Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Faith in the [embodied, homoiousian, semi-Peligian, substitionary, co-eternal, etc.] Lord Jesus Christ (?)

Posted by BrianJ on November 26, 2007

I have heard—and assume others have as well—an argument that goes something like this: prayer is built on faith, and faith relies on a correct understanding of the nature of God. A proponent might say, “You can’t believe in something that you don’t know about, and if your understanding is wrong then your prayers will be misdirected (because what you believe affects how you pray). Joseph Smith’s greatest contribution was correcting our understanding of God, truing our faith and unlocking the power of prayer.”**

To a certain extant, I have to agree. My prayers would be vastly different if I believed, for example, God to be vindictive as opposed to charitable. But I think the argument goes too far in limiting prayer and faith.

I taught the Epistle of James in Sunday School yesterday. In preparing, I was impressed by the similarity of James’ message to the one delivered by Alma to the poor Zoramites (Alma 32). From what I understand, both teachers were addressing oppressed audiences. But there was something interesting “hiding” in the Zoramite story that made James 1:5 come alive.

First, go to Alma 31. Alma and his companions discovered a disturbing form of worship among the Zoramites:

[They] found that the Zoramites had built synagogues…and they did worship after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld….

[Whosoever] desired to worship must go forth and stand upon the top [of a tower], and stretch forth his hands towards heaven, and cry with a loud voice, saying:

“Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever… [and] there shall be no Christ.” (Alma 31:12-16)

The Zoramites’ concept of God was fatally flawed on two accounts. While the poor Zoramites were not allowed to enter the synagogues, I have to assume that they still “knew the doctrine.”

Now look at how Alma approaches the poor Zoramites. He doesn’t really try to correct the doctrine, but focuses on faith instead:

“I behold that ye are lowly in heart; and if so, blessed are ye….  [Do] ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only? … [And] now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved. …[Blessed] is he that believeth in the word of God, and is baptized without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know, before they will believe….

And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true. And…God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word….
But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed….” (Alma 32:8-28, emphasis added)

Despite their seriously flawed understanding of God, the Alma was confident that they could still exercise faith and pray to God. By doing so, the Zoramites would “bring nothing to the table”—no knowledge, understanding, comprehension—save a desire to believe.

Finally, go to James:

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. (James 1:5)

Our understanding of God will always be wrong and fall short to some degree. (Given the dimensions of the subject, that is probably a very large degree.) Nevertheless, God gives liberally—the wisdom he gives always dwarfs what little we bring to our prayers. And he does so without upbraiding—he does not resent us for being ignorant. It’s another example of what I have started calling the absurdity of faith: I pray to someone I don’t even know, and he still answers.

8 Responses to “Faith in the [embodied, homoiousian, semi-Peligian, substitionary, co-eternal, etc.] Lord Jesus Christ (?)”

  1. Matthew said

    Great post. I hope I’m not taking this in a direction you didn’t intend but this post raises an issue I have wondered about for a while…

    We know that knowing God makes a difference. We’ve heard that from our leaders and the scriptures teach us this too. Knowing God means a lot more than knowing facts about him, but still part of what it means is knowing facts about him. We’ve heard over and over how important it is that God has a body. That’s a fact we know about God and it makes a difference to know that. But what difference does it make?

    Though I know God has a body I don’t actually have much of an understanding of what it means for God to have a body. My body means I can get old, get hurt, get tired, get sick and feel all of their opposites. It means I have limited abilities (e.g. I can’t see what is going on everywhere I only see the things in front of me, I only hear the things around me.)

    I’m not saying I can’t say anything about what it means for God to have a body–but on the whole his body is so different than the body I know that the proposition “God has a body” is perplexing. So we’re left with this odd thing–we know the proposition “God has a body” is true but don’t really know what the proposition means. I think much of the gospel is like this, eternal marriage, the 3 degrees of glory, the spirit prison, etc. Our conception of the truth amounts to dim shadows that might not bear much semblance to what we will know when we shall see face to face. Still we have to continue to seek knowledge and try to understand things as best we can.

    Maybe it is a little like genealogy–we’re probably getting a bunch of stuff wrong but we’re supposed to keep working at it anyway. Maybe in the grand scheme of things whether we get the facts right or not won’t matter much but the person who uses that as an excuse not to really try to get the facts right misses the whole boat.

    I’m not sure whether that’s right. I would love to hear what others think on this. And Brian, feel free to kick me off your post.

  2. cherylem said

    Excellent post and excellent comments by Matthew #1.

    I believe that we know so much less than we think we know, and as our knowledge increases, sometimes our thoughts and beliefs come in pictures and symbols and not words (or maybe this peculiar to me), so that as what we know about God enlarges the knowledge becomes unspeakable.

    I also think that Brian’s comments about Alma’s preaching to the Zoramites is very instructive, as he has pointed out. Alma starts with common ground, and builds. In other words, he starts with something they are familiar with and can identify with and can say yes to. And then suddenly he is teaching them one of the greatest messages of all time.

    Great post.

  3. Joe Spencer said

    Thank you, Brian. If I have time, I’ll have to think more carefully about this.

  4. larryco_ said

    “I believe we know so much less that we think we know”. Ain’t it the truth.

  5. Clark said

    Isn’t Alma’s pedagogy really the same as what Lectures on Faith teaches only with a strong emphasis on vagueness? That is it seems to me that his whole conception of faith is the active move from vague knowledge to a more determinate knowledge. I think that’s partially why I’ve long noticed the strong parallels between say William James and the Lectures.

    So the poor Zoramites have a very, very vague concept of God with little belief at all. Yet this moves and develops them. And this same development of knowledge entails both inquiry and a developing relationship with God himself.

  6. BrianJ said

    Matthew: I think the direction you went is fine. I agree with your statement, “Our conception of the truth amounts to dim shadows…,” and I think the example of God having a body is a good example.

    Cheryl: I’ve thought about what you wrote in relation to certain passages in the BoM when we are told, for example, that Jesus’ prayer was too wonderful to be written. I wonder: was it too wonderful (i.e. sacred) to be written and available for anyone to read, or was it too wonderful (i.e. complex) to be put into words?

    Joe: I look forward to it.

    Clark: Since I am only vaguely familiar with Lectures on Faith, I can’t answer. Do you mean that the Zoramites were moved by their belief or by their concept of God? (I assume the former.)

  7. Clark said

    Belief without the content of the belief isn’t particularly meaningful. One can talk about (to use William James phrase) the case value of a belief. This is what constitutes the belief. (It’s substance) One might give intellectual agreement to an idea but one doesn’t believe it except to the degree that it affects ones actions and potential actions.

    So I might say that I believe a light switch turns on a light but do I really believe if I’m not willing to flip the switch to turn on the light?

  8. brianj said

    Clark: that’s very clear. Thanks.

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