What is sin, if truth is a Person?

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This entry is part 11 of 17 in the series Who Is Truth?

The way we think about truth also changes how we think about sin. From the idea view of truth, moral truth is a set of universal rules or principles. From this view, an action is wrong when it violates abstract moral truth. To be a good person means to comply with the dictates of these abstract laws. Most importantly, these standards must be universal and unchanging. As Richards and O’Brien note:

[Most of us assume that] rules (in the form of laws) must apply 100 percent of the time; otherwise, the rule is “broken.” Likewise, rules (in the form of promises) apply to 100 percent of the people involved and apply equally; otherwise, we consider the rule to be unfair. Since God is both reliable and fair, surely his rules must apply equally to all people. Natural laws, like gravity, are no respecters of persons, after all. When we cannot determine how to apply a biblical law or promise to everyone, we declare it to be “cultural” and thus flexible in application.((E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 161.))

In other words, from the idea view of truth, for an act be truly and ultimately wrong, the moral code that forbids it must not depend on context. Local or situated moral codes might deem an act inappropriate or imprudent, but they cannot define an act as truly evil, because they vary across time and space. Only a universal (that is, fixed, immutable, or absolute) moral code can do that. From the idea view of truth, if we demonstrate that a moral precept is unique to a particular place and time (rather than universal), we can regard it as a human invention.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative is an example of this sort of thinking. Kant reasoned that the most fundamental moral dictate (i.e., the “categorical imperative”) was to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”((Julian Marias, History of Philosophy, trans. Stanley Appelbaum and Clarence C. Stowbidge (New York, NY: Dover, 1967), 295.)) Other moral philosophers have sampled the moral intuitions and ethical traditions of cultures around the world (and in history), and have attempted to discover norms that seem to be universal across cultures and times.((See, e.g., John Finnis, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and Truth (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1991); Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010); Samuel J. Kerstein, Kant’s Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).))

From the idea view of truth, our ability to live a moral life is as much an indication of our intelligence or philosophical intuition as it is our receptivity to God. The smarter we are, the more we can discern which rules are more universal or fundamental than others (and, conversely, which are less important by virtue of being contextual). When seen in this light, the Holy Spirit becomes a sort of teaching assistant or Celestial tutor, someone who helps us figure out universal truth. Like any student, from this perspective, our goal is to eventually learn the eternal “moral mathematics” so thoroughly that we have no further need for the instructor.

Sin is a damaged relationship with God

In contrast, from a person view of truth, sin is less about whether our behaviors comply with some universal moral code, and more about our relational stance towards God and our fellow man. When we are righteous, it is not because we have meticulously complied with the patterns of behavior prescribed by some abstract law. From the person view of truth, we are righteous because we have formed a saving relationship with Christ. As Richards and O’Brien note, “in contrast to the modern Western worldview, in ancient worldviews it went without saying that relationships (not rules) define reality.”((Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture, 161.))

Seen this way, sin is, in this view, a sickness in our relationships. By definition, when we treat others with enmity and malice, we become spiritually separated from them. Similarly, when we rebel against God, we are no longer in harmony with His will. We enter into a state of continuing conflict with Him. President Ezra Taft Benson famously taught, “The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means ‘hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.’”((Ezra Taft Benson, “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May, 1989, 4.)) He continued, “Pride is the universal sin, the great vice.”((Ezra Taft Benson, “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May, 1989, 4.)) Conversely, righteousness is more than just compliance with universal laws; righteousness is closeness to and unity with God.

An example may help illustrate the difference. Imagine that your friend lied to you about something that was important to you. You feel that your trust has been betrayed, and as a consequence, your friendship is strained. Later, your friend approaches you and says, “Hey, I just wanted to say that I’ve been learning a lot about universal truth, and I realize now that there is a moral rule against lying. I’m sorry for breaking that law, it was wrong of me to do.” Would this apology restore your trust and repair your friendship? Perhaps a little.

But consider an alternative scenario where your friend approaches you and says, “Hey, I just wanted to say that I now recognize how much my actions have hurt you. You valued your trust in me, and I violated that. I feel that my actions have alienated us from each other. What can I do to restore our friendship?” When compared to the first approach, this seems much more personal, and far more sincere. This is because what makes lying wrong has less to do with some abstract law and more to do with how it damages relationships. The same is true in our relationship with God. Sin is wrong not because it violates some abstract rule, but because it alienates us from our Creator.

