Kolob and Kokaubeam

The Pearl of Great Price is one of the most wonderful and perplexing books of scripture in all Mormondom. Its origins are confusing! Its translation is a mystery! Its applicability is tentative! And yet from it, from the Book of Abraham in particular, we derive and flesh out some of our most interesting concepts: the Pre-existence, the War in Heaven, the nature of Godhood and more.

It’s also where we learn about Kolob.

I love to fixate on the trivia about Kolob: the great star nearest to where God abides, where a day lasts a thousand years. One of our more interesting (and repetitive) hymns uses Kolob as a point of departure to sound out the depths of eternity. Abraham 3 provides details of the eternal world that is only matched, IMHO, by John’s description of the pearly gates in Revelation. It’s wild and mystical and intergalactic and confusing, and I love it. It represents the apex of the free and fast revelation coming through Joseph Smith, and no matter how confusing or controversial I still find a real sense of the Restoration in it.

Sometimes, though I also get the distinct impression that Kolob is unimportant. It has absolutely no bearing on how I worship or act or anything else. It’s trivia, something odd from the Restoration that we don’t fully understand and are more likely to put up on the shelf than to lose our minds trying to scrutinize.

At the same time, Abraham 3 contains a principle which I consider to be more important — and I’m not talking about the description of the Council in Heaven. Instead, I find myself drawn to the principle repeated several times in slightly different formulations through the chapter:

v. 8: And where these two facts exist, there shall be another fact above them…
v. 16: If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them…
v. 18-19: …if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal. And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.

Let’s call this, for wont of a better term, the Comparative Principle. This sounds interesting to me: if there are two things that invite comparison, and one is superior to another, then somewhere there is another thing superior to both. The Comparative Principle is applicable to many domains, and lately I’ve found it worthwhile to consider it in fields of human achievement: when someone is smarter, when someone is stronger, when someone is more wealthy. When I feel inclined to compare myself to someone else, either to crow my superiority or complain in jealousy, the Comparative Principle reminds me that there’s always someone smarter, someone stronger, someone better off — and that at the summit is God. Knowledge of a continuing hierarchy is part of what the Comparative Principle is about, but the capstone is the understanding that for us, God is at the top no matter how far up the chain we look. I’m no scholar, and I make for a weak scriptorian. I’m sure someone else has long ago thought of this and written something brilliant about it.

Robert Frank’s book Richistan looks at the wealthy in the United States and describes their lifestyle as if it were a different country with different foods, customs and an odd dialect. Its inhabitants, all of them with cash of at least $10 million, have their own health care system, their own transportation system, and their own middle-class protestations. But despite having anything in the world they desire, the uber-rich still complain of not having enough and of being relatively poor. Dan Gross summarizes the dilemma by saying, “what makes people unhappy is being around people who have a lot more than them. That forces us into this arms race — you see the big house next to yours, you want to put on an addition.”

These rich bastards are utterly insulated and are living lives of pampered delusion, to be sure; but how are they different than most Americans, or for that matter, most of Western civilization? We’re filthy rich, all of us, comparatively speaking, and we all live in self-imposed dreamlands of what our “wants” and “needs” really are. I don’t mean this to sound condemnatory, but simply to reflect the fact of our Western wealth in the face of global poverty. We’re also better educated, healthier and stronger that the rest of the world (chiefly thanks to our money). But think of the Comparative Principle; we are not really rich or strong or wise — there is always someone better off. No matter how bright we think our star is shining, we’re not the source of the light. Kolob would be just another ball of gas without God.

Comments

  1. Probably the single best line in George Lucas’ “The Phantom Menace” is Qui-Gon saying “There’s always a bigger fish,” as they are nearly eaten by some large fish underwater, a fish in the nick of time, eaten by a bigger fish.

  2. ha! Dan, I came very close to quoting that line. Unfortunately that movie sucked.

  3. One of my favorite websites for a heavy dose of humility is the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Reminds me daily that we are nothing. But, owing to our relative material wealth, we arent nothing, so we really should do something about it.

  4. Gregg Easterbrook has a book called “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse”. It’s pretty insightful, although not as much as his the-NFL-as-observed-as-a-Brookings-scholar column for espn.com.

    He tracks the same basic idea — that even though we have more, we’re miserable.

  5. Steve, I too often think along the same lines as you are here. However, I think the wealth of our nation does inhibit our ability to live frugally in two ways.

    1.- The Comparative Principle has it’s evil cousin, where we are denied work or opportunities for being a non-conformist. If you are an up and coming manager in a firm, but the other managers all play golf, are into cars, etc, you either get in line with their interests or you may get passed up for opportunities.

    2.- The Government disables certain abilities of ours to live in certain conditions. I can not drive a car that does not pass inspection criteria, even if I own the car. I can not live in a house that does not pass certain criteria. I can not run a buisiness without being in compliance with Governing laws.

