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Great Works Begin with Small Tools

7 February 2024

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During Sunday School, I led the congregation in a discussion about chapters 16 through 18 of First Nephi in the Book of Mormon. While preparing for and during the discussion, I was again inspired by the way these chapters repeatedly position technology in service of divine goals.

Lehi finds a brass compass or Liahona, of “curious workmanship,” which serves to guide his family through the wilderness, pointing the right path forward. Nephi fashions a bow, and follows instruction from the Liahona to find prey, saving his family from starvation. God commands Nephi to build a ship, also of “curious workmanship,” despite lacking experience or even knowledge of shipbuilding, using tools he also crafts himself. These episodes depict progress, spiritual and practical, that is dependent on readiness to employ new tools and technologies, guided by inspiration, and aligned with our divine potential.

The Liahona is, of course, reminiscent of modern technological breakthroughs that guide us. The GPS in our mobile device shows us the blind alleys and the quickest routes, while detailed weather forecasts assist in our travel plans. AI tools have even begun to help us identify and diagnose disease. Like the Liahona, these artifacts of modern technology offer guidance, support, and aid during our journey through life.

Life often resembles the arduous journey that Lehi’s family takes through the wilderness. It is full of unexpected turns, stumbling blocks, and a constant need for adaptation and resilience. The trek through the wilderness in these chapters can be seen as a metaphor for life, where we navigate through challenges, learn from our mistakes, and hopefully, grow wiser and kinder in the process.

Taking the metaphor farther, we can understand the sea at the end of the journey through the wilderness as a poignant symbol for death – something that appears far too great for us to overcome. And we can understand the ship to be a symbol of technologies that may one day facilitate ordinances of transfiguration and resurrection. Just as the ship, built through divine inspiration and human skill, carries Lehi’s family safely across the mighty sea, so may future technologies of “curious workmanship” help us transcend mortality.

The Mormon tradition emphasizes the idea that “the glory of God is intelligence,” encouraging education, learning, and the application of knowledge – including technology and its creative uses. This isn’t a passive waiting for salvation, but rather an active engagement with the means that God provides for us to participate in and achieve divine goals. And those goals, God’s work and glory as expressed explicitly in scripture, are to bring about the immortality and eternal life of humanity.

Critics might ridicule such an audacious investment in technology, aimed at human enhancement, radical life extension, and overcoming death. Nephi was also ridiculed by his brothers when he took God’s commands to build a ship seriously. “Our brother is a fool,” they supposed.

However, like Nephi, we can persist in trust that God has given and yet will give us the means. And we can insist on acting to console and heal and raise the dead, as Jesus commands his disciples. And, perhaps like Nephi, our persistent trust and insistent action may prove our critics wrong. More importantly, we may ultimately experience realization of the most beautiful visions of prophecy.

We now stand before the prospect of staggering technological advances. Life extension, greatly enhancing mental and physical capabilities, arguably even technological resurrection, are becoming distinct possibilities. Like tools and shipbuilding for Nephi, these technologies can seem strange and intimidating. But they may also operate as divine gifts, helping us navigate the seas of mortal peril towards a promised land of sublime life and superintelligence.

If we still believe, if we can still manage to believe, that God will yet reveal many great and important things, we should not shy away from the possibility of applying technology to participate in achieving divine goals. Nephi asserts, after explaining how the Liahona works, “thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.” By extrapolation, we see that by small tools God can bring about great works.

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