Generational Translation and Work for the Dead

Near the end of his magnum opus on Christian love, Works of LoveSoren Kierkegaard includes a curious little meditation on loving those who are dead. Entitled “The Work of Love in Recollecting One Who Is Dead,” Kierkegaard considers how our love for the deceased may reveal more about our own ability to love than anything else. This is because those I love in life “cover over” certain parts of me, influencing me so profoundly that I cannot fully see myself as I really am. Even more significantly, in my love for those I prefer to love, I cannot see how I truly love and constantly deceive myself that my love is authentic and sufficient. This is because in the presence of the Other I am almost always tempted to not disclose everything, to hold something back, not be fully honest and sincere. But when I try to relate to one who is dead, there is really only one person in such a relationship: me. Only the one who is living is fully disclosed. The dead person cannot speak, change, disclose herself to me, or reciprocate my love. The dead person is a withdrawn object, the occasion for my own full self-disclosure. Nevertheless, following Kierkegaard’s insistence throughout the book that the Christian is charged with the daunting task of loving all the people we see (everyone we see is or should be our neighbor in the Christian worldview), we have a particular duty to recollect (as opposed to remember) our own dead (heroic baptizers of the departed famous, baptizing outside of family lines, take note). Memory for Kierkegaard is indiscriminate; we remember this or that, and always less and less vividly. Recollection on the other hand is a conscientious re-collecting of the fragments of memory, and a re-assembling of those fragments into a unified person we recall inwardly in love. This loving the dead through recollection is, in fact, the freest form of love because it is pure gift, a gift given with the knowledge that no repayment is forthcoming. When we love the dead we do so in the most unselfish manner because there cannot be the expectation or hope of compensation for our love. Even in cases where we freely give of ourselves to help another without explicit expectation of being repaid, we are still left with the knowledge that our gift will likely benefit its recipient, and the pleasant feeling that we have done good. Such a form of love is not purely unselfish, for it is difficult to disentangle ourselves from how the gift might be received from the very fact that it was received, and thereby was given. In other words, our motives for giving might be more self-serving than we can see, and the fact that one who is living is the recipient of our love is precisely what makes it difficult to tell the difference. In loving the dead we expose the purest kind of faithfulness, one that is utterly dependent on the one who is living for its realization. And in so loving we strip ourselves of self-deception and expose ourselves in our vulnerable truth. As a consequence, then, the work of recollecting the dead is the most unselfish, freest, and most faithful kind of love.

Perhaps most critically, however, the work of recollecting the dead allows one to more authentically learn how to unselfishly, freely, and faithfully love the living. Recollecting the dead teaches one to love in such a way that excuses are annihilated when one fails to love. No longer are we allowed to think that it is “the other one who is selfish, the other one who is to blame for his being forgotten because he does not call attention to himself, the other one who is faithless.” Loving the dead helps us to take better responsibility for the ways in which we love the living. In a sense, when we love the living we do so out of compulsion, or constraint, because the living call to us in various ways to love them, and even when we desire to do so, that very call is ultimately a demand for love. The dead, of course, as the dead, cannot call. Our recollection of them is unconstrained, un-imposed, not compelled. Yes, we must heed the calls of the living, but Kierkegaard suggests that our work of recollecting the dead enables us to do so more freely and faithfully.

Kierkegaard, of course, knew virtually nothing of Mormonism, and might have thought of ordinance work for the dead as superfluous at best and too priestly and ritualistic for genuine Christian living at worst. Nevertheless, because Mormonism emphasizes work for the dead so pervasively and profoundly, Kierkegaard’s meditation on recollecting the dead could be of particular interest to Latter-day Saints. Often our relationship to vicarious temple work is somewhat one-dimensional and even a bit self-serving: either my work is merely the corporeal and unthinking means of offering salvation to souls in the spirit world (unthinking because thinking and meditating are not required to complete the rituals and corporeal because all that is ultimately required is a live body, an assembly line of living bodies); or the dead are merely the excuse for temple attendance where I can take advantage of being in a sacred place in order to receive special personal revelation and spiritual strength. The latter point is important for the Mormon temple-going experience, of course, but too often, I think, we use the dead in ways similar to how we often use the Book of Mormon: as personal seerstones for divine revelation rather than as an occasion to reflect on the content and value that either (both the dead and the Book of Mormon) contain intrinsically in themselves. Of course, Kierkegaard’s ideas about recollection would merely be suggestive about how we might re-conceive our relationship to the work we do in temples as well as to death and the dead in general, but the time has clearly come in which such re-conceptualizations are necessary. The point is that Kierkegaard’s singular thoughts on love and the dead are but one entry point into new ways of thinking about a relationship to death, dying, and the dead that is particularly and peculiarly important within the Mormon religion. (Sam Brown’s recent book on the centrality of death and the dead in Joseph Smith’s thought is another important entry point, and I’m devoting some posts in the future to theological/philosophical reviews of the book in that light).

