Loss of the Sealing Power


While in a sacred place a month ago a friend asked what I thought about “Passing the Heavenly Gift.” I confess that I had not heard of the book or the author, Denver Snuffer. I assume he asked my opinion because he knows that I have reviewed similar books on my blog that focus on controversial issues facing the LDS Church. Denver’s books are not advertised. People learn about them only by word of mouth or through online reviews on sites like mine.

I purchased the book and posted on Facebook that I had done so. Several of my blogging buddies noted it and expressed interest in what I thought. A few days later after my first quick read-through, I wrote “I speed read the first half. Finding no major faults, I devoured the second half (pages 240 to 499) in about four hours. I haven’t stayed up until 2:30 in the morning to read a book in years.” There is something dramatically different about this book.

Don’t leave the church

I also reported that “My focus in reading was to find anything smacking of disloyalty to the brethren or encouraging the members to leave. He came close on the first point but completely negated my concern on the second.” Before I write anything else I want to focus on that second point. I am convinced that Denver Snuffer has his reader’s best interest at heart. I cannot say that about the authors of any other recent book of LDS History I have read. Denver wants us to stay in the Church.

However, Denver Snuffer has caused me to do something no other recent writer of Mormon history has been able to do. He has produced in me a desire to read his book again and again. I want to study it, to research it, to look up many of the quotes, to read what others have said about those quotes. In other words, I am taking seriously Denver’s claims which, although not all unique to his book, are argued more precisely and effectively than any other author I have encountered.

Receive the Second Comforter

I have just completed the second reading of the book and am starting on the third, this time with pen and highlighter in hand. I have read his first book, “The Second Comforter” twice and have purchased each of the intervening six books. I have invested hours reading Denver’s blog from start to finish and have contemplated each of the points he has made there over the years. Other than the scriptures, I have never invested this much time in trying to understand an author’s message.

Everything I have learned about Denver has caused me to contemplate his message more and more. He has asked that we not focus on him, his life or his background. He has asked that we pay attention more to the process he is trying to get us to pass through – a process that if we follow through to completion will have us receive The Second Comforter for ourselves. I like that. I want that. I endorse that. How can you fault a man for wanting to help you come unto Christ? I don’t.

Details lacking in faith-promoting history

In the meantime, you are going to have to pass through some very difficult realizations that, depending on the strength of your relationship with the things of the spirit, may leave you gasping and reaching for help and understanding. If you are not already familiar with things our detractors have written about us you will have a challenging time reading this book. It will make you angry. It will cause you to think of Mr. Snuffer as an apostate and wonder why he hasn’t been excommunicated.

This book is not for everybody. If you are a casual member of the church you will not be interested. If you are not familiar with some of the controversies about our history being discussed on the Internet today, you will be a little shocked at what you read. You may not understand why some of the issues are problems at all if all you have ever learned about our history is what you were taught in Sunday school, Primary, Seminary or even Institute. This is an alternative view of our history.

Sealing power has been lost

I wish I was at the point where I could say that I can vouch for Denver’s accuracy or that I agree with his interpretations. I am not there yet. I suspect it will take me years to arrive at that level. In the meantime, if you have already read Denver’s works, I want to hear from you. I am especially interested in discussion about the two most controversial arguments in his book – the idea that the sealing power is not on the earth at this time and Denver’s interpretation of the fullness of the priesthood.

<Update 4-29-12> Denver has posted on his blog that “I have never said the church does not have the sealing power.” This obviously is in direct conflict with the thesis of this essay and my (and my wife’s) interpretation of the first chapter of his book, especially this line: “The church and its ordinations and ordinances does not confer power.” (p 36) He’s right. He did not say the church does not have the sealing power. Carol and I did not clearly understand the message of his first chapter. <end of update>

I kept looking for Denver to address the implications of the position he is advocating in regards to the work we are doing in the temples. I confess I have so far been disappointed by the lack of a sympathetic discussion of what this means to the thousands, if not millions of members who have spent so much of their time and energy over the years in researching and performing proxy ordinances in the temples for their ancestors. I am one of those individuals and want to know his response.

