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.

03 June 2008

On Transcendence: The Conversion of Abraham (5 of 6)

The Conversion of Abraham

Because all of the preceding events lead to conversion, I have put more emphasis on its transcendent nature than on previous events. One’s conversion incorporates the transcendence of these other events to make each individual a self-subsistent part of a converted community. To further explain, we must first consider the event of conversion, and then evaluate conversion in general. The example of Abraham has been used in this discussion although any example could suffice.

When discussing conversion, many religious people make use of a wide range of definitions, some of which are contradictory. These well-intentioned attempts to describe or even to break down and analyze a significant religious phenomenon often result in misunderstanding regarding the experiences or phenomena composing conversion because of apparent contradictions resulting from imprecise or inaccurate definitions. When seen in light of a more experiential understanding of conversion, these religious definitions of conversion seem to clarify themselves. Applying a phenomenological approach to attain more general understanding of conversion, then, allows a wider range of persons to mutually understand the phenomenon of conversion.

Because the term conversion could be applied under many different circumstances, a “universal” definition of this experience cannot rely on a particular understanding of conversion derived from one’s limited experience. Even the collection of several understandings would prove problematic if presented as a definition. This limitation on our experience forces us to consider conversion more as an event as well as more particularly. By examining the experience of conversion, we come to see that acceptance of a set of beliefs, often cited as the definition of conversion, can neither fully define nor accurately describe conversion, since I may say that I am converted to Platonism (or to Cartesian thinking or to other philosophical positions) in the sense that I consider myself a student of (or a “believer” in) Plato’s writings, feeling, perhaps, that I have adopted the requisite beliefs to such a self-identification. Yet I might continue to learn additional philosophical beliefs (for example, Postmodern criticism of Plato’s dialogues) that would be included in the set of beliefs required to be “converted” according to a strict set of necessary and sufficient conditions for conversion as it is often defined. Thus, our description of conversion must reach beyond such an adoption of beliefs to incorporate the possibility of “continued conversion.” Additionally, our discussion of conversion might lead us to conclude that the process of conversion takes a convert through a series of steps, the combination of which forms “complete” conversion. This conclusion, however, if posed as a definition would neglect to recognize the ongoing character of the conversion process and would fall into the same hole as the earlier example, assuming finality to accompany the completion of this set of steps. I could accurately say that, though I was initially converted to Platonism, I continually change and refine my vision of this philosophical view through constant re-readings and re-evaluations of my previous understanding, continuing that conversion on a regular basis. Many academics find that after many years they no longer concord with themselves in some of their earlier publications. They undergo a gradual change of opinion as they re-focus their attention and discover new ways of seeing. They might even say that they had been converted from their earlier beliefs to a deeper understanding within their field. Having evaluated these understandings of conversion, we might begin to think that nothing could describe conversion universally. To resort to an absolute relativism, however, would prematurely ignore some key aspects of conversion—in fact, it would preclude understanding of the most basic aspects of conversion.

