01 November 2008

The (False?) Faith/Doubt Divide

Are faith and doubt truly and fundamentally incompatible? Because the concept of faith forms so fundamental a part our belief system, its contours merit careful attention. Likewise, the negative space surrounding it merits attention, which is the purpose of this post. 

Faith sometimes carries an ephemeral sense about it, leading to the often assumed conclusion that faith may only exist intangibly. Despite many efforts to redefine faith as involving more than mere belief, such efforts rarely annhilate barriers that many have constructed from an upbringing focusing on faith as belief or as assent to certain ideas or concepts. A few of the more effective attempts of this manner to which I have been exposed redefine faith as belief + action or as "faithfulness." 

Thinking upon these redefinitions has led me to evaluate what effect they might have on the "negative space" surrounding the idea of faith/faithfulness. I have heard many times that faith and doubt are polar opposites, which concept (at least on its face) received support in the Lectures on Faith (6:12). Notwithstanding the advantages of such a belief, its tendency to stigmatize any harboring of doubts as a betrayal of one's faith can itself create a crippling, chilling effect on both faith and doubt. For individuals whose inquisitive minds instinctively question and examine, even when maintaining faithful observance of covenants, the thought that questioning or reevaluating their beliefs might actually constitute a rejection of those beliefs can lead down a dark path paved by the great deceiver.

Rather than reinforce this false divide, making use of the concept of faith as faithfulness seems to restructure the "negative space" of doubt. Instead of seeing doubt or questioning as something to either avoid or embrace wholesale, the faith as faithfulness idea seems to suggest that in the gospel and in scripture, doubt should be understood as "doubtfulness" or acting on doubt--similarly to faith being understood as "faithfulness" or acting on faith. In this light, doubt loses its independent positive or negative connotation and may return to its rightful place alongside belief as means to an end (whether the end is good or bad depends on the direction that the belief and doubt lead us). Questions and inquiry and examination can allow a righteous individual to pursue righteousness and faithfulness as did Joseph Smith, without worrying whether his questioning of the various tenets of faith which surrounded him would eternally condemn him as a "doubter" or infidel. 

Although faith as faithfulness and doubt as doubtfulness may not provide every answer or resolve all lines of inquiry, leaving these interpretations open can allow the believer to hold fast to their belief while evading the forces that would require an unquestioning belief in the face of doubt. Doubt can then act to strengthen belief in truth by allowing for questions and inquiry to uncover reinforcing truth, enabling intelligent belief and a spiritual way of learning truth by study and also by faith. Similarly, doubt and questioning and inquiry can provide means for discrediting the untrue by providing believers the freedom to hold fast only to true beliefs and not feel obligated to embrace every whim that might entice them down roads of human musings and sophistries.

The true believer may then proceed to "prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Romans 12:2). Faithfulness can include faithful doubting and questioning and inquiry so long as such faithfulness directs itself at bringing the faithful individual closer to God and to truth. In this manner, the possibility that faith and doubt may coexist in the same individual simulataneously without either threatening the security of the other seems real, provided that the individual retains the motivation to follow truth. Such a motivation seems to be the root of faithfulness. What doubt may remain can serve as a catalyst to further learning--an enabling power to the seeker for truth. 

Only when doubt gives rise to doubtfulness--to unfaithfulness--should it be absolutely shunned. Otherwise, the beginning and ending point of faith is a perfect knowledge. As recounted in Ether, the brother of Jared "knew, nothing doubting." (Ether 3:19). Such a description should not be the touchstone of faith, but rather of knowledge. None of us should expect to begin our journey at the culminating point.

Faith strengthens into knowledge through experiences of faith--which by definition require belief in things as yet unknown, or in things where some question may remain. Thus, the absence of certainty becomes a hallmark of faith, allowing for faithful doubt, questioning and inquiry. These gifts--the gifts of faithful doubt, faithful questions, and faithful inquiry--may form the stumbling block of this age. To reject them is to reject the progress that they offer--even if that rejection is pronounced in the name of seeking certainty or knowledge. Thus, seeking to know, "nothing doubting" mistakes an end for the means to achieve it. To attempt to reach knowledge without first passing through faith--and tests of faith--only serves to limit our agency and our ability to progress, a form of self-damnation.

Knowledge and certainty do not come from discarding faithful questions, but rather from embracing them and the learning that they open unto us. We cannot be acted upon and not act, cannot shelve faithful inquiries instead of pursuing them, and expect to receive the blessings of the faithful--even the growth from faith to knowledge. Instead, the Gospel requires that we remain faithful despite the (initial, and possibly long-lasting) absence of knowledge. It requires that our faith persist in the face of doubt. Only then are we truly exercising faith and relying on it as our "evidence of things not seen" or known (Hebrews 11:1).

As faithful adherents to the Gospel, we must maintain our faith in the face of doubt. We must, as Paul described it, "against hope, believe[] in hope" (Romans 4:18). And through such faithful experiences--when faced with true tests of faith, requiring careful thought and questioning and study, even as we pass through the valley of the shadow of doubt--we grow in faith unto the perfect day when our faithfulness allows for the Spirit of God to answer all faithful doubt, questions, and inquiries. 


cloak removed,

covering hidden,

absent longing returns


justification fled

when will, revealed

and covered by


opened the path

leading away

toward the reentry


fruit half-eaten

tangy and sweet,

the bloodstain 

lingers on lip

as longing eyes



ungraven image

eye of faith encompasses

yet fading forms



rippled reflections 

reveal failings,

sustain new stature


a new creature emerges and


21 September 2008

On Being Missionaries

My time during the interval between my last post and this one has been largely filled with thoughts geared toward my current calling as Ward Mission Leader. I brought upon myself a flurry of activity in that regard by suggesting that we challenge our Ward to engage ourselves as member missionaries more actively during the month of September, and most specifically during the week between today and next Sunday. As a part of this, the Bishopric gave me opportunities to teach the August 31 fifth Sunday lesson to our priesthood and Relief Society on this topic, and followed that by asking my wife and me to speak in Sacrament meeting today. I also presented a musical number on clarinet, engaging me in the meeting from several angles as I prepared the music and arranged "Hark All Ye Nations" and "Rejoice, the Lord is King" into a unified medley.

That said (and with apologies for my delay in writing), I have had several thoughts that might be of use to any who might read this post, and from which I may benefit for having written. Foremost is the focus on being missionaries rather than on doing missionary work. Elder Bednar's talk about preparing for missionary service by being missionaries now rather than any "one true and living missionary preparation regiment" informed this train of thought greatly. I find myself responding with more enthusiasm to a challenge to be a missionary than a challenge to do missionary work. In viewing the command to be missionaries this way, I have focused on 2 Corinthians 3:1-3 wherein Paul sets the Saints up to be the epistles (or letters of introduction) of Christ to those around them. They are epistles written not with ink, but with the Spirit of God; written not on tables of stone, but on the fleshy tables of the heart. In this way, we become witnesses, missionaries in the true sense of having been sent on a mission. As we integrate the gospel and teachings of Jesus Christ into our lives, our instinctive response, forming a part of the pattern of the plan of happiness, becomes a missionary response. Thus, our interactions with others naturally gravitate toward our experiences with the Lord from time to time, creating opportunities to share our witness without any awkwardness, stiffness, or discomfort. 

