Sunday, May 31, 2009

D&C 76 and continuing revelation

As I was reading D&C 76 this week, I was struck by how the "prologue" to that section (verses 1-10) emphasizes knowledge as the great promise of eternity: the great reward these verses promise to those who serve God faithfully is to have all hidden mysteries revealed to them, to be enlightened by the Spirit, to know the secrets of God's will, to attain an understanding that will make the wisdom of the wise perish and come to nothing, etc. From a historian's perspective, I think we're getting a window here into Joseph Smith's greatest longings: He wanted to know stuff. He was an intellectual, at least by temperament, even though obviously he didn't have the formal education that would make him recognizable, then or now, as a significant intellectual figure.

From that thought, my attention turned to... the structure, I guess I'll call it...the structure of the revelatory process by which D&C 76 came into being. And to tip my cards from the beginning, the thought came to me that this structure is decidedly liberal in terms of how we see Smith relating to what, for him and his society, was the scriptural canon.

1. Joseph finds a statement in the scriptures that doesn't mesh with reason. Joseph and Sidney are working on their "new translation" of the Bible, and they come to John 5:29, which says that those who have done good will come forth to the resurrection of life [or, as Joseph's "translation" puts it, the resurrection of the just] and those who have done evil to the resurrection of damnation [the resurrection of the unjust].

It's the standard biblical vision of a bifurcated afterlife and judgment: the righteous on this side, the wicked on the other. But something about that doesn't make sense to Joseph. How can there just be two destinations for people in the world to come? If God rewards everyone according to their works—plenty of scriptures along those lines—and given the reality that some people do more good (or more evil) than others, how can there be only two eternal rewards? Surely those who did more good will receive a greater portion of glory, which would require more options than just heaven or hell. That just stands to reason, Joseph thinks—or as he states it in the quotation from History of the Church that appears in the intro to this section: "It appeared self-evident..."

2. Joseph spends time wondering and reflecting about this dilemma. We're not told too much about that, just that "this caused us [Joseph and Sidney] to marvel," and that they "meditated upon these things" (vv. 18-19).

3. Joseph embraces a new vision, consistent with his reason and more expansive than the scriptural vision he found problematic. The boldly revisionist nature of Joseph's vision of the three degrees of glory may not be so apparent to Latter-day Saints who have grown up with this conception of the afterlife, and who are accustomed to talking about the three degrees of glory alongside rhetoric about a bifurcated judgment, since the two concepts coexist in LDS discourse. In other words, LDS readers probably tend to think of D&C 76 as a refinement on the bifurcated vision, not as a conflicting vision.

But the conflict becomes evident whenever you explain the three degrees of glory to someone raised to think of the afterlife in simple terms of "heaven and hell." I encountered this on my mission. You'd teach the plan of salvation (discussion 4 in those days), and the investigator would ask, "But what about heaven and hell?" And then different missionaries would offer different ways of reconciling the two visions. Sometimes they'd present the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms as subdivisions of heaven; sometimes they'd present them as subdivisions as hell. Those are dramatically different ways of understanding the system. That dramatic difference is a sign that D&C 76 isn't just adding more detail to the already established bifurcated vision (though Mormon orthodoxy's impulse to conceive of the scriptures as a unified whole pressures Latter-day Saints to understand D&C 76's relationship to the Bible in that way). D&C 76 is an alternative vision, which Latter-day Saints have to work to try to reconcile with the older vision—and they've come up with diametrically opposed attempts at a solution.

The bottom line here is that faced with a scriptural teaching that doesn't make sense to him, Joseph embraces in its place a vision that does make sense. Joseph's new vision goes beyond scriptural teaching and thus clashes with an understanding of scriptural authority that's prone to point to a verse in the canonical text and say, "Here's God's answer; discussion's over." Through new revelation to himself, Joseph gains access to a new way of understanding—something that eye has never seen, nor ear heard, nor has yet entered into human heart (76:10).

