19 January 2007

The Problem of Perfection: Parts I & II

. . . or several problems rather, but I like the singular title's parallels to CS Lewis' The Problem of Pain. In many ways, the problems with pain and perfection are similar. Here are some specific issues of perfection I've been thinking about. Any commentary would be helpful, as I'm still undecided on most of them.

1. Perfection and the atonement: I finally got around to watching States of Grace the other week. Very interesting movie. Not quite how I would have done it, but then I didn't do it so I suppose I should expect that. Anyway, the critical point I got the first time through the movie was this: do we really believe in the atonement? In the Church, it sometimes seems that we are extremely comfortable with the idea of the atonement helping us with our weaknesses, our imperfections, and our minor mistakes. But when it comes to the truly awful sins, we seem to have a harder time of it. When we pass the threshold from careless mistakes into truly bad sins, it seems we would rather die than work it out--better to be dead than dishonored. We know we were wrong, but it seems now impossible to live down the fact that we made the wrong decision. We expect a certain degree of perfection out of ourselves. It's as if, past a certain point, we don't really believe that God could remember our sins no more. Or perhaps it is our neighbors we are worried about more than God.

One particular example is the idea we encourage in the Church that all women should marry an RM. (That's returned missionary for the two non-LDS readers I might have.) Now, of course I'm a fan of missions, and telling the young men they must go on missions or the girls will never marry them perhaps adds additional motivation (though probably not the most noble one). But after 19, when the mission was either served or not served, is this a fair requirement to keep holding up? Where does this leave men who were not worthy to go on missions? Do they become forever the social outcasts because at one point in their life they weren't worthy?

It's my belief that young women should search for someone who's worthy now, regardless of what they were doing at that point in their life. Not serving a mission doesn't necessarily indicate their current personal state, just as a past mission doesn't guarantee their righteousness. It seems to me hypocritical to say the atonement can change us, and yet to set our standards for people somewhere in the past. Which is why RM is only on my "would be nice to have" list and not my "must have" list, which instead has "worthy, faithful priesthood holder."

Then again, past behavior can sometimes be an indicator of future problems. Do you see my dilemma? Where do we draw the line between being forgiving of mistakes and being careful not to be burned twice?

2. Perfection of the Church as an institution: Are we as Church members are we required to believe the Church as an institution is perfect? I'm not certain as to the answer to this question. There are different levels at which we could criticize the Church. The first would be criticizing the doctrines of the Church, which for me is pretty easy to throw out as unacceptable. But just down from that we have criticizing the GAs. My opinion on this is less solid. Obviously, where it coincides with criticizing doctrine, it is dangerous. Still I'm not convinced that because God will never allow them to lead us astray means they are infallible. (Hopefully I'll be able to clear up my opinion on this when my Hugh Nibley class gets around to reading his article "Criticizing the Brethren.")

Just down from this level, we have criticizing the programs of the Church. For example, I am really not a fan of the Young Women's program. In fact, I pretty much think the personal progress program is absurd, possibly immoral. It seems to me like it's only real purpose would be to force spiritual growth in the youth, which we know is impossible. So it ends up just being a set of hoops to jump through so you can have your spirituality recognized before the rest of the ward. Can we say scribes and Pharisees? I know I grew a lot spiritually during the YW years of my life, but little of that growth was connected to the program. It was too restrictive, too generic, and too artificial. And yet, my mom still feels disappointed that I didn't get the YW medallion, even though I arguably knew a lot more about the gospel than some girls who did. (Gosh, that sounds prideful. Please don't take it the wrong way.) I just didn't feel the need to jump through the hoops to obtain a necklace as proof that I had a testimony. It just feels all wrong. (I'll make a similar argument against the scouting program.) But is it wrong of me to make this criticism? I don't think so. Church programs change all the time, and we sometimes forget that. They are not (at least in form) necessary to salvation.

And what about criticizing Church business deals? I regularly ridicule Deseret Book, and I am extremely suspicious of their buyout of Seagull--a monopoly on LDS merchandise can only lead to roads I hope we don't go down. What about the City Creek Center deal?

In general, the gospel is perfect, but people are not. The Church seems to be somewhere in the crossroads between the two. God will not allow the church to be led astray, but does that mean the church will always be perfectly correct or does this mean that in overall doctrine we will always be safe?

This is getting too long, even for me. Expect problems 3 & 4 in a little bit . . . .

4 comments:

Cathryn said...

I've thought about this before, and I've always reconciled it under the heading of "The gospel is perfect, but the church is not." My mom says that since the church as an organization is God's kingdom on the earth _as operated by mortals_, it's only as perfect as far as the participants are faithful. The further up the ladder you go--the closer to the prophet and his counselors--the "more perfect" the organization is going to be and the more trust you can put in it. Once it comes down to things like an individual ward's Young Women's program, things aren't nearly as infallible as we would sometimes like to think.

Of course, this isn't a "perfect" (haha) explination, either: what about bishops? They're pretty far down on the ladder of authority, one would think, but we're asked to trust their office implicitly. (For the most part, I don't have a problem with this.)

Anyway, it's almost 5, which means I'm going to leave work & go home for the weekend! Maybe I'll think about this some more later.

And, for the record, I completely agree with you about "Personal Progress." Isn't it supposed to be...oh, I don't know, personal?

bawb said...


It's my belief that young women should search for someone who's worthy now, regardless of what they were doing at that point in their life. Not serving a mission doesn't necessarily indicate their current personal state, just as a past mission doesn't guarantee their righteousness. It seems to me hypocritical to say the atonement can change us, and yet to set our standards for people somewhere in the past. Which is why RM is only on my "would be nice to have" list and not my "must have" list, which instead has "worthy, faithful priesthood holder."


As a Returned-from-the-MTC Missionary, I thank you (and my wife) for this view.

I am extremely suspicious of their buyout of Seagull--a monopoly on LDS merchandise can only lead to roads I hope we don't go down.

They also purchased LDSLiving.com and Covenant Communications. Really not a fan of Deeret Book, personally.

editorgirl said...

Liz! And bawb. My worlds just collided. We'll have to find out who else in the group are bloggers.

See you Monday!

Courtney said...

Excellent post Liz. I recently had a crisis when I realized how imperfect the church is. (Especially when I think we parade around as God's Perfect Church. True, yes. Perfect, no.)
But concerning missionaries: I definitely think it denies the power of the atonement if we say that the only man worth marrying is a returned missionary. I think most of us wouldn't hesitate marrying a man who converted after 19 and had therefore not served a mission. A man who doesn't serve a mission by choice (or by worthiness) is essentially a convert, if he chooses. We would always want a second (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.) chance-- we should always be willing to give it to another (granted they are truly committed to the gospel from this point forward).
Okay, one last point: this is a much more obvious thing for guys: it is an obvious measurement if a guy doesn't go on a mission. But girls are not as judged if they are not living worthily. I think guys would have an easier time marrying a previously-rebellious girl than a girl marrying a non-returned-missionary guy. This should not be the case!