A Start to Alma 32
Okay, Robert. Let's get things started on Alma 32, after all this anticipatory talk.
First, I know your interest in the chapter is primarily in terms of the methodology/logic of the experimentalism. I'm not sure how I think about that yet, and I have many other thoughts on the chapter, all of which ought to mediate my thoughts on that particular subject, so let me get those out first. I thought I'd hammer out some generalities on this talk page, and then we go about working things into the commentary pages accordingly.
I read the stretch from verse 27 through the end of the chapter as revolving around a sort of double trust (based on a sort of play between "words" and "word"). Verse 27, even before "the word" is compared to "a seed," introduces the term "words," but they are the "words" of Alma specifically: "even until ye can give place for a portion of my words." That the "words" precede the "word" is very interesting to me: Alma petitions their trust in him before they put their trust in the word itself. That is, they are to trust first what they can see, an animate, real person. If they can trust him, even just enough to try the experiment, then they can begin to develop a trust in the word itself, the seed.
With that, Alma has them plant the seed. It grows, etc. Verse 29, it increases their faith: I think this means that it increases their trust in Alma's words, not in the word so much itself. I think this is the point of verse 34: one's faith in the seed, the word, is not increased, but it rather becomes dormant, because one knows (verse 34 does not seem to be any further along in the story temporally than verses 28-29). In other words, the faith that is increased by the seed's beginning to swell and sprout, etc., is one's faith in the words, in the messenger that promoted the word, the seed. One doesn't develop further faith or trust in the seed, because one comes to know that the seed is good, that it will do what it is supposed, as a seed, to do.
It is in light of all of this that in verse 36 Alma says not to lay aside their faith: they still have to trust the words of the true messenger, to follow him (he has more still to tell them). Knowledge, in the end, is not enough: knowing that the tree is good is not enough to reap the reward of the fruit, because one must continue in trusting the messenger who teaches about the seed, the sapling, the plant, the tree, the fruit, etc.
I think the consequence of all of this is that Alma 32 is not about how to replace faith with knowledge, because there are two different "things" with which the Zoramites are to have relation: with Alma as the speaker of words, and with the seed or the word itself (Christ, of course, as Amulek explains in chapter 33). One is to trust the messenger, but it is not long before one knows the goodness or badness of the seed.
So, what of experiments? The experiment tends both to knowledge and to faith: knowledge of the nature of the thing the messenger says (that thing might be Levinas' "Said," and one knows that the Said was said well), and faith in the messenger him/herself (the messenger is, of course, Levinas' "Saying," and one must always continue to trust--to have faith in--a person, because people, as "Sayings," are unpredictable). The experiment results in one's knowledge (whether of goodness or badness) of the particular word on the one hand, and, accordingly, in one's increased or decreased faith in the one speaking so many words on the other. Alma's "words": "Saying." Alma's "word": "Said."
