Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

An Open Letter to All Noble and Great Ones

Posted by Matthew on September 29, 2012

Before we get to the meat of this post I want to begin with a proposition which I consider for this post foundational. I lay this proposition here at the front to define my audience. In addition to the obvious fact that this is written for a Mormon audience, I want to define my audience for this post as those who see denying Blacks the priesthood as a mistake. I see it as a sort of Mountain Meadows Massacre, different in many obvious ways, but similar in the sort of embarrassment I have for it related to the religion I know is true. If you aren’t embarrassed by that and especially if you think such embarrassment is wrong, then you aren’t part of the intended audience. Feel free to comment, but at least you are forewarned that we may end up talking past each other on this point.

Now to the heart of the post. What should we make of Abraham 3:22-23?

Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.

A pretty straightforward interpretation of this verse is that ahead of time God picked out the people who would be his rulers and his selection was based on whoever was best. In the larger context of the chapter this is important in two ways. 1) This becomes an opportunity for God to point out to Abraham that he was one of the people God picked before he was born. 2) This is a step along the way toward a sort of Anselmian argument for Jesus Christ that is being made here, namely, if some people are (were at the beginning) more like God than others, someone must be (and must have been at the beginning) the most like God of anyone–that person is Jesus Christ.

The most difficult part of these verses is the fact that God identifies that he is going to use these noble and great ones to be his “rulers” of which Abraham is one. The reason this is difficult is that we actually know now who God’s rulers are. To me it seems like a stretch to think that, for example, President Monson, isn’t in that group. So it creates a link between what we see today in terms of people in positions and gradations of goodness in a premortal realm. It doesn’t explicitly say of course that God took the best one’s and designated them prophets and then worked his way out to apostles, general authorities and other officers of the church, stake presidencies, bishoprics, relief society presidencies, elders quorum presidencies, primary presidencies, etc. But does it really matter whether he did that or he just picked some subset to forordain? Conceptually the message is the same regardless of how precisely he applied the rule.

Note: to be fair to the scripture nothing in it indicates that innate goodness will ensure success. In fact we know there are counter examples. Still if we tried to apply today’s statistical language back onto this verse it seems odd to not interpret this verse as suggesting there is a correlation.

More worrisome though, we find here the basis for the type thinking for why Blacks shouldn’t have had the priesthood, namely, they weren’t chosen to have it because … they weren’t as good. Yuck!

Let’s consider instead the famous verse of equality: 2 Ne 26:33.

[The Lord] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.

Certainly these separate passages aren’t incompatible. One can believe both (1) that some people are better from the beginning and are chosen to be God’s rulers and (2) that in terms of God’s invitation for salvation, all are equal. But why bother?

Or put that question in a different way (and in two parts)

1) Do we reject this part of the Zoramite prayer?

Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and … we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children;

I reject this language and attitude.

2) Isn’t the concept in the Zoramite prayer less poisonous than the concept in Abraham 3:23?

I think it is less poisonous because the Zoramites at least gave God the credit for selecting them. Instead, in Abraham 3:23, we are left with the concept that God selects…whoever is already the best.

I am not shy of a spirited (but respectful) debate on this point. In this case, if you’d like, please take the side that there is something valuable going on here in Abraham 3:23 that I am missing. I’ll then respond to your comments arguing, as best I can, that you’re wrong.

It would be really cool though if you convince me that I’m wrong and you could redeem this scripture for me. If not we can place this scripture aside, ignoring it, until we can make sense of it in some positive way. And either way, let us commit never to use this scripture as a foundation for linking blessings, privilege or office in this life with goodness in the past.

PS let me begin with my own defense of this scripture. Let’s see what you think. This is God’s test, to us all, and especially to those who see themselves as leading in His work. On the one hand he gives us this one single scripture and on the other he gives us many, many scriptures like the parable of the publican and the pharisee (Luke 18:10-14). We answer this test by choosing which scripture to look to in order to define ourselves.

PPS I can see how this post could easily be misconstrued as an argument that the leaders in the Church are prideful. That is not my intention at all. And in fact, in my own experience, I have found quite the opposite to be true.

45 Responses to “An Open Letter to All Noble and Great Ones”

  1. kirkcaudle said

    First off Matthew, I am in the group that you describe in your first paragraph. Secondly, I find the Abraham passage among the most fancinating verses in the scriptures. In my Master’s thesis, “Joseph Smith and the eternal possibilities of the immortal soul in western theological and philosophical thought,” I took up this topic a bit. Let me quote a few paragraphs directly:

    For [Joseph] Smith, everything is eternal, including, and perhaps especially, the human spirit. Alternatively, Plato and Plotinus only believed in the pre-existence of an eternal thinking self. Included in this human spirit, for Smith, is the agency to choose between good and evil. As a consequence of the agency possessed by spirits in the pre-existence, and as recorded in the Book of Revelation, a rebellion ensued, a “war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon . . . and his angels,” but the dragon, seen as Satan, “prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven” for these wicked spirit children of God. After expelling these evil spirits, in a scene reminiscent of Greek temple dramas, God sent the remaining two-thirds of his spirit children on an earthly sojourn, providing them with mortal bodies. Earth for these two-thirds became, as The Book of Mormon prophet Amulek taught, “the time for men to prepare to meet God . . . the day for men to perform their labors.” As stated previously, mortal existence came as a gift for these two-thirds, preparing them for something greater. God endowed humans with divine attributes giving them theomorphic, or a Godlike, nature.

