Elder Oaks’ Leaves of Grass: “Not a Song of Myself”

Mohammed Ali, in one of the last of the radio series “In This I Believe” spoke to how even now, though beset with Parkinson’s disease and needing his wife to read his essay for him, he is still the “greatest of all time”. A paradigm of self-confidence, Ali’s American swagger and confidence contrasts greatly with Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ similarly paradigmatic reading of C.S. Lewis such that a self itself sets a man up for a fall.

Set in the sweet place as the first talk in the Sunday afternoon session of the 179th Annual General Conference, Elder Oaks lays out not only what he sees as a gospel ideal but something which makes Latter-day Saints unique. Lewis may have been speaking to Mere Christianity, a category much broader than Mormonism, but Elder Oaks sets out something peculiar to the Church in his rendering, though he cites a popular author who is not a member of the Church. That peculiarity is not a dedication to service, which Oaks’ speech also emphasizes; rather it is losing your self. And, that loss of self is something we have covenanted to, he holds.

Elder Oaks lays out a model of Jesus. He says this model is of “denying our selfish interests in order to serve others”. Yet he specifies what this denial of self consists of when he cites Matthew 16 “For whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”. Losing oneself for Christ is the road to eternal life.

What typifies this service in which one can lose oneself and gain salvation? Elder Oaks lists examples that can be seen as service to others, to be sure, but they are mostly characterized as service to the Church as a stand in for Christ: filling callings, missionary work, dedication to family, working for Prop 8, Church organized humanitarian service, and attending Church meetings. The reason Elder Oaks can put together this dissimilar set of activities emphasizing the Church’s place in our lives and our dedication to it and call it “service to others,” without commenting on how the organization mediates the relationship of service between people, is because of the contrast he draws with the world, typified in the “great and spacious building.”

Elder Oaks claims Mormons are unique. He cites Elder Widtsoe: “we cannot walk as other men or talk as other men.” Other men can be selfish; they can focus on career, on financial success, on finding and celebrating themselves, but Latter-day Saints cannot do so, because of their covenants. Instead, Saints are models of “unselfish cooperation for the common good.” While Elder Oaks does not tease out the implications of his contrast of a socialist model with that of capitalism, where the greater good comes from each seeking their selfish satisfaction, he does reduce the world to “seeking something for nothing,” such as through gambling or perhaps speculation.

Perhaps the logical leaps of his presentation can be understood by an unexpected plaintiveness in the written version, because of the cost to members and Church of Prop 8 activity at a time when the logical underpinnings of it have been decimated by the Iowa Supreme Court and by the actions of the Vermont Legislature, and because of the severe recession afflicting the world due to the derivatives bubble. It is strange, for example, to emphasize selfless service to Church as service to others and then cite a Catholic nun, Mother Teresa, as the prime example of such. It is also strange that he cites Lewis to state that “hav[ing] a self at all” is bad because of the temptation of “wanting to be at the centre—wanting to be God, in fact. … What Satan put into the head of our remote ancestors” Oaks quotes Lewis “was the idea that they could ‘be like Gods”. Yet Latter-day Saint temple ordinances and theology are about helping people become Gods. The difference is that for Lewis, the wanting to be Gods is about people creating themselves, making themselves their own masters and finding happiness away from God. For Latter-day Saints, according to Oaks, becoming Gods is about choosing to lose your self.

Strangely, Elder Oaks seems to accept the idea that the Latter-day Saint community is typified by blind obedience and tight organization—one could read this to speak of social control—so long as it is understood that the Church is not just that, but that those characteristics result from “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, from the inspired teachings of our leaders, and from the commitments and covenants we make.” His argument to intent here is key, it seems to me. In this he is accepting an important principle from his legal background on weighing actions, even though he gives a backhanded validity to many critics of the Church.

Nevertheless, Elder Oaks makes a call for people to renew their commitment to Church and devotion by sacrificing themselves. He lays out, as a result, a strong vision of an LDS world—strongly set apart from the rest of the world—is one of self-less persons joining together in cooperation for faithful ends. This contrasts strongly with National Public Radio’s celebration of an aged and battered icon, who can still celebrate himself as the greatest of all.

