Friday, July 31, 2009

Ruling the World -- Matthew 18: 1

"At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

We typically read this as evidence of the Apostles' petty egotism, but a conversation with Cort today put it in a whole new light. Why did the Apostles raise this question?

My midrash today is that they were trying to figure out how to rule the world.

You see, in the earliest moments of Christianity, spiritual and political messianic hopes were probably not disentangled in any way, shape, or form. The apostles probably believed that the day would come when Jesus literally ruled the Earth (or at least the land of Israel, the only truly important part of the earth from their frame of reference). Things Jesus said would have actively encouraged this expectation: in the preceding few verses (Matt 17: 24-27), for example, Jesus makes the claim that as heirs of the king, the disciples are by right exempt from the temple tax (though he advises Peter to pay it any way to avoid trouble). Would Peter have been so off the mark to relate this story to other disciples as evidence that Jesus had a right to political power? The apostles probably lived in expectation of the day when miraculous, apocalyptic events (a legion of angels a la Matt 26: 53? a spontaneous submission of Gentile kings to the anointed one as in Isa. 49: 22-23?) would bring political power into Jesus' hands and make them into a sort of cabinet for the world's new order, to reign under him as kings and judges over the tribes of Israel (Luke 22: 29-30). Yes, for now what was Caesar's would be rendered unto Caesar (Matt 22: 21), but anytime now God would strip Caesar of what was rightfully Christ's.

The question, then, as to who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven may have more to do with jurisdiction than with ego. Who will serve in what position in the coming literal kingdom, the heaven to be established in a messianic age on earth? Should we start finding small ways to organize and prepare now for when that transfer of power comes?

Jesus' famous response (Matt 18: 4) actually does nothing to dismiss these notions, and was probably not intended to. Rather than limiting their expectations about receiving political power, Jesus teaches them something about the ethical exercise of political power. How should you act if placed in charge of the world? is perhaps the real context for his short sermon.

Ah...and how do we act, when moment and circumstance temporarily lend us power over another person's world? Because all across the world, every day, can it truly be maintained that such states do not naturally and accidentally occur?

Monday, July 27, 2009

One month in, what does this blog do for you?

My aunt Juli once told me there's an old Jewish tradition that says no one should study the scriptures all alone--whenever possible, you should have someone to discuss the text with. There are numerous possible reasons for this advice: it halves the chances that people will interpret the scriptures as asking them to do something terrifying and psychopathic, for example. On a brighter note, the tradition suggests that there's some extra effect of human interaction as part of study, that discussing scripture is somehow far better than simply reading it.

Does this count? I haven't done a great job of actively inviting participation in this blog's first month, so it's not the dialogic study the sages would have suggested for me yet.

What are you getting out of this so far? Please comment.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Anime Ammon -- D&C 1: 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."

What is the manner of our language and how does it change over time? Is there an inherent value to connecting with God, at times, in the manner of our own language, whatever it may be?

I talked to an agent for Deseret Book several months ago about the possibility of publishing an additional illustrated version of the Book of Mormon, in which the characters were anthropomorphized people-animals (a la, for example, Brian Jacques novels) rather than people. I suggested this partly just because my brother used to draw Book of Mormon characters that way, and partly because I thought obviously imaginary renderings like that would free up children to visualize characters on their own and solve the problem of children taking problematic existing depictions literally.

The group I was with was excited about the proposal, but the agent was not. He said that customers are pretty sensitive about what they get in terms of religious depictions and was pessimisstic about the ability of such a work to sell.

If I were to re-pitch a similar concept today, though--and I probably should--I would frame it as a "kids illustrate Book of Mormon stories" project and incorporate a variety of styles coming from actual young artists around the world. D&C 1: 24, I think, provides an appropriate justification: giving children a chance to receive these stories in the manner of their own language might help them come more quickly and organically to meaningful understanding.

To give you a flavor of such a work, I present the following three drawings by Braden and Franklin, two of my own primary students.

Braden loves Ammon, and it shows.

