Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Idolatry

There is a philosophy of moralism that consists of timeless moral principles. Most of the Judeo-Christian world holds the ancient injunction "Thou shalt not kill" to be a transcendent and absolute principle. To seek timeless principles of value to live by is a noble venture; to be moral is good; to be good is good--but if that is the only end we are seeking, then even goodness and morality can become idolatrous.... When the quest for principles and morals becomes our sole focus--and even our god--we encounter problems when a commandment is given that doesn't seem to have a foundational principle or moral we can immediately understand.... Lacking the understanding that "man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend" (Mosiah 4:9), individuals may cast aside a commandment in the belief that they can still be "good" without it. For the sake of goodness, they may be able to; but for the sake of Christ, discipleship, and holiness, they cannot. Those who try to find salvation simply in goodness are trying to build a latter-day tower of Babel. They rationalize that if there is a heaven, surely a "good" God wouldn't cast out His "good" children.
Ty Mansfield in
In Quiet Desperation


This was my favorite part of Ty's book. I saved this post up from back when I was reviewing the book, and now seems to be a good time to bust it out. The idea that morality itself could be idolatry (and therefore, somehow immoral) is really interesting. I find I believe it. Same goes for love as idolatry, happiness as idolatry, and all the other good and wonderful things I've seen people use to justify their behavior when it conflicts with God's expectation. Take your favorite virtue and use it to trump God, and voila: idolatry.

Benjamin has been explaining to me here how following prophets can be a form of idolatry, and I'm inclined to agree in some particular instance. When we follow prophets for their own sakes, when we are enamored with the men themselves, when the office is secondary to the person and therefore God is secondary to the person, it's idolatry. On the other hand, justifying not following God's prophet because it doesn't fit with our own personal feelings of what is right for us seems to be a very dangerous place to go. I'm all for personal responsibility in making choices and having integrity, etc., etc., but that doesn't equate with accepting one's own opinions as the last word on what must be right.

There are many aces to be played in the issues of life. They trump the suit, after all. "If men are that they might have joy, then I really have to do what I know makes me the happiest." "If God is love, I just can't believe that God doesn't want me to accept the beautiful love I naturally feel." "God wants me to get away from my self-hate, and now I'm sure he approves of the better place I'm in."

If only there were some way God could clarify the issues when things got confusing... if he had some sort of specific method of communicating with those who are trying to follow him that was less subjectively influenced by the natural man... if only someone on Earth could explain His will and speak with His authority... then I could accept the communication as from God and know that I'm avoiding the idolatry of morality, avoiding trusting the arm of the flesh, avoiding making God in my own image rather than the other way around.

If only.

26 comments:

Master Fob said...

I'm not sure what my point is in saying this, because I'm not out to convert anyone to my way of thinking, BUT...

What makes communication via prophet less subjectively influenced by the natural man than direct communication with God? Are prophets not men?

G'pa Bob said...

Two very thoughtful posts.

Toward the latter: Let them learn by their own experience to know the good from the evil.

Whil I think it lazy to not work for heavenly confirmation of significant things, I have learned "by experience" that I am at a minimum more happy when following the prophets.

Chris said...

I have learned "by experience" that I am at a minimum more happy when following the prophets.

And there's the rub. I have learned by experience that I am at a minimum less happy when following the prophets. Not in all things, to be sure, but certainly when doing so requires me to deny the validity of my own experiences and my own personal witness.

Chris said...

I'll also second Master Fob's question. I think it's the right question to ask.

Unusual Dude said...

L, thanks so much for expressing your opinion on this. Ironically, I was studying the topic of worship not too long ago, and it led me to discover a few things that are defined in the scriptures and by prophets as idolatry. It was uncomfortable for me, because it made me realize that I am actually guilty of it from time to time.

I really admire your courage for posting something like this. Your resolve to find truth is really inspiring. Thanks again.

Master Fob said...

Lest I contribute to the ongoing transformation of your blog into a moral battleground, I want to clarify two things:

1. I am not questioning the validity of your faith. I am questioning the validity of the logic you use to defend that faith.

2. While I was quick to point out the one thing in your post I disagreed with, I failed to mention the big thing I do agree with--Ty's point about idolatry is an excellent one. It was also one of my favorite parts of the book.

