Eternalism vs. Secularism


Neal A. Maxwell
Eternalism focuses on changing the individual by teaching him correct principles. Secularism tends to deal increasingly with adjustments outside man.

For the purpose of this brief discussion, eternalism is defined as that view of man and the universe which not only acknowledges, but exults in, the existence of a Heavenly Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, who have authored and implemented a redeeming plan for mankind. Secularism is herein defined as that view of man and the universe which is essentially irreligious with regard to the existence of God and cosmic purpose for man, but which is not necessarily irreverent with regard to man and his worth.

The purpose of this article is not to put down sincere secularism, for it was the Savior himself who, when queried by his disciples about others who were doing good, observed generously, “For he that is not against us is on our part.” (Mark 9:40.) But there are significant differences involved in these two distinct approaches to the problems that confront man, and these differences have serious implications for the individual.

The short-fall of secularism (with its frequent failure to answer satisfactorily the long-range “cost effectiveness” questions concerning what really benefits man), in fact, calls attention to itself. Errant or random do-goodism has so often been sincere but has ended up being ineffective or is reminiscent of “straightening deck chairs on the Titanic.” The wrong kind of help isn’t really helpful; it is often harmful, for “solutions” become problems. Good motives and good ideas can produce laudable results, but sometimes such combinations can also produce the results (now decried by almost all) such as we see, for instance, in our public welfare programs. According to one writer, “Many liberal urban economists and sociologists plainly and simply started to question whether welfare is really good for people …” and “urbanologists have been having similar qualms over the effect of welfare on the family structure. …” (Saturday Review, June 3, 1972.)

Even when secular solutions help, such programmed scratching often goes on after the itching stops. The surf of secularism, therefore, seems so often to carry its sincere seamen against the rude reefs of reality.

Secular efforts, for instance, have tried over the centuries and in many ways to redistribute wealth; it is the judgment of some historians that human systems of redistribution are temporary, for after a short period of time wealth is once again back into the hands of the few. Human systems do not seem to be able to deal very effectively with the challenge of poverty, either, for that matter. Eternalism focuses on values and behavior which, where followed, result in either enlightened use of wealth (the individual truly feels he is the concerned custodian of wealth in behalf of others and so behaves) or in those remarkable but few episodes (the City of Enoch, the small branches of Middle-East Christians in the apostolic area, and the brief but happy period, A.D. 36–201, on the American hemisphere) where the lines between rich and poor were dissolved by the warmth and righteousness of practicing Christians.

In each of these latter remarkable instances, however, it was individual commitment to eternal values and principles that brought about the special circumstance. Secularism has yet to bring about such parallel circumstances in spite of the many utopias attempted. Neither is there any secular expression of concern with regard to the challenge of cheek-by-jowl riches and poverty to match what the Lord has said:

“But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.” (D&C 49:20.)

The new secular “moral geometry” with its fluid lines, alien angles, and restless points, rejects the idea of divine design in the universe, but then naively seeks to muster righteous indignation in behalf of the disadvantaged—but without any corresponding concern over the need for non-economic morality—the very values necessary to make indignation righteous!

Chronic, unmitigated, and wide economic disparity (featuring both the greedy, insensitive rich and the idle, grasping, envious poor) clearly does contribute to the sin of the world. Nor are secular prophets on record for as long, or as often, as are the religious prophets in describing the obligations we have to the poor. Thus, while there are often (as between eternalism and secularism) shared concerns, there is also a very sharp divergence in terms of the solutions proposed.

The same sharp differences occur with regard to the importance of work to human welfare. Meaningless, unrewarded, and harsh drudgery has been declaimed by prophets as well as by emancipatory secularists. But eternalism places a high value on work per se—it is a spiritual necessity for man, though senseless and unsavory conditions of work are clearly issues to be dealt with. There are still some modern equivalents of the working conditions that confronted Moses and ancient Israel when the Pharaoh levied production quotas but would not provide straw to make bricks. (See Ex. 5.)

Even so, secularism simply seems to assign a higher value to leisure. Though we all need some leisure, secularism often finds itself trying to reduce the necessity for work without showing corresponding concern as to the purposes to which leisure time should be put—except more idleness or pleasure-seeking. Once it is taken, however, a first step toward hedonism compels a second step, and then a third, and so on.

Eternalism focuses on the individual and on those processes in which the individual is taught correct principles and then is given optimum opportunity to govern himself. Indeed, nowhere does the contrast appear to be more stark between the basic approaches to man’s problems than in the focus of eternalism on the individual as the basic human reality (and next the family). Where reform and desirable change are concerned, eternalism opts for conditions that facilitate true individual growth, letting the consequences of any successes ripple outward. Secularism tends to want to deal increasingly with systems, governments, labels, groups, etc.—with adjustments in the things outside man, apparently hoping that, somehow, changing the external scenery will change the things inside man. Of this latter approach, it was a wise Edmund Burke who warned:

“… society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” (Leo Rosten, A Trumpet for Reason, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1970.)

