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#seriouslysoblessed

One hears that a lot, some form of the word blessing.  A blessing, as a noun, seems to function as a reward for pleasing God.  “Blessed” as an adjective seems to indicate conviction that God has proffered reward for something done.  My contention is concerned with how flippant a manner this sort of language is bandied about.  Let’s talk about this.

Used as a noun, “blessing” presents a substantial amount of ambiguity, because it is a relative term.  Perhaps this is unavoidable.  For example, in the Book of Mormon, the word “blessings” as a noun, as a reward from God, is used to describe such a variety of circumstances as eating raw meat (1Ne17:2), getting a lot of baptisms (Alma 26:3), political liberty (Alma 46:10), as a synonym for civic privilege (Alma 48:12), and material prosperity (Hel.3:25).  These examples are in addition to the more numerous instances where blessings represent general divine favor or (less numerously) something that resembles an ordinance.

Regarding its adjectival form, a search in the Book of Mormon demonstrates that it is largely used to indicate the reception of, or potential for the reception of, divine favor.

The pattern is that when people in scripture are or think they are favored, when they are satisfied about their circumstances, material or otherwise, they call themselves blessed, which is, intentionally or otherwise, to claim divine favor for oneself.  It is to state that God has actively procured my good (or financial or spiritual or whatever type of) fortune.  Same thing in modernity.

In both scripture and modernity, there are surely times when, having proclaimed our blessed status, we actually have been beneficiaries of divine favor, as well as times when we’ve designated ourselves blessed for something God has not provided.

Now, it is not my purpose here to deny the role of God in any genuinely divinely invested activity or withhold glory from Him and Her.  Rather, I here call for situational sensitivity.

At this point, what I had originally typed was much longer and more complex than this:

It is right to feel gratitude toward God for everything, but let us exercise caution in our expressions regarding divine intervention on our behalf.  Quite nearly always, there is a sizable contingent of hearers, perhaps in the horridly direst of straits (medical, emotional, relational, financial, spiritual, etc), who have not seen such beneficence as have you, whencever it came.

Insomuch as it yields fruit

There are a lot of ways to look at the Church (its history and present-day behavior as an institution) and the Gospel; I want to talk about two.  The inspiration for this comes from my reading of the Decisive Treatise of Ibn Rushd (ابن رشد), a Muslim Philosopher who lived in the 12th century AD.  In the Latin West, which means throughout Medieval European Christendom, he was known as Averroes.  He was born in the same region of Spain as I, Andalusia.  Here’s some context:

Not long after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim intellectuals took up Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle.  The same thing happened in Judaism and Christianity.  Unlike those two, conservative Muslim authorities reacted strongly against the use of philosophy, even when used to bolster the teachings of Islam.  They were concerned that the sophistication of Greek reason, inclined as it is toward examination, was potentially damaging to the simple faith of everyday Muslims.  Averroes felt otherwise.

He observed that some Muslims, actually the majority, benefited by a simple interpretation of the Quran.  A much smaller sector, he noted, benefited by buttressing their study of the Quran with philosophy, with all its attendant rigors.  He felt it was detrimental to the faith for either type to be forced into the mold of the other.  Now, on to Mormonism.

Traditionally, the Church has preferred to control its own historical narrative in such a way as to best, it believed, preserve the faith of the members.  With the advent of the Internet, many uncomfortable elements of Mormon history became available to the everyday member.  Some members have found these disclosures more difficult to process than others. As stated at the onset – and at the risk of sounding overly simplistic – there are now (at least) two ways to approach the Church and the Gospel.

There are those members who, with varying degrees of success, prefer to maintain the simpler narratives of their youth; others, either happily or desperately, require a more complex approach.  Some prefer to view the figures in early Church history as larger than life; others require an explanation for the very human weaknesses they discover.  Basically, some prefer John Bytheway, others require Terryl Givens.

Here’s the takeaway: as noted, centuries ago by Averroes, neither approach to the faith is wrong.  Each is right insomuch as it yields fruit: “for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ” (Moroni 7:16).  Honestly, the more fraught with human weakness it turns out all the early and modern leaders were and are, the more miraculous this all gets.

Feeding the Flock by Terryl Givens

I gravitate toward authors who love and engage the Western literary tradition in their explications, who seek to understand things in terms of the great literature they’ve read.  This is my preferred method for studying the Restored Gospel, accepting that our Heavenly Parents have always been inspiring humankind in every endeavor that tends toward the good, true, and beautiful.

