Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Faith and Tangibility

Some of the comments to an earlier post discussed Oliver Cowdery’s use of a diving rod, an interpretation recognized by several D&C commentators. If you interpret the “gift of Aaron” in Section 8 as Oliver’s use of a diving rod, it makes for some interesting reading. Oliver’s gift has told him many things (verse 6). The gift only works for Oliver because of the power of God (verse 7). If he has faith in his gift, he will use it to do marvelous things (verse 8). Oliver’s gift is the work of God (id.).

When I first learned of the “gift of Aaron” and what it that might be, my initial action was that it was, well, odd. I mean, a diving rod? And, I sort of put the idea aside. Then, last week, I read the section heading for Section 11, which says, “This revelation was received through the Urim and Thummim in answer to Joseph’s supplication and inquiry.” And I thought, “Whoa.”

Joseph used the Urim and Thummim and a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon. He used the Urim and Thummim to receive revelations that became scriptural passages of the Doctrine & Covenants (see some discussion of the U&T here and here). Is a divining rod any stranger than a Urim and Thummim? At least I have seen a diving rod. I have heard people talk about diving rods. I have never seen a Urim & Thummim. And that got me thinking about faith.

Diving rods and seer stones and interpreters are certainly outside our daily experience and it is easy to think them odd. But weren’t they just aids that Joseph (and perhaps Oliver) used for a while in seeking inspiration and revelation from God? Don’t we all use tangible objects to help us believe and seek God’s guidance?

I have long thought that part of the power of ordinances is their tangibility. You know precisely when you were immersed in water, and that meant something to you. You know when hands are placed upon your head. When you eat the bread and drink the water, it is a signal to your soul (the tangible and the intangible part) that you are seeking for God’s spirit. When I really think about it, I see lots of examples of tangibility as an aid to faith. The temple might be the ultimate example. Among other things, don’t lots of people who really need revelation and guidance go to the temple because they believe being in a sacred place - - a building - - will help them find it?

I guess it is natural to think that things outside our experience, like Urim & Thummims (what is the plural of Urim & Thummim, anyway?) and seer stones are kind of strange. But, we have a wealth of tangibility that Joseph and Oliver did not have: Sacrament emblems blessed by the priesthood; the laying on of hands; Celestial Rooms. All these things help us when our faith needs bolstering. Maybe God just works through the tools we have.


  1. Excellent point. I recall a friend of mine making a similar point to her adult children. The mother was quietly observing their argument about this subject over dinner. At the climax of the argument the mother quietly arose, got a bag of candy, and loudly said "CATCH!" She then tossed a few at some children, who caught them. She then gently handed a few other children some candy and said "here you go" in an affectedly sweet voice.

    "Does everyone have candy?" she asked. They assented. She then asked rhetorically "does it really matter how you got the candy, so long as you have it?"

    Beautiful. She not only killed the argument with one word - "catch!" but taught a powerful truth using a brutally simple example.

    And Urim and Thummim is already plural. The 'im' ending is the Hebrew equivalent of our adding an 's' or 'es' to signify that.

    Check out how the Lord describes it in D&C 17:1. The Urim and Thummim "WERE given to the Brother of Jared..." not 'was' given. Whoever said Joseph Smith made up the D&C is on crack. This to me, is one more evidence of the Lord's voice to Joseph. Afterall, Joseph didn't start studying Hebrew until Kirtland years after this revelation. Booyah, baby!

  2. Teacher: are you aware that in order to type in and find the blog one must mistype the word gospel? This is what works now:


    Fixing "gospel" in the address above fails to bring up the blog. Is that typo, or on purpose? Just curious. Thanks for the site.

  3. Easton: Thanks for your comments and insight, especially on Joseph’s correct usage of Urim and Thummim. That is interesting. I notice that you are an archaeologist. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on how “things” affect what we think, feel and believe.

    WhutzNekst: Aaargh! I had not noticed the misspelling in my url. Thanks for pointing it out; unfortunately, it was NOT intentional. If I change it now, I think I goof up my indexing. It is a problem. I will have to “study it out in [my] mind” and figure out what to do. In the mean time, Googling “Gospel Doctrine Underground” (spelled correctly) works.

