8 Keys to Transformative Scriptural Understanding
23 January 2023
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved scripture. My parents used scripture to teach me to read. As a child and teenager, I read both the Bible and all the Mormon scriptures – large portions of them countless times. And, although less thoroughly, I read scripture from other faith traditions too.
Even when I lost my faith as a young adult, scripture continued to fascinate me. At the time, it wasn’t because I maintained a traditional reverence toward scripture. But I still couldn’t help but recognize its exceptional cultural power. And, as it turned out, that recognition ended up playing a prominent role in my eventual return to faith.
In part because of faith transitions, and in part informing those transitions, I developed an unusual perspective on scripture. As is typical of the unusual, it provokes diverse and sometimes strong reactions. Some clearly consider my perspective on scripture to be strange, at best – or ridiculous or blasphemous. Others tell me that my perspective on scripture helped change their lives for the better.
The latter is how I feel about it. For me, the perspective on scripture that I developed has been nothing short of transformational. It was like a doorway from one world into another, that I didn’t and couldn’t even imagine before walking through it. And the new world is so much bigger, more beautiful, and more wonder-inspiring that I wouldn’t wish to return to the old, even if I could.
Reflecting on that, and in response to recurring questions from friends and acquaintances over the years, I thought there would be value in making an effort to articulate something of a framework for my perspective on scripture. In the least, it exercises introspection. But I’m also either arrogant or audacious enough to suppose that it stands a good chance of helping many more people. So, extending the doorway metaphor, I give you eight keys to transformative scriptural understanding.
Scripture Is an Expression of Doctrine
Christians esteem the Bible to be doctrine, or authoritative teachings. I share in that esteem in a general sense.
But some Christians claim that doctrine is limited to the Bible. For them, if a teaching isn’t in the Bible, it’s not doctrine. It has no Christian authority, at least ostensibly. For them, the Bible is the measure of authority.
For other Christians, such as I, the Bible is an expression of doctrine, and not the only expression. From our perspective, Christian authority transcends any particular text. The Bible remains important, but that importance is not exclusive. Something else measures the authority of the Bible.
In the Bible, Jesus claims, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me.” Jesus is a Jew speaking to Jews, but this doesn’t sound like an appeal to the authority of their Hebrew Bible. And it astonishes some who listen to him, “because he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the teachers of the law.”
In the Book of Mormon, Jesus defines his doctrine in these words:
“Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine.
“And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; … and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.
“And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God. …
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
“And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.”
As I understand these passages of scripture, they encourage us to recognize doctrine in a core idea, or set of ideas. It is that faith, repentance, and baptism lead to salvation. This is the Gospel or the good news that Jesus teaches, that he attributes to God, and that his disciples echo. For example, Joseph Smith echoes this core doctrine in the Articles of Faith:
“We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
Does that mean that everything else in the scriptures is NOT doctrine? I suggest that the answer to this question depends on how we interpret everything else in the scriptures. Are our interpretations in line with the core doctrine? If so, I would esteem those interpretations as expressions of doctrine.
Of course there’s some complexity here. I’ve talked about scripture being an expression of doctrine. But I’ve used scripture to define core doctrine. So even the definition of core doctrine is itself yet another expression of doctrine.
And if everything we can say or read about doctrine is only an expression of doctrine, how can we ever know doctrine in itself? Well, on the one hand, you might need to talk with a Platonist about that. Right now, you’re reading the words of a Pragmatist who doesn’t know or care much about things in themselves beyond experience.
On the other hand, the scriptures do claim that there is a core doctrine. And they do present that core doctrine as the Gospel of faith, repentance, and baptism leading to salvation. Later, I’ll explore some practical ways to approach consideration of those claims. In the meantime, what if the scriptures are wrong?
Scripture Is Fallible
Some religious persons consider their scripture to be infallible. They consider the text to be free of any kind of error or shortcoming. I can’t say whether that’s a coherent position in some other religion. But I consider it a rather incoherent position in Christianity, and particularly in Mormonism.
Most Christians esteem the Bible to contain knowledge and prophecy. And yet, in the Bible itself, Paul states bluntly that prophecies will cease and knowledge will pass away because both are only partial. Neither is complete. For completeness, he encourages us to look beyond knowledge and prophecy to love.
Likewise, the opening section of the Doctrine and Covenants acknowledges the limitations of scripture. Joseph Smith, writing in the voice of God, states:
“Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
“And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
“And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
“And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
“And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.”
