Recently I went to a business dinner at George’s at the Cove, a rather posh restaurant in La Jolla. Since it was a Friday evening with no school the following day, Wendy decided to drop me off for the dinner and take our son, Jeremiah, and his friend (let’s call him Jacob) to explore La Jolla. Since San Diego was in the midst of a red tide that resulted in phenomenal glowing surfs at night (read about it here), she had planned on taking Jeremiah and Jacob to get a hamburger and then go down to the Cove and see the phosphorescence. But first she treated them to a little window shopping at Symbolic Motors. Symbolic is the local exotic car dealership. (We will occasionally take Jeremiah down during a Saturday and let them wander around the Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and even the occasional Bugatti. As amazing as these machines are and as excited as I get to see them, I often don’t enjoy our trips as I’m so stressed about Jeremiah tripping into one of the cars or some other accident.) Symbolic was closed, but its large street facing windows gave the kids ample opportunity to gawk. Though the store was closed, there were two men moving cars around in the store’s rear lot and garage. Wendy, Jeremiah, and Jacob walked over to the fence that separated the customer parking lot from where the men were working. In a surprising (to me) display of class, the leader of the two, Marc, stopped, and recognizing that nobody loves cars more than 10 to 12 year old boys, started chatting with Jeremiah and Jacob. Marc told them about his company–how he buys exotic cars from rich people in location A and sells them to other rich people in location B. Marc told them about the particular cars he was bringing to Symbolic to sell now, including a Maybach, a luxury car I’d never heard of, but, as coincidence goes, Jeremiah and Jacob had spent much time discussing as we had driven to La Jolla. Marc showed them photos on his phone of previous cars he had sold. Finally, Marc rounded off the discussion by telling them to do well in school.
Meeting Marc had been a phenomenal experience for Jeremiah and Jacob and they couldn’t stop talking about it. When the two of them squeezed onto the only stool available in the Burger Lounge, they kept talking about Marc and his cars. A gentleman on the stool next to them couldn’t help but overhear their enthusiastic banter. They were both taken aback when he started talking to them. “You met Marc? I know Marc.” Turns out, this stranger sitting next to them, enjoying his gourmet yet still rather down to earth burger, was Bill Sr., owner of the Ferrari and Maserati stores in San Diego, Orange County, and Washington (he didn’t mention the fact that he was the owner – they discovered that later). Bill was just as affable as Marc, and again recognizing the pure love a boy has for a Ferrari, pulled out his business card, wrote his son’s cell-phone number on it, and told them to call Bill, Jr. for a personal tour of the Ferrari dealership. Wendy had brought them down to La Jolla for the glowing surf, but the planets were obviously aligned to bring a much greater event into Jeremiah’s and Jacob’s lives.
The next day Jeremiah and Jacob (joined by Jeremiah’s sister, Clare), got their personalized tour of the Ferrari and Maserati dealerships. And just like Mark, and Bill, Sr., Bill, Jr. was friendly, down-to-earth, and without airs. Bill told them how his father had been a mechanic, always tinkering with cars. The mystery of how a mechanic had acquired these dealerships was left a mystery but perhaps explained much of these men’s friendliness to Jeremiah and Jacob: they were selling cars because they loved cars, the same love they could see in these boys.
Some time later I was talking with Jacob’s mom about his experience with the exotic car dealers. “It is all Jacob talks about,” she said. “But the most amazing thing he told me,” she continued “was ‘Mom, even though Bill, Sr. must be really rich I think he is really humble.'” The maturity and insight to recognize that virtue really pleased her, and led to one of those much-desired teaching moments where a parent and a child can mutually explore ideals to live by.
When I recounted this conversation to Wendy and Jeremiah as we drove to BBQ Republic, Wendy asked Jeremiah, “Do you think Bill, Sr. is humble?” “What’s humble?” he replied. We both felt deflated. Every Sunday of his life, sans vacations, illnesses, and conferences, Jeremiah has gone to Church, sat through sermons and two hours of religious instruction at Primary. He could tell us that we shouldn’t go shopping on Sundays, that gambling is wrong, and that caffeine is an addictive drug to be avoided, yet he didn’t know what humility was? I felt like a parental failure—how could I have not, at the very least, passed on to Jeremiah my love of the scripture in Micah about walking humbly with God. But I also wondered about my church.
