MIPodcast—Briefly Alma 30–63, with Mark Wrathall [MIPodcast #113]
The Book of Mormon prophet Alma was on the wrong path. But much like the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, Alma experienced a shocking vision that changed everything. His sermons are the product of a person who understood what it meant to receive the grace of Christ and have a mighty change of heart.
In this episode, Mark Wrathall joins us to talk about his brief theological introduction to the second half of the book of Alma. For more about the brief theological introductions series, go to mi.byu.edu/brief.
Mark Wrathall is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Corpus Christi College. He works on the phenomenology of agency and religious life, and is interested in the temporality of human existence. He is the author of Phenomenology and Human Existence (forthcoming with Oxford University Press), Heidegger and Unconcealment (Cambridge University Press), and How to Read Heidegger (W. W. Norton). He has edited numerous volumes, including The Cambridge Heidegger Lexicon and Religion After Metaphysics.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast, I’m Blair Hodges.
The Book of Mormon prophet Alma was on the wrong path. But much like the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, Alma experienced a shocking vision that changed everything. His sermons are the product of a person who understood what it meant to receive the grace of Christ and have a mighty change of heart.
In this episode, Mark Wrathall joins us to talk about the second half of the book of Alma. Wrathall is the author of the second Alma volume in the Maxwell Institute’s series brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. He’s professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford and fellow and tutor in philosophy at Corpus Christi College.
You can go to mi.byu.edu/brief for updates and information about ordering and when the books are coming out. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HODGES: Mark Wrathall, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
MARK WRATHALL: Thank you.
HODGES: We’re talking about your forthcoming book, it’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series. You were chosen to do the second half of the book of Alma. Do you recall how that book fell in your lap? Did you choose it or did the editors seek you out for that one?
WRATHALL: They sought me out. They sent an invitation and I took a look and was happy to take it on. It has, I think, several of the most interesting chapters in the Book of Mormon in terms of doctrinal issues and questions.
There’s also a lot of other things. The war chapters in Alma are notorious, and I actually ended up not saying very much about those, but there were enough chapters I could really sink my teeth into that I was happy to take it on.
HODGES: With all the things you had to choose from to focus on, as it’s a short introduction, right out of the gate in your book you call the book of Alma “a challenging book”—the word you use is “challenging.” What did you have in mind?
WRATHALL: I meant that in a couple of different ways. I think it’s challenging to understand it. I think that really coming to grips with the book of Alma doctrinally demands a lot of us.
But I think what I primarily had in mind is that I think it’s practically challenging. The book of Alma demands that we change the way we respond to the world, and that we change the way we respond to other people. And to really live up to the gospel as it’s taught in the book of Alma I think requires a lot.
HODGES: Mark, you’re a philosopher, you come from a background of philosophy. And you’re writing in a book series of theological introductions. You also point out to readers that you’re not a theologian yourself. But you say, in one sense Alma and Amulek aren’t really theologians either. Let’s talk a about theology and philosophy and how you understand those terms.
WRATHALL: Theology is an academic discipline that’s concerned with—well, it’s actually a very broad discipline. In philosophical theology we tend to focus on theology as a discipline that is concerned with providing a rational explanation and justification for belief in God. So, theologians are traditionally interested in providing a reasoned account of the nature of God, of proofs for the existence of God, engaging in rational argumentation with people who doubt the existence of God. So it’s very much an intellectual enterprise.
It’s traditionally very concerned with providing argumentation and defense and justification for beliefs. And I think the authors of the Book of Mormon in general, and certainly Alma and Amulek, are just not interested in that kind of project. There’s very little in the way of a theological argument to be found in the Book of Mormon—with the possible exception of the apostates. So, people like Korihor do construct theological-type arguments, and the Zoramites. I think the Zoramite beliefs have a very theological flavor to them.
So, that’s one reason I was intrigued in this section of the book of Alma. You have Alma who is not an academic and he’s not particularly interested in argumentation, but he’s encountering people who are. And I think this interplay between a more intellectual approach to belief, which is confronting in the form of the apostates, versus his own very practical orientation to orthopraxy, which is a correct understanding of the way we ought to live our lives. That’s the primary concern for Alma.
HODGES: Right. People might be familiar with the term “orthodoxy” which is correct belief. Orthopraxis refers, as you said, to correct practice.
So, I’m not a theologian. My areas of research have very little to do with theology. I do occasionally teach the philosophy of religion here at Oxford and so I do engage with theological arguments and tropes and issues. But that’s not my primary area of interest and emphasis in my own scholarly work.
I am a philosopher. And philosophers are also typically very interested in argumentation and reason. In fact, the area of philosophy I come out of is also much more interested in description of experience, and understanding the nature of human existence as a practical form of engagement with the world. I think my own philosophical inclinations lend themselves quite well to thinking about the kind of approach to religion and religious life that Alma takes himself.
HODGES: Did you think it was strange to be a philosopher invited to work in a series on theology or did that make sense?