4. Joseph's new understanding involves reading the existing scriptures in new ways. The clearest example here is D&C 76's relationship to 1 Corinthians 15. Every missionary knows that D&C 15:40-42 talks about bodies celestial and bodies terrestrial, one glory of the sun, another of the moon, another of the stars. For years Mormons have used that verse as a prooftext for the three degrees of glory: look, right there, the Bible's talking about the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial kingdoms.

I don't think there's any disputing that Joseph's use of the terms "celestial" and "terrestrial" in D&C 76 is inspired by 1 Cor. 15. (Where he came up with the term "telestial" remains an intriguing question for me. Did he have enough of a working knowledge of etymology at that point that he could knowingly use the Greek-derived prefix "tele"—or is the new coinage as crude as replacing the "c" in "celestial" with the "t" in "terrestrial"?) I also don't think you can reasonably dispute (though there are plenty of unreasonably orthodox Mormons who will try) that Joseph's use of the terms "celestial" and "terrestrial" in D&C 76 has nothing to do with the meaning of those terms in 1 Cor. 15, which is simply referring to "heavenly" versus "earthly" bodies. To the degree that D&C 76 is inspired by 1 Cor. 15, it represents a creative misreading of 1 Cor. 15.

To me, that's not necessarily a mark against D&C 76. I don't have a problem with creative misreading. As other postings I've made to this blog attest, creative misreading is a big part of how I approach the scriptures. I read the scriptures knowing full well (and there my method differs from Joseph Smith's, I suspect) that the meaning I take from these texts is not the meaning the authors intend. But by their nature, words can yield meanings other than those their authors intend. Joseph's revelatory process involves drawing unintended meanings from passages of scripture—so does mine.

5. Joseph's new revelation is not the end. Later revelations alter the vision in D&C 76. D&C 76 says that the terrestrial kingdom is for people who died without law (i.e., the heathen, who didn't know the gospel) and for people who accept the gospel in the next life. Four years later (D&C 137), Joseph is surprised to have a vision of his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom, whereupon he's told that—contrary to what D&C 76 indicates—people who die without a knowledge of the gospel can go to the celestial kingdom if God knows that they would have accepted it.

Take together, D&C 131-132 represent another revision to D&C 76. D&C 76 says that those who enter the celestial kingdom are gods, to whom all things are subject (vv. 58-59); the revelation also says that everyone in the celestial kingdom is equal in power and dominion and glory (vv. 92-96). But then D&C 131-132 tell us that there are different degrees within the celestial kingdom—so not everyone is equal—and only those in the highest degree are gods to whom all things are subject.

Again, orthodox Latter-day Saints who need to believe that the scriptures are a consistent whole will have to dance around to make the new information out to be simply a refinement, not a contradiction. In doing so, they miss a valuable lesson: Because the scriptures are based on a partial understanding of the "secrets" and "good pleasure" of God's will (76:7, 10), not everything stated in these texts is true. Continuing revelation doesn't just supplement our present understanding; it revises it. Which means that faith in continuing revelation implies accepting the possibility—the inevitability—that things we now think are true, on the scriptures' say-so, will turn out, in fact, to be wrong.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A virtual health blessing

It's just the words, because for various reasons, that's all I'm in a position to offer. But if I'm going to offer even just the words, the time to do it is now.


Heavenly Father,
you gave your Son power to heal all manner of afflictions:
consecrate this oil for the blessing of the sick and the afflicted.
In Christ's name, amen.


----- --------- -----,
calling on the power of Christ,
I anoint you with this oil,
which has been consecrated for the blessing of the sick and the afflicted.
In Christ's name, amen.


----- --------- -----,
calling on the power of Christ,
I seal the anointing you have received,
and pray God's blessing upon you.

I pray that that the results of these tests will not be what we fear.
But if that proves not to be the case, I pray that you will be emotionally prepared.

I pray that whatever time remains for you on this earth will be fulfilling.
I pray that you will be guided to set goals and make plans that will bring you joy and a sense of accomplishment.