One Sunday the boys had a heated discussion on the topic: "Who would you have joined: Coriantumr or Shiz?" Franklin has been fascinated with that story every since. (Tangential note: Gabe insisted he would've hidden in a rock to avoid the war. The other boys told him that Coriantumr and Shiz were sweeping the land to force everyone to fight, and that Gabe, lacking a prophet's protection, would have been found and forced to fight. Gabe responded that he would have hidden in Ether's rock, taking quite literally the sentiment that we should follow the prophet.)

This last one is Braden's. It's Jesus, I think during his visit to the Nephites (I also think Braden meant to draw feet, but ran out of time). I prefer this Jesus's wrinkled face and intense gaze to the glowing Jesus of of the Simon Dewey and Greg Olson paintings that seem to dominate the LDS market at the moment. The manner of Braden's language has more power for me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled midrash...

...for this very interesting link. These bloggers report on a visit by LDS missionaries and I think it's a great window into what missionaries look like to many people. Having served a mission myself, it's kind of fun to step out of what was my frame of reference at the time and think about how many of the people I interacted with may have seen me.

Among the most positive things: the missionaries prayed for the blog of those whom they visited. Let's help answer the missionaries' prayer by visiting. (Probably should leave the follow up to the missionaries, though. These people don't need every Mormon on the internet asking what they thought about their reading.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lehi the Heretic -- 1 Ne 1: 19-20

"And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations; and he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world.
And when the Jews heard these things they were angry with him; yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain; and they also sought his life, that they might take it away." (from 1 Ne 1: 19-20)

When Lehi told the people about their own sins, they "mocked" him. Mocking, to me, suggests they aren't taking it too hard: these are callous and self-assured sinners who don't feel a need to respond directly to charges of misconduct.

Then Lehi tells them about a vision he had and a book he read in that vision which gave him a specific brand of Messianic hope--and that's when they get angry and try to kill him.

So, let me get this straight: a man comes claiming to be a prophet and tells you that you are about to be destroyed in consequence of purported sins, and you think he's deluded but amusing. Then he tells you that a Messiah will come and redeem the world--and you want him dead? How does that make any sense?

I remember an investigator complaining once about the overt anticipation of Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon: Biblical prophecies of Christ's coming, he explained, were invariably verschluesselt (encoded, hidden, locked, in need of a key) whereas the Book of Mormon ones seemed too direct, too overt. My explanations at the time were that the translation process may have removed some of the culture-bound crypticness of Book of Mormon prophecy in favor of overt and accessible modern language, or that the total geographic separation from the land where Christ would be born made God more willing to be overt in his revelations to Nephite prophets.

My more recent theory, though, is that Lehi, and Nephi after him, were simply heretics whose version of Messianic hopes placed them outside the acceptable constraints of mainstram Judaism. They were more overtly Christian in their thinking and "bold" in their preaching, and that's a big part of why they had to leave, lest they suffer the same fate as Zenos (see Hel. 8: 19).

Nephite religion, then, should be viewed less as a direct extension of Judaism than as a breakaway new religious movement differentiated above all by the divergent Messianic teachings of its founders. At approximately the same time that Buddha was departing from classical Hindu thought by his teachings on the nature of spiritual discipline and his divergent doctrine of the soul, Lehi and especially Nephi were stepping out of conventional Judaism with their ideas of how the Messiah should be defined and what redemption would constitute.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Nobel Prize Caliber Revelation -- D&C 104: 17-18

"For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment." (D&C 104: 17-18)

The implicit argument here is that there are enough resources for the appropriate use of all men, and that it's our collective failure to allocate them adequately that leads to poverty and starvation. Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel Prize for saying just that.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rasul and Nabi

I was talking once with an elderly Baha'i from Iran, who asked numerous questions about my faith and church. When I told him we'd had fifteen prophets lead our church since 1830, he was stunned. A prophet's arrival, he said, is not an everyday event. A prophet comes perhaps only once every thousand years--how could we claim to have had fifteen in so short a time? And why would we need to revolutionize religion so often?

I referred to the Biblical tradition we would each have some familiarity with. There had been a Moses, but also a Joshua, an Isaiah, a Daniel. Moses had brought the Law, I explained, but even with further prophets to guide them, people barely remembered it! Joseph Smith had restored our kind of religion to earth, but every generation needs a prophet to lead and guide it.

