s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Letter vs.Spirit

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Letter vs.Spirit

There are two types of Mormons. No, that’s not fair. There are many types of Mormons, and putting them (us) into two groups only serves to pigeonhole people and polarize the extremes.

Start over. Mormons have many ways of trying to live a moral life. Two of them strike me as complementary. I think of them as the Letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law methods.

The Letter of the Law approach might be described as living the gospel from the bottom up, or from specific to general. This involves paying attention to the numerous, specific commandments given by prophets and general authorities: no beards, no double-pierced ears, always wear a white shirt on Sundays, no playing with face cards. This approach isn’t inherently bad. After all, keeping the commandments is supposed to demonstrate obedience and lead to blessings.

The problem with this approach is that it tends toward . . . superficiality, in the most literal sense of the word. Continuing revelation means that Mormons are always getting new commandments on new issues, and the list of things we are or aren’t supposed to do just keeps getting longer. No one can possibly do everything that a good Mormon is “supposed” to do, but we want to look like we’re doing the right thing, so there’s a tendency to focus on outward appearance. And once we start focusing on how we look to others, it’s easy to start judging others by how they look. For all that the men and women of the Church have been counseled not to have facial hair or tattoos or body piercings (beyond the one permissible hole in each earlobe for women), we have never been told, ever, that this commandment is an excuse to be snotty to those who chose to do otherwise. However, it’s easier to judge unwisely than to look to the beam in your own eye, just as it’s easier to pay attention to looking good than it is to being good.

Probably you can tell from this diatribe that I lean towards the Spirit of the Law way of approaching the gospel. Spirit of the Law-types live the gospel from the top down, from general to specific. They want to get at the principle behind the rule – the deepest truth behind the superficial instance. I think this mindset is probably closer to True Religion than the other one, because it gets at the raison d’être behind all of the rules, and because, if we are to be Gods and Goddesses ourselves some day, we’re going to have to start figuring things out on our own, and not depending on others to dumb things down for us.

However, there are some problems with this philosophy, as well. The biggest problem with relying on your own judgment is . . . what if you have bad judgment? If you have bad judgment then you also, by definition, don’t know that you have bad judgment. How do you know that the thing you think is right is really right? And how can you tell if you’re doing something because it’s the right thing to do, or just because you want to do it? Also, this attitude almost completely negates the idea of doing anything on faith, because you won’t do anything if you don’t see the point.

Of course, a moral life can come from either of these approaches. Paying attention to the letter of the law should also mean paying attention to which commandments are more important and which ones have been given special recent emphasis. No mortal can live a perfect life, but if you’re going to screw up, you should probably be aware that breaking the law of chastity is more grave than accidentally drinking a can of caffeinated Barq’s root beer. Keeping the letter of the law should also help you to have the Spirit with you, which should help you to make decisions in situations that aren’t specifically covered by a commandment.

Likewise, the good judgment necessary in trying to get at the spirit of the law means recognizing one’s own limitations in understanding. This means that God knows better than you do, and that the prophet, the general authorities and other leaders may also know better than you do. Furthermore, there are many basic commandments that are so closely in line with the spirit of the law that you don’t need to re-evaluate them every time you run across them. Killing your neighbor is bad. Loving your neighbor is good. Don’t be evil. Any questions?

So, like I said before, I fall strongly and stubbornly on the Spirit of the Law side of this equation, for a variety of reasons including my upbringing, my experiences in the Church (both bad and good), my mother’s personality, and her upbringing. The odd thing is that, while I think outside the Mormon culture box, I also hate attracting attention to myself by being different, so I tend to blend perfectly into the orthodox Mormon background. (This combination can also backfire, as conservative and liberal Mormons both mistakenly assume that I’m very conservative. In our first class together, Melyngoch and I famously dismissed each other as not worth getting to know.)

Anyway, being aware that I am overly oriented towards the Spirit of the Law (or what I think is the Spirit of the Law), I decided to try to be more Letter-ish in a couple of areas, namely, accepting a new calling last semester and completing President Hinckley’s Book of Mormon reading challenge.

