all our pains (including, ultimately, death). And many of these overlaps, because they’re talking about the same thing that did all of this. We see that here too in this chapter. There’s the aspect that I picked up on in the original post (and discuss when talking about 1 Nephi 11 too), that by being becoming subject to men, all men become subject to him and his judgment. But this chapter also speaks quite a bit about the resurrection (vv. 6-8):

For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord.

Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.

O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.

We sometimes (I wonder if from a human tendency to subdivide things and try and organise them) separate the resurrection from Christ’s atonement, but as is quite clear here it is part of parcel of the whole thing. The power of the resurrection is part of the process by which Christ conquered both “death and hell”, “this awful monster” (v. 10); note this monster is singular, death and hell/sin are not treated as two separate entities (I also love how at this point the atonement is treated almost in mythic terms, as a battle that Christ waged against some beast). Spiritual and physical redemption are part of the same process, and indeed if it weren’t for the latter the former could not take place: “our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell” (v. 8). This atonement here is a power, by which Christ conquered that monster and by which corruption can be replaced by incorruption. Yet another necessary dimension of the core fact of our religion.

One thing in this chapter linked to the above which is perhaps important to note is in that verse 8 and then what follows in verse 9:

And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.

It is common within the Church to speak of our “divine potential”. This is true, although sometimes people go a little too far and speak of our “divinity”, which is not (at least yet) true. We have the potential, as children of God, through the atonement of Christ, to become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. But as Jacob points out here, we also have the potential to go to the opposite extreme, a diabolical potential in which we become devils. And as we learn from Section 76, there’s going to be at least some who don’t end up at either extreme, who become angels and so on. Potential is not the same as current reality. In a sense, we shouldn’t count our chickens before they are hatched; what potential we end up fulfilling will depend on the choices we make.

Another facet of this chapter I like, but which I only noticed this time through: Jacob peppers his sermon with statements praising different attributes of God as he speaks of different parts of the redemptive process.. Thus “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace!” in verse 8, then “O how great the goodness of our God” in verse 10. “Oh how great the plan of our God” he proclaims in verse 13, and then “O the greatness and justice of our God!” in verse 17. These continue (see verse 19-20), and serve to almost punctuate his address.

From about verse 27 there is a turn in the sermon:

But wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!

From this point on, Jacob’s less on the process of the resurrection and the judgment, and more towards our need to repent, and not be one “that wasteth the days of his probation”. Which is a question to always consider: we all fall short and doubtless transgress (I know I do), and it makes one consider the various ways one might have wasted or be wasting the day’s our own probation. Jacob then speaks of particular sins and tendencies, and I was struck particularly by verses 28-30:

O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.

But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.

But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.

One thing that struck me was the different way these potential perils (of being rich and of being learned but thinking oneself wise) strike as described here. Both risk pride, though for riches it’s described as being mostly against other people (“they despise the poor” and “persecute the meek”) while for knowledge it’s against God (“they hearken not to the counsel of God”). But riches also seem to affect one’s heart and desires (“their hearts are upon their treasures”), one’s aims, while the risk of being puffed up with knowledge as described here seems to be that it doesn’t so much change your desires, as affect your opinion on how to get there (i.e. that one can “set [God’s counsel] aside, supposing they know go themselves”).

Personally I’ve never been in a position to be regarded as rich (though I’d like to think I’m ready for that trial!), but I have been accused of knowing things, which made me consider various ways that I might be neglecting the counsel of God. I guess the trick is that any degree of learning must also be coupled with humility, to realise that knowledge not only isn’t wisdom, but even with much knowledge there is still no certainty that one knows the right way forward for any given course, and of course that there is the absolute certainty that no matter how much learning we acquire, God knows better.

What are the humanities for?

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, so I’m going to try and rectify that!

humanOne matter that has been on my mind has been the state of academia, and the humanities in particular. I doubt it is any surprise to those that know me that I am often highly sceptical of the academy in the general and the value of much of what is produced. Between a ‘publish and perish’ culture that encourages publication even of dross, the pursuit of esoteric subjects with little wider import and readerships that often factor in the single figures, much of what academia – especially the humanities – accomplishes appears irrelevant to anyone outside the ivory tower. That those inside the ivory tower sometimes have trouble grasping this point is part of the trouble. It’s one thing to believe that you are engaged in a disinterested search for knowledge, but when what is produced are conjectures about esoteric subjects few people care about, when you fail to communicate these things to virtually anyone else (and those who do read do so to disagree), and where the existence of absolute truth is commonly denied, it’s really hard to see that being the case. And since the humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence – both as courses for students to study, and departments to occupy university and government funding – I don’t think I’m the only one to wonder what good the humanities do.

So I was thinking about these things, and I guess about the wider purpose of the so-called humanities. There are many issues, such as over-specialisation, and the growth of arcane terminology intended to cloud rather than clarify meaning, but one issue is that so much of the humanities appears pointless, except for activities to do in humanities departments. One thing that seems clear to me is that the sciences (especially the harder sciences) retain some outside respect and relevance because much of their research and teaching has an effect on the wider world. Much of it has ultimately practical consequences that go far beyond the ivory tower.

However, it’s not like the humanities can easily offer that sort of thing. Studies of history, or theology, or literature  or so on do not at first sight appear to offer practical implications. And it is not enough to have some – in order to be consequential, there must always be something that can answer the ‘so what’ question. Okay, you have presented your theory, or your research or your conclusions – so what? Where there is consideration of it, it’s often at the service of the narrow identity politics so popular in academia, but so alien to life as actually lived. And to much of the rest of the humanities, the only answer to that question is polite applause and a few questions at a conference, and then everyone goes home to never think or remember about that topic again, let alone real consequences in the outside world – for the rest of humanity.

Yet I believe there is scope to answer that question. Part of the problem has been the conception of the humanities as a gaining of knowledge (even as the very concept of objective knowledge has been undermined). But the mere collection of abstract knowledge, sometimes of such narrow topics can never successfully answer the ‘so what’ question. But what if there was a different understanding of what study of these topics could offer us – a study of the collected record of humanity’s thoughts, writings and actions? What if rather than just seeking knowledge about how humans live and have lived, we see it as an opportunity to gain wisdom – to learn how human beings can live well. What if we seek to learn and teach not just to add to our knowledge, but to guide our actions, to learn from the follies and mistakes of mankind, to learn what works, to be inspired by its truest thoughts, and to be better than we otherwise are?

I don’t know if the academic humanities as presently constituted can make that step, consumed as it is by its own interests, content as it is in its own introversion and uncertain as it is to the nature of truth. But on a personal level I can certainly try to address that question in what I do, particularly when looking at things like the scriptures, lumped as they presently are in the humanities. For if they are inspired, if they are of God (and they are), the most important questions about them are not of history, but of their present implications for my behaviour and my actions. When I look at them, ‘so what’ should be the foremost question in my mind.