Rainbows Over the Rain: The Gospel of Superabundance

Date: 
February 3, 2009

Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

February 3, 2009
Terryl Givens
Professor of Literature and Religion
Richmond University

 I talked a few weeks ago with a person who has decided to choose another path than the restored gospel. When I probed for an explanation, I heard one we don't talk about too much. She said, "I guess I am just apathetic about it all." Now, some leave the church because of sin. We find ourselves alienated from the spirit, and we drop away from shame or guilt or to hide from our true selves. Some are deceived by fatuous, silly arguments about DNA and Lamanites or Mormons and Masonry. Seduced by opinions with the superficial appearance of learning and reason, they panic and jump ship. Still others pull up their stakes and leave, feeling disillusioned or betrayed when they learn about the early practice of polygamy, or discover to their consternation that prophets and bishops alike are, to their shock and horror, human. All of those are tragic reasons to lose one's testimony, but they are understandable in their own way. To leave out of apathy, boredom, or indifference, however, that is to me the most incomprehensible reason of all.  And perhaps the most tragic, since it means they were never really in the gospel. They came to the feast, but they never sat down, they never supped, they never tasted the banquet.

 Passing through New England a few weeks 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. And it may surprise you, but I believe he probably lost, rather than gained, numbers. The reason for this paradox was fathomed by Thomas Carlyle, a hundred and fifty years ago. This is what he said:

 It is a calumny [slander] 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 fill 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 fire,
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 infinite 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 figure 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 fittingly 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, figuratively, 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 first parents became "dead in sin, and wholly defiled 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, fashioning worlds and creating endless posterity, eternally working to impose order and form on an infinitely malleable cosmos. "This is a wide field 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 fire 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 That, in a nutshell, is my challenge to you today. 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 That's the kind of voracious appetite I am talking about.

 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

 I love a gospel that 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 infinite grades of difference among fine 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 righteous 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 fill 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 concerns thee and thy being;
Dream not of other Worlds, what Creatures there
Live, in what state, condition, or degree,
Contented [with what] thus far hath been reveal'd. 10

 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."  There you have perhaps the single greatest difference between your faith, and that of many of your fellow Christians. The single greatest difference. Because the greatest lines in modern scripture, to my mind, are the words spoken to Nephi, 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. As much, he tells us, as we are willing to receive  (88:32). This is a gospel that empowers and invites. How anybody could be apathetic or indifferent in the face of the sense of boundless possibilities it confronts us with is beyond me.

 To the extent that you are students, and students anxiously engaged in your education, you are living this core feature of the restored gospel. As Brigham Young taught: "We are not at all under the necessity of falling into the mistake that the Christian world falls into. They think, when they are handling or dealing in the things of this world, that those things have nothing to do with their religion. Our religion takes within its wide embrace not only things of heaven, but also things of earth. It circumscribes all art, science, and literature pertaining to heaven, earth, and hell." 11

 And that brings me to matters closer to home. I want to suggest, in my remaining time, that the gospel invites us to be much more generous, more open, and more embracing, in our quest for that which uplifts and edifies us, than many of us have tended to be. So I offer the following remarks in the spirit of mild criticism and challenge. And I do it by making recourse to several scriptures. The first comes, again, from the book of Revelation:

 "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon. ... And the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.. . . And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time. . . . And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there" (Rev. 12: 1-14)

 The LDS heading for these verses identifies the woman in this allegory, as have virtually all Protestant commentators, as a representation of the church, whose flight before the forces of Satan portends the Great Apostasy. But notice carefully the wording of the prophecy. It was my wife who first pointed out to me the crucial fact that this woman is not banished from the earth she retreats into the wilderness. There she does not perish altogether. On the contrary, as Fiona astutely observed, she is nourished for a prolonged period of time. This clearly suggests a view of church history in which many teachings and principles of the original church survived more or less intact, though clearly in retreat from the mainstream, underground, or on the peripheries of orthodoxy. Perhaps that is why, in the Lord in section 5 of the D&C referred to the Restoration as "'the rising up and coming forth of my church out of the wilderness" (5:14). We too often forget that to restore something is never to start from scratch. The Lord defines the apostasy in DC Section 1 as loss of the ordinances and priesthood authority. But a righteous remnant, searching out and cherishing sacred truths, has always been present. Let me give you two quick examples. The God of the creeds is defined this way: "He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has he imagination, nor opinion or reason; He has neither speech nor understanding God . . .is in such a sense unknowable and non-existent in that He exists above all existence." 12 But even as this apostate doctrine took hold, a faithful few like the Church Father Origen opposed it, arguing, "does not the Father and God of the universe somehow experience emotion, since he is long-suffering and of great mercy? Or do you not know that when he distributes human gifts he experiences human emotion?... he takes pity and experiences grief, he suffers something of love and...for our sake he experiences human emotion." 13 Or we could look at the Church Father Tertullian, who left the orthodox church when it began to deny the right of individuals in that church to receive personal revelation. 14

 In seeing our very day, the prophet Moroni seemed to fear that we would be to quick to condemn, or criticize, or ignore, those inspired words and teachings that come from outside the Ensign or church manuals. Of course we must use wisdom and discernment in what voices we listen to. But notice that Moroni is as concerned that we refuse the good and beautiful, as that we imbibe the corrupt. "Every thing, [every thing], which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God," he wrote. "Wherefore, take heed, that ye do not judge that which is good and of God to be of the devil." And then he adds, that "if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ" (Moro. 7:13-14, 19).