The notion of being a missionary and of sharing our testimony or sharing our witness turns the mind to what being a witness truly entails. The notion of testimony and witness becomes particularly significant to one trained in the law, and conditioned to view experiences and events in terms of evidence. In the legal profession, effective witnesses must give competent testimony, must limit their testimony to relevant topics, and must convey credibility to their testimony such that a skilled advocate may use their testimony together with that of other witnesses to craft an entire case.

Similarly, the Lord, acting as our Advocate with the Father, creates a case. Our testimony must first be competent. This means that it bases itself on actual events and experiences with which we have firsthand knowledge. We give testimony about what we have experienced. Thus, our personal experiences with the Lord form the foundation of our testimony. It is important to note that we need not be every kind of witness. Not every witness in a legal trial gives expert medical evidence, expert forensic analysis, eyewitness accounts and character evidence. Nor need we feel obligated to check every box in giving our witness of each facet of the gospel each time an opportunity arises to bear testimony. We merely need to impart our experiences with the Lord.

Related to this concept, witnesses are to limit their testimony to relevant evidence. Statements about a witness' family might be accurate and true; however such statements would have no relevance to what that witness observed about her workplace in the days leading up to an incident. In the same manner, we need not testify to every gospel principle during every opportunity to bear testimony of which we avail ourselves. In conversations relating to our family, we can limit our testimony effectively by sharing how the gospel has given our family a foundation on which we find stability despite the tumultuous times surrounding us, perhaps including an anecdote about family prayer or family home evening and inviting those hearing the testimony to join us the next time. Or we can talk about how blessed we feel to have a living prophet who can issue warnings, as did President Hinckley in October 2001 when he made reference to Joseph's dream almost exactly seven years prior to our current economic turmoil. Relevant testimony need not be formulaic--in fact it loses power when reduced to trite, contrived or repetitive statements rather than a sincere and simple statement of our experience.

We find our testimony through our own experience with the Lord. Zechariah recounts a vision with which each of us can identify in Zech. 3. In this vision the accuser, Satan, points to our filthy garments; whereupon the Lord replaces those filthy garments with clean white clothing and a royal crown upon our heads. He invites us to walk in His ways and keep his charge. If we so do, he promises us that we will judge his house and keep his courts and that he will give us places to walk among those that stand by. In effect, our Advocate with the Father opposes Lucifer, the prosecutor seeking the spiritual death penalty for our sins. Jesus pleads our cause (Isaiah 51:22), entering a plea of not guilty by reason of atonement. At this point, we become witnesses of Jesus Christ--his epistles and missionaries.

When we have genuine experience upon which to draw and we give relevant evidence, our witness may be joined with others to form a compelling case, sufficient to meet any standard of proof, whether it be more than a scintilla of evidence, or beyond a reasonable doubt, or anywhere in between. 

Peter admonished us to "sanctify the Lord God in [our] hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh [us] a reason of the hope that is in [us] with meekness and fear" (1 Pet. 3:15). As we become missionaries and understand the mission we have been given (Jacob 1:17), we can act on the calling that we have each received as a result of our desires to serve God (D&C 4) and share our witness of God at all times and in all things and in all places that we may be in (Mosiah 18). Then we take upon us the image of Christ, even to the point of having that image engraven upon our countenances (Alma 5) as the Lord engraved us upon his palms and his feet. 

08 August 2008

Ceasing our Worship of the God of the Lost Keys

This post has been brewing in my mind for some time, but before I get too far into it, I do want to make clear that in no way am I suggesting that God does not care about us personally or that He is unable (or unwilling sometimes) to intervene. The thrust of my post intends to force us all to rethink the way or ways in which we approach the true and living God. So without further ado...
We all know the pattern of the story, a desperate moment of searching for the lost keys followed by an intent prayer that leads to the rediscovery of the missing keys. Although not involving keys, I have had similar experiences myself, both in the literal sense, and in the spiritual/symbolic sense. So I do not say that the stories do not stem from faithful individuals approaching the God of the universe and receiving from His tender mercies. Usually, these stories come from spiritually sensitive individuals who love God and seek to find His hand in their lives.
That said, I wonder if we (more accurately if I) have become complacent or idolatrous in our (my) approaching God as a result of such experiences? I find, sometimes, that my experiences in prayer have been shaped negatively when I reflect on such "lost keys" moments, and extend that reflection to my worship as a whole. In other words, I find that my overall outlook may have been distorted through the lens of the "god of the lost keys." This phrase merely serves as shorthand for the larger phenomenon. Sometimes our experience with God seems more pragmatic than spiritual. We approach Him more as the latest, best technology--as the truly universal remote control which can function in ways that science could only dream. We ask (and expect!) blessings that short-circuit the growth process, then complain when we perceive any so-called failure of the "technology."
Religion, at least in my view, should entail more than perfunctory statements of thanks, followed by a wish list that could as easily be directed by a child toward Santa Claus. The "false gods we worship," as so aptly taught by President Spencer W. Kimball, do not only include the temporal. Perhaps more commonly, we transform the true and living God into our own personal god, complete with our own personality (granted, with improvements to achieve our perception of what perfection should be), with our desires (sometimes adding what we wish we desire, too), and with our perspective.
When we fall prey to President Kimball's "false gods," we disobey God and give preference to the things of the world. Perhaps more insidiously, though, when we fall prey to the "god of the lost keys" worldview, we obey--but our obedience is to a degenerate form of the true God which we have created through our interpolations. Rather than making idols out of the things of the world, we create a false god by reshaping God to more completely match up with our preconceived notions of what "God should be like" regardless of scripture or revelation. We pave our own shortcut to "god" by molding notions of the divine to conform to ourselves instead of transforming ourselves as a response to the divine presence in our lives. We cling to our self-created characterization of god (idol worship, if ever an idol has been worshipped) instead of opening our minds to accept that perhaps His thoughts really are not our own, nor His ways ours--instead of acknowledging that our understanding of God must continue to grow or our line-upon-line learning must come to an end and we will lose that which we have been given.
To elaborate further with an example, we may decide based on our opinion or "learning" that God desires for us to take a certain course of action which we have found desirable--perhaps something significant like marrying a certain partner, pursuing a particular career, or having children. When we decide that this is God's will for us and make it a matter of prayer and worship, we effectively limit God's role, setting up a "god of the next decision." This god wants us to act a certain way, and if this god fails to bless us in ways that we perceive would open the way before us to arrive at our desired destination, the god may fail us. If we do receive the desired blessing(s), we instincitvely attribute the result to the desire of this god.
Behind all of this, however, lies our discernment in ascertaining whether our own desire may have departed from the will of the true God, or whether God really has left the decision up to our own exercise of agency. If such is the case, attributing the success or failure of the venture to the "god of the next venture" or to our version of god merely reinforces our own conception of god as technology. We think that God should function as the power which enables us to achieve that which science is still too limited to do for us. In effect, we rely on ourselves and on the arm of flesh to a point, then when our own power finds its limit point, we turn to the "god of the lost keys" to do what we want, when we want it.
Recognizing that we too frequently transform the workings and will of God into our own degenerate form of divinity, we may reflect back on our experiences to discern when we are projecting our "god of the lost keys" onto our lives and when God truly has a hand in directing us. We may find that what we thought several years ago must have been God's influence was instead our own frailty convincing us that God intended one course when it was merely our own god usurping the throne and enticing us toward that which we had wanted more than we wanted to accept God.
The perspective that I find opening a way for "tender mercies" while maintaining a more proper worship of the true and living God recognizes my limitations and God's power. With this altered orientation toward God and the world, I still find myself in the same desperate times when I need my keys (literally and figuratively) more often than I would like. However, at those moments of need, I find myself striving to approach God without an expectation that God will act as a key-finder, and instead with the perspective that I worship a good, just God, who will listen to me and permit me to struggle. I may ask for help, but leave it at that, or ask for help to overcome my forgetfulness and to remember, rather than help to find. A very subtle difference, yet reflective of a different relationship with God. One which strives to worship Him as a son of God, and one which acknowledges His hand in my life, even when I may not always recognize it or may mistake my own hand for His. Yet one which is shaped by His undying love despite my amateur attempts at discerning and at worshipping.
Replacing our worship of the "god of the lost keys" requires a willingness to continue learning, and to abandon the dross and filler that we have permitted to enter into our conception of God. We must realize our limitations and act in faith by acknowledging the existence of God and becoming better acquainted with him through His hand as it truly acts. Such faithfulness embraces much of the gospel, but goes deeper, grounding itself in a relationship between God and man, Creator and creation, Father and son, which only remains a true relationship for as long as it has no endpoint, no moment (at least during mortality) when we feel that we truly "know" what we need to know. For the moment that we think that we have figured it out or that we know enough, our knowledge evaporates.
Thus, the quest is to authentically experience the divine in our lives and to respond appropriately. When we depart from this to suggest any arrival, we have surely arrived, but at a destination we thought we were avoiding. Therefore, let us cast down any idols, whether of wood or stone or plastic or merely individual conceptions of God, and bow before Him who is mighty to save, for this is our only authentic response to His voice.

