STQ: Blind Obedience

February 11, 2004 | 8 comments
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The words “blind obedience” have a negative connotation. They imply something different from “obedience,” standing alone, which is generally thought to be a good thing. The expression “blind obedience” could suggest faith in the face of uncertainty, but it doesn’t. Instead, it suggests unquestioning adherence to inherently imprecise rules, even in the face of silly or adverse consequences.

As an animating life principle, “blind obedience” doesn’t have much traction. The Gospel simply does not contain enough rules to direct my day. Yogurt or granola for breakfast? Should we invite the Wheatleys or the Adamses to dinner? Should I help my son with algebra, hire a tutor, or just let him try to work it out? Should I read about corporate law or venture capital tonight? Or skip both in favor of The Da Vinci Code? Even though I may embrace certain rules, a life of “blind obedience” would require rulemaking on a scale that would make the IRS blush.

As a result, we tend to use “blind obedience” selectively. It is an accusation that we hurl at people who are taking a certain rule to what we perceive as extremes. For example, we might criticize someone who refuses to see Passion because it is rated R. In this context, the adjective “blind” connotes “unthinking” or “unreasonable” obedience.

Which brings me to Solomon, the current focus of study in my Seminary class. Of course, Solomon was known for his “wisdom,” but he also was a very spiritual man. Or so I infer from the fact that God appeared to Solomon twice, and on both occasions, God was pleased with Solomon. In the second visitation, Solomon is told to walk in “integrity of heart.” 2 Kings 9:4. If Solomon does this, his throne will be established forever, a promise that seems to have both earthly and spiritual dimensions. On the other hand, if Solomon turns away from God, the Lord will “cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them.” 2 Kings 9:7 Again, the spiritual dimensions are clear: the land is the Promised Land, the land where Israel could dwell with God; to be “cut off” from that land is spiritual death.

As you undoubtedly know, Solomon could not hold it together. He imported “many strange women” (2 Kings 11:1) who “turned away his heart.” How could this have happened? Unfortunately, the details surrounding Solomon’s change of heart are sparse, but general progression is not hard to imagine. Remember that Solomon was not only the smartest man around, but also the richest. (Standing on the backs of the people will do that.) I suspect that his fall was the end result of a gradual erosion. (He was king for 40 years, so he had time to erode.) A little compromise here, a small concession there. When you are smart and rich — in addition to having been visited by God! — it would be easy to believe that you are the master of your own passions.

In my view, Solomon is a case study for “blind obedience.” God gave him a rule when considering prospective wives: “Ye shall not go in to them [the foreign women], neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” To Solomon’s expansive mind, this rule must have seemed a bit provincial. What God was really concerned about was the possibility that Solomon would turn to other gods, Just because his wives worshipped other gods …

The power of rationalization is immense. And I suspect that it increases with education and intelligence. By definition, “blind obedience” provides a check against rationalization.

Therefore, my Seminary Thought Question is as follows: Although we generally think of “living by the Spirit” as a good thing, isn’t there a role in every person’s life for “blind obedience”?

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8 Responses to STQ: Blind Obedience

  1. Brent on February 11, 2004 at 12:57 pm

    I would say, yes and no. I went back over your post to glean a definition for what you call blind obedience. It appears you mean “unquestioning adherence to inherently imprecise rules, even in the face of silly or adverse consequences.” Is it better to obey the commandments or other similar life rules without questioning, rather than disobey? Probably. However, the higher law, is intelligent obedience. Elder Perry made this point in his talk last general conference:

    http://www.lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,23-1-401-26,00.html

    He says: “We have never been encouraged to be blindly obedient; it is an intelligent obedience that characterizes members of the Church.

    Brigham Young is reported to have said that the greatest fear he had was that members of the Church would take what he said as the mind and will of God without first praying and obtaining a witness of the same for themselves.”

    I think that “living by the Spirit” would require that we obey, and not rationalize out of obedience. Had Solomon been truly living by the Spirit, do you think the Spirit would have allowed him to stray? Of course not. The Spirit teaches truth, the Spirit supports God’s commands. Again, if you mean by your question “isn’t there a role in every person’s life for “blind obedience”? that it is preferable to obey commandments we don’t understand rather than rationalize breaking them, then the answer is yes. However, God wants us to know and understand His mind and will. He wants us to, as the Savior did, let our will be swallowed up by His will. If that is how we are living, we will never be blindly obedient. Even if you are not given understanding for a rule, we can still know with a surety that it is God’s rule and that we should obey it. In that situation, we are able to lay hold of every good thing–to make them our own. Moroni 7 provides the map for doing this.

