Relative righteousness vs. absolute righteousness

September 7, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 10:36 am   Category: Atonement & Soteriology,Scriptures,Theology

Over in Jacob’s last thread one of the 5 or 6 topics we discussed was the issue of righteous societies vs. less righteous societies. I commented that righteous societies didn’t necessarily generate more righteous individuals because there is nothing very commendable about choosing the right just because everyone else is doing it. Ethical choices motivated by peer pressure are not very impressive. That led me to this idea I have wanted to discuss for some time though: I think that the scriptures describe at least two scales upon which righteousness (which I’ll define as “conduct in accordance with virtue or morality”) should be judged. There appears to me to be an absolute scale (measuring one’s conduct against God) and a relative scale (measuring one’s conduct against one’s circumstances).

Relative Righteousness

There are many examples of relative righteousness in the scriptures. The parable of the talents (aka the parable of the pounds) is the classic example of this concept as given by Jesus. In that parable the person who started with little (one talent) was required to produce little (two talents) in order to be received by God with this commendation:

Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

But for the person who started with two talents, finishing the stewardship with two talents (the same absolute number as the guy who just got the divine high five) would be rebuked with these words:

Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath [not dropped the ball in life].

There are gobs of other scriptural examples of righteousness in this life being measured on a relative scale. Where much is give much is required and where little is given little is required on the relative righteousness scale.

Absolute Righteousness

On the other hand we have the long term goal of becoming as God is. By so doing we become one with the Godhead. But nobody here is perfect and none of us will be before we die so that fact leads to all sorts of theological fixes. One popular solution is to lean heavily on salvation exclusively (or almost exclusively) by grace. Many who preach this essentially say that if we can do our part on the relative righteousness scale (and for many people that only means accepting Jesus as the Savior) then God will do the rest and our effort is done. They assume that God will change who we fundamentally are to make us righteous on his absolute scale. Now lest you think such an idea is only popular in creedal Christianity let me remind you that this is essentially what Stephen Robinson is preaching in his Parable of the Bicycle which is very popular among Mormons.

Another popular (and I think more feasible) solution to this problem is to conclude that there must be progression between kingdoms or else none of us will ever be remotely righteous on the absolute scale. The reasoning here is that because free will is eternal God cannot change our characters from without — we must choose to change ourselves from within and changing from what we are now into what he is will take a long, long, long time. Even though God doesn’t change our characters for us I think there is strong evidence that God uses the same methods of changing our characters that we are commanded to use on each other:

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile- Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

Therefore if we are to someday actually become even as Christ is we are going to have to achieve that goal by continually choosing to improve and become closer to and more like God in the eternities to come.

. . .

I mentioned to Jacob that I think it does make sense to judge the righteousness of societies on an absolute scale. Societies do conduct themselves with differing levels of Godlike morality and virtue. But it seems much more charitable and Christlike and accurate to judge individuals on the relative scale.

What do you think? Is discussing righteousness in absolute vs. relative terms useful? It seems to me that the scriptures already do it.

[Associated radio.blog song: Jack Johnson – Good People]

20 Comments »

  1. I think it is, although the term I would use for relative righteousness is differential righteousness, i.e. what one has done with the blessings he has been given, because the term relative righteousness appears to imply some sort of inter-personal or inter-societal comparison that should be avoided in this context, right? i.e. here we are comparing the righteousness of the same party across time, not different parties across persons. Other than that terminology preference I think the distinction you draw makes perfect sense.

    There are many people with high differential righteousness in societies with relatively low absolute righteousness who will enter the kingdom of God before many others with low differential righteousness in societies of relatively high absolute righteousness.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 7, 2006 @ 10:50 am

  2. Relative righteousness seems very subjective, and will often be in the eye of the beholder. I therefore think it is not very useful outside the hands of the Lord. It is only his evaluation that can be trusted.