He nodded, apparently satisfied with my answer, and explained, "I've been told Arabic is the most perfect language in the world; maybe it's true. In Arabic, there are two words for "prophet": rasul and nabi. A rasul brings a new kind of religion; a nabi helps guide it. Every rasul is also a nabi, but not every nabi is a rasul." He went on to say that Baha'is see Muhammed not as the last rasul, but rather the last nabi of his age, leaving room for Baha'is to accept the claim of Muhammed to be the "last prophet" (nabi) and yet to believe in the nineteenth-century revelations Baha'u'llah as a new prophet (rasul).

Which makes me wonder if it's easier in the handful of LDS branches where Arabic is spoken to talk about our doctrine of dispensations. We believe, after all, in a distinction between prophets who ushered in new dispensations and prophets who operated within existing dispensations, and why not use the words rasul and nabi to talk about that difference? (We wouldn't be using the words in exactly the same way as Muslims do, or in the somewhat different way Baha'is do, but we don't use most Biblical terms quite the way most Protestants do, either. It is the right of every faith to give new meaning to old language.)

So here's to the rasuls Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, and Joseph Smith, with apologies to those who I have missed--and here's to the many nabis we honor alongside them, to the tireless Joshuas and Brigham Youngs, sent by God to guide his people in the wake of recently-arrived dispensations.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Smith -- Gen 3: 15

"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."

Jonathan Edwards used to say: in reference to the seed of the woman, it is not written "they" shall bruise, but "it" shall bruise --"her seed," then, is in reference to a promised One. In this passage, then, is the first implicit Messianic promise of the scriptures.

Joseph Smith said: not "bruise" but "crush" the serpent's head, and that Adam and Eve received direct as well as implicit promises, that from the days of our first ancestors these things have been taught openly to those who converse with God.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Book of Mormon as Midrash? -- Deut. 30: 19

"I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live"

Could you read the whole Book of Mormon productively as if it were a midrash on this single verse?

Peter Spangenberg introduced me to the German word"nachhaltig" while I was living in Eberswalde. I realized years later that there's an English equivalent, "sustainable" but something about having to learn the word made me think more deeply about the underlying concept: "nachhaltig" as I came to understand it, described a way of doing things that didn't break down in and of itself (like most ways of existing do). The point of commandments, I came to believe, was to prepare us to live in a way that was ultimately and eternally nachhaltig, ethically and spiritually sustainable. Thus, perhaps, the saying of Moses that our choice is one of life or death, for us and our posterity. And yes, why not?, a Book as explanatory story, not only proclaiming,"For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence." (2 Ne. 4: 4) but also following cycles of pride, rebellion, excess, and decay across generations, in and out of centuries.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Only Serious Philosophical Question -- D&C 130: 20-21

"There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated."

How many blessings are predicated simply on obedience to the commandment not to commit suicide! For the Lord will let his sun shine on the good and evil, and send rain down to nourish the just and the unjust (Matt. 5: 45) so long as we choose life, taking an interest in our mortal existence and bearing the burden of our free will.

A Glimpse Through the Veil? -- Matt 16: 23

"From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.
Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.
But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men."

Nicole used to say: it was when Peter rebuked him that Christ remembered the war in heaven for the first time in his mortality. For this reason he called Peter Satan: Peter brought back to him all at once the memory of Satan's ancient insistence that mankind could be redeemed without any choice or suffering. (see Moses 4: 1-4)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Family Commandments -- Jer. 35: 18-19

"And Jeremiah said unto the house of the Rechabites, Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Because ye have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts, and done according unto all that he hath commanded you:
Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not want a man to stand before me for ever."

I love Jeremiah 35. In this chapter, Jeremiah is sent by the Lord to offer wine to some specific men, who refuse it on the grounds that their ancestor Jonadab commanded members of his family not to drink wine, and that this special family commandment has been honored through the generations. The Lord praises their obedience and gives them promises as a result of their faithfulness.

As in the days of the Rechabites, it is our duty to make the precepts of the gospel our own, each in his and her own family. While commandments are given through the prophets for the whole people to keep, this does not preclude sacred family traditions and customs being instituted that protect and guide us beyond what the whole of the church determines to do.

