Saturday, June 6, 2009

Black, White, and Gray; and D&C 76

This week I had an interesting conversation with my RS President on Black and White and shades of Grayness in Mormonism. She describes herself as a person who sees the world in terms of Black and White, Right and Wrong; with very few gray areas to navigate. I, with my blessing and cursing to see every paradigm, encounter gray just about everywhere I look.

I've been worrying over this concept a bit--especially in light of last week's SS Lesson on D&C 76 and the three degrees of glory. Those who inherit the Celestial Glory (the one as bright as the sun), are those who are valiant, who have received the ordinances, and who have kept the commandments. They have been purified, and they are as white as can be, and it seems that if there is any shadow of grayness left in anyone, that they drop right down to the next level, which is the Telestial.

Is it possible to navigate the grayness of a mortal world without sacrificing the sanctification that must take place within one who desires to one day dwell with Deity? A Catholic theologian, Father James V. Schall, regrets the tendency today's people have to divide the world into two extreme ways of looking at things. He says, for example, that our propensity to describe ourselves as liberal or conservative on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us.

If we are not what is considered popularly a "liberal," then we must, by some convoluted logic, be a "conservative," or vice versa. No third or fourth option is available as is usually the case in the real world. It has to be, we are told, either this way or that.

Such a view makes things very simple, I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended to describe. (Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative)

Black and white thinking makes choices easier, and it tends to keep one on the "strait and narrow" path. But the danger is that it can reduce one to seeing the world only in terms of extremes. Black and white thinkers must be sure not to decide that if they aren't brilliant, they are stupid, if something isn't fascinating, it must be boring. In many everyday situations, it helps to see things in shades of gray.

In the recent murder of abortion provider George Tiller, we see some of these shades. If abortion is murder, is the bravest and most efficient thing to prevent such murders to kill George Tiller? Or is his murder a crime and a sin no matter what he has done? If abortion is acceptable in the case of rape or the endangered health of the mother, then just how late can such abortions be performed? Was Tiller a principled and brave doctor to provide late abortions in such cases when more squeamish doctors refused? Oh yes, there are many shades of gray in this case, no matter what side of the abortion debate you see.

I, for one, might attempt to access the Holy Ghost to help me see the truth of all things, to keep me from being blinded in the way that "honorable men of the earth" who inherit the terrestrial kingdom are. I might attempt to access the cleansing blood of Christ to cleanse me from sin. But so often I'm still not sure how successful I've been. I believe that pure Truth exists, but that it is multi-sided and that one person, with his or her earthly lens of nurture, life experience and baggage, cannot always see it clearly. Thinking persons of faith must attempt to have a richer, more thoughtful conversation on the political, moral, and religious issues that divide us.


adamf said...

I agree with you (and so does Paul) - we can't see clearly... I'm not sure where I am on the grey issue. I would like to be more "black and white" but often it seems that those who are are rather insecure and need everything to be neat, even when it is not.

Re: the 3 degrees - Sometimes I wonder if along with our inability to clearly see things if the degrees are symbolic. Nothing against literal interpretations, but 3 is an important number (godhead, three days, three crosses, etc. etc.)

MoHoHawaii said...

If abortion is murder, is the bravest and most efficient thing to prevent such murders to kill George Tiller?

My jaw dropped at this. Where do I start?

We live in a nation of laws, and we have well-defined processes for changing laws when we find them unjust. Anti-abortion vigilantes simply don't believe this. These folks believe that the government of the United States is illegitimate and that acts of unimaginable violence are justified, acts such the assassination of law-abiding citizens in their holy places of worship. The unifying ideology behind the kind of thinking in the U.S. is not hard to identify. It is Christianity in its most brutal and bellicose form.

One of my deepest dilemmas is whether religion is ultimately a force for evil in the world or a force for good. That you, a person of moderate and compassionate faith, can see the lawless, vigilante murder of Dr. Tiller as potentially justified both shocks and horrifies me.

Maybe I misunderstood what you wrote. I cannot believe, or at least I hope, that you were not seriously entertaining the idea that Dr. Tiller's assassination could even potentially be justified as an "efficient" heroic act.

I think I'm going to be sick.

Bored in Vernal said...