The work in the temples

In other words, if the sealing power is not on the earth then what hope do my wife and I have that we will be united in the eternities? If the sealing power is not on the earth, then what in the world have I and my mother and sisters been doing for these past forty years in digging and corresponding and compiling the thousands and thousands of family names ensuring that their work was done in the temples? I see this as the single most important issue to be answered.

Because I am so intrigued by what I have learned so far, I am going to give Denver the benefit of the doubt that he has already answered this question satisfactorily and I have simply not yet found it. I am not like some of my online friends who have become disaffected and left the church then complain about how much they resented the loss of their tithing money or that they felt duped when they learned they had been teaching a “sanitized” version of our history.

Section 110 misinterpreted

This idea of the sealing power is central to my feelings about the church and core to the reason why I have spent so many thousands of hours in the temple over the past thirty-five years. No, I don’t feel that my time was wasted if what Denver claims about section 110 is true. Of all the things that could strike at the heart and soul of Mormonism this is it. If you want to hurt a whole lot of good people, tell them that the the work they have been doing in the temples is not valid.

There is one question I would like to ask Denver, but I won’t because I don’t know him and he has made it clear that he gets far too many requests to answer directly. Because I felt strongly about sharing what I was learning from Denver’s books, I asked Carol to read the fist chapter of “Passing the Heavenly Gift” to me as we drove to Southern Utah for a family vacation this weekend. We had one of the most deep and enjoyable gospel discussions we have ever had over the course of several hours.

Exaltation is a family affair

Carol came away from the reading with the distinct impression that Denver was saying that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is today no different than any other good Christian church. She read that Brigham Young was only elected to be the President of the Church and that there was no ordination that passed the keys of the kingdom to him or to any of the rest of the twelve. She related her feelings while as a missionary she was taught by her mission president that Joseph ordained and passed the keys of the kingdom on to the twelve before they left on their missions.

Denver, what would you say to my wife, who related while she stood at the Far West temple site with dozens of other missionaries how she felt the spirit bear witness to her soul that Joseph successfully passed the keys of the kingdom on to the apostles before he sent them away on their missions and went on to Carthage jail to seal his testimony with his blood? Would you say that Joseph wasn’t referring to the council of the twelve, but to the council of fifty?

An incomplete ordination

What Denver is writing about is serious business. He is apparently all about getting people to question what they have been taught and what they believe about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He says he wants to bring us to Christ but in the process he wants us to rethink what we have been taught and what we believe about the power of priesthood and how it is manifested in our lives. He says the temple will point us to Christ yet says the sealing power is not there.

Am I the first to see the implications of what he is teaching? I don’t think so. Tell me I’m wrong or that I’ve missed the point completely. Tell me that all the thousands of temple workers, so many of them my good friends, are not wasting their time laboring in temples that have been rejected. Tell me that the blessings I have given to my wife and so many others over the years are efficacious even though I have not had my ordination completed by having the Lord lay his hands upon my head.

Receiving the Heavenly Gift

I am not a lawyer, so I can never argue as well as Denver has done. I am a simple member of the church, happy in my faith and grateful to have lived my life in the orthodox manner as taught by my leaders. I have served a mission, been married in the temple, served in bishoprics and high councils for the past twenty-five years and generally loved my time associating with saints of the Lord, who Denver is now calling a fallen and proud people, members of an apostate gentile church.

What do you think? Has Denver taught the truth in his book, “Passing the Heavenly Gift” or is he an apostate like some have declared him to be? Is it worth my time to read the rest of his books? Is there a whole lot more that I don’t see yet that will prove Denver to be right? Perhaps I need to re-read his first book again and put the process to the test as he is asking us to do. Is Denver teaching that we need to do in our homes what we are taught in the temple to converse with the Lord through the veil?

I would love to read your opinions.

How Americans View Mormonism


We spent an hour with Gary Lawrence last night. He was gracious enough to come up to visit our stake in Camarillo from his home in Orange County. Dr. Lawrence is an American opinion pollster who also happens to be a Latter-day Saint. He has been travelling around the church sharing the results of a poll he conducted in the spring of 2007 on American’s perception of Latter-day Saints in the United States.

He published a book in 2008 with the findings of his poll, How Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps to Improve Our Image. Dr. Lawrence received a PhD in communications psychology from Stanford University in 1972. He said that of over twenty doctoral candidates in his group, he was the only LDS, Republican, conservative hawk among them. So he knows a little about being in the minority.

