May 13, 2009

Love Is Not Blind - Part II: Ambiguity

This is Part II of the discussion related to Bruce C. Hafen's talk Love Is Not Blind. If you missed Part I, you can read it here.

At the heart of this talk is the concept of "ambiguity." Elder Hafen says:

"The fundamental teachings of the restored gospel are potent, clear and unambiguous; but it is possible, on occasion, to encounter some ambiguity even in studying the scriptures. Consider for example the case--known to all of us--of Nephi, who slew Laban in order to obtain the scriptural record (see 1 Nephi 4:5­18). That situation is not free from ambiguity until the reader realizes that God himself, who gave the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13), was also the origin of the instructions to Nephi in that exceptional case."

God sometimes appears inconsistent in the scriptures -- especially when it comes to killing other human beings -- something that God can do himself, but for some reason that I cannot understand, supposedly orders us to do at times. Mormon Heretic did a great post a while back about whether genocide can ever be sanctioned by God in Joshua's Unholy War. Ambiguous or not, I'm not sure that the order to slaughter innocent human beings -- especially children -- can ever really come from God.

Elder Hafen presents an interesting example of ambiguity and what it can mean for different interpretations of the same story:

"Consider also the case of Peter on the night he denied any knowledge of his Master three times in succession (see Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 18). We commonly regard Peter as something of a coward whose commitment was not strong enough to make him rise to the Savior's defense, but I once heard President Spencer W. Kimball offer an alternative interpretation of Peter's situation. In a talk on this campus in 1971, President Kimball, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said that the Savior's statement that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed might have been a request to Peter, not a prediction. Jesus just might have been instructing his chief apostle to deny any association with him in order to insure strong leadership for the Church after the Crucifixion. As President Kimball asked, who can doubt Peter's boldness and willingness to stand up and be counted when he struck off the ear of the guard in the garden of Gethsemane. President Kimball did not offer this view as the only interpretation, but he did point out that there is enough justification for it that it ought to be considered. So what is the answer--was Peter a weakling, or was he so crucial to the survival of the Church that he was prohibited from risking his life? We are not sure. This is a scriptural incident in which there is some ambiguity inhibiting our total understanding."

I enjoyed this particular theory about the story of Peter. Maybe I'm just strange, but I often find myself feeling bad for the "weaklings" in the scriptures who are often dealt with very harshly for their mistakes. Did they always deserve what they got? Did Lot's wife deserve to be turned into a pillar of salt for simply looking back (Genesis 19)? Did Onan deserve to be liquidated for "spilling his seed" instead of impregnating his sister-in-law (Genesis 38)? Did 42 children deserve to be killed for mocking Elisha's bald head (Numbers 16)? (I used to make fun of David O. McKay's hair or Spencer W. Kimball's pointy ears in pictures that I saw as a kid. Am I lucky to be alive because of that?) Does Peter really deserve being accused of cowardice or betrayal for denying Christ? I think that the suggestion that Jesus was making a request to Peter instead of simply a prediction makes sense. We've probably assumed that a light bulb suddenly went off in Peter's mind when he heard the cock crow, as if he thought, "Oh yeah, I forgot what Jesus said about my denying him three times before the cock crowed. Dangit, he was right!" Surely Peter hadn't really forgotten something as significant as that prediction or, perhaps, request.

Elder Hafen continues:

"Let us compare some other scriptural passages. The Lord has said that he cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31), yet elsewhere he said to the adulteress, "Where are . . . thine accusers? . . . Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more" (John 8:10, 11). There is indeed a principle of justice, but there is also a principle of mercy. At times these two correct principles collide with each other as the unifying higher principle of the Atonement does its work. Even though God has given us correct principles by which we are to govern ourselves, it is not always easy to apply them to particular situations in our lives."

One of the hardest parts of Gospel application is where justice and mercy collide. I usually lean heavily towards mercy. I admit that if I were a judge, I'd hear the sad stories of people and would want to send them away with a slap on the wrist. In Church settings, I really wish sometimes that we could just cut people some slack. In a lot of cases (not all, but a lot), I think that if we really try to see things from the perspective of another, we would also be able to honestly say, "Neither do I condemn thee." When Elder Hafen says regarding justice and mercy that, "(a)t times these two correct principles collide with each other as the unifying higher principle of the Atonement does its work. Even though God has given us correct principles by which we are to govern ourselves, it is not always easy to apply them to particular situations in our lives," I can't help but think of those who find themselves unable to live the Church's laws concerning homosexuality when overwhelming loneliness takes over. In those cases, I think the Lord knows that some just cannot do it, and so "the higher principle of the Atonement does its work" once the person does all that he/she can do.

