Friday, September 30, 2011

Prophetic Expectations

Next to the atonement of Jesus Christ, the claim of having a living prophet gets right to the heart of Mormonism. Expectations about prophets are all over the place, and my sense is that sometimes our expectations (and our rhetoric) outpace reality.

I am one of many who have undergone a slow evolution over the past few years in terms of how I view prophets. [More on my faith transition here.] Perhaps as a kid I might have believed that the prophet could do no wrong, but as a kid I was also naive. Unresolved questions and examples of prophets being wrong on doctrinal matters never even entered the radar.

I go on as a Mormon appreciating what I can, not hesitating to take personal responsibility for what I personally believe rather than what "the institution" says I believe. I once shared my prophet/parent analogy, but at the same time I recognize that there are a lot of great parents in the world. Yet Latter-day Saints expect that there's something unique about the prophet. Some Mormons use rhetoric such as "mouthpiece of the Lord" and that "God speaks to a modern day Moses". Naturally, that kind of rhetoric can lead to high expectations. And naturally, there is also a wide diversity of belief about how literally to take that. (I've shared some of my feelings about overdoing the mantra to "follow the prophet" here and here and here.)

Aaron B. once shared his experience teaching Sunday School about the Priesthood ban and subsequent 1978 revelation. In "Teaching OD-2" he articulated some important points concerning prophets: "As the hour drew to a close, the conversation turned to the nature of prophets, how to trust prophets if they are partly products of their time (capable of giving us erroneous instruction), the role of personal spiritual confirmation in evaluating truth claims (even when they come from prophets), and the limitations of this approach as well. This was an inevitable turn in the conversation, and for some, a potentially troubling one. I refused to give everyone easy answers where there are none."

Upholding a certain mystique about how (and how often) God actually speaks is probably to the advantage of our "prophets, seers, and revelators". I think this was illustrated when apostle Howard W. Hunter met with new Church Historian Leonard Arrington, shortly after Arrington was called and Hunter was made his advisor. Hunter "said that he felt the church was mature enough that our history should be honest. Our faith should not overpower our collective memories and documented experiences."
He did not believe in suppressing information, hiding documents, or concealing or withholding minutes for 'screening.' He thought we should publish the documents of our history. Why should we withhold things that are a part of our history? He thought it in our best interest to encourage scholars--to help and cooperate with them in doing honest research. Nevertheless, Hunter counseled me to keep in mind that church members reverenced leaders and their policies. To investigate too closely the private lives of leaders and the circumstances that led to their decisions might remove some of the aura that sanctified church policies and procedures. If the daylight of historical research should shine too brightly upon prophets and their policies, he cautioned, it might devitalize the charisma that dedicated leadership inspires. I accepted Hunter's counsel as a mandate for free and honest scholarly pursuit, with a warning that we must be discreet."("Adventures of a Church Historian" by Leonard Arrington, p. 84)

I do believe Hunter knew what he was talking about. In my case, learning about our history has actually changed the way I view prophets and their policies. While I respect and sustain our prophet leaders, I no longer feel the same reverence or mystique I did even just a few years ago. As I've adjusted expectations I've also had to let go of that aura--some of that Mormon mystique which surrounds those holding apostolic positions. I have come to identify with what Mormon historian Richard Poll once said: "History tells me that leading any organized religion is more of a priestly rather than a prophetic function."

In an article by Peggy Fletcher Stack published just days before the last spring General Conference (Infallible? Mormons told to ‘follow the prophet’ in the Salt Lake Tribune and Mormon president can do no wrong to religion's members in the USA Today), John Fowles spoke of those whose faith is sometimes shakened because of “unrealistic and unnecessary expectations” for our prophets. I agree 100% with what John said. But I still wonder what realistic and proper expectations of our prophets should look like.

Philip Barlow, Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, was also quoted by Peggy Fletcher Stack in the same article. He said that disillusionment with LDS leaders "would evaporate if people saw the church not as essentially divine, marred only by the weaknesses of human administrators, but rather … [as made up] entirely of human beings — with all of their limitations—who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have (in faith) been touched.”