 Let me illustrate this point from my own experience. I recently completed a major study of the idea of pre-existence in Western thought. You are familiar with this idea as one of the doctrines of the restoration. In May of 1833, Joseph Smith pronounced a revelation that covered a smattering of subjects: the promise of the Second Comforter, the testimony of John, the definition of truth, Christ's presence from the beginning, with the Father. And then, with no warning or elaboration, this bombshell: "Ye were also in the beginning with the Father." Only a few additional words of clarification: "Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be." Then, before Joseph or the reader of the revelation can digest the impact of one of Joseph's most momentous revealed truths, on to a reprimand of Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, directions about translating the Bible, and so forth. No elaboration of the doctrine of pre- existence, no exploration or discussion of its relevance to a host of perplexing theological dilemmas. Just a casual observation, left to float in intellectual isolation.

 The LDS faith may be the only Christian denomination teaching this doctrine today. But it turns out that literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of poets, mystics, philosophers, theologians and pastors have taught this same principle across the centuries. And together, this symphony of inspired men and women have provided a diverse and profoundly inspired series of insights and lessons that can enrich and expand our understanding of and appreciation for, this sublime teaching. "The business of the Elders of this Church," said Brigham Young, is "to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, . . ., wherever [they] may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, and bring it to Zion." 15

 We want to think that Joseph started with a clean slate, repudiating the entire Christian past and starting out afresh, only teaching that which came to him direct from the heavens. But he emphatically resisted any such conception. His was a generous mind, unafraid to embrace truth wherever he found it, and bring it home to Zion. This was what he taught his successor, Brigham Young: "If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it." 16 It takes real humility of spirit to be taught. But notice the example of Joseph in this regard. He showed the world he could translate gold plates written in Reformed Egyptian, then hired a Jewish schoolmaster to teach him Hebrew. He took practices of the Masons, and openly adapted them to the Temple ceremony. He planned a library and museum for Nauvoo, that he wanted to fill with all the choicest fruits of western culture. A Nauvoo newspaper described his plans:

 "The Seventies' Library . . . has been commenced on a footing and scale, broad enough to embrace the arts and sciences, every where: so that the Seventies' while traveling over the face of the globe, as the Lord's 'Regular Soldiers,' can gather all the curious things, both natural and artificial, with all the knowledge, inventions, and wonderful specimens of genius that have been gracing the world for almost six thousand years. 17

 So let me share some "specimens of genius" that I have encountered in my studies, inspired fragments from a church in the wilderness. The church father Augustine wanted to know, what is it that turns our hearts to God? He turned to a parable in the New Testament, and common human sense, to find a sacred and psychological truth behind the yearning: Reading Luke's parable of the woman who lost the coin, and lit a candle, swept the house, and searched diligently until she found it, he observed, "She would not have found it if she had not remembered it. For when it was found, how should she have known whether it was what she sought? It is always thus when we seek and find anything we have lost." This led him to an inescapable conclusion: "How, then, do I seek you, O Lord? For in seeking you, my God, it is my happiness that I am seeking," and he continues: "Happiness is known to all, for if they could be asked with one voice whether they wish for happiness, there is no doubt whatever that they would all answer yes. And this could not be unless the thing itself . . . lay somehow in their memory. But where and when had I any experience of happiness, that I should remember it and love it and long for it?"

 The answer, of course, which Augustine will maintain till the end of his life, if more timidly in his final years, is that our yearning for God is a quest to return to the happy realms of our pre-mortal home, and to the familiarity of a parent we once knew all too well.

 Even earlier than Augustine, the church father Clement of Alexandria had made sense of the gospel principle of repentance in the same light of pre-existence. We take the progression--from sin to remorse to change-- for granted, since it is one of the foundational principles of the doctrine of Christ. But Clement saw it was not a simple, or intuitive progression. Why should we, like the Lamanite king, be willing to give up our sins which provide us all those comforts so satisfying to the carnal mind and body for a better life-- unless we somehow, vaguely, recalled such a life, with its more satisfying dimensions? This conundrum, in Clement's mind, could only lead to one logical conclusion:

 There follows of necessity, in him who has come to the recollection of what is better, repentance for what is worse. Accordingly, they confess that the spirit in repentance retraces its steps. In the same way, therefore, we also, repenting of our sins, renouncing our iniquities, purified by baptism, speed back to the eternal light, children to the Father.

