Spencer, my oldest son, recently completed training to be a missionary for the LDS Church. As I and many others who have gone through it can attest, the training includes a relatively strong emphasis on obedience. That caught Spencer's attention. And that's led me to gather some thoughts on the subject.
In some ways, missionary emphasis on obedience makes sense. There are approximately 70,000 missionaries. Most are young people between the ages of 18 and 22. Most are living around the world in environments and cultures with which they were previously unfamiliar. Few begin with real-world business or political or social experience beyond high school training. And all are formally representing a religious organization. A high level of conformance to basic rules may be essential to mitigating risks inherent to such an undertaking.
On the other hand, the emphasis on obedience can be taken too far. Both among missionaries and beyond in the general Church membership, we sometimes harm rather than help each other by shaming disobedience. We sometimes develop unhealthy dependencies on leaders, relinquishing personal responsibility and development. And sometimes, as leaders, we encourage unhealthy dependencies for sake of expedience or perhaps even reflecting the arrogance against which our founding prophet warned us (D&C 121: 34-46).
Generally speaking, while obedience can be virtuous, it is not inherently virtuous. This should be obvious. For example, if someone commands you to torture, rape, and murder another then the fact that it was a command doesn't simply make such actions virtuous.
But despite obvious ethical limits to obedience, there are natural pressures and perverse incentives for traditional power structures, intentionally or otherwise, to cultivate indiscriminate obedience. Acknowledgement of the possibility of vicious obedience may encourage deliberation on commands. Deliberation on commands may result in inefficiencies. Inefficiencies may make a power structure vulnerable to more efficient competitors. None of these results is necessary. Theoretically there are ways to deliberate that will make a power structure increasingly efficient, and there are ends toward which there are no more efficient ways than those which include deliberation. However, in practice for at least some ends, there is no more efficient way than that which cultivates indiscriminate obedience.
Obedience is the first law of heaven, if you are morally naive.
"Obedience is the first law of heaven." If you are or have been a Mormon, you've probably heard this idea stated many times. I don't know for sure where this idea comes from. It's not in the scriptures (at least not explicitly).
Maybe it comes from one of the LDS temple ceremonies, parts of which I'll respectfully reference below. Before I do, please note that those who participate in LDS temple ceremonies make promises not to talk about a few very specific parts of the ceremonies (no, those parts don't involve anything scandalous). I will not be breaking those promises here. But we can talk about other parts of the ceremonies, even if we tend to be somewhat reserved in doing so out of respect for them and each other. At least, respect is my motivation. Others may have different motivations, but those motivations don't include any formal promises from the ceremonies themselves.
In one of our temple ceremonies, we take on various identities and promise to live in accordance with several laws, of which the first in sequence is the Law of Obedience and Sacrifice. If that's the origin of the idea that "obedience is the first law of heaven," there are reasons to consider the ceremony somewhat misrepresented by the idea. In the ceremony, we receive the Law of Obedience when we take on the identity of Adam and Eve just before their fall from the Garden of Eden to the Lone and Dreary World (also described as the Telestial world or the world in which we now live). The Garden of Eden is not heaven. It does not represent a heavenly state of being. To the contrary, it represents moral ignorance. We, as Adam and Eve, receive the Law of Obedience at a time when we're morally ignorant. So obedience is not the first law of heaven in the sense that it would be if we were to receive it while in heaven. It's not the first law of heaven in the sense that it would be if we were to receive it while in a sublime state of moral knowledge.
As the ceremony continues, we maintain the identity of Adam and Eve in the Lone and Dreary World. Compared to the Garden of Eden, this Telestial world may be a measure of heaven. But if so, it's only the lowest measure of heaven. And we seek to transcend it with the help of God, who sends us there in the first place so that we can learn from our own experience to distinguish good from evil. In other words, God sends us to the Lone and Dreary World to overcome dependence on the Law of Obedience. If obedience is the first law of heaven because it helps us during our initial development of moral awareness then maybe it's first sequentially or even first in importance provisionally. But perhaps another law is more important in a more general or enduring sense?
