There is one important question that should be addressed: What, if anything, should any Latter-day Saint make of all this new information?
Years ago, Chauncey Riddle, a religion instructor at Brigham Young University, dismissed this author’s view of prophecy based in ancient catastrophes, as set forth The Prophecy Trilogy, describing the endeavor as “an intellectual exercise, having little to do with one’s salvation.”
Relevant to salvation?
This raises the question of relevance. However correct this information may be, does it really have any bearing upon the outcome of this mortal trial? What value does it have in the greater scheme of things? Does any of this truly apply to one’s salvation and exaltation?
For most Saints, the answer to the question of relevance would be an unqualified “No.” Like Riddle, most Mormons feel that prophecy and gospel imagery have little to do with the primary aims of a righteous life that conforms to gospel teachings. This attitude is reflected in church literature in general and fosters the dismissive approach most Saints have toward a study of this kind. The emphasis is placed entirely on the spiritual aspects rather than the temporal, material or intellectual elements.
The Saints’ stumbling block
In this they err greatly. It’s the reason that prophecy is an enigma, the reason modern temple symbolism and ritual seem foreign, scriptural symbolism is puzzling and elusive, the imagery of prophetic visions is baffling and there are “mysteries” in the gospel that should not be so much as entertained, much less investigated.
While revelation through prophets and seers in our time might provide much of the information we need for our salvation and exaltation, it does not answer all questions. Much of what we need to know is contained in texts written hundreds or thousands of years ago. Hence, we have the constant exhortation to read the scriptures from our general authorities.
Different cultures, different times
The scriptures, ancient and modern, largely deal with events and experiences of individuals who lived in cultures and conditions far removed from our own in time and far different than our own. Even events recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants contain those same elements of obscurity for those of us who didn’t live two centuries ago when the church was being established, say nothing of texts penned over one, two or more millennia ago.
So, how can we expect to gain all we need to know for our salvation and exaltation by reading the scriptures when the worldview of those who wrote them was so very much different than our own?
Searching outside the scriptures
As a practical matter, reading the scriptures and the talks of general authorities, however valuable for gathering information, cannot answer all questions. The analysis of textual content, however helpful and useful, cannot explain all we read. We must go outside the scriptures in order to fully understand all we read there. We must view the wider picture, the context.
Hence, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that the Saints were to “… seek ye diligently …, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:118.)
This counsel directs us to seek out extra-scriptural information. Paradoxically, it seems that we must look outside the scriptures in order to fully understand them. What T.S. Eliot wrote applies very well here. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” That is, until we look outside the scriptures for historical background, contemporary accounts, settings, conditions and cultural information, our knowledge of them will be incomplete. Only when we “explore” enough to see them with new eyes will the scriptures become fully meaningful.
Revelation alone can do the same thing. In fact, it can overcome ignorance far better than study and much more quickly. But since we “all have not faith” sufficient to obtain revelation for all our questions, the Lord told us, through Joseph Smith, to do the research.
Moreover, Joseph Smith also explained that God never gave a revelation without also providing the keys to understand that revelation. This implies that there is no mystery in the scriptures, nothing that we cannot understand, given the proper information.
Knowledge is key
Of course, getting that information, gaining knowledge is one of our primary directives. “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.” (Doctrine & Covenants 130:19.)
So, the answer to the questions posed at the outset of this article is simply this: If any part of the gospel message is omitted or not incorporated in our study, then our understanding is incomplete. If we do not understand prophecy, then our knowledge is incomplete. We cannot, then, also understand the language of the prophets, the symbolism of our temples, the meaning of things seen in visions recorded by the prophets, the Pearl of Great Price facsimiles, the Lord’s explanation of the heavens given to Abraham or the many statements of Joseph Smith on these subjects.
Prophecy: a key to salvation
Thus, this knowledge has everything to do with our salvation and exaltation. Understanding the nature of our world and the history that brought it to its present condition is vital to our comprehension of the gospel. Without it, we’re only getting half the message of the scriptures, the temple ceremonies or the words of the prophets.
Faith: the first principle
Take faith, for example. Since it is the first principle of the gospel, it follows that we must understand it best in order to practice our religion as it should be practiced. Understanding faith, therefore, is vital to our salvation. Of course, it also goes without saying that understanding priesthood power is vital since it is the one thing that sets the restored church apart from all the rest.
To the Saint who studies Exodus and the works of Moses with a view to the planetary catastrophe that unfolds in that saga, it becomes apparent exactly how faith and priesthood power function in our relationship with God. We see Moses as a man armed with no special powers — his priesthood not withstanding — save the foreknowledge that God gave him of impending events. His faith was not in what he wished or hoped to be true, as we typically define faith, but in what he knew to be true. The record shows that God revealed to Moses beforehand all that was to occur and what Moses was to do in each circumstance. His faith is manifest in his willingness to do as God commanded, to proclaim to everyone, even Pharaoh, what was going to happen, no matter how outrageous the claim or difficult his duty. In fact the one time Moses got in trouble was when he acted without God’s direction, making a decision on his own to strike the rock to bring forth water for the Israelites.
What’s more, we learn that Moses had no power to perform the ‘miracles’ of the Exodus; they were natural, albeit catastrophic, events — completely out of his control, one way or the other. He could not cause them any more than he could stop them. He did not part the Red Sea nor cause manna to appear. That was God’s doing; it was all God’s doing. Moses’ only role was to warn and guide the Israelites as God had directed him in order that they might avoid the worst of the devastation. In that role, he provided salvation, but he was not its author. He was only a messenger, a mouthpiece.
Correct perspective is vital
Without that perspective, we might be tempted to believe that a prophet has extraordinary latitude and power to control the elements. We might be tempted to think that holding the priesthood somehow entitles us to similarly extraordinary powers. Thus, this knowledge helps us preserve a correct perspective of our function as priesthood holders.
Without that perspective, we might believe that if we simply conjure up enough faith to believe strongly enough, then what we want to happen will come true. We consistently talk about faith in flawed terms, saying things like, “If we had enough faith, we could move mountains.” Once again, the information that comes to us via a more complete understanding of ancient events provides us with a clearer vision of faith, what it is and how it works.
Studying the gospel without the perspective that this reading offers gives us only half the message. It’s the equivalent of driving a car with one eye closed or trying to walk with only one leg instead of two.
Vital to our salvation, exaltation
Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that the study of this alternative view ancient history, prophecy and the scriptures is vital to our salvation and exaltation. Without it, we stand a good chance of falling short of our goal. Understanding the subjects associated with past catastrophes and the symbolism they engendered can vastly improve the likelihood that we will leave this life, as God revealed to Joseph, with “so much the advantage in the world to come.”
Sounds like salvation and exaltation to my ears.
Chauncey Riddle couldn’t have been more wrong, and Latter-day Saints shouldn’t make the same mistake.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2005