How do we earn our morals?

Andrew Schurch, doctrine, LDS, Mormon, Mormons, obedience, righteousness, sexuality, Word of Wisdom 14 Comments

A while back on my blog, Seth R (usually of 9 Moons fame) posted a lengthy and detailed comment about the deficiencies of liberal religion (particularly of a hypothetical liberal Mormon denomination) and also the deficiencies of our current orthodoxy. I took a stab at part of his comment in a post on my blog, wondering if it’s possible for the church to be complacent.

But there was another curious (if bold) comment he had made…he points out how he feels in certain areas he hasn’t earned his morals, and that many members aren’t “earning” their morals. If one isn’t truly “earning his morals” from following guidance like the Word of Wisdom or the Law of Chastity, then how do we avoid or move past simply practicing a modern and vain form of legalism?

The meaningful part for this discussion was:

I worry that Brigham Young’s fears may be prophetic – the LDS Church cannot stand wealth. It cannot withstand success. We have grown fat and complacent in our certainties and blessings. We have taken our moral rightness for granted. We have taken our status as chosen people for granted.We have been given a pearl of great price, and thus far, we seem content to use it as a paperweight.

That is the fundamental flaw with Mormon fundamentalism. It’s smug. It’s prideful. It’s complacent. It takes it’s own blessed status with God for granted…

The trouble with the “cultural conservative” view in Mormonism…is not that they advocate for strong morals. The problem is that they really did nothing to earn those morals.

I never slept with any woman before my wedding night. But, while I am grateful for that, I take no moral self-satisfaction from it. The truth is, I didn’t have sex with girls before then because I was raised not to. And frankly, I was too shy as a teenager to ever get to the point with a girl where sex was even a possibility. I earned no right to feel smug about my “purity” as opposed to the drunk frat boys I kept hearing about. What did I earn? What basis for pride on the issue did I ever have?

But modern Mormon culture takes exactly this position. The modern generation of Mormons rest on laurels they have not earned, tout morals that are not truly theirs, and pray to a God that they cannot know – because their preconceptions keep getting in the way.

The cry of “all is well in Zion” has gone on long enough. I think I’d like to see some new sermons.

How can one truly earn his morals? I mean, obviously, a drunk frat boy who converts will see the clear distinction between his past and present life (and the hope is that he’ll feel he’s moved “up”)…but that’s it wouldn’t be safe to say that all of the BIC youth should be shuffled into big sin just to show them what it’s like.

Or is the point simply that we shouldn’t take moral self-satisfaction anyway? After all, if we’re all counseled to be humble, isn’t it silly to dash all that away by being proud of having the Gospel when instead one should remain humble to have it?

And relating to that legalism thing…are we fulfilling the spirit of things through our obedience to the letter of things? Or is the the case that unearned morals still obstruct our view of trying to show true charity to others?

Do you think Seth is on to something, or is he just an angry, angry man?

Comments 14

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  2. I think earning one’s morals is experiencing the change on the inside. If we’re truly converted/humble on the inside, their will be nothing to boast about, or base judgment on.

    And I love Seth, nothing funny though. 🙂 Just great comments. He should be a GA.

  3. I don’t know that “absolute” morals are necessarily related to a “liberal” or “orthodox” viewpoint. I think a confusion is made between “morals” and following the “tenants” or one’s beliefs. I’m sure this sounds completely muddled. Perhaps an example might help.

    In Buddhism, the existence of God is essentially undefined. The “beliefs” of Buddhism are based on observation as to what makes society work and what doesn’t. There is also a “middle way” held up as an ideal between extremes. When Buddhism is really studies, there is a profound emphasis on giving to others, even to the extent that a Boddhisatva is willing to postpone his/her final reward until every being is saved. To me, this is extremely “moral” in an absolute way, and is not necessarily based on being “liberal” or “orthodox”.

    To Mormons, “moral” means following the current precepts of the Church, which doesn’t always relate to “absolute morality”. An example. If someone drank a glass of wine today, they certainly would NOT be seen as orthodox but would be seen as “immoral” as many current members. On an absolute basis, however, Christ drank wine. The Nephites made wine. The early leaders of the Church drank wine. Bible prophets had wine. These are all arguably moral people. None of them, however, would get a current LDS temple recommend.

    So when you talk about “earning” morals, I think it has nothing to do with obedience to the “letter of things”. There are many businessmen here in Utah who follow the “letter of things” and are church leaders, who are as crooked in business as anyone else because that’s the “way it’s done”.

    In my viewpoint, true morals go back to Christ’s 2 admonitions: Love God, love your neighbor. Helping your neighbor and truly caring for everyone on the earth (ie. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Dali Lama, etc.) is far more “moral” than someone keeping the current “orthodox” LDS teachings. It’s just turned about backwards in the Church. And I think recognition of that fact is more what distinguishes “liberal” Mormons from “orthodox” Mormons than most anything else.