The temple ceremony offers a few other laws to consider: the Law of the Gospel, the Law of Chastity, and the Law of Consecration. We, again as Adam and Eve, receive the Law of the Gospel while in the Telestial world. And we receive the Law of Chastity and the Law of Consecration while in the Terrestrial world, which is a higher classification of heaven, but still not the highest (the Celestial world is the highest represented in the ceremony, and we receive no laws there). Arguably, given the higher classifications of heaven associated with them, we might argue that these other laws are more important than the Law of Obedience and Sacrifice. On the other hand, all laws imply obedience in their function, so perhaps they all imply that obedience is the first law of heaven in a strictly logical sense. But perhaps some things are more important than laws?
To obey is better than to sacrifice, but better is not necessarily best.
"To obey is better than to sacrifice." Mormons also tend to hear this idea with some regularity. And this one does come from the scriptures (1 Samuel 15: 22). Usually references to it are accompanied with stories about the importance of obedience.
One oft-used story is that of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22). As the story goes, Abraham sets out to follow the command. And just before Abraham is about to kill Isaac, God stops it. From there, God blesses Abraham because, as the writer expresses in the voice of God, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
Another oft-used story is that of God commanding Adam to sacrifice animals (Moses 5: 4-7). Adam follows the command for many days until eventually an angel appears and asks why Adam is performing the sacrifices. Adam respond, "I know not, save the Lord commanded me."
Both of these stories establish obedience as a priority above sacrifice. That much is obvious. Perhaps less obviously, they also establish obedience as insufficient without knowledge. In the case of Abraham, God doesn't merely stop the sacrifice. Rather, God offers an explanation for both the sacrifice and the obedience, and that is to "fear God" -- perhaps the poorest of explanations, but an explanation nonetheless. Likewise, in the case of Adam, the angel doesn't merely leave after Adam appeals to obedience. Rather, the angel explains to Adam that the sacrifices are "a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father."
Moreover, a scriptural prioritization of knowledge over obedience is established in the story of God commanding Nephi to kill Laban (1 Nephi 4: 10-18). Nephi, perhaps second only to Jesus in prominence as a moral example in the Book of Mormon, finds his enemy, Laban, in a drunken stupor. He says, "I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban." But he doesn't rush to obedience. Instead, he says, "I shrunk and would that I might not slay him." If this were a story about the primacy of obedience, the next thing to happen would be something like God demanding that Nephi proceed despite concerns. But that's not what happens. Instead, God resorts to persuasion, offering reasons for the command. Those reasons lead Nephi to reconsider, imagining more reasons of his own. Only then does Nephi proceed with the grim-faced deed. Whether anyone else agrees with the reasons or not is secondary to the fact that the story elevates knowledge above obedience.
The founding prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, also prioritized knowledge above obedience. He wrote, "The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same." In this statement, Joseph referenced what are perhaps the three most common advocates of obedience: religious authority ("creeds"), tradition ("superstitious notions of men"), and governance ("dominations of one another"). And he elevated truth above them all.
This perspective carried through Joseph's words on other occasions. For example, he claimed, "A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge". In his last general conference sermon a few months before a mob killed him, he preached, "It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did". And, expressed in the voice of God, he wrote:
"For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward. But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned." (D&C 58: 26-29)
Thus, in light of the Mormon authoritative tradition as expressed in scriptures and by prophets, it is controversial, at best, and probably altogether wrong to hold obedience in greater esteem than knowledge. And it's not mere happenstance that I'm appealing to religious authority in support of the notion that obedience to religious authority is less important than knowledge. It's intentional. The point is that excessive obedience to religious authority, at least in the Mormon tradition, should undermine itself. Obedience to Mormon authority, on the whole, mandates acknowledging limits to the value of obedience. If one does not acknowledge limits to obedience, one is not being obedient. And knowledge is not the only limit on the value of obedience.
Prophecies will fail and knowledge will vanish away, while love endures.
Jesus suggests another limit on the value of obedience. When asked to identify the great commandment, he says, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Curiously, he uses the language of obedience to suggest that love is the most important kind of obedience, suggesting that obedience can lead to love.
