Sunday, February 21, 2016

Here a little and there a little

I used to wonder about why our prophets and apostles haven't written or translated more scripture of the canonized variety. We had a big burst of stuff with Jospeh Smith, but since then it's sort of trailed off. If our dispensation is the "fullness of times", doesn't that mean we get all the goodies?

Then one day I noticed something while reading Omni:

Heading, Omni Chapter 1

Omni, Amaron, Chemish, Abinadom, and Amaleki, each in turn, keep the records—Mosiah discovers the people of Zarahemla, who came from Jerusalem in the days of Zedekiah—Mosiah is made king over them—The descendants of Mulek at Zarahemla had discovered Coriantumr, the last of the Jaredites—King Benjamin succeeds Mosiah—Men should offer their souls as an offering to Christ. About 323–130 B.C. [emphasis mine]


I've found a lot to love about the book of Omni (the subject of a future post), but for this topic I find the highlighted dates most compelling. And, in 4th Nephi:

Heading, 4 Nephi Chapter 1

The Nephites and the Lamanites are all converted unto the Lord—They have all things in common, work miracles, and prosper in the land—After two centuries, divisions, evils, false churches, and persecutions arise—After three hundred years, both the Nephites and the Lamanites are wicked—Ammaron hides up the sacred records. About A.D. 35–321. [emphasis mine]


These vast expanses of time, in total about 500 years, span the whole spectrum of "righteousness", from warring Nephites who had to be continually reminded to keep the commandments, to the post-advent Nephites and Lamanites who lived together in harmony for well over 200 years. In both instances, the amount of scripture generated (or edited, as in the case of 4 Nephi 1) for posterity amounts to approximately two pages.

I doubt that the people during either period were so wicked as to preclude the reception of stuff that was worth writing down. In the previous instance (Omni), we have some indications about the thoughts of the authors (more on that later), but 4 Nephi 1 has nary a word about why the scriptures are pretty much silent for 200 years.

Writing scripture is hard. I'd like to think I could fake it myself, and perhaps others can, but in the end it takes a fair amount of time and effort to even presume to know what the Lord is thinking. I've read various other attempts and, generally speaking, they lack a few of the hallmarks of people grappling with putting divine things into human language. My list of reasons why they fail includes:

1.) A sense of inaccuracy of language. I talked about "transmission" in my previous post, and this is often where most attempts fail. They either a.) are too sloppy (as if the Lord didn't care about language or attempting to clearly state His point), or b.) are too grounded in human thought, generally restricted by binary logical reasoning or other fingerprints of human thinking.

2.) Too much "purity". Similar to point b above, most attempts I've read are too set on communicating a particular point. The scriptures I feel are "true", on the other hand, have all sorts of human bits to them. This is why I love Omni, but I'll go into that in more detail later.

3.) A constricted sense of "god". Consider all the various aspects of the divine one can find in the scriptures: The divine gives commandments, reprimands people, destroys cities, talks about divine love and a single lost sheep, blesses children and heals the sick, struggles with the imperfections of people, often sticks to certain themes and images, and still has a sense of mystery (not the kind that is "unknown" but of something "higher" than humans or human abilities (mentally, physically, etc)).

And, so, I've instead become grateful for those who have actually had divine experiences and written about them. It doesn't happen very often, and when it does it seems to follow its own internal logic, generally the logic of the situation mixed with that of various larger concepts. I hesitate to use the word "logic" here because of what that implies, as I definitely don't mean it in the scientific sense. For whatever reason, for instance, Mormon (who transcribed 4 Nephi) felt that a page would suffice to describe the most peaceful time in the history of the people of the Book of Mormon. Maybe he was constrained by time and circumstances -- he may have been writing those things while embroiled in various losing wars with the Lamanites. His mood probably wasn't the greatest at the time either, so we may have a truncated record because reflecting on a glorious recent past was too painful for him in his present circumstances. Certainly his writing on the period contains a fair amount of "nots", as in a litany of bad things that the people were not doing:

4 Nephi 1:15-17

15 And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.

16 And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.

17 There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.


So thanks, Mormon, for writing that. Considering the circumstance, I couldn't have done any better. Hopefully one day I can express my gratitude in person.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Transmission of Understanding

Note: I an indebted for a decent amount of the following to my father who, because of the semi-anonymous nature of this blog, shall also remain anonymous. His ability to think clearly about life continues to inspire me, as it has here.

I enjoy reading about how the Lord works with people, and through people, to do stuff. Often this requires imparting some sort of new understanding. Take, for instance, these two stories about boats (warning: long excerpts ahead):

Ether 2:16-25

16 And the Lord said: Go to work and build, after the manner of barges which ye have hitherto built. And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did go to work, and also his brethren, and built barges after the manner which they had built, according to the instructions of the Lord. And they were small, and they were light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water.

17 And they were built after a manner that they were exceedingly tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish; and the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the sides thereof were tight like unto a dish; and the ends thereof were peaked; and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the length thereof was the length of a tree; and the door thereof, when it was shut, was tight like unto a dish.

18 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, I have performed the work which thou hast commanded me, and I have made the barges according as thou hast directed me.

19 And behold, O Lord, in them there is no light; whither shall we steer? And also we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe, save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish.

20 And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: Behold, thou shalt make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom; and when thou shalt suffer for air thou shalt unstop the hole and receive air. And if it be so that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood.

21 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did so, according as the Lord had commanded.

22 And he cried again unto the Lord saying: O Lord, behold I have done even as thou hast commanded me; and I have prepared the vessels for my people, and behold there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?