Having now evaluated several examples of failed descriptions of conversion, we might evaluate and attempt a positive explanation of this phenomenon. A converted person changes her values and beliefs. Conversion, however, encompasses more than these changes as seen from earlier examples. To be converted, one not only adopts new values and beliefs, but a new vision of the world around her. She recognizes that her position in relation to this world changes as both she and the world change. The constant changing of individual and world yields a new relationship between the two. When the individual recognizes this change and comports herself according to these new relationships, her state would be recognized as “converted.” Thus, the phenomenon of conversion is accurately reflected in describing conversion (though admittedly in simplified form) as a shift in relations between individual and world. This can be reflected linguistically in the terms metanoia from Greek, בוש (shuv) in Hebrew, and conversio from Latin. These terms each have been translated as conversion in English, but they carry connotations that can add to our understanding of the word “conversion,” itself. The Greek term, literally translated, means new or transformed mind, suggesting a renewal process. This term has also been seen as alluding to a process of turning with, suggested by the Latin phrase. This linguistic insight lends support to the experiential description of conversion as a constant change in relations. Similarly, the ancient Hebrew term (shuv) was used as a term for both repentance and for physically turning. The repentance aspect of the turn suggests a change in orientation to the divine, whereas the physical turn literally involves a change in orientation to the world. All of these linguistic examples corroborate the evaluation of conversion experiences as a change in relations. When one is converted, one’s relationships and relations to the world completely change, though such changes may seem gradual to the one changing (or being changed). Granted, these changes might seem minimal, nevertheless, the presence of change in one’s relations to the world creates a new model of Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world. Conversion, thus, entails a different way of being-in-the-world. This change can be described through a dialectic between phenomena and descriptions of phenomena (Ricoeur’s “Manifestation and Proclamation”). The individual changes through experience, thus being informed by her experiences. That world, on the other hand, changes as a result of these experiences. The two sources and recipients of change mutually inform one another. This dialectic creates a constantly changing world. The change evident in the world, however, does not constitute conversion; the subject who converts (or who is converted) has no role in that dialectical change. Instead the constantly changing world creates opportunities for relations between a constantly changing individual and his constantly changing world to change. When such changes take place, that individual could then be considered a convert. This “conversion” includes the adoption of new beliefs, but it is not limited to that aspect of conversion. It also allows for the continual refinement or rethinking of beliefs, yielding the “continuous conversion” that was problematic in the above examples of attempted definitions to prescribe what conversion means. This phenomenal account of conversion requires further examination, but to incorporate any such examination, we must move from generalities to specifics, requiring a focus on a narrower universe of discourse.

Religious Conversion

Having established this preliminary understanding of conversion, the relation of conversion to religious living can now be evaluated. Because of my own limitations with other religious worldviews, I limit my discourse to Judeo-Christianity. I would suggest that a key component of religious conversion involves relational changes in respect to authority. Both Judaism and Christianity have clear authoritative heads after whom they are named. When a person is converted to these religions, her relation to Yahweh or to Christ radically changes. The Yahwistic or Christian conversion involves a relationship with the authority figure. This relationship can lead to one’s recognition that this deity’s way of being-in-the-world supersedes one’s own. Such recognition leads the believer to adopt a way of being attributed to the recognized deity. Thus, the singular change in relation to deity can lead to a complete reversal of one’s way of being-in-the-world in drastic cases (as in the case of Paul, for example). Such conversions are often cited as examples of “religious” conversion. By examining specific examples of conversion, we can approach a fuller understanding of the phenomenon of religious conversion. Scriptural examples (specifically biblical examples) provide a common ground for the Judeo-Christian tradition. By examining these examples of conversions, our own conversions can become clearer and more focused. Significantly, these experiences were not written to enable the conversion of the person whose experience was recorded. These conversion narratives have a different purpose, which can be seen through careful study of the narratives themselves.

Abraham’s Conversion Narrative: Genesis 17

Abraham’s conversion narrative provides a particularly useful narrative as the first such experience recorded in detail. The experience narrated in Genesis 12-25 shows Abraham’s change of identity and relation to the world. In this light, as noted in The Encyclopedia of Judaism, Abraham appears under the heading of “Conversion in the early books of the Hebrew Bible,” even though conversion is not specifically mentioned during this early period of Jewish history (Neuser, I: 113). As such, it merits consideration in an analysis of religious conversion. Adding to this merit, the implicit allusions to Abraham as an initial conversion to Yahweh leading many subsequent prophets to record their own conversion in terms of Abraham’s (see accounts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul for examples) makes an understanding of Abraham’s experiences key to understanding the phenomenon of religious conversion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Because of its status as foundation of Yahwism, Abraham’s conversion merits further analysis as a conversion narrative. Such analysis enables us, as readers and as heirs to the Judeo-Christian tradition, to relate to Abraham and to see our own conversion experiences in light of his own. Thus, our understanding of conversion in general can be enhanced through a careful examination of Abraham’s experience, which textually focuses on the events of Genesis 17. To achieve a phenomenological understanding of this, we turn now to hermeneutics of scripture to aid us in our pursuit of a better understanding of religious conversion.

