Sets, Meta-Sets and an Incomplete World

Stephen MarshMormon 14 Comments

We know we live in a fallen and imperfect world, that God has light and knowledge for us, both individually and as a church that we have yet to earn because of our failure to apply what we already know with diligence.

We know that the outward form of the gospel varies dramatically by time, era and place (seen any Levites recently?  Think Abraham relied on them?  Alma?)  Yet we often do not think about how that might interact with us today.  But what does that really mean?

The gospel in action in any era appears to be a sub-set of the meta-set that is the gospel.  We acknowledge the difference between the culture (Mormon) and the Church (LDS).  It is easy, sometimes, to miss the gap between the Church and the Gospel (Christ) because the current Church is what God has given our generation to convey the Gospel.

So, in one generation there is no pork, no catfish and no shrimp on the dinner menu.  In another generation everyone is circumcised.  In one generation, only Levites hold the priesthood.  In another, the kings select who is to be a priest. Sometimes the gospel of Christ goes only to the house of Israel, at other times to all nations.

Often there are multiple factors at play at once.  Sometimes a change only waits until we ask.  At other times a change is thrust upon us.  At other times, God says “not yet” and may even say “it will happen, but you need to quit asking, your time is not the time.”

I rarely see anyone discussing why they think we have the sub-set of the gospel we have, what it would take to change, and why we should be obeying now, with faith our slice of the whole. We accept that when Israel split into the Northern and Southern kingdoms that Jeroboam sinned against God by passing the priesthood outside the tribe of Levi and by setting up his own alters.  We nod at the story of Saul, who led the sacrifice himself, not waiting for Samuel, and the lecture he got about how obedience is better than the fat of rams.

But, do we accept, that perhaps, we need to live within our restrictions, no matter how good of a reason we think we have to insist otherwise? Do we seek out God for knowledge, patience and faith?  Where are the Cornelius’ of our generation, to the extent that change is appropriate and timely?  Are we Peter, Paul, Cornelius or are we Jeroboam?
Some good examples.

  • Wine in the Bible is generally a grape beer, about 2% to 3% alcohol, cut 4-1 with water so that the finished product is about 20% wine with an alcohol content of .4% to .6% — similar to home brewed root beer.  It was used to make water safer to drink and for nutrition.  Even so, there is a frission or friction in the older scriptures about it (cf. Proverbs 20:1; Isaiah 5:11).
  • Who has the priesthood, who prophesies?  2 Kings 22:14; Exodus 15:20; Judges 4:4; Alma 32:23; Nehemiah 6:14.
  • Polygamy, need I say more?  Jacob 2:30.

There are many other examples, things done in one time and place, conduct guidelines, mores, laws, privileges and rules. All seem to be schoolmasters to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).

So, what of our set have you decided to ignore?  If you had been with Moses, what would you have thought to opt out of?  (Exodus 22:22; 23:2?).  What makes our time, our obedience, different from what went before?  Why?  How much of our set of the gospel for our age should we leave for others to abide and not ourselves?  Why?

Comments 14

  1. Stephen-
    I really liked this post. Really made me think. I think however, the biggest problem is the assumption that we know what the sets of the Gospel are or that our version of the subset is even an actual subset of the Gospel. How do we know our particular set doesn’t contain stuff from the set of false claims/rules? In fact, this is the crux of the religious problem. I think if any of us knew, directly from God, what we should do, we would be obedient. But most of us don’t have that luxury. We have a lot of people telling us what God wants us to do. This is further compounded heavily by culture, childhood, etc.

    So, what of our set have you decided to ignore?

    My thought above leads me to dislike this question. It makes it seem like those who choose not to obey the prophet of their tribe have just willfully ignored the Gospel. I think this is how many in the church view those who choose the “middle of the road” as it were. They are seen as ignoring what they know to be true, as if they are simply prideful.

    So basically, I have no idea how to answer the question. I clearly ignore that which I don’t think is actually a subset of the Gospel, and I obey the parts I do think are subsets of the Gospel. I do, however, find that when I read the New Testament, and study Christ’s teachings, I obey that subset of the Gospel as best I can.

  2. Post

    Ah, you’ve answered the “why” part of the question well.

    You’ve also answered the implied issue of Culture /= Church /= Gospel.

    That is a great comment jmb275

  3. I also like the post. I often wonder how different the Church would be if, for example it were based in Scandanavia or some other liberal place. I have been in meetings and discussions with American memebers who seem to believe their uber conservative political views are part of the Church.

