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Monday, April 2, 2018

The Glory of God is Intelligence

Note: I delivered this talk in my local LDS Ward/Congregation in Ogden, Utah on February 17, 2018

There are a number of letters dated from the December to April of 1839, written from the holding cell of Liberty Jail. They were dictated by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith as he and his fellow prisoners were confined to this dank little basement of a prison, held by the Missouri government after the sack and fall of the Mormon city of Far West.

These Mormon leaders had been betrayed by one of their own and handed over to the Missouri Militia that had sacked the city, raped its inhabitants, stolen their goods, and expelled a whole people into the harsh Missouri winter. With his people wandering as religious refugees, while being incarcerated and abused himself, Joseph Smith dictated some of his most poignant and powerful letters, including sections 121 and 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants, personal favorites of mine. Yet not every part of these letters were included in the Church’s canonization process, yet they are no less powerful for it. This statement from Joseph Smith, especially, impresses me:         

The things of God are of deep import and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse: he must commune with God. [1]
            Our family was asked to speak today on the Plan of Salvation. A very broad topic, considering it encompasses the entirety of premortal, mortal, and postmortal existence! So each of us have narrowed it down in our own way. As I pondered how I might approach the topic, the above segment from Liberty Jail came to my mind.  
There are some who try to stereotype Mormons as plastic smiled, inauthentic automatons. Somewhere between the Stepford Wives and Leave it to Beaver.  I’ve heard Mormons called ignorant, naive, and superstitious. If there is any truth to the stereotype, then that is not how it was intended by the Church’s mortal founder Joseph Smith, nor the beings we worship and from whom we have received our modern and ancient revelations. As Brother Joseph said, we are to understand everything from the utmost heavens to the darkest abyss. God is not trifling with us, so we better not trifle with what we’re supposed to learn.     
I have a mother who has a deep-seated curiosity. She loves to read and study all sorts of things. I wouldn’t necessarily call her a scholar, at least not in the academic sense. She never graduated college, instead opting to raise 11 children. I am very aware of the personal sacrifices she made to raise all of us, though I am proud to say that she is going back to college and taking online classes in her older years.
Now there’s a lot she and I don’t agree on, but she has a very interesting mind. She’s inquisitive and intelligent. I often catch her reading very complex books, whether historical, philosophical, scientific, artistic, health related, or theological. She loves to watch the news and other informational programs, as well as being a very creative painter and artist. She loves knowledge. She’s a very engaging conversationalist, even during those occasional moments when we frustrate each other.
Thus it’s ironic to me that she and I have a point of contention about the word “intellectual.” My mother is not alone in the Church in thinking “intellectual” has bad connotations. For her it conjures up ideas of self-importance and pride.
However, the root of the word, has no such meaning. In Latin, intelligere means “to understand.” The word intelligence also has a strong heritage in our faith. For example, in the magnificent Doctrine and Covenant Section 93, we find the following passage:

