Sunday, March 28, 2010
Over 2,700 years ago a Judean poet known as Koheleth wrote:
“Utter futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a man
In all the gains he makes…?
One generation goes, another comes,
But the earth remains forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3—the New JPS Translation)
The author of Ecclesiastes delves into ideas that have been universal to the human family since time immemorial. Against the seemingly endless cycles of the natural world, individuals are born, they live (often lives of great accomplishment) and they die. With the passage of time, the names and accomplishments of even the greatest individuals are forgotten. In the face of death, the author of Ecclesiastes laments that human life seems meaningless, while human endeavors, struggles and accomplishments seem futile.
What human being, aware of his or her mortality, has not, at some point in life, even only momentarily, thought these same things?
It has been said that religion and theology came about because of the human race’s awareness of its own mortality. How can human intelligence—the very faculty from which springs all human memories, hopes, aspirations and accomplishments; which manifests itself most profoundly in the values, loves, sorrows, fears, joys and personal relationships of the individual—how can such a thing flare into existence, have such an amazing influence on the earth and then simply cease to exist at death?
Human intelligence itself—being able to imagine almost anything except non-existence—seems to rebel at the very notion that it can be annihilated.
And so it is that throughout the course of recorded history humanity has envisioned an aspect of the individual (call it the spirit, the soul, the life force, etc.) which, once it comes into existence, somehow survives death. As all physical things break down and decay, certain Greek philosophers such as Plato declared that this aspect of man—this spirit, this soul—was immaterial, existing separately from the human body and the material world in which we human live, move and have our physical being. These philosophic theories made their way into Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions—spreading from one civilization to another until they became part of the general thinking of much of the human race.
If it is that an awareness of death gave birth to religion and theology, it is somehow fitting that Mormonism’s new religious paradigm was initially made public by Joseph Smith—the First Mormon—in a funeral sermon.
“I address you on the subject of the dead,” said Joseph Smith as he stood before several thousand of his followers gathered at Nauvoo, Illinois in April 1844. “The death of our beloved brother, Elder King Follett…has more immediately led me to that subject. I have been requested to speak by friends and relatives, but inasmuch as there are a great many in this congregation who live in this city as well as elsewhere, who have lost friends, I feel disposed to speak on the subject in general, and offer you my ideas, so far as I have ability, and so far as I shall be inspired by the Holy Spirit to dwell on this subject.”
With this introduction Joseph Smith laid the foundations of a new religion.
BEGINNINGS & ENDS: A NEVER-ENDING LINE
Among most of the world’s religions, it is generally taught that one’s life has a beginning—at birth or conception, or some period in between. It is generally believed that death claims only the physical body; that something essential in each human being survives the death of the body to live on eternally; that once a human life comes into existence, it can never be annihilated.
Likewise it is believed that existence itself had a beginning; that at some point in the past nothing existed, and then universe was created. It is assumed that the universe—that existence itself—is eternal.
One could say that the traditional concept of “eternal” is like that of a straight line which begins at a particular point and then extends onward, forever and ever.
“I TAKE A RING FROM MY FINGER”
This was certainly the concept of “eternal” embraced by most of those who gathered in April1844 to commemorate the passing of Elder King Follett.
But Joseph Smith began the funeral sermon by completely rejecting what could be called a “linear view” of eternity.
“I take my ring from my finger,” he said. “Suppose you cut it in two; then it has a beginning and an end; but join it again, and it continues one eternal round.’
Rather than envisioning eternity as a line, Joseph envisioned it as a circle—without beginning and without end. He reasoned that if something has a beginning, then it can possibly have an end; that if something could be created from nothing, then it could possibly be annihilated.
ONE GOD, WITHOUT BEGINNING OR END
While most Western religions teach that the human soul (or spirit) and the universe will continue on eternally, they also insist that there is one thing and one thing only that is without a beginning: God.
God is usually envisioned as that personal being, power or force that is self-existent; that is “without beginning of days or end of years”; that “is the same—yesterday, today and forever.” God is one thing that existed before anything else existed; the one thing without which nothing else that does exist or could exist. God is envisioned as the “First Cause” (that which caused everything else to exist) and also the only thing that has no cause.
In this way, most religions envision God as being eternal in a way that nothing else can be. All other things had a beginning; they were created. But God, it is believed, is a self-existent being; He simply is.
“We say that God himself is a self-existent being,” said Joseph Smith. “Who told you so? It is correct enough; but how did it get into you heads?”
Joseph accepted this notion that God was self-existent—that God was eternal because He had no beginning.
And then, having accepted as true the idea that something could be self-existent—without a beginning and therefore without an end, like a circle—Joseph took a radical step: he asked the crowd gathered before him why this concept could not be applied to things other than God.