Continuing on:

"Church and family life are not the only areas where the right answer is not always on the tip of the tongue. If you would stretch your mind about the implications of ambiguity, you might think once again of the Vietnam War. Should our nation have tried to do more than it did, or less than it did? Or perhaps you could consider whether we should sell all we have and donate our surplus to the millions of people who are starving. You might also ask yourself how much governmental intervention in business and private life is too much. The people on the extreme sides of these questions convey great certainty about what should be done. However, I think some of these people are more interested in being certain than they are in being right."

I think my one of my favourite parts in this entire talk is the ambiguity that Elder Hafen leaves around the question of "how much governmental intervention in business and private life is too much." In fact, I find ambiguity in this matter to be refreshing, since I don't think there is a black and white, right or wrong answer to the question -- contrary to what many members of the Church seem to be under the impression of. I'm open about the fact that my personal political preference is an ideology that embraces certain social democratic values. I tried ad nauseum to educate fellow Mormons about what social democracy really entails around different blogs and groups during the election when Obama was being branded an "evil socialist" by many in the Church. Yes, I think the world would be a better place if every country could adhere to certain social democratic values, and I think that liberalism has at least just as much of a legitimate place in Mormonism as conservativism . But I don't think God is a socialist. Neither do I think He's a Democrat, a Republican, a right-wing libertarian, or a Constitutionalist. Even though we all have our preferences, virtually every political philosophy probably has at least some value that we can learn from and use in our progression -- even those that we would personally never vote for. I don't think it's coincidence that there is enough ambiguity surrounding this question in order for us to be able to reach our individual conclusions in the matter of politics and government intervention -- despite the fact that many members I encountered in various discussions proclaimed that this party or that philosophy had God's stamp of approval.

Thoughts on any of the issues presented in this part of the talk? Do you draw any personal interpretations from ambiguity?


Gay LDS Actor said...

Thanks for sharing this (and also part 1). Sorry I haven't commented more on your blog lately. I've been so busy with rehearsals.

I guess all I want to say is that I think there is so much about God's plan and His ways that we as imperfect, mortal children cannot understand at this time. His view is perfect and all-knowing while ours is limited.

It's been interesting to me as I've prayed about my own situation in light of my personal testimony. The two things seemingly contradict, and yet as I continually pray about what the future holds for me, I am constantly assured that I am on the path I am supposed to be on and that God loves me no matter what.

That doesn't mean I'm wrong about the truthfulness of the church. I know God sees my entire life's journey much better than I do, and I do not feel misled in my knowledge of the truthfulness of the church nor do I feel misled in my my journey as an openly gay man in a wonderful relationship with my partner. I do not know how these two seemingly inconsistent things will be resolved, but I know and trust that God does, and right know that's all I care about. He knows each individual's heart and will judge them accordingly.

There are parts of the talk you shared that I really needed to hear.

I'm also one who is rooting for the scriptural "underdogs." I have always felt great sympathy for Pontius Pilate, for example, and people may call me a heretic for saying so, but I've even had sympathy for Judas before. King David is another. I'm far more on the side of mercy than I am justice. Happily, it's God who decides all this, and not me.

Mormon Heretic said...

Great post FD. I want to add some additional points to Peter, and Judas. Pres Kimball's point about Peter is actually similar to Gnostic teachings. I don't know if you remember my post on Gnosticism, but they definitely had some different beliefs.

Luke 22:34. "I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me."

Is this a request or a prediction? Gnostics say it is a request.

Similarly, I heard a bible scholar talk about Judas, and say (I'm paraphrasing), "When Jesus pointed out who would betray him, why didn't the other apostles get up and try to stop Judas? Was Jesus telling him that someone needed to betray him, and that he was picking Judas to do it?"

The Gospel of Judas portrays Judas as doing exactly what Jesus wanted him to do. Is Peter also doing what Jesus wanted him to do? the Gnostics certainly supported this idea.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Actor, it's great to see you here again. I was really hoping you would read this post because it did make me think of you. It's always so helpful to get your perspective, since you are often living through some of the things that we discuss. If anyone has an understanding of the Atonment, I think it's you. Your faith is a huge inspiration to me when mine dwindles.

It's interesting how you mentioned Pilate because he's another one that I think found himself in an extremely difficult situation. And yet what many think he should have done is probably not what was in God's plan.

