Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Double-Minded Man

Dallin H. Oaks. "Truth and Tolerance." CES Fireside.  20 September 2011.

I listened to this talk (for fun), and I found it frustrating.  The first half of the talk was a paean to absolute truth.  Oaks said that LDS believe in absolute truth, asserted that moral relativism is bad, and strongly implied that atheists are morally insensitive (since they lack the connection to God that provides access to absolute truth, i.e. they are necessarily moral relativists).  According to Oaks, we Saints have a responsibility to stick up for the absolute truth, no matter what, especially since we live in a society of moral weaklings who don't understand that tattoos and gayness are really serious business (i.e. damnable, at least in some sense of the word). 

The second half of the talk seemed like a retreat from this uncompromising position: apparently, God doesn't want us to be too insistent in our (necessary) crusade for absolute truth.  Somehow, some kind of tolerance is still a virtue for believers, even though they aren't allowed to be really happy with anything less than absolute truth.  According to Oaks, we are supposed to forgive sinners, saving the adulteress from stoning with Jesus (John 7:53-8:11), but then admonishing her sternly never to do it again (or what? would Jesus have thrown her into outer darkness for a relapse? would he at least have taken her to court? would stoning have been back on the table? Oaks does not say).  The final part of the talk was a defense of Proposition 8 (denying marriage to homosexuals), which Oaks construes as a bid for religious freedom.  I confess I am not buying this (or most of his talk, really).  Let me see if I can explain why.

It is easy to denounce moral relativism (which comes from godless heathen) and exalt absolute truth (which comes from God) when you deal purely in words.  But what is moral relativism in action?  What is absolute truth in action?  What do these words look like in real life?  As an adolescent, I believed in absolute truth the way Oaks does.  I don't believe in it any more (having fallen from grace, as Oaks would see it).  But much of my behavior as a moral being has not materially changed.  (I don't have tattoos, or drink, or smoke, or even commit adultery.  I could pass the moral worthiness portion of a temple recommend interview, with the exception that I don't always wear the one true brand of underwear.)  So what changed?  Well, I started looking carefully at how humans make (and imagine) moral decisions, and I discovered something funny: in practice, we are all moral relativists (both atheists and religious, including Oaks!).  Let me explain.  Better yet, I will tell a story from the Book of Mormon.

Remember how Nephi got the brass plates?  He went to Laban (the guy with the plates), told him the absolute truth that almighty God wanted those plates in his hands right away, and Laban said, "Okay!"  Not really.  Instead, after asking for the plates nicely and getting violently rebuffed, Nephi came across Laban drunk in an alley, and God told him to do something he really didn't want to do (1 Nephi 4:10-18):
And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him. And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold, the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he had also taken away our property.  And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him ... Therefore, I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.
Why was righteous Nephi hesitant to obey an order from God (who gives out absolute truth, remember)?  Maybe it has something to do with this other command from God: "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13; Mosiah 13:21).  Maybe Nephi was confused by his schizophrenic God (Don't kill!  Kill!).  In any event, the text shows him reasoning things out contextually (like anyone would): Given that I have already struck out being nice, and that this guy is a really dangerous jerk, maybe it is morally acceptable to kill him after all.  Take that, absolute truth!

Nor is Nephi the only Mormon hero forced to become a moral relativist in light of God's schizophrenia.  His brother Jacob suffers the same fate.  First God tells Jacob that the Nephites must be monogamous: "For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife" (Jacob 2:27); but then he throws in a caveat to this absolute truth: "For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise, they shall hearken unto these things" (Jacob 2:30).  God's absolute truth so far: Don't kill anyone (unless I tell you to) or marry more than one wife (unless I tell you to).  What's this?  Does God believe in absolute truth or not?  Why can't he provide a simple rule that covers all cases, absolutely?  (That would be absolute truth, right?)  The more you read the scriptures, the worse this problem gets.  A few examples:

(1) Absolute truth about polygamy: "Behold David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord" (Jacob 2:24). "Verily thus saith the Lord unto you, my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David, and Solomon, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines ... David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me" (D&C 132:1, 38).  God's absolute truth: You can marry anyone you please as long as I say so, but do be aware that my mind changes from time to time.  Today's abomination is tomorrow's principle and doctrine (the new and everlasting covenant of marriage!). 

(2) Absolute truth about adultery: "If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die" (Deuteronomy 22:22); "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone" (John 8:7).  God's absolute truth: Kill adulterers, until I tell you not to.

(3) Absolute truth about genocide: "When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee ... thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them nor shew mercy unto them" (Deuteronomy 7:1-2); "Thus saith the Lord of hosts ... go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (1 Samuel 15:2-3); "And when [Jesus'] disciples James and John saw [that the Samaritan village would not offer Jesus hospitality], they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:54-55).  God's absolute truth: Kill your enemies mercilessly (including their women, children, and domestic animals), until I tell you not to (finally!).  I guess the real question is what God thought about the Holocaust or Rwanda.  Was he for or against genocide in either case?  How do we know?  It would be so much easier if he could just tell us something consistent, instead of talking out of both sides of his mouth.  (Maybe the Holocaust was a criminal mistake, but Rwanda was just a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah getting its just come-uppance?  Do we even want to wonder about the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the World Trade Center attacks here?)

(4) Absolute truth about what we should eat: "Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among beasts, that shall ye eat. Nevertheless ye shall not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you; and the swine, though he divide the hoof, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean unto you. Of their flesh ye shall not eat, and their carcase ye shall not touch; they are unclean unto you" (Leviticus 11:3-8); "And [the apostle Peter] became very hungry ... and saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice spake to him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou unclean" (Acts 10:10-15).  God's absolute truth: Don't eat pigs!  Eat pigs!

