Choose the Right. Why?

Richard Evans

The commandments, including the big 10 themselves, are a prominent theme of the Friday afternoon session of the October 1971 General Conference.

Richard L. Evans  of the Quorum of the Twelve (“Should the Commandments Be Rewritten?”) notes that some have recently recommended that the commandments should be rewritten. He advises instead that they be re-read.   Rather than quarreling with or quibbling about the commandments and trying to rationalize them away, we must “simply accept the facts and be honest with ourselves.”

Sometimes people quibble about the meaning of scripture and rationalize and justify themselves in doing things they well know they shouldn’t do. They sometimes say, for example, that “Thou shalt not commit adultery” doesn’t include all the other kinds and degrees of immoral sins and perversions, or that the Word of Wisdom, for example, doesn’t catalogue all the substances and brand names and all the products and dope and harmful things that have been discovered or concocted that are not good for men.

And if anyone doubts that all forms of moral infraction and perversion are not condemned by scripture, may we assure you that there are scriptures that could be cited for you that prohibit all evils, all impurities and perversions, all uncleanness and excesses, all unwise habits and unbecoming conduct.

 

One fact that we must accept is that not even the smartest human being is competent to give us essential advice on how we should live:

Who knows better than the Creator and Father of us all what is and isn’t essential?

Brilliant men, philosophers and others, have wrestled with these questions through the centuries, and haven’t arrived at any answers they can agree on among themselves.

I have a great respect for scholarship, for education and research, for academic excellence, and for the magnificent accomplishments of sincere and searching men. But I also have great respect for the word of God, and his prophets, and life’s purpose; and it comes to a question of where to place our trust.

Bernard Brockbank of the First Quorum of the Seventy similarly counsels that “the God-given Ten Commandments are still a basic part of God’s way of life and a basic part of the gospel of the kingdom.” And he is ready to specify commandments that refer to certain sins “that existed among the people in Rome at Paul’s time [and that] are abundantly with us today.”

The apostle Paul said, “… be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind … shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9–10.) …

Fornication and homosexual acts are inspired by the devil and are grievous sins in the sight of God. Fornication and adultery will destroy man’s Godlike potential and bring man nearer the lower animal status.

But why obey the commandments? What if — despite the acknowledged limitations on human reason noted above – we succumbed to curiosity about the intelligible purpose of obedience? In fact any sermon about the commandments will convey some context and purpose accessible to simple human reason, as we already see in the above reference to “man’s Godlike potential.” It is interesting to compare and to reflect on the various formulations in this same session of conference of the purpose(s) behind the commandments.

Elder Evans adopts the framework of enlightened, eternal self-interest:

Essentially this is what the gospel is: counsel from a living Father who says to his children, “You have limitless, everlasting possibilities. You also have your freedom. It’s up to you how you use it. This is what you can become if you take my advice—and this is what will happen if you don’t. The choice is yours.”

We all make choices every day. We all have to live with the results of the choices we make.

On this view, commandments are enlightened “counsel” that we should follow for our own good, that is, in view of our own “everlasting possibilities.” We are encouraged to evaluate all counsel from the standpoint of the longest-term rationality: “Is what this person is telling me or tempting me to do something that will bring me happiness and peace and lead me to my highest possibilities, or is it something that will lead me to the baser side?” And we are urged to reach the logical conclusion “that we will realize our highest possibilities if we accept the counsels God has given.”

In the next talk, Elray L. Christiansen, assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve and President of the Salt Lake Temple, (“The Sifting”) similarly seems to “evaluate the right against the wrong” from the standpoint of the self-interested individual and his or her “right” to decide: “All men have the right to direct the course of their own lives, and the Lord will not deny that right. …All of us have the God-given right to accept the good or to reject it.”

Elder Brockbank might seem to be adopting a similar framework when he says that “the Lord personally gave commandments that would help mankind to grow and develop his Godlike attributes.” But further on his talk he frames obedience by “reverence” and even “nobility.”

