Ashby D. Boyle II is the president of George Wythe University.

I. Mormon Ethics: Suddenly, Now a Topic of Interest within the Academy’s Sacred Groves

Non-Mormon scholars in, for example, Ivy League Departments of Religious Studies such as Yale University’s have turned to both accepting Mormonism as an object of study and asking the questions of genuine investigators, in their own native tongue. A paternalistic scholarly indifference has changed to respectful curiosity with a demand for answers.

What accounts for this change of heart?

I can only attempt a brief explanation. As a Jewish scholar at Columbia explained to me, as the Church is seen by religious intellectuals as a social power — a trend that relates to last year’s U.S. Presidential election– the Church and our scriptures are taken seriously as scripture. Within these sectors of the Academy, the Mormon Moment’ is enduring.

Why this matters is because our religious beliefs as grounded in our scriptures are respectfully but inevitably being put to the test within categories such as Theology and Religious Ethics-which are both defined sub-disciplines within academic departments. A door has opened that was closed.

One way to capitalize on this academic Mormon moment is supplying Mormon thinkers who can articulate Mormon scriptural truths in the language of religious scholarship, even though that language is a peculiar form of communication compared to how we articulate the same truths in Sunday School.

II. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mormon.

As you probably know, Yale’s “Ph.D. School” offers, as do all of the Ivy League universities, a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. Few are the Mormons allowed to enter therein.

One quick contrast at this point. A Religious Studies doctorate is not a divinity school degree. And each year now there are loads of young faithful Mormons being admitted to divinity schools.

What difference is there between Religious Studies and Divinity Schools? A divinity school degree is like a law school degree in that it is job training, to train one how to make money in a profession. Just as a Ph.D. in Political Science is not a law degree, so too a Ph.D. in Religious Studies is not a divinity degree.

At this point, I should introduce myself.   I often feel that no man knows my educational history. Beginning in 1980, first with an M.A. from Columbia and then an M.Phil. from Cambridge University, and then in the doctoral program at Yale, I studied for a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, specializing in Ethics, which I was awarded by Yale in 1989.

As a Mormon graduate student in ethics quietly working away, for years I felt stymied trying to answer exactly what “ethics” is or what it means. Like you perhaps, my intuitions told me that ethics was important. In retrospect I can see that I was confused because the standard definitions of “ethics” did not connect to the ethics I was spending so much time studying. For example, a standard definition of “ethics” states that ethics is concerned with how one ought to live.

But that definition defines too little because ethics as an academic discipline reaches far beyond standard definitions to also include so-called “deep thoughts” that engage one’s moral imagination in a comprehensive fashion.

Though learning the foreign language of ethical discourse is arduous, I found that study within an academic department focused on religious studies strengthened my gospel commitments.

It was also while at Yale that I was “invited” to produce a dissertation in Mormon Ethics. My professors asked me the golden question essentially: what are Mormon Teachings relative to ethics for we would like to know more?

I worked for years to answer in their own tongue the Golden Questions.

In the end, however, this was a dissertation fated not to be completed. There were two obstacles in my path. The first obstacle was that the Mormon moral imagination about right conduct runs right through the temple. Ironically, my professors were inadvertently asking that I betray my own religious commitments, which they respected I should not do. The second obstacle was, for lack of a better word, my stupidity, and the crushing sense I gained a testimony of, so to speak, that I simply lacked enough brain power to produce a definitive study on Mormon Ethics.

Now, as I compose this, those two obstacles to my original dissertation are 30 years old. As obstacles to that inquiry go, they are still obstacles.

But in this column, I will try to follow a path less traveled by and focus on the Book of Mormon and its ethics. Though our Mormon ethics encompass more than the ethics of the Book of Mormon, Mormon Ethics at least include those of the Book of Mormon. It follows that by continuing to pay attention to the question, “What are the ethical inferences here?”-I have been able to arrive at a basic outline relative to Mormon Ethics.

Which I shall now proceed to share. And what I share is merely offered and not asserted.

III.Some Ethical Insights into the Book of Mormon.

On its own terms, Mormon Theological Ethics provide answers from the scriptures to questions about how members are inspired through study and prayer thought to conduct each of our lives. In what follows I have written my thoughts to speak intelligibly in the first instance to intellectual or academic investigators. But I also hope this can be done in a “bilingual” way, so that what my thoughts intend might also be clear to that member who wonders about ethical theory.

Strictly speaking, it is error to assume at the outset that there are any “Mormon Ethics” in any academically-shaped language.

   This is because it is true that, strictly speaking, living one’s life in loving obedience to the will of the Lord is the best statement of how a Mormon ought to live. For many, this answer will be the end of the inquiry.

But what follows is meant, for example, for the faculty in Yale’s Department of Religious Studies, who will press on until they find answers in their own professional idiom, from whatever source derived.

