Is God an Ethicist?

The Mormon Spinozist has an interesting post lamenting (sort of) the lack of a clear doctrinal answer on the question of when life does or does not begin. What are we to make of the fact that we seem to have important questions about which the scriptures provide cryptic guidance at best? Here is my stab at a conclusion: Neither God nor his prophets seem to be ethicists.

By ethics, I mean the reasoned elaboration of moral theories meant to guide our behavior in difficult or ambiguous situations. The moral quandaries surrounding the end of life issues faced by those in a persistent vegetative state seem to me to be a classic example of an ethical problem. Other examples might include philosophical hypotheticals about cannibalism in lifeboats, or the use of stem cells in medical research. It seems to me that these are not issues on which God or the prophets have provided clear guidance.

For some, I suspect that this is a profound disappointment. The disappointment exists on two levels. First, there is the frustration of not knowing the right answer to the dilemma. Second, there is the feeling of let down. If prophets and public revelation are no useful for answering these sorts of problems, why do we have them? Why doesn’t God tell us what the right answer is?

It seems to me that if you read the scriptures, they are notable for their absence of ethical subtlety. Jeremiah, Jacob, or Christ condemn sin and call for righteousness. They don’t provide especially powerful ethical theories. By powerful, I don’t mean motivating or important. Rather, I mean that their theories are simply not fine grained enough to answer difficult ethical issues. Rather, they seem to be focused entirely on core issues of moral or ethical conduct: Worship God not idols. Do not grind the faces of the poor. Forsake whoredoms. Serve and love one another. They paint in broad brush strokes with little emphasis or apparent interest in fine detail.

My interpretation of this central fact is that for God, the primary worry is not that we will make ethical or moral missteps. The great danger is not that we will have the wrong opinion about stem cell research. Rather, the great danger is forgetfulness. The problem is generally speaking not an intellectual defect in our ethical theory, but rather a basic failure to remember the core of what constitutes a decent and righteous life.

I am not ready to say that the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets have nothing to say about ethics. I think that there is value in trying to tease out the ethical implications of various doctrines. I am in favor of casuistically trying to reason from core cases to peripheral ones. It seems to me that recourse back to the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets is valuable and important precisely because it means that our ethical discussions take place in God’s presence. Such discussions remember God, which I take to be the primary call of the prophets. I do not, however, expect God or his prophets to function as super ethicists-in-chief. They certainly never seem to have functioned that way in the past.

49 comments for “Is God an Ethicist?

  1. Steve, you’d save yourself some time if you just wrote up a little PERL script to put this comment at the top of every post here at T&S.

    Or maybe you already have…

  2. Frank, I’d considered the script. But I would miss the personal touch; each T&S permablogger deserves to be accused of intellectual piracy in his or her own way.

    *hums Your Time is Gonna Come*

  3. Interesting post. I have no idea how to respond, but I’ve always thought of the scriptures to be sort of analogous to the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, with Pres. Hinckley and the Church being the Securities and Exchange Commission (promulgating regulations like Rule 10b-5 for more specific guidance), and then the Holy Ghost and personal revelation being analogous the U.S. Supreme Court to determine ultimately what actions or beliefs are or are not Constitutional (i.e., the Truth). Works for me, but can be a bit tricky in practice. Sometimes my precedents are overruled.

  4. That’s an awesome analogy, Elisabeth.

    So different Stake Presidents, etc might be circuit splits? And the Proclamation, and so forth — is that Sarbanes and the PSLRA, modifying the law, but keeping the underlying rules in place?

    And most importantly — if the Commission accuses you of violating the Act, can you work out a settlement where you pay a fine and neither admit nor deny guilt? :P

  5. I am a little troubled by the comparison between that sometimes tyranrical, always unholy institution and the Holy Ghost! But I see what you’re saying.

  6. Kaimi – something like that! I think it’s important for me to understand that there is a lot of flexibility in the scriptures, which is why we look to modern prophets for guidance. That said, sometimes the modern prophets aren’t that clear, either (there may be a split in the circuits or the issue isn’t “ripe” yet), so you have to default yourself to the “reasonable person” standard. Which can be a really unsatisfactory situation – like when you try to explain the murky landscape of X regulation to a client, and all you can tell them is that there is no hard and fast rule that would give them assurance that a particular action the client wants to take would or would not be actionable. And then the client looks at you and wonders – so now why are we paying you $400 an hour for such wishy-washy “advice”?

