Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part II: Unfolding the Expansive Message

The gospel is a recipe for world peace. The basis for a just, harmonious, and prosperous society is implicit in the gospel as we discuss and practice it today. It is implicit, but it is a long way from becoming explicit. I made this claim in Part I of this series. In this post I will say more about what I mean by “implicit” and “explicit,” as a way of filling out the expansive content and promise of Mormonism, and the expansive context in which I want to think about its fruition, including its intellectual culture.

If all of us loved God with all our heart, might, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, we’d be doing pretty well. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. I think it’s fair to say that everything God wants to teach us is implicit in these two commandments. Without a little more detail, though, we would probably do a pretty bad job of living up to them. Luckily, Jesus keeps teaching.

After the Book of Enos, Jarom writes, “what could I write more than my fathers have written? For have not they revealed the plan of salvation?” In a sense, the message was complete with the writings of Nephi, Jacob, and Enos. Yet we still are very glad to have the rest of the Book of Mormon, most of which comes after this.

Again, when Christ visits the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful, he says, “whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God. And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.” After restating essentially the same points a few different ways, in verse 40 he warns, “And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil.”

In a sense, then, Jesus has told us everything he wants us to know in these few lines. Of course, there is a lot implicit in it. Repentance means turning from wrong ways to live to the right way, and there are many wrong ways, and many elements to the right way. Baptism is to be done a certain way, by a certain authority, and is the gateway into the Church, which has a certain structure, and into a life of righteous living. To fulfill this commandment to repent and be baptized, we need to know and do a lot of other things. Christ’s message needs to be unfolded (or explicated) both in thought and in action to be faithfully expressed.

Fortunately, Christ sticks around to teach about the method of baptism, the priesthood, the proper organization for his Church, and the path of righteousness, and he has called prophets throughout history to continue elaborating and unfolding his message in ways that address our particular needs, questions, and circumstances. He also sends the Holy Spirit to remind us, to help us understand, and to help us see how to apply what we know correctly from day to day. He also gives us minds and judgment and expects us to use them in fulfilling his commandments. We are to do much good of our own free will. He who waits to be commanded in all things is a slothful and not a wise servant. In this post, I argue that there is quite a bit of the gospel message left for us to work out and receive, through our own judgment, through the guidance of the Spirit, and through revelation, and gesture toward some of the forms it should take.

One key element of righteousness to which Christ calls us is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In order to be applied in any actual context it requires a significant amount of interpretation and explication, though. What does my neighbor in fact need? How much of what he needs am I in a position to provide? How can I go about providing it?

For, say, a physician, the way she shows love for her neighbor may involve an enormous amount of specialized knowledge and equipment, but equally importantly specialized principles for how to approach patients in a way that shows the love and respect they deserve. The medical profession has formulated principles of privacy, informed consent, the spheres of both patient autonomy and practitioner discretion and responsibility, and the like, to guide them in that particular context. To practice the principle of care here, it must be explicated or unfolded in terms of these more specialized principles, physiologically, technologically, legally, and institutionally. Until it is explicated in this way, it remains implicit, and we can only perceive hints as to its full meaning and character.

This is one interesting sense in which all truth is a part of Mormonism. That is to say, all truth has a role in articulating what it means to fulfill the promise of the gospel to guide and enlighten our lives. To fully embody the promise of the gospel requires the incorporation of all truth. That it requires many lifetimes to acquire and apply all truth is no objection to this; it is rather an affirmation of the Mormon view of eternity, which allows unbounded individual progress, and of sociality, which allows us to participate in something far beyond what any one of us is capable of.

All ethical principles need to be fleshed out in a similar way to be applied well in any particular context. Parents develop principles and sensitivities for appropriate expectations, rewards and punishments, authority, autonomy, responsibility, and so forth, to apply in raising their children. Corporations develop policies for how to deal with customers and employees. Societies develop laws and formulate social programs. All of these represent the translation of general values and ethical principles into much more specific and detailed principles and practices to fit a particular context. This can be done well or badly, and in a variety of ways, depending on what general, or high-level values and principles one holds.

In this sense, fulfilling the promise of the gospel requires embodiment, and not just the possession of a body, but concrete and active living, in a particular time and place. Institutions, their design, policies, and practices, are a crucial aspect of the gospel’s embodiment in human lives.

