The Articles of Faith
In 1842, John Wentworth was the editor of the Chicago Democrat. One of Wentworth's friends, George Barstow, was writing a history of New Hampshire and was interested to know about the Mormons, so Wentworth wrote to Joseph Smith to ask what it was that the Mormons believed. Joseph Smith responded with what is now known as the Wentworth Letter. Among other things, the letter includes the Articles of Faith: thirteen statements about what members of the Church believe. For example, the first article of faith states that
We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
As the Church has never formally adopted a creed, the Articles of Faith are the closest thing there is to a formal definition of Latter-day Saint theology.
Excepting the eleventh article (which asserts that all people should have freedom of religion), all of the articles begin with the words, "We believe". The conclusion of the thirteenth, which is the basis for this article, describes both belief and action:
If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
The primary verb of this sentence is not "believe", but "seek". This means that this goal – seeking after things that are virtuous, lovely, and so on – is as central to one's identity as a Latter-day Saint as are their beliefs.
The goal may seem obvious or insignificant. On the contrary, this goal has enormous philosophical and theological implications. Understanding and applying this principle can transform religious life from tedious conformity to exhilaration and liberation.
Many people see religion as a prison. This is particularly true of religions that emphasize obedience (take, for example, this T-shirt). This perception reflects a common misunderstanding.
We often use the word positive to mean good and the word negative to mean bad. But this pair of words has another meaning: positive can refer to the existence of something and negative can refer to its absence. The word posit (which is likely to be familiar to students of logic) means, in essence, the same as assert. The same words are used in political theory; for example, a negative right is an assertion that a person may not do something to another (we're not allowed to kill each other), whereas a positive right is an assertion that a person must do something to another (employers must pay certain taxes on behalf of their employees).
The only negative statement in the entirety of the Articles of Faith provides contrast:
We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.
In every case, then, the Articles of Faith express something positive. Instead of stating what we do not do, they state what we do.
"Don’t be evil"
I spent a summer as an intern for Google, whose motto at the time was "Don't be evil." This statement is negative; that is, it asserts that Google as a company and its employees are not to do something. Alphabet, the successor to and parent company of Google, has adopted a positive motto: "Do the right thing."
I struggled a bit with Google's motto, partially because I could sense the weakness in the negative statement. Merely avoiding evil sets one's sights on nothing higher than moral neutrality. Also, focusing on avoiding evil means that behavior can only reflect the motto as evil is identified and addressed; things that aren't clearly evil can be ignored. Perhaps most importantly, morality becomes a distraction and therefore an inconvenience. Imagine an engineer who conceives of a product that uses a smartphone's location to provide personalize shopping recommendations. She could easily leak personal data with this product – intentionally or by accident. If her focus is on engineering, the technical challenges will take the bulk of her attention and users' privacy and security will be afterthoughts. If she determines that the cost to users' privacy is too high, she would have to abandon an interesting engineering challenge with some real potential to provide value.
In contrast, the goal to do good things forces us to ask different questions. Instead of deciding what we want to do and then allowing morality to veto our decisions as necessary, the goal of goodness means that morality is a part of the decision-making process from the beginning. We choose to do good things; engineering is simply the means to that end. In our engineering example, questions of user privacy would guide decisions from the outset.
Obedience to the unenforceable
In a world where we "walk by faith, [and] not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7), we cannot define all that is right or wrong in an objective sense. "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" (D. Todd Christofferson, Moral Discipline). Ultimately, each person must police himself or herself.
Neal A. Maxwell's classic talk Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father borrows the phrase "obedience to the unenforceable" from Lord Moulton's Law and Manners. Moulton explains that there is a "middle land" that lies between Positive Law (the realm things that we are legally obliged to do) and Absolute Choice (the realm of things where individuals may decide without any repercussion). This middle land is the realm where choices matter but are not legally regulated. Obedience to the unenforceable refers to good behavior in this middle area and is a requirement for civilization.
Playpens vs. goals
Our culture (both Mormon culture and the culture of our larger society) frequently falls short of this lofty ideal. We allow others to define the boundaries of moral behavior. We interpret the rules literally and, as long as we find justification for a desired course of action within those rules, we proceed. In other words, the area outside the playpen is what Moulton might have called Negative Law. We assume everything not proscribed by rules or laws to be in the realm of Moulton's Absolute Choice. Like children who rely on their parents to tell them what to do and not to do, we stay in our playpen and trust that it will protect us.
