Appendix B: More on Greek and Hebrew thought

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This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series Who Is Truth?

The central distinction of this book is between the idea view of truth and the person view of truth. This distinction maps roughly (but not perfectly) onto the central differences between a Greek and Hebrew view of the world. There are other implications of Greek and Hebrew thought that do not map onto the differences between the idea view of truth and the person view of truth, but which we still wanted to share.

Because Greek thought (broadly understood) prioritizes what does not change as more fundamental than what does change, Greek thought might lead us to see human nature as fixed and unchangeable. For example, if at certain times you are sad, but at other times you are cheery and pleasant, then your mood is not part of your essential identity. However, your temperament—that is, the averages of your mood swings, and your general demeanor—may be more static and more central to your character.

Psychologists often talk about an individual’s “personality,” which they define as “a pattern of relatively permanent traits and unique characteristics that give both consistency and individuality to a person’s behavior.”((Jess Feist, Gregory J. Feist, and Tomi-Ann Roberts, Theories of Personality, 8th Edition (Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 4.)) In other words, personality and identity are those attributes that remain stable across contexts and situations. From this view, to ask someone to change their personality is asking them to do the impossible. Indeed, such a request would be deeply insulting, as it implies that a core part of the person is lacking.

Hebrew thought, on the other hand, might lead us to view our identity as bound up in activity. From this perspective, life is about change—changing who we are, changing our relationships with others and God, and through that change fulfilling the purpose of life, which is to see what we and God can make of ourselves. From this perspective, there is nothing particularly unchangeable about our identity. Change is not only a possibility, but part of who we are; to live is to change, and who we are is defined by our activity in the world.

For example, as we described earlier, the Hebrew language emphasizes activity rather than stasis (as Greek and other Indo-European languages do). In the Hebrew language, things are not defined in terms of what is unchanging about them, but by what they do and how they operate in a specific context of relations and meanings. James Faulconer explains:

As latter-day Greeks, we think of the being of persons on analogy with the being of static, inanimate objects. However, in Hebrew thinking, the being of objects is in analogy to the being of living, animate persons. … We usually think of stasis as originary and movement as a change from that originary state. In Hebrew thinking, however, remaining the same—stasis—is a particular kind of movement. …

The Hebrew concept of being means that to be a person is to do what persons do. The person is because he or she is alive, and life—an activity, not a state—is, for Hebrew thought, the essence of what it means to be. Thus the way something is defines what it is. … In contrast, Greek thought separates the way of being from the being. In the Greek way of thinking, I am a human being because I have the essence of being human as part of what I am, and how I live my life is irrelevant to whether I am human. In Hebrew thought, however, how something is and what it is are inseparable.((James E. Faulconer, Scripture Study, 140-141.))

In other words, in a Hebrew worldview, who we are is defined by our ongoing activities and relationships, not by what is unchanging about us. The implications of this simple idea are staggering. If our core identity is not fixed but in flux, then we can change who we are by changing what we do (and how we do it). Through repentance (a change in our behavior and our relationship with God), we can change our very nature—with the help of Christ, of course. Alma, after his conversion to Christ, taught:

Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. (Alma 27:25-26)

Just as we should not marvel that we must change (according to Alma), in Hebrew thought, we do not need to marvel that we can change. This does not mean it is easy to drop bad habits, or to relinquish deeply engrained patterns of thought and behavior. This also does not mean that temptation can be willed away by conscious choice. It simply means that our core being is not etched in stone, and that there is the possibility of change, even if change takes time. Greek thought does not allow for this possibility, whereas Hebrew thought does.

This can influence how we think of the final judgment and the purpose of mortality. We learn from Abraham that the Earth was created at least partially as a test for God’s children: “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25). What this verse means, however, depends quite a bit on whether we see our inner nature as fixed and immutable, or as dynamic and in flux.

If we think of human identity as unchangeable, the test of life is to discover our inner nature and true identity. From this view, the test of life is like a spectrograph—it reveals the essential elements already within us that may have previously been hidden (from ourselves or God).((A spectrograph is a scientific instrument that reflects light off of an unknown substance, such as a mineral. Researchers determine what elements are within the substance by observing the wavelengths of the reflected light.)) The purpose of mortality is to put us in situations where our nature is made manifest in behavior (thought, word, and deed). From this perspective, if someone is resurrected into the Celestial kingdom, his or her choices were simply manifestations of a latent Celestial nature. Ultimately, this Greek-inspired perspective makes the idea of repentance—real, lasting change in the soul—difficult to understand. Our desires, habits, inclinations, and attitudes are seen as a reflection of who we really are.