    That would be why I would prefer that absolute righteousness in any type of assesment. Temple recommends do this. There is no sliding scale for a recommend. Righteousness is based on what one does.

    Like my mama always used to say – righteous is as righteous does. (Use your best Forrest Gump impression here.)

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 7, 2006 @ 11:43 am

  3. Of course the question which needs to be asked about relative righteousness is “relative to what?”

    Geoff considers righteousness which is only relative to how righteous everybody else is. This is more comparative righteousness, for it would seem that this righteousness is not entirely incompatible with an absolute sense of righteousness. For instance: I was very righteous (objectively speaking), plus, given the context of everybody else being bad, this should count for even more.

    There reason why there is not a necessary contradiction between the two views (objective and comparative righteousness) is that comparative righteousness does not deny the existence of objective moral facts in the world. Indeed, one wonders whether the morality of those around us actually is part of such objective moral facts.

    What moral relativism, or in this case righteous relativism would argue, however, is that there are no objective moral facts in the world independent of whatever we might think about it. This can take two forms: moral subjectivism and moral inter-subjectivism. I think that moral subjectivism is not only denied fairly strongly in the gospel (unless one means morality relative to the subject, God) but it also seems completely unteneable from a non-religious context as well.

    Moral inter-subjectivism is what I defend. Morality and righteousness can only be defined within the context of sentient beings imposing values and norms on otherwise non-moral facts in the world. Thus, in this view the people in Pittsburg might be less righteous than are the people in Cleveland, two places which have pretty much the same values and norms, loosely speaking. I think problems arise when one attempts to compare the righteousness of Sodom and Gomorrah and modern day Salt Lake City. Such judgements can only be made from a particular set of values and norms, presumably God’s.

    I simply cannot accept, however, that God’s perspective regarding values and norms is objectively true in any way.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 7, 2006 @ 12:35 pm

  4. Jeff: Geoff considers righteousness which is only relative to how righteous everybody else is.

    Not so. Where did you get that idea? It is not what I said in this post.

    I describe “relative righteousness” in terms of the parable of the talents which means this type of righteousness is entirely contingent upon what one makes out of one’s circumstances in life. There is no comparison to others there in the least. So in answer to your “relative to what?” question — relative righteousness entails forward progress along the absolute righteousness scale I described regardless of where one starts on the scale.

    The issue is progress toward the absolute goal of becoming like and one with God. If a person gets closer to that goal in this life (read: repents and changes for the better) that person is relatively righteous and will be received with those words of commendation quoted in the parable of the talents; if a person makes no progress toward that goal in this life (read: fails to repent and change) that person can expect the rebuke quoted in the parable of the talents. This principle applies to all regardless of where one starts on the absolute righteousness scale in this life.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 7, 2006 @ 12:52 pm

  5. Doh! My bad.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 7, 2006 @ 1:02 pm

  6. Eric (#2),

    The problem with your suggestion is that simply meeting the requirements to hold a temple recommend may not be relatively righteous for many Mormons. I discussed this concept in much greater in this post (which I see you commented on at the time). The idea is that if we are on a life track to remain qualified to hold a temple recommend then doing only that may be the equivalent of being given 5 talents and finishing with 5 talents. Those of us on such a life track reportedly need to figure out how to do much more than qualify for a temple recommend in our progress to being like God and becoming one with the Godhead. So absolutes measure of righteousness are necessary and useful but must be considered in light of relative progression too I think.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 7, 2006 @ 1:41 pm

  7. I only used temple recommends as one possible example of an objective assesment of righteousness. One of the first chapters in the book ‘Miracle of Forgiveness’ is much more thorough.