These customs and family ties can help strengthen us when other ties exert less force. The Israelites, at the time of Jeremiah, were not terribly good at keeping the commandments of God their Father but the Rechabites were able to keep their ancestor Jonadab's more specific commandments (and hopefully, through the virtues developed in their adherence to them, more of God's precepts also).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Crumbs -- Matt. 15: 27

"And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table."

You have to read the full story to remember how difficult this passage is to read today, when we know that being born a Canaanite (or any other -ite) should not be a big deal, and certainly doesn't make one person any less worthy than another. And yet that seems to be exactly what's going on in this story. And as faith-filled and clever as the woman's response is, it can still be hard for us today to feel good about a woman referring to herself as a dog.

A few possible explanations:

-In Mark's telling of what is presumably the same story, Jesus is trying to keep a low profile so that he can get where he's going without a multitude following him when this woman comes loudly begging for help (see Mark 7: 24-25). In that reading, Jesus' reluctance probably has more to do with procedure than ethnicity: here's someone being rebuked for asking in the wrong way at the wrong time, which we modern readers much prefer to someone being rebuked for being of the wrong race.

-I've heard, though never confirmed, that the word Jesus uses for "dog" is one that referred to a domesticated house pet, as opposed to the highly unpopular wild dogs who roamed the streets. If that's the case, Jesus' rebuke is at least gentler, and possibly even intended to help elicit her response, showing the shocked disciples why she is worthy of the Lord's time and attention.

-D&C 93: 12 reports that Jesus, though sinless, did evolve, learn, and grow. We could read this passage as one in which Jesus is righteously focused on his mission as he understands it, but then is taught by this encounter something profound about the breadth of his own mortal mission.

-John 9: 3 says that sometimes hard-to-understand things happen simply so that God will have a place to show us something good and important. Maybe the whole exchange happens so that we can have, written in our scriptures, an image that says that even the most marginalized people (she is after all, a Canaanite, less respected than Gentile or Samaritan) are inexorably connected with us. That we are as totally connected to and responsible for the "dog" as for "the children." (Imagine an Israel today in which the access of the average Palestinian worker to the "crumbs" of the Israeli economy played as great a role in policy formation as security concerns. I'm not naive enough as to believe any change in policy could solve that region's problems, but that shift in thinking could probably do a lot to ease the pain of certain innocent bystanders.) Maybe Christ is working within the power relationships of his time not because he believes in them, but because talking within them will show something valuable to us.

In any case, there are some thoughts on this passage, although all this talk of connection has me thinking again of the banyan tree...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Hungry for Bodies -- D&C 138: 50

"For the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage."

It is interesting to me that numerous philosophers (Plato comes to mind) have thought of the spirit as imprisoned in the body, when in fact the opposite is true. Our physical selves are so valuable, so integral to our beings as to be eternally indispensible.

A story I now tell myself: when God created our spirits, he did so in a way that left them open to intertwine with bodies, made tendrils of spiritual nerves waiting for the home they would ultimately be anchored in. As such our spirits, from the beginning, have hungered for bodies to feel whole and complete: for this reason do the devils seek to possess and dwell in mortal bodies, even for a short time.

Perhaps raw Intelligence likewise craves spirit, and for this reason were we so eager to be spiritually born.

Degrees of Forgiveness -- Matt. 6: 14

"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you"

Joseph Smith used to say: not only "if" but also "as," that is, in a like manner. If we forgive men only when they repent and beg forgiveness, we will obtain divine forgiveness after we have fully repented and begged forgiveness, but if we learn to forgive before our forgiveness is sought or repentence completed, our Father, too, will forgive us proactively, will forgive us of those sins we have yet to recognize enough to ask forgiveness for! (see History of the Church, 3:383)

Monday, July 6, 2009

How do you know if you've committed the unpardonable sin?

"Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men." (Matt 12: 31)

"They are they who are the sons of perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born." (D&C 76: 32)

LDS theology is, in some respects, nearly universalist in its ideas about salvation. While we certainly believe in divine punishment, we also believe in a healing afterwards for the overwhelming majority of humanity. Two of our midrashim come to mind here:

1) Elder Talmage used to say of Matt 5: 25-26, that the judge is God, and that as the uttermost farthing can be paid, so will the souls in prison be freed in course of time.

