Sunday musings 08-10-08

The emphasis of our lessons during our Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society meetings today was the topic of death.  We find ourselves surprisingly ignorant when it comes to discussing the life beyond, despite all that has been revealed regarding the spirit world, resurrection, and eternal progression thereafter.  Unfortunately a lot of urban legends, rumors, and well-intentioned “folk beliefs” have rushed to fill this void, such that our class discussions can become a strange admixture of doctrinal and quasi-doctrinal questions and answers.

Quasi-doctrinal statements (or “folk beliefs”) typically originate as “something I heard/read X say (where X stands for just about any Church general authority in the current dispensation) at this meeting/in this talk/from a friend who was present at the time.”  Often they begin as reasonable “extensions” of revealed doctrines (e.g., everyone who receives exaltation must receive the sealing ordinance; therefore, Jesus must have been married in mortality).  Some people contend that since the gospel is inherently logical and reasonable, “it makes sense” that if A = B and B = C that therefore A = C.

Now, people are free to believe that if they want.  However, when it comes to teaching the gospel we must exercise a greater amount of care.  Just because the hymn states “truth is reason” does not mean that the converse is true; reason is not necessarily truth.  We must understand the difference between doctrine and folk belief, between faith-promoting principles and faith-promoting rumors, and either carefully distinguish between the two in our teaching and speaking or (preferably) avoid the latter category altogether.

Even Alma, in teaching his son Corianton about the life beyond, was teaching at the very edge of his knowledge.  He even sought a special revelation to fill him some of the gaps in that knowledge, but this did not preclude the need for faith as touching other principles in that area.  Thus we find him making statements like “no one knows,” “I do not say,” and “behold, I give it as my opinion.” But these are all regarding matters like the timing of different resurrections and other details about which the Lord to this day has not chosen to reveal very much.  It is instructive that he also employs the phrase “it mattereth not” on several occasions, and I can definitely relate.  As with Alma, it mattereth not to me when and how I will be resurrected, nor how long it will take for all my scars to heal, my eyes to overcome their astigmatism, or my other ailments to be healed so that I may be “perfect.”  I simply know that they will happen, and that’s good enough for me.

Another stumbling block we face with Alma 40 is that through modern revelation our knowledge of what occurs after death is more complete than Alma’s was at the time — or at least, there is nothing in the scriptural record indicating that he knew of these things.  So “mapping” what he says about the spirit world in Alma 40:11–14 to what we have in D&C 76 and D&C 138 (Joseph Smith’s vision of the three degrees of glory and Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead, respectively) is a tricky endeavor.

For one, the Book of Mormon is a very black-and-white book.  Everything is dealt with in absolutes, with no middle ground or shades of grey.  There is either the righteous or the wicked, the church of the Lamb of God or the church of the devil.  That’s it.  However, modern revelation informs us of almost innumerable gradations in glory awaiting us in the third estate.  So where does one draw the line and call everyone on one side “righteous” and everyone on the other “wicked”?  Is everyone bound for the celestial kingdom “righteous” and all the others “wicked”?  What about celestial and terrestrial glory on one side and telestial and “outer darkness” people (sons of perdition) on the other?  Where would you draw the line?

Second, the fates described by Alma awaiting those who enter the spirit world are predicated only upon one’s righteousness in mortality, not the compound condition of “righteousness + receiving the gospel” introduced by modern revelation.  So we need to be very careful interpreting Alma’s statement to mean your sweet great-aunt Shannon is going to spirit prison (the nice way of saying “hell”) when she dies because she was a good Irish Catholic her entire life.

I mention these things not to cast aspersions on modern revelation but to point out the limitations of ancient scripture.  Different people in different times received different amounts of light and knowledge according to their needs and circumstances.  As Alma himself said, “[T]he Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (emphasis mine).  Let’s not wrest the words of the prophets beyond the meaning they had when they were originally spoken or written.

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Chiasmus returns in Alma 41:13–14.  This one is interesting because we find parallelism in the second half of the chiasm:

A – good for that which is good

B – righteous for that which is righteous

C – just for that which is just

D – merciful for that which is merciful

D’ – see that you are merciful unto your brethren

C’ – deal justly

B’ – judge righteously

A’ – do good continually

D” – mercy restored

C” – justice restored

B” – righteous judgment restored

A” – good rewarded

Very nice!

One Response to “Sunday musings 08-10-08”

  1. I thing you have it correctly, that Alma and his peers had some of the Gospel, (we have more, as we are in the dispensation of the fullness of times) and he explained it as he knew it. He did a pretty good job at too. He also did a very good job of admitting when he didn’t know and “plain-speaking”. With that in mind, we shouldn’t try to add to what he wrote, as he lays it out quite completely as he knew it. Today we had a lesson on Alma giving his sons his testimony and teaching them before they went off to war. I can certainly relate, as I gathered those still at home around and did the same thing before I left. It touches me greatly that I feel what he felt, had the same hopes as he that my sons would conduct themselves according to the Gospel, and that the prospect of not seeing each other again weighed heavily on him. Hope was and is a comfort in such times.

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