Monday, August 30, 2004


Typically when we hear a lesson in church about service we think about helping people who are having a rough time. Usually it is families who have a sick member, people who are having financial or emotional difficulties, etc. While this class of acts certainly falls in the realm of Christ like behaviour, I wonder if broadening the range of what we consider service to be doesn’t fit in with what general authorities have been saying for a while.

Normally mormons are considered pretty industrious. Nibley’s oft referenced article, Zeal Without Knowledge prods us to think that perhaps we worry more about the energy expended in the name of service than the end results achieved. It often seems like the main motivation of service is to increase our capacity to sacrifice our time and effort. While obviously good, isn’t this attitude quite different from the mormon view of industry.

Our industrial roots are easy to see. The saints were always encouraged to build, develop and create. The cities and houses built and abandoned by the saints are a testament to this. So how come service seems to be more about stop gap helping measures rather than developing and improving civic resources? Does the industrial aspect of our culture still apply to type of service we idealize?

Personally, I think it is easy to loose sight of what does and does not constitute service. For example, does maintaining a page of church resources count as service? I would imagine that there are numerous people have been more helped by these things than they would have been by a number of apple pies and casseroles.

What about secular community resources that people develop? Are these things as valuable as helping out a sick neighbor? Is making a new map of mountain biking trails, or hiking guide as important as visiting the sick? I would think probably depends more on the motivations one has going into those projects than anything else. It seems like including motivation and direction in service gets one closer to a good combination of industry and Christ like aid, however, does this still take advantage of the potential of industry?

Perhaps the best example of what I am thinking about is the parable of the talents. If we start thinking of service as being judged by what we do with our talents and abilities, I think it puts a different spin from what we normally hear. With this view, if we aren’t actually creating something lasting then we are falling short. Now, this is not to say, simple acts like shoveling a sidewalk, making a dinner, etc aren’t important. It is just that perhaps ideal service needs to something that pushes all the talents we have. Perhaps those three or four year projects maybe the type of thing we are after.

For me, maybe it means the sacrifice of getting a kayak club going in my small town. Maybe it is the years of effort it will take to make a scrambling guide for the mountains around my home. Maybe it is promoting the tourist attractions of the town. Personally, I tend to think these are the things that draw in a community. Not only that, they are not religion dependent. After all, I don’t think mormons have the market cornered on service.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Moral Relativism - 4y or 20y mortgage debate

Dave has posted his reaction to Geoffrey Biddulph’s article on moral relativism. It seems like this is one of those areas that could highlight the polarization between various levels of social conservatism.

Usually the two sides see each others views as follows. One side views relativism as bad because it is a slippery slope that leads to a loss of absolutes. If unchecked, soon nothing will be a sin. Absolutes do exist because we know, due to revelation or obvious social consequences, that some things should not be done. From what I gather, the other side seems to take the view that there are relatively few, if any things that can be judged out of context. Relying on absolutes is a sure way to replace the wisdom of God with the social constructs and biases with which we have been raised. Eventually one side cries “self-righteousness”, the other side cries “subtlety of the devil”.

So how does one avoid the problems inherit in judgment? First off, I believe the politically correct movement of the late 80’s and 90’s has made the debate on sensitive social issues awkward. Many minorities, or social liberals who fight for “marginalized” groups, tend to view any debate on these issues as a personal attack. Critiques are viewed not as attempts at getting to the truth, but as a way to push a set agenda. An abstract, idealistic view on issues make it easy to categorize others as either completely for or completely against things. Which way one lies depends on which paradigm one accepts. Differences are not so much due to minutiae as they are due to different paradigms. Thus, ironically enough, the debate gets framed in a way reminiscent of a fundamentalist religion.

Personally I don’t think moral relativism means that one looses (theoretically or not) the ability to judge. From Jesus’ New Testament comments, the idea I get is that one has to realize that in our imperfect world, everyone decision we make will have both good and bad consequences. Moral relativists would, I think, say that what is good and bad depends on situation, environment, or history. For instance, not cracking down in the import of sex slaves into the states may mean these poor girls have more of a chance of getting out of this oppression than they would have had in their home countries. Of course it certainly will have a large number of negatives associated with it as well. Relativists would just say you need to look into as many of the negatives and positives as you can before making the decision. Absolutists would say that God has already done this. Over the long haul the case has already been decided.

So what does the debate really boil down to? I think it comes down to a choice reminiscent of a 4 year versus 20 year mortgage. It is better to go with a sure thing knowing that at times you will be loosing out in the short run? Or is it better to play the specifics of a short term, hoping that you can take advantage of good situations and minimize bad ones. As mormons, with our view of eternal progression, perhaps we need to worry about more than the final outcome. After all, for us, the most important thing is what we become as a result.

Monday, August 23, 2004

The Bureau of Righteousness?

Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants makes it rather clear that we are to support our government. Often, tension surrounds this issue. People must face the question of what to do when their government pursues un-righteous policies. It seems like most church leaders sustain the idea that we are to push for what we feel is correct, but obey the directives of our government. If the government errs, then the burden of guilt lies with those who have made the decision. But does this really help us figure things out in when complications arise?

Often this line of reasoning gets criticized as being too simplistic or naive. It is hard to see the line between a push for change and an active undermining of the government. When is it okay to disagree with the government’s position? Is it limited to discussions of abstract ideals? Are minor acts of civil disobedience (like strikes) okay? Are elections the only time one can really be critical in a constructive way? Unfortunately I think it is easy to get caught up in this pharasitically prone wrangling and miss the more radical nuances in a mormon view of government.

When individuals are instructed to support different governments along different paths, it is natural to glean a rather universalist view of government. Basically one is as good as another. Every government is going to have some good and bad points. What matters is that by supporting them, they will tend to get something accomplished that will ultimately help us out. In other words a government should be supported not necessarily because of its rating on a scale of absolute righteousness, but rather because it can provide organization for its citizens. I think the oft used examples of saints in the former soviet union (particularly East Germany) come to mind.

But what are the consequences of acknowledging and even fighting to support various morally skewed governments. In other words, in what directions can a relativistic view of government lead us?

1. It may be that we put too high a value on the importance of a morally correct government. We may err when we judge the absolute morality of a society. Attempts at judging the righteousness of a society or government are pretty much useless. This happens because judgments are made from outside of the rules and conditions that spawned the government. For instance a view that democracy is the best solution for many poor African or Islamic countries may be will intentioned, but ultimately naive. One type of government is rarely more absolutely correct than another. However, can’t we argue that any time two moral choices exist, one may lead to greater good than another? If this argument holds then one government must provide its citizenry with a greater chance for good than another. If there is a greater chance to do good within one society then there is most likely also a greater chance for righteousness within that society. Of course this argument assumes that righteousness is highly correlated with freedom.

2. Another consequence of a universalist take of section 134 is a progressive view of government. Over a long enough time period most governments will tend to a create a better state for its citizens. In other words maintaining a strong government through some long or short periods of oppression and despocy will eventually lead to a better and perhaps more righteous government. In this case one would probably have a view of righteousness as that which ultimately leads to the greatest good for the most number of people.

3. Government may be functionally irrelevant to righteousness. This builds on the separation of church and state that occurred during the end of the 1800’s. This may also mean that one’s gross environment has relatively little effect on righteousness. To be extremely righteous in this lifetime may not be related to the morals within one’s society. This would mean a fairly strong relativistic view of sin. It would also mean that the only function of government is to keep us free enough to exercise some level of agency. Most any government can reach this level.

Monday, August 16, 2004

When do personal politics become a religion?

What is really the difference between religious beliefs and political beliefs? While the superficial differences are obvious, are there really any fundamental differences?

For instance, some people are beginning to view the difference between European social liberalism and traditional religion as rather artificial. To quote from Bawer’s article from the Hudson Review,

“Europeans mock American religiosity. But American religion, for all its attendant idiocies and cruelties, has never prevented Americans from acting pragmatically. Secular Western European intellectuals, however, have their own version of religion. It is a social-democratic religion that deifies international organizations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and, above all, the U.N. Not NATO, which is about waging war, and which has for that reason been the target of much European criticism in recent years; no, the NGOs are about waging peace, love, brotherhood, and solidarity, and, as such, are, for the elites of Western Europe, beyond criticism, for they embody Western Europe’s most cherished idea of itself and of the way the world works, or should work. The elites’ enthusiasm for these institutions, whether or not they are genuinely effective or even admirable, is a matter of maintaining a certain self-image and illusion of the world that is intimately tied up with their identity as social democrats; America’s unforgivable offense, as Kagan notes, is that it challenges that image and that illusion; and the degree to which the reality of America is distorted in the Western European media is a measure of the desperate need among Western European elites to preserve that self-image and illusion.”

So when do beliefs, like political preference, start reaching the level of religious conviction? Perhaps it is at the point when more and more decisions start to get based on a dogmatic view of ethics. For instance, if I truly believe that every person is fundamentally good, the more I base other decisions on this view, the more “religious” like my humanism becomes.

Of course this may perhaps get turned upside down if one starts moving away from a dogmatic view of religion. If religion is more than believing everything in the bible because it is THE BIBLE, the similarities between religion on political thought start to merge. They do so according to the degree for which they are used in value based judgments. In this case, it is more the amount of uncontroversial evidence that determines the importance, or “religious” level of an ideal.

In either case, perhaps things reach the stature of religion once we start actually believing in their infallibility. The more fallible we think religion is, the easier it is for the philosophies of experience to take its place. Of course, I guess whether or not this is a good state of affairs depends on how trusting one is of the applicability of experience. Does the error introduced in accessing God’s perfect experience through imperfect religion outweigh the error introduced in accessing the imperfect experiences of this world?