The phrase “swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow” in verses 30 (twice) and 33 (once) seems significant. Also, “sprouteth and beginneth to grow” occurs at the end of verse 30. I’m not sure what to make of this partial occurrence. Verses 30-33 also seem enveloped in a double occurrence of the notion of “perfect knowledge” at the end of verse 29 and the beginning of verse 34. Based on these observations, if we look more closely at verses 29-34a as their own unit, we might read this according to the following chiastic structuring:
(A) “it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge” (v. 29)
(B) “But behold, as the seed swelleth and sprouteth and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold, it swelleth and sprouteth and beginneth to grow” (v. 30)
(C) “are ye sure that this is a good seed?” (v. 30)
(D) “Yea, for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness” (v. 31)
(C’) “if a seed groweth it is good” (v. 32)
(B’) “And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good” (v. 33)
(A’) “And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect?” (v. 34)
Notice even the word order in A and C is chiastic: perfect-knowledge and good-seed vs. seed-good and knowledge-perfect. Also, notice the difference between B and B’ from “you must needs say that the seed is good” to “ye must needs know that the seed is good.” Also, notice that at the center of this chaism is the word “likeness.” More on these two observations below.
Verses 34 and 35 might also be considered as a unit with “is your knowledge perfect” forming the inclusive bookends:
(A) “is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing and your faith is dormant” (v. 34)
(B) “this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls” (v. 34)
(C) “that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened” (v. 34)
(D) “O then, is not this real?” (v. 35)
(C’) “whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible” (v. 35)
(B’) “therefore ye must know that it is good” (v. 35)
(A’) “and now behold after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?” (v. 35)
Notice that “real” is the center of this chiam. I’ll just note one other structural item that seemed potentially signficant. The word “experiment” occurs:
- in verse 27: “if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith . . .”
- in verse 33: “And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed . . .”
- in verse 36: “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 it’s interesting here that verse 36 combines the “exercise your faith” and the “plant the seed” phrases that accompany verses 27 and 33 respectively. I’m not sure what to make of this, but one thought is that perhaps this should draw our attention to what occurs between the “experiment” inclusio, but before and after the two “perfect knowledge” chiasms. This sets the end of verse 27 and verse 28 in parallel with verse 36—in particular, the phrase in verse 36, “Behold, I say unto you, Nay, neither must ye lay aside your faith,” seems at least roughly parallel to the ideas in verses 27-28 of “giv[ing] place” to the seed and “not cast[ing] it out.”
Faith and knowledge
I really like how Adam has talked about the “you must needs say” in terms of fidelity to an event. In light of this, the gap in the text between the “must needs say” in verse 30 and the “must needs know” in verse 33 is particularly intriguing. Perhaps the best place for thinking about the role of faith is precisely in this gap. Or is it?
Before Alma sets up this gap between these two “you must need” phrases, he claims in verse 29 that the swelling of the seed will increase your faith. Then in verse 30, he seems to back up a step or pry open a gap between the growth of the seed and the increase in faith by inserting the phrase “ye must needs say that the seed is good” between the swelling (and sprouting and beginning to grow) of the seed and the claim that faith will be increased (actually “strengthened” this time, curiously…). We’ve discussed this “must needs” wording previously, but it’s now worth repeating the sense in which this compulsory phraseology occurs precisely at the point that we might think Alma is going to discuss what else the Zoramite poor need to do (remember, this was their initial question). But this “acknowledging” step is precisely what Alma is describing in compuslory language. We’ve previously discussed the question of whether the word compels humility or not and it seems that once the seed/word is given place to grow in your heart, then confession and knowledge that the seed is good will be compelled by the swelling of the seed itself. This may (or may not) be slightly different than what Adam is claiming; regardless, I think it’s worth careful consideration. (One alternative might be thought in terms of the kind of deception Korihor ultimately claimed he was acting under—so it might be that Alma is advocating that one acknowledges this swelling by professing it, rather than describing that this profession “must needs” follow….)
If the role of faith is not to be found in this gap between the swelling of the seed and the confession of this fact, where is faith’s role to be found? Before and after: in giving place for the seed to be planted (vv. 27-28), before the seed has begun to grow/swell, and not “lay[ing] aside your faith” but nourishing the tree so that it will go on to produce fruit (vv. 36ff), after the seed has begun to grow. The reading I’m proposing here is against reading “you must needs say” as a kind of admonition to, for example, faithfully proclaim the truthfulness of the gospel. Rather, I think this “you must needs say” should be read either as an explanation of how faith can lead to knowledge (i.e., faith gives place for the goodness of the seed to become known), or as an admonition not to give into a kind of self- or other-induced deception that the seed is not good when it has in fact caused swelling to occur (this is the alternative I mentioned with respect to Korihor in the last sentence of the previous paragraph—the more I think about this, the more I like this alternate reading, especially because I think it explains well why verse 31 about “bring[ing] forth unto its own likeness” is so important to mention, and at the center of a chiasm…).
Notice also that if the seed is in fact good, but the seed is never tested/tried, then the goodness of the seed will not be known (until, presumably, final judgment when all non-fruit-producing trees/souls will be burned). So, by trying this experiment on the word, knowledge is in fact produced—as Adam has said, and as verse
30 33 seems to be is saying (“because ye have tried the experiment . . . ye must needs know that the seed is good”).