For this reason I profoundly appreciate the writing of Terryl Givens; he explicates Mormonism by the light of the greatest minds of Western civilization.  While this post is concerned with his most recent publication Feeding the Flock, The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis, I have read others of his work and perhaps will comment on them in the future.

A brief overview:

As noted (in the title), this volume is focused on praxis, a transliteration of the Greek πρᾶξις, which has to do with the manner or mode in which a doxy (opinion or belief, from the Greek δόξα) is implemented.  Also as noted (in the title), there is a focus on foundations, aptly plural, as it involves weighing the several influences of Protestant manifestations of Christendom on Joseph Smith’s culture as well as that of the Catholic tradition.  Like Victor Hugo, Givens heralds each (Mormon) topic to be addressed with a historically informed preface; also like Hugo, these prefaces are rich and not to be skipped.

Passages significant (to me):

“In sum, Smith’s ‘Restoration’ is not about correcting particular doctrines or practices as much as it is about restoring their cosmic context.” (pg. 27)

This is representative of an important summit in the range of Givens’ thought and appears throughout his written or spoken corpus.  Essentially, Joseph Smith reconstituted a centuries-strewn Gospel; truths were never lost, merely fragmented.  Thus, existing systems of Christian thought were less often discarded than reinterpreted in Mormonism.  Such a view does not diminish Smith’s stature as a prophet; on the contrary it situates him in the great tradition of inspired writers, canonical and otherwise, who have re-purposed the insight of their forebears to inform their respective contemporaneities.   See my essay on the nature of inspiration for more on this.

“…’Mormonism’ is the name for an epiphenomenal institution whose reach is universal and timeless.” (pg. 29)

One of the great tenets of Mormonism, as set forth by Joseph Smith and his immediate predecessors (but not so much anymore without qualifiers) is the universal embrace, the catholicism, of Mormonism.  Here is one reason for my love for this religion Joseph articulated; not only does it allow me, it practically commands me, to accept the good, true, and beautiful things of all religions and thought systems of all eras.  With Mormonism, everything is mine (everybody’s).

“…for Mormons, heaven is relational, not situational.” (pg. 54)

Another pillar of Mormon ecumenism.  In our heaven(s) is a place for all, largely unchanged from the nature chosen in life.  O, were we to realize the social implications for this mortal sphere as contained in section 76!

“…Smith’s refusal to recognize a fundamental distinction between the old and the new.” (pg. 118)

This is in keeping with Joseph’s prophethood, which is institutionalized poethood.

“Consistent with Mormonism’s view of exaltation as a joint entry of a man and woman into the Heavenly Family, and of God himself as an exalted man and woman, the culminating ordinance of LDS temple theology is jointly received.” (pg. 192)

I have loved to think that every encounter with the Father in history and scripture has actually been with Him and our Mother.  In addition, I appreciate that, as often as clarity permits, Givens says Heavenly Parents instead of merely God.

General observations:

I appreciate his relaxed candor when discussing what sources Joseph used when constructing this religion; the forms utilized in the Temple are Masonic (who cares?!).

I noticed (and began marking) instances of what I thought was subdued exultation when a parallel could be drawn between Mormonism and Catholicism.  I share that sentiment.

Conclusion:

What complaints I have are rooted in the brevity with which a book of this size must treat its foci.  It’s message, for it has a message, is timely; hopefully Givens’ literarily informed method of exposition will inspire the kind of wide reading that Mormon scripture has enjoined upon its adherents since the mid-nineteenth century.

 

On pulpit-(un)consciousness

Oversharing: Excepting spouses, parents and maybe eventually children, nobody needs to know about anybody’s patriarchal blessing.  Ever.  Private spiritual manifestations?  That’s great for you (and me! And everyone else who gets ‘em!); let’s keep them the way they came: private.  Chances are that manifestation was tailored by loving Heavenly Parents to your unique understanding, which means it might not make sense to the rest of the ward but now we all have to try and square it with each of our own unique understandings.  Also, let’s all keep our sin-baring for our bishops.

Irrelevance: What hath vacation-sharing, missionary-updates, and extended (auto)biographies to do with a testimony?

Inconsiderate: It’s truly wonderful to hear that by your 44th wedding anniversary, all twelve of your children have gone on missions and married in the temple.  What about the couple with four inactive children?  Or the widowed parent with three kids under 8? Or the half of the ward somehow affected by divorce?  What would you like them to do with your glory?  Repent?  It’s not that your story isn’t something to be proud of, it’s just that most of your ward probably already knows, so to what end are you (re)publishing it?

