Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Should We Obey "Commandments" Even If We Don't Believe They Come from God?

I believe commandments are and always have been mortal attempts to explain how those mortals feel it is best to act toward each other and God. Some are established by those accepted as prophets; others are built up over time.  At one extreme, commandments included human sacrifice; at the other extreme, commandments are denied completely. In the middle, where I and the majority of people live, commandments are our best ideas about how we should act and show our devotion to God.

I really like the core principles underlying most of the "commandments" we have in the LDS Church. I don't like a lot of the hedges we've built around some those principles, and I don't like a lot of the practical extrapolations we've created - so I don't focus much on them, even as I live many of them simply for the sake of a community I love.

In the end, for me, it all boils down to the commandments on which all others hang. If a rule helps me feel closer to God and my fellow mortals (if it helps me love God, myself and others), I "obey" it without question or hesitation. If it actually makes me feel further from God and my fellow mortals (if it doesn't help me love God, myself and others), I don't.

The stuff I mentioned in the second paragraph constitutes a third category - those "commandments" that neither draw me closer to God nor pull me further from God. Those are the ones I see as "rules" or "general guidelines" or "counsel" - rather than divine commandments. Those are the ones about which I simply don't care - and many of those are the ones I follow simply for the sake of the community. I don't do so "just to make others happy" - but I don't fight them when I know others won't understand and my fighting them will make people unhappy or cause them pain, much like Paul's admonition in the Bible to avoid eating meat in front of those who abstain from meat.

I don't need to have everything I would want in an ideal world, and I don't need to have everything I would want if I lived alone. I'm fine with making concessions in areas that I think are inconsequential - and the more confident I am in my own beliefs and charitable I become in my view of others, the more things become truly inconsequential to me.

I obey lots of rules that others consider to be commandments simply because I don't care enough to make waves and cause difficulties. Why fight the insignificant?

A Priesthood leader asks me to wear a white shirt every Sunday due to my calling? Fine; I couldn't care less, so it's not worth fighting. I wear the white shirt. 

Tea is prohibited in the Word of Wisdom - in the area where I live? Fine; I couldn't care less, so it's not worth fighting. I don't drink tea. 

A prophet asks women to wear only one pair of earrings? Fine; I couldn't care less, so it's not worth fighting. I support my wife and daughters in wearing one pair of earrings.

I'm not saying everyone needs to see the things I've listed above the way I see them, and I understand totally if some people place more importance on them than I do and, therefore, don't act as I do with regard to them.  I'm not concerned nearly as much about the specifics as I am about the principle, which I summarize as follows:

Life's too short and precious to waste time fighting about the inconsequential. I love people too much to cause them to suffer over what is important to them but not important to me. I couldn't care less, so I don't fight.


Paul said...

Papa D, I like where you end up in this post, but I'm not comfortable with how you got there. If commandments are always the creation of men (your opening sentence), what's the role of revelation? Was Christ speaking as a man when he taught there were two great commandments upon which hang all the law and the prophets?

My second bit of discomfort is a semantic one. Are white shirts and number of earrings commandments? Standards? Is there a difference? I don't have a definitive answer, but I like you certainly don't place those standards on the same level as loving God and loving my fellowman.

All that said, I'm completely on board with your final paragraph.

Papa D said...

I understand, Paul. It took me a while to reach my conclusions with regard to commandments, but, in the end, I believe each of us has to decide what we believe to be "divine commandments" and what we believe to be "human rules" - and, since I believe God speaks to us in our own language and according to our own understanding (i.e., in words we can understand using constructs that make sense to us), I'm not comforable accepting lots of things as reflecting the pure will of God - especially given our rejection of even some things that absolutely were seen as commandments within our own Mormon and Christian scriptural canon.

Thus, the standard I use to accept commandments as "divine" is what Jesus said about love - and the idea that ALL the law and the prophets hang on the two great commandments. Iow, I see love as the primary commandment and all other commandments that hang on it as "details" or "guidelines".

One other reason I use this construct is that there are plenty of examples of "exceptions" in our scriptures - where even something like murder appears to be condoned. Given those examples, I need to do one of two things: 1) take every commandment as subject to individual exception; 2) remain open to the possibility that those who justified their actions as valid exceptions were wrong - that they believed God commanded them to "disobey" the commandment, but it really was their own jusitifications. I can understand and accept either alternative, frankly, but the take-away for me is that I must retain the agency to make that call according to the dictates of my own conscience and/or as I believe God is speaking to me.