2) D&C 19 itself operates like a midrash. Among other things, it explains that "it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment...For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name." By shifting the meaning of endless in this context from chronological to possessive, the section affirms the Latter-day Saint belief that hell is a condition with an end as well as a beginning.

Even most murderers and heinous criminals, we believe, will eventually allow themselves to be healed enough, through the merits of Christ, to inherit some degree of glory. Everyone goes to one form of heaven or other.

Well...almost everyone.

Perhaps because agency (free will) is absolute in our belief system, there must be room left for those who would choose darkness in the face of overwhelming light. Thus, in Mormonism, it is possible to earn darkness without a chronological end; it is possible to commit a sin that cannot be forgiven. That's how we understand Matt. 12: 31, and why we have a fourth, non-kingdom described in D&C 76 along with the degrees of glory. We believe that some people, probably very few, will "sin against the Holy Ghost" and become "sons of perdition."

How do you know if you are one?

I probably never would have come up with this question on my own, because I was always satisfied with the folk Mormon answer that you have to have an awful lot of light and knowledge before you can sin against it that severely, and most of us simply don't.

On my mission, however, two of my favorite people were plagued with doubts that they had committed this sin, and were beyond all forgiveness.

The first was seventeen years old at the time, a son of atheists who had come to believe in nothing so firmly as his own spiritual experiences. It was because he experienced God so strongly and unexpectedly, I think, that he doubted himself so much when he acted in direct opposition to what he had felt. Perhaps in some moments of fear or doubt he denied to others that he had ever had spiritual experiences. In either case, he believed himself guilty of sinning against the Holy Ghost.

The second was perhaps twenty-three. She had joined the church at sixteen and was a sort of scriptural savant, memorizing whole passages with ease. She, too, felt the spirit with great intensity--then broke a series of commandments, stopped coming to church, and got involved in things that made her feel a strong sense of darkness. Did her turn from light to darkness constitute sinning against the Holy Ghost? Could she be forgiven for a turn she had made with such acute awareness?

Talking with these two made me think about the subject more deeply than I might have on my own. I was quite convinced, from the beginning, that neither was beyond forgiveness...far from it. And yet how could I give that confidence to them in a way that they could hold onto in moments of fear and self-doubt?

You can tell you are still eligible for forgiveness, I told the first, whenever you still have a desire to repent. There is no sin which God cannot forgive on the condition of repentance, but it is possible to shut out the Holy Ghost so completely that we are "past feeling" and thus lose all desire to repent. Sons of perdition could be forgiven, but will not be because having shut themselves completely off from the influence of the Spirit, they will never repent.

OCD and the Scriptures -- Matt. 5: 28

"But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."

I had a companion on my mission with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I'd mostly associated OCD with excessive handwashing and similar behaviors, but found out that, as is the case with most mental illness, pop culture stereotypes aren't a terribly helpful source of information.

For my companion, at least, OCD mostly meant not being able to ignore or throw out the random thoughts most of us barely even register when they pass through our heads. That is, he might have passing sexual or violent thoughts, and although he would never have acted on them, he couldn't let go. He'd freak out about them and they'd get stuck in his head until he could barely function. That he was serving a mission, in particular, made it difficult for him: his thoughts made him feel out of place, unworthy, and as if he'd actually committed sin.

Matthew 5: 28 was a particular source of difficulty for him. He sometimes told me that when sexual thoughts got stuck in his head, he felt that he was guilty of adultery according to this verse.

I told him I believed that the verse referred not simply to sexual thoughts, but to the specific decision to endorse them. That the Lord here is saying that we will be accountable for every woman we would have slept with, even when the opportunity to actually break the law of chastity never presents itself. His thoughts, I argued, could not count because they didn't constitute a moral decision: they were simply images and unsought impulses, not a chosen course of desired action. The Higher Law was perhaps not so strict as he imagined it.

