In his worldwide devotional address last week, Elder Lynn G. Robbins said something about achieving enlightenment (his talk is entitled “Tasting the Light”) that has been on my mind ever since:
Opposition is indispensable to our education and happiness. Without opposition, the truth remains hidden in plain view, like taking air for granted until the moment you are gasping for it. Because the Light of Christ is everpresent, many people don’t notice the Spirit in their life, like those Lamanites in 3 Nephi 9:20 who “were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.”
The perfect knowledge comes fruit by fruit, through opposition in all things. Obedience to God’s commandments promises ultimate happiness, growth, and progress through opposition, not bypassing it. “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”
Earlier in his talk, Elder Robbins had used Alma’s teachings on faith to illustrate the steps leading from no faith at all to a perfect knowledge of Jesus Christ and His gospel. After highlighting the value of opposition, Elder Robbins returned to Alma’s experiment by inviting his audience to
become a participant in the experiment by having you consider several “to-be” commandments, or Christlike virtues, contrasting each with its opposite. As you consider each one, the Light of Christ in you should affirm to your mind and your heart that each Christlike virtue is sweet, while it’s opposite is bitter:
Love versus hate, hostility, opposition
Honesty versus lies, deceit, theft
Forgiving versus revenge, resentment, bitterness
and so on. So far, so good, but recognizing sweetness after being acquainted with bitterness “is only what I would call a terrestrial, or glory-of-the-moon, testimony. Good God-fearing persons of any religion have this same testimony because they too have the Light of Christ.”
And so Elder Robbins proposed taking “the experiment to the celestial level and contrast[ing] some of the doctrines that are unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with those found elsewhere under dimmer light.” A graphic appeared. (The text version replicates most of the slides used in the presentation but not these.) Against a white background were displayed the words: “God is our Father, and we are created in his image.” The right half of the screen then turned black and the following text appeared: “Not literally our Father, Incomprehensible, Unknowable.” More slides followed:
- “His organization with prophets and apostles” vs. “Abandonment of His established pattern.”
- “The Lord is a God of order, governing through those holding priesthood keys” vs. “Confusion, disparate voice, false spirits.”
- “Priesthood authority, and called of God” vs. “A degree in theology; elected, hired or self-appointed.”
- “Ordinances and covenants” vs. “Simply live a good life.”
- “Children innocent” vs. “Infant baptism.”
- “The Book of Mormon, a second witness” vs. “Bible, an only witness.”
- “Temple work for the dead” vs. “Light a candle and pray for the dead.”
The audience laughed at this last one and Elder Robbins chuckled in response: “That is the only other option,” and the audience roared louder. He managed to pull himself together to contrast “Eternal marriage and families” with “Till death do us part,” concluding this portion of his presentation with: “It’s enlightening to contrast truth with its opposite. It helps reveal the obvious, that which is hidden in plain view. We recognize that we know a lot more than we thought we did. It should inspire us to continue to search diligently in the light of Christ and lay hold upon every good thing.”
I have to admit that my first response was to strenuously disagree that this battle of the bullet points had been particularly enlightening—surely the differences between Mormon doctrine (whatever that might be) and the beliefs of others are not as black and white as portrayed onscreen? And what about all that had been lost in reducing God and the gospel to bullet points? The laughter seemed particularly telling—if a practice or belief seems so absurd that you cannot refrain from giggling in such a setting, maybe what you see on the screen before you is closer to a caricature than a summary.
Upon further reflection I felt maybe my objection had more to do with style rather than substance. After all, there are plenty of denominations that consider Mormonism to be fundamentally misguided, so it’s not like there’s no gap or stark distinctions between our respective heavens and hells. And a few days later I happened across this article which certainly illustrates a fundamental difference between the Mormon and Catholic views of marriage: “in the whole history of the [Catholic] Church the choice for celibacy has always been understood to be objectively higher than the choice for marriage.”
But then again, my own experiences make me less sure about the extent to which ordinary individuals (as opposed to, say, experts with specialized training or prophets and apostles called by God) actually disagree. For example, I once had two roommates who were Catholics. One day we were discussing religion and they asked me about distinctive Mormon beliefs. No problem, I thought, and I led with eternal marriage, saying something like “we believe that you can be married for time AND eternity; you know, that death won’t do us part.” They looked at me quizzically for a moment before declaring: “Umm, we believe that too.” I was at a loss—I could have sworn they weren’t supposed to!
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised since I shouldn’t have been so sure about what they believed in the first place. It’s not like I was well versed in canon law or the other components of Catholic theology, and I certainly didn’t have a finger on the pulse of lived Catholicism. I’m sure we would have discovered distinctions had we continued to explore our respective beliefs on marriage, but if they believed that marriage extended beyond death, who was I to tell them differently?
I’m open to the possibility that stark contrasts could be a way to mark the path to personal enlightenment, but I have strong doubts whether the black and white depiction of others’ beliefs and practices is particularly helpful, especially when it comes to personal interaction where the distinctions can be less obvious and maybe even beside the point.
Take infant baptism. I know the Articles of Faith, Joseph Smith’s translation of Genesis 17 and Mormon’s position as well as anyone. But as far as I can tell from those with whom I associate and have baptized their babies, infant baptism is motivated first and foremost by the desire to welcome the baby into a community of support, part of which involves freeing the baby from the effects of being born into a fallen world. In any case, not for remission of an infant’s own sins, which Mormon declares as the purpose of baptism.
Reading Mormon’s words in light of the Catholic infant baptisms I have experienced, I can’t help but feel that’s not what he’s talking about. Certainly beliefs about religious rituals change over time. For example, Mormons continue to practice circumcision despite Mormon’s teachings that it has been done away with, substituting reasons such as health, cleanliness and/or appearance that are totally divorced from the original purpose. Similarly, those that practice infant baptism have evolved in their thinking in the 1500 years since Mormon’s day. For instance, the Catholic church in Germany has declared that “This is important: the idea that unbaptized children will not be accepted by God no longer corresponds to today’s notion of God.” The church has created a new baptismal ritual to address the concerns parents have about the church or the implications of baptism or for parents who would like to let their child decide by splitting the rite into two parts, the first being an “opening of the way to baptism” which begins with a prayer of thanksgiving for the birth of the child, a welcoming into the community and a blessing. Then parents meet with each other to be each other up spiritually until they feel ready to baptize their children. This still might not be the Mormon way, but “infant baptism” as practiced does not appear to be the opposite of “innocent children.”
And what about “God is our Father, and we are created in his image” vs. “Not literally our Father, Incomprehensible, Unknowable”? Is “created in his image” really on the opposite end of a truth spectrum from “not literally our Father”? And this discussion here at the BCC suggests that even if God is comprehensible and knowable in principle, in practice there is a wide diversity of views, even among those that you share a pew with.
But what do you think? Have you found “contrasting truth with its opposite” to be a productive approach personally? How clear have you found the distinction between your own and the beliefs of others, even (especially?) those of co-religionists to be? What do you esteem to be the larger problem–assuming you know too much or failing to realize how much you do know?