Faith-Promoting Rumor

Dedicated to oddments and marginalia in Mormondom and, failing that, deep doctrinal discussion

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Spiritual "Maturity" and the principle of obedience

In Rusty's post regarding the necessity of reasons for commandments (ie. do we really need reasons to obey?), there has been a comment that got me thinking. It is from bboy-mike and here it is in its entirety:
What about ethical dilemmas? What do you do when you're in an abusive, temple sealed marriage? Do you leave, or do you stay because of the covenant? These are real questions that people go through, and yet, if we only understood our faith through simple obedience, we'd have no idea how to act when faced with such a dilemma. (such dilemmas were the cause for ethics in the first place)

That is the reason to know the why behind the command, to understand the principle is the ability to then apply that principle in different and varying circumstances with certainty; it is nearly impossible to come up with a universal application when dealing with particular circumstances.

I reject the Divine Command Theory for the reason that if obedience were the only requirement for this life (which is an implicit understanding in church culture), we would remain as eternal children, never able to become mature adults of understanding and intelligence; we'd always have to ask our 'bishop' what to do in any difficult ethical circumstance, which is very unhealthy to one's moral development.


I find that I disagree with the first and third paragraph of this because I agree with the second.

First let's lay out some ground work. We all "know" that "obedience is the first law in heaven". I am not familiar with any particular verse that states it this way, but there is some support for this idea in the temple ceremony and, in particular, in Abraham 3:24-26
24 And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;
25 And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
26 And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.

Now there are a couple of different ways of taking verse 25 there. Perhaps God thinks it is a bad thing to do everything that he commands. However, the standard interpretation (and, I think, the right one) is to understand 25 as having something to do with verse 26. In other words, the proving discussed in 25 seems to have some effect on the receipt of estates discussed in verse 26. We have some positive confirmation of this theory in the fact that we are indeed here, with a body, while, we believe, the Adversary is here without one. So it does seem important that we seek to do as God has commanded.

So the next question is: Is it right to have God command us in all things? This gets a bit more complex. Let's take a look at a scripture much discussed in connection with this, D&C 58:26-29
26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.
29 But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.

This seems pretty straightforward. We shouldn't wait around for God to tell us to do everything. This command was given in connection to Edward Partridge's move to Missouri, apparently is response to a request to God to tell Bishop Partridge's group how to organize themselves.
D&C 58:24-25
24 And now, as I spake concerning my servant Edward Partridge, this land is the land of his residence, and those whom he has appointed for his counselors; and also the land of the residence of him whom I have appointed to keep my storehouse;
25 Wherefore, let them bring their families to this land, as they shall counsel between themselves and me.

What's important here is the terminology used. You'll note that in verse 25 The Partridge group is told to include the Lord in their planning. Apparently, they fell into the Oliver Cowdery trap (see D&C 9:7-9) of thinking that it was sufficient to ask God and wait for an answer, without trying to work it out themselves, too. This may be the course of the slothful servant, who strives to do nothing more than what he is asked because he wishes to do as little as possible, but (at least according to verses 26-29) this isn't what God wants from us. He wants us to use our own noggin to work out how best to obey...sometimes.

Let's take another useful example, Mahonri Moriancumer:
Ether 2:22-25
22 And he cried again unto the Lord saying: O Lord, behold I have done even as thou hast commanded me; and I have prepared the vessels for my people, and behold there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?
23 And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you, for ye shall not go by the light of fire.
24 For behold, ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth.
25 And behold, I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come. Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?

You know the story and, I assume, you are familiar with the standard exegesis. God is telling Jared's brother to do some of his own thinking for a minute here. But, this is the second time Mahonri has come to the Lord with questions. The first time they spoke, the Lord told him to cut holes in the boat. So, Bro. Moriancumer knows that the Lord is willing to give him some answers just for the asking. Note the phrasing above in verse 25: "what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?" We have a tendancy to hear in this the sound of an exasperated parent who is fed up with a whiny kid. I think that this might be better read as a loving parent watching a child take a first couple steps. Consider it as a sincere request: "Ask and ye shall receive". Sometimes, we are asked to work it out on our own. Sometimes, we are commanded. There doesn't appear to be a one-size fits all approach to this on God's part.