The experience recorded in Genesis chapter 17 forms the apex of a chiasm beginning in chapter 12 and continuing until chapter 25. This highlights its significance in the life of Abraham and in the biblical tradition. The Abrahamic story is the first biblical narrative to offer details in its story-telling. Earlier accounts recount the mythic origins of humanity. Abraham’s narrative offers itself as the beginning of the Hebrew people and hinges on the experience of chapter 17 as a landmark event in the history of that civilization although details from the entire Abrahamic narrative prove relevant to a description of that experience. Though the phenomena of the chapter could be described differently, the most widely accepted opinions of Genesis 17 paint the picture of Yahweh establishing his covenant with Abraham. This understanding incorporates the changed relation to authority relevant to our earlier discussion of religious conversion. The narrative portraying Abraham’s experience suggests several changes in relationships. To most understandably analyze this conversion experience, a brief exegesis of Genesis 17 proves helpful.

Exegesis of Genesis 17

Biblical scholars have asserted strongly held beliefs about the text of Genesis 17. They use historical and textual evidences to precisely address the event of Abrahamic conversion. Most of these analyses concentrate on circumcision as the token of the Abrahamic covenant. To understand this event, then, it becomes helpful to examine the scholarly work relating to Abraham’s experience. Specifically, their insight to the history and language used aid in understanding the message of the scriptural passage.

Jewish legends describe Abraham’s conception, birth, youth, and adulthood as miraculous (Ginsberg I: 185-308). These legends specifically identify the experience of Genesis 17 (also recorded in Gen. 15) as the formation of a new identity for Abram (I: 235). This identification portrays Abraham’s background in astrology as context for the experience when Abram looks on the stars and is informed that he will have multitudinous posterity. The legends word this change as a Yahwistic statement: “Thou art a prophet, not an astrologer!” (Ginzberg I: 235). Abram accepts this statement, even though his own astrology had informed him that he would bear no children. Because Yahweh establishes this relation with Abram and changes his identity (renaming him Abraham) Abraham’s life undergoes corresponding changes.

The text makes several allusions to Abraham’s name and to his family ties, emphasizing the shift in identity inherent in this name change (Wenham I: 20-21). The relationship between a new name and a new identity has continued throughout history, making the two almost synonymous (Plaut 119; see also Kertzer I: 273-277). Genesis 15 and 17 portray Abraham as a stranger (Gen. 17: 8), significantly indicating that his ties to his father and his father’s household have been severed (making reference to the condition established in Gen. 12: 1-3). This essentially means that Abraham has been disinherited from all earthly ties. He has no “home” to which he could go for security or for gain. The establishment of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham assures Abraham that he will “walk with [Yahweh]” (Gen. 17: 1). This assurance is followed with the promise of posterity for Abraham. This covenant is deemed “everlasting” (Gen. 17: 7), which can also be translated as “perpetual, eternal, or as the vanishing [limit] point” (Strong’s word [#5769] is םלוע or olam). Because of this promise, Abraham’s potential (or the limit point of his existence, speaking of limits mathematically) seems insured by Yahweh. This positive assurance, accepted immediately by Abraham (Gen. 15:6; Ginsberg I: 235), replaces the lost identity and inheritance that Abraham suffered as a result of his dedication to Deity.

In addition to identity and inheritance, the word “flesh” receives emphasis and significance in the text of Genesis 17. Circumcision literally involves the removal of flesh. Additionally, the promise of posterity makes implicit ties to flesh (or mortality). Yahweh specifically identifies “the flesh of your foreskin” as “a token of the covenant” (Gen. 17: 11). Being uncircumcised literally meant being exposed (Strong, word #6189, לרע, or erel). Thus, by removing this exposure, Abraham became covered (or expiated, see Strong, word #3722, רפכ, or kaphar). The irony of removing flesh (or his own body, his identity, etc., see Strong, word #1312, רשב, or basar) to cover or expiate suggests another level of depth in the covenant established by Yahweh. The irony evident in this juxtaposition emphasizes the fundamentality of expiation in the Yahwistic tradition, making use of existing ideas to convey new meanings, thus redefining adherents. This covenant would provide means of establishing an expiated (or covered) identity, different from that of the flesh or self. The establishment of this new identity becomes evident through the textual emphasis on the flesh.