 In more recent years, the Cambridge philosopher John McTaggart worked on the problem of free will. I say "problem" of free will, because he recognized, as have many others, that it is hard to find place for free agency if God created our souls at birth. The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards was fully aware of this problem, but found comfort in that it was everyone Christian's problem: "Every version of Christianity had the same problem," he wrote. "All Christians taught that there is sin in the world and that God created the world." 18

 As McTaggart reasoned, "If God created our souls, he 'could have prevented all sin by creating us with better natures and in more favorable surroundings. . . . Hence we should not be responsible for our sins to God.' His argument eventually led him to conclude that a human spirit rooted in an eternal pre-existence solved this dilemma, and that 'the belief in human pre-existence is a more probable doctrine than any other form of the belief in immortality.'  His Cambridge colleague John Wisdom agreed: 'however far back we go,' only a belief in pre-existence can reconcile the principle of free will and the belief that every event has a cause. 'Pre-existence then follows from our considerations,' he concludes, and 'this pre-existence must have been world-long.' 19 He hastens to add in a footnote, "It is hardly necessary to warn the reader that this sort of conclusion is unfashionable."

 Perhaps the most inspiring story in the history of the pre-existence is that of Joseph Smith's contemporary, the preacher Edward Beecher. His sister fell into spiritual apostasy over the question of God's harsh justice. In trying to bring her back to faith, he found himself unable to reconcile God's justice with the saga of human depravity and suffering that constitutes our history. He devoted himself to study and prayer, seeking a resolution. His brother described his search this way: None but those most intimate with the author, most acquainted with his habits of prayer, and deep humiliation before God,  & entire consecration to Christ can form any idea of [his] travail of Soul. Many hours he lay prostrate on his face before God agonizing in prayer for the holy spirit. One felt in entering his study at such times as Moses felt when the voice said, "Put off thy shoes from thy foot for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." 20

 Paying such a price, it is no surprise Beecher found his answer. His brother described it as a  "virtual revelation;" after  "groping in some vast cathedral, in the gloom of midnight,  . . . suddenly before the vast arched window of the nave a glorious sun had suddenly burst forth." 21 The resultant vision was a paradigm-shattering epiphany about our pre-mortal existence that Beecher wanted to share at once with his congregation and the world. His father, the famous Lyman Beecher, and his family, including Henry Ward Beecher, urged him not to ruin his career by going public with such an unorthodox doctrine. 22 Beecher kept the revelation to himself for a quarter century. But he came to fervently believe that this doctrine, and this doctrine alone, could rescue a Christianity suffering under the blight of apostasy. So he threw caution to the wind and issued a four hundred page manifesto, the boldest and most detailed exposition of the doctrine of pre- existence in religious history.

 The story ends on a somber note. When I tracked down the story of Edward Beecher, I located the manuscript story of his life written by a devoted brother. It had been donated to a small Illinois college, and there was this note on top, written by one of his descendents. It read, "I am about to send on to you at last the manuscript Life of Edward Beecher by his brother Charles. . . . It is none too rich in human interest, perhaps, being concerned overwhelmingly with Edward's "spiritual" (theological) development and his belief in the pre-existence of the soul, an unfortunate excursion into the realms of heresy which apparently wrecked his career."

 The Holy Ghost, wrote Nephi, is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek [and here I remind you of Edward Beecher's example of what diligent seeking means] who diligently seek him" (1 Ne 10:17). Let us live the gospel with passion and with curiosity. May we be more excited by the opportunities we have to grow, to learn, to experience, at the hand of a God unlike the God of the creeds. For we worship a God more like the God of Plato, who, as he wrote, "was good, and one who is good can never become jealous of anything. And so, being free of jealousy, he wanted everything to become as much like himself as was possible." 23 May we strive to become more like him, more purified and sanctified through the atonement of the Savior. And finally, let us reach out to embrace whatever is good and true and beautiful, wherever we may find it, that we may be, in the admonition of Moroni, the children of Christ.

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. Milton, John. Paradise Lost, Book VIII, ll. 167-177.
11. Journal of Discourses, 7:271.
12. Pseudo-Dionysius, cited in Helen C. White, The Mysticism of William Blake (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1927), 61.
13. Origen, Homilies on Ezekiel, cited in Michael Lieb, Theological Milton (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 2006), 132.
14. "He could not continue to endorse an orthodoxy which denied any independent role to the Spirit and insisted that all communication with the deity should be through the regular ecclesiastical channels." Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), 50.
15. Hugh Nibley, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, edited by Don E. Norton and Shirley S. Ricks [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994], 316 - 317.
16. Journal of Discourses, 13:335.
17.  "Seventies' Library," Times and Seasons 5.24 (1 January 1844): 763.
18. George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2003), 453.
19. John Wisdom, Problems of Mind and Matter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 130.
20. Charles Beecher, "Life of Edward Beecher." Unpublished manuscript in the Illinois College library, in Jacksonville. A microfilm is at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.
21. Beecher, "Life," 204.
22. Edward Beecher, The Conflict of Ages: or, the Great Debate on the Moral Relations of God and Man (Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Company, 1853), 6; Beecher, "Life," preface.
23. Plato, Timaeus 29e, trans. Donald J. Zeyl in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 1236.