President David O. McKay once said, “Reverence for God’s name should be dominant in every home. Profanity should never be expressed in a home in this Church. … If there were more reverence in human hearts, there would be less room for sin and sorrow and increased capacity for joy and gladness. …” (Man May Know for Himself [Deseret Book Co., 1967], p. 29.)

Ruskin wrote, “Reverence is the noblest state in which a man can live in the world. Reverence is one of the signs of strength; irreverence one of the surest indications of weakness. No man will rise high who jeers at sacred things. …”

Nobleness and dignity are the fruits of reverence.

To speak of “reverence” and “nobility” seems to lift the rationale of obedience above the simple means-ends reasoning of the individual’s “right” to choose whatever serves his own eternal interest. These terms suggest a meaning of obedience that escapes instrumental rationality.

And just as these three talks seem to have been arranged to open up for us the question of a meaning of obedience beyond the calculation of eternal interest, Hartman Rector, Jr. comes to the podium with a topic that compels a re-thinking of the question: “Sacrifice Still Brings Forth Blessings.” Rather than framing all choices in the perspective of self-interest, however eternal, Elder Rector reminds us that we are to choose and to act with “an eye single to the Glory of God.” This “means that instead of endlessly doing what we want to do, we have to do what the Lord wants us to do, but we have to do it in his way when he wants us to do it. This, of course, is not the natural inclination of man.”

The injunction to have “an eye single to the Glory of God” seems not to refine and enlarge the perspective of individual self-interest, but to run counter to it. Elder Rector goes on to criticize the newly fashionable idea of “doing our own thing,” but notes that egoism is not “really new. I think it has been going on since the beginning of time.” But is obeying the commandments supposed to be irrelevant to or even to run against our natural interest in our own well-being? If we follow this logic, we end up with John Calvin’s proposition that our eye ought to be so single that we would willingly embrace our own eternal damnation for “the Glory of God” – for some glory of God that had nothing at all to do, it seems, with the flourishing of his children. This is where the logic of “sacrifice” leads, if we make it a pure counter-logic to the logic of self-interest.

Happily, Elder Rector of the First Quorum of the Seventy is not that simply logical. In fact he seems to veer back towards the eternal self-interest framework when he says that acting “contrary to the counsel of … Heavenly Father …has never been very profitable measured in terms of happiness, and happiness is the w`hole purpose for the existence of man. The prophet Lehi’s statement that ‘men are, that they might have joy’ (2 Ne. 2:25) is all-inclusive.” And then he confronts us with the scripture’s most extreme examples of sacrifice and invites us to consider their meaning in relation to our eternal happiness. These examples are Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the son of the promise, and the Son’s submission to the will of the Father:

On the other hand, Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his “only” son Isaac as a burnt offering to the Lord. I presume Abraham could not have received a more disagreeable commandment from his Heavenly Father. Still he arose immediately, took his son and the necessary firewood, and started for the designated place. He could not be diverted from his course until an angel of the Lord intervened to stay his hand. And what was the reward for such action? Hear the Lord’s statement to Abraham: “… because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:

“That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore. …

“And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” (Gen. 22:16–18.)

Jesus, our Lord and Master, was the greatest example of all in following in obedience to his Father’s commandments. His great agony in the Garden I presume has never been approached and cannot be matched by human man. He in Gethsemane prayed, saying, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matt. 26:39.) The Master did not want to endure what was before him even though he knew this was the major purpose of his coming to earth—but he did what his Father had asked, and because he did, he holds “all power … in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18) and has, as Paul records, become “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), and as many as receive him become his sons and daughters.

And how was it done? It was possible only through sacrifice. Truly sacrifice does “bring forth the blessings of heaven.”

This is a beautiful statement that clearly lifts us above the framework of our eternal right to do our own thing rationally. But wait! Aren’t we back where we started from? If we embrace “sacrifice” or adopt an “eye single to the glory of God” just for the purpose of securing “the blessings of heaven,” then what kind of “sacrifice” is that?

This is just the kind of problem we can count on the “brilliant philosophers” referenced by Elder Evans to point out.

