Heaven, Hell, and Other People: A Wandering Review of Samuel Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances

9780842528801There is a wonderful scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce that has stayed with me for 30 years. In this scene, the unnamed narrator dies and finds himself in hell, which is just a huge, sprawling subdivision where everybody lives alone. Whenever people try to live near each other, they start to argue and fight, so they move further and further away. There is no fire, no brimstone, and no demons with pitchforks: just a bunch of miserable people being themselves.

Something like this is also what Jean-Paul Sartre meant by the famous line, “hell is other people.” This does not mean (as it is so often quoted as meaning) that other people are inherently hellish, or that human beings cannot face the irreducible otherness of people not themselves. Sartre puts this line in his play No Exit, in which three people are sent to hell, which turns out to be a well-decorated Victorian parlor.

Garcin, the most vocal of the three, figures out that hell is only hell if they chose to make it so. He understands that they are to be each other’s tormentors, and he proposes that they simply refuse to play along—that they not torment each other at all, but sit quietly and mind their own business for all of eternity. But here’s the joke: they can’t do it. It is in their nature to be cruel and miserable. To paraphrase Milton, which way they fly is hell, themselves are hell. Hell is other people because hellish people create hell wherever they go. And heaven works exactly the same way.

Samuel Brown gets this (and so much else) right in his wonderful book, First Principles and Ordinances. Quoting and correcting Sartre, he tells us that “hell is other people, but so is heaven” (126). This, to my mind, is the single most important insight of a very insightful book.

The subtitle, “The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple” does not tell the whole story. A better (but longer and more unwieldly) one would be, “The Fourth Article of Faith and the Temple in Light of a Relationship-Focused Approach to the Gospel.” Brown’s book is all about the way that principles and ordinances—culminating in the ordinances of the temple—are designed to weave us into a community of saints powerful enough to ensure our salvation. This approach has a remarkable power to generate insights into the core elements of the Gospel.

Take faith. The first chapter of First Principles and Ordinances is simply the best meditation on faith that I have ever read from a Latter-day Saint perspective–and the first thing that I would give to somebody (including myself) going through a faith crisis. Brown premises that faith is part of a communal relationship with other people—a relationship that has much in common with a marriage in which faithful partners can come together to form a happy union despite arguments, disagreements, misunderstandings, and other serious challenges to their relatioship:

Faith as a kind of marriage of our souls to the community of the saints has the same character as marriage itself. When I am feeling vexed by a particular doctrine or cultural understanding, the practice of my faith is to acknowledge the tension or conflict or discomfort in my mind and then place it into the balance of my entire relationship with the Church. If the stress is particularly severe, I will need to actively supplement those negative experiences with many positive ones. I acknowledge that there are difficult elements in my relationship with the church and the saints . . . but those negative experiences do not dominate my experience of faith. I have the capacity to balance the negative with the positive experiences. So, when it’s important, I spend some time with the parts that I always love and that fill me with pleasure.” (23-24)

I find this an infinitely more satisfying approach to a crisis of faith than either “pray about it” or “be obedient and follow the Brethren.” Brown gives us good reasons to believe—even if the belief is no more than an earnest hope and a desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. And he explains that, while the rough spots can’t always be smoothed over, they do not have to define our relationship to the Church—which is simply the sum total of our relationships with each other and with the divine.

And these kinds of brilliant, spiritually satisfying insights just keep coming, as Brown re-orients repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost through the lens of building relationships within a faith community. In each case, he presents the principles and ordinances of the gospel as parts of the process of working out our salvation within a community of imperfect people that we are learning to love (and who are learning to love us). In each case, the relational view of the gospel principles and ordinances yields profound and generous insights where we least expect to find them–in topics that we have spent most of our lives imagining that we understood.

All of this, for Brown, culminates in the ordinances of the Temple—participatory rituals that combine the best elements of democracy (in which everybody wears the same clothing occupies the same positions) and monarchy (in which everybody is anointed and proclaimed a King or a Queen). Simply put, the temple teaches us the paradoxical truth that we are all kings and queens–and that our salvation depends on learning what this means:

The salvation of the temple is about a royal dynasty of people who are saved in equality and interdependence. To focus on individual superiority rather than communal salvation is to miss the point entirely. We are saved as we love each other and commit to each other, as we see one another as members of a royal family. We are not saved because we got the highest score on some standardized test of merit. (148)

The Gospel that Brown presents to us cannot save us as individuals. It requires us to submit–not to authorty, which plays almost no role at all in the book, but to community, which is in every respect the star of the show. “We build communities from individuals stitched together in love,” he writes, “and we build eternity from everyday moments spent together” (148).

