The Wilderness of Faith
Edited by John Sillito
Enlarging the Mormon Vision of Christian Ethics
L. Jackson Newell
Mormons have earned a reputation for being industrious, orderly, and honorable. For the most part this reputation is deserved. Despite our radical origins and global aspirations, we are also regarded as being provincial, conservative, and preoccupied with our own welfare. This reputation too is generally well deserved. In grappling with these different perspectives, I have concluded that geographical and cultural conditions have biased our moral consciousness toward immediate and personal concerns at the expense of long-range or global issues. But our doctrines may require more of us than we have thought.
Mormons more than most Christians attach great significance to specifics of personal behavior. As gatekeepers of the temples, bishops interview members regularly to ascertain their compliance with prescribed standards ranging from monetary contributions and diet to private vestments and personal habits. Those who don’t pass muster are denied the privilege of temple attendance.1 This procedure probably encourages self-discipline and sacrifice for the common good, but it can also produce a false sense of worthiness. The checklist approach may tempt us to be satisfied with the least we must do to meet the standard, and rob us of the ultimate challenge of Christian living—that of seeing the deepest needs of others on our own and acting upon our best instincts to help them. Fixed upon the letter, we can miss the spirit. When this happens our [p.146] view becomes myopic and our actions, though sincere, may lack compassion.
Our social ethics, our sense of responsibility for other people in other places, often suffer some neglect due to our preoccupation with personal ethics. As a people we are relatively unconcerned about our natural environment, the arms race, human rights, and problems associated with world population growth, malnutrition or starvation. There are no doubt a number of factors that contribute to such insularity.
As religions go Mormonism is an all-encompassing style of life. The church touches and influences almost every aspect of our experience and commands much of our attention and energy. From what we drink and how we dress to where we spend our time and whose ideas we are likely to consider, our religion influences us to an unusual degree. I continue to be baffled by the extent to which Mormon intellectuals are engrossed in Mormon-related questions. Even those who are disaffected often remain obsessed with church issues more than with world or national concerns. Regardless of status or station, Mormons often feel the press of their culture to the point of saturation. The overwhelming majority of General Authorities still rise from Great Basin roots. Well-traveled as they are, they tend to see the world not only from an LDS perspective but also from a middle class, Western American vantage point. Geographical isolation is reinforced by a rather monolithic social structure. These two factors then, saturation and isolation, have given Mormonism a distinctive character. Fascinating as these cultural characteristics are, my primary purpose is to examine how they have influenced LDS theology.
Mormon leaders since Joseph Smith have taught that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of the doctrinal and institutional intent of the Savior himself. Members and leaders frequently testify to their belief that “the church is true” and that it is directed by heavenly revelation. Mormons also believed that the authority to act in God’s name, the holy priesthood, came as part of the restoration in the time of Joseph Smith. These are powerful claims, and they have great importance for and influence upon those who accept them. But accepting them means different things to different people.
For many leaders and members, the concept of “the true church” means not only that the doctrine reflects the Lord’s precise [p.147] purposes and understandings but also that the judgments of church leaders are flawless and that the institution cannot err. Associated with this view is the notion that the LDS church is “right” and other churches are “wrong.” The late apostle Bruce R. McConkie’s unfortunate (and since retracted) reference to Catholicism as “the great and abominable church” typifies this dualistic interpretation of doctrine.2 From this theological perspective, you either have truth or you don’t.
A contrasting idea is that truth comes from many sources and that larger understandings arise gradually. Historical documents and prophetic writings contain references to the concept that truth is only partly known and that the church’s quest to expand its doctrine is ongoing. For instance, Joseph Smith reported that part of the Book of Mormon was sealed due to his and his followers’ unreadiness to comprehend or act upon its principles,3 and the thirteenth Article of Faith emphasizes the existence of the good, the true, and the beautiful in the larger world—and our duty to embrace truth and goodness wherever they are found. Further, the doctrine of continuing revelation emphasizes the fluid and growing nature of LDS theology. For Latter-day Saints embracing these concepts, Mormonism may be viewed as “more true” and other bodies of religious doctrine as “less true.” Hugh B. Brown, a counselor to church president David O. McKay, gave expression to this view when he addressed a convocation at Brigham Young University in 1969: “We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly great truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead us to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers— that we in fact have a corner on the truth. For we do not.”4
With these contrasting threads in our doctrine, Mormons vary considerably in their instinctive response to the unspoken question: “How true is the truth?” For some people truth is a complete and indivisible whole. Others feel that our knowledge is only partial, that the quest continues. Thus two Mormons equally committed to their religion may have quite different ideas about the nature of its claims. As a consequence they will likely hold sharply contrasting views about the world and their place in it. Some will be satisfied [p.148] with the pronouncements of church leaders alone, convinced they have all the information necessary to act wisely, while others will seek understanding from many quarters.
