The Lord’s Covenant People

Covenants loom large in Mormon discourse.

The manual tells us,

Within the gospel, a covenant means a sacred agreement or mutual promise between God and a person or a group of people. In making a covenant, God promises a blessing for obedience to particular commandments. He sets the terms of His covenants, and He reveals these terms to His prophets. If we choose to obey the terms of the covenant, we receive promised blessings. If we choose not to obey, He withholds the blessings, and in some instances a penalty also is given.

If A, then B…

I’ve listened to a great number of talks in church and general conference over my years in the Church that seem to suggest that Mormons believe a wide range of complex gospel topics can be decomposed into a simple checklist. One example of this is the Mormon approach to prayer. From the traditional Mormon perspective, prayer is literal communication with a Supreme Being. We can petition God, and God will honor our requests. On my mission, I taught people the steps of prayer:

  1. Address God
  2. Express thanks
  3. Ask for blessings
  4. Close in the name of Jesus Christ

I don’t think these kinds of simplifications are all bad. Prayer, for example, might be intimidating for a person who didn’t grow up following that simple formula. The trouble, of course, comes if we allow our prayers to become too thoroughly routininzed.

I grew up learning about the five (or six or seven depending on whose mnemonic you prefer) “R’s” of repentance:

  1. Recognition
  2. Remorse
  3. Restitution
  4. Reformation
  5. Resolution

Again, if we don’t know where to start, these kinds of memorization aids might help get us started down a road to real change, but I think it is a mistake to assume that if we have made our way to the final ‘R,’ all is well.

While I don’t think even the most enthusiastic proponents of these simplified approaches would insist that their caricature of the principle is the whole story, there is a danger in repeating these clever formulations too often. In another context and to illustrate a different point, I heard a story of a man who had lost his keys. The man spent all his time searching in the area of the alley illuminated by the streetlamp because that was what he could see. In my experience, the way we talk about gospel principles can sometimes be like shining light on a limited portion of the alley. Perhaps because it is easy to talk about some of the fundamental principles that lend themselves well to lists and mnemonics, we might forget that there is a larger picture.

So it is, I believe, with covenants. The manual’s definition of covenant works out to a kind of legal agreement between humans and God. We promise to do certain things, and God promises us blessings if we hold up our end of the bargain. However, I think it is a mistake to turn the covenant relationship into a simple transaction (trading obedience for rewards).

Legalism

Think of the covenant we are often reminded that we renew at the sacrament table each week. In the words of the prayer, we promise that we will ‘always remember him [Jesus]’ and ‘keep his commandments.’ If we do so, we are told we will ‘always have his Spirit to be with [us].’

If this is some kind of legal arrangement, the terms don’t seem to be very clear. What does it mean to ‘always remember him’? If we take it at face value (the typical meaning of ‘always’), I think I’ve usually broken this promise before the prayer is even over. What does it mean to ‘keep his commandments’? All of them? All the time?

Wikipedia has a helpful(?) “Table of Covenants” (here) that lays out many of the covenants that members of the Church make and lists the promised actions on our part and the promised blessings on God’s end.

In the New Testament, Paul seems to take exception to an overly legalistic interpretation of the gospel. In several places, he contrasts the new law with the old law. The Law of Moses was a ‘schoolmaster.’ The Law can only show us our faults and convict us of our unworthiness, Christ’s better way gives life. In Hebrews (which, I am told, was probably not actually written by Paul, but it seems to reflect the thinking of a person who was influenced by Paul’s perspective), we read:

But now hath he [Christ] obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. … [T]his is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people (Hebrews 8: 6, 10).

In Paul’s (or perhaps Priscilla‘s?) mind the gospel of Christ was a fulfillment of the Mosaic law — away from ‘performances and ordinances’ and toward a new creature. Christ brought us something better — more lasting and transformative — than a list of rules to follow.

