Things To Act
Monday, May 10, 2004
The Condescension Of Us?
Now instead of moving on to Urban Planning in Zion, which I had put on my List of Things To Think About Later, writing the below post has triggered a different, lower, item on the list.

I've been thinking lately, to a degree, that in one sense our mission to Proclaim the Gospel isn't too different from our mission to Perfect the Saints. PtG, when done right, doesn't consist of shoving a BOM at a nonmember and telling him to read Moroni 10:3-5, read the whole book, and pray. Rather, it seems to consist of honestly evaluating said nonmember's spiritual state and readiness, and inviting him to consider something that will bring him closer to the restored Gospel [regardless of whether or not it brings him into the Church--we are interested in reducing every form of transgression, and in helping all understand as much of the path to happiness as they can handle]. Similarly, our duty to PtS doesn't consist mainly of prodding people until they go to the Temple, but rather of helping people (including ourselves) better understand and live the commandments and find a more enriching relationship with the Divine. Neither exercise consists only of telling someone what to do and leaving him to carry out the whole program; both involve estimating what next step the person can handle, and inviting him to take it. While both processes have quantifiable milestones, neither can be easily captured by the statistical models we use. Our interest is ultimately in conversion, not in numbers. And our actions, when done properly, reflect that higher interest.

Herein lies the problem. It's arrogant (if understandable) in one sense to solemnly proclaim that others need to be baptized, go to the Temple, etc, to be saved. Such arrogance, though, is based on a simple, quantifiable model: X is necessary for salvation. You haven't done X. Therefore, you must do X to be saved. It seems, at the next level, far more arrogant to say: Y is an attribute of perfection. You haven't achieved Y perfectly, or even sufficiently (in my opinion). Therefore, you must improve Y to be perfect.

In a sense, it seems supremely arrogant to go around telling others "You really ought to stop smoking, whether or not you ever join the Church," or "Your idleness is leading you to fritter away time you could spend anxiously engaged in some better cause," or "Your lack of charity is most disappointing and ought to be rectified at the first available opportunity." And indeed, our calling to perfect others is not mainly a call to go around pointing out their sins to them. Others are usually A) perfectly aware of their sins and working on them on their own schedule, or B) not inclined to start viewing certain actions as sins just because I said so.

However, often we aren't aware of our shortcomings, and someone can capture in words a problem we've been struggling with without being able to define (or perhaps simply haven't fixed because we weren't aware of). And often our understanding of proper behavior can be enhanced when others gently let us know why something we do may not be entirely proper (perhaps we've simply never considered it before, or were unaware of how it made others feel, or whatever, but when presented with new understanding, are perfectly willing to change our behavior for the better). So I think we often do have a duty to help those around us become better. I easily recognize my own shortcomings in this department, but cannot abandon the notion because the most Christlike people I've known have seemed to faithfully undertake this duty and help me become better, whether or not they were aware of it.

Perhaps awareness is the key--if those who really have advanced farther are humble enough to not be aware of it, then arrogance isn't a problem. Or perhaps simply remembering that different individuals have different talents is sufficient to remind us that while we can help someone in one area, he can help us in another.

But perhaps the model is better expressed in terms of autonomy. Parents have a duty to teach their children how to seek after righteousness, but once the children become adults, they become the masters of their fate; if as adults they choose to seek out ways to become better, they can, but everyone is forbidden from taking note of their obvious shortcomings and offering to help them overcome them, because we aren't called to point out the faults in others, only ourselves. We simply offer others goodness, and it's up to them to take it.

But this model doesn't seem quite right to me, if only for the problem of knowing which goodness to offer others. Deciding how to act towards others always involves judging what they want to/are prepared to accept. I treat one of my freshman students asking about something differently than I treat a senior in my major discussing the same question. Spiritually, I often find myself making judgments about whether someone is a 'freshman' or 'senior,' and tailoring my response accordingly. And as I expect others to do the same to me, I can't quite abandon the notion that we must use appropriate judgment, or at least discernment, in our dealings with others. And since we are called to help others become better, we are naturally going to have to judge areas in which they need improvement. Which seems awfully condescending.

Perhaps the reason my list of truly Christlike people that I've met is so short is because the balance is exceedingly difficult to pull off properly. But it seems worth attempting [though it's probably better to err on the side of humility, when in doubt].

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