IV Is Lehi‘s Sermon on Universal Opposition a Valid Argument?
When I conceive of any defined noun, say a horse, I have divided up the world into two spheres, things that are horses and things that are not horses. Every definition of X implies a not X definition. Lehi’s dualistic argument is a valid as long as it stays within the realm of human language and conceptualization.
But Lehi’s argument is invalid when he starts to insist that for every X there is a not X that actually exists. Let us suppose that a female kills all males on the planet. Females would exist, and males would not exist, except in the mind. The existence of females does not prove the necessary existence of males. Just because righteousness can be proven to exist, that does not mean that evil and hell necessarily exist anywhere but in the mind. Just because things exist that are acted upon, does not mean that there are necessarily things in existence that act without being acted upon. Lehi’s argument is invalid because it confuses concepts, language and actual existence.
A second problem with Lehi’s argument for dualism is a problem with sloppy categories. Lehi refers to sensibility and insensibility. These are necessarily complementary opposites in a dualistic system. The concept of righteousness also implies the dual category of “not righteousness.” But, “not righteousness” is not the same thing as “evil.” Not righteousness may be a simple lack of moral content. The concept of heaven necessarily implies a concept of not-heaven. But not-heaven is not necessarily the same thing as hell. This confusion of definitional categories is a second element that undermines the validity of Lehi’s argument.
But despite its logical problems, there is something profound and urgent about the symbolism of Lehi’s argument of opposition. As with most Mormon revelations, it reflects the historical setting of its audience, but never in any simply or automatic fashion. If religion is the projection of the human soul upon the cosmos, then the argument tells us something of the depth of the Mormon prophetic soul and the symbolism of its salvation. By trying to demonstrate the necessity of evil and hell, it reminds us of the ubiquity of evil in every life and the childish bullying in even our most honored institutions of health, art and religion. It seems that no matter how aggressively we ring them out, large institutions are saturated with evil. No matter how strict the Sunday School, sooner or later, every human footstep bolts to a dark path. If evil does not exist necessarily, at least it seems to exist necessarily. But why? Like any rich symbol, the mythology inherent in Lehi’s argument simply provokes our thought.
Yes, Lehi recognizes the coming hell—the universal Judgment Day. The extinction of millions is staring us in the face. It is real and it is serious. The lots have been cast amid the storm, and the lot has fallen upon us. The wide-eyed crew stands aback, speechless. But Lehi does not go quietly into that dark night. He refuses to find easy comfort in the doctrines of Calvinism or Universalism, in the consolation of inability or the doctrine of denial. But out of his intense pessimism, flows the living water of possible survival—the possibility of an ultimate optimism in Lehi’s symbolism of salvation.
There is no greater advocate for the possibility and hope of human effort among conservative Arminians in the early nineteenth century than the Book of Mormon, even though few there be that find it:
Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves —to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life. 2 Nephi 10:23
Lehi is addressing something more than abstract theology. His revelation in 2 Nephi 2 comes (as Tillich taught us) as an answer to the concrete problems of existence—death, guilt and meaninglessness. In our age, when existence is tipping in the storm of societal and environmental collapse, this symbolism reminds us who we are and where we stand, and the unseen power of choice within the horrible frailty of every human soul and institution.