    I guess absolute righteousness would probably be based on the level of revelation we have been given. Is revelation equivalent to the ‘talents’ of the parable? The level of revelation received , directly or indirectly, might be what could be used to objectively evaluate righteousness. So doesn’t one get both relative and absolute with this? A possible objective evaluation of absolute righteousness based on the relative level of revelation received.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 7, 2006 @ 2:16 pm

  8. And by the way, what percentage of posts of yours have I not commented on in the past 8 months or so? :)

    Big fan here – even though I don’t always have the time or the means to keep up with the discussions you generate.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 7, 2006 @ 2:18 pm

  9. Jeff it seems to me that Geoff’s view of relative righteousness is a great way to understand the relationship between “free will” and the role of the brain in determining our choices. Clearly, for instance, someone who was abused as a child and has not only the memories affecting them but a significantly differently developed wiring from someone not in those circumstances has to be judged differently.

    One of my favorite talks of all time which I’ve somehow lost was by Elder Ashton. It was all about this and the idea that at judgment day many we think of as righteous won’t be so judged and many we judge harshly will be ahead of us. They are simply put in radically different environments.

    We like to think about righteousness in what I sometimes call a radically Cartesian way. That is we are a pure mind up against the world. Instead I firmly believe we are radically a part of the world. Exactly how God will sort all this out I can’t say. But I think we must have faith that he will.

    Comment by Clark — September 7, 2006 @ 2:44 pm

  10. Eric,

    You bring up an interesting point about measuring what I am calling “absolute righteousness”. It is indeed a sticky business trying to measure even that. I have loosely defined it as “becoming as God/Christ is” or perhaps as becoming “one with” God via a personal relationship but how does one objectively measure those things? I think you are right that the level of revelation one receives from God (especially personal revelation) would be a useful measure of the allegorical talents Jesus spoke of — even if it is not a perfect fit.

    I suppose that each of us can judge our own lives and decide if we are growing closer to God and more like him or if we are drifting farther from him and see ourselves becoming less like him. I like how Nibley put it: “The righteous are those who are repenting”.

    PS- Do your OOOOOT comments count around here? ;-)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 7, 2006 @ 2:49 pm

  11. Clark: it seems to me that Geoff’s view of relative righteousness is a great way to understand the relationship between “free will” and the role of the brain in determining our choices.

    That is part of what I’m going for here — a way to describe how anyone who uses their free will to repent and improve is righteous on the relative righteousness scale as described in the scriptures. This view largely takes nature and nurture out of the equation for those who will recieve the “well done thou good and faithful servant” treatment vs. those who will get the “Thou wicked and slothful” treatment by Christ after this life. It focuses us entirely on repentance here and now regardless of where we started in life.

    I firmly believe we are radically a part of the world.

    I agree.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 7, 2006 @ 3:24 pm

  12. I certainly agree with the relative vs. abolute righteousness distinction. However, it seems to me that there are some subtleties Geoff is glossing over here. The trouble, as I see it, is that the “what one has been given in life” (#4) (on which Geoff bases relative righteousness) can get awfully equivocal.

    A good first example is found in the exchange between Jeff and Geoff in #3 and #4. Geoff says he is not comparing to other people, rather, people are compared to their own circumstances in life. However, one of those “circumstances” is the culture they were born into and their peer group. So, it turns out that Geoff actually is comparing people to their peers (hence the comment about peer pressure in the first paragraph of the post), it is just that peers are not the only thing that makes up “what one has been given in life.”

    But, it gets worse. The real trouble begins when we realize that “what one has been given” can actually include righteousness itself. Geoff ties righteousness to “repentance” in #10 and #11, but notice that how much you are repenting may be heavily influenced by your upbringing, the values you had drilled into you as a child, and the sensitivities you developed because of the careful training of your parents.

    I read the last paragraph of Mark’s #1 about people who look righteous not making it into heaven and I ask myself if someone may hear this at judgment: “Sure, you honored your priesthood, prayed every day, developed a personal relationship with God and repented throughout your life, but let’s be clear, your last name was McConkie and all of this was just your 5 talents. We expected all of that, where are the other 5 talents you were supposed to add to your original 5?”

