When addressing Latter-day Saints, I often observe that cosmology — the study of planets and stars, suns and moons — and its attendant mythology was not just an affectation of Old Testament peoples. It was also an important, integral part of the gospel taught by Jesus Christ and embraced by the primitive church or early Christian religion. In his essay “Unrolling the Scrolls – Some Forgotten Witnesses,” Nibley, the preeminent LDS scholar for all things ancient wrote that “cosmism” was a “hallmark of early Christianity.” We know this because references to cosmological or astral elements — what Nibley calls cosmism — are found everywhere in early Christian and Jewish writings.
So, too, cosmology held an elevated status in the doctrine of the modern or restored church, though today’s Latter-day Saints are reluctant to acknowledge that fact, if they are aware of it at all. But there is no denying it. It’s everywhere in the hallmark elements of the modern church: in the Pearl of Great Price, in the Doctrine and Covenants, in the Book of Mormon as well as in our temple symbolism and ritual.
Because cosmological elements were part of Old Testament tradition as well as New Testament teachings and were fully reinstated by Joseph Smith in the Restoration, I also assert that knowledge of the ancient heavens, or cosmology, is vital to our salvation and exaltation.
I am not alone in this claim. In that same essay, Nibley also wrote that “somehow or other the physical cosmos is involved in the plan of salvation.”
Invariably, that claim leaves most Saints cold. Their rejoinder: “Now you’ve really gone over the top. What bearing can ancient cosmology and its handmaiden, mythology, possibly have on my salvation or exaltation?”
The history of planets, stars, moons, suns and their role in prophetic tradition are seldom considered useful in one’s attempt to understand the restored gospel sufficiently to obtain salvation and exaltation. Ask any Latter-day Saint what a study of the heavens has to do with being a proper church member or achieving perfection and he or she will likely say, “Nothing.”
But that answer could not be more wrong. In fact, the cosmology of the ancients has everything to do with our religion.
To that, you might say, “I don’t recall any discussion of planets, stars, moons or suns in any lesson I’ve ever heard on the plan of salvation. Why would Nibley make such a statement?”
To better understand, let’s read more of what he had to say on this subject.
As Christianity has been deeschatologized and demythologized in our own day, so in the fourth century it was thoroughly dematerialized, and ever since then anything smacking of “cosmism,” that is, tending to associate religion with the physical universe in any way, has been instantly condemned by Christian and Jewish clergy alike as paganism and blasphemy. Joseph Smith was taken to task for the crude literalism of his religion—not only talking with angels like regular people, but giving God the aspect attributed to him by the primitive prophets of Israel, and, strangest of all, unhesitatingly bringing other worlds and universes into the picture. Well, some of the early Christian and Jewish writers did the same thing; this weakness in them has been explained away as a Gnostic aberration, and yet today there is a marked tendency in all the churches to support the usual bloodless abstractions and stereotyped moral sermons with a touch of apocalyptic realism, which indeed now supplies the main appeal of some of the most sensationally successful evangelists. (Nibley, “Treasures in the Heavens,” p. 171.)
Just as Christian and Jewish clergy have distanced themselves from the cosmism, eschatology and mythology of the primitive church, modern Mormons have distanced themselves and their perception of their religion from those same elements reinstated in the modern church by Joseph Smith in the Restoration. In other words, we’ve repeated the same mistakes.
Because we don’t want to be condemned as pagans and our church as a cult, we emphasize our “Christianity” by distancing ourselves from cosmological elements, just as our Christian cousins have done. As a result, our discourse is little different from theirs. What Nibley says of other churches, I attribute to us as well: “…today there is a marked tendency in all the churches to support the usual bloodless abstractions and stereotyped moral sermons with a touch of apocalyptic realism …”
The marvel is that even though we don’t recognize those cosmological, eschatological and mythological components in our religion, they have been perfectly preserved in our revelations and our temples. The wonder is that we are nearly blind to them, making us ignorant of their utility in deciphering the teachings of the prophets and the message in our temples.
It is the very pervasiveness and utilitarian value of these cosmological components that compels me to make this admittedly radical claim, which I repeat: When trying to comprehend and apply the principles and teachings of the Restored Gospel, a thoroughgoing knowledge of ancient cosmology and its bearing upon Christ’s gospel and the message of the prophets is indispensable.
Clearly, the Lord thought it important enough to include cosmology in every aspect of the religion he restored through Joseph Smith. Without that understanding we cannot fully grasp the message of the Savior and the prophets, the essentials of salvation and exaltation. That’s why it was treasured and carefully preserved by Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles and the first elder of this dispensation, Joseph Smith.
So, if you have to ask what all this ancient cosmology has to do with your salvation, as the title of this essay does, then you really haven’t internalized or fully understood the implications of this all important study. The value is apparent on the face of it. Our ignorance of these truths makes us vulnerable to misunderstanding and deception. Without it, we can easily misconstrue the message of the prophets; we can easily fall victims to the fraud that has engulfed the rest of Christianity.
With correct knowledge comes power, something Joseph emphasized time and again. Without the revelatory information and comprehension that come with the knowledge of ancient cosmology, we put our salvation and exaltation at risk.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2009