© Anthony E. Larson, 2003
Children of the Light?
Latter-day Saints’ opinion on the subject of potential planetary near impacts, past and present, differs little from that of the general public. Sadly, most Mormons seem as indifferent to this concept as their secular and sectarian contemporaries. Yet, it probably should not be so.
Joseph Smith clearly held a catastrophist view of history and prophecy that included disasters originating in the heavens, which would have had devastating effects here on Earth. Speaking of the Second Coming, he said, “It is not the design of the Almighty to come upon the Earth and crush it and grind it to powder . . . .” (History of the Church, 5:337.) These words are not those of a gradualist or uniformitarian. They bespeak a catastrophist point of view. It is well established by this author that Joseph Smith’s teachings on past and future events are patently catastrophist. (See The Prophecy Trilogy, Vol. 3, Ch. 1.) Given that fact, why are so many Latter-day Saints loath to accept this interpretation of history and prophecy? For the answer to that question, we will have to examine history.
Abandoning our roots
The restoration of the gospel began at the same time as a revolution in geology and biology. Popular opinion in Joseph Smith’s day held that the Creation and Noah’s Flood had largely shaped the world. Today they would be called creationists. Geologists like Hutton and Lyell disputed that view, noting that a rational interpretation of the geologic record argued for a very old planet altered only by slow processes over eons of time. They were gradualists.
In Joseph Smith’s day, the gradualists were a minority, but by the latter half of the 19th century, the scientific and academic communities had spurned creationism and catastrophism to embrace gradualism completely. The general public was somewhat slower to shift opinion. Still, by the turn of the century, gradualism dominated the thought of the general public since it was, by that time, the only way the subject was taught in almost all academic settings.
Mormons in flux
This ideological shift presented a problem to Mormons who were in the process of trying to integrate with the larger American culture. Historically, the church and the government had been at odds, as any student of early church history knows. The Saints’ exodus to the Great Salt Lake Valley originally put them outside the confines of the United States. However, they eventually found themselves once again within its boarders due to the westward expansion of the nation. This left the Saints with a difficult decision: move yet again, just as they had left Jackson County and then Nauvoo, leaving behind another city and temple erected from raw land, or accommodate the laws and cultural standards of the United States so they could keep their new desert home. The decision to remain and conform prevailed, and the Saints undertook the daunting task-as history records that painful adversarial process-of qualifying for statehood and citizenship.
To diminish tension and facilitate the process, Mormons sought to emphasize cultural similarities with the rest of America and suppress dissimilarities in hopes of reducing the antagonism of earlier days. This, they trusted, would help avoid further confrontations-like the Johnston’s Army incident, for example-and ease tensions so that the church could finally put down permanent roots and better carry out its revealed mandate to preach the gospel.
Like the larger American population, the Mormons eventually embraced gradualism and for much the same reasons. Even though the position of the Prophet and early church members had been catastrophist, Mormons eventually found the idea of gradualism irresistible.
As a result, a new generation of Mormons did not entirely share their forefathers’ worldview because of the pressures from the greater society around them to conform to the common precepts taught by almost all educational institutions, including gradualism.
This ideological reversal on the Saints’ part produced the desired effect. It opened doors to Mormons in American society that had formerly been closed, allowing them to pursue careers in politics, science and education; some eventually even attained tenure in prestigious institutions. There was now one less difference between Mormons and their American contemporaries.
A split personality
Yet, all this progress came at a price. The Saints’ ideological shift to gradualism created an intellectual dichotomy in the 20th century. Their scriptures – especially those new revelations that came with the restoration-tell of a catastrophic Earth history. They also proclaim, emphatically and dramatically, a catastrophic future. Yet, the cultural beliefs Mormons had adopted to “fit in” with the rest of the Americans precluded such notions, categorically denying any such possibility.
This produced an intellectual dichotomy in the Saints’ worldview, creating a spiritual and academic scotoma that has only grown larger in the many years since.
This resulted in church members shifting ideological gears on a consistent basis. In a religious setting, they read and mouthed an ideology with catastrophist underpinnings; in a secular setting, such as the public and private educational system, they espoused the opposite ideology of gradualism. This has endured, strangely, to the present. It has become institutionalized, resulting in a sort of intellectual and religious schizophrenia.
In addition, there may have been one other, even more profound, loss: Mormons no longer understood their scriptures as they were meant to be understood. While Joseph Smith’s interpretation of prophecy and history may not seem essential to our salvation, it performs a vital function in our interpretation of revealed knowledge. Revelation regarding past or future events comes from a perspective that acknowledges the role of planetary catastrophes in Earth’s past, present and future. The language of the prophets is steeped in it. So, if our paradigm does not include this perspective, we have no frame of reference with which to completely understand the revelation.