He best articulated my view of the Church. (This is also why I no longer prefer to conflate the Church with "the Kingdom of God on earth" and necessary to separate the Church from the Gospel). Not everyone shares the same experiences or arrives at the same place when it comes to learning about Church history, the way things work, or even their level of religious enthusiasm/commitment. Some might have once sang "We Thank Thee Oh God For a Prophet" with zeal but now feel a bit more restrained. Others have felt the need to lower their expectations of a prophet in order to still maintain a connection to the Mormon prophetic tradition. Those with reasonable expectations of prophets can even feel out of place when attending church with members who still have expectations that go through the roof--including those who believe that the prophet literally speaks directly with God in a way the rest of us cannot/have not, or those who think that when the prophet speaks the thinking is done.

While I personally have no insight into the perfect or ideal set of prophetic expectations, Adam Miller does. And I do agree with John Fowles in the sense that "unrealistic expectations" exist and may make people ripe for a faith crisis.  Ironically, by wanting to tell only the "faith promoting", as if everything prophets do is inspired, leaders can further perpetuate the "unrealistic expectations" that set people up for a faith crisis. Like a balloon going high in the sky, those expectations might just end up popping--or simply deflating. Would that we could just embrace all truth from the get go, not just the comfortable truth.

Andrew S. (a thoughtful self-described atheist and "cultural Mormon") probably had those once-overly-inflated-the-point-of-popping people in mind when he remarked: "For some people [it] isn’t that “the grass will be greener” outside [of the Church], but rather, for a church that claims divine revelation, the true gospel, inspired leaders, it’s surprising that the lawn *is* just the same as everyone else’s, if not quirkier in some areas (while other lawns are have quirks in other areas.)" Or in other words, "If we are taught that the church’s grass is superior, restored, and full, then shouldn’t finding out that the church grass is just on par with everyone else’s grass be a great let down?"

Ultimately, we Latter-day Saints sustain our leaders as prophets, seers, and revelators, although the meaning given to those very words vary according to each believer. And as Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote, "Mormons have to decide for themselves how much deference to give the words of their leaders and deal with the consequences of their choices." It can indeed be a sausage maker's faith.

Some may question the benefit in having a prophet "to guide us in these latter days" if we as individual agents must ultimately rely on our own combination of "inspiration and perspiration". However, the prophet's role is not for us to rely on him, notwithstanding the rhetoric, but to point/guide people to Christ, and to rely on "the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah". Placing faith in Him--our ultimate "Prophet, Priest, and King"--means that we'll always have expectations that will not be disappointed.


Papa D said...

"We see through a glass, darkly" is one of my scriptural mottos - and it was stated by an apostle whom most of Christianity reveres as one of the greatest. The last few verses of I Corinthians 13 are fascinating in relation to this post, and it describes my own view of prophets and prophecy quite well.

I've written quite often about expectations - and especially about the damaging effects of unrealistic expectations. (15 posts on my own blog with the exact designation of "expectations") If you are interested, the two I think fit this post best were written in 2009:

"More Perspective on Prophets" (

"Thoughts on Unrealistic Expectations" (

Papa D said...

One more thing:

It's interesting that you posted this today, given what I scheduled to post on my blog on Monday. I wrote it before reading this post, but the similarities are striking.

Just a heads-up. I think you'll be as surprised when you read it as I was when I read this post.

Grant said...

This is pretty good. I've done a lot of thinking on similar themes. One theme I may work on with my on navel-blog gazing is the difference (for some) of believing in Santa Claus and believing in a living prophet. I grew up and no longer believe in a literal Santa Claus but still believe in a literal living prophet even if that belief has changed in a maturing way over the years. And somehow, I got through both of those developments without being traumatized emotionally or spiritually. Keep up the good work!

Clean Cut said...

I've been enjoying General Conference today. I loved Elder Carl B. Cook's story in this afternoons session of getting in the elevator with President Monson and his encouragement to "look up". That's how I feel about the prophet--he directs our focus to look up to God. I love that as a metaphor to look to Christ. Great talk.