For those of us who see the human condition as one in which there is more stupidity than cupidity, more apathy than conspiracy, there is no real place to begin but with ourselves!

Eternalism lays great stress on the innocence of the newborn (see D&C 90) and on the importance of helping that individual “streamlet” (at its source) to have identity, belonging, and purity as it rolls forward in life, joining the larger stream of humanity. Secularism, however, becomes fascinated with the need for vast purification plants downstream, designed to purge the individual and to “reprogram” him.

Because eternalism sees man in just that perspective—eternal—it of necessity concerns itself with things that appear to be either trivial to—or which fall within—secularism’s zone of indifference. In a sense, eternalism sees the individual and his potential as one might view an acorn and the subsequent forest. Secularism sees the individual as a very important and very real, but temporary, phenomenon in the cosmic landscape—which leads inevitably to other values and emphasis. When life-style takes the form of “me” and “now” rather than “us” and “always,” apparent consequences are inevitable.

We rightfully worry about taming our technology so that it serves us, rather than dominates us. But we cannot tame our technology without taming ourselves. We are rightfully concerned about taming our cities so that they are habitable and desirable to live in. But we cannot tame our cities without taming ourselves. We are rightfully worried about the swelling bureaucracies of government, which need to respond to us—not to regiment us. But we cannot tame those bureaucracies unless we first tame our appetites, for a bloated bureaucracy is merely a manifestation of citizen appetites, demands, and the subsequent need for external controls.

Modern science, with its marvel and wonders, has passed technology into the hands of men who now find it difficult to tame that technology because they cannot tame themselves. Absent the absolute values of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and technology becomes a toy or a weapon. It is inevitable that some of those who are insensitive to eternal values will finally tire of their play with the toy of technology and turn it to more invidious purposes.

If we are not able to build into ourselves and our families the brakes of self-restraint and self-discipline, we are apt, unwittingly, to create tyranny in our government or anarchy in our citizenry. If we push onto the government the management not only of our economy, but also the management of our morals, the civil servants of the future will be neither civil nor servants.

G. K. Chesterton warned us decades ago about the dangers of “random social reform” (especially when combined with “scientific imagination”), saying there could arise from that combination a form of “tyranny” because of the resulting “almost mechanical multiplication of things forbidden.”

It is ironical to note that just as we are increasing the number of some “things forbidden” by governmental standards, there is a sharp slackening of standards and “things forbidden” in the realm of taste and morality.

Usually secularism does not err deliberately, nor can there be a denial about the need for the expertise or concern that are often brought to bear by sincere secularists. But the caveat—“the wisdom of man is foolishness”—includes not just man’s faulty tactical logic, but his tendency to proceed from erroneous basic and strategic assumptions. Having erred tragically with regard to those assumptions, it should be no surprise that conceptual cul-de-sacs are encountered so frequently by the well-intentioned. Being learned is not always the same thing as being wise. Accepting and acting upon the critical data about man and the universe is incredibly more important than simply being fat with facts that soon fade in their significance. Eternalism looks at long-range outcomes as well as temporary needs; it places great emphasis on the shaping influences at the front end of life—on love, correct principles, wise discipline, and on a nutritive home atmosphere. Good homes are still the best source of good humans.

Those who pursue the approach of eternalism, of course, are not the authors of this superior—the only—approach to human problems. The scriptures tell of the true Designer and his premortal competency—of Jesus Christ and of his preeminence (not only as to his goodness but as to his brilliance): “For he is more intelligent than they all!” Jesus is not only the very best, he is the very brightest, and those who follow him have abundant assurance about the Shepherd who is leading them. Those who follow him soon realize what Peter realized at the time of a major defection among the disciples. When Jesus inquired of those who remained, “Will ye also go away?” Peter’s reply reflected one of the realities of the universe:

“… Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68.)

C. S. Lewis wrote well when he asserted:

“What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they … could … invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. …

“That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended—civilizations are built up—excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few years, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice. That is what Satan has done to us humans.” (Mere Christianity, New York, MacMillan Co., 1958, p. 39.)

Secularism’s approach often stops short of the cosmic computations that need to be made about what produces true happiness. For instance, is it really good for the individual to have too much leisure time, too much affluence, and to live in a society that is too permissive? When is help truly helpful? Is a certain proximate pleasure going to produce ultimate pain?

For those who believe we are all going to be around forever, it is both natural and wise to concern ourselves with such questions and also with such principles which are also going to be around forever. The definition of truth given in 1833 about things “as they are,” “as they were,” and “as they are to come” (D&C 93:24) is related to another scripture: “… for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be … plainly, for the salvation of our souls. …” (Jacob 4:13.) Note the presence of that powerful adverb really. The gospel of Jesus Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deal plainly with realities—“things as they really are,” and “things as they really will be.”

