I had a rather crazy week last week, so sorry for not posting this earlier. Since we’re rather late in the seminar now, let me try to summarize (“muse about” would be more accurate here…) both this week’s and previous weeks’ discussion as it relates to the first seminar question:
What does Alma 32 teach us about exercising faith?
Faith is something that occurs before the attaining of knowledge. Faith is what sets the process of the attaining of knowledge in motion (as the frequency of the term begin attests). Once faith is exercised, and the word/seed is given place to do its thing, then the word/seed reproduces its goodness.
Experiencing this goodness is knowledge, and should be recognized as such. Alma describes this recognition step by saying “you must needs say that the seed is good” and, later, “ye must needs know that this is a good seed” (v. 33). Regarding the growth of the seed, and the recognition thereof, Alma also says this will “strengthen your faith” (v. 30). Interestingly, faith is in the objective (grammatical) case here, so it may be a mistake to describe this recognition step in terms of “exercising faith”—after all, the seed/word is described as being the agent of this increase in faith. Verse 36 seems to support this idea when—repeating the terms “exercise” and “faith” which first occur in verse 27—Alma says “ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.” Exercising faith is associated here, again, with the planting of the seed, and the amount of faith needed to initiate this growth is referred to with the modifier “only”: it is not a large amount of faith that produces knowledge, but a relatively small amount of faith that unleashes the miraculous reproductive power of the seed.
This “only” in verse 36 seems to have two different, non-mutually exclusive connotations. As just described, it might be emphasizing the small degree of faith needed to get the seed to start growing. A second, more obvious connotation is that this verse is pointing to an additional role that faith will play in the eventual attainment of fruit. To whit, verse 40 associates faith with the nourishing of the seed in the following negative construction: “thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit.” Although this increased faith needs to be accompanied “with great diligence, and with patience,” the continued exercise of faith might now be thought of as being the direct result of the growth of the seed, and only indirectly related to the initial exercise of faith. That is, the wording of the later verses in the chapter seems to keep this faith which was increased by the growth of the seed (rather than by the listener-as-agent) separate from the diligence and patience that the listener (presumably) exerts.
I think this suggests a slightly different notion of faith than is usually conceived. Perhaps this difference is best articulated by considering again the way that diligence and patience are paired “with” faith in verse 40. That is, whereas faith is often thought as being synonymous with diligence and patience (as in the common expression, “a trial of faith”), here it seems faith is something distinct, something that does not in and of itself connote diligence and patience. That is, verse 41 does not say “nourish the word . . . with your faith, with great diligence, and with patience,” putting each of these terms into obvious parallel; rather, it says “nourish the word . . . by your faith, with great diligence, and with patience.” It is the “by” instead of “with” preceding “your faith” that I think suggests a distinction between the word faith and the words diligence and patience.
So, if faith should not be taken to (primarily) connote diligence and patience, how should faith be understood? As we’ve discussed previously, I think faith is being used here more as a synonym for belief. “Trust” might also be a good synonym: how much are the Zoramite poor willing to trust that what Alma is saying is true (or “good”)? Whereas diligence and patience are usually thought in terms of virtues that are within our “own” sphere of control, the contrastive juxtaposition that I think is present in the text suggests a much more vulnerable-to-the-ego aspect to faith. Faith is a relinquishing of one’s own control, yielding to the power of someone or something else (the word/seed, in this case).
This is, I think, why Alma does give a very direct answer to the Zoramite poor about what they should do—because to have faith is not like the simple self-exerting way that patience or diligence are exercised (though there are similarities in these concepts). What is important yet difficult for Alma to convey is the sense in which what must be done is a kind of un-doing (the “without” that Joe has been talking so much about). In short, what the Zoramite poor need to do is to believe Alma’s word(s) over the Zoramite authorities’ word.