Thursday, August 9, 2012

On the matter of Baptism for the Dead - Harrowing of Hell

Up till yesterday, I haven't been able to see the value in the LDS practice of Baptism for the Dead, and in trying to learn how it figures so largely in the temple work, up to this point I have seen the one reference in the New Testament whereby Paul speaking to the Corinthians calls into comparison the practice of baptism for the dead, making the fact that such a ritual was a norm in that time and place apparent.   I thought it peculiar that an entire practice in these modern times could be based on a ritual of antiquity based on a quick reference verse in NT bible.  In my mind there was not strong enough reason for me to wish to involve myself in the practice, while respecting that the rite meant a great deal to the members who did observe it.

Another non-compelling reason for me to wish to include the 'temple experiences' as part of my own experience in Mormon faith practices.  Already on my list of not sure I even want to experience the temple is the compelling reason that the Church requires one to go through a temple recommend interview with the Bishop of the Ward.  Condition of being eligible to go into the temple is what is called being worthy.  Seriously objecting to that word and what it conveys, I was already greatly put off inasmuch as if a member is not considered 'worthy' then that may well mean the member is 'unworthy'.  I don't like the psychological messages that puts into people's minds.  As humans, it seems to me, we already have enough of a struggle in finding our worth without another condition being set upon us as in temple worthy or temple unworthy. I don't like how it feels to me.  An extension of the worthy concept as defined by the LDS Church includes a requirement to pay tithing.  That is another thought for another time, and to wrap it up, I don't like the idea of an enforced tithing as the means of contribution to the needs of the Church.

Enter Hugh W. Nibley with his thoughts on the matter, published in a transcript (online here) 'Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times' at Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (a BYU component) with an in depth look at the practice.  I'm so ready to resist and as I continue to read encounter concepts familiar to me that I am hooked into reading the rest of the article, getting only about half way through it and I stop to tell my husband of my find, asking him if he knows much about Hugh Nibley, and suggesting to him that if he hasn't read this particular article, he might be interested in reading it given some of the concepts we have explored together in other venues.

What would that be?

-- mention of a Coptic papyrus found in 1895, purported to be account of teaching of Christ to his apostles after the resurrection in salvation for the dead.

-- mention of names familiar to me as early Christian scholars; Justin (a Christian convert), Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, St Augustine; Origen, Plato

-- involving people of the bible; Peter (of the Disciples); Matthew, Luke, Mark (of the NT); James; John; Moses; Elias; Abraham, Issac, Jacob, John the Baptist;

-- mention of concepts familiar to me; Gates of Hell; Satan; Devil; Prince of this world; medieval Easter Drama with Satan and Death; underworld; God as a Cloud; Nicaea; Nicene Creed;  Hades; Dante's Inferno (depiction of his concept of Hell); ransom; Jesus destroying death (or Death); apocryphal books (Apocrypha); gnosis; apostolic times; Apostles Creed

There is no need to reinterpret what Nibley has already put to word and reader can read the article (already linked above).   What this new way of looking at that which I disavowed has alerted me to a deeper exploration.  I am mindful of the young missionary who pointed out verses in New Testament of the renting of the veil upon death of Jesus on the cross and His descending into hell before ascending (harrowing of hell).

Today then upon further examination, I encountered NT verses actually using the term 'spirit prison' - a term used in LDS teachings that I have not heard in any of my other spiritual affiliations.  See NT- 1 Peter 3:19-20 and then see 1 Peter 4:6 and Ephesians 4: 8-10 and OT - Isaiah 24:21-22. 

Given that there is a fullness of body of beliefs predating the formation of the religion of Joseph Smith, it is not a belief that I would wish to discard without giving attention to it's formation and application.  And in that regard as I take off my holding shelf a look at the concept of baptism for the dead, I come to appreciate why it might be revered as biblical, as a practice that did occur and as something I deem worthy of further exploration on my part.

In appreciated respect for the artists of the antiquities portrayals of the Harrowing of Hell, iconography of the same, and how art influences my mind, it seems there is a chunk of early Christian history absent of my understanding.  Ahhh, the humility of it all.  And perhaps that is the holiness that comes down to incarnate in humankind in bringing each of us a deeply needed sense of humility at what we do not know, cannot know, and yet know we do not know.

link - slideshow with many images of Harrowing of Hell

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Bearing testimony and bearing my testimony

Black BirdIt's been a year and a half since I was baptized into this Church.  It's been an internally tumultuous journey for me to come into this church so late in my life with a lifetime of experiences, spiritual connections.  I think I've examined so much literature dealing with the historicity of the Church, examined the online material of so many of those who are or have become disaffected with their membership in the Church upon learning of historical events, shared with them in their grieving for their loss, and I became convinced it was unlikely I could fully become a part of this Church.  I was content to carve out a space for myself in empathy, support for the many that also must carve out a non-traditional space for themselves in the context of the Church.