Circumcision forms the token of the covenant established by Yahweh with Abraham and with his posterity after him. This practice merits consideration, as its institution forms the apex of a chiasm found throughout chapter 17. Genesis chapter 17 can be seen as a single large chiasm or as two related chiasms (Wenham II: 17-18). The large chiasm hinges on Yahweh’s third speech (verses 9-14) wherein circumcision is established as the token of the covenant being set forth with Abraham. The two related chiasms culminate with signs of oaths, one of which is circumcision. This format also falls within a larger chiastic structure of the entire Abraham narrative (Genesis 12-25) as the apex of the entire story. Since chiastic structure emphasizes the central portions, the text itself was written to powerfully show the importance of Genesis 17, and, within that chapter, to show the importance of the covenant as shown through its token: circumcision.

The ancient practice of circumcision antedates Abraham’s biblical encounter with it. Historically, the practice was often associated with puberty or marriage as a coming-of-age experience (Plaut 118-119). Egyptian circumcision is attested by archaeological finds dating as early as 2400 B.C.E. (Gollaher 1). This practice, explains Gollaher, was most likely not a procedure for health benefits, but “was partly about purification” (5). He goes on to describe the ancient Egyptian circumcision as “a matter […] of moral, spiritual, and intellectual refinement” (6). This historical context of circumcision allows for reinterpretation of the token given to Abraham in terms of the previously existing traditions regarding circumcision. Abraham probably saw this token as a sign of his spiritual rebirth, to be relived in each child born into his family just as would an Egyptian father, but would see that ritual differently due to its timing. The rebirth would take place almost literally at birth, as the practice was prescribed to take place at the age of eight days, (Gen. 17: 12) giving new meaning to the existing practice. The element of grace becomes significant in this reinterpretation, emphasized by the covering (atoning or expiating) suggested in and emphasized through the irony of removal of flesh to cover as mentioned above. This history of circumcision indicates that the ritual instituted in the Abrahamic narrative incorporated an existing practice to be used differently than it had traditionally been used.

Abrahamic Conversion and General Conversion

From this exegesis, Abraham’s experience reveals itself as clearly being a conversion as described above. The faithful reader finds this experience both troubling and reassuring. This recognition of the narrative as a conversion account yields a dialectic between individual conversion experience and the account of Abrahamic conversion, where the two experiences inform and change one another. The individual may read Abraham’s conversion and interpret it according to his understanding, thus informing the narrative through his own background. Similarly, the reading of this account can change the individual’s understanding of his own conversion experience like Paul understood his own conversion in terms of Abraham. This relationship forms a dialectic through this process of mutually informing one another to form a hybridized understanding of conversion. The questions of why one’s experience differs from Abraham’s and of how one’s experience conforms to the pattern set forth in Genesis 17 naturally arise from consideration of Abraham’s experience as a conversion account. To answer these, one cannot resort to simple comparisons of components of each experience, for such comparison yields two absolutely distinct phenomena, the individual’s and Abraham’s. Rather, one finds the typological patterns that hold in each (for example, the figure of spiritual rebirth may recur in many conversion experiences). These patterns can expand our general and our religious definitions of conversion to yield a more precise and more specific understanding of conversion. We can consider what Abraham’s experience as recorded in Genesis 17 teaches about conversion in general and how it portrays Yahwistic conversion. These issues bring us back to a phenomenology of conversion (and of Abrahamic conversion), returning from our excursion into the realm of exegesis.

Yahwistic conversion comprises a basic tenet of the Abrahamic conversion narrative. The narrative forms the basis of Israel’s national identity. As such, the Abrahamic experience introduces a covenant of election. This election identifies the members of the Yahwistic community. Abraham and his descendents are circumcised to indicate their membership in this household of faith. As such, they submit to a “father” figure of authority. This submission is represented in circumcision and signifies that the circumcised individual considers himself a member of Yahweh’s elect people. Further, this covenant establishes a dichotomy between the covenant people and the others (Gentiles) who remain uncircumcised. This dichotomy forms a key identifier for subsequent generations who participate in the everlasting covenant. Thus, Abraham’s experience establishes his role as a “king,” drawing on the kingship undercurrent in the text as Abraham is portrayed as being inducted into the kingdom of God with the patriarch-kings (Plaut 116). This kingship relies on his relation to Yahweh, making it contingent on his conversion experience. Additionally, this theme of kingship contrasts to the recurring examples of wicked kings prevalent in the Old Testament (as in Nimrod, king during Abraham’s life). Thus, Abraham is set up as an example of righteousness, alluded to by subsequent adherents to Yahwism.