    1 and 2 may be the same thing when you get down to it.

  6. Matt – So the idea, then, is to find a consulting company that specializes in hiring corporate iconoclasts. Brilliant!

  7. IconoclastDX says:

    You might not have meant this article to sound condemnatory but I’m of the opinion that most of us need it – speaking of the church collectively and not to the these readers individually. I realize that humans are naturally creatures of immediacy and the tangible, but the pervasive ignorance – or worse, lip service – we give to our role in rectifying the gaping disparity between the privileged and the underclass is a huge sore spot for me. Call me judgmental (please), but I cant help but flinch when I pull into my Sunday meeting and and see that only a handful of vehicles under $40K. I would frankly be embarrassed invite the Lord to one of my sacrament meetings if it meant wading through the pomp and ostentatious parking lot. I have a hard time imagining the mental bulkheads that must be erected in someones moral sense of justice to be able to throw down an extra five grand for 17″ alloys and running boards and then drive to the one pure and undefiled religion.
    /rant

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Just a linguistic note on some of these weird words. Some of them are actually straight Hebrew. This gets obscured a little bit because Joseph transliterated them using the sephardic system he learned from Joshua Seixas, not the modern academic system we are more familiar with today.

    So, for instance, Joseph’s kokaubeam would more commonly be written kokabim today, but it’s the same word. Joseph just used “au” to represent the vowel qamets and “ea” to represent chireq-yod.

    Similarly, Joseph’s gnolaum would more commonly be written ‘olam today. Again we see “au” standing for qamets. What really throws people off is that the Sephardic system used “gn” to represent the gutteral letter ayin when it appeared at the beginning of a word. When it appeared at the end, the English letters were flipped to “ng”, which you can see in Joseph’s raukeeyang, which more commonly would be written as raqiya’ today.

  9. Thanks for the post, Steve. Too often we are too immobilized by the problems with the Book of Abraham to focus on its profound suggestions.
    Some of the uber-rich can and do circulate humbly among rich and poor. Of course character and wisdom make the difference. The verses you cite are among my favorites. Principles like these mystify me, but somehow strike a chord of logic and familiarity. Not only do these verses tell us that someone is always above us and God is above us all, with all the ramifications you suggest, but that the spirit is eternal before. A fascinating doctrine. It reminds us God is no respecter of persons. He did not make you smarter than He did me; it happened by some other means. Whatever I accomplish or acquire in this life was not for talent given me instead of another. We’re supposed to see ourselves in the same boat. God just stands ready to aid us as He chooses for His reasons which seem to be quite divorced from what we view as our need or our worthiness. Humbling.

  10. The inverse is not necessarily true that if you’re poorer, you’re happier. No one has said it here, but I think it’s condescending when people go to poor countries or see very poor people and say, oh they are so happy. They lead such a simple happy life. Seriously. If you’re starving and you have disease that you can’t cure or there’s political unrest and instability due to poverty you’re probably not happy. It’s stupid of us to think so.

    I heart Kolob. It’s so wacky.

  11. I have a couple papers treating Kolob making their way through edits and revisions. There is reasonable evidence that Kolob was central to a physicalization of death and immortality that ought not to be underplayed.

    Also the principle you’re referring to is part of Smith’s revamping of the Chain of Being (another paper treating that is in revisions).

    And in more general terms, there is always the interesting data suggesting that it’s relative income deprivation that is most predictive of health outcomes, however you want to interpret it. Paul Farmer has a fairly aggressive book about this topic that’s worth reading.

  12. Amri #10

    Oddly enough, that is exactly how the guide on our trip to Chichen Itza in Mexico asked us to feel about the poverty we saw out the windows of our bus. He himself was a Mayan indian (very educated, spoke 7 languages, and funny as h*ll). As we drove past dilapidated shacks he got on the intercom and said “some of you will look out the window and feel sorry for us, and what you percieve to be our extreme poverty. Don’t feel sorry for us, we are happy, we live good lives, we didn’t have to pay for our land, it was free. We grow our own crops, we cook our own food. The most important thing to us is our family relationships, and we have that in abundance.”

    Apparently to this gentleman, it would have been condescending for me to feel sorry for his people’s circumstances.

    I agree that the inverse is not necessarily true that if you are poorer you are happier. However, I don’t think it follows either that if you are poor you are unhappier.

  13. Is it fair to say that wealth and happiness are, at best, only superficially related?

  14. Steve Evans says:

    Kevin, thanks for those insights. I remember reading a good paper on the influence Seixas had on Joseph’s revelations, but couldn’t seem to find it. It’s very interesting stuff.

  15. I always thought Kolob was the weirdest thing in Mormonism, until I read about pioneer castrations last week. We have a new winner!

    No matter how bright we think our star is shining, we’re not the source of the light.