WRATHALL: I think it makes sense in general. There are branches of philosophy that engage in theological reflection and argumentation. I’m not a natural person to invite to participate in a series of theological books. Given my own profile as a scholar that’s not something I’ve done much of in the past.
I’m very interested in the phenomenology of religious life. That’s something I work on. But again, I think that’s not a theological project. In thinking about the character of religious life, I’m not interested in rationally articulating and defending articles of belief. I’m more interested in understanding how people who are religious engage with the world and with each other, and how the world is opened up and disclosed to someone who is committed to a life of faith.
HODGES: I think people will see your interest even in your first chapter, which talks about belief, knowledge, and faith. You say Alma in the Book of Mormon draws a clear distinction between belief and knowledge.
Here’s a quote from the scripture: “Blessed is he that believeth in the word of God without being brought to know the word or even compelled to know before they will believe.” So, let’s talk about the distinction he’s making there, how you understand that. He’s making a distinction between belief and knowledge.
WRATHALL: Well, and more importantly between faith and knowledge. And I think there’s a very important distinction between faith and belief that a lot of people don’t really pay attention to. So, that’s what I’m primarily interested in. Alma goes to great lengths to show that a person’s demand for knowledge is inappropriate in the sphere of religion and in the sphere of living well. I think in his sermon on the seed, Alma chapter 32, that’s the central issue Alma’s concerned with.
But for Alma, knowledge just isn’t that important to living a faithful life. And I don’t think that’s a terribly controversial claim. What might come as a surprise to a lot of people is that belief is not that important to living a faithful life either for Alma. And he very rarely talks about “believing that…” anything. He doesn’t talk about believing that God exists; he doesn’t talk about believing that such-and-such is right, or such-and-such is wrong. He does talk about believing in God. He talks about believing in the word. But that’s a different sort of attitude than believing that something is the case. It has much more of the character of trust or an attitude of trust or reliance on something, when you believe in it.
HODGES: Yes, you said that the Book of Mormon “never depicts faith as a cognitive attitude. It depicts faith more as a way of living,” and “trust” is the word you used. In fact, you said it includes a kind of a mood about the things that matter.
Can that kind of mood be chosen though? What’s our role in that?
WRATHALL: I think of faith as a complex practical attitude. And by that I mean it’s a way of being ready to experience and respond to the world. And practical attitudes in general are things we’re very familiar with, but we don’t generally have names for different practical attitudes.
An example I use in the book is that of driving a car. To drive a car requires you to get into a “car attitude.” And when you know how to drive a car and you slip behind the wheel of a car, your attitude changes and you start noticing features of your surroundings that are relevant to driving a car. You find your hands moving out to do things. If you drive a stick shift and you’re good at it, you don’t have to think about it. Your body is just poised and ready to shift through the gears as you’re accelerating or to shift down as you’re decelerating and the whole world shows up in a way that solicits you to respond as a driver to the situations that you’re encountering. And driving is compatible with a variety of different moods, but being a good driver requires a certain mood of tranquility. I mean, you don’t want to be raging behind the wheel, that’s a bad attitude to get into when you’re driving a car.
So I think we ought to think of faith in those sorts of terms—that faith is a certain attitude we take up with regards to the world, and with regards to other people we encounter, and in regard to God. And when we take up that attitude of faith, we start to notice things about the world that call for a response. People show up as having a kind of significance that they don’t have if you’re in a different sort of attitude.
A different sort of attitude might be a business-like attitude where you’re primarily concerned with making money, for example. That’s often incompatible with the kind of attitude that faith is, and people show up differently when you see them as potential customers rather than as fellow children of God.
I think faith is much more a matter of the way we perceive the world and the way we feel drawn to respond to it. And a mood is an important aspect of that. For instance, a mood of anger or hatred is incompatible with the practical attitude of faith. A mood of despair is incompatible with the practical attitude of faith. But there are a variety of moods or affects or ways of feeling the world that are central to faith. And I think if you are attentive, you’ll find this described in scriptural accounts of the faithful life.
HODGES: I think this is counterintuitive for a lot of people. When I think of faith, the quickest definition my mind goes to is, “Faith is believing in something that I don’t have good proof for.” So, I put my faith in it. I accept that it’s true and I act as though it’s true, but I don’t have good evidence for it.
Considering that sort of definition, describe briefly one more time how your approach to faith differs from that. Faith being “accepting the truth of something that you can’t prove.”
WRATHALL: I think that way of thinking about faith is a symptom of a very modern way of understanding us and the world. And in this modern understanding, what’s really important is knowing the truth about things—getting a good account of the way the world works. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that’s an important project.
But the way we use the word “belief” is systematically ambiguous. I can talk about believing that there’s a chair in the room or believing that it’s raining outside. And that doesn’t have any specifically religious overtones to it. It just means I “hold it to be true” that such-and such is the case. I’m committed to it in a certain way or I’ve assented to the truth of a proposition—like, “the chair is in the room.”