A related question asks how God acts in human affairs. Agreeing on the existence of a personal God, one who loves and cares about us individually, we may still come to quite different conclusions about how he shows his concerns for us. The following questions pose three possibilities. (1) Does the Lord intervene in our ordinary affairs, blessing or chastening us daily for our thoughts and actions? (2) Does he focus his attention on great issues of mercy and justice and exert his influence indirectly through us? (3) Has he given us a world, some principles to follow, and a fair amount of intelligence—and the task of making the most of it? If we respond yes to the first question, the scope of our concern will be narrow. If we react more favorably to the second or third question, our horizons will expand as well as our sense of responsibility for our earth, for other peoples, and for future generations.
Neither scriptures nor contemporary LDS leaders provide a definitive answer about which interpretation of God’s methods is more valid. Are we given basic principles and expected to govern ourselves, as Joseph Smith so explicitly encouraged us to do?5 Or are we rewarded and punished regularly as a means of correcting our course? Is a good break in family finances a result of faithful tithe paying? Are adverse local weather conditions a reminder of our collective iniquities? If so then how does the faithful tithe payer explain an unfortunate or inexplicable business loss, or how do we interpret good rainfall and a bounteous harvest?
The important question is not whether deity can or does bless and discipline humanity, but how we view our relationship to deity. Do we expect and find gentle or not-so-gentle buffetings at every turn in the road to help us measure our course—and thus tune our consciousness to receive these promptings from our immediate experience? Or do we attune our consciousness to lasting ideas, Christian ideals, including the needs of unseen others within our gaze, and monitor our progress by enduring standards of mercy and justice? No one is blind to immediate concerns, and few are ignorant of global issues. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. But I do believe that our assumptions about God’s role in our affairs can bend our vision either inwardly or outwardly.
[p.149] At this point it may be appropriate to consider the relationship between the two theological issues considered above and the attitudes Mormons may have towards four overarching ethical problems in the larger society. I will consider in turn starvation and malnutrition, human rights, the arms race, and our relationship to the natural environment.
If one takes quite literally (and liberally) the injunction to multiply and replenish the earth and if one believes that the Lord is in control and will provide, then one is unlikely to become very concerned about overpopulation, malnutrition, or mass starvation. Such a person’s faith suggests that the millennium will come or even that agricultural technology will reap unimaginable harvests from the sea. To this Latter-day Saint, family planning is simply evidence of flagging faith or misguided concern. On the other hand, if one believes we are responsible for this planet as trustees and deity is interested in our capacity to manage our resources, then population growth and malnutrition become important problems indeed. This second person will seek knowledge that may be helpful to understand the magnitude and potential of malnutrition and starvation and pray for the wisdom and strength to make a difference. In contrast the first person may be tempted to leave the fate of the victims of the expanding Sahara to the Lord. For a church that is expanding at a phenomenal pace in Latin America and aspires to do the same in Asia and Africa, what is believed and taught about birth control is much more than a personal matter.6 Our doctrines and how we interpret them may have a direct bearing upon the health and welfare of literally billions around the globe.
Turning from biological rights to civil entitlements, it seems that many Mormons are inclined to await instructions from their church leaders before becoming politically involved. Reflecting the dominant middle-class values of contemporary Mormon culture and the embarrassment of earlier persecutions over polygamy, however, the LDS church has been reluctant to associate itself with controversial social movements. As a result the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, despite its quest for racial justice, went its full course with hardly a whimper of support from the LDS community—with a few notable exceptions. To a people who commit themselves to obeying, honoring, and sustaining secular law, civil disobedience may be somewhat repugnant. On the other hand, the denial [p.150] of justice to a significant portion of the population on capricious grounds should be even more repugnant. When Latter-day Saints felt that justice was denied them in the last century, they chose to observe what they believed to be a higher law and willfully accepted prison sentences or asylum in other countries as the consequence. One could conclude that we will use civil disobedience in our own behalf but deny the use of this strategy when others seek justice. Certainly we are all more patient when someone else is suffering ills than when it is we ourselves. This natural human tendency was accentuated, however, in the case of the Mormons.
