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Friday, September 25, 2009

Revelatory Stewardship and the Book of Mormon

Back in about 1990 I had a fascinating and instructive experience while attending the LDS Booksellers Convention at the Salt Lake City Expo Mart. At that time I was plugging my new book entitled Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites. At such a convention, of course, there are hundreds of booths hawking everything from crystal statues of LDS temples to missionary neck-ties. At this particular Convention there was also a certain booth manned by a kindly old gentlemen who sold a thick, beautifully-illustrated volume that promoted his own powerfully-held theory that the Book of Mormon took place in South America. We spoke for a long time. I was rather new to the bookselling business and wanted to keep an open mind about Book of Mormon geography, especially since I fully intended to write more novels in the future that celebrated this volume of scripture and the spiritual testimony of it that I had gained ten years earlier.

This gentleman spoke with an uncommon zeal and persuasive passion regarding his theories about how South America had been almost entirely submerged during the time period of the Book of Mormon. He pointed out a series of verses in the scripture that referred to Nephite and Lamanite lands as an "isle" or island (see 2 Ne. 10:20-21, 2 Ne. 29:7) in the midst of a great ocean. This, he felt, supported his contention that, except for segments of the Andes Mountains, the rest of South America was under water. He expressed many other points as well which he felt represented irrefutable evidence, and (of course) all of these evidences he felt were verifiable by fields of science.

Now this man was, himself, not a scientist. He was actually a retired insurance salesman. And as a result of his success in that field he had acquired a healthy nest egg of funds that allowed him to produce his book, and shortly thereafter, several videos which would further augment his particular theories about the Book of Mormon. He revealed to me that he fully intended to pursue the creation of a whole series of videos that would promote his archaeological convictions. I asked him if he had yet seen a profit from his self-published book. He humbly reported that he had not, but that he had great hopes for the future. I was quite impressed with his perserverance and I asked him, frankly, why he felt so inclined to devote so much personal time and resources to this particular project.

All at once this kindly insurance salesman became quite solemn. With profound seriousness and sobriety he looked me straight in the eye and revealed that he was following the will of God. He firmly believed that he had a spiritual witness as to the correctness of his particular views. Because his ambitions were motivated by private revelation, he had taken on this project with all the zeal of a personal "mission," and he could not, and would not, turn back.

I was immediately and perceptibly deflated. In a real sense, the gig was up. Although I had only been a Latter-day Saint for about ten years, I was fortunate enough to have had several religious instructors at BYU, as well as instructors during my mission (and probably elsewhere in responsible Gospel Doctrine classes) who appropriately emphasized a critical principal of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ. This principle is beautifully illustrated in the 28th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. Herein we find a revelation given through Joseph Smith, Jr. to Oliver Cowdery in September of 1830. The revelation was received in response to a rather peculiar phenomenon in the newly-organized Church. Apparently a Church member named Hiram Page had acquired a seerstone of sorts and was professing to receive revelations for the benefit of other Church members. Such revelations involved the building of Zion and the future order of the Church. In no uncertain terms, the Lord revealed the following to Oliver through the Prophet Joseph:

"...behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall
be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in
this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he
receiveth them even as Moses.

"And thou shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give
unto him, even as Aaron, to declare faithfully the commandments
and the revelations, with power and authority unto the church.

"And if thou art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or
teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the
church, thou mayest do it.

"But thou shalt not write by way of commandment, but
by wisdom;

"And thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the
head of the church;

"For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the
revelations which are sealed
, until I shall appoint unto them
another in his stead."

I have emphasized the phrase in the last verse for good reason. It stresses that any information which purports to expound upon knowledge directly associated with LDS doctrine must be revealed to the general populace of the Church by the Lord's Prophet--and no one else has the authority or stewardship to do so.

This might be one of the most significant teachings of the LDS Church related to its structure and organization. It's a wonderful and simple doctrine which leaves no wiggle room. It protects the saints from deception, and it prevents individual members from falling into grave errors that may eventually undermine and devastate the core of their testimonies, causing them to become one of the lost "seeds" alluded to in the Savior's Parable of the Sower (see Matthew Chapter 13, in particualr vs. 19). I'll clarify again, what this means to the average Church member is that no one can expound upon, or add new information to the canon of revealed knowledge who is not the Prophet and President of the LDS Church. But it means even more than that. It means nobody should accept guidance that purportedly originates from divine revelation from any other member of the Church unless that person holds an official position of stewardship over them. And even so, the spiritual guidence must relate to the particular parameters (better known as "keys") of that stewardship.

In other words, an Elders Quorum President may receive revelation as to who should home-teach whom, but he cannot recieve revelation as to whether or not I should move to a different neighborhood, strive to have another child, or take on a new job, etc., etc., etc. Moreover, even in a case, for example, where a Bishop feels inspired to offer specific spiritual counsel to a father or mother regarding certain temporal decisions, that father or mother has every right to seek and receive spiritual confirmation as to that directive. In every circumstance it is always strongly advised that an individual seek that confirmation. In certain matters it may admittedly be less necessary, such as when receiving a Bishop's calling to become the next Sunbeam instructor. After all, a Bishop's stewardship is integrally connected to his responsibility to issue callings to members of his congregation. Divine confirmation may be unnecessary in such circumstances. It may simply be an act of obedience on our part. However receiving confirmation on such callings is still a worthwhile and recommended objective.

However, on more serious matters, I believe seeking spiritual confirmation is paramount. This especially holds true for families. If a husband and Preisthood holder, for example, receives a revelation regarding an important family matter, the wife has every right to beseech the Lord in prayer and have that revelation confirmed to her. It could be argued that the Priesthood head-of-the-home has the final say, but I've also heard it said that if a Priesthold holder dogmatically enforces his authority against the will of his wife, Amen to that authority.

But regarding new revelation that will benefit of the entire Church, the matter of who has stewardship to receive such inspiration and guidence has been settled. And there can be no doubt that spiritual revelation regarding the geographic location of cities or events in the Book of Mormon would fit the category of new revelation. Therefore, the task of defining such by revelation is strictly reserved for the President of the Church.

Because I was fortunate enough to have been taught this basic and vital principle of revelatory stewardship, I felt immediately inclined to suspect the validity of everything this kindly insurance salesman was "selling." As the years went on, and I watched this gentleman earnestly fulfill his goal of producing multiple videos and other teaching tools promoting his geographical "inspirations," I began to actually feel sorry for him. I hope this admisson does not sound patronizing. I certainly have many of my own faults to contend with. But as I thought about the genuine good that this man might have accomplished if he had devoted his time and resources to some other noble pursuit, it made me deeply sad. The truth was, if he had fully understood the principal of revelatory stewardship as taught in D&C 28 beforehand, he would have soundly rejected his so-called "revelations." He would have recognized that the source could not have been Divine. He would have known this simply by virtue of the kind of information he was being encouraged to promote. If the requisite structure of the Church had been understood, a great portion of the later years of his life might have been reserved for some worthier purpose.

