Monday, March 7, 2011

The Vicarious Principle

I've been reading James E. Talmage's Articles of Faith recently. I read it the first time when I was sixteen, and first starting to get excited about the prospect of serving a mission. Later, after my mission, I read Jesus the Christ. Talmage is one of my favorite apostles, and one of the great LDS theologians.* Recently, I've been reading Talmage's discussion of the vicarious principle in LDS teaching and practice, and have been blessed to be reminded of a fundamental insight into the nature of the great vicarious work.

The principle of "vicarious work" is at the heart of all Christian theology. The vicarious principle is built into the Atonement itself. The idea behind the Atonement theology taught in most Christian churches is that we cannot save ourselves. There is nothing we individually can do to fully atone for our own sins. That work had to be accomplished for us by someone who was capable of atoning for sin. And that someone was Jesus Christ.

God regarded Christ's death on behalf of unfortunate sinners who could not save themselves not as a failure of justice but as its fulfillment. Christian theologians have long wrestled with the implications of such a principle. To many the vicarious principle has undermined conventional notions of justice and equity. This is one reason, for instance, that Deists attacked Christian doctrine as repulsive and offensive. If one person breaks the law, and another person is punished instead, in our society we typically consider that a miscarriage of justice. We have elaborate legal mechanisms set up in our society to ensure that only the one actually guilty of a crime gets punished for it. But in the economy of divine justice, it seems, a willing innocent may accept the burden of paying a debt for someone else who can't pay the debt him or herself.

The only real innovation of Mormon theology over the standard Christian principle of vicarious atonement is the extension and broadening of the notion to almost every aspect of Christian practice. If, for example, a person dies without ever having the opportunity to be baptized, another may be baptized in his or her stead. In the Mormon scheme of things, through vicarious work we can all become "saviors in Mount Zion." Many of us have this opportunity to labor and do for others what they cannot do for themselves, extending salvation to all who desire to be saved. Again, this is not considered a travesty of justice in the Mormon scheme of things. It is one of the finest expressions and examples of divine justice, in that it demonstrates the true universality of God's love.

The vicarious work is linked to the Atonement in another powerful way. The vicarious work acknowledges that, in an ideal world, everyone would accomplish for themselves whatever they need to do for their own salvation. Everyone would have a fair chance to learn what they need to learn, and to prove their moral worth. But the world we live in has been distorted by sin. Because of sin, the world is filled with illness and disaster; with war and tyranny; with cruelty and corruption. Families are torn apart by poverty. Infants die of starvation. Minds and bodies are wracked by disease. Relationships are distorted by physical and sexual abuse. Sin has a vicarious effect! Each of us suffers in various ways because of the sins of others! So many of us are caught in chains of causality that limit our choices and make it impossible for us to do for ourselves what we might otherwise do in an ideal world. The vicarious work acknowledges that because of the real power that sin has in this world, some of us are in desperate need of help and healing. And it permits those of us in a position to help and heal to join Christ in his work of reaching out and saving those who cannot save themselves.

The relationship between healer and healed, of course, is not just a one-way relationship, in which one person always plays the healer and the other always plays the healed. In reality, the uniqueness of our personalities and experiences and gifts means that there are areas of my life where I need healing that only someone else can heal, and that person may have other areas of his or her life where only I can heal. Healing is usually a two way street, or even an intersection where multiple paths intersect and healing needs to flow in multiple directions!

What's more magical about this is that sometimes the healing I need can only be provided by someone I regard as my enemy. It is also likely that there are individuals out there who regard me as their enemy, who can only get the healing they need from me.

We live in a culture that has been shaped by Enlightenment individualism. Despite the insistence of our prophets and our poets that "no man is an island," in our culture we insist on believing that we each, in fact, are islands unto ourselves. That we should be complete and self-sufficient in ourselves. The inability to stand on our own two feet is considered a failing and reason for shame. For a man to be dependent on another man diminishes him and makes him less than a man. (Women are allowed to be dependent on men, which tells us something about how women are viewed in our culture.)

In this culture, the vicarious principle is offensive and counter-intuitive. In our culture, those who accept the vicarious principle as valid, tend to accept it as "a mystery," as something that works in theology even though it doesn't really work out here in "the real world."

But if we allowed the vicarious principle to teach us, we might learn some pretty amazing things about ourselves and others. We might learn that:

* the destiny of each of us is interconnected with the destiny of every other one of us

* what happens to one of us has an effect on all of us

* if any one of us is left out, isolated and alone or in pain, left to fend for themselves, we have all failed

* there is no such thing as individual salvation, only collective salvation that links every individual to a family, and every family to the great human family, all offspring of a Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father

If vicarious atonement of sin is possible, if vicarious baptism or vicarious marriage is possible, it is because there is no meaningful difference between you and me and we are all one with Christ, who stands for us before the throne of God and pleads for every single one of us, and who reaches out to and saves the "least" among us.

Sunday we had Stake Conference and I sat next to my friend Mary. When Mary was struggling and in pain and wrestling with doubt before her baptism, I was there encouraging her, bearing testimony to her, and trying to model faith in the best way that I knew how. When Mary was baptized, there are few occasions in my life that have been more joyous for me. I wish I could have been baptized on that day, but I couldn't be. I had to experience the joy of Mary's baptism vicariously. I saw the joy in her face, and I accepted it as my own joy. Oh, that was sweet! It made me so happy to think, "At least she has been saved." And her first words to me out of the font were, "I won't leave you behind." And when I struggle and am sad, she is there to encourage me and bear testimony to me, and model faith in the best way that she knows how. And she's born witness to me again and again since then how she knows that her salvation isn't complete without me. That has been such an incredible comfort.

*Though Mormons are generally uncomfortable with the idea of studying "theology," which they tend to associate with "philosophies of men," Talmage didn't eschew the term, and certainly wouldn't have been uncomfortable applying it to his own work.


C. L. Hanson said...

"Enlightenment individualism?"

I'm sorry to be picky, but I don't think that American-style "rugged individualism" (as opposed to community responsibility) can be so blithely pinned on "The Enlightenment." Sure, different schools of thought in philosophy influence one another, but you're flattening a whole lot of complexity. (Are you reacting to friends or acquaintances-of-friends who read a lot of Ayn Rand?) Aside from that one misplaced attribution, though, I think you make some interesting points.

J G-W said...

C.L. - Read Tom Paine's Age of Reason (a man of the Enlightenment if ever there was one). Or check out James Turner's Without God, Without Creed, for an account of how post-Enlightenment religion became steadily more individualistic.

Granted, it's not all the Enlightenment's fault; some of the blame can be pinned on the Reformation. But if you believe a host of Reformation historians (see Phyllis Tickle for a recent, fascinating account in The Great Emergence) the Reformation and the Enlightenment are interrelated.

I'm not talking about "rugged individualism" per se. (Though Adam Smith was certainly a product of the Enlightenment...) I'm talking about things like rising importance of things like individual conscience and individual moralism. Concepts that might check "rugged individualism," but that stress the independence of the individual nonetheless.

I do believe that the Enlightenment promoted a view not just of nature but of society that was more mechanistic. It generally dispensed with concepts like "ether" and "spirit" in a way that emphasized the individual at the expense of the whole.

This is not to say that individualism (or the Enlightenment!) is a bad thing. Individualism is actually essential to any coherent concept of "interrelatedness." The idea that we are all interrelated is meaningless if there's not an I, you, he, she and it to be interrelated.