Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ring in the Christ

I was thinking that a New Year’s Eve post might be appropriate and with it one of my favorite poems – “Ring Out, Wild Bells” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This poem was later made into a hymn set to music by Crawford Gates. The poem was published in 1850 as part of “In Memoriam” which was an elegy to his sister’s fiancĂ© Arthur Henry Hallam. Hallam was a close friend of Tennyson’s at Cambridge before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1833. Tennyson worked on “In Memoriam” for the next seventeen years. The major theme of the elegy is the search for hope after a painful loss. It is one of Tennyson’s greatest works and one of the most famous of nineteenth century literature.

I especially enjoy the poem when sung to the tune composed by Crawford Gates. The song is found in the LDS hymn book as hymn number 215. It is a haunting melody set in a morose minor key. It doesn’t include all the stanzas from the original poem but takes the first two stanzas and ends with the eighth and last stanza.

This is the only hymn in the LDS hymn book I know that is classified as a New Year’s hymn. It is very fitting with the repeated plea to let old things pass away and to bring in the new and good. The New Year has long been a time of beginning again. I mentioned in my last post the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah which means “the head of the year”. Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world and is the first of the Ten Days of Repentance, Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. The Mishnah refers to Rosh Hashanah as “The Day of Judgment”. The ten days set aside for Aseret Yemei Teshuvah are a time for all to practice “teshuvah” which is “repentance” or literally “returning”. The Ten Days of Repentance concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I find this a very profound way at looking at the New Year. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about returning and atonement with God. Tennyson’s poem lists several evils surrounding us in the world but encourages us to let them go and let them die. My favorite part is that the poem ends with the source of redemption, which is The Christ. Appropriately, Crawford Gates’ melody for this poem ends with the ringing in of The Christ on a major chord.

And now the poem:

Ring Out, Wild Bells

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bereshith - The Creation

In the beginning of the year I am beginning again, again. I last read the Old Testament cover-to-cover on my mission. I was inspired to this by one of my missionary companions. He actually read the entire Old Testament while sitting on a toilet. Now that was not all in one sitting but I still found that quite impressive. However, I don’t think I will be doing that for this read-through. One reason I want to write about my readings as I go through is that I hope it helps me to learn more and to record the things I learn. I can also get into discussion with people online and have stimulating conversation. The problem now is that the first chapters of the Bible are the most difficult to get through. This is not because I find them boring but because I find them so interesting. There is so much in these verses and there is a lot of history in their interpretation. So I may not get very far in this first post. I want to start by looking at the first three words of the Hebrew Bible.

“Bereshith bara elohim...” are the first three words of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. The name of the Book of Genesis in Hebrew is also “Bereshith”. These three words are usually translated “In the beginning created God...” sometimes with the word order switched around. I’d like to talk a little about each word individually.

“Bereshith” is really a combination of two concepts. “Be” is a preposition meaning “in” or “with”. “Reshith” means “the first” in place, time, order, or rank. By the way, all my definitions here are from Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary. The first word in the Bible, “bereshith” is understood to mean the first in time, as to say the beginning of time. This in itself is an interesting topic that deserves it own post. What happened before this beginning? What was God doing before the creation? Saint Augustine reportedly said “He was preparing hell for people who ask questions too deep for them.” A viable possibility to be sure, but perhaps the risk isn’t so great to prevent pressing the issue a little. I will come back to “bereshith” because the next two words reflect back on it.

The next word “bara” is a verb, meaning in the absolute sense, “to create”. The same verb also means “to cut down (a wood)”, “select”, and “feed (as formative processes)”. Blake Ostler, in his book Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods, gave an exhaustive overview of this words which I refer to here. The other uses of the verb refer to cutting, dividing, and separating. The verb “bara” is often understood to be more of an organizing process as opposed to an instant materialization with a snap of the fingers. This is a view in opposition to creatio ex nihilo, or “creation out of nothing”. Again, this topic deserves its own post. But I would call attention to the interpretation of “bara” as an organization or bringing together.

The third word of the Bible, “elohim” literally means “gods”. The singular word for a god or deity is “eloah”. The plural “elohim” can be used to refer to multiple deities at a time or to refer to the supreme God. This word is often understood to simply be referring to the God in a superlative form in a form of deference. Yet later in the chapter elohim speaks in the first person plural. Verse 26 says “And said, elohim, let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” After both words, image and likeness, the nouns our followed by the possessive suffix “enu” which is the first person plural pronoun suffix meaning “our”. This seems to suggest that the elohim speaking is more than one deity. In fact, modern biblical scholarship often suggests that the prevailing understanding of divinity in Ancient Mesopotamia was not of one and only one god but a heavenly council of many deities over which one god, the most high God presided. But this is also a topic for another post.