I wish this was the only example that I could cite of my personal experience with a misunderstanding of revelatory stewardship. Some years after my encounter at the LDS Bookseller's Convention, a kind of strange hysteria gripped the Church regarding the near-death experiences of an LDS woman named Betty Eadie. She published a book called Embraced by the Light which became a local best-seller and later went on to international success. For several months, despite the desperate attempts of many to expose the hysteria by placing her published experiences up against the doctrine of revelatory stewardship, her "visions" of the afterlife flourished and fooled many naive and unprepared members of the Church. In this particular case there was apparently a rare intercession made by General Authorities. A good friend of mine (I wish I had a better resource, but that's what I have) reported to me that he attended a Stake Conference in Las Vegas wherein Elder Boyd K. Packer specifically informed the congregation that Sister Eadie, "could not have been where she said that she had been." This kind of intercession from a General Authority is very rare indeed. In later months I came to understand that Sister Eadie strayed away from the Church and began holding meetings where she would attract a colorful array of "new age" groupies. I was informed that she sometimes laid her hands on their heads to offer divine blessings and her own new brand of spiritual enlightenment.

I am not aware of any definitive statement ever made by a Church President supporting a specific Book of Mormon geography. In fact, in-depth studies have been presented that adamantly reinforce this contention (see John E. Clark, "Book of Mormon Geography," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, pg 178.) Although some Church leaders of the past may have expressed opinions regarding certain areas of the world, others have expressed opinions on other areas. (In all fairness, I should note that to find any Apostles or Church Presidents who favor models encompassing the Great Lakes, South America, or the entire breadth of North and South America, one must go back two or three generations, and in most cases, more than a century.) For example, Joseph Fielding Smith seemed to reject a limited geographical model and expressed this opinion repeatedly. The point can be made that he did so prior to his calling as Church President, and more importantly, that it was, in fact, a personal opinion that he never defined as a revelation. The notion that General Authorities can express fallible opinions is sometimes overlooked by Church members, as if such a concept is somehow akin to disloyalty. But if General Authorities were not occasionally prone to human failings, we would have to harshly judge Joseph Fielding Smith for his strongly-worded 1961 opinion that man will "never get into space" and that he was "never intended" to reach the moon.

Fortunately, Joseph Smith, Jr. was adamant in his declaration that a prophet was only a prophet "when he is acting as such" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 278). Therefore, we need not deeply concern ourselves with a General Authorities' occasional misstatement (though again, it should be noted that Joseph Fielding Smith never identified his "moon" opinion as a revelation--just as an exegesis of his particular theological understanding--and he expressed it almost ten years prior to being called as Church President).

Even today Latter-day Saints are not immune from falling into errors regarding revelatory stewardship. After all, we firmly believe in revelation! Many of us have experienced it firsthand. Profound instances of direct spiritual guidance are such a commonality among faithful saints that it's hardly worth noting. We've seen it, heard it, and more often than not, personally experienced it. Perhaps precisely because of this commonality, certain Church members are easily deceived by charismatic fellow saints who profess revelations outside the established structure of the Restored Church.

So what should we think today if we hear of any individuals who routinely profess spiritual guidance regarding Book of Mormon geography? As I hope I have successfully reminded readers, the answer is simple. And thank goodness it is so simple! Just as with that kindly gentleman who professed inspiration for his book and video series promoting South America, such teachings should be dramatically and unequivocally rejected. And frankly, the same would be true even if such individuals professed divine guidance corresponding to today's most commonly supported model of Book of Mormon geography--that of Mesoamerica and the region of Tehuantepec. Only the Lord's established Prophet--who today is Thomas S. Monson--has the authority and stewardship to confirm any proposed model. And as of this date he has elected not to do so.

It may be that some of the books and videos of this kindly insurance salesman are still available in some LDS bookstores. However, for the most part his teachings and products appear to have fallen by the wayside. So now we must ask, have any other individuals appeared on the scene professing revelation or spiritual guidance concerning a particular Book of Mormon geographical model? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. And perhaps more unfortunately, such individuals appear to have a knack for marketing and promotion heretofore unknown among the annals of misguided Latter-day Saints.

The model that these individuals are promoting revolves around the Great Lakes region of the United States. Now, to be fair, this is not an unheard of model. It has been pursued and subjected to rigorous testing and speculation many times in the past. And frankly, it remains a fair avenue of pursuit for any disciplined and intelligent individual who pursues it. But the instant anyone begins to profess divine guidance in association with these perspectives, well then, as I have already said, the gig is up. Latter-day Saints can know with certainty that something very deceptive, and possibly dangerous, is afoot. And all Latter-day Saints who devote attention (and finances!) in support of such individuals do so at their own peril. What is particularly noteworthy to me is how brazen these individuals are when it comes to dismissing all of the work of dedicated researchers of the past fifty years in favor of their supposed quest to "re-establish...Joseph Smith as the preeminent scholar on the subject of Book of Mormon geography." This is despite the fact that Joseph Smith never revealed any definitive information on such a subject. (Curiously, I seem to recall that proponents of plural marriage have adopted a very similar stance, ignoring everything Church Presidents have said about plural marriage after Joseph Smith or John Taylor. See a familiar pattern?) For a full discussion of the particular concern that I am referring to, I offer the following link: Link

With regard to scholarship and the Book of Mormon the Lord appears to have given Latter-day Saints an extraordinary opportunity. Those of us who have already acquired a spiritual testimony of the Book of Mormon's divinity through traditional spiritual means (i.e. Mor 10: 3-5) are hereby invited to embark upon a unique and marvelous adventure. The benefits of pursuing this adventure are enormous. Those who embark will find themselves more deeply devoted, more educationally prepared, and more divinely uplifted than if they had never embarked upon the adventure in the first place.

The reality is, those of us who know the Book of Mormon is true must accept that it did, in fact, take place somewhere. So let the exploration continue! I firmly believe that this dedicated pursuit of knowledge is exactly the Lord's desire and intent for his children of the last days (note that this is my opinion, not a revelation). The benefit that I have personally received, and the appreciation for the Book of Mormon that I have gained, as a result of actively pursuing this inborn, innate, and very "human" curiousity can scarely be measured. And the thing is, I don't think I would have gained these benefits any other way. Now imagine what I personally would have lost--truly lost--if this information had been handed to me on a silver platter by a prophetic revelation. The search was the thing: the blessings acquired because of that search. In modern times the Lord has provided some incredible tools to aid in this exploration from the fields of archaeology, anthropology and a host of other sciences. If such tools exist in today's universe, why in blue blazes should any credible person allow them to be diminished or ignored?

Now I must confess, this adventure and exploration is not for everyone. Quite honestly, I think the majority of our Church members are perfectly satisfied and fulfilled by studying the pages of the Book of Mormon merely for spiritual guidance, doctrinal insight, and Godly comfort. But for those of us who "suffer" from an inborn curiousity regarding Book of Mormon scholarship, I heartily welcome you to join me in the adventure. But in so doing, remember these three simple rules: never sacrifice common sense, always allow your explorations to be circumscribed by your natural gifts of logic and intelligence (which should obviously allow for the litmus of the scientific method), and never allow yourself to be deceived by those pernicious wolves in sheep's clothing--particularly wolves whose opinions and perspectives are inseparably tied to streams of income. The Book of Mormon also clearly defines any intermarriage between "inspired" dogma and profitable earnings.

We call it Priestcraft. (See 2 Ne 26:29, Alma 1:16)

(Please note that this blog can be directly compared with a previous blog called "A Lost Generation of Scholarship." This previous blog has been extensively rewritten as a result of information that I received while lunching with a number of LDS Mesoamericanists over the past week. I invite those who have read it to study it again. http://frostcave.blogspot.com/2009/09/lost-generation-of-scholarship.html.)