MH, I remember that the Gospel of Judas was in the news a while back. Actually, it was my husband who brought it to my attention because he asked me what I thought about it. I said I didn't know. I did a search and found something about it on National Geographic. But this "lost" Gospel of Judas is different from the Gnostic one, right?

Papa D said...

I was struck by the following line:

"I think some of these people are more interested in being certain than they are in being right."

As far as scriptural underdogs go, I've mentioned this before, but I really feel for Laman and Lemuel. Think about it.

It's easy to paint them as wicked men, and perhaps they were, but they appeared to have been raised with a life of luxury - with an absentee father (if Nibley is correct that Lehi was a traveling trader) - with a . . . strong-willed . . . and Joseph-of-Egypt-like daddy's favorite little brother (Nephi) - who saw their father suddenly morph into what they probably viewed as a ranting, raving maniac - telling them they had to leave their friends and family and riches to travel to a land of promise the Lord had shown him in a vision.

That's not an easy pill to swallow, especially if they didn't have a strong relationship with their father in the first place. Tack on the "God maketh no such things known unto us" aspect (which, if accurate, might or might not have been "their fault") and you've got a fascinating foundation for an interesting counter story to Nephi's narrative.

Papa D said...

As to the question of uncertainty, I wrote something on Mormon Matters a while ago that I think you've read, but I will post the url from my own blog where I re-posted it with some minor editing:

("Accepting Uncertainty and Remaining Faithful")

The Faithful Dissident said...

Ray, my favourite paragraph in that post is where you say:

I believe firmly and deeply in the PRINCIPLES of ongoing-revelation and charity exercised in how I must view others - that what I believe now differs from what I believed as a youth and young adult - that what I believe now differs from what I will believe in the future - that what I believe now differs from what others believe now. I believe that this charity God gave me as a youth will not fail me, even as prophecies and tongues and knowledge fail all around me.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I keep on calling you "Ray" even when you post as Papa D. Habit, I guess. :) For all those who don't already know, Papa D = Ray. Just so you don't have to wonder who the heck Ray is. :)

Mormon Heretic said...


Your National Geographic link didn't work very well, but The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic Gospel. Bart Ehrmann (who's interviewed in the Nat Geo DVD), says it is one of the best examples of Gnostic beliefs. I have watched that DVD, and I'd like to add it to my DVD collection, but I always hate paying full price for DVD's.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Hmmm.... that's too bad about the National Geographic link. Not sure why it didn't work. here is another one.

It sounds as if it's the same Gospel of Judas that you're referring to, yet they keep referring it to it as the "lost" one.

It'd be interesting to read it to see whether the stories from all the Gospels could "co-exist" even though the role of Judas is completely different. My first thought was that there's no way. But then again, if the other apostles were not "in" on Jesus' request to Judas, it's no wonder they saw it as they did and that's how the story got recorded over time. After all, we don't believe the Bible is perfect.

Also, someone had to do it. Just like Adam and Eve. Someone had to transgress in order for God's plans to be carried out. Was Judas in the same position as Eve?

There is, however, the question of why Judas hanged himself, if he was truly innocent.

Mormon Heretic said...

That 2nd link is a great link.

The Gospel of Judas is one of the most interesting stories to me (and deserving of a blog post of its own.) There is a famous St. Ireneaus from around the 2nd century I believe, who talked about acceptable scripture. He ranted about the Gospel of Judas being completely unworthy of scriptural status.

Well, we have the writings of Irenaeus, but until the 1990's nobody had ever found an extant copy of this book Ireneaus was talking about. Then it was discovered by an Egyptian, sold on the black market, advertised in the NY Times, and finally translated for the Nat Geo DVD. So it was lost for 1700 years at least. I believe the copy we have dates to about the 5th century, so it is almost as old as Ireneaus.

Anyway, Gnosticism believed in Christ but had some unusual beliefs. They generally tried to promote the evil characters of the Bible. Even the Bible contradicts how Judas died. In one place, he hangs himself, and in another he jumps off a cliff.

I've heard some bible commentators state that they think Judas intentionally betrayed Jesus because he expected Jesus to become a king, and Judas was trying to speed up the process. When Jesus died, Judas was shocked, and commit suicide.

Of course, the Gospel of Judas simply ends when he betrays Jesus (with Jesus' blessing, of course.)

SimplyMe said...

Great post. I think that Jesus requested Peter's denial of Him. I am trying to remember where it says something like, " the mouth of two or three witnesses..." Perhaps Jesus knew that if two or three witnesses heard Peter's denial then Peter would be left alone to contribute more to the gospel once Jesus was gone. And then, maybe this is a metaphor and we can find our own meaning to the story.