August 27, 2008

"Train up a child, and away it goes, as it pleases."

Brigham Young
April 20, 1856


Mormons view life as a probation where children of God learn and grow to become like their Father. Life is like a school in this view, but this school can seem almost too repetitious at times. One might find themselves asking in a moment of weakness "haven't I already learned this principle enough?"1 Brigham Young noted the same thing:

Sometimes I think it quite strange that the children of men are so constituted as to need to be taught one lesson all the time, and again it is not so marvelous to me, when I reflect upon and understand their organization, and the designed effect thereupon of this state of probation. Men are organized to be independent in their sphere, are organized for an independent being, yet they have to- as soldiers term it- run the gauntlet all the time. They are organized to be just as independent as any being in eternity, but that independency, in order for them to occupy a position in the sphere of an independent being having control over all things, must be proved and tried while in this state of existence, must be operated upon by the good and the evil.
In the LDS view, agency is fundamental to the purpose of life; the theater of mortality where we play an active role. It isn't a puppet show, it's a living production done with some improvisation. Brigham compared our situation to our concept of family. God as a loving parent watching over often foolish children with the freedom to make choices. With that in mind, it shouldn't be surprising that lessons bear repeating:
It is not so strange to me that the people should continually need talking to, that they should continually need instructing, when I take this view of the matter.
Mothers when bringing up their children, if they will observe and reflect, can see and understand the feelings of the whole human family. The mother says to the child, “Don't do that; you must not handle those things;” but the little child thinks itself just as capable of handling a teacup, or a tumbler, as are father and mother. The little girl takes up a broom to sweep the hearth, but if mother is not watching her she may let the broom take fire and set it by the bed, and thereby the bed and then the building be set in a blaze. In the actions of their children parents can detect the course of all, from the king upon his throne to the humblest peasant, they are all performing their part on the theater of the earth.
All participants have the principle of agency within them; to act and not only be acted upon. This freedom can be abused or forfeited, it can be increased and used to benefit others. Latter-day Saints have a unique approach to "original sin" which avoids viewing humankind as culpable for the sin of one individual (Adam) thus being born into the world as utterly depraved. LDS scripture emphasizes the spirit of man as a child of God, the mortal physical body as an addition thereto. Citing D&C 93:38-39 Blake Ostler described the LDS view of the nature of man:
The soul is neither merely a spirit nor merely a body, but rather a synthesis that presents a new type of reality. However, the soul is subject to the challenge of experiencing reality through the body and taming and controlling the passions of the mortal body. A new "nature" arises out of the united spirit/body complex as persons grow- the "natural man." That is, with the challenges that arise from the sensuous experiences of the body and the traditions and behavioral patterns that already exist n the world...original sin conceives in the human heart as persons grow from childhood young adulthood [see Moses 6:54-55].2
In the LDS view Everyone has weaknesses they need to overcome. Each person can become "enslaved" by sin "to the extent we perpetuate dysfunctional behaviors, continue cycles of abuse and unloving conduct, and fail to change the ways we act [creating] pain."3 Brigham describes and prescribes a practical method:
People may be advanced far in life, and yet be surrounded by weaknesses comparatively like those of children. The man or woman of eighty, sixty, forty, twenty, or the child of two or five years of age, have something ahead of them to attain to, and which they are striving to accomplish. There is a principle in the feelings of people which is implanted in their organization expressly for them to become independent, to become gods, and it is continually urging them to reach forward and to wish to do and perform that which they do not understand. These weaknesses are in the organization, irrespective of age. True, persons can do many things at twenty-five years of age which they could not do when but five years old, and men may know much more at fifty than at twenty, yet the same common weakness is apparent which you can see exhibited in the little child. 
There is one rule to adopt, one course to pursue, one lesson to be learned, and it is applicable alike to all ages, from the child of one or two years old to the grey-haired veteran, and which, if they would learn, would prove highly beneficial, and that is to do those things which they know they can do, and when required by a superior to do a thing they never have done, to take the advice of those who have successfully performed the same act, and then with the best skill they can command, do as they are told, and thus further their education in life and be satisfied.
The atonement of Christ provides the absolutely essential empowering ability for us to repent and improve. In LDS soteriology, this process of being sanctified is participative; it is made possible and advanced by the grace of God, and chosen by us individually in order to create a true relationship of love which Ostler argues, and I agree, depends on the free choice of each participant.4 It's simple: rely on God, and obey Him, giving close attention to counsel from the Spirit and from His servants.5 Is this blind obedience to authority?
If the child could understand and be satisfied that the mother knows better than it does, when it is told to let the dishes alone, the broom, or the pincushion, or not to swing on the table lest it be turned over and break the dishes, or not to do this or that, and that such and such things it might do, it would be a great aid to it to take the course laid down by a judicious parent, and would save it much trouble while passing through its mortal career. 
I ask myself why it is that people do not learn to be satisfied and contented with what they do know, until they are instructed and learn more, and practice this principle in their lives. We are taught here all the time to be passive and contented, to do the things we know how to do.
Passive and contended? Should we turn our brains off and walk in line? This underlines the paradox between our inherent freedom versus obedience to authority. Brigham admonishes the Saints to be active in choosing good, rather than passively accepting counsel.6 We should not be forced to believe anything, as Hugh B. Brown said:
...men cannot be forced to believe. Religion is a matter of the inner man. Conviction is of the heart. Forced conformity breeds hypocrisy.7
It becomes us to think about what we are taught because there is always the possibility that we are being taught an opinion, rather than a pronounced and true doctrine. It also becomes us to avoid projecting false doctrine:
We are taught here all the time to be passive and contented, to do the things we know how to do. Still I have no question, but what, if I could unobserved and unknown to them listen to the remarks of many of the Elders, or of brethren and sisters, I should hear doctrines taught and suggestions made which God never designed to have His servants teach. 
At the same time remarks such as these might be dropped: “I am impressed and the Spirit leads me thus and so; true I believe all that is written and taught, but I tell you that brother Brigham does not tell us all of it; he says he does not, but that he tells us as fast as we can understand and practice what he does teach.”8
Now that is true; but all do not stop and reflect, neither do they fully understand the principles of the gospel, the principles of the holy Priesthood; and from this cause many imbibe the idea that they are capable of leading out in teaching principles that never have been taught. They are not aware that the moment they give way to this hallucination the devil has power over them to lead them on to unholy ground; though this is a lesson which they ought to have learned long ago, yet it is one that was learned by but few in the days of Joseph.
Brigham is speaking of people who felt Joseph was a fallen prophet, or that they had the right to counsel him. Latter-day Saints believe God's house is one of order, though all parts are needed, each has specific stewardships to attend to without seeking to rise above others, including proclaiming doctrine in behalf of the Church contrary to the living prophet. This doesn't mean the prophet knows more than anyone, or that  knowledge is limited to what the living prophet publicly pronounces. Saints can learn mysteries, indeed, but typically these mysteries would sacredly be kept secret.9

