The Golden Rule

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


  1. john fowles says:

    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.

    This is nice precisely when thinking about Lehi as a real person performing real historical events. He was, after all, a Jew, as were his descendants, and thus, perhaps, had a perspective on orthodoxy and orthopraxy more similar to Maccoby’s than we might realize.

  2. I agree with the Rabbi completely. I think we place way too much emphasis on doctrines that really affect us in no way while sidelining doctrines that influence our behavior.

    At the same time, I think this is the best explanation for why the church is so hazy in the details of its theology – it just doesn’t matter.

  3. Christina says:

    I beg to differ; the church is not at all hazy on indoctrination. Although there are certain subjects, hmmm, Heavenly Mother for instance, that don’t get much focus in the church, there are many, many more that receive undue focus. Look at a Primary or YW manual sometime to see the very specific instruction on doctrine.

  4. Christina, I haven’t seen the Sunstone article, but the Karen Armstrong story comes, I believe, from her recent autobiography The Spiral Staircase, in which she recounts her experience banging her head against the wall of Catholic doctrine and practice (she was a nun at the time). She got out before it killed her, but it wasn’t easy.

    Anyway, your basic point seems to be that while the LDS Church doesn’t have a formal creed it does have an informal creed-like group of doctrines that it uses like a creed. Creeds came into use in the early christian Church primarily to identify and expel heretics. Present practice of the LDS Church (the grounds on which “heretics” are expelled) suggests the key features of an informal LDS Creed would be the following: (1) the orthodox, supernatural account of LDS history, (2) a belief that there is no Heavenly Mother (or at least that we mere mortals are not allowed to talk about Her), and (3) polygamy is not something we talk about either (as either defending it or attacking it can get you in trouble). I suppose you can throw a couple of Proclamation issues in there too.

    Or perhaps there are other ideas about what the content of the LDS Creed, either formal or informal, would be?

  5. john fowles says:

    Dave, I really do fail to see how your numbers (2) and (3) could be understood as “key features” of an informal LDS creed that could be used in the same way as early creeds, i.e., to define and expel heretics. Don’t you think the Thirteen Articles of Faith function that way more than Heavenly Mother?

  6. Christina says:

    To John’s thirteen articles of faith, I would say that the questions we are asked in the temple recommend interview create a creed of sorts – if you don’t accede to the doctrines of prophetic keys to the priesthood and authority or the existence of the Godhead, then you aren’t allowed to go into the temple.

  7. Interesting post. A few questions that come to mind:

    What does it mean when we don’t see how a doctrine relates to how we live our lives? Is it a problem of doctrine or doctrinal emphasis–so abstract that it would be too difficult to find a sensible application, or so obscure that it would be better to focus our energies elsewhere? Does the problem lie with us–that we haven’t put forth sufficient effort to see how the doctrine could change our lives? Or could it be that our beliefs already are affecting our behavior, and we just aren’t recognizing how?

    Maybe discussing specific examples would be helpful.

    Then again, it could also send the discussion off into a host of thorny side issues.

  8. Christina says:

    I meant to say “in addition to the articles of faith John raises”

  9. john fowles says:

    Great point, Christina. Actually, the Articles of Faith, combined with the temple recommend questions, sort of provide a fusion of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in LDS informal creedalism.

  10. Manahi Taber-Kewene says:

    I read the same article and really enjoyed the characterization of theology as poetry — after all, so much of scripture is poetic in nature, although I’m never quite sure if that’s really how the author(s) intended it to be, or whether it’s a result of translation. Perhaps both. This brings me to my initial reaction on the issue of how important theology really is. I think Maccoby raises a good point. Besides, you don’t have to look too far to find Christians who take a consistent approach to religion that is encased in doctrinal debate. This goes for LDS and non-LDS alike.

    I think the thing that tips the scale for LDS members, is that we believe in modern revelation. And as such, this places an enormously high degree of importance on the doctrine. Of course, you don’t have to look back very far in our history to see that can be problematic (i.e., polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, etc.)

  11. john fowles says:

    Manahi, I agree with you and would point out a possible difference between doctrine and theology, the latter being a philosophization, for lack of a better word, of the former. Or is that inaccurate?

  12. The modern version of the rule is “Be Kind” (as my wife learned it).

    My own take on the conflict between Confucious and Taoism, right action and right doctrine, is at

    BTW, I’d like you ask you do do as I did (here and link to the Times and Seasons thread with Alessia’s name in the link to increase the chance that a web search in her name will lead her to the story.

  13. Or perhaps there are other ideas about what the content of the LDS Creed, either formal or informal, would be?

    Better throw the Word of Wisdom in there. I think most members who do keep it tend to look at those who don’t as not being “real” members of the Church. It’s also a temple recommend requirement, same as the required statements of belief mentioned above.

  14. The problem with the doctrine taught by the good rabbi is that it flies in the face of some clear teaching by Joseph.

    It is necessary for us to have an understanding of God himself in the beginning. If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong, we may go wrong, and it be a hard matter to get right… If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves… My first object is to find out the character of the only wise and true God, and what kind of a being he is… It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another
    TPJS — King Follett Discourse

    So while there are some very good reasons to focus on practices before theology, it seems there will come a point when we cannot improve our behavior without having a better understanding of true answers to theological questions. The good news is that as Latter Day Saints we ought to be the best equipped in the world to qualify for revelation uncovering the “mysteries of God“.

    I don’t think these things are “inexpressible”, I think they are mysteries that are revealed only to those who seek them and are spiritually prepared to learn them. (Of course Alma says that once God reveals them we are commanded not to blab these things to the unprepared…)

  15. Christina says:

    I agree that we must know some things in order to know how to live rightly, see my point in the post about understanding the principle of eternal progression. My objection is that there are many things we are taught in the church that are focused on to the detriment of teaching this most fundamental principle of loving each other. For example, the self-righteousness spawned from the endless discussions of the Word of Wisdom is an unfortunate by-product of a culture that emphasizes these types of things over actually caring about the person who is ingesting the alcohol we object to.

  16. My objection is that there are many things we are taught in the church that are focused on to the detriment of teaching this most fundamental principle of loving each other.

    Good point. Sounds a lot like the comment Jesus made about swallowing camels and straining at gnats.

    But I don’t see this in the Maccoby quote. He seems to be saying we don’t need to try to understand God because we never can. He instead recommends focusing on “right practices”. Well the Word of Wisdom is a right practice, but as you mentioned it can be unduly emphasized at the expense of other righteous practices. Without deep study and correct understanding of theology we cannot know how to properly prioritize such practices. Or in other words, I don’t think we can have right practice without right belief. From his quotes, I don’t get the sense that the rabbi agrees with this idea.

  17. Christina,

    I agree that we receive very specific–sometimes overly specific instruction on certain matters. What I mean to say is that the church has no formal theology the way many other religions do. There is no Mormon Catechism. Mormon theology merely consists of a compilation of sermons from various leaders over an extended period of time, each of which hold varying amounts of weight in determining what we believe.

    I’ve heard some say, half in jest, that our state of theology is simply to combat anti-mormons. They can’t attack us for believing X if we ourselves are not sure that X really does represent the official position of the church.

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