Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Tree of Life

As Mormon ideas go, the whole Tree of Life vision is standard for us: it seems remarkably simple and too often we leave it at that. But when we do not go into depth, there is a lot we miss out on, and in particular, things that relate to virtuous living.

Prior to the Babylonian Exile, the Jews like to personify Wisdom as a real person, who was symbolized as both a tree and a fountain. This is seen in 1 Ne. 11 when Nephi asks about the meaning of the Tree of Life, and is shown the Virgin Mary, to which Nephi responds with what we might paraphrase as, "Oh, duh, I get it now". What is it that Nephi understood that made the image of a tree or fountain make so much sense to him?

We can get a sense of this from reading the Old Testament, especially those parts that we call "Wisdom Literature".

To start in Proverbs,
13 ¶ Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.
14 For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold.
15 She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.
16 Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.
Prov. 3:13-18
Many things are associated with the tree of life in Proverbs, but prominently among them is Wisdom, which is closely associated with Virtue.

"Understanding is a wellspring of life unto him that hath it" Prov. 16:22

We see more in ch. 7

4 Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister; and call understanding thy kinswoman:
5 That they may keep thee from the strange woman, from the stranger which flattereth with her words.
One characteristic of Wisdom literature is the juxtiposition of wisdom and virtue versus unvirtue and hartlotry. The rest of chapter 7 is an example of this. It is also seen in Nephi's vision with his discussion of a great and abominable harlot.

But what has impressed me the most is fountain of living waters and the fountain of filthy waters in Nephi's and Lehi's vision.

Waters are especially associated with virtue and lovemaking:
15 ¶ Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.
16 Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad, and rivers of waters in the streets.
17 Let them be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee.
18 Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.
19 Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.
20 And why wilt thou, my son, be ravished with a strange woman, and embrace the bosom of a stranger?
Prov. 5:15-20
Chapter 5 has more to say about being virtous.

On the other hand, compare ch. 9, which starts off contrasting wisdom and understanding to sins of chastity, and ends with,
18 But he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell.
with 1 Ne. 12:16

16 And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell.
As far as I can determine, these are the only two places that use that particular turn of phrase. Virtue, the clean waters, are life itself, while the filthy waters, (in Proverbs 9:18 it was the intimate company of a loose woman) are death and the very depths of hell.

If you want to read more, Meridian has a nice article, while the figure of the fountain and tree in Nephi's vision is examined in careful detail by BYU professor, Daniel Peterson in "Nephi and his Asherah".

A look at the meaning the verses about usage of the word "Rod" in Proverbs. Some good Protestants point out that "Rod" has far more to do with correction, than with beating. It seems that "spare the rod, spoil the child" has far more to do with teaching children the Gospel, than beating them. While from the Neal A Maxwell Institute, we get "What Meaneth the Rod of Iron"?

A better defintion of Pornography

My work during the day is Physics, so when I deal with things, I like a mathematical precision to the definitions I use. There is, however, a lot of confusion about exactly what pornography is, how to distinguish from art, or eroticia, both of which is implicitly assumed we should approve of.

The classic statement on the matter was given by Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in french film, The Lovers.

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.
But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis Mine]

The Volokh Conspiracy (not a favorite of mine, but right on the money here)

Many people who know the quote, though, don't know the follow-up: Nine years later Justice Stewart joined the dissent in Miller v. California, and would have thus held that such material is categorically constitutionally protected (at least where no unwilling viewers or underage viewers are involved). And the dissent's reasoning focused largely on the vagueness of the existing tests for what's constitutionally protected and what's not.

So Stewart thought he knew it when he saw it. But after seeing enough cases, it seems that he either lost confidence in his own ability to know what should be protected, or concluded that such a test was in any event no way to run a legal system.

Trusting in your ability to distinguish seems simple enough, but runs into difficulty once you start trying to apply it to real life, which is, more often than not, more messy and vague than we would like it. There are accusations of violence in porn, but what of porn that isn't violent? (most isn't actually)

What of porn that objectifies men or women? What then of drawn images? Does this make erotica OK? How do you distinguish between a good lovemaking scene and a bad one? Is there a difference?

The Church gives this definition:

Pornography is any material depicting or describing the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings. It is distributed through many media, including magazines, books, television, movies, music, and the Internet. It is as harmful to the spirit as tobacco, alcohol, and drugs are to the body. Using pornographic material in any way is a violation of a commandment of God: “Thou shalt not … commit adultery … nor do anything like unto it” (D&C 59:6).

“Pornography,” True to the Faith, (2004),117–18

This is a good definition and I in no way intend to suggest it is wrong. But is it as useful as it could be? Is it always clear (or only afterward) what "arouses sexual feelings"? That is the kind of thing that is sometimes most easily noticed afterward, and not at the time. It often becomes useful only once you realize you are aroused, but the best way to fight this is to never get to that state in the first place. A good general does not like being surprised by the enemy having the high ground (and advantage). And so it is with porn - a better definition is a better warning.