29 July 2008

A New Perspective on the Naaman Narrative

As I reflected on Naaman's story this weekend, the richness of the story's symbolism dawned on me in new light. We are familiar with the basics of the plot line and I find no need to rehash them here. Suffice it to say that he, as a foreigner (Gentile), sought instruction from the prophet to cure leprosy and received counsel to wash seven times in the Jordan River.
Having laid out the basics of the narrative, consider the role of foreigners/Gentiles in the context of the Jewish nation. They were considered as lacking the necessary covenants to obtain the fullness of the salvation promised to the children of Israel. In this light, the identity created by communities makes Naaman's identity as foreigner important in the trajectory of this story.
Naaman consults an Israelite to overcome leprosy--and not any Israelite, a prophet. Paul likened the prophet of Old Testament times, the high priest, unto Jesus Christ--even linking Jesus as the reality of which the prior high priests and prophets had served as types and symbols. In this light, we can rightly consider Naaman to have approached the Lord to overcome leprosy.
This turns our attention to the condition of leprosy. Ancient societies saw leprosy as one of the more abhorrent diseases. The condition which led skin to decompose and fall off of the bones merits such avoidance as appears in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, this condition presents as a kind of living dead. Lepers remain alive, while living out a life of death. Symbolically, sin constitutes leprosy. A sinner lives, yet dies every moment. Sin creates death out of life and a mortal in a condition of sin must remain so and live out his or her days in a living demise.
The cure proposed by the prophet acting in the role of the Messiah simply asked Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River. This prescription, however, draws on likewise rich symbolism. The history and future of Jordan merits attention at the outset. Jordan is where the children of Israel entered the Promised Land--a point of crossing. Tradition held that Abraham may have likewise traversed Jordan when he first entered Palestine. Jordan's significance culminated when Jesus "crossed" Jordan at His baptism, following his time in the wilderness in echo to (and fulfillment of the type of) the Exodus. Thus, Jordan becomes the symbol of entrance into Israel, and hence, into the covenant relationship with God.
Having seen the symbolism of Jordan, we may turn to the instruction to wash in Jordan. If Jordan may be understood as the covenant, a leper may wash in the covenant--may be washed in the atoning blood of the great and last Sacrifice--and overcome leprosy. The living death may be overcome. The instruction to wash seven times draws on the number seven's symbol of perfection and divinity. This reinforces the divine power and symbolism of Jordan, and also emphasizes that the crossing into the covenant must be complete. That a departure would render the conversion incomplete and the leprosy would remain. In this manner, Naaman's experience casts a pattern which should (must) be followed by all prospective initiates into the gospel covenant. True conversion requires all to approach the High Priest and respond to His call, which will require acting on instructions that may seem foolish or rudimentary, yet which inevitably lead to the Promised Land.

24 July 2008

On Priesthood: Organization (Part 1 of 3)

Does the organization of the Priesthood teach more than the lists of duties often associated with it? How can the revelations organizing the Priesthood impact our lives more than by offering checklists? As I proceed, hopefully some thoughts begin to form...

[Parts 2 and 3 will address the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood (2) and the Keys of the Priesthood as compared with Power in the Priesthood (3)]

The Priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as revealed most elaborately in D&C 20, 84 and 107 and as practiced in the modern church finds two primary subdivisions: Melchizedek and Aaronic. These subdivisions, made explicit in section 107, raise questions regarding the nature of priesthood (many of which will require significantly more thought than I have yet given them), including the following, divided by verse in that section:
Verse 1
Should we regard this division of priesthood as indicative of inherent and eternal differences or divisions? Or do the modifiers (Melchizedek, Aaronic and Levitical--and Patriarchal) serve some purpose other than that of classifying or subdividing priesthood?

Why does the Lord describe "two" priesthoods when using three descriptive modifiers?

How is a Latter-day Saint to understand this priesthood framework in light of the rituals of the ancient and modern temples? How did the Lord intend for Joseph and the Elders to receive it in the nineteenth century? How does that voice to nineteenth century members resonate today?

Given the introductory language of the heading to the Section, when was this early portion of the Section received?

Is the Lord saying that the Levitical priesthood is included in the Aaronic? Or in the combination of Aaronic and Melchizedek? Does the temple answer this question fully?

Verse 2
Is addition to providing Latter-day Saints seeking for cursory answers with an explanation, is the Lord attempting to incorporate by reference the typology of Melchizedek's ministry? Not to mention the "King of Righteousness" element...

Verse 3
"Holy" raises many implications and potential avenues for intertwining the Priesthood with the temple, the law of sacrifice, and the atonement, to name a few...
What "Order" is being referenced? (Patriarchal? United? ...)

Verse 4
Which name was being respected or reverenced? Calling it the Melchizedek Priesthood omits the phrase "after the Order of the Son of God." Was the concern for "Son?" Or "God?" Both of which are frequently used by Latter-day Saints...

How does referring to the Priesthood as "Melchizedek" respect the Supreme Being's name? How does it reverence the name? How does it avoid too frequent repetition (given the other contexts in which both "Son" and "God" are used)?

