I’ve never quite understood the idea that we’re primarily here on earth to learn obedience. It’s the kind of thing that you’d think we could have practiced to boring but pristine perfection in the pre-mortal life. Ahh, you say, but the difference is that here we have to learn to obey even when God isn’t explicitly around. So now you get the added twist of having to figure out what’s really coming from God. This, I have to say, sounds disturbingly like a game of “Simon Says.” Your primary aim is to learn the skill of figuring out which commands are coming from Simon, and then to obey them as quickly as possible. And even more troubling, Simon’s voice is often unclear, but you risk eternal consequences if you get it wrong.
And what does this create? A lot of people who are good at playing Simon Says (though of course they can’t stop arguing about what really came from Simon and calling to repentance those whom they think are playing the game incorrectly). But while Nute Gunray and the Trade Federation might want to build droid armies, in the context of LDS teachings, I can’t say I really understand why God would want one.
So what’s up with this idea that obedience is the first law of heaven? In the New Testament, Jesus says that the first great commandment is to love God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength. And while some might interpret that as simply a fluffier way of saying, “obey God,” that doesn’t work for me. In fact, I would say that conflating love and obedience is a dangerous move–at the very least, it’s certainly not something we would advocate in any mortal relationship. Someone who proclaims, “if you love me, you’ll do what I say,” should probably raise our suspicions.
But then again, Jesus does in fact say that if we love him, we’ll keep his commandments. And our relationship to God does differ in some significant ways from our relationships to other fallible mortal beings. So I can’t simply dismiss the role of obedience in our relationship to God. But I want to think about it in the context of the importance of relationship. It’s not that obedience is a good in and of itself. We are told that our first priority should be a relationship with God that involves us as wholly as possible. And the crucial, definitive element in this relationship is love. Obedience, then, is an expression of that love, rather than what defines the relationship (or is even a prerequisite for it) I see the gospel as less about following orders, and more about being fully engaged in relationships with God and with others–this seems pretty clearly indicated in the two great commandments.
As I read the Plan of Salvation, a primary reason for our coming here has to do with experience–in particular, the experiences of ambiguity and embodiment, two things which cause a lot of hard, hard challenges, but also provide real potential for moral and spiritual development. I dislike the life as a test metaphor, with its depiction of a divine being who is running us through mazes and seeing how well we do. Rather, in this context I see obedience in terms of trust, as a response to a love that is terrifying in its radicalness–and in a situation where there are so many uncertainties. Are we willing to take take the risk of really responding to God’s call, to make commitments, to choose to love, all without knowing the outcome?
But I remain skeptical of the value of obedience for its own sake. On the other hand, I am also wary of the too-easy liberal critique that since agency is so key, any expectation of obedience is an infringement on that. I want to move away from obedience and agency as some kind of zero-sum game, and instead ask just what it means to develop our agency. I think this is something richer than being confronted with a command and saying yes (yay! did it right! more agency for you) or no (oops, lost some agency there). That’s getting back to Simon Says. The defining feature of agents is the ability to act with intent. That suggests some amount of thought and consideration, as opposed to a simple stimulus-response situation. (In passing, I would note that I think this is generally accepted by Latter-day Saints, and accusations of “blind obedience” are frequently unfair.) But I do want to note that agency is always contextual. We find ourselves in situations in which we have to negotiate a whole lot of factors: the needs of other people, the requirements of our religion, the demands of our conscience, the limitations of temporality and embodiment and miscommunication–and also what we hear God calling us to do, along with the difficulties of discerning that. Sometimes that might involve simple binaries (do we obey, or not), but at least in my life, that’s been the exception rather than the rule. I think usually our challenge is more along the lines of negotiating competing goods. And acting as genuine agents, who make intentional decisions, while living in a lot of chaos–that’s not an easy thing to do.
