New, in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture:
Abstract: The Mormon Theology Seminar has produced two volumes of essays exploring 1 Nephi 1 on Lehi’s initial visions, and Jacob 7 on the encounter with Sherem. These essays provide valuable insights from a range of perspectives and raise questions for further discussion both of issues raised and regarding different paradigms in which scholars operate that readers must navigate.
I published the following column in the Deseret News on 12 November 2015:
Hugh Nibley spoke and wrote often about what he called “the terrible questions,” by which he meant the very biggest of human issues: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?
Many answers have been given to these questions. Some believe, for example, that there is no God, that the ultimate end of all human life is personal annihilation and, therefore, life has no meaning. (This bleak view was advocated, for example, by the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.)
On this understanding, life arose, simply and exclusively — but, to current scientific understanding, still quite mysteriously — from chance events in a warm little pond or, perhaps, near a volcanic vent deep in an early sea. We humans emerged billions of years thereafter via cellular mutations in the line of apelike organisms who are our ancestors.
One way of looking at this evolutionary history concludes that it leaves no room for purpose or even freedom of the human will. All is the result of natural processes that we call random only because we don’t know all the factors involved; if we knew them all and possessed enough calculating power, we would be able to see that it was entirely inevitable. And, of course, there’s no room for the soul’s survival after death because there’s no soul. We are, essentially, temporary cell colonies.
But this viewpoint seems to entail some potentially disquieting things: If, for instance, our thoughts are merely neurochemical brain events set in motion by a deterministic process that goes all the way back to the Big Bang (perhaps with some quantum uncertainty tossed in to make it a bit less rigid but no less pointless), what can it possibly mean to say that our thoughts are “about” something? Other bodily functions — digestion, respiration or blood circulation, for example — aren’t “about” anything. They simply “are.” And what reason do we have to trust such “thoughts” regarding the nature and meaning of the universe? If our brains evolved to help us survive and reproduce — which is what the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest strongly suggests — how can we be sure that they’re reliable beyond those limited functions?Thus, one way of answering the “terrible questions” is to say that we came from a combination of chemicals, we’re here for no purpose and we’re going nowhere.
The French philosopher and writer Albert Camus published a famous 1942 collection of essays titled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which he grappled with this view, with what he labeled the “absurdity” of the human situation:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” he wrote, “and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or 12 categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
Many, of course, maintain that life is worthwhile even if the claims of supernatural religion are false. Existentialists, for example, assert that humans can create their own meaning in a godless and objectively absurd universe. Orthodox Marxists insist that a purposive society, if not a meaningful cosmos, will emerge through the inexorable processes of history.
Religious perspectives typically come at these questions from a very different angle. They don’t need to completely reject the scientific theories mentioned above — some do, some don’t — but they virtually always see our existence here on Earth as purposeful. We came, in some sense, from God. We’re here for a profound reason — perhaps “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Catechism puts it, or, in the words of the Catholic Baltimore Catechism, “to show forth His goodness and to share … His everlasting happiness in heaven.” And the grave isn’t our final destination.
Mormonism offers unusually specific answers to the terrible questions: However our physical bodies arose, our spirits come directly from heaven, where we lived with God our Father. We gain material bodies here in this world, which serves both as a test for us and as a school for the eternities. We will, if we merit it, live again with God, but in a far richer way for which our earthly sojourn is a necessary prerequisite.
The beauty and attractiveness of this worldview doesn’t prove it correct. The wonderful news, though, is that the revelations that support it are corroborated by reliable modern witnesses.