Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Chapter 1: Our Father in Heaven (Joseph Fielding Smith Manual)

Posted by Robert C. on January 11, 2014

Rather than work through the lesson in the order it is presented, I find myself thinking about this lesson in a more thematic way. So, I will present some comments on the lesson contents in terms of three thematic ideas.

(Here is a link to the lesson manual.)

1. God’s personal, fatherly love

There are several quotes from the manual, listed below, that make the point that God loves us in a personal, fatherly way. What difference does this knowledge (of God’s personal love for us) make? I’ll provide some of my own thoughts in response to this question, after some quotes from the lesson making this point:

God is literally, and not in a figurative sense, our very eternal Father.

[W]e who are members of the Church know [God] is a personal being and not, as some sectarians have said, “a congeries [a disorderly collection] of laws floating like a fog in the universe.”

The Father is creating worlds for the purpose of peopling them—placing upon them his sons and his daughters.

All down the ages from the beginning our Father in heaven has shown his kindness for his children and has been willing to give them direction. From the earliest times the heavens have been opened, the Lord has sent messengers from his presence to divinely appointed servants. . . .

The first difference these teachings make, that I can think of, is the feeling of not feeling alone in the world (see also Alma 7:12, how Christ knows how to “personally” succor his people). I served my mission in Russia, shortly after the Wall came down, and I distinctly remember how impressed the members were to read the account in 3rd Nephi where the Savior let everyone feel the prints in his hands. Previously, I had always been reluctant to wait in line to shake hands with visiting General Authorities. However, this experience of having Russians who were used to living in a very impersonal communist state feel so impressed by this personal care of the Savior taught me a different perspective, an appreciation for the personal love of our Savior — and the personalized messages that our living prophets give us.

The second difference, closely related, is the feeling of being loved in a personal and unconditional way. I remember one time when I was dating a girl(/woman) fairly seriously and she said to me that she loved me for 3 reasons: because I was Mormon, I was a good (ballroom) dancer, and I was intelligent. I had the distinct impression that her affection toward me was very conditional — that if I didn’t keep her convinced that I was maintained worthiness in her eyes in these 3 ways, I would lose her affection. Thinking about being in a long-term relationship that was built upon this kind of conditionality was very depressing. Fortunately, God loves us unconditionally (and I married someone who loves me unconditionally!), even if he blesses us more when we are more righteous (see 1 Nephi 17:35).

2. God is like us (e.g., embodied), but greater

The lesson repeatedly stresses the importance of knowing God’s attributes. It’s hard for me to appreciate this part of the lesson without relating these points, again, to the difference this knowledge actually makes. So, I would be inclined to ask a question very similar to the one above: What difference does this knowledge (of God’s attribitues, like being embodied) make?

Some related quotes from the lesson regarding God’s attributes:

He has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s (D&C 130:22), and he is the literal and personal father of the spirits of all men.

[W]e must understand and know both how to worship and what we worship. (See D&C 93:19–20.)

I love the idea that God has a body, because it forces us to think about the way we relate to our own bodies. God, like us, suffered bodily appetites and physical limitations, but Christ’s living and embodied example on this earth can inspire us to relate to our bodies in positive and constructive ways, which I think includes a certain amount of patience that we must have with our own failures with respect to our bodies. (Note: technically, the lesson is about the Father, but Christ is in the likeness of the father….)

I take the second quote above, referencing D&C 93, as containing a certain amount of irony. D&C 93, after all, contains what seem to me to be several rather abstruse sayings. Frequent references are made in this section to light and glory, concepts which I find rather hard to wrap my brain around. Also, there are statements in this lesson to the effect that God’s knowledge is incomprehensible to us:

[T]here is no searching of [God's] understanding.”

Thinking about this tension in the lesson, I take the point to be that God is ontologically similar to us, but he is farther along the path of progression than we are. The effect of knowing this is that we should feel inspired to be more like our Heavenly Father. Even though we are not that far along the path ourselves, we should take confidence in the fact that we are able to be better than we are, that we are able to progress in a moral way (contra the attitude of many behavioral scientists, to relate this to the 3rd theme, discussed more below).

I view the following quote in a similar light:

The Lord works in accordance with natural law. Man must be redeemed according to law and his reward must be based on the law of justice.