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Family of Jesus Christ, Part Two

Again I pose the question: Why do we know so little about the family members of Jesus Christ? The four Gospels refer to them only rarely, and often with disdain, highlighting the concept that they did not seem to support or believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. However, a closer look would reveal that, even though they may not have completely understood the breadth and depth of their eldest Brother's mission as the Holy Messiah while He was in mortality (frankly, even the Savior's twelve Apostles are often described with the same lack of full comprehension) the family of Jesus eventually became some of His most passionate followers.

In modern times scholars have resurrected the age-old argument as to who succeeded Jesus in leading the early Church. Most Christian denominations (including Latter-day Saints) adamantly believe that Christ’s legitimate successor was Simon Peter. But a few decades after the death of Christ a bitter schism emerged, and numerous records begin to proclaim that the issue was not clear at all. Many apocryphal manuscripts and virtually all Gnostic texts state that James, the Lord’s half-brother, was His legitimate successor (see Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Hebrews, Protevangelium of James, and many others). Such a concept was espoused in particular by Jewish Christians in the late First century A.D., and included such sects as the Ebionites and Elkesaites, both of whom revered James while disdaining Paul because of Paul’s urging that members of the Church should jettison the belief that Gentile converts must adhere to Jewish law (see Gal. 2:11-14).

As apostles were killed and as the Church sank into apostasy, the question of succession became an increasingly critical issue and would decide ultimate hegemony among the cities of the Roman Empire wherever a Christian fellowship was established. Ultimately, this was a political issue, a power grab, and considering the dynamics at play, is it any surprise that overall authority fell to Christian leaders at Rome? Or that after Constantine’s death, and a subsequent division in the Empire in 337 A.D., that a new denomination of Christianity emerged in the Byzantine capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul)? Today these denominations are known as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, but arguably they are not the earliest Christian denominations still practicing. Other denominations equally as old or older include the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Eritrean (Ethiopian) Orthodox Church, and the Indian (Malankara) Orthodox Church. Additional denominations in Asia and Africa may also have roots back to apostolic times. (Note that the survival of these Churches to the present day may be due to their geographical isolation from the political influence of 4th century Rome.)

Almost from the beginning, the Christian Church was plagued by conflict and division. One claim that Christians in Judea appear to have put forward in their struggle to reassert hegemony was that before a man could become a Bishop he had to be “desposyni” (in Greek literally “belonging to the Lord”) meaning that any ordained Bishop had to be a literal blood descendant of Jesus Christ (or one of His close relatives). In a meeting purported to have taken place between Pope Sylvester I and an envoy from Jerusalem in 318 AD, Jewish Christians are said to have demanded that Gregory recall unduly ordained Bishops from numerous cities around the Mediterranean and replace them with desposyni or official relatives of Jesus who Jewish Christians claimed had been specially designated to sit in governance of all churches in the Hellenized world from the earliest days of Christianity. These Jewish Christians also demanded that the practice of sending offerings or cash to Jerusalem as the “mother church” should again be resumed, inferring that, at an earlier time, this was precisely where all tithes were sent (Martin, Malachi, Decline and Fall of the Roman Church, Putnam, New York, 1981).

Latter-day Saints may recognize this belief as the principle heresy that lead to the most dramatic schism in the early Restored Church. Many of those who refused to follow Brigham Young came to believe that any prophet who succeeded Joseph Smith had to be Joseph’s literal blood descendant, and for more than a century this was a guiding tenet in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known today as the Community of Christ).

If indeed this teaching became prevalent among Jewish Christians of the post-apostolic era, it is not clear how it came to be so rigidly practiced. The root of it may have been based upon legitimate doctrine, as suggested by D&C 68:16-21, but the firm application of such an impractical rule in a Church that was rapidly expanding with gentile converts must be considered evidence of an emerging or fully ripened apostasy among the Christians of Judea.

In any case, it was a source of serious contention for the pro-Paul Christians of Rome during a time when Rome was attempting to consolidate power. Possibly it is precisely because this power struggle was dominated by Pauline Christian leaders that one must search diligently for any positive mention of the Savior’s family in the four extant gospels. In several of these Gospels, particularly in the testimony of Mark, the Savior’s family is treated with apparent disdain, and those closest to Jesus—-his direct family and neighbors—-are readily dismissed as non-believers and thorns in the Savior’s side (see Mark 3: 20-35 and Mark 6:1-6). Many scholars have concluded that Mark was the first widely distributed gospel and that it has a significantly pro-gentile agenda (Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, World Biblical Commentary, Vol. 34, Dallas: Word Books, 1989, 168). The same concepts dramatized in Mark 3: 20-35 and Mark 6:1-6 are also found in Matt 12:46-50 and Matt 13:54-58, and in Luke 8:19-21 and Luke 4:22-24, but the controversy with the Savior’s family are discussed in much softer and less condemnatory language. So why would Mark represent Christ’s kin in such a negative light? Some scholars conclude that Mark (or later scribes and copyists of Mark) had the subtle objective of casting a negative shadow on the desposyni, perhaps undermining persistent voices of hegemonic dissent coming out of Jerusalem. (Bütz, Jeffery, The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity, Inner Traditions Publishing, 2005, 31-32.)

We find in the three synoptic Gospels (a term commonly applied to Matthew, Mark and Luke) little evidence that the family of Jesus supported Jesus during His mortal ministry. Only in the Gospel of John do we get the impression that Jesus’ brothers and family were an essential part of His following (see John 2:1-2). Even in John 7:1-5, wherein John recounts an episode of conflict with Jesus’ brethren, and where he states that His brothers “did not believe in him,” it becomes clear that His siblings were nevertheless regular members of His company of disciples. Keep in mind that an apparent dominating theme in John’s gospel is that everybody, including His apostles (and particularly Peter), misunderstood Jesus and His messianic mission until after the resurrection. So rather than condemning His family, John seems to suggest that His family was intimately involved with His ministry. Furthermore, he implies that His brethren were deeply concerned with Jesus’ conduct and public image, even if these concerns were at times misdirected and overreaching.

However, as previously stated, one must “read between the lines” to affirm that Jesus’ family played a supportive role in His ministry and that they became a positive force in the early Church. Whether there was a deliberate effort to mute or negate the involvement of the desposyni in the canonical record is a matter of conjecture. But in case the Savior’s devotion to his family is ever doubted, we should remind ourselves that Paul references an entirely separate and unique appearance of the resurrected Jesus to His brother, James, in one of his epistles (1 Cor. 15:5-7). This appearance is not mentioned in any of the gospels. Such a private visitation suggests that Jesus felt a deep and abiding connection to the eldest of his younger half-brothers—-and perhaps to all of His siblings. The attention James received is curiously poignant and causes a reader to yearn for greater detail regarding all the members of Jesus’ family. (This desire is one of the forces driving my lastest Tennis Shoes novel.) But in no way does it presume that James or Jude or any other desposyni should be esteemed with greater significance than other Church leaders in ancient times or, for that matter, in any dispensation.

In modern times, the notion of invalidating the authority of Peter and exalting that of James, the brother of the Lord, is very much in vogue, as evidenced by such works as The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, James, the Brother of Jesus by Robert Eisenman, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition by John Painter, The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity by Jeffrey Bütz, and even best-selling novels like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Some of this shift is inspired by a general disdain for Christianity and a specific disdain for Christianity’s oldest denominations. After all, if Christianity’s most established institutions got it wrong, perhaps the whole theology can be disregarded.