-L- said...

I'm not put out by the state of the blog, so don't worry about that. And, dear Fob, you need not seek a more specific "point" to commenting on my blog than that you know for a fact your remarks will give me great pleasure. I didn't take your comment as questioning my faith's validity (and even if I did, I don't think it would bother me coming from you).

I don't really see a problem in my logic, but there may well be a problem with me conveying it. The way I view what is right and true about some topic that is important to me is bound to be highly subjective--there are plenty of non-controversial examples of this. The way a prophet may view my situation is not influenced by the same subjective conflict (assuming the prophet is not gay... which I think is safe). Sure, he has his own issues and probably his own difficulties in understanding issues that hit close to home with him. But he'll get by without my second opinion. I won't get by without his if it's God's.

-L- said...

Plus, my last comment missed the larger point: I'm mired in subjectivity as I try to "figure out" the issues. When acting as a prophet, he's not "figuring out" anything, just conveying what God wants him to convey.

santorio said...

job [no, not the apple guy, the old testament dude] kept asking, 'why me, since i have followed all the commandments' my reading of this story is that job's problem was pride in his own righteousness.

in the context of your post, job idolized his righteousness. which happens when commandments become an ends not a means.

the words of the prophets, ancient or modern, are only the means to and end: to love god, which means to love men, which means to do good.

at the end of the day, the question is not, 'have i followed the commandments?' but, 'i have done any good?'

Scot said...

The subjectivity is found in which voice of God you pick, from men to books, in order to suspend your sense of ethics. I mean, many have a lot ridding on the voice of God they picked being right and have from a very young age. You still had to “figure out” that, and it's important to you that the LDS faith is true for you to get a lot of what you want, right? I’m just saying you can’t overlook your possible subjectivity and investment either. Stopping at some point in your ethical reasoning and claiming the rest is the supernatural doesn’t change the fact that both camps figure out how their morals will work (nor does it relieve either choice from ethical responsibility).

Trouble is, both sides of this divide look at the other and see them as masking excuses for doing wrong. If I’m reading this right, notice that Ty doesn’t say the other side is doing good; they’re doing “good” because they don’t understand a supernatural mystery. It’s not that we shouldn’t strive to be good; it’s that they don’t know what real good is, the kind that comes from a good God, like he does, and that’s the bother you’re calling idolatry. But the other side feels similarly.

And both sides should be suspicious. There are certainly examples of people seemingly without working knowledge of good or evil, whose conscience tells them nothing. And I hate to think it, but, on the other side, suspension of conscience for the word of another could (and has) placed otherwise good people with the same thinking you defend here, L, in the position of, say, stoning folks like me and hunting down our families, or something like that, at the word of one man, say, wanting to bring back Old Testament law.

Through history and experience, though, I, like you, know where I’ll place my responsibility, my bet ;-).

Chris said...

L:

When acting as a prophet, he's not "figuring out" anything, just conveying what God wants him to convey.

What evidence do we have that when acting as a prophet, the men called as such are free of subjectivity?

I think where I continue to lose you (or you me, I'm not sure which) in discussions such as these is that you seem to imply without ever actually saying it that prophets are, in effect, perfect when it comes to conveying the word of God. To which there can really be no response other than, "Ok." Scot has suggested before that there really is no arguing faith. He's right.

-L- said...

I haven’t suggested we “stop” our ethical reasoning, nor that we quit doing good in order to follow the commandments. Doing good is a commandment. I’ve no argument that commandments are a means to a greater end, but what that end is is only perfectly known by the same God who gives the commandments (offering some legitimacy to the proposed means!).

Of course our testimony of prophets (or scripture or whatever) is going to be subjectively gained and influenced by personal history or investment. But that doesn’t mean reason no longer has any bearing on faith, nor that all these mental gymnastics are somehow only to get me "what I want" rather than what is right and best. Indeed, that's largely the point. As far as the risk of selectively editing the evidence one receives goes, having prophets in the plan of salvation makes a lot of sense. Scot, I have in no way defended "suspending one’s conscience."

