Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The problem of pre-mortal privilege

We have in our LDS doctrine, the idea that we lived before this life -- in a "pre-mortal existence", or sometimes shortened to 'pre-existence".

Our scriptures tell us:

"Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be."
(D&C 93:29) 
"Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was;"
(Abraham 3:22)
Image result for 2001 a space odyssey star childWe believe and teach that we humans are the Children of God, as did Jesus. We literalize this belief in the form of how we once dwelt with God in this pre-mortal existence.

It's a beautiful concept, and unique among Christian belief. I have often wondered why Christians don't accept a pre-mortal existence. True, very little is said about it in scripture, but in the early writings of the Church Fathers, Origen wrote extensively about the pre-mortal existence. To Origen, we once lived with God in the ideal existence of Plato's "forms", and because we ourselves aren't quite ideal, God created this world so that we pre-mortal spirits might improve. Origen almost had it right, but to his mind, the *less* valiant came to this earth.

But why, then, did a belief in pre-mortal existence disappear?

For one thing, scripture does not uphold a pre-mortal existence for anyone except Jesus. In fact, Paul states,
"There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual."
(1 Cor 15:44-46)
To Christians, the human soul does not precede the creation of the mortal body, but ensoulment occurs sometime.after conception. Since "Spirit", coming from the latin "spiritus", in greek "pneuma", and in hebrew "ruach actually means "breath", or the "breath of life", most early thought centered on the idea that "spirit" was breathed into a human. Thus, before our birth, we are not humans. This idea was later extended to the idea that ensoulment might occur before birth, owing to how God knew Jeremiah before he was "formed in the womb", and how the fetal infant John the Baptist leapt in the womb when Mary visited Elisabeth. This leads to all sorts of discussion about abortion -- but I digress. The point is that Christians hold fast to the idea that our human soul did not exist before conception/birth.

And in around 553, Origen and especially his doctrine of pre-mortal existence were declared "anathema"/("accursed"), thus causing the loss by burning about 60% of Origen's scholarly work. And thus, pre-mortal existence is considered antithetical to Christian dogma.

Yet, there is something really attractive about the idea that we have immortal souls, spirits co-eternal with god. It's perhaps one of the most beautiful doctrines we have in our LDS faith. We believe that we are co-eternal with god! We are inherently made of the same stuff of god.

If this is what pre-mortal existence brings, then I'm all for it.

When I was amidst the depth of this faith journey, I had my deepest crisis in 2009 in the wake of Proposition 8, when I learned of all the underhanded, deceptive maneuvers of the LDS church to fight against marriage equality. Having a gay daughter, who was alive then and today by virtue of coming out and commiting to a stable relationship, I felt, and still feel, that I cannot morally and ethically support a system that denies relational love to some of god's children.

I believed then, and still do, that each human is co-eternal with god and deserves our utmost respect and dignity.

So in 2009, I was faced with an idea that I needed to find some place where each human is recognized as divine. So I went to India, partly for work, but mostly for the idea that I needed a break from mormonism.

As I arrived, I found it to be an amazing experience. India is quite unlike anywhere in the world: yes, it's very populated and poor, with horrible infrastructure -- but these problems exist in a lot of the world. But there was something there -- a kind of feeling that the entire experience was alive, infused with spirit. I went very deep into hinduism, to the point that I would say that most of my colleagues thought I went off the deep end.

Yes, Hindu's believe in a pre-mortal existence. The Gita quotes Krishna (god) as saying to Arjuna (everyman),
"There was never a time that I was not, nor you, nor these lords (his enemies on the field of battle), and there will never be a time when we shall cease to be."
(Bhagavad Gita 2:12)
As I embraced Hinduism, i associated with the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy -- subscribing to non-dualism ('advaita" means not-two, and "vedanta' means the end, or objective to which the Vedic scriptures point), that our very soul, the "atman" is one with the creator/soul of the Universe (Brahma). "Atman is Brahman".

My experience in India culminated at the Ramanashram in Thiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, the spiritual refuge of Sri Ramana Maharshi, who advocated silent meditation upon the principle question 'who am I", to cultivate the non-dual experience and thus, enlightenment.

While at the Ashram, I went with my Indian host to the Annamalaiyar Temple, to participate in a very sacred lingam/fire worship in the most sacred portion of the temple. There, covered in layers of multi-colored dust and sweat, I felt....nothing.

Image result for thiruvannamalai
I was there at this temple, participating in this sacred ritual for one reason: my host was as close to Indian royalty as one can get: he was of the Brahman caste, his grandfather was once President of India, and he was wealthy beyond belief.

