Despite all the clamoring and buzzing about some of last weekend’s more, um, provocative and controversial moments, the most memorable sermon for me this General Conference was delivered by Elder Todd Christofferson. Entitled “Reflections on a Consecrated Life,” this talk poses and answers some profound questions that, in my view, get much closer to the heart of Mormonism than arguments about the mutability of sexual orientation, nature/nurture, prophets and politics, &c, &c.
At issue is the question: what does it mean to consecrate one’s life and self to God, and how is it to be done? Elder Christofferson frames this question at the outset as central to God’s plan for His children. Working out the implications of this question as individuals, as families, and as a society/Kingdom, on a day to day basis, is the very raw material in reference to which all the great questions are answered. He refers to a line from the famous Church produced film, Man’s Search for Happiness, to outline the foundational premises for the rest of the sermon:
Life offers you two precious gifts. One is time, the other, freedom of choice…
We have time. And as intelligent, self-aware beings with certain means at out disposal (bodies, abilities, material possessions, relationships, etc.) we have a degree of freedom to choose how we will spend that time. That we are constantly making such choices, and the specific choices we make, raise important questions for a people set on living eternally (that is, having unlimited time) with increased means and creative possibilities at our disposal. Elder Christofferson raises such concerns up front, as a backdrop for offering counsel on living a consecrated life. Will we be held to account for how we spent our time and managed our means? How can an agent with free will “choose good over evil?” How, in this cultural and historical moment, can we discern between “happiness”—the “joy” spoken of in scripture, which does not “fade with the lights and the music and the crowds”—and mere “amusement?” How do the choices we make now affect the consequences we experience in the eternities?
Noting that the term consecration in Mormon parlance typically calls to mind the Law of Consecration and carries strong, overtly economic overtones, Elder Christofferson reminds us that consecration is primarily about a mixing of worlds, a difficult mingling of the thisworldly with the otherworldly, an incursion of the sacred into the profane: “an application of celestial law to life here and now.” Here it is worth noting that the duty of consecration emerges from the process of making covenants, of accepting obligations that have eternal implication and everlasting consequence. Formally making such covenants in a very real and literal sense marks a transition from living exclusively in this world to living in the eternal world. Life in the eternal world begins here, and begins in earnest at the moment when we accept binding obligations which carry force in the eternities. “God’s purposes” for us, Elder Christofferson reminds us, are eternal, involving our “highest destiny.”
Consecrating our lives, our efforts, our selves, means transforming them into something sacred, something set apart from telestial space and worldly concerns. Consecration, as an individual and collective obligation, both emerges within and in some sense defines that which is most phenomenologically and quintessentially sacred in Mormon experience. It defines a transition across an ontological threshold, from one world and kind of being into another. It marks the time and place and acts by which we permit God to take hold of us, to make us His. The moment and the representational means by which we accept this new life, this transition and transformation, this new awareness and obligation, furnish new kinds of access between us and God—our access to Him and His to us. The experience imparts a weighty seriousness, an unspeakable holiness, a sheer gravity to the decisions—even the mundane, day-do-day acts—that make up our lives as consecrated people.
In light of the stakes, Elder Christofferson considers five elements that, he suggests, are integral to our living up to our sacred obligation to self-consecrate. He begins with a general concept, one which has in a multiplicity of ways and with almost unlimited range and variety played some role throughout human history as a defining category of social personhood: purity. One common frame, especially in modern religious discourse, for purity is sinlessness. But Elder Christofferson sets that identification aside in favor of a richer and more practical way of operationalizing the value of purity. Noting the Savior’s universal and unending call to repentance, he defines consecrated purity as repentance. There is an interesting kind of referential play at work here. Repentance is typically conceived as the steps and actions necessary to return a sinner to a life of righteousness. If righteousness is the path we must follow, repentance returns us to that path. Elder Christofferson’s identification of consecration and purity with repentance modifies that logic by suggesting that repentance is righteousness. Repentance is an ongoing, permanent process of “submission”, rooted in a “desire for correction”. Though ongoing and neverending, it is nevertheless transformative in the sense outlined above. It turns “natural men” into “saints,” to draw on King Benjamin’s rendering, and permits the power of the Atonement to change our nature. In this light it is easy to see repentance, constant and unrelenting repentance, as the essence of consecration, as something that over time makes us holy, sets our lives and actions apart, makes us into the very constituents of a sacred realm defined by eternally sustainable (i.e. celestial) forms of sociality (i.e. laws).
From purity Elder Christofferson turns to work. “A consecrated life is a life of labor.” Work in its purest, most honest, unmediated, truest form is always sacred, always contains an element of the divine. Again with the collapsed boundaries between the earthly and the heavenly, the here-and-now and the eternal, the human and the divine. Our work is to do God’s work, which, in turn, is to make us into the kinds of beings capable of doing His work. Elder Christofferson turns a compelling phrase:
A consecrated life is filled with work, sometimes repetitive, sometimes menial, sometimes unappreciated, but always work that improves, orders, sustains, lifts, ministers, aspires.
