Visiting the ruins at Copan, Honduras, was one of the things on my bucket list, so now I can cross that off. But it left an interesting, unexpected lesson.
We have heard the same basic story about Mayan civilization at a number of different archaeological sites now—Chichen Itza, Tulum, Quiriga, Tikal, Copan. Once they were powerful places, centers of culture and commerce with important religious and family ties to each other. Then in a comparatively short time they faded away as the Mayan civilization declined and fell.
The Mayans reached a zenith of learning and culture, with great knowledge of astronomy and engineering and great skill in art. And then, seemingly, they lost the light they had and slid into cultural and intellectual darkness. We are told that the final collapse came as the nobles, a self-selected upper class, glutted and pampered themselves through abuse of the lower class. Finally, the poor, fed up, walked away to free themselves, and in doing so abandoned the knowledge and culture that had been the fiefdom of their rulers.
As a believer in the Book of Mormon, I see this end as the natural result of the cycle of pride and wickedness repeated through centuries in that history of the descendants of Lehi. Ultimately, pride, arrogance, and greed leached away the opportunity for a society and the individuals in it to repent and thus be rejuvenated.
As a believer, I’d like to see the people who built these cities connected by archaeological evidence with families and characters in the Book of Mormon. But I doubt that it will ever happen. God has never yet given mankind a free pass to certainty. There is a cost in spiritual, and sometimes temporal, terms in gaining knowledge. Religious belief will always have to be validated by the exercise of faith, not by scholarship or archaeological discovery. I don’t think anyone is ever going to find the graffito somewhere in Mesoamerica that says, “I, Nephi, was here.”
Nevertheless, there’s an important personal lesson in the historical outline of the Mayan fall: decline can come to our society or to us personally for the same reasons, and it will be just as deadly spiritually and intellectually.
We saw at Copan great, well-engineered monuments that are being cracked and broken apart by the irresistible roots of ceiba trees growing out of crevices between the stones. There is irony in the fact that what the Mayans considered the tree of life is helping to destroy the monuments they left behind.
We have to be very careful what we allow to take root in us, because in the end the roots of certain habits or weaknesses we cultivate can become irresistible forces.
Pride, in particular, is a treacherous seed. We can get so caught up in admiring what we’d like to believe we are that we lose sight of what we could become.
Gluttony for any kind of satisfaction or creature comfort can dull and eventually choke the life out of our ability to respond to the Spirit of God.
Becoming dependent on the sacrifices of others, and even demanding them—because after all, we’re special and we deserve this treatment—leads to social irrelevance and to surrender of the ability to act for ourselves.
The decline may be gentle at first, almost unnoticeable. But if we take no action to change things, there will come a point when decline is irreversible. Once the roots of the ceiba trees become strong enough to break apart solid rock foundations, there is no stopping them.