I pray that you will be able to stay active until the end.
I pray that you will not be in pain.
I pray that you will be at peace.
I pray that God will uplift you.
I pray that you will feel Christ's presence.
I pray that you will have comfort.

I pray that the Spirit will help you find meaning in this disease and this way of dying—a meaning that will strengthen you and give you courage and let you come to the end, whenever it comes, with a feeling of completion.

In Christ's name, amen.


Be with her, God.
Be with her to the end.
And make damn sure she can tell you're there.
You owe her that.


Yes, all right. I get the message. I know how this prayer has to be answered.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A foursquare gospel

This week I did the readings for Lesson 19 in the D&C/Church history curriculum. The subject was the plan of salvation—for which the readings were surprisingly skimpy, a fact which I think bears further reflection, but I'll save that for another time, perhaps. Today I feel moved to focus on D&C 76:40-41.
This is the gospel, the glad tidings, of which the voice out of the heavens bore record to us—

That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness.
Early 20th-century Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson spoke of a "foursquare gospel" that summed up what she saw as four major dimensions of Christ's identity and mission: Christ as Savior, as baptizer, as healer, and as coming king. I'm going to analyze v. 41, with its series of four infinitive phrases ("to be crucified . . . and to bear the sins . . . and to sanctify. . . and to cleanse . . .") as a kind of foursquare gospel.

1. Christ came into the world to be crucified for the world. I appreciate the fact that the verse doesn't say Christ was crucified "for the sins of the world," just "for the world." I like it because it introduces new interpretative possibilities apart from the economic-style models of the Atonement with which Mormons (like evangelicals) are most familiar, in which Christ suffers and dies to "pay the price" for our sins. Obviously that model is espounded elsewhere in the Restoration scriptures, and I know from experience that the model can bear good fruits. But I appreciate that this text creates space for other ways of understanding the Atonement.

So what else could it mean to say that Christ was "crucified for the world"? Christ on the cross is a sign, a way that God communicates something to the world. It shows the human race who we are: a people who devise horrific ways to hurt one another. It shows us how much God loves us: "For God so loved the world..." "I, God, suffered these things for all..." "Remember the worth of souls..." It shows us that God is with us in all our suffering—think Alma 7:11-12.

Jesus came into the world to be crucified for the world... To a people with a history of finding crosses and crucifixes "icky" (how many times have you heard the line about "Would you wear around your neck the gun that shot your brother?"), this verse puts the crucified Christ front and center.

2. Christ came into the world to bear the sins of the world. Again, I appreciate that the text opens up alternatives to an economic model of the Atonement, even though this line can also be read in light of that model. I'm feeling moved to read the verb "bear" in the same sense as when we say that Christ "bore" what he suffered like a lamb going to the slaughter, without opening his mouth, etc. That is, Christ bears our sins of the world in the sense that he endures our sins. "Bears with" our sins would be another way to say it. He knows we are weak, he knows we are cruel, and still he loves us, owns us as family, calls us friends.

To say that Christ bears the sins of the world also suggests solidarity. He is sinless, yet he consents to be counted among the sinful. In Christ, God throws in his lot with the human race. He shares responsibility for our f*ck-ups; he shares the blame. He takes his stand with us, despite everything we've done.

3. Christ came into the world to sanctify the world. I read that clause in light of Anglican theologies of the Incarnation I've encountered. When God enters the world as a human being, when the Word becames flesh, God becomes integrated to the world, and this itself becomes redemptive. The world becomes holy because God is part of it, is one with it. As D&C 88:41 puts it, Christ is in all things, and through all things, and round about all things, and all things are before him. We are always, everywhere, in God's presence; we are always, everywhere, in God's temple. There is no distinction between sacred and profane. All things are holy, all things are sanctified, all things are consecrated, because they are all saturated with the presence and power of Christ.

