October 21, 2009

"In their weakness, after the manner of their language"

Joseph Smith's Revelations, Revisions, and Canonization

The latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers project is a massive work, and I'm not just talking about its bulky physical dimensions. It is pregnant with possibilities for Mormon scholarship.

Robin Jensen is a member of the Church History Department staff and an editor of the recent JSP volume. While making transcriptions of Joseph Smith's revelations Jensen has identified "Many additions, revisions, deletions, or other types of redactions were made by multiple people on the manuscript" between the time they were recorded, edited for publication, and updated as the needs of the Church grew.1 Jensen explains that many "simple minor changes" were made in addition to "significant changes made to the text...sometimes entire phrases were added." For Jensen, this indicates the "non-static" nature of the revelations which were adapted to language and understanding of the recipients and the changing needs of the Church.2

Latter-day Saints shouldn't be surprised at such changes, given their acceptance of continuing revelation. Still, it raises questions about the malleability of a scripture canon. How do religious communities accept the authority of a canon that undergoes change? Bernard M. Levinson, a professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, has investigated the problems of canonization and innovation. For him, the very idea of canon is one of the distinctive advancements of major religious traditions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Text can be used to found, ground, and even change a religious community. Canon helps keep things together, but it also raises interesting problems—especially after the canon is closed. I think it can be argued that—despite Mormonism's theoretically "open canon"—the LDS Church faces similar problems as closed-canon groups because of the latent authority the scriptures (or "standard works") hold.3

Levinson astutely describes the problem:

By locating its font of revelation or contemplative insight in foundational sources, however, a culture confronts an almost inevitable difficulty. The essence of a canon is that it be stable, self-sufficient, and delimited....With such fixidity and textual sufficiency as its hallmarks, how can a canon be made to address the varying needs of later generations of religious communities?4
Levinson argues that scriptural exegesis (interpretation) arises to solve the problem.5 But the solution can actually raise more problems by essentially calling into question the sufficiency or authority of the original. It can also break down the coherence of the scriptures when we realize they are not "uni-vocal," but represent different views from different prophets in different time periods.

Levinson goes on to explain how creative changes to old revelations are done when subsequent prophets and scribes adjust text, change translations, reinterpret older verses, and utilize several other strategies to adjust the morphing canon to changing conditions. Analyzing examples from the Old Testament, Levinson shows that such innovations were occurring before the canon was formulated, much like we see on a smaller scale in the Doctrine and Covenants revelations from Joseph Smith. Most studies in this area of biblical research focus on how later Targum and commentary adapt the canon, but Levinson shows how such changes are actually found throughout the formative period of the canon, or "inner-biblical exegesis."6

Granted, the time span for Joseph Smith's revelations is smaller than what we find in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, his revelatory process seems to have remarkable similarities, even after quill hits parchment or pen hits paper. We see, as Levinson argues, that human voice isn’t diminished by canon, but actually augmented. Joseph Smith also demonstrated that canon includes the means to challenge, change, adapt, reject, and even substitute meaning. This refutes any easy dichotomies drawn between text and tradition, grammar and Spirit:7

Although chronologically prior, the canonical source is not ontologically prior, since the past is rethought and interpreted from the vantage point of the present. The authoritative source thus reveals hermeneutics. If canonization conventionally represents an anthologizing attempt to gain closure, then the texts of the Hebrew Bible [and Smith's revelations] militate in the opposite direction. They resist any simple notion of...Scripture as one-sidedly divine. They tolerate no such hierarchies or binary oppositions. Properly understood, the canon is radically open. It invites innovation, it demands interpretation, it challenges piety, it questions priority, it sanctifies subversion, it warrants difference, and it embeds critique.8
Or, to put the same idea in the language of revelation, consider the fascinating implications of what the Lord spoke through Joseph Smith (and how he said it!):

Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.9

Robin S. Jensen, "Revelation Book 1: Digging in," bycommonconsent.com, 23 September 2009. For another interesting review of the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project see Ardis E. Parshall, "First Impressions of the Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations Volume," keepapitchinin.org, 23 September 2009. Check out this nifty Family Home Evening lesson on the JSPP from Deseret Book, too. The photo is by Jason Olson, "Original Book of Commandments and Revelations is shown against backdrop of first two published Joseph Smith Papers volumes and a triple combination." See R. Scott Lloyd, "Word of the Lord: Latest Joseph Smith Papers volume presents facsimiles of early revelation manuscripts," Church News, 19 September 2009.

