Fingers, Moons, and Doctrine

I’ve been following Bob’s recent exaltation thread from afar. More interesting to me than the different positions being taken on either side is that there is a discussion at all.

I first wondered what difference it would make whether or not exaltation were a gift. Would the answer change my testimony or how I live my life? How? I was about to write a post asking what would happen if it came down from President Hinckley himself (or we had whatever we might consider an authoritative answer) that, say, exaltation could not properly be thought of as a gift. (In fact, I might still ask that question.)

As I considered the question myself, I decided that thinking of exaltation as a gift might make me value humility and submission to God more than I might otherwise, while thinking of it as something else — what has the other side settled on at this point, a piano? — might encourage me to focus on things I can do personally to better myself and become more like Christ. At that point I was about to write a post about how the answer to everyone’s problems is to understand it as both, and that we really just need to get along. For that matter, your home teaching better be done before you spend any more time debating such trifles, buster! (Just kidding. Don’t worry. I was never really going to make that argument. Except for the home teaching thing — I’m the EQ president in my branch and my District President reads this.)

Now we get to the interesting part. It occurred to me that it’s more likely that those of us who already more greatly value humility and recognition of our own nothingness before God will be the ones more likely to think of exaltation as a gift, while those who already put more emphasis on accomplishing things through our own efforts will be the ones more likely focus on our own role in achieving our exalted state. The way we envision eternal progression probably says more about our current worldview than anything else. (If I were a real glutton for punishment, I might propose this as a liahona/iron rod substitute. Are you gift Mormon or a piano Mormon?)

I have a feeling most doctrine is this way. I’m convinced that the eternities will be wildly different from what any of us visualize in our meager attempts at describing them. That, even if somehow "correct," our doctrines will seem so vastly incomplete as to be almost meaningless. Instead of an accurate road map of the afterlife, I wonder if one purpose of the doctrines we’re taught is to help us, incomplete as our paradigms are, get a tiny glimpse of what it will be like. If our concept of what’s important is working constantly to improve ourselves, exaltation means the most to us if it confirms that value. Likewise for submission to and reliance on our Savior.

I guess this sounds a bit wishy washy, something of a cop out. The answer is whatever you want it to be!, I seem to be saying. What I really mean, though, is that as much as anything else we are simply projecting ourselves into our different understandings of doctrine. But that’s okay. There’s a saying of the Buddha’s that I like to whip out every few months whether I need to or not, and this seems like a good time. "My teachings," he said, "are like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon." When we get there, we’ll all be surprised at how much we didn’t know about post-Earth life. We all use different fingers to help us see the moon; the trick is to choose a finger that’s pointing at the right moon.

Oh yeah, and you can still answer my question about what would happen if Prez H settled the matter one way or the other if you want to.


  1. Logan,
    Nice post. More from you, please, you class up this joint.

  2. Eric Russell says:

    Logan, this seriously baffles me, “I decided that thinking of exaltation as a gift might make me value humility and submission to God more than I might otherwise, while thinking of it as something else – what has the other side settled on at this point, a piano? – might encourage me to focus on things I can do personally to better myself and become more like Christ.”

    How else do you personally better yourself and become more like Christ except through humility and submission to his will? The two things you mention are exactly the same thing.

    What is the difference in thinking about the two in my mind? The gift approach, to me, seems to foster mediocrity. In that frame of mind, we forget about the necessity of going the extra-mile.

    The piano approach, however, reminds us that constant humility, love for others, and absoulte submission to the will of the Father in all things is absolutely necessary.

  3. Well I think Eric just proved Logan’s hypothesis.

    “How else do you personally better yourself and become more like Christ except through humility and submission to his will? The two things you mention are exactly the same thing.”

    They are not necessarily one and the same thing. Many Christians focus a great deal of their faith energy on worship and humility. They pray a lot and they sing a lot and they humble themselves before God alot. They feel like exaltation is a gift and they joy in grace. Other Christians focus their faith energy on doing things, tithing, serving, reading the scriptures, staying out of trouble. They feel like exaltation can be earned and they joy in their efforts. Now ideally, both ways to God end up bettering the person and taking them to Christ. The grace people have works naturally sprout from their grace, and the works people are humbled to see that they can’t do everything. But they are two definetly different ways to live. I have met both types of people. And far from producing mediocrity I have found the gift people to be some of the finest, most Christ-like I have known.