After two years, I began to realize that the idea of re-incarnation, the idea of multiple mortal probations, essentially justifies the notion that people are distinct in this life, and they are, because in their prior life, they weren't as 'valiant' as others.

I believe that many of India's deepest problems, today, remain the idea that they are very much a caste-based society, even if they try not to be.

So I returned after two years to my home in America, where, at least in the words of Jefferson, "All [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

And I returned to activity in my "home" religion, having realized that enlightenment is where we choose to find it, and not within any given church or faith tradition.

But I still held dear to the idea that we are immortal spirits, co-eternal with god. Is that so wrong?

I'm coming to believe, now, that it can be very wrong, if the idea of some pre-mortal privilege allows us to enable and justify privilege in this life.

Unfortunately, there is a very powerful element in our Mormon religion that does enable and justify privilege.

Back to the "Book of Abraham":
"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."
(Abraham 3:22-23)
As I step back to consider this verse, I realize that it explicitly states that the very core of the "Abrahamic Covenant" is that there are those who are "noble and great ones", and thus qualify, either by birthright or disposition to be part of the elite chosen ones, and there are those who are “not chosen”.  This is what our definition of the “Gathering of Israel” is all about.  This is the very essence of what our patriarchal blessing’s pronouncement of tribal alignment is all about.  It is my declaration that I am somehow special, unique, *privileged*.

This doctrine found fruition during my mission, when we were taught that not only are black people cursed by their ancestral heritage and premortal existence, but also, that god has selected just a few to become members of the church, and our role as missionaries was simply to find them as quickly as possible.  It really didn’t matter if people were ready to be baptized, for if they were of the pre-mortal status of “noble and great ones” -- that is, “spiritual Israel” -- they would accept the Church and become naturally part of it.

And it’s not just that Church members are the chosen: even among the “chosen” who are members of the church, there are those who are “foreordained” to leadership, either by their *birthright*, or by some special dispensation.  Privilege, by virtue of male priesthood, or by being known to the inner-circle of brethren, or by virtue of elite ancestry, drives much of who is chosen to lead and who is not chosen.

Related imageAnd each Sunday, we hear how special we are.  We testify of how true our church is compared to the evil world.  We shun those who don’t conform to the standards of obedience and privilege we exhibit every day in our meetings.

Worse, we worship our leaders as if they are truly the “Noble and Great Ones”, and dismiss any teachings by those who are lesser than the privileged fifteen, when the outside teachings in any way contradict the teachings of our Prophets, Seers, and Revelators.

But it’s not like we are uniquely bad in this.  As I noted after two years, Hinduism is full of privilege.  The very essence of Protestant Christianity is oft infused with Calvinism, the very notion that God elects only a few to be saved.  Privilege and elitism is everywhere in our faith traditions, in our politics, in our culture.  So, why, then, would it not be also in our Mormon faith?

And I believe God calls us to a different path.  I hear Jefferson’s words that “all [people] are created equal” in the words of Nephi:
“The Lord…inviteth 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”
(2 Ne 26:33)
God calls us to unconditional love, by both loving our neighbors as well as our enemies.  We thus cannot be partial in our love.  James puts it succinctly:
My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "Have a seat here, please," while you say to the poor man, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you?
If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin.
Jesus said,
“Be ye therefore unconditionally-loving, even as your Father in Heaven is unconditionally-loving.”
(Matthew 5:48).
How can we be “complete” or “impartial” if our model of who we are is infused with pre-mortal privilege?  How can we actually love one another as friends, if we adopt the doctrine in the Book of Abraham that says that in each relationship, there is one that is “more intelligent than the other”?

James asks, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom”?  And so should we ask, “Are we operating from a position of privilege in dismissing our brothers and sisters?”  King Benjamin asks, “Are we not all beggars?”  And so we should ask, “Am I justified in rejecting another human because they are less than me?”

And Jesus ministered to the adulteress, to the publicans and sinners, and to those who were shunned by the elite of Israel.  He washed the feet of even Judas his betrayer.  To my mind, Jesus, master of all, lowered himself to become us, so that we might become like him – not as an elite, but rather, as the lowliest servant of all.

While I continue to try to think that the idea of pre-mortal existence is a beautiful concept, the risk of using the doctrine to justify inequality is, in my mind, too great.  It is better to lose the doctrine of pre-mortal privilege if it in any way results in a sense of privileged mortality.

We are divine.  This I know.  But we are ALL equally divine.  This is my faith.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Problem of Divine Dictation

For me, the most useful strategy that helps me stay constructively engaged in the LDS Church is to accept that all scriptures and prophetic pronouncements are given through inspiration, communicated through the mind and heart of the revelator, and expressed in the language of our current understanding.