From those statements, I gather that the authors of scripture and thus the scriptures themselves, have several weaknesses. They err and need instruction in wisdom. They sin and should repent. They lack knowledge and strength, which God helps them gain over time if they are humble.
Even the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith described as the “most correct of any book on Earth,” doesn’t claim to be perfect. To the contrary, on its title page, it implicitly acknowledges that it may contain faults that reflect the mistakes of its authors. An infallible book wouldn’t need such a disclaimer.
Some Christians reading this, unconvinced by Paul’s blunt acknowledgment that prophecies are always partial, are now frantically flipping through the pages of the good book to Deuteronomy 18:
“You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’
“If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.”
But, as it turns out, this is actually a perfect example of the fallibility of scripture. How so? Take a careful look at the story of Jonah, which is also in the Hebrew Bible. In that story, God commands Jonah to proclaim a message that does not take place or come true.
Which is it, then? Are prophets always right? Or are prophecies sometimes wrong, perhaps even intentionally? The Bible teaches both.
Mormon scripture also includes such contradictions. For example, in the Book of Mormon, Nephi declares:
“I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”
Then, in the Doctrine and Covenants, God commands the Church to build a temple in Jackson County, Missouri. But the Church fails to do so. And Joseph Smith, writing in the voice of God, explains that God retracts the command:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings.”
So again, which is it? Does God always prepare a way for us to accomplish God’s commands? Or does God sometimes give commands that God will later retract? The scriptures teach both.
The temptation, at this point, may be to throw the scriptures away. If they aren’t always right at all times and in all places, why bother? Well, maybe the point isn’t to be right in such an abstract way. Maybe the point is much more practical.
Scripture Must Be Useful
Just because something’s fallible doesn’t mean it’s useless. Just because someone is fallible doesn’t mean that you can’t trust that person. To the contrary, sometimes it’s precisely the shortcomings that lead to utility and trustworthiness.
Have you ever talked with someone who tried to start a business? How about someone who tried to win a race? Some focus on problems and failures. Some focus on successes and opportunities, even regarding failures as opportunities to learn.
In fact, the entire history of humanity lends itself to both. We can find problems and failures, and we can also find successes and opportunities. Often they consist of the same facts, regarded from different perspectives. Generally, we’ll find more of whatever we choose to look for.
The scriptures prominently feature at least two persons who exemplify the attitude of intentionally choosing to see value in problems and failures. One is Paul in the New Testament. The other is Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants. Both encourage us, through their words and actions recorded in scripture, to find utility in all of our experiences and, by extension, in all of our scriptures.
Of course, the scriptures encourage use for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training. They encourage us to meditate on them day and night. They encourage us to live by them. And people take that encouragement seriously, judging each other in accordance with scriptures.
The legalists love that utility. They leverage it to cultivate conformity through strict obedience to the scriptural interpretations of their preferred authorities. But they have a problem. His name is Jesus.
As depicted in the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly uses the scriptures to undermine legalistic interpretations of the scriptures. He doesn’t merely ignore the shortcomings of scriptures, and how they lend themselves to legalism. He actually speaks and acts in ways that aim to transform those weaknesses into strengths.
For example, Jesus summarizes the Hebrew Bible in two commands. First, he says, we should love God. And second, we should love each other as we love ourselves. These are inspiring ideas on their own, to be sure. But he’s claiming even more than that.
By presenting the two great commands as scriptural summaries, Jesus is criticizing other interpretations. If your interpretation merely creates psychological or social burdens for yourself or others, it’s out of line with Jesus’ summary. If your interpretation isn’t promoting love for God, as well as love for each other and for yourself, it’s out of line with Jesus’ summary. So he implicitly invites us to reconsider our interpretations, and the actions we take based on them, until they harmonize with his summaries.
Christians recognize Jesus as an exemple. And his example on this topic doesn’t disappoint. In word and deed, he positions the scriptures in service of humanity. And he harshly criticizes and even attacks those who would position humanity in service of the scriptures.
Jesus couldn’t set this example if he didn’t know the scriptures. He couldn’t use them to inspire and raise others, if he simply consented to the interpretations of the legalists. He couldn’t use the scriptures to criticize legalism if he didn’t know them as well or better than the legalists.
Religion is the most powerful social technology. And scriptures are perhaps its most powerful expression. Many have used that power for evil. But, as Jesus exemplifies, many have also used that power for good.
The trick with power, for better or worse, is that it MUST be managed. You cannot simply ignore it and hope that it will go away. If you don’t manage it, others will. And they might not use it the way that you think they should.
