Oaks and Benson on love of God and neighbor
Dallin Oaks, the second highest-ranking apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave a speech at Brigham Young University yesterday where he touched on the “two great commandments” identified by Jesus in the Book of Mark. Unsurprisingly for anyone who’s been following recent signals of retrenchment at BYU (or anyone familiar with the apostle for that matter), Oaks put the two commandments in a particular order. Here’s how the Salt Lake Tribune quotes him:
Oaks said that love thy neighbor is the Lord’s second greatest commandment, but not as important as the commandment “to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. … The love of neighbor — however important — does not come ahead of love of God and obedience to his commandments.”
This has—perhaps unsurprisingly—invited critiques from some corners of the Mormon Internet (e.g., this post on By Common Consent). I tend to agree with those critiques, and will add my own in a bit, but I also want to acknowledge that there is some legitimate difficulty involved in reconciling Jesus’s twin emphases on loving God and loving neighbor. Even stepping outside questions of theology and deity, many of Jesus’s simple ethical guidelines get much more complicated when you think about them. What does it mean to love your neighbor? Clearly, there must be some additional moral guidance placed on this rule. Even the famous golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—runs up against some tricky scenarios. Adding in the question of God, if one believes that God is the ultimate moral arbiter, there’s a certain logic to putting that ultimate moral arbiter ahead of a love for neighbor—besides, this could seemingly help resolve some of the issues unaddressed by the previously mentioned simple ethical guidelines.
And yet, I join with others in being unsatisfied with Oaks’s argument. Even if Oaks is onto something when he suggests that “loving neighbor” is not as straightforward as it seems, his solution displaces rather than solves the issue—simply put, “obedience to God’s commandments” is not the simple ethical guideline that it seems. My “favorite” demonstration of this is another Latter-day Saint apostle who made the same argument about the need to put loving God in front of loving neighbor. In a 1967 General Conference address, arch-conservative Ezra Taft Benson argued that:
The world largely ignores the first and great commandment—to love God—but talks a lot about loving their brother. They worship at the altar of man. Would Nephi have slain Laban if he had put the love of neighbor above the love of God? Would Abraham have taken Isaac up for a sacrifice if he had put the second commandment first?
In short, Benson implies that there should be no limits to our obedience to God—even if it means killing at God’s command. I understand that this happens in the scriptures—Benson cites both the Bible and the Book of Mormon—but it’s still something that I can’t accept. I’m skeptical that either Abraham or Nephi actually existed, but my favorite readings of both of these troubling stories are those that suggest that both characters misunderstood God’s will in that moment. Grant Hardy lays out a very compelling case along these lines for the Nephi story, and even if there isn’t textual evidence for this in the Hebrew Bible, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac pales compared to the massacres that happen at God’s command later in the Torah. Surely our moral reasoning would tell us to disobey any perceived command from God.
Benson, unsurprisingly, would likely have rejected my reasoning here. Earlier in the same address, he argues that we must sometimes obey a commandment without having a good reason for doing so:
The Lord does not always give reasons for each commandment. Sometimes faithful members, like Adam of old, are called upon to obey an injunc- tion of the Lord even though they do not know the reason why it was given. Those who trust in God will obey him, knowing full well that time will provide the reasons and vindicate their obedience.
Of course, Kierkegaard has also argued for the suspension of the ethical, and I get that certain approaches to belief in God are inseparable from a certain amount of obedience without knowing why. However, consider the context of Benson’s argument; here’s the next chapter:
The arm of flesh may not approve nor understand why God has not bestowed the priesthood on women or the seed of Cain, but God’s ways are not man’s ways. God does not have to justify all his ways for the puny mind of man. If a man gets in tune with the Lord, he will know that God’s course of action is right, even though he may not know all the reasons why.
By way of reminder, this is 1967, so Benson is defending the Latter-day Saint policy preventing members of color from being ordained or from accessing the Latter-day Saint temple sacraments required for achieving the highest level of salvation. In fact, the whole reason I have a copy of this sermon is because a passage that comes later is relevant to research I’m doing on Mormonism and the far right:
There is no doubt that the so-called civil rights movement as it exists today is used as a Communist program for revolution in America just as agrarian reform was used by the Communists to take over China and Cuba.
So, for all of the genuine philosophical and theological complications of reconciling love of God with love of neighbor, I’m suspicious of any argument that suggests that simply putting God first is going to solve all of those complications. Benson used it to justify racist policies in the church—and as a prelude for other racist preaching—and to suggest that we should be willing to kill for God if we have to (which has also come up in the Brigham Young biography I’m currently reading). Oaks is using it to implicitly suggest that BYU will value Latter-day Saint leaders’ perceptions of God’s commandments more than concerns about LGBTQ+ students at the school or critiques of equity and inclusion on campus.
It’s convenient to have God on your side to justify a particular position, but I’ve been convinced for some time that that’s not a sufficient argument. I’d much rather believe in a God that is constrained by ethics—and Whom we can therefore constrain to our best good-faith understanding of ethics—than ethics that are justified by God and God alone.
- Dallin Oaks
- Ezra Taft Benson
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Brigham Young University
- By Common Consent
- two great commandments
- golden rule
- Grant Hardy
- priesthood and temple ban
- Brigham Young
- John G. Turner
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