  7. Steve, the impulse to ownership of “intellectual property” is understandable, but I think a different perspective better matches the reality, at least in my case. A thoughtful response with proper citation and link (given in both of today’s “poachings”) can be taken as a high compliment. And in crass practicality, I expect my fledgling week-old blog will receive vastly more traffic today as a result of him responding in a mainline post here than if he had commented directly on my blog.

    So, thanks for the love, Nate.

    But do comment at my site, sometimes.

  8. So now I’m wondering — what’s the analogy to the 33 Act? The Bible as the 33 Act and the Book of Mormon as the 34 Act, perhaps?

  9. Yikes! My post has been invaded by securities lawyers. Well at least they’re litigators…

  10. The only reason I chose the ’34 Act instead of the ’33 Act was that I couldn’t remember an SEC reg under the ’33 Act. Although all of my Rule 5 pre-IPO experience just came flooding back.

  11. Right on, Nate O.

    I thought the same thing when I read Christian C.’s post, viz., that God and the Prophets aren’t so much interested in delineating precisely what is sin and what isn’t as they are in transforming our sinful natures. In Mormonism, especially, where so much of that transformation occurs as a process of seeking personal revelation, broad revelations on contested topics aren’t to be expected as a matter of course. This is most true, I argue, where absent revelation there is arguably no sin at all in an area (because it is grey enough that the Light of Christ doesn’t let a person know on some level that what they’re doing is wrong).

    This is not to say that we should never expect revelation on matters of sin. I think pornography is an example where the sin is already apparent to everyone at some level, so having a clear command from God helps to sweep away the rationalizations that have papered it over and leave the sinner with clarity.

  12. It’s true — I advise my clients that the Securities Act is law only as far as it is translated correctly…

    …actually, as it’s interpreted by the SEC — not a bad analogy after all!

    Can the Proclamation to the Family be the SOX Act? Hot-headed, rash, and of dubious use?

  13. Nate:

    I think you’re a bit confused. God is an ethicist. A more appropriate definition of ethics is “the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” It’s something of a canned definition (I pulled it straight out of an anthology) but I think it better reflects the true nature of ethics as a dicipline. You probably should use the term “Ethical Specifist” (is specifist a word??). In general, I agree that God’s Word does not get very specific on most issues; however, he does get more specific as certain issues ripen (to keep the legal theme going)– hence the need for continuing revelation (i.e. D&C, Proclamation on the Family, etc.) I think God, through revelation, has provided us with all the tools we need to determine our moral duties and obligations in this world and that God has a preferred outcome for each challenge we meet. Your definition, and I think your entire post in general, tries to relieve individuals of responsibility in hard cases. I don’t think we get a free pass on such issues and there’s no doctrinal justification for such a position. My experience is that those who take the position that indiviuals get a free pass on hard cases fail to take note of the hierarchical nature of the principles taught of the Gospel even though that principle is the first one taught. When Judgement comes hard cases will be the issues that separate the wheat from the chaff– after all the latter days have multiplied and amplified the incidence of hard cases in the daily lives of Saints.

  14. Steve,

    You didn’t finish the sentence.

    It’s “hot-headed, rash, of dubious use . . . and liable to send your client to jail if ignored.”

    Kinda puts a new spin on the Proclamation, doesn’t it?

  15. I think you’ve got it backwards, Paul Mortensen. Nate O. is telling us we don’t have to worry about the hard questions. He’s telling us we do have to worry, personally, because God isn’t going to give us the answer any time soon.

  16. I agree that Nate’s and Adam’s answers have a lot of potential. I do think Joseph was not an ethicist (no slanderous double entendre intended, just meaning it in the sense of Nate’s post).

    On the other hand, I do think over time there tends to grow a proliferation and encrustation with specifics: Word of wisdom, cola drinks, rated-R movies, and so forth.

