BYU Religion Dean on Premortal Life, Part I: Race and Nobility

Last week Terry Ball, Dean of the College of Religious Education, gave BYU’s weekly devotional address (mp3 file available here, Daily Universe report here). His talk raises many issues relevant to recent discussions here and elsewhere. My reaction to his talk will be divided into two posts: first, a discussion of some of the problematic themes that Ball raises, and second, an analysis of the way this Professor of Ancient Scripture handles scripture. The topic of his talk, which was entitled “To Confirm and Inform: A Blessing of Higher Education,” springs from the well-known 2 Nephi 9:28-29: “To be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” He argues that a higher education can “confirm and inform” one’s faith if three conditions are met: 1) The faith is based on true things 2) one is obedient to the commandments of God, and 3) one is observant in her or his study. There is much material to discuss in the first two points, and even a little controversy (I invite you to listen for yourself), but I want to focus on his exemplification of principle #3.

In this point, he attempts to get at the ways one’s major can confirm and inform one’s faith, and he talks of how his own training in archaeobotany has revealed the scriptures to him. He then shows how his training confirms and informs his faith by quoting from the end of Isaiah 28, a parable of a farmer. The farmer, the parable says, knows where and how to sow which seeds, and knows also how to harvest the different types of grains produced by these seeds. What Dean Ball makes of this parable, and the “wonderful principles it reveals”, raises some interesting issues:

“I believe Isaiah wants us to liken the farmer to our Heavenly Father, and the seeds to ourselves. Have you ever wondered why you were born where and when you were born? Why you were not born 500 years ago in some primitive, aboriginal culture in some isolated corner of the world? Is the timing and placing of your birth capricious? For Latter-day Saints the answer is no. Fundamental to our faith is the understanding that before we came to this earth we lived in a premortal existence with a loving heavenly father. We further understand that in that premortal state we had agency. And that we grew and developed as we used that agency. Some, as Abraham learned, became noble and great ones. We believe that when it came time for us to experience mortality, a loving Heavenly Father who knows each of us well sent us to earth at the time and place and circumstances that would best help us reach our divine potential and help him maximize his harvest of redeemed souls. So some of you are fitches and cumin, you were born and raised in tight-knit and supportive communities and you are a vital and contributing part of that community. Others of you are wheat, you’ve been placed in exceptionally fertile and promising places because God , who knows your special potential, is counting on you to produce so much. Some of you are barley and rye, you’ve been placed in some difficult circumstances, perhaps having to face handicaps and hardships, but god knows you, he knows your needs and your hearts and your abilities and he knows you can reach your divine potential, even in the face of great trials. Perhaps it’s the very trials that will help you reach your potential. Perhaps he allows you to face those trials so you can help others reach theirs as well. Some of you may be zucchini. It wouldn’t matter where you were planted. You’d grow and flourish and produce extraordinary amounts of fruit to be foisted upon unsuspecting neighbors.” [Transcript made by me from audio recording available through links above. Emphasis mine.]

Now, my first thought was that we had moved away from this kind of rhetoric. Observe how very similar ideas were encapsulated–and to what ends they were used–by the following General Authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. (And note especially the similarity in the questions posed by Alvin R. Dyer):

Why is it that you are white and not colored? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Who had anything to do with your being born into the Church and not born a Chinese or a Hindu, or a Negro? Is God such an unjust person that He would make you white and free and make a Negro cursed under the cursing of Cain that he should not hold the Priesthood of God?… There were three divisions of mankind in the pre-existence, and when you are born into this life, you are born into one of these three divisions of people. There is an imposed judgment placed upon everyone who leaves the Spirit World just the same as there will be when they leave this life and go into one of three places. When they left the Spirit World, they had already been judged by what they had done in the Spirit World and in their previous life. From what judgment is determined how they shall be born in this life? When you understand that, you know that God is not unjust to cause a righteous spirit to be born as a cursed member of the black race or to be cursed as one of the other people who have been cursed. Everything is in order. The procreation of man is orderly and in accordance with the plan of life and salvation. … All of this is according to a well worked-out plan, that these millions and billions of spirits awaiting birth in the pre-existence would be born through a channel or race of people. Consequently, the cursed were to be born through Ham…. The cursed people are the descendants of Ham. The chosen people are the descendants of Shem… Through these lineages the spirits that compare with their station are born in this life. This is why you have colored people, why you have dark people and why you have white people…. the day will come when you know who you are, because you are a person of nobility. You may not fully know that now, but you were a person of nobility in the pre-existence. If you were not, you would have been born into one of these other channels, and you would not have been born in this day and age, because the Lord has withheld the choice spirits of the pre-existence to come forth in this, the last dispensation. (“For What Purpose?,” a talk given by Alvin R. Dyer at a missionary conference in Oslo, Norway, March 18, 1961, Widely distributed in typescript. LDS Church Archives. Also printed in The Negro in Mormon Theology, pp. 48-58.)

Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation:

“There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient; more or less, to the laws that were given us there.” [Doctrines of Salvation, 1955, Vol. 1, page 61.]

Mark E. Petersen:

“Is there reason then why the type of birth we receive in this life is not a reflection of our worthiness or lack of it in the pre-existent life?… Can we account in any other of way for the birth of some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China, or among the starving hordes of India, while some of the rest of us are born here in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Indians, some as Negroes, some as Americans, some as Latter-day Saints. These are rewards and punishments, fully in harmony with His established policy in dealing with sinners and saints, rewarding all according to their deeds….

“Let us consider the great mercy of God for a moment. A Chinese, born in China with a dark skin, and with all the handicaps of that race seems to have little opportunity. But think of the mercy of God to Chinese people who are willing to accept the gospel. In spite of whatever they might have done in the pre-existence to justify being born over there as Chinamen, if they now, in this life, accept the gospel and live it the rest of their lives they can have the Priesthood, go to the temple and receive endowments and sealings, and that means they can have exaltation. Isn’t the mercy of God marvelous?” [Emphasis mine. Coincidentally, this was delivered to the Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level, Brigham Young University, August 27, 1954.]

Let me be clear. I am not accusing Terry Ball of racism, and his statement is certainly not on the order of those of the General Authorities. He does try to salvage the concept of pre-existence as determinative of one’s station by recourse to Abraham and to the concept of individually-determined “divine potential”, known by a Heavenly Father who placed each one in their proper place.

What these comparisons force one to ask, however, is whether the idea of nobility in premortality can ever fully get away from its racist implications. One has to ask what Ball meant by the pejorative reference to “some primitive, aboriginal culture in some isolated corner of the world.” Certainly he’s not counting “them” as wheat, since they’re not planted in the ripest ground. Ball sets up a chronological, geographical, and cultural hierarchy dependent on premortal “agency”, not unlike Dyer, Petersen, and Smith. Some of the BYU students he references, for example, have that “special potential” that accounts for their placement. Apparently, those primitive aborigines had no special potential determined in the pre-existence. It’s our job to go out and convert them, because we have to help God “maximize his harvest of redeemed souls.” If the comment about aborigines is not outright racist, can it be anything other than elitist, colonialist, etc.?

Although Ball certainly doesn’t draw the distinction between peoples down racial lines, (although one wonders what he had in mind by “primitive” and “aboriginal”), his statements cannot help but to construct a system of cultural elitism that retrojects contemporary “blessings” back into the pre-existence. How big a chasm is there between Ball and the General Authorities quoted? Can we salvage anything from this doctrine? (After all, he bases it on Abraham 3, which is chalk-full of premortal hierarchy.) How does Ball’s quote not help to reify the rumors about “Generals in Heaven” that the church is currently trying to squelch? How is this not an assertion of divine right, where one’s relationship to God is assumed, based on current privilege?

Coming up in part two… Why Isaiah meant nothing of the sort.

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72 Comments

Filed under Bible, BYU, LDS Church History, Leadership, Speculation

72 responses to “BYU Religion Dean on Premortal Life, Part I: Race and Nobility

  1. ben

    Fabulous post. I thought the same things while listening to this address. Like you, I thought we had moved past this rhetoric, and I think it is essential that we do move past this rhetoric in order to become an international Church. These types of sayings just dont “confim” my view of an all-loving God who grants us the best possible situations to use our agency.
    I love Dr. Ball, but hearing talks like this, which seem to happen more than they should, reinforce my view that these past views are still (unfortunately) around.

