Last week I met a friend for dinner. Our conversation was lovely and lively and deep, as it always is. At some point we landed on the topic of faith versus works and the very specific set of works in Mormonism that comprise the ordinances of salvation. Having just read Ephesians 2, I pulled out my phone to quote from it. I read verses 8, 9, and 10 across our noodles:
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
I talked about Christ creating us unto good works and about those works being emblematic of our walk of faith in Christ. Incidentally, one of the waiters approached the table and said he had worked there for two months and had never heard anyone quote Ephesians 2 (he could possibly work there many more months and never hear it quoted) and that it was awesome and that that was all. A few minutes later he walked by again and said, “It is a walk of faith. People don’t know that. People in churches.” I wanted to ask him if he was a Christian, but the opportunity passed too quickly. It was a moment of witnessing together that was special, and I am glad I could be a part of it.
I couldn’t offer a definitive answer to this conundrum for many reasons, one being that my own beliefs are somewhat contradictory. Simultaneously and contradictorily, perhaps, I believe in the necessity of temple ordinances and also in near-universal salvation. On the second belief, given what I know of Christ, I find it inconceivable that when *most* people approach Christ at the final judgment that they won’t be overwhelmed with his divinity and desire to do everything required to be in his presence. And if that means they repent and go straightway into the water and follow the necessary ordinances then I think that’s the way it will be. Likewise I find it almost inconceivable that Christ will look at his dear brothers and sisters in that moment of recognition and desire and say, “Too late! The way is forever shut.” I just don’t believe that.
Isn’t it possible that a moment of Christ’s love can wipe out all past wrongs? Isn’t it possible that the atonement is not just something Christ did but a completely constitutive part of who he is and that such a loving action of forgiveness would be entirely natural, even to the point of being a law governing his response? Which part of Christ’s personality will triumph, justice or mercy? Righteous judgement can be a facet of mercy, though, and perhaps I am just a bit like Corianton, doubting the justice of punishment for sins. Even if, in the LDS theology of post-mortal existence, souls will have the opportunity to hear the gospel and to accept it or reject it and even if the final judgment is the separating of the sheep from the goats with plenty of prior opportunity for repentance, I still think Christ will triumph over all hearts in that final moment. At least that is what I hope beyond all hopes. What about the potential for human hearts to change and to change rapidly when presented with a certain truth, much less the Embodiment of truth and righteousness? Didn’t the people in King Benjamin’s congregation experience an instantaneous mighty change of heart? What is the function of a covenant in their conversion?
Let’s look at Benjamin’s people. After hearing Benjamin deliver the worlds of the angel–that Christ will come and atone for the sins of the world; that it is incumbent upon them to put off the natural man and become saints through the atonement; and that one day a knowledge of Christ will fill the earth (one must think that this knowledge will fill the cosmos, too)–the people experience their conversion.
“And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men. And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them” (Mosiah 4:2-3).
The people’s faith in and their desire to have God apply the atoning blood in their lives leads to joy and a fulness of the Spirit. Their sins are remitted and they are at peace. Benjamin preaches that that the people must believe that they need to repent of their sins; they must humble themselves; and they must sincerely ask for God to forgive them. Belief must lead to action, and he asks the people to continually remember their status before God, “your own nothingness” (4:11); to remember “his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures” (11); and “humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come” (11). Benjamin promises that “if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true” (12).
The people testify that the words are sure and true “because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil” (Mosiah 5:2). This belief and faith leads to the people’s willingness “to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days” (v. 5). Whether or not their covenants were ratified in a temple setting, it seems that covenants with God are a necessary component of a change of heart in this story. Through a covenant they receive a new name, the name of Christ. They are born through the Spirit before, though. Thus, at least in that moment, it does not seem to be the covenant that saves. It no doubt serves as a remembrance and a guide in their future behavior.
Now, where does judgment come in? Well, just so happens, Mosiah 4 is also where Benjamin talks about not judging those who petition for our substance, for we are all beggars before God. Giving our substance to the poor is one of the ways we retain a remission of our sins and thus walk guiltless before God. That solves the problem of judgment on the human end. But what about God’s judgment after all this love and forgiveness? In 5:5 the people say they enter into the covenant to do God’s will “that we may not bring upon ourselves a never-ending torment, as has been spoken by the angel, that we may not drink out of the cup of the wrath of God.” They seem to understand that there is a “punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement” (2 Nephi 2:10). In that same verse it says that we are judged according to the truth and holiness which is in him.” Also in the same verse, it is by the atonement that we are brought to judgement. Were there no atonement, there would be no judgement. All would be lost. But judgment is a component of redemption. Judgment is formal acceptance or rejection of humans after all they have done. It is an evaluation of who they have become by walking in faith of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Why then, is the temple necessary? Addressing the grace-works question, and following a thread of my own theological speculation, the temple is where our indebtedness to Christ continues to be formalized covenantally (baptism is the beginning, the entering into the way). Covenant is not just contract in Mormonism but it is worship–a worshipful enactment of mutual promises. That enactment takes place each Sunday through the Lord’s Supper. And that enactment continues on a grander scale in the temple. The temple is my favorite place and favorite concept in all of Mormonism. It speaks a symbolic language that is my native tongue. I love the rupture of the sacred into the mundane. I believe the promises made and received in the temple represent what I imagine constitutes the highest form of human flourishing. It draws me into an imaginative space where I feel connected to the cosmos. The temple is Joseph Campbell’s world navel, and draws not a little of its power in my mind from its ancientness.
These covenants are how God draws us nigh to him. Christ has reconciled God to man and man to God. But there must be an acceptance of that reconciliation for humans to become personally reconciled to God, for Christ’s sacrifice to be a living force for them. Why else does God publish Christ’s salvation? If God wanted to save people without their knowing it, he could easily do so. But he allows his yearning (his promise of making us whole) to become our yearning (our striving after wholeness), too. In the temple, we strive, we walk, we talk, we learn and carry that knowledge into the world and integrate it into our daily walk with Christ and our fellow humans.*
In many of my conversations lately I have been citing an article I read discussing Nicholas of Cusa’s theology and his cloud of the impossible. One primary contradiction for Cusa is that of infinite and finite. For the author of the article, however,
“The contradictions . . . can also be the contradictions between our life calling and a relationship to a loved one, or the contradiction between our ecological awareness and our economic practice. In his cloud meditation Cusa suggests that these contradictions (which seem to be utterly resistant to our reason, which strike us as utterly impossible to resolve) suck us deeper into the cloud. We’re drawn ever deeper, until we hit a wall. We come to an awareness of a wall that seems to be woven of these intractable, irreconcilable opposites.
“But Cusa describes this as the wall of the coincidence of opposites: coincidentia oppositorum. It’s the very realization that these opposites are interwoven that points to something else, a sort of third way. It’s a struggle to get there. There’s a kind of logic of “either-or” that has to be overcome. But then a gate opens and, at least for a moment, one is in paradise. This moment never lasts. But, for Cusa, the experience of the divine is precisely that: coming smack up against this contradiction and then, if we hang in there, the opening.”
My contradictory beliefs are part of my cloud of the impossible, but they continue to draw me forward along the way of faith, and I am learning to embrace their interconnectedness and my own in-processness.
*I probably didn’t give a sufficiently scholarly or satisfying answer to the need for the temple and its specific set of works, and it’s a theme I would like to investigate more. However, that’s all for tonight. Sleep tight, all.