That idea has a powerful intellectual appeal for me. I find its mysticism attractive. But I suppose this requires me to believe that God is present in, for example, my mother's cancer. And I don't really know how to make sense of that proposition. I'll have to keep taking that one on faith for the time being.

4. Christ came into the world to cleanse it from all unrighteousness. And here we're back to the divisions that point 3 seemed to have dissolved. Yes, there's truth in affirming that God is in all things and through all things, etc. But there's also truth in drawing distinctions between what is of God and what is not—between good and evil, right and wrong, justice and wickedness. In this formula, Christ comes to eliminate evil and injustice from the world. No more war, no more violence, no more exploitation, no more oppression, no more inequality, no more hunger, no more disease, no more exile. That's the grand vision, anyway. But it comes in small steps, through small acts of resistance.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

O hear, O hear, O hear us, O Lord!

My reading this week included D&C 109, the Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer. For several years, I've likened this text unto myself in the sense that several of the verses in which Joseph Smith prays about the persecution of the Saints double as expressions of my own prayers in response to anti-gay rights initiatives, Mormon and otherwise.

Today's post is militant. But then, D&C 109 is a militant prayer.


We ask you, Holy Father, that your servants may go forth armed with your power, and your angels have charge over them; that the ends of the earth may know that this is your work, and that you have put forth your hand to fulfill what you have spoken by the mouths of the prophets concerning the last days. (vv. 22-23)

. . . That no weapon formed against them will prosper; that whoever digs a pit for them will fall into the same; that no combination of wickedness will have power to prevail over your people. (vv. 25-26)

We ask you, Holy Father, to confound, and astonish, and to bring to shame and confusion, all those who have spread lying reports abroad, over the world, against your servants. . . (v. 29)

. . . That all their works may be brought to nothing and be swept away, that there may be an end to lyings and slanders against your people. (v. 30)

O Lord, how long will you suffer this people to bear this affliction, and their blood come up in testimony before you, and not make a display in their behalf? (v. 49)

Have mercy, O Lord, on the mob who have driven your people, that they may cease to spoil; that they may repent of their sins if repentance is to be found. (v. 50).

Remember the kings, the great ones of the earth, the churches—that their hearts may be softened; that their prejudices may give way before the truth, and your people obtain favor in the sight of all. (vv. 55-56)

Remember all your church, O Lord, with all their families, and all their immediate connections; that the kingdom which you have set up may become a great mountain; that the church may come forth out of the wilderness of darkness. (vv. 72-73)

. . . That when the trump shall sound for the dead, we shall be caught up in the cloud to meet you, that we may ever be with the Lord. (v. 75)

O hear, O hear, O hear us, O Lord! Accept the work of our hands. Let these be clothed with salvation, and your saints shout aloud for joy. (vv. 78, 80)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

About fasting

I want to reflect a little today about fasting, one of the topics of this week's readings. It dawned on me this week—not that it's a big surprise, but I just became particularly conscious of it—that LDS customs around fasting (once a month, skip two meals, donate what you saved, hold a testimony meeting in conjunction with it) aren't mandated in scripture. In fact, the scriptures of the Restoration don't have much to say about the practice, apart from passing references to it. Even D&C 59:13-14, which was the major fasting-focused passage in this week's reading, may not be a literal reference to fasting: a footnote makes it out to be a passage about "hungering and thirsting after righteousness," a shift toward metaphor prompted by the fact that the passage is about food preparation.

Anyway, what I wanted to do today was talk about what the practice of fasting means to me—and as I typically do, I'm inclined to start by distancing myself from various interpretations of fasting current in among LDS people. I don't believe that fasting is a way to get more in tune with spiritual things by virtue of somehow shutting out the physical. I'm at a loss, actually, to paraphrase that idea intelligibly, though I encountered it frequently back when I was active in LDS church life, because it makes so little logical sense to me. It's also a surprisingly Greek idea (Greek as in Plato)—surprising for a people who have at times prided themselves for not buying into apostate forms of Christian teaching perverted by the body-soul dualism of ancient Greek philosophy.