And increasingly, non-Mormons are providing these types of answers.

So this is a missionary or evangelical matter, within a part of the Academy.

A personal aside.While I would not say myself that there’s anything like an “Ethics” contained in the Book which is just waiting to be expounded, on the other hand, the Book does possess answers to many, many questions, speaking with relevance to a wide array of topics. As an introduction to a fresh topic goes, like the topic of theological ethics, perhaps merely the “notes” below from academic conversations can be a start.

IV.Notes from Conversations in the Academy On Book of Mormon Ethics

If there is a basic key to Mormon Ethics, it is the Book of Mormon as scripture. There is certainly more to Mormon Ethics. But there is not less than what can be learned from the Book of Mormon

Because of the Atonement, guilt should not slow our agency down in achieving perfect spiritual Activity. In such a fashion we are being prepared for success in the next life.

(In the present age, it has often felt that guilt is more a tool of Satan than of the Lord, because “bad guilt” is so frequently used to discourage us from engaging in the struggle He sets before us. See Meridian, “Distinguishing Good from Bad Guilt: Thoughts of C.S. Lewis and Elder Neal A. Maxwell,” 1210-12-15.) 

A. Change is a true ethical principle.

In mortality no condition is permanent. We maintain joyfulness in constant movement.

Our Spirits on Earth can flourish, and live life abundantly, but this means that we are willing to live with constant forward motion. We are pulled constantly forward by our love of the Lord, a desire that He set in motion from the Garden of Eden.

Forward motion and awe are essential to our continuous progress before the Lord, requiring activity-even activity from such simple acts as pondering the scriptures.

Forward motion and awe also result paradoxically from suffering when endured with child-like patience. Contradictions or opposition in our life are perpetual, yet impermanent.   Conditions act on our lives, even quite complex acts, imposing in admittedly disagreeable ways-or at least so we feel in the moment they are disagreeable to experience.

We are learning throughout the span of years allotted to us how to transcend oppositions by ourselves with the Lord’s cooperating help through the Spirit.

Self-transcendence requires our belief in cooperating with the Lord, even if giving-up tempts us. To not give-up is perhaps the most basic test and trial of all existence. It is interesting how the Book points us to “rest” as a predicate of the only the next life, but not this one.

B. Character or virtue or good habits are true ethical principles for coping with and transcending opposition along life’s journey.

Under life’s ever-changing personal realities, character is a Mormon ethical principle that teaches especially how to adapt and prepare to move ourselves morally into a more loving obedience of the Lord and His purposes. Without loving obedience to the Lord, we have pretty much a fatal flaw that will sooner or later make itself manifest amongst life’s changes to our undoing.

For example, take the somewhat trivial example of murmuring.

One earmark of character in the Book of Mormon is murmuring. Not only do the Book’s villains or anti-heroes murmur, but so do the Book’s heroes. Then what marks the difference between an anti-hero’s murmuring and a Saint’s murmuring, given this equivalency that both murmur.

To start, the Saint is not stopped from going forward by the adversity giving rise to the murmur. For the Saint, the experience of trial is an occasion to seek out the Lord humbly for His deliverance, to rely on Him in an effort to transcend and move-on from the murmuring moment. Thus Sariah and Lehi murmur: but that is not really the point to focus on. What is the point is how Sariah and Lehi turn to the Lord to seek his guidance and deliverance, in order to self-transcend being knocked upside down.

Character in the Book includes repeatedly the schooled capacity of the intellect for good habits. There are good and bad intellects just as there are good and bad characters in the Book. The intellect like character requires formation, education and will power to achieve the telos of its Creation.

The Book often illustrates how character makes the best use of present time. In the Book of Mormon, present time has a very high status:   “Today, today, work with a will . . . . There is no tomorrow but only today,” as the hymn says repeating a Book of Mormon value.

Why does present time matter?

It may be because in the Book, present time is always time shared with God. Present time is the time when we turn to face the Lord. Or not. Accordingly, because of His closeness to us in moments of decision, present time has a very high status. It is in present time that the will to eat builds the body, and that the will to lovingly obey the Lord builds one’s Spirit. On the other hand, in the present our will -or willpower– can instead lead the soul into the delusions of carnality. Choosing sensual pursuits, however, are unmasked by the Book of Mormon as meretricious.

C.Joy and Light are true principles for Our Journey.

Joy in this life is not only possible but certain.

It is a basic explanation of why there was even a Creation by God in the first place. Joy turns on the gift and uses of agency. And agency is actually a delicate thing, sometimes easily bruised. To thrive, sometimes even to survive, our individual agency requires careful effort and social support. Righteous use of our agency also requires work-which is a work the Lord can aid and can then bless us.

Under the design by which the Lord created Creation, work actualizes our embodied agency for this life and the next.  

