You Can’t Ride Two Donkeys With One Ass: Saul and Spiritual Rebirth

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Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #22

Ever since I was introduced to the word “liminal,” I have claimed it as my own. This word describes a threshold or a transitional position — a balancing point between two states of being. For many years I have felt poised on the threshold between two totally different ways of viewing the world. One is scientific and rational. The other is a place where angels materialize and shake your hand, where dreams have meaning, where God’s words come out of men’s mouths when they lay their hands on your head. Many members of the Church seem easily able to slip between both of these worlds. But I see a fundamental difference between the two world views. In the naturalistic view of the universe, events do not violate natural laws and are subject to the principles of empirical investigation. In the mystical view, divine intervention is possible outside of natural law.

Striving to make sense of my world has been like trying to ride two donkeys with one ass. I often feel quite schizophrenic for even making the attempt. I do it because I feel like both paradigms are equally valid and I can’t imagine jumping off on one side or the other and excising a vital part of my being. But living a double life makes me feel uncomfortable around everyone. For example, when I am with a certain group of Mormons I can’t fathom why they don’t realize that the founder of their Church took the temple ceremony largely from Masonry, a tradition whose roots are not as ancient as some suppose. Then when I am with another group of my LDS friends I feel equally out of place because I recognize some sort of cosmic connection to the Infinite which occurs at these mystical points of ascent.

Liminality in my life is reading the RS/PH handbook at home and critiquing it from a secular/humanist perspective; then later in Church giving that same lesson from a mystical worldview, and feeling some Greater Power assisting me to articulate the principles. Afterwards I feel dizzy and disoriented. Am I leading people astray? Was that a real experience or just my emotions or hormones coming into play?

This week’s SS lesson is centered around the heart; and the story of Saul, Israel’s proto-monarch, is a perfect place to start for someone who is not quite sure of the state of hers.

To begin with, it is possible that in the course of Biblical transmission, Saul’s birth narrative was dispossessed by another. Biblical scholars have noted that the wordplay in 1 Samuel 1 works best when applied to Saul’s name, but this has been replaced by Samuel. In Hebrew, “Saul” can mean “petition,” “request,” or “thing given.” Thus verse 20 may have originally read:

And she named him Saul, saying, “Because I have ‘sauled’ him (requested him) from YHWH.

The etymology is carried through in verses 17, 20, 27, and 28. But for a variety of reasons, the birth narrative has been transferred to the prophet Samuel.  Was it Saul, rather than Samuel, who was dedicated to the Lord by his mother?  Was it Saul who was divinely appointed and raised?

The reader next encounters Saul in a narrative of spiritual rebirth. Saul is searching for lost donkeys, and ends up visiting Samuel. This prophet anoints Saul and tells him that the Lord’s Spirit shall come upon him, he shall prophesy, and he will be “turned into another man.” That day, “God gave him another heart.” The significance of this regeneration which seems so obvious when reading chapter 10 is actually hotly debated in Christian circles.

“Was Saul saved?” evangelicals wonder.  They point to later actions and speculate whether his heart had really been changed.  I confess that Saul’s actions at Gilgal seem defensible to me. The Lord had commanded that burnt offerings be made before going into battle. Saul had gathered his army and the Philistines were threatening. Saul waited the agreed-upon seven days for Samuel, but he didn’t show. The Israelite army was beginning to scatter. So Saul went ahead and performed the sacrifice. What a conundrum he faced! Should he wait for Samuel, and lose his army? Should he go into battle without performing the sacrifice? Or should he offer the sacrifice himself, without the necessary authority? Doubtless I would have made the same choice Saul did. But we are told that his heart was in the wrong place — that “obedience is better than sacrifice” — and that at this point his kingdom was lost and given to another.

This was a pivotal moment for Saul, and through the rest of his life he wavered between acts of anger and rebellion, and heartfelt repentance. The mental distress he experienced is anguishing.

Saul strikes me as a man trying to ride two donkeys, and I have the greatest compassion for him.  I’d like to end this post with a poem by John Donne which I can envision coming from my mouth, and from Saul’s.  It’s a  lament from a soul which recognizes the pull of the profane and natural man, yet longs for a mystical union with the Divine.

Holy Sonnet XIV

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you

As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend

Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,

Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,

Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.

Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,

But am betroth’d unto your enemie:

Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;

Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I

Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,

Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

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Comments 13

  1. Beautiful post, BiV. Saul is one of the most compelling characters in the Hebrew Bible, imo. Did you see the short-lived series “Kings” on NBC? It was a modern retelling of the Saul-David story, and it was awesome. Too bad my favorite shows get cancelled.

  2. “…for someone who is not quite sure of the state of hers.”

    Boy, does that resonate!

    In many religious traditions, there’s a notion that if you’ve been spiritually reborn, there’s no mistaking it. The evangelical-flavored Book of Mormon speaks of this kind of unmistakable conversion experience:

    “I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.” (Alma 36:17-21.)

    Or see Alma 5:14: “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?”

    Modern prophets have striven to lower people’s expectations for dramatic, revival-style conversion experiences. The argument is that more subtle promptings can be just as powerful witnesses as overpowering mystical experiences. Not having ever experienced the latter, I can’t really compare them. The problem with subtle promptings — at least in my experience — is that they are subtle. As a result, they are ambiguous. They tend not to be easily distinguished from good feelings that have nothing obvious to do with religion. It’s a bit of a cliche to compare people’s reports of spiritual experience with the usual Thomas Kinkade-style “I sense God’s presence in nature, or Hallmark sentiments, or great literature,” but I have to say, the physical sensation I felt watching the BYU combined choirs perform “Come, Thou Fount” several years ago, wasn’t very different from what I feel at the end of The Moldau. As I see it, here are my options: (1) God is a Czech nationalist as well as a Mormon, and so both pieces trigger a witness by the Spirit that the underlying matters are true; (2) it’s just a chemical reaction in my head in both cases; or (3) there’s something in common in both experiences that ties in with eternal Truth, which the Spirit testifies to.