We also use the word “belief” to talk about our relationship to God. And I think that’s where the confusion comes. If you think belief in God is the same sort of thing as belief that a chair is in the room, then you’re going to talk about belief in just the way that you just did, Blair. You’re going to think that to be a person of faith is to have a kind of cognitive or intellectual commitment to a certain set of propositions being true, and those propositions generally have to do with God and his nature and his role in the world.
But I just don’t see Alma and Amulek and scriptural authors in general—that’s just not what they’re talking about by and large, when they’re talking about faith. Having the right beliefs can contribute to faith, but it’s not at the heart of faith and it’s not at the core of faith. What’s really important in faith is having the sort of attitude that a relationship to God inspires in us.
HODGES: So, it has as much to do with how we live and react to particular beliefs as it does with just accepting those particular beliefs?
WRATHALL: Yes, I think it has more to do with how we react to other people and to situations in the world than what we happen to think about the world.
HODGES: I think your next chapter shows how this plays out with Alma and Korihor. Korihor is a figure who comes to challenge Alma. He serves as a foil to Alma. We talked a little bit about Korihor in the interview with Kylie Turley in this series, people can check that out if they haven’t listened yet. But you say Korihor employs a “skeptical principle” that Alma then responds to. Take a minute to describe Korihor’s argument and how Alma responds.
WRATHALL: Right from the outset, Korihor is really oriented toward getting our beliefs straightened out and he is really oriented toward knowledge. And that’s what makes the nature of the interaction between Alma and Korihor so interesting. If Alma were really concerned with having the right set of beliefs, you would expect him to engage with Korihor very differently than he does. You’d expect him to argue about the rational foundation for the claims Korihor is making. And by and large, he doesn’t do that.
Korihor’s basic principle is, if you don’t see something then you can’t know about something. And principle is appropriate when you’re thinking about beliefs. But it’s a very limited principle, because it rules out all other ways of supporting the beliefs we have other than direct experiential evidence for them. And so he has exactly the kind of cognitive orientation to religious life that I think is wrong-headed and that Alma’s trying to avoid.
Korihor articulates this principle, and then he tests beliefs against it. And if the beliefs don’t pass the principle, Korihor says, “Well, you’re not entitled to believe them. You can’t claim that you know something is the case if it doesn’t satisfy this minimal principle of knowledge.” And once you give him that, he constructs a very coherent systematic argument on the basis of the skeptical principle. He uses it to argue against belief that Christ will come. That’s the central message of much of Alma’s teaching, so Korihor, on the basis of a skeptical principle, mounts a rational attack on that doctrine.
HODGES: And Alma’s response to that—I mean, you point out at one point how he says, “Hey look, we’ve got the witnesses of prophets, we have scriptures, look at the earth in its regular form…” Alma points to some things that suggest there’s a God or an entity that’s sort of in control. But he does that really quickly. And he, as you point out, moves on to other things. You say Alma invites Korihor to try to live as though perhaps it’s the case and see what the result is.
Korihor’s argument can sound pretty solid though when he says, “Hey, you’re just manipulating people. You’re talking about these things you can’t know about, so that you can control people, or you can enrich yourself,” and those type of things. And I think that’s a challenge for Alma. If the audience accepts the idea that there needs to be proof, how do you think Alma could respond to that? Basically, Korihor is saying, “This is just manipulation. You could claim anything and get people to have faith in anything, like a magical monster in the sky or something.”
WRATHALL: Yes so again, let’s be careful. Is the issue, should you believe there’s a magical monster in the sky or is the issue should you have faith, should you take up an attitude towards the world that relies on the magical monster in the sky? That’s really the way you ought to be parsing the argument.
So, let’s go back—Alma does a couple of things in response to Korihor. The first is that Korihor, even though he actually constructs this really sound argument, well-organized argument, against knowledge that Christ will come, he oversteps a little bit. In the terms of his own principles, all he ought to conclude is that you cannot know that Christ will come.
HODGES: Because you haven’t seen it yet– it’s not there.
WRATHALL: That’s right. it’s a future event. You can’t see futural events. If the criterion of all knowledge is “you can only know what you can see,” then you should withhold belief that Christ will come. But Korihor cheats a little and he tries to make the stronger argument that you can know that Christ will not come.
And so, the first thing Alma does, which is interesting, Alma calls him on this. I think Alma recognizes that he’s overstepped the limits of his own argument and Alma says, “Look, you’re really not entitled to deny that there is a Christ.”
HODGES: Even by his own reasoning. Even by Korihor’s own principle.
WRATHALL: Even by Korihor’s own principle. And Korihor does indeed back off on that.
The second thing Alma does is he argues that the skeptical principle Korihor relied on is too narrow because it doesn’t allow for knowledge that’s grounded in evidence or testimony. Korihor’s principle is, “You have to have firsthand, direct, experiential knowledge of something before you can say that you know it.” And Alma points out quite rightly, that’s not how we think about knowledge.