Another precedent established in the Abrahamic conversion narrative introduces the complete or perfect nature of the change. Just as circumcision involves the complete or perfect (Hebrew does not differentiate between the two) circle, Abraham’s experience indicates complete and everlasting submission to Yahweh, who further tests this submission in the subsequent account of Isaac’s sacrificial ordeal. Because of the emphasis in the narrative of the everlasting nature of the covenant, these elements of perfection and everlastingness evident (though not obvious) in the language of the text draw extra attention to the complete submission involved in the covenant. The Yahwistic conversion as portrayed in Abraham’s experience serves as a model for submission, which can be followed in other experiences.

Probably the most significant overarching theme in the Abrahamic conversion narrative shows his family and worldly ties. These relations illustrate the depth of Abraham’s conversion experience and provide the rationale for so naming this narrative. Abraham has been previously (Genesis 12) instructed to leave his father, his kin, and his household. These specifics also represent the entire identity that Abraham (Abram) had built for himself within his world. He is essentially removed from the world. Further, by renaming him, Yahweh literally removes Abram, himself, from the world. He is replaced by Abraham. The significance of a name in the ancient world underscores this change of relation (Kertzer I: 273-277). Abraham loses himself completely before being restored to existence by Yahweh. All former ties are broken, only to be replaced more fully by his “new” father (Yahweh). This replacement involves receiving (not choosing) a new name. Further, Abraham not only receives much more than he had lost as an inheritance: he is promised land and posterity and he receives (through the experiences recorded from Gen. 18-25) an enormous estate, which the text deliberately emphasizes. In addition to these new ties to the world, he is introduced into the household of Yahweh. These textual nuances emphasize the family nature incorporated into the Yahwistic covenant, and hence into Yahwistic conversion.

Finally, the circumcision ritual introduced in Genesis 17 and its changes in purpose help to explain the textual emphasis on flesh. In circumcision, flesh is literally removed. This removal can represent the many removals to which Abraham was subjected. By portraying this in the token of the covenant, his experience is relived in the ritual undergone by his descendents. The faithful adherents to the covenant receive a renewal of the promise just as Abraham’s relations, represented by the flesh, were replaced by the covenant as explained above.

Abrahamic Conversion as “Informing” Personal Conversion Experiences

This exploration of conversion began with general statements regarding conversion. To succinctly describe conversion, the change of relations within a person and between that person and his world comprise the phenomenon of conversion. Clearly this process of relational change continuously renews itself. Abraham’s experience illustrates the theme of renewal and of submission. These elements seem to appear in religious conversions aside from Abraham’s, marking a type or pattern for religious conversion, which many have seen and continue to see in terms of scriptural examples of conversion. They might represent themes or types that could enhance one’s understanding of his conversion experience, but this dialectic cannot be reduced to one causing the other—an individual’s conversion being caused by her understanding of Abraham’s conversion (for example) or her understanding of Abraham’s conversion being caused by her individual conversion. Instead, each scriptural conversion narrative can help to illustrate different aspects of the entire conversion process. Among analyses and examinations thus performed, the Abrahamic elements of conversion can be seen through such themes as renewal and submission. Narratives like those of Paul, of the Book of Mormon’s Alma the Younger, and of Joseph Smith, Jr. merit attention to Latter-day Saints exploring the vastness and depth of scriptural conversions as well as of their own. From such analyses, a fuller, generally understandable conception of conversion as a phenomenon can result. Textual narratives allow for specific conversion experiences to influence our understanding of religious experience and conversion, past, present, and future. The examination of conversion through scriptural examples enables the religious person to understand his conversion in terms of Abraham’s experience (as Luke arguably understands Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus). This understanding changes the phenomenon of conversion and contributes to the interpretation of his past experiences as he finds the types evident in the Abrahamic account in reinterpretations of his own conversion. This complicated process enables the philosopher to examine the complexities of conversion phenomena and to evaluate the interconnectedness of conversion narratives and conversion experiences on an individual level.