Faith and perfect knowledge
Alma seems quite intent on making the point that the kind of knowledge described above is not perfect knowledge. Although a kind of knowledge is obtained once the seed starts growing, this knowledge does not preclude a larger role for faith to play. Indeed, Alma says explicitly (and emphatically, on my reading), “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” (verse 36). Without getting bogged down in exploring possible ways of understanding what “perfect knowledge” means, let me explore a couple of different issues here regarding “surety” and the link with sign-seeking in verse 17 and in the Korihor narrative.
In verse 17, Alma says many will say if a sign were given they would then say “we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.” Then, in verse 26, Alma puts the terms surety and perfection in an interesting synonymous juxtaposition: “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.” Finally, after describing the swelling of the seed in verse 30, we read in verse 31, “And now, behold are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.” Recall, verse 30 31 is the center of a chiasm as I structured it above.
This question of surety seems to be responding directly to the question that Korihor raised in 30:14-15:
Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers. How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.
Korihor’s claim, and Alma’s echo of it in 32:17, seems to try to establish a sharp dichotomy between faith and knowledge: faith is unsure and imperfect whereas knowledge is sure and perfect. Alma seems to respond by making a distinction between limited knowledge (“in that thing”) and perfect knowledge. To try and put this into a diagram (for Adam and Joe):
- Desire –> at least a particle of faith (F1)
- –> plant seed/word
- –> growth of the seed
- –> knowledge in that thing (K1)
- –> increased faith (F2)
- –> nourishment of the tree
- –> desirable fruit (synonymous with perfect knowledge: K2).
In words, a desire to believe leads to at least a particle of faith, which gives place for the planting of the seed, which will then grow, which leads to knowledge that the seed is good (K1). This, in turn, increases faith (F2) which will cause you to nourish the tree and eventually obtain the desirable fruit (K2).
It seems, then, that Korihor’s claim, as Alma critiques it, is based on two problems: First, Korihor focuses only on steps 4 and 5. True, there is a sense in which knowledge precedes an incresae in faith. However, the problem is that Korihor ignores steps 1-3 where faith is precisely what produces knowledge: knowledge depends on faith (I think this is very similar to the main argument of critical theory, that other social theory approaches ignore the sense in which knowledge is not merely given; rather, the emergence of knowledge is something that depends on my beliefs, desires, etc.) This ignoring of steps 1-3 might (also) be productively thought in terms of Adam’s claim in his “A Hermeutics of Weakness” paper that faith is an acknowledgement of weakness or dependence. In this case, it is the role of the word/seed itself that is being ignored by Korihor (and the sign-seekers Alma describes). Without the presence of the word, knowledge does not increase anything; rather, it is vain and pointless.
The other, related mistake that Korihor makes is that he conflates knowledge “in that thing” (K1) with perfect knowledge (K2). I think the ramifications for this mistake might be productively thought in terms of Levinas’s Totality and Infinity—very roughly, to mistake partial knowledge for perfect knowledge is to try and totalize something that is infinite.
Alma’s “Nay” in verse 36 (again, following 10 yea’s since the previous and only other “nay” of the chapter in verse 18, which directly follows verse 17 with the “sure/ty” link with verse 31 just discussed), then, might be read as a protest to the kind of totalized, stagnant situation that the Zoramite poor feel themselves trapped in. To think that knowledge leads to faith is to think that a situation determines our beliefs (and desires?). Alma’s response is a call to awaken (v. 27; cf. “faith is dormant” in verse 34) and to exercise faith, in order to escape this deceived way of thinking that leads to immobilization. (The expanding seed and mind images, as well as the light/englightenment images in verses 28 and 34-35, might be productively contrasted with Alma’s frequent use of captivity and blindness symbolism in other sermons in order to further this theme.)
Some other issues I was hoping to have time to discuss more include the following:
- “Own likeness” in verse 31: Given the structural emphasis on this phrase discussed above, I think it’s worth thinking much more carefully about this. Here is a link to cross references using this phrase. I think it’s especially germane to Jenny’s topic of the Garden (and, by extension, the creation; Jenny, if you haven’t read Jim’s paper on Genesis 2-3, I highly recommend it—published in the first edition of the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture). This also seems to feed into Adam’s suggestion of reading the tree as a genealogical symbol, with “own likeness” parallel to “seed” and “fruit.”
- “Cast out/away” and “lay aside”: Bad seeds are to be “cast out” or “cast away” (vv. 28, 32) like the tree with no root is “cast out” in verse 38; cf. “neither must ye lay aside your faith” in verse 36; cf. the Zoramite poor that have been “cast out.” What’s going on here? Is Alma drawing on larger garden and/or tree imagery here? Jacob 5? This is such an obvious thematic motif throughout this chapter, but I’m not sure how to think about it. Also, it seems to strongly complement the “giving place” motif we’ve discussed a bit already.
- “Real” in verse 35: I thought about this a bit, especially in light of the term imagin-e/ation as used by Alma in Zarahemla (Alma 5:16-18) and elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (esp. the “vain imagination” motif). This seems rich, esp. in light of the structural emphasis given to “real” that I mentioned above—I’ll leave it to the Lacanians to have fun with this one!
- “Only” in verse 36: The “ye have only exercised your faith” phrase here got me thinking more about verses 19-20, especially in light of Alma’s discussion elsewhere of this life being a probationary state, a space to repent, and the way the word prolong is used in the Book of Mormon. I think the gap between faith and knowledge could productively be thought in these terms also. That is, this prolonged space of time that we are graciously given in order to repent, in order to choose to humble ourselves and believe rather than compelled to believe, seems to be what, for example, Adam is getting at in his 32:21-25 summary discussion of X and X’. I think it would be helpful to study these analogous/parallel themes in Alma’s other sermons in an effort to understand better the faith-knowledge gap and relation that Alma is articulating here.