If a reliable witness tells you something happened, and in fact it did happen, that can be a basis for knowing that such-and-such is the case. And Alma is able to get Korihor to agree to that. Korihor recognizes that, in fact, evidence or testimony can serve as a foundation for knowledge. And once he does that, his entire argument falls apart because it was premised on a very narrow interpretation of what justifies our knowledge. And at that point, Alma doesn’t actually have to prove that there is good testimony to show that Christ will come or that there is good evidence to show that Christ will come. All he has to show is that Korihor’s principle was inappropriately narrow and Korihor’s argument is destroyed.
And it’s interesting that Alma is able to approach Korihor’s argument in actually quite a philosophical and sophisticated way and show the limitations of his argument. But that’s not the most important aspect of Alma’s response to Korihor. And that’s what I find really interesting.
So, when Korihor first appears, everyone’s initial reaction to Korihor—and this is true of Alma as well—is that the doctrine of the coming of Christ brings great joy to the people. And they keep saying to him, “Look, are you really not persuaded by the experience of joy that the faithful undergo?” And Korihor rejects that. And if you’re focused on a cognitive understanding of belief or of faith, then it makes sense to reject that because a feeling is not very good evidence for the truth of some fact out in the world.
But if the point of faith is not to get our beliefs all lined up in the right sort of way—instead, if the point of faith is to get us to have the right kind of attitude and grip on the world and take up the right kind of relationships with other people, then something like joy is very relevant to thinking about faith. Because joy is a manifestation that you’re living in the world well. You’re living successfully in the world. You’re not experiencing despair and anguish and so on. And so for me, the fact that what Alma’s really ultimately interested in is the question of joy—that shows again, that he’s not particularly concerned with defending religious beliefs as such.
HODGES: And people can read more about Korihor and his engagement with Alma in your book, Alma: a brief theological introduction.
Let’s move to the sermon on the seed. This is Alma chapters 32 and 33. Probably one of the most referenced passages in the Book of Mormon, I imagine. What do you think makes this section such a standout?
WRATHALL: There are lots of great aspects of this sermon. One is that it employs a readily accessible set of images to help us understand the character of our relationship to God and of faith. And it’s a sermon that even a child can understand—as we know primary children sing about the sermon, faith being like a little seed and so on. And also for people who are just being introduced to the Book of Mormon or in many instances, to a religious form of life at all, it’s a really important sermon because it’s concerned with how we grow into having the right sort of faithful relationship to God. So I think for newcomers to the Church of Jesus Christ or to Christian religion at all, it’s a really great introduction to thinking about how to enter into a life of faith.
HODGES: And you say in your brief theological introduction that we risk getting the analogy wrong here. Alma’s talking about the seed and you break down the different components of his analogy and suggest that we might be reading it wrong sometimes. Let’s break down the actual analogy. Would you describe that for us?
WRATHALL: There’s a couple of things to pay attention to in order to understand the sermon. The first is that Alma carefully and systematically distinguishes between minds and hearts. The mind in the book of Alma—and in the Book of Mormon and Biblical tradition as well—typically is the faculty responsible for belief and knowledge and so on, for getting our thoughts straightened out and well-organized and getting a good theory or representation of the world. All of that’s the job of the mind.
But the heart is a very different faculty. If you track the way the heart’s talked about in the Book of Mormon, it’s associated with feelings and moods. So, joy is experienced there—it’s located in the heart. Anger and depression in the Book of Mormon are located in the heart. But also, the heart is the seed of our dispositions, our character traits, or our temperament. Pride and humility and courage and stubbornness and gratitude and so on, those are all located in the heart. And the heart seems to be the source of our intentions as well. So, how we act in order to achieve, that’s a decision that’s located in the heart rather than the mind.
And Alma is very clear that the heart is the faculty or the organ that the seed is planted in. So, that says something right off the top. The seed is not really of direct interest to the mind. And your introduction to faith in Christ and to the religious life comes by planting the seed in the heart, in the faculty that’s concerned with getting the right attitude and the right purposes and practical dispositions. So, that’s a clue right off the start.
Now, Alma does talk about knowledge in the sermon on the seed. But, if you really read it in context that’s sort of incidental to the overall purpose of the sermon. He does say at certain points, he’ll ask, “Do you know—do you now have knowledge? Do you know something?” And at various points he’ll say, “Well, yes we do have knowledge now if the seed has grown, we know that it’s a good seed.” But that’s not really the intended payoff of planting the seed in your heart. The payoff is that your heart’s been expanded, and your mind has been enlightened as a result of your heart being expanded. Those are the tests of the seed, ultimately, in Alma’s sermon.
HODGES: I also like how you point out that the Book of Mormon, when it’s talking about heart and mind here, it also talks about how hearts can become hardened and mind can become blind. So, it talks about conditions of the heart and conditions of the mind that can hinder our connection with God, or the growth of that seed.
WRATHALL: Yes, that’s right. I don’t want to say that the mind has nothing to do with living a religious form of life. Often our beliefs can be obstacles to getting into the right relationship to the people and the world around us. Your beliefs can keep you from loving and responding in love. They can keep you from recognizing what’s really most important in your relationships to other people. And so, the mind is important in that respect.