I also don't believe in fasting as an extra "sacrifice" that's somehow supposed to make our prayer more efficacious. For example: Back when I was on my high school debate team, the LDS team members decided to fast before an upcoming tournament so that one team member would qualify for nationals. Looking back, I see it as a sweet gesture of solidarity (more on this later), but at the time I undertook the fast with the idea that this was somehow intensifying my faith, which in turn would help secure the desired outcome. And the team member did end up qualifying, and I even convinced myself there was something demonstrably miraculous about the way that happened. I squirm horribly as I remember that—it was fasting as a kind of magic, or as a form of barter: "Hey, God, how about a deal? We all go without food for twenty-four hours, and in return you answer our prayer."

When I was about 9 years old, a neighbor boy a couple years younger than me was in a diving accident and spent a few days in a coma. A ward fast was held for him. I hated fasting—in my family, you were expected to start observing the fast once you'd been baptized—and I would often find a way to cheat. On the Sunday we were fasting for the neighbor boy, I managed to walk home after church far enough ahead of the rest of my family that I had time to sneak a slice of bread to tide me over until dinner. I silenced the voice of conscience by reminding myself that shortly before, the ward had held a fast for a young woman who had been in a riding accident, and that had turned out all right; so surely my little cheating wouldn't keep this fast from achieving the desired result either.

A few days later, my mother got a phone call and came out to sandbox to tell my brothers and me that the neighbor boy had died. As she walked away, I sat there, pretending to be absorbed in my playing, convinced that the boy's death was my fault. I felt guilty enough to stew over it periodically for the next few years, though not so guilty that I was ever moved to confess to anyone.

If we set aside notions of fasting that boil down to magic, or barter, or body-soul dualism, I believe the practice serves some valuable spiritual functions. Essentially, it functions as an act of solidarity. When my mother goes in for surgery, and I join my family in fasting and praying that the procedure will be a success, every pang of hunger reminds me of her and invites me to be with her in her suffering. Similarly, the monthly fast is an occasion to experience a kind of solidarity—however token—with people who are hungry not by choice but from want. Fasting reminds me that there are people who experience hunger habitually and prompts me to impart of my goods to help. It just occurred to me out of the blue that for someone with a particular concern about body issues in society, the fast could be a way to remember people with eating disorders, people who experience hunger routinely because they're trying to force their body to meet a certain standard.

The point is: the hunger I experience when I fast is instructive. It teaches me. It's not a way to "get more spiritually in tune" (except to the degree that consciousness of others may get me more spiritually in tune). It's not a way to "show faith" or "sacrifice" for the purpose of pressuring heaven to grant my prayer. Rather, it makes me mindful of the needs of others.

The famous passage on fasting in Isaiah 58 (which appeared in a scripture chain appended to this week's lesson) doesn't having anything at all to say about fasting as abstaining from food. What is the fast I have chosen? God asks. And the answer: to undo heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke. (That includes support for gay rights, among a lot of other things.) Also: to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor into your house, to not hide yourself from your own flesh. I'm inclined to read that last clause as a synonym for the first two—my "own flesh" being all my brothers and sisters in need. That's, um, pretty demanding. It challenges us to offer a lot more than a fast offering (even a big one) or hours at a church cannery. I'm not really comfortable with the idea of bringing the poor into my house, though I suppose it depends on who we're talking about. Of course, knowing Jesus, the people we're talking about are the people I'm most not comfortable about having over.

I need to move on to other tasks. But there are my thoughts for the day on fasting.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Thou shalt offer thine oblations

My reading this week was D&C 59. While the obvious theme of the chapter is the Sabbath, I was struck by how closely it was tied to the theme of consecration, which I'd been reading about before Easter.

59:1-8 - From its opening verse, the revelation exhorts hearers/readers to have "an eye single to [God's] glory." Later on, the revelation will speak of the "singleness of heart" with which the Saints should prepare their food on the Sabbath (v. 13). That idea of single-minded focus on God is part of what consecration calls us to.