The Mediator

In Boyd Packer’s famous parable, he describes the covenant relationship as a way in which we can sign up for an alternative set of rules. We are not capable of abiding by the strict rules of the universe that say ‘no unclean thing can dwell with God.’ Even the best of us mortals will pick up a few smudges during our tenure on earth thereby disqualifying us from the divine presence. Heaven apparently forbids mercy to ‘rob’ justice and demands reparations for our sins. But since Christ paid for our sins, he can set the terms of a new agreement that we are capable of upholding. Justice is satisfied, and God and Christ are allowed to show us mercy.

In my post on some of the different atonement theories, I discussed why this kind of penal-substitution model doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It seems to assume that the ‘eternal law’ (that we believe even God is subject to) is so strict and unyielding that it only permits one definition of cleanliness. God would like to forgive us of our wrongdoing, but his hands are tied. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all perfect beings are the same, every imperfect creature is imperfect in its own way. Do we really believe that? Is there always a best choice? Is anything else a ‘sin’? Doesn’t this destroy agency? Why does justice demand a punishment? What exactly would be robbed by mercy?

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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

3 responses to “The Lord’s Covenant People”

  1. Cliff Bentley says :

    Brad, I suppose you’ve heard that the atonement is a ‘mystery’. Many things are mysteries, and the more meaningful or ‘big’ the thing is, the more it is protected by it’s status as mystery. Another example would be the nature of God.

    But what really is a mystery? I mean, in easy to understand terms? It seems one answer would be “something I don’t know, and can’t seem to figure out”. And there can be lots of reasons for that, in quite a wide spectrum of faith vs. rational world-views.

    I have learned a bit about the pros and cons of each type of world view. It is my claim that I’ve been led on a fact-finding tour of life by the Holy Ghost (if I were a Chaos magician I would say my “Holy Guardian Angel(HGA)”; if I were a New Age devotee I would say my “spirit guides” or “angel guides”; etc.). OTOH, I also have learned the value of reason, logic, scientific method, and the like. Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. have all written on how this impacts a faith-based world view. Deaver, Meier, Campbell, Sanders, Ehrman, etc. have all spoken on the intersection (or lack thereof) of historical/critical enquiry and faith and/or myth.

    For me, I’ve settled (for what I think will be the rest of my life, but who knows…) on a religious/magic world view, which seems to blend very nicely with my Mormonism. So (getting back to the point) I would say that a mystery is something that can only be truly understood when the Holy Ghost steps in and reveals it to me. We can sit at the local bistro and discuss it all day, but without that essential element, we’ll not know any more in the end that what we started with. Basically.

    So while it is marvelous and interesting to intellectually and logically wrest through the many options of how the atonement works, I think this approach — while it may succeed in weeding out a lot of errors — will still not satisfy the seeking mind in the end. Sadly.

    So with all that said, here are my answers to your Questions.

    “To paraphrase Tolstoy, all perfect beings are the same, every imperfect creature is imperfect in its own way. Do we really believe that? Is there always a best choice? Is anything else a ‘sin’? Doesn’t this destroy agency?”
    I think the discussion on “the mind of God” in the Lectures on Faith are
    very interesting. I *don’t* think they require Tolstoy’s sameness, though.
    Without extending our view beyond the known universe, I am sure that
    the “best choice” will still have some diversity inherent within it. If we are,
    as Kabbalah teaches, sparks of intelligence and we will at some point
    reunite within “Adam Kadmon”, then at that point we’ll be beyond the
    known universe and anything is possible.

    Why does justice demand a punishment?
    (again, using the vocabulary of Jewish mysticism) Justice, or Gevurah is
    the limitation of form without which, nothing could exist. IOW, if you can
    only get to the local Walmart by a specific set of directional and distance
    parameters, then that’s the only way to get there. There is no emotion
    involved in not getting to the Walmart, no punishment, only the
    realization that somewhere we must’ve failed to follow the directions
    precisely reach the Walmart. Same with obtaining purity via obedience.
    The fact of the matter is, due to the structure and makeup of our current
    sphere of existence, we will never be able to find ‘heaven’ without an
    additional component beyond justice. That component is Beauty
    (Tifareth) or “the Son” (meaning, Christ). Why? Because the next step of
    advancement beyond beauty is Chesed, or bountiousness, or MERCY.
    And we cannot get there from Judgement without going through
    BEAUTY. It’s just how it is.
    Reason can’t be used to analyze all this, because we can’t see the map.
    Why not? Because that’s the way it is. (I’m sure you’re thrilled)

    What exactly would be robbed by mercy?
    The exact path that must be followed, which is required to develop us
    into someone who has the capacity to BE God.