Looking back, I don't think that's the best reading for everyone. For some, the verse is probably better read as a prohibition on pornography. For others, the verse ought to be read more as a warning against investing too much intimacy of any kind outside of marriage. But for an OCD missionary, I think the reading I gave makes a lot of practical sense.

How can we give people a range of readings so that the spirit can help them find the one(s) most relevant to their situation?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

How was John the least? -- Matt 11:11

"Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."

Why was the least in the kingdom of heaven greater than John the Baptist?

Roy used to say that because John knew Jesus to the Promised One (Matt 3: 13-17) and then doubted, sending messengers to ask (Matt 11: 2-3), he was less than the least. For nothing shall be impossible unto him who has faith even as a mustard seed (Matt 17: 20) and yet John did not leave place for the seed. (Matt 13: 3-9)

Nicole, however, said that a question is no sin, for it is written "Ask and ye shall receive" but rather, that the spirituality of John, though greater even than that of a prophet (Matt 11: 9), could not compare to the glory of the least in the celestial kingdom, who will inherit the fulness of God.

While I said, sometimes "the kingdom is heaven " refers to the celestial kingdom, sometimes it refers to the promised earthly kingdom to be born out of the church (JST Rev 12: 1-17), and sometimes it refers to the church when on earth in its fulness. John, though individually great and heir to the Aaronic Priesthood, was blessed with less than the least recipient of the collective blessings of the Church when led by the greater blessing of the Melchizedek Priesthood.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


My German Bible has introductory commentaries to each book giving some brief sense of historical background and theological contributions. The word Heilsgeschichte comes up fairly often in the introductions: the word means, roughly, that God has shaped history to contribute to man's salvation. While the German term is fairly new, the idea is old: Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Muslims and others have all felt it important to describe how God was working through history in distinct stages to reveal his will as neccessary for humanity.

Understanding what parts of history are sacred to a given religion (what its Heilsgeschichte is) can do a great deal to shed light on that religion. It's useful to know, for example, that the kingdom of David, while accepted as significant by Jews and Christians, plays a much different role in Jewish thought than in Christian thought. In Islam, the most fundamental difference between Sunni and Shia branches has to do with the Heilsgeschichte: for Sunnis, God's revelation culminates and ends with Muhammad, for Shias, the subsequent Imams are not simply historical, but essential sacred figures that history could not be considered complete without.

Sunnis and Shias alike, and most Christians, have a Heilsgeschichte which consists primarily of events that took place long ago, complemented by events which will unfold at the end of the world. Latter-day Saints believe that events of paramount religious significance unfolded during the nineteenth century, and that other key events continue to unfold. Although we believe with other Christians in the centrality of Christ's life, we emphasize the history of revelation and of the covenant people, continuing into the present. In doing so, our Heilsgeschichte departs radically from that of most Christians

The American revolution and drafting of the Constitution, for example, while politically signifant to the point of being secularly sacred for most Americans, have a unique religious relevance for Latter-day Saints: because we believe that the restoration of the gospel and coming forth of the church are essential to God's history, the creation of the United States as a land in which religious freedom was (at least nominally) protected becomes a sacred religious event as well as a significant political one. The Exodus of the Saints to Utah, likewise, becomes a significant event in our version of the religious history of the world.

This July, then, I am thinking about how one of the things Joseph Smith restored was an intensified sense of sacred history: a sense that it can still be sacred the ways it was for people long ago.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The God of Statistics -- Alma 42: 13

"Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God"

When God created the mortal universe, he wrapped it in a special barrier called statistics to protect it from the full force of divine will. Thus, in heaven, every act is met immediately with the exact and appropriate consequence: goodness returned with goodness, evil turning back on itself with evil. Pure mathematics. And yet to create a space for probation, the law of consequence on earth is diffracted through a prism of probabilities: we sometimes fail to immediately receive the physical blessings of our obedience, thus increasing our opportunity to exercise faith through agency, and we often fail to reap the full consequence of sin at once, giving us windows for repentance. Is there no justice in the world? God forbid. But God has loosened the effects of justice for a season, from certainty to probability, that we might repent before we return to see his face and live in perfect justice again.

