On a recent international flight, I found myself engaged in a gospel conversation with my seat mate, attempting to describe the Plan of Salvation: pre-existence, mortal life, spirit prison, and the three degrees of glory. My seat mate gave me an indulgent smile and said he thought my beliefs resembled a Parker Brothers board game, with all its little rules, stages, degrees, and “get out of spirit prison free” cards. I reluctantly agreed that my beliefs didn’t seem very aesthetically pleasing the way I had described it. Then I explained that what I liked about the Plan of Salvation was not all the theological details, but rather the Universal Laws underpinning it all, the concepts of eternal progression, grace, works, and justice which all beautifully intersect in LDS theology. Needless to say, my seat mate wasn’t able to appreciate the abstract view any better than the overly detailed one.
Since that disastrous conversation, I’ve thought more about the Universal Laws underpinning the details of LDS theology, and how I might be able to better articulate them. I’ve thought of three basic Universal Laws, out of which seem to spring all of the theologies, practices, and doctrines I can think of. This is too abstract to use as a missionary lesson, but it might be of some use to members who are fatigued by the fastidious details of Mormonism. Ultimately, I believe that our doctrines and practices may be temporary, but that these Universal Laws are eternal, and ultimately, that they are the essence and what is most important about all the little details.
1. The Law of the Harvest
This Law is about much more than just hard work and reaping fruits. It is also about the fruits of our evil works, justice. You reap what you sow. An eye for an eye. By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread. He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword. Eternal progression. You will become a God. Mormons, more than any other Christians believe strongly in the Law of the Harvest. It is the cardinal law of the Book of Mormon “If ye keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land.” We also share this emphasis with Buddhists and Hindus, who call it Karma.
2. The Law of Grace
Mercy. Atonement. Love. Answered prayers. This law allows others outside of ourselves to gift to us blessings and advantages which we did not merit or deserve. It allows for forgiveness and repentance. But it is also fundamentally unjust. The Book of Mormon says that we all deserve eternal hellfire, and that anything above that is thanks to God’s grace. It is not just God’s universal grace, but God’s arbitrary grace. In the parable of the laborers of the vineyard, the Lord gives the same reward to those who work all day as those who only work for an hour. It is God’s prerogative to bless whom He will bless. “I will forgive whom I will forgive.” God is entitled to promise salvation even to rebellious children sealed in the covenant over those not sealed in the covenant. He is entitled to promise salvation to children who die before the age of accountability, even if they were not tested and tried as others. Jesus healed the sick, but only the few who happened to cross his path on earth. So the concepts of mercy, atonement, and forgiveness are part of this law, but also the concepts of predestination, foreordination, and a “chosen” people. It allows people outside of ourselves, like Alma, to pray for special advantages to be given to their children over others, and for God to honor their desires. But God’s grace is also said to be sufficient for all men from an eternal perspective, as far as their ultimate salvation in the Kingdom of God, which is a promise no one deserves, but everyone is given.
3. The Law of Faith
Obedience, sacrifice, surrender, trust, humility, submission to authority. Honor thy Father and thy Mother. Keep my commandments. Humility. It is a universal spiritual law that we cannot progress and bear fruit eternally, unless we submit ourselves to a higher power, someone who knows better than us, and who can guide us along the path. On earth, we submit through faith, to God’s priesthood representatives, in the absence of His physical presence. Whenever we go somewhere new, we need a map, and we follow its instructions. When we cook a meal, we follow a recipe. When we are a child, we follow a parent to become an adult. When we are a soul, we follow a God to become a god ourselves. God frequently requires intense humility for submission. He gives us weak and despised priesthood leaders to rule over us. He forces us to chose the foolishness of God over the wisdom of men. But it is only through this intense humility that we are able to truly submit and surrender to him, as a child to his father.
Conflicts Between the Laws
The Law of Grace and the Law of the Harvest are in conflict. God states that he is no respecter of persons, yet he also chooses some people over others. People sin, yet they are not punished for those sins if they are lucky enough to hear about and accept the atonement of Christ. I can define my own life in terms of the Law of the Harvest. I am reaping the rewards of choices I made as a young man. I am successful because of my own efforts. But I can also define it in terms of the Law of Grace. There but by the grace of God go I. I only succeeded in school because of my nagging mother. I had huge advantages in my life by virtue of my DNA, my family, my church, my culture, the age I live in. All these things conspired to give me the greatest possible chance of success. Additionally, the grace we extend to others does not diminish us, but increases us. We cast our bread upon the waters and it returns to us tenfold. The Law of Faith is also in conflict with the Law of the Harvest, because faith works upon counterintuitive principles. “He who seeketh his life shall loose it. He who looseth his life shall find it.” Power to change and grow comes from surrender to a Higher Power, not from trying harder, as they teach in AA. It doesn’t make rational sense, yet it is true.
Mormonism’s Advantage: an Emphasis on All the Laws Equally
Because of the conflicts inherent in these Laws, most religions end up emphasizing one Law over another. Evangelicals overemphasize the Law of Grace and de-emphasize the Law of the Harvest. Eastern religions overemphasize the Law of the Harvest, and de-emphasize the Law of Grace. Liberal Christians de-emphasize the Law of Faith and Grace and overemphasize the Law of the Harvest. How different Mormons are. On the one hand we have Wendy Watson publishing a book which emphasizes the supremacy of the Law of the Harvest called Not Even Once. And at the same time we have dozens of popular Deseret Book authors championing the Law of Grace, with titles like Chances Are You’ll Be Exalted. There is a constant conflict in our church between Grace/Works/Faith, and it keeps our Gospel Doctrine classes interesting and gives us lots to fight about with Evangelicals and Liberal Christians. I think this is something we should be proud of. It is natural that a real religion would reflect the realities and paradoxes of life.
Doctrines and Practices are Temporary, Universal Laws are Eternal
I find the church of the Old Testament wildly different from the church of the New Testament. I also find the church of the Book of Mormon wildly different from the church of the Doctrine and Covenants. It has always bothered me that we say, “God’s laws never change” when it’s obvious from the scriptures that they change all the time. But understanding Universal Laws has helped me see that even when there are changes to theology, practice, and doctrine, the Universal Laws are still constant. The diverse theologies of varying dispensations still reflect the same Laws. What is important about the Law of Chastity for example, (which at various times has included polygamy, polyandry, eunuchs, celibacy, concubines, monogamy), is the fact that it is a commandment from God, in whatever iteration it happens to be in at the time. Thus it is under the universal Law of Faith. As a commandment, it challenges us, demands submission, and bears the fruit of that discipline and denial of the flesh. But the details of that commandment need not be eternal: whether we are humbly trying to love and be faithful to our many wives and concubines, or whether we are struggling to love and be faithful to a single wife. Underpinning all the temporary theological differences are universal constants: faith, grace, works.
Are there other Universal Laws that should be included in a more comprehensive list?
Do you agree that LDS theology can be overly detailed?
Do you agree that some of our theologies, doctrines, and practices may be temporary?
Do you find it useful to think of doctrine in terms of the application of Universal Laws?
Are Mormons guilty of overemphasizing the Law of the Harvest over Grace, or vice versa?
Do you find Universal Laws to be in conflict, and if so, how do you resolve these conflicts?