Still, Saints receive counsel from the leaders, and sometimes it seems they are always saying the same things. Perhaps there is reason for that, if we look closer. Some hindrances to our growth include stubbornness, relying on traditions, feeling like we don't need to change, apathy, desiring the wrong things, and discouragement:
I will now return to where I began, and again ask, why do you require to be talked to so much? 
You know right from wrong; there is hardly a person here, but what knows right from wrong, then why do you not all do right? 
Because of your filthy traditions and dispositions. I have often sincerely and absolutely thought that the doctrine and practice of a certain lawyer was in the end strictly worldly wise; he first studied divinity and preached to the people for the salvation of their souls until he learned that they did not care so much for their spiritual as for their temporal salvation, when he studied and practiced medicine, but soon discovered that the poor miserable wills of men were more to them than the salvation of their bodies, and he finally studied law and indulged all his clients in the expensive gratification of their wills, which was dearer to them than the salvation of soul and body... 
In every nation, community, and family, there are peculiar traditions, and the child is trained in them. If the law of Christ becomes the tradition of this people, the children will be brought up according to the law of the celestial kingdom, else they are not brought up in the way they should go. Children will then be brought up, under the traditions of their fathers, to do just right, and to refrain from all evil, and when old they will not depart from a righteous course... The old Indian adage is rather the most applicable to the present practice of many, viz.: “Train up a child, and away it goes, as it pleases” (JD 3:316-327).10





FOOTNOTES

[1]
Is this reflection fairly called a "moment of weakness?" Such introspection can come if we take the time to ponder our situation. Perhaps it is even prompted by the Holy Ghost. This moment of weakness can actually be a strength; it shows self-awareness and self evaluation depending on how we react to it.

[2]
Blake Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought Vol 2: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, p.148.

[3]
ibid. 156.

[4]
Much of Ostler's vol. 2 is undergirded by this concept of a true loving relationship, becoming one as Christ prayed for in John 17.

[5]
See Matt.10:40-41. The concept of receiving God by also receiving those he sends is discussed in the post "He That Receiveth You Receiveth Me."

[6]
Brigham Young made this often cited and crucial statement regarding blind obedience, among others:
What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually (JD 9:150).
Hugh B. Brown, a counselor in the First Presidency under David O. McKay, discouraged blind obedience:
Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts. One may memorize much without learning anything. In this age of speed, there seems to be little time for meditation. Dissatisfaction with what is around us is not a bad thing if it prompts us to seek betterment, but the best sort of dissatisfaction in the long run is self-dissatisfaction, which leads us to improve ourselves.
See "An Eternal Quest--Freedom of the Mind," by Hugh B. Brown. This address was given to the BYU student body on May 13, 1969.

[7]
Hugh B. Brown, "Mormonism," an address delivered Monday, Feb. 26, 1962, to the students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, Pa.

[8]
This would refer to the principle of milk before meat.

[9]
This phenomenon has other precedents, as well, as discussed in "Showing You Things to Come." A fuller excerpt of Brigham's remarks is given there. When such revelation is given: "...he must rarely divulge it to a second person on the face of the earth, until God reveals it through the proper source to become the property of the people at large. ...the same power that revealed to them would have shown them that they must keep the things revealed in their own bosoms, and they seldom would have a desire to disclose them to the second person. That is a general rule, but will it apply in every case, and to the people called the kingdom of God at all times? No, not in the strictest sense, but the Spirit which reveals will impart the proper discretion. All the people have not learned this lesson, they should have learned it long ago." Some examples: Nephi was instructed not to write certain things (1 Nephi 14:25), Joseph wasn't to translate the portion of the plates Moroni had been commanded to seal which were written by the brother of Jared (Ether 4:4-7), Paul hints at doctrines he has not fully divulged (2 Corinthians 12:2).

[10]
See "Traditions: True and False." This topic revised and expanded from 12/17/07.

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