There are lots of interesting sub-topics and tangents we could get into (including Chris’ comments about prophets' subjectivity), but I can only write so much so fast. On the other hand I have considered the bad that can be done when overly faithful and overly zealous, and the rationality of faith. While where one places one’s "bet" is a good place to start, there have been guarantees that it need not be a gamble, and that’s worth a provisionary gamble for now.

mark said...

"When acting as a prophet, he's not "figuring out" anything, just conveying what God wants him to convey."

L, I have trouble with this statement, even within a believing LDS context. When Joseph Smith went into the Sacred Grove, he was trying to "figure out" what church was right, what his status was before God, etc. When he received Doctrine and Covenants section 76, he had been working on the translation of John 5:29 (if I remember right) and was trying to "figure out" what happens to people at and after they are judged. When he received section 89, he had been meeting with the brethren in the rooms he and Emma occupied in the Newel K Whitney store and Emma had complained about the stains on the floor from chewing tobacco and the smoke wafting through the air, so he was trying to "figure out" what God's will was with respect to using these substances. I could give lots and lots and lots of other examples, but my point is that, within the context of LDS theology as I understand, prophets are not simply conveying what God tells them as if they were some kind of empty conduit that gets filled up every so often when God decides He wants to tell the world something. They are not empty vessels for divine water to fill. They are more like a pumping station, which has to be working right to get the water through. It seems to me, as I understand LDS theology, that prophets often have a problem that they are confronting, they struggle with it, they meditate, they think about different ideas, all in the context of asking for guidance, and then, THEN they get an answer. See also the archetypal story of the brother of Jared, which illustrates this concept.

Now, I am trying to frame this from an LDS point of view (as I understand it). Personally, I tend more to the view that it is impossible for prophets to convey a message that is completely or even mostly unfiltered by their own personal experiences, attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, and the influences of their environmental (physical, moral, economic, etc.) Even if a prophet conveyed the "Thus saith the Lord" message pure and unfiltered in the first instance, is it also true that in every repetition of that message it is equally pure and unfiltered? And what about the concept of continiuing revelation? If message X is conveyed pure and unfiltered today, and then a year later message Y is delivered, similarly unfiltered and pure, but which message says something new or different or perhaps even seemingly contrary to message X, will the subsequent retelling of message X not itself be affected by the prophet's attempt to reconcile message X with message Y? I guess my concerns is that you end up having to make the prophet into a kind of spiritual automaton who, when he talks about anything connected to these divine messages he conveys, becomes disassociated from his own self and becomes merely the voice of God, or alternatively the prophet in the sphere of prophet-speaking becomes omniscient like God in order always to say what is the pure and unfiltered message of God given to the prophet to convey to others. Is that really likely? Where does the prophet's agency go? And does the testimony of the prophets themselves bear this out?

Sorry about this long ramble, L...when a button gets pushed, I tend to go off on diatribes, which once earned me the nickname "Data" from some LDS friends. They would sometimes bait me with statements they knew would set me off, and too often I took the bait, once expounding on some doctrinal point for an hour before I finally finished.

-L- said...

:-)

Mark, you just crack me up. The situation (as you understand it) appears to be correct to me. That's the most insightful and thorough doctrinal correction I've ever had on this blog!

But here are a couple qualifiers. I think there have also been instances where very specific instructions/wordings have been given without room for subjective interpretation. Secondly, when a prophet figures out some solution (or whatever) subjectively and goes to God for approval, it's perfectly legit to say that after it is approved or endorsed by God (or however you want to think of it), he is then conveying God's will or word on the subject. "What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same."

You are welcome to rant in my comments all you want, but you risk making me smarter when you do so.

Scot said...

“I haven’t suggested we “stop” our ethical reasoning”

Then I’ve misunderstood something.

“The idea that morality itself could be idolatry (and therefore, somehow immoral) is really interesting. I find I believe it.”

“On the other hand, justifying not following God's prophet because it doesn't fit with our own personal feelings of what is right for us seems to be a very dangerous place to go.”


I take this to mean, even if you’ve found that something is right, you should suspend that reasoning and sometimes even do what you think is wrong, on faith. Sure, you may have reasoned that you want to give that duty of moral decision to another person or to a book, supposing they speak for the highest moral authority, but that’s still reasoning to stop moral reasoning at a certain point and just do it. I mean, if given that command by Moses to kill the Canaanite children (or, say, gays), would you think it right to go against where moral reasoning would otherwise take you and just do what Moses said? I was under the impression, in a past post, you thought that was what one should do, but would love to be told I’m wrong here.

