One of the more intriguing ideas at this year’s Sunstone Symposium was Lavina Fielding Anderson’s suggestion that True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, the short but authoritative doctrinal handbook issued last year by the First Presidency, is “the new Mormon Doctrine.” To make us all a little more familiar with this gem (and to determine if there’s really any “new doctrine” in it), I’m going to start a feature summarizing and discussing topics selected from the roughly 160 articles in the TTTF booklet. You’re a bright bunch — I’m sure you can guess the format of the next 25 posts in this series. “A” was a toughie: I picked Agency, but other entries worth mentioning include Abortion, Abuse, Addiction, and Apostasy. The topics selected for inclusion in TTTF include liberal coverage of contemporary moral choice issues as well as the standard doctrinal summaries, which makes TTTF especially interesting reading. The booklet seems to be directed primarily at LDS youth, which explains the simplified exposition of some doctrines and (at some points) a rather paternal tone.
Agency, Conscience, and the Light of Christ
The Agency entry is particularly careful to avoid the now-disfavored term “free agency,” which must appear too permissive to some of the Brethren. Nor does one see the term “moral agency” used. The article defines agency as “the ability to choose and to act for yourself,” and quotes 2 Nephi 2:27. To remind us that it’s not “free agency,” it states: “You are free to choose and act, but you are not free to choose the consequences of your actions. The consequences may not be immediate, but they will always follow.”
This stress on the necessity of good outcomes for good choices can cause problems. It invites the reader to feel that someone who is depressed or who has a run of bad luck in health or in business must necessarily be involved in sin or be otherwise out of favor with God. How, after all, can anyone who is “living the gospel” not be visibly happy? How could God not bless them with success rather than adversity? Frankly, the TTTF Adversity article doesn’t do much to correct that view, suggesting much adversity stems from pride and disobedience. The Agency article winds up with this paragraph:
You are responsible for the decisions you make. You should not blame your circumstances, your family, or your friends if you choose to disobey God’s commandments. You are a child of God with great strength. You have the ability to choose righteousness and happiness, regardless of your circumstances.
There you go: Happiness is a choice. If you’re not happy, you’re just not choosing to be happy.
Two other articles bear directly on the question of the relation between the LDS doctrine of agency and the more general concept of morality or moral choice. Conscience states that “[a]ll people are born with the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong.” It is to help a person stay out of “situations that are spiritually harmful” and to avoid sin. “Conscience is a manifestation of the Light of Christ,” states the second article, “enabling us to judge good from evil.” The light of Christ is specifically distinguished from the Holy Ghost as not being “a personage.” This suggests a further question: What, exactly, is the light of Christ? It’s hard to escape the impression, even from the TTTF article, that “conscience” and “light of Christ” are simply interchangeable terms for the same phenomenon.
Morality versus Obedience
One interesting thing about these three related TTTF articles is that they never call it “moral agency” or “moral choice” and, in fact, the term “morality” is never even used in any of the articles. Granted, they talk about right and wrong, good and evil, but they aren’t really encouraging Mormons to develop or clarify their own moral values or moral sense and make good choices accordingly, they are encouraging Mormons to simply choose to follow the counsel they are given by their leaders. This is evident in the article Prophets, which explains that prophets today “make known God’s will and true character. They speak boldly and clearly, denouncing sin and warning of its consequences.” And: “You can always trust the living prophets. Their teachings reflect the will of the Lord ….” More simply, when leaders speak of agency or choice, the choice they are advocating is one of obedience, not morality; choosing to obey counsel, not choosing to follow one’s own moral compass. Which is not to say the two are in conflict: the idea that there might be a conflict between received counsel and one’s moral sense is almost inconceiveable to those giving the counsel. Any objection to counsel phrased as a moral objection is almost invariably ascribed to pride or disobedience.
This distinction between obedience and morality is worth exploring in more depth. The initial distinction is between moral law (not really law at all) and ritual law as presented by Old Testament prophets. When Isaiah upbraids the Israelites for their moral failure (“Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Isa. 1:17 NIV) despite their array of ritual performances (see Isa. 1:10-16), he is arguing for the priority of morality over ritual law. Likewise, Jesus rebuked the “teachers of the law” for neglecting “the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faithfulness” in their zeal to conform to ritual requirements (Matt. 23:23 NIV). Today, in a capitalistic, democratic, free-market society of corporations and hierarchical churches, the concept of ritual law is perhaps better represented by what might be termed “institutional law,” revolving around institutional values like attendance at meetings, financial contributions, performance of assigned tasks, and of course obedience to one’s leaders. Such obligations are based on institutional values, not moral values like justice, mercy, or charity. Institutional values have a high priority in Mormonism and get a disproportionate amount of airtime in meetings and publications.
Let’s put the matter more starkly: Obedience is not a moral value any more than is punctuality. Any request for obedience raises the question of what and whom should be obeyed, and making the “obey or not obey” decision, especially in hard scenarios, raises moral questions. A moral norm or value is what allows one to decide whether to obey a particular command or requirement or not. I suppose a hardliner could argue that the norm “always obey, obedience is the highest value” is itself a moral norm, but that “blind obedience” position is generally considered moral abdication rather than moral justification. “I was just following orders” is rarely deemed to be a sufficient moral justification. So while a command or directive might present a moral choice, obedience as a concept or value does not equip a person to resolve a moral dilemma raised by a command or directive.
The US Army understands this, and educates its soldiers not only about the requirement to obey orders, but also about orders which violate moral norms and which should not, even must not, be obeyed. In the LDS Church, on the other hand, we are taught that the leader of the Church must always be obeyed, generally by appealing to a grant of divine revelation vouchsafed to the leader, but sometimes with the explanation that before a leader would be allowed to give us errant counsel, God would remove him from his place (i.e., cause him to die). I don’t find that a particularly attractive position. And I find it odd that the Army does more to caution its soldiers about the moral pitfalls of blind obedience than does the Church. I suppose there’s an argument that people with guns and the duty to use them ought to be held to a higher standard than the rest of us.
I’ve gone on a bit, but it seems like an interesting topic. This post expands on a pleasant exchange I had recently with a T&S permablogger on one of their characteristically lengthy threads, helping me realize how my view of moral choice differs somewhat from what one might call the orthodox LDS model. My overall point is that choice, agency, and conscience should be defined primarily in a moral context, whereas TTTF (and Church rhetoric generally) seems to discuss it primarily in relation to obedience and what I have called institutional law as opposed to moral law. There are no doubt other approaches to moral choice that can be phrased in terms of agency, conscience, values, and authority; perhaps some of these will come out in the comments.
Next week: Body Piercing.