    When I think about it, I become convinced that some of the behaviors we view as “absolutely” righteous are trained into us by righteous parents. I do not merely mean that we can be trained to do outwardly-righteous-appearing things, but that our upbringing often leads us to do genuinely righteous things based on becoming genuinely good people.

    That throws an interesting monkey-wrench into the whole idea of relative righteousness for me. Who can untangle this mess for me?

    Comment by Jacob — September 7, 2006 @ 8:17 pm

  13. Jacob: So, it turns out that Geoff actually is comparing people to their peers (hence the comment about peer pressure in the first paragraph of the post), it is just that peers are not the only thing that makes up “what one has been given in life.”

    No I don’t think so. Let me explain: Let’s say that Jesus’ character and relationship with God is the absolute standard by which we are all judged. For the sake of this discussion which is largely based on the parable of the talents let’s extend the parable a little bit and say Jesus is comparable to a rich man with 100 talents whereas all of us are comparable to people who enter life with 1-5 talents. Since we are comparing talents to personal character and personal relationship with God the comparisons to any other people are moot. No matter how close the average person in our culture is to God our personal job is to improve our character and draw closer to God — or in other words it is to repent. If we really achieve those things it won’t matter if everyone else we know does it too or if no one else we know does. We are responsible for ourselves. Now I did say that “choosing the right” based only on peer pressure is not very commendable but there are lots of good acts that can be done with the wrong motivations. However truly repenting and changing our characters to become more Christ like as well as actually drawing closer to God in a personal relationship cannot be faked or done with bad intentions. Therefore comparisons to others really don’t matter at all.

    If comparisons did matter as you say I am implying then we are all judged on a curve. But that would mean that if everyone around me became more wicked characters and my character stayed the same I would somehow be righteous. That is clearly false.

    The real trouble begins when we realize that “what one has been given” can actually include righteousness itself.

    I don’t think so. For instance, if we define righteousness as character then it canot be given to a person. If we define it as a personal relationship with God that also must be earned. Now it is true that we developed character and a personal relationship with God prior to arriving here but it seems that really the only thing that makes it through the veil is character and it is not clear how much of that actually came from before either. (That is an interesting side question.)

    I become convinced that some of the behaviors we view as “absolutely” righteous are trained into us by righteous parents.

    I don’t see this as a problem with the relative righteousness subject. As I said earlier real repentance can’t be faked. But some (many?) people who are trained by parents to repent don’t do it and others who are not trained to do so choose to truly repent anyway. That falls right in line with the point I am making I think.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 7, 2006 @ 11:22 pm

  14. Geoff,

    You’ve used the parable of the talents to say that we will be judged relative to what we’ve been given. Do you agree that being born into a family where your parents teach you the gospel is like one of those talents? Do you agree that being raised in a society where righteous behavior is encouraged and expected should be considered a “talent”? If those things are like talents and we are judged relative to the talents we have been given, then how are we not being judged against the normative behavior of those around us?

    Now, I tried to make it clear that I am not talking about “faking” righteousness. I am talking about genuine righteousness. Sure it is true that some people who are trained to be righteous don’t do it–I am not arguing against free will or saying that all our behavior is a result of our upbringing. A different non sequitor would be to point out that some people are righteous who were not trained to be. These points are good, but not really related to my point. My point is that genuine righteousness, even freely choosing to repent, will be statistically more likely in people who were raised to understand the importance of repentance and who have had rightoeus behavior role-modeled for them by their parents, siblings, and friends. Thus, in an important sense we can be “given” righteousness. Please understand I am not saying righteousness is not freely chosen. I am saying that we are much more likely to freely choose to be righteous when our family and upbringing encourage this. Do you see my point?

