The Virtue of Vicarious Experience

If we are selective in the things we choose to do in life, we only have time for high-priority experiences. For example, an enlightened mother chooses parenthood over her career. A youth overcomes any desires to follow the seamy side of life in favor of building on positive, uplifting experiences.

Many people feel that vicarious experiences never lead to meaningful understanding. Only the poor can, they say, really understand poverty. Only the sinner can know the nature or the consequences of sin. They claim there is no substitute for direct experience.

Such an argument has at least two inherent weaknesses. First, it’s risky to live in the atmosphere of sin in order to understand it or to help others who are sinning, since individuals may become trapped in the very things they want others to avoid. Taking drugs to know what it’s like, for example, may lead to personal slavery rather than the redemption of others. Second, the argument overlooks the fact that the Holy Ghost can provide such understanding and that man can, by empathy, come to understand, as Jesus did, what sin means to others.

Jesus understood sin better than the sinner, without ever having sinned. Prophets have been and are acute “vicarious” observers of the consequences of sin and thus can provide adequate leadership in helping others overcome sin.

Spiritually guided empathy leads to a greater understanding of the nature of sin than partaking of sin, because the empathizer seeks only to understand and is not subject to the perceptual distortions present in trying to justify behavior.

Phillip C. Smith associate professor of education Church College of Hawaii

Devotion to the Rule of Law

The J. Reuben Clark Law School must always foster an enlightened devotion to the rule of law. A principal function of law, and thus a principal occupation of lawyers, is the prevention and settlement of disputes. Men of law must understand and help others to understand that, despite all the imperfections of law and lawyers, there is no better system for preventing and settling disputes than the rule of law.

Consider the alternatives to the rule of law. Trial by combat was once an accepted means of settling private disputes. This method, where the party with the greatest strength can impose his will, survives for public disputes in the barbarity of war, and for private disputes continues to be used by those whose violent means lie outside the law.

Disputes can also be settled by authority where the government official, the aristocrat, or other person in “high position” is able to impose his will, survives for public disputes in the barbarity of war, and for private disputes the law, but public servants and members of the legal profession are responsible to root it out wherever it appears.

A third alternative for settling disputes is the sleazy system of corruption, where justice is for sale and the person with the largest resources prevails. We must likewise be diligent to eradicate that evil.

The rule of law stands as a wall to protect civilization from the barbarians who would conduct public affairs and settle private disputes by power, position, or corruption rather than by recourse to the impartiality of settled rules of law. Lawyers are the watchmen on that wall.

Devotion to the rule of law means that our preeminent political allegiance is to the law and the offices of government and not to the persons who occupy those offices. President J. Reuben Clark said it best:

“God provided that in this land of liberty, our political allegiance shall run not to individuals, that is, to government officials, no matter how great or how small they may be. Under His plan our allegiance and the only allegiance we owe as citizens or denizens of the United States, runs to our inspired Constitution which God Himself set up. So runs the oath of office of those who participate in government. A certain loyalty we do owe to the office which a man holds, but even here we owe, just by reason of our citizenship, no loyalty to the man himself.” (“America—A Chosen Land of the Lord,” MIA Conference, June 9, 1940.)

There is no democracy among legal rules. Some are more important than others. Thus, some rules are based on eternal principles of right and wrong or on basic tenets of our constitution. Others are rooted in the soil of men’s reasoning, soil that may be washed away by the torrent of human custom or the current of advancing thought, leaving the rule without support or justification.

One who studies law through the lens of the gospel should surely be realistic about the limited longevity of men’s ideas and the consequent short duration of rules and reasons grounded on the shifting sands of current facts and opinions. Of even less standing are those judicial rules based solely on precedents already adrift from the anchorage of reason.

Dallin H. Oaks, president Brigham Young University (remarks at opening ceremony of J. Reuben Clark Law School, Aug. 27, 1973)

The Tendency to Faith

Geneticists believe that the variations produced by chromosomal division and recombination is a matter of chance. However, they speculate about the possibility, sometime in the future, of controlling the genetic makeup of the individual, in the hope of preventing inherited diseases. But can the genetic code, with its unlimited variability, be intelligently programmed by understanding an application of divine law so that chance is not the determining factor? And is it possible that variation is being intelligently controlled to relate to our premortal development so that the physical body would develop not only to look like the spirit but to have the physical and character attributes that correspond to an eternal personality?

Such attributes as faith, obedience, discernment, and being heirs to the priesthood could thereby have their proper physical and spiritual setting.

President Stephen L Richards commented on this subject:

“It seems to me … that there runs in some blood strains a higher susceptibility to the refining and saving influence of testimony than in other strains. I don’t know that I understand it, but I have thought that the significance of the ‘blood of Israel’ is that there is in that great blood strain, following the blessings and promises of God, a susceptibility to the influence of the Holy Spirit that does not run in other strains. Science has made some rather remarkable discoveries upon the inherited traits and qualities that go with blood strains. … I believe that it [testimony] is inheritable, and the tendency to faith may descend from father to son. It seems to me that Paul had that in mind when writing to Timothy. He said in substance: ‘I do perceive in thee the faith that was in thy grandmother Lois’ [See 2 Tim. 1:5], thus recognizing that this tendency to faith, this susceptibility to testimony, courses along in the very blood strains of the race.” (Conference Report, October 1925, pp. 118–19.)

My wife’s patriarchal blessing includes these words that indicate the close relationship between the living and their forebears—“… but what you are and what you may become is not entirely of your own doing, but the righteous men and women who make up your ancestral line. …”

The quotations cited indicate, therefore, the close relationship between premortality and our mortal spiritual and physical characteristics. We have developed eternal attributes, and our physical body, through genes, as carriers of heredity, serves to complement the characteristics and attributes of the spirit. Those of us who have been honored with the priesthood (D&C 86) are direct legal heirs through the lineage of our fathers. It must be stressed that as legal heirs we must be worthy and receive that priesthood in mortality by the laying on of hands by those possessing that sacred authority. The Lord declares that our life and the priesthood have remained, and must remain, through our lineage until the restoration of all things spoken of by the mouths of the holy prophets since the world began. We thus inherit the right to the priesthood and in turn have the privilege of passing that right on to our children.

Dr. James O. Mason commissioner of Church Health Services (address to eighth annual genealogical research seminar, BYU, Aug. 2, 1973)


I believe that sin is a special form of insanity, that it reflects a kind of “blackout” in which we either lack perspective about the consequence of our thoughts, words, and actions, or we lose it temporarily.

Neal Maxwell Church Commissioner of Education (Institute lecture)


The principle of priesthood for all intelligences below that of God, who is greatest, is to yield to the mind and will of God, whose purpose it is to assist others to become like himself.

Douglas W. Stott, director Columbus Institute Ohio State University (Institute lecture)