Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Chapter 19: In the World but Not of the World (Joseph Fielding Smith Manual)

Posted by Robert C. on September 29, 2014

The lesson can be found online here.

From the life

From the manual:

I met a number of young men who said, “We came in the Church because of the lives of these young men and because they taught us the principles of the gospel.”

They are doing a good work. There might be one or two that may be careless, but those young men with whom I had the privilege of meeting, talking to, would bear their testimony of the truth and were walking humbly.

And as I met with the officers and chaplains … , universally they said, “We like your young men. They are clean. They are dependable.”

How did the examples of the Mormon servicemen help bring others to the Gospel? What can we learn from this?

I find the specifics listed here quite interesting, in particular these traits: “walking humbly”; “clean”; “dependable.” I don’t think these characteristics are ones that we commonly think of, especially when it comes to thinking about being examples to others in a way that comprises a form of missionary work.

In fact, the lesson manual goes a somewhat different direction in its commentary, noting that Pres. Smith would often talk about “keeping the Sabbath day holy, obeying the Word of Wisdom, respecting the names of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, dressing modestly, and keeping the law of chastity.” Of course there is significant overlap with this list and the three traits cited in the previous couple of paragraphs (humility, cleanliness, and dependability). But I think the differences are also quite instructive: what we might think is most important in terms of being an example to others might in fact be quite different from the kinds of exemplary action that might actually have the most influence.

1. The Lord expects us to forsake the evils of the world

Just below the quotation from John 17, we read in the manual the following:

If we are living the religion which the Lord has revealed and which we have received, we do not belong to the world. We should have no part in all its foolishness. We should not partake of its sins and its errors—errors of philosophy and errors of doctrine, errors in regard to government, or whatever those errors may be—we have no part in it.

The only part we have is the keeping of the commandments of God. That is all, being true to every covenant and every obligation that we have entered into and taken upon ourselves.

Why does Pres. Smith contrast keeping the commandments with the foolishness and errors of the world?

There’s a rather famous passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where, just after the irreligious Ivan tells his more religious brother Alyosha the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Alyosha responds by kissing his brother—an act that mirrors Christ’s act in Ivan’s story. According to many (if not most) interpreters, the kiss represents the inarticulable sense in which “the triumph of love and faith, on their own terms, over[come] rational skepticism.” I see Pres. Smith making a similar move here: we might be tempted to overcome “errors of philosophy and errors of doctrine, errors in regard to government, or whatever” with improved philosophies and doctrines; but Pres. Smith suggests that a better response is (loving) obedience and fidelity—faithfulness, in a word.

I recently gave a lesson on Pres. Hales’ talk “If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments.” I remember this talk causing quite a stir in the Bloggernacle when it was given because many parts of this talk come across as a strong indictment of the Ordain Women movement. But this controversial issue was far removed from the hearts and minds of my elders’ quorum as I gave the lesson, and we had an intriguing and productive discussion about the link between obedience and love. (Searching the talk for the term “love” will give you several quotes that emphasize love in a way that formed the basis of our discussion. In short, rather than focusing on the “keep the commandments” part of the talk, we focused on the “if ye love me” part of the talk.) There is something about love that is . . . well, “antiphilosophical.” And, for someone like me who enjoys philosophical and doctrinal discussions, this is a powerful and sobering thought.

2. Blessings are greater than temporary pleasures

Why do often find that, in this world, the wicked prosper while the righteous do not?

Here is Pres. Smith’s response, effectively, to this question:

. . . Yes, we are in their world, but we do not have to be of it.

So, as this is their world we are living in, they prosper, but, my good brethren and sisters, their world is coming to its end. . . .

The day will come when we will not have this world. It will be changed. We will get a better world. We will get one that is righteous, because when Christ comes, he will cleanse the earth.

I confess that I often get frustrated with these kinds of responses that seem to deemphasize the present world. (This Patheos article by Jim Faulconer gets at the concerns I have.) However, I’ve been thinking recently a lot more about this issue (and about several points Jim F. makes in his article), and about the importance of hope (largely because of Joe Spencer’s book For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope), and I have a deeper appreciation of what I think Pres. Smith is getting at here. In the end, it seems to me that the question being posed in this section of the lesson can be boiled down to the following: would you rather prosper with the world, in its worldliness, or would you rather fight the good fight (and suffer the consequences) for the cause of Zion, even if you never get to see Zion established (in any more than a rather limited sense)?

I think this is a question we effectively answer in our actions and use of time each and every day. For me, Sunday afternoons (esp. when I don’t have Church meetings), are an especially important time, and I think my actions and decisions at this time provide an important reflection of my own spirituality. Some weeks, I honestly care more about relaxing and watching sports than I do about the cause of Zion. I don’t say this to put a guilt trip on anyone else—after all, I think watching some TV on Sundays can actually be a pretty decent way to relax/rest, and/or to build solidarity with others (something I learned watching the Steelers with others in my singles ward in Pittsburgh, back in the day). But it’s something that in my own personal life is significant right now: it’s hard for me to find a lot of time to spend with my family, and I’ve found Sunday afternoons to be a really good opportunity to spend quality time with my kids—and when I haven’t made the effort to make the most of this time, I come to regret it (or, at least I feel sad about my choice; I tend to believe that regret, as usually understood, in incompatible with the Gospel).

3. We can act as light to the world

From the second paragraph of this section:

We desire to see the Saints in every nation receive the full blessings of the gospel and stand as spiritual leaders in their nations.

How can we as Saints help the nations and broader communities that live in? Why does Pres. Smith focus on the specifically spiritual role that the Saints can have on nations?

I’m intrigued by the tension that seems implicit in placing this quote in this lesson. On the one hand, the Gospel puts us at odds with the world; on the other hand, living the Gospel is discussed here in terms of a serving a leadership role within the world.

This tensions is perhaps navigated by noting the qualifying term “spiritual” in the above quote. And in thinking more about this tension, I think that, on the one hand, it’s exciting and laudable that so many Mormons have been successful in public life in the U.S. Mitt Romney and Harry Reid have made a name for Mormons on the national political stage, and athletes like Steve Young and Dale Murphy (yes, I know there are more recent or notable athletes I should probably be quoting here, but these are the two that stand out most prominently in my own mind…) have done the same in sports. But, on the other hand (again), I worry about putting too much emphasis on the worldly success that these notable Mormons have achieved. By the yardstick of Pres. Smith’s quote above, we should take care only to praise the specifically spiritual aspect of prominent Mormon figures/leaders.

More importantly, I think the above quote from Pres. Smith calls for reflection about the way that we, as Mormons (who are also citizens of a particular country), can have spiritual influence in the larger communities of which we are a part. My fear is that most of us have fairly limited spiritual interaction with our larger communities. If you’re like me, there’s typically not much that can be characterized as spiritual in my interactions with non-members.

I’m mostly not sure what to do about this, and I’m anxious to hear others thoughts and ideas. The one idea that occurs to me is to be more anxiously involved in community service. Honestly, my plate is a little too full right now to do much community service, but reflecting on this lesson has deepened my resolve to become more anxiously involved, as soon as possible, in some form of service within my community—as a personally consecrated effort to navigate the tension between the world and the Kingdom of God.

2 Responses to “RS/MP Chapter 19: In the World but Not of the World (Joseph Fielding Smith Manual)”

  1. Hope there will be something up soon for Chapter 21. Thank you.

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