  4. Hummmmm, I think I know what he is getting at, but I express it differently. I think it has to do with a tendency towards “box checking” in Mormon culture. Just check the boxes for tithing, scripture study, temple attendance, etc and you are good to go. Salvation is a certainty, you are good and moral person in the eyes of God. Continue to check the boxes until death.

    “And relating to that legalism thing…are we fulfilling the spirit of things through our obedience to the letter of things? Or is the the case that unearned morals still obstruct our view of trying to show true charity to others?”

    The letter of things: what things? What letter?
    Obedience: What form does this take, how does one know one is being obedient? Why is obedience seen as a end in itself? etc etc etc. The idea of obedience really needs to be critiqued.

    To put it another way, the problem could be that Mormon culture tends to perceive Mormon religion as a series of fairly simple proscriptions that need to be followed. Granted there are many voices in the church that encourage us to take such a view. The thing is, when I analyze scriptures I get a very different understanding of what it might mean to be a Christian and a Mormon. Scriptural Christianity is more poetic, it can’t be reduced to formulas, its not seeped in positivism or proscriptions. At least I don’t think so. I understand Christ as a deconstructive figure, and his teachings are full of the destabilizing, counter intuitive, risk taking that comes with deconstruction. But that is an idea that is counter to mainstream Mormonism. The more I attend the temple, the more I see my Mormon religion as dynamic, process based, subjective and even complex. Yet I don’t see how or where these dynamics play out in church culture, maybe I am just blind.

    Concepts such as humility or earning / not earning one’s morals might be viewed as positivistic attempts to systematize that which is always in excess of the system, thus pointing to the system’s limits. We should be seeking the excess.

  5. Post

    re 2:

    Mike, well, to be sure, I don’t think Seth (and certainly not I) was saying that “absolute” morals were related to either liberal or orthodox. In fact, Seth’s original contention against “liberal” members was rather different than his point of contention against orthodox. His point was that the liberal members lack a visionary leader and passion (which is necessary for a thriving, growing religion…and which he would probably argue is the real reason why liberal denominations of Christianity [or even of Mormonism as per the Community of Christ] are not as “successful” or may even be losing members.)

    Similarly, I think Seth realizes that the tenets du jour that define Mormon orthodoxy aren’t the same thing as absolute morality. I didn’t include this in the except, but at some point, Seth boldly says,

    The trouble with the “cultural conservative” view in Mormonism is not that they take religion too seriously. The problem is that their religious beliefs are false.

    So, I think that’s part of his message — we need some huge shake-up that gets us closer to the most important things (as you noted: Christ’s 2 admonitions.)

    I’d ask: do you think the “way things are done” or the “letter of things” are superfluous? Does the WoW or Law of Chastity have any value in helping us love God and love our neighbor? Is there any way to realize value in this (where there might not be value now)?

  6. Post

    re 3:

    Douglas, I am also more familiar with your way of expressing it (e.g., as checking boxes).

    By “things” I mean…whatever the Gospel is supposed to be. So, we have of course the two great commandments — Love God, love neighbor — but I’m sure people could think of tons of other things (and might even prioritize different ones), so I just say “things.”

    So, basically I’m asking, “Are we fulfilling the spirit of (whatever the Gospel is supposed to entail) through our obedience of the letter of (whatever the Gospel is supposed to entail — but this one specifically includes written-out commandments…the “checklist” of things to do)?

    I would say, “Maybe not.” I see a lot of stuff going on that I wouldn’t call love. However, I see people who say things like, “If you do your home teaching, even if it’s with grumbling, you will be blessed and eventually you’ll be able to do it without grumbling and your blessings will increase.” So, these people would say that we do need these kinds of laws and codes and whatnot, because simply following them — even if we don’t currently understand them — will cultivate the “right” kind of attitude we should be having eventually.

    So, it depends on which side of the coin you are if you think obedience is a worthy goal. Personally, I agree with you about the “poetry” of scriptural Christianity (well, particularly the New Testament), but at the same time, the GAs and various others have been very diligent to try to justify their position scripturally as well…

  7. I just think it’s important to remember that living the gospel is expansive, and that if one is living it, rather than living in the vicinity of it, that one’s views and capacities will be by degrees by increasing. The higher laws will dawn on us, then slowly become clear to us, and perhaps even more slowly we will find that we are able to live them. ~

  8. Re:4 where you asked: “I’d ask: do you think the “way things are done” or the “letter of things” are superfluous? Does the WoW or Law of Chastity have any value in helping us love God and love our neighbor? Is there any way to realize value in this (where there might not be value now)?”

    I think there is always some value in anything that someone feels brings them closer to Christ. However, the current emphasis on the “letter of things” does seem superfluous to me, although I follow it out of blind obedience. Given your question, to be honest, I think I would relate to many of my non-member friends much better if I joined them for a glass of wine at dinner, or a beer at a game. I think that would far outweigh any potential health problem that might come from that. It might even help Utah lose it’s ranking at the #1 state for anti-depressant use in the US. Even the early church members (in good standing) had a glass of wine to “cheer our spirits”.

