Monday, January 10, 2011

Christofferson, Casuistry, Consecration

As I waited to meet with the Bishop at his request yesterday, I read a few talks (it was a long wait) from the most recent general conference Ensign.  I studied "Reflections on a Consecrated Life" by D. Todd Christofferson.  Elder Christofferson gave a great CES fireside last night as well- I chuckled when he made the beginning comments about texting.  :-)

Anyway, here are some of my responses to "Reflections on a Consecrated Life":

1)  Evolution?  Really?

"Those who believe that our bodies are nothing more than the result of evolutionary chance will feel no accountability to God or anyone else for what they do with or to their body. We who have a witness of the broader reality of premortal, mortal, and postmortal eternity, however, must acknowledge that we have a duty to God with respect to this crowning achievement of His physical creation."

Yeah, there are three big problems with that paragraph.  The first is a logical flaw.  There is no necessary connection between feeling accountable to God for what one does with his or her body and the belief that our bodies are the results of evolutionary chance.  Three counter-examples to prove my point:
A)  A Mormon who believes that our bodies are the result of evolutionary chance but that God exists and we are accountable to Him for the stewardship we exercise over our bodies.
B)  A faithful LDS person believes that evolution is the means God chose to create our bodies. Choices are made by our spirits, not our bodies, and we are accountable for those spiritual choices, no matter how our bodies were created.  Doctrine and Covenants 29:35: Behold, I gave unto him that he should be an agent unto himself; and I gave unto him commandment, but no temporal commandment gave I unto him, for my commandments are spiritual; they are not natural nor temporal, neither carnal nor sensual. 
C)  An RLDS member who believes in evolution (including human evolution) also believes that the spirit and the body is the soul of man, and thus that she is accountable to God for her choices in relation to it.

The second problem is a logical flaw as well.  The sentence construction directly implies that those who think our bodies resulted from evolutionary chance do not have a witness of the broader reality of premortal, mortal, and postmortal eternity.  I and other faithful members like me do believe that our bodies resulted from evolution.  And to think I sincerely believed I had a witness of the reality of premortal, mortal, and postmortal eternity!  I guess I should go back to my students from the temple prep class I taught yesterday and retract my false testimony of that very reality.

Also, some subset of those who believe our bodies result from evolutionary chance almost certainly demonstrate a higher accountability/stewardship ethic than those who disbelieve.  In the absence of a resurrection, there is more incentive to care for our bodies now since we have only one shot.  Similar assertions could be made about a subset of Godless atheists regarding environment and the condition of the world.  The prophecies about the end times indicate that the world will continually spiral downward morally and politically.  To fight against this "going to hell in a handbasket" trend by trying to improve the world would not only counter God's expressed will regarding it (He would look bad if His prophecies failed and men instead made the world into a utopia), it would also be useless since the world will soon burn and be remade by an omnipotent external force.  Last, those who believe in this remaking of earth and the proximity of the Second Coming have much less incentive to protect and preserve the environment than those who believe that we and our posterity will have to inhabit this place for good or ill for centuries in the future, absent our own destruction.  

The third problem is that the official church stance on evolution is that the church doesn't have a stance.  It seems that Elder Christofferson has decided to join the distinguished company of other apostles who have persisted in taking potshots at evolution despite the First Presidency's clear statement that members can believe whatever they want about evolution without running afoul of doctrine. 

2)  Hierarchy = Higher Righteousness

"most of our Church governance is performed and the majority of our teaching is conducted as if we had not only a common moral ground but a uniform understanding of the doctrines of the Church. Because of this, we tend to expect more of the Church than it can possibly give and also expect a higher level of Christian behavior from some Saints than they can possibly live." - Robert Rees, , "Forgiving the Church and Loving the Saints: Spiritual Evolution and the Kingdom of God," Sunstone, February 1992, pg. 18.

There's an idea extant in the church that the "higher" the calling, the more righteous the servant.  Bishops are pretty righteous; stake presidents more so; seventies are really getting up there; apostles are holy; and the First Presidency, well, they challenge the power of gravity to prevent them from rising up translated into heaven.  This general belief is entrenched in our culture.  It's also wholly wrong. 

"Those who quietly and thoughtfully go about doing good offer a model of consecration. No one in our time more perfectly incorporates this trait into daily life than President Thomas S. Monson. He has cultivated a listening ear that can discern even the faintest whisper of the Spirit signaling the need of someone he can reach and help. Often it is in simple acts that confirm divine love and awareness, but always, always Thomas Monson responds."

