If ye are not one . . .

Matt Bowman continues as a guest blogger at BCC.

Over at the Thang, Geoff is interested in your experience with “prospering.” In response, Eric raised what I think is an interesting point — that he had always understood scriptural promises of prosperity as collective, rather than individual.

The Puritans, as Michael Crawford has pointed out, believed that God makes different covenants with the nation and the solitary believer. Individual salvation is predicated entirely on unmerited grace and the elect are thus predestined, their fate of heaven or hell decided at the foundation of the world and unalterable by any paltry action of their. Human organizations, however — the United States, the children of Israel, the Nephite kingdoms, the Massachusetts Bay colony — all of these could rise or fall in God’s favor, and earn either gifts of wealth or hordes of Babylonians based upon their communal efforts at righteousness.

While the Bible is open to interpretation on the Puritan interpretation of grace, both that book as well as latter-day scripture seem fairly conclusive in affirming the latter. The Nephite pride cycle, the rise and fall of the golden calf, the condemnation of various peoples in the Old Testament, and perhaps even the revocation of the law of consecration (as it is commonly understood) all seem to indicate that God in fact does deal with communities as a coherent entity as well as individuals. Of course, the very fact that God sets up churches, that we are allowed to mediate grace to each other through ordinance and ritual, is further proof. We are, at some holy level, bound to each other.

The nature of these communal sins is interesting — there are indications that they are often less an accumulation of individual wickedness than a blunder of collective action. The golden calf, the failure of consecration — these were the result of community acting together, and in ways that took on significance far beyond what a single individual action could have.

Is this important for us to think about? I know that I recoiled — and still do — when Pat Robertson blamed 9/11 on our national moral failures. I think at some level the idea is deeply troubling to me, and I think that it touches on an ambiguity in Mormonism. Call it the second article of faith straining against Fourth Nephi, perhaps. Maybe it’s simply more comforting to think that we are saved, rather than damned, together.


  1. Sidney Poitier played in a movie, Brother John, that considered this concept of Judgement Day as a time when humanity would be weighed collectively. Poitier played an angel who had spent a couple decades wandering the world and was soon to turn in his report.

  2. Nate had a really good post recently that I think is applicable here. He discussed the role that post-enlightenment thinking has on our scriptural interpretations. One post-enlightenment idea that did not exist among ancient people is the notion of an autonomous individual. Each person was seen as part of the community and dependent on it. Our strong focus on the individual comes from the enlightenment. Thus, when we interpret “prosperity” as a completely individual phenomena we are importing enlightenment categories that did not exist among ancient people.

    Oh, and I share your same suspicion of Jerry Farwell and the like :)

  3. Last Lemming says:

    Call it the second article of faith straining against Fourth Nephi, perhaps. Maybe it’s simply more comforting to think that we are saved, rather than damned, together.

    There need be no tension. We are saved or damned individually (second article of faith). We are exalted (and its opposite, whatever that is) collectively. (The quasi-official formulation is that we are exalted “as families,” but since we will all be sealed into one big family, I’m comfortable with my formulation). Although Fourth Nephi does not describe actual exaltation, it does describe the next step along the way–establishing Zion.

  4. Hey Matt:

    Thanks for the link.

    I admit that I was mostly thinking about prosperity based at least partially on economic well being. A general welfare type thing. Our ability to prosper in this way seems so dependant on the opportunities that our community/nation are in. It seems that in so many ways this type of prosperity depends on the general ‘economy’. In these ways we need to be in an environment that allows for prosperity. A generally righteous environment may foster such prosperity.

  5. Maybe it’s simply more comforting to think that we are saved, rather than damned, together.

    This is one of the most perspicuous observations I’ve seen in a long time.

  6. Thanks, all.

    I spent a semester last year producing a paper on Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel movement, a group of thinkers who argued that mankind was capable of committing collective sin. In this formulation, sin becomes as Paul describes in Romans: a force unto itself, and individuals, rather than merely committing sin, can be overwhelmed by it. In this case, sin becomes a collective rather than individual responsibility.

    I think that Johnny’s right in pointing out that this concept was perhaps brought to its knees by the Enlightenment. Additionally, LL’s right to bring up sealing theology. This does appear to provide a strong counterweight to the theological atomism of the second article of faith, at least in terms of the afterlife. I still wonder, however, how relevant these concepts are in our day to day lives here on earth. Should we be more concerned about the “structural apostasy” that Patrick discuses? Can the Church (or the United Staes, or the Rotary Club) sin as an institution?

  7. Mark Butler says:

    One has to be a particularly perverse sort of Calvinist (something that scholastic Calvinism shares in common with scholastic Islamism, by the way) to see the Lord as primarily responsible for the decision of a dozen terrorists to kill several thousand innocent people.

    Anticipating it, allowing it, working around it, sure, but never causing it. Even the Presbyterians who held that God, who by the counsel of his own will, did freely and unchangably ordain whatsoever came to pass, also (paradoxically) held that he did so in a way such that he was not the author of sin, nor violence offered to the will of creatures, etc. (cf. the Westminister Confession, ch. 3)

    Now on the more general question the scriptures are quite clear that no one, not even Heavenly Father (as a person) can be saved by themselves – i.e. heaven is a righteous *society*, and they further most heavily criticize the combinations of evil, notably Bablyon and the great and abominable “church”, there is never any indication that collective action is necessary to be damned, and every indication that personal stubbornness and inaction, being a law unto oneself, is more than sufficient to remain in an unsaved condition for all eternity.