  4. It's fascinating to study the "things" that represent faith or channel belief. What I enjoy is the concept of what archaeologists call "pride of place" or sacred space. What you'll find, especially in Europe and the Near East is over thousands of years people will build temples on top of old abandoned temple structures, so that when you excavate you've got layers and layers of religious material spanning thousands of years.

    It seems that fact is innate in human behavior. It's only recently (last 100 years or so) that our scientific western civilization has decreased that cultural practice.

  5. And I discovered this while doing my studying for the last gospel doctrine lesson. An interesting correlation:

    “Scripture reading may... lead to current revelation on whatever [subject] the Lord wishes to communicate to the reader at that time. We do not overstate the point when we say that the scriptures can be a Urim and Thummim to assist each of us to receive personal revelation" (Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading and Revelation,” Ensign, Jan. 1995, 8).

    According to Brigham, Joseph said “every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness.”

  6. I gotta tell you--all this talk of seer stones, divining rods, revelations by people like Hiram Page....It makes me think that some of these guys were kooks.

    It is interesting to me how Richard Bushman puts it in RSR. It seems that all this magic, etc was necessary in the beginning, but I'm sure glad they got past it.

  7. MH: I like Bushman’s approach, too. It makes sense to me that Joseph was, like everyone else, moving out of apostasy. He had developed certain ideas and beliefs, and God worked within the framework of what Joseph believed to bring him along. Eventually, revelation came to Joseph without the U&T or seer stones. And, I’ll bet Oliver gave up his diving rod. But, I still think things we can see and touch can bolster our faith.

    Easton: I like the Dallin Oaks quote very much. I like the idea that our scriptures can be a source of revelation, on the topic we are reading, or on other topics. I confess, and this might sound weird, but I love my old set of scriptures. I got them when I went on my mission, and I still use them. I like to read my old, familiar markings. But beyond what they say, they are almost talismanic to me. I feel something when I hold them. They are a tangible faith aid for me. Maybe they are, or could be, my seer stone.

    What about the rest of you? Do you think everyone should have a "seer stone"? What are yours?

  8. You've left the Liahona out of the discussion. That's another bit of "magic" that we seldom discuss. But, it may be no more magical than a blackberry. And what about the "white stones" of the Jared's brother that emitted light? They sound strangely like light emitting diodes. These, like seer stones and the Urim and Thummim are what technologists might call "electrical devices." And like all technology today, their power source may have been depleted such that they no longer function. Descriptions of how they operated are even more fascinating. It's clear that God often uses what we would describe as technology. There may be no magic to it, any more than the computer screen you're staring at right now. They may be nothing more than tecnology. Arthur C. Clark noted that any technology slightly more advanced than our own looks like magic to our eyes. Wouldn't your great grandfather recoil in horror at the seemingly magic machine you clatter away on today with the ability make words appear on the screen as if by magic? Isn't the Internet a source of incredible knowledge that, had Joseph had one nearly two centuries ago, would have appeared to be magic?

    I know, I know. Heresy! Right? Right! (giggle) All that stuff really works by (chortle) spiritual power.

  9. Anthony: I actually had thought about the Liahona and the Jaredite stones. Those are perfect examples that seem strange to us now. And I agree that sometimes the miraculous is a matter of perspective. But, I am not entirely sure I understand your explanation. Do you think God was using some sort of technology that we might understand to communicate with Lehi and Nephi and light the Jaredite barges? I am not discounting that, just trying to understand.

  10. Yep. Is it so far fetched to consider that God might use what we would call technology to work his will?

    I'm with Talmage. He noted that events we call miracles do not involve the suspension of natual law, though it may seem so to us. They only seem incredible because of our ignorance of those laws governing the miraculous event. If we fully understood the natural laws, we'd see them in harmonious operation in everything, even miracles.

    What else but tecnology can they be? If it looks like a duck ... well, you know.

    Miracles performed by the prophets and the Savior fall under the same rubric, in my mind. So much of what we take to be magical, miraculous, spiritual, metaphysical or the result of priesthood "power" (though modern revelation says there is no power in the priesthood) really isn't. It's our superstitious approach to religion that lets us see miracles in natural events and the manipulation of natural forces.


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