If you decide that scripture is simply old fashioned nonsense without applicability to our day, someone else will use its power. If you decide that scripture is a dangerous tool that no reasonable person should touch, someone else will pick it up. The power, if only for egotistical purposes, is too much for too many to ignore.
So scripture MUST be useful. We must make it so. And, I hope, we will make it so in ways that raise each other. Otherwise, if we decide it’s not useful, someone else is likely to use it against us.
In Psalms, the poet compares scripture to a lamp that lights our path. That reminds me of the story of the Brother of Jared, in the Book of Mormon. He brings some stones to God and asks God to illuminate them, to help his family through an approaching time of darkness. In my experience, the scriptures are much like those stones, lighting our path only to the extent that we act in trust that God can help us illuminate their utility.
Scripture Is Intentionally Provocative
Jonah’s prophecy fails. His claim that God would destroy Nineveh is fallible, even intentionally so. But, as the story goes, it provokes change. And that provocation is the main point, even if unstated in the explicit prophecy.
An Old Testament Proverb claims, “where there is no vision, the people perish” or “where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint.” There are at least a couple ways to interpret this. On the one hand, we could understand it to mean that true statements about the future are necessary to help us avoid self-destruction. On the other, we could understand it to mean that motivational statements about the future are necessary to help us avoid self-destruction.
Both of those interpretations seem reasonable to me. Accurate models of the future can certainly help us make better decisions in the present. However, a prophet doesn’t require anything akin to infallible detailed foreknowledge to prophesy, and motivational effect is always at least as important as true content. The best of our knowledge, on its own, is always insufficient if not presented to us in a way that motivates us to act on it to our benefit.
John, in the New Testament, tells us that he writes about Jesus to help us not only to believe but also to live. Paul tells us that the purpose of scripture is to provide hope. Alma, in the Book of Mormon, encourages us to experiment with desire to believe, and to let this desire work in us. In each of these cases and many others, the point of scripture is to provoke emotions and actions.
Jesus also engages in such provocation repeatedly. Anyone who is angry will be subject to judgment. Anyone who lusts has already committed adultery. Any who ridicules is in danger of the fire of hell.
What’s his point? Is Jesus simply out-legalizing the legalists? All of us have been angry, lusted, or ridiculed. So is Jesus just spitefully pointing out that we’re all unavoidably adulterers, subject to judgment, and in danger of the fire of hell?
Section 19 of the Doctrine and Covenants shares the key to understanding the purpose of scriptural provocation. Many Mormons seem not to take it seriously. And many of the those who do take it seriously seem to be offended by it. That’s because even the explanation for scriptural provocation is itself provocative:
“And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless.
“Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand.
“Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
“Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.”
Did you get that? God doesn’t use provocative scripture merely to share some supposed literal truth. Rather, God uses provocative scripture to “work upon the hearts of the children of men.” In other words, God uses provocative scripture to influence the way we feel and think, presumably to influence the way we act.
To what end? The scripture says that it would influence us for the glory of God. That sounds rather egotistical and, by extension, rather manipulative. At least, that’s how it sounds until you consider the idea in context of some other passages of scripture.
What is the glory of God? If God is attempting to provoke us to that end, what is that end? And is it anything other than the face-value egotism? The Book of Moses answers these questions plainly, stating that the work and glory of God is to bring about the immortality and eternal life of humanity.
Thus, the combination of these scriptures suggests that it is our own immortality and eternal life to which God would provoke us. And, apparently, scripture is only one of many means that God might use to provoke us:
“O, ye nations of the earth, how often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, but ye would not!
“How oft have I called upon you by the mouth of my servants, and by the ministering of angels, and by mine own voice, and by the voice of thunderings, and by the voice of lightnings, and by the voice of tempests, and by the voice of earthquakes, and great hailstorms, and by the voice of famines and pestilences of every kind, and by the great sound of a trump, and by the voice of judgment, and by the voice of mercy all the day long, and by the voice of glory and honor and the riches of eternal life, and would have saved you with an everlasting salvation, but ye would not!”
Consider the extremes. On the one hand, God would frighten us with thunder, lightning, tempest, earthquakes, hailstorms, pestilence, and judgment. On the other hand, God would inspire us with mercy, glory, honor, salvation, and eternal life. That is, at least, what the scripture says to provoke us.
Would God actually do horrible things to us, intentionally, if it would provoke us toward immortality and eternal life? How far would God actually go? I don’t know.
