Rejection of the Recency Fetish

H. Curtis Wright, Things of Redeeming Worth: Scriptures Messages and World Judgments (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002).

Modern science constitutes a religion of matter and energy that studies particles in motion, and nothing else. Its worldview, which governs propositions about the natural order and everything in it, is dominated by “presentism” because its origin in sensory observations of physical phenomena precludes inclusion of anything people of normal sensory and intellectual abilities cannot detect by means of their senses. [1] Since phenomena are observable only in the present, however, no one can observe the phenomena of yesterday or tomorrow, which must be reconstructed through messages and artifacts from the past or predicted from observations in present time that are always subject to change; and “since the method of science is observation . . . there is very little that we can ascertain about the mind,” or about anything else that cannot be observed, “by following the method of science.” [2]

The present, accordingly, is the only legitimate province of science, which seeks empirical certitude through the accurate communication of human sensory experience. But we are “stuck” with our own sensory experiences and cannot experience the sensations of others. It is therefore impossible for human beings to communicate their sensations, which are always private, personal, unique, individual, and absolutely nontransferable. So you have your sensations, I have mine, and never the twain shall match—which means (1) that we can only communicate information about our sensations; (2) that empirical truth is relative to its cultural milieu; (3) that science cannot reveal the absolute truth about anything; and (4) that scientists must ultimately settle for eliminating error from propositions about the observable universe. That, to shorten a lengthy story, is what scientists do: they eliminate as much error as possible from propositions about the only world knowable to science. But science does not—indeed cannot—say anything at all about any other world than this one.

These four essays betray my objections to the confining presentism of the recency fetish imposed by the precipitous rise and spurious impact of scientific thinking on every aspect of modern life. I share Whitehead’s objections to the monkey-see-monkey-do etiquette of our academic institutions, which stems from the success of early physics, the first science to be systematized in modern times. But chemistry, the first science to be modeled on physics, was also “the last success of materialistic thought,” according to Whitehead, that “has not ultimately proved to be double-edged,” [3] for modern thought has developed in strict simian fashion. “The prestige of the more scientific form,” he says, “belongs to the physical sciences,” which lead directly to the social sciences and indirectly to the humanities and fine arts because “biology apes the manners of physics” [4]—just as physiology apes the manners of biology, psychology apes the manners of physiology, and the social sciences that ape psychology also ape each other and other ologies all the way back to physics. [5] I object to this religio scientiae and its glorification of temporal data, empirical methods, and the present moment. I also object to its insistence on learning by study and its exclusion of learning by faith. I categorically reject, furthermore, the powerful ancient-to-modern sophism of humanly originated science as an all-inclusive every thingology that makes it impossible to consider anything sub specie aeternitatis. Science, to me, is like Popeye: it is what it is, and that’s all that it is; and it is assuredly not the study of all that is. My justification for combining essays on things of redeeming worth written in the late fifties, early eighties, and middle nineties is thus twofold: first, that modern secular thinking, like its ancient and medieval antecedents, is wholly nonredemptive; and second, that all of these essays, by regarding the redemption of human beings from an eternal perspective, address the basic themes of human life and salvation that are not novel and do not change.

These essays, accordingly, are not about the humanistic religion of personal merit that offers salvation only to those who “earn” it through scrupulous commandment-keeping and the faithful performance of ordinances. They are about the revealed religion of vicarious merit, which offers forgiveness and rebirth only to those who have sufficient faith in Christ to humble them-selves before God and repent of all personal sinfulness. I have witnessed, and continue to witness, both kinds of religion in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; but I have rejected the former, which I absorbed like a sponge or a vacuum cleaner from youthful activity in the Church, and accepted the latter, which I discovered in the Book of Mormon as a U.S. Navy airman second class.

I didn’t like military life; but it blessed me anyway, for when I rejected the allurements of shore leave in the forties, it triggered my first intense exposure to the Book of Mormon. And forthwith, on my bunk in the barracks of a naval air station, I learned that I had two religions: the religion of my youth, which—in spite of its activities, hundred-percent awards, and seminary classes—was all church and no gospel; and religion in the Book of Mormon, where the Church was founded squarely upon the gospel or it was not Christ’s Church. I also learned, as an unconverted Latter-day Saint, that I had confused the superstructure with the foundation of revealed religion and built its basement on top of its house. On learning all this, as might be expected, I went through the Sturm und Drang of evaluating my humanistic religion of personal merit—of faith in my own ability to obey moral laws and perform ritual requirements perfectly—against my redemptive religion of faith in the merits of Christ. In the end, to sum everything up, it was no contest, for I abandoned the former, accepted the latter, and made no bones about it. Since then, needless to say, my life has never been, and deo volente can never be, the same.