This is what the Apostle Peter meant when he wrote, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Peter 1:20,21.) If the parties involved in any exchange do not share a common understanding-if one is a gradualist and the other a catastrophist-there will be a fundamental misunderstanding in the exchange of information. They do not share a common view, background or experience. Therefore, they do not interpret the data, information or truths, in the same way. Hence, there can be no “private interpretation” of the scriptures or prophecy. Both parties must have the same frame of reference. The fallible “will of man,” or opinion of man, will only lead to misunderstanding.
To correctly understand the scriptures, prophecy or revelation itself, one must have the same frame of reference as the text itself, which is catastrophist. Thus, it may be that this paradigm shift in the last century left Mormons incapable of properly interpreting what had been given them by revelation regarding historic and prophetic events.
A systematic method of interpretation
The systematic method for interpreting historic and prophetic events, given us by Joseph Smith, is based on symbolism. (See The Prophecy Trilogy, Vol. 1, Ch. 3, for a list of such metaphors and their origins.) This puts the prophet squarely in the center of ancient prophetic tradition. In both the revelations he communicated to us and in the sermons he gave, Joseph used these symbols correctly and consistently. For example, history speaks of water turning to blood, of stars falling from the heavens, of migrating seas and oceans. Knowing what has occurred in the past to give birth to such descriptive metaphorical phrases, one can determine what is meant by the same metaphor in another context-prophecy, for example. That knowledge allows a consistent system of interpretation, rather than the extravagant guesswork and speculation engaged in by most scriptural exegetes. It also acknowledges a celestial origin for most religious iconography, ritual and metaphor.
The two faces of symbolism
Such symbolism has two aspects or facets: one literal, the other metaphorical. The literal aspect in the water-turned-to-blood example refers to a time in the past when Earth’s waters were polluted by ferriferous dust. Its use in prophecy refers to a repeat of this phenomenon. Its metaphorical aspect is simply a rhetorical, poetic representation of a physical event or phenomenon. The water does not turn into anything, much less blood. Such is the nature of all metaphor.
This aspect is also a reflection of the ancient mind that turned to dramatic imagery in order to describe the inexplicable. This does not imply that the ancients were somehow less intelligent, that they could not discern the reality in what they saw. Indeed, some-Plato, for example, or Mormon-clearly grasped the true nature of catastrophic events and so described them. (See Helaman 12: 8-17.) However, the extraordinary nature of the events ensured that most of the time they would be characterized in symbolic terms, as opposed to analytical terms. The colorful nature of metaphor is always more dramatic and appealing than cold, dispassionate analysis. In any case, the imagery of past catastrophes captured the imagination of the masses, leading to its widespread adoption and use.
The past is the key
It is vital that one have a firm grasp of the events and conditions in antiquity that produced gospel symbolism. The Lord alluded to that fact when he revealed that “. . . truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:24.) The intimate relationship between past, present and future events implied here must be recognized in order to correctly understand the truth when it is presented. This tripartite concept (past = present = future) is often repeated in the scriptures, especially in prophecy.
Undoubtedly, one of the functions of the School of the Prophets, if not the primary function, was educating the brethren in the many prophetic metaphors and symbols employed anciently, their variations, elaborations, their proper application and interpretation. By teaching the systematic interpretation of scriptural metaphors, religious rituals and iconography, the prophet ensured that the priesthood brethren understood their proper use and interpretation. They could interpret this symbolism wherever they came across it and not be misled by doctrinal distortions.
Equipped with this knowledge, any Latter-day Saint can also see that temple and religious iconography is the physical counterpart to rhetorical metaphor. That is to say, the metaphor reflects the meaning of the icon and the icon reflects the meaning of the metaphor. Those things depicted in religious art, architecture, rite and ritual, can also be found in religious rhetoric.
Knowledge: a key to discernment
Indeed, this is one of the keys used to discern a false prophet in a day and age when the meaning of these symbols and metaphors is largely unknown. Because a false prophet is not schooled in the knowledge of these things, he or she lacks the ability to properly use and interpret such symbolism and metaphor. Thus, the pretender’s “revelations” and teachings lack these elements. They fail to properly employ the time-honored literary devices known to all true prophets because they are ignorant of the iconography of antiquity. Hence, they interpret prophecy no differently than any run-of-the-mill evangelical exegete.
For much the same reason, the apostate who has turned against the true religion can be a threat. Once intimately schooled in this knowledge of symbolism, the perpetrator has the power to do tremendous damage because he or she can deceive even the “elect,” or those who know these symbols and their proper use.
This, too, is an excellent test for a true prophet: He will employ this symbolism properly and in a manner consistent with ancient tradition. While only the whisperings of the Spirit can completely confirm a prophet’s claim to revelation, this is additional, intellectual confirmation, if you will. A true prophet will easily and correctly employ traditional, scriptural symbolism in his teachings, and that symbolism will certainly be present in all revelation he passes along to the Saints. In this respect, as in every other, Joseph Smith passed the test successfully.
