There I was, sitting in my usual seat in Sunday school, watching the instructor faithfully proceed through the lesson plan and observing, as I always do, the various comments made by fellow ward members. The topic was Nephi’s Vision and the Great Apostasy.
I was bothered by the apathy to know and appreciate Christian history by a few of my fellow congregants, and even though I flirted with the idea of expending my social capital in the ward by vocally lamenting the problems with what others had shared, I continued to sit in quiet meditation. My thoughts turned elsewhere.
Why was Nephi getting this vision? He asked to see the vision his father saw. The spiritual tour guide did in fact show him his father’s vision. Yet, his vision did not stop there. The Spirit, or the the angel, continued to show Nephi futures beyond his immediate concerns, and apparently beyond what Lehi saw. Nephi is shown not only interpretations of his father’s dream, but the Incarnation, the mortal ministry of the Savior, but more importantly the ultimate destruction of his people by those descended from his wicked brothers.
Science fiction and popular culture are replete with warnings and cautions about knowing the future. As a child I remember watching an episode of the Smurfs. In the episode, the Smurfs obtain a mirror that shows the future. After Smurfette gets captured by Gargamel, they quickly consult the mirror to see whether she will live. They see a vision of Smurfette walking out from the forest and returning to the village and immediately decide to cancel the rescue operation. It was no longer necessary. While the Smurfs may not be laden with philosophical complexity, this episode suggested to my young mind that knowing the future can cause one to abandon actions they would have taken otherwise.
Remember this scene from the 1980’s movie “Back to the Future”?
Marty: Listen, Doc, you know there’s something I haven’t told you about the night we made that tape.
Doc: Please, Marty, don’t tell me, no man should know too much about their own destiny.
Marty: You don’t understand.
Doc: I do understand. If I know too much about my own future I could endanger my own existence, just as you endangered yours.
Doc: What’s the meaning of this?
Marty: You’ll find out in 30 years.
Doc: It’s about the future, isn’t it?
Marty: Wait a minute!
Doc: It’s information about the future, isn’t it! I warned you about this kid. The consequences could be disastrous!
Marty: Now that’s a risk you’ll have to take! Your life depends on it!
Doc believed that no man should know too much about his own destiny. Marty believed that Doc needed knowledge of the future to prevent his own demise. In fact, the only reason to give that knowledge to Doc was so that Doc could take some action to change what would happen. In the Back to the Future universe, human decision can change the course of events.
Less optimistic philosophies of the future could be found in let’s say the Time Traveler’s Wife. There, Henry is unable to change any events of the future.
Clare: But you get to see people from the past, people who are gone. Like your mom.
Henry: Yeah, but the thing is you can’t change what happens to them. I’ve tried, it just happens anyway.
Being so close to the Christmas season, my mind turned towards Charles Dicken’s beloved A Christmas Carol. Scrooge was yet another individual who was shown a vision of his future by a Spirit.
The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One.
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
The Spirit was immovable as ever.
Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and, following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.
“Am I that man who lay upon the bed? No, Spirit! O no, no! Spirit! hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope? Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life.”
Scrooge did not want to accept the vision of the future. Pleading with the Spirit, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”
My mind turned once again to what I was reading silently, partly listening and partly ignoring the controversy taking place among my fellow ward members about how to view the Apostasy.
“And now I Nephi was grieved because of the hardness of their hearts, and also because of the things which I had seen, and knew they must unavoidably come to pass because of the great wickedness of the children of men. And it came to pass that I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine affliction was great above all because of the description of my people, for I had beheld their fall.”
But Nephi’s people had not fallen—Nephi would never even experience this during his lifetime. Was Nephi right that this must “unavoidably come to pass”? How can we have this scripture in a religious tradition that touts human agency uber alles? Is human history unavoidable as Nephi is convinced? What does that do to the concept of agency? Does not the bible give us examples of times when choice can change the course of human events?
“Why doesn’t Nephi question the Spirit, as did Scrooge?” I wondered. Where was Nephi’s cry, “Why show me this, if [everything is] past all hope?” Granted, the Spirit tells Nephi that “if the Gentiles repent, it shall be well with them.” But why does the Spirit only suggest a conditional future as applied to the Gentiles? Why is the fall of Laman and Lemuel unavoidable? How can Mormonism tolerate such a determinist and fatalist view of human agency?
Lehi apparently did not see the same vision. He is troubled for completely different reasons. Nephi reports that “[B]ecause of these things which he saw in a vision, he exceedingly feared for Laman and Lemuel. Yea, he feared lest they should be cast off from the presence of the Lord. And he did exhort them with all the feeling of a tender parent.” (Or, if Lehi did see the same vision of the destruction of his family, did he fight against it in his heart?)
This is a far cry from Nephi’s absolute certainly that “the things which I had seen . . . must unavoidably come to pass … for I had beheld their fall.” This vision given to Nephi by the God who Nephi knows “loveth his children” caused Nephi to accept the vision as if it had already happened, to be burdened by something that had not even occurred and would not occur during Nephi’s mortal sojourn. In addition, Nephi became angry with his brothers for something that they had not even done yet. After his vision, Nephi tells his brothers “How is it that ye will perish because of the hardness of your hearts?”
Is it possible that the Book of Mormon tells a story of what happens when people are shown the future? Does it provide lessons on the perils of knowing the future? Although Nephi claims he tried to reach his brothers “with all the energies” of his soul, I can’t help but feel that Nephi’s belief that he saw their unavoidable and inevitable fall had to have influenced his behavior and his relationship with them.
I returned to the lesson where ward members were pointing out that Nephi saw Christopher Columbus. I wasn’t interested in that. Is there a kind of cruelty with God giving Nephi a vision of the destruction of his people, leaving him helpless in the face of an overwhelming view of his own future. Nephi never asked to see a vision of the destruction of his people. How did this benefit Nephi? I’m sure God had his reasons. On the other hand, perhaps it’s true that no one should know too much about their own future.
As we ended the lesson and said the closing prayer, the thought came to my mind that we need to make our own future. We should never let anyone tell us who we are, not even a revelation. Visions are not absolute and are not unavoidable. We can’t let our relationships with our family and friends be held hostage by what we think will happen, or else we relinquish our agency. I believe in a future that is open.
I admire the Spirit of Scrooge, and despite his flaws, I see him in that moment as a more heroic figure than Nephi. Scrooge was willing to challenge the dim future, and to desperately question the Spirit even when the Spirit was pointing to his grave. To me, Nephi’s response symbolically represents the tendency in human nature to accept what we are told, to resign ourselves to fate, to assume things are unavoidable, and to become depressed about things that haven’t even happened, and probably will not even happen in our own lives.