    Also, before lionize a Platonic ideal of scriptures painted in pristine broad strokes of principle, we must remember the elaborate ethical specificity of the law of Moses, and not succumb to the common misconception that Jesus simply swept it away with grand principles. Remember, he came to fulfill, not destroy. He didn’t condemn the Pharisees for tithing anise and cumin; he told them to pay attention to the weightier matters, while not leaving the other things undone. God does get into the details, specifying the precise dimensions of the ark, the tabernacle, some building in the Doctrine and Covenants, etc. (though it could be argued these are not ethical details).

  17. “When Judgement comes hard cases will be the issues that separate the wheat from the chaff …”

    This strikes me as wrong.

    Just imagine hearing these words at the judgment bar:

    While you did receive My image in your countenance, you were only average in advanced applied bioethics. Sorry!

  18. To continue the analgoy – your Securities Law professor is akin to your parents, your YM/YW leaders, etc. They can tell you about their experiences with all the rules and show you where to look for guidance, but you never really understand what the rules mean until you actually have to fill out a Form S-1 all by yourself (because the income partner keeps ignoring your phone calls).

    I always find inside jokes on these threads kind of lame – which they are, unless you get the lame inside joke.

  19. On proliferation of specifics, I forgot to mention the ever-expanding missionary’s “white bible” (rule book). In the 19th century you could bring home a wife; yy grandfather could attend opera without his companion in Germany; today it’s as inhumane as missionaries not being allowed to let my two-year-old daughter sit on their lap in our presence when she runs up to them. Is specificity here really more important than beginning-of-life and end-of-life issues?

    I’d also point out that some of the questions referred to in my post, such as stillborn children, don’t have a whole lot to do with ethical matters.

  20. Paul: I am almost certainly confused, but not, I think, for the reasons that you offer. My point is not that we ought to ignore these questions or that the answers to them do not matter, but rather than they don’t seem to be the sorts of questions that historically God has been interested in asking. My point in using the term ethicist and ethics was to differentiate it from other sorts of moral discourse. A tightly argued causuistic treatise on medical ethics and a sermon exalting us to visit the sick and the afflicted and give aid to those in need are both moral discussions. They are both “dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” They are very different sorts of moral endeavors, however. One of them aims at the transformation of its hearers, while the other aims at providing a rationalized understanding of how we ought to react to detailed and ambigious situations. My point is not that one of these things is important but that the other one is not. Rather, my point is that one of these things seems to be the sort of thing that God and his prophets have been concerned with pretty consistly through history (ie preaching sermons) and one of these things seems to be something that is almost totally absent from the scriptures (ie detailed, rationalized ethical theory).

    None of this means that we shouldn’t be concerned about ethics (my definition not yours). It does mean that we ought not to expect the prophets to do it for us.

  21. Christian Y. Cardall,
    I’m not arguing that there are never specific commandments (and I hope Nate Oman isn’t arguing that either).

    What I am suggesting is that God’s purpose is to transform our character. This requires specific commandments sometimes, to give us a benchmark and a stumbling block, to wipe away the rationalizations and mediocrity we tend to settle for when we do ethics on our own. (Along with all the other effects of specific commandments that have been suggested: create opportunites for obedience, create group identity, etc.). But transforming our character also requires that in some areas we be left to figure things out on our own, or at least to seek our own personal revelation.

    To me, the question–why does not God tell us when we’re unwittingly snuffing out a life (in embryo research and in end-of-life cases)–is just a subset of the question, why doesn’t God give us the information we need to keep from doing evil inadvertently, which is in turn just a subset of the Problem of Evil–why does God permit evil at all? It seems to me that if you don’t accept any of the explanations for the Problem of Evil you’re unlikely to accept that God would not reveal the answers to end-of-life questions. And vice versa.

  22. A. Greenwood:

    I guess I’m disagreeing more with the latter half of your analysis– that on issues of ethics God has not provided all we need to arrive at a moral conclusion on isssues. We have all the tools we need and the moral clarity is there for anyone who wishes to find it. Glossing over or excusing behavior related to hard cases simply because we have yet to find God’s answer is lazy.