I also dislike a model in which you obey a lot, even when it’s hard, but it’s worth it at the end when you’re rewarded with a celestial gold star. Because I would propose that the prize, the aim of all this, is in fact an ever-richer relationship with God. When we follow God, then, it’s not in hope of some additional ultimate reward, but because of the relationship itself–one that matters to us here as well as in the eternities. Obedience can certainly bring specific blessings–it can, for example, steer you away from things that might harm you–but ultimately, I think, the reward of obedience is that it involves you in a relationship with God. This is another reason why it’s crucial that the obedience be what I would call agentive obedience; without that, the relationship isn’t real.
And now I will get to everyone’s favorite issue: whether there’s such a thing as faithful questioning, or even faithful dissent; and what to do when the competing goods with which you’re wrestling are your conscience and church teachings (which at least potentially represent the will of God). I’d first like to distinguish between situations in which obedience is hard in that it moves you out of your comfort zone or requires you to do things you find particularly different because of your personality or situation–and obedience that is hard in that you find the demand to be morally problematic. When people are grappling with the latter, it’s not really helpful to frame it in the context of the former. The fact that I’m not so good with going to church on time, or being charitable to people–those are qualitatively different challenges than a situation in which I feel I’m being asked to violate my conscience and go against what I see as basic moral principles.
I mentioned earlier a cheap liberal critique. I see an equally unfair move on the conservative side (using those terms rather loosely, of course). This is the accusation that those who raise questions are apostates who are just looking for reasons to disobey. Questioning is such a basic part of my faith (for heaven’s sake, I’m a theologian), that it’s honestly bizarre to me when I hear the two described as if they were inherently in conflict. Sometimes the questions are simply curious ones. And sometimes they’re more loaded, because they deal with situations which are more loaded. But I’d say that’s even more reason to ask them.
On a lot of things, I’ve ended up kind of agnostic: Book of Mormon historicity, what to do with some of our wackier scripture, stuff like Adam-God and what that means for prophetic inspiration, polygamy, etc. But maintaining a good dose of skepticism doesn’t preclude a commitment to my religion. If I insisted on finding a church that had clear answers to everything, after all, I’d end up perpetually disappointed. And in fact a lot of these issues wouldn’t unsettle me so much if I didn’t have some kind of basic belief in the church.
But. And this is always where things tend to get heated. What about those times when I think I’m being asked to violate my conscience? Is it presumptuous to consider disobedience in such a situation? Is it presumptuous to want an explanation? Maybe it is, but I come from a religion that is nothing if not presumptuous in its claims about the relation of humans and God. I can live with that. But in the end, I don’t have a neat model of how to deal with such situations. For me, it’s really been a case-by-case thing. That’s one reason why I find it helpful to keep talking (see: previous post on why I keep doing this crazy blogging thing). I would actually propose that one of the reasons why mortality is so darn ambiguous and confusing is that we are continually confronted with the reality of how much we need the involvement of other people in sorting out these things. We commonly note that we need prophets and scripture because of all the chaos, but I would go even further and say that this is a reason why we also desperately need each other.
Kaimi recently raised some questions at T&S about Saul and the Amalekites, and obedience and genocide. And I’m pretty much in the camp of, if God wants genocide, he can carry it out himself. I strongly suspect that if I abandon my conscience in an attempt to save my soul, I will end up losing both. So yeah, you can fairly accuse me of being selectively obedient, and I’m okay with that. But that one (not committing genocide) isn’t too much of a morally perplexing issue for me. Other questions aren’t as easy. And I do think the discussion raises legitimate questions about how dissent fits into religious commitment. I suspect that at times I may be too cavalier in dismissing things that make me uncomfortable. Blind disobedience (rejecting ideas without seriously giving them a hearing) isn’t really an act of agency, either. If I’m going to choose dissent, I think I need to do it thoughtfully, and with some kind of theological framework for the decision–probably thinking about it in the relational context I brought up earlier. Because both obedience and disobedience are tied up with ways of being in relationship.
Okay, I haven’t concluded anything, but this post has gotten way too long. Simon Says you should have stopped reading it halfway through.
- 7 May 2011