  2. Bob Caswell on February 11, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    Good point, Gordon. Thanks for making a post I’m interested in. I’ve always seen “blind obedience” as something to avoid. But I can see how it may be necessary for certain aspects of the Gospel.

    Brent’s comment on “intelligent obedience” is interesting. In a perfect world, we’d always want to be intelligently obedient. But often, this is not possible.

    Let’s take the Word of Wisdom, for example. What it says in the D&C and how we actually live according to the WofW is quite different. The brethren have told us the proper interpretation is not to drink coffee, certain types of tea, alcohol, etc. We can spend all day thinking to ourselves that some study has proven that the exact way we live the WofW is the perfect way for health. But I don’t really think God has it in his ultimate plan for each of us to know exactly why black/green tea are bad where as herbal tea is good. Or why Coffee that is decaffeinated is still bad.

    Now there’s a study suggesting that a glass of wine a day is good for the body. Now, I don’t know if that is true or not. But if it is true, who cares? It doesn’t disprove anything to me.

    I think we take the words of our prophets and in some ways, “blindly” obey. That’s not to say that we don’t have a testimony of living by the principle of the Word of Wisdom. I’m just saying that sometimes there isn’t the most rational explanation. You do it because you feel that it is the right thing to do. Not because you know some scientific experiment is backing you up if your testimony fails.

  3. Gordon Smith on February 11, 2004 at 2:19 pm

    Brent, I struggled to write this up in a way that was provocative, not obvious, and I appreciate your approaching it in that way. Your search for my definition of “blind obedience” (you landed on the relevant text, by the way) prompts me to pursue a similar line of inquiry: what does Elder Perry mean by “intelligent obedience”? After reading that talk, I suspect that he would agree with something like this as an interpretive rule: “Obey unless the Spirit commands you not to obey.”

    Think about that for a few seconds, and I believe that you will agree: this comports perfectly with my endorsement of blind obedience as “unquestioning adherence to inherently imprecise rules, even in the face of silly or adverse consequences.” Of course, there is no need to add “unless the Spirit commands you not to obey”; if you aren’t listening to the commands of the Spirit, you are being disobedient, and the notion of “blind obedience” becomes truly ridiculous.

    One potential quibble. You write: “Had Solomon been truly living by the Spirit, do you think the Spirit would have allowed him to stray?” If our rule is “Obey unless the Spirit commands you not to obey,” then the answer to your question is as obvious as you think it is. But I wonder about the implication that the Spirit constrains us to keep the commandments. Even if we strive to follow the Spirit, my sense is that He often leaves us on our own, so that our spirits might learn to make decisions without relying on Him. After all, we need to become independent actors at some point. The process is very much like the process of teaching a toddler to walk; at first we hold the torso, then the hands, and eventually we just catch them when they stumble. The implication is that our reliance on the Spirit declines (or maybe it just shifts to different issues) as we progress.

  4. Gordon Smith on February 11, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    My previous comment was too long-winded, but I should add the Elder Perry’s concept of “intelligent obedience” also implies that each person will gain a revelatory witness of the truth of Gospel principles. So it probably looks like this: Get a testimony of the commandments, then obey them, unless the Spirit commands you not to obey. This doesn’t change my analysis or conclusions, but it suggests that his distinction between “intelligent” and “blind” rests in the testimony prong, rather than the obedience prong.

  5. Grasshopper on February 11, 2004 at 3:03 pm

    I think that’s a good point, Gordon, but I think it goes beyond the “testimony” prong. I think all of us need “blind obedience” in the sense of “not understanding why, but obeying anyway” to the extent that we are unable to understand. For instance, my child should obey some of my instructions even if he doesn’t understand why, but I hope this is only a temporary situation. I hope that in the future he will be at a stage of development where he can understand the reasons behind my instructions and understandingly choose to follow them (“intelligent obedience”). The distinction here is not just one of “testimony” that something is right, but of development: gaining an understanding of *why* it is right.

    I think another aspect of “blind obedience” that is criticized is its association with a “my way is the only right way” attitude. “Blind obedience” sees only one option, IMO (or maybe two: right and wrong), while “intelligent obedience” sees multiple options and realizes that while there may be exceptions to the rule, for the current situation, obedience to the rule is the right course.