Such new entry points have become increasingly necessary, for Mormonism has officially entered uncharted waters. Not since its struggles with the U.S. government over polygamy has Mormonism been so closely scrutinized has it has been over the past several months and will continue to be for some time. For some it is an uncomfortable experience to be thrust into the spotlight and examined so closely after being so accustomed to living one’s religious life in the privacy of the fringe of church-going Christianity. For others the national and international probing of Mormonism is an important next step in bringing about potential future policy changes regarding critical social issues they believe Mormon leadership has long ignored or mishandled. For still others–perhaps a majority of the faithful–it is an unprecedented opportunity to communicate the cherished and important messages of the faith they love like never before, hopefully attracting curiosity-seekers and potential converts alike.

Wherever one falls among these groups, one task relentlessly remains: that of continuous and careful reflection on what Mormonism must or can believe about itself. As Terryl Givens penetratingly wrote in a recent issue of Sightings, we’ve often left it up to others–those who have little stake in the matter by comparison–to frame public theological discourse. Baptisms for the dead in particular (now accompanied by the recent controversy on Mormonism and race) is the media expose that keeps on giving. Jewish Holocaust victimsDaniel PearlGhandi. Princess Diana. Nearly every day brings more news of the posthumous baptism of someone famous. Recent pieces by Jana RiessSamuel BrownJohn Turner, Aaron R. here at BCC, (see Juvenile Instructor’s excellent recent essay, just posted) have been excellent, nuanced responses in varying ways to this somewhat recent (and tiresomely recurring) controversy. In the main, these pieces have been particularly insightful regarding the history of the practice and how that history relates to the current practice and theology of Mormonism.

However, there are also seemingly well-meaning assessments of the practice of baptizing for the dead that are short-sighted and small-minded. To cite one example, Michael Nielsen’s recent op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune notes the significant emphasis and considerable resources the Church utilizes in doing vicarious work for the dead–an emphasis and resources that might be better employed, he thinks, serving the present needs of living members and their communities. Vicarious ordinance work “keeps people involved, lends a sense of purpose and reinforces the beliefs promoted by the church[…] all of [which] helps to maintain the believers’ faith and their institutional commitment,” but ultimately it seems to distract from the more important work of attending to the concerns of the living. The institution, it seems, cannot adequately do both. On the other hand, “America’s Founding Fathers are Mormons” triumphantly crows that the founders of the nation became Mormons after their (many and still probably recurring) proxy baptisms, following a spiritual visitation from several of them to Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple. The implication here: The Founding Fathers apparently requested baptism on their own behalf, but their example nevertheless illustrates that the righteous in heaven really can and do avail themselves of their agency to choose “The Truth” and “become Mormons.” Ultimately, we might conclude, many Jewish deceased will righteously choose to become Mormons. Vicarious work for the dead is, in the final analysis, a rescue mission to save otherwise damned or diminutive souls.

There is obviously important theological work that remains to be done regarding Mormonism and its relationship to death and the dead. And work for the dead is but one element in the wide array of doctrines and practices that Mormons value. As the Kierkegaard illustration hopefully illustrates, this is not alone the work of uncovering and revealing history or cataloging the sociological aspects of a community (as critical as such work will always be), but rather the work of creating new ways of seeing theology that thereby constantly reinvigorates and renews its meaning by making it continually relevant for the people who believe it and live it. This aspect of religious life–careful, but creative–even imaginative–reflection on essential doctrines, norms, practices, texts within a faith–is vital for the life of faith. It is that which ensures one’s religious world is a living, moving world of life and creation, able to interact with other worlds (cultures, societies) by speaking to them in ways both insiders and outsiders can understand. Otherwise, we inhabit a dead world of lifeless traditions and procedures that, unable to speak to the residents of other worlds that overlap ours, eventually and inevitably become incapable of speaking even to larger and larger portions of believers themselves. Theology is not the historical work of the discovery of more and more facts and the interpretation of those facts, though it must be related to and grounded in such work. Theology is the practice of redeeming that which has been given to us by history and authority by creating ways of seeing important texts and practices that resurrects and re-translates them generationally. In a sense theologizing has always been the work of translation. Translation might be said to be just as much a part of Joseph Smith’s egalitarian legacy as any other part of that legacy–every member a translator, both for herself, her family, and her generation.

