Reading Mormon (V): To the Future
Cambridge, MA. This is the last of the reflections I am posting on 3 Nephi, the book within the Book of Mormon where Jesus appears three times, shortly after the Resurrection, to a remnant community in a new land that is taken to be (though of course never named as) America. You can find the others by clicking on one, two, three, and four. This study — not my field — has been a rewarding if arduous experience, with a real learning curve indeed. As professors are wont to do, I’ve accumulated new books: several editions of the Book of Mormon (be sure to use Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon if you intend to read it); Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon; Third Nephi: An Incomparable Scripture, edited by Andrew Skinner and Gaye Strathearn, which is a set of lectures and studies by committed Mormon scholars, meant for readers within the Church itself; and for a comparative perspective, Rev. WilliamTaylor’s A Tale of Two Cities: A Comparison between the Mormon and Roman Catholic Religious Experiences.
I’ve also learned from my readers’ comments — your comments. While some were not particularly helpful — a bit too angry, hasty, dismissive, quick to have things over with — for the most part it has been very helpful indeed to have your views - even when you disagree with me - articulated and posted.I particularly appreciate some of the corrections you’ve offered, and were I doing a second edition of my blogs, I would incorporate your suggestions. My blogs are better because everyone can read your comments as well.
I’ve said nothing about this year’s presidential election, the prospect of a first Mormon president, but I think we are better off for knowing what is inside texts such as 3 Nephi before speaking on the topic. Previously I had nothing much to say when asked whether it would be good to have a Mormon president; now I have something to say. Yes, it is true there is much to know about the Latter Day Saints not contained in the Book of Mormon, and yes, one cannot predict the policies of a politician today simply from reading sacred texts or her or his tradition; after all, no Christian president’s policies have been simply the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. But I feel more sure of myself when I find myself in conversation about religion and the elections, now that I know something of substance from within the Mormon tradition. If a President Romney were to serve the American people while conscientiously following the teachings of Jesus in 3 Nephi, we would have a foundation both for understanding Mr Romney's policies, and then, if we have doubts, for shaping a substantive religious-political dialogue — and argument — about those views alongside the many other views that inspire people of faith in today’s America. So think of reading 3 Nephi before you vote.
But I will finish by turning to the closing chapters of 3 Nephi.
After the departure of Jesus and the testimonies of the children at the end of 3 Nephi 26, Jesus appears yet again in chapters 27-28, for a further teaching to the leaders of the community: they are to preach the gospel, be gathered in a church named by the name of Jesus, and remain faithful to the teachings he has given on these three visits. Nine of the twelve apostles are granted the prospect of a swifter end to their ministries on earth, whereas three remain to perform their ministries and preaching for a much longer time. In the end, the fate of these three is rather mysterious, a kind of twilight presence near but not quite in this world, and as if to come again: “And now behold, as I spake concerning those whom the Lord hath chosen, yea, even three who were caught up into the heavens, that I knew not whether they were cleansed from mortality to immortality. But behold, since I wrote, I have inquired of the Lord, and he hath made it manifest unto me that there must needs be a change wrought upon their bodies, or else it needs be that they must taste of death. Therefore, that they might not taste of death there was a change wrought upon their bodies, that they might not suffer pain nor sorrow save it were for the sins of the world. Now this change was not equal to that which shall take place at the last day; but there was a change wrought upon them, insomuch that Satan could have no power over them, that he could not tempt them; and they were sanctified in the flesh, that they were holy, and that the powers of the earth could not hold them. And in this state they were to remain until the judgment day of Christ; and at that day they were to receive a greater change, and to be received into the kingdom of the Father to go no more out, but to dwell with God eternally in the heavens.” (3 Nephi 28.36-40)
In Chapter 29, after the departure of Jesus the third time, Mormon offers his own stern exhortation that all must hear and take to heart all that has been said here. The brief chapter 30 is a final word, an exhortation to the Gentiles to listen and repent: “Hearken, O ye Gentiles, and hear the words of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, which he hath commandeth me that I should speak concerning you, for, behold he commandeth me that I should write, saying: ‘Turn, all yet Gentiles, from your wicked ways; and repent of your evil doings, of your lyings and deceivings, and of your whoredoms, and of your secret abominations, and your idolatries, and of your murders, and your priestcrafts, and your envyings, and your strifes, and from all your wickedness and abominations, and come unto me, and be baptized in my name, that ye may receive a remission of your sins, and be filled with the Holy Ghost, that ye may be numbered with my people who are of the house of Israel.’” (3 Nephi 30, 1-2)
From a critical theological and spiritual perspective none of this is merely beyond question; we need not merely accept this harsh dismissal of the Gentiles — as if to be a Gentile is to be wicked — and we can disagree and raise questions, but without shifting from accepting everything to rejecting everything. Certainly I learned, from my Jesuit high school and the Jesuit novitiate on, that we honor our own faith and our own scriptures and traditions in part by respectful but insistent questioning. Today, we can similarly honor and respect one another’s traditions by a serious learning across religious borders that nonetheless leaves room for real questions. One might conclude from these last words in 3 Nephi that “the Gentiles” are merely a sinful lot, who need to be saved but have nothing to teach and show. But this is no more a solution to the challenges of religious pluralism than any single Christian judgment on other religions might be. But here too, the conversation, including the challenges and difficult learning, occur after and not before respectful consideration; disagreements are best when they are specific, that one of the very best ways to become specific is to read and study and take to heart the texts that have come down to us. 3 Nephi has much to teach every America reader and, I venture to add, the Latter Day Saints too will benefit when people like you and me pick up 3 Nephi and read it respectfully and intelligently.
I am happy to say that there will be, shortly, an afterword to my series, a post by Professor Grant Hardy, the scholar whose work I have recommended more than once.