Posturing: It is quite obvious when a story is shared over the pulpit for no reason other than to flaunt some type of proximity with a general authority.  No one cares that anyone has shaken hands/made eye contact/heard their name said by/mown the lawn of/babysat for/shared an elevator with general authorities.  General authorities are known to stay in the homes of members; no one cares if one stayed at your house.  Especially if you were 3 years old at the time.

Tyranny: It is just vile when someone offers a rebuke in the context of a testimony or a prayer.

So, what’s left to say?   This.

 

Resonances

The argument has been (and still is) put forth that any similarities the Book of Mormon bears with other literature is evidence of its falsehood.  If some part of a verse resembles another piece of writing to which Joseph Smith hypothetically had access, then obviously he copied it into his gold bible.  How can it be the most correct book, how can it be more correct than any other book, if it is no more than a conglomeration of other books?  This argument is ignorant of two important factors: the nature of inspired truth and Mormonism’s relationship thereto.

Inspired truth is universal.  As Aristotle said, commenting on the office of poet: “…οἷα ἂν γένοιτο καὶ τὰ δυνατὰ κατὰ τὸ εἰκὸς ἢ τὸ ἀναγκαῖον.”[1] ([It is concerned with] what ought to be, with potentialities in relation to likelihood or necessity.)  Such a characterization effectively summarizes much of Joseph Smith’s prophetic enterprise.  Consider his “translation” of the Bible.  Joseph knew that pure truth as it exists in the eternal realm is always to some extent diluted as soon as it is put to words or paper; just as the eternal nature of the human soul is obscured by the impermanent needs and superficial fixations attendant to mortality.  He was not (only) correcting medieval copyists; he was correcting the Biblical authors themselves.[2]  One’s inspired-ness represents one’s capability to legitimately access the divine mind and participate in the frozen dialogue that is scripture.  This capability is available to minds operating in either the prophetic or poetic mode.[3]  Just as singularly gifted poetic minds are able essentially to interact with, transform, and transmit the work of their great predecessors (think Dante and Virgil) in the socio-cultural idiom of their day, so are similarly gifted prophetic minds able to mingle with their Biblical forerunners (think Joseph Smith and the author of Matthew’s Gospel) and reinterpret them to the rising generation.

Mormonism claims all inspired truth.  This rests upon at least two premises: the teachings of the early leaders of the Church and the Mormonism’s brand of dispensationalism.  Regarding the first premise: numerous are the statements that can be mustered in demonstration of Mormonism’s universal embrace.  In 1843 Joseph Smith taught that, “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”[4]  That same year he lent this principle considerably more gravitas by identifying its use as a litmus test of sorts for the genuineness of one’s Mormonism: “We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.’”[5]  Brigham Young echoed this concept: “Our religion measures, weighs, and circumscribes all the wisdom in the world—all that God has ever revealed to man.”[6]  Lest we think this idea exclusive to matters spiritual, Young specified on another occasion: “’Mormonism’ embraces all truth that is revealed and that is unrevealed, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical.”[7]  Over one hundred years later we see the same principle in a statement from the First Presidency: “The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.”[8]  The implication is unmistakable: the fruits of Western (and Eastern) civilization are indispensable to understanding Mormonism.  Far from being antithetical to the message of the Restoration, the intellectual summits of the West give the fullest expression to it.  Regarding the second premise: Mormonism holds that Heaven dispenses systems of salvific truth at sundry times and self-identifies as only the most recent iteration thereof.  Additionally, it posits that the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was dispensed to humankind in its infancy.  From this we may (and must) infer the universal presence of echoes or remnants, varying in their strength, of Christ’s Gospel in all the permutations of human culture.

In Conclusion

Mormonism, in light of the nature of revealed truth and its relationship thereto, must present the broadest resemblance to recognized truth in other mediums.  In order to be the most correct book the Book of Mormon must reflect truth as expressed in the widest array of sources.  Such is its nature, as a universal book.  Therefore, demonstrations of similarities between the Book of Mormon and any other medium of expression reinforces rather than diminishes or calls into question its claim to truth.  These similarities I call resonances; they are ever-present and establish the universality of the Book of Mormon.

 

[1] Aristot. Poet. 1451a.  Translations are my own.

