[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Twice in the past week, I have been asked, in essence, this very question, though not exactly as it is recorded in Matthew 22:42. Once the question came from a student of mine, a young person, unfamiliar with the Mormon church but filled with questions, a person generally uninterested in Christianity; the other came from a fellow Mormon blogger, an academic like myself, trying to make sense of certain statements I’d made in response to some of the temple–related controversies which the Mormon Moment has thrust upon us. I found myself responding as I did in both cases, I suppose, because I’m mostly unconcerned with, and admittedly sometimes outright dismissive of, many of the doctrines in question: the point of the church, for me at least, is to get close to God, and experience the condescension, love, and grace of Jesus, and I often find the need to justify or make sense of much of the rest of our teachings a distraction, at best. What follows is my attempt to recreate the answers I gave to those two questioners, with some help from Elders Holland and Uchtdorf along the way.
What does Jesus do for me? I should be clear first on what He doesn’t do for me. I don’t find Him to be the answer to all my questions, a readily available sanctifying gloss on everything that troubles me, a smiling friendly source of Truth and Happiness watching over my shoulder. Truth is, I find a great deal of American Christian culture (Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon too) fundamentally stupid, and to the degree to which that culture involves what I consider to be an irrational devotion to Jesus-as-totem, I find that devotion to be stupid (to say nothing of borderline blasphemous) as well. I’m not the sort of person to nods his head in sympathy when I run across yet another claim, whether within the church or without, of Jesus having found someone’s lost dog/fixed someone’s toothache/appeared in a dream or in the steam in the bathroom mirror/etc.
So why do I say what I do about Him? Because I think the Jesus freaks at least have something right, maybe the most important thing right: the basic Christian insight which I sometimes fear part of the 19th-century history of our church occasionally took many of us Mormons away from, and which we are only belatedly, thankfully, getting back to–namely, the consciousness of sin. This is, I think, my most foundational spiritual conviction: that I am a pathetic, sinful screw-up, and so is everybody else. Not just “imperfect,” whatever that means, but a bad person, “an enemy to God” as some prophet once said. I could break this conviction down developmentally, and acknowledge the degree to which it isn’t a principled, but rather a historically contingent, conviction: I could look at my own upbringing, the addictions and sins I struggled with as a young man, many of which I still struggle with today, and conclude that my own appreciation of sinfulness is a result of particular, embarrassing, traumatic events and their psychological consequences. But then, it also seems apparent to me that the same could be said for just about anyone’s views about probably just about anything, especially religion.
Besides, such a breakdown wouldn’t fully explain why I find, not just an experience of relief and joy, but real intellectual persuasion in messages of forgiveness, of redemption from my own mortal condition, of grace. Original sin, or at least some version of the doctrine, just makes sense to me, to say nothing of accounting for what I observe around me. The world is filled, to be sure, with happiness and beauty and pleasure and kindness and fun, all in the very best sense of those words, and I seek after such good things as much as anyone. But when I try to take the whole thing in, mostly what I see is brokenness and fallenness and wickedness. People–in particular this person, myself, the one I know best–know to do right, but don’t do it; we hate sin, and embrace it anyway, no matter what the learning or talents or intentions mixed in with that striving may be. Paul was right, I think, and so was Augustine, and so was Luther. I really just don’t believe that, fundamentally, we can do any damn thing at all on our own, not in the eternal sense anyway.
