Guest Post: Emily Dyson
Why are we righteous? Why do we keep God’s commandments? To what end?
A while ago, I was in a Gospel Doctrine class that was discussing the view of the afterlife laid out in Doctrine and Covenants Section 76. “The Vision” appeared to have much in common with Universalism, an increasingly popular doctrine that all would eventually be saved into God’s kingdom, and, as a result, the revelation “was a great trial to many”, in the words of Brigham Young. One class member offered their own perspective on the challenging nature of the revelation. They told us how difficult it had been as a teenager to miss out on the ‘riotous living’ in which some of their friends were engaged. While rewards in the next life did act as an incentive for their sacrifice of such seemingly appealing pursuits, such promises seemed marred by the possibility that their friends might accept the gospel sometime in the future, and thus gain access to exactly the same blessings as them.
This sentiment is not uncommon, and on several occasions during his earthly ministry, Christ addressed this attitude. In his parable of the workers in the vineyard, those who had been hired earliest in the day were outraged to receive the same wage as those who had “wrought but one hour”. It’s easy to understand their complaint. They’d “borne the burden and heat of the day”, while others stood idle, and yet they were paid just the same as those who had jumped on the bandwagon at the eleventh hour. The obedient brother of the prodigal son has a similar problem. “Lo, these many years do I serve thee,” he says to his father, “neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.” It could seem that the prodigal son’s riotous living had been more profitable than his brother’s loyalty and obedience. In the Old Testament, Jonah suffers from a comparable sense of bitterness. Instead of rejoicing at the success of his ministry in Nineveh, he was “exceedingly” “displeased” and “very angry”. Why? Because God was “merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness”. One could respond to Jonah’s agitation with the same question that the vineyard householder poses to his disgruntled workers: “Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” Do we actually believe in the principle of repentance? Have we ever, like Jonah, felt anger towards God because of his mercy towards others?
Where does this bitterness come from? It stems partly from a failure to remember that we too are completely and utterly dependent on Christ’s mercy – “for behold,” in the words of King Benjamin, “are we not all beggars?”. Also at work is a self-interested disregard for the worth of souls. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father is able to recognise the joy in his son’s conversion. “It is meet that we should make merry, and be glad:” he says, “for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” The obedient son resents his brother’s conversion – because he is not yet himself converted to goodness.
This may strike you as rather an odd claim. How can someone who abounds in good works not be truly converted to goodness? I think the key issue here is one’s motivation for righteous living. Kant argued that it was one’s motive, the quality of one’s will, that conferred moral worth upon an action. He wrote “A good will isn’t good because of what it effects or accomplishes, it’s good in itself.” Elder Bednar has taught that “Continuing conversion” requires “constant devotion… with a heart that is willing and for righteous reasons”. In fact, in all the examples I have cited, those at fault fail to recognise that righteousness, goodness should not be treated as a woeful means to delightful divine reward in the next life, but rather as an end in and of itself. They view life as a ‘test’, and by implication a competition. Theirs is a wheat and tares, sheep and goats scenario. Righteousness is viewed as wearying labour, compensated for only by the mansions that have been prepared for them in heaven. The key problem with holding out “the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, as the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life” is that it produces behaviour that is externally moral, but which is internally driven by the promise of personal reward. As John Stuart Mill points out in his masterpiece On Liberty, such a conception of morality “[disconnects] each man’s feelings of duty from the interests of his fellow-creatures, except so far as a self-interested inducement is offered to him for consulting them”, and thus righteousness becomes an intrinsically self-interested, instrumental pursuit. We are sometimes in danger of subscribing to this behavioural lower law, childishly checking off our to-be-saved-you-must-do list in hope of indescribable eternal bliss.
I remember our stake’s Seminary and Institute coordinator jokingly describing his vision of the celestial kingdom: back-to-back Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars trilogy. What exactly is it that you envisage when you think of heaven? What is this unspoken reward going to be?