Lawrence Research

Now if you know anything about recent events in California, you’ll recognize that Gary’s business, Lawrence Research was the opinion polling company that was heavily involved in Proposition 8. Gary was also the state LDS grassroots director for the Protect Marriage coalition. Brother Lawrence, who has served as a bishop has spent over 35 years studying opinions and behaviors of the American public.

From the results of his survey, Dr. Lawrence maintains that the misconceptions, distortions, and untruths being told about Mormons have slowed the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that the average member is best positioned to turn things around. By the way, the name of his next book, due from Deseret Book later this year is “What Part of Our Name Don’t You Understand?”

Survey Results

For me, the most interesting result of the survey was that our perceived image is upside down. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable impression of Mormons. Only thirty-seven percent had a favorable impression. They say that we have weird beliefs and are secretive. Yet they also say we are good neighbors, hard workers, believe in clean living, have high moral standards and help others.

Lawrence said that thirty-seven percent of all Americans do not know a Mormon, and fifty-five percent of all Americans do not know an active Mormon. In fact, those who know one Mormon have a worse opinion of us than those who do not know any Mormons. We are viewed unfavorably more than Jews or Baptists (3.5 to 1) and Catholics (2 to 1). Mormons, less than 1 to 1. That’s a terrible ratio.

Negative Image

Simple ignorance is often blamed for Mormonism’s negative image, but Gary also concludes that it is driven by fear — fear of a supposed political agenda, wealth, organizational ability, unwavering doctrine, and a unique vocabulary that is often misunderstood. He gave some wonderful examples but I’ll have to defer in sharing some of the better ones until I receive his book that I ordered from Deseret Book.

His book explains that individual members in their daily interactions with others are the key. In his presentation, which he has probably delivered dozens of times, he pointed out that friendly and natural conversations, the facts, simple claims, individual latitude, non-threatening invitations and gentle mentoring are the ways Mormons can combat distortions, improve our image, and spread the gospel.

Unique Vocabulary

A central claim of our church is that we have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Gary explained that this phrase is not well understood by those outside our faith. They equate the word restore as something you do to an old car or a piece of old furniture. He suggested that a better phrase to use would be: “We claim to be the re-established Christian Church.” I like that. It is simpler and easier to understand.

He even broke it down for us into three bite-sized pieces: 1) Christ organized a church. 2) Men changed it and 3) It has been brought back. Amazingly, 84 percent of Americans have had exposure to our church, yet only 14 percent can tell you that this is our main differentiating claim from other Christian churches. While people may not agree with our claim, we want and need them to understand it.

Meaning of Gospel

They can then decide for themselves how they will respond to that claim. But if they never get the real message, how can they make a legitimate choice? Naturally, some people will reject the gospel truth once it has been presented to them. And that’s another word that we use differently from the rest of Christianity. To us, the gospel means more than the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul.

Most Mormons equate gospel to mean the overarching plan of happiness that was presented in our pre-earth life. We have come to see the gospel as more than just a theology, but as a way of life, and that it encompasses all truth that we embrace. But in reality, the gospel is the good news of the doctrine of Christ, that all will be resurrected and that we can be forgiven of sins through repentance and ordinances.

Higher Education

That’s why we can say that the fullness of the gospel is contained in the Book of Mormon even though there are many additional doctrines we believe that are only found outside the Book or Mormon. In fact, some within our church have gone so far as to claim that obtaining a degree of higher education is a part of the gospel. Does that mean that early saints and prophets without a B.A. degree are not saved?

Of course not; that would be a ridiculous example. While we believe in continuing education and encourage our members to get all the education we can, an advanced degree is not a requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. A high school diploma is not required. There is no requirement for any type of certified education to meet God’s conditions to enter into his kingdom; only obedience to his laws.

Mormon Scholars Testify

In our Mormon culture, besides placing great emphasis on education, we also hold those who have received advanced degrees and yet remained faithful in very high esteem. Dr. Lawrence has shared his testimony in greater detail on the website, Mormon Scholars Testify, which was created by another visitor to our stake, Dr. Daniel C. Petersen, speaking about BYU’s involvement in the Dead Sea scrolls.