    And I think both “blind obedience” and “intelligent obedience” are preparatory stages for full cooperation in unity with God.

  6. Brent on February 11, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    Gordon, it really seems that when you break it down, “blind obedience”, as you have explained it, and “intelligent obedience” may really be the same thing. If being blindly obedient really has a role in our lives, it is only to the extent that we agree to some underlying principle. I think Joseph Smith summed this up by saying something to the effect that “When God commands, I obey.” We have to determine in the first place the source of our “inherently imprecise rules” and what these rules are before we can adhere to them regardless of their outcome. Again, I think Elder Parry and Brigham Young would prefer simply taking them at their word about God’s will and being obedient to their counsel rather than having someone disobey, but it is preferable to secure confirmation of the counsel for ourselves. In either case, “blind obedience” may be appropriate.

    As to the Spirit, I think you are correct that the better we become at walking in righteousness the less we need the constant hand holding and correction. However, interestingly, it seems that the better we get at this spiritual walking, the greater access we are supposed to have to the Spirit. Nephi taught that the Holy Ghost will show us all things that we should do. 2 Nephi 32:5. (I am not suggesting that we need spirital confirmation of what suit to where to work, or what road to take or a myriad of other things which our reason ought to dictate). However, we should live in such a way so that Spirit can show to us how we are to apply in our own personal lives, with all of the complexities that come with living in this world, the words of Christ upon which we are to feast. 2 Nephi 32:3. Thus, I would suggest that rather that altough we may not need guidance in ways we did before, because we have learned our lessons, that rather than be more independent, we experience greater synergy, we become more at one with the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Indeed isn’t that the purpose of the At-one-ment, to make possible our becoming one with God. We are expected to take the steps and learn to run on our own, but we are to learn to make our steps in line with those of Our Father and His Son. We are to make our steps their steps.

  7. Grasshopper on February 11, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    ** LONG POST **

    One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from George Q. Cannon:

    ——————————————

    It is the design of the Lord to develop within every man and woman the principle of knowledge, that all may know for themselves. He has poured out His holy spirit upon all of us, and not upon President Young nor upon bro. Joseph alone. The Lord designs that the principle of knowledge shall be developed in every heart, that all may stand before Him in the dignity of their manhood, doing understandingly what He requires of them, not depending upon nor being blindly led by their priests or leaders, as is the universal custom and one of the most fruitful sources of evil to the people on the face of the earth. God intends to break down this order of things, and to develop in the bosom of every human being who will be obedient to the gospel and the principles of truth and righteousness, that knowledge which will enable them to perform understandingly all the labors and duties he requires of them.

    If we, in our experience, have not yet proved the truth of the words of the prophet – “Cursed is he that trusteth in man, or maketh flesh his arm” – probably we will do if we live long enough. There is a curse attending every man and woman who does this. If we will watch the operations of the gospel of Jesus Christ among us, we will see that it has a tendency to develop knowledge in the bosoms of all, and it is the design of Providence that it should be so. We must all learn to depend upon God and upon Him alone. Why, the very man upon whom we think we can rely with unbounded confidence, and trust with all we possess, may disappoint us sometimes, but trust in God and He never fails. We can go before Him at all times, and upon all occasions, and pour out our souls and desires before Him, and we feel that we lean upon a rock that will not fail, and upon a friend that will not desert us in the day of trial. He is omnipotent, and in Him only can we trust under all circumstances, therefore we perceive why the prophet has said – “Cursed is he that trusteth in man, or maketh flesh his arm.”