“but that doesn't equate with accepting one's own opinions as the last word on what must be right.”

Here, it seems you’re trying to pose relying on one’s conscience in your choices as somehow egotistical, as though to do so one must think they’re “the last word on what must be right.” Saying that one thinks they should give another person the last word could be similarly posed though. It’s a common problem between religions, all with member humbly surrendering their will to God, and yet it’s still as contentious as a beauty pageant (and not many pageants end in bloodshed :-)). Many fight, and as though it were a matter of ego, because they’ve each decided to surrender to something very different, and often clearly as a function of upbringing and their desires for certain innate pleasures anyway, from life to family.

“that all these mental gymnastics are somehow only to get me "what I want" rather than what is right and best.”

Hey, they could be and often are the same thing. We’ve been over this before, but we can’t do anything, even mental gymnastics ;-), without wanting to do so. I’m just saying, while my potential sources of bias should be clear, so should yours. After all, in the long run, you’d appear to get a lot more for being right than I will ;-).

“Doing good is a commandment”

Yes, but this is my problem with Ty’s quote. He’s not saying people are making false idols out of morality (God wants us to do good), but he is at the same time. What’s actually being said is idol worshipers are those who don’t think good is the same as I do, that which I find in this book or coming out of that mouth despite that it “doesn't seem to have a foundational principle or moral we can immediately understand.” Note the “immediately” there seemingly to simply say to the other side that they, again, don’t know how to find morality, real morality but he does and eventually they’ll see he’s right. Not that any of that is rare on either side :-).

mark said...

L, thanks for letting me rant ;)

I wonder if your position (and please correct me if I am putting words in your mouth) could basically be summed up by the statement made by Joseph Smith in a letter to Nancy Rigdon in 1842 I think it was:

“Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” (History of the Church, 5:135)

The irony is that this statement appears in a letter in which Joseph seeks to persaude Nancy Rigdon as to why she should accept his offer to be his plural wife. I think that part got left out of the version of the letter that was printed in the History of the Church, but I believe there are reliable sources that provide the full contents of the letter.

As an active Latter-day Saint, I certainly believed in this concept. However, as I have reflected over the last few years on both LDS history and the history of religion generally (heck, history generally) I have come to have grave doubts about this doctrine as it is used to justify following whatever teaching comes from a prophet's mouth. I trust God, and I do believe that whatever He commands is right, but I also think that a god worthy of the name would never command something inconsistent with consistent moral precepts. It seems odd to me, too, for God to plant a moral conscience in each person, only to give commands that frankly violate that moral conscience that He planted there. And, going back to the history business, there have been too many people down through recorded history who have made the same argument that God commanded them to do this or that thing or to teach this or that principle and were absolutely convinced that God had spoken to them and was speaking through them, such that I am suspicious of such claims, particularly where the claim seems to be made in a context where it accrues to the benefit of the one making the claim. To be blunt, it troubles me a great deal that Joseph used this claim to tell women who were sometimes married to someone else or young women 14 or 15 years old that God had commanded him to marry them and that they and their family would obtain exaltation through their agreement to the proposal but would reap damnation if they refused. The use of the claim of divine command seems to me in those instances to be terribly self-serving.

Chris said...

The use of the claim of divine command seems to me in those instances to be terribly self-serving.

And abusive.

I'm in agreement with you, Mark.

Master Fob said...

I would have an easier time accepting the idea of prophetic counsel being the objective Word of God if Gordon B. Hinckley were, like Moses, to read straight from a tablet which God had just written on or, like Joseph Smith, to speak as if in God's voice (i.e. "I, God, command...). Granted, either of those cases would be kind of freaky and hard to believe, but assuming I did believe that was God speaking through the prophet I would gladly accept the words as objective truth.

You make a good point about President Hinckley being less personally involved in the issues surrounding homosexuality and therefore better able to accept whatever answers God gives him, but (a) however distanced he is, he is influenced by biases and preconceived notions, and (b) I worry that precisely because the issue is not as close to him that he has no reason to question those prejudices. Because I am in the midst of it, because the answers dramatically affect my life, I am willing to struggle with this, to wrestle with angels until I understand God's will concerning me. Gordon B. Hinckley doesn't have time to take on that kind of struggle for each and every person on earth.