My fellow blogger Steve Faux introduced me to the site a few years back when he was asked to share his thoughts and feelings about being a believing Mormon who teaches evolution at the University level. I have watched participation grow over the years until there are now more than 200 testimonies recorded there. Compare that to twenty being promoted on the opposing site Ex-Mormon scholars testify.

Opposition in All Things

One of our fundamental doctrines is that we believe there must be opposition in all things. I love the Internet for the very reason that it allows us to see the very best and the very worst of the extremes on just about any issue. I’m not a scholar and will probably never have an advanced degree, but I have come to appreciate both sides of the debate on controversial subjects I have written about over the years.

I can judge for myself when someone is presenting the truth in a distorted manner because I have been counseled over the years to study things out and come to my own conclusions about the truth of an issue. Some things can never be proven and will have to wait until the next life to determine who is right and who is wrong. That’s one of the purposes of life – to exercise faith and choose what we believe.

Choose What We Believe

I recommend you read the testimonies of Dr. Lawrence, Dr. Petersen, S. Faux and any others that you may recognize. They come from a variety of disciplines such as the Arts, Business, Management, Accounting, History, Religion, Social Science, Language, Literature, Law, Medicine, Psychology, Philosophy, Science, Mathematics and Engineering. Yes, Mormons believe in the value of education.

I hope this helps to dispel any misconceptions that Mormons are ignorant, closed-minded, brain-washed or uneducated. We do not follow our leaders blindly, nor do we worship our prophets, living or dead. But we do value loyalty and respect to those who we sustain as prophets and apostles. It is my testimony that they are leading us to Christ. I choose to follow their direction and counsel for my family.

For a great discussion of our image, or rather reputation, listen to what Michael Otterson had to say to Robert Millet on this episode of Mormon Identity on The Mormon Channel.

An Evening with Richard Bushman


About a thousand other people and I enjoyed an evening with Richard Bushman last night. He spoke about Joseph and Emma for about 40 minutes and then entertained questions from the audience for another 40 minutes. While his insights on Joseph and Emma were interesting, I found the questions more fascinating, because they reflected a lot of the issues I blog about.

For those who don’t know, Richard Bushman is the author of Rough Stone Rolling, the 2005 biography of Joseph Smith that has become the definitive account of the prophet’s life as told from the viewpoint of a faithful historian. I took advantage of the opportunity to have him autograph my copy and was not the only one in the audience who waited in line to do so.

Open and honest discussion

It was wonderful to see so many people interested in learning more about this great man and the beginnings of the Mormon Church. Every time he finished answering a question a dozen more hands shot up. We could have been there for several more hours. I think that goes to show you how much we as a people appreciate someone who has studied the prophet’s life in such detail.

There were many questions that focused on the process of translating, the Urim and Thummim, the seer stone in the hat, polygamy, the three witnesses and the eight witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, the martyrdom, succession, Book of Abraham translation, Mountain Meadows massacre and folk magic. He welcomed every question and encouraged us to ask even the most difficult ones.

A well-qualified historian

One of the most refreshing comments I heard was his expression of appreciation to the church, specifically to the church historian’s office, Marlin K. Jensen and Richard E. Turley for the recent publication of Massacre at Mountain Meadows. He then said that he hoped that the church would do the same with the issue of polygamy, treating it openly and with historical accuracy.

Burt what impressed me most about the evening was the obvious fact that Richard Bushman is a highly respected historian who probably understands the beginnings of Mormonism as well as or better than anyone else. Besides being the co-general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, he chairs the board of directors of the Mormon Scholars Foundation.  He knows early church history.

Serving faithfully in the church

And yet, Richard Bushman has served as a bishop, a stake president, a patriarch and is currently a sealer in the Los Angeles temple.  I would say that he is a faithful, believing Latter-day Saint, in spite of everything he knows about early church history.  I bring this up specifically to make a point about a common response to my essays and how I can still believe when I know this stuff.

I recently had someone ask me how I was able to do what I do – serve faithfully in the church – in spite of all that I know about, as he called it, “the more disturbing facts of the origins of Mormonism.”  I think maybe he might want to redirect that question to someone like Richard Bushman who knows so much more than I do and yet has been a faithful believer all his life.

