There have been several political commentators lately who have opined that Mitt Romney cannot be trusted to be rational because he believes in baptism for the dead (notwithstanding 1 Cor. 15:29). This is not about Mitt, but about this kind of political spin non-sense. There are also Jewish groups who are offended that LDS do work for their dead. I think they take this work to be an implicit message that we judge their progenitors to not be good enough as Jews so we must make them Mormon. However, imputation of such motives is itself a judgment of Mormon by attributing motives which I don’t believe could possibly explain this work for the dead.
In one sense, work for the dead is non-sense. Does anyone believe that if we fail to do work for the dead then others will be denied salvation and/or exaltation through no fault of their own? On the other hand, there is something deeply meaningful about work for the dead. It is not for the dead and not for us individually, but a gift given to enjoy together. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierekegaard noted in Works of Love that “the work of love in remembering the dead is a work of the most faithful love.” Why would he say that? His reasoning is roughly that in giving a gift to any other living person we create an obligation to give in return. Therefore, there can be no true gift because giving creates receiving in return and the gift is therefore merely reciprocal obligation-creation. Yet if we create an obligation, we have not given a gift because it creates a demand for a return gift — and that which is “given” out of obligation isn’t a gift. A gift is something that isn’t given out of obligation. It is as if our gift creates uninvited obligations and “earns” a gift in return. Thus, it is impossible to truly give a gift because of the obligation structure built into giving.
However, Kierkegaard observes that we can truly give a gift to the dead because we cannot expect a return from them. “The work of love in remembering one who is dead is thus a work of the most disinterested, the freest, the most faithful love. Therefore go out and practice it; remember one dead and learn in just this way to love the living disinterestedly, freely, faithfully.” In doing work for the dead we are giving a gift of our love without expectation that our gift will be reciprocated. It is given freely and this truly out of the sheer goodness of love and the goodness of giving. Only giving to the dead makes pure love possible.
Work for the dead is also the recognition that salvation includes all others. The notion of “individual salvation” is impossible because to be all alone in heaven would be hell. We are saved only to the extent we can continue the loving relationships that we care about. However, we don’t do this work for our benefit but solely for those dead so that we love them as we love ourselves. The joy that we will receive is merely the joy of love fulfilled, the joy of giving truly and freely for no other purpose than to give the opportunity to be in relationship. In this way we offer a grace — a sheer invitation to enter into relationship of eternal significance for those we don’t even know, haven’t met and cannot expect to reward us. It is a gift that recognizes that there is no such thing as an isolated or independent salvation. It is gift given recognizing that no obligation is or could be created.
Finally, let me express my consternation about the reaction of some Jews who are offended that we would love their progenitors enough to seek to give this gift of love. If the ordinances are of no effect, as they undoubtedly believe, how are they hurt? In taking offense they are implicitly recognizing that these ordinances could have the effect of a transfer of loyalty. Yet that is irrational because they deny any efficacy to these ordinances. If the ordinances have no effect, then not wasting an iota of energy worrying about their effect is the only rational course of action.
On the other hand, if the ordinances are truly an invitation to relationship and a gift of love, then the reaction of offense is a failure to appreciate a gift freely given out of love. The Church has respected the demands of a handful to deny this opportunity to give this gift — the opportunity to link ourselves to them by offering to them what we value most. We do not obligate anyone to accept what is offered by doing these ordinances — and that is in part why it is a gift without obligation. Yet why create a rift by insisting that we cannot even offer the gift? Whether the gift is offered is solely our affair; whether it is received is up to the person for whom the work is done. Those who are now living who object to this work seek to control a free offer of love and in effect purports to control which gifts can be given and which can be received.