In contrast, if we see human nature as bound up in our actions, we understand the final judgment and the purpose of life quite differently. In this perspective, whether we are “Celestial material” or “Telestial material” is entirely up for revision at any time. As moral agents, it is up to us in each moment whose voice we will “[list] to obey” (Alma 3:27), and in whose image we will seek to be re-made. This perspective makes the most sense of our culpability for sin, for how can we be judged for being something that we did not choose to be?

Seen in this way, life is a test to determine what we will make of ourselves (with Christ), not to see which already-existing nature gets revealed. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks teaches: “[T]he Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become.”((Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, November, 2000.)) Elder Oak’s language would not make sense if our inner nature is unchangeable and static, since it implies that who we are is dynamic and in flux.

Nephi taught that when God’s children are resurrected and brought into judgment, “if their works have been filthiness they must needs be filthy; and if they be filthy it must needs be that they cannot dwell in the kingdom of God” (1 Ne. 15:33). If we approach this scripture from a Greek perspective, we might read it this way: “If they have a filthy nature, then the result will be that their works are filthiness.” However, when we read the same passage with Hebrew eyes, Nephi is saying that our nature is determined, not revealed, by our actions.

In modern thought, family relationships are defined in a static, biological sense: a father is a father by virtue of his genetic relationship with his children, and is not something that can be changed. However, there are different ways of understanding what it means to be a father. As one student of the Hebrew language, Jeff Benner, has suggested:

Even the Hebrew nouns for father and mother are descriptive of action. The Hebrew word for father is אב (av) and literally means ‘the one who gives strength to the family’ and mother אם (em) means ‘the one that binds the family together.’((Jeff A. Benner, The Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible (College Station, TX: VBW Publishing, 2005), 50, 56. It should be noted that some of Benner’s etymological constructions are in dispute as he is not a credentialed scholar of Semitic languages. His work represents the outcome of intense individual study of the Hebrew language and ancient culture as a personal hobby.))

When seen in this way, to be a father is to do those things that give strength to the family and to be a mother is to do those things that bind the family together. To be a father is to engage in genuine fathering. To be a mother is to mother one’s family. For this reason, if we draw our strength from Christ, He can quite literally become our father. This changes the way read King Benjamin’s teachings:

And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters. (Mosiah 5:7)

From a Hebrew point of view, this reads less like an adoption contract, and more like the sensible consequence of heeding Christ’s instructions and drawing strength from Him. Also, when we cease to draw strength from Him (by betraying our covenants), He can cease to be our father. In this way, our activities and choices reveal who we are, not because they stem from an inner, immutable nature, but because they determine the kinds of relationships we have with God and others.

The scriptures sometimes use harsh language to describe those who live in sin. King Benjamin, for example, stated: “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever” (Mosiah 3:19). When Martin Harris lost 116 pages of the translated manuscript of the Book of Mormon, the Lord told Joseph Smith, “Now, behold, I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate … into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them” (D&C 10:1).

To modern sensibilities, this seems harsh: The natural man is an enemy to God? Martin Harris, who had no conscious intentions of hindering God’s work, a wicked man? This seems harsh because we usually describe people in terms of what is unchanging about them. But from a Hebrew perspective, wickedness is always a (potentially) temporary state of the soul. Someone can be wicked in one moment, and righteous in the next—depending on their activities. King Benjamin, for example, continued:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord …” (Mosiah 3:19)

In other words, the natural man is not some unchanging characteristic of the soul, but is simply the state of the soul when we are rebelling against the Lord. We can put off the natural man—we can yield to the invitations of the Holy Spirit. When the scriptures refer to people as wicked, or as sinners, or as enemies of God, no permanent identity is attributed to anyone. These are what we call “divine insults,” which are insulting only if we adopt Greek assumptions and think they refer to something unchangeable about us.

We ought to love those who make bad choices, and consider them persons worthy of respect—but not because they are good people (as if only good people deserve respect and love), but because they are people. Further, no matter how good or bad a person is at the moment, there is always the possibility of genuine change. President Thomas S. Monson taught, “We have the responsibility to see individuals not as they are but rather as they can become. I would plead with you to think of them in this way.”((Thomas S. Monson, “See Others as They May Become,” Ensign, November 2012, 69-70.)) To do this, we must see ourselves and others through Hebrew eyes, and see that who we are is bound up in what we do.

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