  2. Great post — thanks for this discussion of that devotional. This is a very important topic. How ideal it would be if Terry Ball came around and participated!

    How does Ball’s quote not help to reify the rumors about “Generals in Heaven” that the church is currently trying to squelch?

    This was exactly what I thought as I read the selection from Ball’s talk that you provided in the main post. Of course I see the Dyer, Petersen, JFS connection to the concept that underlies Ball’s statement (they are all based in the same concept which does not seem to be the only or best interpretation of Abraham 3 or the Isaiah material, or other scriptures and latter-day revelations), but because of the timing, this contrasts even more starkly with the “generals in heaven” flap that is going on right now, where the Church has been taking the rare step of having a letter read before congregations disavowing the “generals in heaven” quote/idea.

    I also sense where this is going with your second post. I am absolutely certain that Professor Ball is a wonderful man and a great Latter-day Saint, but it truly is surprising to see this kind of exegesis of scripture coming from someone holding the position that he does. A university level expert in ancient scripture, I would think, would take a different approach to a discussion of Isaiah and the Gospel. That doesn’t mean, however, that such a person would not be able to take an entirely uniquely Mormon approach to the interpretation. I believe that should definitely be the case in a devotional address at BYU — and I myself greatly appreciate and enjoy learning how the words of Isaiah and other prophets might apply directly and specifically to the Latter-day Saint experience, which I believe to encompass the Restored Gospel and the true priesthood authority to act in God’s name. We need to understand these things, but such seminary-level expositions only reinforce faith temporarily and superficially, I think. We need to go deeper and I know we can.

  3. Mark IV

    Wow. So disappointing. I didn’t realize it was possible for one department at BYU to produce barnyard fertilizer in such copious amounts.

    If the people at 50 E. North Temple in SLC ever wonder where Generals in Heaven come from, they don’t need to look any further than 45 miles to the South. It is almost comical, really – Apostles call a press conference to denounce heresy, while simultaneously the dean of religion is shovelling it as fast as he can.

  4. It seems to me, Dr. Ball would have avoided so much misstep had he but omitted the phrase, “I believe Isaiah wants us to . . .” and the beginning reference to agency in heaven. Without the former, he would have the freedom of whatever hermeneutic he wanted without claiming authorial intent. Without the latter, he could have avoided connection to “generals in heaven.”

    It may be that archaeobotany does not provide the optimal background for OT exegesis.

  5. jupiterschild

    John F.,

    they are all based in the same concept which does not seem to be the only or best interpretation of Abraham 3 or the Isaiah material, or other scriptures and latter-day revelations

    I’m curious to know what avenues you see for salvaging Abraham 3. I went back and read Abraham 3 because of this devotional, and I was shocked to see how unabashedly un-egalitarian it is–the entire chapter is based on the premise that no two intelligences are alike, and therefore, like the sun, moon, and stars, some people are, and were, better than others. And this goes back to the pre-existence. I recognize that egalitarianism may also not be the way to go (in theory) but I see a real problem at the core of this chapter, at least whenever people attempt to understand present, mortal configurations based on Abraham 3 and anything like it, such as the generals in the war in heaven rumor.

  6. There was an excellent talk by Elder Ashton in the mid-90′s that repudiated some of these views. It was published but I can’t seem to locate it at the moment. (My copy was unfortunately destroyed) Anyone remember the talk I’m thinking of? It was about how, by our judgments, some of those most blessed appear cursed and vice versa.

  7. jupiterschild

    jondh, you’re anticipating part II. I think you’re right about his ascription of intent to Isaiah, but it goes deeper, I think. (Stay tuned.)

    As for the reference to agency, this would have mitigated things perhaps (the argument, I think, could be made that omission of the agency part would have made it worse), but even if you took out that reference, is there any other way to understand the whole discourse? You’re still left with the distinction between yourself and some aborigine 500 years ago. I guess one could argue that without the agency bit he could argue for God’s knowing placement of them there so as to fulfill their divine potential, but this seems extremely feeble to me, especially given the hierarchy implicit in the civilized/uncivilized distinction he makes.

  8. The Gospel Principles manual seems to teach the same principle.

    FWIW, in another talk, “A Question of Birth,” Dyer stated:

    “Have you ever wondered why you were born today instead of two thousand years ago? Did this just happen or is there a foreordained plan governing the time and place of birth? Why weren’t you born in the days of Moses instead of today? What were the processes in our pre-mortal estate which designated when and where you as an individual spirit should come into the world? In the light of divine instruction the answers to these important questions are clear. You and I were born in this day and age in accordance with our foreordination.”

  9. Kent

    The larger question is “Why did God send me to earth at this time in these circumstances?” The following may be possible answers:

    1. Random chance
    2. Pre-mortal valiance (or lack thereof) – God is rewarding me/trusting me
    3. To maximize my possibilities for growth based on God’s knowledge of my needs and abilities
    4. To play a role in God’s plans for this earth’s history
    5. To play a role in God’s plans for specific individuals

    Can you think of any others? Of course this all assumes that we bring personality and capacity with us from the pre-mortal world. It is obvious that #2 is the primary idea that Dr. Ball is promoting, but it is an interesting combination of several possibilities.

  10. jupiterschild:

    You’re probably right about the implicit hierarchy in the civilized/uncivilized distinction (especially with the word “isolated” and “some primitive, aboriginal culture”). But although he could have exercised more sensitivity in this regard, it still doesn’t go far enough alone to assert a mortal punishment for premortal mediocrity. You may be down on the totum pole as an aborigine, but not because of what you did or did not do before you were born (assuming, of course, that the reference to premortal agency is omitted).

    Personally, I thought his analogy to different crops was extremely effective. Without the premortal implications, it could have been taken simply as a statement of God’s knowing well his children and their respective talents. He knows their strengths and weaknesses and where they can best flourish and be put to use. This does not necessarily depend on degrees of premortal valiance.

  11. mondo cool

    “If the comment about aborigines is not outright racist, can it be anything other than elitist, colonialist, etc.?”

    I think it can be otherwise. I think it is simply stating that some things are better than others. I just don’t see how saying, “I would rather have the mother of my grandchildren NOT be a heroin addict,” is, per se, elitist?

    This is a variant on the theodicy question, no? Why did God permit / decree that I was born healthy in Panama and someone else was born sickly in Boise? What are the justifications of our births, if not based on pre-mortal merit or choice?

    BTW, I don’t see the “squelching” of the Generals in Heaven rumors as a repudiation of the idea that the circumstances of our births are determined by our pre-mortal merit and choice anymore than I see a rejection of the story of “The Little Drummer Boy” as an accurate depiction of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth as a denouncement of the idea that Jesus *was* born in Bethlehem.

  12. ronito

    Mondo. Re-read your post. In it you say we’re better than aboriginies and link them to heroin addicts and it doesn’t seem at all elitist to you?

    How’s about I stood up in church and said, “You poor people have had the grave misfortune of being born white. I’m very greatful that I’m not white. God has a special purpose for me!” I’m pretty sure that’d get me disciplined by the leadership.

  13. mondo cool

    Is it better to be born in a time and place where there is an abundance of medicines that can treat an abundance of diseases than not? That may not make “me” or “us” better, but it makes my and our circumstances better.

    Ronito (#12): So, in your mind, if I mention heroin addicts and someone else’s quote about aboriginies in the same comment, that constitutes a “link?” Amazing!

  14. jupiterschild

    jondh,

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is the very concept of a totem pole: they “might be down on the totum pole as an aborigine, but not because of what you did or did not do before you were born.” So what does that practically mean? Why have a totem pole at all, if it’s just descriptive of some kind of hierarchy of privilege that we construct? I don’t think you can talk about pre-existence and totem poles without getting into the mess and making the assumptions that Ball does. The real trouble is that he linked Isaiah 28 with the pre-existence at all.