    Comment by Jacob — September 8, 2006 @ 11:09 pm

  15. I’ve been thinking about this thread a lot in the last few days and I’ve been approaching it from several angles. Yesterday my brother framed it this way:

    Consider Babylon and the City of Enoch. People were born into both cities with very different environments. It seems that we should either:

    (1) Expect the same basic percentage of people to be saved from the City of Enoch and from Babylon (this seems to follow if personal righteousness is unrelated to culture)
    (2) Expect more people to be saved from the City of Enoch but account for the seeming unfairness by saying the people’s circumstances in life are based on their performance in the previous life (nice MMP friendly phrase there).
    (3) Account for the unfairness by saying that we got to chose between different “packages.” Maybe you’ve heard suggestions (as I have) that mentally handicapped people may have picked that trial in life for a free ride into heaven, or that the people with really difficult lives picked that based on the opportunity for greater glory, etc.
    (4) Accept that it really is unfair in the short term (some people born into much better circumstances than others) but claim that the effects of these differences are made up in the long run.

    What do you think? Which do you subscribe to, or did I miss an option? Work this problem out for me using your distinction between relative and absolute righteousness described in the post.

    Comment by Jacob — September 9, 2006 @ 2:43 pm

  16. Jacob, If we were talking about more generic worldly cultures I would say yes – no one is going to be judged if they transgress simply according to the traditions of their fathers. It is not really a sin until one knows the law and then transgresses it anyways. It is technically impossible to sin in ignorance.

    However, any good person born into a sub-par culture should recognize at least some of the weaknesses and be trying to rise above them to emphasize the good and downplay the bad. If enough people do that, whole cultures can be redeemed.

    Now in regard to Enoch and Babylon, I would say that those are types of righteousness and wickedness per se, which are only manifest in a temporal culture by degrees or in purity under unusual conditions – ripening in inquity, almost fit for destruction in the case of Babylon and a loving, consecration-ist 4 Nephi class society in the case of Enoch, or more properly speak Zion, the pure in heart.

    The scriptures always instruct that we are to go out from Babylon, and seek to establish Zion. If a city or culture rises to the level of iniquity that becomes impossible, such that the Saints have to flee from Babylon for their own health and safety, and seek to establish Zion in a different location instead, that is the classic warning sign that divine judgment is soon to follow upon that city, which has become Babylon in very deed. Most of the time I think temporal cultures are somewhere in the middle, though.

    One last thing though – although the wicked are certainly not fit for heaven just yet, I understand that the very purpose of the spirit world, including the hell of inner darkness and the ministry that goes on their is to prepare them to be, such that all are saved except the ultimate sons of Perdition, which presumably are a very small percentage even of a Babylon society. In other words, the percentages should be very similar – pride will keep someone out of heaven just as well as iniquity, perhaps longer if based on greater knowledge.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 10, 2006 @ 9:32 am

  17. Jacob (#14): If those things are like talents and we are judged relative to the talents we have been given, then how are we not being judged against the normative behavior of those around us?

    I don’t disagree with this point. I simply wanted to emphasize that there is no curve in this grading system. If everyone around us actually improves their “talents” (read: opportunities, character, relationship with God) and we do too we would still be righteous. My point is that we are not judged based on anyone else’s repentance but our own. That is something I am sure we agree on though.

    My point is that genuine righteousness, even freely choosing to repent, will be statistically more likely in people who were raised to understand the importance of repentance and who have had rightoeus behavior role-modeled for them by their parents, siblings, and friends.

    I doubt it. I don’t think genuine righteousness of this kind can be trained in the way you describe. Genuine righteousness of this kind is the type that no one but God will know about. It is what someone does deep down inside based on an internal compass of what is right or wrong, selfish or selfless, loving or not loving. I think this is the point of the parable of the talents. The 5 talent person is the person you describe in the sentence above. But Christ taught that those who who were not raised to understand the importance of repentance and who have not had rightoeus behavior role-modeled for them by their parents, siblings, and friends (aka 1 talent folks) are just as likely to be received with the “well done thou good and faithful servant” greeting by Christ at the end of this probationary period as the 5 talent people you described.