[2] In light of this statement, those medieval copyists ought to be thanked and praised for the role they played in preserving the Biblical texts to the days of Joseph the Prophet.

[3] For more on prophetic vs. poetic inspiration, please see the essay “Nature of Inspiration.”

[4] History of the Church 5.499

[5] History of the Church 5.517

[6] Journal of Discourses 8.162

[7] Journal of Discourses 9.149

[8] From a Statement of the First Presidency Regarding God’s Love for all Mankind, February 15, 1978

The other (not lower)

The New Testament preserves a parable (Matt. 7:24-27 and Luke 7:46-49) about two builders, a wise and a foolish.  They are not so termed, respectively, on account of their activities; they both build houses, maybe even the same type.  It’s where they build that differentiates them.  Building on rock is hearing the commandments and doing them; building on sand is hearing the commandments and not doing them. It would appear there are only two kinds of people.

Two thoughts:

First: The parable demonstrates adversarial, binary thinking, which mindset is lesser than and antithetical to a rounded Mormon perspective.  One might object that there must be opposition in all things.  The idea of opposition in all things is not wholly expressed by such stark dichotomies as good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, and/or us vs. them.  Those pairings represent the Heaven or Hell worldview, which paradigm has no place in the Restored Gospel.  Permit opposition in all things to represent complementarity, and not just of the sexes.  Difference allows for the formation and solidification of individual identity which, in Mormonism, is eternal and indestructible.  Not only is every human person unique, Mormonism declares, every human consciousness (spirit, soul, mind) is and always has been unique; how many conceptions of happiness exist amongst us all?  Mormonism revealed our Heavenly Parents’ acknowledgement of the relative nature of our happiness with a pluralistic heaven.  For all the flowing prose that describes the three degrees of glory and the respective inhabitants thereof, their difference boils down to sociality or types of relationships.  First, let us assert that they differ in glory (D&C 76:71, 78, 81) or physical nature, not in locale; Heaven, like Earth contains all types interacting (D&C 76:86-88), for, “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy” (D&C 130:2).  Now, one might object, citing the language of section 88, where we encounter the term kingdom accompanied by what appear to be theological zoning laws reinforcing the segregation of heavenly peoples (D&C 88:22-24).  The objector ought to keep in mind that all of heaven is kingdom: “…there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.” (D&C 88:37).  That said, we return to sociality or types of relationships in heaven.  To speak plainly: celestial glory is the descriptor assigned to those in procreative marriage relationships; the other (not lower) two glories are defined by whatever degree their respective participants do not maintain such relationships.  Now, normative culture promulgates a rather provincial perspective of terrestrial and telestial glory; instead of realizing the implications of a pluralistic heaven, one encounters a repackaged Heaven or Hell paradigm: Celestial Kingdom or Outer Darkness, as if the uppermost border of Outer Darkness starts at the Terrestrial Glory and goes “down” from there.  The other (not lower) kingdoms are indirectly stigmatized as though salvation is a competition and second place is first loser.  Such a perspective is vicious and unscriptural.  Consider D&C 88:32-33.  In v. 32 we learn that telestial folk will be quickened and “…return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received.”  That we are culturally conditioned to pity these people notwithstanding, ponder the language of this verse: telestial people will enjoy their status.  How could they possibly enjoy it?  It’s what they want.  It’s what they were “willing” or wanting or desirous to receive.  But, wouldn’t they have enjoyed celestial status more?  No, because celestial glory is not what they wanted: celestial glory is “that which they might have received” but “they were not willing”.  But who wants that?  Look around; the world contains all kinds of people who willingly do not maintain procreative marriage relationships (for more reasons than we think).  But aren’t they an affront to heaven?  Are not our Heavenly Parents displeased with them?  Look to v. 33: “For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.”  Far from displeasure, our Heavenly Parents are here concerned with benefiting those who prefer telestial glory; they do so giving the desired gift.  Remember, “Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.”[1]

Second: The kind of thinking embodied in the parable, whether brandished about or self-inflicted, destroys people in (and then right out of) the Church. Before we call one foolish, remember that what land we have for digging foundations is often inherited.  Some dig in sand because they have nothing else, some because they don’t know what else to do.  As well remember that rock is not always a sure foundation.  At Luke 8:13 we learn that, “They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.”