    I think, like Mondo points out, that it does get back ultimately to the theodicy question, which will be the topic of a future post…

    Finally, Ronito’s right: Mondo, the problem is in your definition of better. If it is, in fact, true that some people are more noble/better than others, how is this determined? Who determines it? Is it even a worthwhile distinction? What does it gain us? I don’t think that being a heroin addict necessarily makes you ignoble, nor does being a stake president (or religion dean) make you noble. You may have socially-conditioned preferences, but to assign some cosmic “better” to the one over the other is naive at best.

  15. Brad Kramer

    The comment about primitive aborigines is manifestly elitist, colonialist, ethnocentric, eurocentric, etc, etc. Indefensible coming from a trained scientist and a scholar.

    This particular variation on the theodicy question (who was born in more or less blessed circumstances for what premortal-determined reasons) is one that needs permanent shelving.

  16. jupiterschild

    Mondo,

    That may not make “me” or “us” better, but it makes my and our circumstances better.

    This is a paradigm that you’ve constructed for yourself, not at all something that is self-evident. Privileging health care over other factors is just that, an imposed ranking. One could just as easily construct counterexamples that indicate we live in a more degenerate society than 500 years ago, and that our circumstances have done more to disconnect us from God than ever in the history of mankind. Does that make us noble or not?

  17. Kent

    So, is it just random chance where we are born in life?

  18. It’s not like Prof. Ball has twisted or misconstrued the doctrine of preexistence. As Kent pointed out in comment no. 9, any belief in preexistence that views spirits as being sent down to slip into bodies under God’s supervision either works in some random fashion (which makes God rather capricious) or somehow assigns or maps spirits to bodies (and invites the sort of premortal elitism on display in Prof. Ball’s talk). Either approach is open to criticism, one of the reasons why, as I understand it, Augustine condemned preexistence as a heresy.

  19. mondo cool

    Jupiterschild (#16):

    *Who* imposed the ranking????? Having “better health care” than 500 years ago is NOT self-evident? If it wasn’t self-evident do you honestly and sincerely believe that humankind would pursue it? I guess for some blood letting is just as effecacious as ibuprofen?? Yes, humankind can and does frequently get things mixed up, but if we’re misguided in our desire to watch American Idol, I don’t think we should give up entertainment.

    What does the scripture mean which says to whom more is given, more is required? You seem to be arguing there is no “more” given and that “more” is just a construct of our own delusion??

    Yes, some people can take an elitist attitude about the “more” they have. That is always wrong. I’m saying some things are a blessing and we should be grateful for them. I’m saying “more” is given and it is based upon some rational and just conditions. (Not that we always know the reasons for.)

    For example, I’m NOW leaving for a long Easter break which will include fishing. I don’t consider myself better than others because of it, but I am grateful that I AM OUTTA HERE!! WOO HOOO!!!

  20. Dave: I’m not sure if I remember correctly, but I seem to recall hearing from Terryl Givens that he is going to argue in his forthcoming book on preexistence that Augustine personally believed in the doctrine but was forced into his position by others.

    Givens gave a presentation on his research to the Bushman Summer Fellows last summer, and unfortunately he’s only going to deal with JS’s foundational preexistence texts, so he won’t be getting into these later developments.

  21. acm

    Forgive the dissent from a brand new poster, but I’m surprised by the seemingly automatic assumption that there’s nothing to distinguish a 21st century Western nation from “some primitive, aboriginal culture in some isolated corner of the world.” I understand (and share) the concern about linking one’s place or manner of birth to premortal righteousness, but this apparent idea that all cultures are of equal value is absurd on its face.

    Poverty, subsistence living, primitive housing and life expectancies in the 40s and 50s have nothing to recommend them. Western nations are demonstrably superior to primitive cultures in almost every respect. Why has this become unacceptable to say in polite company?

  22. jupiterschild

    Mondo, sounds like you’re really passionate about this. Do you want to resolve some concerns? :)

    I’m not disputing that most do prefer the range of health care options available to us, (although this is not everywhere the case and therefore is not necessarily self-evident). I’m saying the privileging of health care as a criterion for why 2008 is better than 1508 is just that, a criterion, invented as a way of analyzing and situating ourselves with respect to the other.

    The “where more is given more is expected” dictum need not have anything to do with pre-existence, since it can be applied anytime, anywhere, with or without even the doctrine of a pre-existence. It certainly can be construed along elitist lines, though, and serve to reinforce as well as mitigate the idea of a more noble pre-existence for some: “Well, it may be true that we’re better than you, but it’s also worse for us because we have more required of us.”

    Dave, I’m actually not saying that he has misconstrued the doctrine of pre-existence as much as I’m asking whether the doctrine as we have it can lead anywhere besides where it does with Ball and the GAs. And a random placement on earth doesn’t mean God is capricious, just that he’s random. Making some be born into great wealth and power and others born into oppression and abuse, and doing it on purpose, that’s caprice. And it’s what this “doctrine” is targeted at. God’s not capricious if he puts you “where you belong”, if your current state is of your own making.

  23. jupiterschild

    ACM, I don’t think that anyone’s disputing that there’s plenty to distinguish one culture from another. And not many people would say it is bad to want to alleviate poverty or to improve living conditions of people of the world. It’s the moral assessment that is the sticking point.

    The problem is that the (naive) moral assessment of one culture in its totality over another is now recognized (and has been for some time) to be the basis for lots and lots of violence, oppression, and abuse. There’s a whole mode of study known loosely as postcolonial theory that started when people began to investigate the mechanisms that allowed the imperial powers to subject other nations to themselves. One of those mechanisms is just what we’re discussing here: “God has shown us to be more noble than you, (just look at our prosperity!) and therefore we’re going to make you like us, even if you don’t want to be.” Postcolonialism asks, what do/did the indigenous societies want?

    “Polite society” doesn’t like stuff like this, for one, because it’s seen as creating an environment that allowed these large-scale abuses to take place, and some would argue that it is still driving US foreign policy. And the purpose of this post is to point out that it’s very difficult, even post 1978, to get away from elitist, imperialist, etc. rhetoric when talking about the pre-existence like Ball does.

  24. jupiterschild

    PS ACM, dissent away! We like that here.

  25. As I was reading this, I had to scroll back up twice to see what year this was actually written. Egad.

  26. I think it can be otherwise. I think it is simply stating that some things are better than others. I just don’t see how saying, “I would rather have the mother of my grandchildren NOT be a heroin addict,” is, per se, elitist?

    Obviously we agree that “heroin addiction” and “aboriginal cultures” are not comparable, so let’s not discuss that. Ball is of course saying that those who are born in this culture in this day and age are better off than those born in aboriginal cultures at some time in the past (never mind the fact that many aborigines are perhaps better off 500 years ago than they are now).

    Is it better to be born in a time and place where there is an abundance of medicines that can treat an abundance of diseases than not? That may not make “me” or “us” better, but it makes my and our circumstances better.

    I don’t think Ball’s point is entirely about medicine and treatment of diseases, but more about moral superiority which makes it elitist.

    What does the scripture mean which says to whom more is given, more is required? You seem to be arguing there is no “more” given and that “more” is just a construct of our own delusion??

    I don’t think the “more” you refer to means “innately more righteous”.

  27. Acm,

    Poverty, subsistence living, primitive housing and life expectancies in the 40s and 50s have nothing to recommend them. Western nations are demonstrably superior to primitive cultures in almost every respect. Why has this become unacceptable to say in polite company?

    Obviously both the colonizer and the colonized are complicit in meaning making, and given the choice to live longer, work less, and live more comfortably, most people from any culture would choose such. I’m not sure however that this equates to one culture being superior to another “in almost every respect”; especially since Western colonialism has brought about the conditions of “poverty”, “subsistence living”, etc. for many of the cultures they assumed they were superior to (Certainly Western culture is not superior in respecting other cultures!). To put it plainly, I don’t see how these things in effect make us better people than those that lived 500 years ago. Sure we can propagate the race better then ever before (and kill them better then ever before), but I don’t see that as legitimating a claim for cultural superiority.

