Sunday, March 28, 2010

Moral Discipline

This entry is part of my general conference application series.

Moral Discipline, by Elder D. Todd Christofferson
Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

In my attempt at applying the conference addresses for the April 2009 conference, I confronted some views on motivations, particularly regarding the straw man representation that some Christians hold up for our friends who do not share our beliefs (e.g. agnostics and atheists). (This was in response to Elder Cook's remarks; my views here.)

I took a week to analyze Elder Christofferson's talk (it was one of my favorites!). As I did this, I continued to reflect on what some claim is a marked difference between Christians and atheists, but which I boldly declare to not be. I'll present the situation as a question:

Can atheists exercise moral discipline?

First, it is helpful to define what is meant by moral discipline. Elder Christofferson put it well:

By "moral discipline," I mean self-discipline based on moral standards. Moral discipline is the consistent exercise of agency to choose the right because it is right, even when it is hard.

In conversations I've both had and seen (meaning reading online conversations), some have vehemently maintained that without Christianity, there are no morals. Conversely, I've heard non-believers claim that Christians don't really have morals—they're just behaving a certain way out of fear of damnation, they say.

Of course, both of these camps are a bit off-base: believing in Christ is not a prerequisite for morality, nor does having such a belief preclude one from "true" morality.

It seems that the question boils down to another question, one regarding the morals in the moral discipline. Are the morals followed those taught by Christ and followed because they were taught by Christ, or are they the morals taught by Christ and followed by non-believers because they, coincidentally, are the right things to do? Or is it a combination of these?

Right is right regardless of who taught it. (But why we choose to do right may be another thing entirely!)

NOTE: I'm not advocating agnosticism or atheism herejust moral discipline!

Is there one morality that is better than others? Or, if you prefer, is there one "right" that is better than other "rights"?

These questions touch on my reaction to what I've heard time and time again from society: "Truth is relative and . . . everyone decides for himself or herself what is right."

As contradictory as this is, it surfaces even among the faithful periodically. You may have seen some version of this claim in Sunday School discussions on the Word of Wisdom, particularly the interpretation(s) of caffeine, soda, and chocolate. Furthermore, Priesthood lessons have had this claim surface when Sabbath-day lessons are given, particularly around the Super Bowl!

I'm reminded of a question posed in the Restoration of Truth video by the young Joseph Smith. In response to a preacher saying, "We each try to find the answer that is right for us," Joseph replies, "Shouldn't there be one answer that is right for everyone?" (find this interaction at 5:45 in the video, embedded below, or link here.)

Many aspects of the answer that is "right for everyone" were presented in the various talks of this conference—including this one. Elder Christofferson closes with a summary of this truth:

God is our Father and that His Son, Jesus, is our Redeemer. Their law is immutable, Their truth is everlasting, and Their love is infinite.

I want to "choose the right because it is right, even when it is hard," as I apply the morals I know are true—not just because they were taught by Christ, but because they are right!

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