The Value of the Veil

By Bruce C. Hafen

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

    Why would God have chosen to draw a veil between our world of mortality and his world of the eternities? This may seem perplexing. Not only does the veil keep us from remembering our premortal past, it also keeps God, his angels, and their activities hidden from our sight.

    After the Resurrection, the Savior met two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize him as he talked with them. 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 expounded 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 he had used to teach them while he was in the flesh. Only later did they recognize him.

    Why didn’t he 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, both of whom died at about the same time. 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 the world, 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 people received him not. Why didn’t the Lord reveal himself 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 men came to his father and asked for his inheritance. Then, after receiving it, he went away 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, without running the risk of losing him?

    Certainly that must have occurred to our Father in the premortal existence when he considered the plan of a free experience in mortality. Loving his children as 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 in some miraculous way that would bypass that risk and endow all of us with the capacity to live with him in the celestial kingdom?

    A verse in the book of Hebrews makes it clear that the Savior himself had to learn many of life’s lessons the hard way—from experience. He “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that 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).

    Then come those significant lines in which Paul talks about the need to give us only the knowledge that we can assimilate: “Ye … are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.

    “For every one that useth milk is unskillful 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).

    Why not force people to be righteous? Why is experience 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?

    Salvation is a process, as well as a goal. The process involves growth, development, and change on our part—in addition to the saving grace of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Thus, in mortality we must learn capacities and skills, not merely gather 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.

    Learning Divine Skills

    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 play the piano or swim or take a car engine apart, learning to sing or dance or think. The process of developing a Christlike personality is more a matter of acquiring skills and divine attributes than a matter of learning facts and figures. And it is impossible for us to learn those divine skills 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 an athlete’s skills without supervising the athlete’s trials and errors during innumerable practice sessions?

    Imagine a music school with a revolutionary approach, in which the piano students did not have to practice. The school would teach in a purely theoretical way 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. The students would each have a project, such as memorizing the score of a major piano concerto. They would be able to close their eyes and see the manuscript for both piano and orchestra flow through their minds. They could tell you everything about it.

    Then, when the first graduate of the “Do It without Practice Piano Course” walked onto the stage of a concert hall to make his debut with the orchestra, what do you suppose would happen?

    Not much. Why?

    Even though “thinking” is an essential element in any form of learning, some things can be learned only by practice.

    Submitting to the Master

    In an important book about the philosophy of knowledge, a scholar named Michael Polanyi identifies skill acquisition as a unique field of knowledge. Polanyi believes 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 idea 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.

    Though Polanyi is not writing about religion, his concept does apply to religious knowledge: “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 analyze 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” (Personal Knowledge, New York: Harper and Row, 1964, page 53).

    The Skeptic’s Fallacy

    Most of us have known people who will not test the truthfulness of the gospel because they are not willing to submit to the gospel commandments. We plead with the skeptic to try the gospel and see. But 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. However, his own doubting will indeed make it impossible for the gospel to bear fruit for him, for unless he lives the principles of the gospel—losing himself in it—he can never find the proof he demands.

    Until a person who is attempting to learn a skill is willing to commit himself totally and irrevocably, there are many things he cannot learn. Polanyi describes how a blind man with a white cane becomes accustomed to “seeing” with it. What the cane tells him, the blind man can never fully describe to anyone else. Those who are not blind—but who merely close their eyes at times to see what it is like—are not motivated enough to learn what the cane 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, the blind man 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 the freedom your cane can give you, you must 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 may 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 we can do is trust and try it. Something will happen to those who try, and then they will know. But when they attempt to explain it so someone else, the listener likely will not understand fully what they are talking about.

    Our mortal existence gives us the opportunity to develop the skills, capacities, and divine attributes we must have 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 he develops that capacity—the skill, the judgement, the maturity—driving on the freeway 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.

    Responsibility can liberate us or crush us, depending upon how prepared we are to receive it.

    The Doctrine and Covenants teaches 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, or knowledge of the commandments and doctrines. But it may also refer to Christlike capacity and skills—self-control, obedience, compassion, patience, unselfishness, and other virtues.

    Why might we be “damned” or stopped if the veil were parted too early? We would be stopping our progress toward the development of those celestial qualities. Even if a chariot were to fly across the sky every day, it would not help us much to know God and Jesus Christ whom he sent. (See John 17:3.) “Eternal life” refers not to length of life, but to quality of life. It involves the long-term, difficult, gradual development of the capacity to live as Christ does. When we begin to live as he does, then will we begin to know him.

    Recall the presentation of Satan’s plan in the premortal existence: “I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). We usually say the problem with Satan’s plan was that he “sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him” (Moses 4:3).

    The Necessity of Agency

    Why does agency matter so much?

    Without agency, we cannot develop the skills and attributes that are essential to the growth we must experience to return to God’s presence. It is simply impossible. A horse can be led to water, but he cannot be forced to drink. A child can be given a book, but she will never learn to read unless she voluntarily makes an effort to read. Satan’s plan could not have worked. His claim of guaranteeing that not one soul would be lost, regardless of our choices, was like most of his claims: it was a lie.

    These ideas suggest some of the reasons why voluntary action and freedom of inquiry are essential to the development of religious character, just as they are essential to intellectual development.

    The idea that salvation involves a process of skill development may also 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. We understand these processes and principles not just by defining them, but also by experiencing them. God is a great teacher, and he knows the patterns and the principles we must follow in order to develop divine capacities. He can teach us these things—he has that power—but only if we will give ourselves to the process.

    If we insist on getting a medal or an award 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 finite minds until we have developed the capacity to understand it—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 fully be measured. It cannot fully be understood, except by experience. But that is no reason to value it less. The most significant things we know about cannot be totally measured or specified—our love for our families, our testimonies, our feelings of gratitude to God. Somehow, to reduce these things to a content that we can communicate entirely to other people may be to degrade their sacredness. Like beauty and joy, they are too important to be specifiable.

    Of course, the value of learning through experience does not mean that we must make every human mistake ourselves in order to learn the lessons of life. We can learn vividly and permanently through vicarious experience, as we observe the good and bad consequences that flow from the choices other people make. There is evidence all around in today’s world that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10).

    In addition, we are not able, solely through our own effort, to develop the attributes of a Christlike perfection—even if we participate fully in the learning opportunities provided by the mortal experience. We must do all within our power, but the final achievement of celestial capacity comes ultimately as a divine gift. “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, … that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ” (Moro. 10:32).

    The Savior’s atonement can compensate not only for our sins, but also for our inadequacies. This is an important qualification on the significance of our own effort—not only because it reminds us of the mission of Christ, but also because it assures us that our own struggling is not our only resource in the quest for understanding, for meaning, and for a divine nature.

    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.

    Photography by Derek Smith

    Jesus and the Disciples Going to Emmaus, by Gustave Dore

    Detail from The Agony in the Garden, by Gustave Dore

    Jesus Praying in the Garden, by Gustave Dore

    Detail from The Darkness at the Crucifixion, by Gustave Dore

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    • Bruce C. Hafen serves as Provost of Brigham Young University.