    Given the choice, I’d undoubtedly choose a Western health care system and governmental procedure (although alternative forms of medicine are better at certain things, and there are varieties of “Western” governmental procedures–Communism is Western after all); but I personally find myself prone to look to other cultures for other meaning and values in my life. I think indigenous systems of relationships are more conducive to the kind of family life that makes me happy. We decorate our home with traditional Chinese art. Asian ethics tends to make more sense to me as a mode for becoming a moral person. Indigenous traditions tend to do a much better job at taking care of the Earth. And I’d eat Japanese food before anything else. I find these aspects of other cultures superior, but that’s a long haul from claiming an objective superiority of them above the others (not to say that such isn’t the logical extension of some this-i.e., the issue of ecology).

  28. …never mind the fact that many aborigines are perhaps better off 500 years ago than they are now.

    Hmm, just how many 500-year-old aborigines do you know?

  29. Jake Starkey

    The argument devolves from the concept of a Royal Priesthood passed through lineage from Father Abraham. The development of Mormon theology unfortunately has historically applied a context of racial inclusion linked to pre-mortal existences.

  30. I just reread Abraham 3 to better understand this thread. I see nothing in Abraham 3 about our pre-earth life determining where where were born. I see nothing in there about some spirits being worth more (in God’s eyes) than other spirits. I do see the concept that some spirits are more intelligent than others and that God is the most intelligent of all. I think the word “intelligent” in Abraham 3 probably means “light and truth” as explained in D&C 93:36. That is, God is referring, IMHO, to the righteousness of spirits not to their worth.

    I think that comments from anyone, General Authority or BYU Dean or not, that bring in meanings and nuances that aren’t in the scriptures are just folk lore, and we should recognize them and accept them as such. As far as I’m concerned, folk lore doesn’t have much meaning to me as I study the scriptures and try to apply them to my life.

  31. Mark B.

    And who’s to say that someone living in the jungles of New Guinea wearing only a two-foot-long penis sheath is better off than some 4th year associate in a New York City law firm wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and billing 90 hours a week?

    Having experienced the latter, I’m willing to give the jungle and penis sheath the benefit of the doubt.

  32. Alma 13:4has interesting implications in this context — the subject is priesthood ordination.

  33. Joseph J

    Please don’t get me wrong, I am quite upset about the inherent racism of Ball and many in the Church, but I just have seen this huge flaw in the logic that God punished those who were not faithful in their 1st estate by making them black or Chinese, or living 500 years ago. Using Ball’s example from Isaiah, wouldn’t that be rather like sewing tender wheat on hard, rocky soil? Wouldn’t those who had not been as faithful need more nourishment, and not less? Wouldn’t the faithful be those who would have a more trying time? Isn’t much required of him to whom is given much? Don’t those who are able to face greater challenges given greater challenges, while those who are not as strong given challenges to meet their ability?

    Bearing this in mind, shouldn’t this racism be exactly the opposite of what it is? Aren’t they the noble and great ones, because they are the ones that have had the greater challenges by being a black man in the United States, a 500 year old aborigine, etc, and overcome them?

  34. How about if we take this one step up? What about the three degrees of glory? Will they not be somewhat merit based on the judgement of God? Will those in the CK think ill of the star bellied sneetches in the Telestial kingdom?

    If the three degrees of glory in the afterlife is what God intends throughout eternity, is that not similar to what is temorarily being asserted by Ball and others during mortality? Will there be those who argue that the culture of the CK is not necessarily better than that of the telestial kingdom?

  35. Lets imagine that there were gradations of righteousness in the pre-existence a la Abraham 3. Why is then that we always assume that white = righteous or prosperous = righteous. Isnt the argument just as valid that white people were the most wicked. I think this is just as racist and nonsensical as the common approach but I always find it interesting that those who believe this always assume that they are the chosen ones.

    We are truly an arrogant people

  36. Jupiterschild, thank you for the post. After reading the post several times, and taking your suggesting to listen to the audio, I would have to say I think it unfair to link Ball’s comments with the other statements listed. One can ask how they are similar, but one can also examine how they are dissimilar. These other statements were made before the lifting of the priesthood ban and greatly stress the notion of race. However, you recognize that “Ball certainly doesn’t draw the distinction between peoples down racial lines.”

    Ball asks: “Have you ever wondered why you were born 1) where and 2) when you were born?” He offers an example of where “some isolated corner of the world” and when “500 years ago.” Ball’s sin was to add the phrase you have underlined: “in some primitive, aboriginal culture.” Had he deleted this portion from his talk, I doubt there would be the same reaction, as most people have latched on to this phrase.

    I personally would not have chosen his example of a situation far removed from that of his audience, but I certainly don’t think it deserves to be placed in the same category or tradition as the previous statements, or warrants associating Ball with terms such as racism, elitism, or colonialism, especially when viewed in totality of the rest of his 30 minute talk.

    I agree with you that it was unnecessary to discuss the doctrine of premortality in context of Isaiah 28:23-29. According to the parable, one should respond to the question of the time and place of our circumstances by answering that this is the choice of the husbandman; it has nothing to do with the choices of the fitches, cummin, barley or rye in their pre-mortal life. One could argue that raising the doctrine in the context of the parable only confuses the cohesiveness and the internal logic of the parable. However, Ball’s speech doesn’t focus solely on the pre-mortal existence. Part of his message is that “a loving Heavenly Father who knows each of us well sent us to earth at the time and place and circumstances that would best help us reach our divine potential” and “God knows you, he knows your needs and your hearts and your abilities and he knows you can reach your divine potential.”

    He raises the idea of premortality to stress that God knows us because of this past experience together; granted that this point can be made without referring to premortality. Evangelicals and Catholics might say that since God created us ex nihilo then he is omniscient regarding our circumstances in this life, i.e. that God knows his creations. However, when LDS want to stress that God knows his children, they sometimes invoke the pre-mortal life. This is a homiletic decision given the different doctrinal backgrounds of the audience. The rest of his speech and the rest of his exegesis on Isaiah (verses 26-29) fall in line with other LDS and non-LDS commentaries on Isaiah that likens the farmer to God and his children to the different seeds.

    I too have concerns with notions of a pre-mortal determinism. I’ve discussed some of my concerns and observations here: Losers from the Pre-existence. However, I’m also concerned that we give the statements of others a charitable reading.

  37. After listening to Ball’s speech myself, I tend to think that the objection to his rhetoric is overdone. Perhaps we overanalyze such comments looking to validate our own viewpoints. He suggested nothing that should offend anyone.

    BTW, I couldn’t get the BYU Speeches link to work, but found this link.

  38. I could only skim the rest of the comments, but I think the problem here is that he is applying our reasoning to God. We know God is reasonable, but we also know that his wisdom is far greater than ours and we cannot understand all of his ways.

    It’s reasonable to say that God put us where we are for a purpose, and not out of random-ness. The quote in #8 is not offensive to me. Foreordination plays a role in where and when we are born.

    But does that mean that I must have been better in the pre-mortal life than those born in third world countries? Here’s where we mere mortals make a leap based on our own reasoning, and not based on God’s word. God never said this. He teaches the principle of fore-ordination, but there’s no scripture I’m aware of that says if your better in the pre-mortal life, you’ll be born in a more comfortable society in this life.

    So it doesn’t have to be either/or. It doesn’t have to be racism or randomness. I was born where I was for a reason, and so was the aborigine, but that doesn’t mean that I am better than she.

    Now that leads to another related question: how is this fair? Why would a just God have me born to a well-off family and someone else born into starvation and disease? But there are other answers to those questions that don’t involve righteousness in the pre-mortal life. If that’s the only answer, then that logical leads us to conclude that a person with cancer must have been less righteous in the pre-mortal life, which clearly isn’t true.

  39. smallaxe

    I personally would not have chosen his example of a situation far removed from that of his audience, but I certainly don’t think it deserves to be placed in the same category or tradition as the previous statements, or warrants associating Ball with terms such as racism, elitism, or colonialism, especially when viewed in totality of the rest of his 30 minute talk.