Now let me tell you something I love about Mormonism: it teaches me to embrace truth whencever it comes.  In this instance that requires sharing another first century perspective on foundations:

Puta enim duo aedificia excitata esse, ab imo disparia, aeque excelsa atque magnifica. Alterum puram aream accepit; illic protinus opus crevit. Alterum fundamenta lassarunt in mollem et fluvidam humum missa multumque laboris exhaustum est, dum pervenitur ad solidum. Intuenti ambo quicquid fecit alter in aperto est, alterius magna pars et difficilior latet. Quaedam ingenia facilia, expedita, quaedam manu, quod aiunt, facienda sunt et in fundamentis suis occupata. Itaque illum ego feliciorem dixerim, qui nihil negotii secum habuit, hunc quidem melius de se meruisse, qui malignitatem naturae suae vicit et ad sapientiam se non perduxit, sed extraxit. -Seneca, Ep. 52.5-6

Translation:

(Consider that there are two buildings, quite different in foundation but equal in breadth and splendor.  One received solid ground and the work there progressed smoothly.  The other exhausted the building materials, being set down in soft, wet ground, and much was wasted in the toil ‘til it reached bedrock.  To someone looking, what is accomplished in the first building is apparent, while the great and more difficult part in the other is hidden.  Some people have an easy-going temperament and are well-ordered, while others, as they say, must work by hand and are fully taken up in laying their own foundations.  I would say the one is more fortunate who never needed to wrangle with himself but that the other merited better regarding himself; he conquered the baseness of his nature and did not lead but dragged himself to wisdom.)

14 years ago to the day, in the sand, I joined the Church.

[1] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 257, 240–41.

Homer

“Ἕκτορ μή μοι ἄλαστε συνημοσύνας ἀγόρευε:
ὡς οὐκ ἔστι λέουσι καὶ ἀνδράσιν ὅρκια πιστά,
οὐδὲ λύκοι τε καὶ ἄρνες ὁμόφρονα θυμὸν ἔχουσιν,
ἀλλὰ κακὰ φρονέουσι διαμπερὲς ἀλλήλοισιν,
ὣς οὐκ ἔστ᾽ ἐμὲ καὶ σὲ φιλήμεναι, οὐδέ τι νῶϊν
ὅρκια ἔσσονται, πρίν γ᾽ ἢ ἕτερόν γε πεσόντα…” Iliad 22:261-6

(Incessant Hector, hold off declaiming on covenants to me./There are no trusting oaths between lions and men,/nor do wolves and lambs have like-feeling hearts,/but thoroughly do they bear each other evils./Thus twixt I and thee is no regard, nor ‘tween us two/ will there be oaths, before one or other is fallen.)

Such was the wrath of Achilles.  If pressed for answer I would give, as the two defining aesthetic pillars of Western civilization, the Bible and Homer.  Perhaps the Bible is (and has been) more widely read but Homer’s influence preceded the spread of Christianity by several centuries and underlies its greatest literary monuments.  It is easy and somewhat intoxicating to praise Homer; consider Matthew Arnold’s  insurmountable estimation:  “…he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble;” (On Translating Homer I:8).  While not an entirely unjust valuation, the wise reader would do well to counterbalance such effusions with the prophetic perspective of Simone Weil: “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.  Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.” (from The Iliad or the Poem of Force).  So, which is it then?  Is Homer the magisterial foundation of all measured writing in the West or a glorification of man’s basest impulse?  It is both, which presents no obstacle to the rounded Mormon, who understands that all creation is a combination of finer and coarser materials, of higher and lower inclinations.  In terms of drawing out edification please recall the 91st section of the Doctrine and Covenants wherein is recounted the composite–true/untrue–nature of that set of extra-canonical books called the Apocrypha.  We are not turned away, as if the presence of a portion of untruth in a written work (or human being) is just cause for the flight of the righteous.  On the contrary, to successfully draw out spiritual and intellectual (the same?) nourishment from such a work bespeaks one’s enlightenment (D&C 91:5).  In this spirit I return to the above quotation from the Iliad.

Achilles was right: there could be no covenants between the likes of lambs and wolves, no covenant twixt man and lions, ’til one should fall.  But One has fallen, and by His death a covenant is giv’n by which a little child shall lead a young lion and the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb (Isa. 11:6, 2Ne21:6).  Furthermore, this community will be established in the context of a millennium of peace.  The force observed by Simone Weil will diminish for, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isa. 11:9; 2Ne21:9).

I rejoice, even glory, in Mormonism, because it calls me to seek after (and receive) all truth, by whatever means it finds its way to this world and my view.