    Great post Logan!

  4. And I really like the finger/moon analogy too Logan….the other night I was watching a video with Joseph Campbell. He said that everyday people are living and dying for metaphors. I think that about sums it up.

  5. Katie: Well I think Eric just proved Logan’s hypothesis.

    Well if Logan’s hypothesis is that exaltation is not simply a gift then I guess that is true. Let me explain… For the gift side of this equation you said:

    Many Christians focus a great deal of their faith energy on worship and humility. They pray a lot and they sing a lot and they humble themselves before God alot. They feel like exaltation is a gift and they joy in grace.

    Are you really saying that all a Christian must do to be exalted is “pray a lot and sing a lot and humble themselves before God”? So does mean lying, stealing, lasciviousness, hoarding wealth and talents, and grinding the face of the poor will be ok? Obviously not. Perhaps you will say that doing good and repenting falls under the “humbling themselves before God” category. That is fine, but those are works and that makes exaltation a conditional “gift” based on repentance (aka works) so it is really in the latter camp too.

    Logan: I decided that thinking of exaltation as a gift might make me value humility and submission to God more than I might otherwise, while thinking of it as something else – what has the other side settled on at this point, a piano?

    Ummm.. Did you get around to reading my post today where I fleshed out and explained my Parable of the Pianist? If you read it you will see that it is a model of how gifts from God and our effort must work closely in tandem to lead to our exaltation. (And you will also see that in the analogy the piano is a free gift, our becoming a virtuoso under the tutelage of the master is the part that absolutely requires our efforts in conjunction with his gifts.)

    As for the rest of your post — I think you throw in the towel way too early on accurately understanding the mysteries of God in this life. I suspect that having an attitude like the one you describe in this post (that we’ll never know how the universe really works in this life so we should stop trying) is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Our scriptures teach a different message about the mysteries of God though. Here are just a few examples:

    And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; … And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.(Alma 12: 9-10)

    Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; (Alma 26: 22)

    There are lots more here.

  6. Bob Caswell says:

    Ah, this feels like moments when I think: “it’s complicated, but it’s simple,” or “it’s sweet, but it’s sour.”

    Logan, not that this has anything to do with anything, but it was interesting how you used the lovely word “gift” when explaining the one side while giving us a hint of confusion with the word “piano?” when explaining the other side. I guess that I can see your point more clearly when I substitute the word “gift” with the word “bicycle” and make it so that both sides sound like they’re on the same level (though now that I’ve read both imperfect, lack-of-eternal-perspective analogies, I still think the piano is by far the better of the two).

    I want to be clear that I’m not really being sarcastic with that last bit. I think Geoff and I may part ways slightly on the “mysteries of God” thought, even if he has some beefy scriptures. We Mormons tend to read into those “know the mysteries of God” scriptures waaaay too much and often even treat them as absolutes, as if the mysteries of God are finite to us.

  7. Hey Bob,

    I am way to thrilled with your compliment of my new parable to have anything to disagree with in your comment.

    Honestly, we are probably closer in this mysteries of God thing than you realize. With you, I feel certain that there are lots of mysteries of godliness that are just way beyond us as mortals. In fact my post just yesterday (called Adam the Transformer) was all about the transformations I think our intelligences have made throughout the past eternities to arrive at the state we are in and how our former transformations bode well for future transformations as well.

    Anyway, I only pulled those scriptures in an attempt to ward off the idea that we’ll never know most mysteries so we should stop worrying about them. While we won’t know all that God knows in this life, I think we have the capacity to know many more of the “mysteries of God” than most of us can even imagine. For instance, according to Joseph we can at least know everything he learned — that is an awful lot.

  8. Ronan, you’re making me blush!

    Eric, Katie’s response to your comment is similar to what I’d say. I’d reinforce the idea that humility is not identical to hard work. They may be inextricably related when it comes to eternal progression, and I can agree that both are vital, but the two concepts focus on different aspects of the path. I didn’t intend to say thinking of exaltation as a gift means you focus on humility at the exclusion of anything else. Just that that might be the aspect you focus on in your own mindset more than the other.

    To tell the truth, I’m trying hard to avoid involvement in the gift/parable of the piano discussion. I’m just using it as background to my real point, which is that we project ourselves onto our understanding of doctrine.