Believing in spite of knowing

This individual asked, “How do you reconcile your belief and what the church teaches, with the history of things like the origins of the temple ceremony, polygamy, first vision contradictions, development of the story of the restoration of the priesthood, and other issues?”  I answered him privately in an email but have been pondering this whole idea of believing in spite of knowing.

Frankly, it perplexes me. I think I have expressed this same sentiment several times in previous essays every time it comes up. What is so hard about studying and understanding our very early church history, warts and all, and then continuing to believe that Joseph Smith was an instrument in the hands of God to bring about the restoration of the gospel and his church in the latter days?

Shocked by our history

Are we supposed to be shocked, dismayed and overwhelmed with doubt every time we discover some new fact about the early days of the church?  For example, last night we were reminded that beer and wine were used by the early saints, and sometimes even whiskey.  Today, we would be shocked if we learned that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles drank a glass of wine.

Yet in volume IV, page 120 of the History of the Church on the date of April 17 1840 we read, “This day the Twelve blessed and drank a bottle of wine at Penworthan, made by Mother Moon forty years before.”  Things were different back then, weren’t they?  The Word of Wisdom had been received in 1833 but was not binding upon the saints as a commandment like it is today.

History not being hidden

When Fanny Alger was brought up by Brother Bushman last night as an example of an early failed attempt by Joseph to obey the law of plural marriage, I’ll bet there were a few people in the audience who did not know that Joseph had married this sixteen year old girl in 1833. The revelation on celestial marriage had been received in 1831 but Joseph was hesitant to obey.

For some reason, the idea that Joseph participated in plural marriage is supposed to be shocking to us. This continues to be one of the most common tactics of our critics – to try to shock us with facts that are supposedly being hidden from us by our modern church leaders.  Nothing could be further from the truth. We are always being encouraged to study our history and learn the facts.

Selling the Book of Mormon Copyright

Another example that our critics like to throw at us is the failed attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada. Until recently, the only source for this event was the memory of David Whitmer who was not present when Joseph sent the brethren on their mission.  Joseph never said that it must have been a false revelation as Whitmer claimed he said upon their return.

We’re then supposed to conclude that if we can’t trust a revelation from Joseph then how are we supposed to know what is revelation from God. I’m not an apologist but I’m grateful that there are people who dig into these things to get the facts and present them for our review.  Of course, the same facts can be presented in favorable or unfavorable light, depending on where you go.

Consider carefully the source

For example, you can read the story of the copyright mission to Canada on MormonThink as supposed evidence that even Joseph Smith didn’t know when revelations were from God and when they were from the devil.  Yet you can read the same account in greater clarity and detail from a more trustworthy and reliable source like FAIR and come away strengthened in faith.

We could go on and on with hundreds of things that are supposed to be shocking to us modern believers of the faith because they seem so out of character with what we’ve been taught about Joseph or other leaders of the early LDS church. If we are bothered by something, then we need to do our homework and get all the facts as part of the process of confirming truth for ourselves.

Get the facts straight

If I were concerned upon reading that Joseph Smith was supposed to have said that even he didn’t know when a prophecy came from the Lord or that he is supposed to have said that a revelation he received must have come from the devil, as David Whitmer said he did, then I would want to read more about this and would be very careful about the source that I study.

Because if I believed that Joseph really said this, then that might lead me to conclude that if even prophets have a hard time understanding revelation, how can I really be expected to understand or know the truth of revelations that come to me, especially revelation that I think is telling me that the church itself is true? Do you see how important it is to get the facts of certain matters?

The Joseph Smith Papers

Of course Joseph never said that he must have received a false revelation.  In fact, according to more recent information discovered, the brethren who went on the mission to Canada in an attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon felt that they were successful on their mission and that the Lord was pleased with their efforts. The promised sale was conditional.

I’m grateful for brethren like Richard Bushman, who are helping to bring us the Joseph Smith papers. In volume 1 of the Manuscript Revelation Books, we have the full copy of the mission to Canada revelation. It can be read there. The criticism that Joseph later claimed that the revelation had not come from God is in all likelihood the product of a false memory by David Whitmer.

We can believe the prophet

As I wrote in a previous essay, I believe it is our lifelong pursuit to understand revelation and to come to know how the Lord communicates with each of us. We can rely on the promises of the Lord to lead us, guide us and walk beside us because we have the gift of the Holy Ghost. I hope we cherish this gift and live worthy of the constant companionship of this promised revelator.

