Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ashamnu -- Isa 53: 6

"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isa 53: 6)

Protestant Christianity today emphasizes the role of individual sin, and the need for a personal Savior, and perhaps because we are surrounded by Protestants, sometimes we think that way with them. I hope, though, that we Latter-day Saints never entirely lose sight of the "we" of the Old Testament.

We have sinned, says the prophet. Not you that one time and I in another, unrelated incident: in some important sense, our sins are connected--as it is written in another place "the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness" (D&C 84: 49). When the Lord punished Egypt for enslaving the Israelites, he did not confine his punishment to Pharaoh but he punished the whole society that upheld Pharaoh, a society that had become complicit. Ashamnu, an ancient Hebrew prayer of confession says, meaning "we have become guilty." We, like the Egyptians, have accepted a culture of exploitation, of incompassion, of immorality and dishonesty, of judging on the outward appearance though the Lord looks at the heart.

Is there something to be said, then, for repenting not only individually, but also in a collective way? Can we stand together against the isolation of sin by acknowledging that another's sin is not entirely independent, that his or her sin is woven into our own?

Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu begins a Yom Kippur prayer: we have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen. The prayer continues with a category of sin for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet as the congregation stands and confesses the faults of the community together.

Can we, who believe that no individual can be made perfect alone (D&C 128: 18), likewise seek a communal healing? Can we who believe in a shared heaven learn do more to share certain burdens (Mos 18: 8) that they may be light?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

An Apology and Some Notes

Thanks to the pressures of grad school (including a time- and energy-consuming struggle to get my online work taken seriously as creative nonfiction), I haven't been able to draft the longer essays I'd like to do for Church History Thursdays. If I get authorization to use these blogs for a thesis project, I'll be able to write more consistently again--wish me luck!

For now, I'll leave some notes about things I'd like to discuss to at least give you some idea where we're headed:

1) I think Joseph Smith made mistakes that contributed to discontent over the Fall of the Kirtland Bank--and that we can learn something productive from recognizing both what mistakes he might have made and what positive long-term affects the Kirtland Bank experience had on the church in spite of its flawed execution.

2) You may have heard that Joseph Smith once got into a fist-fight with an Apostle--who also happened to be his brother. Could the human details of this story become part of our understanding of a dynamic restoration?

3) Missouri's "Mormon War," in which the Governor issued an order authorizing the extermination and/or forced removal of all Mormons from the state, figures prominently in LDS cultural memory. I'd like to speculate on what might have motivated Joseph Smith, Lyman Wight, and Thomas Marsh to take three separate courses before and during the war, each of them problematic. I'd also like to talk about how my rougher version of history can be spiritually instructive today.

Thank you for your patience thus far--hopefully it will be rewarded in the near future.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Beautiful Mormon Heresy -- 3 Ne 27: 27

"And know ye that ye shall be judges of this people, according to the judgment which I shall give unto you, which shall be just. Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am." (3 Ne 27: 27)

Mattathias used to say that the use of "I am" in this verse is the same as in John 8: 58 and by extension Exodus 3: 14.

To those who can see this layer of meaning, it becomes an expression of what is considered by mainstream Christianity to be one of our most radical and despicable heresies.

May we never cease to be such heretics!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Little Help from My Friends

I'll borrow my discussion on Church History this week from a few friends:

Cort once told me that the topical organization of the Joseph Smith priesthood/relief society manual gave him the sense that Joseph Smith more or less understood how the church and gospel were supposed to work all along. Only after getting hired as a Research Assistant for the Joseph Smith Papers Project did he begin to understand how principles unfolded more gradually, and that Joseph went through the changes along with everyone else. He thinks it's important to learn to see Joseph Smith as being affected by the Restoration instead of simply as affecting the Restoration.

Joe Darowski pointed out that sometimes we think of the Restoration as Joseph Smith's story, when in fact it is God's story, and Joseph Smith is one of many characters and movements that God wove into it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Epistemology (part one) -- Acts 3: 22-23

We are all, I think, well aware that the kind of knowing we talk about in testimony meetings is different in many ways than say, the kind of knowing scientists discuss. So what do we mean we say we know something? How does the way we deal with knowledge on a day to day basis complicate the term? This is the first of an occasional series on Mormon Epistemology: or the ways we think about knowledge.

Here, to start, is today's scripture:

"For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you.
And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people" Acts 3: 22-23

I once heard an elderly and faithful stake missionary in the former East Germany teach in his farewell address that, after much fasting and praying, he had come to know that the prophet mentioned in this was passage was Joseph Smith. He said it with solemnity and conviction--did it reach the hearts of his hearers?

My first reaction was to think that he should have fasted less and read more: JS-H 1: 40 specifically identifies the prophet in question as Christ.

This missionary's midrash, then, that Joseph Smith was that prophet, was almost certainly incorrect in terms of its identification of the prophet in question. So why had he felt like the the answer to his question was yes?

One possibility, of course, was that the missionary had not actually fasted and prayed about that passage, but rather about Joseph Smith, and subsequently assigned his testimony to the wrong passage. In that case, I should be careful not to condemn him, that I be not condemned (Luke 6: 37). Maybe God gives us knowledge in a connect-the-dots way: here's a little, there's a little (2 Ne 28: 30), now draw the connecting conclusions that give it life-guiding meaning on your own. And maybe we, like kindergartners, draw our lines a little squiggly so that they go through places where they don't technically belong. Maybe the missionary didn't know that part of the line, he knew some dots and got the line wrong. And does that matter? To a great extent, yes: mistaking Joseph Smith for Christ in one place is probably going to cause you problems in others. But with sufficient humility and charity, you should be able to work through the problems you cause yourself by thinking you know things you actually don't, and it'll turn out OK in the eternal scheme of things. You'll be better off for having drawn your knowledge sloppily, as it were, than if you'd stuck to a few random dots of purer revelation and drawn no conclusions at all.

Another, more intriguing possibility was that the missionary had prayed about that passage, but God had discerned an intent behind the question to know whether Joseph Smith was a rasul (like the prophet Moses promised). Perhaps God, in order to assure the missionary that Joseph Smith was indeed the prophet of the Restoration, answered the question in ways we interpret as meaning yes. That scenario gives rise to another model for our spiritual knowledge in which God's revelations are often contextual and informed by personal intent, less manifestations of absolute truths than reassurances that He is with us and approves of the course we are about to take. That would explain how God could work in images of heaven and hell when they answered specific questions about the nature of divine justice, then show a more detailed and surprising vision of three degrees of glory to Joseph and Sidney, reserving a more complete truth beyond the scope of men's preparedness for future revelation.

This model may seem to suggest that actual our "knowing" is not knowing, that we cannot be certain of any truth spiritually after all. Maybe that's correct in the strict sense, but I think the more important lesson from a view of revelation is contextual is the need for continuing revelation to "triangulate" the truth. Maybe you asked something at one point in your life, and got an answer based on an intent you later forgot. If you rely on your mind's understanding of the soul's answer, you might run into trouble. If you keep the connection between God and your soul open, however, you can continue to ask your questions as context and intent change over the years, gradually refining your sense of truth until, in some future state, you come to a promised purity and fullness of knowledge.


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