Pornography is that which promotes sin, encourages, invites or entices to sin. In the broader sense, porn is that which is not just conducive to sin, but is agreeable to it, open to the idea - supportive, sympathetic, willing. Thus while an immodest image may or may not be porn, a TV sitcom (for instance) that makes light of immorality, or portrays it in a sympathetic way, is a very subtle kind of pornography. And not incidentally, one that has been linked to higher rates of immorality and younger ages at which virginity is lost.

As much as I would like to take the credit, I will need to defer to the prophet Moroni.

But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him. Moroni 7:17
Often, the Devil is the most subtle with his greatest temptations, but we should not allow this to deceive us.

**** coming soon - interesting insights into the Vision of the Tree of Life ****

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Relief from the sexual temptations that so easily beset us

Temptation and suggestiveness are all around us. The sheer amount of temptation to be overcome and ignored can be exhausting, particularly when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Some struggle scarcely at all, while others feel as though there is a gaping hole in their soul that they can find no relief for. And in light of a movie that just came out, I want to reiterate the line, "I don't believe in no-win scenarios". God has placed us here with difficult, if not impossible dragons to overcome - for a reason

This may include ladies who grow old and never have a chance to marry. It includes guys in a similar position, who couldn't get a date, to save their lives. It includes those who struggle (most likely through no fault of their own) with same-sex attraction. These are not easy things to overcome, and in many cases, they may simply be impossible?

The Book of Mormon was written specifically for our day - yet what does it tell us?

1) We have the stories of both Limhi and Alma juxtaposed in the book of Mosiah.

King Limhi and his people were in bondage to the Lamanites from 145 BC to 121 BC; some 23 years. They had heavy burdens put on their back (and given what we know of Meso-American archeology, this would be quite literal) and a tax of one half of all they possessed. They attempted three times to fight their way out of their predicament, but to no avail. They could not solve their problems on their own. God did not allow them to escape so easily, so that they might learn. He was slow to hear their prayers, because they had been so resistant to the words of His prophets. Because of their afflictions, they were “compelled to be humble” (Alma 32:13-16). Though they resisted at first, they slowly humbled themselves, and their burdens were lightened gradually. And when they had truly humbled themselves sufficiently, they were given relief from their problems – what they could not do on their own.

At about the same time, Alma the elder and those with him, were taken prisoner by the same group of Lamanites. The scriptural record is quite clear that they had not brought this on themselves, but God had given it to them.

Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.
Nevertheless—whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day. Yea, and thus it was with this people.
For behold, I will show unto you that they were brought into bondage, and none could deliver them but the Lord their God, yea, even the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob.
And it came to pass that he did deliver them, and he did show forth his mighty power unto them, and great were their rejoicings.
Mos. 23:21-24
And yet as much trial as He brought upon them, he was willing to be with them in their afflictions.

And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came to them in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage.
And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.
And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.
Mos. 24:13-15
Does this truly pertain to those who struggle with any kind of temptation? Most assuredly! Christ came to save us from our sins. He is far more concerned with spiritual slavery, than temporal slavery.

If we are trying to do what is right, and yet we do not feel Him making our trials lighter, then we are doing something wrong; we are not living the Gospel as completely as we need. Many of those who have truly struggled with SSA, have later in their lives, been thankful for their temptations, and struggles, because by them they have been drawn nearer to their Heavenly Father than they would have ever accomplished by themselves.

Lest we idolize the prophets themselves, let us remember what Alma said of those venerable prophets, Lehi and Nephi. Even they were not perfect - and as they were were not diligent, they too struggled.
And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director—or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it.
And behold, there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship. And behold, it was prepared to show unto our fathers the course which they should travel in the wilderness.
And it did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done; therefore they had this miracle, and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day.
Nevertheless, because those miracles were worked by small means it did show unto them marvelous works. They were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey;
Therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions.
And now, my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow; for as our fathers were slothful to give heed to this compass (now these things were temporal) they did not prosper; even so it is with things which are spiritual.
For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.
And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.
O my son, do not let us be slothful because of the easiness of the way; for so was it with our fathers; for so was it prepared for them, that if they would look they might live; even so it is with us. The way is prepared, and if we will look we may live forever.
And now, my son, see that ye take care of these sacred things, yea, see that ye look to God and live. Go unto this people and declare the word, and be sober. My son, farewell.
For those of us who will never marry in this life, heterosexual, or homosexual, or who simply feel like despairing, God offers us rest from all our struggles, all of which He understand in great detail.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)

But this means coming to Him to the best of our ability, and He will give us rest from our afflictions, spiritual and temporal. For some of us, that means an effort far greater than others, but the spiritual blessing will be proportionally greater.