Friday, January 23, 2015

A Lifetime of Covenants, Part 1

Growing up LDS, I took pride in special nature of the LDS covenant relationship with God.  At most my religion teachers told me about how other Christian churches were based on simply affirming your acceptance of Christ into your life and that nothing else was needed.  I was typically told about this deeply emotional and sacred process of other religions in order to impress on me how shallow those religions were in comparison to the LDS church.  It didn't even occur to me that any other Christian church viewed themselves as administering covenants between God and man or that these covenants might be meaningful and deeply powerful in the lives of who partook of them.  Having seen an Episcopal baptism service I was surprised at the beauty and depth of the covenant relationships entered into and the moral and religions obligations involved.  Upon researching further, I was also impressed by how differently the Episcopal system of covenants operated from what I was accustomed to.  The main differences I spotted were the following:

1. The covenants as modeled by the Episcopal church are explicit in nature.  Very little is implied or set up only to be understood by those in the know.  Very little theological background is needed to understand them.
2.  The obligations were not made to the church directly, but directly to God with few exceptions.
3.  Comparatively few of the obligations involved actions which were only moral or immoral in a theological sense.  Almost all of the covenants directly involved commitments to a moral way of life.

To explain what I mean I will be discussing some of the specifics of the covenants made in the LDS church including in the temple.  Specific wording won't be quoted nor any information presented that is covenanted not to be revealed.  But, if you don't like seeing the temple covenants discussed in even the most basic terms you'd be better off skipping the rest and going to part 2 where I will list the specific covenants made over the life of a typical Episcopalian to provide a context for this discussion.

To understand what I mean on point one, think of the LDS baptism or Priesthood covenants.  An outsider could watch those ceremonies without knowing that specific promises were being made because they aren't part of the ceremony.  Similarly, the LDS sacrament covenants involve a promise to keep all commandments given.  An outsider watching would have no knowledge of what commandments were meant and frankly many members don't appear to know either.  It is commonly taught that this only means baptismal covenants when theologically it includes marriage vows and pretty much everything else you can imagine.  Temple covenants are not even known to the people about to make them until the moment they are confronted with them.  A knowledge of the theology is generally required to understand what most LDS covenants actually mean.  This isn't inherently good or bad in many respects but simply a different culture of how commitments are presented.  Personally I think the LDS church would be healthier if most all of the temple covenants were a matter of public knowledge and discussion so that people could prepare for their commitments directly, but my opinion doesn't really count for anything in that discussion.

To understand what I mean by point two, consider that the LDS consecration covenant is explicitly made to the church itself.  The Law of Sacrifice covenant is made explicitly to the Kingdom of God which in practical terms means the church.  While there are plenty of other specific covenants that aren't made in this way, these who covenants are the most explicit and far reaching in binding LDS church members to obedience to God that I know of and they are worded to give that obedience to God through the LDS church directly.  This perhaps helps explain why there doesn't appear to be a strong culture of LDS people establishing 'personal ministries' where they try to serve God in their communities or in the world directly but instead channel that service to God through their church callings.  This does help create strong ward communities but also limits exposure to service outside of those communities except as mediated by community leadership.  For members who don't see that obeying their leaders is the same thing as obeying God, the format of these covenants can be damaging because it sets up a conflict between obeying the institution and obeying their personal moral understanding of the world.  For those who see God's will as directly manifesting at every level of the LDS leadership, there is no conflict here.

To understand what I mean by point three, consider the covenant obligations in the LDS religion such as garment wearing, not criticizing leaders, not laughing loudly, obeying leaders, attending meetings, and magnifying callings.  While many of these actions support the values and concerns of the church community and in many ways aren't inherently bad in many cases, they are not inherently good either except as defined by the theology.  There is nothing about complete obedience that makes the leader's decisions good or bad.  Attending meetings can be evil if it takes away from overarching concerns which are of greater moral priority.  Wearing garments can be deeply disruptive to marital intimacy for some people.  Laughing loudly is of so little moral concern that it's prohibition is extremely seldom thought to mean anything literally and the editors of the ceremony should probably reword it so that it has direct moral relevancy literally as stated.  For those who view the LDS church as having direct authority and guidance from God in how all covenants are established, the comparative moral, immoral, or amoral content of the specifics of covenant obligations are of no concern since their obedience to God is worked out through observances that may or may not have any personal moral relevancy to their lives.  Frankly, any religious or spiritual culture has its own baggage of expectations that are of cultural spiritual significance instead of direct moral spiritual significance.  But I'd argue it is healthy if obligations that are have little direct moral or ethical content be viewed in a more flexible light than the "covenant with God" model provides.

For part two of this discussion I'll present the specifics of the covenants an Episcopalian might expect to enter as they passed through baptism, confirmation, and marriage as well as discuss how I relate to my own history of taking covenants in the LDS church.

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