But remember. Paul says that prophecy will fail, at least on some level. And that’s because prophecy is less about mundane factual truth than it is about trustworthy provocation, as Jonah exemplifies and as Joseph teaches. As James puts it, “do not merely listen to the word” because faith without action is dead. Or, as Isaiah puts it, prophecy has a purpose:
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
When I think about the provocative purpose of scripture, and of religion on the whole, I’m reminded of a shocking assertion that Brigham Young once made. It’s something of a variation on a more mild form of the idea from the Revelation of John in the Bible. And, yes, it’s another provocation about the purported value of provocation:
“The plan of salvation is calculated to make devils as well as Saints; for by and by we shall need some to serve as devils; and it takes almost as much knowledge to make a complete devil as it does to fit a man to go into the celestial kingdom of God, and become an heir to His kingdom. We want to complete the education of a number of such fellows.”
Like many other provocative statements from scriptures and prophets, Brigham’s assertion has received considerable criticism. But critics should pause and reconsider his exceptionally honest insight. The provocative power of religion has never been used exclusively for good. Religion, like all power, can be and has been used to provoke both good and evil.
Scripture Is Esoteric
The scriptures have multiple and hidden meanings. That’s not simply because someone influential decided to help everyone feel good about divergent personal understandings of scripture. It’s actually intentional. The writers of scripture, themselves, actually intended multiple and hidden meanings.
How can we know that? We can know because the fact that the scriptures have hidden meanings is not one of their hidden meanings. To the contrary, they openly express an esoteric intent.
Run a scripture search for the words “hidden,” “secret,” or “mystery.” You’ll find many intriguing examples. Notably, Jesus himself acknowledges his own esotericism to his disciples, saying, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside everything is said in parables.”
Another notable example is Paul’s celebration of “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.” And he even tells us what it is! Well, what is it then? You’ll have to keep reading to find out.
For now, before sharing the secret, I want to point out why it matters. Esotericism matters because it facilitates communication with a diverse audience in an overall more constructive manner. It enables a text to communicate relatively simple ideas to persons who are less able or less willing to consider relatively complex ideas. And it simultaneously enables the text to communicate those relatively complex ideas to persons who are able and willing to consider them.
Esotericism also matters because it protects a diverse audience from each other. Some complex ideas are easily misunderstood in ways that might unfairly jeopardize the safety of those who advocate them. And some complex ideas are easily misapplied in ways that might inadvertently harm those who would practice them.
To illustrate, here’s a brief parable. A certain merchant, seeking goodly pearls, went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. As he journeyed, he found one pearl of great price, sold all that he had, bought it, and for joy thereof went rejoicing and showing the pearl. By chance, the merchant fell among thieves: and when they saw him rejoicing, they took his pearl, stripped him of his raiment, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
Sometimes I hear people talk about the importance of keeping our understandings and discussions of the Gospel simple. And by that, it seems, they often mean that we shouldn’t think too hard, question too deeply, or speculate too broadly about it. The scriptures do teach the importance, and even the power, of contextual simplicity. For example, Alma in the Book of Mormon observes that “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.”
Should we, then, passively embrace the apparent simplicity of the causes? Just thank God and turn off our brains? Surprisingly to some, that simple decision would also have complex effects – of the negative variety. As Hosea laments in the Old Testament, “my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.”
All of us need some simplicity, what the scriptures refer to as spiritual “milk,” at least at first and perhaps always from time to time. But we also need some substance, or what the scriptures refer to as spiritual “meat.” Isaiah claims that God will teach knowledge to “them that are weaned from the milk.” And Paul observes that “strong meat belongs to them that are of full age.”
In the Book of Mormon, Nephi criticizes those who make little or no effort to attain greater understanding. “After I have spoken these words,” he says, “if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.” Accordingly, as Nephi himself “desires to know of the mysteries of God,” he encourages us also to know them, saying those “that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them.”
Not all esotericism is good. One way that it can be bad is when it promotes arrogance. Paul addresses this concern in the New Testament, encouraging Christians not to abuse their knowledge to harm or needlessly offend others. And Nephi’s brother, Jacob, observes that “to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.”
Esotericism is also bad when it’s intentionally meaningless. Jacob criticizes those who seek after esotericism for its own sake. He says, “they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand.” Note that his criticism isn’t directed at people who seek things they don’t understand, yet. It’s directed at people who seek things they can’t understand, ever.
Jacob continues to elaborate, saying, “God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it.” Did you get that? Why does God give that which cannot be understood? Let’s look at that more closely.
Scripture Reflects Our Desires
Jacob says that God gives us that which we cannot understand because we desire it. If you revere scripture, this one should trouble you. It should trouble you a lot. It should trouble you every time you read any passage of scripture.