YES, you did misunderstand what I wrote--thanks for commenting and allowing me to clarify. I absolutely don't believe that abortion is murder. I don't think the Church even believes that. If they did, why would they allow abortion in the case of rape, since the child is innocent? My further thoughts on abortion are available in a post I did called The Pro-Love Movement.

Here in this paragraph I was attempting to show that, no matter what your paradigm, there are gray areas. I chose to enter the paradigm of someone who takes a pro-life position, for often they have some extremely black and white thinking on this. I show that even here, there are gray areas--should one continue to allow this "great sin," of killing babies, or should they act within the law? If you really consider that someone in the street is murdering someone else, would you stand by and do nothing, or wait for the proper legal consequences? Do you see how there can be gray even within a very black-and-white paradigm?

I can use other examples within other paradigms. I am not trying to "justify" any of the paradigms, only to show that things are not so clear while living in this mortal sphere.

Anonymous said...

I guess it is all in how one looks at the glass- half empty or half full. Is there truly grey or is it all just black and white?

I have long debated this in other aspects of things like scientific reasoning and the like. For instance- take electric theory, we cannot specifically see the process involved at levels approaching super fast speeds and super small things like electrons and how they move. But we have a "theory" that works in explaining it. Some may state then that as a theory it is kind of grey- it may change or it may not- a little "grey area" exists.

But what exactly is "grey" if we truly break it down? The only thing "grey" is in our perception. You could thus sub another word in like "fuzzy" or "cloudy" and we hear that all the time-..."I can't quite recall, that memory is a little cloudy to me...

The "grey area" is not something that actually exists other than a way of speaking and understanding each other on a topic. Now as getting back to the topic, there really is no such thing as "grey" when it comes to sin or righteousness. The Book of Mormon is also very clear in explaining things pertaining to our salvation or lack thereof vividly as either black or white. For example- a true principle we live in our life can't become darkened to grey with sin. That is only our "cloudiness" of perception that tries to justify things.

If it could be stated that we are made up of truth (white particles physically- spiritual matter perhaps) then what is it that makes it appear to us that some are grey? The truth lies in this fact- the truth is always there, but our ability to see it becomes clouded or the medium with with we give off is clouded.

Every decision we make is according to how well we see the truth. If we make a clouded decision it doesn't mean that there is clouded truth, it only means that we were not able to see the truth.

As for salvation from hell, it is truly black and white. there are specific black and white principles and laws in place for our salvation. No man can be saved in "cloudiness" or "grey areas". Let me explain a little more-

Lets say that it is Satan that brings the cloudiness in our lives and that it is Heavenly Father that removes it. For a person to be considered grey, it would mean that he holds to false beliefs put forth by Satan or man (worldy or carnal) and also still sees the truth in some degree how it really is, and as such lives his life in this measure. But this "grey" person cannot be saved unless he is perfectly white meaning he has removed himself totally from Satan or that which is worldly or carnal.

Christ is not an individual who says to be "almost perfect" nor is he an individual who says to repent of "most" of your sins. It is all or nothing, we either accept Christ or we do not, we either are saved fromour sins or we are not.

There is no salvation in the man who escapes 98% of his sins because it would mean that he is still 2% in favor of Satan! Now how could one be saved from Satan if he is still serving him?

MoHoHawaii said...

Thanks for the clarification. I apologize for the vehemence of my previous comment.

The core problem is that fundamentalist religion is incompatible with the idea of pluralism and a free society. If you believe that God's law, as you define it, is superior to "man's law" then there is really no basis for civil society. Domestic terrorists like those responsible for Dr. Tiller's assassination benefit from religious justification. American Christian fundamentalism is absolutely no different from other kinds of religious fundamentalism, including what you find in some parts of Islam. It is anti-social and very dangerous.

As for your question about the morality of extra-legal intervention, it happens that I have in fact seen crimes committed like you mention. I have seen the evidence that my government has tortured and murdered detainees in its custody. I find this morally abhorrent, yet I would never advocate violence against Mr. Cheney or the other perpetrators. Why? It's because I recognize that in a pluralistic society all, including those whose morality I find reprehensible, have a right to participate. My solution instead is to follow the law and urge the enactment of laws and policies that will prevent any future use of torture. I would also support a full legal investigation to see if war crimes statutes truly apply in this case and if so bring the perpetrators before a court of law.

