One of the tenants of Reform Mormon is that God does not demand obedience. I resisted this concept when I first heard it; it seemed to undermine the concept that some ethics are universal. But after more than a year of reflecting on this concept in light of the Mormon Paradigm, I began to see that this wasn’t the case at all. Because humans share a common nature, there will always be some concepts of right and wrong that are universal.
A lot is said these days (especially in politics) about values, and much is said in traditional religion regarding morality.
Morality comes from the same root word as “mores,” which means “customs” or “traditions.” Usually concepts of good and evil, right and wrong are passed on through traditions and customs; to break with traditions is often regarded as wrong and immoral--even though reason and reality may seem to indicate otherwise.
For instance, in the South, racial segregation was once seen as moral, as good. Though the racism that served as the philosophic foundation for such practices could in no way be reconciled with the philosophic basis of Americanism (the conviction that all human beings are by nature equal), millions of Americans believed that “the mingling of the races” was immoral. The mores of a particular region of the country--the traditions of that region--were mistaken for ethics.
Likewise within LDS Mormonism, the doctrinal prohibition against “anyone with one drop of Negro blood” being ordained to the Priesthood continued until 1978 and was defended as a “righteous” and “true” doctrine, even though it was the product of a pro-slavery, pre-Civil War theology that had been embraced by many American in the 1850’s--and even though most LDS Mormons were unable to reconcile this doctrine with other Mormon doctrines regarding the individual, free agency and a just, loving God. Even today--nearly 30 years after the change in LDS Church doctrine and practice--many LDS Mormons, because they insist on upholding the infallibility of the Church and its leaders, have to engage in compartmentalized thinking and context-dropping rational gymnastics in order to justify the past racism of their church. This type of thing is not peculiar to Latter-day Saint, but can be found wherever concepts of right and wrong are wed to social and cultural mores--particularly religious societies and cultures.
The tendency is to become comfortable with the traditions and mores of the culture into which one is born and in which one is reared. When these traditions are challenged, the discomfort and, to some degree, the fear that one might feels can be seen as righteous indignation; we often assume that righteousness itself is being challenged, and that those challenging the status quo are unethical.
With the Enlightenment, the natural rights and liberty of the individual became the basis for not only what was legal, but also what was ethical. Enlightenment philosophers (among whom were many of the US Founding Fathers) also considered themselves moral philosophers; they were trying to establish a rational approach to ethics--o concepts of right and wrong--that was based firmly upon the facts regarding the natural world.
With the concept of the natural rights of the individual as the basis for ethics, the concept of an ethical code based on commandments, on Divine will, on traditions, or one the consensus of the majority began to unravel. Whereas for thousands of years a thing was wrong simply because “God said so,” now it might be permissible if “no one was being hurt,” if “no one’s rights were being violated.” If an individual’s actions were not hurting and endangering anyone else, then that individual should be left alone to pursue their values--even if those values flew in the face of tradition or the faith-based convictions of others. This idea became the basis of not only religious freedom, but individual liberty itself; it became the basis for determining what was ethical and what was unethical.
In short, values triumphed over morality.
My commitment to Mormonism was cemented when I realized that Joseph Smith’s most radical and “Un-Christian” doctrines and speculations were actually attempts to rethink traditional notions of God and Divinity in light of modern secular philosophy. In short, it seemed to me that Joseph was doing with theology what Enlightenment philosophers had done with ethics--that is, bring it in harmony with the facts regarding human nature and the world in which humanity exists; to bring religious notions in harmony with rational thought, so that knowledge could triumph over blind faith and superstition. (In many of his discourses during the last year of his life, Joseph Smith spoke out against “superstitions”--which reveals a lot about his own personal progression since he had begun his career as a village Seer and peep-stone magician. Where as in his youth, he indulged in superstition, by middle-age, he had come to see his mission as “putting down superstition.”)
What follows is an extract from the 1986 book “The Trial of Faith: Discussions Concerning Mormonism & Neo-Mormonism” by William Call. The subject is that of values and free agency. Call’s views reflect many of my own as a Reform Mormon. In his brief introduction on his book’s title page, the author writes that “given the pluralistic doctrines of its prophet-founder, Joseph Smith, the only was to perpetuate the true, revolutionary significance of Mormonism is through the ideological triumph of man over God.”
WHO DETERMINES VALUES?
“What do we mean by the word value?…Who determines what is to be valued?….
“What we like and dislike, and what we think is important and don’t think important, is value. Our values are those things, or ideas and concepts, that we think are important or significant to us. Some people value one thing, and some value other things….
“Now let’s think about whose prerogative it is to decide what we should value. We, the Mormons, say that in the beginning man was not created but that he has always existed. [See“ The Doctrine & Covenants” Section 93]…
“Since God did not create and cannot create man, because natural things exist without having been created by God, I now ask you a very important question. Is God omnipotent? Or to reword the question, does God have all power? Well, if natural things exist independently of God, and if the spirit, mind or intelligence of man exists independently of God, then can God be all-powerful? Is there any power that exists that God does not control? The answer to that question is yes; we see that natural things have power that God does not control; we also see that man exists without God causing him to exist and that, therefore, there are sources of power that exist in the universe that are independent of God’s power.
