Defending the Faith: The heavenly council, and some counsel for mortals

Published: Thursday, April 18 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

There are plenty of things in this life to challenge our faith, and most of us have had seasons of doubt or perplexity even if our belief is normally strong. Some are overcome by doubt. Some, indeed, despair and lose their faith altogether.

In “Letter to a Doubter,” an essay originally delivered in October 2012 to a fireside audience in Palo Alto, Calif., and recently published in “Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture,” professor Terryl Givens of the University of Richmond seeks to help those whose faith has been challenged.

He’s writing for an idealized, non-specific, representative “doubter.” Of course, each of us is uniquely individual, and, thus, the specific challenges and issues that each struggling person faces will likewise be unique. No single essay, no single approach, can answer all questions or satisfy all concerns, and professor Givens doesn’t address detailed issues. But, in his typically eloquent way, he sets forth useful principles that could help many who find themselves uncomfortably at sea.

His conclusion, though, might be somewhat unexpected. “Be grateful for your doubts,” he counsels. They give us “the capacity to freely believe.” Why is this so? “There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief,” writes professor Givens, “in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate and laden with more personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads.”

His view on this matter is very much in harmony with the Book of Mormon. “For it must needs be,” taught the prophet Lehi, “that there is an opposition in all things. If not so … righteousness could not be brought to pass. … Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:11, 27).

“What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to,” continues professor Givens, “is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance. The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god waiting to see if we ‘get it right.’ It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions which can allow us to reveal fully who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire.”

On a rather different note, one of the most interesting developments in biblical studies in recent years has been an increased focus on a recurrent motif in the Old Testament called the “divine council.” The members of this heavenly assembly are described by biblical writers as “the host of heaven,” the “holy ones,” the “sons of God” and, even, as “gods.”

But mortal humans, too, are sometimes admitted, at least temporarily, into the divine council, where they are granted access to its otherwise secret plans or deliberations. These are the prophets. They know what God wills and intends precisely, and they share what they know with their fellow mortals.

“Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” The word translated as “secret” in this familiar passage from the King James Bible, Amos 3:7, is the Hebrew “sod,” which can refer both to a confidential discussion and to the circle or location — in this case, the divine council — in which that confidential discussion takes place.

Also writing for “Interpreter,” professor William Hamblin of Brigham Young University proposes that a central element of Latter-day Saint temple worship symbolically represents temple patrons as participants in that divine council. Through their participation, they learn of the “sod,” the plan of salvation, the hidden meaning and purpose of creation and the cosmos.

Accompanying his brief article, professor Hamblin has provided a useful general bibliography for those who would like to read further about the divine council, as well as a separate bibliography of Latter-day Saint writing on the topic.

Both the writings of William J. Hamblin, “The Sod of YHWH and the Endowment,” and Terryl L. Givens, “Letter to a Doubter,” are available at no charge online at mormoninterpreter.com.

Daniel C. Peterson, a BYU professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org and editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, and he blogs daily at Patheos.com. His views don't necessarily represent BYU.

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