Later in the Book of Mormon, Alma recognizes the troubling ramifications of Jacob’s claim. For the fervent adherent, the desire begins so seductively:
“O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
“Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.”
Who wouldn’t want to proclaim, with such power, the words of their God? Who wouldn’t wish to express, with such reach, the ideas that most deeply motivate and inspire them? And here we are in the early 21st century, leveraging web and social technologies, perhaps to do just that! Isn’t it wonderful?
Well, keep reading. Alma proceeds to offer a sobering warning:
“But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.
“I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
“Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.”
Alma says that he sins when he wishes to impose his desires on everyone. Okay. That’s not too troubling. Most of us probably agree with that.
But he doesn’t stop there. No. He goes on, taking the idea to its theological conclusion: God won’t even impose God’s desires on everyone. Did you get that?
Look again. Jacob says that God grants to humanity according to our desires, not just to life but also to death. And he says that God even makes unalterable decrees according to our wills, not just to salvation but also to destruction.
God makes unalterable decrees according to our wills to destruction? Yes. That’s what the scripture says. And, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, Mormon scripture lends itself to the position that ethics is ultimately founded in desire.
But surely God wouldn’t do that through the scriptures themselves? Isn’t this just a warning about non-scriptural influences? Wouldn’t God ensure that scriptures and our interpretations of them only reflect prophetic desire for life and salvation?
In the New Testament, Peter assures us that “prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” But this doesn’t say, nor could it reasonably limit, what God takes into consideration when inspiring the authors of scripture. Nor does it say that God limits our desires when we interpret scripture.
To the contrary, although Peter describes “the prophetic message as something completely reliable,” he actually goes on to give us plenty of reasons to be careful. He recognizes the risks of false prophets. And he also recognizes the risks of poor scriptural interpretation:
“His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other scriptures, to their own destruction.”
Joseph Smith revered the Bible as the word of God only “as far as it is translated correctly.” Even then, he didn’t revere all of it. For example, he claimed that the “Songs of Solomon are not inspired writings.” And, as evidenced by his own translation of the Bible, Joseph understood “translated correctly” to entail major modifications and additions to the text.
Confronted with this complex approach to evaluating the Bible, Mormons may be tempted to take a simplistic solace in the Book of Mormon. But remember, as discussed previously, the Book of Mormon rejects its own infallibility. It even rejects its own sufficiency, making appeals to the need for future scripture, “sealed up … in the day of the wickedness and abominations of the people.” And Brigham Young affirms that our desires are responsible for these scriptural insufficiencies (Journal of Discourses 9: 311):
“Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. If the people are stiff-necked, the Lord can tell them but little.”
In context of such risks, how can we identify a prophet, a prophetic speech, or a prophetic text? Given that they and we are both human, how can we know when someone is expressing and we are receiving destructive commands, as Alma warns? How can we identify scriptures and interpretations that we can trust in matters of life and salvation?
Scripture Comes From the Sublime Esthetic
This is a challenge that’s common to all domains of human life. What or who should we trust? And why?
Most poignantly, can we even trust ourselves to identify that which is trustworthy beyond ourselves? In the process, which of our own thoughts and feelings should we trust? Which of our own desires should we trust? And what, if anything, makes these parts of ourselves trustworthy?
Some are tempted to think that we should try to avoid trust altogether. Reason alone should ultimately be enough, they suppose. But, in practice, that’s simply impossible. The complexities of real life, everywhere and always, demand a dynamic trust.
But we need not trust indiscriminately. We can use reason in an effort to improve our application of trust. We can use whatever wisdom we might have, hopefully better to identify whatever inspiration we might have. Then, perhaps, we can begin to identify words that we can trust and esteem as scripture.
Joseph Smith observed that “nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the Spirit of God.” The word “spirit” lends itself to numerous understandings, some of which can be superstitious and impractical. However, one practical way to understand “spirit” is as “esthetic,” with esthetic being a feeling or sense that inspires or otherwise motivates us – for better or worse.
By this understanding, Joseph’s claim would be that nothing harms humanity more than mistaking evil esthetics for good esthetics, or harmful motivation for helpful inspiration. And, by extension, nothing’s worse than thinking our interpretation of scripture comes from good esthetics, when it doesn’t. That’s a big claim.
Many things harm humanity. Are evil esthetics the worst? Maybe so, especially if we understand evil esthetics to lead to evil religion. And when religion has been evil, when people have applied the most powerful social technology in evil ways, that has unleashed some of the worst atrocities in human history.