And that work has never been more crucial than it is now. St. Paul taught that we are all the body of Christ, but that body must be constantly renewed and regenerated. Otherwise we are left with reductionist public interpretations of unusual practices like baptism for the dead that result in either/or dichotomies: either a neanderthal (though perhaps logically tidy) religious primitivism or a rapacious and arrogant evangelization of the Hereafter, neither view of which most Mormons themselves would want to own. We can’t go back to the provincial isolation of the past, where generational translation is only adequate for for our small community, and increasingly less so, at that. It is our responsibility to do the work of constantly seeing things anew, of re-inscribing the truthfulness of the practices and doctrines we value in such a way that we reveal the potential life and goodness within them, a life and goodness that doesn’t have an infinite shelf life without new re-readings and charitable re-interpretations. No one can do that for us. In her piece on her disappointment in constantly having to learn that Mormons are “baptizing my people” Carol Smaldino nevertheless observes that “the ‘good news’ may be about the human capacity to create other rituals and imagery suited to the complexity of what we are in the midst of.” What if, as Mormons, we were to see proxy work for the dead, not as merely a rescue mission to save souls, or an occasion for spirit-strengthening temple attendance, or even, in some cases, as utterly nonsensical or immoral, but instead as the serious work of recollecting the dead, a work that is made all the richer by the ritualistic elements of proxy baptisms and endowments?  What if there are, in fact, myriad ways of re-conceiving this important practice for ourselves and those we desire to understand us? Indeed, the capacity to live within the complexity of an increasingly elaborate world is not only within us; it is our responsibility to marshal it for ourselves. Failure to do so is to take the risk that our cherished doctrines and practices eventually become dead themselves, unable to call to those who must value them the most.

The pertinent questions, here, are these is: how can these kinds of translation proceed? Is it possible to engage in “translating” what we consider to be our most important doctrines and practices that unites and binds us to one another instead of dividing and isolating? Part of the problem as I outlined it above is that we have often let others produce our crises for us and we are left to provide hasty and contrived, but worst of all inadequate solutions. I am suggesting that we as a people must take responsibility even for the varying crises amongst us, realizing that crisis will always arise as a result of living in an ever-changing world. When we can produce crisis ourselves (not through deliberate sabotage but by anticipating the creative negative and positive possibilities latent within our theology and practice) then we enable ourselves to breathe constantly renewable life into a vibrant world brimming with possibility and potential.


  1. Jacob, this is really a great piece. Thanks for posting it, and for giving me something to chew on for quite some time….

  2. Fantastic work, Jacob; truly stunning.

  3. Excellent article.
    Re: this passage- “Often our relationship to vicarious temple work is somewhat one-dimensional and even a bit self-serving: either my work is merely the corporeal and unthinking means of offering salvation to souls in the spirit world (unthinking because thinking and meditating are not required to complete the rituals and corporeal because all that is fultimately required is a live body, an assembly line of living bodies); or the dead are merely the excuse for temple attendance where I can take advantage of being in a sacred place in order to receive special personal revelation and spiritual strength.”

    There is a huge difference between doing baptisms for deceased members of one’s family versus names other members have provided to the temple from their own family lines. The latter is impersonal and more likely to be one-dimensional. But when you do work within your family, people whose life details you have sought out and perhaps even known when they were alive, it is practically impossible to be one-dimensional. The emotion and relief from these departed family members is unmistakeable to me now (after several cycles of submitting names and completing the various ordinances). But it is not unanimous and it is not a sustained high. It is a sacred ordinance that the dead may choose to participate in, or not. Sometimes they do not.

    And regarding the recent baptisms of Holocaust victims and other Jewish people, I understand how Mormons baptising people who may have wanted nothing to do with the Mormons in mortality can be offensive. It seems to some to disregard the person’s wishes, but in my experience, the dead are still perfectly able to make their wishes known. If they don’t want to participate, they don’t show up. It’s that simple.

    (Let me add, though, that I am sympathetic to the wishes of the Jewish people and church policies should have been followed. I also think that a church disciplinary council is an appropriate consequence for the offending parties. It sends a very clear message, and is a very serious matter for Mormons, more than Jews might generally understand with the differences in the structure of our groups. To a member of the Mormon church, your membership is an indicator of your standing with Heavenly Father and whether or not you are a member of His kingdom. Basically, a member on probation cannot answer with certainty that they are worthy to enter into God’s presence either in the temple or if they were to die. An excommunicated member has no access to the covenants that God requires to cleanse them from sin, and know that they are not worthy to return to His presence. It’s a big deal, in other words.)