One such brilliant philosopher is Thomas Pangle (then of the University of Toronto, now of the University of Texas), who argues (in Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham) that Biblical transcendence is finally incoherent, because obedience to the commands of the Biblical God does not finally make sense. Pangle examines this problem through a very searching reading of the story of the akeda, that is, Abraham’s binding of Isaac. Either Abraham knew that God would somehow avert or reverse Abraham’s sacrifice (as Paul suggests in Hebrews 11), and so it was not really a sacrifice, or he Abraham was ready to sacrifice all his hopes to a God whose command therefore becomes wholly unintelligible. It seems Biblical obedience must either be purely calculating and thus not at all ennobling, or else it is simply mad and humanly meaningless.

It is impossible to fault the plain logic of Pangle’s analysis. But another great scholar’s reading of the akeda, or the binding of Isaac, reveals another possibility, though one not easily reduced to logic or calculation. Leon Kass of the University of Chicago writes that

God does not finally require that men choose between the love of your own and godliness. Though it took a horrible episode to demonstrate this fact, harmonization is possible between a reverence for God (who loves righteousness) and the love of one’s family or nation, rightly understood. God, the awesome and transcendent power, wants not the transcendence of life but rather its sanctification-in all the mundane activities and relations of everyday life. Thus, God displays Himself to be exactly the sort of god whom one could not only fear-and-revere, but even come to love-“with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.[1]

Pangle’s logic or, more precisely, his rational teleology cannot account for the intrinsically relational character of Biblical transcendence. In a word, he cannot account for love as a good that enriches the lover only when he releases his rational hold on it, his claim of secure possession. Biblical sacrifice does not leave behind what Kass calls “the mundane activities and relations of everyday life” – the goods of family and posterity, most notably — but redeems and sanctifies them.

The dynamism of Christian theology, I would propose, derives from the infinite task of holding together these Greek and Biblical understandings of transcendence, rational intelligibility and familial sacrifice. And despite the risks inherent in attempting to hold together the perspective of eternal rationality and sacrificial love, I believe Latter-day Saints cannot be simply hostile or even indifferent to the tension expressed in the theological tradition.

Though the experience of love’s goodness is available to each of us, and is the natural touchstone of eternal spiritual truth, it resists simple, logical analysis. To gain true life we must lose it – we must lose it in order to gain it, and yet really lose it. This is the ultimate stumbling block on which philosophy inevitably trips, and yet this is a mystery that is as plain to our hearts as the taste of a delicious fruit is to our tongues. Love is the answer, at once unapproachably mysterious and available to the humblest experience.

It is marvelously appropriate, then, that this session of conference ends with two sermons on love: S. Dilworth Young’s “By Love, Serve One Another,” and Milton R. Hunter’s “The Vitality of Love.” I conclude with a quotation from each:

O ye saints, do not pine if you have not presidency or teaching positions. Be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of your own free will. You may come nearer your heaven by the unobtrusive help you render those standing in need of comfort, succor, and attention. You won’t feel important to the organization, but the angels will be smiling as they record the hours of church service given to those whom the Lord loves and to whom he personally directed his own effort—the poor, the downtrodden, the needy, the ill, the discouraged.

Our Eternal Father and his Only Begotten Son both have intense, comprehensive, and full love for us. They have much greater intelligence and understanding than we have, and so their feelings of love go far beyond our capabilities to love. The attribute of love is so highly developed in these divine Beings that the scriptures state: “God is love.” (1 John 4:16.) In fact, Deity’s transcendent love is above and beyond our deepest feelings and keenest conception. At times of great spiritual experience when we feel an abundance of the Spirit, we have a greater realization of the magnitude of God’s love.

God is the Father of our spirits. He placed us upon this earth and provided a gospel plan of salvation through his Only Begotten Son, thereby making it possible for us to come back into his presence and receive exaltation or eternal life. Those who attain that glorious condition will experience the sweetness of love, which surpasses our present understanding.

“… God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16.)

Jesus Christ also loved us so much that he freely laid down his life and shed his blood for our sins, and also to bring about a universal resurrection. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13.)

 

[1] The Beginning of Wisdom

 

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