Jensen, Ibid., gives several specific examples of interesting changes in the revelations between their receipt and publication.  

The volumes of scripture officially accepted by the LDS Church, include the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. These "Standard Works" are not strictly held as inerrant, but are held as normative for Church doctrine. See "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," LDS Newsroom, 4 May 2007.

Bernard M. Levinson, “You Must Not Add Anything to What I Command You: Paradoxes of Canon and Authorship in Ancient Israel,” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions, Vol. 50, No. 1 (2003), pp. 6-7. Levinson is a professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota.

"If the closed literary canon as the repository of revelation or insight is the source of stability for a religious tradition, exegesis provides vitality," Levinson, ibid., p. 8.

Levinson, ibid., p. 10. 

Levinson, ibid., p. 49.

Levinson, ibid., p. 50.

D&C 1:24. The author of the epistle to the Romans intriguingly places another break in communication lines between the prophet and the weaker people: "I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness" (Romans 6:19). Or as the Weymouth translation puts it: "your human infirmity leads me to employ these familiar figures...." More about communication and revelation to come. This post is cross-posted at fairblog.org

October 19, 2009

Review: Al-Ghazali's "Niche of Lights"

Title: The Niche of Lights: A parallel English-Arabic text translated, introduced, and annotated
Author: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali
Translator: David Buchman
Publisher: Brigham Young University Press
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Year: 1998
Pages: 80
Binding: Cloth
ISBN: 0842523537
Price: 24.95

For many westerners, Islam remains hidden behind a veil simply waiting to be discovered and uncovered.1  Brigham Young University in cooperation with scholars throughout the world has taken significant steps toward unveiling the history and thought of this global religion for the west. Since the late 1990s, BYU's Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts have sponsored the Islamic Translation Series (ITS) to better integrate Islamic studies into western academia. According to Daniel C. Peterson, ITS’s managing editor:
Islamic civilization represents nearly fourteen centuries of intense intellectual activity, and believers in Islam number in the hundreds of millions. The texts that will appear in the ITS are among the treasures of this great culture. But they are more than that. They are properly the inheritance of all the peoples of the world (Peterson, “Forward to the Series,” The Niche of Lights, p. x).
Following the command to “seek…out of the best books words of wisdom,”  Latter-day Saints will enjoy The Niche of Lights by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 C.E.), one of Islam’s most respected scholars and interpreters. Despite some theological differences, Latter-day Saints share al-Ghazali’s ultimate goal of knowing and returning to God.2

Al-Ghazali mastered law, theology, and philosophy in order to draw closer to God. Despite becoming more proficient in these areas than perhaps any previous Muslim, he nevertheless recognized something important was missing. Through his study of an Islamic movement called Sufism, he discovered “there is a knowledge of God that goes beyond the rational ability to know Him and is ‘unveiled’ (kashf) by God in the heart” (xx). Al-Ghazali played a key role in legitimizing elements of Sufism including the Islamic ideal that religion transcends both doing (by following the law) and knowing (by use of theology and philosophy)—its core consists of being and becoming. By understanding proper theories and adhering to proper practices humans can purify their hearts until God unveils Himself to them.