    I think what I say applies to Jim as well.

    There is no doubt that Bro. Ball is a good man, and he has nothing but the best of intentions (FWIW so are and did those in previous generations). If his intent was to say that God has placed us where we are for a reason, and we have different qualities coming from a pre-existent nature (i.e., different grains), then I don’t find that so problematic–as long as he’s not asserting that there is a strict hierarchy of grains and he knows what that hierarchy is (which he actually seems to do by describing barley as “an inferior grain” that makes the “poor man’s bread”, although it does have “redeeming qualities”). The problem is that he didn’t express it in simply those terms. He chose a comparison based on being born in different cultures in a different time and tied it to progression based on our agency in the pre-existence. I don’t put this on the same level as Dyer and others, and I agree that without the “aboriginal culture” statement, the overall effect would be quite different; but I don’t think we can ignore the fact that it is in there. Part of the issue seems to be how accountable we hold figures that represent our thinking about religion for interpretation of our texts and the implications of their ideas. One would expect a dean of the college of religious education to be more self-reflexive in word choice.

    I do think his comment is elitist, and representative of an elitism that was more pervasive in the church in earlier generations (among other pervasive ideas seen more in the past: the comment in question is preceded by an example of “obedience” as a wife learning to cook for her husband asserted normatively). Not all dimensions of elitism are wrong. I think we should believe that our religion is the “best” in some sense (and in some regard we are a “chosen” people); but at the same time such a claim (and related claims) require qualification. Over the years we’ve seen more and more qualification/nuance from authorities in the church. As inspiring as the rest of Bro. Ball’s devotional was, I would expect a more self-reflexive presentation on the issue from someone in his position.

  40. jupiterschild

    Allen, (#31), I’ll take your point about worth not being equivalent with righteousness. But there’s still the problem of equating stations in this life with righteousness. It’s hard to keep Abraham 3 away from, “my birth in this life shows that I was more noble in the last one,” (and therefore more noble in some eternal sense).

    As Mark B., Joseph J., and Joshua Madson (32, 34, 36) all point out, these types of metaphors, and the entire connection of the pre-existence to mortality, are so unwieldy as to be useless as a means for understanding this life. If these things can be relativized for any situation, what is their heuristic worth?

    Eric Nielson, #35, How about if we take this one step up? What about the three degrees of glory? Will they not be somewhat merit based on the judgement of God? If the three degrees of glory in the afterlife is what God intends throughout eternity, is that not similar to what is temorarily being asserted by Ball and others during mortality? Will there be those who argue that the culture of the CK is not necessarily better than that of the telestial kingdom?

    Your reasoning is exactly part of the problem. The equation (or “similarity”) of this life to final judgment is extremely problematic. You’re connecting final judgment and idealistic circumstances, where God has judged perfectly, with an imperfect and unfair mortality. I think many people do take it this “one step further” and read a final judgment back into this estate. And that’s a huge problem. One hopes that estates in the afterlife will be assigned based on a perfect system of judgment, not on the random chance of where one is born and into which circumstances. The very fact that you equate the kingdoms with cultures says worlds about how you perceive cultures to operate here.

    Aquinas and Jim, I was glad to hear you listened to it. And let me reiterate, as you recognize, Acquinas, that I went out of my way not to accuse him of racism. Comparison does not make equation. I had hoped to be clear (which perhaps I wasn’t) to ask the question of whether this model (with or without the aboriginal comment) has any value for us. Is it a model that can ever get away from its roots in the colonialism, elitism, and racism of the past? If it’s so dependent on subjective interpretation for its explanatory value, what is its value? How does it at all explain when and where we were born, except to state that we were born where and when we were for a purpose. The problem comes in because this model requires that one differentiate between broad categories of people. And thus some criterion needs to provide the contrast in that differentiation. In the past, it was skin color and society. With Terry Ball, it appears to be more nebulous, though the present is privileged over the past, and “here” is privileged over “there”. But it still presumes that something about “here” and “now” is better than “there” and “then”. I, personally, think that it falls apart if you have to take race and culture and time out of it (see comments 32, 34, 36 for examples of how). Aquinas extols the following as the virtue of his talk:
    Part of his message is that “a loving Heavenly Father who knows each of us well sent us to earth at the time and place and circumstances that would best help us reach our divine potential” and “God knows you, he knows your needs and your hearts and your abilities and he knows you can reach your divine potential”

    How on earth does that hold up on a global scale? Has a child born with aids or into child slavery filled their divine potential? What about in the slums of Sao Paolo? This is dangerously close, again, to colonial mentalities: God has put you where you are so that you can flourish, even if life sucks for you. So you should accept it. And let us exploit you to our own ends, because god has put us where we are for a reason, too.

    So Mike L., how is it reasonable that God caused us to be born where and when we were for a purpose? And how does that information help us? You say yourself that “we mere mortals make a leap based on our own reasoning, and not based on God’s word”, so we’re putting a lot on the jump from Abraham 3 to mortal state. I’m not sure at all that it’s God’s word that we’re put in our context for a divine purpose. Sounds more like the reasoning of the very elite to me.

    And Jim Cobabe, Perhaps we overanalyze such comments looking to validate our own viewpoints. He suggested nothing that should offend anyone. Perhaps you aren’t offended because the speech validates your own viewpoint.

  41. jupiterschild

    I should say, too, that one of the main points of the Book of Job is to debunk the idea that one can equate present circumstances with any kind of personal choice, agency, or righteousness, contra the assertions in Ecclesiastes. The other being, of course, that humans can’t know what God is up to.

    SmallAxe, amen and thanks.

  42. Kent

    I find it interesting that no one has really offered an alternative explanation as to why we are born in the circumstances we are born in. Will no one choose one (or more) of my theories, or add their own?

    1. Random chance
    2. Pre-mortal valiance (or lack thereof) – God is rewarding me/trusting me
    3. To maximize my possibilities for growth based on God’s knowledge of my needs and abilities
    4. To play a role in God’s plans for this earth’s history
    5. To play a role in God’s plans for specific individuals

  43. jupiterschild

    Kent, thanks for staying at it, and sorry for not responding except indirectly (see #23).

    I think the short answer is that there’s absolutely no way we can know. We know so little about the afterlife, but even less about the pre-existence. There are some scriptural hints that God had something in mind for certain people before they were born, (i.e. Jeremiah 1:5) but this is not the same thing as saying everyone is put in the same position. And, it’s not even saying that there was a preexistence.

    I don’t think any one of these excludes necessarily the other. Chance could be an operating principle, but valiance in the pre-existence got all of us here in the first place. As far as maximization of possibilities, this is just a non-starter. How on earth would we be able to know this? And #s 4 and 5 can also be held whether the placement be random or not.

    Personally, I can make much more sense of the world if it’s more on the random and entropic side, perhaps with God’s occasional intervention. This is not a popular view, not even in my family, but it’s the way I can feel best about God and most connected to him (sounds strange, but I’ll post on this in a week or two). I guess what this all comes down to is personal feeling, and not to some well-understood doctrine. I just happen to disagree vehemently with Ball’s personal feeling, because it doesn’t work well outside a very limited “here and now”.

  44. Juniperschild, in response to my comment in #39:

    I’m not sure at all that it’s God’s word that we’re put in our context for a divine purpose. Sounds more like the reasoning of the very elite to me.

    Fair enough. I’ll concede that I may be wrong and randomness may play at least some role in where we are born, or perhaps account for it entirely. And I can see how what I said in #39 could be seen as elitist. Basically, I was saying that we are born were we are for a reason, but we can’t necessarily judge what those reasons might be (as Brother Ball seems to do). Such a view does tend to validate the status quo, which of course benefits me. So I take your point and recognize that randomness might play a role.

    However, I also want to push back a little by asking this question: Just because a view is elitist, does that make it necessarily incorrect? Does God forbid himself from implementing a system of birth-selection that might make people think that their unrighteous feelings of superiority are justified? Although I don’t agree with it, I’d even include Brother Ball’s view in this question. Do you have any evidence that Brother Ball is not correct, other than that it is elitist? Or is that enough for you to reject it? I ask these question to understand your view, not to contend.