    Mormons teach that when physically-embodied immortal spirits, which make up the soul, enter into mortality, they remember nothing of their pre-earth lives because of a “veil of forgetfulness.” Although not an orthodox Mormon belief, this thesis sees Smith agreeing with Plato, who said to his teacher, “Your favourite doctrine, Socrates, that knowledge is simply recollection, if true, also necessarily implies a previous time in which we have learned that which we now recollect. But this would be impossible unless our soul had been in some place before existing in the form of man; here then is another proof of the soul’s immorality.” In Smith’s veil of forgetfulness, as in Plato’s Phaedo, spirits must recall what they already know and recollect the choices that they made before entering into mortality. In this way, individual spirits that previously proved their allegiance to God in the pre-existence will endeavor to uncover the embedded knowledge of one’s divine nature and potential while on earth.

    In the Latter-day Saint Book of Abraham, which appears in the Pearl of Great Price, the prophet Abraham beheld a vision of the pre-existence. This vision came in part because Abraham described himself in the book as an individual who “desir[ed] also to be one who possessed great knowledge.” In this vision, God showed Abraham “the intelligences that were organized before the world was,” but some of the intelligences in the crowd stood out as “noble and great ones.” Of the noble and great ones God said, “these will I make my rulers,” at which point God turned to Abraham and said, “thou wast chosen before thou wast born.” Abraham proved his allegiance to God before his birth into mortality. In Abraham’s story, the pre-existence and doctrine of human deification gain an inseparable link. This thesis shares the novel idea that Abraham needed to come to earth as an immortal spirit, gain the experience of a physical body, and relearn what he could no longer recollect. What Abraham could not recollect was that he received his status of salvation before he began his mortal existence. Abraham made a choice before this life to cleave to God that he could not remember once he arrived on earth. Life became less about salvation and more about recollection and learning.

    http://digital.collection.marylhurst.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15184coll1/id/6066/rec/13(See the section “Knowledge and Pre-Existent Knowledge”starting on page 89 of the PDF or page 80 of the doc)

    In a nutshell, we are not on earth to recieve salvation. We are on earth to discover who we already are (and forever have already been). If time does not exist then salvation is always either with us or not with us. Does that ok racism? No. Why? Because I have no way of knowing who is, and who is not, a great and nobel one. God invites us each to find out for ourselves, we are not called to find out for others. I don’t think skin color is a good indication at all of our eternal status. If it were, 2 Ne. 26:33 would not make any sense.

  2. Seth R. said

    I want to make one observation just based on your beginning and Abraham 2:22-23.

    Does “noble and great” automatically mean “righteous and good?”

    Among all the sons of God, few shone brighter and more intensely than Lucifer, Son of the Morning. And we all know how that turned out. Greatness, it seems to me is a bit of a double-edged sword. Opportunities for righteousness abound, but so does the capacity for great mischief and evil. It should also be pointed out that greatness is not the main thing that God loves either. What he loves is gratitude, charity, and a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

    On the topic of nobility, I find JRR Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” instructive – because it’s full of characters who are portrayed as being “noble and great ones.” Gandalf the Grey, Aragorn the exiled king, Galadriel queen among elves for thousands of years – “beautiful and terrible”…. and each of these characters is presented with the opportunity to obtain matchless power to smite evil and reshape the world as they wish – in the form of the One Ring of power forged by the dark lord. And each, in turn, refuses it – realizing that the evil such power could work on someone so noble and great as they would be so much higher than the already considerable evil it had worked through much lesser creatures (like the twisted wretch – Gollum).

    Instead, if falls to the silliest and most humble creatures imaginable – a group of hobbits – to be the heroes in the story. To withstand the lure of power where the “great” cannot. Even among the hobbits, Frodo Baggins is what you might count one of the “noble and great ones” and is recognized as such at the end of the story. Yet when the time of decision comes to destroy the ring of power, he himself fails and it falls to Sam Gamgee – his simple, rustic, and humble gardener to withstand the lure of power completely and ensure the completion of the task. The whole message of the Lord of the Rings is that where the “great” fail, goodness and virtue must be preserved by the meek things of the earth.

    It’s kind of the same view made by Jesus Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount.

    Greatness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And I’ll note the passage in Abraham never says otherwise.

  3. SilverRain said

    First, I think you make a big mistake when you correlate being chosen with rank in the church. As already pointed out, Lucifer was also among those noble and great. I also think many of the noble and great will pass this life without having made a public mark on the world, but just quietly going about and doing good.

    To whom much is given, much is required. This is the element of misunderstanding in the Rameumptom prayer.

  4. joespencer said

    Others are already making the point I’d make: What does “great” mean here? What does “noble” mean here? What does “good” mean here? What does “rulers” mean here? What does “chosen” mean here? I think it’s far from obvious that these should all be interpreted in a way that means “the morally best were selected in advance by God to hold specifiable positions in an earthly institutional hierarchy.”