However, the entirety of the controversy stems from a basic misinterpretation or misunderstanding of true Christian hierarchy as revealed by modern prophets, and serves as yet a further reminder that without the blessing of new revelation, the ancient word of God can be suited to fit whatever pet cause or belief system someone might espouse.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Family of Jesus Christ, Part One

We all know that Jesus Christ is our spiritual "big brother" as the firstborn of our Father in Heaven. But what would it have been like to have had Him as a big brother in mortality? What might we have observed during those 30 years before our big brother took upon Himself the mantle of His Messiahship and began His three-year ministry? What memories would we have of Him as an older brother? As an example? as someone who worked side by side with us in doing chores? or hunting game? or playing games? What anecdotes might we be able to tell of extraordinary things that He might have done? Would He have performed miracles? Would He have stayed up late with us teaching the scriptures or other spiritual lessons? Obviously He would have taught some exceptional Family Home Evening lessons.

Well, the fact is, even though we hardly ever think of it, there were, in fact, as many as seven or eight people born into this life who could claim the honor of having Jesus Christ as an older brother. And yet we know very, very little about any of these siblings.

The scriptures do make it clear that Jesus of Nazareth had siblings. Four of these brothers are mentioned by name in at least two of the four Gospels. Their names are James (English form of the Hebrew Jacob or Ya’akov), Joses (modified from the Hebrew Joseph or Yosef), Simon (Shimon in Hebrew or Symeon in Aramaic), and Judas (Yehudah in Hebrew, shortened by King James translators as Jude, probably to keep from being confused with so many other significant New Testament figures also named Judah or Judas) (see Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3). An assumption is made that the names of these brothers are offered in order from oldest to youngest. But if this is the case then Matthew and Mark seem to disagree whether Simon or Juda(s) was youngest. It’s even possible that the last two brothers are twins.

Matt. 13:56 also makes it clear that Jesus had sisters (plural). The number of sisters is not specified, but the Greek text makes it clear that there were more than two (See Bible Dictionary: Brethren of the Lord). Although no names are provided in the scriptures, post-canonical sources have named at least three of these sisters: Mary, Anna, and Salome (Pan. 78:8:1; 78:9:6; cf. Ancoratus 60:1). Such sources may be several centuries removed from the time of Christ, but they appear to be based upon earlier sources no longer extant, leaving no particular reason to doubt their accuracy.

Controversy has existed for millennia regarding Jesus’ siblings. Although the context of the various references in the New Testament seems to reinforce that Mary and Joseph had children together after the birth of Jesus, such a notion is strongly refuted by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other longstanding Christian traditions. These traditions generally reverence the mother of Jesus as deity and/or as a perpetual virgin. Obviously, if Mary had additional children, it undermines many theological tenets of several major denominations, such as celibacy for clergy. Elder James Talmage in the notes of Chapter 18 of Jesus the Christ briefly summarizes the three alternate “theories” explaining these supposed “brethren” or siblings of Jesus. One prevalent hypothesis is that the siblings of Jesus were the children of Joseph from a former wife (Ephiphanian theory). Another is that such children were adopted by Joseph and Mary after the death of one of Joseph’s brothers (Levirate theory). The last is that such “brethren” were not siblings at all, but cousins (Hieronymian theory). These alternate explanations appear to ignore or dilute the point of the actual lesson being presented in the scriptural accounts. They also wrest the meaning behind the common appellation of Jesus as the “firstborn son” of Mary (which presupposes that she gave birth to more than one (see Matt 1:25, Luke 2:7)). The theory espoused by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and eventually accepted by most other Protestant denominations, is that Jesus was the eldest half-sibling of a large and bustling family belonging to Mary and Joseph, and is known as the Helvidian view.

Jesus Christ apparently had a very large family that included siblings, aunts, uncles, and a myriad of cousins—-as well as other integral kinship ties with Judean or Galilean Christians. This fact is deemed important here because of the blatant lack of focus it has received from most other fictional and/or historical accounts. In short, nobody talks about this subject! So many representations neglect the impact such a reality would have had upon the Savior’s life and ministry. Most know, for example, that John the Baptist was related to Jesus through Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:34-37). But lesser known is that James and John, the brothers of the original First Presidency, were also Jesus’ cousins through Mary’s sister, Salome, wife of Zebedee (see Matt. 27:56, Mark 15:40, Matt. 4:21). Yup, that’s right. The original members of the First Presidency were all cousins and kinsmen. Add to this the fact that every apostle except Judas Iscariot was also from Galilee and we may find that there were blood ties that existed between practially every one in Jesus' closest circles of followers. We know, for example, that Peter and Andrew were brothers, and also that the Savior’s brother, James, became the first recorded Bishop of Jerusalem, and that after James’ martyrdom this position was inherited by another cousin of Jesus named Symeon Cleophas (father of the character Mary in the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series). So if all this is true, how is it that so much knowledge regarding the family of Jesus Christ has escaped the annals of history?

Even as late as the 140s A.D. a great, great grandson of the Lord’s brother, Jude, is said to have been Bishop of Jerusalem (Epiphanius, Panarion). A full century after that, a Christian writer named Julius Africanus reports that descendants of Jesus were still traveling about, doing missionary work from their bases in Nazareth and Kokhaba in Galilee, and tracing their genealogy back to the Savior as part of their testimony and teachings (Eusebius, HE 1:7:14). All in all, the early Church in Jerusalem appears to have been dominated by a select number of Galilean kinships, if not by direct relatives of Jesus Himself.

Although this fact is acknowledged by most modern historians and scholars, it has been overwhelmingly ignored by Christians in general for almost two millennia. There may be a very good reason why this information has been suppressed or forgotten, and it relates to issues that Latter-day Saints have been particularly sensitive about ever since the death of Joseph Smith—namely nepotism and Priesthood succession.

But I'm going to leave that discussion for a later post. Stay tuned.....

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Lost Generation of Scholarship

Ever since the days of Columbus, and the successful invasion of Mexico by Cortez, significant efforts have been made by religious and scholarly figures to interpret the beliefs and mythologies of the peoples of the New World through a prism of Christian understanding. Early Catholic friars and Spanish chroniclers of the 16th Century like Diego de Landa, Diego Durán, Juan de Torquemada and Bartelomé de Las Casas noted many puzzling similarities between Christianity and New World religions. Many wondered—long before the Latter-day Saints—if Christ, or some deceptive incarnation of Christ, had come to the Americas. (Juan de Torquemada, Monarchichia Indiana, volume I, cited in Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 37-8) Others suggested that the apostle St. Thomas had preached among the Mayans and Aztecs. While others proposed that the Indians were the lost ten tribes of Israel. Such discussions even took place across the fence in Joseph Smith's own neighborhoods, which is one reason why some detractors of the Book of Mormon summarily dismissed it without even reading it. They'd heard rumors that it was just some clumsy attempt to explain a prevalent pet theory about the Indians (and never really discovered that the Book of Mormon doesn't really offer any additional insight about the location of the Lost Ten Tribes than the Bible!) The point is that theories, questions, and speculations connecting Mesoamerican religion with Old World Christianity did not begin with Latter-day Saints.