Verse 5
What other authorities exist in the church? Aaronic priesthood? Other priesthoods? Other authority? What other offices?

What is an appendage to the priesthood? What has been identified as such? How do they append the Priesthood? Is the Lord seeking to turn our minds to Paul's teachings on members individually and collectively?
Verse 6
To what does the Lord refer in calling the divisions "grand heads?" What sort of imagery is being used?

The Lord apparently equates the Aaronic and Levitical Priesthoods. Yet why use different names? Is/should one be preferred over another as Melchizedek is preferred to its prior name referenced in verse 2? Do the modifiers "Aaronic" and "Levitical" describe the same authority, but refer to the differing ways of receiving that authority?

What about priesthood lends itself to this division among a "greater" and "lesser/prepatory"?

What do we learn from priesthood lineage? Is it just about tracing our authority to God? Or does knowing one's priesthood "genealogy" create a new identity to reorient us toward an eternal (kingdom of priests)?

What does the right or privilege of ordination to the priesthood reveal to us about the way that the Lord administers his kingdom?

Textually, the introductory "But" seems to suggest that this passage is meant to appear contradictory to the prior verses, suggesting a line of understanding that initial passage toward reading verses one through five as suggesting a unity of priesthood, whereas verse six acknowledges that despite the unity, subdivisions may also exist.

Verse 7
Continuing the theme of subdivisions, the Lord indicates that the office that had initially been the highest office in the Church (with Joseph and Oliver acting as First and Second Elders, respectively), pertains to the subdivision of the Melchizedek priesthood.

Why would the Lord use the word "office" to describe the priesthood? Is the word intended to evoke secular themes of political offices? Can that trajectory direct a careful student toward oaths of office in understanding the "Oath and Covenant" of the priesthood?

Why phrase it "the office of an elder" rather than merely "the office of elder?" Should the phrasing change our understanding or preconceived notions of what an office means?

This verse, in its entirety, seems to underpin the teaching (in D&C 84:29) that elders are an appendage to the Melchizedek priesthood.

Verse 8
What context informs our understanding of what "the right of presidency" means?
Verse 9
Again, an understanding of the temple seems essential for an informed discussion of "officiating in all the offices." Likewise, the phrase "Presidency of the High Priesthood" raises questions such as "what makes the 'High Priesthood' unique?" "How does it differ from the Aaronic and Melchizedek?"

Verse 10
The history of "high priests" seems to parallel the history of this section, with some parts revealed earlier than others and a fragmentary understanding informing prior iterations. How does the office of high priest differ from other offices? (Consider quorum size restrictions, presiding authority, etc., and compare the context of the early church with more contemporary times.)

The list of "elder, priest . . . teacher, deacon, and member seems intended to incorporate by reference Section 20. How do the two sections intersect?

By specifying "priest (of the Levitical order)" does the Lord intend to draw a distinction between Levitical priests and Aaronic priests? Or is the phrase from verse 6 equating the two intended to blur that distinction? Given the theme of a unified priesthood with subdivisions, this parenthetical reference may prove instructive in providing insight to the Lord's teachings on priesthood...
Verse 16
What significance can we as readers attribute to the phrase "legal right" in verse 16?

Why would the Lord introduce the concepts of "legal rights" to Priesthood offices and of literal descendants having such rights in the context of the bishopric instead of connecting them to the Patriarchal Priesthood?

Verse 17
In what other circumstances is the verb "officiate" used?

Does verse 17 suggest that the First Presidency (the Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood) has the responsibility to call and set apart and ordain all bishops? Or just the Presiding Bishop?
And is the phrasing of verse 17 intended to suggest that a literal descendant with a legal right to the office need not be called, set apart nor ordained?

Verse 18
How should we understand holding keys, specifically keys of all spiritual blessings, as constituting "[t]he power and authority" of the Priesthood?

Verse 19
What significance should be given to the allusion to Revelation and the New Testament concept of "mysteries" in connection with a description or elaboration of the privileges, power and authority of the Priesthood?

Verse 20
How do priesthoods hold keys?

What principled distinctions can be drawn from the keys held by the two (greater and lesser) priesthoods? Does the "temporal versus spiritual" distinction break down when actually examining the keys held? If so, is one difference that of temporality: pre- versus post-salvation?
Initial Thoughts
Although this post does not endeavor to undertake answering all of these questions, I do offer initial thoughts (with credit to Joe Spencer who has developed these thoughts with me). As noted in the section heading, "various parts [of this revelation] were received at sundry times, some as early as November 1831." As a matter of fact, it is the later portion of the revelation that was received earlier: the first 58 verses seem without a doubt to have been received on March 28, 1835, while most of the remainder of the section can be found in the Kirtland Revelations Book under the date of November 1831 (some additions were made to the earlier text when it was included in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants). The "various parts" would seem to have been united eventually on the somewhat tenuous grounds of their being something of a consistency of theme in the revelations: nominally, "ON PRIESTHOOD," as the heading read in the 1835 D&C. But there is certainly warrant for reading the first 58 verses of this section in isolation from the remainder of the text.

Reading the revelation in this way perhaps diffuses an overly taxonomic reading: rather than being obsessed with hierarchical divisions of the church's labor, the revelation might be read as concerning itself primarily with sorting out the meaning of the ancient priesthood and the way this ancient meaning is to be translated into the modern situation (especially in terms of the Kirtland House of the Lord). The theme of the ancient priesthood runs right through the whole revelation: not only is there an explanation, from the very first verses, about the provenance of the name of the high priesthood, but the revelation comes to its climax in an exploration of the ancient Adam-ondi-Ahman experience and how it bears on the meaning and place of the priesthood. It is apparently in light of these details that this revelation is best interpreted.

Given that overall heading ("ON PRIESTHOOD") the Lord deliberately instructs on the nature of Priesthood power by juxtaposing an assertion of "two priesthoods" with three names "Melchizedek," "Aaronic," and "Levitical" in verse one. This introductory remark to versus 1-58 suggests a desire to transgress the boundaries that a more superficial, hierarchical approach to priesthood might impose on a reader, while recognizing the instructive power of a range of descriptive modifiers for priesthood power. Significantly, the Patriarchal priesthood is not specifically mentioned in this verse, although it may arguably appear obliquely in verse three where the "Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God" adds to the three names of verse one. In approaching this revelation from such a backdrop, the ensuing discussion of "grand heads," "offices," "power and authority," "keys" and "offices" seems to manifest a voice of instruction focusing not on an organizational flow chart, but rather on priesthood genealogy and the relational significance attached to the "priesthoods."
Beginning with verse 21, this revelation radically altered the saints' understanding of the priesthood, systematizing and organizing it so that it might function as a form of government, in addition to its "cultic" role, dwelt upon in the previous verses. Each verse that follows in this revelation is worth very careful consideration: each has had a major impact on the structure of the Church, as well as on the understanding of the priesthood.

