ProctorM_rainbows

Picture by Michaela Proctor Photography.

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Passing through a New England village a few years ago, I passed a church that was obviously trying to recruit new parishioners. The pastor has put on the marquee these simple words: “Soft pews, no hell”.  I don’t know how effective his appeal was, but I can guess. Almost undoubtedly he (or she) lost, rather than gained, numbers. The reason for this paradox was fathomed by Thomas Carlyle, a hundred and fifty years ago. This is what he said:

It is a calumny on men to say they are roused to heroic action by ease, hope of pleasure, recompense—sugar-plums of any kind, in this world or the next! In the meanest mortal there lies something nobler…. It is not to taste sweet things, but to do noble and true things and vindicate himself under God’s Heaven as a god-made Man, that the poorest son of Adam dimly longs. Shew him the way of doing that, the dullest daydrudge kindles into a hero.[1]

I don’t think Carlyle is saying that we all aspire to greatness. I think he is saying, we all aspire to fill the measure of our creation, and we respond intuitively and powerfully to whomever or whatever entices and challenges us to develop, to unleash, the divine potential within. The Savior said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”(John 10:10). The key Greek word here was “perisone,” which means “full to overflowing,” “present in superabundance.” God is a God of superabundance, as described by the poet Robinson Jeffers:

Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to be equal a need
Is natural, . . . : but to fling
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells,
And make the necessary embrace of breeding
Beautiful also as fire,
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music. . . .[2]

 

 

Too many of us go through life, in Isaac Newton’s metaphor, like children content to play in the sand, while the great ocean of life and truth lies before us unexplored, and beckoning. We are harrowed up with petty concerns, and childish fears. We need a greater appetite. The gospel Joseph restored is not for the faint hearted, or for those who are moderately hungry for knowledge, for joy, for the possibilities offered by an infinite universe. The gospel is for the voracious. I have always thought there was a great lesson to be learned from the Lord’s words to the church of the Laodiceans in the Book of Revelation. “I know thy works,” he said, “that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm . . ., I will spue thee out of my mouth” (3:15-16).

It all reminds me of the great play Peer Gynt by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Gynt is a rascally anti-hero looking for meaning in life, but he is a person of half-measures and petty vices. In the end, he is accosted by a stand-in for the devil, the figure of the button-molder, and he is told—to his shock and horror– that his fate is to be melted down with other mediocre villains in the button-molder’s cauldron. Only proper sinners, he is told, deserve the more heroic end of a torment in hell. His apathetic existence more fittingly deserves simple oblivion in a pot of melted buttons.

I am reminded also of Saul of Tarsus, who was wicked in a decisive, passionate way, killing Christians left and right. The Lord can work with passion. He just picked Saul up, figuratively, and pointed him in the other direction, and we get Paul the apostle. The Lord can work with passion. There is little he can do with apathy.

For too much of the world’s history, men and women have been bred to be, if not apathetic, at least, relatively unambitious.  The creeds proclaim that our first parents became “dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body,” and we inherit this nature at birth. We have accordingly “wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good.”[3] Salvation, in this version, depends upon our acquiescence to Christ’s saving power, after which we can anticipate endless aeons in blissful contemplation.

By contrast, Joseph’s crowned Saints are no angelic choirs passively basking in the glory of their God, but Faustian strivers endlessly seeking to shape themselves into progressively better beings. “This is a wide field for the operation of man,” said Brigham Young, “that reaches into eternity.”[4] He was clearly excited by a vision of human happiness and possibility unlike anything the Christian world had seen before.

He said, “All men should study . . . to discern that divinity inherent in them. . . . What will satisfy us?. . . If we could so understand true philosophy as to understand our own creation, and what it is for . . . and could understand that matter can be organized and brought forth into intelligence, and to possess more intelligence, and to continue to increase in that intelligence; . . . and could discern the Divinity acting, operating, and diffusing principles into matter to produce intelligent beings, and to exalt them—to what? Happiness. Will nothing short of that fully satisfy the spirits implanted within us? No.”[5]

The brashness and boldness of Joseph’s vision startled and offended a world too afraid to confront their own heritage and divine potential. But even members of the church were slow to make the transition. Joseph lamented, “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.”[6]

The prophet Joseph Smith reminds me of the great Jewish philosopher Spinoza. One of his recent biographer’s wrote, “He rejected the orthodoxy of his day not because he believed less, but because he believed more.”[7] Joseph invited us to be as voracious as Mercy’s father, in the monumental work of Virginia Sorenson, A Little Lower than the Angels. Incredulous at her father’s capacity for belief, Mercy had asked enviously as a child, “‘But you believe it, Father, you really do?’ ‘I believe all I can, Mercy girl, all I can. Everywhere I go I’m looking for more good things to believe. Even if it’s the be-all and the end-all here, then we’d better keep busy believing good things. Hadn’t we?’”[8]

It is no coincidence, I believe, that in trying to plumb the key to human happiness, the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that “The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible.