Non-Latter-day Saints have often interpreted efforts by LDS scholars and layman to draw parallels between the Book of Mormon and pre-Columbian cultures as an effort to buttress or prove the tenets of their religion. On the contrary, Latter-day Saints who pursue such studies will generally acknowledge that their faith—particularly in the Book of Mormon—was already established and “buttressed” before their search for cultural parallels even began. In fact, it was precisely because their faith was firmly entrenched that they fully expected to find a richness of geographical, anthropological and archeological parallels. And as a result, such investigations by the saints have regularly produced an abundance of promising data, even if our conclusions have sometimes been premature, overreaching, or impetuous. But the passion and spirit of such explorations has not diminished. It thrives today just as it did when Joseph Smith Jr. got his hands on a copy of John Lloyd Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan and enthusiastically declared, “It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon (Times and Seasons 3 (1 October 1842): 927).” It thrived 60 years later when Benjamin Cluff embarked from Provo, Utah on a horse-drawn expedition to South America with 23 students and explorers in hopes that they would “discover the ancient Nephite capital of Zarahemla . . . [and] establish the authenticity of the Book of Mormon (Wilkinson and Skousen, Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny (Brigham Young University Press, 1976), 151.).” If anything, the passion to corroborate Mesoamerican culture with the Book of Mormon has intensified in recent decades as explorations have proven increasingly fruitful. But again, such pursuits are not generally undertaken by Latter-day Saints on the fence. Oh, admittedly there may be some whose testimony hinges on these kinds of studies. But for the vast majority, it does not. Certainly Joseph Smith did not stake his testimony on the writings of Stephens or the illustrations of Catherwood. By the same token, Benjamin Cluff, the first president of Brigham Young University, had been a faithful adherent to the Book of Mormon based solidly on his spiritual convictions before he ever decided to set out on his journey. Such men were merely feeding an indominable passion—for adventure, for exploration, for discovery, but most of all, for the Book of Mormon itself.

The 1970s and 80s might be considered a “golden age” for Book of Mormon archeology and geography. These were the years when serious scholars armed with PhDs and exhaustive university training began to take the place of enthusiastic amateurs who drew their conclusions from a hodgepodge of (often faulty) scientific premises. Most of these had little or no background in the disciplines of scientific discovery. However, the 70's and 80's are when books and articles by John L. Sorenson, David Palmer, Richard Hauck, and many other LDS archeologists and PhD scholars were published and widely distributed among the saints. Though certain disagreements were evident in their various proposed maps, an astonishing consensus of opinion began to materialize regarding the overall general area of the world where Book of Mormon events played out—and all within a radius of several hundred miles of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Central America. It was a bold new perspective, and one that continues to steadily replace the formerly held notion that the lands of the Book of Mormon encompassed all of North and South America.

And yes, I fully realize there are some who still place the Nephites and Lamanites in New York or South America or even Malaysia! But few if any of these individuals are disciplined in the scientific method and nearly all are utterly naive or impervious to whatever damage, embarrassment, and confusion they cause for non-members and investigators. The most frightening thing is always when any proponent of a particular geographical theory begins to claim spiritual "guidence" or "revelation" in their pursuits. Or even when they claim their particular theories have an authoritative "endorsement" from Joseph Smith, Jr. or some other Church figure of the past. The fact, Book of Mormon geography has always been a matter of study and learning--not revelation. Apparently the Lord wants it to remain so! And maybe for the same reason we are commanded to study the scriptures daily. The opportunities for spiritual growth while engaged in the pursuit are immeasurable. But there is a downside. And that is the fact that it allows countless amateurs and (literal) whackos to claim their views have equal standing with disciplined scholars. Unfortunately, the internet is the most fertile field in history for propogating any confusion or misunderstanding. If you have any doubts, just look up "Book of Mormon Geography" on wikipedia.org. What's that they say about a house divided against itself? Thank goodness a sincere seeker of truth can ALWAYS rely on Moroni 10:3-5!

However, despite all that was accomplished during this "Golden Age," something began to happen in the early-to-mid nineties. Something very strange and unexpected. The steady stream of scholarship seemed to reduce to a trickle. Reputable books on scholarship and the Book of Mormon almost stopped being published. Scholarly journals--even LDS ones!--stopped tackling the subejcts of Book of Mormon geography and archeology almost altogether. As one LDS scholar who I spoke with described it, experts and apologists who pursued Mesoamerican correlations with the Book of Mormon seemed to “skip a generation.” Organizations like the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies or F.A.R.M.S. (now subsumed by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship) became staffed in the 90s and the first decade of this century with Hebraists, Egyptologists or other folks with expertise in Old World and LDS history, but there was a palpable dearth of New World experts who were able or willing to pursue Book of Mormon apologetics. And surprisingly, no one has arrived since! Few, if any, have appeared on the scene to carry the torch of Hugh Nibley, Thomas Ferguson, M. Wells Jakeman, John Sorenson, Garth Norman, Bruce Warren, and others who built their careers upon ancient studies while unabashedly correlating such studies with their religious faith. As another LDS scholar I spoke with explained to me in no uncertain terms, if it becomes known in the scientific community that an LDS scholar seeks to correlate his studies to his Mormon faith, it's the same as committing “academic suicide.” This seems particularly true of any LDS scholar who pursues studies in Mesoamerica, and the pressure appears to have racheted up beginning in the late 80's and early 90's.

I noted over a decade ago that the New World Archeological Foundation (NWAF) which has funded multiple digs and field research since 1952 under the auspices of Brigham Young University and the Quorum of the Twelve, started to make an accelerated effort to define itself as an organization whose mandate was not to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, but to serve as a legitimate scientific organization that supported ongoing Mesoamerican studies by LDS and non-LDS scholars. They wanted the world to know that their scholars had no agenda, but were encouraged to let the chips fall wherever they may. This seems healthy and honest enough. And personally, I don't think anyone should have ever doubted honesty and integrity as their presiding mandate. But if certain "chips" happened to support a Book of Mormon postulate or framework, it appeared as though LDS contributors of the foundation may have been encouraged, for the last two decades, to keep it to themselves. And yet...truth is truth, right? In the beginning I don't think LDS scholars felt any pressure to separate or compartmentalize such studies. I honestly believe the Foundation's founder, Thomas Ferguson, fully expected that through his work evidences for the Book of Mormon would come to light in a way like never before. But in order to maintain its status and reputation in the academic world, any such objective--public or private--by the NWAF was necessarily squelched.

Though to some it might appear that this “lost generation” of LDS scholars might have been “hiding their candles under a bushel” in favor of protecting reputations, others would say that Book of Mormon researchers have begun to be much more careful than their predecessors. The fact is that the general scientific community in the late 80s apparently began to notice genuine excitement stirring among Latter-day Saints regarding evidence that seemingly supported their theology. Unfortunately, a few well-meaning saints may have started aggressively using archeology as a tool for proselyting. Because such persons may have been untrained in the disciplines of the scientific method I suspect that they mingled good scholarship with poor scholarship, thus opening up themselves—-and the Church—-to various incidents of ridicule and resentment. In particular I think of Yale University scholar Michael D. Coe (whose roots, by the way, are in my home town of Cody, Wyoming!) who over the years seems to have expressed a certain amount of frustration and resentment that his research on the Olmecs became a major impetus for the LDS view that the Olmecs might be synonomous with the Jardedites!

