Monday, October 31, 2005

"I'd like you to talk about living in the world, but not of the world..."

***This is a talk I had to write for church. It was given this past Sunday, October 30 in Mormon church. It has been adapted here, in writing.***

The topic I was given is 'Living in the world, but not of the world'. When I was first assigned this talk, I was thankful that the topic at least somewhat open-ended as, occasionally, you can get a topic that is so narrow that it can be difficult to come up with anything interesting to say. However, as much as this topic is open ended, it's also loaded. When I thought about the implications of this statement, "Living in the world, but not of the world," a few things came to mind.

First, I thought of this as a chance to open up the usual arguments against western society - particularly its moral decline. Thoughts of murder rates, teen pregnancies and drug abuse came to mind. We live in a society that is, in many ways, in a state of decline. It's a society that worships celebrities, gossip and decadence. I also thought about literature, which has lost its value in our culture. Statistics have shown that while we're quick to read celebrity gossip columns, we're failing to read anything substantive.

I have some interesting statistics here... According to a 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, the percent of Americans who read a literary work in the 12 month period ending August 2004 was 46.7%. This study also tracked the likelihood of readers vs. non-readers to do community service. The percent of non-readers who performed community service during that same 12 month period was 17%. This was compared with the reading group; 43% of whom reported doing community service. These results are startling. We know that when we are in the service of our fellow man, we are in the service of our God. This makes the correlation of literary exploration and service all the more applicable to our lives as Latter-day Saints.

With society's woes in seemingly never ending supply, this talk would quickly become redundant if I kept harping on about the dangers of pop-culture traps or reciting sociological statistics. I could go on all day about the woes of our society or the world's problems. We, as members of this church, have committed ourselves to living by certain principles that many in our society do not embrace. However, while they may not embrace some of our moral principles, we still need to be held in society's good favor. So, I'd like to discuss the implications of this idea that we can live in the world, but not of it.

I'd like to start off by talking about religion, and its fundamental definition. Religion is our tool for understanding our existence. It also explains our purpose on this earth, as well as our relationship with it.

"Therefore, in respect of the infinitely small phenomena of life that influence his behavior, a rational person must do what in mathematics is called integration: that is, establish a relation to the immediate issues of life, a relation to the entire infinite universe in time and space, conceiving of it as a whole. And the relationship established by man to that whole, of which he feels himself a part and from which he draws guidance for his behavior, is that which has been, and is called religion. And therefore religion has always been, and cannot cease to be, and essential and in-disposable condition of the life of rational humanity."

-Leo Tolstoy, What Is Religion, Of What Does Its Essence Consist

It is clear that while religion - notably our religion - defines itself by principles that are above those of the world, it is still grounded in the human relationships with that world.

This is the sort of topic that gives me a headache. I mean, it's a conundrum. To start off, there is a clear distinction that needs to be made between the things that separate us from society (principles), and the things that connect us to it (human relationships) - both being completely necessary for us to function as productive members of society and our church. The things that separate us, as Latter-day Saints, are our values and lifestyle choices. We would not be who we are if we did not set ourselves apart by practicing higher values, making appropriate lifestyle choices. It should also be noted that these things must be practiced with absolute moral clarity. The concept is simple: If we didn't live the way we do - with these higher virtues - we wouldn't stand out in society, and we certainly wouldn't pop up in the press as often as we do. We've made our name by being different. However, this is where the problem arises. While society recognizes us as being different, we must also remain approachable. It is in this class, public-relations related question that you see the dilemma. While there may be plenty wrong with our world, we live here, we work here, we study here and we live within its laws and limits. So, how do we keep ahold of our morals and values while not going too far in our dissociation as to lose the respect of our peers?

Ideally, at least within your thoughts as a Latter-day Saint, you can consider yourself part of a group that chooses not to live "of" the world. It sounds great and can even be encouraging. However, if applied universally, this rhetoric can be an enormous handicap because of the superiority it implies. If you're living above the world, not only do you look down on the world, but the world will look down on you. There was a talk given by President Benson in which he cited the writing of a General Authority from the 1920's who considered it valuable for the Church to be somewhat accepted by the rest of the country. Now, this was in the post-polygamy 1920's, when the church was very much a fringe group in American culture. Things are very different today. As the notoriety of the church grows worldwide, the views held by the outside world concerning our church have become increasingly important - particularly when said 'outside world' is a group with numbers just shy of 6 billion.

Once again, we're faced with a question; where do we go? In searching for some sort of clear-cut answer, I came up short. I didn't find that one talk, or that one scripture that really gave a definitive answer. Even my friends had competing counsel. Now, free advice is worth what it costs, but brothers and sisters I am here to suggest that the answer to our question is ambiguous and indefinite. It can only be found on a personal level. We need to uphold our principles, but we must also act as ambassadors for our church to the world. And let it be remembered that an ambassador is a diplomat, not an evangelist.

We've chosen to live by certain principles as members of this church. Assuming that we've truly adopted these principles, we may very well be living by a higher law than some in society. In this sense, we aren't living 'of' the world. However, while these principles may govern our decision making process (for inner thoughts or some outward behavior), it doesn't negate the fact that we still have to deal with this world, everyday. I loved President Kearl's story about his experience in graduate school - where he was faced with the necessity to go out with his peers, but having to do it at local bars. It reminded me of high school. Playing football and lacrosse, if you were a part of the team, you partied with the team. So, I ended up being predictably sober at every party I attended. And while these may not have been the sort of gatherings condoned by the BYU honor-code, I was able to keep the good favor of my teammates (who were my friends), while still upholding my standards. I was also quickly recognized as a member of the Mormon church - and I was well respected for it.

I'd like to close by looking at the someone who has given us an excellent example of how live this balance of keeping principles while embracing the world: Gordon B. Hinckley. The president of our church has put more effort into the solidifying of our public image in popular culture than anyone in our church's history. As most of you know, he has appeared on CNN's Larry King Live several times and has given in-depth interviews for a host of other well known, national news correspondents. The church was also written up, in a positive light, in Newsweek magazine just a few weeks ago. Brothers and sisters, it is my belief that the continual good press and warm reception of our leader (and our religion) would not have happened had the leaders of our church taken a path of societal removal - or, universally applying the concept of not living 'of' the world. They have clearly used the tools our society has to offer to shed positive light on our principles. This is outstanding, and should be emulated in our lives. President Hinckley is a man who we consider closer to God than anyone on earth, yet he is a man who has a closer relationship with the secular media than anyone in our church's history. Think about that.