Your reaction? --Joe Spencer 19:18, 11 Jan 2007 (UTC)
- Very interesting. I hadn't really paid close attention to the word/words distinction before. I think this double-trust in words and the word parallels in interesting ways Alma's "perfect knowledge" discussion, though I'm not sure I'm ready to swallow your assertion that this is "not about how to replace faith with knowledge." Rather, I see the "perfect knowledge in that thing" in v. 34 as being a microcosmic example of how one can obtain perfect knowledge of God's word, which is symoblized by the fruit of the tree. Largely as an exercise for myself before doing a more careful verse by verse study, let me try to briefly articulate my current understanding of the faith-knowledge relationship described by Alma:
- Alma starts off in vv. 16ff discussing how faith is importantly belief before knowledge. Then in v. 26, Alma continues to elaborate on the relationship between faith and knowledge using his own words as a microcosmic example. In order to know the truth of Alma's words, you have to metaphorically plant and nourish the seed. After the seed grows and swells, you will know that this is a good seed. The point is that the planting and nourishing come before knowledge is obtained. But this only describes the process of gaining knowledge regarding the goodness of the seed. In order to obtain the kind of perfect knowledge alluded to in v. 21 (and knowing the word in the sense of v. 16), this process of nourishing the word through faith (cf. "strengthen your faith" in v. 30; "neither must ye lay aside your faith" in v. 36; "nourish the word looking forward with an eye of faith" in v. 40; "nourish the word . . . by your fiath" in v. 41) must continue until the fruit of the tree is obtained (which I take as symoblic of entering God's presence, i.e. "perfect knowledge" of the word; I think this latter discussion in particular must be read in light of Alma 12:9ff; I also wonder if Nephi's midrash on Isaiah's "line upon line" passage should be considered in these growth-themed sermons of Alma's...). --RobertC 21:13, 11 Jan 2007 (UTC)
I suppose that, in the end, my predilection to read into the distinction between word and words here is guided by my unmingled rejection of propositional truth, which extends then to a rejection of propositional faith: I don't know what it means to trust in an absolute word, but I do know what it means to trust in so-and-so's word. To trust a word is to trust the person who spoke it (I think this is absolutely vital for any Latter-day Saint who decides to brave the raging waters of Mormon history: one must approach all history already trusting the prophets as true messengers, whether or not the evidence seems to relativize the words they spoke). But what this means in terms of Alma 32 is that faith implies two relations at once: a relation to the messenger, and a relation to the message (words and word). The relation to the message is grounded on the relation (faith) to the messenger: I trust this word is true because it was spoken by this messenger, whom I decide to trust for whatever reason. When I act upon that trust (faith in the messenger), I develop very quickly a perfect knowledge of the particular word or message (I haven't the slightest doubt that the word is absolutely true: it did what it promised). This increases my faith or trust in the messenger, but it can never amount to a perfect knowledge that the messenger will always lead me in the right paths: my relation to a messenger, because a messenger remains personal, will always be a relation of faith (Now abideth faith...). Two relations: faith or trust in the messenger gives way to an indirect "trust" of sorts in the particular message (though I'm not really sure that this is a trust or faith; Alma calls it one in verse 34 as I read him, but I myself would probably call the relation to the particular word a relation of activity or experiment), which results in a knowledge of the nature of the particular message, which in turns gives way to a stronger trust or faith in the messenger. In the end, I think you are very right to look at Alma 12, because there Alma describes the entire plan of salvation in terms of angels being sent: we must be able to know whether they are true messengers. Curiously, the particular word these angels bring, in Alma 12, is the message of the Son (cf. Moses 5). If we can experiment on that word, our trust in the angels will increase, until we move from the order of the servants (apparently sacrifice, as Moses 5 seems to set this story, hence Aaronic?) to the order of the Son (which is what Alma 13 is all about, hence Melchizedek). My thoughts, anyway. --Joe Spencer 15:15, 12 Jan 2007 (UTC)
- Joe, thanks for elaborating. I think this is an interesting view. I agree there's an interesting tension between the words of messengers vs. the word of God. I think this tension, esp. as it relates to knowing the word of God, is related in interesting ways to the tension your Alma 32 paper describes (I'm assuming you got my comments on it; and if I wasn't very clear in my email, I love that paper—if I sounded critical it's only b/c I get neurotically nervous about things I care deeply about and am just worried JBMS might not publish it...). You say:
- "I develop very quickly a perfect knowledge of the particular word or message (I haven't the slightest doubt that the word is absolutely true: it did what it promised)."
- I think this might be assuming too much. That is, I don't think Alma is describing a perfect knowledge "of the particular word or message" but when he says "your knowledge is perfect in that thing" I take it to mean something more like: "It's not that you have a perfect knowledge of my words, but you have a perfect knowledge that my words are good. In order to obtain a perfect knowledge of my words, which is tantamount to a perfect knowledge of the word of God--after all, I'm God's messenger trying to pass along God's word--you have to keep pressing forward with faith until you pierce the veil and have first-hand (experiential) knowledge of God which is the only way you can really have a perfect knowledge of God's word."