Toward the end of his life, a-Ghazali wrote The Niche of Lights, which discusses the nature of God as “light,” and explains how humans can be shielded from—or led to—His presence. Niche was written in response to a friend’s question. Al-Ghazali’s introduces the book by appearing to sandwich the answer directly into the question itself:
You asked me, O noble brother—may God lead you to search for the greatest felicity, train you to ascend to the highest summit, anoint your insight with the light of Reality, and cleanse all other than the Real from your inmost center—that I unfold for you the mysteries of the divine lights, along with an interpretation of the apparent meanings of those recited verses and narrated reports that allude to His divine lights (1).
The “recited verses” to which he refers are the so-called “Light Verses” of the Qur’an, which describe God as "the light of the heavens and the earth” (1). The “narrated reports” are called hadith, or the reported sayings of the prophet Muhammad which are generally as important to Muslims as the Qur'an itself. Al-Ghazali explores the verses and sayings throughout three chapters.

In the first chapter he begins his interpretation of the Qur’an by outlining a metaphysics of light, concluding that the “real light is God and that the name ‘light’ for everything else is sheer metaphor” (3). Extending from the First light is a hierarchy of lights ranging from least to greatest. Al-Ghazali includes a simple and beautiful metaphor to simplify this hierarchy of light. He compares it to the light from the moon passing through a window, reflects from a mirror onto an opposite wall, and reflects from there to shine on the floor. In each of these stages the light differs in brightness depending on its proximity to the original source of the light—the sun reflecting onto the moon. In this way he describes how the light of God is passed from Him to his creations through various intermediaries. This chapter is perhaps the most difficult of the three and al-Ghazali concludes it with a section called “Some encouragement.” If the discussion has been too difficult, he advises, “take for yourself words that are nearer to your understanding and more suitable to your weakness” for now. But don’t stop there: “Know that you can come to know…” (22).

In the second chapter al-Ghazali explains that the goal of human existence is to get nearer to God through an inner transformation. He outlines a hierarchy of beings ranging from humans, to angels, to God, and compares their respective likenesses to that of the stars, moon, and sun. On the pathway back to God the traveler passes through these stages or degrees of glory (p. 27-28). However, unbelievers will have difficulty recognizing revelation and light from God. The Qur’an compares the unbelievers to a man “in a fathomless ocean covered by a wave above which is another wave above which are clouds, darkness piled one upon the other.” Al-Ghazali interprets these to be the waves of appetites, sensory pleasures, hatred and arrogance and the clouds of “loathsome beliefs, lying opinions, and corrupt imaginings.” These separate unbelievers from the light and true knowledge of God (42).

The third chapter continues the discussion of being separated from God. Al-Ghazali provides his  interpretation of the Veils hadith. This saying of Muhammad describes God as being separated from humans by “seventy veils of light and darkness.” According to al-Ghazali the veils come in three main kinds: veils of darkness, veils of light, and veils of darkness mixed with light (44). Veils of darkness cover the “atheists…who do not have faith in God and the last day” (45). Veils of darkness mixed with light represent those who believe in both true and false principles (47). Veils of light cover those who are drawing ever closer to God, but are difficult to penetrate (50). Individuals who pass through these veils are said to have finally “arrived” at the presence of God where further grades of experience are possible. This ultimate destination seems beyond al-Ghazali’s ability to describe and the book ends without a summary. “My request to the [original] questioner,” he concludes, “is that he ask God to forgive wherever my pen has transgressed and my foot has slipped, because delving into the flood of the divine mysteries is dangerous, and seeking to penetrate the divine lights from behind human veils is arduous, not easy” (53).

Niche is a fascinating book of questions and answers that will resonate with and challenge believers of many faith traditions. David Buchman’s careful translation is printed beside the Arabic script through Niche's fifty-three pages of metaphor, thick scriptural exegesis, and philosophy. A basic understanding of Islam will allow readers to better appreciate the book. Buchman’s introduction provides a serviceable background to twelfth century Islamic thought and the life of al-Ghazali. ITS is performing a tremendous service to religious studies. Those involved in the translation and publication project deserve much praise for making significant works like Niche and other “best books” accessible, affordable, and available to scholars, students, and the general public.

My own inadequate understanding of Islam compounded the difficulty of this review. Or in other words, I'm overwhelmed! (but happily). A useful introduction is John L. Esposito's Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford University Press (2005, revised third edition).

Doctrine & Covenants 88:118.