    Thus, in an important sense we can be “given” righteousness.

    If we all had equal choices and characters before arriving here then on the absolute scale you are right, some people would have been “given righteousness”. That is a major reason to reject the idea that all pre-mortal spirits are equal though.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 10, 2006 @ 12:55 pm

  18. Jacob (#15): It seems that we should either: (1) Expect the same basic percentage of people to be saved from the City of Enoch and from Babylon (this seems to follow if personal righteousness is unrelated to culture)

    Hold on there… Who brought up salvation? This post is about righteousness not salvation. The concepts are certainly related but they are not the same subject. I think it is useful and important to keep them separate for now.

    Let’s first agree on definitions of righteousness (like whether this relative vs. absolute concept works or not) because any detailed discussion of salvation/soteriology must necessarily bring up the details of what our pre-mortal and post mortal existences consist of and as you know that question is a big theological can of worms in itself.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 10, 2006 @ 1:01 pm

  19. Geoff,

    (#17) Your definition of righteousness as “what someone does deep down inside” is the same one I am using, so we are on the same page there. I am surprised you don’t think you will find this sort of genuine repentance more frequently in the group of people who have been taught the gospel and raised to value it. Perhaps my primary goal in parenting is to raise children who will turn out to be righteous in this way, and I certainly feel that my efforts in raising them will help them turn out to be those kinds of people. Don’t you?

    (#18) Hold on there… Who brought up salvation?

    Ummmm, the post? The statement at the end of the parable of the talents is clearly a reference to judgment:

    Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

    When talking about absolute righteousness in the post you said: “One popular solution is to lean heavily on salvation exclusively (or almost exclusively) by grace.” Questions regarding salvation are at the heart of the issue.

    I thought the whole reason for your distinction between relative and absolute righteousness was that it was going to help you resolve problems like the one I posed in #15 (which is why I asked the question at the end of that comment in the way that I did). However, if you feel it is a threadjack, I am happy to let it lie.

    Comment by Jacob — September 10, 2006 @ 3:38 pm

  20. Jacob: I am surprised you don’t think you will find this sort of genuine repentance more frequently in the group of people who have been taught the gospel and raised to value it.

    It depends on what you mean by “more frequently” I guess. I think that those with the proverbial 5 talents probably do sincerely repent more frequently during their lives than those with the proverbial 1 talent. But as I read the parable of the talents, I don’t think that those with 5 talents are significantly more likely to double their talents than those with 1 talent. Where much is given much required. So I am not convinced that 5 talent folks are more likely to be received after this life with the coveted “well done thou good and faithful servant” than the 1 talent folks. That is the main point of my bringing up this relative righteousness issue.

    The reason I have been trying to separate the righteousness and salvation issues is because I think they might make the picture of this post more cloudy not less. But I suppose we will need to dig into that issue at some point…

    Therefore I think it is safe to opine that there is a similar relative vs. absolute salvation as well. This gets back to the idea I mentioned earlier with Jesus’ character and relationship with God representing absolute salvation (or 100 talents as I threw out earlier). If we extend the parable of the talents further the steward with 5 talents who turned them into 10 talents was also given the 1 talent of the slothful servant. So that leaves that steward with this commendation:

    Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things

    The implication is that the Lord will now give him even more responsibility and a greater stewardship. But if the same pattern holds the steward must again diligently double the greater stewardship. If we follow the pattern into the eternities to come it makes sense that one day the steward has the potential to be a true (financial) peer of the rich lord who was leaving the stewards to their own devices to begin with. That fits the theology that Joseph Smith laid out very well I think.

    An interesting question is; what is the mechanism by which God gives us greater and greater stewardships in the eternities to come that will allow us one day to accumulate the figurative wealth (aka character and relationship with God) that he has? (You know my favorite guess about that but I am not averse to other solutions as long as they make sense in light of the parable of the talents and this concept I have been describing.)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 10, 2006 @ 8:45 pm

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