Monday, August 13, 2012

Why Did Nephi Kill Laban? Joseph Smith on Scale Confusion and Chauvinism

When I served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I frequently distributed copies of the Book of Mormon to individuals who wanted to learn more about the Church. Many of those individuals eventually began to read the book from cover-to-cover, and when they did, they invariably had questions about the exact same passage in 1 Nephi 4:9-18. This is the point at which Nephi--seeking to recover the brass plates (which contain much of the Old Testament and his family's genealogy)--is confronted with the opportunity to kill Laban and take the plates by force. In a development that surprises almost every modern reader who is familiar with the Old Testament command "Thou shalt not kill," Nephi is "constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him" (1 Nephi 4:10).

Nephi's dilemma--whether to obey the Decalogue or God's present, seemingly contradictory commandment to kill Laban--always troubled first-time readers of the book, as well it should. Because while few (probably none) of us will have to make the Abrahamic choice between "Thou shalt not kill" and obeying another, seemingly more immediate commandment, all of us will be faced at some point with competing religious priorities. To offer a rather banal example, each of us must choose how to spend our free time, whether to use it in service of others or to spend it seeking self-education and improvement. The choice between reading the scriptures and doing family history work is a simplified, low-stakes version of Nephi's dilemma, where we must decide which of two competing commandments to obey at any given time. 

The heartening lesson of Nephi's experience is that God intervened to instruct him as to what he should do in that specific instance, and Joseph Smith promises that personal revelation is always available to help us know which of God's commandments is most important in a given situation with multiple "right" options:

"we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.  God said, 'Thou shalt not kill;' at another time He said, 'Thou shalt utterly destroy.' This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted--by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire" (Teachings 201-3; my emphasis).

Once revelation has come, Smith reinforces the need to obey (obedience is the first law of heaven) even if we cannot fully understand God's purposes. In Nephi's case, the Lord offers him an interesting explanation that sheds light on just why an immutable God's commandments might seem contradictoryGod explains: "Behold, the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief" (1 Nephi 4:13). 

There are two important points here: First, it is God's "righteous purposes"--not necessarily the means by which he achieves those purposes--that are immutable. Everything he asks us to do contributes to those purposes, which he describes to Moses as "my work and my glory--to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). Second, this explanation highlights the differing size scales on which God and Nephi are considering the question of Laban's death. Nephi is concerned primarily--singularly--with his own actions: "I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him." In other words, Nephi is considering the question from the perspective of a single individual. God, on the other hand, is thinking in much more expansive terms: "It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief." The Lord is projecting Laban's death across a thousand years and weighing it in opposition to all of Nephi's numerous descendants during that time frame. The scale at which they are considering the problem is fundamentally different. 

On the one hand, this example simply confirms something that God told Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). On the other hand, this recurring reminder that we think through problems and commandments on a much smaller scale than God also helps to explain why God's commandments occasionally seem contradictory. 

In their (fascinating and excellent) Bible for Atheists, Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams argue that humans inevitably suffer from something they call "Scale Confusion": "There is no single physical phenomenon that occurs on all size scales. There are not galaxies the size of atoms. Different kinds of things happen on different size-scales, and to talk about something in the context of a size scale in which it cannot occur creates a mental muddle we call Scale Confusion. Scale Confusion is applying laws and understandings appropriate to one size scale to phenomena on another scale where those laws and understandings don't apply" (168). In other words, scientific laws (and, I would argue here, God's laws) are relative, not universal. 

To offer one example: We think of gravity as a universal law--but that is only because we live at a size scale in which gravity is the dominant force! Everything around us is subject to the law of gravity; the computer I'm using right now is sitting on a desk because gravity is holding it there. But at a different size scale--say inside an individual atom--gravity is meaningless. It's not that gravity has ceased to operate; it's just that within the tiny confines of an atom the other three fundamental forces (electric, strong, weak) are so much more powerful that gravity effectively stops functioning. It's not that gravity doesn't exist--it's just that different laws govern behavior at that size scale. 

Primack and Abrams "propose the name Scale Chauvinism for the natural assumption that the way things look on some particular size scale is fundamental, and everything else can more profitably be viewed from this fundamental point of view. The most common chauvinism, of course, is chauvinism of the human scale" (171-72). Scale Chauvinism is Nephi's fundamental problem when confronted with the prospect of killing Laban. Familiar with the laws dominant at an individual level ("Thou shalt not kill!") he balked at obeying the laws operative at a national level ("Thou shalt preserve a knowledge of my commandments!").

As individuals we tend to assume that God's immutability--"the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever" (Heb. 13:8; Malachi 3:6)--means that he always acts according to the laws operative on our individual, immediate scale. That is one of the reasons I admire Joseph Smith; his declarations that "That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another" and "Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire" speak to an understanding of scales other than the immediate and individual. Like Moses and other prophets, Smith had acquired a prophetic perspective on the cosmos and saw "that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed" (Moses 1:10); that perspective cured him of Scale Chauvinism, the assumption that everything else should be considered from our individual, immediate, human point of view.

God and his laws--like the law of gravity--are immutable, even if we suffer from the malady of Scale Chauvinism (yet another form of pride!), which prevents us from recognizing that fact. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Mechanics of Belief

I was happy to hear from a reader last week (really, I'm just happy to know I have readers) who asked for my (unofficial) perspective on a few questions in preparation for an article he's writing on "The Mechanics of Belief." Here's my shot at answering his questions--and please, readers, jump in on the comments if you feel I misrepresent the perspective of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!