Joseph Smith knew when the Lord was inspiring him and so did most of the brethren who were with him at the time when he received revelation. We can trust that the Lord will help us to have the assurances we need to believe in the mission of the prophet Joseph Smith. Someday, we will meet Brother Joseph and if we still have questions about his life we can ask them to him directly.

Choosing to Act with Certainty


William Shakespeare was arguably the most influential writer in all of English literature. One of his plays, Hamlet, seems to have become so influential that it has profoundly affected the course of Western literature and culture even after 400 years. From Hamlet, I have chosen three themes that Shakespeare developed so beautifully: 1) The impossibility of certainty, 2) The complexity of action and 3) The mystery of life and death. These ideas are further advanced in Tom Stoppard’s existentialist work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Through absurdity, we are lead to believe that 1) The world is incomprehensible, 2) We are insignificant and incapable of making meaningful choices and 3) We are but players on a stage.

The very purpose of life

In effect, Stoppard’s ideas are the same as Shakespeare’s, illustrated with an equal amount of wit, but in a much more bleak and sarcastic style. I dispute these ideas and in contrast, it is my contention that 1) We can choose what we believe about and do with our lives, 2) We have power to act and can cause things to happen and 3) We can be certain about our choices to act in this life. In fact, making choices and acting upon those choices is the very purpose of life. The process of choosing and acting brings great meaning and fulfillment to our lives and is of significant value to our mental health and happiness. It is by not acting that we forfeit opportunities for growth.

Removing doubt from our lives

When the ghost appears to Hamlet and makes him swear to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet does not seek that vengeance right away. Hamlet is not sure that he believes the ghost is who he says he is or if he is telling the truth. He is uncertain. He is placed in a difficult situation and wants to be certain that Claudius is guilty before taking action. In an effort to gather support for his sworn course of action, he feigns madness and causes actions that will help him ascertain the veracity of the events related by the ghost. He asks the players to change the production so he can watch the reaction of Claudius when he sees his crime revealed in dramatic form. These are the actions of a very thoughtful and intelligent man.  It is obvious that his madness is an act. So it is not so impossible to be certain about things. Perhaps it just takes a little time and planning. A little later Hamlet witnesses Claudius confess his crime in prayer, thus his doubts are removed.

Dealing with uncertainty

In response to the confusion expressed by Guildenstern at the incomprehensibility of the events unfolding around him, the Player in Act II of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.” Tom Stoppard purposefully demonstrates for us that Guildenstern does not have all the information he needs to make sense of the world around him. Obviously, Stoppard is relating that we are all in the same boat in that we also do not know of everything in the script, so to speak, except for the small part we play.

To act or be acted upon

Of course we are not really in the same boat as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that we live in the real world where we can seek out and obtain more information if we chose to do so. They are only actors, figments of the imagination of Shakespeare and Stoppard, with no control over their lives.  In a sense, they are being acted upon by the whims of the authors. With their limited viewpoint, life does seem incomprehensible and impossible to be certain about anything.  On the other hand, we can discover, learn and choose to be certain in our beliefs about life around us.

Philosophies and belief systems

When the Player in Act III of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it,” he is implying that the universe is unfair and does not discriminate between good people and bad; that rewards and punishments are entirely random. But is the world such a chaotic place as Stoppard seems to believe it is as expressed through the words of the Player? We go to great effort to create meaning in our lives, developing belief systems and philosophies that give us comfort and a sense of order. It’s true that we cannot control the elements and we cannot control what other people say or do, but we, all of us, have created philosophies or adopted religious ideas to help us cope with the seeming disorder and confusion. Thus, we create our own sense of order and fairness, especially if we look at this life as only a small part of our existence, a mere blip on the timeline of eternity.

To be or not to be

In what may be the most famous speech in the English language, Hamlet examines the mystery of life and death, weighing the moral ramifications of living and dying. “To be, or not to be,” he poses; to live, or not to live. Is it nobler to suffer a life full of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or to seek to end one’s suffering through death? He compares death to sleep and thinks of the end to pain, suffering and uncertainty that it might bring. In fact, he decides that it would be better to die than to live with the heartache and shocks of life.