” He then made his point with the simple examples of a taste for strawberries. “There is no abstract and impersonal proof either that strawberries are good or that they are not good. To the man who likes them they are good, to the man who dislikes them they are not. But the man who likes them has a pleasure which the other does not have; to that extent his life is more enjoyable and he is better adapted the world in which both must live… The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has and the less he is at the mercy of fate.”[9]

Joseph said it as simply: “A people whose minds were cultivated and manners refined by education had great and precious enjoyments the ignorant had not.”[10]

The gospel challenges us to expand, rather than contract our tastes, to righteously satisfy, rather than ascetically renounce, our passions. The human body and human soul alike just seem to be constituted for the amassing of experience in ever greater variety and intensity. A dog or a carrion bird will ingest anything capable of sustaining a beating heart one more day. But the human palate is refined enough to register infinite grades of difference among fine wines—let me change that to different grades of chocolate.

Our sense of smell strikes me as almost entirely superfluous, since we don’t need it to hunt prey or be alerted to danger—but it does register the difference between a rose and a lily, the smell of Christmas pine and fresh-baked bread, and let us know when we have escaped the smog of the city and can relish the bracing air of the country. The human mind itself is far more powerful and capacious than any instrument necessary for mere self-preservation, or the construction of huts or skyscrapers. Why, in moments of silence or repose, does it—of itself—urgently press upon us questions that have nothing to do with the practical affairs of the world or simple survival? God must want us to cultivate a profound curiosity—about ourselves, our origins, the world around us.

There is a telling moment in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, to my mind the greatest Christian epic ever written. God sends the angel Raphael to visit Adam, and answer questions he may have about God and his dealings with man. Adam asks the angel a question about the heavenly bodies that fill the universe, their purpose and function, and meets with a reprimand. God deliberately concealed such things from man, the mortal is told, and then he is counseled as follows:

Sollicit not thy thoughts with matters hid,

. . . Heav’n is for thee too high

To know what passes there; be lowlie wise:

Think onely what concernes thee and thy being;

Dream not of other Worlds, what Creatures there

Live, in what state, condition, or degree,

Contented [with what] thus farr hath been reveal’d.[11]

It all reminds one of the story about Augustine. When he was asked what God was doing before he created the world, he answered, “creating Hell for people like you that ask impertinent questions.” 

Contrast these words with those spoken to Nephi by another angel, when he seeks his own personal vision of the tree of life, and is told, “thou shalt behold the things which thou has desired” (1 Ne 11:6), or when the brother of Jared cannot be kept from within the veil, or when the Lord refers to the dispensation “in which nothing shall be withheld” (121:28), and assures us in his preface to the Doctrine and Covenants that “I the Lord am willing to make [all] these things known unto all flesh” (1:34). Later in section 88, we read that this is a God who will give us not what we deserve, but much more than we deserve. As much, he tells us, as we are willing to receive (88:32). It is, indeed, by “his high superfluousness,” his teeming generosity, that “we know Our God.”

 

Terryl Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, and author of several books on Mormonism. Most recently, he has published When Souls had Wings: Premortal Life in Western Thought, A Very Short Introduction to the Book of Mormon, and People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship, Lecture II. 

[2] Robinson Jeffers, “The Excesses of God”

[3] Westminster Confession.

[4] Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., reported by G. D. Watt et al. (Liverpool: F.D and S. W. Richards, et al., 1851-1886; reprint, Salt Lake City: n.p., 1974), 9:242.

[5] Journal of Discourses, 7:3.

[6] Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., eds. James Mulholland, Robert B. Thompson, William W. Phelps, Willard Richards, George A. Smith and later, B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1902-12; 2nd revised edition, 1951), 6:184–85. 

[7] Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (New York: Norton, 2006), 38.

[8] Virginia Sorensen, A Little Lower Than the Angels (New York: Knopf, 1942 [repr. Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997]), 55.

[9] Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (New York: Norton, 1996), 125.

[10] Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith (Orem, Utah: Grandin, 1994), 62.

[11] Milton, Paradise Lost, Book VIII, ll. 167-177.