So how do we avoid evil esthetics? We should “try the spirits,” Joseph said. And for that, we need the “spirit of discernment.” In other words, we should use an esthetic of discernment to test other esthetics, in an effort to identify and avoid acting on evil esthetics.
But what’s that esthetic of discernment? What’s the sense that would help us judge other senses and identify those we should trust? Section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants offers this account of discernment:
“Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?
“And if it be by some other way it is not of God.
“And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?
“If it be some other way it is not of God.
“Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth?
“Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.
“And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.
“That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”
Another way to think of the “spirit of truth” is as the “esthetic of truth” or as “trustworthy esthetics.” And what are trustworthy esthetics? According to the scripture, trustworthy esthetics are a combination of understanding and edification. And trustworthy esthetics are shared experiences, where everyone participates in the understanding, as well as the edification.
The scripture compares trustworthy esthetics to light, growing brighter and brighter. Elaborating on this metaphor in the Book of Mormon, Alma explains that light is good “because it is discernible.” Trustworthy esthetics are such, first and foremost, because they are discernible, because they lend themselves to the possibility of mutual understanding. In contrast, if an esthetic doesn’t lend itself to understanding, how could it even begin to be trustworthy?
Beyond that, how could understanding be trustworthy if it, in turn, doesn’t lend itself to mutual edification? Discernment leading to understanding is only the beginning. Understanding or knowledge is just power. And power can be applied in both good and evil ways.
So trustworthy esthetics must be not only discernible, but also conducive to edification. When experienced, trustworthy esthetics must promote for and in us that which we would recognize as our well being and happiness. To describe this aspect of trustworthy esthetics, Alma uses another metaphor, the fruit of the tree of life, “which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.”
Earlier in the Book of Mormon, Lehi takes the metaphor one important step farther. In a dream, he eats the fruit of the tree of life, which he too describes as “most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted … [and] it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy.” Immediately upon having this experience, he continues, “I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also.” Part of his family comes and eats the fruit, and shares in an experience of that which is “most precious and most desirable above all other fruits.”
Light is discernible. The fruit of the tree of life makes us happy. These metaphors characterize trustworthy esthetics. Again, as described by Joseph Smith, these are esthetics of mutual understanding and shared edification.
These esthetics are trustworthy precisely because, by definition, they characterize that which is worthy of trust in practice. As we pursue mutual understanding, reconciling accounts of our diverse experience into epistemic atonement, we are more likely to approach truth – formalized, this is the scientific method. As we pursue shared edification, reconciling accounts of our diverse desire into ethical atonement, we are more likely to approach goodness. From such truth and goodness, empowered beyond anything that we could possibly do alone, trust even arises naturally, whether or not we explicitly recognized it as worthy of trust in advance.
Ultimately, these esthetics are trustworthy because they’re conducive to thriving. They are feelings and senses that inspire and motivate us in practical ways toward ever greater potential. At their limit, they provoke us toward Godhood, which is our holy or sublime potential. Because of that, I like to call these esthetics, collectively, the “sublime esthetic.”
In the New Testament, Paul charges us to “avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.” If we understand God and godliness as the epitome of thriving, that makes a lot of sense. When we indulge in thoughts and words that denigrate each other, ignoring or marginalizing or attacking our sublime potential, we undermine motivation to change toward better versions of ourselves, or to participate in efforts to make a better world. This is particularly so when we indulge interpretations of scripture that denigrate each other, in an attempt to lend authoritative weight to such denigration.
Instead, Paul encourages, “let your conversation be always full of grace.” He would, I imagine, insist that we extend this grace through our interpretation and use of texts that purport to be scripture. If we’re tempted to think that a text could be used to tear someone else down, we should recognize in this a lack of grace. And we should esteem such use as rendering the text altogether unscriptural, at least in that context.
In the Book of Mormon, Nephi warns us against the “precepts of men.” He characterizes such precepts as those which reject the possibility of miracles, focus on short term desires, marginalize long term risks, ignore oppression of the poor, promote sexual promiscuity, and pacify concern for improvement. He says that even the “humble followers of Christ … in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.” And his warning is echoed in Mormon temple ceremony, which attributes to Satan the teaching of “philosophies of men mingled with scripture.”
Some have misunderstood Nephi’s warning, thinking that he criticizes philosophy in general. But Nephi includes an important clarification:
Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.
In other words, Nephi’s warning only applies when the precepts or philosophies don’t come from the Holy Ghost. A practical way to understand “ghost,” like “spirit,” is as “esthetic” – again, as a feeling or sense that inspires or otherwise motivates us. And I also find it can be helpful to understand “holy” as “sublime.” Accordingly, Nephi’s warning wouldn’t apply to precepts or philosophies that come from the sublime esthetic.