    God, our Heavenly Father, designs that all who will observe truth and righteousness should possess wisdom and understanding for themselves, and He is bringing us through circumstances that will develop within us that portion of the Godhead or Deity which we have received from Him, that we may become worthy of our high and glorious parentage. This being His design respecting us, we should seek by every means in our power to aid Him in carrying it out, until the whole people are enlightened by His Spirit, and act understandingly and in concert in carrying out His designs. In other systems the design is to keep the people down in ignorance and darkness respecting the principles that are taught them, to keep the knowledge in the hands of a select few, upon whom the people are forced to depend, but this is not the genius of the Kingdom of God. The spirit of the church of God is that manifested by Moses when, in answer to Joshua, who wished him to reprove some who were prophesying, he said – “No; but I would to God that all were prophets.” That is the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The genius of the kingdom with which we are associated is to disseminate knowledge through all the ranks of the people, and to make every man a prophet and every woman a prophetess, that they may understand the plans and purposes of God. For this purpose the gospel has been sent to us, and the humblest may obtain its spirit and testimony, and the weakest of the weak may obtain a knowledge respecting the purposes of God. This is the difference between the church and kingdom of God and the creeds and institutions of men. The idea that prevails in the world concerning us is that we are hoodwinked and led blindly by our leaders; but the contrary to this is the case, for it is the wish of every man who comprehends this work that the people should all understand it. The bishops and teachers, if they have the right spirit, wish their wards to understand the principles of the gospel and the requirements of heaven as they understand them, and so it is through all grades of the priesthood and through all the ramifications of the church of God. If we take this course continually we will become a great and mighty people before the Lord. If we do anything let us do it understandingly. If we hear any principle taught from the stand that we do not understand let us seek to comprehend it by the Spirit of God. If it be not of God we have the privilege of knowing it. We are not required to receive for doctrine everything that we hear. We may say – “I do not know whether this is true or not, I will not fight it, neither will I endorse it, but I will seek knowledge from God, for that is my privilege, and I will never rest satisfied until I have obtained the light I require.” If you hear a doctrine that does not agree with your feelings, or that you do not believe, take this course; do not reject nor endorse hastily, without knowing or understanding. By taking this course you will develop the principle that God designs we should possess, and we will thus become a wise and understanding people, for we will be based on the Rock of Revelation.

    May this be the case with you, my brethren and sisters, until you are brought back into the presence of God, to dwell at His right hand eternally, is my prayer for Christ’s sake. Amen.

    (JD 12:45-48)

  8. Restoring Lost Comments on November 25, 2004 at 11:27 pm

    [Restoring Comments Inadvertently Lost in the WP transfer] :

    Gordon,
    One way to summarize the general approach is that leaders want blind obedience but do not want to call it blind obedience, preferring instead terms like “intelligent obedience” or “following the Spirit.” It would be expecting a lot of any leader to explain to followers that there are times when leaders should be quietly ignored.
    Compare how often you hear stories in church or Conference about a member who doubts or questions counsel yet faithfully follows it and is then blessed, with how rarely you hear stories about someone who does so and discovers they obeyed in error or quietly disobeyed and later were blessed for their disobedience (probably never). Whether termed blind, intelligent, or spirit-directed, the kind of obedience they expect is complete obedience, evident from the stories they tell. They aren’t particular about how members choose to rationalize complete obedience.
    I don’t mean to sound cynical, I’m trying to be descriptive. I think “complete obedience” is, in fact, the best objective description of what is expected.
    Comment by: Dave at February 11, 2004 03:47 PM

    *****

    Nice comments all around. Following grasshopper’s lead, I will hereafter talk about “blind obedience” as obedience without understanding and “intelligent obedience” as obedience with understanding. One who does both exercises “complete obedience.” (Thanks, Dave.) Does that make sense?
    I also embrace the idea, expressed by grasshopper and Brother Cannon, that complete obedience prepares us “for full cooperation in unity with God.” In other words, obedience is a transitional stage.
    This has some amazing implications. It suggests, for example, that one who internalizes a commandment moves from obeying the commandment to embodying the commandment. In other words, that person acts in accord with the commandment not out of obedience, but rather because the person has changed his or her nature. Once we embrace all of the commandments (even those that we have not yet received) to this extent, we become like God.
    Comment by: Gordon Smith at February 11, 2004 04:20 PM

    *****

    This has been a fun one. Gordon, it seems that in your last comment, you put together a nice set of instructions as to how to interpret terms like, “blind obedience”, “intelligent obedience”, and “complete obedience”. It works for me on many levels.
    But I can’t help but point out that these terms (especially blind obedience) are used fairly often in the Church. When used by other members, it’s anyone’s guess what the denotation/connotation is. Thus, especially when General Authorities use it, the phrase gets popular and is quickly used for a given speaker’s own purposes, creating all sorts of interesting definitions.
    Just look at the way I worded my first comment. Had I waited for everyone to clarify, and then waited for Gordon to put together his mini-thesis, my comment would have been much different because my mentality on this subject has changed for the better; and I ‘m no longer limited to my preconceived notions of what “blind obedience� means.
    I’m not sure what that means, but thanks.
    Comment by: Bob Caswell at February 11, 2004 04:57 PM

