A busy downtown intersection. No traffic lights, no road markings, no speed limits, no sidewalks, no pedestrian crossings. Cars, cyclists, pedestrians, all move on the same street level, side by side, carefully merging. In a number of Dutch cities this new concept of traffic regulation in urban settings, promoted by engineer Hans Monderman, has been implemented for some years now, with a convincing success. Accidents are extremely rare and if they occur insignificant. Other European cities have been following the example and the interest is spreading worldwide.
The key concept is that traffic lights, markings, signs tend to replace the sense of personal responsibility. A driver sees the green light, so he drives on unconcerned. An arrow directs him to the left, so he follows blindly. The new approach, on the other hand, is to focus on personal responsibility, on constant sensitiveness to others, on common sense. What dictates reactions on the street is a direct connection with the fellow-beings that surround us, catching their eyes, watching and expecting their movements, getting their signals to proceed or wait. The concept of “my right” and “your obligation” is replaced by “our togetherness”. People automatically adapt their behavior to that human reality. Imagine you drive your car through a playground full of children. You proceed inch by inch, constantly watching approaching children to make sure they have seen you and heed accordingly.
Is a comparison with our religion possible? Joseph Smith said: “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves”. It seems that, overall, Church leaders have emphasized the same message. You must decide for yourself what an honest tithe is. No local leader is supposed to add anything to the general statement. Word of Wisdom? No detailed lists are made of products that would be prohibited. Modesty is set as principle, and the Church does not publish a yearly guide of approved clothes.
But the tendency to further explicate general commandments into detailed rules is well known. The typical questions of investigators (and members): Is Coke allowed? Can we cook with wine? Is tithing on net or gross? Can we watch a football game on Sunday? (yes on TV but not in the stadium?) Some people answer these questions with precision and authority. Just like in traffic, they add lights, markings, signs that may diminish our personal responsibility and may make us forget the essence. Some religions have thus evolved into a mass of regulations and prohibitions that govern daily life.
The consequence of focusing on detailed rules, and neglecting the principles, is obvious. Someone can attend all Church meetings, and still fail to be a true Christian. The home teachers can do their monthly round for the report, and miss out on the true needs of families. If someone takes a cup of coffee in the morning and a glass of wine at dinner, and for the rest eats only healthy foods in a moderate way, he is probably more in line with the Word of Wisdom than someone who fanatically shuns coffee and alcohol, but gorges himself daily with junk food and decaffeinated coke. But traditional susceptibility to well defined external signs, like in the traffic comparison, delineates obedience or not. Many people want clear benchmarks.
I am interested in possible related implications. The Church is struggling with retention. In the mission field I have seen scores of people leave the Church, no doubt for a combination of factors, but the catalysts are often little rules that define their standing in the community. X is still hooked on his morning coffee. Y cannot have dinner without a glass of wine. Z goes and cheers for his sports team on Sunday afternoon. They are told and retold those things are unacceptable. Sometimes the preaching will help them change habits, sometimes it will contribute to loosening their ties with the Church and lead to inactivity.
At the same time we want all people, also those who struggle, to feel welcome in the Church and keep coming. To what extent can we look beyond the external signs and adapt with more comprehension to those with whom we cross the intersection of life? Can we accept a Church traffic where we respect each other’s realm, where we accommodate each other’s life styles? Would a still stronger reorientation of rules toward principles help people remain in the Church as we give them more latitude to interpret wisely principles like the Word of Wisdom or Sunday observance? Or would that lead to the undermining of such commandments and an overall weakening of commitment?