Anyway, this phenomenon of non-LDS scholars lashing out against "Mormon Mesoamericanists" is still very much ongoing. Really, it's merely a subset of the same struggle that Latter-day Saints have faced since the Book of Mormon's initial publication. And if we are to be honest, some of the ridicule and/or criticism has been justified. Latter-day Saints, because we often have well-established testimonies of the Book of Mormon beforehand, are at times all-too eager to promote certain archeological findings before all of the "research ducks" are lined up. Even some facts cited in John Sorenson’s seminal work, An Ancient Setting For the Book of Mormon may have succumbed to alternate interpretations. For example, in his section which discusses animals in the Book of Mormon, Dr. Sorenson cites evidence for horse bones in Mesoamerica which pre-date the Spanish Conquest (a notation which I repeated in the chapter notes of Warriors of Cumorah). However, the current consensus among most scholars—non-LDS and LDS—is that these particular bones from the Loltun Cave in the Maya area date to Pleistocene times, or more than ten thousand years B.C. Just as a reminder, scholars have never objected to the idea that true horses (Equus) existed in the New World during the Pleistocene. The debate has always been whether they existed during the time period of the Book of Mormon. But hold the phone! In a recent lunch I had with an LDS PhD candidate in Mesoamerican studies, he revealed some information about the particular horse bones from the Loltun Cave that make the story even more puzzling than before!

According to Mark Wright (currently with the Religion Dept. at BYU), in personal conversations he had with an eye-witness of actual field reports from Loltun Cave, this eye-witness adamantly insisted that this horse skeleton was, in fact, entrenched in geological strata that corresponded with the time period of the Book of Mormon--and not the Pleistocene. According to this witness, they were not "rearranged" by cave rats or other vermin, as some have arbitrarily concluded. The core reason why any confusion on the subject is allowed to remain reveals one of the most bizarre political bureaucracies in the scientific world. In Mexico there is an actual, enforcable law that prevents anyone from viewing the original field reports of another archaeologist without the consent of the archaeologist who performed those field studies. This law remains in force even after the field archaeologist is dead!!! So as of this date, no one has been allowed to confirm or debunk the data from the Loltun Cave. But the insanity doesn't stop there. As of today no one has yet been allowed to precisely carbon date the Loltun horse bones! Why is that?--as any sane and honest seeker of knowledge might ask??? What a silly question! Obviously such bones would date to Pleistocene times, so (according to the all-powerful curators who control the bones) what's the blasted point of dating them???

This kind of bureaucracy and buffoonery explains why the scientific community very nearly "kicked out" the entire fields of archaeology and anthropology from the "club" of respected sciences. (This is a very little known fact!) The reason for this is because the sceintific "overseers" of the world began to conclude that whenever fallible men seek to draw cultural conclusions about past civilizations, the interpretations are often so diametrically opposed that one has to wonder why these fields are even considered true sciences??? The end of the story is that archaeology and anthropology were allowed to remain in the "tent" with all of the other sciences, at least for now, but their status remains tenuous and vulnerable to academic reconsideration.

Despite the politics that are ever present in the academic world, the inherent value of archaeology, anthropology and other sciences as they relate to Book of Mormon scholarship should not be underestimated. But the unfortunate truth is that the sheer dearth of good scholarship over the last 15 years may have allowed a few wolves to enter the flock. These wolves actively seek to further confuse all of the issues at hand by resurrecting old models of Book of Mormon geography that scholarship of the 70s and 80s had effectively debunked. It's very important that we never take our eye off the ball again. And the good news is that a resurgence of interest in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon may be underway. In recent years, a gap in LDS Mesoamericanists (who additionally--and courageously--are willing to write apologetics) may be filling in. In particular, I again mention Mark Wright, who is presently completing his PhD in Mayan studies at UC Riverside, and who seems very proud and determined not to hide any "candles." He wrote this couplet in regards to Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: "Those who know much write too little; Those who know little write too much".

Another interesting development is that certain LDS scholars who were active during the "lost generation," such as renowned Mesoamericanist John E. Clark, seem to feel they are now established enough in their fields of expertise that they can say "Who cares what anybody thinks?!" As a result, they have begun boldly reasserting what was commonly proclaimed by LDS scholars in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s--namely, that the trend for genuine evidence in support of the Book of Mormon is increasing. In recently published articles, Brother Clark cites a long list of age-old criticisms of the Book of Mormon that have been vindicated, including such diverse things as stone boxes, the use of cement, Maya time-cycles in the Book of Mormon, battlefield demographics, a rise and fall in Olmec population densities that parallel the rise and fall of the Jaredites, and other categories. He then concludes by saying: “. . . the Book of Mormon fits comfortably with Mesoamerican prehistory, both in general patterns and in some extraordinary details. Many things mentioned in the book still have not been verified archaeologically, but this was true just a few years ago for some items just reviewed. The trend over the last 50 years is one of convergence between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican archaeology. Book of Mormon claims remain unaltered since 1830, so all the accommodation has been on the archaeology side. If the book were fiction, this convergence would not be happening. We can expect more evidence in coming years. (John E. Clark, “Archeology, Relics and Book of Mormon Belief,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume 14, Issue 2, Pgs 38-49, Provo, Utah, 2005).

There are others who also seem willing to carry a newly lighted torch, but the "lost generation" and the paucity of scholarship of the last 15 years has nevertheless been troubling. And perhaps also damaging. Maybe it's just the pressure to be extra careful that I mentioned earlier. Maybe it's just fate--just the way things have come together. Maybe my inference that something nefarious has been afoot is mere paranoia. Nevertheless, I desperately hope that we will soon emerge into a new and rich era of Book of Mormon scholarship. However, as long as those pesky scholars are forcibly beholden to the authority and perspectives of their (non-LDS) peers, and as long as they must bow to the gods of academia if they ever hope to garner grant money, work at reputable universities, or put food on the plates of their families, there is always a concern that important work will never be addressed or completed and that exciting and valuable opinions will never be expressed. At least not until such individuals have tenure or are knocking at the door of retirement. :)

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Re-emergence of a Flawed Doctrine

This blog might be a tweesy bit more controversial than some of my others. I've expressed these thoughts elsewhere. But I've tweaked them some, and it seems appropriate to mention them here. Maybe I’m overemphasizing the resurgence of this problem, but since some guy brought it up in Sunday School a few months back, and since I read where others tried to push the idea on other blogs, and since some might misconstrue that this teaching is also supported by a new book called, Odds Are You’re Going to Be Exhalted, I felt it was worth discussing.

“Universalism” is the doctrine that eventually, whether it may take billions of years, ALL of our Heavenly Father’s children will be exalted in the Celestial Kingdom. The idea is that even though many on earth will inherit the telestial kingdom, or the lowest of the three degrees of glory, over time they will have the opportunity to progress to higher kingdoms. Usually this doctrine is couched with the emotional philosophy that a loving Heavenly Father could NEVER introduce a plan of salvation wherein only a portion of His children would receive exaltation and be permanently reunited with Him.

The idea that souls can progress from kingdom to kingdom, over time, was batted around by various Church figures in the late 1800’s and the early 20th Century. But the concept was sent to the trash heap with a great deal of dramatic flourish by Elder Bruce R. McConkie in the early 1980’s with a popular talk that he gave entitled, “The Seven Deadly Heresies.” One of these “deadly heresies” was the notion that souls could progress from kingdom to kingdom.

Our mortal understanding of fairness and compassion is lulled by the idea that God could NEVER condemn ANYONE to a state less than their full potential. In his book, Odds Are..., the author points out the doctrine that many general authorities have espoused that children who die before the age of accountability, the mentally handicapped, and several other prominent categories of souls are assured exaltation because of their station in life. It even references a little known doctrine taught by Joseph Smith and others that celestialized parents who have wayward children in mortality will, through their own faith and determination, have the power to influence a child to change their attitude in the afterlife and eventually rejoin them in an eternally exalted family. The book leans upon the emotionalism associated with the philosophy as it states: “The thought that God would promote something that would ensure that the vast majority of His children would never again be able to dwell in His presence is incomprehensible. And the assumption that our mother in heaven would idly sit back and allow such a guaranteed flop to eternally strip her of any interaction with her spirit offspring is equally unfathomable. Such could not-and did not-happen!”