  5. Kim Berkey said

    Furthermore, isn’t the phrase God “saw that they were good” (repeated twice) intended to echo Genesis 1? Aren’t we witnessing the creation account beginning with the organization of intelligences? After all, v. 24 is an account of the creation of the earth. Isn’t this just a creation drama that begins a little bit earlier than we’re used to?

    • Kim Berkey said

      i.e. What are the implications of this pericope’s context?

    • Matthew said

      Yes I think we are witnessing the creation account beginning earlier. and I think that “saw that they were good” is a clear reference to that. But I don’t see how that implies implies a different interpretation of good in this context.

    • Kim Berkey said

      At the very least, it lets us question the notion that “good” means “morally good.” Was that what God meant in Genesis 1 when he praised creation? Whatever was meant by *that* use of “good” ought to be considered here, right?

      • Seth R. said

        Kim, let me ask a rhetorical question here –

        Have you ever met a 3 month old infant that you would not categorize as “good?’

        Potential is always something we can feel good about. It’s only when they become adults that they sometimes disappoint.

        I think we need to seriously consider, as Mormons, the possibility that Lucifer was indeed, at one time, “good.”

      • Matthew said

        If we read this scripture as saying that God picked to be his rulers those that had the most capability for ruling and that “good” means good in ruling abilities, then I do think that these verse are less troublesome. Also, I think that is consistent with Seth’s interpretation which, if I understand it, goes like this: God is saying to Abraham, “look Abraham, I selected some people to be rulers because they have a lot of talent to be rulers. You are one of the people I selected to be a ruler. “

  6. The OP asked the question, “What should we make of Abraham 3:22-23?”

    On December 9th, 2010 I wrote a detailed comment about this very question. It is a radical departure from how most read this scripture. You can read it here. I do not know if anyone will be able to understand what I’m saying in that comment without reading the post it was made in response to, but you might give it a whirl. If the comment still doesn’t make any sense, you’ll have to read the post and then read the comment.

  7. John C. said

    Matthew, I tend to think the “noble and great” equals everybody. But I also think the kingdom of God is more a democracy than an aristocracy.

  8. Matthew said

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments.

    Let’s call the following the Noble-Church-Leader view for short:
    These verses tell us that God preordained the leaders in His church based on the fact that they were morally better in the premortal life.

    In reference to that I think we can bucket everyone into one of the 3 groups:
    1) Accepts that the Noble-Church-Leader reading fits the text but believes that view is dangerous so ignores these verses.
    2) Rejects the Noble-Church-Leader reading because this scripture doesn’t tell us that God made his selection based on who is morally better.
    3) Rejects the Noble-Church-Leader reading because this scripture never tells us that rulers = church leaders. Maybe rulers means everyone, or maybe it is a subset of the people but we can never tell who they are.

    The good thing I like about this is whichever path we take, we all get to the point that we reject the thinking behind what I called the noble-church-leader reading. I would still like to discuss why I think (1) is a better way to reject this thinking than (2) and (3). But I’ll need some time to prepare for that. And more important, I don’t want to argue about some of the details and miss the big picture which is that on this most important point, we all agree.

    • joespencer said

      Matthew – What about (1b): Accepts that the Noble-Church-Leader reading is a possible (but only one possible) interpretation of the text but believes that that view is (potentially) dangerous and so experiments with other possible readings (rather than simply ignoring the verses)?

      • Matthew said

        In principle I agree 1b is a better attitude than 1. So maybe I should classify myself in 1b. I’m not sure since I don’t see any other readings I find compelling.

  9. Seth R. said

    No, I’d disagree that heaven is the kind of place “where everyone is special – so no one is.”

    If “noble and great ones” means “everyone” – then there was absolutely no point in writing that verse, or making that declaration. And unlike high school board members talking about student self-esteem, I don’t think God speaks just to hear himself talk.

    Noble and great ones were not “everyone.”

    In fact the entire point of the Atonement is that not everyone is great – but through Christ – we can become one with God and receive the highest measure of greatness there is.

  10. John C. said

    I’ve been thinking about this since I wrote my comment and I think it might be useful to consider that he may have been dividing people from animals or some such. Noble and great may mean capable of becoming god-like, as opposed to other creatures that, as far as we can tell, are only acted upon, unable to act for themselves. Of course, there is nothing to stop gradations of ability and capability within the noble and great. For that matter, I’m happy to say that the difference remains between noble/great and whatever else there is, so long as that difference is meaningless. But, again, I don’t like thinking of the kingdom of God as an aristocracy.

  11. Seth R. said

    It’s not a democracy either. It’s a kingdom.

    Simply stating that some spirits were more noble and great than others does not automatically make the system an aristocracy either.

    The scriptures are clear enough that plenty of great people out there have failed to live up to their stewardship and won’t be a part of the system at all.

  12. Matthew said

    I’ve tried several times to write a response that explains why I think “good” here means “morally good.” And why “ruler” means something like people with responsibility in God’s kingdom here on earth, like Abraham.

    But how strange it is for me to try to convince you that the scripture means something neither of us want it to mean. So if you’ve come to a different reading which allows you to avoid the problem in a different way, great.