    The problem is that I don’t have really convincing evidence to identify which of these things it is. I choose how to interpret the sensation (I go with #3) by faith — but that leaves me only a little more assured than I was in the first place.

    So have I spiritually been born of God, or not? Does the fact that I have to ask, mean I haven’t? I look back on my life, and don’t really see any sharp inflection point anywhere, such that I could say “I was a damned soul up to that point, and a saved saint afterwards.” I think I have tasted something of the sweetness of God’s truth, but I still find myself acting devilish at times — being angry with people I love (usually when I’m getting reamed out for temporarily losing 40% of my kids at Disneyland or something — they got found), enjoying too much the sense of putting someone down in an argument, and so forth. I get the impression (based on feedback from credible people) that I’m a pretty decent sort of person, but the question follows: is that enough? “Honorable man of the earth” isn’t a compliment in LDS culture.

    “a-HAH!”, an evangelical Protestant might crow. “You haven’t been saved, you heathen Mormon you, and you know it! We have no doubt of our salvation!” Yeah, but you’re complete tools. It’s, like, totally obvious. You relish putting other people in the wrong way more than I do, which is bad enough. You elevate your nominal Christian identity over Christian life. Your assurance is making you less good than you might have been otherwise. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” is often used by spiritually lazy people who want to make their lack of conviction into inherent nobility, but it can still be true: People with more certainty than they should rightly have, are often kind of jerkish.

    So I really don’t know what to say here. I hope and trust that I am being spiritually reborn of God, and raised above my animal and devilish natures. I see hints, from time to time, that this may be happening, and choose to interpret them as confirmations. But it’s a darn sight less reassuring than a lot of conversion experiences are described as.

  3. #3 Thomas:

    In many religious traditions, there’s a notion that if you’ve been spiritually reborn, there’s no mistaking it. The evangelical-flavored Book of Mormon speaks of this kind of unmistakable conversion experience…So have I spiritually been born of God, or not? Does the fact that I have to ask, mean I haven’t?

    The Book of Mormon also states (3 Nephi 9:20): And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I bbaptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.

    Sounds to me like spiritual rebirth is not always an earthshatteringly obvious event.

  4. #4: Alternatively, the Lamanites’ conversion experience was something earthshattering, obvious, distinctive and undeniable, but they lacked the cultural background to know just what to call it.

  5. #5 Thomas: Interesting thought. Sort of reminds me of the account in Luke 24: “And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” They recognized in retrospect what they apparently didn’t understand at the moment.

  6. The two donkeys I struggle between are Old Testament stories that teach strict obedience (don’t touch the ark even if it is tipping) vs new revelation that tells me to use the spirit to guide me, sometimes going against procedure can be justified.

    A new member of my ward had missionary discussion in my house, and I was assigned as her home teacher. Her baby become suddenly ill, rushed to the hospital and had to have emergency surgery. I was notified and left my work to rush to the hospital to meet a member of the bishopric there to give a requested blessing. While waiting in the emergency room, the nurses came it to say they needed to take the baby now, we couldn’t wait any longer for the other priesthood member to assist in the blessing (he was lost, we found out later). So in the emergency situation, I anointed and blessed the child alone. The new member was grateful. The surgery was a success.

    Elder Packer referred in the last conference talk about sometimes needing to issue “battlefield commissions” in the priesthood sometimes.

    Today’s teachings seem to be conflicting with some OT teachings that suggest such absolute claims.

    Perhaps we need 2 donkeys (intellect and faith), because different circumstances may require us to move from one to the other, as guided by the Lord.

  7. Re #3 Thomas
    Love it! Mostly I’m conflicted between your #2 and #3. I think intellectually, if I’m being honest, I think it likely it’s #2. But I live my life as if #3 is the case and try to be the best darn Mormon I can be!

    Hopefully, in whatever follows (if anything), I have earned enough brownie points in my chosen religious career to warrant some mercy from an almighty being.

  8. I really resonate with feeling very different with different groups. In more main-stream LDS crowds I feel a bit on the fringe sometimes, a bit to the left, etc. Sometimes I’m even more skeptical and have more doubts in LDS settings or discussions. However, around atheist friends, or just those that are more skeptical than I am, I feel this surge of faith and thirst for things that are spiritual. Other than chalking it up to some interpersonal process gone berserk, or some quirky personality flaw, I haven’t been able to figure out why this happens.

  9. In modern physics there is a concept that keeps popping up all over the place called “duality”. Duality basically means that there is a single reality, but it can be described and experienced in two or more MUTUALLY CONTRADICTORY ways. It is an extraordinarily useful concept, and seems to be essential to describing the way reality “really” is, because it keeps making predictions that are later observed.

    In my personal faith development, I am more than toying with the idea that the conflicts we feel between the two states of being described in the OP are reflections of a true “duality” between the physical and spiritual experiences of existence. Neither is less real than the other; they are simply two true, but mutually contradictory descriptions of the same set of events.

    I have only the vaguest notion of how a few things in the spiritual description map to things in the physical description. But that’s ok for now, because that’s the state of understanding of most dualities in physics itself.

  10. I love the “needing two donkeys” bit. Even though I only have one ass, it doesn’t always want to sit in the same place.
    BinV: You are an incredible writer. I love being challenged and provoked to thought- you always offer both. Thank you!

  11. Jesus rode two donkeys it’s in Mathew. (Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.)
    I think you should stop studying faith and start studying quantum mechanics and learn the difference between the particle and wave theories of light and matter.

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