Teaching Lesson 7, “The Immortality of the Soul”

In this post I highlight a few excerpts from chapter seven of the George Albert Smith manual and offer some suggestions for class discussion.

1) Eternal Life in the Present

The introduction to this lesson proposes an interesting, if not unique, conceptual shift for the term “eternity”:

He frequently reminded the Saints that “we are living eternal lives”—that eternity doesn’t begin after this life but that mortality is a crucial part of eternity (67).

Another selection adds: “Our comprehension of this life is that it is eternal life—that we are living in eternity today as much as we ever will live in eternity” (69). Pres. Smith goes on to explain the scope of the Plan of Salvation, which includes pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal realms.1 But notice that this conceptual shift presents the class with a significant opportunity to discuss what Terryl Givens has called Joseph Smith’s “collapse of sacred distance.” This collapse infuses our present life with abundant meaning, possibility, and obligation. As Givens writes:

When I saw Joseph Smith,” Brigham Young declared, “he took heaven, figuratively speaking, and brought it down to earth; and he took the earth, brought it up, and opened up, in plainness and simplicity, the things of God; and that is the beauty of his mission.”

With God an exalted man, man a God in embryo, the family a prototype for heavenly sociality, and Zion a city with dimensions and blueprints, Joseph rewrote conventional dualism as thoroughgoing monism. The resulting paradox is manifest in the recurrent invasion of the banal into the realm of the holy and the infusion of the sacred into the realm of the quotidian. Much of the early ridicule as well as persecution directed against Mormonism was clearly provoked by this unseemly blending and blurring of sacred and secular categories. As the editor James Gordon Bennett noted wryly, Joseph’s doctrine—like Brigham’s subsequent Utah kingdom—blurred all categories. The Mormons, he declared, “are busy all the time establishing factories to make saints and crockery ware, also prophets and white paint.”2

Like Pres. Smith, Brigham Young also emphasized the eternity of the now. For instance:

The Gospel is true, there is a God, there are angels, there are a heaven and a hell, and we are all in eternity, and out of it we can never get, it is boundless, without beginning or end, and we have never been out of it. Time is a certain portion of eternity allotted to the existence of these mortal bodies…(Journal of Discourses 2:29).

This lesson, incidentally, includes Lorenzo Snow’s little couplet, “As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become” (71). But perhaps more relevant to our present circumstances, recognizing the present as a part of eternal life lends greater immediacy to the immediate. It helps us make sense of all the home-spun practical advice in the Journal of Discourses, where the sacred and banal mix, and the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants which pertain more to “temporal” matters, which are even there imbued with “spiritual” significance (D&C 29:34-5).

The radical implications this view of eternity suggests for our day-to-day lives include aspects of our relationships with others, our obligations toward the suffering, and our obligation to the earth itself, a planet which is our home and out of which our bodies have been fashioned. In the gospel, we don’t simply look forward to an eternity after this life for rewards, we seek to live in the present and bless others now.

Pres. Smith quotes from Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” in order to make the point that death is not the end for us. But the wider context of the poem segues nicely with the idea of living in the eternal present:

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.[...]

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

2) Humanitarian Aid and Ecological Awareness

In connection with this line of thought, another excellent quote from this lesson has implications for humanitarian and ecological considerations:

Isn’t it a singular thing that what the world has struggled for from the beginning, wealth, power, all those things that make men comfortable, are to be had in abundance today—better and more clothing than ever before, more food than can be consumed, more wealth of all kinds than the world has ever had before. Our homes are more comfortable. The conveniences of life have been multiplied marvelously since the Gospel came upon the earth, and today everything that we have struggled for we have. Education has arrived at its highest point. More knowledge of the things of this earth is possessed by men than ever before. Everything mankind has struggled for from the beginning of time that is considered most desirable is upon the earth today; and notwithstanding that, there is doubt and dread of what the future has in store.

What is our trouble? It is that we have sought the creature comforts, we have sought the honors of men, we have sought those things that selfishness puts into our souls. We have sought to set ourselves up and have preferred ourselves to our Father’s other children. (72)

A fruitful class discussion might focus on the fact that the blessings of the modern world which Pres. Smith describes aren’t actually available to everyone on the planet, and Pres. Smith’s remarks can be understood as an indictment against us for preferring ourselves over our Father’s other children. And there really are people in other countries, poorer countries, which seem to be directly and negatively affected by our current levels of energy consumption.