  45. jupiterschild

    Mike L, you do well to push back, because you raise a fundamental question: is the only basis on which we judge past evaluations of mortal status as wrong the fact that society has changed? Now that we can talk about things such as postcolonialism etc. it’s no longer intellectually (or morally, I’d say) sound to use premortality as a way of justifying racist ideas, or vice-versa? What’s to say we’re not just swapping one historically-conditioned response for another? Good question.

    I think it really asks what we’re most dependent on for understanding God and how God operates. I’d say its a complex mix of tradition, reason, emotion, observation, etc. The philosophers have been going the rounds on this for awhile, and I’m certainly not able to say anything really intelligent about it. I will say, however, for myself, that the long history of these kinds of ideas suggests that, whether Marx was right on the whole or not, religious ideas have for a long time provided the grease for machines of power, whether they be sinister or not. And I think that, as far as this question is concerned, there’s no good, clear doctrinal evidence, nor practical evidence, that Ball is right. In that regard, I see no real obstacle to viewing this as one of those ideas that arose (through complex dialectic interactions) and stuck because it was the grease on which some of our religio-political machines turned. And it was one we had to break in 1978 (but really before that), when it was no longer needed to justify current practice. Furthermore, I can’t see how it’s of any real value to us individually, when it can be read so many different and contradictory ways. Presuming Ball is correct, where do I place myself? How would I determine what part of the field I was planted in? What kind of a seed am I?

    Back to your question, I’m glad you asked me to justify my position, because it raises the point that no one really gets away from making God into something they’re comfortable with. But maybe God isn’t supposed to be someone we’re comfortable with. Regarding Job again, one of the points of the book is that humans aren’t supposed to understand what’s going on, and when they do try, they’re more like Job’s “friends” than anything else. When God finally does speak to Job, his message is “I’m not you.” So we have to entertain the possibility that maybe God is elitist, racist, etc., and that there are many fundamental things regarding the state and operation of this world that we don’t understand. And maybe we shouldn’t even try. Though I think that’s a final lesson of Job’s, that it’s the trying (not the resultant failure) to understand what’s going on that’s important. There was a process Job went through, which included things like anger and accusation (Job to God). And in the end, he didn’t really get a satisfactory answer to his question “Why?” But I’m not sure there could be one.

  46. Jupiterschild (41):

    Why are you assuming random placement? Is that how it works? Does that assumption violate principles of Abraham 3 and Alma 13?

    I would say things are closer to options 2 and 3 on Kents list, instead of option 1.

  47. (41)

    Also, I feel culture ahs little to do with the equation, other than how accessible the gospel is to that culture. The real ‘blessing’ of mortality placement is how likely you are to be able to participate in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not wealth or culture.

  48. The real ‘blessing’ of mortality placement is how likely you are to be able to participate in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Eric,

    Are you defining ‘gospel’ as membership in the church? Because given that most people will not hear the gospel until after death, ‘the real blessing’ you refer to would only be given to very few.

  49. jupiterschild

    Eric Nielson, along with what SmallAxe said, if I understand you correctly you mean to assign a hierarchy based on proximity (not geographical) to the missionaries/members–i.e. a chance to hear and participate in the Gospel? So someone born in the covenant would have been more righteous in the pre-existence, while someone born such that s/he would never hear the gospel was less righteous/valiant/noble?

    This is why I argue for random placement: because any attempt to figure out how one tells who was more noble in the pre-existence falls flat. I simply don’t believe that the only noble ones are those who got a chance to hear the Gospel in this life. Anything else makes so little sense from a practical standpoint that, in my opinion, it has to be rejected. If it’s anything besides random, only God knows who is noble and who is not, and so I think we’re better off thinking of a level playing field (again, when it comes to how/when we come here, not in terms of social opportunities, etc). Either everyone is, or no one is. And any attempt to correlate different positions (even with respect to blessings of participation in the Gospel) with the pre-existence results in gross elitism (those who are already “in” the Gospel consider themselves and people who become like themselves to be the nobility). I simply cannot believe that of all the billions of people who lived in periods of “apostasy” (whatever that means) no one was valiant or noble. I cannot believe that of all of the hundreds of millions of people who died in Asia and Africa from 1830s-1970s and beyond there was not even one who was among those “noble and great ones”. Because if there was even one, the whole model falls apart.

    By the way, this also belies Terry ball’s model. Are all those people placed in all corners of the world so that they can maximize their divine potential? Maximize? No one in China would have been better off, spiritually or otherwise, having been born in Provo? Or California? No one in India would have better maximized “God’s harvest of redeemed souls” than I did on my mission? I don’t believe it. Not for a second.

  50. SmallAxe:

    That is true, and in the long run all will get their chance right. So I guess part of the issue is if there is an advantage to begin your participation in the gospel early.

    I just do not think we can dismiss some of these ideas as quickly as some appear to want to. I might illustrate this with a list of questions which is similar to what Kent was trying to get at.

    Do spirits have independance and free will in the preexistence?

    If yes, does this lead to variations in level of valiance?

    Does God make decisions on who goes where, and when?

    Is early access to the gospel a blessing from God?

    I would tend to answer each of these questions with a yes. My feeling is that most Mormons would also. If you more-or-less believe in the above combination does that make you an elitist racist with no respect for other cultures as jupiter seems to suggest? While I can see how poorly worded representations of the above ideas can be dangerous, is there false doctrine involved in answering yes to the above questions?

    I think a key thing to keep in mind is that if God does decide who goes where, and when, that does not mean that these decisions are easy. I would imagine that it is a very complex thing based on criteria that we really do not know about. So we should be very careful about ‘Generals in Heaven’ type absolute statements.

  51. Mark IV

    Is early access to the gospel a blessing from God?

    Eric, doesn’t it make just as much sense to say that people who are stronger spiritually (that is, made better choices in the pre-mortal life) are sent to more difficult situations on earth, and the cushy assignments (being born in the gospel) are reserved for those who are weaker?

    I don’t believe either one, but that is what you are going to need to defend if you accept those assumptions.

  52. Mark:

    Should we then try and distance ourselves farther and farther from the gospel as we progess?

    Something that comes to mind is that which is of God is light, and he that receiveth light and continueth in God receiveth more light….something like that. It seems that the pattern is as we receive gospel light, and continue, we receive more gospel light. Not less.

  53. I would tend to answer each of these questions with a yes. My feeling is that most Mormons would also. If you more-or-less believe in the above combination does that make you an elitist racist with no respect for other cultures as jupiter seems to suggest? While I can see how poorly worded representations of the above ideas can be dangerous, is there false doctrine involved in answering yes to the above questions?

    I believe that most Mormons would agree with you as well; and as such, your claims do not constitute ‘false doctrine’, where ‘false doctrine’ refers to what is actively denounced by those in current authority of the church. However I think each of these questions you pose needs to be qualified in terms of what we can positively assert as a result of answering them.

    Do spirits have independance and free will in the preexistence?

    Yes, but the conditions of the free will and independence may not exactly resemble what we have in this life. How/why does a third of the host of heaven choose to follow lucifer given that we’ve been supposedly educated by heavenly parents? And if the answer is, ‘the same reason people do wrong in this life’, then does that mean that there was a chance to ‘repent’ in the pre-existence? Why do the third of the host of heaven then deserve ‘outer darkness’? Can we have faith in the pre-existence given that we’re in the presence of God? If we can use our agency to disobey God, then how do we remain in his presence? I’m not sure we have enough information to answer the original question beyond a qualified ‘yes’. This level of uncertainty makes me very very hesitant to assert some kind of causal connection between the pre-existence and this life beyond ‘trust God, he’s smarter than us’ or ‘it’s somewhat random’.

    If yes, does this lead to variations in level of valiance?

    Let’s say yes for the time being and ignore the ramifications of un-valiance then being in the presence of God. I don’t see why (or how) we would need to determine a link between one’s situation in this life and valiance in the previous.

    Does God make decisions on who goes where, and when?