God’s grace both precedes and follows after agency. He helps us act, in the action He sustains us, and after our action he blesses us. Yet at no time does God’s cooperation towards us ever contravene our agency as a superseding cause.

In the Book self-realization often requires self-sacrifice. Altruism is indeed possible to us. The Book is a voice of warning: we are called by God to act against our own apparent best interest to ironically obtain our very best interest. Perhaps only after the Judgment shall we see clearly what a “best interest” really was. We live in a time of spiritual darkness, and it is through loving obedience that we find our way to the Word of God, the iron rod. Someone from the great and spacious building noticing our struggle may ask us, “Why are you choosing an iron rod in the dark night of your soul?” We can only answer that we trust the Lord.Then from the building come giggles and sarcasm, amidst the anti-testimonies of saints turned urbane sinners.

D.Binarity is a True Ethical Principle: On the Two Ways.

In the Book, as in Primitive Christianity (for example, in the Didache), there finally are but two ways in mortality: the Lord’s Way and all the rest.

The will in our character which can produce knowledge in time for building up the Kingdom in time also produces a will powered by divine knowledge.

As simple as that statement may seem, it deals with both a serious and complex matter.

It is a serious and complex matter because deviation from the Lord’s way for us in our lives can cost us dearly in every way, in every time. We may be left to wander in the wilderness and suffer not because the Lord willed it-quite the contrary, we wander in the wilderness to no godly end. Or we may become lost in broad paths, with our lights turned out when God would give us light. There are two ways; there are two types of being lost. Such is agency’s value. The Lord can lead us through by-ways and thickets. Or we may do it to ourselves. (Nephi had a dream about these matters, and it is in the complexity of Nephi’s dream that the complexities of losing our way are mapped out.)

E.Desire as a divine and schooled instinct and as a per se good of the Creation is a True Ethical Principle.

Desire is required for the possibility of our free agency.

To be enticed can include both good and bad desires. Desire is portrayed as a brutal fact of our earthly existence-it just comes with the globe. As such desire is an important dimension of our mortal career and part of the meaning of being a true self, or true to whom we are. In a mature or well-ordered self, our capacity to choose between righteous desires and unrighteous ones can function smoothly thanks to the habits our choices have installed in us; this same capacity builds our integrity or wholeness before the Lord. In fact, harnessed desire will increase love.

In weighing our felt desires for good choices versus bad choices, we are surprisingly confronted with a third choice. Essentially the third choice from desire is wrongfully to forego choosing choice, to ignore activity for passivity and retreat. Agnostics and skeptics may be defined by behaving without choosing God or choosing atheism. The Lord is said to spew out of his mouth as lukewarm mush those who choose to choose not at all.

One of the enduring goods of mortality is the virtue of courage, to keep returning to the battlefield no matter the limp in our stride. Injury and trauma will require the loving ministration of others, but we then are summoned again back to struggle.

To speak of choosing choice’ is an odd way of speaking, admittedly.   Yet this way of speaking may help clarify what happens when we fail to rise above the conflicting enticements set loose through Creation and the Fall, and choose as our choice to do nothing. A conclusion therapeutic to the worn-out soul here follows. In fighting the good fight a spiritual warrior must have the discipline to forgive him- or herself; as the Apostle Paul saw, at least according to Martin Luther, all action is imperfect in containing some side effect of unintended sin. But action is still required of us even among conflicting values.

Because activity is required and because our agency is self-perfecting only if used, as Nephi was to learn, after forgiveness and repentance from the Lord we sometimes must at the point actively struggle or wrestle with the Lord to “cut ourselves some slack,” to allow ourselves to be forgiven. A counter-intuitive result sometimes has been noted: The better a person is, sometimes the harder self-forgiveness is to attain for that person.

In the Book of Mormon, not only forgiveness of others and repentance of our sins, but also, additionally, forgiveness of self is important if our agency is to toughen-up for life’s struggles.

There are, for all, inevitable lulls in life’s progress. We all may have a bad day, a bad month, a bad year, and even a bad decade. We may be seriously or chronically ill, depressed, broke, mourning, or slandered. But these stops in our forward motion for all the effects they inflict on us should not confuse us, simply because such stops are not the most basic issue to focus on. (However family and friends may keep turning our concentration to our failures.)

Instead, being one’s best self through the continuation of making our on-going best choices is the real issue when “thinking all is lost.” We are to press on even in emotional pain even if we lack any rational plan for a comeback. Would there have been an Atonement if Jesus stopped carrying the Cross because it hurt too much and because of the “world-historical” depression (or feeling all the depression in the world) he felt?

