Letter to a student (final excerpt #3)

When faced with the extremism of Pharisees, I know it is common to insist that love is more important than obedience and that the spirit is more important than the letter, but it is unfortunate that such positions so often result in a lax attitude about taking commandments seriously. As opposed as he was to fanatics, Christ never preached love at the expense of obedience. Sometimes the spirit of the law requires more intense conformity than we thought. Christ said it was not enough to avoid adultery but to avoid adulterous thoughts. We don’t have the ears to hear this sometimes. Some obey without love, for its own sake, and fail to do good in their obedience. Others naturally gravitate to the good feelings of love but they fail to do the work to empower it to its fullest capacity through the grace that comes from total submission to God’s will. This is what Paul is getting at in his famous discourse about charity. Without God’s love and grace to bless and sanctify our actions, we are nothing. I am not suggesting that we “earn” this grace through obedience, but it is folly to allow the fanaticism of others, their lack of love, or their apathy about world problems as an excuse to avoid trying with all of our might, mind, and strength to do what he asks.

I do wish we Mormons would learn that morality includes far more than a morality of the body and I certainly don’t find the political status quo in our Utah church culture acceptable, but I am afraid that there isn’t an easy solution to these problems. If we assume wholesale institutional corruption is the root of the problem, then wholesale revolution is the only answer. In my experience, such categorical conclusions about the church, about an institution like a university or a business, or even about the state or federal governments is the result of poor thinking and is often motivated by a desire to escape the burdens of uncertainty, personal responsibility, and the complexity of human beings. We want diagnoses that are clear, unambiguous, and that don’t implicate ourselves. I recently read these words from Wendell Berry:

“The question, What can we do? especially when the problem is large, implies the expectation of a large solution. I have no solution to offer. There is, as maybe we all have noticed, a conspicuous shortage of large-scale corrections for problems that have large-scale causes…. The aftermath of a bombing has to be dealt with one corpse, one wound at a time. And so the first temptation to avoid is the call for some sort of revolution. To imagine that destructive power might be made harmless by gathering enough power to destroy it is of course perfectly futile…. Arrogance cannot be cured by greater arrogance, or ignorance by greater ignorance. To counter the ignorant use of knowledge and power we have, I am afraid, only a proper humility” (The Way of Ignorance, 62-3).

In another passage, I read these burning words:

“Mere opposition finally blinds us to the good of the things we are trying to save.  And it divides us hopelessly from our opponents, who no doubt are caricaturing us while we are demonizing them. We lose, in short, the sense of shared humanity…. An effort that is defined only or mainly by a problem is negative necessarily” (74).

I am not accusing you or anyone else who is sincerely and deeply concerned about the welfare of society of being arrogant or blind, or negative. I am merely pointing to the ethical challenges of resisting the massive problems that we face. It seems we cannot expect more than partial success. This is no reason to stop caring or to stop trying. It is not the same thing as saying change is impossible, but if we believe that any logic that advocates moderation or patience is only and always a betrayal, we bypass all the best tools in our midst we could have used and all the members of the coalition of the willing, to rescue a phrase, that we could have summoned. Berry is giving us a cause for caution, patience beyond what would seem warranted, and peace in doing the little we can. I think he would agree that our ability to accept these limitations comes from Christ; it is, in his words, the “burden of the Gospels” to “accept our failure to understand, not as a misstatement or a textual flaw or as a problem to be solved, but as a question to live with and a burden to be borne” (131).

There is, I know, something deeper and more personal at stake in these comments for you. And I tread on this ground with trepidation and a prayer in my heart that I will not come across as presumptuous or oblivious to your circumstances. I only know you in part and I am eager to be corrected and enlightened about your spiritual life and struggles. My impression is that you are more deeply Christian, more indebted to the church and to the gospel, more suited to build his kingdom, more deeply doing the work of bringing the power of the atonement into many people’s lives, than perhaps you realize. But as much strength as others already draw from you, I believe they will draw even more strength if they see that you are unambiguously clear about your fundamental submission to God and to Christ. I hope this doesn’t sound like a judgment of your person. It is, rather, an advocacy of a certain kind that I want to encourage you to consider. If people can see that the terms of this submission are those we all recognize in the church as the fundamentals, you and those who admire and are inspired by you will draw more strength from God than from you. Make no mistake: I do not think you have a God complex. But we must keep pointing people to God, to Christ, to a power higher than our own, or else we will fail. And maybe you are doing this already but when our allusions to this power seem disconnected from or unrelated to the institution of the church, I fear we may weaken others in their capacity to access the potent and saving power of the atonement. If we can access the power to do those things that we are called to do to build the kingdom in the broadest sense, perhaps others will follow, but then it won’t be about ideas or personalities but about God’s power in human lives. And this is really the point. You and I have some good ideas—maybe even very good ones— about how to make a good society, or at least we might be able to argue what one would or could look like. But I think God in the end must be our guide in how to make this happen.  Unless I learn the discipline that brings me into contact with that guidance, I will only be working for a purely self-made vision. If we go forward to do this unarmed by the power that comes from such submission to “every word that proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God,” we may end up creating a god and a vision of the good merely after our own image. This god we have invented might be a relatively nice one, a moral one on the whole, and politically very cool, but he might not be the real One, the One who endows us with real power to make the world as he would design it. We will work alone for a cause that can only be achieved with divine help and one that we have ill defined because of mortal, if not moral, short-sightedness.


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