The scriptures are clear that complying with moral rules cannot save or redeem us without a covenant relationship with God. Without a genuine relationship with Christ, none of our “good acts” are counted as righteousness to us (nor can they save us). The Book of Mormon teaches “that salvation doth not come by the law alone” (Mosiah 13:28) and that the Anti-Nephi-Lehites “did not suppose that salvation came by the law of Moses; but the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ” (Alma 25:16). Likewise, Jacob taught his people, “for this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to [Christ]” (Jacob 4:5).

Within a person view of truth, it is to God that we are ultimately accountable, not to some faceless, abstract law. We will never “face” an abstract principle to account for our deeds, but we will face God. As the prophet Moroni declared:

In that great day when ye shall be brought to stand before the Lamb of God—then will ye say that there is no God? … Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws? (Mormon 9:2-3)

It is not because we violated impersonal law that we will feel guilt, but because we violated His laws. It is not an abstract idea we have flouted, but a person we have resisted and wronged. And it is that the concrete presence of that person that will bring to remembrance all our guilt. Moroni further warned the wicked of the coming day in which they “shall be brought to see [their] nakedness before God,” at which time their impending separation from God will “kindle a flame of unquenchable fire” upon them (Morm. 9:5).

We must know God’s will within our context

From a person view of truth, what Elder McConkie says about Christ—that is, that He stands revealed or remains forever unknown—applies also to the moral precepts He wishes us to follow. Moral law cannot be reduced to a series of universal absolutes, and especially not the kind that are discovered by rational or empirical analysis. It may be possible to deduce specific facts about any specific triangle based on abstract geometric laws—but it is not possible to deduce every right action in any given context using some sort of moral calculus. Because person-truth exists within our context, we cannot know beforehand all the things we should do at any given time.

This is not to say that there aren’t commitments we make that we carry into every context and situation. For example, we can say that adultery is wrong both here and now and there and then. Further, we can commit to never violate this Divine law so long as we live. But there is also room to believe that context matters—if a woman were to willingly sleep with someone other than her husband to save the lives of innocent hostages he has threatened, we cannot judge her as having done a moral wrong. Moral reasoning cannot offer the right course of action prior to every conceivable context.

Nephi, for example, could never have navigated his encounter with drunken Laban without the “in-the-moment” guidance of the Holy Spirit, no matter how much prior philosophical, moral, or religious training he had. As Nephi recounts:

And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him. …

And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief. …

Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword. (1 Nephi 4:10-18)

There is simply no moral calculus that could have led Nephi to the same conclusions without in-the-moment, specific guidance from God. Most of us instinctively recognize this. This is why none of us attempt this sort of moral calculus on our own. If Nephi had arrived as the same conclusions through rational analysis alone, we would believe that he had rationalized murder. It was not the reasons given that made his action the right thing to do—it was the voice of the Spirit (or, in other words, Truth personified). We can think of the Holy Ghost as more than an instructor teaching us abstract principles. Rather, the Holy Ghost is how the Truth (God) can be with us in our varying contexts. He helps us see what can only be seen within the context of action, no matter how much we analyze the issues ahead of time.

Nephi concludes his sacred record by exhorting us with these words: “For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do” (2 Nephi 32:5). Later, we read of Alma teaching his son Helaman, “Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good” (Alma 37:37). In Proverbs we read, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). The decisions we face can be seen rightly only when our minds are illuminated by the Spirit of Christ, who is the Truth made flesh.

From this view, the number of things that can alienate us from God increases tremendously. No longer is there a unchangeable list of “dos” and “don’ts,” or “Thou Shalts” and “Thou Shalt Nots.” Rather, almost anything (no matter how innocuous) could be sin, if the Holy Spirit prompts us to do otherwise. As King Benjamin said, “I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them” (Mosiah 4:29). But conversely, there are also an infinite number of otherwise mundane acts that can be counted to us for righteousness. When the Holy Spirit prompts us to call a friend, or write a letter, or to read a book, those actions become the right thing to do, even if they were morally neutral before.

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