The Land of “Make Belief” and Alma 32By: Andrew S
The other night, I had the opportunity to explore the topic again…but this time in auditory format on Mormon Expression podcast.
The story actually goes way back, and I was excited to go on the show. Once upon a time, Glenn (whom you may remember from his edgy testimony as reported by himself or by Adam F) wrote a guest post here about making belief and having hope. I was skeptical about what he could accomplish with “make belief,” and thought that really, he didn’t make beliefs.
The potential to talk about that excited me for the podcast, and ironically, it probably caused me to derailed the podcast episode since I was asked a question about belief as a choice and couldn’t remember any of my good analogies…so I’m hoping that Glenn Ostlund will edit everything to salvage the episode.
Notwithstanding (or, who am I kidding — especially because of) that, I felt the discussion went in ways that I wouldn’t have planned…I say “planned,” because I wrote notes of stuff I would’ve liked to cover.
So, THIS entry is about MY notes. You’ll just have to listen to the podcast episode to hear what we REALLY talked about — which was just as good, but different.
The outline notes for the podcast were first to summarize the first part of 32nd chapter of Alma. The setting is this: Alma and Amulek are reaching out to poor people. These poor people have been kicked out of the Zoramites’ synagogues because they are poor and the Zoramites want to have rich, wealthy people speak at the rameumptom.
One collection of verses that I now find quite interesting are verses 9-12.
9Behold thy brother hath said, What shall we do?—for we are cast out of our synagogues, that we cannot worship our God.
10Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?
11And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?
The reason I find this interesting is because I immediately thought of other people who are “cast out of their synagogues,” so to speak — and not necessarily for being poor or whatever. In a way, those who are excommunicated or disfellowshipped are cast out of their synagogues (or restricted in some way from what they can do), BUT they can still worship God, obviously. Maybe I’m biased by John G-W‘s and Steven Fehr‘s cases (and now I have to get around to listening to Fehr’s episode with Mormon Expression), but in these cases, you have people who clearly do not let excommunication slow them down one bit.
But I digress. Alma 32 is HUGE in Mormonism, and it’s because there are a few “just-so” traps that make the internal logic air-tight. (I say this with love and charity: WHOEVER wrote this [there -- you can believe what you want] was very clever to cover all the bases.) The first trap is in verse 13.
13And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.
Stated in other words…If you repent, you will SURELY find mercy…and if you find mercy and endure to the end you will be saved.
The trap is two-fold. Now, you can be compelled to be humble and seek repentance…but only those who repent shall find mercy. (Don’t find “mercy”? That means you didn’t repent, even if you sought repentance.)
Even if you find “mercy”, you must endure to the end. So, not saved? Then you didn’t endure the end!
“Enduring to the end” is what makes these scriptures unfalsifiable. As I hope to point out.
In the podcast (ooh, a preview!), we stuck around verse 21 for a while, and particularly the part “which are true”. Can someone not have faith in something that turns out to be untrue? What would we call that then? What would we call that in the moment, and what would we call that in hindsight? How can we distinguish faith from the unidentified sister concept if all we currently know is the “hope for something unseen” part?
Anyway, then eventually we got into the real meat of the post…seeds, and stuff. Verse 27:
But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
As a second sneak preview, at this point, our interviewer Glenn asked us what we thought about “desire” and “belief.” And then another podcaster, Lorin, said something to the effect of: “Well, absolutely. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you desire, then you will eventually believe.”
I had to challenge that. I wonder two things: 1) can you choose to desire to believe something? 2) Just because you desire to believe something, does that mean that belief is something you can successfully choose?
The above claims are claims I make a lot, because I am skeptical that we can choose our desires, or that desire is enough to enable us to choose belief. But then Glenn pressed me to provide a specific example to this instance, and I blanked out. Man, it was bad. I hope he edits it all out. I guess you’ll hear in the next week or so.
But, let me think in typing about a few.
