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. 

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