Here is another way to put it—one that brings us full circle back to C.S. Lewis and Jean-Paul Sartre: We cannot be saved without learning how to love other people and weave our lives together with theirs because that is what salvation means. Just as hell is simply hellish people being perpetually hellish, heaven is nothing more than heavenly people being heavenly for time and all eternity. Loving other people and becoming part of their lives is not how we earn heaven; it’s how we create it. And we don’t even have to wait until we die, because Zion, or the kingdom of God on Earth, works exactly the same way.

Comments

  1. This is beautiful, and I pray that it’s true. Buying the book now.

  2. You read or remembered it wrong, narrarator in GD doesn’t die, it’s a dream.

  3. “All of this, for Brown, culminates in the ordinances of the Temple—participatory rituals that combine the best elements of democracy (in which everybody wears the same clothing occupies the same positions)”

    This is true only as long as you factor in gender. Vast difference between genders in clothing and position.

  4. I am inclined to like and recommend everything that Sam Brown writes. This is an insightful and valuable book. However, I would qualify my praise in two ways. First, I suspect that people whose faith is built on or shaken over truth claims will find the book unsatisfying (unless they are ready to think about another way). Second, the book is (unavoidably, perhaps) a male point of view. This works for the most part, in my opinion and as one would expect from a relationship focused approach. However, the difference is telling in talking about the temple. Men and women experience the LDS temple rites differently, and the woman’s always different and sometimes troubled experience is not addressed.

  5. Good review, Michael. I interviewed Sam on the radio when this came out and you have hit the emphasis on relationships on the head. I have to plug this and the other Living Faith books. Each reaches out to some element someone needs in practical application of our faith and its various areas.

  6. Thanks for the incredibly kind words, Michael. This may be my favorite review yet. The criticism is duly noted and a witness to how difficult it is to reach all or even a majority of readers on difficult and emotionally taxing topics. I tried to include women’s stories, to acknowledge the ways that women may struggle with the temple (I think I start the temple chapter with an excerpt from an Exponent II essay by a woman who felt long estranged from the temple; if not there, it’s somewhere in the book), and to create a space for thinking about Mormonism that can exist beyond specific cultural models of that tradition. (As an example, one could see the models of gendered identity that are part of the temple liturgy as culturally conditioned, and supplement those negative encounters with other positive encounters with the theology underlying the temple which has staggeringly egalitarian implications.)

    The other concern is an important one. I’ve wondered often about how best to love, support, and commiserate with people “whose faith is built on or shaken over truth claims.” I’m trying to figure that out better with a side project right now termed “Mormonism in a Secular Age,” but I confess that it’s a very difficult area because in some respects it’s walking people over broken bridges between fundamentally alien worldviews.

    Again, thanks for the kind words.

  7. Sam, at the certainty of belaboring the point, regarding women and the temple I see the effort and I see the vision (the “space for thinking . . . beyond specific cultural models”), and I (for one) appreciate it. However, my sense is that it doesn’t work. Women I know have some amount of muck to wade through in making sense of and peace with the temple (I do too, when I stop to think about words and roles and distinctions, although I do have my own reconciliation). Enough so that it really needs to be addressed and considered directly. I find that a call to hope and space on the other side is not quite enough. (But here I am, a man, trying to discern how a woman will read and understand. Mansplaining, anyone?)

  8. [Sam] And for what it’s worth, good luck and God speed on the Mormonism in a Secular Age project. I am much more aware of the difficulty than I am glimpsing light at the end.

  9. Have loved this blog and wanted to buy the book, kindle version but not available in Australia. Do you know if that will change in the near future? Thanks

  10. “faith is part of a communal relationship with other people”

    “Faith as a kind of marriage of our souls to the community”

    “relationship with the Church”

    “a community of saints”

    “building relationships within a faith community”

    This is all well and good as far as it goes. I would have thought, however, that there might have been more mention of God, the Eternal Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. I hope this is only because the review skipped over those essential parts.

  11. Leo, there’s a balancing act always between the earthly and the heavenly that we Mormons solve in a distinctive way. The book includes a lot of heavenly material as well, including an entire chapter on the Holy Ghost. I think you’d be pleasantly surprised by the book. Margaret, I’ll ask the publisher.

  12. Margaret, I work with the publisher. I’ll look into it Monday.

  13. Mike, great review, and Sam — yes, a great book, an accessible and interesting book.

  14. Thanks so much BHodges. The link worked. I have now downloaded the kindle version and my husband and I are enjoying the book. Very grateful to you for taking the time to do that for me.

  15. No problem at all, Margaret. Hope you find the book helpful.