“Now let’s ask another question: is God the supreme intelligence? Joseph Smith had something to say about that. In the Book of Abraham he said, “If two things exist and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them.” (Abraham 3:16) And in another place he said:
‘…Intelligences exist one above another so that there is no end to them.’ (Discourse concerning the plurality of Gods.)
….So is God the supreme intelligence? Is he the wisest of all? According to the Prophet Joseph, he is not necessarily the wisest or the supreme intelligence….Could there be a higher God than our God? “God himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like until one of our ourselves--that is the great secret!” (The King Follett Discourse.) So the Prophet says.
“….Hence, finally, the answer to our previous question concerning who determines what men should value. Because God is not all-powerful, and because he is not necessarily the supreme intelligence, he cannot determine what we should value. Instead, because man exists independently of God, man must determine for himself would he should value….
“…finally we get to the subject of free agency. Because we have discovered that, according to Mormon doctrine, men must determine value for themselves, it is possible for us to think of the concept of free agency in a way we have not thought of it before. Free agency, as we normally think of it, is the choice between right and wrong. Now I am going to explain why that is not the true definition of free agency. First, let me say that the simultaneous existence of an omnipotent God and free agency is impossible…I’m going to tell you why. Free agency is not simply the choice between right and wrong, because the principle itself assumes that what is right and what is wrong has not already been determined. Further, as we have seen, because God is not omnipotent he cannot determine what men should value. Therefore, no individual intelligence, not even God, can tell us what is right and what is wrong. If God were to dictate to us what is right and wrong, there could be no choice but to accept what he says or to suffer the consequences. And, indeed, if he were omnipotent, he, of necessity, would have to determine what should be valued; otherwise, he would not be omnipotent….
“…my Brothers and Sisters, I am here today to tell you that the mere choice between right and wrong, when right and wrong has already been determined, is not what free agency is. Free agency is, instead, the ability of the individual to determine for himself what his values are….Free agency is inherent in the individual. It is inherent in the fact that man was not created but that, instead, has always existed. God is not all-powerful. He did not create nature, and he did not create man, and therefore, he cannot control them. Free agency is not given, but is inherent, and consequently, it cannot be taken away. Neither God nor anyone else has that power.
“The [LDS] Church is a very unique church. It alone of all the churches proclaims the true principles upon which the concept of free agency is founded. There is not another church that does this. And why is this so? Because of all the churches only the [LDS] Church declares that the individual is a divine, self-existing being. Only to the Mormon is the individual co-equal with God, and consequently, only to the Mormon are man’s values respected just as much as God’s values.
“Now the difficulty is that the General Authorities of the [LDS] Church do not make this basic doctrine clear. They leave the question of God’s omnipotence ambiguously unanswered. They do that because if Mormonism is to retain the basis for its doctrine of free agency, it must declare that God in not omnipotent. However, if [the LDS Church] is to retain its doctrines concerning the commandments of God, of priesthood authority and of centralized ecclesiastical power, it must teach that God is omnipotent. Not wanting to give up either of these basic characteristics of [LDS] Mormonism, the leaders of the [LDS] Church, including the Prophet himself, keep quiet on the subject. However, because the finite nature of God is an essential teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and because the [LDS] Church regards his teachings as providential, then it must follow that no individual on earth, or for that matter in heaven, has the power or the right to determine for another what is best for him. So it doesn’t matter whether it is a member of the First Presidency of the [LDS] Church, the Quorum of the Twelve, the First Quorum of the Seventy, or the stake president, the bishop, the quorum leader of even a father in the home--none of these has the right to determine for another what course he should take. But when [Church or Priesthood authorities] regard their word as anything other than just advice, that is, when they regard their word as coming from an omnipotent God and, therefore, as binding in any way on another individual, they are clearly overstepping their bounds.
“Exaltation is nothing more than the individual achieving what is best for him. Consequently, the individual is not first accountable to God or to the Church but is first accountable to himself. No one other than himself can determine what is best for him, and for this reason, he alone is responsible for his actions and his decisions. With free agency comes accountability, and with accountability comes responsibility.
“Thus, we see that despite some basic contradictions there is a basis for the greatness of Mormon doctrine. Joseph Smith, the Prophet, happened to be a very great man. He understood the principle of free agency very well, and he happened to have the courage to proclaim the doctrines associated with that principle, even under the most adverse of circumstances. He was willing to put his life in the line to say what he realized was of ultimate value for mankind. Unfortunately we as members of the [LDS] Church do not often think about these things, and very few of us really understand them. We go to church year after year and say the same things over and over, and we really do not understand the basis of what the Church is all about….My hope is that we might understand it sufficiently that it will affect our lives in a positive way.”
( William Call, “The Trial of Faith: Discussion Concerning Mormonism & Neo-Mormonism.” 1986, pp.204--208)
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