This statement reinforces the "higher in the hierarchy= more righteous" fallacy.  Six problems:

1)  No one is sufficiently familiar with the group of people implicated in "our time" to conclude which member of that group most perfectly incorporates the trait of quietly and thoughtfully going about doing good.  Under the hierarchy/righteousness fallacy, women can't even get to the lower rungs (well, maybe Sister Beck's up there, but who knows how she compares to even your friendly neighborhood mission president).  Plus, because the trait is partly and necessarily defined by the element of being quiet, it is unlikely that the superheros in this area would be generally known if at all.
2)  Much of the good that President Monson does and has done is far from quiet.  Much of his service (especially since His apostolic call) has been carefully documented, as evidenced by his biography.  The last few decades of his ministry have been highly public.  If the careful note taken by others of his conspicuous ministry weren't sufficient, we are all familiar with how frequently President Monson shares, over the very-public pulpit, personal stories which feature himself as the role model of proper Christlike service.  Such trumpeting, though appropriate, can hardly be classified as "quiet." 
3)  If President Monson is so incredibly sensitive to the needs of those he can reach and help (he can detect even the faintest whisper) and he always, always responds, then what are we to think of marginalized groups in the church that he hasn't reached out to help?  For instance, are we to conclude that the Spirit hasn't signaled to him about the incredible and unjustified suffering of homosexuals in the church, whose difficulties partly result from past homophobic teachings of the Lord's servants?  He has been almost entirely silent on the subject- yet because of his position, even a few loving words correcting past errors or affirming the worth of homosexually oriented members would likely "confirm divine love and awareness" to that demographic.
4)  What is the basis for one person concluding that another "always, always" responds to spiritual promptings?  We are generally not aware of the whisperings of the Spirit to others, especially those who have stewardship over us and/or are not within our own stewardship.  We are also typically unaware of the responding:receiving ratio of others' revelation.  Last, such a perfect (always always) record is not terribly likely to be achieved by a mortal.
5)  There is simply insufficient evidence to support the idea that the level of one's calling correlates to one's righteousness.  We must all be worthy to receive calls from the Lord, but it is not clear that the Bishop is more righteous or worthy than the nursery leader.  The Lord calls us to where He will; it is nothing more nor less than our duty to answer that call be it a call to the apostleship or a call to teaching primary.  It is not likely that the Lord is impressed by our positional authority.  For example, I remember in Sacramento where I served a very highly regarded stake president was released, then called to the nursery.  It was one of the most beautiful transitions I've ever witnessed.  The eye need not say to the foot, I have no need of thee, or I am more righteous or essential than thee- and the foot need not suppose or conclude differently. 
What of the ministry of Mother Teresa, who had no priesthood position and was not set apart, called, or ordained by one holding God's priesthood?  What of the calling of mother or father?  Is the sermon of an apostle to a stake of greater value to the Lord than changing a diaper or serving a meal to one's family?   Does the Lord only build His kingdom and perform his work inside his church?  Is a church call by an LDS male necessary to truly be a servant of the Lord?
That in the very large group defined by those in "our time," it is entirely likely that a good number of people are better at quietly and thoughtfully going about doing good than President Monson.  We may recall that Jesus didn't have a high station in the Jewish church of His day, yet managed to exhibit that trait fairly well just the same (as hinted by the "there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one" verse in conjunction with the parts of His ministry that were recorded). 
6)  Valorizing the prophets is deeply problematic because it places them on a pedestal they do not merit.  Though we typically interpret the "thou shalt not judge" command/ethic to mean "thou shalt not condemn," it might also be interpreted as the analogue "though shalt not venerate."   We should neither condemn nor it's opposite, which is not the absence of condemnation but the attribution of esteem and reverence.  The conduct and teachings of prophets are not perfect.  When we think they are infallible, we are shaken to learn what we consider misstatements and misconduct (e.g. racist teachings, alcohol consumption, systematic lying, putting forth their own ideas as revelation, etc.).  None of us could survive this elevated standard which we apply to our spiritual brothers who are called to high church leadership positions.  You may be familiar with the anecdote about Joseph Smith going alone to meet new converts coming from England.  He would strike hands with them in his grungy appearance, and many would express their disappointment, expecting more of the Lord's prophet.  Joseph told them that if they expect anything more than a man, they'd just as well turn around and get on the boat back to England.  'I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities.' (History of the Church, 5:181- quoted in James E. Faust, "The Expanding Inheritance from Joseph Smith," Ensign, Nov. 1981, 76–77).  To hold prophets to no higher standard of conduct than one holds him/herself is a superior approach compared to perpetuating the fallacy of a hierarchy/righteousness correlation.

n., Specious or excessively subtle reasoning intended to rationalize or mislead.

Okay, thanks for enduring my criticisms.  Now for some praise.

I loved the construction of a consecrated life.  Elder Christofferson described such a life in five pieces:
-  purity
-  work
-  respect for one’s physical body
-  service
-  integrity

I hope to make these elements a reality in my life, and am grateful for Elder Christofferson's illustrative and motivating talk which engenders that end.


  1. As usual, you've done an excellent job of analysis. I had many of these same concerns when the talk was given. It just proves your point, I think, that so much good was mingled in with the bad. Elder Christofferson is, after all, just a man, and we can't expect him to be perfect. :)

  2. It reminds me of a saying I once heard comparing Mormons to Catholics. "Catholic doctrines says that the Pope is infallible, but Catholics know better. Mormon doctrines say that the Prophet is fallible, but Mormons know better."

  3. "Valorizing the prophets is deeply problematic because it places them on a pedestal they do not merit. Though we typically interpret the 'thou shalt not judge' command/ethic to mean 'thou shalt not condemn,' it might also be interpreted as the analogue 'thou shalt not venerate.'"

    Impressive insight, Brad. May have to steal it.


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