    Answering this question in the affirmative raises the problem of theodicy. Answering it in the negative seems to go against the way we traditionally view God. I gather from what jupiterschild is saying, that the theodicy issue is more difficult to deal with than reconceiving God in a different light (at least for him). Personally, I’m divided on the issue.

    Is early access to the gospel a blessing from God?

    Given that we were all taught the gospel in the pre-existence, I’m not sure how having access to it in this life is ‘early access’. In larger terms it’s apparent that some are born into more “fortunate” conditions than others. Although some situations are obviously less fortunate, others are probably more complex (is someone born 500yrs ago in an aboriginal culture really less fortunate for not having the ‘gospel’? I’m not so sure that’s universally the case.).

  54. Mark IV

    Something that comes to mind is that which is of God is light, and he that receiveth light and continueth in God receiveth more light….something like that. It seems that the pattern is as we receive gospel light, and continue, we receive more gospel light. Not less.

    I don’t disagree, Eric, but I’m not sure that is what we are talking about here. It is very common for a returning missionary or GA to say how the people in _________ country or continent are prepared and ready for the gospel, and are so much more humble and receptive than North Americans. So the model that claims that people born along the Wasatch front, for instance, are more highle advanced spiritually needs to account for that, and I don’t think that it can.

  55. SmallAxe:

    Thanks for providing such thoughtful answers without any ‘-ists’.

    In regards to the last answer you give, I am talking about early access during mortality. Does God want people to join the church? Is the church a primary ‘vehicle’ for helping bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man? Does it make bad men good and good men better?

    Mark IV:

    The people the RM or GA are talking about in your example obviously have access to the gospel. I am not suggesting that wealth, or being American, is what any valiency reward is about. Just suggesting that early mortal gospel access might be.

  56. jupiterschild

    SmallAxe, I’ll second the thanks for your answer. One small point of clarification: I see the somewhat random approach as part of my understanding of theodicy, or an explanation of theodicy. That is to say, I don’t think everything is random, but perhaps more of an “equilibrium” of randomness punctuated by the intervention of God in specific instances. I don’t have it totally worked out yet, but when I do, I’ll let you know. :) Oh, and the intervention of God has nothing to do with premortal valiance, or anything else pre-existent.

  57. Does God want people to join the church? Is the church a primary ‘vehicle’ for helping bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man? Does it make bad men good and good men better?

    I guess the easiest way to answer this question is to say that I see a distinction between the ‘gospel’ and the ‘church’. I believe that the gospel extends beyond the organization of the church. I believe one day the church will grow to encompass the gospel, but I do not think we are there yet. So to answer your questions in reverse order: Yes, the church makes bad people good and good people better (but so do other organizations). Yes it is the primary vehicle if you are referring to administering ordinances. Yes I think God wants people to receive the ordinances, but no I don’t think he wants everyone to join the church.

  58. Juniperschild,

    I have conceded before that you might be right that birth-selection is random (although I don’t fully agree that God must be elitist, or somehow prejudice, in order to do something that seems elitist for us to try to explain, however, I’ll accept that for the sake of argument).

    So how do you explain the fact that 1/3 of the spirits in th pre-mortal life were condemned to never be born? Isn’t it elitist to say that we are here on earth because we were righteous in the pre-mortal life, while those that didn’t get to come here must have been wicked? Isn’t that pretty similar to saying that those born in places were they won’t hear the gospel in this life might have been born there because they were less righteous?

    (Let me be clear that I don’t hold to this view. I stated earlier that I believe it’s reasonable God could have a purpose for why we are born where and when we are, but that we don’t necessarily know the purpose. But still I’m interested in reading how someone who thinks randomness is the only reasonable view reconciles that.)

    (I apologize for all of the “-ists”, Eric. I Juniperschild first brought it up, so I’m just trying to debate using the same terminology)

  59. jupiterschild

    So how do you explain the fact that 1/3 of the spirits in th pre-mortal life were condemned to never be born? Isn’t it elitist to say that we are here on earth because we were righteous in the pre-mortal life, while those that didn’t get to come here must have been wicked?

    Mike L., thanks for going along for the sake of discussion. This question you ask involves significant assumptions and presuppositions, some of which I don’t share. For example, you use the phrase “the fact that”, and for me it’s not a fact that 1/3 of the pre-mortal spirits were condemned never to be born. First of all, this is an interpretation of Joseph Smith’s based on other Jewish and Christian traditions. It really stems, I think, from Revelation 12 and, to some extent, Isaiah 14. Jude 6 also figures in there. And D&C 29 is our most canonical statement of what happened. (See Moggett’s discussion of the third part of the hosts of heaven problem.) So in addition to the assumption that the interpretation is correct (which, I recognize, most probably aren’t as willing to explain it away as I am) there are other problems with the reasoning in regard to what this means for the elitist argument.

    First, one assumes that they were “forever condemned never to be born.” Does this mean that they never have a chance to change their minds? (There’s also the problem of the “third part”–is it the fraction 1/3 or the third group in three?) Did God say as much? Is this not an allegory? Okay, for the sake of argument, we’ll say the answers are yes, yes, and yes.

    More important, there’s still a huge problem when one tries to apply this to the argument I’m making about the preexistence–one that doesn’t require my apostate way of reading scripture. It is that the elitist argument is problematic when applied to a temporal existence (of which, according to our theology, the third part are not a part). There’s no practical way to relate the premortal agency of the ones who chose to come to earth (which would have been somewhat different, given that we were in the presence of God; see SmallAxe’s comments) to what goes on here. Even if it’s possible that there was a system of hierarchy in birthplace and time according to agency, there’s no way for us to make any practical sense or use out of it. That is, besides using it to elitist, colonialist, racist ends.

    Thus, as I see it, the third part doesn’t even figure into the question, the same way the last judgment and assignment (or choice?) of kingdoms doesn’t–both occur in ideal, atemporal situations. But when it comes to this fallen world, all bets are off.

    And don’t apologize for using -ist words. They’re words. If Eric Nielson prefers circumlocution, that’s his preference. One can call a planet a celestial sphere, but it still doesn’t make it a tree.

  60. Isn’t it elitist to say that we are here on earth because we were righteous in the pre-mortal life, while those that didn’t get to come here must have been wicked? Isn’t that pretty similar to saying that those born in places were they won’t hear the gospel in this life might have been born there because they were less righteous?

    I think we have to agree that it isn’t elitist to say that people sometimes do the wrong thing/make the wrong choice (in the moral sense). IMO it would be elitist however to over simplify what is right and what is wrong by assuming that I know what is right for you without knowing you very personally. To make the assumption that people are born in places where they won’t hear the gospel because of a lack of righteousness in a pre-existent state falls heavily on the side of judging a highly complex situation with little to no knowledge of the factors involved. I suppose given what we know we could just as effectively argue the opposite (which I think someone else alluded to above): Since we all learned the gospel in the pre-existence it’s actually the less righteous/valiant spirits that are a part of the church because they didn’t get it right the first time.

  61. But doesn’t that go against Alma 13 and Abraham 3?

  62. Kent

    I know that Alma 13 is used as a proof text for the premortal world, but I think it can just as easily be read as pertaining to this world alone.

    Isn’t is possible that our reasons for being born in the times we are just happen to be different for every person? Must we generalize it? Why can’t it be a combination of all 5 options (or more) for each individual?

  63. Kent:

    I think reading Alma 13 to only pertain to this world is a stretch.

    I am not opposed at all to what you suggest otherwise. There may be a very complex combination of purposes behind placement in mortality that we can not hope to fully understand.

  64. jupiterschild

    I don’t think Alma 13 can be easily used as a proof-text for a premortal world. Blake Ostler argues that Joseph Smith didn’t develop the idea of the pre-existence as we’ve come to know it until the period 1835-44. Until then, texts that we now point to as full-blown proofs of pre-existence were read, as did other Christians, as a kind of conceptual existence, dependent on the mind of God, but not an existence of sentient, “intelligent” beings. So the Book of Moses, for example, which has a spiritual creation before a literal creation, was produced before Joseph Smith had developed the idea of pre-existence as we know it. I realize that one could counter that since Joseph translated the book “by the gift and power of god” could be taken to mean that God knew what was up even if Joseph didn’t yet. Fair enough, but how, then did Joseph read Alma 13 before “our” idea of the preexistence?

