Monday, November 28, 2011

The Missing Writings

The statements of the Lord to Nephi in the Book of Mormon present today’s Latter-day Saints with a significant conundrum. Let’s take a close look to see what it’s all about.

We begin by quoting the germane passages from 2nd Nephi, chapter 29, in an order that clarifies and lends weight to the Lord’s vital message:

“Know ye not that . . . I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?” (2 Nephi 29:7) Well, that’s good news. And it seems only fair that all the “nations of the earth” should have the word of God. That’s the assignment of the church. That’s why we do missionary work. We go door-to-door with our revealed scriptures and our sacred message of restoration.

“Wherefore . . . neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written.” (2 Nephi 29:10) What? More writings than what came out of the Restoration? Curious. Isn’t what we have enough? Is God telling us that there is much more out there than what we have in our present canon?

“For I command all men . . . that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; . . . (2 Nephi 29:11) Okay. That puts a bit of a different spin on the previous verses. This verse seems to imply that God has revealed his “words” to people everywhere, down through time. Again, that seems only right and fair. So far, so good.

“. . . and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.” (2 Nephi 29:12) Repetition . . . just so we don’t misunderstand. Got it. There are writings from “all nations of the earth,” which were given to them by God. So, maybe this isn’t just about missionary work. Maybe it’s about revelation to all nations or cultures down through time.

Of course, we have the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. But these verses seem to indicate that there is much more out there, given to “all nations of the earth” that qualifies as the word of God.

With the clarity of the previous verses, we could hardly suppose that the few scriptures or “words” that we have is all there is. But if that conclusion is correct, where are these other writings? When we look around for these so called “writings” or texts, we see nothing like the messages we find in our scripture. Therein lies our enigma.

“Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another.” (2 Nephi 29:8) That seems significant. It implies that the message to every nation has been the same. But if that’s the case, why don’t we see a lot of other scripture out there like that which we now have?

This seems to be a contradiction. God told Nephi that there are “writings” the world over that have the same story to tell as our “writings” or scripture. However, when we look around, we see nothing else like our scriptures, seemingly.

“. . . I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written.” (2 Nephi 29:11) Just to add weight and immediacy to his proclamation to Nephi, the Lord tells us that everyone will be judged by all that has been written. Since that includes us, we might want to locate these other “writings” in order to study and appreciate their message.

If we are to believe what the Lord says to Nephi, there is much more out there than our present canon that qualifies as scripture. Clearly, we must be missing a lot. Given the many nations or cultures in the world, the promised words should amount to a sizable body of text.

So, where are promised words from “all nations of the earth?” Where is this considerable body of text? Is it truly missing, or are we just unwilling to recognize them as writings inspired by God, as scripture?

The truth is, they’re all around us. They are the sacred records of ancient civilizations, unearthed by archeologists and salvaged by scholars from obscurity. They are a voluminous corpus of writings that all tell the same story. They are classified as creation stories, flood stories, ascension literature, dreams, visions, mythology and tradition. There are texts that relate ancient temple rituals, sacred dramas, the exploits of gods, goddesses, beasts and dragons. They all tell the same story, but each is told from the perspective of its own culture.

And here’s where I lose most Latter-day Saints, sadly. But it's the truth. The story is about the ancient heavens--cosmology.

The Joseph Smith papyri are an excellent example. That’s why he included them in our canon. As Nibley repeatedly and emphatically pointed out, their message is cosmological. We just can’t make any sense of them because we don’t understand the role of cosmology in ancient cultures and in the gospel of Jesus Christ. These ancient texts are written with an eye to cosmology . . . the story of the ancient heavens. And because most Mormons don’t recognize cosmology as a valid part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they ignore it.

But the Egyptian papyri carry the same story as that told in modern revelation of the very ancient books of Enoch, Abraham and Moses. It’s “a pearl of great price,” as Joseph valued it and so named it. And it’s all about cosmology – stars, planets, etc.

But that fabulous book is our least read and understood. While we marvel at the scope and magnificence of the cosmic vision given those ancient prophets, we puzzle over their message for us and the meaning of the papyri explanations Joseph included. We wonder at the strange words—Kolob, Hakokaubeam, Oliblish, etc.—but we miss the underlying, cosmic message.

And here’s another revelation: It’s the same story conveyed in our temple symbolism and endowment rituals. But we don’t understand them either, for the very same reason.

As it turns out, cosmology is the common denominator of all ancient belief systems, restored by our prophets in these latter days. That’s why God told Nephi, “Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another.” (2 Nephi 29:8) But we fail to see what is “plain and precious,” right before our eyes because our gospel training has not included cosmology.

That’s why whole books of our existing scripture, including some revealed through Joseph Smith, are still “sealed books” for us. We have neglected the concept of cosmology in our gospel study. As a result, Latter-day Saints have many scriptural “blind spots” that prevent them from understanding the very gospel they embrace. (For more information, try reading “Why Cosmology?” on this blog.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why Cosmology?

I get that question all the time.

"Why study all this cosmology and symbolism stuff when today's prophets and apostles emphasize gospel principles? Isn't that an indication of where we should spend our time and efforts?"

I respond:

Yes. The brethren focus on the basics for the benefit of potential converts and the newest church members because their mission is worldwide conversion and the building of the kingdom. That’s why their message is repetitive. They consistently emphasize the basics. And there is great wisdom and virtue for each of us in revisiting those basics on a regular basis. That's why we consistently hear that same, vital counsel.But once firmly grounded in the faith, the responsibility to move forward is wholly ours. The brethren are not there to do what we can do for ourselves. We are responsible for our own salvation. This has always been true.