In a world in which there is perpetual conceptual commotion, how could man ever feel at home? Using mortal micro-measures, answers will often differ from those assessments made using an eternal yardstick. (Though one is pressed to say, in all candor, that even some mortal micro-measures are currently casting up all sorts of warnings about, for instance, the symptoms of permissiveness.) Without the Church, revelation, and its absolute doctrinal anchors, Church members would also probably follow the fads of the day—as some churches have done—but as Samuel Callan warned, the church that weds itself to the culture of the day will “be a widow within each succeeding age.”

Whereas eternalism strikes a balance between self-denial and asceticism on the one hand, and sensualism and the celebration of feeling on the other, secularism seems to slide into one or the other of these crevasses of consequence.

“If joy itself be continually dampened by the thought of its own continuous annihilation, then only fleeting pleasures remain, unconnected in time. … When pleasures become disconnected, the intense ones stand out in prospect like branches stripped of leaves. They are thus sought directly; raw experience as such becomes the goal. Work becomes drudgery, nature becomes boring, humor falls flat, melodious music fades, children are nuisances (which they then become), sympathy and affection are perceived as ‘sticky,’ … chastity is no longer worth the sacrifice, and freedom isn’t worth a fight.” (From the unpublished manuscript of Dick Hazelett. Used by permission.)

Indeed, secularism seems to be saying, not, “I think, therefore I am,” but, “I feel, therefore I am.” As Christopher Booker cautioned:

“When men cease to aspire to the ideal, the good, to self-restraint—whether in their arts or in their lives—they do not just stand still, but actually turn the other way, finding self-fulfillment in self-indulgence, and in an obsession with those three ultimate expressions of the totally self-centered life: sex, violence and insanity.” (Duncan Williams, Trousered Apes, New Rochelle, N.Y., Arlington House, 1973, p. 61.)

Secularism, in its effort to build a modern Babel, finds itself erecting elaborate scaffolding, whereas eternalism stresses simplicity. Indeed, God has taught from the beginning by the projecting of simple positive and negative consequences as a means of aiding man in his choices here in life. Only occasionally does secularism attempt to project the human consequences of its policies and programs. Those who do not look at root causes usually fail to look at ultimate consequences.

Perhaps this is so because the data base from which secularism operates is very limited. Those who follow in faith the ways of eternalism are able to draw upon a divine data base from which there has been considerable distillation for men. The eternalist senses, for instance, that deserved self-esteem lies at the heart of human happiness, but that such is not obtainable in the absence of a correct understanding by the individual of his identity and of the purpose of life; nor is happiness obtainable in the absence of one’s governing himself by correct principles. The eternalist sees unchastity, for instance, as a gross deterrent to the development or maintenance of deserved self-esteem. The world is little concerned, however, with chastity; of this unconcern John Lukacs has rightly warned:

“The profoundest problems of morality involve, after all, what people do (and how they think) with their own selves; in other words what people do privately (or, rather, what they think of their own acts). It is therefore that the problem of sexual, that is, of carnal morality, is at the center of the moral crisis of our times; it is not merely a marginal development.” (John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age, Scranton, Pa., Harper and Row, 1970, p. 169.)

The adventure of orthodoxy consists, therefore, of having eternal principles “fitly framed together” so as to reduce human misery and to facilitate human happiness.

Secularism often seizes upon a single, true principle and elevates it above its peer principles. This act of isolation does not make the principle seized any less true, but it strips that principle of its supporting principles. One can be incarcerated within the prison of one principle.

For instance, “peacemakers” are precious commodities, but peace-making must be tied to other principles or it can easily become peace-making at any price. Candor is an important attribute, but it must not be separated from genuine concern for those who will feel the consequences of candor. Paul’s counsel is to be sure that we are “speaking the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15.) Love and truth need each other.

Charles Frankel observed of those who would currently subordinate everything else to “equality”:

“The fallacies of the new egalitarianism come largely from having ripped the notion of equality loose from its context. The result is to turn it into a principle vagrant and homeless, and identifiable in fact only if a quasi-theological context is unconsciously imported.” (“The New Egalitarianism and the Old,” Commentary, Sept. 1973, p. 61.)

Elevating any correct principle to the plane of religion is poor policy. Just as one person makes a poor church, one principle makes a poor religion!

In a sense, principles can become “prodigal” as well as people can! Principles can have the equivalent of estrangement and of a “journey into a far country” and be “spent,” with little to show. These “prodigals,” too, must return to and be reunited with the “family” of principles.

The doctrines of Christ need each other, just as the disciples of Christ need each other. It is the orthodox orchestration in applying the gospel of Jesus Christ that keeps us happy and helps us to avoid falling off the straight and narrow path, for on the one side there is harsh legalism and on the other syrupy sensualism. Little wonder that man needs careful and precise help, the guidance of the Spirit, in order to navigate under such stressful circumstances.

Little wonder we so need those eternal perspectives which come from looking at life through the lens of the gospel!

Illustrated by Howard Post

In secularism, the good life results from a good environment. Man is an important and real, but only temporary, phenomenon in the cosmic landscape.

In eternalism, all systems except the word of the Lord are temporary, and the only way to have a good life is to make a good man.