In this Series we've soared (and stumbled) through heaven and hell. I prefer heaven, so we're going to explore that some more.
In Part 1 we saw that the purpose of life on earth is to be "abased."
1. Saving knowledge (what the scriptures call "intelligence") is acquired by completing a descent / ascent cycle.
2. The descent phase is called "condescension" in scripture.
3. The ascent phase is called "exaltation" in scripture. According to Joseph Smith, we go "from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead." (JS, History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844], p. 1971, The Joseph Smith Papers)
But Joseph could have equally said we go "from condescension to condescension." It just doesn't sound as catchy.
4. Here's the important part: the extent of our condescension will dictate the extent of our exaltation, which are always proportionate.
5. Thus we see the opposition in all things; Christ is the great exemplar of this truth; He said: "The Son of Man hath descended below them all" (D&C 122:8).
6. If we want to encounter Christ, chances are we will meet Him during our descent phase (which is ironic, because everyone expects to find Him by climbing up the ladder, when in fact you're more likely to see him in a soup kitchen at the bottom of it) (see Matt. 25:37-40).
7. Why must we "descend"? I mean, couldn't we be good little boys and girls and just take a direct flight to Kolob, straight-as-an-arrow, upwards forever and forever, to infinity and beyond? What strikes me is that the Lord (who was perfect) traveled to heaven via hell.
8. The signs in the heavens typify the ascent / descent cycle; Christ's, that is, and to the extent we follow Him, our own.
This is what we're going to dive deeper into.
The Importance of Cosmology to Establishing Zion
Some of you may find the hullabaloo over constellations and celestial signs off-putting; you might worry it veers too closely into astrology (but doesn't all truth have its knock-offs?); and some may question the relevance of this topic to our Christian walk.
Let's review a few things to help answer their concerns:
1. The Restoration-of-All-Things is much more expansive than we supposed: it includes, quite critically, the Restoration-of-the-Earth to its paradisiacal glory; this is far more than just a lipstick-job.
The earth needs to return to the state she was in before she was divided and subdivided (we discussed this in Part 4 and also in Translation and Tarrying), preparatory to receiving her celestial halo (D&C 88:19).
Quite literally, the Restoration is intended to restore the earth to her proper place in the cosmos so those who dwell hereon may receive their celestial glory.
2. The Savior told us to "watch" for the Signs of the Times. Do we think those signs are all earthquakes-and-wars-and-famines-and-pestilence? No, no; the majority of the Signs the Lord foretold appear in the heavens.
a. The sun shall be darkened
b. The moon turned to blood
c. The stars shall fall from heaven
d. There shall be "greater signs in heaven above" (D&C 29:14)
e. There shall be "a new heaven"
f. The heavens shall unravel like a scroll
The curtain of heaven [shall] be unfolded, as a scroll is unfolded after it is rolled up.
g. There shall be revealed "the sign of the Son of man in heaven" (Matt. 24:30).
Joseph Smith said, "Then will appear one grand sign of the Son of Man in heaven. But what will the world do? They will say it is a planet, a comet, &c." (History of the Church, 5:337).
And lest we forget:
3. In the beginning, the heavens were meticulously ordered to instill within humanity a yearning for something greater, higher, diviner.
And the Gods organized the lights in the expanse of the heavens . . . to be for signs and for seasons.
4. Zion serves as the "beachhead" that will connect the Remnant of Israel with the Lost 10 Tribes and Enoch's City preparatory to the Lord's return. This event will be cosmic; it is extraterrestrial!
A Beginner's Bootcamp in Astronomy
When I was thirteen, I attended a week-long Scout Camp at Maple Dell. The most memorable part was getting the Astronomy Merit Badge; each night after dark we hiked to the summit of the mountain, where we turned off our flashlights and watched the stars. I had never seen the sky like that: so clear and unclouded by human light-pollution.
The magic I felt staring up at the night sky and learning about the constellations has always stayed with me, even into adulthood. On my i-Phone I have the Sky Guide app (which I recommend) so I can lay on the grass in the backyard with my children, searching the stars.
