Saturday, July 18, 2015

The God of Experience

"...[A]ll these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good."

Recently a friend whom I respect highly decided to leave the Mormon Church. For him, it's been a major event which has caused a lot of people to question his reasons and reasoning for doing so. He wrote a public response to a friend outlining those reasons to avoid having to do the same thing multiple times. Near the end, he lays out what he seems to believe is a (if not *the*) major issue with the way Mormonism portrays God. It is reflective of many similar arguments I've seen before, which is why I've decided to write this post.

From the note:

...The God of Mormonism is not the God of love.
Jesus summed up the commandments with this statement: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

Nephi goes to get the plates (which could have just been revealed to him just like the dozens of chapters of other revelations that were given to him) from Laban. He finds Laban drunk and is told BY THE SPIRIT, to slay him. This is entirely unnecessary. God could have easily killed Laban himself. God could have kept Laban in a stupor long enough for Nephi to escape. But we tell each other that Nephi had to learn to be obedient.

This is key.

According to the Golden Rule of Jesus, a person should treat others how they want to be treated. Would Nephi want to be slain? Would Christ teach such violent vengeance? I doubt it.

So in this case, Nephi did not learn how to love (which would be the ideal if God were actually Love), but to be obedient. If obedience is more important to God than love, is it correct to say God is love? Shouldn’t we rather say God is obedience?

The God of Obedience is problematic. The God of Obedience is the definition of moral relativity. What is right one day is wrong the next. In a letter attributed to Joseph Smith... it is said, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another...Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is.”

If love is not the ultimate standard, then we have no way of determining whether or not a person’s actions are justified...

With the God of Obedience, nothing is off the table. He may command you to sacrifice your child (Abraham)... commit genocide (Joshua), own slaves (Moses)... or behead a drunk man (Nephi).

We condemn ISIS for killing those who disagree with them. Who are we to judge them when our God has commanded and could still command the same thing? Their God is not the God of love; He is the God of Obedience, just like ours.**
 His belief, if I understand it correctly, boils down to this:

Jesus correctly identified the Golden Rule ("One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself") as the ultimate moral code for how to deal with others. Therefore, you should do NOTHING to others that you wouldn't want others to do to you. To do so is to break the "ultimate standard" of morality, the Golden Rule, which might also be called love. Because God gave us that rule and wants us to abide by it, God is a God of Love.

The "God of Obedience" (which is the Abrahamic God found in the Old Testament, Book of Mormon, and some parts of the New Testament) cannot be the God of Love because "nothing is off the table". Instead of requiring that we live by a constant moral code (such as the Golden Rule), the God of Obedience is moral relativity incarnate because "nothing is off the table". The list of things that the God of Obedience has commanded men to do includes child sacrifice, murder, genocide, adultery, slavery, and more; all of which are bad things. Therefore, the Abrahamic God of Obedience cannot be a God of Love, and is therefore unworthy of devotion and adoration and impossible to truly love.

The problem with this outlook is a lack of vision, in a few key ways. What might seem wrong within one narrow context suddenly becomes the right thing to do when you expand your understanding of the situation. For example: from a child's perspective discipline is never appreciated and seems unloving. From a parent's, however, the discipline is a necessary experience the child must endure to grow into a healthy, self-disciplined adult. The parent would, in fact, be unloving to withhold that discipline. By inflicting discomfort and hardship on the child, you are benefiting them in the long run.

One difficulty in applying the Golden Rule is to know in what way you should decide what you would want to be done "unto you". One of the patterns in many domestically abusive relationships is that one party is made to feel guilty because of their "selfishness" and failure to be better. The abused party is blamed for all the abusers' troubles. It's incredibly common for the abused to feel that, if only they loved their abuser more, the abuser would suddenly become better. Therefore, because the abused wants to be loved, they shower love upon the abuser. (Spoiler alert: this doesn't fix the problem.)

If we view the issue of domestic abuse from the narrow viewpoint of the abused, we might be trapped into believing that the only way to "fix" the situation and receive love is to show more love, affection, and obedience to the abuser. When we widen our viewpoint with an understanding of psychology and abusive relationships, however, we begin to realize that the only way for the abused to fix the situation is to begin setting healthy boundaries, thereby distancing the abused from both the abuser and the abusive situation. Depending on your viewpoint, both actions--staying in the abusive relationship and leaving it--are both manifestations of the Golden Rule. The difference lies in the level of one's understanding of human psychology, the nature of intellectual and emotional development, and the patterns set in healthy relationships.