In contrast with the moral mediocrity of a playpen, the vision of the thirteenth article of faith points us to a higher goal. The goal of seeking after everything good allows us to reach greater moral heights. It also keeps us as safe as would a playpen. If I am focused on expressing myself in an uplifting way, the question of which words or phrases are too vulgar to utter is moot. If I spend my time and energy seeking after things that are lovely and praiseworthy, I will avoid things that are degrading and I will find beauty that delights the soul and enriches the mind.
When we choose to pursue things that are right, we allow ourselves to act wholeheartedly. In stark contrast with the soul-draining feeling of complying with external pressure, a decision to strive to do what is right enlivens and enriches us. Karl Maeser invokes this imagery with his timeless quote: "The law is made only for slaves[;] a free character ... does right because it is right" (BYA domestic department records, 1879-1881, 51, UA 239, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, accessed via http://educationinzion.byu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Education-in-Zion-Text.pdf).
Perhaps the most common playpen used by members of the Church is the set of standards put forth in For the Strength of Youth. Originally a printed pamphlet and now also available in hypertext, For the Strength of Youth was written for teenagers but is applicable to people of all ages. It seems to me that as newer editions of For the Strength of Youth have been published during my lifetime that there has been a greater emphasis on teaching principles and a diminished emphasis on delineating the rules for appropriate behavior. Even so, there is a tendency to ask whether a behavior is appropriate or not based entirely on the rules in the pamphlet.
It is appropriate, of course, to turn to our inspired leaders for counsel as we determine the best course of action for us to take. But we should not assume that anything not prohibited by them is acceptable. If we use the standards they describe as illustrative examples of the principles they teach and if we give our best efforts to understand and apply these principles in our lives, we will find that the Lord will teach and guide us and bless us for our efforts.
Some practical observations
I have described incredibly lofty goals here – goals so lofty that they cannot be achieved in mortality. Happily, perfection is not asked or expected of us now. It is a goal for the eternities.
Our inability to do everything in our finite time means that we must prioritize. Some things are more important than others. Some prioritizations will be suggested by personal spiritual guidance, while other choices are entirely up to us. For example, I might be prompted to learn a particular language or to focus on my schooling right now, while you might decide (in the absence of a specific spiritual prompting) to focus on your family's particular needs for the time being. By seeking to understand universal truths, listening to the Holy Spirit, and choosing things that matter to us, we invite the Lord's guidance. This guidance sometimes comes in the form of spiritual communication and sometimes in the form of silence. Regardless of how He answers, we can rest assured that the things that matter most will be taken care of.
Beauty is an end unto itself
One of the most exciting conclusions we can reach from our responsibility to seek after everything that is "virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy" is that beauty is a goal worth pursuing. There is a feeling common to the human experience that we want to experience, share, and create beauty. In some cultures, however, that pursuit is shunted to the side to make room for more "practical" things, like educational and financial development. For Latter-day Saints, those practical needs are important as a means to an end. Beauty, on the other hand, is a characteristic of godliness and, as such, is an end worth pursuing in its own right.
What we seek trumps what we have done
One of my favorite characters in all of C. S. Lewis's Narnia appears towards the end of The Last Battle. Emeth is a young warrior from Calormen, the nation that invades Narnia. The Calormenes worship Tash, who is Narnia's devil. Emeth, unlike many of his countrymen, is a sincere, honorable man. He was raised worshipping Tash and was thrilled to be invading Narnia, the land he'd heard so many stories about. As events unfold, Aslan comes to meet Emeth.
Emeth knows that he has served Tash all of his days and expects that he will die immediately. And yet something in his soul recognizes that Aslan was worthy of his honor all the same. As Emeth tells others his story, he says, "Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be [king] of the world and live and not to have seen him." Much to Emeth's surprise, Aslan greets him with the words, "Son, thou art welcome." Aslan explains that Emeth had sought after what was right all of his life and that that service, misplaced as it was, could only be service to Aslan. "Unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."
Salvation by grace
In all of our discussions of virtues and goals and salvation, we must always remember that Aslan's graciousness to Emeth is the Lord's graciousness to each one of us. Nothing we can say or do or be or seek after can save us; salvation is His. In His graciousness, He offers to take our best efforts and reward us with virtues and blessings. He freely gives us the gift of the resurrection and freely offers us redemption from our sins and He invites us to follow Him, knowing that the process of trying to be like Him will teach us. As we try, His grace changes our nature – from bad to good and from good to better. I have experienced this change in my life and hope to continue to experience it. Come with me and together we will seek after the One who is virtuous, lovely, of good report, and worthy of all praise.