    • John C. said

      I agree with you that that is a legitimate reading (possibly the correct reading). But the implications are so dire (I think), that I’ve shifted into one of the non-1 options (1b, 2, and 3 are all acceptable, depending on my mood). I once had a conversation with someone and explained my approach to this sort of issue. He said, basically, “Oh, you are one of those people.” He meant that I was someone who wanted the Gospel to meet my moral standards, rather than just accepting that the Gospel sometimes did things differently (not necessarily better) than I’d like. Maybe the whole earth experience really is about winnowing the chaff away to get to the true grain. There is certainly plenty of scriptural support for that. It seems kind of ugly to me, but my ways ain’t God’s ways and so forth. I don’t have an answer, because this is something I struggle with all the time.

      • Matthew said

        John, I think you and I in the same boat. The boat isn’t perfect but it holds up well even in a bad storm. Thanks for your comments.

  13. […] comments Matthew on An Open Letter to All Noble and Great OnesMatthew on An Open Letter to All Noble and Great OnesMatthew on An Open Letter to All Noble and […]

  14. Michael C. said

    I think it is inescapable (based on verse 19) that gradations of intelligences exist. However, using verse 23 to justify ones supposed superiority over another is unconscionable. I don’t think verse 23 gives anyone other than Abraham himself any actionable knowledge. There is no indication that _all_ of the rulers or leaders (ecclesiastical or political) in this life were necessarily among the noble and great, just that some would be and Abraham was one of them.

    Given that Christ taught that “he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12) I think it is reasonable to read “will make my rulers” in Abraham 3:23 to include the possibility that the mortal experiences of the noble and great ones would give them the experiences necessary for their eventual exaltation as rulers in the eternities.

    By this reasoning (and considering that Christ condescended below all things) many of those who seem to be born into the least favorable situations of poverty, subjugation, etc. might be among the noblest who chose in their pre-mortal life to be born in such circumstances. On this reading of verse 23 the logic of those who used it to justify the priesthood ban gets turned on its head to their condemnation.

    If you live your life assuming you were one of the noble and great ones (and in reality it turns out you weren’t) odds are you are guilty of pride and need[ed] to repent.

    If you live your life assuming you weren’t (and in fact you were) then odds are you have lived a life of humility and meekness and will be rewarded accordingly in the next life.

    If, by chance, you get your pre-mortal status correct, it seems like a wash to me.

    In my opinion the only winning strategy from a game theory perspective (in the absence of specific divine revelation such as Abraham received personally) is to assume you were not one of the noble & great ones and live your life treating others as though they were.

  15. Robert C. said

    Matthew, I think the tension you raise is actually one that lies at the heart of democracy, and that political theorists have wrestled with for centuries, and are still wrestling with.

    In a sense, I see the tension in terms of what essentially divides conservatives and liberals in today’s political climate — and so, in a sense, I think this issue can be understood as lying at the heart of the ugly kinds of partisanship that so frequently divides this company (or, well, at least every 4 years…).

    And I think it is a grave danger to simply say liberals are right and conservatives are wrong, or vice versa. The underlying issue is a difficult one, and it’s very hard to navigate, and being Christian entails that we never feel dogmatic about our own beliefs, but that we always strive to charitably understand others’ perspectives better.

    So, the way I’m thinking of the underlying issue is in terms of what we economists like to term moral hazard: if you don’t let the more capable (i.e., higher intelligences) get more say as it pertains to societal goods and issues (i.e., rule), then there are apt to be gross problems, inefficiencies and even injustices, as the slothful (to use a more scriptural term) take advantage of the system, fail to contribute and improve, etc., etc.

    I’m not sure I’m succeeding very well here, but I’m trying to paint a kind of conservative counterbalance to the “liberal” inflection of your post. I am not trying to refute the point you raise in your post, because I agree with that point. But I also see this other side that I think underlies your post — that is, ultimately, I think there’s a kind of utopian democratic ideal you are invoking that isn’t really very practical or implementable, in the real world. That is, every economic and political system seems to have a mechanism that, in one way or another, rewards competence, goodness, and hard work (to gesture a relation between this issue and faith-works issues…). And in a sense, it seems this is what your underlying objection to the Abraham passage is. And so it seems to me that the passages you cite are also suggesting that there’s no sky-hook way of avoiding these tensions, even in theocratic governance: rewarding competence/intelligence is an unavoidable part of good governance (or something to that effect).

    Thus, to wrestle with passages like this, rather than just dismiss them (in the sense Joe was getting at in the comments of your follow-up post to this one), seems to me to be a very healthy way of grappling with the more real-world tensions that I think we have a responsibility to grapple with. And in this particular case, the issue is one that I think crops up particularly frequently in our current highly partisan political landscape (though, I could’ve pointed to how I think this underlying tension also crops up frequently in family dynamics, like when certain family members don’t pull their share of the weight, or when tough love is called for rather than over permissiveness, etc., etc.).

    I hope something of this makes sense to you — these are tough issues to articulate, at least for me….

    • Matthew said

      I’m not sure I understand how moral hazard works when we are in part B of a single round game (i.e. none of us are going back to the premortal life) and none of us can remember part A. Can there be moral hazard in such a game?

      Or in other words, what are we supposed to take away from this verse? Certainly the point to us can’t be “make sure you work hard to be intelligent in the premortal life so you can be one of God’s rulers in the next.”