Taking the Book of Mormon reading challenge was a very positive experience. I hadn’t read the Book of Mormon all the way through in a long time (it’s my least favorite of the standard works) and it helped that when I calculated the number of pages to read every day, I accidentally read that many leaves every day for a couple of months – even though I missed reading for a few weeks, I still finished easily by November. (And got to feel smug for the rest of the year. Oh, wait. That wasn’t the point at all.)

The new calling . . . didn’t work out so well. Last semester it was fine, as the ward mission leader was very easygoing, and didn’t seem to mind that I missed most of our weekly meetings. (In my defense, he scheduled them at a time I had to work, because that time worked best for most of the other people.) This semester wasn’t so good. The new ward mission leader was much more disciplined and organized, which I’m sure was a good thing for the missionary effort as a whole, but he seemed to think that regulation should apply to every aspect of our calling, from giving us quotas of copies of the Book of Mormon we should be handing out to down to prescribing the minimum number of weekly spiritually-themed discussions we should be having with non-members. I’m sure that there are some people who are outgoing (dare I say pushy?) enough to meet these stipulations, but I am not one of them. Add to that my own doubts and hesitations about the Church (Investigator: “I’m just not sure about some things.” Me: “Yeah, me neither!”) and the fact that I, a shy introvert, was supposed to “fellowship new members and include them in my activities.” (“I like to spend my evenings alone with a book, and I invite you to do the same.”) I’ve only just been released and not a moment too soon.

So, I’m 1 for 2 on having success doing what I’m supposed to do just because I’m supposed to do it. That’s not exactly a clear mandate for moving in the other direction. And I’m so much happier here.


At March 25, 2006 6:36 PM, Blogger Master Fob said...

1. I never thought you were conservative, but that might only be because I know you through Melyngoch and I've always assumed she doesn't know any conservative people.

2. Proselytizing is simply not for some people. Namely, those of us who are not pushy... ahem, outgoing.

3. The other problem with the Letter of the Law method is that it tends to lead to including not only what prophets have said but also anything a stake president, bishop, sunday school teacher, or neighbor-who-knows-President-Hinckley's-niece have said as Law. Hence the aversion to and tendency to frown upon others who watch R-rated movies, drink caffeinated beverages, and wear non-white shirts on Sunday. I will admit that there are inherent problems in the Spirit of the Law method, but if I'm going to make mistakes I'd rather make them because I misinterpreted what God was telling me, not because I was trusting someone else to do the interpreting for me.

At March 25, 2006 11:17 PM, Blogger Logan said...

I think there is less friction with the 'Letter' people you speak of in cases where The Letter of the Law is really what they are about.

Genuine Letter people are good allies and very likable provided their law is good—such as Lt. Worf of Star Trek.

Yet, it seems that in the majority of cases, 'Letter of the Law' people are actually 'Social Law' people. They often flat-out ignore the law, in fact, while strictly following social codes that aren't really law at all. I know y'all have heard this before, but e.g.: People who eat flesh seven or more times per week but won't touch caffeine.

At March 25, 2006 11:54 PM, Blogger Th. said...


I like your distinction, Logan.

At March 26, 2006 1:59 AM, Blogger Melyngoch said...

I'm totally the Letter of the Law kind. I make lists of all the little rules and nitpicky guidelines, and then I break them all.

(I have got to get a new approach to religion.)

At March 26, 2006 2:51 AM, Blogger Th. said...


You could try mine. I wear a special device in my ear and everyone is fooled into thinking I am righteous and stalwart.

No word yet on whether or not God will fall for it.

At March 26, 2006 6:04 PM, Blogger FoxyJ said...

I'm really not sure which side of the fence I fall on, because I think that I have vacillated back and forth throughout my life. I think I somehow manage to do both--I make up my own interpretations of laws and try really hard to follow them exactly (and tend to get annoyed with others who don't see my vision). I do find it interesting that you can find general authorities who seem to advocate both approaches. Right now my favorite talk is that one by Elder Oaks from a few years ago about how we should focus more on "becoming" instead of "doing", so I guess right now I'm going through a more "spirit of the law" phase. The only problem I have is that I keep clashing with one of my counselors who really, really likes to follow the "letter of the law". Sigh.

At March 27, 2006 1:49 AM, Blogger TK said...