The setting is significant. 1835 marks the establishment of church government--an incredibly controversial moment in LDS history now and then ("apostasy" from the Church's organization--as opposed to apostasy from the Church's moral standards or from the contents of a particular revelation--might well be said to center on this very moment of institutionalization, both in Joseph's day and even now). The same year also marks the supersession of the "Book of Commandments" by the "Doctrine and Covenants," the latter text radically altering the former--most obviously in focus and function, but also in actual wording. More still, 1835 is also marked by the acceleration of the work on the Kirtland House of the Lord, with its accompanying emphasis on priesthood. Though this revelation comes early in the year, all of these events form a sort of aura around it.

Perhaps still more significant is the immediate textual setting: what follows not only marks a sort of "departure" from previous revelations on the priesthood, it makes a "departure"--as it were--from the characterization of the priesthood offered in the previous twenty verses! But this very fact ensures that what follows is not, strictly speaking, a departure. Rather, something is being added--by the Lord, it must be remembered--to the priesthood ("added" might be the best word to be used here: the governmental structure of the priesthood does not appear to be "eternal"; cf. D&C 84:29-30, D&C 107:5). Government for the Church, in other words, is a duty the Lord decided to assign to the priesthood (which, in and of itself, was not of governmental function). All these details, it should be hoped, establish the absolute importance of what begins with verse 21.
Verse 22
This verse marks the first instance of the word "quorum" in scripture. Besides its numerous appearances in the following verses, it only shows up elsewhere in D&C 124:62 and 117ff. The institutional importance of a word so seldomly used in scripture suggests that these two revelations are vital for understanding the role and development of the structure of the priesthood in terms of government. (If a broad characterization of section 107 as over and against section 124 is justified: section 107 deals with the introduction and grounding of quorums, while section 124 basically only mentions quorums because the revelation provides names for some specific positions in those quorums. In other words, section 107 is "theoretical," whereas section 124 is "practical." However, it should not be missed how much the "practicality" of section 124 establishes the vitality of more "theoretical" section 107: the institutional importance of the quorums of the priesthood is not a late phenomenon, but something that developed rather quickly--within the lifetime of the prophet Joseph.

It is vital to note that in this passage (as it extends through to verse 37), however, the quorums that are discussed are only the quorums that govern the Church in the broadest sense. The word "quorum," then, appears to have been understood in its more "official" sense. In fact, by 1835, the less official senses of the word were mostly obselete (see the OED entry on "quorum"), and the 1828 Webster's dictionary lists only meanings that bear on official practices (all implying, interestingly, a situation of judgment or justice). The establishment at work in these verses is not, it must be understood, the establishment of the hierarchical quorums of the priesthood. Rather, it is the establishment of a governing system of quorums/councils who have the authority to conduct the business of the entire Church. Verse 32 is perhaps the clearest confirmation of this point: these several quorums (apparently meaning only the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Quorum of the Seventy) "constitute the spiritual authorities of the church." In short, this first instance of "quorums" in scripture is an establishment, not of the quorums of the priesthood, but of the quorums of general authorities in the several and balancing levels of authority. Hence when, later in the revelation, the Lord discusses the "quorums" of the priests, teachers, and deacons, He never uses the term "quorum" at all (see verses 85-90, a series of verses quoted there from an otherwise unpublished revelation of November 1831). (It might be noted further that even in D&C 124, there is never mention of a quorum in the Aaronic Priesthood. Though there is some discussion there of the quorum of the elders, the wording is complex, and this might be only a reference to the quorum of the seventy. The implication seems to be that, at least at first, quorums were only a question of the High Priesthood.)
D&C 107: 39
Here the Lord introduces the office of patriarch, calling those to be ordained to the office, however, "evangelical ministers." Juxtaposed with the lengthy explanation of "this order of the priesthood" that begins with the next verse and continues through verse 57, the title seems odd--and for a number of reasons. The following verses suggest a single line of patriarchs, whereas the commandment in this verse suggests that a number of different patriarchs are to be called in different places. Further, the following verses suggest the most ancient, Old Testament setting for the office, whereas the title "evangelical ministers" has a decisively New Testament flavor (not least because "evangelical" derives from Greek). Finally, though in the following verses it is clear that the patriarchs were part of a more complex covenantal situation (see especially verse 40), the "evangelical ministers" to be called are to be called quite simply "by revelation." In short, the lengthy explanation of the most ancient order of patriarchs seems more to frustrate than to ground this verse (verse 39).

However, that the lengthy explanation turns almost immediately to Adam, in whom "this order was instituted" (verse 41), is quite suggestive: the New Testament flavor of "evangelical ministers" might just imply that in the Second Adam, the order has been made new, has been taken up into the logic of charity, has been opened up so that all might become "literal descendants of the chosen seed" through adoptions as sons (in the Son). In other words, the difference between the office named in verse 39 and the office described at length in verses 40-57 should be felt. The priesthood after the order of the father (the "patriarchal" order), once so perfectly exclusive, has been made "available" through the equally "available" priesthood after the order of the Son (from son to father) that Jesus Christ liberated through atonement. The purpose, then, of the lengthy description of the "original" patriarchal order might be at least twofold: on the one hand, the passage establishes the erstwhile exclusivity of a priesthood order now opened up through the available effects of the atonement; on the other hand, the passage deals at length with the meaning and possibilities of the office that remain, even though the possibility of receiving the order has changed.

The subsequent history of the office of Patriarch may validate this understanding as the lineal descendants of a single family (Joseph Smith, Sr.) served as Presiding Patriarch to the Church until Eldred G. Smith was given emeritus status in 1979. The recent teachings of President Boyd K. Packer indicate that a patriarch acts in a prophetic role (Oct. 2002 General Conference). Although not sustained as such (perhaps non-sustained callings provides food for thought in another vein altogether), stake patriarchs act in a prophetic capacity for their stake,just as the Presiding Patriarch was explicitly sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. The trend toward making the prophetic role available to each stake suggests that the role may extend to the more fundamental units of the church until each household ideally has a patriarch acting in the role of prophet for the family unit. Although speculative, this trajectory validates the textual description of the patriarchal order and the Second Adam opening history back toward the original patriarchal order, thus dividing and uniting history simultaneously.
Quorums (and not)
With the office of patriarch as an interesting segue, I turn to the offices of priesthood. These offices are Deacon, Teacher, Priest, Elder, High Priest, Seventy, Apostle, Bishop and Patriarch. My order deliberately divides those offices which have associated quorums from those which do not. Bishops and Patriarchs, while also High Priests, do not have their own quorums.
This division parallels some of the history of the priesthood in which the office of High Priest under the Levitical (Aaronic) Priesthood during the days of the early Jewish Priesthood shares the similarity of presiding over a group of (Aaronic) Priesthood holders with the modern office of Bishop. The reference in section 107 to a legal right to the office of bishop suggests a lineage-based trace tied to that office which has since faded, but lingers in scripture to remind us that this office historically followed the family tree, passing from father to son.
Similarly, the office of Patriarch shares ties to the Patriarchal Priesthood held by Adam, Enoch, and Noah. This office, which in those ancient days carried with it the presidency of all Priesthood, also passed from father to son. In its restoration form, the office of Patriarch remained a lineal authority until recently. As mentioned above, the familial ties of this office suggest an intent that men become prophets to their household. As the church units decrease in size until the Patriarchal order is reinstituted, the number of Patriarchs and Bishops will increase until each (family) unit could ideally be presided over by a unified head, both Bishop and Patriarch, so to speak.
The remaining offices each have a quorum associated therewith and their responsibilities are tied inextricably to the organization of the Church. Perhaps the entire trajectory of Priesthood is intended to create (High) Priests and Priestesses, to base family units on (shared?) Priesthood power between a husband and wife sealed by and endowed with that power. A return to Adam-ondi-Ahman, as foretold in section 107 and pre-figured in the Fall.
The name of the Melchizedek Priesthood comes from one Melchizedek, a High Priest to whom Abraham paid tithes. Some have posited that the absence of Biblical references to Melchizedek could point toward a different figure from Genesis who may have held the title, Melchizedek ("king of righteousness"). Most suggestions identify Shem, Noah's son, as Melchizedek, due to the timeline with Shem's life overlapping that of Abraham, and traditions which held that Noah became incapacitated toward the end of his days and that Shem presided in Noah's stead. The Times and Seasons, under the editorship of John Taylor, equated Shem with Melchizedek and B.H. Roberts, in his The Truth, The Way, The Life (which I will review soon), elaborated approvingly on these suggestions.