So, now that we have established the ground rules for the game (I hope) let's deal with bboy-mike's comment:
What about ethical dilemmas? What do you do when you're in an abusive, temple sealed marriage? Do you leave, or do you stay because of the covenant? These are real questions that people go through, and yet, if we only understood our faith through simple obedience, we'd have no idea how to act when faced with such a dilemma. (such dilemmas were the cause for ethics in the first place)

Now, I'll assume that bboy-mike believes that there are times in the Gospel when we have to deal with conflicting commandments. In this, he is absolutely correct. Sometimes we get what appear to be mixed messages. I would submit that when this is the case, that these are times when, as spiritually mature adults, we are expected to turn to the Lord and counsel with him. The contrast between counsel and command in D&C 58 is quite clear. The Lord admits that His commands can get us into contradictory situations, so He has provided a way to find the way out of given situations. That way is to talk to Him about it. This can involve several different means of approach (eg. prayer, fasting, talking with church authorities),but the key is to get Him involved. It is we who shut Him out; it is never the other way around.

Now, up to this point, I am in agreement with bboy-mike. But then he mentions "simple obedience." Now, I don't know what exactly he believes that phrase means. Elsewhere in the bloggernacle, "simple faith" is taking a beating (see the comment here and the following comments ("child-like" is being substituted for "simple")). The impression I have gotten is that the people who use the adjective "simple" here are using it in the sense of "simple-minded" (aka. dumb). People who emphasize trying to be obedient all the time are being simple, while I understand that it is more complicated than that (sometimes we must choose the greater of two goods, for instance). Talk like this seems to indicate that the speaker believes that they have opened up some sort of great secret ("Obedience isn't actually always easy! The commandments can be unclear!") when, in my experience, these are things that those who have commited to total obedience understand. It is a principle that appears "easy" (just do what you're told), but everyone realizes that the application is more complicated. Making the decision to be as obedient as possible may seem simple but anyone who has done it can tell you that it is a messy, confusing, and complicated commitment. The only thing you learn from it, ultimately, is to rely wholly on God (which is probably the reason for the commandment in the first place).

On to bboy-mike's third paragraph:
I reject the Divine Command Theory for the reason that if obedience were the only requirement for this life (which is an implicit understanding in church culture), we would remain as eternal children, never able to become mature adults of understanding and intelligence; we'd always have to ask our 'bishop' what to do in any difficult ethical circumstance, which is very unhealthy to one's moral development.

Let me first say that I don't see the problem in including the bishop in your counsels with the Lord, if that is what you feel you must do. Certainly, you could go overboard (see, again, D&C 58:26-29), but it shouldn't be a bad thing to seek the Lord's guidance. Which is what irks me about this sentiment. I am of the firm opinion that no matter how far we progress in this life, we will leave it spiritual children. The idea that by the proper application of reason, intellect, spirituality, humility, etc. we will become spiritual adults is absurd. To imply that is to imply that we will cease to be mortal (physically and spiritually). It isn't something that we can do. Certainly that knowledge that we acquire (that pertains to the eternities) will be carried into the next life, but, whatever knowledge that may be, it does not make us Gods in this life. I repeat, I do not believe that we will ever be spiritually mature in this life. I don't believe Joseph Smith was. I don't believe Gordon B. Hinckley is. I know I am not. I think that there is an argument to be made that Jesus wasn't (didn't he have to get a resurrected body to be a God?). If you believe that it is possible to be a spiritually "mature adult" in this life, more power to you, I suppose, but I don't buy it.

This is especially so when all the counsel we receive is that the spiritually mature are those who submit their will to God (see any talk by Elder Maxwell, for instance). This means a type of "simple obedience." We must decide to counsel with God in all things that we do and then, when he gives us specific instructions, do them, no matter how scary they may be. Look at the following (going back to D&C 58):
29 But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.
30 Who am I that made man, saith the Lord, that will hold him guiltless that obeys not my commandments?
31 Who am I, saith the Lord, that have promised and have not fulfilled?
32 I command and men obey not; I revoke and they receive not the blessing.
33 Then they say in their hearts: This is not the work of the Lord, for his promises are not fulfilled. But wo unto such, for their reward lurketh beneath, and not from above.

The condemnation isn't for those that ask God (or that wait on him when waiting is called for). It is for those who don't keep the commands that they have received or who keep them half-heartedly. It is for those who, upon learning that their half-hearted efforts are not rewarded, decide that the fault is with God and not with them. The people who act the part of the slothful servant are the ones who are damned.

Now, I am not calling bboy-mike (or anybody else) to repentance for this. I am sure that bboy-mike is a great Mormon, a swell guy (nice to little children and puppies), and a wonderful human being. I quite like everything that he said in his second paragraph (I actually think most of this post is a rehash of the sentiments of that paragraph (although I do think that God sometimes withholds the reasons behind things for our benefit)). I am just tired of people equating spiritual "maturity" with the ability to pick and choose commandments. Maturity, to me, if it were possible, would mean that in all cases you ain't the one doing the picking and choosing. Letting the better qualified make some decisions and being prepared when He gives you ones he thinks you can handle, that is what being an adult in the gospel is (I think).