Now, I don't know this author. Never met him. So I really cringe to offend anyone. But something about this whole idea really sits uncomfortably with me. Yes, based on our mortal understanding of the eternities, the argument has a gut reaction that is quite persuasive. Our earthly comprehension of fairness veritably screams to the carnal mind that this MUST be the case. But the fact is, we have no revealed doctrine that specifically supports it. It is a speculation based on the logic of mortals. And we have so little understanding of anything about our Mother in heaven that assuming any state of mind for this sacred figure might actually be inappropriate.

To give this book it's due, it mostly tries to highlight the fact that we are saved by the grace of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. This is certainly true, and sometimes forgotten by Latter-day Saints who can be prone to bouts of guilt and (mental) self flagellation. But if one seeks comfort by gaining a full understanding of the overwhelming power of the Atonement, I would recommend Stephen Robinson’s book, Believing Christ. Odds Are..., though seemingly innocuous in its motives, and though it references various sources, seems strikes me as too closely allied with “Universalism,” or the doctrine that God does not really punish anyone. That there are, in the end, no eternal consequences for our choices in mortality. And that very few, if any, will be condemned to live in the eternities in any permanent state that cuts them off from the presence of their Heavenly Parents.

As I mentioned, Bruce R. McConkie specifically condemned such an idea in his talk “The Seven Deadly Heresies.” He states that the belief of eternal progression from kingdom to kingdom “… lulls men into a state of carnal security. It causes them to say, “God is so merciful; surely he will save us all eventually; if we do not gain the celestial kingdom now, eventually we will; so why worry?”

He then enlists some powerful scriptures. Of those in the telestial world it is written: “And they shall be servants of the Most High, but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end” (D&C 76:112).

"Of those who had the opportunity to enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage in this life and who did not do it, the revelation says: “Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven; which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory. For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever. [D&C 132:16-17]"

To the mortal mind this just seems unfair, right? If God really loves us, how could it be true?

To me the answer seems elementary: In the end, as we receive our eternal estate, I'm not sure that anyone, after a period of mourning, perhaps, for falling short of their potential, will ultimately view themselves as being “punished.” We receive our "state" in the eternities because of our actions. In essence, we choose our kingdom of glory. It is not given to us as punishment. I emphasize that each kingdom is accompanied by the word “glory." These lower kingdoms are never referred to as states of sorrow and anguish. There’s a popular and publicized axiom that teaches that if men could see the glory of the telestial kingdom, they might readily commit suicide just to obtain it because of how glorious it really is. I have not found a particular source for this statement from the scriptures or from a General Authority so I would never advocate such behavior, but the point is instructive.

I feel we can reconcile all of our understandings about the fairness and mercy of God without changing basic LDS doctrine. In essence, we must assume that our lack of understanding regarding “fairness” (such as when contemplating the “luck” of children born with certain physical limitations or who die as infants, when compared to our own seeming lack of “luck” that we did NOT die as infants and must endure all the pangs and pains of multiple decades on earth) might be resolved with a great “Oh, duh!” if we could simply remember our pre-mortality. We would then fully comprehend the whys and wherefores of things that occur in mortality and eliminate any thoughts of injustice regarding opportunities and consequences that occur while residing on earth in its mortal probation.

Once again, what if telestial glory turns out to be utter bliss for those who inherit it? I believe our eternal destination is as much associated with principles of math and physics as eternal punishments. Like polar opposites or two repelling magnets imperfection may simply no be able to co-exist (and may not desire to co-exist) with perfection. Those who obtain lower kingdoms of glory would simply be uncomfortable and miserable in a higher kingdom. This understanding preserves the doctrine of the Church without introducing “universalism.”

And as far as the ultimate question, and the one that plays most effectively upon emotions (that is, the question of returning to dwell eternally with our Father and Mother in heaven), have we ever considered that maybe there are those who don’t WANT to return to God’s presence? That it’s not necessarily high on thier list of priorities? Getting back to the presence of the Father and Mother of our spirits sounds beautiful and luminous in principle, but the reality may not be as attractive as the abstraction. If the analogy of earthly relationships is to be enlisted, we ought to consider that some mortal parents have children who ultimately feel ambivalent about them. Or even resentful. And maybe those who obtain lower kingdoms with no interaction from Heavenly Father and Mother are simply more comfortable to live elsewhere. Undoubtedly this can be heartbreaking for the parents, but heartbreak and sorrow for the “world” as well as sorrow for decisions of our offspring is often cited as a condition experienced by God. For all we know, inheritance of the Celestial Kingdom assumes an incredible amount of responsibility, labor, effort, and study that many souls do not want to undertake. Creating worlds? Let’s face it, some of us in mortality find it difficult to get up the gumption to mow the lawn.

So what about the “billions and gazillions of years” that make up the fabric of eternity? Just what are those who inherit telestial glory going to be doing ten gazillion years from now if not attempting to progress to a higher kingdom? Well, again, this logic assumes way too much from our mortal understanding of time. The same flawed argument could be placed upon the past as well as the future. If we have “always” existed, why did it take so doggone long to even get to the point of getting here to mortality? See the problem? Again, we are trapped by our mortal understanding. The “veil” prohibits our comprehension. As the scriptures often indicate, “God’s time is not our time.” And it may be that time itself is a “thing,” a “dimension,” created strictly for mortal beings. “Universalism” as a doctrine seems fueled by that lack of understanding. It’s a doctrine born of a lack of faith and the arrogance that WE can come up with a better plan if the one God presents doesn’t suit us. And it is a doctrine born of basic human impatience.

Honestly, if I accepted “Universalism,” I really would feel tempted to go out and do any darn thing I pleased. It would allow me to feel just fine about sin itself. What the hooey! The scriptures say there are consequences??? So what??? “Universalism” makes me say “No big deal!” As a carnal, self-serving human being I am prone to respond, “I’ll worry about consequences later and seek out all my self-gratifications now.” Or to paraphrase the scriptures, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” This notion really is reenergized in my psyche with “universalism” or any doctrine like unto it. And it seems to me this was also the favorite doctrine of the anti-Christ, Nehor, when he preached for gain and "testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life. (Alma 1:3)"

Also, we can resolve this argument by looking at Mor. 7: 16-17. To paraphrase: “That which invites men to do good and believe in Christ is of God. That which invites men NOT to do good is NOT of God.” Such puts universalism squarely with the flattering “doctrines of men” that have fooled humanity for countless ages. Though I am tempted by the carnal comfort I receive from the concept, I believe that comfort is essentially inspired by laziness and does not contribute to our Spirit-induced desire to repent and do better day by day.