While the Church and its membership have done much creative work to unfold and embody the principles of the gospel, there is much, much, yet to be done. If the gospel is a recipe for world peace, we have a lot more cooking and concocting to do!

6 comments for “Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part II: Unfolding the Expansive Message

  1. I’m not so sure that “institutions . . . are a crucial aspect of the gospel’s embodiment in human lives.” When I joined the Church, I didn’t join an institution as one might join the Rotary Club. Rather, I accepted the ordinances of baptism and confirmation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I like to think of interfacing with all other believers as individuals rather than as an institution. The Church is the people, individually gathered together, and wherever those people are, the Church is also.

    At least, these are the thoughts that have been running through my mind.

    The Gospel of Jesus Christ can save me in today’s society. It can save rich and poor. It has been able to save people in all societies and economies through all the history of mankind. In the time of Jesus, it could save both slave-owner and slave, even while both of them stayed in their social class. The commandment to love one’s neighbor has far more of an individual meaning than a social meaning, and it can be fulfilled in any type of society. That love doesn’t need to be directed through an institution, and we don’t need a institution to formalize and direct that love.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is wonderful — I love it and the Gospel it carries. But the life of the Gospel is in me, and in every other member individually — it is not in the institution.

  2. “Baptism is … the gateway into the Church … and into a life of righteous living.” Nice concept, Ben. I’m not sure we can easily nail down all of the specifics as to what constitutes a “life of righteous living” — it may vary somewhat by individual and socio-historical context — but the general concept seems fairly workable. The Church as an institution works hard to encourage this at both the general and local levels.

  3. Dave (#2), absolutely, it is not easy to nail down all the specifics of a life of righteous living! The point of my post is to say that there is an enormous amount implicitly involved in this, and, yes, that it will vary by individual and socio-historical context.

    ji (#1), you are right of course that the church is a bunch of people. However, we do not simply relate to one another as random individuals. We can relate to anyone on the basis of the love Christ calls us to. There are some important differences between how we relate to fellow church members and how we relate to others. For instance, we home teach our fellow members, we go to church with them, we hear them speak in Sacrement Meeting, we ask them for priesthood blessings, we try to find one of them to marry . . . The church is a very important institution, and the running of this institution is a key part of and support to our discipleship.

    Similarly, other institutions may fit well or badly with the gospel.

    Do you seriously think that it is okay, from a Christian standpoint, for people to own slaves? I don’t. This is an institution that is very difficult to reconcile with a Christian life. For many other institutions, the question of compatibility is more subtle.

  4. If I understand you — and honestly, I’m never sure I understand a philosopher even when I think I understand every individual word! — this would explain why Latter-day Saints who have listened to the same message can vary so drastically in politics and social issues and child-raising principles and just about everything else you could name, each of us believing that our choices are dictated by the gospel: Two people hear “care for the poor and needy” or “look to the rising generation” or even “follow the manual.” Then each unpacks it in a different way, because the actions necessary to embody the commandment are not explicit. Both may in fact have grasped the implicit message, but the two visible programs are going to be very different.

    And if I have misunderstood everything you’ve said, pretend I just complimented you on a wonderful post and look the other way.

  5. In the New Testament days, the message of salvation was offered to and accepted by slave-owners and slaves, and some of both joined and retained their social status. The Gospel of Jesus Christ can save both slave-owners and and slaves, bond and free. It can save democrats and republicans. It can save communists and capitalists. It can save rich and poor. It can save educated and ignorant. It can save souls in any economy and in any government.

    Men and women can disagree on almost everything else and still be united in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  6. Ardis (#4), yes, that would be one of the implications of my post. We interpret core gospel principlies in light of a bunch of other ideas/knowledge/belief as we apply them.

    ji (#5), I completely agree that the gospel is for all and can save all. In the process of saving us, though, it will change us, and sometimes in ways that are not an easy fit with our societies. We will have to walk out of step, or even sometimes walk out, as did the brother of Jared and his people, Moses and his people, and the Saints in the time of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. In many, perhaps most cases, to be the leaven in the loaf requires staying in the loaf, but also being different and being an influence for (sometimes radical) change.

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