Ray, likewise I love your reminder of those marvelous last few verses of 1 Cor. 13--and though we grow up and see things through a glass darkly, we must also always try to see things through the lens of charity. A great reminder. (By the way, I can't wait to read your post on Monday).

Passionate Moderate Mormon (love that handle, by the way)--I really appreciate your comment. Thank you.

Clean Cut said...

Finding Peace and Light Amid the Mists of Darkness

Clean Cut said...

We Need To Stop Asking Our Prophets To Be What They Never Have Been

Clean Cut said...

I also like Margaret Young’s applicable comments here:

“Finally, let me make a bold suggestion. I suggest that we Mormons have chosen the wrong paradigm to describe how the church functions under prophetic leadership. We seem to have gone with the Wilford Woodruff statement used to defend the manifesto, since he was speaking to people who had suffered and even gone to jail over polygamy:

‘[T]he Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty’ (Official Declaration 1).

“Since we have multitudes of instances where one prophet contradicts another, it’s likely that President Woodruff’s statement has a particular context and is confined to that. Armand Mauss, in a comment on February 22 at the Juvenile Instructor blog stated: ‘[T]his claim seems to have originated as a kind of guarantee from Wilford Woodruff in 1890, as he tried to reassure some of the apostles and others who questioned the legitimacy (or necessity) of the Manifesto. That was a fairly specific context, and no one at the time seemed to take it as a universal gospel principle. I never heard of it as I was growing up during the first half of the 20th century, as I said, but it began to occur (totally out of its original context) with increasing frequency as part of the “retrenchment” era after the 1960s to reinforce the ‘follow the prophet’ mantra that is now so familiar to us.”

“Would we not all be better served by acknowledging that the Prophet is exclusively entitled to the mantle of leadership over the Church, and that he will always do the best he can to transcend his own culture and tradition in serving God, though not every utterance he makes will constitute the mind and will of the Lord?

“I would far prefer President Lorenzo Snow’s description of Church governance:

‘Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant. We had our prejudices to combat. Our ignorance troubled us in regard to what the Lord intended to do and what He wanted us to do … We advanced to boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which … generally arise from a …lack of experience. We understand very well, when we reflect back upon our own lives, that we did many foolish things when we were boys … Yet as we advanced, the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. It has been so with the Church. Our errors have generally arisen from a lack of comprehending what the Lord required of us to do. But now we are pretty well along to manhood … When we examine ourselves, however, we discover that we are still not doing exactly as we ought to do, notwithstanding all our experience. We discern that there are things which we fail to do that the Lord expects us to perform, some of which He requires us to do in our boyhood. … While we congratulate ourselves in this direction, we certainly ought to feel that we have not yet arrived at perfection. There are many things for us to do yet.’ (April, 1900)

“And to that, I say amen.”

Clean Cut said...

In the years since I originally wrote this post, I've come to see that unrealistic expectations of Church leaders are indeed one of the greatest stumbling blocks, from my viewpoint. The way so many Saints put our leaders up on a pedestal is just asking for a great fall. Far better to avoid that aspect of a faith crisis altogether and teach more realistic expectations right from the beginning.

Which is why I wish we could do away with the primary song "Follow the Prophet" since we can't look to an imperfect vessel and expect perfection. Far better to sing about following the Savior since He IS the way.

Clean Cut said...

"It's a false dilemma to claim that either God works through flawless people or God doesn't work at all. The gospel isn't a celebration of God's power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God's willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren't. To demand that church leaders, past or present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel's most basic claim: that God's grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.

"Our church manuals and church histories are sometimes shy about this good news. With good intentions, they worry over your faith. Sometimes they seem too much like that friend of a friend who really just wants you to like them, and so they pretend to only like the same things they think you do. But God is stronger stuff than this. And the scriptures certainly are as well. If, as the bible makes clear, God can work through liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and beggars, he can certainly work around (or even through) Joseph Smith's clandestine practice of polygamy, Brigham Young's strong-armed experiments in theocracy, or George Albert Smith's mental illness."

Adam Miller, "Letters to a Young Mormon"

Extended quote here: