Updating the Old Truths

Righteous Traditions of the Fathers

Anti-Nephi-Lehis burying their weapons of war. Artist unknown.

One of the hard lessons of the Book of Mormon is that the next generation does not automatically inherit the righteous traditions of their fathers. Worldly traditions propagate easily, spreading within and between generations like the common cold, but the Gospel is otherworldly. It takes constant energy and attention to thrive in the intrinsically hostile climate of a fallen world. This means that no matter how deeply one generation is converted, there is never a guarantee that the next generation will inherit the legacy. No matter how well they are taught, every generation has to rediscover the truth for themselves.

Although he was talking about the liberal tradition and not the Gospel, F. A Hayek’s description is extraordinarily apt. Here it is, lightly adapted:

If the old truths are not updated for each new age, they will slip from our grasp and lose our allegiance. The terms in which those truths have been couched will become hollow, potted mottoes, will fail to galvanize, inspire, and move us. The old truths will remain truths, but they’ll be dismissed and neglected as mere dogma, noise. And [we] will again face a crisis of faith.

One of the things that tends to confuse people about Latter-day Saint Radical Orthodoxy is that we talk both about loyalty and fidelity to the basic, essential truths of the Restored Gospel and we talk about exploration and innovation. How are these two things combined? 

One approach is to use essential truths–Christ, the Restoration, and core moral teachings–as a launching pad for seeking out new ideas. Jeffrey Thayne (coauthor of the Manifesto) spoke to this idea in our interview with Cwic, and Neal Rappleye and Daniel Ortner have shared their own takes here and here. I agree with all of them, and I’m particularly interested in Jeff’s ideas about embodied cognition as it relates to the pre-mortal existence. But my main emphasis is a little bit different: not new ideas but the reinvention of old ideas.

What I have in mind is Hayek’s idea of “updating” the “old truths’. He wasn’t talking about changing or modifying those truths. (Reform is a totally valid approach, but it’s a separate, complementary process alongside updating.) As he said, “the old truths will remain truths.”  So the underlying principles don’t change. Instead, I envision updating as a process of reconceiving the old truths in ways that are relevant to the new context of a new generation. We don’t change the principles; we recreate our understanding of them with new contexts, metaphors, emphases, and analogies.

The legacy of the Restored Gospel is not like a delicate family heirloom. If it were, every generation’s primary concern would be to protect the heirloom from ever changing, since change–when it comes to ancient artifacts–is always bad.

Instead, the legacy of the Restored Gospel is a never-finished chain. Every generation extends the chain from the generation before to the generation that comes after by extending the chain with a link that they must forge themselves.

Conviction comes from first-hand experience. That’s why it cannot be passed on like an inheritance of wealth or property. My parents modeled faith and taught me the way, but I had to walk it myself. Similarly, I cannot earn a testimony on my children’s behalf. They have to earn their own. But I still have a role to play, and that role is to make my own link as strong and accessible as possible. If I do this, then I give the following generation the best possible chance to make their own link when their time comes. 

The Book of Enos contains the best example of this process playing out on an individual level. Although he had been taught by his father, Enos’s conversion did not come until his sincere, day-long prayer. If Enos’s father had not spent so much time teaching Enos, then Enos would not have known where to start. Parents have to do all they can to instruct and train and guide their children. But Enos needed to find his own conviction through his own experience. Ultimately children–and the entire rising generation–either find their own conviction or live life without one. 

The Book of Mosiah contains the best example of this process playing out on a social level. First, we need to review the experiences of the three main groups in the older generation. One group remained in Zarahemla and witnessed the final sermon of King Benjamin around 124 BC. This profound, communal experience culminated in the people entering in a covenant “to be called the children of Christ” (Mosiah 5:7).

About seventy five years prior to that (around 200 BC), however, a group of Nephites led by Zeniff left Zarahemla and migrated back to the land of Nephi. They wanted to go back to the homes that had been abandoned when Mosiah (King Benjamin’s father, not his son) had led the Nephites to Zarahemla in the first place (Omni 1:12). 

When they arrived back in the land of Nephi, Zeniff’s people found themselves surrounded by hostile Lamanites. They struggled to retain independence under Zeniff but were finally subjugated by the Lamanites during the reign of Zeniff’s son, Noah. Under the reign of Zeniff’s grandson, Limhi, the people repented. Their time of bondage humbled and united them, so that they were a penitent and righteous people when explorers from Zarahemla found them and helped them escape their Lamanite overlords. Limhi and his people arrived in Zarahemla just a few years after King Benjamin’s sermon, around 121 BC.

The third group was led by Alma the Elder. Before the Lamanites defeated Noah and conquered his people, Alma the Elder was converted through the teaching of Abinadi. He and about 400 of Noah’s people met and worshipped in secret until Noah sent warriors after them and they fled. Alma the Elder and his people founded their own, secret community and lived in peace while conflict swirled around them. This ended when Limhi’s people escaped, however, because the Lamanite army that unsuccessfully chased after Limhi’s people got lost on their way back and stumbled upon the people of Alma the Elder. 

This would have been bad enough, but one of the other priests of King Noah–the ones who rejected Abinadi’s word and burned him to death–had ingratiated himself with the Lamanites. Those Lamanites left the unrepentant priest in charge of the people of Alma the Elder. This priest knew and hated Alma the Elder on a personal level, and he orchestrated vicious persecution of Alma the Elder’s people and then threatened to execute any of them that prayed to God for relief (Mosiah 23:11). 

Instead of immediately saving them, the Lord blessed Alma the Elder’s people that their burdens would seem easy and they “submit[ted] cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord” (Mosiah 24:15). Only after going through this refining experience did the Lord miraculously free the people and lead them back to Zarahemla, where they arrived about a year after the people of Limhi (120 BC).

In a very short period of time, we have three groups of people who have all undergone dramatic, generation-defining spiritual experiences. The people who heard King Benjamin’s sermon and entered into a covenant together (124 BC), the people of Limhi who went through the trials of defeat and subjugation for their prideful sins before being rescued and returning to Zarahemla (121 BC), and the people of Alma the Elder who–despite their willing conversion–the Lord saw fit to chasten (Mosiah 23:21) until they, too, finally escaped to Zarahemla (120 BC).

These groups fundamentally reshaped the society of Zarahemla. Alma the Elder baptized the people of Limhi as he had his own people and then, with Mosiah’s blessing, he went forth and organized the Church of Christ among all the Nephites. The children of the wicked priest of Noah renounced their fathers and called themselves Nephites (Mosiah 25:12). Not only that, but the Mulekites–who had maintained a distinct identity despite accepting three consecutive Nephite leaders–gave up their ancestral identity and began to call themselves Nephites as well (Mosiah 25:13).

Despite the depth of the conviction and the breadth of the impact this generation had on Nephite society, this was not the start of some new golden age. Instead, seeds of chaos were sown within one generation, seeds that yielded bitter fruit for centuries to come as successive waves of Nephite dissidents incited and perpetuated wave after wave of Lamanite aggression. Why did this take place? Why couldn’t the Nephites hold onto unity when they had such a strong foundation to build on? The problem, as Mormon explains, was a failure to transmit the righteous traditions of the fathers to their children:

1 Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers…
4 And they would not be baptized; neither would they join the church. And they were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after, even in their carnal and sinful state; for they would not call upon the Lord their God. (Mosiah 26:1, 4)

The most famous in this lost generation were Alma the Younger and the Sons of Mosiah, and we often focus on their redemptive arcs. Individually, these young men did repent of their sins and earn their own convictions through their own searing, sacrificial experiences. 

Despite these individual successes, however, socially the Nephites never recovered from the overall failure to transmit the legacy from the generation of Alma the Elder to the rising generation of Alma the Younger. As Mormon noted, the rising generation who “did not believe on the tradition of their fathers… were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after” (Mosiah 26:1, 4, emphasis added). 

The contrast between the generation of Alma the Elder and the generation of Alma the Younger is perhaps the starkest example of the failure of intergenerational knowledge transfer in all of scripture, but of course it is far from the only example. 

Just over a century later, at a time when the Lamanites were generally more righteous than then Nephites, the exact same dilemma recurred when Zoramites pitted their attractive, worldly philosophies against the righteous traditions of Lamanite fathers: 

29 And there was also a cause of much sorrow among the Lamanites; for behold, they had many children who did grow up and began to wax strong in years, that they became for themselves, and were led away by some who were Zoramites, by their lyings and their flattering words, to join those Gadianton robbers.
30 And thus were the Lamanites afflicted also, and began to decrease as to their faith and righteousness, because of the wickedness of the arising generation. (3 Nephi 1:29-30)

After Christ appeared personally in 3 Nephi, the Zion community that he founded lasted only about two hundred years before subsequent generations started to wander from the righteous traditions of their fathers, leading to the collapse of the Zion community and, ultimately, the end of Nephite civilization. Although the final blow was dealt by the Lamanites at Cumorah, no external force precipitated this great fall. It began with the failure to transmit righteous traditions.

It is also worth mentioning that no single family line appears to have withstood this irresistible entropic degradation. Although Nephi spoke initially of passing the plates down to successive generations, there is no indication that he ever had a worthy son to carry on the legacy he inherited from Lehi. Instead, he passed the large plates on to an anonymous person who became king after him (Jacob 1:9) and the small plates on to his brother, Jacob. Jacob’s line maintained the plates for a couple of centuries, but his eventual descendant Amaleki handed them off to Benjamin because he (Amaleki) had no children and apparently could not find a worthy relative to take up the burden (Omni 1:25).

The greatest lineage of the Book of Mormon took charge of the plates (certainly the large plates and probably the small plates) from Benjamin’s son, Mosiah, when he handed them off to Alma the Younger (Mosiah 28:20). This family retained the plates for the next four hundred years, passing them from Alma the Younger to Heleman, then to Helaman son of Helaman, Nephi son of Helaman, Nephi son of Nephi, Nephi the Disciple, at least two descendents named Amos, and finally Ammaron who–childless and (like Amaleki) unable to find a worthy living relative–entrusted them to 10 year-old Mormon (Mormon 1:1-4).

Mormon identifies himself as a descendent of Nephi (Mormon 1:5) and it seems clear from context he meant the first Nephi who left Jerusalem, but given the centuries since Nephi (or anyone with a know connection to his family line) had held the plates, I view it as four distinct families that were involved in transmitting the plates beginning to end: Lehi, Nephi, Jacob and his descendents; Benjamin and Mosiah; Alma the Younger and his descendents; and then Mormon and Moroni. 

In short: the historical track record for passing on righteous traditions (including the literal plates) is pretty grim. From Laman and Lemuel’s refusal to accept their father Lehi’s faith to the migration of the plates from family to family as the righteous lineage of each one waned, the human tendency to fall short is just as true collectively–of families and nations–as it is individually. Would the City of Enoch have escaped the fate of the Nephite Zion if it had not been raised up into heaven? Could the future, and last, Zion hope to fare any differently absent divine intervention? 

The prophets understand this well, since one of their jobs–perhaps their primary job–is to set themselves against the entropy of sin. Thus, Jacob lamented that without divine rescue “our spirits must have become alike unto him [the devil], and we become devils, angels to a devil,” Mormon’s grief was even stronger as he recounted the catastrophic failure of Nephite society just prior to the birth of Christ (doubtless also thinking about his own society close to its final demise), describing “how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men,” and that because of this, “except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions… they will not remember him” (Helaman 12:4, 2). Tragically, every generation seems incapable of learning these lesson from example, and so the chastening must be repeated again and again in an endless cycle as a loving and patient Father uses every available means (all except coercion) to call His recalcitrant and headstrong children home.

Worldly Traditions

“You can’t successfully defend liberalism once and for all,” Hayek said. Similarly, you cannot successfully defend the Gospel once and for all. “Intellectual and moral infrastructure depreciates. There are ongoing costs of maintenance.”

And yet unrighteous traditions do not seem to have the same difficulty. Consider the epistle that Giddianhi (leader of the Gadiantons) sent to the Nephite leader before their final showdown. Giddianhi referred to “your liberty, and your property, and your country, or that which ye do call so,” (emphasis added) and “the many wrongs which ye have done unto them” and “your wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government” (3 Nephi 3:2, 4, 10). These grievances are basically identical to the original grievances that Laman and Lemuel levied against their younger brother Nephi again and again: that he had usurped the leadership of the people and the inheritance of Lehi. 

Thus, the Lamanite tradition of grievance had persisted intact across more than six centuries. The fact that it was far from clear who actually was or was not descended from Laman and Lemuel or Nephi only underscores the staying power of this tradition. Nephite dissidents were perfectly familiar with it, and consistently relied on it to incite the Lamanites to war against the Nephites in century after century.

One way to look at the superior appeal of wicked traditions in this fallen world is through the lens of optimization and sufficiency. The Gospel is a message of optimization, in the sense that it pulls us on towards perfection without accepting anything less. The work and glory of God is for us to be like God. To be perfect. Literally: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). 

Of course that goal is unattainable in this life, and we are saved not by our success in partially fulfilling this commandment, but through the grace of Christ the Atoner. Stil, while the Gospel gives us the good news that we are saved already, it also urges us to never stop striving for the “new heart” we have been promised (Ezekiel 36:26). Christ calls us to rest from sin, but never stop striving for greater perfection.

This fallen world, by contrast, is a world of sufficiency. It is governed by the rule that you do not have to run faster than the bear, only faster than the other person. This is the reason that bees have hooked stingers, so that they die if they use their stinger. It would be better (for the individual bee, at least) if they could sting and survive, but natural selection doesn’t care about “better”. It only cares about “good enough”. This principle of taking the path of least resistance, of doing the minimal required amount of effort, is the universal governing principle of a fallen world. 

This is the sense in which the “natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19). The natural man is not necessarily evil, but he is lazy and complacent. This is the default, starting condition. It is the reason that the Gospel faces a constant, uphill climb with every new generation. 

The Lamanite tradition of grievance appealed to the natural man by making excuses. Why did the Nephites prosper in cities protected by walls manned by soldiers clad in armor and inspired by indomitable courage? Not because prosperity and honor are the consequences of a righteous society, but because the Nephites had stolen the Lamanite birthright. The appeal of this belief is that it absolved the Lamanites from the work of soul-searching and repentance. 