In other words, the “doubt and dread” Pres. Smith mentions can be understood to apply to worries about pollution, global climate change, and environmental degradation. Pres. Smith can be understood to suggest that such problems are often the result of our search for “creature comforts,” overconsumption. Richard W. Miller’s article, “‘Global Suicide Pact’, Why Don’t We Take Climate Change Seriously?” offers some interesting insights to ponder. He argues that it is difficult for us to face up to the ominous forecasts of global ecological destruction because doing so requires a change of our understanding of the world itself and also requires us to change our behavior, or, repent:

When faced with the overwhelming character of these forecasts, we develop coping mechanisms (as multiple studies in psychology and climate change have shown) that shield us from the real gravity of our situation. This is understandable, and to some extent we are all to a certain degree susceptible to this, since a real acceptance of the science requires one to fundamentally revise one’s understanding of the world and one’s responsibilities to it. That is not easy to do.

You might call attention to the Church’s ongoing efforts to “go green” as the saying goes. The new Church History Library, for instance, was built with an eye to energy conservation. Other building projects likewise have focused on care for the environment.

Christians have long been accused of exacerbating ecological problems by focusing on the Genesis narrative which assigns humans dominion over the earth. Some Latter-day Saints have even downplayed current crises by using scriptures of the Restoration. An over-emphasis on the immortality of the soul and a future renewed earth might cause us to neglect our present stewardship, however. No Latter-day Saint would argue that family care can be neglected on the grounds that it will all be made right in the eternities. Likewise, our neglect of caring for the earth is important in the present.

President Hinckley taught:

Here is the Creator of all that is good and beautiful. I have looked at majestic mountains rising high against the blue sky and thought of Jesus, the Creator of heaven and earth. I have stood on the sand of an island in the Pacific and watched the dawn rise like thunder—a ball of gold surrounded by clouds of pink and white and purple—and thought of Jesus, the Word by whom all things were made and without whom was not anything made that was made. I have seen a beautiful child—bright-eyed, innocent, loving and trusting—and marveled at the majesty and miracle of creation. What then shall we do with Jesus who is called Christ? This earth is his creation. When we make it ugly, we offend him.3

The special summer 2011 issue of Dialogue, edited by our own SteveP, also has a great selection of articles on environmental consciousness and Mormonism.

In regards to humanitarian aid, Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s October 2011 priesthood session address, “Providing in the Lord’s Way,” called explicit attention to the centrality of welfare and humanitarian work to the gospel of Jesus Christ:

Sometimes we see welfare as simply another gospel topic—one of the many branches on the gospel tree. But I believe that in the Lord’s plan, our commitment to welfare principles should be at the very root of our faith and devotion to Him.

You might call the class’s attention to the Church’s humanitarian website, where we’re invited to learn more about the Church’s ongoing efforts. See the “What you can do” section, which focuses on three possible ways to help: Serve in Your Community, Donate to the Humanitarian Aid Fund, Donate Items for Local Community Efforts.

3) Pre-mortality and Valiance

In his discussion of eternity, Pres. Smith directs our attention back to the pre-mortal realm, where “we received a spiritual tabernacle” (68).  Notice the logical connection he makes between the transition from pre-mortality to mortality, and from mortality to immortality. Each condition is related to actions in the previous sphere:

We believe that we are here because we kept our first estate and earned the privilege of coming to this earth. We believe that our very existence is a reward for our faithfulness before we came here, and that we are enjoying on earth the fruits of our efforts in the spirit world. We also believe that we are sowing the seed today of a harvest that we will reap when we go from here. Eternal life is to us the sum of pre-existence, present existence, and the continuation of life in immortality, holding out to us the power of endless progression and increase (70-71).

It is significant that the First Presidency, under George Albert Smith, explained the priesthood/temple restriction placed upon black members by appealing to this same pre-mortal logic (see the 1949 statement here). This explanation has been rejected by subsequent church leaders, including Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in his interview on the PBS documentary, The Mormons:

Well, some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised. I really don’t know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I’ve been able to live in the period where we’re not expressing or teaching them, but I think that’s the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. … But I think that’s the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. … We just don’t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. … That’s my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know. …

We don’t pretend that something wasn’t taught or practice wasn’t pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we’re absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that’s not perpetuated in the present. That’s the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic.

Footnotes: 

1. I’m foregoing discussion of vivaporous spirit birth here, though it seems to be affirmed multiple times in this chapter, pp. 69, 74, 76.

2. Terryl L. Givens, “‘There is Room for Both’, Mormon Cinema and the Paradoxes of Mormon Culture,” BYU Studies 46:2, pp. 191-192. See also his interview for the PBS documentary The Mormons.

3. Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Shall I Do Then with Jesus Which Is Called Christ?,” Liahona, April 1984. For more on ecotheology see Celia Deane-Drummond, “Theology, Ecology, and Values,” in Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 891-907.

Comments

  1. David M. Morris says:

    I thought it was interesting that within the lesson the old Snow couplet was raised. Especially in light of President Hinckley’s interview about not hearing it or seen being taught in the Church for quite a while. Is this a new re-enforcement do you think, as I don’t think anything is in the manual that hasn’t gone through numerous edits.