    *****

    From reading too much anti and exmormon literature, “blind obediance” is often applied to us as a derogatory term, implying a mindless army of zombie lemmings at Pres. Hinckley’s command. (THese people obviously haven’t been to the gospel doctrine class in MY ward:)
    However, as some have suggested, there is a place for this. Blind means not being able to see, and this is always the case for us. We don’t know what consequences our choices will have. “Do what is right, let the consequence follow.”
    I had a of us Jewish professor once talk to a small group about revelation. He asked, for sake of argument, on what basis can we fault a fundamentalist muslim who believes God has commanded him to kill civilians? Isn’t that revelation?(His point was to suggest that revelation must be limited by rationalism.) My response was, “Are you saying Abraham should have refused to sacrifice Isaac?” My point is that Abraham at that point knew for a fact what God had commanded him to do. (I’ll set aside the issue of how we know whether God has in fact commanded us to do something or not.) He did not know the outcome. In other words, he was blind. Yet he obeyed. Now, lest I get jumped on, I think Abraham is the exception to the rule, as God did not actually intend for Abraham to carry out his commandment. But we, like him, can’t know the results of our actions.
    There’s a nice collection of quotes by Church leaders on this at http://www.fairlds.org/apol/misc/misc17.html
    Thanks for the thought provoking post.
    Comment by: Ben at February 11, 2004 05:41 PM

    *****

    From reading too much anti and exmormon literature, “blind obediance” is often applied to us as a derogatory term, implying a mindless army of zombie lemmings at Pres. Hinckley’s command. (THese people obviously haven’t been to the gospel doctrine class in MY ward:)
    However, as some have suggested, there is a place for this. Blind means not being able to see, and this is always the case for us. We don’t know what consequences our choices will have. “Do what is right, let the consequence follow.”
    I had a Jewish professor once talk to a small group about revelation. He asked, for sake of argument, on what basis can we fault a fundamentalist muslim who believes God has commanded him to kill civilians? Isn’t that revelation?(His point was to suggest that revelation must be limited by rationalism.) My response was, “Are you saying Abraham should have refused to sacrifice Isaac?” My point is that Abraham at that point knew for a fact what God had commanded him to do. (I’ll set aside the issue of how we know whether God has in fact commanded us to do something or not.) He did not know the outcome. In other words, he was blind. Yet he obeyed. Now, lest I get jumped on, I think Abraham is the exception to the rule, as God did not actually intend for Abraham to carry out his commandment. But we, like him, can’t know the results of our actions.
    There’s a nice collection of quotes by Church leaders on this at http://www.fairlds.org/apol/misc/misc17.html
    Thanks for the thought provoking post.
    Comment by: Ben at February 11, 2004 05:41 PM

    *****

    “Once we embrace all of the commandments (even those that we have not yet received) to this extent, we become like God.”
    This presents an interesting counterpoint to the instruction that it is not meet that we be commanded in all things.
    gf
    Comment by: greenfrog at February 11, 2004 06:07 PM

    *****

    Bob, Regarding your latest comment, I assume that lexicon will last as long as this thread. There is no hope of rescuing “blind obedience” from the list of tainted terms … unless President Hinckley decides to follow our lead. (tic) Just looking back, my original attempt — “unquestioning adherence to inherently imprecise rules, even in the face of silly or adverse consequences” — could describe what I am now calling blind obedience and intelligent obedience. In my view, neither of these is inherently negative or positive, and I suppose that either could, in the right circumstances, go either way.
    I am interested in greenfrog’s comment. Greenfrog is obviously very perceptive because she (he?) picked up on the sentence I was most uncomfortable writing. Indeed, I was pondering the idea of not being commanded in all things when I posted that comment. What does that admonition mean? My take (after a few minutes of reflection) is that it means three things:
    1. Many mundane tasks that comprise the bulk of every day. We do not need to be commanded in such things.
    2. The admonition could be aimed at the application of certain Gospel standards. (Back to the rules v. standards jargon.) We are told to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” but many specific applications are left open. We need to learn to embrace that commandment fully, without the need for prompting in every instance.
    3. As noted above, my feeling is that fully internalizing a commandment moves us out of the realm of obedience and into the realm of autonomy (with regard to that commandment). When that happens, we are no longer commanded in that thing.
    Are there things that we need to do to obtain exaltation and for which we receive no commandment? I don’t know the answer to that. My hunch (warning … wild speculation!) is that we probably will be left on our own if we progress to a certain level, just as Jesus was left alone on the cross. If such an event happens, it seems like a late-stage test. For the moment, I need to concentrate on being a better dad.
    Comment by: Gordon Smith at February 12, 2004 12:07 AM