I noticed something commonplace in the talks this last conference. By commonplace I mean something that appears in the talks every conference. A few examples will suffice. Todd Christofferson of the Seventy talked about inward conversion. The first step, he said, is putting aside “the attitude that rejects the authority of God to rule in our lives.” We must acknowledge “God’s right to declare the truth and establish the law.” Brother Eyring spoke of the purpose of life. He found from the revelations that it was “to prove them [us] herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” He continued: “trials in life . . . give us the opportunity to prove ourselves faithful to God.” Why not, I wondered, speak of the opportunity to prove ourselves faithful to the principles of justice and so forth? What does obedience add? I’m wondering about the nature of a complex of concepts: obedience, loyalty, and fealty.
Loyalty and fealty seem alien to modern life (though no doubt they’re under the surface). One of the oddest people I’ve met at church is an old Mexican man who attends regularly. As best as I can make out, he thinks the Catholic church is an improvement on ours (although he always says it so delicately and so reluctantly) but he comes because his patron, or rather his former patron, is a member and he feels obligated. This man is antique. Even a hundred years ago when Kipling wished to write about loyalty he had to go to the past:
We hold that in all disaster
Of shipwreck, storm, or sword,
A Man must stand by his Master
When once he has pledged his word.
But the very age of fealty and loyalty allow us to see that they are not easily reducible to merely love or self-interest or anything else. They have a quality all their own.
And also obedience. There is such a thing as the will to obey. Obedience is not, as our times have accustomed us to believe, merely a fear of the hard work of thinking for oneself or a conditioned reflex wormed into the brain. Nor is obedience nothing but the normal LDS calculation that every good act will bring a blessing or that God is worth obeying because he shares our objectives and has superior resources of knowledge. I do not mean to insult such obedience when I say that it is merely prudence for believers. I do mean to say that your and my experience of obedience is more than this.
I’m no taxonomist of human desires. I can’t say exactly what the additional something is. If I may be allowed to express murkily, what I see only poorly, I would say that additional something is a love of madness. From the credo qui absurdum to the muerte a la inteligencia, something in the human spirit feels lessened by sense and civilization. Something finds joy in shrugging off reason. It likes us not, but there it is, and what are you going to do with it? Perhaps sacrifice is the divine channel for this something, and obedience is the highest manifestation of it. At obedience’s core we cease to sacrifice for the good of a cause or our own good or another’s, or any good at all, yet we sacrifice because our master has spoken. We thrill to say, I know not, save the Lord commanded me.
We know that God has given us passions, skills, desires, a whole treasury of dangerous gifts, which we must learn to subdue, subdue ultimately by learning to forgo entirely in the Savior’s promise that what we would find we must lose. Is reason itself a gift to be subdued? I hardly dare answer. If so, the love of unreason may not be the love of unreason at all, yet a love still, or rather a desire to love. Let us call it the soul’s desire to love something so intensely that nothing, not even sense, can be kept back. Or perhaps this love is really a disgust with self . . .
I can hardly write more. I feel I’ve gone so deep into messy places in the soul that I myself hardly know where I am. Only God knows, and Christ, and maybe Abraham. They’ve gone further down and further in. Brothers, sisters, I don’t know what you make of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. I know like me you treat it as the pinnacle of faith and the model for each of us the fire we must pass through before we are made perfect. But if you’re like me you’ve never heard an explanation of it in words that made more than Sunday-go-to-meetin’ sense and though you felt some half-comprehension in your gut you were afraid—you are afraid—of ever comprehending it more.
A BYU professor has brought this up in First Things, or rather the book he reviews has brought it up.
On Pangle’s account, biblical faith terminates in the following impasse: Abraham’s “unequaled deed” seems to represent the highest possibility of the human soul, a kind of nobility beyond nobility, a truly transcendent orientation of the mind and heart. But as we rationally scrutinize Abraham’s possible motives, we seem to be left with this uninspiring alternative: either Abraham’s deed is completely unintelligible, arbitrary, groundless, and effectively mad—the act of a man who deliberately does what he knows not to be good for him; or it must be explained in terms of rational and egoistic calculation (in terms of what was good for him). In either case, obviously, the biblical promise of transcendence proves to be a pure illusion. The reviewer is able to dismiss the alternatives the author proposes to the Abrahamic faith, but he never proffers a defense of Abraham and his sacrifice.
If obedience is more than a rational deference to superior knowledge, we can understand why Christ can continue obedient to the Father though now the Father’s equal in every way. He obeys precisely because, not needing to obey, his obedience shows love. Because the Father and the Son interact to show love and respect and hierarchy, not to share information, their conversations have the curious ritual quality we see in the scriptures and the temple.