I know that is a scary construct for a lot of people, but it's how I've come to view the overall issue.

Papa D said...

"Are white shirts and number of earrings commandments? Standards? Is there a difference?"

Human comandments are what I call standards or rules. I see the above as in that category - and I will add that white shirts initially were taught as good symbolism for those blessing and passing the sacrament. It now has morphed into "the uniform of the Priesthood" in many people's eyes - and I think that is a shame, because I believe it actually WEAKENS the intended symbolism reltaive to the sacrament.

Imo, commandments are the "law". Standards and rules are the "hedges about the law". As Pres. Uchtdorf said in a recent talk, sometimes we create so many hedges that the law gets lost. For example, sometimes "programs" obscure and even stifle the law they were intended to promote.

Papa D said...

Sorry, one more example of the hedges issue:

Some members judge others based on whether or not they wear more than one pair of earrings, or if they wear a white shirt to church, or if they have a visible tattoo, or if their skirt is one inch above the knee, or any other myriad instances of not following a standard in which the person judging them believes.

We are commanded to love everyone, but sometimes our human laws inhibit our ability to do so. I'm NOT saying I don't believe in standards and guidelines and hedges. I do believe in the concept and principle of those things. I just don't see them as divine commandments.

Paul said...

Papa D, I think your discussion of commandments vs. rule / standards is right on target.

Ironic that Elder Holland, in his address in which he trumpted white shirts as properly symbolic for young men passing the sacrament also said he specifically did NOT want to prescribe a uniform of the priesthood. I remember having that discussion in a bishopric in the late 90's and my exec secretary used the "uniform" phrase. I turned to the talk and read:

"May I suggest that wherever possible a white shirt be worn by the deacons, teachers, and priests who handle the sacrament. For sacred ordinances in the Church we often use ceremonial clothing, and a white shirt could be seen as a gentle reminder of the white clothing you wore in the baptismal font and an anticipation of the white shirt you will soon wear into the temple and onto your missions.

That simple suggestion is not intended to be pharisaic or formalistic. We do not want deacons or priests in uniforms or unduly concerned about anything but the purity of their lives...."
("This Do In Remembrance of Me," October 1995)

But, sadly, you are right: we do tend to jump to the fence.

Matthew said...

Something to consider is that not all of us are called, as it were, to speak on every topic. We need each other, each other's voices and experiences and to have one person proclaiming on everything would defeat that purpose.

For me, the obsession with dress is an issue, and my non-conformity is in many ways specific to showing that, and always has been.

There are, however, other things that I am reasonably well informed about and have an opinion on, and have never felt moved to preach about. Funnily enough, it is often someone else who brings it up and says what I would have said, only better.

In any case, what I am aiming for, in a terribly roundabout and muddled way, is that erroneous insignificance is not necessarily an invitation to not speak up, but that speaking up should not rest on one voice alone.

If that makes any sense. :D

Papa D said...

Yes, Paul, the way that talk is distorted bothers me MUCH more than wearing a white shirt or not wearing a white shirt. I find it ironic that the more "traditional" or "conservative" members (and I am one in many ways, so that's not a negative description) often criticize the more "progressive" or "liberal" members for picking and choosing which rules and traditions they follow - then those same members turn around and ignore what Elder Holland actually said in that talk. I don't fight it, usually, but I will mention his actual words when I feel the discussion is treading on hurtful or damaging grounds.

Matthew, thank you for your comment. It does make sense, and I appreciate, especially, the final point for which you were aiming - and which you nailed, imo.

Richard Alger said...

"Should We Obey "Commandments" Even If We Don't Believe They Come from God?"

I love that you ask this question and your short answer is "it depends".

I agree that ALL commandments hang on the two great commandments.

You have such a practical way of approaching this subject that it can be jarring to me. You seem to allow questioning everything. Everything! And I am not that comfortable doing that. I do see the value in allowing that questioning.

It is interesting to me too that the older I get the less things I feel are really important to follow. Meaning, everything boils down to "Do I love God and my fellow man?" If not, what small step should I make today to more fully express my love and gratitude to our merciful God by serving my neighbor.