    These comments don’t have to be framed within a Kabbalistic world-view, but as you probably know, some things lend themselves better to a certain set of symbols, rather than to another set of symbols. I find Jewish mysticism particularly useful in this discussion. So I use those symbols.

    So I’m sure by now you are confused. Feel free to continue this, or to email or call me, if you’d like.

    • Brad says :

      That’s quite a bit to chew on… Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. I find a lot of beauty in the mystic tradition (as I’ve written about a few times), and I would like to learn more about Kabbalah (my only real exposure is Karen Armstrong’s brief treatment in her History of God).

      Let me respond to a few of your points.

      On the idea that the atonement is a Mystery: I am sympathetic to this perspective. I think the Mormon tradition could be enriched by letting go of our need for certainty. Perhaps the hymn is wrong when it says, ‘Truth is reason’ (or at least there are limits to our human reasoning such that we cannot fully access truth through rational means), but I think we ought to try. As you say, we might succeed in weeding out some of the errors.

      I would say that a mystery is something that can only be truly understood when the Holy Ghost steps in and reveals it to me.

      I’ve talked a little before about my troubled relationship with the Spirit, so I don’t have the same experience when it comes to having mysteries revealed to me. I can live with that… there are a diversity of gifts, and I think I am better served in magnifying the ones that I might have rather than pining after the ones that seem always to be beyond my grasp (although we get conflicting messages about that, don’t we? — Paul wants us to ‘covet’ the best gifts… but, in context, I think he is talking about Charity).

      On the idea that justice is the natural consequence of sin (at least that is what I think you are saying): I like the idea that justice leads to beauty which leads to mercy. Perhaps that is the only way. Maybe the ordinances and covenants of the gospel lead us through that path. As I’ve thought about the covenants that we make, I’ve wondered if they aren’t in some way like the schoolmaster that Paul talks about, and when we inevitably break the covenant, it teaches us something about mercy.

      It just feels like we too often get stuck at justice.

      • Cliff Bentley says :

        That’s quite a bit to chew on… Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. I find a lot of beauty in the mystic tradition (as I’ve written about a few times), and I would like to learn more about Kabbalah (my only real exposure is Karen Armstrong’s brief treatment in her History of God).

        I really like Karen Armstrong. Have you read her autobiography? I loved it. She’s a real inspiration.

        On the idea that the atonement is a Mystery: I am sympathetic to this perspective. I think the Mormon tradition could be enriched by letting go of our need for certainty.

        Let’s talk a bit about certainty. Most of what I understand on the subject is what I learned reading Dr. Robert Burton’s book “On Certainty”. It is an emotion, but it is more complex than some emotions we experience. It cannot be generated by the conscious mind, for one thing. Which means it is an inherently non-rational emotion. This means certainty is generated subconsciously. But that doesn’t mean it is random, not at all. And the reason I mention all this is because ‘testimony’ or ‘knowing the truth’ in this context is CERTAINTY.

        And thus it has a direct and large correlation with spiritual things. If we were to let go of certainty in a religious sense, it would devastate everything. Rationally, certainty is a problem. But in a faith-based system it is everything. Balance (as taught in Freemasonry) is the key.