So too is the commandment to love and serve God with all your heart, mind, mind, and strength (v. 5); to be as concerned for your neighbor as you are for yourself (v. 6); to thank God in all things; and to offer the sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit, which I take to mean the entire offering of yourself: no reservation or aloofness or standoffishness, a heart that is open and therefore vulnerable, an offering that includes your griefs and humiliations and failures and smallness.

59:9-14 - God calls the Sabbath "my holy day" (v.9), which is to say it is a day consecrated to God. We set aside our own labors on that day so that we can focus on paying our devotions to the Most High (v. 10, 13). This is also a day to offer our oblations, or offerings, to God.

Four years ago, after reading this chapter, I resolved to plan ahead so that I wouldn't have to do schoolwork on Sunday, as a way of clearing the day for God, and for my own rest. I was pretty good about it for a while, though the resolution has since gone to pot. (It won't be happening today—I have too much grading to do before tomorrow's deadline. And so we see where my non-negotiable priorities really lie.) It's also been I don't know how long since I observed the monthly fast, though I used to be very good about that, too. I remembered it's Fast Sunday as I was walking the dog this morning, so I'll be fasting until dinner.

My Sabbath observance at present consists of dedicating time to this blog (my spiritual journaling), usually attending the Episcopal service in the afternoon, and then going home to bless the sacrament for myself. While I was studying consecration a few weeks ago, I resolved to start doing something which I haven't actually started doing yet: During the offertory at the Episcopal service Hugo and I attend, they not only pass around the usual collection but also bring to the altar a basket of in-kind donations for the local food pantry. Those offerings have been getting noticeably skimpy for quite some time. My new resolution is to bring at least one item for the food bank offering every Sunday. It's a ludicrously token oblation, but at least it's more by way of consecration than I'm doing now. I need to start today.

59:15-24 - Here we're told that if we do "these things"—i.e., live out the principles of consecration laid out in the preceding verses—the fulness of the earth is ours (vv. 15-16). It's a kind of reverse-direction consecration: instead of human offerings consecrated to God, we have here God consecrating (dedicating) creation for human use. The conditionality is crucial here to prevent a pernicious anthropocentrism: Creation is legitimately ours only "inasmuch as" we practice consecration (v. 15). The logic I see here is that if we are wholly dedicated to God's will, then we can be trusted to be wise stewards who will administer creation to God's ends, which include equal distribution of human wealth (D&C 49:20; 104:15-18) and the intention (as we learn in the temple) that every living thing should fill the measure of its creation and have joy therein. Cf. the injunction that creation is to be used "with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion" (v. 20).

In these verses, I see the concept of consecration flowing over into recognizing that our materiality is integral to the wholeness of who we are and what God wants us to be. Consecration—the godly use of our material goods—matters because the conditions of our material existence matter. The God who speaks in this revelation is not a Gnostic god calling us to lay aside the material world and its concerns in favor of "higher," truly enduring spiritual realities. (Which is not to say there's no truth to be heard in revelations that do speak in those terms, but that's another story.) The God who speaks here wants His/Her children to have material abundance: food and clothes and houses and barns and orchards and gardens and vineyards (v. 17). This God is concerned about the aesthetics of creation: about giving us beautiful things to look at, and pleasant tastes and smells, "to gladden the heart . . . and to enliven the soul" (vv. 18-19). I thought of that today as I was walking the dog in the early morning and enjoying the smell of the latest round of blooms. This God gives abundantly, concerned for our material well-being—and asks us to do likewise for one another.


God of generosity—

I know I haven't even begun to live a really consecrated life.
For what it's worth, though, I still bow my head and say "Yes" to the call.
Today I'm going to fast, and I'm going to take those three lousy cans to church for the offertory.
There's my oblation for today. I know it's pathetic.
Let it be to some good, though.

In Christ's name, amen.