We’re happy to have Morgan Davis as a guest author once again. Morgan will be posting approximately once a month on several of the themes in the new youth manual, Come Follow Me. The second in his series is below. The introduction to the series is here.
This is the second of a series of posts on the themes presented in “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for Sunday instruction. I hope it will be clear that my thoughts are not intended to become material for class discussions; rather I am just interested in exploring some ideas that might be in the background of such discussions.
The general topic for February is “The Plan of Salvation,” a term by which we typically mean the narrative that offers Mormonism’s unique and capacious perspectives on the great existential questions—Who am I? How did I come to exist? Does life have a purpose? Is death the end? Etc.
Joseph Smith took the typical theological canvas—a diptych in which the setting for the story of salvation is this world and the world to come—and radically reshaped it into a triptych. He restored a panel that had gone missing (as Terryl Givens has documented) depicting an eon prior to creation in which all of us existed in some way that was eternal a parte ante. And then he painted over the third panel entirely, transforming it from a picture of a simple heaven-hell dichotomy into one where multiple degrees of salvation were ready to receive all but but the most utterly recalcitrant souls.
Joseph characterized pre- and post-mortality in terms of familial relationships that anticipate and propagate earthly (middle panel) ones, but not with such specificity as to answer many of the questions that naturally follow. He created broad new spaces in which to scribe what Richard Bushman has called the stories of eternity, but he did not fill in all of the details. He gave us the broad outlines—patterns that recur in all three panels—but left much more untold. Into those voids the Mormon theological and existential imagination has rushed ever since, seeking to flesh out the patterns, extend the curves, and solve second-panel riddles so as to make something coherent and beautiful of the whole.
We Mormons are continually telling stories of eternity—personal stories that locate us and our loved ones in relation to realms of existence prior and post. We seek out the names and histories of our dead because we believe they are not really dead and that we are very likely to meet them again; we see future children in dreams; and we seem to be constitutionally disposed to make sense of present circumstances in terms of choices made and events transpired prior to our advent on earth. Because the canvas is free of authoritative detail, the possibilities for doing this are vast indeed. Added Upon, “I’ll Find You, My Friend,” and Saturday’s Warrior are just three examples of this from Mormon literature, song, and stage. Many, many more such stories are deployed every day as we move about and make our choices and process our experiences. Most of these stories never achieve copyright status, but they speak to us powerfully nevertheless. All possibilities and all stories are not of equal value, however, and lately we have witnessed a growing discomfort with some of the uses to which the pre-existence, in particular, has been put in our tradition. Blair Hodges has done a beautiful job of surveying some of these here.
I confess my own discomfort with even some of the more mundane notions that arise about our pre-earth life. In part, this might stem from how I was raised. My mother told me more than once, “Morgan, you’re special. But you’re not Special” (the capital letter suggests the inflection I heard in her voice). In other words, she loved me and thought the world of me, but wanted me to know that I was no exception to the commandments, the laws of physics, or the pluses and minuses of the human condition generally. Given this background, I confess that I have always felt a little uncomfortable when told that I am among the most valiant of the hosts of heaven who was reserved to come at this time in the winding up scenes of the earth, etc. Maybe that is true. But I don’t know that it is true, and, frankly, there is some part of me that doesn’t want it to be true. Sometimes I think we have a tendency to over-specify the goings on in the realms before and aft, and too many of our stories seem to hinge on who was more or less valiant there. Can we really imagine a conversation like this taking place in the hereafter?
Hilbard of the Pit, genuflecting: “So, you were on earth trying to live the Gospel amidst socialism, the Internet, and gay marriage? My halo is off to you, brother. All I suffered was the Plague and the sacking of Constantinople. I suppose we had adultery and buggery, too, but we didn’t have the Fullness, you know, and weren’t even literate—so, it all seemed unremarkable at the time. We were really too benighted to know what was happening to us. Given our lack of valiancy during the GPM [Great Primordial Controversy], it’s a mercy that we got in and out as efficiently as we did: I myself was dead by 27 or 8 (I never knew my birthday). But enough about me. O noble and great one, what was it like to be in the RSF [Reserved Special Forces]? Because, you know, Correlation just fast-tracked us through mortality without much ceremony.
Me: [Awkward silence.]
I don’t intend to minimize the challenges we face in our times, only to cast them into a little perspective. President Hinckley made the same point a few years ago, noting that there have been heady troubles in every age. So, personally, I have no point of reference from which to confirm or deny whether I am, in fact, in spite of my mother’s caveats, Special.
I would like to suggest that, as a people, a higher tolerance for mystery, for leaving some things unfigured might not be a bad thing. Can we find beauty in what we don’t know? Can we choose to leave some things hidden, enfolded? Given recent embarrassments wherein some of our old speculations keep coming around to haunt us (see the links to Blair’s work, above), I am more partial by the day to this report of a recent talk given by Paul V. Johnson, Commissioner of Church Education, to teachers of Seminary and Institute:
“Another challenge we face, especially if we have taught for some time, is a tendency to hold on to old files and old explanations,” he said. “We would be much better off keeping up with the current stance of the Church.”
One of the best ways to do this is to be familiar with material in the newsroom at lds.org, Elder Johnson said. “Let’s keep up to date with the light we have been given.”
“Many of us have a difficult time dealing with ambiguity, especially in issues concerning the Church,” he said. “In fact, we may be drawn to use quotes in our teaching that are definitive because they seem to dispel the ambiguity. But some quotes are definitive on issues where there is no official answer. People who are more tentative on a subject that hasn’t been revealed or resolved don’t get quoted as much, but may be more in line with where our current knowledge is. We plan to add helps to the curriculum for certain questions that are commonly raised.”
The Plan of Salvation is the largest story ever told. For Latter-day Saints, its cosmic scope and infinite timeline are seemingly broad and deep enough to contain many other stories, eventualities, and speculations. But as into the Plan’s broad compass we have poured our hopes and fears for so many years now, there is gradually dawning a recognition that some of what we have stashed there isn’t really helpful or edifying. A trend towards better stewardship and preservation of one of Mormonism’s most precious resources, the Plan of Salvation, is a welcome development.