        [quote]”The human soul, like a charioteer, must drive two horses as it progresses toward Heaven.
        The horses must work together or the chariot will just go round and round. …It would be unfortunate if either should outstretch the other. Over-emphasizing intellect to the neglect of spirituality, and over-emphasizing faith without the application of reason are both
        unworthy of practicing Latter-Day Saints. We cannot achieve spiritual excellence without intellectual rigor, and intellectual excellence is hollow without active spirituality. We need to have the spirit as we learn, and we need to have learning as we build faith.
        Working together, faith and intellect help us achieve the Latter-day Saint goal of eternal progression.” (Reflections of a Mormon Historian p.229)
        — Leonard J. Arrington [/quote]

        As a mystic and as an (wannabe) intellectual, I give both horses a workout…

        Perhaps the hymn is wrong when it says, ‘Truth is reason’ (or at least there are limits to our human reasoning such that we cannot fully access truth through rational means), but I think we ought to try. As you say, we might succeed in weeding out some of the errors.

        Yep. But what do you think of the ‘real’ definition of truth? I think it makes a difference. I used to believe in the Correspondence theory of truth, as in D&C 93:24. Nowadays, I think that’s a great definition for someone who can see as they are seen, I.E. God. So I think we agree on that point. For me, truth is what works. Yes, a very pragmatic approach. I can freely state that “I know the Church is true” because truly, in my life it is so. The Church does a wonderful job accomplishing its task, like an arrow that is ‘true’. As I live the teachings, as I do the duty I hold in my membership and various callings, it is bringing me closer to a Christ-like life, both physically and mentally. This reminds me of “The Church is as True as the Gospel”, a wonderful essay by Eugene England.

        I’ve talked a little before about my troubled relationship with the Spirit, so I don’t have the same experience when it comes to having mysteries revealed to me. I can live with that… there are a diversity of gifts, and I think I am better served in magnifying the ones that I might have rather than pining after the ones that seem always to be beyond my grasp (although we get conflicting messages about that, don’t we? — Paul wants us to ‘covet’ the best gifts… but, in context, I think he is talking about Charity).

        Yes, that’s the best gift, next to faith in God, IMO. I’m glad the scriptures emphasize the diversity of gifts. We are each unique, just like everyone else. 🙂

        On the idea that justice is the natural consequence of sin (at least that is what I think you are saying): I like the idea that justice leads to beauty which leads to mercy. Perhaps that is the only way. Maybe the ordinances and covenants of the gospel lead us through that path. As I’ve thought about the covenants that we make, I’ve wondered if they aren’t in some way like the schoolmaster that Paul talks about, and when we inevitably break the covenant, it teaches us something about mercy.

        Yes, the ordinances and covenants are trans formative in our lives, and bring us not only to be ‘worthy’, but to understand and then apply that understanding in our lives(wisdom). They unlock the spirit/mind connection; the watchman at the gate is satisfied when he observes our lives being acted out in congruence with our values.

        Justice is a milepost that must be passed, if we are to return to God. I got it a bit out of order in my previous comment. We first gain Beauty, to be able to get thru Justice. And we have to be reconciled to Justice, in order to be able to deal appropriately with Bounteousness/Mercy.

        Here are the 10 attributes of Godliness, as taught in Kabbalah:

        pillar of pillar of pillar of
        SEVERITY BALANCE GENEROSITY
        1. Keter(the crown)
        3. Binah(Understanding) 2. Chokma(Wisdom)
        -. Da’at(knowledge) <— not an attribute, but useful
        to include for context
        5. Gevurah(Justice) 4. Chesed(Bounteousness)
        6. Tipharet(Beauty)
        8. Hod(Intellect) 7. Netzach(Emotion)
        9. Yesod(foundation)
        10. Malkuth(the World)

        This is the Hebrew "tree of life". We are in #10. In our spiritual journey, we must travel up the tree, as far as we can. In occult terms, this is the "Great Work". For most of us, we're lucky to get as high as #4, because cutting away at the roots of evil within ourselves with the sword of Gevurah is such a difficult task, and is flat impossible without the strength and balance of Beauty.

        It just feels like we too often get stuck at justice.

        Yep. But we mustn't feel that it is externally imposed upon us. We need to accept the responsibility internally and work this out. I think that is what the Second Anointing as taught in Nauvoo was partially about. See a clue on this in D&C 132.

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