  4. I hope more people read this. It is a profound meditation on work for the dead. “What if there are, in fact, myriad ways of re-conceiving this important practice for ourselves and those we desire to understand us?” This is the task of everyone of us. I’ve had to do it in my life and find that I have to reconcile much of what I once took for granted with new thoughts and new ways of being in the world. Well done. Well done indeed.

  5. great mini-essay.

  6. This probably will continue to get lost in the other tsunami happening right now, but it is a phenomenal post, Jacob. Thank you.

  7. Great piece, Jacob.

  8. Thanks for taking the time to read it everyone. I probably should have split it in two and posted it next week, but there it is. I’m particularly animated about finally getting up some posts on the theological/philosophical significance of Sam’s book, in relation to work for the dead.

  9. Kristine says:

    Jacob, you should post it again next week. Srsly.

  10. Yes, what Kristine said: change the title and the first 3 or 4 sentences, and break up the post in half, and don’t mention anything about reposting it, when Bottgate has died down, etc. Those of us who have read this post will be in on it, and everyone else will be none the wiser.

    BTW, I’m very anxious to hear you talk about Sam’s book. I hope to get to it this summer, but being honest there’s a good chance I won’t get to it, but I’m anxious to hear it’s theological implications….

  11. Michael Nielsen says:

    An interesting post. I agree that there is value in recollecting those who have passed through mortality before us. In my op-ed I merely expressed my ‘small-minded’ wish that we devoted more of our resources to loving the people in our present. We don’t need to reject our ancestors in order to be more engaged in the problems we face now.

  12. Interesting post. Church leaders seem to be aware they need to tread carefully with other faiths. Some members haven’t gotten the message though:

  13. As a lover of Kierkegaard (and a particular lover of Works of Love) I always appreciate your commentary on it, as well as your relevant gospel ties. Thank you for opening both Kierkegaard and the gospel to me in new ways. Thank you particularly for highlighting Kierkegaard’s different usage of “remember” and “recollect,” as well as the reason recollecting the dead is a great measure of our own ability to love. Loving people who are alive at least gives the chance of reciprocity, and changes it from neighbor love to preferential love, but recollecting one who is dead cannot change in that way.

  14. Mark Brown says:

    I like this post, but I especially like the last paragraph.

    In _The Faith of an Observer_ ,Hugh W. Nibley recounts a conversation between his grandfather and President Joseph F. Smith. He said that president Smith expected that someday the saints would have to do the work for the dead all over again because he wasn’t convinced yet that we were doing it correctly.

    This points to the active and creative engagement with our theology and practices which will maintain the church as an institution that is both true and living.

  15. Great post. I agree. And I love a good Danish.

  16. Kristine says:

    I love this, especially the turn from individual to institutional renewal.

    Here’s a question–it’s true that the dead cannot reciprocate our love, but they also can’t complicate it. That is, real people, even ones we love, will surprise, disappoint, and anger us sometimes. Is there not some temptation to idolatry in loving people who are, at least in part, projections of our imagined ideal of them rather than their real and perhaps more difficult selves?

    (I wish I knew Kierkegaard, so I could ask in the right terms. Sigh…)

  17. #11, Michael: I agree.

    #14, Mark, exactly right about creative engagement with our theology. I think that most often Mormons are passive where theology is concerned; theology comes to us through authoritative sources and we are its passive receptacles. But I think there is so much *more* space for theologizing, in theory, in Mormonism *because* there is no official theology and no theologians per se. But the problem is that such theologizing could easily devolve into subjective mythologization of revelation. Unless, we were encouraged to engage in it responsibly from a more institutional level.

    Kristine, excellent, excellent question. I think Kierkegaard might respond this way: Christian love is triangular: Lover, lover, and God. Or, subject, neighbor, God. This point is emphasized throughout Works of Love and others of his more explicit Christian treatises. But this could also work with recollecting the dead as well: Our love for the dead discloses ourselves to ourselves and allows us to love the neighbor more authentically and profoundly. In either case what is constantly needing improvement is our love of ourselves and our neighbor–God and the dead are, for all intents and purposes–perfect in their love, or at least, vis-a-vis imperfect lovers such as ourselves–sufficiently loving to be fully disclosed. In any case, it remains a risk that we *use* the dead for selfish purposes, even in trying to be more loving, and therefore construct yet more idols for ourselves. But then, love itself is inherently risk.

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