This is a really interesting set of revelations we have to discuss. They are primarily the responses to Oliver Cowdery’s efforts to help translate the Book of Mormon (D&C 6, 8, and 9). The lesson manual includes a link to a helpful write-up on “Oliver Cowdery’s Gift” from Revelations in Context. There are a lot of things to talk about here, but I’d like to focus on one particular narrative.
It is easy to sneer at the poor fools that engage in “magic.” But let’s not be so hasty. Perhaps your class has had a chance to discuss Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones in the translation of the Book of Mormon already, and consequently his seeric past. While seer stones seem exotic and foreign, I’ll bet other forms of divination are more familiar. If you grew up in a rural area, you might have seen someone use a divining rod to find a good spot to dig a well. Maybe you have yourself engaged in “bibliomancy.” This is where you take a book (frequently the Bible) and randomly open it to a page and find meaning in the text. As a missionary I was aware of various divination techniques to find, for example, a good place to tract, and I know some Mormons who have picked up on the new agey crystal pendulum stuff.
Does God work this way? Read the link above to Oliver Cowdery’s Gift or read the JSPP earliest text of Section 8. If we were to discuss this in terms of History or Religious Studies, we would generally bracket the question of whether God (assuming that there is one) really dips the rod to point to water, or opens the Bible to answer your question. Instead we might talk about what these ritualized acts do in the world of the believer. But we are believers—believers who because of our enlightenment heritage are disinclined to view God in the machine. I’m a chemist for heaven’s sake. So what do I do with the early text of section 8?
I guess we all start out viewing God in or as a machine. The world just makes so much more sense (or its at least so much more bearable) if there are rules that we can count on (ask Job’s buddies). We need to make sense of the chaos and we need to find the right path from an infinite set of possibilities. Cast the lots of my life. Open the book to sooth this pain. Bend the branch so that I might drink.
But God is no machine (ask Job). From D&C 9:
Behold you have not understood, you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought, save it was to ask me;
Um, yeah. That is pretty much what you told me to do. You told me that “whatsoever ye shall ask to tell you by [the machine] that will [the Lord] grant unto you that ye shall know.”
behold I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you: therefore, you shall feel that it is right; but if it be not right, you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought, that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong
I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t what Joseph Smith was doing this whole time. Putting that aside, are you saying that I am the machine? I’m going to have to think about that for a while.