Philosophical inquiry not enough

But then he considers the afterlife and the dread of possibly trading one miserable existence for something unknown but conceivably worse. He concludes that this dread makes “cowards of us all,” and so we thus continue to suffer through lovesickness, hard work, political oppression and a host of other undesirable afflictions common to all in this life. This speech connects several of the main themes of the play, including the idea of uncertainty, inability to act and the mystery of death.  Hamlet is deeply passionate and relentlessly logical but he has demonstrated for us the difficulty of knowing truth through philosophical inquiry alone.  There must be another way.

The power to act

There is a better way. When we are presented with something new or different from what we previously believed, we can choose to believe it or to reject it. When we choose to believe a piece of information, a theory, a philosophy or even a religion, we then have the power to act upon our new belief, thus causing results either within ourselves or the world around us.  We have that power because we are agents unto ourselves.  We can cause things to happen of our own free will.  In effect, it is the ultimate in scientific inquiry and the empirical method.  Once we act or cause action, we can then see the results for ourselves.  We then have knowledge.  We can now be certain about our choices to act in this life based on the results they bring about.

Experience brings knowledge

Let’s apply this to Hamlet. Presented with the news from the ghost that his father had been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, he decided to believe it, at least partially, but also decided to obtain greater evidence. He caused the players to act as accusers which rattled Claudius into a confession overheard by our hero. Hamlet then had confirming knowledge, obtained by his own actions. He no longer needed to believe what the ghost said. He was certain of this thing.  He acted upon his belief and learned something for himself through his own experiences. He no longer needed to believe what someone else said was true. He now had a personal knowledge.

Ask the right questions

Now let’s apply this to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as presented by Tom Stoppard. These confused gentlemen are small players in the big picture, but we are made privy to some of their thoughts and actions while they are not on stage. When they encounter the Player, we sense that they have an opportunity to learn more about their purpose and meaning from him as he seems to know far more about what is going on than he reveals. If only the pair would ask the right questions, they might get some answers. Alas, they do not and continue to march through the entire book just as confused and bewildered as they began. Because they do not actively seek understanding from a potentially knowledgeable source, they therefore have nothing in which to believe or act upon. Consequently, they are unable to make any significant choices and obtain no confirming knowledge to make sense out of their life. They die meaningless deaths.

Choose what we believe

Finally, let’s apply this to us. We come into this world with no knowledge of the purpose or meaning of our lives. Over time, we are presented with a multitude of explanations, beliefs and philosophies to explain the events that are going on around us. Unlike players or actors on a stage who have no control of their lives, we have been given the ability to makes choices and act upon our beliefs. For example, we can choose to believe that there is purpose and meaning to life and that there is someone who knows the beginning from the end. Acting upon this belief, we seek for more knowledge from others who profess similar beliefs. Again, we are presented with choices as some will claim that their answers are the best. They invite us to act upon their beliefs as well as their requests to support them, often financially. They even invite us to participate in their cause in spreading their views to others.

Act upon our beliefs

Choosing to believe something and then acting upon that belief gives us experience. We can then decide if we like the results of our experiment. We can be certain that something is of value or not based upon our own experience. In the process, we learn a lot about ourselves. We discover what will satisfy us and what makes us happy. We rise to the level of our own desires for knowledge. The critical part of the process is to take action. Unless we act upon our beliefs we can never know for ourselves if it is of any value to us. For example, someone may tell you that seeing a Shakespeare play is an enjoyable and enlightening experience. But unless you go see one for yourself, you will never know. Similarly, the best way to learn something about a life philosophy or religion is to participate in activities that practitioners of that way of life follow.

We can be certain

We can choose what we want to believe, act upon those beliefs and then be certain for ourselves if those beliefs have merit or value. Life does not have to be so complex, uncertain or mysterious, especially if we reduce it to a serious of choices and actions. We choose to believe that an education is of value and act upon that belief by paying for an education and doing the hard work required to get a degree. We are then certain of the value of an education. We may decide that it was a waste of time and money or we may choose to believe that our life has been improved and enhanced by our achievement. After all, most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. The world is not so incomprehensible.  We are significant and more than just actors on a stage.  We are here to gain knowledge through our choices in life.

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