With apologies to those of you who are amateur astronomers, I am going to give a brief "Bootcamp" for those of us who are new to this topic. It will provide a needed foundation upon which we can build in our discussion of sacred astronomy.
Now let's get to it.
Think of how the Bible came-to-be. As a book, I mean. As the central, universal text of Christianity.
Okay, good. Now compare the way the books of the Bible were selected, compiled and canonized ― which took centuries to coalesce into the form we have today, and which, we believe, was guided by God's hand ― now compare that process with how the star map came to be. Did it follow a similar path?
Instead of Galatians, we have Gemini; instead of Second Corinthians, Scorpius.
Ancient peoples used the stars to navigate the seas, but more than that, they used the stars to navigate their faith.
No, not in some frou-frou, eccentric-old-aunt-who-reads-her-horoscope kind of way, but as means of genuine worship of God (and from time to time, the gods).
So how do we pick out the good from the chaff? How do we know what is true from what is false?
Well, the Lord told us how; in the same way we approach the apocryphal works of the Bible!
There are many things contained therein that are true [and] there are many things contained therein that are not true.
Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; and whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom.
(D&C 91:1-2, 4-5)
There we have it. Like any other part of the gospel, our search for truth (in this case, our study of the heavens) requires spiritual discernment.
Shall we shrink from our quest merely because the path is pocked with pitfalls ― with false starts, red herrings, and foolish interpretations?
No, of course not. Onwards, then!
(Babylonian Venus Tablet)
A Brief History of Astronomy
Foremost, the ancients used the stars to situate themselves amidst the cosmic workings of life and death ― which form the crux of all creation.
The Egyptian Pyramids were built to align with the Pole Star; the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak was set to the rising of the midwinter Sun.
British Professor John Barrow said, "You should not take very seriously the idea that people who named these star-patterns really did believe them to be looking like, say, a hunter or a plough. They were symbolic." The ancients were not simpletons; we should not view them as idiots but as wise in ways we have forgotten, lost within the modern machinery of materialistic humanism.
One of the myths I love from Egypt was how Pharaoh, when he died, it was said his soul would ascend into the heavens and become a star.
Our Christian tradition preserves that idea: there's a star called Wormwood; Jesus is the "bright and morning star"; and Lucifer was a "shining one" (a star) who fell from heaven with his hungering hordes, creating a hole in the heart of our Family.
One of the earliest texts we have about the planets is the Babylonian tablet of Ammisaduqa (circa 1500 B.C.) describing the movement of Venus. Do all the planets bear witness of Christ, in their own unique way?
The Babylonians developed books they called Star Catalogues and used their sophisticated mathematics and geometry to chart the constellations. Was it mere curiosity, or were they searching for some greater pattern, or meaning, in the firmament?
Where did the Wise Men come from?
Where is he that is born the King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east.
The ancient astronomers were not scientists, like we think of them today; back then, those who studied the stars and mapped the heavens were priest-scribes.
In China, the scribes developed the Twenty-Eight Mansions (the Chinese constellation system), which track the movement of the Moon through a 28-day month. In India they created a similar system called the Nakshatra. And the Arabs loved to study the stars, too. They shared their knowledge with the Greeks, from whence came our modern understanding of astronomy.
Remarkably, in Ptolemaic Egypt at Alexandria, it was a melting pot where diverse cultures shared their knowledge with each other; the Egyptian tradition merged with Greek astronomy and Babylonian astronomy ― a common tongue was born in the constellations.
Over time, the various astronomical methods and approaches synthesized into the one we have today.
Sure, they used different names for the stars and constellations (for example, the Sumerians called Orion sidallu, which means "The Loyal Shepherd of heaven"), but despite the differences, it amazes me how things came together.
Well, it was not quite so seamless.
Things didn't get settled in the form we have now until 1922, when the International Astronomical Union agreed on 88 constellations.
In our next post, we'll take a look at some foundational astronomical principles and concepts.