And lest there are some who believe that this rejection could only be born of a universal power struggle, i.e. a desire to stomp upon one’s fellow man and declare a certain select few superior to others, or that is upholds the argument that the Plan of Salvation as outlined was born from a lack of compassion for humankind, I declare that this is not accurate or true. The Plan of Salvation—-the same plan which allows us to choose our own destiny for time and eternity—-is the very essence of compassion and justice. For we see now through the veil darkly. And human logic will never replace the eternal light of revelation. So until the Lord reveals more (or finds us humble enough to receive more) it's recommended that we remain rooted to the prevalent understanding about repentance and living the commandments that we have been taught by our leaders since our earliest days in Primary.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

GUEST POST: Two Very Different Missionary Stories

By Sarah Allen

[The following is a guest post in relation to my previous blog entitled "A Statistical Mystery." I welcome guest posts on subjects of interest to me or this blog, and from any writers who feel they have insights that cannot be contained in one of the comments. Or maybe you just have thoughts that you'd like to share. Such blogs should be well-written and thought-provoking. And this one certainly is.]

Chris asked a question about why more members don't bear their testimonies to their friends. I have two very different stories I'd like to share.

When I was in high school, I met this girl on the internet. We clicked instantly and got to be very close very fast, and it was just ridiculous how similar we were in our thoughts and feelings on everything...except for religious matters. I grew up in the church, and she grew up with a fairly well-known astrologer for a stepfather. Where we're taught to turn to Heavenly Father for guidance, she was taught to look to her horoscope. Despite this, we were about as much alike as two people could be.

Eventually, I got a prompting to talk to her about the church. She knew I was LDS, but hadn't ever shown any interest in what that meant beyond minor curiosity about things like why I'd never had tea before. I didn't want to be pushy when she clearly wasn't interested, and I didn't want to strain this friendship I'd come to cherish. I also wasn't entirely sure if it was a prompting from the Lord or just my own thoughts. But the feeling came more and more frequently, and more and more insistantly, until I finally decided to do it.

I laid the groundwork, asking her to keep an open mind, then bore her my testimony and launched into the story of the First Vision. I explained that I'd received an answer to my prayers a few years before, confirming that this was true and that I didn't have any doubts about it. She knew I never would have said so unless I really meant it, and because it was so important to me, to her that made it worth learning a little about. She asked me a few questions and I answered them as well as I could, though I felt inadequate to be doing it.

Having grown up in Utah, I'd always been surrounded by people that knew the basic beliefs of the church, or at least the common phrases and doctrinal explanations that we use. I'd had conversations with my nonmember friends before about what we each believed and why, but I'd never had to explain things to somebody who had never heard any of it before. So much of it was so completely foreign to her that I was scared I was botching it up completely. Eventually, I referred her to the missionaries in her area and explained that they'd probably be able to answer her questions better than I could.

She asked me a few more questions, and then the subject sort of petered out between us. I just assumed that after her initial curiosity had been addressed, she wasn't interested anymore, and out of a desire not to seem pushy or offensive, I didn't press the subject. Then one day, completely out of the blue, she told me that she'd read the Book of Mormon a few times, she'd been taking missionary discussions and talking to them about all of her questions, and she was going to be baptized. Since then she's been married in the temple to a returned missionary, has three beautiful children, and is still strong in the Gospel.

That experience ended as well as any missionary effort ever could have. The other situation, however, is a different story entirely.

My other best friend was also not a member of the church. We had been very good friends for nearly a decade, and over the years, we'd had many conversations about our beliefs and values. We didn't agree with each other, but we respected the other's beliefs and didn't let it become an issue.

A few years ago, I had something of a spiritual epiphany where I realized that my life was getting seriously off track for various reasons, and that I needed to fix it. I also realized that this girl, who had always been respectful of my beliefs before, was now pulling disgusted, incredulous faces, rolling her eyes, and literally turning up her nose whenever I mentioned anything about the church. She was also making the occasional snide comment about it. As it began happening with greater frequency and hostility, the more uncomfortable I started to feel. All of this meant that our friendship was starting to show some strain. I started to wonder to myself if it would eventually reach the point where I'd have to choose between our friendship and the church. That's not a normal thought to be having, so I told myself that I was just being melodramatic, but the idea persisted over the years.
When these thoughts started occuring more frequently, I started rationalizing them away, telling myself that I'd never had a problem with any of my other nonmember friends before, that if I did end the friendship because of the church, it'd make her very bitter toward the Gospel, and that I could be a positive influence for her spiritually, rather than letting her be a negative influence spiritually for me. But then we'd immediately fall right back into our old patterns, and I'd backslide on my repentence, and nothing would change, except that she'd get a little more caustic in her attacks on the church. Finally, I started to make some real headway, and kept myself surrounded almost exclusively by spiritual things to help change my thoughts and behavior.

Things progressed to the point that I couldn't say anything about the Church at all in her presence, and because I was immersing myself in the Gospel, I was having all these amazing experiences and insights that I couldn't share with her. It was driving a real wedge into the friendship. It got to where I was only offering up small talk about work and my family. She didn't seem to notice, though she did notice that we were starting to argue more frequently.

One day, I realized that she was not only enabling my bad behavior, but in certain cases she was actively encouraging it, while at the same time, trying to tear down my faith. I don't think for one minute that it was done consciously, but it was happening. When I sat her down and explained that I needed to change some things about our friendship and the way we related to each other, she became extremely defensive and angry. I knew full well that I was mostly to blame for letting things progress to that point, and obviously for my own behavior, but she took it as a personal attack and started attacking back, and it turned into a very nasty argument. We'd already been fighting because our friendship had been so strained by all the ickyness of the past few years, but this time everything just exploded.
When it's easier to live the Gospel when you aren't speaking to somebody, it becomes clear what needs to be done, so eventually I ended the friendship.

Throughout the last six months of this, I'd been feeling as though I should give her a Book of Mormon. I could just imagine how well that'd go over after everything, so I didn't want to do it. I'd born my testimony to her on numerous occasions over the years,but she'd also made it quite clear that she never wanted to hear it again. I bought her a book, but I haven't given it to her yet because I don't know what to say to her about it. We aren't on speaking terms, and it could either mend things completely, or ensure that she'll never, ever join the Church. If I were to give her a Book of Mormon now, on top of all of this, at best she'd throw it in the garbage unread, and at worst, she would be extremely bitter and antagonistic toward the church. She probably already does blame the Church for a lot of this, because I really didn't handle the situation well at all, and she strongly holds onto grudges. I do need to apologize to her for the way I let things get so ugly toward the end, and I'll probably do that when I do send her the book, but I don't know if it'll do any good at all. I know there's a reason I've been feeling I need to give it to her, but knowing her the way I do, I can't see this having any other result than her turning against the church forever. I guess that's where the whole idea of having faith comes in, though.

This is the type of situation that members have nightmares about when they think of bearing their testimony to their friends. It's exactly what we're all afraid of: that no matter how sincere we are, no matter how much of what we say is motivated by great love for our friends, no matter how strongly we feel prompted to say something, that it'll lead not only to an estrangement between friends, but that it might, ultimately, lead to these people that we love so much being so antagonistic toward the church that they'll never accept the Gospel, and they'll never be able to return home to our Father in Heaven.

As the years go by, people are becoming more and more strongly divided on the issue of religion. The thought of opening our mouths and bearing our testimonies, when we know that it could turn a good friend into a bitter enemy, is hard to accept. We know we're commanded to do it and we'll continue to do it as best as we can, but I don't think it's very surprising that there's some hesitation sometimes. We should all be doing better, and we should all be sharing what we have, because it truly is the most important gift we will ever have to give to another human being. But it's scary, and sometimes, it takes us humans a little time to gather our courage and demonstrate faith. It's not just because we don't want to seem pushy and weird, and it's not just because we're worried about causing some strain in a friendship. Sometimes it's because we're scared we're going to be the cause of irreparable harm to somebody's eternal salvation.