The Veil: Thick or Thin?

In LDS thought, the veil as a symbol of the human condition is used in at least two distinct ways: (1) “a symbol for a separation between God and man,” and (2) “a God-given forgetfulness that blocks people’s memories of the premortal existence.” [“Veil,” Guide to the Scriptures at] The second veil, forgetfulness of the premortal life, appears to be impenetrable: I have never heard an officially endorsed account claiming this divinely imposed forgetfulness was lifted. But there’s a general sense that the first veil seems to rise and fall almost on demand. Prayers flow upward, inspiration flows downward, the Spirit pervades our meetings.

Strangely, the veil as “a symbol of separation between God and man” appears rhetorically in LDS discourse primarily in claims of close communion between God and man. Here’s President Uchtdorf from the October 2009 General Conference: “As we draw near to Heavenly Father, we become more holy. … This greater light leads to the unspeakable ministerings of the Holy Spirit, and the veil between heaven and earth can become thin.” Or Ezra Taft Benson, quoted in the April 1993 Ensign: “The spirit world is not far away. From the Lord’s point of view, it is all one great program on both sides of the veil. Sometimes the veil between this life and the life beyond becomes very thin.” It has become almost a stock phrase. A 1995 Ensign article quotes a member of the Church on genealogy work: “The veil is thin when you do family history.” Most Mormons hear it from time to time across the local pulpit. As veils go, this one is highly permeable. It is thin whenever someone wants it to be.

Or is it? Consider a couple of historical examples. The status of the LDS priesthood ban was controversial for decades. In David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, Gregory Prince traces David O. McKay’s concerns back to 1921, when he requested of President Grant an exception to the ban on behalf of a black Mormon in Hawaii. In 1954, President McKay visited South Africa, expressing sympathy regarding the effects of the “policy” (his term) yet declining to rescind the policy “until a new revelation comes.” Prince summarized:

In the years since 1978, many in the church have supposed that [LDS Church President Spencer W.] Kimball received the revelation because he asked the Lord, whereas his predecessors, including McKay, did not. … Yet in the decades following [McKay’s] death, it has gradually become apparent that he wrestled with the subject for years and years, making it a matter of intense prayer on numerous occasions.

There were few issues of greater import for the Church in the mid-20th century, yet it appears that it took decades of prayerful attempts before a clear divine communication pierced the veil.

A strikingly similar pattern characterized the decades preceding the 1890 Proclamation ending (more or less) the official LDS practice of plural marriage. That announcement came when the political and economic pressure on the Church had become extreme. No doubt that context made President Woodruff’s prayerful requests more intense and more humble, but still it would appear that it took decades of inquiry by the highest leaders of the Church to obtain a divine concurrence. [Alternatively, one may argue there was no divine communication, that Woodruff simply acted to save the Church with the hope that God would sustain his action. One might also argue that no prior LDS President, or Woodruff before the crisis he faced in 1890, ever inquired of the Lord on the subject. Neither alternative seems plausible. It took decades for an answer to come, or for an LDS leader to feel that an answer had come.]

That it takes decades for a message to get through to senior LDS leaders regarding these terribly pressing issues seems to show that the veil is truly thick, not thin. While folk doctrine holds that the veil somehow gets thin at special places (temples) or at special times (nearing death) or for special people (LDS leaders), there is very little official doctrine to support such convenient assumptions, and the historical episodes reviewed above suggest the symbolic veil that separates God from us is anything but thin. It’s a barrier, not a conduit. My suspicion is that, most of the time, we are on our own.


The Veil: Thick or Thin? — 11 Comments

  1. With the Priesthood ban, my own personal feeling is that however sympathetic David O. McKay may have felt about the plight of blacks in the Church, it wasn’t David O. McKay’s Church, and it wasn’t really his decision to make.

    I would wager that opposition in both the Quorum of the Twelve and Quorums of the Seventy was probably still too strong for God to be able to provide them with the revelation.

    So I guess I would agree with you that the veil is thick – but I would also point out that a lot of the reason it stays that way is because of us. We prefer it that way a lot of the time.

  2. Perhaps not satisfying to many is the more common answer that there was a reason God postponed correcting the error regarding blacks and the priesthood (or concisely ending polygamy).

    This reminds me of solutions to the classic problem of evil. With benevolence, omnipotence and omniscience as attributes of God, how can one explain the evil that occurs among God’s creations — in this case, apparent unwarranted discrimination against blacks. God loves us absolutely, is completely aware of what is going on, and has absolute power to execute his benevolence. So why the seeming disconnect?

    To solve the problem, one must tweak one of the defining attributes of God. And that usually consists of redefining benevolence. We often suggest that as humans, we just misunderstand benevolence — and that the continued denial of priesthood to blacks was actually an act of love that we just don’t understand.

    Can this be applied to the thickness/thinness veil problem?

  3. Clair, I’ve heard this notion before – that blacks weren’t ready to receive the Priesthood, that it might have brought violence on the church or the blacks involved, or one (from a close acquaintance of mine) that the patriarchal and voodoo culture of Africa would have been a real disaster in implementing the Priesthood.