  2. I taught this yesterday. Since it was Easter, I started with the first 30 seconds of this video, and asked the question “George Albert Smith says we ought to be the most anxious, eager, and willing to celebrate Easter. Are we?”. That took the first 15 minutes,

    Then I went through the we are “in eternal life” now segment. (I had found a George Albert Smith Quote from the 30s that tied that to Easter nicely. This week, I got carried away with the ability to google “site:scriptures.byu.edu General Conference George Albert Smith” ). I didn’t think of the collapsing of Sacred Space angle, but instead focused on NT Wright’s idea of God now being in charge and our not needing to wait for death to have peace and joy from the Gospel. That was another 10 minutes.

    I had to go for the “creature comforts” quote, but that one didn’t seem to anchor well in my class. I ended up just professing my love for socialism, and moving on. So only 5 minutes there.

    To keep with Easter Theme, I closed with this one. “Today the people all over the world are talking about the same subject we have been speaking of, the resurrection. When we think of the resurrection of our Redeemer, I am reminded that the purpose of his life was to prepare us all, to make a path that we could all walk, that would bring us eternal happiness in his presence as well as in the presence of one another.”

    I wish you’d had this up on Saturday! Would have loved to steal the Givens Quote!

  3. BHodges says:

    David, I was struck by its inclusion too, and I liked how the editors added in the reference to a 1901 DesNews piece. Excerpts of the King Follett discourse were included in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual on Joseph Smith, which was approved under Pres. Hinckley’s presidency. Specifically, that God “was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” I blogged about the downplaying here:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/01/02/did-president-hinckley-downplay-deification/

  4. BHodges says:

    Matt W., excellent, thank you for the video! What NT Wright excerpts did you use?

  5. Thought sparked from this lesson…

    Eternal life is the kind of life God lives (now and previously). “As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become”. Eternity doesn’t begin after this life but that mortality is a crucial part of eternity.

    I like this more complete view of eternal life, rather than a singular destination. We are striving to live the kind of life God lived in the past, so we can continue (in the future) to live the kind of life he lives now. The concept of eternal progression flows nicely from this thought for me, although I’m not sure I’m putting the words down as clear as they are in my mind.

  6. “It is significant that the First Presidency, under George Albert Smith, explained the priesthood/temple restriction placed upon black members by appealing to this same pre-mortal logic ”

    Reading through the link you provide I think you unnecessarily confused the former teachings (by some) that lesser valiance resulted in a denial of priesthood. I don’t know why you inserted this section, built up a strawman and then claimed that Elder Holland was destroying this strawman with his PBS quote. Elder Holland was speaking to the teaching that said people were less valiant so they did not receive the priesthood. The First Presidency message doesn’t say that.

    In fact, it says, “Mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth.”

    To me that says blacks who were denied the priesthood for a time, in fact did keep their first estate and so great was the privilege of receiving a body and the subsequent blessings that they, and billions of others, came into a less than ideal state of existence in this life to gain a body.

    Nothing I read there suggests less valiance, but suggests they chose to keep their first estate and then that their conduct in the pre-mortal existence included them making a choice to come into a life where they did not have the priesthood.

    This may be a slight punt, but just as easily as one can make vast assumptions by reading between the lines that everyone who is black is not valiant (where does it say that?!?) we can actually read what was written charitably and see that the FP under Pres. Smith was saying that the priesthood was not an entitlement “at this time” and that some day they would be.

  7. BHodges says:

    Here’s the quote from the FP statement:

    The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

    You’ll note that rather than explicitly referring to blacks as being less valiant during premortality it is only implied by stating that the “conduct of spirits” there “has some determining effect” on us here. This is the basic premise included in the present manual, though it is not linked to blacks and the priesthood there either. My point here is that members who’ve already become familiar with that linkage, and who are not aware that later church leaders have dismissed such teachings, will profit from a reminder that this teaching does not account for the priesthood restriction according to our current leaders. Your scrupulous attention to what the statements say explicitly versus what they can be understood to imply is a fair distinction, but I’m also taking into account here the overall doctrinal matrix in which these statements appear, which includes the fence-sitters idea, and which members can easily fill in the blanks with.

    I have more to say, but I decided it is too long for a comment, so I’ll blog post it later in the week.

  8. kfolkman says:

    BHodges, I also taught this lesson yesterday (we apparently are also a week ahead in our ward). Because of the inclusion of the Snow couplet, I also read a few quotes from the Stan Larson KFD compilation. Someone brought up the question of vivaporous spirit birth, and I acknowledged that although it was not something taught by Joseph Smith, it was taught my other church presidents and apostles, but that we really don’t know.

