Perelandra Thoughts 4: Mala Prohibitum

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In Perelandra, Ransom meets a woman on Venus who is the Eve of her world, and I just read the part where she reveals her version of the “forbidden fruit”—the commandment given her by the great Maleldil. Ransom has spent his entire time on Venus so far on a floating island, and has, for the first time on Venus, caught a glimpse of “fixed land.” There are many, many floating islands, it seems—perhaps even more land mass floating than there are fixed lands.

“I will go there,” she said at last.

“May I go with you?” asked Ransom.

“If you will,” said the Lady. “But you see it is the Fixed Land.”

“That is why I wish to tread on it,” said Ransom. “In my world all the lands are fixed, and it would give me pleasure to walk in such a land again.”

She gave a sudden exclamation of surprise and stared at him. “Where, then, do you live in your world?” she asked.

“On the lands.”

“But you said they are all fixed.”

“Yes. We live on the fixed lands.”

For the first time since they had met, something not quite unlike an expression of horror or disgust passed over her face. “But what do you do during the nights?”

“During the nights?” said Ransom in bewilderment. “Why, we sleep, of course.”

“But where?”

“Where we live. On the land.”

She remained in deep thought so long that Ransom feared She was never going to speak again. When she did, her voice was hushed and once more tranquil, though the note of joy had not yet returned to it. “He has never bidden you not to,” she said, less as a question than as a statement.

“No,” said Ransom.

“There can, then, be different laws in different worlds.”

“Is there a law in your world not to sleep in a Fixed Land?”

“Yes,” said the Lady. “He does not wish us to dwell there. We may land on them and walk on them, for the world is ours. But to stay there—to sleep and awake there …” she ended with a shudder. … “Where will this end?” said the Lady, speaking more to herself than to him. “I have grown so old in these last few hours that all my life before seems only like the stem of a tree, and now I am like the branches shooting out in every direction. They are getting so wide apart that I can hardly bear it. First to have learned that I walk from good to good with my own feet … that was a stretch enough. But now it seems that good is not the same in all worlds; that Maleldil has forbidden in one what He allows in another.” …

“At least,” [Ransom] added … , “this forbidding is no hardship in such a world as yours.”

“That also is a strange thing to say,” replied the Lady. “Who thought of its being hard? The beasts would not think It hard if I told them to walk on their heads. It would become their delight to walk on their heads. I am His beast, and all His biddings are joys. It is not that which makes me thoughtful. But it was corning into my mind to wonder whether there are two kinds of bidding.”

The Lady is correct—there are two kinds of bidding. There are two kinds of laws, and likewise two kinds of commandments. There are laws that forbid actions which are inherently bad (such as greed, covetousness, murder, malice, etc.), and laws that forbid actions that are morally neutral, but bad because they are forbidden. There are latin terms for this: there are actions that are mala in se, which means actions that are inherently wrong—wrong in and of themselves—and actions that are mala prohibita, which means they are wrong because they are prohibited.

I think that as Christians and as Latter-day Saints, this distinction would help us engage in better conversation about our religious beliefs and practices. For example, I’ve had people ask me why, if drinking alcohol is forbidden by God, Jesus turned water into wine. I’ve had friends respond by saying that “wine” in the New Testament really means “grape juice.” This is a way of papering-over perceived differences between LDS practices (abstaining from alcohol, sobriety, etc.) and New Testament Christian practices.

But—what if there really is a difference? In my readings, it’s very well possible (and probable) that Christ did drink wine on occasion. What of that? Is the Word of Wisdom (the commandment that we shouldn’t drink alcohol) wrong or unbiblical? A better response might be that drinking alcoholic beverages is not mala in se, but mala prohibita. That there are actions that are only wrong because we’ve been commanded not to—not because they are wrong in and of themselves. Kosher laws are a clear example of this as well. Or circumcision. Or Sabbath worship. Or dress and grooming standards as missionaries. I think we’d be surprised how many commandments we’ve been given that are in this category.

When we engage in apologetics—or, at least, when we try to rationalize or justify LDS practices to those not of our faith—recognizing and acknowledging this distinction will help us to avoid trying to argue that drinking tea is inherently bad (it’s not any worse than a twinkie for your health), or that it’s inherently bad to drink wine on festive occasions, or that it’s inherently bad to engage in commerce on Sunday. Rather, we can contextualize our obedience by saying, “These things aren’t inherently bad, any more than eating pork is. However, we have been commanded today, just as the Israelites were commanded back then, to abstain from these practices.

In addition, this distinction helps us to make sense of the fact that religious practices have changed over the centuries and millennia. We aren’t under a commandment to abstain from pork, and we aren’t under a commandment to circumcise our children. But we are under a commandment to abstain from alcohol, a commandment that didn’t exist two thousand years ago. And that’s OK. Divine laws can be like that. As the Lady said, “There can, then, be different laws in different worlds,” and also in different times and dispensations.

Part of this has to do with what Neal A. Maxwell called “tactical morality.” He said,

We will find that not only are there strategic signposts of morality, but there are also tactical standards of morality with which we must be concerned if we are to preserve our identity in the way that is most helpful to us and to our fellowmen. We must not unintentionally assume the appearance of evil in its various cultural costumes and dispensational dimensions. The length of Samson’s hair not only gave him strength, it set him apart from the Philistines, whose passion for alcohol Samson did not share either. The prophet will always help us to set the tone of tactical morality when such is needed to set us apart from some contemporaries. Paul did this for female Church members in Corinth, counseling them, I am told, so they would not be confused with prostitutes because of uncovered hair. Thus, the principles do not change, but as Dr. Daniel H. Ludlow has said, the practices may vary. We can always look to the prophet for guidance with regard to these tactical dimensions of morality.

I think that we’d be surprised how many of the commandments we’ve been given are this way.

My personal opinion is that the commandment God gave to Adam and Eve was a commandment of this type—eating of the fruit was not inherently wrong, but just wrong at that time. I personally believe that if Adam and Eve had faithfully waited, they would have been offered the fruit at a future time by someone authorized to offer it, and it would then not have been a transgression of God’s law or a sin. I believe that Adam and Eve could have entered mortality in a way that did not require them to transgress. But that’s my personal opinion.

For me, the moral of this post is that when we defend our practices to others (such as the word of wisdom, or other unique LDS practices), we can do so by directly relying on the fact that God has commanded us to do it. We don’t have to rationalize or justify our practices by imagining that to do otherwise is inherently bad. We can say, “I abstain from coffee because I have promised God I wouldn’t, and because God has asked me not to. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with coffee itself. In other times or places, God may have allowed it—and perhaps even encouraged it. It could even be good for you, for all I know. But that doesn’t affect my decision or behavior.”

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