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  1. Molly Bennion says:

    There is never enough time in a conference talk to develop so important a family of concepts as Elder Oaks touched upon. It would be interesting to hear the long version. Whatever “losing one’s self” is, it is, as the example of Mother Teresa makes clear, not unique to Mormons or to Mormon church work. I am grateful for what I think are righteous but non-Church endeavors which might be deemed selfish simply because they take one from Church work or may result in money, status, or worldly power: the often solitary and all-encompassing work of the researchers and writers like yourself, David, whose findings and insights may or may not enrich the lives and refine the choices of the rest of us, but whose devotion to that work is our only hope of those findings and refinement or the entrepreneurs whose singular devotion to their ideas result in good jobs for thousands, Mormon and non-Mormon, for example.

    Sacrifice, common good, and selflessless may seem easy to define, but I don’t think they are. It is also not always easy to tell where a person’s heart is by a tally of hours spent in a career or money earned versus hours spent in Church service. Nevertheless, lest I seem too critical, I welcome Elder Oaks’ consideration of these issues, among the most important and difficult of our lives. I certainly have not reached a satisfying understanding of them.

  2. Listening to Elder Oaks’ talk made me understand the wisdom of speaking in mantic, aphoristic, parabolic, or proverbial language. The idea of losing oneself in service to others works well as it stands on its own precisely because it is open to such a wide variety of personal interpretation. I fear Elder Oaks spent too much time defining the concept that he narrowed it and by so doing caused the concept to possibly threaten some other doctrinal principles of Mormonism.

    I don’t disagree with him on sacrifice as an operative rejuvenating, saving attitude and action. But while he says that the Church doesn’t ask for blind obedience, he draws attention away from the fact that the Church doesn’t really allow its membership the option to personally apply the ideal of the self-less person joining together in cooperation for faithful ends (for example, his passive-aggressive disdain for those who chose not to get behind Prop 8 was particularly disappointing to me).

  3. Thomas Parkin says:

    I find a Jungian differentiation between ego and self helpful.

    The ego is more even than pride. It is the thing that covers sins,- especially to itself,- manipulates, controls, seeks confirmation that it excels in relation to other people. We think that it IS our self. It is our image but is also our heart, in so far as we are attached to it. It is a constellation of illusions and self-deceits that is almost necessary to get by in the world. It is the telestial man, and lives by the laws of the Telestial Kingdom. (roughly: scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours). It is the thing that can be broken and offered as a sacrifice.

    It is interesting that Jung calls Christ the “symbol of the Self.” The most representative symbol is not the Cross but the Sun. Significant words are ‘fullness’ (sec 93) and ‘holiness’ (or, wholeness). It is what we give up when we live for the mess of pottage that is the ego. It seems to me that the person who lives for this self doesn’t serve out of duty but out of a abundance in the personality, because it is love – as the Sun gives out heat just by its existence.

    etc. ~

  4. I never make it through General Conference without turning off the TV repeatedly.

    I always seem to find myself missing Joseph Smith — so I’ll often stop to read some of his words.

  5. #4 – That’s easy to say for those who don’t have to deal with the chaos and difficulties of that time. I posted the following last month:


  6. #5 Ray,

    Agreed. Those were harsh times. Should these be any easier? I think not.

  7. Perry Shumway says:

    How many conference talks joyfully described the heavenly rewards we will earn by obedience – eternal life, dominions, thrones, powers, principalities? Because we’re not interested in worldly wealth, which moth and rust can corrupt; no, we’re after something much, much bigger for ourselves. Is this not the epitome of selfishness?

    And yet how odd it would sound if Elder Oaks were to say, “Personally, I’ve completely conquered selfishness. In fact, I hope God won’t even go to the trouble to exalt me. As long as I devote my mortal life to serving others, it doesn’t matter what happens to me in the long run, because it’s not about me. Let my soul be dragged down to hell . . . it won’t make any difference.”

    Ludicrous, of course.

    I love Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” concept. Our self-less service to others is only non-self-interested in the short term. If we’re honest, we’ll readily admit that we hope for – even expect – a much more valuable heavenly reward for our actions.

    Is this such a bad thing?

  8. Perry,

    I see where you’re going, but at the same time in most if not all cases where I’ve really helped someone, I don’t care what I get in return.

    It’s nice to have the help appreciated. But if I did get “dragged down to hell” as you put it, it really wouldn’t make much difference as I’m glad I helped and made a positive difference in someone elses life.

    That they are happier or better off because of my service is reward enough.