    I have had a bishop attempt to excommunicate me for Apostacy because I had more liberal political views than he did. At this time we were being persecuted by the Church and resorted to the Gospel, and the Temple.

    Refer to the post on “What makes people good” I believe we are over over regulated, and rather than obedience we should be seeking for love and joy.

    I don’t think it’s about ignoring particular rules more about choosing to do those things which will benifit yourself and those around you. Exercising your agency for your good.

  4. Stephen, this is a thoughtful way of looking at things. I’m trying to figure out exactly how the “subset” metaphor works here.

    jmb makes a good point, and I think that you would agree that the dispensation heads, or leaders of the subsets are simply interpreting “the Gospel” the best they can, and often colored by the lenses through which they see life. So the subsets are incomplete and often flawed. Now, does this mean they’re not really subsets, but merely intersecting with the metaset “Gospel Truth?” Or does “Gospel Truth” include an element something like “restrictions that don’t make sense, that people just have to learn to accept on faith?”

    It seems to me that two ways of responding this are:
    1. You can strive to develop a personal moral code and determine which things in your subset are actually outside of “Gospel Truth” — merely a reflection of human imperfection in understanding God’s will. You can ignore these outside things, or even actively fight against them.
    2. You can obey these things as a principle of faith, feeling that the exercise of submission is the important principle here.

    Do you think that both styles can be “schoolmasters” to bring us to Christ or develop Christ-like attributes? I do. Unfortunately, they are also mutually exclusive. Once again, my ability to see the value in different paradigms has landed me in hot water.

  5. Stephen, thanks for the post. Building on #4, BiV, I was thinking as I read the post that the differnces between ages is part of the reason we have prophets to guide of. Of course if we assume that a prophet rarely speaks by inspiration, then we are left to question everything he says and develop our own code.

    But if we accept that most of the time he speaks by inspiration, then our startpoint is to try to do what he teaches us to do. In so doing, will we adopt some culture along with our gospel living? Perhaps. But to me it seems a safer alternative than questioning everything from the beginning.

    I also like something else you wrote in your post: “At other times, God says ‘not yet’ and may even say ‘it will happen, but you need to quit asking, your time is not the time.'” I would like to do better at recognizing that particular answer for myself. I think it could bring peace sometimes.

  6. Oops — in my first paragraph, it should read, “the differences between ages is part of the reason we have prophets to guide us.” My fingers were faster than my head this morning…

  7. I think this post hits exactly on the biggest issue facing the Church today. It is obvious from various official and unofficial sources that the work is slowing down. Missionary work is slowing down. The activity rate is low. The activity rate for the rising generation (ie. young single adults) is very low.

    I think a lot of this has to do with conflation of church leader opinion / policies / culture with the gospel. Our message is beautiful. Christ lives. The priesthood exists. Families can be together. We can progress now and in the eternities. So the core of the message is the same as it’s been for centuries with some additional insights we have to offer.

    The things that have built up around the beautiful core of the gospel is turning a lot of people off, however. Eternally, does it really matter if you have a tattoo or how many earrings you have or if you’re Republican or if you wear a white shirt to church or if you drink the same glass of wine that Christ drank or many, many other things that are not eternal principles. They are only issues because we make them issues. Whenever someone talks about someone not following these, it is never that the principle is bad, it’s just that we’re not “following the prophet”. I think that the Church is going to continue to have difficulties really growing and becoming a true international church until it jettisons these western United States older generational based preferences and refocus on the core of the gospel as an institution. And there is precedence for this. Many prior things taught by prophets as “inspired” are looked at now as their own personal opinions, although at the time they were taken as fairly profound doctrinal issues.

    For me personally, I tend to incorporate thinking from the kalama sutta – given nearly 2500 years ago. The Buddha was asked a question by some people who basically asked the same question as the OP – Given all of these teachings, how do we know which ones we should really follow? Which are truth and which are someone’s opinion? His reply (in one translation):

    “Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.”

    By the same token, “When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”

    It is somewhat like Paul’s injunction: prove all things, hold fast that which is true…

  8. Paul, I wouldn’t say prophets “RARELY speak by inspiration,” but wouldn’t this approach help answer problems such as why certain prophets said unequivocally that one could not gain exaltation without living the principle of plural marriage? Or that blacks would never hold the priesthood? Or that circumcision was an everlasting covenant?

  9. BiV, I get your meaning, and I agree. In hindsight, it is probably easier to understand the cultural elements of OT prophets’ teachings.