23 And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you, for ye shall not go by the light of fire.

24 For behold, ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth.

25 And behold, I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come. Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?


Ether 3:1-6

1 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared, (now the number of the vessels which had been prepared was eight) went forth unto the mount, which they called the mount Shelem, because of its exceeding height, and did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear, even as transparent glass; and he did carry them in his hands upon the top of the mount, and cried again unto the Lord, saying:

2 O Lord, thou hast said that we must be encompassed about by the floods. Now behold, O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires.

3 Behold, O Lord, thou hast smitten us because of our iniquity, and hast driven us forth, and for these many years we have been in the wilderness; nevertheless, thou hast been merciful unto us. O Lord, look upon me in pity, and turn away thine anger from this thy people, and suffer not that they shall go forth across this raging deep in darkness; but behold these things which I have molten out of the rock.

4 And I know, O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea.

5 Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men.

6 And it came to pass that when the brother of Jared had said these words, behold, the Lord stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger. And the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord; and it was as the finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood; and the brother of Jared fell down before the Lord, for he was struck with fear.

Ether 2
Ether 3

1 Nephi 17:7-11

7 And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been in the land of Bountiful for the space of many days, the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Arise, and get thee into the mountain. And it came to pass that I arose and went up into the mountain, and cried unto the Lord.

8 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.

9 And I said: Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship after the manner which thou hast shown unto me?

10 And it came to pass that the Lord told me whither I should go to find ore, that I might make tools.

11 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make a bellows wherewith to blow the fire, of the skins of beasts; and after I had made a bellows, that I might have wherewith to blow the fire, I did smite two stones together that I might make fire.


1 Nephi 18:1-4

1 And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.

2 Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.

3 And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.

4 And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship, according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine; wherefore, they did humble themselves again before the Lord.

Nephi 17
Nephi 18

Here are some of the things that stand out to me from these excerpts:

1.) The brother of Jared (from the Ether excerpt) already had some technological ability to build boats and that seemed fine with the Lord (who modified the weather instead of, say, inspiring them to create sails). Nephi, however, had a whole new method for building a boat shown to him via revelation.

2.) The Lord immediately solves Nephi's problems (where to find ore and how to build a boat). While He provides an immediate response to the brother of Jared regarding obtaining oxygen, He requests a solution to the light problem from the brother of Jared.

3.) Nephi has, at this point, already experienced seeing the form the Lord would take in the flesh. The brother of Jared, however, hasn't had that experience yet.

These stories illustrate, for me at least, various issues involved with the "transmission" of "understanding".

There are several hundred references to the word "understanding" in the scriptures (source). I've cherry-picked a couple here that show different aspects of the interplay between various people and the Lord when it comes to how this process works:

D&C 1:24

24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.


One thing that strikes me about D&C Section 1 is how often the Lord describes the Saints (i.e. me) as "weak". In the past I've viewed the commandments as a sort of end unto themselves, namely that we keep them because they represent the larger truth. Here, however, I believe that the Lord is saying the purpose of the commandments is to help us ("my servants") evolve beyond our current weak state. Or, more specifically, to help us develop "understanding" through experience about what it means to be a force for good in the universe, despite what we might otherwise be inclined to do. Thus the commandments (or at least the relatively current stuff in the D&C) are more of a preparatory thing, much like the quest undertake by the brother of Jared to light the vessels prepared him (along with his previous experiences) to see and "understand" God.

Another aspect of this verse is "after the manner of their language". We are limited in what we can comprehend because the Lord has to speak to us using human language. For instance, after giving something akin to a meta/astro/physics lesson in D&C 88, the Lord says:

D&C 88:46-48

46 Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?

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

48 I say unto you, he hath seen him; nevertheless, he who came unto his own was not comprehended.


The Lord, when talking to people on earth, does a fair amount of "transmission" of concepts that may or may not translate well into human languages. Which leads me to another excerpt (and a larger point):

D&C 50:12

12 Now, when a man reasoneth he is understood of man, because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I, the Lord, reason with you that you may understand.


Plainly speaking, I read this as strongly implying that the way the Lord thinks is quite a bit different than how we think. When I read "reasoneth as a man", I immediately consider binary/axiomatic logic as one huge aspect of that. Namely, we like to think in terms of black and white, and the Lord doesn't think that way. We do proofs from first principles, but the Lord doesn't (or at least not always). Logic is very important in this world, even important enough within the context of religion that the Lord will use it when necessary. It lies at the foundation of many of the greatest achievements in human thought, and is very necessary in our day to day life. However, and especially in the context of religion, it is not the be-all and end-all of how to think. Or, at least, that's what I believe the Lord is getting at here and elsewhere in the scriptures. Hence not only is language a potential barrier, but even how we're wired to think is different enough from God that we need a host of experiences to help us "understand" Him.

God isn't the only one who has to deal with these issues, I think it is a common plight we all deal with when attempting to transmit some bit of knowledge to another person. Namely, the way I experience something is possibly (even probably) completely different from how another person experiences the same thing. Thus, to assume that they will extract the same lesson or meaning or whatever from the experience is to assume both erroneously and arrogantly. Similarly, if I'm attempting to "teach" something in a religious setting, I have to remind myself that I can't actually "teach" anything. Instead, the way forward is:

Alma 4:19

19 And this he did that he himself might go forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.


To me, "pure testimony" means my actual experience. In other words, all I can hope to do as a participant in a gospel discussion is to honestly share my experience with whatever we happen to be discussing about the Gospel, good or bad. The hope is that the Spirit will be there (I feel like honesty is one of the best ways to invite the spirit into a situation), and those who are participating will feel it and get what they need out of our shared experience.