Indeed, Nephi recognizes the value of precepts and philosophies that come from God. The first he recognizes explicitly. And the second he recognizes implicitly, in terms of “wisdom,” as “philosophy” literally means “love of wisdom” in Greek. Here’s what he says:
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
This is consistent with Paul’s thoughts about wisdom, expressed in the New Testament. He says that he “did not come with eloquence or human wisdom.” But note the qualification, “human wisdom,” like the qualification that Nephi uses in “precepts of men.” Like Nephi, who still advocates for precepts of God, Paul still advocates for the wisdom of God.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.
No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.
I’ll call your attention to two things in these words from Paul. First, he mentions the hidden mystery again. And I’m still planning to tell you what that is. Second, he identifies “our glory” as the purpose of preaching the wisdom of God, in contrast to preaching human wisdom that is “coming to nothing.”
As I understand these words of Nephi and Paul, they categorize approaches to wisdom, and thus approaches to identifying and interpreting scripture, in two general ways. One way is that of humans that are content to be as we are, informed by a mundane esthetic. The other way is that of humans who aspire to change, to transform, even to become glorified like God, inspired by the sublime esthetic.
Remember that the sublime esthetic is not in private understanding or egotistical edification. But rather it’s in mutual understanding and shared edification. And, by implication, as much as a writer must work to imbue text with the sublime esthetic, a reader must also work to the same end. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith calls attention to the necessity of reading by inspiration of the sublime esthetic:
Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha — There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;
There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men.
Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated.
Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;
And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;
And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen.
Here, Joseph refers to the Apocrypha, which is a collection of texts that some Christians formally recognize as scripture, beyond the standard collection of texts in the Bible. He points out that the Apocrypha is fallible. But it also contains truth that can benefit those who read it by the Spirit, or what I have described as the sublime esthetic. Such readers will seek mutual understanding and shared edification from the text.
I suspect, although he doesn’t say so explicitly, Joseph would have extended this observation to text or words in general. It’s not enough for someone to write by inspiration of the sublime esthetic. Someone must also read by inspiration of the sublime esthetic. Otherwise, by its very nature as something that must be shared, it’s not the sublime esthetic.
So it’s not enough for some supposed authority to tell us that a text is scripture. We must experience it as scripture. And the experience of scripture is, first and foremost, “full of the Spirit and life.” First and foremost, scripture comes from the sublime esthetic.
The sublime esthetic is in mutual understanding, teaching us all things and guiding us to all truth. The sublime esthetic is in shared edification, everything that inspires us to do good. Without it, no one can dependably discover scripture. Just as importantly, with the sublime esthetic, all can dependably create scripture.
We Can Create Scripture
Christians often refer to scripture, particularly the Bible, as “the word of God” or even just “the word.” But the Bible passes that title on to God. The opening verse of the first chapter of the Gospel of John equates the Word with God. And the chapter goes on to claim that the Word becomes flesh as Jesus Christ.
If the Word is God, and if they are the source of scripture, then they would be synonymous with the sublime esthetic. John would be saying that God is the sublime esthetic. And he would be saying that the sublime esthetic not only creates scripture, but also becomes embodied and ultimately glorified as Jesus Christ. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith elaborates on the embodiment and glorification of the Word:
Therefore, in the beginning the Word was, for he was the Word, even the messenger of salvation —
The light and the Redeemer of the world; the Spirit of truth, who came into the world, because the world was made by him, and in him was the life of men and the light of men.
The worlds were made by him; men were made by him; all things were made by him, and through him, and of him.
And I, John, bear record that I beheld his glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us.
And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace;
And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness;
And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.
Joseph’s elaboration is consistent with my characterization of the sublime esthetic. The sublime esthetic is full of truth, the light of the world, which is discernible for mutual understanding. The sublime esthetic is full of grace, the messenger of salvation, which is good news for shared edification.
Joseph’s elaboration is also consistent with the practical consequences that I attribute to the sublime esthetic. As potential thriving, the sublime esthetic doesn’t begin in a fullness of truth and grace. Rather, it progresses toward a fullness of realized thriving.
But wait. If that’s what the sublime esthetic is and how it works, and if that’s a sufficient account of how Jesus thrives, why wouldn’t we have the same potential as Jesus? Why would only Jesus have potential to embody and glorify the sublime esthetic? Well, let’s keep reading Joseph’s elaboration:
I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness.