- Again, I think the main driving theme thoughout this seed metaphor passage is that a crucial aspect of faith is that it requires belief before knowledge is had, something presaged in v. 16. Earlier I thought that this was more of a repeated process, but I don't see it so much that way now, it seems simply that faith must be maintained until a (perfect) knowledge of God('s word) is obtained (not a knowledge that God exists, but knowing God). The growing and swelling seem to simply illustrate how to know if a seed is good or not, something that I think is different than the kind of perfect knowledge that Alma is getting at in vv. 21, 26, 29, and 35 (but not v. 34). --RobertC 19:16, 12 Jan 2007 (UTC)
--RobertC 19:16, 12 Jan 2007 (UTC)
Old commentary (vv. 28-29)
I think I was the one who posted this commentary before. I think it's a bit misguided and I find it distracting as I'm trying to rethink these verses, so I'm simply moving the commentary here (I'm also quite dissatisfied with most of the commentary I've posted on v. 27, so anyone should feel free to remove it from the commentary page):
Verse 28: Compare the word unto a seed. Notice that Alma compares the word unto a seed in what is arguably an effort to describe the process of acquiring faith (cf. verse 29). One might wonder, "why didn't Alma compare faith unto a seed?" The problem may be that faith requires an object. Here the word is the object (in the grammar-sense of the word object), and faith relates to the process of believing in that object (or what that object describes, Christ in this case; in this case, the relationship between the word and who/what the word is describing may be important also—Alma is not simply discussing faith in Christ, but faith as a particular view about Christ described in 33:22).
Verse 29: Increase your faith. The underlying assumption in this phrase (as well as this entire passage) seems to be that faith is something dynamic, something that can grow. Contrast this to the more static nature of hope suggested by the phrase "perfect brightness of hope" in 2 Ne 31:20 (note that 2 Ne 9:23 uses the phrase "perfect faith"; faith can be perfect in the sense of complete and whole and still continue to grow, the question being raised here is whether it makes sense to think about a "perfect brightness" growing in a dynamic way—cf. D&C 50:24).
--RobertC 03:21, 15 Jan 2007 (UTC)
Faith and the seed (v. 29)
I remember reading somewhere, I think in some Bible commentary book--perhaps on Ezekiel--that metaphors in ancient Hebrew culture were not to be taken as literally as we take them today. This is something I want to learn more about. Nevertheless, I can't help thinking about the implications of this analogy: If the seed is the Word, Christ, and we give place for Christ to dwell in our hearts, then describing the seed as Christ growing doesn't make very much sense, so the shift from the words-as-the-seed to faith-as-the-seed seems like it could be viewed as a shift from Christ-as-the-Word to Christ's-Spirit-in-us (i.e. faith). That is, Alma's wording here is suggestively similar to the way I would be inclined to describe Christ "indwelling" in us (indwelling is a phrase Blake Ostler uses in his second volume of Exploring Mormon Thought).
Hmmm, I don't like the above paragraph, let me try a different thought here: One thing that I think is very important and interesting in this sermon is the encounter between the spoken word and the hearer. How does this encounter take place? How does the conversion process of this speaking-listening (tangential note: listen and obey are the same root in Russian, how about in Greek or Hebrew?) event take place? How can Christ, the Word, change us? I can't help but think about the imagery of Christ's word growing in us (cf. "swell within your breasts and "swell your soul" in v. 28; "mind doth expand" in v. 34; "take root in you" in v. 42). If this is justified, I think it is related in interesting ways to the oneness of the Godhead/Trinity, and Christ's prayers for us to be one with each other and with him (John 17 and 3 Ne ??). And of course this is what (the Day of) Atonement seems to be all about. What is new for me to think about here is thinking about the Word growing in us as the very process of Atonement.
Another scriptural image that seems related is the Book of Mormon's divine hug ("wrapped in the arms" of his love, mercy, etc.) and the lexical connotations of repentance as a turning from sin toward God. I'm getting away from the current passage and context, as I'm wont to do, but I think there may be something much deeper going on here than I normally see. Perhaps I'm just affected by reading Margaret Barker recently, and I'm trying to think how a reading of this with the temple in mind might affect the meaning--in this case, the temple notion of entering God's presence (which in this case seems reversed: God entering our presence...). --RobertC 00:17, 23 Jan 2007 (UTC)
- Yes, rambly, but let me see if I can't respond a little to them.