(5) Absolute truth about keeping the Sabbath: "The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work" (Exodus 20:10); "And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day ... And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp" (Numbers 15:32-35); "Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold thy disciples do that which is not lawful ... But he said unto them ... the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:1-8); "And [Jesus] said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27); "And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them" (Acts 20:7).  God's absolute truth: The sabbath is the seventh day of the week.  No wait, it is the first (for some of you, anyway). If you even pick up sticks on that day, then you die.  No wait, you can do good things on the sabbath: the sabbath was made to help you, not to kill you.  Please make up your mind, God, preferably before somebody decides to kill me for picking up sticks on the wrong day!

We could string this list out to absurd lengths (what clothes does God like? what business is he in? what would he do with four billion dollars?), but you get the picture: on just about any ordinary moral dilemma, the Judeo-Christian god (like any god with more than one human follower) is all over the map.  He stands for one thing today (polygamy! genocide!) and another tomorrow (monogamy! peace!).  In other words, he is a moral relativist!  But wait a minute.  There is one thing about which God does not admit any relativity, ever.  The single genuine absolute truth of God is a pragmatic principle well known to ruthless dictators of every ideology: You must always do what I say, no matter what.  And the only really moral answer to this principle is what it has always been: "Bullcrap!"  Really moral people don't hand their agency over to someone else carte blanche (unless they are infants or very small children).  They do not obey authority with no good reason.  They make (and are answerable for) their own decisions.  And, like Nephi above, they have to sort out those decisions in context: sometimes it may be right to kill another person (e.g. when your life is in serious jeopardy); other times, not so much.  There is no absolute truth here, folks, just contextual truth (what Oaks calls moral relativism).  I wish life wasn't so hard.  I wish it were as simple as memorizing some absolute truths or submitting to an all-wise, benevolent dictator, and that these practices would get us out of every moral dilemma unscathed, but that wish is a hopeless fantasy.  No one, not even Oaks, really lives that way.  To the extent that people pretend to, they are just ignoring their personal responsibility for the decisions they make, passing the buck to God (who speaks to them in the voice of another human or the personal revelation of their own moral intuition).

This is the rock upon which Oaks' talk really founders, for me.  The only non-ridiculous absolute truth he can offer as coming from God is Do as I say, and don't ask why: I speak for God, who is above giving reasons to mere mortals.  What about all of God's other spokespersons?  Some talk about the virtues of tolerance (like the Muslim cleric Oaks quotes at one point).  Others talk about its dangers (like Oaks).  Some talk about the virtues of truth (like me).  Others talk about the dangers of truth that is not useful (e.g. Boyd K. Packer, whom Oaks praises as a champion of truth: the irony kills me, until I remember what kind of truth Packer is standing for).  The fact of the matter is that truth and tolerance are meaningless without context.  The truth that you had oatmeal for breakfast this morning rather than pancakes does not interest me too much.  The truth that Brigham Young takes at least some of the blame for causing the Mountain Meadows Massacre does.  Same thing with tolerance.  I have no problem tolerating fires in the fireplace, but if you throw me into a furnace while it's hot, my tolerance suddenly shrinks.  What can I say?  God made me a moral relativist?  (That doesn't guarantee he won't cut me off mercilessly at some later point, does it, since he is historically a two-faced waffler?  Man, what a post-modern, avante-garde punk God is.  We already know that he swears, and that he has body piercings, at least since Golgotha.  What if he wears tattoos?)

Contrary to what Oaks says, atheists are not necessarily morally insensitive, any more than Mormons are.  All of us are moral beings with ideas about what kinds of behavior are right in certain contexts.  Some of our ideas are vindicated by experience.  Others are not.  There is no easy cheat-sheet out there somewhere with all the harmless behaviors on one side and all the harmful ones on the other.  If many of us are much more tolerant of homosexuals than of serial killers, maybe it is because we find that, in our experience (which may or may not contradict an idea we had at some point), homosexuals are much less dangerous (particularly when we treat them with human dignity, respecting the desire that many of them have to form lasting pair-bonds and rear families).  If many of us don't get angry or even upset when Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, or atheists break the Sabbath (or pick up sticks), maybe it is because we find that, in our experience, breaking the Sabbath is a perfectly innocuous thing (like picking up sticks, as long as the sticks are not intended for beating out the brains of unbelievers).  If your experience is different, then share it, by all means, but don't bring in God as some kind of sanctimonious bully on your side (since, as we have seen, he seems to be on all sides of every question: what makes you so sure he agrees with you all the time?).  My sense is that if Oaks could deal with the first part of his talk better (the claim that LDS Mormons recognize and defend God's absolute truth), then the second part would make more sense (as an explanation of what we Mormons stand for in practical terms, i.e. when we contribute our two cents on what laws should govern the larger collective morality).


  1. Shucks! I forgot to incorporate the greatest story about schizophrenic God in the entire Bible: Abraham and Isaac.

    God: Kill your son!
    Abraham: All right, if you say so.
    God: Just kidding!

    This is as bad as anything else in the scriptures (even worse than the story of Nephi and Laban, since Nephi did have at least some cause). Abraham models precisely the kind of idiotic obedience that leads to terrible crimes in the name of God, crimes that some of Abraham's ideological descendants in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam carry on committing up to the present day.

  2. Wow. You spelled this out in a way that made those terms really clear for me. Your point about the words needing to be put into action to make them clear was awesome. Thanks for putting so much time and thought into this. really clarified my thinking.

  3. Alright Hermes, after your well crafted comment on a post of mine I am now a fan (stalker?). This is a great post and i'm jealous of your ability to write so eloquently and clearly. internet high five!

  4. Thanks, Head of Shiz.