In the same way, when we narrow our viewpoint of the purpose of life to exclude any kind of eternal existence--when we reduce human beings to be passing phantasms of consciousness that arose out of a primordial soup of black nothingness, and whose ultimate destiny is to return to that same black nothingness--we find that the way in which we apply the Golden Rule and the way we understand the nature of "love" are necessarily changed. Suddenly, the "love" reflected in actions become judged entirely by its immediate effect in this world. We judge everything entirely from the limited viewpoint of what we can empirically prove and what is immediately apparent.

If we were to view human existence as something less transient and more permanent, however, we would find that things that may cause us pain, suffering, or even death in this life (seemingly for no reason) could ultimately benefit us in the eternal scheme of things. If God really is our Father, and if He truly loves us and desires only the best for us, then it stands to reason that He would be the strictest disciplinarian in the cosmos when dealing with unruly, rebellious children. If He weren't firm in making sure that we fully understood the consequences of our poor choices, we could grow to have great amounts of power with insufficient discipline to use that power correctly. If the nature of eternal progression is so structured that angels coexist with men and have some degree of autonomy, how much damage could one or two angels with spiritual affluenza cause? How much mischief, sorrow, and damnation could be achieved by angels running amok, lying to good men and helping bad men?

To this end, then, we can surmise that if God is truly a God of Love, and if He is our Father, and if we are eternal beings with no real beginning and no real end, then it stands to reason that He might also be called "the God of Experience" or "the God of Giving Experience". By allowing us to experience consequences (good and bad) that depend on the choices we make, God allows us to grow organically into what we truly want to be, just as disciplining a child allows them to understand the consequences of both following and ignoring correct principles of healthy behavior. That process would necessarily involve, from time to time, harsh lessons about the consequences of making the wrong choice. If we were to narrow our view of the nature of man and then view this same God of Experience, we might say that He looks an awful like a tyrannical God of Obedience because we don't understand the reasons He does what He does.

Having laid that groundwork, I think looking at Nephi's example of killing Laban is prudent.

Laban is a ranking military (and possibly civil) leader in Jerusalem circa 600 B.C. who has, in his possession, certain genealogical and scriptural records that the Lord wants Lehi to have. It is notable that, during this same era in history, Ezekiel had a vision in which he saw 25 men with their backs to the temple, worshiping the Sun in the East, who "commit... abominations... [and] they have filled the land with violence" (Ezekiel 8:15-18). This is a kind of secret combination that Moroni writes about in Ether 8:20, when he says that they are "had among all people". Certain elements of the story of Laban point to him being involved with this secret group, even if he wasn't one of the ones seen in the vision.

When Laman first approaches Laban to ask for the plates, Laban's reaction to the request is nonplussing. He declares that "thou art a robber, and I shall slay thee" (1 Nephi 3:13) and forcibly sends Laman away empty handed. After feeling sorry for themselves and their predicament, Nephi has the idea of trying to buy the plates from Laban with the goods that their father left behind during their flight to the wilderness. When they return with the goods, Laban "saw [their] property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust [them] out, and sent his servants to slay [them], that he might obtain [their] property" (1 Nephi 3:25). Whereas the first time he accused Laman of being a robber, he turns around and commits a type of robbery by stealing Lehi's goods. He then goes further and tries to have the boys killed so that he can obtain their property--a pattern of murder and theft we see established with Cain, who self-identified as Master Mahan when he realized that he could murder and "get gain".

We don't know what, exactly, Laban does immediately afterward. We do know that the next time he enters the narrative (a few hours later), he's passed out drunk near his house (1 Nephi 4:7). Later, Zoram would ask Nephi (who was disguised as Laban) concerning the "elders of the Jews", whom Laban was "out by night among" (1 Nephi 4:22). It would make sense that Laban was out cavorting and celebrating the increase to his newfound wealth--and it would make sense that those "elders of the Jews" were somehow connected to the conspiracy seen by Ezekiel.