The Stranger Within Thy Gates

I'm a Master's student in the English Department, which is a very strange place. After all, most of us in the program have been speaking English since we were in diapers--have we really still failed to master it?

In many ways, the answer is yes: I am constantly learning new words, and I still get puzzled when my students ask me anything but the most basic of mechanics questions. Learning English is not really what most courses focus on, however, and when professors get together, they don't spend much times swapping grammatical fun facts. You see, English departments, through the medium of literature, are actually philosophy/history/culture/ethics departments (topped, in many cases, with a lovely pretension sauce). I don't actually learn English in classes, I learn Theory (=philosophy/history/culture/ethics) and how to read and see in light of any insights said theories may give me.

One of the common strains in Theory is to pay special attention to power dynamics: how they work in literature, and how they inform the create of literature. Which group has what power? How are they using and abusing it? How do groups without power find ways to express themselves? Because these strains are often identified with Marxist literary criticism, it's tempting to dismiss them as mindless communist drivel...but I have learned not to do that. The same concerns, after all, run all through our religion.

Maybe the best-known example is D&C 121: 34-46, dealing with unrighteous dominion, but other examples abound. The one running through my head today is the Old Testament's obsessive concern with "the stranger within thy gates." The Law seems to have recognized that unequal power relationship are inevitable and call for special ethical attention.

Injunctions are given, on the one hand, against stripping the stranger of the protections of God's law: even in the Ten Commandments, the stranger is specifically included as one who should not be forced to work on the Sabbath. There are also contrasting regulations that imply a need not to enforce certain standards on the stranger: Deut. 14: 21 suggests offering certain kinds of unclean meat to the stranger because the commandment not to eat belongs specifically to those who wish to set themselves apart as God's sacred people, as opposed to a commandment with universal ethical significance. Underlying both principles is the most fundamental commandment: that the stranger, along with the fatherless, the widow, and the landless Israelite, should never be denied sustenance, whether physical (they are to be fed, see Deut. 26: 12), emotional (they are to be included in festive occasions of rejoicing, see Deut. 16: 11, 14), or spiritual (they are not to be denied sacred teaching, see Deut 31: 12). You have a special obligation, God says, to the stranger because he is a stranger and because you have gates for him to be within!

The trick to living these commandments today, I think, is to learn to recognize what lies within our gates, so that we don't dismiss these commandments as only applying to those who spend time in our yards. Only if we are able to see the less obvious interactions in which we have the upper hand, a priveleged kind of power, can we avoid abusing it.

After all, one of the best questions anyone ever asked the Savior was "Who is my neighbor?" Isn't it time that we, too, profited by trying to be specific about who we should recognize as having the vulnerability of the stranger and what areas lie within our own gates?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Elise Yumi and Zion -- D&C 28:9

"And now, behold, I say unto you that it is not revealed, and no man knoweth where the city Zion shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter. Behold, I say unto you that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites."

Because the Saints left the subsequently revealed location for the city of Zion in Jackson County, Missouri, over 170 years ago, it's easy to dismiss this passage as strictly historical in interest. Today we tend to focus on Zion as a people rather than a city, and with the exception of some predictions that large numbers the Saints will return to Missouri just prior to Christ's second coming, the sense of precise location for Zion has faded from our interest.

And yet the idea of Zion as a border place, neither in one world or the other, continues to occupy my mind. Zion should be built, says the Lord, at this intersection of two cultures. Zion should be built at a certain distance from the heart of any given order of the world. Is this so that in Zion different traditions can meet and merge, that all knowledge and truth may be gathered into one? Is it so that by its very marginality Zion will be more accessible for all?

In March, the only other Mormon from my old college theatre program gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. She and her husband gave the child the first name Elise, meaning "from God" and the middle name "Yumi", Japanese for "the reason for beauty." I thought of my own sister Judith Shandiin, whose middle name is Navajo, of my brother Mattathias Singh, a staunch Mormon named for Jewish and Sikh heroes, of Haruka Louisa and Nanika Basant, and wondered how many Latter-day Saints have multiculturalism written so clearly in their very names.

If Zion is to be built on the borders, perhaps we are doing more to build it than we sometimes believe.


Related Posts with Thumbnails