Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Intimations of Immortality

By Ann Thomas

Mormonism claims to answer the big questions of life: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? The answers are called The Purpose of Life, or God's Plan of Happiness. This is how it begins on the official Mormon Church website:

Your life didn’t begin at birth and it won’t end at death. Before you came to earth, your spirit lived with Heavenly Father who created you. You knew Him, and He knew and loved you. It was a happy time during which you were taught God’s plan of happiness and the path to true joy. But just as most of us leave our home and parents when we grow up, God knew you needed to do the same. He knew you couldn’t progress unless you left for a while. So he allowed you to come to earth to experience the joy—as well as pain—of a physical body.

One thing that makes this life so hard sometimes is that we’re out of God’s physical presence. Not only that, but we can’t remember our pre-earth life which means we have to operate by faith rather than sight. God didn’t say it would be easy, but He promised His spirit would be there when we needed Him. Even though it feels like it sometimes, we’re not alone in our journey. (http://mormon.org/plan-of-happiness/)

All their teaching about the pre-existence, or pre-earth life, cannot be substantiated because they say that we are made to forget it when we are born. That makes this life more of a test, because we have no memory of our previous life with God. Many years ago there was a video presentation called 'The Purpose of Life', which used lines from William Wordsworth's poem 'Intimations of Immortality' to talk about their belief in the pre-existence.

Wordsworth also believed in a pre-existence of the soul, so these lines seemed perfect:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,

        Hath had elsewhere its setting,

          And cometh from afar:

        Not in entire forgetfulness,

        And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

        From God, who is our home:

These are stirring words, to think that we come 'trailing clouds of glory'. We may let them carry us along and not examine the detail too closely. But, in the same way that they treat the Bible, the Mormons picked carefully which lines to use. Because they believe that our memory of the pre-existence was taken from us, 'Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting' is spot on. Except that is not what Wordsworth believed, nor what he says in this poem.

This poem is considered one of Wordsworth's greatest works and took him two years to write. It has eleven stanzas – these lines are part of the fifth. Here is what a literary analysis says about this section of the poem:

In the fifth stanza, he proclaims that human life is merely “a sleep and a forgetting”—that human beings dwell in a purer, more glorious realm before they enter the earth. “Heaven,” he says, “lies about us in our infancy!” As children, we still retain some memory of that place, which causes our experience of the earth to be suffused with its magic—but as the baby passes through boyhood and young adulthood and into manhood, he sees that magic die. In the sixth stanza, the speaker says that the pleasures unique to earth conspire to help the man forget the “glories” whence he came. (http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/wordsworth/section3.rhtml )

The poem is 208 lines long, and this extract is lines 59 to 66. And, just as is often the case with scripture, reading a few lines above and below establishes the context. Wordsworth believed that we do indeed remember God when we are born, and as children we can still see His glory in nature, which fades as we grow older. Here is the wider context:

  —But there's a tree, of many, one,

A single field which I have look'd upon,

Both of them speak of something that is gone:

          The pansy at my feet

          Doth the same tale repeat:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,

        Hath had elsewhere its setting,

          And cometh from afar:

        Not in entire forgetfulness,

        And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

        From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

        Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

        He sees it in his joy;

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

    Must travel, still is Nature's priest,

      And by the vision splendid

      Is on his way attended;

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

The full poem can be read here http://www.bartleby.com/101/536.html

Far from supporting the Mormon claim about forgetting our pre-earth life when we are born, Wordsworth regrets that the memory, so clear in infancy, fades with age. And indeed, Wordsworth's idea of the pre-existence of the soul would in no way have fitted in with the Mormon teaching about this pre-earth life. He just believed our souls came from the presence of God.

Mormons believe that God is an exalted man, who has many wives who bear him many spirit children. The first child born was Jesus, the second was Lucifer, so they are our elder brothers. In jealousy of Jesus, Lucifer later led a rebellion against God, which led to a war in heaven.

Like many Mormon doctrines, what seems at first glance to agree with orthodox Christian teachings, is only using the same terminology, but means something totally different when examined in detail. Wordsworth would not have recognised any of these teachings in his beliefs, nor did he portray them in his poem.

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