1. On a scale of 1-10, how important do you think allegory is, in our religious doctrines, for bolstering or maintaining strong adherence to a belief system? For instance: Joseph Smith learning through a revelation from God that the Garden of Eden had been in Jackson County, Missouri, and it is where he will return; that mormon souls begin as pre-human on a crystal orb in outer space; and that after humans die they have a chance to become Gods themselves and live on their own planet.

For starters, let's be clear: Mormons believe in allegorical interpretations of the scriptures. As an example, the Church has canonized an allegorical interpretation of the book of Revelation, especially chapter four. John's vision of four beasts, recorded in Revelations 4:7-8, is fairly opaque: "And the first beast was like a lion and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within"  Joseph Smith, seeking an understanding of the text, received revelation now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, which reads in part: "Q. What are we to understand by the eyes and wings, which the beasts had? A. Their eyes are a representation of light and knowledge, that is, they are full of knowledge; and their wings area  representation of power, to move, to act" (77:4). 

Now--how important is it that we emphasize such allegorical interpretations? I suspect that most Mormons tend to focus less on abstract matters which may or may not require allegorical interpretation and more on the core doctrines of the gospel: faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, and receipt of the Holy Ghost. 

As a side note, I'm not familiar with either of the last two "doctrines" you describe; I have never been taught of a pre-existence on a crystalline orb or that exaltation involves living on your own planet. 

2. What percentage, if any, of Mormons do you think see this part of doctrine as incredulous, yet look the other way in order to be part of a lifestyle that they admire?

The simple answer is: I don't know. To quote one of my favorite poems, by Herman Melville, "Betwixt rejection and belief, / Shadings there are--degrees, in brief." In order to enter temples, which Mormons regard as the holiest places on earth, Church members must indicate a belief in core doctrines on the Godhead and the prophetic calling of Church leaders; beliefs on fringe doctrines--such as the geographic location of Eden or the nature of the pre-existence--have little if any bearing on the worship or everyday life of Church members. 

I am quite sure that if you walked into any congregation and asked members to express their understandings of the pre-existence, you would receive a series of diverging, potentially conflicting answers. However, these beliefs do not determine temple-worthiness.

3. At what age, or at what level of a new Mormon members' education, are these doctrinal beliefs taught?

At the risk of sounding repetitive, non-core doctrines are, to the best of my knowledge, never intentionally taught within Chuch-sponsored classes. In-Church instruction revolves around cultivating faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and implementing core gospel principles--such as repentance, honesty, chastity, and obedience--into everyday life. Individual members of the church may seek guidance on fringe doctrines within the scriptures or from Church leaders, but the Church does not actively or systematically instruct members on matters immaterial to salvation.

4. Do you belief that what is taught in the Book of Mormon has left the rest of Christianity in a state of apostasy?

The word apostasy signifies the abandonment of religious beliefs. Accordingly, it seems appropriate to distinguish between the individuals who DO the abandoning and those who inherit a culture of disbelief. Mormons, together with Protestants, believe that important elements of the gospel taught by Jesus Christ and his apostles--such as baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29)--were discontinued or altered. The sixteenth-century Reformation instigated by Luther, Calvin, and others sought to recover those truths and practices through the study of biblical texts in their original languages, Hebrew and Greek. Mormons claim to have recovered those truths and practices through divine intervention and the restoration of priesthood power held by Peter, James, John, and Christ's other apostles. 

While Protestants and Mormons would agree that apostasy occurred at some point between the first and sixteenth century CE, Mormons would never accuse Protestants of living in a state of apostasy--abandoning belief in a true church--any more than Protestants would accuse Catholics of living in a state of apostasy. Rather, Mormons would suggest that modern Protestants, like modern Catholics, have inherited an incomplete or corrupted belief system. We invite all people to read the Book of Mormon and to learn the doctrines of the restored gospel; if, after having come to a knowledge of the Church's truthfulness, these individuals then reject its precepts, then and only then will they be living in a state of apostasy. 

5. In light of the various "revelations" from God received by various prophets, does this conflict with the Biblical teachings that God is immutable, or are these simply adjustments to the societal changes and pressures of our times? 

Christians who accept both the Old and New Testaments as scripture will recognize that God issues different--even conflicting--instructions to his covenant peoples at different historical moments. For instance, the law of Moses forbade the consumption of various "unclean" animals, but Peter's vision in Acts 10 was one of many divine communications to prophets indicating that God expected members of his first century church to follow a different moral code than that given to the Children of Israel. Belief in an immutable God does not necessarily equate to belief in an immutable application of gospel principles; as Jesus taught, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28). The principle underlying both commandments--chastity--was the same, yet the application of that principle and the expectation of disciples changed. 

6. Do you believe in the adage that power corrupts, but that the wealth of the Mormon church, estimated by some to be between $30 billion to $80 billion, will not cause it to succumb because of its moral base?

I believe that God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, direct the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through revelation given to a living prophet. As yet, I have not noticed that the omnipotent God described in the Bible and other holy writ has been accused of corruption, so I do not fear that the financial resources of the Church will be misused on a large scale. I recognize, of course, that Mormons, like all people, are fallible and may make mistakes or even intentionally misuse sacred funds, but I do not believe that God will allow those who govern the affairs of His Church to misdirect its resources. 

The best explanation of Church finances can be found here.

As always, these are imperfect answers by an unofficial voice; I hope, dear reader, that you will find them useful in thinking through the mechanics of Mormon belief.