I have not always accepted the Book of Mormon as the doctrinal standard of the Restoration; but I do now. The strongest convictions and innermost feelings of my revealed witness about it are best expressed, perhaps, in the words of a civil engineer, who, after long years of teaching revealed religion by the Spirit of the Lord at BYU, said to me: “I shudder to think what might have become of me—where I might be today, and what I might be doing right now—if I had never run into the Book of Mormon!” All of these essays echo that sentiment by suggesting that Latter-day Saints should be wary of any religious dictum based on the false assumptions of personal merit, which stem directly from the agonistic ideal of competitive excellence on the Homeric battlefield and its secular legacy of sophic spirituality to Western civilization. It therefore goes without saying that I no longer believe in justification by personal merit, the false doctrine that deceives us into thinking we can “earn” the favor of God by amassing our own self-accumulated treasuries of “good works.” Thus, we must differentiate that unholy belief from the true doctrine of justification by vicarious merit—the doctrine that God forgives personal sinfulness only through personal faith in the merits of Jesus Christ. We must also distinguish between justification by the grace of God through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the twin necessities of justification by law and governance by law.

Justification by Grace through Faith

Justification is a scriptural term for the forgiven status of anyone who is vindicated or acquitted of all sin and approved in the eyes of God. When people are justified, accordingly, they are forgiven by God, who looks upon them as though they were righteous individuals who had never sinned. Those who would understand the scriptural doctrine of justification must therefore discover how people arrive at this state of acceptance by the Father, or, in other words, how they acquire this grace, benevolence, or favor with God.

In latter-day revelation, as in the teachings of Paul, the only basis for man’s acceptance by the Father is faith in the Atonement of Christ. It is worth noting, in this connection, that there is no such thing as abstract faith. The first principle of the gospel, be it noted, is not simply faith: it is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith can never be faith in nothing, for all faith must have a repository; and in all of the scriptures, justification is based not on faith in anything but on faith in Christ. The idea of absolute and unqualified acceptance of something is implicit in the word “faith,” and the thing that must be accepted unequivocally is the mediation and Atonement of Jesus Christ. Without this redeeming faith in his Son, we are told, it is impossible for anyone to please the Father (see Heb. 11:6), by which we understand that we must be won over to Christ, convinced—intellectually, emotionally, and in every other way—that he alone can provide our only means of worshiping the Father acceptably. We cannot therefore be justified by God unless our faith, our trust, and our confidence are in Christ, who suffered, bled, and died for us.

The Book of Mormon supports Paul’s rejection of the false belief that justification is based on obedience to ritual, moral, or natural law (see 2 Ne. 2:5; 25:23–29; Mosiah 12:27–32; 13:27–33; 15:19; 16:13–15). In order to understand its attitudes toward law, however, the concepts of justification by faith and by law must be disentangled. While Paul and others clearly insist that those who have no faith in Christ cannot be justified by law, they make it equally clear that those who are justified by faith in Christ are also governed by law. There is thus a compelling distinction between being justified by law, which is abjectly impossible, and being governed by law, which is inevitable because all kingdoms have laws their inhabitants must abide or they cannot live in them.

Justification by Law

Sin is defined in scripture as the breaking of law. Thus, all who sin by breaking any of the laws of God fall “under the curse of a broken law” (Moro. 8:24) and are liable to the punishments affixed by justice for their sins. Since God is just, moreover, and cannot make allowances for sin (see Alma 45:16; D&C 1:31), they will be punished, not only by their sins in this life but for their sins in the day of judgment, unless the Atonement intervenes and pays the penalty of their sinning for them, in which case they will not suffer for their sins. If there were anyone on earth who had never sinned, anyone who had rendered perfect obedience to every law of God, that person would be justified by God solely on the basis of obedience to law. But Paul warns that those who expect to be justified by law are debtors to do the whole law, to render absolutely perfect obedience to every law of God all the time; and James says that anyone who offends in one little point of the law is guilty of breaking the whole law (see James 2:10; see also Gal. 3:10; 5:1–3). We must therefore conclude, inasmuch as all have sinned and are subject to the penalties imposed by justice for their sins, that we cannot be justified by God on the basis of our imperfect obedience to his perfect laws, regardless of how “good” we may appear to be in the eyes of men. It may be said that Christ is the one and only person in human history, past, present, or future, who is justified by law in the sight of God, and this because he is the one and only sinless man—sinless “because he was the Son of God, and had the fulness of the Spirit, and greater power than any man.” [6]