In other words, God’s work. Thankfully, Elder Christofferson also points out the value of leisure. Remembering that some forms of leisure, unchecked, can turn from virtue to vice, and (with irony) that wholesome and fulfilling leisure can sometimes require hard work to find, he nevertheless grants “music, literature, art, dance, drama, athletics” and other forms of recreation or hobbies a place in the consecrated life.
Next is respect for one’s body. Bodies in God’s image and likeness (this means both that God has a body and that bodies confer on us certain God-like qualities and abilities) are essential features of the consecrated path on which we learn and acquire new and progressive qualities and capabilities which mold us more solidly into the likeness of our Heavenly Parents. One line here is bound to incite some controversy:
Those who believe that our bodies are nothing more than the result of evolutionary chance will feel no accountability to God or anyone else for what they do with their body.
While he might be overplaying his hand a bit when it comes to the behavioral ethics of non-believers, we should not permit what looks like (but is, in fact, not) a denial of biological evolution or human evolution to distract us from the real point of this section of his talk. In the first place, he’s using evolution as a salient shorthand for unfettered naturalism—“nothing more than the result of evolutionary chance.” This he contrasts not with Biblical creationism or Intelligent Design, but with the Restoration’s wider view of pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal realities, of the backward- and forward-eternal nature of individual identity. Finally, it should be remembered that the point of the talk is not just ethical behavior or respect for health and bodies; it is these things as acts of consecration. He’s not arguing that naturalism breeds, of necessity, unrestricted amoralism or total disregard for the value of health or human dignity or life. He’s arguing that unbridled naturalism is not compatible with a consecrated life directed toward unity with God.
This alignment of consecratedness with respect for the body (which in Mormonism would include Word of Wisdom observance, adherence to restrictions involving tattoos and body piercing, formal and informal codes for dress and grooming, the confinement of sexual intimacy to marital relationships) indicates that Mormon bodily practices are not just about the things they seem to be about. The Word of Wisdom is not just about good health and modesty standard are not just a hedge for sexual abstinence. These things, in addition to whatever more obvious concerns they might address, also serve to mark us as distinct from the world, from outsiders, from who we were before we chose to live by them, and from who we might be in their absence. There is always a consecrating element at play. Thus, Elder Christofferson quotes Paul to the effect that “ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Romans 12:1).
Service is another key element of a consecrated life. Jesus is the exemplar here, a life wholly consecrated to God’s will and filled with service. His example also fits into the broader logic of God’s work and purposes. Jesus was Lord as servant, Master as feet-washer. God’s greatness and glory are defined in terms of His ability to elevate lesser beings to His station, a glory made as shared. Consecrating one’s self to service, to doing good, is also key to experiencing the influence and guidance of the Spirit. For some, inspired spiritual guidance and discernment are sought as a means of identifying the tares and separating them from the wheat; for others, as a strategy for life-planning and the achievement of success; for others still, in the pursuit of pure understanding, abstract knowledge, wisdom for wisdom’s sake. Using President Monson’s ministry as an example, Elder Christofferson reminds us that we are perhaps never more entitled to the informed whisperings of the Spirit than as we consciously and actively seek opportunities to serve others, do good, express love, and uplift.
Elder Christofferson finishes with a discussion of integrity. Again, a fairly broad and abstract concept, but he gives it direction and clarity in the context of consecration. Whereas the cutthroat world of unbridled economic competition and self-interest—in other words, the world we all live in and embrace with varying degrees of comfort—frames this kind of integrity as “naivete”, Elder Christofferson simply reminds us that we are accountable for our choices, even if those choices involve money, competition, fiduciary duty, etc., to God. Remember what God’s purposes are. Do our actions contribute to or set obstacles for those ends? Elder Christofferson cannot be more clear: “One who lives a consecrated life does not seek to take advantage of another.” To believe or behave otherwise is “hypocrisy.”
Consecration, and the obligation to consecrate, have been a source of perpetual angst for me ever since I first encountered Nibley’s blistering, uncompromising call to repentance in Approaching Zion. This sermon was a harrowing reminder. It’s easy to set aside this particular obligation on the grounds that no structured system (like a United Order) exists for implementing it formally. This is probably as much a result of our conditioning in a Church where most serious religious activity is tightly controlled, highly centralized, precisely and efficiently organized as anything else. But if consecration were simply a matter of deeding our property to some authorized agent (like a bishop) and then letting the Church take over, that would be entirely too easy. Despite the historical association of the word Consecration with such a system, that would be more an act of formal sacrifice than a life of consecration.
The fact that we accept an obligation to consecrate all of who we are in the absence of such a formal order should tell us something about the nature of consecration. A consecrated life involved choices, choices that on a day to day basis can be much more difficult to make and sustain than a one-time grand gesture of signing something over to the bishop and then moving on. We don’t need to turn over our property to another agent in order to consecrate it. On the contrary, our acts of consecration are much more meaningful if we have to choose how to implement them on a daily basis. Similarly, a consecrated life is not one in which the individual will is simply turned over to another agent, in which we blindly follow as automatons what our overseers tell us to do. It is a constant, progressive, repentance-based, gradual process of aligning one’s will with God’s, of learning to see things from His divine perspective, of coming to know ourselves how to press the substance of our lives into the service of His purposes, and of becoming like Him in the process.