Until this past Sunday, when I for the first time conveyed my 'testimony' because I could in great part because of this Sunstone article written and/or contributed by David Knowlton in April 1991.  As I've heard repeatedly throughout the past two decades this business of a testimony is a huge element of the LDS Church faith.  And as I've heard the acts of giving testimony primarily in the Ward where currently attend, it goes something like this:

'I'd like to bear my testimony that I know this Church is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that this is the restored church on the earth -- and sometimes there will be an add on variance that might include atonement (ending with In the name of Jesus Christ)"

These are not words that I can say easily as they are not my core beliefs.  Therefore I have acknowledged aloud repeatedly that I have a non-traditional 'testimony', and so the members know that I am working on gaining a testimony.  I think I already have one, it just won't sound like the words the members at my Ward are used to hearing.  It's one of those elements that I recognize is important to the membership, and yet I do not appreciate in fullness what is meant by having a testimony from their perspectives.  For me what I have to say as my testimony works, and yet I somehow understand that it doesn't work for the membership, who simply politely let me struggle with the concept.

A year and a half later, upon reading the David Knowlton article; 'Belief, Metaphor, and Rhetoric: The Mormon Practice of Bearing Testimony Bearing' it brought light for me in the matter of how Mormons have and share their personal testimony.  I came to understand that the act of it is so much more significant to the person bearing testimony and those hearing it than the words can begin to convey.  My take away was a nodding of my head saying to myself - I understand - and thank you David Knowlton for taking the time to think this through and write the article.

What I understand is that while indeed this is a ritualistic practice which I recognized and wondered how it came to be that the Church teaches they do not practice ritual as a kind of a protest against the other churches that do practice rituals when in fact they do practice a form of ritual - just different than other churches.   In the absence of rituals as for example in the Liturgy of the Episcopal and Catholic Church, or the coming forth to be saved in some of the Protestant churches, the bearing of the testimony is in effect that salvific moment of feeling the Spirit, the presence of God in self, the emotional connection.  That I can and do understand, respect, value, appreciate.  And with that I could finally release myself from being hung up on the words and relate instead to the ritualistic feeling level of how Mormons bear testimony.

Wanting to hold to my own integrity as to my actual beliefs, I have struggled with the words typically used by people in sharing their testimony.   No I do not believe with heart and soul that this is the one true church.  I believe it is a true church inasmuch as many paths up the mountain is a truism and other churches/religions see themselves as just such a path - a path to Divine, to Creator, to God, to Great Spirit, to Heavenly Father.   And for me to the Beloved....that being my word of choice for the deep connection I feel to Jesus born of adversity in my young child years when no one or no religion was there to define for me what my feeling of Jesus was or is now.

I do know that Joseph Smith founded this church, that he was viewed as a prophet in his time, that he viewed himself in that light, that members viewed him in that light then as do many now.  I have read of his history via the non-accepted and accepted literature.  I needed to know who this man was, what was compelling about him, about the church he founded to get a better understanding of why this church prevailed when other churches of the time dissolved.  I can say that I do believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, relative to his era and time period of the 19th century Reformation period of religion.  I can say I value his reasons for coming to the beliefs he had and shared.  I can say I value his personal history growing up and in his early marriage, the losses of death he experienced with his brother, with his children.  I can say that he remains an enigma to me in that no matter who is doing the describing of who he was, what his actions were, he was all of those things and more, making him not a saint or sainted in his contributions or as much a saint as saints were made.

I do not know that Jesus died and was resurrected and gave us atonement or entry to cleanse ourselves of a supposed sin of the falling of Adam and Eve.  I do not know even that Jesus as described in the New Testament gospel lived and walked among mankind.  I do however, know of Jesus, as Jesus came to me in my young years and have spent a lifetime looking at religion to try to fill in the definitions of what it means for Jesus to be Jesus.  Sometimes it was satisfying, sometimes I harnessed those definitions as my own, sometimes I was heartbroken to learn that perhaps none of it was true and was part of a mythology (the overarching story of a culture's attempt to explain to itself).   I will never know in a true sense of the word know, and I'm content with not knowing as much as I yearn for the beauty in my internal imaging of Jesus to be a truism.  And if not, it is an internal imaging of beauty for me, by which I can hang my star, guide my ship, walk my walk.

I do not know that there needs to be a true church as much as in the 19th century period, many Protestant religions formed in opposition to the Catholic Church of that period, desiring that they were the true church, had a truth no other churches had, uncovered truths not yet known or exposed, walked the path of early Christianity, the primitive church, had personal access directly and without intercessory intervention.   Had my young child self required intercessory intervention to know Jesus, I would not have had the friend I so needed and had to have in Jesus to withstand the adversity in which I found myself within my earthly family.

In deep respect then for what a testimony means to Mormons, and the heartfelt emotion they feel in bearing testimony, I can say in truthfulness and honesty that I have a testimony of this church.  And I can do that in great thanks to the elucidation that David Knowlton provided for me in wrapping up a lot of my own thoughts into a reflective format that says what I lacked the words to say yet felt at my intuitive level to be truths.  

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