    I do not take the view, however, that we should question everything as soon as we hear it (I don’t know that you are recommending that either), but rather that we assume positive intent when we receive direction today. And, in fact, we may determine that some of the direction we’re given is cultural (tatoos, for instance, as cited by Mike S), but we may still agree to accept the guidance.

    I guess, BiV, I’m just saying that I prefer your option #2 in your comment (#4) above.
    (BTW, my recollection is that the only guidance is that we counsel youth not to get tatoos, and we don’t call missionaries with visible tatoos. The first is common sense: I know too many adults who wish they had not gotten those tatoos as youth. And the church can dictate whatever look they want to for missionaries.)

  10. I guess we get to things like whether pork, or circumcision or day of the week for the Sabbath (Thursday in Saudi Arabia, of course) — are they things that should have mattered to us in the time that they were given as important?

    I would note that our recent CLE speaker, somewhat maligned in a different thread, expressed exasperation at people who can not accept Democrats as good members. That seems to be a solid thread out of people I meet from Salt Lake. Almost enough to make me a democrat 😉

    The entire West appears to be going post-Christian in a serious way. It is interesting to observe.

    Anyway, I find the entire area something well worth thinking about when I see something I don’t understand. Is it a commandment given to create a cultural boundary (which had some value to keeping the Jews as monotheists)? Something like “everyone drives on the right side of the road.” Is it a cultural accretion (e.g. everyone should be republicans) (or, like Huebner’s encounter where the branch president believed in the Nazi’s)? Is it something with significance we are missing (e.g. the lectures in the 40s given to men in the Church about how women were equal to them and not to be treated as property or less than men — what is the equivalent for our day)?

    I have to get my post done on things that are true, vital, important and not always helpful.

  11. Post

    I’ve been thinking a great deal about cultural markers. Right now, when I visit Utah, the vast majority of the high priests in the groups I end up in have beards. At home, it is a small number. I’m in a place where my boss and my wife both like beards (short ones), so I generally have one, though I shave it off for trials (since I prefer to be without a beard). Anyway, how important is it to engage in cultural markers, whether it be blue threads in the hem, wearing garments or otherwise?

  12. Stephen, Re 10, and 11
    Interesting observations. I grew up in Utah, and went to BYU, and thereby was oblivious to much of the culture there. When I got my first real job in Northern California, I spent a lot of time going through what I consider to be my faith crisis. In reality, as I reflect upon it from my vantage point now, it feels more like a cultural shedding. In other words, most of what I rejected was the Utah Mormon culture, not so much “pure Mormonism.” Even now, living in the eastern U.S., I find the culture in Utah, as I remember it, most distasteful. While it’s clear to me our religion played a role in that, I don’t believe it was necessarily a correct interpretation of our religion that led to that culture.

    Going back to the post, our cultural markers likely serve many purposes. In a worldwide church that culture will be different. I suppose it is difficult to separate the subset of the Gospel from the cultural markers.

  13. Stephen re 10 and 11,

    Are you saying the members you meet in Utah are moving to be more liberal in their views (because they have beards) or more conservative? I was in Southern California during tha election/ prop8 period and was amazed at how conservative the members were. I had the perception California would be more liberal than Utah.

    I have spoken to conservatives here (in Aus) and mostly their conservatism is on a lesser scale to California. They find it offensive that members give religious significance to their political views ie. “universal healthcare, and the minimum wage, are of the devil. Both these are accepted as the norm here, but we can have a debate about the things we disagree on because we have not made our politics part of our religion. The people I saw in California had, so if you questioned their political views you were an advocate for the devil.

    This applies to many areas, for example very few people in Aus believes you can treat ,or catch, homosexuality it is accepted as not having been chosen but created. (by god?)

    I can’t imagine the members in California becoming more liberal, perhaps the next generation (i’m already over the “rising” generation)? There didn’t seem any flexibility.

    I have noticed a more conservative move since the mid 80s when generally American Area Presidencies came in.

    Many members here do still equate the gospel with conservative political views, just not as extreme. I wonder whether the conservative thing carries over in foreign language areas. I have a nephew who had a mission president in France who had been a comunist and was still pretty socialist in his views. How is south America?

  14. Some of the people are getting more liberal, some are not. The problem is that many tend to associate Democrats with abortion, teaching children that they ought to be engaged in underage sex (read the Atlantic article Dan Quayle Was Right for more) and similar social movements that are not really fair to tag them with. I understand the social forces involved (youth and attack from outside parties), but there are counter-forces as well.

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