The Value of the Veil


There are some things about ourselves, about godhood—that we learn only by developing skills on our own.

One of the clearest—yet at times most perplexing—themes in the history of God’s dealings with mankind involves his decision to draw a veil between our world of mortality and his world of the eternities. Not only does the veil keep us from remembering our past, which we call the preexistence, but also it keeps us from seeing many things that are going on at the present—for God, his angels, and their activities are hidden from our sight.

He has only occasionally parted that veil in his dealings with men on this earth. For example, after the Savior’s resurrection he encountered two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize him as he engaged them in conversation. As they told him of “Jesus of Nazareth,” in whom they had “trusted” (note the past tense), it became apparent to him that they had not grasped the message of his mortal ministry. He then said, “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.”

And then, “Beginning at Moses … he ex-pounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (See Luke 24:13–31.)

He did not tell them who he was. He taught them from the same scriptures that he had used to teach them while he was in the flesh. Only later did they recognize who he was.

Why did he not tell them sooner? He could have revealed the fact of his resurrection much more clearly, much more rapidly.

In another passage in Luke, we read the parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man who died about the same time as did Lazarus. What the rich man realized on the other side of the veil moved him to plead with father Abraham to send Lazarus back to preach repentance to the rich man’s family, who remained in mortality. But Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

“And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.

“And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” (Luke 16:29–31.)

Why not?

In the first chapter of John we read about the Word, who was the life and the light of men, a light that “shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 1:5.) Christ came into the world, but it knew him not and his own received him not. If it is indeed eternal life to know God, then why did the Lord not reveal Christ to the people more obviously? He came so quietly.

If it is so important for us to know him today, why doesn’t the Lord send a great chariot across the sky every day at noon, drawn by flying white horses? The chariot could stop right above the earth and then a voice from the great beyond could say, “And now a word from our Creator.”

Why has he chosen not to do things like that?

Consider also the parable of the prodigal son. A young man came to his father and asked for his inheritance, and then, having received it, he went off and learned some important lessons from sad experience. (See Luke 15:11–32.) The father must have known what kind of trouble his boy was headed for. Wasn’t there some way the father could have taught him what he was going to encounter, to help him understand what he might learn from his experience, without running the risk of losing him?

Certainly that must have occurred to God our Father in the preexistence when he considered the plan of a free experience in mortality. If he cared as much about his children as we know he does, why was he willing to take the risk that many would not come back? Didn’t he have the power to touch us with something that would give us the capacity to live with him in the celestial kingdom?

There is a verse in the book of Hebrews that makes it clear that the Savior himself had to undergo the trials of mortality. He “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him who was able to save him from death; …

“Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;

“And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.” (Heb. 5:7–9, italics added.)

Then come those significant lines in which Paul talks about the need to give people only what they can cope with: “Ye … are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.

“For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.

“But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Heb. 5:12–14; italics added.)

What do all of these passages have in common? Why not force people to be righteous? What is it about experience that is so essential—so essential that it is worth the risk that we may not come back? Why is it that we who are accustomed to milk must “by reason of use” exercise our senses to become ready for meat?

It is a fact of nature that salvation is a process, as well as a goal. Salvation involves growth, development, and change. That process implies that in mortality we must learn capacities and skills, not merely pick up information. There is something about forcing people to be righteous that interferes with, even prohibits, the process that righteousness in a free environment is designed to enable. Righteous living causes something to happen to people.

There are two different kinds of knowledge. One involves such rational processes as gathering information and memorizing. The other kind of knowledge I would call skill development—learning how to do something like playing the piano or swimming or taking a car engine apart, learning to sing or dance or think. The process of becoming Christlike is a matter of acquiring skills more than a matter of learning facts and figures. And there is something about the nature of developing those divine skills that makes it impossible even for God to teach us those things unless we participate in the process. We shouldn’t expect it to be otherwise—what piano teacher could teach people to play if they were unwilling to practice? What coach could improve the capacity of an athlete without supervising the athlete’s own trials and errors?

Imagine an innovative music school with a revolutionary approach, the “think method,” in which the piano students did not have to practice. The school would teach all the rudiments; describe in detail how to move one’s fingers; go deeply into music theory and history; teach thoroughly how to read music. The students would memorize all the best books that have ever been written on how to play the piano. The course could last for four years. Each student would have a project, such as memorizing the score of a major piano concerto. They would be able to close their eyes and the manuscript for both piano and orchestra would flow in front of their minds—they could tell you everything about it.

Then, when the first graduate of the “Do It Without Practice Piano Course” walks onto the stage of Carnegie Hall with the orchestra in the background, what do you suppose will happen? Not much. Why?

Some things can be learned only by practice.

In an important book about the philosophy of knowledge, a scholar named Michael Polanyi identifies skills as a unique field of knowledge. (Personal Knowledge, New York: Harper and Row, 1964.) He offers the interesting insight that often the essence of a skill cannot be adequately described, measured, or specified. Hence, these kinds of skills cannot be transmitted by written descriptions and instructions intended to be memorized by later generations. In Polanyi’s words:

“An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription, since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master to apprentice. …

“It follows that an art which has fallen into disuse for the period of a generation is altogether lost. There are hundreds of examples of this to which the process of mechanization is continuously adding new ones. These losses are usually irretrievable. It is pathetic to watch the endless efforts—equipped with microscopy and chemistry, with mathematics and electronics—to reproduce a single violin of the kind the half-literate Stradivarius turned out as a matter of routine more than 200 years ago.” (P. 53.)