    I’m highly suspicious of these explanations.

  4. It seems like when most people claim that the veil is thin it is due to having feelings that we have been taught to associate with the spirit. If the veil truly is thick, do you believe that people are for the most part manufacturing the spiritual feelings they have in their prayers and the pivotal times you mentioned above? As someone who experiences spiritual feelings with some frequency and who is also aware of the ambiguous relation between regular human emotion and legitimate divine communication, I am forced to think a lot about which to take seriously or not. Is it possible that the process it takes to receive a revelation tends to be commensurate with the ramifications of that revelation, so one for an institution might take longer? I recognize the holes in that theory as well…

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Clair, there are various God-centered explanations for why revelation might (from our perspective) be delayed, but they strike me as ad hoc fixes, not serious proposals. But whether it is God that delays things or humans, my view is that the veil as a symbol of our separation from God implies that not all prayers make it to God and not many of those pleas that get through to Him get answered. If all prayers found access to God and they all received prompt responses … well, that’s not much of a veil (veils hide things).

    Alexei, I’m sure many struggle with the question of emotional response versus legitimate and valid divine response. One might argue that when a person suddenly gets clear and distinct ideas (as opposed to vague and unfocused ideas or feelings), that is a sign of divine communication. Ironically, those are the criteria Descartes used to identify reliable mental thoughts or intuitions, which he, as a rationalist philosopher, contrasted with unreliable sense perception. The problem for both Descartes and for us is trying to actually apply that method. A claim that “my ideas are clear and distinct — you must accept them” doesn’t persuade many listeners. If that distinction works at all, it works only for ourselves.

    More generally, yes one could argue that simple problems get quick answers but real tough problems take time. But it’s not like it takes God two generations to figure out a response — if this is the case, it is us that takes two generations to come around to listening. Or, one might suggest that the Holy Spirit is always available to provide general strength and comfort to those in need, but more detailed inquiries are answered by a different and perhaps lengthy process. I don’t know that we really know much about the process (or processes) by which prayers are answered (or not answered), so I won’t speculate further in that direction.

  6. Something that just popped into my head…

    Why would a spiritual experience necessarily be “less valid” for being manufactured?

    Isn’t spirituality something you’re expected to “work at” in various religious traditions?

  7. Yes, I tend to agree that when God wants to say something, he can say it without jumping through some kind of unknown administrative hoops. It probably has more to do with our own preparation individually (or collectively as the case might be). Sometimes I feel like God’s response time might hinge more on how many rules we believe we need to follow to receive guidance than than actually exist.

    For many I guess spirituality is largely equated with feelings of comfort and peace and if that is all one is looking for, I suppose, spirituality whether manufactured or not could be equally valid. However, I hate the thought of basing a life decision off of a feeling that could just be from my head.

  8. It would be interesting to explore the idea of veil as symbol. A veil separates, but not as a wall. It moves and can be parted. Veils are thinner than walls. Veils can be transluscent or opaque. Thick or thin. But they are not walls of separation, and they can be parted with a hand. A hand can touched you and lead you to walk through. One can go back and forth.

    The substance of the symbolism is that a veil separates as if temporarily, two related, two connected but very different worlds—the profane and the sacred. Veils either block sight, distort sight or prevent sight. So, as some Jungians have claimed, God IS the subconscious mind. Or as an alternative, God is manifest through the veil—the porous connection to the subciscious mind. The veil evokes the concept of the divine as mysterious, non-rational, artful, inexplicable, partly accessable, and maybe or partly visible to consciouness, but distorted to sight. Veils are by nature thinner than walls—and an invitation to enter a different world.

    Mormon Apostle John Widstoe was a scientist. He wrote a a book about Jospeh Smith and rational theology. I like to think of Joseph Smith as the restorer of non-rationla religion—flashes of insight, falling to the ground, visions, wild theolgy of the Council of 50, polgamy, the POWER of the Holy Ghost as the Book of Mormon is find of sayiong. BY POWER, Joseph Smith meant exepriential— not intellectual. This is a relgion that runs the opposite direction from rationality, without denying it. It is not irrational, but non-rational. It is a religion of the veil not a religion of the book.

    God is often hidden from the conscious mind, unseen. The veil as human symbol for two apsects of human nature, often unseen, and subconscious. A prophet, by definition, is a human who stand between the two worlds or tarvels between the two wolrds separated by a veil for the benefit of a community to seek knowdlege, health, answers, or as a guide through a veil to the spiritual world. IN that sense, the concept of prophet is a social symbol that compliments the symbolism of a veil.

  9. Mark, “the veil” certainly does seem to be a symbol that has attracted a variety of meanings within Mormonism. Just today I was reading in Second Corinthians and came across Paul’s use of the symbol, different from either LDS usage noted in the original post:

    And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Cor. 4:3-4)

    The common thread is that the veil hides something from our conscious minds: God, the pre-existence, the gospel.