      Still your comments are super interesting to me. I just wonder if we should be talking about Job or some other example like that in the scriptures.

  16. Robert C. said

    (This is in reply to your #15 reply — it’s too long to put in a nested comment.)

    Matthew, great questions. I don’t have great answers, but I do think I have some not-bad answers — but I don’t think I can articulate them very easily. So, here’s a rather rough-sketch response that will first go somewhat far afield, and then hopefully come back in a way that helps clarify how I see the relevance to your questions.

    First, let me link your question to the question of election more generally, mainly since I’ve read of commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans where he addresses a somewhat similar “problem” (Romans 9-11, I think). In a sense, I think the heart of your post and most recent question is a question of whether election or chosenness is based on grace or merit, and if merit, is it based on merit in this life or the previous one. This seems the more fundamental question that must be worked out, prior to tackling questions pertaining to issues such as: whether merit is based on a pre-mortal life or not; who has access to merit-relevant information; how we should judge others in this life; etc.; etc.

    Next, I’ve previously posted some thoughts on how I see the relationship between grace and works as it is worked out for Abraham in Genesis, regarding the unconditional and conditional nature of what is promised to Abraham. You can find these thoughts in a series of three posts I wrote a couple of years ago. In short, my view is that the Abrahamic covenant is rooted in a kind of dialectic of unconditional and conditional relations. What is critically important, however, is that all of the conditional aspects of the covenant are rooted in a larger unconditional framework.

    That’s the issue I was trying to work out and articulate in that series of posts. I actually started the series off with a controversial quote from Elder Nelson about the doctrine of conditional love that he sees in the scripture. Of course “conditional love” is easily criticized as a contradiction in terms, and I tried to effectively redeem Elder Nelson’s comments in my series of 3 posts.

    Based on those posts, I’ll now refer to love in both unconditional and conditional terms — but I mean by “conditional love” basically just to gesture toward the sense in which two people who are in a mutually respectful relationship enjoy more love than in a relationship where one or more of the partners is disrespectful.

    So, if we take this understanding of unconditional and conditional love taught to Abraham in Genesis, and consider this as an important background for reading the Book of Abraham, and then reconsider your questions, I think we can come up with some not-bad answers.

    But, before trying to elaborate more, I think some questions pertaining to time also need to be worked out, and how time gets mixed up in all of this. I’m running out of time (no pun intended…), so I’ll try to make this point briefly in the form of a question: if my son shows signs of being much, much smarter than me, in terms of some sense of raw brain power and potential to learn, but I am currently “smarter,” then who is ultimately greater in terms of “intelligence”?

    I think there’s a similar tension underlying the questions you raise regarding the ugly doctrines that have been promulgated regarding blacks. Put differently, and returning to my reference to Paul’s wrestling with election Romans, just because the Israelites were chosen before the Gentiles, does this imply that the Israelites are in some sense “better” than the Gentiles? Were the noble and great ones before this life greater than those who were not yet noble and great? I think not.

    You ask, “what are we supposed to take way from this verse?” I agree with you in your criticism of an interpretation that would suggest we can or should make judgments about who is noble and great based on who is currently a ruler. A better way to read the verse is, I think, to try to figure out the lesson that Abraham is being taught so that Abraham can, for example, be a better father. Just like Heavenly Father showed “more love” to those who were at a further stage of progression in the premortal life, so too should we show more love to our children as they progress.

    Moreover, in our wards and stakes, our leaders/rulers should, as a rule (tripping over puns today…), chose other leaders among the members of the stake that are living more righteously compared to those that are struggling. But of course “more love” here is a very dangerous phrase, and it is easily misinterpreted to mean something that ignores the kind of unconditional love that God shows everyone. And, more importantly, “more love” is easily interpreted to mean that those who are chosen are in some ultimate sense “better” than those who are not chosen to be church leaders.

    But this interpretation would be like my gloating over the fact that I am currently “smarter” than my 7-year old son, even though if it is clear to everyone else that I’m only smarter because I’m older and that he will, in all likelihood, use his greater mental horse power to surpass me in smartness by several orders of magnitude.

    Hopefully you can interpolate how I think these ideas address the follow-up questions you’ve asked but I haven’t directly responded to, and how I think they get deeper at the original questions of your post….

  17. Nate O. said

    Can I interpret this scripture something like this? The scripture claims:

    P1: In the pre-mortal life some A’s were chosen to be B’s. Abraham was an A.

    A is “noble and great” and B is “ruler.”

    Now as I understand it Matthew is concerned by what we might call the Poisoned Inference that is used to justify the priesthood ban, namely:

    P2: Person X is not B, therefore he was not A.

    This inference is logically valid only if we construe P1 as stating:

    P1*: If a person was A in the pre-existence, then they were chosen to be B.

    I am not sure, however, that P1* is required by the text. It seems that we can also refine P1 as saying:

    P1**: In the pre-mortal existence there was a set of people who were A and this set overlaps with a second set of people who are B’s. Abraham is in both sets.

    If we accept P1** over P1*, then the Poisoned Inference is simply mistaken. It is a logical error that does not follow from the claim in the scripture. It may be, however, that there are two other things that make Matthew uncomfortable, call it the Lesser Poisoned Inference. This is:

    P3: If someone is a B, then they were an A.