Contrast this to the fundamentalist viewpoint. With God as their ultimate justifier, the killer(s) of Dr. Tillman feel no need to participate in the civil society that ensures our safety and freedom. Religious thought provides the justification for terror. In this case the "shades of gray" provided by religious thought are justifications for violence.

The biggest threat we face is not from the scary "other" halfway across the globe. The threat we face is a deteriorating shared commitment to civil society. Religious fundamentalism is a domestic threat. And we're not talking about Muslims.

Dr. Tiller's murder is a turning point. We need to engage in a conversation that confronts the premise of religious violence.

The LDS Church has done a much better job than other conservative Christian sects on this point. For example, you noted that the Church has been careful to avoid inflammatory rhetoric on the abortion issue. But the Church does little to stop the infection of radical, antisocial thought from the far right at the grass roots level. I have personally heard stories like the killing of Laban used by right-wing Mormons to justify their contempt for civil law.

NonArab-Arab said...

BiV: Just for kicks, I'm going to throw a quote back in your face from your own blog by Joseph Smith :) "That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another."

MoHoHawaii: you raise a lot of valid points, but I also think you may be thinking a little too black and white. Let's take Cheney and torture for example since you raised it. In fact, let's notch it up another level and let's accept the argument that Cheney and Bush are responsible for the cold-blooded first-degree callous murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Not saying you have to agree with that, but for argument's sake let's presume that it is true. Now, formally the law in the US would say they deserve to be impeached, locked away for life, possibly face the death penalty. But the reality of the political-legal system we have is that it would never happen in a million years. We see it in Obama not wanting even formal legal investigations anywhere he can avoid them. Too divisive, too backward looking he says. Hundreds of thousands of dead people don't even figure into the calculations, their families' day in court is summarily dismissed, not because the law doesn't formally require it, but because no one will ever grant the implementation of the law. There is a powerful group (the USG) and a weak group (the Iraqi victims' families halfway around the world), and the formality of the law doesn't mean spit to the strong group.

Now, if you are the victims' families in this case, what is morally justified? I don't ask it because I have the answer, I ask it precisely because I think it is grey. There was a play in Egypt in the 1990s called "Shahid ma-shafsh haaga" - "A witness who didn't see anything". In the case of war/torture/etc over the past almost decade, we seem to have this non-stop case of murders with no murderers. Where is the justice here? Does the law provide it? Certainly doesn't seem so to me. Is it just or right to tell the victims to obey the law when the law won't speak up for them?

Or let's take another set of cases, let's take Apartheid regimes such as South Africa or Israel. The laws are very clear, there are/were clear processes for changing them. But the laws themselves are racist, the ability to legally challenge them is blocked on pain of prison, exile, or death. Or how about laws in places like Egypt where or Tunisia or Russia where the law is constantly and blatantly bent to reflect the latest whims of a ruler or ruling clique? Should the law be obeyed then?

When do we cross from "we believe in honoring, obeying, and sustaining the law" per Joseph Smith, to "I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical" per Thomas Jefferson?

Again, I do not have the answers and ask for yours. It hardly seems so black and white as "we have the law and that's that" to me, especially when dealing with extremes of injustice carried out either by people ignoring the law or by the powerful wielding the law as a weapon against the weak.

MoHoHawaii said...


Sure, the people can collectively choose to overthrow an unjust government. I don't think that's what we're talking about with right-wing domestic terrorism in the U.S. These folks want all of the benefits, stability and protection of the existing state without being held to the rule of law. They are criminals, not revolutionary heroes.

As for the Bush administration's misdeeds, my whole point is that I have no right to take matters into my own hands. If justice is ever served, it will come through a lawful process. If I don't like the outcome, I can vote, run for elected office, petition to change our laws, etc. This isn't black and white thinking. It's basic ethics.

annegb said...

This sounds like the same conversation I had with my RS president. I cannot believe I have missed this blog. I used to go here, but it's been a long time.

Also good to see what moho looks like LOL.

Bored in Vernal said...

Good to see you back, then!