Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alma 32: Faith is Like a Bad Acid Trip

Alma and his Super Missionary Friends struggle to find success among the Zoramites until they find a foothold in the poor people who have been cast out of their own religion and marginalized by their own society.  Alma praises them for their humility (though he points out that they were forced to become that way instead of coming by their humility legitimately) and begins to preach to them about faith.

Alma Pretends that God is Just
Perhaps because he's fresh off his confrontation with Korihor, Alma makes a point to tell the humbler Zoramites that asking for a sign from God is a bad idea:
Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.
Now I ask, is this faith?  Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.
And now, how much more cursed is he that knoweth the will of God and doeth it not, than he that only believeth, or only hath cause to believe, and falleth into transgression? 
There you have itGod doesn't give us signs of his existence because he's that good of a guy.  After all, if we had proof and then decided to do bad stuff, he'd have to punish us even worse.  So all you Korihors out there should be grateful that it's so difficult to tell whether God exists or not.  Apparently the attribute that elicits the application of mercy is belief, not knowledge.  Still no word on why that's the case.

If You Have True Faith, it's Impossible to Know if it's Unfounded
Another scripture mastery crops up in this chapter (for those of you who attended seminary) as Alma begins to pontificate on the subject of faith:
And now as I said concerning faithfaith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.
That's the best explanation you've got?
There's kind of a big problem with this.  If the definition of faith is to hope for unseen things that are true and not having a perfect knowledge of whatever that is then you're pretty much picking a faith and hoping that whatever you're deciding to have faith in isn't one of the innumerable horrible, untrue things that you can have faith in.  It's Russian roulette with five rounds instead of one.

Alma's pretty much saying that you should be volunteering to delude yourself.  Let's say, for example, that I have faith that the Atlanta Braves are going to win the World Series this year.  I don't have a knowledge of it and I don't have any concrete, quantifiable evidence to make that claim with any certainty, but I hope for it very much.  Alma would praise my faith.  Any sane church member would realize that I'm lying to myself because of my obsessive dedication to a sports franchise.  But somehow, when that same blind faith is applied to Mormonism, it's okay.

Or, read another way, Alma is praising the virtues of chosen ignorance.  Or suggesting that one shouldn't try to find any kind of scientific or historical basis for the legitimacy of the Book of Mormon because that would destroy the purpose of faith as well.  Any way I read this, it's not a good thing.

The Scientific Method According to Alma
And now we approach Alma's famous comparison between faith and the growth of a seedand by "famous," I of course mean, "famous in the small Mormon circle and completely unknown and irrelevant to the rest of the world."  Here is the basic outline of Alma's oft-quoted sermonand by "oft-quoted," I of course mean, "oft-quoted in Mormondom but literally never referenced anywhere else in any way, ever."

If you plant the word of God in your heart and don't kill it with your disbelief, it will grow into some metaphysical, logic-defying tree thing inside of youmetaphorically speaking, of course.  It will enlarge your soul, enlighten your understanding and become metaphorically delicious (verse 28).  This will increase your faith, but not give you a perfect knowledge of anything (verse 29), because perfect knowledge is bad and useless and faith is everything that could ever be admirable or important.  If the seed metaphorically sprouts in the metaphorical soil of your metaphorical bosom, that means the seed was good, and therefore the word of God you planted is true (verse 30).  But if you don't nourish the tree of your faith that sprouts from the word of God, it won't yield the fruit of whatever-the-fruit-is-symbolic-of-this-time (verses 37-40).

This is a poor way to experiment with anything.  Is heroin good?  Dunno, maybe I'll try it and see how I feel.  I'm not going to research whether it's addictive or whether people die from using it.  I'm not going to attempt to learn what it does to my body.  I'm just going to give it a shot and if it makes me feel good, then it must be a good thing.  Even applied to choosing a religion, this is bad advice.  Lots of religions have lots of great aspects to them, but it doesn't mean they have the truth.

And it's really difficult to measure the enlargement of your soul, the enlightenment of your understanding and the deliciousness of the activity you're experimenting with.  Alma provides a haphazard experimental setup with no control group and a completely subjective method of observation.  And he also expects us to compare this subjective, emotional data against a subjective, emotional hypothesis.  And he also tells us how to recognize the "correct" answer, which will obviously introduce some bias into the mix.

The More Impenetrably Complex the Text, the More People Will Trust It
Alma makes several dubious statements throughout this meandering, nebulous passage.
And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed?  I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.
Yeah, sure.  But there are plenty of examples of things in nature that look good but can be hazardous.  Simple example?  Roses are beautiful but have thorns.  And you know what?  Roses grow from seeds!  Want more examples?  Look what a few seconds on Google turns up.

The moral of the story, here, Alma, is that things that have good results can still be bad.  The church is no exceptionthanks for teaching me to be honest and respectful and hard-working, but I'm not too happy about the brainwashing, the sexual oppression and the constant feelings of frantic inadequacy.
And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect?  Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled in your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
Now I'm totally confused.  It sounded before like perfect knowledge was a bad thing and faith was what you wanted.  But you just told us how to get a perfect knowledge of something and making our faith dormant and I'm not entirely sure if that's what we're supposed to do or not.  Because Alma also said earlier that having a perfect knowledge of something makes us more accountable, which is why God wants us to have faith instead, so we definitely don't want to have the perfect knowledge that you're making to sound like a positive achievement.
Never go in against a Zarahemlan when potential converts are on the line!
Alma's throwing all these phrases around and it seems like they don't mean the same things all the time, but it definitely sounds cool because of all that "enlightenment" and "expanding minds" talk.  But this chapter is about to outdo itself in verse 35:
O then, is not this real?  I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?
Really, really bad riddles...
Whatsoever is light is good because it is discernible?  Literally or metaphorically, that's some terrible amateur philosophical balderdash you've got there.  And don't forget the synesthesia going on at the end with the whole tasting-something-traditionally-perceived-with-the-sense-of-sight bit.  It's very possible that Joseph Smith "translated" this chapter of the Book of Mormon after eating some unusual mushrooms he found in the forest.  Either that, or he was just trying to write something so ethereal and profound that people would react with "oooh, that's deep," and conclude that his crappy novel was actually inspired of God.

But I like my first explanation better because it's funnier.

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