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).
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.
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]