Governance by Law

The idea that believers in Christ have no obligation to the laws of God is as foreign to scripture as the notion that people are accepted by the Father on the basis of their own merits without having faith in the Atonement of his Son. The prophets speak consistently of “good works” as those doings, actions, or performances of believers which are inspired and motivated by faith in Christ, dedicated to keeping his commandments, and directed toward building up his kingdom. These are, in their thinking, the only truly “good” works. When prophets tell people to work out their own salvation (see Philip. 2:12; Alma 34:37; Morm. 9:27), for example, they are not encouraging humanists to merit salvation by their works: they are exhorting those who already believe in God to come unto Christ, observe the laws and commandments of his Father, and produce the good works that always result from but never cause their faith.

The Book of Mormon, as a matter of fact, condemns the secular doctrine of personal merit, and is supported in this condemnation by the Doctrine and Covenants and the Prophet Joseph Smith (see 2 Ne. 2:8; 31:19–20; Mosiah 2:19; Alma 22:14; 24:10; Hel. 14:13; Moro. 6:4; D&C 3:20) [7] Thus, we can’t even get through the gate or onto the path that leads to eternal life, according to Nephi, “save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Ne. 31:19; emphasis added). Alma adds that “since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself” because it is “the sufferings and death of Christ” that bring redemption to all who accept the gospel by atoning “for their sins, through faith and repentance, and so forth” (Alma 22:14; emphasis added). And Moroni concludes that we, like the Nephites, must be “continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith” (Moro. 6:4; emphasis added). That leaves us with no excuse for relying upon our own merits as a means of obtaining salvation. Redemption is thus an invasion of our world by the power of God’s world, for as Paul tells Titus, it is “the grace of God that bringeth salvation” into the naturalorder, where it “hath appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). One of Paul’s faithful sayings, moreover, instructs Titus to “affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. . . . And let our people also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful” (Titus 3:8,14). This counsel agrees perfectly with Alma’s advice to the Nephites: “See that ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works” (Alma 7:24; emphasis added)—it is definitely not the other way around. The point is therefore clear: without faith in Christ we cannot be justified by obedience to law or by good works because our obedience is imperfect and our works are meritorious only in the sight of men; and conversely, believers who repent of their sins and are justified by faith in Christ must, as Paul says, bear fruit and maintain good works. Thus, believers are never relieved of responsibility to the laws of God, even though they do not expect to be justified by them: they are required to keep God’s commandments as best they can, with adequate provision through the Atonement for repentance and forgiveness when they fail (see 1 Jn. 2:1–2; Mosiah 26:30). Those who lack faith in Christ, on the other hand, cannot be redeemed by keeping God’s commandments, whereas those who have faith in him are required to do so; and the redeemed are those authentic believers in Christ who rejoice in his Father’s forgiveness of their sins because they are justified by his grace through faith in the grace of his Son (see D&C 20:30–31) and governed by the laws of his kingdom.

That, I think, summarizes the theological “jist” of all these essays.


[1] This scientific limitation obtains even if scientists employ sophisticated artificial instruments, which must themselves be observable and are often untrustworthy, in order to enhance the natural abilities of their own human senses.

[2] C. E. M. Joad, Philosophy for Our Times (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1940), 107. On the scientific reduction of psychology to somatology through observationalism, see ibid., 104–26.

[3] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Lowell Lectures, 1925 (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 87.

[4] Ibid., 150. For further discussion, see “Whitehead’s Criticism of Science” in my article “Science and the Institutional Professions,” Scholar and Educator (spring 1982): 11–15.

[5] Dehumanization also characterizes the humanities and fine arts, where “the reactions of science have so far been unfortunate” because “its materialistic basis has [also] directed attention to things as opposed to values” in aesthetic fields; ibid., 291, 293. “Even naturalistic art,” says Whitehead, “is more akin to the practice of physics, chemistry, and biology than is the practice of law” and similar institutional professions; ibid., 280–81.

[6] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 187–88.

[7] Ibid., 58.