Passing through New England a few weeks ago, I passed a church that was obviously trying to recruit new parishioners. The pastor has put on the marquee these simple words: “Soft pews, no hell”. I don’t know how effective his appeal was, but I can guess. Based on what we now know about successful religious movements, that strategy likely impeded, rather than aided, recruitment efforts. The reason for this paradox was fathomed by Thomas Carlyle, a hundred and fifty years ago. This is what he said: "It is a calumny [slander] on men to say they are roused to heroic action by ease, the hope of pleasure, recompense—sugar-plums of any kind, in this world or the next! In the meanest mortal there lies something nobler.... It is not to taste sweet things, but to do noble and true things and vindicate himself under God’s Heaven as a god-made Man, that the poorest son of Adam dimly longs. Shew him the way of doing that, the dullest day drudge kindles into a hero.
I don’t think Carlyle is saying that we all aspire to greatness. I think he is saying, we all aspire to fill the measure of our creation, and we respond intuitively and powerfully to whomever or whatever entices and challenges us to develop, to unleash, the divine potential within. The Savior said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have more abundantly” (John 10:10). The key Greek word here was “perisone,” which means “full to overflowing,” “present in superabundance.” God is a God of superabundance, as described by the poet Robinson Jeffers: Is it not by his high superfluousness we know to be equal a need is natural, but to fling rainbows over the rain and beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows on the domes of deep sea shells, and make the necessary embrace of breeding beautiful also as fire, not even the weeds to multiply without blossom nor the birds without music.
Too many of us go through life, in Isaac Newton’s metaphor, like children content to play in the sand, while the great ocean of life and truth lies before us unexplored, and beckoning. We are harrowed up with petty concerns, and childish fears. We need a greater appetite. The gospel Joseph Smith restored is not for the faint-hearted, or for those who are moderately hungry for knowledge, for joy, for the possibilities offered by an infinite universe. The gospel is for the voracious. I have always thought there was a
great lesson to be learned from the Lord’s words to the church of the Laodiceans in the Book of Revelation. “I know thy works,” he said, “that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (3:15-16). It all reminds me of the great play Peer Gynt by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Gynt is a rascally anti-hero looking for meaning in life, but he is a person of half-measures and petty vices. In the end, he is accosted by a stand-in for the devil, the figure of the button-molder, and he is told—to his shock and horror-- that his fate is to be melted down with other mediocre villains in the button-molder’s cauldron.
Only sinners, he is told, deserve the more heroic end of a torment in hell. His apathetic existence more fittingly deserves simple oblivion in a pot of melted buttons. I am reminded also of Saul of Tarsus, who was wicked in a decisive, passionate way, zealous in his efforts to kill Christians. The Lord can work with passion. He just picked Saul up, figuratively, and pointed him in the other direction, and we get Paul the apostle. The Lord can work with passion. There is little he can do with apathy. “This is a wide field for the operation of man,” said Brigham Young, “that reaches into eternity.” He was clearly excited by a vision of human happiness and possibility unlike anything the Christian world had seen before. He said, “All men should study to discern that divinity inherent in them. What will satisfy us?.
If we could so understand true philosophy as to understand our own creation, and what it is for and could understand that matter can be organized and brought forth into intelligence, and to possess more intelligence, and to continue to increase in that intelligence; and could discern the Divinity acting, operating, and diffusing principles into matter to produce intelligent beings, and to exalt them—to what? Happiness. Will nothing short of that fully satisfy the spirits implanted within us? No.
The prophet Joseph Smith reminds me of the great Jewish philosopher Spinoza. One of his recent biographer’s wrote, “He rejected the orthodoxy of his day not because he believed less, but because he believed more.”
We find a kindred appetite in the great work of Virginia Sorenson, a little lower than the Angels. Incredulous at her father’s capacity for belief, Mercy had asked enviously as a child, “‘But you believe it, Father, you really do?’ ‘I believe all I can, Mercy girl, all I can. Everywhere I go I’m looking for more good things to believe. Even if it’s the be-all and the end-all here, then we’d better keep busy believing good things hadn’t we?’
That’s the kind of voracious appetite we are called to develop.