This is spelled out explicitly in the confrontation between Ammon and King Lamoni. As Mormon editorializes in Alma 18:5 (emphasis added):

Now this was the tradition of Lamoni, which he had received from his father, that there was a Great Spirit. Notwithstanding they believed in a Great Spirit, they supposed that whatsoever they did was right; nevertheless, Lamoni began to fear exceedingly, with fear lest he had done wrong in slaying his servants

The fact that the tradition of the Lamanites–one of grievance and excuse-making that blamed all their shortcomings on the Nephites–led to an assumption that “whatsoever they did was right” wasn’t some incidental side-effect. It was the whole point.

This is the template for all worldly traditions. They arise in a process similar to that of natural selection: lots of people have lots of ideas. The ones that are most appealing have the greatest chance of being shared and received by others. Those that are less appealing are shared less frequently, believed less readily, and soon forgotten. 

This is good in the case of practical beliefs; it means that useful inventions spread quickly (absent interference for other reasons). It is bad in the case of abstract beliefs; it means that the deck is always stacked in favor of beliefs that are self-flattering; promote complacency; and that preclude responsibility, sacrifice, and repentance. When it comes to abstract beliefs, the lure of apparent ease is very, very difficult to overcome. The natural man calls us to rest in sin, and to cease striving for greater perfection.

This is the landscape the Gospel faces. This is the reason that “you can’t successfully defend [it] once and for all,” This is the reason that “old truths [that] are not updated for each new age… slip from our grasp and lose our allegiance.” This is the reason that, all else equal, the righteous conversion of one generation will not be passed on to the next. 

Radical Orthodoxy and Recreation

The three authors of the LDS Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto–myself along with Jeffrey Thayne and J. Max Wilson–are in our 30s and 40s. We’ve grown up in a culture saturated in the watered-down, pop culture versions of ideas from postmodernism and critical theory. Having escaped the Ivory Tower to run amok in everyday society, these ideas have morphed into a kind of secular religion. They constitute a worldly tradition that–like that of the Nehors–spreads through self-flattery and easier surrogates for sacrifice and service. We’ve watched too many of our peers led away from their covenant relationships to the Church, their fellow Latter-day Saints, and their Savior. 

Reconceiving the eternal principles of the Restored Gospel in this context is what I have in mind for updating old truths and is one facet of LDS Radical Orthodoxy’s commitment “to revisit[ing] many facets of our received paradigm in order to apply the revealed doctrines and principles of the Gospel to the unique challenges of today.”

We’re far from the only or first people to see this problem, of course. Many in the generation before us have fought long and hard against these ideas (postmodernism and critical theory) which, for them, were innovative interlopers. Our perspective is different, because these ideas were already present in society before we were born. 

There are lots of people who recognize the dangers of heedlessly importing intrinsically anti-theist secular ideals into their paradigm and recklessly applying suspicious, power-focused critiques to scripture and Church, but some of the counterattacks have also gone astray. We’ve seen those who seek refuge in ever greater isolation from mainstream culture and we’ve seen those who lash out in angry, fear-tinged attempts grasp onto the fading threads of evaporating cultural supremacy. 

We cannot reconcile either of these approaches with the Restored Gospel of Christ. We feel called to engage the world, genuinely living in it while refusing to become of it. We also feel called to forsake anger and fear and contention and to instead emulate the “peaceable followers of Christ” (Moroni 7:3) who would “receive railing… and would not turn and revile again” (3 Nephi 6:13). 

We do not believe that we have found some new truth that will solve these dilemmas. There is no hidden secret or clever invention that we have to offer. Instead, we are committed to the truths taught openly and frequently in the Standard Works, the Church’s official Proclamations, and every session of General Conference. My quest is not to invent some new Gospel, but to claim for ourselves the very same righteous traditions of our fathers, made new for us in and through our own experiences

That’s the critical need that I hope LDS Radical Orthodoxy can fulfill. Not as a formal organization but as a decentralized, informal movement. Not as a final answer to perennial problems, but as one contribution in the chain. My intent is to do my part to articulate the Restored Gospel in the context of the postmodern society I inherited both as part of my ineluctable obligation to “work out [my] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and in order to forge the strongest, brightest link in the chain so that my children will have the best chance of doing the same in their turn. 

One thought on “Updating the Old Truths”

  1. “It would be better (for the individual bee, at least) if they could sting and survive, but natural selection doesn’t care about “better”. It only cares about “good enough”. This principle of taking the path of least resistance, of doing the minimal required amount of effort, is the universal governing principle of a fallen world.”

    This particular passage hit different today. Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about biological evolution and how it fits in the greater picture. Kind of off topic from the main point of the article (which was excellent), but you helped me out today

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