Sunday musings 08-17-08

Continuing on the subject of LDS folk beliefs and “faith-promoting rumors,” it’s humorous to note that these things aren’t a feature limited to the present time.  After Alma gives his final blessing to Helaman and the church, Mormon notes that “he departed out of the land of Zarahemla, as if to go into the land of Melek. And it came to pass that he was never heard of more; as to his death or burial we know not of.”

Then he adds this interesting parenthetical note: “Behold, this we know, that he was a righteous man; and the saying went abroad in the church that he was taken up by the Spirit, or buried by the hand of the Lord, even as Moses. But behold, the scriptures saith the Lord took Moses unto himself; and we suppose that he has also received Alma in the spirit, unto himself; therefore, for this cause we know nothing concerning his death and burial” (emphasis mine).

So here we have a prime example of people using their powers of reason to come to a conclusion which Mormon correctly perceives may or may not be true.

Given that:

A.  We couldn’t find Alma’s body.

B.  The Israelites couldn’t find Moses’ body either.  (The biblical record is unclear on this point.)

C.  We know that Moses was translated because he was so righteous.

D.  We know that Alma was very righteous as well.

Therefore, Alma must have been translated.  It’s the most reasonable conclusion, and a fitting reward for a lifetime (post-conversion) of faithful service.

To take the humanist perspective for a moment, it’s quite possible this line of reasoning “went abroad in the church” because the alternative thought, that Alma succumbed to heat and exhaustion and his lifeless body was devoured by wild beasts or washed down a river, is a relatively unsavory one.

A better question to ask than “Was Alma translated?” is “Why are people translated?”  Joseph Fielding Smith provides an excellent answer:

Moses, like Elijah, was taken up without tasting death, because he had a mission to perform. . . .

When Moses and Elijah came to the Savior and to Peter, James, and John upon the Mount, what was their coming for? Was it just some spiritual manifestation to strengthen these three apostles? Or did they come merely to give comfort unto the Son of God in his ministry and to prepare him for his crucifixion? No! That was not the purpose. I will read it to you. The Prophet Joseph Smith has explained it as follows:

‘The priesthood is everlasting. The Savior, Moses, and Elias [Elijah, in other words] gave the keys to Peter, James, and John, on the Mount when they were transfigured before him. The priesthood is everlasting—without beginning of days or end of years; without father, mother, etc. If there is no change of ordinances, there is no change of priesthood. Wherever the ordinances of the gospel are administered, there is the priesthood. . . . Christ is the Great High Priest; Adam next.’ [Smith, Teachings, p. 158.]

From that we understand why Elijah and Moses were preserved from death: because they had a mission to perform, and it had to be performed before the crucifixion of the Son of God, and it could not be done in the spirit. They had to have tangible bodies. Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection; therefore if any former prophets had a work to perform preparatory to the mission of the Son of God, or to the dispensation of the meridian of times, it was essential that they be preserved to fulfill that mission in the flesh. For that reason Moses disappeared from among the people and was taken up into the mountain, and the people thought he was buried by the Lord. The Lord preserved him, so that he could come at the proper time and restore his keys, on the heads of Peter, James, and John, who stood at the head of the dispensation of the meridian of time. (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:107, 110–11.)

Moses and Elijah were translated because they had to physically confer priesthood keys upon the heads of Peter, James, and John.  John was translated so he could bring souls to Christ and minister to them (see D&C 7), as were The Three Nephites (3 Nephi 28:7–9).  What was Alma’s mission?  We don’t know.  Is it then corrent to say he was translated?  It is correct to say that the people in Alma’s day believed he was translated, but a reasonable conclusion does not necessarily make it so.  We just don’t know.

The triviality of this example should not discount the important lesson being taught here, and which is elegantly stated in the entry on “Revelation” in the LDS Bible Dictionary:

Divine revelation is one of the grandest concepts and principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for without it, man could not know of the things of God and could not be saved with any degree of salvation in the eternities. … The principle of gaining knowledge by revelation is the principle of salvation. … Without revelation, all would be guesswork, darkness, and confusion.

And these two sentences from the entry on “God” tie in extremely well:

God can be known only by revelation. He must be revealed, or remain forever unknown.

I suppose there is some irony in the fact that someone receiving extensive training in the scientific method is so cautious about drawing such simple inferences with regard to gospel matters.  Let’s use a slightly less trivial example to illustrate why I believe we’re better served by conservatism in these things.

For decades, the quasi-official reason given why blacks were denied the priesthood was that they had somehow been less valiant in the pre-existence.  I’m not going to go into more detail on this point, as it is not my purpose to explain who said or wrote anything at any particular time.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who many consider the foremost defender of the “not valiant in the pre-existence” theory, said this in an August 1978 address to the Church Educational System:

There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, ‘You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?’ … Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.