    My wheat from the chaff analysis is probably overstated so please excuse by sloppiness. I should have used something more similar to “the cream will rise to the top.” We know that our evenual Celestial Reward will vary depending on our level of understanding concerning God’s will and purposes. It is quite easy to follow maxims such as “Thou shalt not commit murder” or “Thou shalt not steal” or “Thou shalt not have any other gods before Me.” There’s little wiggle room on these commandments and while we will be rewarded for following them I have little doubt that they are insufficient for recieving a fullness of glory as they really teach us little about being gods ourselves. We are also taught that God will not place us in any specific situation beyond our capabilities to make the right decision. There is a tendency (a la your use of the term “applied bioethics”) hyper-complicate issues by confusing any moral situation with facts. Truth exists independent of facts. Hence, I do not need a degree in medicine or biomedical engineering in order to arive at God’s preferred outcome in a case of “applied bioethics.” The same goes for economics or law. Ethics is ethics.

  23. I think that all religious-turned-philosophical questions are really permutations of a few, maybe even only one, fundamental questions.

    Greenwood (in post #27) distills the question of God’s ethics down to the problem of evil, which is just another face of the problem of God’s ominipotence, which is just another way of asking about the nature of our own agency.

    This is a hackneyed old philosophical problem, despite the fact that I have never yet heard a reconciliation of God’s power and my power that fully satisfies me. We probably don’t want to talk about it here. But I welcome any answers to the question anyway, because I’m still interested.

    I like the idea that God is an absolute relativist. There is something symmetrically paradoxical about that. If that is true, then God can’t be said to have any specific code of ethics, or at least not a code with any meaning, because it would constantly be in flux. But don’t worry, I’m not saying that God lives in an unpredictable state of moral chaos. Nate talks about the “core beliefs” that God wants us to remember. I think these core beliefs are really core patterns. God knows that we will have to make specific, relative decisions according to the details of our situations. He himself has to make specific relative decisions (well, I would never pretend to know the mind of God, but I imagine he does). So, rather than acting according to a predetermined set of right or wrong decisions, God has a pattern of behavior that acts as a scaffolding to give our decisions meaning. (Maybe I’m making a meaningless distinction between this pattern and our decisions.)

    Are you familiar with the ideas of fractals and strange attractors? Fractals are patterns that are repeated on scales of infinitely varying scales. Fractals occur naturally (e.g. a coastline), but they can also be generated mathematically. When mathematicians and computer nerds first started playing around with these equations, it looked at first like the results of these equations were spiraling off into strange and unpredictable directions, but as the equations continued to be iterated, patterns began to emerge. We see these patterns, sometimes called strange attractors, manifested in otherwise chaotic systems (the weather is a good example of this). The specific details of a chaotic system may not be predictable, but the pattern is reliable and absolute. These patterns are absolute, repeated on all scales.

    I think God’s system of ethics might be analogous to a chaotic, fractal, strange attractor system. The trick is to figure out God’s pattern. I don’t know what that is.

  24. Maybe I’m the only one, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. Care to elaborate?

  25. Oh, darn it. No, Adam, you’re probably not the only one. I have an annoying habit of being rather incomprehensible without meaning to. I think it’s a result of having nothing terribly meaningful to say. But, what specific questions do you have? I fear that elaborating without direction will end up being mightily confusing.

  26. Re: #26 Nate:

    Another definition to further clarify thangs. Casuistry is defined as “resolving of specific cases of conscience, duty, or conduct through interpretation of ethical principles or religious doctrine.” I think our misunderstanding is in the level of specificity you’re examining. I think the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” is pretty specific and the foundation for that commandment is laid out in other scripture. That’s just the easiest example and I can think of others as well. Now if you’re looking for something along the lines of, “Thou shalt not steal Gummi Worms from the local 7-11,” then your post reduces to the absurd and I don’t think that is where you were going. Like Shawn I think you make the mistake of hyper complicating issues and raising them to the point of moral ambiguity when in essence they are quite simple. Our lives are much simpler than that. In essence, I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is no need for God to engage in your version of ethics because He has already reduced the relevant maxims down far enough that we can make Godly choices if we make the effort.

