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.
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.