My parents used to have a hard time trying to get my younger brother, Joseph, to do his music practice. So they devised a lower law, whereby Joseph would only be allowed to play computer games once he had done a certain amount of piano practice. However, this incentive was a purely pragmatic measure. The end goal was for Joseph to understand why music is so important, and to love practising the piano, for its own sake – not for some promise of computer game time. Larry E. Dahl, professor emeritus of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, wrote:
“When we are not prepared or willing to live a higher law, the Lord, on occasion, may give us a lesser standard, a “schoolmaster” law. But even strict obedience to the schoolmaster law is not the goal… All who would be exalted must, through repentance and obedience, become the kind of people who desire and obey “the law of a celestial kingdom.”
Part of this process of true conversion is learning what Elder Uchtdorf called “the why of obedience”. He taught, “When we understand why our Heavenly Father has given us this pattern for living… the gospel ceases to become a burden and, instead, becomes a joy and a delight… Let us not walk the path of discipleship with our eyes on the ground, thinking only of the tasks and obligations before us. Let us not walk unaware of the beauty of the glorious earthly and spiritual landscapes that surround us.” In failing to contemplate the grounds for our obedience, we allow our once vivid and justified beliefs to decay into dormant dogma. Mill describes this process beautifully when he writes: “Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost”. Ours is a living Church, a Church that embraces progress fuelled by continuing revelation, and must be treated as such. Furthermore, the liveliness of the beliefs to which we profess is endangered by a lack of opposition, and may only be sustained if we are capable of “[throwing ourselves] into the mental position of those who think differently from [us]”, and of articulating and explaining our own tenets to others – always seeking guidance from the Holy Ghost, the revealer and testifier of all truth. A failure to learn the why of obedience results in what Mill calls “a low, abject, servile type of character, which, submit itself as it may to what it deems the Supreme Will, is incapable of rising to or sympathising in the conception of Supreme Goodness”. Emanuel Swedenborg taught that “heavenly intelligence is a deeper intelligence arising from a love of what is true—not for the sake of any praise in the world or any praise in heaven, but simply for the sake of the truth itself”. We need to learn to love keeping the commandments – for their own sake – to the point where, like King Benjamin’s people, “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually”.
Joseph Smith displayed a similarly fervent devotion to truth and goodness when he taught that “the first grand fundamental principle of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” He said, “Mormonism is truth… The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or… being… prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men”. D&C 109:7 does not tell us to “seek ye out of exclusively church-authorised materials words of wisdom”, but out of the best books, learning by both study and faith – no caveats attached. Many of us may consider ourselves to be members of the ‘true Church’, though I personally find it difficult to understand how it makes sense semantically to assign a truth value to an institution. While we are part of God’s Church, we do not have a monopoly on truth, as Elder Uchtdorf taught in his CES Devotional What is Truth?:
‘We seek for truth wherever we may find it…Yes, we do have the fullness of the everlasting gospel, but that does not mean that we know everything. In fact, one principle of the restored gospel is our belief that God “will yet reveal many great and important things”’.
So what does heaven look like? What is this glorious reward for which so many wait in eager anticipation? My best guess is that goodness in this life will be rewarded with further opportunities to be good, and the happiness that springs from that. Perhaps this is what it means in Doctrine and Covenants 88:22 when it says “For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.” If we don’t want to be good, then we don’t want heaven. Goodness is its own reward. Let’s reconsider the parable of the vineyard workers. If the workers had been truly converted to their work, then they would have been thanking the householder that they had been permitted to work for the whole day. Furthermore, they would have been excited for the latecomers that they had now been afforded the same privilege as them.
In Book 12 of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which concerns the events surrounding the fall of Adam and Eve, Michael offers some words of advice and comfort to Adam just before he and Eve are led out of the Garden of Eden: “add / Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith, / Add Virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love, / By name to come called Charity, the soul / Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath / To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess / A paradise within thee, happier far.” I hope that I can create this “paradise within” in my efforts to wake up and do something more than dream of my mansion above – to become converted to goodness for its own sake.
***Emily is a first-year undergraduate philosophy student at Magdalene College, and an aspiring scholar. Emily spent her early years in a small market town in Yorkshire called Beverley, but as a young child moved with her family to Cambridge, where she now studies.