For the first point, I usually bring up the example of other religions. I personally don’t desire to be a Muslim. I imagine that this is because I have a very westernized sense of desire in certain things. I’m not sure that I could just choose to desire the things that Muslims desire, or desire to be a Muslim.
BUT even supposing that I figured out how to do that, I could desire all day and never come to be personally persuaded to believe that Muhammad encountered the archangel Gabriel. It might be that I would come across data (whether something objective or something subjective) that eventually convinced me…but I could not choose whether I were convinced or not.
There is some process in my brain that maybe I’m just not educated enough to know how to tap into…well, this process evaluates data that I come across and spits out responses to “me”. I don’t choose how this process operates. I am unaware if I can tamper with it.
I can change the claims that I’m evaluating (we got into that in the podcast, and I was not really expecting that), so that the claim might become something I could swallow better (a regional Book of Mormon geography rather than a hemispheric one: for which we would “expect” different physical evidence), but still, I can’t just choose to say, “OK, I buy that in 3…2…1…There!” Or, I can choose to say that, but it won’t do anything other than allow myself to hear myself talk.
Anyway, I digress (again). I don’t think that the Alma 32 analogy requires a belief that one chooses to believe (or chooses to desire to believe). All it requires is that one will be willing to experiment. To take an action. And I think that actions can be chosen.
Verse 28 makes sense to me, especially when I strip away the spiritual aspects for a second. Say you have someone who is not a farmer and doesn’t know anything about plants. If he is given a seed, he might be highly incredulous about the idea that he can put the seed in the ground, water it and then have that tiny seed turn into something else (especially something majestic like a tree or beautiful like a flower.)
So, this man must at least be willing to experiment. He must be willing to take an action…and then proceed with the necessary actions…for example, if he waters the plant and then waits a minute…sees nothing happening and then gives up…then he hasn’t really done his part of the bargain. But if he can put in the time, suspend disbelief for enough time, then eventually, there will be confirmation. The seed will begin to sprout from the ground (even if it doesn’t look like a tree or a plant yet), and he will at least know: hey, this seed is good. This method is good.
The problem comes in the first trap (enduring to the end) that I’ve previously mentioned…and the second trap, that I briefly alluded to from verse 28.
Casting out by unbelief.
Now we have two reasons in the logic chain to blame for the seed (the Word) failing to take. 1) The person didn’t endure to the end and 2) they cast it out by unbelief.
Conceptually, these two seem very reasonable. But these also have no bounds and so minimize the potential for alternative conclusions. “The end” could be any time. “Unbelief” could be anything. (That is why I love the story of the boiled seed. No matter how much time that stereotypically named Chinese kid was going to work with that seed, it just wasn’t going to go anywhere.)
The scriptures say something that is shockingly applicable: compare verse 28 and 32. If it is a good seed, then it will swell, enlarge, enlighten, and become delicious. If it doesn’t grow, it’s a dud and throw it out.
If people could really read verse 32, understand those implications, and accept them, then I think we’d be in a better world. 32 allows for the possibility that maybe the word won’t grow. And if that is the case, throw it out.
The problem is in statements like those from 13 and 28, and then from 38. People can rest safely behind the idea that if the seed doesn’t grow, it’s because of the choices of the planter. They didn’t endure to the end; they cast it out by their unbelief; and they neglected the tree so that it could not get any root.
Verses 39 and 40 become the conclusion that nearly every member takes.
But I’m going to say it like this: you don’t (and CAN’T) choose for the “seed” to enlarge your soul, enlighten you understanding, or become delicious to you. It may or it may not, but it’s not because you chose for that to happen, or because you wanted it badly enough, or because you worked hard enough for it or long enough for it.
And supposing that the seed is not enlarging, enlightening, or becoming delicious. Suppose it’s tasting pretty bad, and it’s reducing, and it’s dimming instead. There is something you’re going to have to make a choice about…but that’s about actions. Are you going to CHOOSE to endure in that status quo to some unspecified end on the off chance that things could turn around? Or are you going to CHOOSE to divert your energies and resources to investments that prove to have better returns for you?