06 July 2008

To my future children...

This morning, I stood in a circle as my cousin blessed his newborn baby boy. As I contemplated this circle, my thoughts turned to my future children and to the pattern enacted by the ordinance this morning. As I have not yet been blessed with children, I thought that this would be an appropriate occasion to contemplate some of what I felt with them in mind.

The circle surrounding each newborn echoes circles that will encompass them throughout their life. Circles including confirmation to the Church, priesthood ordinations, blessings of comfort, setting apart blessings, circles formed around altars of the temple, circles of family study and prayer, and ultimately a circle carrying them to their resting place at the close of mortality. Such circles turn the mind to lingering traces of the arms of redeeming love that encircled us prior to birth and that may again encircle us.

Similar circles may accompany occasions such as birthdays, Christmas, and other events and commemorations that turn the mind forward and backward. Such times cause reflection and contemplation. One is reminded of the pattern and way of life.

During times of pondering and meditation, a biography of sorts shows itself. This biography may include learning about family, both immediate and extended. Knowing the members of the circles of our lives enriches our understanding of our roots and deepens our appreciation for what we now have. Likewise, we may come to know our family of faith, learning of pioneers, patriarchs, and ultimately of Father and Son. All of these form a part of our own biographies. We are shaped and informed in large measure by these familial biographies.

Another biographical sketch that we may benefit from annotating and keeping current is a biography of our testimony. Certain events of life mark us indelibly and teach us of ourselves in inimitable ways. When we experience such phenomena, we live the writing of the biography of our testimony. Whether recorded or not, this biography of testimony becomes a foundation to an integrated life. As spiritual truths are integrated, welded together, and allowed to yield more truth, we participate in the authorship of this biography: a book of life.

In reflecting this evening on the baby blessing this morning, I am reminded of the many circles of which I have been a part, as well as others formed to surround me. My biography, both of family and of testimony, has been shaped and marked by members of these circles. I anticipate forming additional circles, and ultimately being marked by the marks as the Savior encircles me in the arms of His love.

I hope to allow the in-progress book of (my) life to fully imprint upon me the image and countenance of the Lord, such that I may experience the eternal round that will return me to the loving embrace echoed in the circles I envision for my children, and that I hope will form around me upon my departure from this mortal sphere.

25 June 2008

On Milk and Meat...

You're probably thinking 'Not another post on Sunday School!' Not that I've posted profusely on the topic, but the milk and meat theme tends to be a hot-button issue on the bloggernacle. My goal isn't to rehash what we usually say on the subject, but rather to reframe the discussion slightly.

In 1 Corinthians, 3:2, Paul explains to the saints at Corinth that his instruction has progressed along a milk-meat axis, so to speak, saying "I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able." It is this verse to which Latter-day Saints point in justification for their assertions that Sunday lessons be premised on the "milk" of the gospel, leaving the "meat" for other occasions.

Setting aside the oft-repeated rejoinders to this line of thinking for now (addressed in some of my earlier posts which suggest that teaching and learning requires some degree of "discomfort"), I opt here to take Paul at face value, and evaluate the effectiveness our milk before meat approach to gospel learning.

With missionary work being an appropriate beginning point for such an evaluation, I turn to the Preach My Gospel manual which contains the material of instruction for our introductory lessons to the gospel. These lessons rely on scripture and point the student toward the Spirit to receive further instruction beyond the lessons. In this manner, the teaching and learning promoted by the missionary lessons transcends the "teacher" and "student." Thus, lasting conversion becomes a reasonable aim to such lessons given the focus and emphasis on experience with the Divine. It seems that the lessons progress from the fundamental to the particular, allowing for a deepening of testimony prior to immersion in the smaller points of the laws of the gospel. Perhaps this model might be one way of approaching milk and meat. It seems incomplete, however, in that the more fundamental teachings seem more "meaty" (for lack of a better word) than those regarding the specifics of tithing or the Word of Wisdom. Thus, we must look further to determine what we really mean about milk and meat.

Another approach allows for milk to be obtained at official Church functions, with meat being an individual pursuit following up on the foundation laid by the distribution of milk. This seems to be a preferred mode of instruction in our Sunday School classes. By keeping doctrine pure and basic, we give starting points to the more "mature" while avoiding the discomfort that might uproot the testimonies of those who have just come to the milk of the gospel recently. Sunday School lessons typically (although not by absolute requirement) offer an overview of passages of scripture with a few thoughts, targeted at either increasing awareness of scriptures or at providing inspirational/devotional moments. This approach does a good job of offering opportunities to delve more deeply into scripture if the students act on the starting points articulated in class and actively study to answer some of the "hard questions" or "hard doctrines" mentioned in passing during the meetings. The approach does not offer, however, a pattern for study, in that it tends to visibly show milk as the desirable end unto itself without it leading to meat. Paul surely did not intend his statement to suggest that the saints at Corinth would (or should) never eat the Gospel's meat. Similarly here, the Sunday School approach seems to occupy a necessary and good place within our teaching and learning structure; however, if left on its own, it would be insufficient. "[N]either yet now are ye able" (1 Cor. 3:2) seems to almost emphasize the future involving a feast upon the meat of the gospel.

Where, then, do we turn next? Worship services generally, occupying their place on our Sabbath, would seem to provide a suitable forum for learning and receiving "meat." Indeed, the sentiment expressed by Prophets and Apostles that our saints should come away from worship services having been nourished and fed, rather than entertained or appeased, suggests that Sunday services are an appropriate, if not necessary, place for "meat" to be served.

If so, how do we resolve the seeming paradox before us? How should gospel instruction and learning be approached?

Perhaps before considering this, we ought to evaluate how personal study and learning fits into the framework described above. Personal study is bounded by counsel to avoid "deep doctrines." Notwithstanding this, we are also encouraged to make daily, meaningful study of the scriptures a part of our lives. Again, a seeming paradox presents itself. How does one feast so as to comply with the latter portion of advice without crossing into the uncharted territory of the former?

