On the Half-Life of Admonitions

Latter-day Saints don’t watch R-rated movies. This is one of those specific, concrete directions that has an amazingly long half-life. It’s such an embedded aspect of LDS culture that I have no memory of being told it for the first time.

The upside of specific, concrete admonitions like this is that they are easy to understand, easy to remember, and easy to apply. This means they can have a great and lasting impact on the behavior of the Saints.

The downside of specific, concrete admonitions is that their clarity and simplicity can enable dereliction of duty. Practical admonitions are intended to provide practical guidance, but practical guidance is always funded on spiritual principle. It’s up to us unpack the admonition to access the spiritual payload within. Because specific, concrete admonitions are sticky (to use a marketing term), they can easily outlast their original context, however, and as they become divorced from their original context they are easier to treat as intrinsically valid rather than contingent upon some underlying principle.

The contextual drift happens on at least two levels. First, the admonition was almost certainly initially part of a longer address that provided immediate context. Second, the admonition was given at some point in the past and therefore relates to a historical context. The longer an admonition persists in the group consciousness, the further it drifts from its textual and historical context. It gets harder and harder to reverse engineer the admonition to unpack the principle it’s based on. Practical admonitions become zombies: outer law intact, inner spirit missing.

When this happens—when a practical admonition becomes a zombie—we end up treating it superficially. This is at least a partial failure, since all practical admonitions are supposed to influence behavior and instruct. If all that remains is the influence on behavior, the admonition is already halfway failed.

In particular, there are two distinct failure modes for treating practical admonitions superficially. On the one hand, we can embrace the law without pondering the spirit. This leads to brittle doctrinairism. Doctrinairism is a half-failure because it ignores the principle beneath the admonition, but it gets even worse.

If we don’t understand the spiritual principle then we are incapable of offering an adequate defense when the admonition is challenged. When a student or child or friend asks us why we should follow the admonition, we have nothing to offer them in answer. The failure to defend the admonition—or to contextualize it and suggest it may not be fully salient—not only erodes the credibility of that particular admonition (which may or may not be a problem, since the admonition may no longer be salient), but it also erodes credibility of practical admonitions from General Authorities generally (some of which are certainly salient at any point in time). Doctrinairism has some benefits in the short-run. Compliance with admonitions generally does a lot of good even when we don’t understand the underlying why, but it is ultimately self-defeating.

The second failure mode is to reject the law without pondering its spirit. This is far and away the more prevalent failure mode of our day. To be doctrinaire is to be counter-culture, so at least it’s got that going for it. To default to rejecting all perceived moral restrictions is libertinism, so you don’t even get the runner-up prize for non-conformity with the prevailing culture. There was a time when suspicion of God and Church was an act of defiance, but those days are long gone now. Skepticism is routine and even knee-jerk. It’s skepticism of the received wisdom of past skeptics that requires bravery and demonstrates originality.

In our day, every moral prohibition is assumed superfluous (if not sinister!) until proven otherwise. Meanwhile the tools necessary to make the case that a prohibition is beneficial and meaningful—abstract values like honor and virtue—are evaporating from our cultural awareness. In a world that is convinced the shallow concepts of harm and consent suffice to write the entire book of morality, good luck trying to make a case for any but the most brutally obvious of moral precepts.

Conventional wisdom asserts a false dichotomy that we have to reject: obey or think for yourself. The actual default course of action should be to obey and think for yourself. Consider the simple example I started with: don’t watch R-rated movies. This simplistic rule is historically and geographically contingent. You can’t have a rule about R-rated movies without movies and the Motion Pictures Association of America to rate them, so it doesn’t apply to a time before movies or to films made in countries outside the US. But the rule is always delivered in a context (General Conference talks about purity of thought, for example) and that context references an eternal principle, most frequently embodied in the 13th Article of Faith that borrows from Philippians 4:8

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

If you just thoughtlessly follow the rule, then you’re effectively outsourcing your spiritual discernment to the MPAA. That’s clearly not the final intent of the rule, which is to provide a practical step in the personal, ongoing quest to find beauty and truth and light and use them to fill your life. If you thoughtlessly spurn the rule, then you’re still abdicating the quest, but now you’re also risking subjecting yourself to ugliness and lies and darkness. This is not an improvement, nor does it imply or guarantee free thought.

On the other hand, there’s nothing to stop you from adhering to the rule while you work out its rationale and implications. Obedience and free thought are not mutually exclusive.

The General Authorities are not going to stop offering practical admonition, nor should they. The practical admonitions provide useful guidance and concrete instantiations of abstract principles. We need them, and it is the job of General Authorities to provide them.

But it is also or job to actively participate in receiving and decoding those principles. We need to be a little bit more mature as a people in how we receive the guidance. Doctrinairism has got to, for one, and along with it checklist religion and judgmentalism. Judgmentalism makes no sense because we’re all at different points in our spiritual progression and we’ve been commanded not to run faster than we can walk. It is generally a bad idea to undertake radical changes in your life in an attempt to leap-frog directly to a perfect end-state. The reality is that your spiritual discernment is going to grow gradually (assuming you tend it and heed it). If that’s true, it means everybody is taking baby-steps. And if everybody is taking baby-steps, then nobody is at the finish line. We need to be receptive to practical guidance from the General Authorities, but we should also strive to be thoughtful about that guidance and gentle with ourselves and with each other as we seek to incorporate it into our lives.

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