Choosing to be our self as we obediently will to be ourselves means trusting the Lord by holding on to all of His Atonement, with its omnipotent forgiveness to forgive even you. Who are we to contradict His Atonement by not forgiving ourselves? Who are we to refuse to go back again to Jerusalem to retrieve the plates of Laban and doubt His power? The Book of Mormon again and again returns us precisely to start again. Starting again is the story of the peoples in the Book. Battle after battle, war after war, here comes the question we are being asked: will ye give up and quit, or will ye re-consecrate your agency and try again?

We were created by Him to be that unique self which through earthly opposition and our loving obedience to the Lord, the Lord, through the Holy Spirit, can bring to pass and actualize for us.

Much more depends on Him than on us. But what does depend on us is our obedience, an obligation derived from the Creation, and by our being true to our Creator’s individual creation of each of us– each of us in our however unique or peculiar individuality. The net draws of every kind, the body hath need of each member: Viva la difference!

The Atonement covers our sins whenever we repent and try yet again to obey the Lord.

A paralysis which threatens the very power of agency itself through the inner ambivalence and ambiguity of random guilt is a very serious matter from an eternal view point. It’s practically the whole ball game.

The sloth that can sometimes result from a good heart overcome by post-repentance guilt is a sin peculiar to basically innocent souls.But all of us are at risk of misinterpreting trial and tribulation as wrath, and being -unnecessarily-sidelined from trying yet one more time. It seems just this paralysis overtook Laman and Lemuel leaving home from old Jerusalem. These two were both somewhat willing to take the journey to the promised land, and so their existence took on a series of what read in the Book of I Nephi as existential stops’ and starts,’ which in turn correlated with faltering obedience to the Lord. Looking on from our present perspective, we may recall that it is not for nothing that we may hear in Sunday School sometimes how “damned” can be spelled “dammed.”

The Book does not say this but hopefully, with obedience, even Laman and Lemuel -the “bad boys” of the Book–may yet progress. It is by no means clear that after the Atonement occurred Jehovah has ever returned to the dimensions of Old Testament wrath. Yes the Lord chastens and will do so given He continues to love us. Plus the Apocalypse is coming. But the Book of Mormon portrays the Lord as liberal to forgive us for our sins. I interpret Him as rejoicing in the forgiveness of sin to those who love him.

The Book of Mormon speaks to us today.

And today in the Church many are allowed to remain in old Jerusalem as if that was their trial, because of never having to be tried by leaving behind all their wealth there. The Church tried by fire in the past age is being tried by fortune today-every bit as much a tribulation.

Finally, the Book teaches us to transvalue adversity- to value trial and tribulation despite societal appearances that “all is well in Zion.” The trials occurring despite trappings of worldly success can still be trials. In any event, every true trial ought to be transvalued as not actually evil but as instead a spiritual opportunity. Catastrophic changes on the temporal plane may, with trust and obedience in the Lord and his Atonement, yield future moments of our glorying in the Lord.

F.There is an Ethical Purpose to Creation and Within Every Created Thing.

There is set forth in the Book behind the scenes depictions of a divine power within and without that can molds us for a glorious future. Within human nature, there is purpose — the law of our being-pushing and pulling us to our destinies. Providence, that power of God which so often is just past our immediate seeing, blesses us.  

Being enticed in our “here and now” is a way for our agency to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Righteous agency sets in motion the inner purposes of our own Creation so that the Creator may pronounce our lives “very good.”

Where does agency itself come from? There are no philosophical proofs in the Book of Mormon of the fact that our agency is free. This is because agency, like God’s grace and Atonement, is a Gift, is a Gift, is a Gift.

The Book clarifies that justification by Grace denotes a grace where God cooperates and concurs -there is a human and divine concurrence-allowing our faith in Him to issue forth as active in good works, for Christ’s sake.

That last sentence is an insight too often gone missing in Christian thought before the Restoration.

The Book knows nothing of “cheap grace.” (Cheap grace is the preaching of the gift of forgiveness without repentance.)   The Book knows no “cheap grace” or anything of a “bargain-basement Atonement.” Accordingly: agency, effort, the will, obedience, trust and character, all these primitive Christian ethical concepts have been put back at their rightful place as part of Christian Ethics.

In restoring as Christian doctrine cooperative grace (God cooperates with us in our action) or prevenient grace (God’s grace helps enable us to accomplish a difficult action), the Book of Mormon proclaims one of the most needful lessons for a time such as our own: that fear may be cast out of our hearts by love. And without fear, we can better have the energy of soul to pick ourselves up no matter how miserable we think we have gone off course -and no matter how much we might feel we’ve ruined everything-and begin again.   And live the life we were sent to Earth to live.

In these ways and others, the Book of Mormon as the Word of God has helped to reset, restore and revive the basic principles of ethics which can once again be called “Christian.”


To accommodate restrictions on space, all citations per usual have been withheld in the present draft.


2013 Ashby Douglas Boyle II