  9. david knowlton says:

    I think there is an interesting, if perhaps subtle difference, between what Elder Oaks is calling for an Ayn Rand. He seems to defeat the idea that self interest is inherent by calling for a giving up of the self, which over time will make one take on ever more the character of the divine, which is a character of selflessness by definition. In other words, I think his perspective is a philosophical challenge to individualism.

    By the time one can qualify for exaltation, one has become so attuned to following God’s will–a.k.a. service to others–that one is not longer strictly an individual.

    If I read the literature correctly, the odd notion in the broad thrust of human history is actually the notion of an ultimate individuality. Collective self notions of Oak’s sort are much more common. What is strange is that Oaks’–et al. because he is certainly not the only general authority to articulate this message–idea appears in a society that more than almost any in history attempts to typify ultimate individualism and Rand is one example of that.

  10. nasamomdele says:

    He seems to defeat the idea that self interest is inherent by calling for a giving up of the self, which over time will make one take on ever more the character of the divine, which is a character of selflessness by definition. In other words, I think his perspective is a philosophical challenge to individualism.

    I think you hit his theme well. I think he is talking about the simple, nebulous message of losing oneself and gaining oneself in return.

    One could argue that this is self-interested, but I think that is a naive assessment. What’s more, Elder Oaks specifically challenges ideas of merit and reward. Interestingly, he acknowledges them as well to some extent when he challenges the idea of entitlement, “what’s in it for me?” thinking.

    I enjoyed this talk because it works on a few paradoxes, accepting neither side as a solution, but rather proposing a moderate, more pure ideal. One example is the individualist nature of ‘percfection striving’ in the Church being thrown into the mix with a communitarian mentality. I don’t think Elder Oaks rests his ideal entirely on either one- wisely so, I would say.

  11. Perry Shumway says:

    Years ago, Elder Oaks famously presented a pyramid of motivations for good behaviors, each ascending step of which represented a higher, more noble cause. The lower motivations were fear of punishment, social pressure, compulsion, etc. The very top of the pyramid was the pure love of Christ [My love for Christ? Or the love He has for all of us? Or both, perhaps?]. Desire for a personal reward didn’t rank very highly, if memory serves.

    So why do we even mention potential eternal rewards for our actions, if it’s all supposed to be purely altruistic? Why the constant talk of “keep the commandments so you’ll prosper in the land,” among so many other blessings and rewards, both short and long-term, put forth in virtually every lesson and talk? Is this some kind of “lower law,” and we mortals are simply too self-aware to ever be expected to act properly without any hope for personal returns? Even the temple is full of promises of great blessings to those who obey.

    Sam (#8 above) says that his ability to make a difference for someone is reward enough. I don’t doubt this for a moment, because he’s right – service is inherently rewarding. It makes us feel good. We are rewarded for it, personally, selfishly. If this were not the case, would we still do the service?

    Claiming pure altruism via complete selflessness is both dishonest and not in line with God’s plan.

    Maybe there are two kinds of selfishness – the kind Elder Oaks refers to, which seeks gratification at the expense of everything else, and the kind which seeks to gain true happiness by pleasing God. It’s still selfishness, but not in a bad way.

  12. Perry Shumway says:

    (#9 above) – Is selflessness truly a character of the divine by definition? Omnipotence, yes. Omniscience, sure. Omnipresence, for the Holy Ghost, no problem. But selflessness? Are you saying God truly has no interest in Himself, in what happens to Him, in what becomes of His creations, etc? I’m doubtful.

    And your collectivist interpretation of Elder Oaks’ theme makes me feel like running for cover before I get assimilated by the Borg. (wink, wink)

  13. david knowlton says:

    Perry, If I read Elder Oaks correctly then selflessness is a character of the divine. But Elder Oaks seems to have a particular definition of self and selflessness that does not necessarily participate in the grammatically based notion of subject and pronouns implying an innate individualism or self-ish-ness such as you write.

    I also do not think his thought fits into the collectivist/individualist dualism as a kind of either or, although in this speech he does seem to fall more on the collectivist side.

    Assimilation, it seems to me, is part of what is meant by becoming one with God. So you may have to run for cover. LOL.

    I really wish Elder Oaks and the other General Authorities who seem to espouse these ideas would flesh them out.

  14. Watch out Elder Oaks. With talks like that you might get a knock on the door by the McCarthy Commission on communist anti-American activities. Just to think of performing acts of service with no financial return in mind, just the good of the community? Sounds socialist to me. The republicans must be in an uproar.

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