Two thoughts:
One - I think we need to be careful in judging ANYTHING by leaders in the church. They are just people like us, trying to do the best they know how in a calling they didn't ask to have. We might do well not to expect much more from them than that they try their best, and learn something from it, which is probably the REAL reason ANY of us are given callings. (I mean, when you think about it, the Lord doesn't really Need us to accomplish HIS work, if it weren't that he wants to help us grow and become a part of his work!)

Two - This is a really well written and well thought out blog! I really enjoyed reading it. (I found it through MFOB's reference to it in his blog.) I think you make a lot of good points.

Since most comments seem to indicate that you're taking a vote :), I'll toss in my voice, for what it's worth. I'm probably more of a 'letter of the law' person. But I think the 'spirit of the law' is more important. However, it requires one to be totally in tune with the spirit, which some of us are only working on, and not always there, yet. It's a little like the children of Israel in the desert: because of their stage of progress, the Lord had to spell everything out for them until they became more obedient and ready to understand and obey. Today, we don't have so many restrictions as they did, but then, more is expected of us, too.

At March 27, 2006 2:35 AM, Blogger lunkwill said...

Interesting that you independently came up with a notion of top down / bottom up. Maybe it's all the math? In my view, bottom-up means the kind of people who aren't necessarily concerned about rules at all. They're the kind of people who, if they were asked to be Spanish Inquisitors, would say things like, "uh, I didn't follow all that stuff about how we're saving their souls, but let's maybe not poke them with hot irons, okay? Because that's obviously wrong."

In other words, they see the reality before them without having to filter it through any sort of convoluted moral structure. Right and wrong are what they directly appear to be in a given situation. It's what Terry Pratchett calls "First Sight and Second Thoughts."

The advantage they have is that they don't get hung up on passing fads like the Spanish Inquisition or philosophical paradoxes where people decide that the sky really must be green, despite any contrary evidence from their eyes. The thing they have to keep an eye out for is shortsightedness, and (at least from the perspective of their more structured associates) the dangers of ignoring nonintuitive directions from authorities (like "1 piercing good, 2 piercings bad").

At March 27, 2006 12:22 PM, Blogger Katya said...

mf - 1. Most people who meet me through the Board or Blue-Beta or Melyngoch get to know me "backwards," so to speak, because they become acquainted with my heterodox interior, first. Actually, they tend to be surprised at how conservative I look and act, when they finally meet me in person.

3. Some people would prefer to take the word of any "authority," on any subject, rather than tease out a moral problem on their own. Which is not to say that everyone needs to become a deep philosopher, but I think that some decisions need to be made on one's own.

logan - Good point. Someone who is "truly" living the Letter of the Law ought to be not much different from someone who is "truly" living the Spirit of the Law. It's just that most of us fail to live up to those standards, and end up with fallibilities specific to the side on which we fall. The Grapes are my example of a couple that is far more conservative/letterish than I am, but who are still really awesome people that I love dearly.

At March 28, 2006 12:39 PM, Blogger Katya said...

lunkwill - Actually, I think that my conception of top-down/bottom-up approaches came from drawing syntax structure trees in linguistics class. (Ironically, I always did them bottom-up.)

The first sight / second thoughts distinction is interesting, although I'm not sure it's exactly the same axis as the letter / spirit distinction.

What leads me to question an exact mapping between the two is the fact that I can think of many "letter of the law" people who will bring up the most arcane "rules" or "commandments" to apply to a given situation, simply becase a prophet or GA said something once on the subject 100 years ago, without any real regard to the actuality of a situation.

Likewise, I think that not every "spirit of the law" person is going to get stuck in theoretical "angels dancing on the head of a pin" type theological constructs. Ideally, such a person would be able to see to the heart of a matter at hand, without relying on a complex system of logic to guide them.

However, I can definitely see how "letter of the law" types could tend towards immediateness and "spirit of the law" types could tend towards reflectiveness. So probably the two sets of axes aren't orthogonal, either.

At March 29, 2006 2:53 AM, Blogger lunkwill said...

I think my comment was misleading. "Second thoughts" is just the rest of the Pratchett quote; I didn't mean it to apply to the top-downers, although it makes sense to assume that. I also didn't mean to say that my structure is isomorphic to yours. I just thought it was interesting that you too had come up with a top-down vs. bottom-up dichotomy, and that mine seems to extend out 90 degrees from yours; the top-down side of my scale covers people all across your scale, while what I call bottom-up refers to people who tend not to look to moral /structure/ (whether from a moral hierarchy or an authoritative hierarchy) at all.

