My focus this winter has been on the #2 ranked Springville basketball team and will be through February. Go Red Devils! My posting frequency has gone down, but I continue to be excited about sharing the churchistrue LDS paradigm and will try to keep my blog posts going and stay up on the current issues that relate. Terryl Givens latest book and some of the content available related to that has been on my mind lately. This post will contain some analysis and quotes from Terryl’s presentation at Benchmark books–you can watch/listen here.

D&C 29 and Book of Moses Chapters 3-6

Brother Givens did some analysis, lining up time period of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible project with D&C revelations. D&C 29 was revealed about the same time Joseph produced Moses Chapters 3-6. Then looking at the text, you see correlations.

“If you want to go take a look at the section 29, you will see it as, it is an unwieldy revelation… It’s a bizarre revelation because it just jumps from subject to subject to subject with no reference to a common theme or chronology. And we get phrases like this in Section 29:

  • The Lord created all things, both spiritual and temporal, first spiritual, secondly, temporal.
  • He rebelled against me saying, give me thine honor.
  • They should not die until I should send forth angels to declare unto Adam and Eve repentance and redemption.
  • Children are redeemed from the foundation of the world.
  • The devil should tempt the children of men or they cannot be agents unto themselves.

Well, guess what happens over the weeks immediately succeeding that revelation? Joseph produces Moses chapters three through six. Every one of those phrases appears in the Moses narrative, but now those phrases appear in the context of this chronologically coherent, smooth narrative. It’s beautiful, it’s amazing. And so what that looks like to me…Joseph is in some kind of a regulatory trance or mode. He’s just getting these images that he dictates as they appear without any context or linking. And then they kind of percolate in his mind over succeeding weeks. And then we get this whole seamless, beautiful narrative theology that we call the Book of Moses in chapters three to six. And the phrasing, as I said, is identical. It’s identical phrasing. So that’s one of those few moments when I think we really can say something substantive about how his prophetic mode of revealing doctrines operated.”

This is a great description of Joseph’s translation process. I think this is applicable to all his scripture translations and revelations, including the Book of Mormon. When we see those phrases in the Book of Moses, we don’t need to believe that those phrases originated with Moses in an ancient text that Joseph translated. It seems more accurate to view Joseph as connecting with the divine in a way that images and phrases and doctrines are rushing into his mind in ways he almost doesn’t understand, and then he works those into the translated text output as he imagines the original text in an ancient setting.

On the Book of Abraham controversy

Givens quote on Book of Abraham translation:

What excites me is the ambition of Joseph Smith’s project as a translator. Do we have the source from which he actually produced the Book of Abraham? That’s probably the hottest, most controversial topic at the center of book of Abraham studies and controversies. …(explaining that the text of the Book of Abraham refers to the facsimile which we have, which is next to text on the papyrii that we have which we know is not the Book of Abraham). It’s my impression from my review of the literature and what’s been published on the subject that most scholars who are seriously inquiring into the subject think that we do. …Those who think we do not have the original, that would be people like John Gee and Hugh Nibley, they would argue that, well he could’ve just been experimenting by juxtaposing the narrative with those symbols to see if there is a match, to see if we can make those somehow correlate. John Gee is convinced that we don’t have the original manuscript because so many contemporaries apparently referred to a long scroll from which Joseph worked and we don’t have the long scroll, but those are generally much later recollections and subject to all kinds of problems…My personal sense is that yeah, we probably do have the source document.

Terryl goes on to explain that he thinks this controversy was resolved over 100 years ago. In 1912, the Church submitted the facsimiles to Egyptology scholars and were told that Joseph’s explanations were not accurate. How did the Church respond? By publishing the results of twelve Latter-day Saint and non-LDS scholars.

Now they all say the same thing. Guess what they all say…they all say, “Yep, guess he failed. Guess he doesn’t know how to translate Egyptian after all. Total failure.” But at least this shows we’re not afraid to learn from what the scholars can tell us because we want to know. And now we know: Joseph didn’t know how to translate Egyptian, but what he received was revelation.

Interesting that Terryl is coming down very strongly in the “catalyst” camp on this.

Collapsing Sacred Distance

Terryl Givens quote:

There is a danger that Latter-day Saint theology poses to a kind of glib familiarity with sacred thing. I myself may be part of the problem because for so long I have said that the essence of the Mormon problem in the American mind, was the collapse of sacred distance. It wasn’t what Mormons believed. It was how specifically they believed the things they believed. Brigham Young said Joseph’s greatness was that he took the things of heaven and brought them down to earth and he took things of earth and he brought it up to heaven. So we celebrate a lot of this, but if it gets to the point where we’re talking about about the most magnificent being in the history of the universe, the Creator of all things, the Redeemer and Savior of the world is my big brother, somewhere we’ve taken a wrong turn.

That’s a power packed paragraph right there. I think it capsulizes one of the great conundrums of Mormonism. Greg Prince said in a nutshell, Joseph’s brilliance could be described as: “he saw the face of God and created a set of symbols that enabled his followers to do the same.” Joseph disliked creeds because they put a limit to how close man could come to God. Joseph said:

I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes [limits], and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’ [Job 38:11]; which I cannot subscribe to.

I love this aspect of Mormonism. I love the idea that we can know God, he/she can be with us, and we can have a personal relationship. Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother are tangible, material being that can be a positive force in our lives. The specificity and the certainty with which we view doctrine about God, salvation, the hereafter, etc, is necessary to some degree in order to have that spiritual connection in some ways. This is how humans work. A movie with poor character development–we’re not going to connect with the hero emotionally. Show the hero’s backstory in great detail, and we’re better able to connect. But in other ways, this specificity and certainty causes sub-optimal outcomes. Peter Enns calls this the sin of certainty. Certainty can stop us from necessary positive change and evolution. Certainty can stop us from a deep seeking for God. Richard Rohr talks about the “mystery” in a way that it’s necessary for spiritual depth.

Sorry for the crudeness in this example, but sex always seems to come up here. It’s a great LDS doctrine that God was once like humans and humans can become like God. That’s comforting and interesting and inspiring, but only if we don’t try to put too much infrastructure to that belief. When we do, we create problems. We say if God is like humans, God must use sexual relations to create life. Then we get weird, creepy doctrine like Heavenly Father had sexual relations with Mary the mother of Jesus. Or even more weird and creepy, that God the Father has many polygamous eternal wives and Mary is one of them. Offensive and sexist but unfortunately a certain percentage of active LDS believe this.

The more we set up this certain and specific infrastructure around the nature of God, the more likely we are to hurt others with our own wrong beliefs. This happened when we took speculative statements about race too seriously. I believe it’s happening now with hurting our LGBTQ brothers and sisters by taking non-canonical beliefs about sexuality in the eternities too literally and seriously. I hear straight LDS telling gay LDS they will be straight in heaven and gay LDS arguing back, no they will be gay in heaven. Can we just say we don’t know with certainty?? Can we say everything we understand about eternity is “translated” (Joseph’s word) from a God to a human in ways that probably don’t define it perfectly and absolutely?

Let’s think about how we gain the benefits of Joseph’s style of removing ambiguity about God in order to remove the barriers of connecting and having a relationship with God. But also avoid the negatives that come with that and also gain some of the benefits of a Richard Rohr style religion embracing mystery and mysticism.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m right. Maybe neither are right. Maybe we’re both right in a way that we can’t understand as humans. We probably don’t know yet. Let’s love each other and not use doctrine to hurt each other.