    We might not like this, because it implies a kind of undue regard for the pre-mortal righteousness of leaders, perhaps reinforcing certain kinds or approaches to hierarchy that we dislike. Notice, however, that this is a logically flawed inference, even if we accept P1*. It’s simply affirming the consequent.

    A final reason that one might be uncomfortable with this scripture is that it implies a kind of gradation in premortal righteousness and a possible correlation between that righteousness and current circumstances, at least in some cases. This, it seems to me, is an inescapable implication of the scripture. Why, however, would it make one uncomfortable. One reason might be the fear that to even raise the possibility tempts people to one of the two Poisoned Inferences. This may be true, but both inferences are logically fallacious. It ultimately seems strange to reject a true claim from the fear that someone will draw a logically invalid inference from it.

    The second reason one might be uncomfortable with claims about pre-mortal righteousness is that they run up against very strong liberal assumptions about equality. We are all supposed to be born into this world equal, and any distinctions that arise are either a the result of a merit that is acquired in some way other than birth or else do not rest upon ideas of desert and can only be justified on some other basis. Rawlsian liberalism and the thinking that has flowed from it rejects the first option in favor of the second. Rawls has been hugely influential intellectually and I think that he articulates a set of widely held moral intuitions, even if he isn’t the source of those moral intuitions. Meritocracy tends to affirm the first approach and rejects the second. It has relatively few philosophic defenders these days (perhaps John Tomasi?) but I think it corresponds to a very widely held sent of moral intuitions, intuitions that if anything are more widely held than the Rawlsian ones.

    If I am right, however, the text in Abraham undermines both approaches. It suggests a certain inequality in righteousness, a kind of moral aristocracy that runs against the egalitarian, anti-desert notions of Rawlsian liberalism. On the other hand, in the absence of divine revelation the pre-mortal aristocracy is not visible, which means that it cannot form the basis for a non-revelatory meritocracy on earth. In short, it throws the whole idea of desert back upon God and his revelations.

    • Matthew said

      I needed more time to think through these last paragraphs. I _am_ concerned with a moral aristocracy. But if you tell me that this is a moral aristocracy where we are completely dependent on God’s revelation to see and you assume that he hasn’t made such a revelation (e.g. you don’t interpret God’s choice of who will lead his church as the manifestation of that revelation), then it seems you answer my concerns.

      Still, I’m still suspicious. Unless I am fooling myself, my suspicion is not based on the idea that things ought to conform to a Rawlsian view, but rather because I think religious beliefs are held in order to have an impact on how we act toward each other. So I remain suspicious of any moral belief that has has ugly characteristics but defends itself by saying “I am harmless because I am not applicable to your relationships with other people.” It is like someone carrying a loaded gun that says “don’t worry I wouldn’t use this under any circumstances.”

      • Nate O. said

        Why do you assume that the idea of aristocracy is so naturally pathological? I can think of at least two ways in which the idea of a moral aristocracy could operate positively. First, one might take one’s premortal status as “one of the noble and great ones” as a kind of constantly present reproach for one’s current failing. Given what I have done in the past, I am capable of better than this and ought to be less proud, less selfish, more charitable, more generous, and the like. Also, it might give me greater confidence in my own abilities. I was one of the noble and great ones in the past; I can do this thing that God has asked me to do. In a sense, it seems to me that this is what God is doing with Abraham in this passage.

        Second, the idea of the noble and great one’s might cause us to treat others with greater humility and respect. The idea that this person before me who does not seem to be especially impressive by worldly standards might nevertheless have been one of the noble and great ones in the the premortal realm, a member of the aristocracy of heaven could lead me to treat them with greater respect, charity, and so on.

        As I understand it, you are applying to such stories a very strong kind of hermeneutic of suspicion. While the origins of this may not be Rawlsian, I have a hard time seeing how they are not liberal in some sense. Liberalism, after all, is the moral and political common sense of our world, and it is based in large part on hostility toward ideas of aristocracy, etc. One of the reasons that I don’t want to simply “law aside” verses like Abraham is that one of the great virtues of the the scriptures is the way in which they disrupt the common sense of liberalism. For what it is worth, I suspect that one of the things that we have to get use to is a kind of non-pathological inequality. At the very least, our relationship to God and Christ is inherently unequal, and I suspect that in very important ways our spiritual relationships with other people are unequal. We need to find ways of coping with such relationships that don’t degenerate into envy, resentment, arrogance, or a kind of crypto-liberal suspicion that overwhelms the possibility of finding grace within the relationships.

      • Matthew said

        You may be right that my suspicion of aristocracy is based on a hostility toward aristocracy that is manifest in liberalism. I’m probably not the right person to argue for or against that.

        Your point that we need to get used to a non-pathological inequality seems right on. And I share in your desire to get there (or if I didn’t already, you’ve just converted me).

        On your two examples for how a moral aristocracy could be positive, the second one seems the weaker. Is this really likely to have an impact on my behavior if I don’t treat them with respect already because that person was created in God’s image, or because they are capable of inheriting the Celestial Kingdom or (countless other examples that don’t depend on a moral aristocracy), especially when I don’t have any reason to think this person is part of the moral aristocracy–it is just a possibility as much with them as with anyone else?