Master Fob said...

What I'm trying to say is this:

President Hinckley has not once said, about homosexuality or anything else, "I was talking to God and he said: 'Behold, thous shalt say unto my people....'" Until he does, I'm willing to grant that he seeks and receives inspiration in the same way I do, but I have no reason to believe that even he claims more objectivity than that.

Master Fob said...

That was supposed to be "thou." I'm not inventing new pronouns here.

-L- said...

Scot: I take this to mean, even if you’ve found that something is right, you should suspend that reasoning and sometimes even do what you think is wrong, on faith…, but would love to be told I’m wrong here.

You’re kind of wrong and kind of right. “Stopping” moral reasoning in favor of blind obedience to some authority that ostensibly represents God is a very spiritually immature thing to do. It’s all God expected of folks in the Old Testament at times, but I think he expects more these days. On the other hand, “stopping” moral reasoning to rule out God’s commandment when it seems to conflict with our own moral views is equally immature, and that’s specifically what I think Ty was talking about. The spiritually sophisticated approach, in my opinion, is to continue to reason until what we believe is moral merges with what we believe God’s will to be. And then probably to continue and revise as future experience warrants indefinitely.

Behaving according to God's will and behaving morally are ultimately a necessarily equivalent. When I have a hard time getting the two to merge, I have to perform some epistemological calculus, and I’m suggesting that the coefficients before the version of morality that gets me what my body desires ought to be smaller than the coefficient placed in front of the opinion my collective past experience tells me is coming from God, not that any of those coefficients have to be zero.

Scot: What’s actually being said is idol worshipers are those who don’t think good is the same as I do, that which I find in this book or coming out of that mouth despite that it “doesn't seem to have a foundational principle or moral we can immediately understand.” Note the “immediately” there seemingly to simply say to the other side that they, again, don’t know how to find morality, real morality but he does and eventually they’ll see he’s right. Not that any of that is rare on either side :-)

I think what Ty said was that anything, no matter how good, is idolatry when it comes before God. I don’t see this as the us vs. them issue you’ve objected to so strongly. Considering your commitment to morality, and your disdain for people who believe they are right about something, I’m sure you must now see how wrong you were. ;-)

-L- said...

Mark, that first quote is fantastic. I love it. And I see nothing ironic at all in the context, but rather find it a good example. I disagree with your (and Chris’) characterization of polygamous marriages as “self serving” as my understanding is that Joseph had sex with very few of his wives (that’s what you meant, right?). The brethren of the early church were loath to accept the sacrifice God asked of them, and indeed I wonder if that was the whole point. It was a test of faith, a consecration that we can’t even understand. It’s not something I want to discuss more though, because appeals to historical authority are annoying and I find myself suspicious of context, accuracy, and agenda as well as completely incapable of offering any informed rebuttal since I’m no historian (and have no interest in taking the time to research it right now).

-L- said...

Master Fob, you make some great points. I remember in my Teachings of the Living Prophets class when we talked about how you would know when a prophet was speaking as a prophet. The consensus there was that you assumed he wasn’t except at General Conference and in official publications. I think that’s imperfect, but it's a good working baseline.

Fob: Gordon B. Hinckley doesn't have time to take on that kind of struggle for each and every person on earth.

He’s got 14 backups, and although I know many disagree, I’ve been pretty happy with the attention given, deep understanding shown, and compassionate guidance given on the topic.

Scot said...

"The spiritually sophisticated approach, in my opinion, is to continue to reason until what we believe is moral merges with what we believe God’s will to be. And then probably to continue and revise as future experience warrants indefinitely."

There then we’d agree. But I don’t think this has stopped; people are still asked to act against their conscience in modern churches, to do things they’d otherwise think wrong. While I do think the two will eventually merge, if history can be extrapolated, the typically dangerous path from A to B will keep me on edge.

