Sunday, August 16, 2015

Picking sides

A man was looking to hire a driver for his carriage. He interviewed a few potential candidates. One asserted his ability to drive within a foot of a precipice without losing control of the carriage. A second bragged about his ability to drive within an inch of the edge. A third said he had no clue how close he could get to the edge; he made a point to drive as far from the edge as he could. Naturally, this third driver got the job.

I've heard this story several times. Invariably, it comes in a religious context. The point is to illustrate that God's way is to one side and that the devil's way is to the other. I agree that we ought to work to move towards God, but the illustration of the carriage drivers and the image of God and Satan as opposing extremes are both misleading.

If we go along with the idea that there is a cliff we must avoid, we focus on the cliff and not on the road. If we go along with the idea that there is a vice we must eschew, we focus on the vice and not on the virtue. If we go along with the idea that we must flee from the devil, we fail to focus on God. The two are not the same!

This sort of thinking neglects the other side of the road, where there must be either another pitfall or a mountainside (because if the driver were on a plateau, it would be ridiculous to even get close to the edge). In other words, vices tend not to exist in isolation; instead, they have opposites: for example, parsimony opposes extravagance. Running from one vice tends to run us into another. As C. S. Lewis's Screwtape illustrated so aptly (in The Screwtape Letters, chapter 25),

We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is in the least danger, and fix its approval on the virtue that is nearest the vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there's a flood...

Specific examples of vices that emerge from attempts to avoid other vices can be found in conference addresses, such as President Packer's April 2013 address, where he points out that exaggerated tolerance leads to permissiveness, and President Uchtdorf's October 2010 address, where busyness with good things is shown to crowd out the most important things. In both cases, it is not seeking after the virtue that causes the problem but fleeing from vices (in these cases, intolerance and laziness).

Trying to run from both opposing vices leads to a similar problem; we're alternately distracted by the pitfall on the left and the mountainside on the right. And in reality, there aren't just two opposing vices; vices are infinite in number. In the words of Elder Christofferson (October 2009), "There could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation, and even if there were, enforcement would be impossibly expensive and burdensome." As such, we can't possibly run from the vices that are too innumerable to even identify and we certainly can't enforce all of these rules on ourselves.

The only solution is to look at the road. In other words, to focus on the goal of becoming like God and let everything else fade way. God is not on the left while Satan is on the right; God is in the middle of all that is good and holy. All we have to do is take one step at a time towards Him.

Perhaps this is why Joseph Smith's summary of what Mormons believe to John Wentworth ends with these words: "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things" (Article of Faith 13, or see the entirety of the letter in the Joseph Smith Papers).