We want to make sure that our cognitive attitudes are not preventing us from relating to other people in the right sort of way and keeping us from experiencing God’s presence in the world. But it’s not the primary focus. It’s much more important that the heart be softened and humble and responsive to the influence of the word on us.
HODGES: With that in mind, it’s surprising that Alma starts out his sermon by talking about humility. I mean, he’s speaking with Zoramites who have been cast out because they’re poor, basically. They’re cast out of the spaces of worship because of their clothes or because of who they are, and they come to Alma and their question to him is, “What are we supposed to do? We can’t worship God. They’re not letting us do that.” And you note how Alma doesn’t sympathize with them right out of the gate. In fact, the first thing he says is, “Oh, it’s good! It’s well that you’ve been cast out.” That seems harsh.
WRATHALL: Yes, it might initially—Alma distinguishes between different kinds of humility, or different sources of humility. And he points out that often, the humility that’s associated with poverty and powerlessness and so on can open into the right kind of humility, but it doesn’t necessarily. The right kind of humility that Alma’s concerned with is the humility that makes us responsive to God, makes us responsive to other people, makes us responsive to our responsibility to love and show kindness and mercy to other people.
And we all know that being in humble circumstances doesn’t always promote that kind of softness and malleability of heart. And so, that’s Alma’s starting point. I don’t think he means that it’s good that they’re powerless and poor, he clearly doesn’t think that. But what’s good is that they’re powerlessness and poverty has put them in a position where their hearts are ready to receive the word of God.
HODGES: Then you describe a three-fold process that Alma lays out. We can get more specific here: Receiving the word, then he describes the growth of the seed, and then the resulting increase in faith. So, let’s open these up in turn. Let’s start with “receiving of the word.” What does that look like for Alma?
WRATHALL: So, he says, “You need to plant the word in your heart. You need to make room in your heart for the word.” And it’s important to be clear about what the word is here.
So, the Primary children in church sing that faith is the seed; when planted in your heart, it will grow. That’s not actually what Alma says. Faith is a result of the growing of the seed. The seed is the word of God. In particular, it’s the teaching of the coming of Christ and our need for a Savior and Redeemer and all that implies about how we ought to be relating to other people as a result. And “receiving the word” seems to amount to accepting some part of that message and planting it in your heart, letting it alter your practical disposition toward the world.
HODGES: So, accepting the claim that there’s a God who loves you, cares about you, will come down to earth and suffer with you and will turn your hearts to other people. This is the message that I’m planting in your heart, and it should affect the way you live, that’s how you’ll receive that seed. You’re going to act as though that’s the case.
WRATHALL: Yes, that’s right. Alma doesn’t even ask them to accept the whole package, which is interesting. He says, “Look, here’s the word that we’re preaching, now make room for just a part of this word.”
HODGES: Right, he says, “Exercise a particle,” I think is the word.
WRATHALL: That’s right. And then see how it changes you. So, if you really take to heart the idea that we all stand in need of a Savior and start to experience the world in terms of that teaching, that’s gonna change the way you act. It’s gonna change the way you see other people, it’s gonna change the way you see yourself.
It might, for example, make you less prone to justify your own behavior and to condemn other people. I think it’s going to have a profound effect on the things you do and what you see and the kind of reaction you have to the world around you.
HODGES: So Alma invites them to receive it and then the next stage is the growth. He’s going to describe certain outcomes from planting that word. How do you make sense of what he tells them to look for?
WRATHALL: He identifies three things. He says it will “enlighten your understanding,” it will “begin to be delicious to you,” and it will “bring forth in its own likeness.” And I think those three, you could think of them as tests of the growth of the seed, amount to the fact that it’s going to change the way you perceive the world. It’s going to introduce a new mood of joy or delight, that’s what “being delicious to you” amounts to. And “bringing forth in its own likeness”—it will produce a greater commitment to the works of love and mercy that characterize Jesus Christ and his role as Savior and Redeemer.
HODGES: And that also connects to that increase, the promised increase that Alma outlines?
WRATHALL: Yes, that’s right. So, the question is, “What is the increase?” I think we tend to understand it as an increase in the degree of certainty that you attach to belief that there is a God. But that’s not what Alma talks about. The increase he talks about, I think, is an increased ability to love and act in the world in the way that God would have us act, the way the Savior himself would act. So that’s really the increase that he’s interested in.
And it’s true, every once in a while you’ll pick up a new item of knowledge. You’ll know that it’s a good seed because it grows. He’s very precise about this, so you don’t even immediately know that the fruit of the seed is good, you just know that it’s a seed that’s capable of growing, that’s capable of changing you.
And it’s only when your heart has changed enough and the seed has altered your dispositions enough that you’ll start to experience the fruits of the seed, you’ll start to experience the consequences of living this sort of life for your everyday experience of the world. And then, he promises eventually you will know that the seed is good in the full sense, not just that it’s capable of growing, but it’s also capable of changing you in a desirable way.