    There are always requirements for salvation. There are no requirements for damnation. Damnation is the natural state of the stubborn, self-willed, and disobedient. Contra Calvin, men may indeed have a natural inclination to do what is right, but without social cooperation, they cannot even approximate salvation.

    Tumult, rebellion, upheaval, contention, stubborn dissent, and disagreement, insisting on having it “my way”, pride writ large, is the very spirit of damnation, and unfortunately that spirit seems to be rather more prevalent, even rather more probable than the spirit of humility and cooperation.

  8. TrailerTrash says:

    There was a post on this earlier on Faith Promoting Rumor:

  9. Mark Butler says:

    Johnny, I keep hearing this rumor that somehow ancient peoples did not have the concept of an autonomous individual. My general reaction is balderdash.

    Certainly many ancient societies (like many modern societies) were less individualistic, and more family oriented than contemporary Western liberalism. In that they echo the doctrine taught in all the scriptures from then until now.

    But what evidence is there that the ancients did not believe in individual punishments for individual sins as a general rule, despite believing in a collective responsibility to care for the spiritual health of ones neighbor? There are dozens of examples through out the Old Testament.

    Tell me for example, how is it that Cain gets cursed and Seth doesn’t? Or Jacob blessed and Esau not? Or Lot’s wife punished and the others untouched. Or very specific punishments coming upon just the very specific individuals or groups that defied Moses. Or the Ezekiel 18 account of who the Lord will save and who he won’t, based on personal righteousness or iniquity towards the latter part of his life, not the earlier? Or the concept of the birthright? The chosen seed? The vast majority of the Law of Moses? And so on.

  10. Mark, while I’d hasten to agree that individual conduct is stressed and restressed throughout the Old Testament, I’m not so sure that Johnny asserted otherwise. While he perhaps overstated it, it was my impression that he was emphasizing the strength of collective identity and responsibility in those same scriptures – a sense that I think has been weakened by modern liberalism.

    Additionally, I’m sympathetic to the argument that free will abrogates God’s ability to directly wield us as punishments for one another – though the Bible and Book of Mormon seem to clearly state that he has occasionally *allowed* such things to happen due to one civilization or another’s unrighteousness. Here, it appears, divine judgment is meted out upon a communal basis. How seriously we take such stories is, I guess, another question.

    I think there’s something to the argument for damnation as the result of behavior imminical to sociality, but I wonder if it’s possible for such tendencies to take on a social form of themselves, and travel the paths laid out by institutions. I think it is – the scriptural account of Sodom and Gommorah seems a particularly apt example here.

  11. Mark Butler says:

    I can fully agree with that (#10), Matt. I don’t see any problem with collective punishments as long as God makes adequate accomodations for any of those who are being unjustly treated thereby, whether by counting at as an extra trial, or protecting them from the worst of it, and so on.

    I would also fully concur with the idea that societies punish themselves by the weaknesses in their own culture and their own evil deeds, thoughts, and inclinations, often causing the righteous to suffer. That is different than divine punishment or judgment (as it is usually called in the Old Testament) though.

    The Lord suffers directly for that, indeed he suffers when inflicting punishments as well, the key part about his judgments is that in the long run they have a healing effect – i.e. they cause suffering, both human and divine to cease or be diminished. The ultimate in surgery.

    Only those who are *really* evil or incalcitrant are cast out, such that they are no longer part of the body of Christ in the most general sense, such that the Lord no longer suffers for their infirmities, and the poison they spread to others is eliminated as well. The only way that happens in mortality, is as I understand, the complete withdrawal of the spirit.

    I understand that there are relatively few such people – the scriptures say that such almost inevitably become possessed by the spirit of the devil – the incessant desire for death and destruction being the prime symptom of someone who has neither part nor parcel of the spirit of the Lord.

  12. Last Lemming says:

    Can the Church (or the United States or the Rotary Club) sin as an institution?

    If not, of what use is the concept “the blood and sins of this generation”?

  13. Or for that matter, the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children.

    About your second paragraph, Mark – I have often thought that defining sin in this way seems to fit with the naturalism that Mormon theology often applies to God; that is, sin is that which makes us naturally unhappy, rather than being sin because God arbitrarily deems it so. We are here to be taught the laws of the universe. One of these seems to be the organic nature of community; and that there seems to be, as LL has indicated, a degree of righteousness attainable only in communion with others.

  14. Last Lemming, you read my mind.

  15. Katie P. says:

    I was thinking about your question if the church can sin, collectively.

    In D&C, the church as a whole was put under condemnation because we did not pay enough attention to the Book of Mormon. That condemnation has not said to be lifted.

    I also hate Pat Robertson’s suggestion, and I don’t believe it for a second. I wonder, though, if any sins we could do collectively would be those of omission – the good we could have accomplished but didn’t. That gives room for personal liberty while still holding us accountable for what can only be accomplished together.

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