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.