It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about [this] matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them.

Here is an excerpt from a 1988 Daily Herald [Provo] interview with Elder Dallin H. Oaks.

DH: As much as any doctrine the Church has espoused, or controversy the Church has been embroiled in, this one [the priesthood restriction] seems to stand out. Church members seemed to have less to go on to get a grasp of the issue. Can you address why this was the case, and what can be learned from it?

Oaks: If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, “Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,” you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reason to revelation. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do we’re on our own. Some people put reasons to the one we’re talking about here, and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that. The lesson I’ve drawn from that [is that] I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it.

DH: Are you referring to reasons given even by general authorities?

Oaks: Sure. I’m referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon that reason by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking. . . . Let’s don’t make the mistake that’s been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that’s where safety lies.

There is greater power in being able to say “I don’t know” than in having a reasonable explanation for everything.  Where the Lord is silent on a matter, and man-made “explanations” or connections begin to surface, is where I excuse myself from the conversation.  Speaking of which . . .

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

It is very frustrating to me when we seem to derive no greater lessons from the “war chapters” of Alma (i.e., chs. 43-63) than analogies to modern-day political systems and justifiable reasons for going to war.  Setting forth the proper role of government in the lives of a nation’s citizens is manifestly not the purpose of the Book of Mormon.  In the words of its foremost author and abridger, the three primary purposes of the book are:

To show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers;

And that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—

And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.

So what little we are given regarding the Nephites’ form of government is not intended to be a thorough treatise on the matter, nor a perfect model for us to follow today.  Elsewhere Mormon also said:

[A] hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, yea, the account of the Lamanites and of the Nephites, and their wars, and contentions, and dissensions, and their preaching, and their prophecies, and their shipping and their building of ships, and their building of temples, and of synagogues and their sanctuaries, and their righteousness, and their wickedness, and their murders, and their robbings, and their plundering, and all manner of abominations and whoredoms, cannot be contained in this work.  (Helaman 3:14)

The Book of Mormon was indeed written for our day, but let’s be judicious about the degree to which we “liken the scriptures unto ourselves” (see 1 Nephi 19:23).  With President Ezra Taft Benson, I believe that one of the overriding purposes of the second half of Alma is to “learn how disciples of Christ live in times of war.”  That is something much more in harmony with the three purposes Mormon wrote above.

3 Responses to “Sunday musings 08-17-08”

  1. Just because the purposes of the “war chapters” are not to explain a particular form of government or the reasons to go to war, doesn’t mean that we cannot take counsel from them. Those same reasons have been used in different dispensations, obviously from the same divine Source. It’s an interesting bit of information that does have purpose. Remember, the Book of Mormon was written for our day, and I believe that the standard to be applied is this:
    What does this mean to me? It it something I am supposed to learn or something I am not supposed to do?

  2. When this really started getting to me was around five years ago, when certain people used these chapters to justify pre-emptive war. Then others responded and said those same words condemned pre-emptive war. Then a few others said it wasn’t a pre-emptive war at all, but a defensive one, and the Book of Mormon justified it. Then others disagreed with them. They even dragged President Hinckley into the fray.

    When the same words are used to justify philosophically opposing viewpoints, it tells me that what is written is too unstable to be relied on as the foundation of one’s belief. Just as the Book of Mormon strengthens the doctrinal claims of the Bible, D&C 98 and D&C 134 are excellent declarations of principles (the first by direct revelation to the Lord’s prophet, the second by inspired committee) that not only balance the discussions of war and government in the Book of Mormon, but are also much more directly applicable to our day. It’s like the old “two hinges on a door” argument.

    In any case, political discussions have absolutely no place in our Church meetings today. Some people just can’t resist the urge to grind the ax, though. I’d much rather take my lessons from the personal actions of Moroni, Helaman, Lehi, Teancum, Pahoran, the stripling warriors (for good), Amalickiah, Ammoron, and Zerahemnah (for bad). In that regard, I like the application questions you posed very much.

  3. Perhaps they were trying to use those passages to help them define their own feelings about war. President Hinckley’s April 2003 Conference address on the matter was a source of great comfort to us in modern day Mesopotamia. We wondered if we were justified in what we were doing, if we were going to be viewed as villans or heroes, if there was purpose to our cause. The answers that came to us, both from the Scriptures and from Church Headquarters was a resounding YES. I keep reminding people that in the last days “there will be wars and rumors of wars”, and that we will not have peace until the Second Coming. I see this as the fulfillment of prophesy.

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