The Strait [sic] and Narrow

November 28, 2011 | 37 comments
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Say we agree that Mormonism is about progress and progression. A couple of questions might follow.

1. Why assume that progress is singular rather than plural? Why progression rather than progressions?

2. Why assume that progressions are linear? Is the way straight or just strait?

3. Why assume that progressions are additive rather than subtractive?

4. Why assume that different vectors of mutually desirable progression are compatible? What if progressions are inherently messy (cf., the Fall)?

5. Is a static model of perfection (never deviating, never failing, never erring) compatible with progressions?

6. Are any kinds of progression possible without a shadow of loss, responsibility (possibly culpability), and consumption?

7. What would it mean to think about “sin” in relation to progressions (plural) rather than perfection (singular)?

37 Responses to The Strait [sic] and Narrow

  1. Ben S on November 28, 2011 at 11:26 am

    “Why assume that progressions are additive rather than subtractive?” Do we make this assumption? It certainly runs counter to Joseph’s famous phrase about being a rough stone rolling and having the less-desirable parts knocked off.

  2. Adam Miller on November 28, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Good question, Ben. Do we make this assumption?

  3. Cameron N. on November 28, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Great post. I love the way you word things. I would say we think of progression as additive when we think of an eternal increase of joy/happiness. If we frame it as approaching an eternal/complete lack of sin/evil, then it is subtractive (‘less is more,’ a la Dieter Rams).

  4. Ronan on November 28, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Having watched Thor last night, it seems Odin wanted Thor to regress so that he would progress. So there’s that.

  5. Dan on November 28, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    but if Thor didn’t learn from the regression, he would have been lost

  6. Jax on November 28, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    “Why assume that progressions are additive rather than subtractive?”
    Because you can count to infinity, but you can only subtract just so much before there is nothing left to subtract. If progression were eternal subtraction at some point the “rough stone” would either have nothing left to take off without creating more roughness (it becomes completely smooth) or it would have to cease to exist to remove more.

  7. Kerry on November 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Adam, tangential to your post, can we finally jettison “goal-setting” as a Mormon cultural icon? Or do we have to continue to pretend that the shortest distance to the celestial kingdom is a “strait” line between two points? I mean I like geometry like the next guy, but progression is indeed messy and plural as you’ve queried.

  8. Ray on November 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    “What would it mean to think about “sin” in relation to progressions (plural) rather than perfection (singular)?”

    or to think of perfection itself in terms of progressions which are impacted by “sin” (that which impedes our progressions toward perfection)? – which is what our theology actually posits, imo.

    We already teach very explicitly about at least five “stages” of eternal life – where we literally are different types of physical “beings” (intelligence, spirit, mortal, spirit, resurrected being), and we already teach that growth and progression will last long after death.

    Pretty much all of my answers to your questions lie in the idea that it’s already in our theology – that the details just haven’t been revealed fully yet, and we still see through our glass, darkly.

  9. Ray on November 28, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Oh, and I like “strait” much better than “straight”. I wish we’d drop “straight” and go with “strait”. It makes so much more sense in the actual context.

  10. Andrew S. on November 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    I really appreciated point 5. We often speak of progression as being about making no mistakes,or avoiding the possibility of making mistakes,but in reality, the people who are best able to grow are those who stretch themselves but can recover from setbacks.

  11. buraianto on November 28, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    A search on the LDS scriptures tells me that there is only one reference to a straight and narrow (2 Nephi 9:41), while there are thirteen references to a strait and narrow. I don’t understand the objection.

  12. Joseph S. on November 28, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Some good information on the straight vs. strait problem: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=10&num=2&id=252

  13. Lucy on November 28, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    How do you define progress? progression?

  14. Rob Perkins on November 29, 2011 at 1:44 am

    Re question 2: As I recall reading, the scriptures have “strait and narrow”; Joseph Smith corrected the spellings to “strait” in his edits of the Book of Mormon manuscript, and the KJV Bible never had it any other way.

    That means that all those paintings of an iron rod along a 1-foot-wide concrete sidewalk leading to a big-ol’-Temple-fountain probably got it wrong.

    I tried to point this out once to a group of teenagers but they were too busy talking about Taylor Swift and (separately) how to deceive a parent, that I think they didn’t take notice of the nuance.

  15. Kim Siever on November 29, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Re: 2. I vote for just strait. I think it better describes life experience.

    Re: 5. I certainly believe the Atonement allows for deviation. The fact there is something to hold onto in Lehi’s dream implies we will stumble.

  16. Ray on November 29, 2011 at 8:24 am

    I’ve always wondered about some of these points, especially as they relate to the family. In this life, the family is not static, it is ever-changing. We are children in a family, then we marry and become parents of a family, then we age and become grandparents or elders. Our position in our extended families changes over time as well. So when we say families are forever, exactly what family are we talking about? How can a family in eternity be static if it is not static in this life?

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 29, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Way too abstract.

  18. Ray on November 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    #16 – Please add an intial or something else to distinguish yourself from me.

  19. Ray on November 29, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    #11 – I believe the path is “strait” (narrow); I don’t believe it is “straight” (generally, the shortest distance between two points).

    “Strait and narrow” is a common duplication devise – a re-emphasizing of something that is important. Changing it to “straight” loses that emphasis.

  20. Kim Siever on November 29, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Keep in mind that “narrow” is a recent definition of “strait”. It Joseph Smith’s time, it more popularly meant “distressing” and “difficult”.

  21. Ray on November 29, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Good point, Kim. That probably is more accurate than the duplication, actually.

  22. Frank Pellett on November 29, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Trouble is we dont have any real uses of “strait” in everyday language. Only word I can think of that contains it is “straitjacket”, which brings to mind more confinement than difficulty.