“the coefficients before the version of morality that gets me what my body desires ought to be smaller than the coefficient placed in front of the opinion my collective past experience tells me is coming from God

But again, by faith, you have placed what your body desires on both sides of the equation. In fact, there’s no contest with the desires met, body desires, on the side of what you believe is coming from God, particularly once you multiply them by infinity. I love math :-). Simply, with what you believe, you get more desires met in the LDS faith than out, but that’s how all people and religions work. You won’t, say, get a Baptist into the LDS faith with them thinking it means Hell for eternity, even if you convinced them it’s what God wants of them: to be LDS but also burn in Hell for eternity when He’d let them into the pleasures of heaven if they disobeyed.

I don’t see this as the us vs. them issue

I was going to quote the last part of Ty’s quote, but you know what it says :-). He’s taking “them” to task, which is fine to do, but it is there. Furthermore, you’ve quoted “them” in your post as examples of incorrect thinking in this instance. It seems us vs them.

Considering your commitment to morality, and your disdain for people who believe they are right about something, I’m sure you must now see how wrong you were. ;-)

Yeah, you better wink, mister. Sure, I disdain people who believe they are right about something :-).

That “disdain” is a feeling of helpless frustration with a seemingly inevitable human condition. It’s for people who’d harm their neighbors, in ways they’d certainly not wish for themselves, so that they can have the pleasure of feeling like they’re doing right. At least we could probably agree on that with regards to the more extreme historical examples of some others, right? Say, the Catholics heading the Inquisition. Of course, there’d be similar issues the RCC would aim right back. I’m sure though some of those conducting the inquisition, believing it was God’s will, did struggle, and others just did it, but the results were the same. I’d respect the strugglers more than the blind actors, but, still, setting someone on fire is setting someone on fire.

-L- said...

I like it when you call me "mister". :-) But it should be Mister President, to you.

But I don’t think this has stopped; people are still asked to act against their conscience in modern churches, to do things they’d otherwise think wrong.

Yes, perhaps. But I don't think that's typical of my church. There's an explicit edict to work by "persuasion and long suffering" rather than by coercion. I don't recall a bishop or prophet or any church leader ever asking me to do something reprehensible, and then responding to my objections with a thunderous, "Just DO IT!!! DO IT NOW!!!" When Nephi was asked to kill Laban and balked, he was given some insight into the bigger picture. So, yes, he would otherwise have considered the murder to be wrong, but was persuaded that not killing Laban would have been a greater wrong resulting in larger loss of life and... well, you can look it up. Having said that, it’s not always the case that we are eventually persuaded (or explicitly told) the rationale for certain things, and I think our ignorance may be necessarily connected with being mortal beings and our limited capacity to understand. Oh well. I linked above to the post on Nielsen and Kierkegaard, and I think the comment discussion was a pretty good one.

It’s for people who’d harm their neighbors, in ways they’d certainly not wish for themselves, so that they can have the pleasure of feeling like they’re doing right.

The idea that following God is always fundamentally selfish is a narrow one. Sure, for some people the motivation to follow God is the reward in heaven. Some are motivated by fear of hell or loyalty or duty or whatever. But we're taught that the best motivation is love of God, stemming from a personal relationship with the Savior and a love of what is right and good for its own sake, not for the pleasure of what it brings us. Indeed, my own experience makes me reject outright your distilling all our behaviors and motivations, no matter the direction or character, into "what we want". Erasing the distinctions is definitionally achievable, if you want it to be, but weakens the power of language and the clarity of ideas rather than expanding them.

It's hard to convey how I manage to simultaneously have such dread at the prospect of the Inquisition, or religiously motivated genocide, or other such atrocities, yet feel peacefully satisfied with the knowledge that God had nothing to do with those things and that he still may ask me to do something I have a hard time understanding—maybe even an impossible time understanding. All the warnings and counter-examples provide a necessary cautionary tale… but do not persuade me that God isn’t the final moral authority or that the LDS church isn’t God’s. I think I may post more on this later.

God is real and good and present in my life. I'm glad you're committed to morality and defending good ideals. Thanks for forcing me to think so much. It’s good for my lazy brain.

Scot said...

The idea that following God is always fundamentally selfish is a narrow one.

I can see we’re winding down… but :-) I don’t think you got me right here and I want to at least clarify my stance with regards to how humans work in this respect… [Ah, darn, this got too long; I’ll make it into a post within the week :-).]

Man, we need to get together some day for a long lunch.