I’m way behind on my life — so behind that I’m only now getting around to reading that most precious of texts, the latest issue of Sunstone. I’m actually even more behind than that because I am going to borrow ideas from a panel discussion at last year’s Sunstone Symposium that is printed in the issue. Holly Welker’s introduction to the panel, "Doing Things that Change Us: Mormonism as Praxis," relates a conversation between Karen Amstrong, a former Catholic nun who was writing a documentary series on Saint Paul, and a Jewish scholar Armstrong consulted, Hyam Maccoby.
Maccoby contests the New Testament description of the Pharisees and argues that Jesus could himself have been a follower of Rabbi Hillel, a Pharisee, because Jesus taught a version of Hillel’s Golden Rule. He shares the following with Armstrong: "Some pagans came to Hillel and told him that they would convert to his faith if he could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. So Hillel obligingly stood on one leg like a stork and said, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.’"
Armstrong is taken aback and struggles to synthesize this approach with her understanding of religion, which requires belief in the creeds before all else. Maccoby explains that theology is not that important in Judaism. "We have orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy–Right practice rather than right belief — You Christians make such a fuss about theology, but it’s just not important in the way you think. It’s just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible."
I like that. I know what the right way to live my life is, and I know when I am doing it and when I am not — I think most of us have that basic awareness. After all, wickedness never was happiness. Maccoby’s explanation is in consonance with one of the most fundamental of LDS doctrines, that we become who we practice to be. I think that’s called eternal progression. One thing I chafe against in the church is the notion that we must believe in a certain set of doctrines which in large part don’t relate to how we actually live our lives. So is the good rabbi correct, are we misled to value belief in so many doctrines instead of focusing on how to live our lives? Or do we need those doctrines in order to know the right way to live? After all, I just used an LDS doctrine to explain why Maccoby’s perspective makes sense to me.
I also appreciate his characterization of theology as poetry, a way of talking about the inexpressible. The night before I read the article I had been reading in 2 Nephi where Lehi is counseling Jacob before his death and expounding on his own ontology. "For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one … And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God."
I cherish Lehi’s words much more when I read them as his attempt to approach the ineffable rather than a laying down of doctrinal beliefs. After all, the Book of Mormon puts forth a number of inconsistent doctrines, which only makes sense given that it is a collection of so many human beings trying to express their understandings of God and his ways. I am not unhinging the Book of Mormon from historical occurrence, rather, just trying to appreciate the musings of the prophets in a way that makes more sense to me. So, is this a valid way to read scripture