    Really excellent. Thanks for pointing this out.

  16. Steve Evans says:

    Norbert, again the Comparative Principle applies: no matter how great your posts are, someone comes along with anecdotes of frontier castration and blows you out of the water!

  17. Talon,
    I don’t think we are obligated to pity necessarily (though I don’t think pity is always a bad thing) when we see poverty. In my mind, we are obligated to share what we have and most often when we say ‘oh these people are poor but they’re so happy’ then it removes our obligation to share our wealth. Why share if they’re happy? I think that is problematic thinking.
    I agree that Paul Farmer has some interesting things to say about this.
    Also maybe if you’re poorer than a millionaire you’re happier but that only that hits the limit when you are not capable to provide health care, clean water, housing, food and security for you and your family. When those are gone, I think there is unhappiness.

  18. Is it fair to say that wealth and happiness are, at best, only superficially related?

    Probably not. There’s a large scholarly literature on this question, it turns out. Scholars, as always, differ on this topic, but the main competing theories involve exactly why wealthy people are happier than poorer people. Richard A. Easterlin {Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization Vol. 27 (1995): 35-47} uses individual-level survey data on happiness and wealth over time in the US, 9 European countries, and Japan. He shows that, at any point in time, the wealthiest people in a given society are also the happiest; the poorest are the least happy. Easterlin argues that people’s happiness level is largely based on how their material status compares to the average for their country. Those who are above average feel happy because they’re “getting ahead.” Those below the average feel unhappy because they aren’t getting their fair share. Other scholars, such as Michael R. Hagerty and Ruut Veenhoven {Social Indicators Research Vol. 64, Number 1 (2003): 1-27} argue that increasing wealth always brings more happiness for an individual, regardless of the societal average level of wealth. What pretty much all the scholars agree on is that, for basically any operational indicator of wealth and most available measures of happiness, there is a very strong relationship between wealth and happiness. Rich people are just happier than poor people on average.

    Back to the post. The funny thing about the Comparative Principle is that it generates paradox: God is the greatest, but there must necessarily be one greater than Him. Brigham Young, of course, used this idea to build the infinite regress of Gods.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    RT, you’re right about the paradox, and it’s ultimately one that Joseph saw himself. But it’s safe to say that from our perspective, God is so great and so perfect that we cannot see past Him.

  20. or you realize that one of your favorite bloggers is in high school . . .

    Steve, I also love the PofGP. I really don’t care how we got it; I just love the view of eternity that we get there.

    I’ve been at just about every socio-economic level short of wealthy in my life – a roller coaster ride that I hope is not finished, since I’m closer to the bottom right now than the top. FWIW, I won’t neglect my family in the process, but I prefer more than less. It might be better to give than receive, but that’s only true when you are able to give. We forget things like that sometimes.

  21. C. Bidenc says:

    Neither riches nor poverty insure happiness. However, riches, while insulating one from come of the vagaries of life, can also insulate one from feelings. Witness the poor millionaires in Silicon Valley: they aren’t really rich because there’s somebody richer.

  22. I have this random memory of Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin uttering the word kokaubeam in general conference within the last 15 years. The (poor) search engine on lds.org was not helpful. Does anyone else remember this, or am I dreaming?

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Steve, you’re probably thinking of Michael T. Walton, “Professor Seixas, the Hebrew Bible, and the Book of Abraham,” Sunstone Issue 26 (1981), here.

  24. Any wealth/happiness correlations might be explained by a third factor – competence. Gaining wealth requires a certain level of competence. Maintaining happiness also requires a certain level of competence. That might explain the poor happiness results found by many lottery winners. The wealth did not increase their competence.

  25. Jon in Austin says:

    Re 4,

    Isn’t TMQ the greatest thing since sliced bread?

  26. My brother-in-law raises mules. He also races them in competition. One year in particular, he had two mules named Kolob and Kokaubeam. Kokaubeam ran like greased lightning, and won many purses. Kolob was properly named because that mule was slower than cold tar, and thought the universe revolved around it. This is a true story.

  27. Clair, competence doesn’t explain all of the data supporting a wealth-happiness correlation. Equally successful auto mechanics in different countries have different average levels of happiness, which correlate very closely with the average wage levels of mechanics in different countries. The cross-national components of the happiness findings are generally poorly explained by competence. Furthermore, those who are highly competent at low-paying work tend to have low happiness levels. Probably the correlation is better explained by the fact that wealth lets people buy better food, clothing, shelter, health care, and other things that make people happy.

  28. JNS: …those who are highly competent at low-paying work…

    That seems an oxymoron to me. Perhaps we are using the word competent in different ways. I would not consider a person highly skilled in making, say, obsolete buggy whips to be competent in adapting to society and earning wealth.

    On a personal level, I am more wealthy now than when I was a student or newly married or a new parent, but I can’t say that my happiness has increased much.

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