Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Faith, knowledge and sign-seeking in Alma 32

Posted by Robert C. on September 26, 2007

I recently listened to a very interesting conversation on Alma 32 between Kim Matheson, Mike Berkey and Joe Spencer (available as a podcast here). Below are some of my thoughts, largely inspired by their discussion.

I think there’s a sort of tension in the text that, at least of the readings of the chapter that I have heard, is seldom addressed, let alone resolved. Alma starts off by condemning sign-seeking. Then, he goes on to talk about faith by comparing the word to a seed and talking about the way in which faith grows as the seed grows and becomes knowledge. The problem is that it seems this to me that this view of faith amounts to growth-by-signs. That is, it seems faith grows because the seed grows—but, then, what distinguishes the growth-of-the-seed from a sign?

That’s only a rough description of the problem I see, but hopefully you get the idea. How can this tension be resolved—what, ultimately, distinguishes faith from sign-seeking?

I think one problem with most readings of this chapter is that they don’t pay sufficient attention to passages near the end of the chapter. In particular, I think the surprising “Nay” in verse 36 is key. By my count, Alma says “yea” 16 times in this chapter and “nay” only twice. The “nay” in verse 36 is even more surprising, I think, because it seems to almost contradict verse 34. In verse 34, Alma asks,

34 And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this is because you know that the word hath swelled your souls. . . .

Compare this to the question and response in vv. 35-36:

35 O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect? 36 Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.

I think the similarities of these two questions, both asking about perfect knowledge, and their opposite responses, force us to think much more carefully about what Alma is doing in this chapter. Our knowledge is perfect in that thing, according to verse 34, which I think means that we have perfect knowledge that the seed is good. But it seems that this result is emphatically not the point of Alma’s sermon. Rather, it seems Alma’s point is that it is the faith-process that is more important than any knowledge-result that obtains from the process.

Look back at verse 26 where Alma says:

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

Knowing the surety of Alma’s words must be obtained by faith (and diligence, patience, long-suffering and waiting, according to verse 43). This is not a kind of knowledge that can be immediately obtained, as the sign-seekers seem to want. Consider verses 17-18:

17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe. 18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

The problem with wanting a sign is that it is trying to short-circuit the process, bypassing the need for faith. If knowledge were obtained by the giving of an immediate sign, then, in Alma’s metaphor, this would not be sufficient to change the seed into a firmly-rooted, fruit-bearing tree. This seems to be the primary danger that sign-seekers face:

19 And now, how much more cursed is he that knoweth the will of God and doeth it not, than he that only believeth, or only hath cause to believe, and falleth into transgression?

The key difference, it seems to me, between the process by which faith grows that Alma describes and the sign-seeking that Alma condemns, is that sign-seekers want a once-and-for-all, immediate result whereas faith entails a kind of patience which allows the word to grow and eventually bear fruit. In this sense, it seems to me that Alma is saying that it is the process that matters, the exercise and/or cultivation of faith, diligence, patience, etc. that will lead to everlasting life (v. 41), not simply the attainment of knowledge—for if knowledge is obtained the wrong way, it will lead to damnation and an unfruitful seed. It is not the destination so much as the journey, then, that really matters….

3 Responses to “Faith, knowledge and sign-seeking in Alma 32”

  1. Curtis said

    Robert,

    The kind of knowledge that Alma speaks about here is not of the intellectual type. That is not the type of knowledge that faith in Christ leads to. The knowledge obtained by faith in Christ is a knowledge of Christ himself. As our faith increases through obedience to the commandments, our knowledge of Christ increases… or in other words, our mastery of the Spirit of Christ increases. Before long, we come to know Christ, which is of course what we are aiming for. To know Christ is to yearn for the souls of the children of men with the same yearning He has. It is to have the same heart and mind and desires as Christ. We become like him, and therefore know Him and this is what the scripture means when it says that this is Eternal Life, to know Christ.

    This knowledge of Christ is the power of faith. Our faith is the sum of the knowledge of Christ… or the sum of our permeability to the Spirit of Christ… which is received by revelation to our souls by obedience to His commandments.

    I don’t think we have a very good grasp on what faith is in the Church. We have all of the tools to understand it, but noone ever puts them together for us. Understanding faith and it’s relationship to spiritual knowledge, Charity and Eternal Life is very important I believe. Did I explain myself well enough?

  2. Joe Spencer said

    Robert, I really like the “yea”-“nay” business here. I’d like to think about that more.

    All, here is a word from Adam M. who sometimes comments here, which I’ve drawn from his comments this morning in response to this post on a thread on lds-herm:

    “I think that the key verses here may be (surprise!) verses 28 and 30. I’ll try to say more about this later, but the key is the emphasis in these verses on the need ‘to say that the seed is good.’ It’s not enough to make place for the seed and witness its swelling, we must then SAY that it is good, we must freely affirm that what’s taking place in us is good.

    “‘You will begin to say . . . you must needs say that the seed is good . . . it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say . . . ‘

    “Alma makes clear that knowledge (the said) is unsufficient in itself and may, in fact, ruin the possibility of a spiritual transformation (v. 16-19) because knowledge can compel and faith is “humility without compulsion” (v. 14) (in my opinion, Alma’s definition of faith as “humility without compulsion” is the best definition in the chapter). Faith is the thing that is added to knowledge, a supplemental “+1″ to the thing known (or not), that freely affirms (says) that the knowledge is good. Faith is the performative dimension that has do with our subjective contribution to a given state of affairs ( e.g. the swelling).”

    Thank you, Adam, for a marvelous insight. I’d like to discuss this at some further length.

  3. Robert C. said

    Curtis, I think you’re right that Alma is pointing to a knowledge that is more than just intellectual by the end of the chapter, but it seems to me that he is indeed talking about something like intellectual knowledge when he talks about the perfect knowledge about whether a seed is good or not, and that it is not until verses 35ff where he says “nay” that he points to a broader kind of knowledge which requires more faith than that which is needed to attain perfect knowledge that the seed is good.

    Actually, I think this is closely related to Adam’s comment that Joe pasted: I’m thinking that once we see the seed swell, it doesn’t take much to know (in an intellectual sense) that the seed is good, but this is a kind of knowledge that is parallel to the sign-seeking kind of knowledge that Alma criticizes—what is needed, in contrast to this kind of intellectual knowing which makes faith dormant, is a kind of knowing in which more faith is needed (and perhaps never becomes dormant…). I take Alma’s “nay” as pointing to this more robust kind of perfect knowledge that is not merely intellectual. Adam, on the other hand, seems to be taking acknowledgment of that the seed is good as more than just stating what, at that point, is rather obvious, so I don’t think any of what I just said would follow from the reading he’s proposing. I definitely need to study this alternative interpretation of v. 28 some more—I think how we read this verse will have a lot of bearing on how we read the rest of the chapter….

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