26 The Spirit of truth is of God. I am the Spirit of truth, and John bore record of me, saying: He received a fulness of truth, yea, even of all truth;
29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.
32 And every man whose spirit receiveth not the light is under condemnation.
33 For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy;
34 And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.
36 The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.
There’s a lot to digest in those verses, but it certainly culminates in that majestic phrase, “The glory of God is intelligence.” Or, to go back to that Latin root, God became God by understanding. Intelligence is the glory of the Elohim, the inheritance of the sons and daughters of God.
 Thus this part of ourselves was “in the beginning with God.” Our intelligence is indestructible, the most vital and eternal part of who we are, the center of our soul. It is the core part of our identity. It is the part of ourselves that (again that Latin root) originally “understood,” that acted, and was not merely acted upon. It is the part that, through God’s intervention, gained understanding and was able to progress to a higher existence.
Our Heavenly Parents intend for us to keep this intelligence within ourselves active. Instead of being mindlessly obedient pawns in a cosmic game of chess, God has instead placed that intelligence to “act for itself,” independent in its sphere. God gave us agency. Or, perhaps, we always had that agency and that is what made us different than other clusters of atoms, with their reactive electrons, protons, and neutrons. Perhaps this self-awareness, this ability to act for ourselves, is what made us intelligences. That’s what D&C 93 seems to indicate, at least, when it says that without this ability to act for ourselves, there “is no existence.”
 So to be an intellectual, in its purest sense, is not shameful after all. Instead it is what it means to be godly. Doctrine and Covenants 130 states, “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”
D&C 88:40 says that “intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy,” etc.
Then in verse 41 we find that Latin root of intelligence again (that word “comprehend” sticks out now in a way that is has never for me before): “He comprehendeth all things and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever” (emphasis mine).
In fact, not only is intelligence meant to be our final glory, but it was also our most ancient origin. In the LDS Book of Abraham, all of us who lived with God in a premortal existence as “intelligences.” Without this intelligence, as was stated earlier in D&C 93, there “is no existence.” It says that our intelligence was not “created or made,” which couples very well with Einstein’s First Law of Thermodynamics that says that matter cannot be created nor destroyed, although it can be changed from one form to another. Again, Einstein’s theory relates well with Latter-day Saint belief, which asserts that God “organized” our world, our bodies, our spirits from pre-existing materials, changed “from one form to another.” We were not created ex nihilo, out of nothing, as many other denominations believe, but rather we were “with God in the beginning.” It’s a radical doctrine in Mormon belief, but I fully embrace it, and I rejoice in it.  To borrow another metaphor from Joseph Smith, it’s a doctrine that tastes good, tastes true.
 But we were not alone with God in the beginning, there was one whose spiritual stature and comprehension was above ours, one whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word.” In the Gospel of John, Chapter 1, verses 1-2, it says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.” This “only begotten of the Father,” this Light that the darkness does not comprehend, this Word took on flesh and took on the Hebrew name of Yeshua, which is translated in English to Jesus. The original meaning of the name Yeshua, though, is “deliverance.”
This Yeshua, this Jesus, this Deliverance, he had to learn, too. He had to exercise his agency and his intelligence. Sometimes we mistakenly think that Yeshua came to earth bestowed with all necessary knowledge. That’s not what the scriptures tell us. D&C 93 claims that Yeshua “received not of the fulness at first, but received grace for grace; And he received not a fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at first” (verses 13-14).
And, like Joseph Smith mentioned, Yeshua’s comprehension had to “stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse: he must commune with God.” And commune with God Yeshua certainly did. But his learning was not always pleasant, there were dark abysses that he passed through which contrasted with the utmost heavens he eventually attained.
This is where those stereotypical, plastic Mormon smiles are not enough. This is where the power of positive thinking falls short. This is where our impulse to smooth things over, force the pleasant, and make everything nice is not actually a virtue, but can at times be a sin. For the textbooks we have been assigned to learn from include offensive passages such as pain, such as injustice, such as sin, such as selfishness, such as grief, such as tragedy. Sometimes terrible things happen to good people, sometimes the good die young, sometimes the corrupt flourish, sometimes there is complexity in human motives, sometimes horrible things seem to happen for no good reason. This, too, is part of being “independent in our sphere,” this is part of the messy necessity of agency and free will.
I am teaching Shakespeare right now to my English classes, and I love how real and authentic Shakespeare’s plays are, even the supernatural ones. I love the comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer's Night Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. I love Shakespeare’s more redemptive plays, such as A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Yet I also find great meaning in his tragedies, like Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. These, too, represent the human experience. Is it any wonder then that when God decided to give us the cornerstone scripture of the Restoration, the Book of Mormon, he gave us a tragedy? The self-destructive ending of that book can be hard to take, especially when you invest in and care for the Nephites, only to see them destroyed because of their fatal flaws of racism, xenophobia, classism, hate, and pride.
Mormon breaks my heart every time when he laments in a way worthy of a Shakespearean soliloquy:

 O ye fair ones, how could have you departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return.[2] 

Mormon and his son Moroni certainly knew the bitter taste of tragedy, despite the personal redemption and catharsis they received from it. In an even more profound way, Jesus, Yeshua, our Deliverance, was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” as Isaiah tells us. This Man of Sorrows, to free us from our sins and guilt, put the consequences of our tragic stories upon himself, “which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.”[3]
This kind of intelligence is not easily learned, yet Christ comprehended all in this act. It was a classroom of pain, experience, triumph, tragedy, and compassion. Above all things, below all things, the ultimate act of knowledge was achievedlearning the hearts of every human being, experiencing the whole breadth of life and death. It was an act of spiritual scholarship that dwarfs all others.
The Word, our Deliverance, Jesus, Yeshua who was with God in the Beginning, his Grace makes up for the assignments we have missed or neglected. Yet that doesn’t mean we still don’t have further lessons, our own pains and sorrows to endure. We still must attempt in what ways we can to catch up, though we never really will, and it is only by our Instructor’s mercy that we pass this class of mortality. Yet he will make scholars of us yet, through his enduring patience and mercy. In D&C 88:117-119 the Lord commands:
Therefore, verily I say unto you, my friends, call your solemn assembly, as I have commanded you. And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God;
In D&C 88: 77-80, the Lord also commands:
And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.

So let us not denigrate the word “intellectual,” for intelligence is the Glory of God, it is the Light that Darkness does not comprehend. We are commanded to expand our comprehension. The Lord’s grace will make up for our gaps in knowledge, but that doesn’t mean we stop studying, nor that we stop learning. After warning us of the pitfalls of the pitfalls of those who trust their knowledge over God’s knowledge, The Book of Mormon goes onto say in 2 Nephi 9:29 that “to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” So, in our various studies, we must rely on the arm of Yeshua, not the arm of the flesh. If we do so, we have been promised the ability to progress and achieve joy. As the Lord says in D&C 19:23, “Learn of me, and you shall have peace in me.”
I say these things, relying upon the name and grace of Yeshua the Mashiach, our Deliverance, Jesus Christ, Amen.

[1] Joseph Smith’s March 29, 1839, Letter.” Dean C. Jessee and John W. Welch, “Revelations in Context: Joseph Smith’s Letter From Liberty Jail, March 20, 1839,” (BYU Studies 39:3, 2000), 137. Spelling and punctuation added by me.
[2] Mormon 6:17-20
[3]  D&C 19:18-19

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