Many years ago, while I was in graduate school in California, I was summoned into his office by the bishop of my ward. Two elderly women in the ward had complained to him that I was teaching “secular humanism” in Sunday school.
I was the Gospel Doctrine teacher, and we were covering the last chapters of the book of Alma in the Book of Mormon.
I’m again a Gospel Doctrine teacher, and, today, I taught from Alma 53-58.
And, once again, I taught “secular humanism” (for which these two sisters apparently had a very idiosyncratic or eccentric definition).
What was my offense?
First, some background:
I believe that Mormon’s deeply admiring portrait of Captain Moroni in the final chapters of Alma — he ultimately names his own son Moroni — still provides enough data to see Moroni’s human side: Moroni had a temper. And this was probably not unrelated to his success as a warrior. (Think of Plato’s Republic, with its tripartite division of the human soul into rational, “spirited” [thymus], and appetitive faculties, corresponding respectively, in society at large, to Plato’s philosopher-kings, the warrior class, and the worker class of merchants, farmers, and laborers.) But being a spirited warrior — Plato says that anger and indignation pertain to the “spirited” faculty — may not have made Moroni exactly a natural diplomat.
In the chapters that we discussed today, we saw a prisoner exchange (one that had been proposed by Ammoron and that was desired by Moroni) fall through, partly because Moroni replies with a righteously indignant letter (his indignation is entirely justified) to Ammoron, who is, in his own turn, enraged. Ammoron responds angrily, which further infuriates Moroni, and . . . Well, you know the story. (If you don’t know the story, read the Book of Mormon. And pray about it.)
For next week’s class discussion, we’ll read Moroni’s letter to Pahoran — Royal Skousen says that the name should read Parhoran — in which he seeks to know why the central government has been so unreliable at supplying his troops fighting in the field. The letter starts off calmly, with Moroni admitting that he doesn’t know the reasons and is hoping to learn them. But he soon grows furious at the injustice of it all and at the risk to which his men are being subjected because of the lack of provisions. By the end of his letter, Moroni is vowing to withdraw from the battlefront in order to return and overthrow the lazy, worthless civilian bureaucrats back home in the capital. (Pahoran’s reply is a model of restraint and graciousness, and a crisis is averted.)
I told my class, those many years ago, that this portrayal of Moroni humanizes him, shows him to be a fallible mortal — and that, far from damaging my respect for the Book of Mormon, this depiction strengthens my confidence that we’re dealing with real people, in real history. It’s a believable portrait of a great but very human man under enormous stress, in a situation of very imperfect information. It also makes me feel that I, a deeply flawed human being, can learn something from him, that I shouldn’t merely stand in awe of him as if he were, effectively, of a different species than I am.
Those old ladies thought I was expressing “secular humanism.” They were wrong. In reality, I was bearing testimony.
Oh yes: The bishop didn’t identify the ladies, but he told me about their complaint and then told me to go on teaching as I had been, and not to worry.