In contrast, elsewhere Jesus says, "If ye love me, keep my commandments." And he precedes that statement, repeating his point twice as if he thinks we'll be hesitant to take him seriously, by saying, "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do ... If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it." These statements seem to suggest that love can lead to obedience, whether it's our love for Jesus leading us to obey him, or Jesus' love for us leading him to obey us. So whether it's love that leads to obedience or obedience that leads to love, Jesus seems to be suggesting love is at least as important as obedience, and probably more important than any kind of obedience that is not motivated by or promotional of love.
Indeed, as we consider his example as narrated in the New Testament, if Jesus exemplifies morality then it's not through any obvious consistency in keeping or breaking the law, but rather through simultaneously fulfilling and ending the law by shifting attention from obedience to love. If Jesus obeys God then it's not submission to just any God, but rather it's submission to that God whose will includes submission to our will, symbolized by the cross. As exemplified by Jesus, if there is value in conformance, it is the value of conforming to the image of Christ, which is compassion and creation, which cannot be genuine within the constraints of prescriptions on which exhortations to obedience typically rely.
Paul echoes Jesus. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, he emphasizes the value of prophecy (esteemed as the means whereby law is received in the Jewish tradition) and knowledge, ranking them both among the gifts that we should "covet earnestly." But he then compares them to love, writing, "Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; ... whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away." And what is perfect? He writes, "Charity never faileth". And the Book of Mormon elaborates, "charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever." In other words, although knowledge and obedience are both contextually valuable, neither is ultimately as dependable as love.
Obedience is valuable to the extent we lack knowledge. Knowledge is valuable to the extent it enables love. Love is valuable because it endures. But to what end? Why love at all? Specific reasons are surely at least as diverse as the differences between persons. But perhaps we can begin with a general appeal to desire and its fulfillment in joy. Maybe such creation, organizing and reorganizing the world toward our ever dynamically reconciling goals (atonement), is the end to which our enduring love may aspire -- or even must aspire, to maintain the conceptual meaning of love.
In my estimation, such compassionate creation is the essence of Christian discipleship. And it should scope our understanding of the value of any Christian appeals to knowledge or obedience. This is consistent with the position that The Book of Mormon takes toward religious knowledge and obedience. Describing the book's protagonists, it reads:
"Yea, and they did keep the law of Moses; for it was expedient that they should keep the law of Moses as yet, for it was not all fulfilled. But notwithstanding the law of Moses, they did look forward to the coming of Christ, considering that the law of Moses was a type of his coming, and believing that they must keep those outward performances until the time that he should be revealed unto them. Now they did not suppose that salvation came by the law of Moses; but the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ; and thus they did retain a hope through faith, unto eternal salvation, relying upon the spirit of prophecy, which spake of those things to come." (Alma 25: 15-16)
In that Book of Mormon passage, replace "law of Moses" with "law of Brigham" or even something as generic as "commandments". And read it again. When we do that, a more general meaning of the passage becomes clear. Commandments aren't the end. Obedience to and knowledge of commandments aren't the end. But they may serve to strengthen our trust in Christ.
And while it may be tempting to understand Christ narrowly, resist that temptation. Open your understanding to the fullness of the meaning of Christ, which Jesus exemplifies and invites us to share with him, and which King Benjamin expresses elsewhere in the Book of Mormon:
"I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives. And it shall come to pass that whosoever doeth this shall be found at the right hand of God, for he shall know the name by which he is called; for he shall be called by the name of Christ." (Mosiah 5: 8-9)
Thus, when the Book of Mormon teaches that knowledge of and obedience to commandments may strengthen our trust in Christ, it's referencing not only a possible relation with Jesus, but also our own potential as compassionate creators. It's referencing means for our transformation. Here's how a leader from another Christian tradition puts it:
"Indeed, obedience, namely, conformity to God, the truth of our being, is true freedom, because it is divinization." (Pope Benedict)
In other words, to obey God is to become God. To know God is to be God. To love God is to be Christ. Not just any God. Not just any love, knowledge, or obedience. But again, also not just any narrow understanding of Christ. May you and I have the humility to obey and the courage to know that which transforms us, together, into compassionate creators.