Inquirers then ask, "Then, why bother with cosmological imagery? How is this useful? Isn't this information really irrelevant to our salvation, just a curious sideline?"

Here's my response:

The whole purpose of studying the Restored Gospel from a cosmological perspective is to allow us to easily and correctly distinguish what is spiritual (the fundamental truths) from what is temporal (the origins and meaning of symbolism). If we cannot easily and correctly differentiate between what is symbolic and what is literal in the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets, then we run the very real risk of reaching incorrect conclusions about their pronouncements.

For example, this is precisely what has happened to the interpretation of prophecy in recent times: In the apparent absence of a clear methodology for examining prophetic imagery, the whole enterprise has been hijacked by speculation and bad interpretation from those within and without our ranks. Yet surprisingly, we find that Joseph Smith gave us a concise and workable method for interpreting prophecy, based in cosmology, that nearly everyone seems to have overlooked.

That's just one reason why we should have at least a passing acquaintance with cosmology. Another is the incontestable fact that our scriptures, the Pearl of Great Price being the best example, is chock full of cosmological imagery. How, then, can we fully understand our scriptures if we don't understand cosmology?

Perhaps the best reason to study all this is that our temples, inside and out, are replete with that same cosmic imagery. In fact, the whole temple experience is geared to show us the cosmological components of the prophetic experience, beginning with the creation. The visions of Moses and Abraham are, just like our temple icons, filled with the cosmic imagery of planets, stars, suns and moons. Our endowment is a virtual example of the prophetic ascension experience related throughout scripture in the visions of the prophets. This is the core message in our temple ceremonies. Thus within our temples, each of us is afforded the marvelous opportunity to vicariously experience the visionary odyssey of the prophets. In so doing, we share the awe-inspiring, cosmic vision revealed to them. So, how can we fully understand the endowment message if we don’t see its cosmological components? The tragedy is that so few Latter-day Saints recognize that truth and thus miss the vital and mind-expanding message the endowment is meant to convey. Thus, the core message of our restored endowment goes unnoticed and unappreciated by nearly all temple goers.

As faithful, believing church members, we need to return to our cosmological roots. We should revisit the basic principles Joseph gave us in order to fully understand our own religion. He, in fact, wrote: “I also gave some instructions in the mysteries of the kingdom of God; such as the history of the planets [cosmology], Abraham’s writings upon the planetary systems [cosmology], etc.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 118)

There is yet another reason why we should study cosmology. The cosmological elements once seen in Earth's ancient skies gave rise to a universal, sacred language of myth, tradition and religion the world over. This system of symbols and metaphors became the common denominator of all sacred thought and teachings in whatever ancient culture. Thus, any prophet could capitalize on these commonalities to convince prospective converts that he had the "truth." The Savior taught it that way, as did his apostles. We see Peter, for example, in the New Testament, rehearsing the cosmological history of the world from the Flood forward to both the Jews and the Gentiles about the change in Earth's heavens, a key principle in their pagan belief system that enabled them to accept what Peter subsequently taught about Jesus. We see John, in his marvelous Apocalypse, doing the same by inserting Jesus the Christ into pagan traditions common to the Hellenistic culture of the day, making it easy for Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians and Jews to see the Savior in their own, particular cultural traditions. Once a missionary, prophet or apostle had succeeded by this artifice in convincing the people he had the "truth," he could then go on to teach the higher, spiritual concepts and precepts of the gospel - convert them, in other words.

This made teaching the higher, spiritual truths much easier. The common cosmic traditions of people everywhere became the universal language for conversion. It was a tool employed by every prophet and apostle down through the ages. Even the Savior used it, calling himself “Alpha and Omega,” relating himself to the “I Am” of antiquity, the “Word of God” or claiming to be the cosmic “Messiah” - all titles derived from sacred cosmology of the past.

Joseph Smith did something similar, only in reverse order. Unlike the ancients, our culture knew nothing of the past cosmological history of the heavens. Science had seen to that, and religion had followed suit. So, rather than starting with the ancient cosmological traditions, as his predecessor prophets had done, Joseph turned to repairing the tattered, soiled and misused remnant of Christian doctrine prevalent in his day. Only later, once he had convinced converts of his Christian roots, did he venture to re-institute cosmological tradition in modern temple worship, the universal theme of all temple worship anciently, as a vital and traditional part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, this is the straightforward answer to those common questions I get. Restoring the "fullness of the gospel" required including the cosmological traditions and their respective rituals that were honored and repeated by all the prophets. Again, Joseph wrote: “I also gave some instructions in the mysteries of the kingdom of God; such as the history of the planets, Abraham's writings upon the planetary systems, etc," (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 118, emphasis added.) This was done so that we can understand the arcane allusions and references of the prophets and apostles as they meant them to be understood, not as our emasculated, spiritualized and Christianized versions had them before Joseph Smith. Clarifying these symbolic and metaphorical usages was as much a part of restoring the truth as instituting the correct manner of baptism or the reality that God has a body of flesh and bone.

The next question asked is, "So, is this knowledge vital to our salvation or exaltation?"

I answer with profound conviction:

It most certainly is if we intend to fully understand the prophets, comprehend prophecy itself and inherit the blessings promised in the Endowment. Otherwise, Joseph Smith, under God's tutelage, would not have restored it to us. At some point in our eternal progression, we will have to come to this knowledge and understanding. Sooner or later, in this life or the next, we will be required to include this in our worldview.

So, why not get an early start? Why not follow Joseph Smith's counsel to get as much correct knowledge in this life as possible to our greater benefit in the next?