HODGES: That’s Mark Wrathall. He’s professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford and fellow and tutor in philosophy at Corpus Christi College. And he is the author of the brief theological introduction to the book of Alma, chapters 30 through 63.
Let’s move on to the section on justice and mercy from your book, Mark. The Book of Mormon gets into some in-depth discussions about justice and mercy, and you see the Book of Mormon as containing a few different approaches to the question of how God’s justice and mercy relate to each other. I think it’s common to think of the Book of Mormon as having one unified message, but you point out that there are different approaches, there are a few different views going on here.
Let’s talk about Alma, and how Alma talks about the tension between justice and mercy. You say that he sees that tension between those two things more clearly than other people do. How is that?
WRATHALL: Well, I think that’s because he’s experienced the tension more directly than many people have, than perhaps most people have. Alma had a very traumatic experience of going from opposition to Christ and opposition to the church to being confronted by the angel, recognizing with horror what he’d been doing to other people as a result of his opposition to the church, and then in a very compressed timeframe, experiencing an overwhelming manifestation of God’s love and mercy on his behalf. And he experiences this love and mercy in full present awareness of the justice that he deserves for the things that he’s done. I think that it’s that experience that makes Alma—and the sons of Mosiah, they also ascribed the relationship between justice and mercy as a kind of conflict as well because they went thorough that same experience too. So—
HODGES: What does that conflict look like exactly?
WRATHALL: The problem that justice and mercy present is that there are certain cases where the just response to a situation is not the merciful response to a situation. And justice would seem to demand that you give someone exactly what they deserve. And mercy seems to demand that you don’t give people exactly the suffering they deserve, you relieve them of the suffering.
So, in a situation like Alma’s and in a situation like the sons of Mosiah, what they deserve as a result of their behavior is, as Alma himself says, the torments of hell. He fully acknowledges that would be an appropriate punishment for him, given his conduct. But that’s not what he gets. He gets almost immediate release from suffering. He gets forgiveness, and then he gets a divine vision on top of it all where he sees an angelic celestial manifestation of God.
So not only is he not punished, it seems like he receives this amazing reward as a result. And he experiences that, quite honestly, as a very strange disparity. I think that’s what makes him sensitive to the potential for conflict between justice and mercy.
HODGES: How have you seen different people try to reconcile that tension?
WRATHALL: I think people try to eliminate the tension. So, they try to come up with an account such that the just thing to do is the merciful thing to do and vice versa. And I think that in the Book of Mormon tradition up until Abinadi the prophets talk about justice and mercy, they just couldn’t really think about the potential for conflict between justice and mercy. So, it wasn’t a real issue.
Alma clearly experiences them as being in tension and he gives this marvelous sermon on the potential for conflict between justice and mercy. I think the typical result is to try to see him as eliminating the tension between justice and mercy. But I think what Alma’s actually trying to do is show that the tension is real and it’s productive and when we experience the tension in the right way, that changes us in just the way God needs us to be changed. So, I don’t think that Alma wants to completely eliminate the tension, I think he wants us to experience the tension in the right way.
HODGES: One of the things you distinguish is the function of justice versus the goal of a system of justice. Unpack that.
WRATHALL: I think Alma’s walking on a really interesting tightrope here. He wants to reconcile justice and mercy. You don’t want God to possess characteristics of properties like “being just” and “being merciful” that are incoherent. That would be a bad outcome for your understanding of justice and mercy.
So, he wants to reconcile them, but he doesn’t want to completely eliminate the tension between them. And the way he resolves that problem of reconciling them is to see that justice exists for a specific purpose. The system of justice is there to change us and make us a different kind of creature than we are without the system of justice. And once that purpose is accomplished, then the function of justice—of applying punishments in a regular law-like way—that’s no longer necessary once the purposes of justice are satisfied. And Alma sees that, but the way to reconcile them without eliminating the tension is to see that the whole point of God’s law and of a system of justice is to make us into merciful beings. So, if we’ve learned mercy, then justice no longer can complain if God shows mercy to us.
HODGES: Because the outcome’s been achieved. The goal was done
WRATHALL: The goal was done, yeah.
HODGES: Do you think this is connected to the differences between “retributive” justice and “rehabilitative” justice? In other words, the sort of justice that, if you did something wrong you should get hurt for it or something versus if you did something wrong, we want you to change and become better kind of a thing.
WRATHALL: Yeah, so it’s certainly the case that the way Alma understands God’s justice is not concerned with retribution. Retribution has no role to play in God’s application of justice. I think this becomes very clear in Alma’s later discussion of the resurrection and restoration. So, he ties God’s justice to a restoration to us of the kind of people we’ve become.
And yeah, I think I’m willing to go along with that and say you can think of a purpose of a system of justice as rehabilitative. That it really exists to show us how to become a certain sort of person and to change ourselves into the kind of being God wants us to be.
HODGES: You say that we see this playing out with Alma and his sons, especially his son Corianton had some concerns, one of them was about the resurrection, the other one was about the justice of judgment. Let’s talk about that second part of that. What worried Corianton about judgment and justice and how did Alma try to resolve his concern about it?