Left to their own devices
Once the Saints had abandoned Joseph Smith’s symbolism-based interpretation of scripture and prophecy, a vacuum appeared in their theology. They no longer had a yardstick or touchstone for interpreting most gospel symbolism. Since “nature abhors a vacuum,” a ready replacement was soon found in the eschatological thinking of sectarian Christianity. Mormonism, therefore, has largely adopted the prophetic interpretation of Evangelism, epitomized today by the writings of Hal Lindsay in his book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, or the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong, a popular millennialist and radio evangelist of the 1950s, in his radio program, “The World Tomorrow.” One can see evidence of this when comparing the views of the aforementioned evangelists with those of recent Mormon writers Cleon Skousen and Dwane Crowther. As one aphorism has it, “There ain’t a dimes bit of difference between ’em.”
Hence, we find Mormons generally interpreting prophetic utterances, ancient and modern, in remarkably similar ways to their evangelical, Christian cousins: metaphor is made literal and symbol is made modern. This leads to gross distortions in the interpretation of prophecy. For example, consider the unfounded interpretation of the year 2000 as the date for the second coming or the obsession with the number 666. It also leads to the creation of fictitious characters such as the Antichrist and fictitious events such as the Rapture. It seems apparent to this author that we may have allowed harmful sectarian notions to find their way into our catechism, just as Elder McConkie repeatedly warned before his death.
Time to reevaluate
Given all the recent discoveries coming out of the sciences regarding impacts and the prophetic warnings that repeatedly forewarn us of spectacular celestial events before the Second Coming, would it not be prudent for Latter-day Saints to reexamine our views? Would it not be wise for us to acknowledge, as modern science already has, that such things may happen? Should we not want to return to our roots in catastrophism, given us by Joseph Smith? If it was once our desire to conform to a trend that led us to abandon our catastrophist base, then why not conform to the newest trend of science, neocatastrophism, in order to return to our former beliefs?
Signs, ancient and modern, in the heavens
When we consider the magnitude and import of seeing the Shoemaker/Levi comet impact giant Jupiter in our own time, one wonders if this astronomical visual aid might not have been God’s way of making a point. Was it done merely to amaze or amuse us? Was it done to keep the astronomers, scientists and scholars busy? Or was it, indeed, a sign-meant to awaken us from our apathetic complacency about the times we live in and the planet we live on? Should not Latter-day Saints be the first to recognize this?
The Nephites were given a sign of the Savior’s birth. “. . . for behold, at the going down of the sun there was no darkness; . . . . And it came to pass that there was no darkness in all that night, but it was as light as though it was mid-day. And it came to pass that the sun did rise in the morning again, according to its proper order; and they knew that it was the day that the Lord should be born, because of the sign which had been given. . . .
“And it came to pass also that a new star did appear, according to the word.” (3 Nephi 1:15, 19,21.)
Thus, we see that God used the heavens, a celestial canvas, upon which to paint the sign of his Son’s advent.
Recent history has given us a rather remarkable sign of our own.
“On July 16, 1994, the first fragment of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 entered Jupiter’s stratosphere traveling at the speed of 60 kilometers per second-that’s about 134,000 miles per hour. Seconds later it exploded. A plume of shock-heated cometary material mixed with hot gases from Jupiter’s atmosphere soared more than two thousand miles above the tops of Jupiter’s clouds. As material from the plume fell back into the stratosphere of Jupiter, it left a large, crescent-shaped dark spot partly surrounding a smaller intense dark cloud that formed along the entry path of the comet.
“Two days later, Fragment G hit Jupiter with such force that its plume was, in some wavelengths of observation, fifty times brighter than the entire planet. By the end of impact week, Jupiter was bruised with the markings of 21 impacts, dark scars larger than Earth. Not in the 400-year history of the telescope has any planet displayed such dramatic new features. Nine months after the impact ended, Jupiter’s southern hemisphere was graced with a belt of dark material, still easily visible through small telescopes.
“We are only now beginning to grasp the magnitude of what has happened.” (Cosmic Collisions, pp. 6, 7, from the foreword by David H. Levy and Carolyn & Eugene Shoemaker.)
Was the impact of a comet with Jupiter in our time any less of a sign than that given to the Nephites? The intent of that sign was to verify that, as Samuel the Lamanite had prophesied, the Son of God had been born. Could it be that the Shoemaker/Levi event was a demonstration to a disbelieving world – Mormons in particular – that such things can happen – indeed, will happen – to us?
Certainly, it was a verification of assertions by this author, the scriptures, the prophets and a multitude of modern catastrophists that such things do happen; that we live in an uncertain solar system that has seen numerous cosmic disasters in historic times; that old assumptions about a steady-state Earth wherein “. . . all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation . . .” (2 Peter 3:5.) are flawed; that we have been “willingly ignorant” in this enlightened, modern age, of the truths that the ancients sought to preserve in text, ritual and stone; that “. . . the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: But the heavens and the Earth, which are now . . . are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment . . . .” (Ibid. 3:5, 6.)
As Latter-day Saints who have been given the restored gospel, we have a greater obligation to recognize and receive these things than does the rest of the world. Are we not designated as the “children of the light?”