    Most of our time, though, was spent on the concept of living in the eternities in our mortal lives, now, and what that means for us in daily living. That seemed to resonate well with my HP group. Wish I had been able to consult this on Saturday, as you also bring up a couple of interesting things that I did not consider. Fortunately, none of our HP brought up anything relating to valiance in the pre-existence, so I didn’t have to tackle that.

  9. Great, kfolkman, thanks for the feedback. I really like responses that talk about how the lesson went in other wards.

  10. Sharee Hughes says:

    Great post! I just wish it had appeared last week, so I could have used some of these points during discussion in class. However, we did have a good teacher and what comments we did have made for an enjoyable lesson.

  11. Bhodges(4):I didn’t use excerpts, just paraphrased. It was sort of extemporaneous…

  12. We are also a week ahead.

  13. Thanks for this Blair, I wish I could have given an environmental lesson (but in Nursery we were just trying to keep them focused on a picture we were holding on prayer). We have such deep ecological connections in the church. It’s a pity we don’t do more with them, but things like this lesson help are a great place to start.

  14. StillConfused says:

    This was taught in my relief society this week. I liked that it didn’t dwell on temples, eternal families and stuff like that (which doesn’t apply to me) but rather focused on people needing to live their lives now as they presume they will be lived in the hereafter. (In other words, be nicer, be more Christian etc).

    At least that is how it was presented in my church

  15. The concept of this mortal probation being a part of our eternal life is sort of mind-blowing. I mean, of course it makes absolute sense, but I had always sort of separated everything. Pre-Birth existence, Mortal Life, and then Afterlife. It is one continuous deal! Boy am I in trouble! :)

  16. We had this lesson this past Sunday also. With EOR I suppose I had never given thought to the fact that we are in the midst of eternal life right now in a sense. We had a good conversation in our class of the definition of “Eternal Life” and decided that if we do not meet the requirements come judgement, though we may be immortal, our eternal life stops if not accepted into the Celestial Kingdom. It was a good lesson. – Luckily we steered clear of anything racial as was brought up above.

  17. Stan, really? Now I am definitely worried. I am not CK material, so I was shooting for one of the TK’s.

  18. EOR, I’d actually steer the lesson directly contrary to the idea that there is a checklist that must be all completed by a terminable point in the future whereby the gates close forever and everyone who isn’t good enough is simply SOL. In my view, the beauty of the Restoration throws to the wind the idea of such an unequivocal cut-off point, because, as noted, we’re already living a part of “eternal life” in the present, with ongoing opportunities to be “added upon.”

  19. BHodges, thanks for the post. Of course there is a different kind of definition of eternal life within the Mormon tradition, the more recent one advocated by Bruce R. McConkie. That is that Eternal life is “the kind of life that God lives.” This separates the notion that today is part of Eternal Life and pushes the concept back to a future state that we hope to enjoy some day.

    I resonate more with the version emphasized by George Albert Smith. In many ways I resonate with the ideas of Marcus Aurelius. One translation renders him to say: “Do not live as if you still have ten thousand years left. Your fate hangs over you. While you are still living, while you still exist on this Earth, strive to become a genuinely good man.” Or better yet, I enjoy Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come” (Act II, Scene II). I also enjoy the writings in Emerson’s Compensation: “Yet what was the import of this teaching? What did the preacher mean by saying that the good are miserable in the present life? Was it that houses and lands, offices, wine, horses, dress, luxury, are had by unprincipled men, whilst the saints are poor and despised; and that a compensation is to be made to these last hereafter, by giving them the like gratifications another day, – bank-stock and doubloons, venison and champagne?”

    I had a religious studies professor once answer some students’ questions as to his personal beliefs. He stated that he didn’t believe in an afterlife. He believed that once we die, that is the end. One student came back and said “Then how can you even take this life seriously?” He responded, “Because I believe this is the only life there is, I take it more seriously than you do.” The students had no response and just remained silent. I’ve often thought about his answer as to how our beliefs about the afterlife influences how we choose to live our lives in the here and now.

  20. Excellent, I like the additional quotes, aquinas.

  21. aquinas my thoughts about the afterlife have an immeasurable effect on how I live my life. Sometimes it is a good thing and sometimes is a bad thing. The sword of Damocles could not hang over my head more menacingly than the thoughts of the hereafter do.

  22. Here is what I have gathered from this discussion:

    We are already “God Like”. We have existed for infinity. We have for eternity made our own choices. We have been constantly as intelligence, added upon as spirit children and now as mortals, to be separated from our temporal body to become added upon with an immortal body and continue in eternity.

    Since we are currently living in Eternal Life, we are currently creating our eternal future. Simply put, as we live happy lives now, we are building a happy eternity. As we live our current life in turmoil, that is what we are creating for the eternities.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,472 other followers