  9. Geoff, I did read your parable, actually. And I like it a lot. So much so, in fact, that I don’t really have any criticisms of it. I apologize if characterizing it as saying that exaltation is a piano didn’t represent it well. As I said to Geoff, I’m really not trying to say anything about that particular debate.

    And I’ll also point out that I never advocated “throwing in the towel” in our quest to better understand the mysteries of God. Seeking them is one of the most fulfilling things in my life. As we do increase our eternal perspective, we will get closer to a complete understanding, of course, even if we’re still far, far away. My point is just that we don’t have anything approaching a complete understanding of the eternities yet. And the incomplete parts we each focus on in understanding the vast whole reflect our current lives and views.

    My view is not that “we’ll never know how the universe really works in this life so we should stop trying”, but that we’ll never know how the universe works in its entirety, so we should remember that even our most well-thought-out reasoning is going to be incomplete. I think trying to understand the universe is one of the very most helpful things we can do in this life to increase our perspective and become more like God.

  10. Bob, you’re right. I could have used better terms to describe the two sides. That’s becoming very clear, and I actually like your suggestion.

    I think I may have unconsciously portrayed the piano side less clearly because I actually fall on that side of the divide. In trying to be “fair,” I probably overcorrected by weakening that side.

    And I like how you put it, that the problem is not seeking out the mysteries of God, but in thinking our understanding constitutes “absolutes.”

  11. Eric Russell says:

    Logan, the piano parable is about becoming like Christ, the primary characteristic of which is humility. As such, I think the piano approach actually encourages humility more so than the gift approach.

  12. Geoff, to clarify, I am not saying that worshipful humility alone will get you exalted. What I am saying is that some people start with grace and end up with works, while others start with works and end up with grace. They are two different approaches to working out one’s salvation, but they can end up with the same result.

  13. Well Eric, I can see what you’re getting at, that humility is Christ’s main attribute, therefore becoming like him will require and encourage humility.

    But I think this a case where you’re reading yourself into the Parable. (Again, I think it’s unavoidable, practically speaking, to avoid reading ourselves into these things.) I reread it on Geoff’s site, and I don’t think the parable requires your premise — that the primary characteristic of becoming like Christ is developing humility — to work. I think your reading is a great one, but someone who considered humility much less important could still get the point of the parable. What IS necessary to the parable’s analogy is that our own effort is absolutely essential in the process.

    However, I can grant you that thinking of exaltation as a gift may not develop humility. As I’ve said, I’m not on the gift side of the debate, so I was speculating as to what I would value if I were. I could be wrong. I’d like to think that our friends who do hold the position that exaltation is a gift derive something worthwhile from that belief, though.

    And either way, none of this is very essential to the main idea I was trying to get across. Still, I suppose I could have been more careful in presenting it.

    Katie, thanks for your thoughts here. I can tell we see things similarly.

  14. Bob Caswell says:

    Logan, thanks for your patience on this one. I think your original point is much stronger than I had at first realized. For one, as I reflect back to my younger days of yester year (uh, that means like seven years ago), I remember choosing Mosiah 4:11 as the scripture to go on my missionary plaque (it focuses almost entirely on our “nothingness” as “unworthy creatures,” etc.). I always liked to reflect back on that scripture and try and keep things in perspective.

    No that there’s anything wrong with that scripture today; it’s just that now it probably wouldn’t be my “theme” scripture for life. This is difficult to explain because, of course, I still do value the atonement and place a huge significance on my own “nothingness.” But at the same time, I feel like there is sooo much more.

    The funny thing is that I wonder if in ten years I’ll be saying something like, “yeah, I remember back when I felt like I had to accomplish so much in this life to really live it to its fullest. Now I realize how focusing on the atonement is what’s really important.”

    This is all to prove Logan’s point (at least, for myself) in that I’ve already fluctuated quite a bit and anticipate more. And, of course, these things don’t necessarily have to be at odds with each other. Though, having said that, I’m speaking more hypothetically than from experience…

  15. I really like the finger/moon analogy. I see debates/discussions on this thread about grace vs works, gift vs piano etc. For me it helps to remember that all of these ways of viewing things are just fingers pointing to the same moon. Hopefully each way is useful and will bring us closer to knowing the mysteries of God.

    But like the Buddha said, let’s not mistake the finger for the moon.

