RS/MP Lesson 22: “Gaining Knowledge of Eternal Truths” (Joseph Smith Manual)
Posted by joespencer on November 9, 2008
From the Life of Joseph Smith
The lesson begins, as always, by continuing the narrative of the life of the Prophet Joseph, now moving along to the establishment in 1833 of the School of the Prophets. There is so much to say about the School of the Prophets, of course, but the lesson does not dwell on the details. Rather, it goes on to discuss the Word of Wisdom. And this is, I think, a fantastic help: the Word of Wisdom, taken in its immediate historical context, is much less a question (on the one hand) of some kind of prophetic prediction of massive drug problems in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries or (on the other hand) of some kind of bandwagon manifestation of interest in the then increasingly popular temperance leagues than it is a question of “gaining knowledge of eternal truths.”
As the rather short account in the lesson points out, the revelation promised blessings specifically of “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge.” That D&C 89 (the Word of Wisdom) follows immediately on D&C 88 (the revelation commanding the construction of both the Kirtland House of the Lord and the School of the Prophets) is thus quite important: the Word of Wisdom, in scripture, is less a cultural marker or a warning about addictions than it is a question of helping the saints to clear their minds and free their bodies so that they could give themselves to serious learning in both the school and the temple.
So it is still, it seems to me. One is not excommunicated for Word of Wisdom issues, or even disfellowshipped (illegal drugs, with the implication of criminal activity, might be another story of course). But one cannot, with a Word of Wisdom problem, go to the temple. The order of things, then, still recognizes what the Word of Wisdom seems to have meant in its first acceptation: it comes not by way of commandment, but as a word of wisdom, a word of instruction that would teach those who seek the truest wisdom, those who seek eternal truths, how to cleanse their bodies and minds so as to learn those truths.
Unfortunately, I think it is seldom that we as Latter-day Saints see this, and it is far too easy for us to turn the Word of Wisdom into a kind of cultural marker. I worry—seriously worry—that the unhealthy cultural emphasis on the Word of Wisdom is a direct consequence of a disconnection in our minds between the “rules” of the revelation and the actual promises, all of which turn on wisdom, learning, truth, etc. The more we scream and shout about how the doctors are all evil because they suggest a glass of wine every day; the more we shun the Mormon kid who tried a cigarette once (while having no problem at all with all the scores and scores of Mormon kids who are far too physical with their girl- or boyfriends); the more we assume that the missionaries could never teach or baptize so-and-so because s/he smokes or drinks or has fifteen cups of coffee every day; the more we do any and all of these things, the more I’m convinced that we have no idea what the Word of Wisdom itself is promising. Indeed, the more I’m convinced that we are ourselves not at all interested in wisdom, in learning, in truth(s).
So perhaps the contextualization and clarification of the Word of Wisdom that is found in this introductory material might be a shock of sobering reality for us, us who are far too often drunk with our own self-righteousness to realize that there is a kingdom stirring in the midst of this work.
(Yikes! I’ll get off my soapbox now!)
The gospel of Jesus Christ embraces all truth; the faithful accept the truths God has revealed and put aside false traditions.
The lesson begins with a simply fantastic summary statement: “Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth” (p. 264). In some sense that says it all. But of course, it deserves a bit of commentary.
First, “Mormonism is truth.” This is quite an equation. Joseph does not say “Mormonism is true” or “Truth is Mormonism,” but “Mormonism is truth.” What does that mean? Especially: why is truth singular here, when it is implicitly plural in the next part of the quotation? Take a look: “every man who embraces it [that is, the singular truth] feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth.” Every truth, implying that there are plural truths, indeed, many truths, so many truths that it is possible to speak emphatically of “every” truth. Paraphrased, then: Mormonism is truth in the singular, and commitment to the singular truth reveals the existence of a whole lot of “non-Mormon” truths, all of which can be embraced, inasmuch as they are indeed truths.
Truth and truths. One way of understanding the play here between singular Truth and plural truths is to understand Truth (Mormonism) to be a kind of sorting out of the interplay or relationships between the many truths. Mormonism, as the Truth, embraces all truths, is a kind of constant work of sorting out how all the truths come together: Mormonism is, one might say, conditioned by truths. As we encounter truths—truths that might be political, amorous, scientific, artistic, whatever—Mormonism is a kind of “system” or “structure” that sorts out how all of these truths can be circumscribed into one great whole, how all of these truths adhere together within the Truth. All things—every truth—can be expounded in one, but that is a massive, eminently theological task.