“People in our church are more concerned with being right than being good,” I later lamented to Wendy. I may be wrong, but I think the pursuit of being “right” is often dangerous because there are so many ways to be wrong whereas being “good” is a much simpler task. I acknowledge that “right” and “wrong” are loaded terms, and not entirely separable. Being “right” in some sense is a prerequisite for being “good,” but the scope of “rightness” far exceeds the scope of “goodness” and thus offers greater opportunities for “wrongness.” Since “wrongness” feels horrible, people will fight vehemently to prove to themselves and others that they are really “right.” This is a plague of our religion, which is unusually “gnostic” in its approach: that is, we are not only concerned about being “good” but about being “right” in a sense that far exceeds a foundation for being “good.” (I think of, for example, Bruce R. McConkie’s BYU address “The Seven Deadly Heresies” that you can read here if you are interested.) Fortunately, there are some good Mormon antidote to this excessive gnosticism, such as this very plain statement from Anthony W. Ivins:
I do not argue with the men who say the earth is only six thousand years old, or those who say it is 600,000 years old, or those who say it is six million. I know we are here on the earth, and I know the Lord has told us why we are here. The time will come when we will know all the rest. It is our misinterpretation of the word of the Lord that leads us into trouble. (quoted in Hugh B. Brown, Continuing the Quest)
The same call to, one might say, relax that Ivins advocated was echoed by another Mormon leader, B. H. Roberts, who at the October 1912 General Conference said, “In essentials let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things charity.” Roberts enjoyed speculative theology, he realized that even theoretical ideas can impact daily living, yet he recognized our limits:
[I]n no department is the frank and honest confession “I don’t know,” more
imperative than in Theology; and when it is given as an actual confession of
having reached the limits of our knowledge, it is worthy of all praise. But
if it becomes tainted with the spirit of “I don’t care,” then I have no respect
“Rightness” often devolves into an obsession with uniqueness. An LDS Institute teacher I greatly admired once provided this critique of Mormons: when asked by their non-Mormon friends to describe God, Mormons concentrate on our unique doctrine of God’s corporality while ignoring the much more important, but non-unique doctrine of God being all powerful, all knowing, and all loving. Lowell Bennion wrote
I do not insist on innovation and novelty to make his teachings profound and
powerful for me, for what is unique about Jesus’ teaching is his emphasis and
his wonderful art. (Legacies of Jesus, p. 24)
Bennion’s comment about religion reminds me of a statement that Fred Brooks said of computing:
[I]n design, in contrast with science, novelty in itself has no merit. If we recognize our [computer science] artifacts as tools, we test them by their usefulness and their costs, not their novelty.
Novelty, shouldn’t be a significant metric for our religion. Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated this quite well in his October 2009 General Conference address:
Although there will always be those who stereotype the Church and its members in a negative way, most people think of us as honest, helpful, and hardworking. Some have images of clean-cut missionaries, loving families, and friendly neighbors who don’t smoke or drink. We might also be known as a people who attend church every Sunday for three hours, in a place where everyone is a brother or a sister, where the children sing songs about streams that talk, trees that produce popcorn, and children who want to become sunbeams.
Brothers and sisters, of all the things we want to be known for, are there attributes above all others that should define us as members of His Church, even as disciples of Jesus?
President Uchtdorf ends his sermon by answering in the negative the question he posed:
Love is the guiding light that illuminates the disciple’s path and fills our daily walk with life, meaning, and wonder.
Love is the measure of our faith, the inspiration for our obedience, and the true altitude of our discipleship.
Love is the way of the disciple.
I testify that God is in His heaven. He lives. He knows and loves you. He is mindful of you. He hears your prayers and knows the desires of your heart. He is filled with infinite love for you.
Let me conclude as I began, my dear brothers and sisters: what attribute should define us as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Let us be known as a people who love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and who love our neighbor as ourselves. When we understand and practice these two great commandments in our families, in our wards and branches, in our nations, and in our daily lives, we will begin to understand what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus the Christ. Of this I testify in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.
In his recent meditation on religion Yi-Fu Tuan wrote
What is the ultimate test of religion? What is religion if it is not the sacred book, the magnificent house of worship, the faithful community and communion? Worthy as these achievements are, they are, first and foremost, achievements in the cultural and social realm. They may help to ignite the divine spark and so promote religion, but they are not in themselves the test of religion, the justification for its existence on Earth. What can that test be? My answer is the truly good person–a saint, if you will–someone embedded in this world yet “not of this world.” (Religion: From Place to Placelessness, p. 66)
Perhaps if I were less obsessed with the rightness of the wrongness of our LDS obsession with rightness, I would have been better at teaching Jeremiah the weightier matters, such as humility. Perhaps if we were collectively less obsessed with being unique and more obsessed with being loving, as Presidnet Uchtdorf encourages, the world would better recognize Mormons as actually being Saints.