The 1978 revelation making the priesthood available to all worthy males may or may not have reflected the larger social milieu of the times, and it certainly was a giant step toward universal brotherhood in the LDS church, but it does not obscure the fact that Latter-day Saints generally ignored and still remain somewhat hostile to equal rights and opportunities for all men and women under the law. Unfortunately, some of our dominant theological interpretations may lead to perilous questions. Were the legal and social deprivations of the black community tolerated or even willed by the Lord because of previous or present unrighteousness? If I pay tithing, do missionary work, and otherwise meet the standard of a worthy Latter-day Saint, haven’t I really dispatched my duty? Such are the moral dangers of taking too literally the doctrine of a caring God. We needn’t care ourselves.
Similar patterns of belief may govern Mormon attitudes towards armaments control and environmental protection. We place trust in doctrinal assumptions that may be unwarranted, and we run risks as a result. Again dualistic thinking and a belief that God cares especially about us can lead to dangerous reasoning. If our nation is a chosen one and if its basic documents are inspired, as we Mormons are taught, then can any sum spent on defense be too great? If we do our part by building better and more accurate missiles and bombs, would an omnipresent father let an accident happen that would obliterate millions of Americans? Those who instinctively answer these questions in the affirmative will see no reason for SALT talks or other sincere efforts to reduce the perils of militarism.
Environmental protection is hardly an issue with those who see the Millennium around the corner. Nor is it likely that leaders or [p.151] members of an expanding, economically pressed religious community will place the long-term benefits of a rich natural habitat above the advantages of cheaper fuel or the promise of higher tithing receipts. When practical problems confront people, they look for philosophical justifications to do what needs to be done—a process that is especially perilous when fundamental issues are at stake. It has always been so. Mormons can undoubtedly find in their theology concepts that help them justify exploitation of the environment, individually and collectively. But the environmental issue is an issue of time, short-term versus long-range. Those who take too literally the notion that “these are the last days” may nourish their present by robbing their posterity.
I have attempted to explore some of the reasons that Latter-day Saints are too often apathetic about facing some of the overarching moral and ethical problems of our time. My purpose has not been to denigrate the service Latter-day Saints render to the larger world nor to deny their considerable altruism. Through the LDS welfare system, we often contribute strategic service to those suffering disasters in other parts of the world, and many lives have been made richer and more meaningful through the missionary efforts of our people. I see no reason, however, why these good works should preclude a conscious and vital concern about the issues of liberty and justice around the globe that beg for understanding among a talented, well-traveled, and affluent people like the Mormons. In addition to trying to build the Mormon faith in South Africa, will we be part of the problem or part of the solution when it comes to respecting human rights in that country today? Here in America will the LDS church as an institution and will we as individuals do everything we can to assure that women’s rights are secured fully and equally with or without the proposed constitutional amendment? Are we as individuals or is the church willing to forego economic advantages in order to protect the biosphere and the opportunities of future inhabitants of the earth?
There are hopeful signs. Once the June 1978 revelation was announced, Mormon leaders moved immediately to extend missionary work to black communities and to include black men and women in temple ordinances. Later a statement of the First Presidency about the MX missile spoke forcefully about the moral perils of the [p.152] arms race in general. (Unfortunately much of the national press ignored this fact and interpreted the statement as self-serving regionalism.)
As Mormonism becomes a worldwide religion, individual members should re-examine the relationships between the historical and geographical factors that have shaped their cultural values and the unique theological claims that require a larger vision. Given the existence of contrasting interpretations of the restoration and of the way God manifests his concern for us, we should look afresh at our doctrine and ask if prevailing assumptions about it properly inform our efforts to “be our brother’s keeper” in a global age. In the long run some of our assumptions will prove more correct than others. Therefore, we must each ask, “What are the consequences for me and for the world if the set of assumptions about theology that I have accepted prove to be less accurate than the alternatives?” If we ravage the earth, poison our lakes, and render the air unbreathable—and the Millennium doesn’t come soon—what then?
As members of a rapidly expanding church living in a time when revolutions in technology are shrinking the earth, I believe it is essential that we reconsider our attitudes toward other societies and our commitments to temporal justice. Perhaps it is time we overcome the inertia of our historic isolation and fight the tendency (so accentuated by the comprehensiveness of our theology and culture) to become preoccupied with ourselves. More than either of these, however, we may need to re-examine our theological assumptions and renew our commitment to underlying Christian principles. Returning to the source of our faith may inspire new insights, and determination to open our windows to the larger world cannot help but enrich us. Modestly, we might even hope, we can be of some help.[p.155]
1. Since marriages are performed in the temple, denial of temple privileges can mean that parents are unable to attend the weddings of their children. Non-compliance with any of a number of specific standards can bar one from church leadership positions.