Joseph Smith had an interesting interpretation of the Bible’s first word. Never shirking his role as an iconoclast, he claimed that the very first word of the Bible was not correct. The following quote is taken from a transcription of Joseph Smith’s Sermon in The Grove, given June 16, 1844, one week before his death.
Some say I do not interpret the Scripture the same as they do. They say it means the heathen's gods. Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many; and that makes a plurality of Gods, in spite of the whims of all men. Without a revelation, I am no going to give them the knowledge of the God of heaven. You know and I testify that Paul had no allusion to the heathen gods. I have it from God, and get over it if you can. I have a witness of the Holy Ghost, and a testimony that Paul had no allusion to the heathen gods in the text. I will show from the Hebrew Bible that I am correct, and the first word shows a plurality of Gods; and I want the apostates and learned men to come here and prove to the contrary, if they can. An unlearned boy must give you a little Hebrew. Berosheit baurau Eloheim ait aushamayeen vehau auraits, rendered by King James' translators, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." I want to analyze the word Berosheit. Rosh, the head; Sheit, a grammatical termination; the Baith was not originally put there when the inspired man wrote it, but it has been since added by an old Jew. Baurau signifies to bring forth;Eloheim is from the word Eloi, God, in the singular number; and by adding the word heim, it renders it Gods. It read first, "In the beginning the head of the Gods brought forth the Gods," or, as other have translated it, "The head of the Gods called the Gods together." I want to show a little learning as well as other fools.

I like this quote at least partially for Joseph Smith’s attitude. I think it’s kind of funny. But he brings up some interesting ideas. The spelling in the transliteration is different here so I’ll review the point of interest. Basically, he says that the preposition “be” does not belong in the text and that the first word in the Bible should be simply “reshith”. As noted earlier, “reshith” means “the first” in place, time, order, or rank. It is almost always understood to mean the first in time. But Joseph Smith understands it to mean the first in rank. In effect, the word “reshith” is identifying the God of gods. He is also correct that “reshith” shares the same root as “rosh” which means “the head” whether literally or figuratively. You might recognize this word when combined with another Hebrew word. The Hebrew word for year is “shanah”. So the New Year is the head of the year or “rosh hashanah”.

But Joseph Smith also understands the next word differently. Rather than referring to the creation of the universe itself, Joseph Smith sees the word “bara” referring to the calling forth or organization of divine beings, the elohim. Thus the third word is also understood differently. In Joseph Smith’s view the word “elohim” is not referring to the highest God himself at all but is referring to the other deity whom he is assembling to prepare for the creation.

Taken together, Joseph Smith taught that the first words of the Bible should be “reshith bara elohim.” His interpretation is essentially: “the head organized the gods”. Put another way: “the Head One of the Gods brought forth the gods.” This is basically the way the Book of Abraham lays out the Creation.

So there is a little review of my reading of the first three words of the Old Testament. Let’s see how far I get as I move on. I have touched on some topics that our too juicy to pass up. I definitely need to come back to the Council of the Gods. There are many references in the Bible itself, as well as ancient Ugaritic and Babylonian texts. But I’ll get to all that later.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Explorations In Faith

With respect to religion there are three classes of people; the religious rationalizers, the irreligious rationalizers and the religiously inquisitive. The first class may think about religion from the outside to defend it; the second class may think about it from the outside to destroy it. But only the third class thinks about it from the inside with a view of discovering precisely what may be the good of it.

Henry Nelson
The Wrestle of Religion with Truth
p. 35

I first read this quoted by Hugh B. Brown and found it very inspiring. How can a person discover faith without immersion into it, thinking about it and letting it affect the most personal regions of the soul? Religious discussion doesn’t always reach its potential. Sometimes discussion about religion is downright hostile. So much effort can be spent in the finest points of doctrine and sectarian views that the essence is lost in the process. A true exploration in faith must be more expansive.

Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high
as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and
the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.” (Joseph Smith,
History of the Church, ed. B. H. Roberts, 3:295.)

This kind of contemplation is of Henry Wieman’s third class. This is thinking “from the inside with a view of discovering”. Joseph Smith is a good person to articulate it so well. He could hardly be accused of treating his faith lightly. He wrote these words from a subterranean cell in Liberty Jail. His faith was all that could sustain him as he was imprisoned in a cold, dark, filthy pit as his people were driven from Missouri, murdered, raped, and pillaged of all they possessed. His detractors may have balked at his claim as a prophet. But to be sure he started asking questions where others stopped and didn’t dare venture. He penetrated the pavilion obscuring the unknown with eager inquiry.

The third view of religion is distinctive because it is the only view which explores faith from the inside. The first two classes, the religious rationalizers and the irreligious rationalizers, though opposed in purpose share an important attribute – both stand outside faith like a swimmer who doesn’t want to get wet. Religious studies and theology, for all their merits, lack significance until faith is explored from inside and allowed to saturate the deepest crevices of the soul.