  23. Kim Siever on November 29, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Why is that trouble?

  24. Frank Pellett on November 29, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Its a problem because we end up mis-using the scrupture, citing it as “straight” and narrow, rather than “strait” and narrow. It gives the scriptures that use it a completely different meaning.

  25. Frank Pellett on November 29, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    I wonder if “strait” has ever been given as a gotcha word for spelling bees.

  26. Kim Siever on November 29, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    But is it a problem that lies with a lack of modern usage or that lies with our tendency to try to understand scripture using modern language meanings?

  27. Frank Pellett on November 29, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    The pictoral use of the Iron Rod is also misleading. In Lehi’s vision, it was a representation of the Word of God, which is Jesus Christ. He is an absolutely stable guide through dangerous lands, an aid to help us up when we fall, a reaching hand for us to take when we stray.

    An iron rod gives off the additional ideas that the path is both straight and impersonal.

  28. Kim Siever on November 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Not necessarily. If you read 2 Ne 31:17 and Moses 7:53, we get the idea that path is far from straight and impersonal. We get the impression that it is difficult and requires much personal effort.

  29. Frank Pellett on November 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Kim,
    Can it be both? I’d thought for years that strait was just a funny spelling of straight used in scripture, like New Englanders calling “drawers” “draws”. It took being pointed out that there was a different meaning to the word for me to take notice of its usage in the scriptures. Once we know and recognize that a difference between the two words exists, its kind of hard to go back.

  30. Kim Siever on November 29, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    I do not think there is anything that supports the strait and narrow is actually straight.

  31. Keith on November 29, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I don’t think we need to say that the iron rod is straight. It follows the contours of the river and rivers bend. The path Nephi and Lehi describe doesn’t need to be straight either. It does need to be narrow or strait.

    There is a strait and narrow path/way (‘narrowly narrow’ might be a way to capture the emphasis of strait and narrow). You go through a strait/narrow gate and enter the path (also strait/narrow). The path goes someplace–to the tree of life, to the end of the path which is to have eternal life or Godly/Christ-like life. In this sense it’s rather hard to read “pressing forward” and enduring to the end as not having something of a linear progression to them.

    D&C 3 does describe God as not walking in crooked paths or turning to the left or right–but “his paths are straight.” (Seems to be a matter of reliable character there.) And then, interestingly, “his course is one eternal round.” This last phrase is also used at the end of Nephi’s talking about his father’s vision and his wanting to know/see for himself (1 Nephi 10: 17-19). Goodness, righteousness, mercy, judgement, love, creation, embodiment, death, atonement and resurrection, over and over and over again. The Divine same old same old–always new, always everlasting.

  32. Keith on November 29, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Never mind. I think I disagree with myself now. Mostly.

  33. Joseph S. on November 30, 2011 at 1:45 am

    Sticking to the “straight and narrow” is not a uniquely Mormon concept. While historically it seems to have been more commonly spelled “strait and narrow” by association with the Bible, both spellings have been used from as far back as there is documentation.

    To me, it seems clear from other places in the Book of Mormon that the path leading to God is “straight,” whether or not in Nephi’s dream it was so (although an Iron Rod being the sturdy item that it is makes me think it unlikely that this path was winding).

  34. Adam Miller on November 30, 2011 at 4:35 am

    Great discussion, everyone. Say we grant that the path leading to God is indeed not just “strait” but also “straight.” What would this mean? This is a metaphor, right?

  35. Rob Perkins on November 30, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    It’s a metaphor, sure, but if you go back to the Greek, you don’t get “straight”, you get something more like, “narrow is the gate, and cramped the way” as a juxtaposition with “broad and spacious”. So, we can’t grant that “strait” is also “straight”, because it’s not.

  36. Adam Miller on November 30, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Granted, Rob. That was my original point when I wrote the post. But what if we did say the path was “straight”? What would this mean?

  37. Rob Perkins on November 30, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    It would mean that we were off the path, because of the eisegesis of saying that strait means straight. I think of my refusal to speculate as similar to the things CS Lewis occasionally wrote about the definition of omnipotence, or asking God to tell you what might have happened if one had made a different set of choices. The text imparts a specific meaning bolstered by good scholarship on its words. Thus, engaging you on your set of questions:

    1 — I don’t assume that progress is singular, and I don’t know (but suppose) that the scriptures claim that it’s so. One can certainly atrophy in one area while he’s working out his salvation in another; the intellectual and spiritual motion of any faithful teenager or young adult is a stuttering thing, in my experience.

    2 — The way is “strait”; the scriptures are clear about that. This suggests, strongly implies, that progressions are not necessarily linear.

    3 — Assume it, because “subtractive progression” sounds far too much like “advancing to the rear” and thus becomes euphemistic, obscuring meaning rather than revealing it.

    4 — I agree that progressions are inherently messy; humans are the “children” of God, and children are messy beings.

    5 — A static model of perfection-as-flawlessness is itself eisegesis, because the Greek text discusses completeness and fulfillment, not flawlessness. Further, I think it implies a perfection of motion; one is perfect when one has the eye single to the Glory of God and a mien of constant repentance, rather than a state of arrived

    6 — No. See 2 Nephi. I’m very willing to be persuaded otherwise on that point, but that notion of a necessity of opposition in all things in order to make the world make sense, and God make sense to mankind, for that matter, is pretty compelling as ideas go.

    7 — I think it would mean that life-stuff is complicated and our ideas don’t serve us as well as they might if we frame them as dichotomies, or insist that they fit ideal shapes. I am far more inspired by the truth of a strait and narrow path, to the side of which I might camp from time to time, but always return to the work of walking it, than I am by a balance beam next to a rod over a precipice. The former describes something Jesus’ ancient followers would instantly recognize.