Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Is It Spiritual or Is It Temporal? Yes

With this year's Come, Follow Me curriculum coming from the Book of Mormon, I've spent the past few weeks reading some in the first two books of Nephi. I was struck again with the times Laman and Lemuel want to know if something should be taken spiritually or temporally, and how Nephi's answer is always "both."

In response to Nephi's interpretation of Lehi's dream, they ask, "Doth this thing mean the torment of the body in the days of probation, or doth it mean the final state of the soul after the death of the temporal body, or doth it speak of the things which are temporal?" (1 Ne. 15:31), to which Nephi replies "it was a representation of things both temporal and spiritual" (1 Ne. 15:32). In response to Nephi's reading Isaiah 48 and 49 to them, they ask, "What meaneth these things which ye have read? Behold, are they to be understood according to things which are spiritual, which shall come to pass according to the spirit and not the flesh?" (1 Ne. 22:1), to which Nephi replies "the things of which I have read are things pertaining to things both temporal and spiritual" (1 Ne. 22:3).

In the past, I have thought of this as related to the idea of the gathering of Israel; lots of church members like to think of the gathering in figurative terms only, so they don't have to think about a literal eschatology. But this past week, I began reading An Other Testament by Joseph M. Spencer, and I finished reading Temple and Cosmos by Hugh Nibley. And it got me wondering if Laman and Lemuel's false dichotomy couldn't explain some of the current problems with the Maxwell Institute.

In an essay entitled "The Terrible Questions," Nibley writes of the tendency of the early Doctors of the Church to assume something is figurative if its being literal would have been uncomfortable.

It becomes all allegory: "If one resorts to that easy, if self-contradictory, expedient of denying that the manifold of finite things has any existence, all problems disappear at a stroke" [Lovejoy, A.O. The Great Chain of Being, 92]. In other words, just say it is spiritual, and you have explained everything. [p. 359]
I read this from Nibley the same day that I read the following from Spencer.
I presuppose the Book of Mormon's historicity, but I do not much care about it. [...] By my reading, the Book of Mormon both implicitly and explicitly contests modern secular notions of history, such that it does not make much sense to demand that it be defensible in secular historical terms. [pp. ix-x]
It is this tendency to yield to every pronouncement of current scholarship, I believe, that is so infuriating to the critics of the Maxwell Institute (among whom, it could be argued, is Jeffrey R. Holland). It isn't just inspired fiction, and the refusal to "care" about the question reminds me of Laman and Lemuel, asking if we have to take these things for real or if we can just, you know, bracket some truth claims.

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