I hope it's clear too that I think bottom-uppers can make perfectly good mormons (or members of any faith). That wasn't an immediately obvious idea to me; how could somebody be strong in a faith without plumbing its philosophical depths or venerating its authority structure? But after consideration, I couldn't see why God should require everyone to be philosophers. Indeed, there are plenty of scriptures to the contrary, talking how about taking care of the poor is pure religion.

At March 31, 2006 10:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This certainly doesn't seal the deal, but a speaker at a 2005 BYU Devotional stated that adherence to the spirit of the law is most likely to be achieved by strict and consistent obedience to the letter of the law.

He got me. It is obvious that I am a letter of the law person (minus those glorious face cards) simply because I am quoting some obscure talk.

At April 03, 2006 10:34 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Lol, anonymous, that's not so much an obscure reference as a poorly cited one. Anyway, I found the devotional fairly easily, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. It's a good talk. (It's Prof. Dana Griffen's Choices and Changes, Burdens and Blessings, for any who are interested.)

I might bring up a few points, in my defense. First, I don’t think that Bro. Griffen and I are necessarily arguing from such different points of view. The main point of his talk seemed to be an exhortation to make actively righteous choices in life, as opposed to living on the passive, apathetic sidelines. I’m not at all opposed to making good choices, the above post was rather an investigation into how Mormons decide which decision is the right choice, not on whether one should make a good choice at all.

Furthermore, I think that the effective range of opinions on the subject is actually much smaller than we might think. If “always blind obedience to explicit rules, all the time” were at 0 and “master the grand philosophy of the universe” were at 1, 90% of active Mormons might fall between, say 0.3 and 0.4. Which is not to say that the oh-point-threes and the oh-point-fours can’t find a lot to disagree about, just that we may be closer in spirit than we realize.

I still have to argue for something nearer to the oh-point-four end, on a couple of issues. First, Bro. Griffen does say this:

“[A] wise stake president, speaking in a stake conference, made a statement that has been teaching me ever since. He said, ‘The spirit of the law is most often gained by repeated obedience to the letter of the law.’ I repeat, ‘The spirit of the law is most often gained by repeated obedience to the letter of the law.’ ”

However, that quote comes directly after a story in which two priests neglect helping a woman with a flat tire on their way because it would make them late for priesthood meeting. In my mind, this isn’t a problem of “not following the rules” or “not keeping the commandments,” rather it’s an issue of failing to judge, accurately, which commandment was the greater in this situation. Following the Spirit of the Law isn’t supposed to be an excuse not to follow the letter of the law, but it can help determine which rule to follow if two rules seem to be in conflict. (Unless, of course, you have another, explicit meta-rule which governs this exact situation.)

The other issue which makes me argue for understanding the Spirit of the Law is that rules / Letters of the Law invariably run out at some point. There is no finite set of explicit rules which will cover every moral or ethical conundrum in which you will ever find yourself. At some point, you will have to figure out how to apply more general commandments to a specific situation, or you’re going to have to figure out the driving law behind all of the specific rules. In my mind, that’s the same thing.

At March 26, 2007 5:04 PM, Blogger Niki said...

Hey, I thought this was a REALLY great post!

I completely agree with you on the Letter versus Spirit of the Law thing. [I was actually looking for it on the lds.org website - nothing came up, so I (reprehensibly) decided to Google it - anyways, thats how I got to your blog]. Even though Spirit versus Letter of the Law really isnt talked about too much by the Church, I think its a logical way to look at how we "perform" our obedience.

I also like how you separated the Spirit of the Law as understanding the general principle behind the Law. And how you likened the Letter of the Law by working on the specifics before the principle.

When we are in Primary and such, I think its important to understand the Letter of the Law and, for lack of better terms, do as you're told. As we get older, the Spirit of the Law, relatively speaking, becomes more important. Of course, follow the commandments.

But crucifying yourself over drinking an energy drink when you've never smoked or done drugs or drank alcohol is not furthering the Gospel in any way.


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