  16. “submission to his will”

    I’m not sure that most of you know how frightening that phrase is to me and others. Submission is a harsh word for me. Maybe it is my pride, but submitting to the will of someone else is obscene. Free agency, or what ever it is called today, moral agency I think. Means to me that you chose the path, and if it is with God or not, the path you take is the one you will suffer. To submit takes the agency away in my eyes. Submitting of the will and being is something that scares me at a basic level.

    The whole quote said this
    “How else do you personally better yourself and become more like Christ except through humility and submission to his will?”

    If you submit your will to someone else then it is they that is “programming” you, not you yourself bettering yourself.

    I think the mindset of submitting to Christ is one of my biggest hangups. I stand on my own two feet. Don’t tell me how to stand, suggest. My will decided the final act of standing.

    Humility is such a proper word to use. Humility is simply saying that you cannot do it alone. It is all to much and to big to deal with by your self. You ask him to walk besides you in life. Submitting is more asking them to tell you what to do without thought.

    I wish the word “submitting” was removed from all religious talks on any subjects. I cringe whenever I hear it.

    I’m sorry if I am rambling here. Just that one word upsets me. Maybe it is my pride. Not all pride is bad. Is that pride saying that?

  17. This is my first attempt at posting on a blog site. I have enjoyed this site for several weeks now but have hestitated making any comments because a sincerely feel that most (if not all) of you are out of my league when it comes to expressing ideas. But I have decided it was time to get up some courage and add my two cents on this topic.

    I believe the difference between “gift” and “piano” is one of attitude. Those who view exaltation as something that is earned through good works tend to do good works for that reason – to earn the reward, or fear of not earning the reward. Those who view exaltation as a gift do good works out of immense gratitude and love for their Savior. My heart tells me that I should live my life as though exaltation is a gift, but too often I find myself doing good things for the wrong reasons.

  18. Eric Russell says:


    I’m beginning to think a lot of differences of opinion on this whole matter is purely semantic in nature. Maybe not. But I disagree that humility involves the giving up of agency – even in the most extreme cases. Rather, humility is choosing to place the Father’s will over one’s own. Thus, humility is not to say, “I can’t.” Humility is to say, “I can and I will.” To say, “I cannot submit my will to the Father’s” is pride.


    Good comment, and I see where you’re coming from. But I see the piano example differently. Learning to play the piano is not representative of pretending to be like Christ but rather actually being like Christ. I agree that to be like Christ one must do not only the right things, but the right things for the right reasons. Thus, the piano example automatically involves doing the right thing for the right reason. If you are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, including personal gain of any kind, then you are not actually learning to play the piano. Or perhaps you are, but learning erroneously.

  19. Eric,
    I think you misread gunner. Gunner stated that humility is “such a proper word to use,” and that submission is the problematic term. Perhaps to you those two things are the same. They are not to me.


    I don’t have such a knee jerk reaction to the word submission. But what I do have a problem with is when submission/obedience is applied to people and leaders in the church. “Submitting” myself to the will of my bishop is not the same as submitting to the will of Christ (not to say I prefer to think of my relationship to Christ in that way necessarily.)

    In this stage in my life I absolutely value my agency over anything else and cringe at the thought of doing something just because someone told me to. To use the finger and moon analogy, I wish church leaders would be viewed as fingers pointing to the moon. They are not the moon.

    I think it is too easy for people to use submission as an excuse to give up their personal responsibility.

  20. I like the word humility. Instead of humility being a character weekness as some in society things, I think it is a strengthening of your agency, not hurting it. The problem is so many people cannot separate the church from the lord and submission to one is not the same as the other.

    “When the prophet speaks, the thinking is over”.

    What a vile saying that I have seen thrown about way to often for my comfort online and in church. This is the submitting that bothers me so in life. Everytime I hear that line I simply want to scream. Submitting to the point of not thinking is the cause of so much pain. I understand that this saying is abused and normally used out of unrightious dominion, but it is still out there and used way to often. Enough people in the church have this image of submitting that it gives me pause when they speak to me on how a person should relate to modern revalations and commands.

    I don’t think most people in life can do it alone. There are many who walk besides you in life. A spouse, the spirit of the lord, or even a parent. What it takes to love and honor their love is a great exercise of humility. To know that you need them and it is for the betterment of both.


    I think it is too easy for people to use submission as an excuse to give up their personal responsibility.

    Well said.

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