Karl G. Maeser was a pretty cool German. He was a Latter-day Saint convert, a key figure in establishing what became Brigham Young University. He believed in the importance of education and refused to disconnect it from moral formation. I think he was right about that. There’s an old story about Maeser that used to inspire me:
“I have been asked what I mean by ‘word of honor.’ I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls–walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground–there is a possibility that in some way or another I may escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of the circle? No. Never! I’d die first!”
The underlying principle here is laudable. Our word of honor should mean something. We shouldn’t give it flippantly. We should do the utmost to keep it. Trust is a key ingredient in human relationships.
So far so good. But the story can also be seen as absurd—even potentially insidious—if taken the wrong way.
Taken to extremes it becomes an apologetic for any particular unreasonable status quo. Why that circle? Is there a better place we could have situated ourselves? Does our obligation to the circle outweigh the needs of the kitten trapped in the burning house up the walk? (I’ve written about this before.)
The account risks reducing morality to a contractual and mechanical exchange. We might consider, instead, our peculiar Mormon interpretation of the Garden of Eden story. Eve and Adam are placed in the Garden and apparently agree with God’s instruction: Feel free to eat fruit from the trees, but not that one. The Book of Mormon surprisingly praises the breach, suggesting that competing goods can complicate what it really means to be honorable. Most of us will face circumstances where we have to choose between competing goods. (This is the old Anne-Frank-in-your-attic question. How honest are you when the Nazis come to call?)
I said the chalk circle story can be “absurd” because drawing a chalk circle and standing in it is one of the most morally insignificant things a person could do. I say “insidious” because it can lead us to believe morality is whatever we already understand as moral. It leaves no room for judgment calls, for moral development, for the fact that there are such things as “weightier matters” (Matt. 23.23). It can result in the proverbial straining out of gnats while swallowing camels (v. 24).
Maybe I’m being unfair. I can imagine other ways the chalk story could come in handy.
“Hey, can you change the boy’s diaper?”
“Sorry. I drew this chalk circle and gave my word, on my very honour, not to step beyond its bounds.”
“Why the hell did you draw all over the new carpet with chalk? Change the boy and clean up that mess.”
“MY HONOUR IS AT STAKE!”
“Are you eating chalk?”
“Umm no.” *cough* [burst of powder from nose and mouth]