    I think your world view on these issues is skewed somewhat due to your vocation. Attorneys earn their living by drawing inferences and conclusion from a set of facts that they then view through the prism of the law. But in the Eternities the facts of our lives are pretty much irrelevant thanks to the atonement (which has no legal parallel). Attorneys are never taught to apply Occam’s razor to any problem– if they did they’d likely all go broke.

  27. What do you mean when you say God is a relativist? He has no definite plans, purposes, or goals? Or that the plans, purposes, and goals he has are subject to change? Or just that there’s no objective truth behind God’s plan, purposes, or goals–they’re his just because he chose them?

    I don’t even know where to start on the fractals thing.

  28. Transformation of character and working out our own ethics are important and worthy tasks for us. The question is, are these tasks better carried out with less knowledge of the nature of reality, or more?

    If less, why bother to tell us about spirit matter, premortal life, etc., at all; how about simply watching and seeing how we would behave in isolated ignorance of cosmic realities?

    If more, how about a little increase now and then? While the world’s database of observation, theory, and technology speeds ahead, one gets the feeling of the revealed base of ontological (as opposed, maybe, to ethical and procedural) spiritual knowledge being stuck in first gear: Essentially, we know what a single prophet—Joseph—was able to reveal. My “lament” isn’t so much that God isn’t an ethicist in Nate’s sense; what I pine for is an occasional deposit in the revealed knowledge bank of spiritual ontological realities—one that keeps apace with the worldly banks of scientific knowledge and technology—so that we might have more to work with in elaborating our ethical and practical responses to the implications of worldly developments.

    My apologies for failing to express these distinctions more lucidly in the original post on my blog.

  29. Um…don’t y’all got it backwards? Wouldn’t President Hinckley be the Supreme Court? If a prophet will never lead us astray, then pitting (no Harvey Pitt pun intended,promise) The Prophet vs. The Holy Ghost would be a recipe for apostacy.

  30. Paul: I think that we are probably talking past one another. In particular, I am confused by your distinction between truth and fact. I think that ethics is more than simply a matter of applying general principles to specific cases. It is a matter of figuring out the meaning of general principles in ambigious cases. Stem cells strike me as an ambigious case. Such cases abound. One can strenuously assert that these are really simple issues that the lawyers are needlessly complicating, but such assertions don’t change the fact that one is dealing with difficult issues that where answers are not clear or obvious. Frankly, I find the desire to treat hard cases as easy cases to be far more annoying (and potentially dangerous) than getting wrong answers in some of the hard cases. As for Occam’s razor, it teaches that we ought not to multiply entities when offering explanations, but it does not suggest that we pretend that what we are attempting to explain is easy or simple, when in fact it is difficult and complicated.

    Let me give you two cases: I walk into a 7-11 and take a Diet Coke for Kristine without paying for it. This, I would take it, is clearly a case of theft. Second case: I build a house on my property that blocks your view of the ocean, dramatically reducing the value of your land. Is this theft? Is it close enough to it that it ought to be proscribed? Note, the diminished real estate value results in a much larger real economic loss than the nicked Diet Coke. I don’t see that “Thou shalt not steal” standing alone decides the second case, despite the fact that I am sure you could find someone who is quite certain that the answer is easy and obvious (see, e.g., Frank Easterbrook).

  31. A further thought on justifying our lack of knowledge by an appeal to a veil of ignorance as an essestial feature of our mortal existence… If this probation is conceived as “practice” and/or “training” for eternal, godlike endeavors, one wonders why such a premium is placed on the ability to acquire knowledge from above through personal revelation, and the ability to make judgments in the face of uncertainty. For one would expect (perhaps naively, who knows) that an omniscient God (even in a qualified Mormon sense) is not engaged in either of those activities. Presumably, then, we wouldn’t need these skills in eternity either—which makes highlighting them for “testing” here in mortality seem strange.

  32. Christian Y. Cardall: Might it not be that what is being practiced here is harmonization, learning to have a will in tune with the will of a divine being? That is something that, as I understand it, the Godhead is always doing.