For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.
And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn;
And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn.
Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth;
Did you get that? Speaking in the voice of God, Joseph says that all of us have the same origin and potential as Jesus. As the sublime esthetic, we too were in the beginning, like Jesus. Now we too have embodied the sublime esthetic, like Jesus. And like Jesus, we too have potential to glorify the sublime esthetic in a fullness of truth and grace.
This is theosis, the idea that humanity can and should become God, like God, or one in God. Theosis is found in the Bible and is among the oldest teachings of Christianity, still expressed today in different ways by different denominations. I’ve written extensively about theosis, including articles about Jesus inviting all to the titles and roles of Christ, communities becoming like God, and decentralization of God.
Theosis, in the words of Paul, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” It’s “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.” I told you I’d share the mystery. There you go.
For our purposes, here, let’s make explicit one implication of theosis. If God or the Word or the sublime esthetic is the creator of scripture, and if we have the same potential, couldn’t we too be the creators of scripture? If we might ultimately function as God, couldn’t we at least function as prophets along the way? In that spirit, the Bible tells a brief story about prophetic potential.
However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. … Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp.
A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”
Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”
But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”
Moses is widely esteemed to be the archetypal prophet – the primary example of a prophet. Tradition attributes authorship of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible to him. And therein, as quoted here, we read that Moses would have us all be prophets. He wishes that God would give us all the sublime esthetic, from which prophecy and scripture originate.
Moses isn’t alone. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Joel declares that God would give the sublime esthetic to everyone, men and women, old and young. And the New Testament affirms Joel’s declaration, quoting it word for word.
But, as potential prophets and creators of scripture, we have a responsibility. As Paul describes it, we should do our best to correctly handle the word of truth. Or, as the Book of Mormon warns, we shouldn’t transfigure the holy word of God to get gain, financially or otherwise.
How do we best live up to that responsibility? I recommend that we keep in mind and heart, soberly and fervently, all of the former keys and particularly the previous, that prophecy and scripture come from the sublime esthetic. Whether we discover or create the words, and no matter how others may characterize the words, if their esthetic is not one of mutual understanding and shared edification, it’s not the sublime esthetic. And if it’s not the sublime esthetic, we’re not living up to our prophetic potential in any effort to create scripture.
I’ve offered eight keys that, for me, opened the doorway to a transformative understanding of scripture. For easy reference, here are the keys again in list form:
- Scripture is an expression of doctrine.
- Scripture is fallible.
- Scripture must be useful.
- Scripture is intentionally provocative.
- Scripture is esoteric.
- Scripture reflects our desires.
- Scripture comes from the sublime esthetic.
- We can create scripture.
Sometimes we can have tools available and still not be sure how to use them. So I’ll elaborate, just a bit more, by providing a general example of how to use these keys. Imagine, with me, that you and I are reading a passage of the Bible together – any passage, but it may be helpful to imagine some specific passage that comes to mind right now. And imagine that we pause after reading it to discuss what it means, along the following lines.
First, let’s agree to assume, at least provisionally, that this passage of text could be an expression of doctrine. It’s fallible, so it doesn’t need to be perfect. But we must participate in an effort to make it useful, if we’re going to esteem it as scripture.
How could it be useful? How might the author have intended to provoke us, overtly and esoterically? How might the text provoke us despite any intent from the author? And what utilities might arise naturally from such provocation, for us individually, between the two of us, and at a communal scale beyond us?
Perhaps most revealing, how are our desires informing the way we’re now reacting to and discussing the text? How does it make you and me feel? Are we able and willing to discern and describe that? And what do we think about those feelings?
Finally, how might we interpret, elaborate on, or even rewrite the text to magnify the sublime esthetic? How could we give it more light for mutual understanding? How could we give it more life for shared edification? Are we willing and able to let the text point us in that direction?
In my experience, this framework and such questions can be helpful when applied to written scripture, like the Bible. And they can also be helpful when applied to unwritten scripture. For example, you might use them during reflection on personal feelings that could be inspiration. Or you might use them when considering words from a speaker that could be prophetic.
In any case, my hope and expectation, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that these things will prove helpful – at this moment, helpful to you in particular. Thank you for making time to read. If you have questions, I welcome them. And if you decide to use these keys, please consider telling me about your experience, either as a comment below or privately.
By the way, I’m giving away nine unique NFTs (non-commercial personal-use contracts on the Ethereum blockchain) for the artwork in this article. They’re going, randomly, to nine people who currently own any other NFT for my artwork. Thanks for your support!