WRATHALL: Alma tells us in his instructions to his son Corianton, he tells us that Corianton is worried about justice. He doesn’t tell us exactly why Corianton is worried about justice. He doesn’t give the details of that. So, it could be that Corianton’s worried that God’s punishment of wrongdoers is unfair, that it’s disproportionate to the nature of the wrong they’ve committed, we don’t know. But if you look at the character of Alma’s response, the kind of discussion he engages in is concerned with showing that the suffering the wicked experience is something that flows directly and naturally from their actions.
And so, I think we can infer from that, that what Corianton’s worried about comes from not understanding that doctrine. I suspect the way he misunderstands the doctrine of God’s judgment is that he thinks God’s judgment is coercive. That the punishment is there to force people into doing something that they don’t naturally want to do. And I think it’s that view of God’s judgment that Alma’s really responding to and undermining. I think he’s trying to show us that God is not vengeful. His judgment is not retributive and it’s not coercive. He’s not trying to force us into being something.
HODGES: I’ve heard people say that suffering for sins or for bad actions is sort of a natural outcome of those actions rather than God sitting up there waiting to send out some justice and hurt people. “Oh, you did something bad so you’re gonna get a spanking.” But rather that the natural outcome of those type of actions that God commands us not to do is suffering and pain and division. Do you see that reflected here in the text? Is that something that resonates with you?
WRATHALL: Yes, something like that. I think what God’s justice really amounts to is letting us be the kind of people that we’ve become through our actions and through our choices. In a way, the punishment of the unjust—the punishment of the wicked—is that they’ve got to be the wicked person they’ve made themselves into.
So, I think in Alma’s way of looking at this, doing wrong makes us into the sort of people who can only experience a counterfeit of joy so long as we can distract ourselves from the miserable condition we’ve created for ourselves. And as soon as all of those distractions of mortal existence are taken away, the wicked are confronted with the reality that they are the selfish, despairing person that they’ve made themselves into.
So, it’s not exactly that the consequences that each action brings in a direct consequence that’s the natural outcome of that action. I think it’s more that each action accrues to us and makes us into the kind of person who can’t experience true joy and happiness.
HODGES: And where does Alma see Christ coming into that equation in terms of helping us become that? Because a question comes up about how much of this is our own effort—works versus grace, basically. How do you see that being approached here in Alma?
WRATHALL: Well, it couldn’t happen without Christ on Alma’s view. His word that he uses a lot is “expedient.” Expedient in Alma’s usage means something like, a necessary but not a sufficient condition of something.
HODGES: Like, it’s got to be there, but it’s not enough to make it all happen.
WRATHALL: That’s right. And so, Christ’s atonement is expedient. It’s absolutely necessary. There’s no hope of overcoming our despairing, miserable, fallen state without Christ and His example and his teaching and his mercy and his willingness to suffer. But it’s a necessary condition, it’s not enough on its own.
HODGES: That’s Mark Wrathall. He’s professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford and we’re talking today about his brief theological introduction to the book of Alma chapters 30 through 63 from the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions series.
Mark, as you worked through the book of Alma to create this book, was there anything that hit you in a new way? Was there anything that really stood out to you that you perhaps hadn’t realized before when you read the text?
WRATHALL: There were lots of little things on almost a daily basis as I wrestled with this text. And to be honest, we’re marketing this as a book on the second half of Alma, but to be honest it’s only a book on about four or five chapters in Alma. And so, over months I was reading these very closely and thinking about them and meditating on them and I just discovered in case after case, I would see new depths of doctrine and ways that the texts hung together as a coherent whole that I hadn’t recognized before.
There was one section that actually didn’t make the cut in the final version of the book, because it just got too wonky and philosophical for the editors to stomach. But there’s a particular verse in Alma’s sermon on the seed which had always struck me as being out of place and just a tangent and not having anything immediately to do with the rest of what Alma was really trying to talk about. And as I started trying to wrap my mind around what was going on, it opened up into whole new avenues of thought and insight and I discovered a coherence there to the book that I hadn’t recognized before. And I had lots of little moments like that.
HODGES: Well, what was it? Now, you have to tell us what it was! I know it’s wonky but maybe give us the quick summary of it.
WRATHALL: Okay, give me a second and I’ll pull it up. So, the verses which always seemed out of place to me where verses 19 and 20 of chapter 32 of Alma. Where Alma asks the question, “How much more cursed is he that knoweth the will of God and doeth it not than he that only believeth or only have cause to believe and falleth into transgression?”
Verse 20: “Now of this thing you must judge. Behold, I say unto you that it is on the one hand even as it is on the other and it shall be unto every man according to his work.”
That had always struck me as a weird discussion because first of all, instead of talking about faith and the growth of the seed, he starts talking about punishment for transgression and being cursed for transgression. And then he seems to propose this principle that I think a lot of members of the Church would intuitively reject, and that principle is that you’re just as deserving of being cursed by God if you do something wrong when you merely believe it is wrong or merely have cause to believe that it’s wrong, that you’re just as guilty as someone who knows that it’s wrong. And I think that most of us intuitively reject that. Most of us think that you are more deserving of punishment if you know something is wrong and you do it than if you merely have reason to believe that it’s wrong and you do it.