And so I turn to Jesus, because His strange and astonishing story in the New Testament (and, to a lesser but still very real degree, the Book of Mormon, the writings of Jacob and King Benjamin in particular) is the way I’ve been able to see and feel and believe in and make good intellectual sense out of God’s response to our shattered reality. I want there to have been, through Jesus’s suffering and death and resurrection, to have been some unfathomable, magical event which redeems me. I am a member of the Mormon Christian community, who comes before the mercy seat and pleads for God’s grace through partaking of the sacrament, the symbol (but also more than that; I’m thinking of Jim Faulconer’s wonderful essays on incarnation and remembrance here) of His body and blood, and through serving and being served by my fellow citizens in the household of God. I’ll freely grant that much official Mormon rhetoric about sin and grace comes off to me as flat and rote, or addicted to a kind of legalism, constantly talking about the need to “pay our debts” (a model which I strongly dislike, because I suspect that notion hides the presumption of an original, balanced, individual baseline from which our spiritual journey began and to which we must return, and I don’t think that’s our actual relationship with God at all), or covenant-happy, which to my mind often theologically undermines and breaks down the holistic, redemptive power of Jesus-as-God, replacing it with some nominally grander cosmological operation, in which Jesus and I are, in some very distant but still real sense, partners in building something. I frankly don’t want to worship a God that I can partner with, that I can “relate” to. I don’t want my God to be really anything like me at all, complete loser that I am, except and to the extent that He marvelously chooses to love me. This takes me back to my most central belief, a conviction that I realized as my own when I read C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce while in the mission field, a conviction that has recurred to me at times of crisis again and again in my life. I don’t embrace anything like all of Lewis’s Christian dogma, but his fundamental argument in that text–that nothing we do in this mortal coil ultimately matters that much, that everything will be left behind and transformed into something utterly unlike anything we have here–has always rung true to me, and beautifully so. I have, of course, greatly elaborated upon and revised this insight over the decades as I’ve lived and learned more, but it has stayed with me all the same.
And fortunately, as time goes by, I hear this insight ratified by men and women whom I have ever reason to believe are closer to God (if still every bit sinners) than I. Two of them spoke to us about this last week, at General Conference–and while I’ve no doubt their theological articulations of what this kind of acceptance of Jesus may mean for us would differ dramatically from mine, I take solace in their words all the same. First, Elder Holland, who reminded us of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and then speaks on:
This parable–like all parables–is not really about laborers or wages any more than the others are about sheep and goats. This is a story about God’s goodness, His patience and forgiveness, and the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a story about generosity and compassion. It is a story about grace. It underscores the thought I heard many years ago that surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it. I do not know who in this vast audience today may need to hear the message of forgiveness inherent in this parable, but however late you think you are, however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines.
Whether you are not yet of our faith or were with us once and have not remained, there is nothing in either case that you have done that cannot be undone. There is no problem which you cannot overcome. There is no dream that in the unfolding of time and eternity cannot yet be realized. Even if you feel you are the lost and last laborer of the eleventh hour, the Lord of the vineyard still stands beckoning. “Come boldly [to] the throne of grace,” and fall at the feet of the Holy One of Israel. Come and feast “without money and without price” at the table of the Lord.
Jesus is the Bridegroom, the Master of the Feast, and He intends to feed every one of us, prostitutes and publicans and soldiers and sinners all. That is the invitation which moves me–beside which, all the other (in my view often somewhat literalistic and extravagant) promises and particulars of the plan of salvation seem to me to pale in comparison. That was Saturday afternoon, but Sunday morning was still to come, when Elder Uchtdorf spoke with the joy of one who knew God’s grace:
Our Savior has spoken so clearly on this subject that there is little room for private interpretation. “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive,” but then He said, “of you it is required to forgive all men”….God is our Father. We are His children. We are all brothers and sisters. I don’t know exactly how to articulate this point of not judging others with sufficient eloquence, passion, and persuasion to make it stick. I can quote scripture, I can try to expound doctrine, and I will even quote a bumper sticker I recently saw. It was attached to the back of a car whose driver appeared to be a little rough around the edges, but the words on the sticker taught an insightful lesson. It read, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”
We must recognize that we are all imperfect–that we are beggars before God. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, meekly approached the mercy seat and pleaded for grace? Haven’t we wished with all the energy of our souls for mercy–to be forgiven for the mistakes we have made and the sins we have committed? Because we all depend on the mercy of God, how can we deny to others any measure of the grace we so desperately desire for ourselves? My beloved brothers and sisters, should we not forgive as we wish to be forgiven?
To be forgiven: that’s what I want out a church. That’s what I want out of God: that my proud and rebellious soul will, to my great and eternal amazement, be forgiven. As one to whom grace and forgiveness is given, how can I not extend the same to others? That’s the Good News, right there: as Jesus loved us and is with us, we must strive (and fail, and strive again) to love and be with one another. Everything else is, I think, just details. And God, I believe, contrary to popular rumor, is in the Big Picture, not the details.