For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
When I read the Book of Mormon last year, after the Prophet’s challenge, these truths about revelation made Alma’s interview with Corianton the more puzzling.
We know the story. After a mission to the Zoramites, Alma interviews his three sons. He tells Helaman, the eldest, about his own conversion story and entrusts the records to him, in chapters 36 and 37. He tells Shiblon, his second son, that he can have the same promises as Helaman, gives him an immensely scaled down version of the conversion story, lets him know that he has “great joy” in him, and gives him some pithy counsel, in chapter 38.
In chapters 39, 40, 41, and 42 he speaks to the youngest son, Corianton, who had been a boaster among the Zoramites and who had abandoned them to “go after” the harlot Isabel. Alma’s first words are, appropriately enough, “I have somewhat more to say unto thee than what I said unto thy brother.” (Aside: Even if Alma did not say so, the reader could hardly help noticing how much more time Alma spends with his sinner son than with the faithful older two. It is the leave-the-ninety-nine-and-go-after-the-one mentality that is so characteristic of the church. Like the Word of Wisdom, our programs, our policies, our mission rules, our pastors’ pastoral efforts, and our rhetoric seem focused on the “weakest” of the Saints who are most prone to stray. There is another side to the question, however, the one the Savior revealed in the character of the prodigal son’s older brother–the goodness of the good is often more tenuous than we suppose and needs to be buttressed from time to time with a little recognition. President Hinckley’s emphasizes the goodness and worth of our current church members. He also emphasizes strengthening converts before we go and make more of them. Both have been a salutary corrective.)
Alma first names Corianton’s sins, describes their grievousness, and points out the evil they caused to the Zoramites. He asks him to repent, advises him to counsel with his older brothers in the future, lets him know that it was the Lord who commanded Alma to call Corianton to repentance, and bears a very short testimony of the sweetness of being able to preach Christ. But that’s just the first part of the first chapter. For the bulk of the interview Alma addresses Corianton’s doctrinal concerns point by point, often going beyond the gospel commonplaces in the process. He tells Corianton about a revelation he had on resurrection, for example (“I will reveal unto you a mystery,” he says), and some of his speculation concerning the same. Alma does not seem to be very good at giving revelation line upon line just to those who have already proved their faithfulness.
Possibly this bit about revealing things line-upon-line would only apply to God, not to us or to Alma. But I don’t think so. That kind of distinction doesn’t fit with what the prophets have told us about husbanding accounts of our miracles and it doesn’t fit with my own experience. Paul certainly thought that milk-before-meat was good practice. The temple is not open to all. I admit that sinning against the knowledge received from man or woman is probably less serious than sinning against knowledge received from God, but sin is sin.
Possibly I have the wrong idea about what revelation is. Notice that Alma tells both of his faithful sons about the greatest experience of his life, which is his wrestle with sin and his salvation through Jesus during his three days catatonia. But when he talks to Corianton he says nothing about it, or, really, any other experience of his. It’s all doctrine and logic.
The distinction between intellectual knowledge/knowledge about something/abstract knowledge on the one hand and experiential knowledge/knowing something/personal, concrete knowledge on the other has often been remarked on. It has been my own experience that knowing the doctrines of the church is far different and far tamer than actually learning the truth of these doctrines through experience and the Holy Ghost. Sinning against the second kind of knowledge is far more serious than sinning against the first. The second kind of knowledge also seems much harder to acquire and assimilate in a state of sin than the first. That kind of distinction between kinds of knowledge may be what’s going on when Alma tells his older sons about his sacred experiences and tells his younger son about doctrine. Indeed, if this distinction is accurate, and I believe it is, the revelation Alma himself received when the angel appeared to him in the middle of his sins was far more dangerous than Alma’s scholastic disputatio with Corianton. But I do not accept this distinction between kinds of knowledge can be the entire explanation. Intellectual knowledge is less important and less real, but I do not accept that it is negligible. Revelation of the truth is lesser; revelation of (the Way), the Truth, (and the Life) is greater. But both are revelations.
A third possible explanation is that sin doesn’t always unfit us for revelation. Notice that 2 Nephi 28:30 is not symmetrical. The Lord says that he will give more to those that “hearken, ” which in the scriptures usually means both hearing and obeying. But the Lord does not say that he will take away knowledge from those who do not hearken. He only says that he will take away knowledge from those that say ‘we have enough’. In Nephi 28:30 at least, it isn’t sin that always keeps us from hearing God. Its not being willing to listen. If that is right, Corianton’s contribution to his interview was showing up.
In a sense, looking for an explanation for what Alma did is besides the point. What Alma did worked. “Doctrine,” says President Packer (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “changes behavior like nothing else,” and Alma’s success with Corianton seems to be a case in point.
I am of those who believe that a great many apostasies over intellectual and historical issues *really* have their origins in sin. Corianton is an example. As best we can tell, his falling away was *really about* Isabel and only manifested itself later as doubts about preaching Christ before Christ was born, the resurrection, the meaning of restoration, and the justice of God. But identifying the root cause of the sin wasn’t the point of Alma’s interview. Alma recognized that things are not usually really about what they are *really about*. The surface problem was the problem.
Taking Alma as a guide, we’d have to conclude that keeping people from sin may be the best way to keep them in the fold, but once they’re on the way out, we have to think about Compton and DNA. I don’t want to say that addressing the root cause or ignoring the ostensible problem is never wise. I have seen surface doubts and difficulties blown away by the bearing of pure testimony or by identifying of root causes. Alma himself made sure to name his son’s sin and its gravity before he turned to the doctrinal concerns. But he did turn to those concerns. He spent most of his time there. So as much as I dislike them, speculation and apologetics have their place as a pastoral tool.
“Line-upon-line” is still good counsel, I think, counsel we should take seriously. We don’t want anyone to skip grades if it might make them drop out altogether. But for those who are already dropping out, we can profit by Alma’s example. We can profit by our Lord’s example. When He saw no other way for us to progress than by taking our chances in a fallen world–when the stakes were high, very high–his children’s fates forever was the wager–he went all in. Gods or devils.