It is Polanyi’s view that we can learn a skill only by imitating the skillful performance of one who has mastered the skill—even though the teacher whom we imitate cannot specify and measure every detail of his art. There is a close analogy between this view and the central gospel concept that knowing the Savior personally and emulating his example is the ultimate way of living the gospel, a way that transcends merely following specific commandments and detailed doctrines.

Continuing the quotation from Polanyi, note that he is writing not about religion, but about knowledge as a field of science, even though he does (perhaps unintentionally) make a point about religion:

“To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.” (P. 53.)

Many have known people who rejected an opportunity to test the truthfulness of the gospel because they were not willing to submit to the gospel commandments. Many have pled with the skeptic to just try the gospel and see. How impatient we become when the skeptic wants us to prove it first, before he will submit himself in some way that seems to him a loss of his freedom.

If the skeptic doubts that the process of complying with gospel principles will really bear fruit, his own doubting will indeed make it impossible for the gospel to bear fruit for him. For unless he yields and participates and loses himself in it, there is no way he can find the proof he demands.

Unless a person who is attempting to learn a skill is willing to commit himself totally and irrevocably, there are many things he cannot learn. A blind man with a walking stick becomes accustomed to “seeing” with it. What the stick tells him, the blind man can never fully describe to anyone else, including another blind person. For those who are not blind—but who merely close their eyes at times to see what it is like—are not motivated to try and learn what the stick can tell them about the world. Why not? Because they don’t have to know.

Unless you are blind you don’t have to know.

To carry the analogy further, a blind person may say he would rather not take the risk of getting hit by a car and would prefer to just stay home. All his teacher can say is, “If you want to have the freedom that your cane gives you, you will have to take that risk. I can’t tell you how to learn to use the cane unless you go out there and learn by practice. I will stand by your side and talk to you, I will tell you everything I know, but if you aren’t committed to it, there isn’t anything I can do for you.”

The blind person must somehow be persuaded that going through the agony of practice with the cane, a step at a time, with all the mistakes that inevitably go with practice, is worth the effort and the risks involved. The practice involved is not merely a matter of repetition; rather, it is a process of change and growth achieved by repeated mental effort aimed at learning a specific skill, in the pursuit of some purpose.

How does one convince others about things like that? Our skeptical friends might say, “What is so wonderful about the celestial kingdom? Explain it to me so I can understand it, and then maybe I can put up with all the commandments, take the risks, submit myself to the Master, and go through all the practice and routine. But first I want you to prove to me that it is all going to be worthwhile in the end.”

And what can our answer be? There is no way that human minds, resurrected or not, can communicate to other human minds what it is like. We do not know why that is so. It is in the nature of reality and the nature of the universe. All that we can do is trust and try it. Something will happen to him who tries, and then he will know. Then he will understand, though when he attempts to explain it fully to someone else, they likely will not understand what he is talking about.

The purpose of our existence here is to have an opportunity to develop the skills, the capacities, that are necessary for us to live in the celestial kingdom. When my nine-year-old boy says he wants to drive the car, I must explain to him that if he goes out onto the freeway, he is going to be dangerous—he might kill himself and a lot of other people as well. He does not yet have the capacity to use the freedom offered by a freeway.

Until I can help him develop that capacity—the skill, the judgment, the maturity—going out there freely will kill him. The same would be true of our premature introduction to the freedom—and the responsibility—of living in a kingdom governed by celestial laws.

The assumption of responsibility can be liberating or crushing, depending upon one’s preparation to receive it.

Section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants contains the statement that “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.” (D&C 130:18.) “Principle of intelligence” may refer to facts, information, knowing the commandments with all of the doctrinal variations. But it may also refer to Christlike capacity and skills—self-control, obedience, compassion, patience, unselfishness, and all other virtues.

Why would a man be damned if he saw a sign—if the veil were parted too early? He would be stopping his progress. Even if a chariot were to fly across the sky every day, seeing such wonders would not help us much to know God, and Jesus Christ whom he sent. Since eternal life, which is what it means to know Christ, is a quality of life, it involves the long-term, difficult, gradual development of the capacity to live like Christ. When we begin to live as he does, then will we begin to know him.

The idea that salvation is a process of skill development may help us to understand why there is a veil. We need not be impatient that things must be the way they are—we should, rather, be grateful. These circumstances show us how faith and repentance and knowing God are processes and principles of action, understood not by defining them but by experiencing them. God is a great teacher, and he knows the patterns and the principles that we must follow in the active conduct of our lives in order to develop divine capacities. He can teach it to us—he has that power—but only if we will give ourselves to the process.

If we insist on getting an individual award or a gold star on our forehead as proof that we are learning the right things, or if we insist on being able to explain to everyone else how the gospel works and why it works, even though God himself cannot explain it to our minds until we have mastered the capacities, we will not have learned what the gospel of Jesus Christ is about. We will still be floundering around as spiritual adolescents trying to master the details of a lesser law.

The substance of our religion cannot be fully measured, it cannot fully be specified, except as it is understood by experience. But that is no reason to value it less. The most significant things we know about cannot be measured or specified. Our love for our families, our testimonies, our feelings of gratitude when we sense anew all that God has done for us—somehow to reduce these things to a content that we can communicate entirely to other people or label so that they will understand them as well as we do may be to degrade their sacredness. Like beauty and joy, they are too important to be specifiable.

There is a veil between our world of mortality and God’s world of the eternities. It can become very thin at times, but for most of us the veil remains; for he has placed it there to help us learn how we must live, what we must become, to live with him some day.

[photo] Photography by Jed Clark

Bruce C. Hafen, a member of the Oak Hills First Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake, presently serves as director of evaluation in the Church’s Correlation Department.