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|Obedience in Piety and Cowardice|
Apr. 16th, 2007 at 9:18 am
After recess one day in the fourth grade, Mrs. Karns gave us an impromptu quiz on the homonymous words “there” and “their” by pointing to successive students and using one of the homonyms in a sentence. The specified student would spell the word that she had used, she would pronounce her verdict, and she would move on to the next student. Soon after she began, I recognized that Mrs. Karns was alternating each time between “their” and “there.” When my turn came, she broke her alternating pattern. She gave me a sentence that used the same word as the preceding student.
So I faced a dilemma: I could either answer Mrs. Karns according to what I knew was right, or I could answer her according to the pattern that I had observed. I am sorry to report that I gave the answer that conformed to the pattern that I had observed. Mrs. Karns declared that I was wrong, ceased her quizzing, and went on with class. I was dumbfounded. And so I resolved as a youngster that I would never make that mistake again, the mistake of obedience to something (in this case, a pattern or a rule or a custom) in spite of what I knew to be right, though, to be honest, my fidelity to this resolution has been less than perfect.
We have mixed feelings about obedience. What we approbate in one instance, we may derogate in another. And the words that we use to impute obedience seldom lack normative import, running the entire gamut from commendable to repugnant.
The obedient must, whatever their personal misgivings, submit their will and their actions to standards that originate outside of themselves. For law abiding citizens, most requirements for obedience are worthwhile. But obedient people will occasionally be forced to choose between being disobedient based on personal conviction and being obedient for some reason entirely divorced from their personal conceptions of right and wrong.
In the case of peer pressure, this is easy enough to accept. Someone may decide to smoke in spite of her belief that smoking is bad, based on other people’s insistence that (a) smoking is cool, and that (b) it is very important to be cool. Her decision to smoke amounts to an obedience to this orthodoxy of coolness.
In the case of piety, one must surrender her will and actions to religious orthodoxy. Those with an acute moral sense may sometimes discern a conflict between their personal morality and doctrinal orthodoxy.
Religious leaders customarily combat the individual’s sense of right and wrong by appealing to some ultimate authority that is, in principle, bigger than both the religion and the individual, but which is, in practice, altogether aligned with the interests of the religion or the prejudices of its leaders. This is, of course, nothing more than a cheap ploy, and it is largely responsible for the poor reputation that religion and religionists enjoy in free societies.
Such appeals to authority mostly serve to mitigate accountability, but they are easily shown lack cogency. All moral decisions begin with the individual. When folks say, “This religion is good” or even “God is good,” they have made a moral judgment all their own, and that moral judgment is anterior to its object; i.e., religion or God. Thus, for the individual, a religion is not good until the individual makes the judgment that it is good, and God has nothing to say about it. It accomplishes nothing to posit an “objective” standard for good or evil, because the individual must recognize that, too, as good, so that it poses the same problem.
John Stuart Mill is asserting such a moral judgment in his dramatic statement concerning God:
This autonomy that John Stuart Mill proclaims is what we Mormons call moral agency. By placing our moral agency front and center, Mormonism ends up being doctrinally closer to John Stuart Mill than most of Christianity. Thus, Joseph Smith proudly declared that Mormonism has no creed, and Gordon Hinckley emphasizes his role to offer counsel over his role to command.
Regretfully, our church leaders have sometimes been more heavy-handed than this. And this is where I become substantially less orthodox. When I read members of the First Presidency proclaiming that disaffected Mormons are wolves in sheep’s clothing as Joshua Clark did, when I hear about attempts to silence controversial scholarship by using institutional discipline like that used against the September 6, when I hear it said that one should not “counsel the brethren,” when I hear about apostles directing church employees not to “give voice” to members with issues quite apart from the question of whether such members are right — when I hear these sorts of things I hear something that I recognize as wrong, and I recognize it as wrong just as clearly as I recognize the difference between “their” and “there.” Liberalism teaches us that progress comes by tolerating dissent, and no illiberal God is worthy of my worship. God has given me a moral compass that tells me so. If He expected more, He should have given me a better one.
Whatever our moral convictions, we must be open to persuasion. Disagreements about moral sentiments take two forms. First, disputants might try to convince each other that they have misapprehended the facts of the matter. Second, they might seek to demonstrate that the other’s moral outlook entails moral consequences that are quite obviously wrong. It’s worth noting that neither of these scenarios calls the moral sentiments themselves into question — there are no moral “facts of the matter” — what is discussed is the basis for the moral sentiment. Even so, there is plenty to talk about among people whose moral outlooks differ.
A key impediment to such discussions within our church is their tendency to induce impiety. To engage in such discussion honestly, one must be open to the possibility that she is wrong. If conceding an argumentative point is tantamount to admitting fault with the orthodoxy in whom one has invested moral authority, then engaging in a discussion that requires the possibility of such an admission may be impious.
What I like best about the Bloggernacle is that it has made such discussions less rare and more candid. Even so, the temptation to remain obedient to orthodoxy in spite of personal conviction remains strong. But if our church is not a liberal democracy, it is also not an oligarchy. So let us do our best to resist this temptation at every turn.