    In spite of that possibility, I don’t think it is easy to decide how to fill in the sentence “Earth life is for . . . .” It is for being tested in some sense, but it isn’t easy to figure out the relevant sense. It is for making covenants, though why those covenants have to be made here is not obvious–perhaps it has to do with embodiment. It is for getting a body, but there are lots of ways that could have been done. It is for bringing together families into a great whole, though I don’t know why we have to do that here rather than some place else. It is for learning charity. (It is easier for me to see why that one cannot be done except in separation from God.)

    Human existence, I think, has lots of purposes. If I think about any one of them, it seems there might have been another way to accomplish that purpose. But perhaps they could not be accomplished as a whole except in this way. (That’s my version of Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” argument).

  33. Two other thoughts on the need for ignorance, Christian Cardall:

    First, on some views (see, e.g., Blake Ostler), God cannot know what free individuals will decide, so he is also laboring in (some) ignorance with respect to the future. In those views, ignorance is this life is good preparation.

    Second, in my view, which is pretty common to Mormons, most of us are not ready for total knowledge yet. Any knowledge that isn’t given piecemeal would condemn us and our ignorance is therefore a mercy.

    Finally, ignorance does much more than prepare us to handle ignorance. It forces us to sharpen our intellect through reasoning or else learn through experience (which learning tends to be less superficial and more integral to one’s being than other kinds of learning). It also forces us to sharpen our desires: by withholding the knowledge we learn to truly appreciate the knowledge when it comes. We learn to want it more.

    These are hard questions you’re asking, Christian Cardall. As I’ve argued, they’re subsets of the Problem of Evil, which is pretty gutwrenching. Ignorance is clearly an evil. It’s hard, when experiencing the reality of the evil, to accept these long term ‘just so’ stories about why God doesn’t stop it, when he can. I am nonetheless persuaded that God cares deeply for my well-being and thus accept these stories for now, until something better comes along or until they are fulfilled.

  34. We are also ignorant of those things that we simply do not comprehend. I think this life has something to do with shaping us in a way that will enable us to comprehend what was once incomprehensible prior to our coming here.

  35. God as an ethicist?

    I think part of where we get into trouble on these sticky ethical issues is that we want to tie God down to legalistic and absolutist applications of prior commandments.

    God may be an absolutist in principle: “Thou shalt not kill.”

    But He appears to be relativist in application: “Go down and slaughter the Ammonites and leave not the women, children, or livestock ….” (yes, I know I butchered the quote).

    Nephi was commanded to murder a helpless drunk.

    Christ gave the law to keep the Sabbath Day holy (as Jehovah), but then rejected the legal interpretations of Jewish legal scholars that frowned on his disciples picking fresh vegetables from a nearby field.

    Christ also got a guilty adultress off on a technicality (not enough witnesses) even though He gave the law to stone adulterers Himself.

    The problem with the Christian Right is that they’re obssessing with legal absolutist interpretations of God’s laws. God gives absolute principles and doctrines. But the application of those laws varies from generation to generation. What they want is an equation that goes like this:

    Thou shalt not kill. Therefore if we can define life as “at conception,” that means that abortions cannot be performed unless the life of the mother would be endangered.

    Good legalistic thinking. But unfortunately, God does not appear to engage in legalistic application of His laws. In fact, he often appears to throw out the book when circumstances demand (“it is better that one man should perish than a nation should dwindle in unbelief”).

    Perhaps “Christian Fundamentalists” would be better served to focus on the Living God instead of lifeless legal constructs. The obsession with which some Christians adhere to their opposition to abortion borders on idolatry.

    In contrast, the Mormon faith provides guidlines for righteous living, but it does not provide much to satisfy the legalists in the congregation. Often such matters are simply relegated to prayerful inquiry and the guidance of the Holy Ghost (and usually counsel with your bishop).

    Our faith does not worship dusty legal formulas derived from the Ten Commandments. It worships a true and living God who instructs us on how to apply generalized principles to our present situation. From time to time, we may be called upon to “slaughter the Ammonites” (metaphorically speaking of course).

  36. Jim F: Might it not be that what is being practiced here is harmonization, learning to have a will in tune with the will of a divine being?…It is for learning charity. (It is easier for me to see why that one cannot be done except in separation from God.)

