Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 1 Nephi 1

Hey all! Last April I wrote a post where I promised to do a Swedenborgian interpretation of the Book of Mormon, something I didn't end up actually doing. However, since the Church's Gospel Doctrine lessons this year are focused on the Book of Mormon, I thought that now would be as good a time to start as ever. In fact, I now (hopefully) want to write a post each week to go with the lesson in that Gospel Doctrine manual. That way I get to live out my fantasy of being a Sunday School teacher.
However, I'm going to interpret the Book of Mormon by drawing on more resources than just Swedenborg. I want to use a whole bunch of mythic, religious, and artistic resources to draw out hidden meanings from this work of scripture. I justify this by saying that all images in the Book of Mormon--notwithstanding their historicity--reflect an internal "necessity" inherent to similar images. You'll see what I mean as I get further on in the post.
To start out with, we'll analyze some passages from the first chapter of 1 Nephi. Enjoy!

1 Nephi 1:5-6

To begin with, consider the image that begins the Book of Mormon's narrative:
5 Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people.
6 And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much; and because of the things which he saw and heard he did quake and tremble exceedingly.
A pillar of fire pops up in a few places throughout scripture, notably in Exodus 13, where God appears as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and in Helaman 5, where a pillar of fire appears around Nephi and Lehi in a Lamanite prison. We can discern a similarity in each of these cases: the fire helps one see. Nephi wrote that his father saw and heard much, as if he wouldn't have been able to learn without the fire's light. In Exodus, the pillar guides; it shows the Israelites the way in what would otherwise remain unknown wilderness. And in Helaman, the pillar of fire gives the impetus that allows the prisoners there to develop a faith (compared with sight in Alma 5:15, among other places) that will later completely change the Nephite-Lamanites dynamic in the promised land.
A pillar of fire therefore always illuminates, in this case whatever Lehi didn't yet know. Emanuel Swedenborg actually writes this in his symbolic interpretation of the Exodus passage, where he says that a pillar of fire represents an "illustration of good." However, the fact that this fire takes the form of a pillar has other connotations. A pillar connects the above to the below: it extends all the way from the ceiling (a cognate of the French word ciel, which means heaven, itself a derivative of the Latin word caelum) to the ground. Likewise, we see pillars connecting earth and heaven in religious traditions the world over. For instance, the "Djed Pillar" of ancient Egypt functioned as a representation of both the Pharaoh and Osiris, and the Egyptians would raise it upright from a prone position to commemorate the climax and perceived rebirth of the new Pharaoh. Here the Pharaoh himself--as a "type" of the dying-and-reborn Osiris--points to the pillar's linking function. Like with Christ's role as mediator between God and humanity, the Pharaoh functioned as a god among men, the link that kept the world of the gods and the world of humans connected. Pharaoh--like Christ--is a pillar that keeps the earth and heaven conjoined.
One could also read the pillar of fire in terms of the spinal column in Kundalini Yoga. As a practitioner of Kundalini Yoga myself, the exercises make my spine--naturally pillar-like--feel like it's on fire. As with the other examples I've mentioned, Kundalini Yoga sees the spine as a link between heaven (microcosmically represented in the upper chakras) and earth (represented in the lower chakras). In fact, one could productively read the rock upon which the pillar of fire dwelt as a parallel to the Root Chakra: made of earth, it provides a base for a pillar that goes up indefinitely into the heavens.
We can therefore start to see a pillar of fire as a vertical connection between opposites. It connects the above to the below and the below to the above; it reveals heaven on earth, the "Spirit of God" burning "like a fire" upon the ordinariness of an everyday rock. Hence this image is perhaps the one that best describes the Mormon phenomenon: in this religion, where God is a man and miracles occurred alongside steam engines and the telegraph, we see the spiritual or the supernatural (a revelation of fire from heaven) as it dwells in/through/upon the everyday (a rock). The pillar of fire dwelling upon a rock suggests that spiritual fire naturally inheres in the ordinary, the plain, or the common. That, anyway, would seem to be what the Book of Mormon suggests when Nephi says that he "glories in plainness." The plain and simple truths are a manifestation fire's "unspeakable glory" upon a simple boulder. What was a representation of life's absurdity for Camus and Sisyphus becomes for us a window to the divine; the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone.

1 Nephi 1:8-12

If we move on to a subsequent image in the text, consider the following passage from later in the chapter:
8 And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.
9 And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day.
10 And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament.
11 And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth; and the first came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read.
12 And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord
When the passage talks about God sitting upon His throne and an angel descending out of heaven whose "luster was above that of the sun at noonday," the image resembles other Mormon theophanies or visions of God, Joseph's Smith's first vision as a case in point. And the comparison of a revealed God with the sun is not a new image. Swedenborg explicitly says that God appears to the angels in the highest heaven as a sun, for instance, and there are sun deities in pantheons from all over the world. But perhaps the most penetrating insight on this image comes from the Chinese divination text called the I Ching, specifically by combining the trigrams of "fire" and "heaven" into the thirteenth hexagram, Fellowship with Men. The "image" for the hexagram illuminates this point:
Heaven together with fire:
The image of fellowship with men.
Thus the superior man organizes the clans
And makes distinctions between things
There are many fires; rage, lust, artistic passion, and determination all act as manifestations of mental flame. However, when fire appears together with a heavenly angel, its meaning gets restricted to a specific set of connotations. Specifically, fire combines with heaven to make a spiritual warmth. Instead of rage, we get fervor; instead of lust, we get tenderness; instead of ambition, we get faith. Whereas fire would have to burn through earth or boil water, fire goes together with the heavens. Fire is at home in the above, so this coherence of one image in the other suggests the meaning behind the I Ching's interpretation of that symbolic combination. We can see "heaven together with fire" in many kinds of "fellowship with men" [and women]: the tender family moments the LDS Church so often touts, a ward's camaraderie, or the heavenly love that both that Church and Swedenborg say can only exist between a husband and wife. There, sparks of passion don't flare up but instead glow warmly. The burning is in the bosom--the heart--and not restricted to the loins. I therefore suggest that Lehi's vision foreshadows later developments in Mormon doctrine: the fire is in the sky, letting upward drive of fire reach its goal, combining the warm intensity of love with the purity of spirit.
The hexagram also implies why the Church takes roles so seriously. Fire doesn't just give us pleasant warmth but also refinement and purification. Swedenborg once said that a substance becomes more perfect to the extent its parts are "distinguishably one," and fire brings about just this in whatever it burns: it lets "the above" rise as smoke and "the below" fall as ash. In other words, fire judges. When the angel suddenly has a train of twelve others following him, you can easily see correspondences to the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve apostles, each an image of judgment into parts. Fire lets what has knotted itself to other things return to its own proper place; it makes it so "light cleaveth unto light." So no one should be surprised that the LDS Church emphasizes the distinct roles of men, women, and children even today: to elevate fire into the heavens is to let fire accomplish heaven's aim toward purity. In the Church, no one claim purity just by staying "as is;" fire must do the spirit's work. Purity becomes purification, no longer a state of being but instead an active verb. And so naturally one sees in the Church both a) an emphasis on works as opposed to grace and b) a doctrinal focus on eternal progression. Fire, like truth, will out; it will eventually die if you don't feed it more fuel for it to purify.
That's that for this post. Check back next week (hopefully) for another along the same lines!

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