Judging Assumptions

In the Gospels, Jesus challenges assumptions about the religious life.

I HAVE a hard time making decisions, which is a problem for a judge. I wince when I recall the scene in A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More rebukes Will Roper: “Two years ago you were a passionate churchman. Now you’re a passionate Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head’s finished turning, your face is to the front a g a in.”1 I take some solace in learning that Lincoln “was not a quick study,”2 and that Washington was “never a man of lightning-fast intuition or sudden epiphanies,” but “groped his way to his decisions.”3 It’s hard work to make judgments.

Mormon warned us of this. In his explanation to “the peaceable followers of Christ” how to judge between good and evil, there is the sense that it isn’t as easy as one might think.4 Some will confuse the two. And so, the Lord teaches us in the temple that we learn best how to distinguish between the two—how to make judgments —based on our own experience, which sometimes involves sorrow. And in modern scripture He teaches us that the Holy Ghost—a valuable guide in making judgments5—works on our heart and our mind.6 One without the other is incomplete and maybe even dangerous. Rational criticism is vital, but can be arid. Emotions are indispensable, but unaided by reason can lead to recklessness.

I first read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day on vaca-tion at the beach. It is not a good beach read. I was hoping for light and breezy. It was a gut punch. I was too much like that butler in the English manor house who was trying his best to serve a master he had every reason to think was a different and far more noble person than he turned out to be. The butler had no way of knowing that his assumptions were wrong until he took a journey away from his comfortable and predictable life on the manor. Which made me worry. What if my assumptions about what is good and what is not are as mistaken as the butler’s? After all, assumptions are untested. They are not the product of the type of exacting scrutiny Mormon warns us is necessary. And as Paul commands followers of Christ, we are to “test everything.”7

Which brings me to this year’s course of study at church. As we read the Gospels, I wonder if we miss much of their raw power because of our assumptions. Do we assume that the message of Jesus is simply to pray, study scripture, and attend church? To be sure, those are activities in which He wants us to fully engage. We know that from inspired counsel. But perhaps the authors of the Gospels had something more in mind. David Bentley Hart writes that they were driven to write their accounts because they believed that “history has been invaded by God in Christ in such a way that nothing can stay as it was. All terms of human community and conduct have been altered at the deepest levels.8 Does the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels present that challenge to us? If not, maybe our assumptions impede our discipleship. It was Dorothy Sayers who drew the longbow at church-going folks who misjudge Jesus: The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.9

(My apologies to pale curates and pious seniors!) Nowhere is the insight of Hart and Sayers more powerful than the only place in the Gospels where Jesus tells us something about His judgment. There is only one trait that distinguishes the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25. The sheep ministered to societal outcasts, who Jesus calls “my brothers and sisters.” The goats did not.10 Jesus may have a different view of spirituality than we do. President Eyring does. He teaches that spirituality is primarily about being the type of person who is looking for ways to help others, then praying and acting that way.11 Or as the literary critic Terry Eagleton put it: Salvation turns out to be an embarrassingly prosaic affair—a matter of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned. It has no “religious” glamour or aura whatsoever. Anybody can do it. The key to the universe turns out to be not some shattering revelation. . . . The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick. When you act in this way, you are sharing in the love which built the stars.12

C. S. Lewis observed that the Sermon on the Mount works on our assumptions about life with the force of being hit in the “face by a sledge-hammer.”13 A punch in the gut. A sledge-hammer to the face. Judging our assumptions can be painful.

Thomas B . Griffith, a BYU humanities graduate, is a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. He has served as BYU general counsel and as legal counsel to the US Senate.

1. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (New York: Vintage International, 1990), 31.2. James M. McPherson, Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief (New York: Penguin, 2008), 2, 3.3. Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2010) 292.4. Moroni 7:3, 14.5. John 16:13.6. Doctrine and Covenants 6:22, 23; 8:2, 3; 9:8, 9; 11:12, 13.7. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (Thomas A. Wayment, The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints [Salt Lake City, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2019]).8. David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), xxiii, xxiv (emphasis added).9. Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos (New York: Harcourt, 1949), 5, 6.10. Matthew 25: 31–45.11. Henry B. Eyring, To Draw Closer to God: A Collection of Discourses (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1997), 110, 124.12. Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 95.13. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 182.