So, he kind of goes off on this tangent and he declares this principle that most of us reject, and so that always struck me as a really weird thing to do in the middle of this sermon. It looks almost random to go into this. But I think if you tease apart what Alma’s doing here, it actually fits perfectly with the overall discussion in the sermon on the seed. Because what he’s really talking about is how much of a cognitive certainty you need to have in order to act on something. And he’s trying to propose that if you have the right sort of heart, if you have a humble and receptive heart, you’re not going to hold out for knowledge. And you’re not even going to hold out for having good reasons to believe. You’ll respond to very slight promptings that show you what’s right and what’s wrong. And I think if you work through this as I did, those two verses are really interesting just on their own, in their own right, but they also do a really important work in the overall sermon that Alma’s discussing there.
I had lots of little moments like that as I was working through this book, where I would recognize that there was a kind of coherence and a depth and a richness to the text that I hadn’t recognized before, even though I’d read it I don’t even know how many times and thought I had worked through it I don’t know how many times. And still, it keeps opening up new vistas and provoking me and as we said at the outset, challenging me in ways that I hadn’t expected.
HODGES: Well, I appreciate that, Mark. As I read through the book, I had a similar experience where you were bringing up ideas and pointing out distinctions that I hadn’t noticed before in the text and I think readers who spend some time with this book will find it to be a really fruitful exercise, so I want to thank you for writing the book and for putting it in this series.
WRATHALL: Thank you. I hope so. To be honest, I was a little conflicted about writing the book because I’ve always believed that we need to be having a direct and immediate confrontation with the scriptures and I always worry about people who lack a prophetic calling who set themselves up as intermediaries between us and the scriptures and I don’t want the book that I’ve written to become anything like that.
I really offer it in the spirit of presenting a different view on the scriptures than we’re perhaps used to, and I hope that rather than having people focus on my book that it will send them back to Alma itself and get them to engage with the scriptures directly.
HODGES: I appreciate how you described that. I know in all of the discussions that went on with the editors and the editorial team and with authors, that really has been the driving goal. We want these books to point people back to the text. We want these books to get people energized and uplifted and interested in getting back into the scriptures themselves.
So, this series isn’t trying to declare what the Book of Mormon says and to be a definitive description, just basically rewording the Book of Mormon for readers today. It’s supposed to show how thoughtful people engage with the text. Like, here are some questions we can ask of it, here are some ways we can think of it. And then people can get these tools and take them back to the text themselves and seek the kind of inspiration, as Latter-day Saints seek revelation through their scriptures, using these types of tools. So, I appreciate how you described that, that’s really what we hope the series does.
WRATHALL: Well, I’d be happy if that was the outcome.
HODGES: I appreciate you spending the time with us, Mark. And to remind people once more, Mark Wrathall is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford and he’s written a number of books and one of them, Phenomenology and Human Existence, is it still forthcoming or is it out yet?
WRATHALL: I was working on it this afternoon before I took the call from you.
HODGES: Oh, okay. Excellent. I should also note too, I’m here in Salt Lake City and you’re in England at the University of Oxford! So, we’re kind of at opposite hours of the day here. I’m beginning mine and you’re wrapping yours up.
WRATHALL: Yes, soon.
HODGES: Alright well I appreciate it Mark. Thank you for spending time with us.
WRATHALL: Thank you, it’s been my pleasure. Nice talking to you Blair.
HODGES: So concludes another episode about the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. By the time you’re hearing this episode, you should already have Deidre Green’s book on Jacob in your hands or it will be there shortly, and you should be able to pre-order the books on Enos, Jarom, Omni, as well as Mosiah. You can go to mi.byu.edu/brief for updates and information about ordering and when the books are coming out. Next up in the series of interviews, we’re going to talk to Kimberly Berkey, the PhD student who wrote the book about Helaman.
Alright, according to tradition, we must now read a review. There’s one that comes from Lindsey T. who said, “I love that there’s a convenient and easy way to dig deeper in the gospel.” And Lindsey T. gave us some helpful feedback that I’m also passing along.
We also got a review from the Latter-day Saint Perspectives show and Laura Hales. Hello, Laura out there. She said, “The Maxwell Institute Podcast has released some outstanding episodes over the past few months. The latest is no exception. I consider the transcripts to be hidden jewels. They’re well-edited and contain subheadings which help you find easily what you’re looking for. In my opinion, nobody does them better. I highly recommend episode 105 with George Handley and a big shout out to Blair Hodges for providing some fantastic material during the pandemic. These episodes are going in my COVID-19 time capsule.”
Alright well hey, thanks Laura. I really appreciate that. And you’ve also done a great job with the Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast and have done a great job at providing transcripts for your podcast as well, good for you.
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Alright, thanks for listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges and there’s more to come.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)