Saturday, March 10, 2012

Vainglory vs. the Glory of God

This week in Sunday School* I was reminded of an op-ed I read in The New York Times about the faith of a Jeremy Lin. I am not familiar with Lin, other than he has been in a lot of headlines recently. I don’t follow sports; I’m more of a nature documentary kind-a-guy. Anyway the thesis of the op-ed was that the ethos of sports was entirely incompatible with the ethos of religion. After thinking the article through we can really generalize his argument to the statement that the ethos of competition or accomplishment in the world is incompatible with the ethos of religion. He defines the ethos of sports as:
…oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions.
Or in one word it values the virtue of “courage” about all others, according to the article.

The religious ethos, according to the author is “about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God” with the primary virtue of “humility”.

He then concludes that success and glory must be incompatible with humility and submission. I disagree, though I understand the difficulty in integrating the two. My first gut response was to think of a recent General Conference talk by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf: “You Matter to Him”. Pres. Uchtdorf states:

“This is a paradox of man: compared to God, man is nothing; yet we are everything to God. While against the backdrop of infinite creation we may appear to be nothing, we have a spark of eternal fire burning within our breast. We have the incomprehensible promise of exaltation – worlds without end – within our grasp. And it is God’s great desire to help us reach it.”

Pres. Uchtdorf goes on to discuss two extremes in this paradox, believing we are everything (pride), and believing we are nothing to anyone, including God. This pride is equitable to the motivations ascribed to the op-ed’s ethos of sports. And in the religious ethos God awards glory only as a result of submission to God. But this paradox can turn the sports vs religion conflict on its head. We are less than the dust of the Earth according to scripture, but Heavenly Father wants to give us everything he has and give us a path to succeed at what we do, so we can be greater tools in his hand.

Returning to the original article, the author makes one big assumption that negates his conclusion. When he writes of seeking success and glory, he implies that the answer to the question ‘Why do we seek such success?” is selfish ambition as the only goal. However, an alternative response is that we are trying to glorify and love God with “all [our] mights, minds,and strength. It is the first great commandment. This is consistent with the author's definition of the ethos of sports i.e. “It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions”, so if it doesn’t really matter to the world why you seek accomplishments and glory then being motivated by service to our God is acceptable under that ethos.

In fact I would argue that the Lord does want us to become the best in our fields and that this is entirely useful to Him. One letter to the editor responded to the article by saying “Therein lies the tension: to strive for good things but not be consumed by them.”

One of my favorite examples of this can be found in the book “The Essential James E. Talmage” (obviously about Elder Talmage):
In late 1924 he was called to replace Elder David O. McKay as the head of the church’s European Mission…. Almost immediately he tried to visit with the editors of various newpapers to see if their anti-Mormon articles could be stopped. In one city he presented his calling card to a newspaper employee who gave it to his editor. At first the editor refused to see the Mormon apostle. But with the abbreviations F.R.S.E, F.R.M.S, F.R.G.S., representing the scientific societies of England of which he was a member, clearly visible, he could not be early ignored.
In this case the apostle was able to get an advantage in the cause of God by having accolades in the world of men. God wants us to do our best, and we do need to keep the focus on whom we are serving and why we are doing it. 

*After reading the scripture 2 Ne 27:19-23, and asking why Heavenly Father would chose an uneducated farm boy, the teacher followed up with the question (paraphrasing): "Does that mean the Lord only can use the uneducated and we shouldn't seek success?" We all answered in the negative.)