At this point, it's important to look at a few key facets of ancient Israelite law. By falsely accusing Laman of being a robber, deciding that he was worthy of death, and then turning around and actually stealing from Laman and trying to kill him and his brothers to cover up the act, Laban broke or attempted to break at least 4 of the 10 Commandments (don't kill, bear false witness, murder, or covet). According to the principles found in Deuteronomy 19:16-21, anyone who accuses someone falsely of a crime "[t]hen shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother... thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot". Therefore, according to the principles of the Mosaic law--which Laban was covenentally obligated to abide by and uphold--Laban should have received the results of what he tried to do to Lehi's sons. Laban was worthy of death, according to the law which he had agreed to live by. And, if he were to die, it would be a fulfillment of the Golden Rule, too, because he would receive the very fate he sought to impose on someone else.

Moreover, Laban's death would ultimately serve Laban some good, if he allowed it. By ending his life, Laban was unable to hurt himself or anyone else spiritually. Through suffering the consequences of his actions in a hell of his own making, Laban would learn firsthand why he shouldn't have done all those things. Hopefully, that lesson would be learned, so that when the time of his redemption finally comes and he gets another chance, he will choose a better path.

But, why have Nephi do the killing?

Regarding the Lord's choice to have Nephi act as the executor (instead of simply having Laban die via heart attack or lightning bolt, or stay passed out), my friend claims that Nephi didn't learn "how to love". Is that idea accurate? Was showing love something that Nephi didn't know how to do? By commanding Nephi to kill Laban, was God conditioning Nephi to respond to violence with more violence? Later accounts in 1st and 2nd Nephi show that's not the case at all, as Laman and Lemuel's repeated attempts on Nephi's life are continually met with forgiveness, patience, and love--not violence. Nephi already knew how to love and forgive his enemies. That wasn't what Nephi needed to learn.

Nephi, by his openness to God's love and showing that love to his brothers, had already received a promise from God that he would be a "ruler and teacher" in the future, so long as he continued to keep the commandments of God (1 Nephi 2:16-24). He ended up being the first ruler of the righteous branch of Lehi's posterity in their promised land, and was so beloved by his people that they called every king after him "Nephi". That position of leadership and authority would require him to teach his people, show near superhuman amounts of patience and love, and even lead his people onto the field of battle to protect themselves against their enemies. Nephi's position would require him to understand the full breadth of the human experience, including the gravity and consequences of taking a life. Nephi was naturally a peacemaker and didn't want to kill, as evidenced by the fact that he recoiled at the Spirit's constraint to kill Laban. However, to be the kind of leader that the future Nephites would need, he needed to be able to make the hard choices when the time came. Cowardice or too much hesitation at a crucial moment could have meant the destruction of the Nephite people. The fact that Nephi would leave Jerusalem with the scriptural records, a fine sword, and a servant showed, symbolically, that Nephi was being prepared for a kingship role. In a very real sense, his experience in Jerusalem prepared him to be a righteous king in the future.

By having Nephi kill Laban, the Lord was expanding Nephi's pool of experience and knowledge of human nature. By giving him the grim experience of killing Laban, the Lord was showing Nephi the very dire consequences of continual rebellion against the principles of love and truth, and the difficulty faced by God Himself as He had to make His own hard choices. The entire lesson, as deep and poignant as it was, was summed up by the Spirit's words: "...the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief." (1 Nephi 4:13)

It really is better for an unrepentantly wicked man, who had no qualms about murder and theft and no regard for human life, to die than for an entire nation people to suffer in avoidable misery. God, as the God of Love, had teach both Laban and Nephi hard lessons about the consequences of sin. The way He chose to teach that lesson resulted in Laban dying at Nephi's hand. In so doing, God also showed how He works as the God of Experience.

Being obedient to the commandments of God results in us learning the lessons that God wants us to learn. Therefore, the commandments that God gives (both in general and in specific instances) are based upon the same set of stable, objective principles--although those commands might seem relative and conflicting at times. Learning the lessons God is giving us teaches us the fundamental principles upon which human nature and the entire universe operates. Learning those principles allows us to live in a fashion that allows us to do and be good. And doing and being good leads to being full of love--someone truly reflective of a God of Love.

**I omitted multiple references to the practice of polygamy and the doctrine of blood atonement among the early Latter-day Saints. I wanted to stick to the root issue (the so-called "God of Obedience") and avoid what is, to this discussion, complex but ultimately ancillary issues.