Does this imply that Mormonism is, as such, theology? That Mormonism, as Truth, is a kind of ultraphilosophical work? Though I know that there are those—perhaps particularly those who are trained in and teach and practice philosophy and theology—who would unambiguously answer “no” to these questions, but I confess that I find Joseph (and the scriptures!) telling us otherwise. How else are we to understand the Nauvoo period, the teachings in this lesson, etc.?
And yet there is a heavy emphasis on the remainder of the first page of teachings (p. 264) on the corruptness of creeds, of systematic statements of what must be believed: “truth greatly prevails over priestcraft”; “The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds of superstitious notions of men”; “the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed”; “the creeds set up stakes [limits], and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’; which I cannot subscribe to”; “I say to all those who are disposed to set up stakes for the Almighty, You will come short of the glory of God.” How can this obvious discomfort with creeds in any form be balanced with the idea that Mormonism is eminently theological, committed to constructing systems?
Perhaps the answer comes in the first teaching on p. 265: “The great thing for us to know is to comprehend what God did institute before the foundation of the world.” Truth is a question of what was decided in a council, what was then decided, as well as what is now decided. Truth is constructed, is sorted out in thinking together, in communion or in revelatory experience. Truth is a process, is a constant and (according at least to Brigham, but I think the idea is at least in embryonic form in the very teachings of Joseph that make up this lesson) unending task: we shall be learning for eternity, shall be constructing systems forever, shall be thinking together, in council, forever about how all the truths we come across might condition the systems we are constructing.
This idea is something Terryl Givens very nicely discusses in his “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plenitude,” published in BYU Studies 44.4 (2005).
Mormonism is, on this reading, a collective affair, a kind of thinking-together, one that is constant predicated on the discovery of whatever truths we might unearth (again: politically, amorously, scientifically, artistically, whatever). Perhaps, in the end, what it is to be in the celestial kingdom is to think forever, never to come up with definitive answers, but always to be expounding, explaining, thinking, interpreting, and rejoicing in the work of doing all of that together with others.
I might be wrong, of course, but, as Joseph says on p. 265: “I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief.”
Gaining knowledge of eternal truths is essential to obtaining salvation.
There is, in the shift from the first section of this lesson, a subtle shift in terminology: the first section deals with truth and truths, the second section with knowledge. Though the word “truths” appears in the section’s title, neither “truth” nor “truths” appears anywhere in the several teachings that make up the section. But the word “knowledge” (or its opposite “ignorance”) show up over and over.
This shift is of some importance. In talking about truth in the first section, and especially in talking about truth as something that is always to be sought after, that is never to be obtained in any kind of ultimately conclusive way, it would seem that something so conclusive as “knowledge” would be out of the picture. That is, so much talk of truth lends itself more to the theme of faith than it does to the theme of knowledge: one must be true and faithful to the events that make up Mormonism, and so one begins to construct the truth.
And yet: there sits the word on the page, “knowledge.” Perhaps, though, the first paragraph in the section provides a help here. There we are told: “Take away Apostles, etc., take away knowledge, and you will find yourselves worthy of the damnation of hell” (p. 265). This is curious: to “take away knowledge” seems to be the same as to “take away Apostles, etc.” What does that mean? Is “knowledge” just another word, for Joseph, for “modern revelation”? Indeed, he goes on in the same paragraph: “Knowledge is revelation”! Notice then that Joseph is not speaking of knowledge here as scientific knowledge, or logically conclusive knowledge, or somehow “certain” or “sure” knowledge, but rather as something like “intelligence communicated to the saints by prophets, seers, and revelators.” Knowledge, for Joseph, would seem to be what one must believe, not what one somehow assuredly knows. The word “knowledge” would seem here to be interchangeable with the word “intelligence” or “communication,” with any term that means “something communicated by a messenger that one must trust to be true.”
Importantly, “knowledge” and “intelligence” are paired in D&C 130:18-19, quoted on the next page but within the same section: “And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” All of this begins to suggest that knowledge here is a question primarily of community, as discussed above: to gain knowledge is not to have proved to oneself through scientific experimentation, but to have learned something from or with another, to have communed with someone who has more intelligence than ourselves and so to have gained more knowledge. When Joseph announces the “grand key” that “knowledge is the power of God unto salvation,” he seems to be saying that the power of God unto salvation is in trusting the words of true messengers, in learning with and from them.
Interesting, then, that the remainder of the teachings in this section are connected with Joseph’s perhaps quite peculiar doctrine of inter-spirit relations. He explains: “In knowledge there is power. God has more power than all other beings, because He has greater knowledge; and hence He knows how to subject all other beings to Him. He has power over all” (p. 265). God has communicated, it would seem, with higher, more “knowledgeable” beings than any of us, and so He commands the position He does. Again, ” A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge, for if he does not get knowledge, he will be brought into captivity by some evil power in the other world, as evil spirits will have more knowledge, and consequently more power than many men who are on the earth” (p. 266).