    Alma 13 seems to me to be located squarely in the “proto” stages of development of this idea, in phrases like “being acalled and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God” — that is, this preparation from the foundation of the world (not before!) was in the mind of God, according to his knowledge of what would transpire on earth. Then the next sentence, I think, can be read as entirely pertaining to this life, as Kent points out: “on account of their exceeding faith and good works” — that is, God knew beforehand that they would be capable of exceeding faith and good works in this life, so this calling was prepared as God was creating the world. Then, stuff like “while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds,” I think clearly refers to this life. Finally, “thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts,” we see it’s the calling that is prepared from the foundation of the world for those who would accept it in this world. And “thus being called by this holy calling, and ordained unto the high priesthood of the holy order of God, to teach his commandments unto the children of men,” is clearly pertaining to this life. I see nothing that reaches back before the foundation of the world in this text. It’s saying that this order was set up at the beginning, God had it in mind when he was creating the world.

  65. There’s no practical way to relate the premortal agency of the ones who chose to come to earth (which would have been somewhat different, given that we were in the presence of God; see SmallAxe’s comments) to what goes on here. Even if it’s possible that there was a system of hierarchy in birthplace and time according to agency, there’s no way for us to make any practical sense or use out of it. That is, besides using it to elitist, colonialist, racist ends.

    I agree that there is no practical use of Ball’s argument, or my argument that we might be born where we are for reasons known only to God, so we’d be at least as well off to believe it is random for practical purposes, if that’s the argument you are making.

    To make the assumption that people are born in places where they won’t hear the gospel because of a lack of righteousness in a pre-existent state falls heavily on the side of judging a highly complex situation with little to no knowledge of the factors involved.

    Agreed. That’s what I was trying to get at in #39, and it’s why I disagree with Brother Ball. Perhaps the difference with the 1/3 who were denied being born is that we have scriptural evidence (although Juniperschild would dispute it), and therefore we do know the factors involved and can judge in that situation. So we can say I was more righteous (or at least I made 1 really good decision) than the 1/3 who will not be born. However, since we don’t know the factors involved in who gets born where and when, we’d be better off not trying to speculate on those reasons.

  66. But doesn’t that go against Alma 13 and Abraham 3?

    I think it’s primarily these verses in Abraham 3 that you’re referring to:

    22 Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;
    23 And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.

    I would say that the following issues are rather unclear within the text itself:

    1) Who the “noble and great ones” are (especially given that this account precedes what we normally take to be the presentation of the plan of salvation–where we talk about the third choosing otherwise).

    2) How many is “many”. Are we to assume that this many stays within the relatively few numbers of people born into the church? Was this a “priesthood” meeting with no women present (are we to assume that women were not among the “many”)?

    3) What exactly it means to be made a “ruler”.

    I’m not sure this passage gives us enough information to conclude much of anything about the status of this life in relation to the previous (except perhaps that Abraham was chosen).

    Alma 13 I believe is a bit more complex (I think jupiterschild dealt with it for the most part, so I’ll just point out one thing here). Part of the issue is where the “exceeding faith and good works” takes place as well as how we understand “in the first place”. Much of the “exceeding faith” talk can be read to apply to what we would call the pre-existence (although mentioned without “good works”), and it does seem that there is a difference between these individuals and others (“if it had not been for [their hardening their hearts] they might have had as great privilege as their brethren”–although where/when again this takes place is difficult to understand); but I think we also have to take into account verse five:

    5 Or in fine, in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren; thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son, who was prepared—

    If we understand “in the first place” as referring to the pre-existence, it seems that those that receive the priesthood were on “the same standing” and in this life(?) “would not harden their hearts”. I understand “not harden their hearts” as a necessary but not a sufficient condition for obtaining the priesthood. In other words one must not harden one’s heart in order to receive the priesthood; but I do not believe that not hardening one’s heart automatically leads to getting the priesthood. There are obviously other factors involved.

  67. Pingback: BYU Religion Dean on Premortal Life, Part II: Scripture “Mastery” « Faith Promoting Rumor

  68. I didn’t read all the comments in detail, but from skimming, I think some important items were left out.

    If we assume that those who die before the age of accountability are guaranteed exaltation (and the “perhaps they’re too pure to have to put up with earth conditions” reasoning), then being born 500 years ago in a primitive culture is not necessarily a disadvantage or curse to such spirits who “merely needed to get a body” and died in infancy.

    As Kaimi Wenger pointed out at T&S, perhaps the majority of souls born since Adam have died before the age of accountability, and have been “blessed” with a sure ticket to some degree in the CK.

    And while the status of the parents of such infants, which parents are born in a time/place where they cannot receive the gospel, is not known with certainty; several scriptures hint that they ( or any adult who lives with no contact with the gospel) are promised some degree (maybe or maybe not exaltation) in the Celestial Kingdom for the mere fact that they had no exposure to the gospel on earth.

    Of the Lord’s 24 apostles/disciples, 20 of them wanted to get out of this world and into heaven as soon as practically possible. Only 4 wanted to stay around as long as possible.

    Heavenly Father is a covenant maker. A covenant is like a deal: “You do such-and-such, and then I’ll do/guarantee such-and-such.” I think of Heavenly Father offering each of his spirit children one or more “deals” in the pre-mortal existence. Each offer may have been individually tailored, based on His infinite knowledge, fore-knowledge and love; and based on the individual spirit’s condition, progress, characteristics, personality, choices, desires, etc.

    The promises (deals, covenants) that Heavenly Father made to us in the pre-existence do not necessarily have to be limited to what he’ll bless us with in this life. The blessings/rewards/consequences that he promised us for accepting certain assignments or hardships in this life may be scheduled for post-mortal life.

    Oh, the possibilities.

    I think of Ball’s talk as opening our minds to possibilities. Instead of trying to make him an offender for a word, take some of the over-arching concepts which are good or logical, and extrapolate them backward and forward in time, pre-mortal and post-mortal.

    Although the theory/concept of “our pre-mortal conditions/progress/behaviors/choices had something to do with mortal placement and timing” was used to carry racist baggage, the concept iteself is not racist, and may be logically applied to plenty of conditions which are entirely unrelated to race.

  69. TT

    Bookslinger:
    I think that the comparison of “primitive” cultures to children is the problem here. This notion has been fundamental to the colonialist project.

  70. Bookslinger

    TT,
    I don’t think I made a comparison of primitive cultures to children. If you saw that as my intent or theme, then I didn’t explain my thoughts very well,

    In the tapestry of human existance since Adam, there have been primitive times and places. There still exist many primitive places in modern times. In the past, all places on earth have been primitive, at least compared to the present.

    In the history of man since Adam, “primitive” has been the rule, and our industrialized modern oases (plural) are the exception.

    I had hoped to illustrate the possibility that conditions where the majority of the souls born into mortality (ever since Adam) die in their childhood may be part of Heavenly Father’s overall plan. Not that God necessarily actively intends suffering, but that He works to mitigate it, or to transform it into something that fits His higher purposes.

    I can see that my last statement may be mis-interpreted too. Sorry.

  71. I’m in complete agreement with the idea from Abraham 3 that there is no such thing as equivalence. Everyone is different.

    However the fact that we are all different doesn’t imply that those that were more valiant are going to be born in modern times in Provo, UT. In fact I could easily argue for just the opposite.

    While people can go on all day about the superiority of our unsustainable society when compared to others, I don’t think that the souls that populate our society have any more or less worth because of the advancements and follies of this society.

    In my mind there is very little logic to the idea that the most noble and valiant souls from the pre-existence are concentrated in any one place or time.

    This life would probably be just as good of a test for me if I had been born 600 years ago on another continent. It would have been hard in different ways, but I would still be tested in mortality. The thought that we are superior because of the time, location, and even religion of our birth seems to me to deny many core LDS doctrines.