One approach to personal study may offer a way of splitting the horns of this dilemma, and it should appear familiar. Nephi describes it as "liken[ing]" all scripture unto us. 1 Ne. 19: 23. This approach, however, often turns into a superficial twisting or wresting of scripture to justify our pre-existing and preconceived notions of what scripture means rather than a means for allowing the scriptures to unfold themselves to us.

To avoid this, perhaps the exercise of "likening" merits reevaluation. Should scriptural contortionism be a competition in the spiritual olympics? Or would we learn and teach better if we learned a different method of likening?

How else can we liken? One approach that I have found useful relies on the patterns and themes and transcending stories of scripture to shape my life. This does not mean that I twist the scriptural accounts to inject my contemporary understanding or problems into it; nor does it mean that I project my current understanding of doctrine or theology (whatever I may define that to mean) onto the scriptures. Rather, this manner of likening attempts to grapple with the questions and problematics presented in scripture and evaluate the God who stands behind each account. In this way, I attempt to gain knowledge, but also to learn about learning. Articulating this approach will probably require more than this post to flesh out; however, the basic principle of attempting to present personal learning in a way that permits a balanced diet of milk and meat seems important.
In this vein, one final thought seems to merit attention. In more than one instance, the scriptural record uses a peculiar phrase. First appearing in Numbers 11:12, then recurring in Isaiah 49:23 (quoted in 1 Ne. 21:23), and again in 2 Nephi 6:7 and 10:9, the phrase at issue refers to "nursing fathers." This phrase might seem like a significant departure from the theme introduced above. Notwithstanding this change in focus, the phrase bears reflection. When prophets in these verses refer to queens as "nursing mothers," the phrase carries none of the jarring paradox that "nursing fathers" brings to the scene.
How can this phrase contribute to the preceding discussion? First, I note the obvious: males do not nurse their young. I only make mention of this obvious biological fact because this creates the underlying question of these verses. If kings shall be their nursing fathers and queens their nursing mothers, the prophets are attempting to teach a truth beyond the nourishment of children. In what sense, then, can kings act as nursing fathers just as queens act as nursing mothers? This can become clearer by determining what we mean by "to nurse." In this sense, it seems that the phrase refers to breaking down milk into meat. This returns us to the opening thoughts of this post. Perhaps gospel learning and teaching serves this same purpose. If so, then the ongoing calls to teach in the gospel (such as Home and Visiting Teaching, among others) provide opportunities and obligations for each member to feast upon the meat of the gospel through personal study and then to break it down into milk such that it can be presented in a teaching/learning context such as that mentioned above which gives preference to the public instruction focused on milk. In this way, these programs, which for other purposes may be less than necessary in some contexts, provide each member the medium through which a balance of milk and meat is possible. How to engage in this process of breaking down meat into milk, however, merits future attention...

15 June 2008

Living with our Filter

No, despite the title, this post has nothing to do with inappropriate website content or food (or water) storage. But it does draw on a basic concept that I recall being introduced in chemistry classes when dealing with tangible, physical filters. From those classes, we may recall the concept in its rudimentary form: that a filter functions by allowing particles of certain shapes or sizes to pass through it while preventing others from passing through the barrier.

This basic idea from the physical sciences has provoked some thought in my understanding of how we obtain spiritual knowledge "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little" (Isaiah 28:10, 13) and "receive[] . . . and continue[] in God [to] grow[] brighter and brighter untill the perfect day" (Doctrine and Covenants 50:24). My thinking leads me to believe that we ourselves act as filters for what light and truth we permit to pass through our self-imposed barriers and mark us indelibly for eternity. Under such an analogy, the growth we experience is most closely tied to our openness to learn new truths. Absent such an openness, we prevent continued progress by stagnating what we permit to pass through our filters (ourselves).
The analogy to which I refer, is premised on our being our own filters. Our experiences and background, both in mortality and in our pre-mortal life, shape those filters and allow for certain spiritual relationships to shape us and affect us. At the same time, when we have experiences with the Spirit, those experiences in turn transform us into a new filter, which allows different experiences and avenues for Spiritual relations to pass through the filter and affect us in new ways. Thus, we become filters, but also ever-transforming filters. This phenomenon helps to explain how we can turn to the scriptures or ordinances of the Gospel repeatedly and see "new" truths in them each time. Our experiences have changed us, and a change in us changes the filter through which we see and receive new insights and truths.
If this analogy holds, we have a great responsibility for our progress, both in constantly engaging in the transformative process of gospel learning and in preserving our openness to so learning. When either of these is lacking, we stand at risk of losing even that which we have. Moreover, we act as filters by our selectivity in choosing in which experiences and activities we will participate or engage. By using our agency (selectivity) and remaining open to learning, we allow for opportunities to transform ourselves and renew our minds (Romans 12:1-2) and learn to live with our filter as a means to the eternal end of living with our Father.

06 June 2008

Addendum to "On Transcendence": Personal Restoration

Posting this recent series on transcendence has, together with discussion at http://mormonmatters.org/2008/06/04/our-foundation-stories-part-ii-the-meaning-of-the-first-vision/, led me to revisit to a talk I gave a few years back when I was assigned to discuss Joseph Smith's First Vision as a part of a Sacrament Meeting with the theme of "The Restoration" (the other speaker was the Bishop's daughter who had recently returned from missionary service in Kirtland). My remarks that day reflected a theme that makes this addendum to my series appropriate.

For Latter-day Saints, founding stories or "myths" (which description reflects no comment on the content's truth value) share the transcending quality that they tend to repeat themselves in adherents' lives. We can consider ourselves Adam/Eve, Abraham, and so forth as we consider the founding stories associated with those figures. If so, the First Vision should present not merely the story of the beginnings of the Church as an institution. Indeed, it should also not limit itself as representing the story of one prophet's call to the ministry (nor should we so limit it). Rather, our evaluation of the First Vision should reveal to us some of who we ourselves are. In this spirit, we can look first at how Joseph understood his experience, then at how his experience shapes our own experiences.

Understanding Joseph's Experience

Many interpretations of this experience are possible, yet Joseph's earliest account of it reveals his thoughts on its significance. He framed his narrative beginning at age twelve, when his "mind became seriously imprest with regard to all the importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul" (sic). Given this context, the tone of his account reveals a great sensitivity to his sins and his desire to overcome them. As recorded by Frederick G. Williams in that account of 1832, Joseph retold his experience as follows:

"[M]y mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins ... and I felt to mourn for my own Sins and for the Sins of the world ... therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy forthere was none else to whom I could go and {to} obtain mercy andthe Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in [the] attitude of calling upon the Lord [in the 16th* year of my age] a pillar of {fire} lightabove the brightness of the Sun at noon day come down fromabove and rested upon me and I was filld with the Spirit of God and the [Lord] opened the heavens upon me and I Saw the Lord and he Spake unto me Saying Joseph [my son] thy Sins are forgiven thee. go thy [way] walk in my Statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory ... and my Soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me but could find none that would believe the hevenly vision. . . . Nevertheless I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought wound upon my Soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be writen and my Fathers family have suffered many persecutions and affliction."

The way that Joseph narrates this experience suggests that even in 1832, he understood his First Vision as bearing more on his conversion and salvation than on a prophetic call or on the beginnings of the Church as an institution.