This suggests to me that God is not magic, at least in any strong (i.e., supernatural) sense. And since he works according to natural law, we too must exercise a certain amount of patience with regard to the limitations we face with respect to natural laws, and our current understanding of them. (Again, there is an curious and interesting tension in the lesson between God’s omnipotence and omniscence vs. God’s being constrained by natural law. My own take on this tension is that God’s omnipotence is not absolute, and the lesson for us to learn is how to work within the confines of the limited natural world that we inhabit.)

The natural law that constrains both us and God serves to highlight the importance and possibility of exercising our agency in God-like ways:

But [God] has given unto man his agency and man is under the necessity of obeying the truth according to that which is revealed in order to obtain the exaltation of the righteous.

Relating to the limitations of the world in a humble, Christ-like way (i.e., “not my will but thine), is an important lesson for us to remember.

3. Scientific progress is not moral progress

The third theme that strikes me in this lesson is with regard to the limitation and inadequacy of scientific progress when compared to what I will call moral progress:

We must go to the scriptures—not to the scientists or philosophers—if we are to learn the truth about Deity.

“All of these discoveries and inventions have not drawn men nearer to God! Nor created in their hearts humility and the spirit of repentance, but to the contrary, to their condemnation. . . . Faith has not increased in the world, nor has righteousness, nor obedience to God.”

Recently, many philosophers and scientists have begun trying to use science to come to a better understanding of ethics. Regardless of how these efforts are viewed, traditionally there has been what is often called the is-ought gap, made famous by philosopher David Hume: basically, what “is” does not imply how things “ought” to be (and vice versa).

Thinking about this, I take the important point in the lesson (largely implicit…) to be that what is most important about the Gospel is not that it gives us beliefs about certain propositions that will eventually prove themselves true in a scientifically verifiable way. Rather, what is most important about the Gospel is that it helps us commit ourselves to moral truths. If we live faithfully in accordance to these truths — that is, to our covenants — then we will be able to progress in ways that are infinitely more meaningful and important than the scientific miracles we have witnessed in, say, the past century.

In a sense, this brings us full circle: the moral truth of personal love, as embodied and exemplified by our Heavenly Father, is of sublime importance. And in that vein, I think the following quote from the lesson comprises a fitting conclusion:

I was asked by a brother one time if a man could be perfectly happy in the celestial kingdom if one of his children was not permitted to enter there. I told him that I supposed that any man who was so unfortunate as to have one of his children barred from the celestial kingdom would, of course, have feelings of sorrow because of that condition. . . .

2 Responses to “RS/MP Chapter 1: Our Father in Heaven (Joseph Fielding Smith Manual)”

  1. jennywebb said

    Robert, I like how you addressed the lesson in terms of its overarching themes rather than working through the material as sequentially presented. Very useful.

    I especially thought your reading of Pres. Smith’s words on science and technology to be really interesting. I agree with the conclusions you come to regarding the importance of the Gospel as that which helps us learn to live faithfully to our covenants. I’d like to pull in a quote you used earlier here to push this concept a little farther: “[W]e must understand and know both how to worship and what we worship. (See D&C 93:19–20.)”

    It seems that there is something essential to understanding who and what God is that then provides us with the conceptual ability to worship him in a specifically appropriate manner. I’d call that specific manner faith/fidelity, which is the very thing that the Gospel helps us learn to implement as lived experience. Pres. Smith tends to explain this function of faith as resulting from the confidence we gain by understanding God as having overcome the experiences of mortal flesh (thereby giving us hope that we too may/will overcome them).

    I think what I’m trying to say here rather clumsily is that it seems that there is a specific dimension to faith—faith as confidence based on understanding; faith in a specific God; not faith as a question of God’s existence or love, but faith as a question of who God is, was, and will continue to be; faith as a relationship that stakes a claim in the specifics of “what” we worship. And part of the expression of that faith is, then, our own faithfulness to the covenants we make with that God.

  2. Robert C. said

    Thanks, Jenny. I find this tension, which is particularly acute in Mormonism, endlessly fascinating: God being incomprehensibly higher than we are, and yet embodied, personal, and similar to us and familiar (a la “as man is, God once was”). Also, I think this is analogous to our relation to other people in general (I’m thinking Levinas), and in a way that has significant implications for how we see others — esp. their goodness and weaknesses. But I think you are right that the most significant implication is precisely what you so aptly describe: “confidence[/hope to] . . . overcome the experiences of mortal flesh.”

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