- Though you toss out your first paragraph above, there does seem to be in it this implication at least: you read verse 29 as shifting the seed from the word to faith? I've always detested the simplification of this discourse into "faith is a seed," since the seed is quite obviously "the word" (my seminary students, when I taught Book of Mormon for a year, were taught this distinction quite strongly, and so whenever they wanted to get me riled up, someone would say, "Well, faith is a seed"). But you may be reading something important here in this verse. Is that how you read it, and if so, how do you read the rest of the chapter and the first verses of the following? I'm not yet inclined to read faith as the seed, but you've certainly opened a possibility for that reading.
- But if I'm following you well, the point of the first paragraph was ultimately just to get to this point of "indwelling," and that comes out nice and clearly in your second paragraph. I especially like your connection to the Godhead/Trinity: they are "in" each other as the seed is planted "in" us, I take you as saying. And if this is what you are saying, I like the way you've opened that onto the theme of the (Day of) Atonement. But when I try to articulate what this would mean, I must confess I'm at a loss as to how to begin. So how might you press this point further?
- As for the "divine hug" (great phrase, by the way), have you read Hugh Nibley's article "The Meaning of Atonement"? It was published serially in the Ensign, but it is also printed in Approaching Zion. He discusses the connection between the Hebrew kphr and this "divine hug" by drawing connections with Arabic desert rituals (quite fascinating).
- And how all of this might be read back into the temple.... That's a good question. There are a couple of interesting possibilities, I think, for connecting Alma 32 generally up with the temple. For one, the very notion of encounter, as you mention, is a temple notion: the encounter at the veil as it was performed throughout the ancient world is very much an embrace (a wrestle even, as in Jacob and the angel? I have a wonderful papyrus depiction of just such a veil embrace hanging above my other "relics"). But there is more, too. The very concept of seed is important, because of the role it plays in the Abrahamic (or even Adamic) covenant (in Moses as in the Book of Abraham), not to mention the sealing ordinances. There are important connections between trees and temples: most ancient religions worshipped the world tree, Asherah was a tree, Nibley's Book of Mormon lecture on the tree of life connects several traditions about the Jerusalem temple to the tree vision, and of course the menorah itself was a representation of the tree of life. And this can go on and on. I think the key is ultimately, however, in working through the exegesis on such points: how does the present chapter change our thinking about the temple? That, in the end, is the most interesting question of all. --Joe Spencer 16:10, 23 Jan 2007 (UTC)
I'm not really sure where I'm going with any of this. Typically I also have cringed at the faith = seed misreading here, but I realize I haven't taken the passages about faith growing seriously enough. I'm just not sure how to think about faith growing--isn't faith something you have or you don't? If faith is only a belief (a term Alma uses repeatedly in this sermon in a way that is at least parallel to the term faith), does growing faith just mean a belief that becomes more and more fervent? Somehow I'm not comfortable with this view, which is largely how I got to thinking about the God-in-us view, as an alternative to growing faith as more fervent belief.
Also, I think I have Matthew's blog post regarding his sacrament talk in the back of my mind, the question about whether doing what's right makes doing what's right become easier. Also, I have Abraham in mind still (progressive trials?), and the Hebrew connotation of faith as confirming. Perhaps even an "eternal round" idea in the back of my mind: God calls, I respond, and in so doing draw closer to God (which is tantamount to increasing in faith); then God calls again, I respond, and we draw closer still, and this continues until I enter God's presence ("perfect knowledge"). And having recently looked more closely at D&C 76, I can't help but think part of Joseph's restoration includes a view that incorporates varying degrees of righteousness and faith....
I'll go reread Nibley's Atonement article and see if that doesn't help my thinking here. Interesting about the "seed" of Abraham connection, I'll have to study/ponder that more. --RobertC 17:27, 23 Jan 2007 (UTC)