        Your first example is great but it seems to me that it only works in a beneficial way related to these verses if you believe these verses provide an indication (at least for some set of people) that they are noble and great. So this is a sword that cuts both ways. If we interpret this verse to suggest a very weak relationship between noble and great and leaders in the church then we may avoid the problems I am concerned with here but then we also, I think at least, remove the possibility for it to say something positive of the form your first example provides.

    • Matthew said

      This is a minor point but I had been trying to get it out and finally figured out how to say it so here goes. (And maybe you don’t even care but now that I’ve finally figured it out I want to write it up so if nothing else I know where to come back to it.) I don’t think deductive reasoning is really the right construct for interpreting scripture. Take the idea that God will prosper in the land those who keep the commandments. It is straight forward to interpret this as A = keep the commandments, B = will prosper in the land, the verse says if A then B. But in fact I don’t really see anyone going around denying the consequent on this one. Sure it is perfectly valid to deny the consequent. But since it is wrong to argue that people who aren’t doing well obviously haven’t kept the commandment we have to believe that the statement isn’t meant as a logical truth even when it is stated in that form.

      Of course this is all one step away from your point, namely, that it is invalid to affirm the consequent related to these verses. But given that we aren’t prone to using scripture as laying out logical truths from which argue deductively, it seems suspect to assume that the mistake that is being made here is that people are reasoning deductively but are screwing it up. It is more likely that people are interpreting this as saying something about the general relationship between being noble and great and being a ruler. And it actually may not matter to the unrighteous pride (assuming from the point of this post) they take in this fact whether they were actually part of the noble and great ones themselves or not. The point is that the relationship between their class and the “noble and great ones” establishes further that they are in a unique and special class. We see the same thing all around us. A Harvard graduate may take great pride in the high wages Harvard graduates make even if he/she doesn’t make a high wage. Similarly, they may take great pride in the high SAT scores of their class as a whole even if he/she didn’t score so well.

  18. Nate O. said

    For what it is worth, I share Matthew’s rejection of the priesthood ban and what I have called The Poisoned Theodicy that has been used to justify it.

    • Matthew said

      It is interesting you used the word poison in your heading. It reminds me of President Uchtdorf’s counsel from President Faust (see here ). The kind words members said to President Uchtdorf could be poisonous to him if he “inhaled.” My concern here is about poison as well.

      But a word on the logic. If A = noble and great and B = ruler then lets let Z=designated to be a ruler. What I actually think this verse says is more like if Z then A. Of course that’s only for this particular event. There could have been other events where nonAs were designated to be Zs and it could be that there are Bs that never were Zs. So if the poison depends on this saying “if B then A”, then all the antidote that is required is to say “this verse doesn’t affirm if B then A.” I don’t believe the antidote is that easy. Further I think if we interpret this in a way that doesn’t affirm any correlation between As and Bs then to me that seems a strange interpretation.

      So is the person, especially a leader in the Church, who sees these verses as affirming a correlation between A and B, able to inhale without worry, in the same way say the person could fully inhale the parable of the publican and the pharisee I refer to above? I’m not sure. I think the antidote won’t be revealed, if it ever is revealed, by interpreting this verse by what it doesn’t say. Instead I think the true antidote would need to affirm something positive. Until then I think maybe we are best not to inhale this one.

      • Nate O. said

        I am not sure what you mean by “interpreting the verse by what it doesn’t say.” I think it says something — namely that there is an overlap between “rulers” and premortal “noble and great one’s.” I don’t think that it says “If one was noble and great, then one is a ruler.” It then falls to us to think about what we are to learn from what it DOES say, but I don’t see that we should be kept from that task by fear of a fallacious inference.

      • Matthew said

        Maybe I am getting a bit off track here. I certainly don’t mean to prevent people from coming up with positive things that these verses mean. On the contrary, I am asking for a good interpretation of these verses which, I hoped, would displace the bad interpretation (at least for me if no one else).

        FWIW, we both agree these verses don’t say “if one was noble and great, then one is a ruler.” I also believe (and I think you agree?) that these verses imply a stronger connection between rulers and noble and great ones than just that there is an overlap between them. The claim that there is an overlap is so weak a claim that it is made true even if the only example of one person being in both categories were Abraham. So these verses are making some claim about the relationship between rulers and noble and great one which is between these two extremes.

      • Nate O. said

        I assume that there is some overlap, but the idea of change and progression, it seems to me, forecloses the belief that anyone who is a “ruler” today is necessarily one of the “noble and great ones” of the pre-mortal realm, even if one believers that there is a necessary connection between personal merit and one’s status as a ruler (which I don’t). I just don’t think that the fear of a fallacious inference is a good reason for castigating something.

      • Matthew said

        I do agree that we ought not to reject a verse for fear that someone may, based on fallacious reasoning, come to a bad conclusion.

        I think though I have been a little slow in realizing your point because i didn’t think I was doing that. And I keep looking back to my original post to see evidence that I was. But maybe the issue isn’t so much with my original post but with my comment #8. There I say I accept that the noble-church-leader view fits these verses and I defined the noble-church-leader view as “God preordained the leaders in His church based on the fact that they were morally better in the premortal life.”