    Regarding your specific question and how we can get value – I think in many ways the Buddhist precepts in those 2 areas make more sense than our own. With regards to WofW, we see it as a bunch of check boxes. We are told that “hot drinks” somehow means Coke. We basically ignore the clear requirement to eat meat in times of famine. So it turns into a letter of the law type of thing. Our recent lesson in priesthood discussed the fact that we don’t necessarily understand everything, like why not drink a glass of red wine each day, but we follow it for the sake of obedience. In Buddhism, the end result is actually very much the same, however the approach is completely different. They believe in respecting life. Therefore, many, including monks, are vegetarians. However, in areas where climate makes that hard (ie. Tibet, etc.), they eat meat. Similarly with alcohol, they are taught to avoid “intoxicants”. If you are tying to calm your mind and focus on what is important, that is the principle. Many Buddhists don’t drink alcohol, but some drink a limited amount, avoiding intoxication. Some teach that this includes any substance that didn’t exist at the time of Buddha. At the end of the day, however, there isn’t a list of boxes to check, but there are just basic principles and each person determines what that means to them in their particular circumstance. This gives each person more autonomy and responsibility for themselves.

    Similarly with “chastity”. The rule is to avoid “injuring” someone else with sexual misconduct. This includes adultery, which is extremely against Buddhist principles. It also includes disrespect, etc. For them, among lay people, masturbation isn’t really defined as injuring someone else, so it’s not particularly bad. Again, however, instead of a list of checkboxes, the principle is emphasized.

    In addition to “restrictions”, each principle ideally has a “positive” opposite. In addition to avoiding intoxicants, you should seek out things that will make you more healthy and able to concentrate. In addition to avoiding sexual misconduct, you should seek to support your spouse, etc.

    So, overall, these approaches to the laws are much more appealing to me, and are ironically much closer to what we read about Christ’s teachings in the Bible. It goes back to simplicity. Respect others. Respect life. Respect yourself. The outcomes naturally flow from that. Even Joseph Smith taught this at one point – teach people correct principles and they will govern themselves. We have come a long way from that in this church. We have devolved into a religion of “check boxes”.

  9. I don’t necessarily see Chastity or the Word of Wisdom as the “ends” of morality… merely a framework to live by that allows us to be free to be moral if we choose. There’s practical morality (the kind that allows us to stand each other and live in relative peace with one another), such as don’t kill, don’t steal, etc. If we live by those standards (the letter of the law), then we’re free to choose to love each other as a result. The Beatles were right, and it’s sad to see people completely missing the mark about this.

    Therefore it’s completely possible for someone (or a group of people) to follow all the “rules” and “checkboxes” and still be immoral, if they don’t have the pure love of Christ and the pure love that Christ has for others. That was Christ’s whole point when he railed against the Pharisees and Sadducees.

    However, I hold to the opinion that, at least in my life, when I’m living the checkboxes, loving others becomes easier. I wouldn’t believe it unless I had personal experience in the area.

  10. First, “tenets” of our religion are its teachings or doctrines. “Tenants” of our religion are people who are renting without owning. No wonder there’s so much resentment of the landlord.

    I think Seth (who is generally brilliant IMO) is onto something, but I beg to differ slightly. Rather than “earning” morality, I think it’s more a question of cost avoidance. If you have never committed a major sin, it costs less to give it up because you are not giving anything up, just avoiding it. If Joseph of old had taken a tumble in the hay with Potiphar’s wife (here’s to you, Mrs Robinson), he would have had a more difficult time giving it up. This is why sin compounds sin (rather than give up Bathsheba and come clean about her illegitimate child, David resorted to murder). There was a talk recently at GC comparing sin to a sports injury. Once you’ve injured your knee, it will always be something you have to take care of and watch for future problems.

    I agree that there is a cultural smugness I saw, especially at the Y, from those who had kept themselves free from major sins (only to fall prey to pride). It’s as though being a blank canvas is superior to being one that required a re-do in one area of the canvas. Perhaps in some ways it is superior, but a checklist mentality can lead to avoiding all the major (confessable) sins while embracing all the minor ones. It also fosters a focus on what others think of you and appearances over merit.

  11. I look at the tenets of a religion as a means to an end. The end we are striving for is truly loving God and loving others. If living by these tenets is more like a badge to proudly display to others it seems to be self defeating. What good is living the Word of Wisdom if you will gladly trick another out of all the money he’s got in a technically legal but morally offensive business deal? You need to know why you’re doing what you are doing or they are just motions and to me you’re neither hot nor cold and we know what God does with that.
    Tenets are important when, as Arthur said, living them allows you to love others more easily.

  12. “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” – Albert Einstein

    I think that Einstein summed it up perfectly. In the terms of this conversation, we earn our morals when we decide that how we act towards others, and ourselves, will be based upon “sympathy, education, and social ties and needs”, and not because our parents or a god has told us how to behave and/or because we want to go to heaven or avoid hell.

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