    I do think this would be the key purpose (I’m not sure I see a big distinction between the two sentences separated by ellipses; is there one?). The development of charity would seem to be the thing that would qualify us for godlike endeavors (well, together with technical mastery of the relevant physics, etc., but maybe that’s the easy part, as no special emphasis is placed upon acquiring here all the knowledge necessary to participate in creation). Are the covenants anything other than a means to this end of becoming someone with charity?

    What surprises me is the parenthetical statement that charity is best learned in separation from God. Could you help me understand this? I would have thought just the opposite.

  37. Seth: In contrast, the Mormon faith provides guidlines for righteous living, but it does not provide much to satisfy the legalists in the congregation.

    Seth, I like the sentiment a lot, and think it fits well with keeping one’s eye on the prize: charity. But as practiced today, our faith does satisfy those who think tattoos, a second pair of earrings (or a first on a male), or a glass of wine with dinner are Bad Ideas, and that white shirts are expected to administer or pass the sacrament (mentioned by Elder Holland in a conference talk in the past few years).

  38. I don’t have time to post something lengthier right now, but I do object to the implied claim that rules or rule following is always an exercise in some form of inferior spirituality. First, I am not sure that the distinction between “letter” and “spirit” ends up making sense philosophically if we push too hard on it. (This is involves the issue of what it means to follow a rule. I’ve been meaning to post on this for a long time and keep putting it off. Short answer is that we all ought to read Fred Schauer’s book on following rules and then have this conversation again.) Second, I think it is a mistake to assume that rule following is always somehow antithetical authentic religious or spritual life. This doesn’t mean that God is an ethicist, but it may well mean that God is a lawyer. He certainly seems to have legal expertise and much of his revelation consists of legal instruction, so we ought not to get to hyper-Pauline and snooty about legalistic thinking.

  39. Nate: …but it may well mean that God is a lawyer.

    Why am I not surprised. (Just good natured ribbing here, I don’t mean to sound heated today!)

    Well, it’s fair enough, since I implied in #44 that God is a physicist. (At least I didn’t claim that God’s an impersonal, indifferent sociobiologist with a penchant for literary criticism. That would be, what, maybe Spinoza’s God.)

    Your point is well taken, I’ll take a stab at a quick answer too. Charity is defined by interaction with others: a community. To the extent rules (and perhaps closely related, ritual) enable a community to get along comfortably, they may be an outward manifestation of charity.

    But they can inappropriately take strength unto themselves (hence the need for tort reform?) The thing to remember is that what makes a community “get along comfortably” is to some extent a local and relativistic thing. It’s part inherited biology and part inherited culture. Is there an unchanging divine culture God lives in that includes white shirts and ties, while excluding long hair, tattoos, multiple earrings, and wine with dinner? Seems unlikely. Maybe he doesn’t like tattoos and multiple earrings, but he does seem to like long hair, comfortable open-necked clothing, and an absence of shoes (that’s for you, Jim). And I wouldn’t be surprised if he likes a glass of wine with dinner, too.

    So I might grudgingly grant that among other things, God is a lawyer, if only out of local practical necessity. But he damn sure ain’t a strict constructionist.

  40. Christian: My basic problem is the claim (explicit or implicit) that because certain taboos lack some eternal or unchanging foundation that they are therefore trivial, pharisaical, spiritually deadening, a sign of religious or intellectual immaturity, etc. etc.

    For what it is worth, I suspect that at the end of God’s day there might be nothing other than local practical necessity. One of the implications of Mormonism’s move to make God contextual rather than acontextual, is that ultimately the divine becomes local, or — to use a scriptural phrase — “Nigh unto Kolob.”

  41. Nate, I didn’t mean to imply that following the rules is a sign of moral inferiority (although we are cautioned against needing commanding in all things). I’m actually pretty big on following the hard-and-fast rules we do have. I myself get a little disapproving when people don’t wear white shirts while passing the sacrament (although I usually keep it to myself).

    What I’m saying is that we follow a LIVING God and the rules are subject to change at times. Therefore, we shouldn’t get too wed to those rules.

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