Again it seems to me that the theme of community is key. It is only together, communing together and with true messengers who provide us with knowledge, that we can have more power than the lying spirits who would bring us under their influence. There is, again, a kingdom, a genuine community that is to be delivered, while those who would be independent will be left without the means to escape the influence of Satan.
We obtain knowledge of eternal truths through diligent study and prayer.
If knowledge is a question of communion, then this section is merely a kind of “how-to” guide: knowledge is obtained through prayer, etc.
Especially clear in this regard is this snippet on p. 267 from Joseph’s letter from Liberty Jail (the same from which D&C 121-123 is taken): “Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.” Knowledge is gained in genuine communion, and that communion is the experience of having all that one knows called into question. One’s mind, in fact, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and as deep as the darkest abyss, etc. Genuinely to learn is not to feel secure in what one “knows,” but rather to be shattered, to have everyone one thinks one knows canceled, or at least suspended, so that one can begin to be taught by God Himself.
The second paragraph of the section makes clear that knowledge, for Joseph, is fundamentally weak, something that requires faith: “You know my manner of communication, how that in weakness and simplicity, I declared to you what the Lord had brought forth by the ministering of His holy angels to me for this generation” (p. 266). Knowledge, perfect knowledge, is a question of what is spoken in pure weakness, without appeal to logos, pathos, or ethos. Knowledge, when it is perfect, is apparently never certain: Joseph wants us to understand that knowledge, as he speaks of it, perfect knowledge, is weak knowledge, is knowledge from which certainty and self-assurance has been subtracted so that we come face to face with the fact that all true knowledge is grounded in faith, in our being true to the messenger who has communicated it to us, in our being faithful to the event of that communication.
In the first paragraph on p. 267, Joseph provides a sort of key to all of this: “Have faith in the promises made to the fathers, and your mind will be guided to the truth.” All perfect knowledge—that is, all knowledge from which genuine faith subtracts proud certainty—can be traced back to the covenants and promises given to the fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is, in the end, the substance of every divinely communicated message: community, the community of gathered Israel, etc.
We gain knowledge of eternal truths a little at a time; we can learn all things as fast as we are able to bear them.
Communication, of course, can only come one word at a time, “a little at a time; then we can comprehend it,” as Joseph says (p. 268). So it is that “it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned” what Joseph calls “all the principles of exaltation” (p. 268). But this is nothing to despair over: “God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known to the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them” (p. 268). We shall have opportunity to learn all.
But again, it is a question of sticking with the “Brethren”: “To those who . . . can assist in this great work, we say, let them come to this place; by so doing they will not only assist in the rolling on of the Kingdom, but be in a situation where they can have the advantages of instruction from the Presidency and other authorities of the Church, and rise higher and higher in the scale of intelligence until they can ‘comprehend with all Saints what is the breadth and length, and depth and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge” (p. 268). It is always a question of sticking to true messengers, whether their ideas meet up with what we pathetically call our own already-acquired “knowledge.” The kingdom is communion, not scientifically proven facts.
In fact, it is possible to misunderstand Joseph’s teaching about knowledge and truth in two opposed ways. There is a tendency on the one hand to dismiss the Brethren because we believe we know (and with certainty!) something that they seem not to have learned (Proposition 8 comes to mind . . .). In this case, we have come to regard knowledge as something that should be certain, rather than as something that should be grounded in faith, in faithfulness or fidelity. We have come to take knowledge to be something other than knowing someone, and receiving further understanding all the time at that person’s hands. But this is not the only way of being unfaithful, in the end. There is the tendency on the other hand to miss everything the Brethren have to say that is not stated in an emphatically corrective spirit: if the Brethren do not explicitly say “You are wrong on this point,” it is too easy for the Saints not to listen carefully at all to what is being communicated, and so to continue on in what we just as ridiculously affirm to be “certain” knowledge (albeit a certain knowledge we call spiritual, doctrinal, or what have you). To assume that one already understands all that needs to be said about the gospel and to think that the Brethren are doing no more than reminding us of our duty or coming up with clever ways of explaining things we already more or less understand is just as effectively to shut out the possibility of learning knowledge or coming to grips with truth.
In short, we have got to take the Brethren seriously: if we do not find what they say expanding our minds as high as the utmost heavens and as deep as the darkest abyss, then either (1) they have ceased to be what they claim to be or (2) we are not listening well enough. I’m naive enough to believe that it is the latter.