This First Vision does not present a checklist of important doctrinal and theological truths that Joseph learned through his experience. Rather, it shows us a young boy who received comfort and love and joy as an answer to his conversion/repentance. As such, and given our modern (re)interpretation of this extraordinary event, the First Vision presents itself through Joseph's eyes more as a conversion narrative than as a founding event. Joseph had great concern for his sins and his relationship to God, therefore he presented himself before God and obtained a remission for his sins. His narration indicates an awareness of the apostate condition of the world (see appendix for the full account, as well as Joseph's other accounts), yet the significance of the event to Joseph was the joy that came through forgiveness.

As with Joseph, so each of us finds ourselves in the midst of apostasy. Paul's teaching that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23) holds in each of our lives as it did with Joseph Smith. Although Latter-day Saints believe in The Restoration, each sin that brings us short of the glory of God returns us to a state of personal apostasy. If we attune ourselves to that consequence as did Joseph, we can experience the same joy as did he through a personal restoration. We can engage with Joseph's story in this personal way regardless of our membership status and can carry it forward with personal significance. Doing so reenacts the First Vision and eliminates the distance between us and the story. By destroying this distance, we become a part of the story and can feel its power as we read it--not just in the sense that it marked the inception of a dispensaion or a prophetic call. We can read it as a type of our experience(s) with the Lord. In this way the First Vision becomes more than a story and becomes a pattern with transcendent power, enabling the faithful to return to it repeatedly and reap the rewards of the Restoration.


Appendix: Joseph Smith's Accounts (see http://www.lds-mormon.com/fv.shtml)

Joseph's 1832 Account of his Experience

"At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to Searching the Scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly far I discovered that [they did not {adorn}] {instead} Of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that Sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divions the wickeness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the {of the} minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins and by Searching the Scriptures I found that {mand} [mankind] did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own Sins and for the Sins of the world for I learned in the Scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God for I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty through the heavens and also the Stars Shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the Strength of beauty whose power and intiligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvilous even in the likeness of him who created {him} [them] and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man Said {the} [it is a] fool [that] Saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclained all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipreasant power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in theirbounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be fron all Eternity to Eternity and when I considered all these things andthat [that] being Seeketh such to worship him as worship him inspirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy forthere was none else to whom I could go and {to} obtain mercy andthe Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in [the] attitude of calling upon the Lord [in the 16th* year of my age] a pillar of {fire} lightabove the brightness of the Sun at noon day come down fromabove and rested upon me and I was filld with the Spirit of God and the [Lord] opened the heavens upon me and I Saw the Lord and he Spake unto me Saying Joseph [my son] thy Sins are forgiven thee. go thy [way] walk in my Statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life [behold] the world lieth in sin {and} at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the Gospel and keep not [my] commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to this ungodliness and to bring to pass that which [hath] been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles behold and lo I come quickly as it written of me in the cloud [clothed] in the glory of my Father and my Soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me but could find none that would believe the hevenly vision. . . . Nevertheless I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought wound upon my Soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be writen and my Fathers family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions."

Joseph's 1835 Account

"Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of Religion, and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong, but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment, matter involving eternal consequences. Being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and there bowed down before the Lord, under a realizing sense (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find, and again, if any man lack wisdom, let of God who giveth to all men liberally & upbraideth not. Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray My tongue seemed to be swoolen in my mouth, so that I could not utter, I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not; the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed; I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with un-speakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee. He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication. . ."

1838 Account (as reflected in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith-History)

Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.

For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.

I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia.

During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.

My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.

In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?

While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.

At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.

So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.

After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.

But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.

It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.

I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.

Wentworth Letter Account

When about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed. Believing the word of God I had confidence in the declaration of James; "If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth all men liberally and upbraideth not and it shall be given him," I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to "go not after them," at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.

04 June 2008

On Transcendence: Conclusion (6 of 6)

Conclusion: Transcending Experiences

Given the above material on transcending experiences, it appears that much of the meaning central to Judeo-Christianity derives itself from some form of transcending event. The events all seem to deal with separation—either establishing it or overcoming it. Other events could certainly qualify as transcendent; however, for our purposes here, we can now reflect on transcendent events and their significance.

Creation, fall, atonement, and conversion all involve an experience and the object of that experience. We usually speak not merely of creation, but of the creation of the world. Similarly the fall refers specifically to the fall of Adam and Eve. The atonement is the atonement of Jesus Christ and conversion is the conversion of [for example] Abraham. Because each of these transcending events involves the event and its object, they teach about experience with the sacred. The events could not happen without an object; however, an individual cannot create the event. The event marks the crossing (or transcending) of the individual with the sacred, overcoming the separation alluded to in our section on the creation. Thus transcending events illustrate how such experience with sacred things reveals itself. Because of this self-revelatory nature, the nihilistic outlook on the sacred dissolves into a transcending testimony in each individual of the meaningful moments that connect the individual experience with the transcendent.

The relationship between subject and object in transcendent events was mentioned in connection with conversion. This relational approach to events seems to defy other attempts to describe them. An event might be characterized as happening to a subject. Under this view, the subject remains seemingly stationary whereas the objects around it move about, causing changes to result. This seems inadequate to describing the transcending events described above. Likewise, attempts to characterize such events as involving the subject undergoing all of the changes (through some modifications in the subject’s manner of perception) fail. Such an attempt would ignore the influence of every subject on the objects with which it comes in contact. Both theories fall short of lived experience because of the interconnectedness between subject and object. As an illustration, the relationship indicated above between a faithful reader and a scriptural text seems illuminating. When the reader explores the various facets of the text, the reader’s subjective experiences may seem to change the experience of reading, despite the object’s seemingly stationary position. On the other hand, the scriptural text works changes in the reader such that an attentive reader is altered by each reading. Thus, when a reader truly engages in an active reading of the text, the text changes the reader. But the reader also does incorporate his or her individual experiences separate from the text with the reading. So the reader changes the text.

This examination, then, allows individuals to identify events in their own lives that transcend themselves and in so doing to find meaning beyond the individualistic and (hence) selfish nature of modern living. Examining ourselves within the context of the world as it presents itself to us allow us to partake of viewpoints that might otherwise be overlooked. By incorporating all such points of view, we find that the meaning that many feel they have lost was really hiding within the relationship that the individual has with the world around him. When a transcending event changes that relationship (by adding to or taking away from some degree of separation), the individual changes as does his understanding of the world around him.

It seems, too, that transcending events can happen without our realizing that they have. One could undergo the change without recognizing that anything is different. Thus, as responsible and striving individuals, if we want to find the transcendent meaning in life, it becomes our task to study the history of the world and its religious, literary, philosophical, and other realms in order to identify what is transcendent in us. When this has been accomplished to even a small degree, through self-reflection, we find that our efforts in recognizing transcendence have paid large dividends and that our lives have been enriched thereby. Such continued self-reflection and outward reaching as seem warranted in our future endeavors as a result of this introductory evaluation of the significance of and meaning inherent in transcendent experiences can expand our understanding until we have satisfied our longing for meaning and true living.