Thus, I can accept that our scriptures, doctrines, and commandments are infused with human bias and cultural artifacts.  While at best they point to eternal truth, the words themselves do not have to be literally true.

This is my faith.  Yet, I am not sure my faith is welcome within the walls of the church.

A missionary gave his testimony yesterday of the Book of Mormon: that every word in it was hand selected by god to be there.

I wish I could dismiss his statement as being the enthusiasm of a young man, but I cannot.   The idea that the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham were divinely dictated is a core truth claim of the church today, and serves as the basis of why we must not question or doubt the commandments issued forth from the living prophet.

For if god dictates the words of scripture, then those very words are the Word of God, infallibly stating eternal Truth.  God cannot lie, nor can god be the author of confusion.

Does god dictate?

Is god a dictator?

I realize that the above two questions are using the word “dictate” in completely distinct ways: that god might dictate some words doesn’t mean that god is a dictator in the usual sense of the word... or does it?

Consider one of the verses in the Book of Abraham:

“And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.” (Abraham 3:19)

What is this verse saying?  Abraham chapter 3 is about how god has somehow favored a specific set of people to be “noble and great ones” in this mortal life based upon their valiance in the pre-mortal existence.   And more to the point: in any relationship between two people (“spirits”) one is greater than the other.

If I accept this verse, then there is a strict precedence hierarchy of all beings: humans are not created equal in this life, but rather, there are those foreordained to lead, and others not so.  This concept justified the exclusion of blacks from having the priesthood, for Pharoah supposedly was a descendent of Ham, who married one of the descendants of Cain, preserving the curse.

Oh, sure, we can ignore this idea, for since 1978, all *men* can have the priesthood, so it’s a non issue, right?

Uh, no.

Precedence hierarchy has not gone away in the church, but in fact is the very essence of the church.  The word “hierarchy” is the key: it derived from the Greek word for “high priest” “archiereus” or hierarch—“hier” meaning “holy” and “arch” meaning “ruler” (literally, "first in precedence").  The very object of male priesthood is to implement hierarchical “holy rule” on earth.

And as much as the new temple wording has equalized much in the church, the man still “presides”.  Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal” are not scripture to us.

Priesthood *is* hierarchy.  And hierarchy is the means whereby god dictates his will to his servants.

Some years ago, I was conducting the music at a stake priesthood leadership meeting where President Boyd K Packer was to “preside”.  We were instructed to silently be in our seats fifteen minutes ahead of time.  When President Packer entered the room, we all stood in reverential silence.  The order of procession was carefully aligned to the precedence hierarchy of area and stake leaders at the meeting.

As the procession came toward the front of the chapel, I was on the stand directly in front of them.  I made eye contact with President Packer and gave him a gesture of respect.  There was nothing in response: I might as well have been looking into the eyes of a shark: lifeless, harsh, and dead.

I did not exist to that man.

Yesterday, the Sunday School class covered Matthew 5-7.  The discussion turned to Matthew 5:48 “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect”, and my wife was asked to read a quote by Russell M Nelson stating that the verse referred to eventual perfection when we are “complete”.

I commented that as much as I appreciate the better translation of “teleios”/complete rather than “perfect”, the verse is not about any kind of perfection, either in the present or future, but rather, it was about unconditional love.

The teacher then responded with, “that’s exactly what RMN said...”.   I dropped the point.  Not a single person in that class could, or would, dispute the words of the Prophet.

You see, the Prophet is one of the “Noble and Great Ones”, chosen before he was born, as Wendy Watson Nelson so often points out.  And in his sleepless hours at night, the Lord dictates to him what he is to do as presiding high priest (hierarch) of the church.

How can anyone question or doubt the prophet who receives divine dictation?


I am reminded, ironically, that there were two plans presented in the pre-mortal existence.  One plan was the plan of divine dictation and compelled obedience.  The other was to learn through our experience, making mistakes, improving ourselves, and being forgiven by grace.

I am reminded that Jesus condemned the hierarchy of his church, while preaching to the most dejected of alleged sinners.  As the presiding high priest, he lowered himself to the lowest of slaves and washed the feet of sinners.

I embrace the idea that Jesus ultimately invites us to be friends rather than master/servants—he said, “call no man your master”.  A friendship is a relationship among equals: there is no hierarchy among friends.

When I embrace what Jesus actually taught, I realize God does not control, compel, or dominate.  The very notion of “divine dictation” is at odds with everything Jesus taught.

God is not a dictator.