        So I think you are right to point out that as stated the noble-church-leader view implies a necessary connection between being a leader and being morally better in the pre-mortal life. In that case, I am guilty as charged. #8 definitely overstates the point and I should have stuck with the more careful language in the original post.

  19. joespencer said

    Nice, Nate.

  20. Robert C. said

    Yes, Nate, quite nice.

    I confess, however, I don’t like the way you express your conclusion, that the meritocracy inflection in Abraham “cannot form the basis for a non-revelatory meritocracy on earth . . . [since] it throws the whole idea of desert back upon God and his revelations.”

    I agree that meritocracy needs to be mediated by God and his revelations. But your way of expressing this reminds me of the frequent escape hatch in doctrinal discussions: “it depends on the Spirit.”

    So, I think it’s incumbent upon us to try and work out what kind of mediation God (typically) enacts. Perhaps this can’t be done in systematic propositions, but I do think we need to try to figure out what might be termed the practical implications of the passage. This, at any rate, is the direction I was trying to think through in my musings about parenting and church governance above….

    • Nate O. said

      “I think it’s incumbent upon us to try and work out what kind of mediation God (typically) enacts.”

      Agreed. I don’t, however, think that I yet have much of interest to say on that. I am content to sit back and listen to others speak.

  21. Matthew said

    Robert (16 & 20), I finally had a minute to think through all that you have there and reading through the posts you refer to. Thanks for your careful write ups. I think you are right that the concern here is actually more fundamental. A leader could have the same problem without ever appealing to Abraham. He (or less likely she) could say “God tends to select people who are better to lead his church. The fact that I am a leader whilst all around me there are so many others not selected is an indication that I am better than them.”

    So I interpret your response as saying to me

    Matthew, if Abraham is poisonous, then all around you is poison. It will do no good to ignore this one verse, you need to come to terms with what is everywhere in the scriptures and in the living organization of the Church. Here’s how you come to terms with it…(following Alma 12-13) at first everyone is on the level, but people who make good choices get blessed. The blessed must avoid a better than thou attitude and to do this they should remember that this isn’t a race. Whoever makes it to the celestial kingdom first gets the same blessing as the person who makes it there last. If you think you are better than someone else, watch out, that person may end up making it while you, if for no other reason than because of your pride, won’t ever make it regardless of where you are now.

    Did I interpret you pretty much right? I need to sleep on this one some, but maybe you are right…Maybe this is what I should think.

    [I can’t sleep when I am still thinking of this so am editing my own comment!]
    PS while you are at it can you also salvage 1 Ne 17:35? Isn’t Nephi’s reasoning for why those people who got kicked off their land/killed MUST have been bad before the got kicked out just the same as the reasoning (we all agree is wrong) that blacks must not have deserved the priesthood?

  22. Robert C. said

    Matthew (21), I think that’s a pretty reasonable interpretation, at least of the implications of my thoughts (which I am still working out!). I would, however, caution a leader from presuming that being chosen means he or she is “better” — but I think Nate’s comments already addresses this point (though I like your carrying-a-gun counterpoint).

    Regarding 1 Ne 17:35, I agree that the same tension is there. And, interestingly, 1 Ne 17 explicitly references in v. 32 the violent episodes recorded in the Book of Joshua. Thus, this link between a violent attitude and being a chosen people or leader seems very real.

    In some sense, I take this question of violence to be the true heart of the matter. And, somehow, I think an adequate response needs to refer to the logic of atonement that makes it possible to overcome the problem of violence. That is, I think every instance of chosenness (e.g., a leader, or a chosen people) must be infused with a true and very contrite hope and love for others. Otherwise, all the problems you mention continue (this is, by the way, the issue that I think lies at the heart of Derrida’s essay “Violence and Metaphysics,” though I am thinking more about Girard than anyone else as I write this).

    So, I think the correct response to any blessing or privilege must always be something in the spirit of:

    “I don’t know why I or my people/race/family/ward have received this grace. Perhaps something I or my people did in some forgotten past played a role, so that it’s not completely independent of conception of merit. I am not in a position to determine that, even if I believe that God, in general, does reward righteousness. Regardless, I know I have sinned, and anything meritorious I have or my people have done can be traced back to a radical dependence on our Savior, and — at the end of the day — we are all dependent on our God who has given us life, since we are as but the dust. I pray God extends his blessings, love and grace to others — including the Gentiles, blacks, women, homosexuals, etc. (and sinners, I would add, though I don’t want to put the word “sinners” next to homosexuals, lest it be construed that I think there is more of a link between homosexuality and sin than I could presume to know — I don’t know God’s mind on this matter, and my heart goes out to all the various challenges that homosexuals face, challenges which I simply cannot understand, and thus I could not pretend to judge…).”

  23. Matthew said

    Robert, I guess it turns out I have been searching for a defender of moral aristocracy. I appreciate you playing that role though you seem a little uncomfortable in it.

    As for 1 Ne 17:32-35, maybe that is best left for another day. Rest assured, I’ll be using my freedom from being bound by the particulars of each scripture to relieve me from a great burden I would otherwise feel compelled to bear in the meantime related to that passage.

    • Robert C. said

      Thanks for the discussion, Matthew. There’s a lot here that I’ll be thinking much, much more about, for quite some time, and I look forward to our next discussion.

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