Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Terryl Givens on the "Prophetic Mantle"; Myth of Infallibility

From Terryl Givens' "Letter to a doubter":

"Abraham deceived Abimelech about his relationship with Sarah. Isaac deceived Esau and stole both his birthright and his blessing (but maybe that’s okay because he is a patriarch and not a prophet, strictly speaking). Moses took glory unto himself at the waters of Meribah and lost his ticket to the promised land as a result. He was also guilty of manslaughter and covered up his crime. Jonah ignored the Lord’s call, then later whined and complained because God didn’t burn Nineveh to the ground as He had threatened. It doesn’t get a lot better in the New Testament. Paul rebuked Peter sharply for what he called cowardice and hypocrisy in his refusal to embrace the gentiles as equals. Then Paul got into a sharp argument with fellow apostle Barnabas, and they parted company.
"So where on earth do we get the notion that modern-day prophets are infallible specimens of virtue and perfection? Joseph said emphatically, “I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous.” To remove any possibility of doubts, he canonized those scriptures in which he is rebuked for his inconstancy and weakness. Most telling of all is section 124:1, in which this pervasive pattern is acknowledged and explained: “for unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth” (D&C 124:1; emphasis added).

"Air-brushing our prophets, past or present, is a wrenching of the scriptural record and a form of idolatry. God specifically said he called weak vessels so that we wouldn’t place our faith in their strength or power, but in God’s.  Most crippling, however, are the false expectations this paradigm sets up: When Pres. Woodruff said the Lord would never suffer his servants to lead the people astray, we can only reasonably interpret that statement to mean that the prophets will not teach us any soul-destroying doctrine—not that they will never err. President Kimball himself condemned Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings as heresy; and as an apostle he referred as early as 1963 to the priesthood ban as a “possible error” for which he asked forgiveness. The mantle represents priesthood keys, not a level of holiness or infallibility. God would not have enjoined us to hear what prophets, seers, and revelators have to say “in all patience and faith” if their words were always sage and inspired (D&C 21:5)."


Papa D said...

Amen, friend. Amen.

In a very real way, when we view our prophets as infallible, we deny the atonement of Jesus Christ that pays for ALL of us in a very real and practical way.

Jared said...

With all this said, what good are the prophets and apostles then?

For example, last April we had another General Conference. What should we do with all that was said?

I agree with much of what this post said, however, it didn't answer how some important question that it brings up.

Clean Cut said...

I think you're right, Jared, that there are a lot of really important and good questions related to this topic, and they don't necessarily have easy answers. But all in all, I think a big answer lies in taking more personal responsibility and ownership over our relationship with Divinity.

Blair Hodges has also written about this as well:

"It's the old dilemma about following imperfect prophets:

"Is prophetic revelation a messy, imperfect process where doctrines and practices change and evolve over time and even prophets see through a glass darkly (like the rest of us)? Or do prophets and apostles really have the kind of clear, direct pipeline to God that merits unquestioning obedience? It seems like most members and leaders of the church like having it both ways.

"The slippery slope goes like this: "If leaders in the past made mistakes (potentially the priesthood ban or something like it) then what about now?" I personally see the problem as part of a direct invitation to take more personal responsibility for our relationship to God. Sort of like when Nephi took things straight to God even though his dad had visions and so forth, and later when his dad "spoke as a man" leaving it up to Nephi to get some personal revelation on where to find some grub.

"But what if you take some personal responsibility and you take an issue up with God and arrive at a different conclusion than the prophets? It seems that Mormon culture encourages questioning/asking, but always with the assumption that we will, of course, arrive at "the right answer."

"I think the hope is there that we arrive at the "right answer," but in my own experience it hasn't always worked out that way. There have been times when my own answer differed or I didn't feel I received an answer at all either way. Granted this is not a common occurrence and it generally makes things a lot more difficult of course. But at the same time I recognize that I received my answer, not a charge to spread it as far and wide as I can."

If you go back far enough you see the age old emphasis has always been on following GOD and Christ--not following a prophet. The scriptures are full of really messed up, fallible, and imperfect prophets. God uses them DESPITE their imperfections. So the role of a prophet is to point people to God and Christ, not to a prophet. And that journey is a personal one, including personal revelation and personal spiritual confirmation of truth claims. Ultimately, while others can help, it's an individual journey of finding God in our lives.

Clean Cut said...

At times I see a very unhealthy emphasis in the modern church. A friend of mine, Katie L., called it "the Idol of Infallible Leadership" while discussing the false gods we worship. She recalled an intriguing passage in the Book of Mormon "found in Mormon 9. Moroni is speaking to future readers of the record, begging them not to disregard what he, his father, and his forbears have written because they find errors.

'Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.'

"This plea strikes at the heart of what it is to be a servant of God. It is a narrative found all throughout scripture, and is arguably THE good news of the gospel: servants of God make mistakes, some of them quite serious, yet by his grace still find favor and accomplish mighty miracles. The cast of fallible, human characters in scripture is long, and includes…well, every single last one of ‘em.

"And yet, in church, in the Ensign, even in General Conference there are active and repeated admonitions to “obey the Brethren.” This is NOT a charge you will see in scripture. In scripture, we are admonished to obey God. If those sound roughly the same to you, if you see no difference between them, this is idolatry, and is a perfect example of the problem of which I speak."


I think President Hinckley once said something about how he functions more as President of the Church and less as prophet. He encouraged less emphasis on prophet and more emphasis on President of the Church. Unfortunately that message has been drowned out by the culture (cult?) of "Follow the prophet".

The reality is that we have a President of the Church on a daily basis, and a prophet on an exception basis. Yes, from time to time we believe that dramatic revelation can and does occur. But these are seemingly rare. More often the President of the Church acts as a caretaker of the church.

Clean Cut said...

In other words, President Monson holds the office of "President of the Church"--there is no office of "Prophet of the Church". And while we sustain 15 leaders as "prophets, seers, and revelators", those are not "offices". I don't mean to diminish these in any way. Those are exceptional, to be sure. But the 15 are not necessarily out "prophesying", "seeing", and "revealing" on a regular basis (at least in the sense that Joseph Smith was.) So while we reserve those unto them, their day to day work is a little more mundane. Dallin H. Oaks once said "we believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation"--noting that sometimes they're/we're left to work without the specific direction of the spirit.

Historically, it wasn't really until David O. McKay became the president of the Church that people began to refer to the president of the church as "the prophet". Before that time, when anyone spoke of "the prophet", they were most likely referring to Joseph Smith.

For better or worse (I certainly have opinions about this) people today overwhelmingly (unthinkingly?) tend to conflate the two (President of the Church and Prophet) as though they are both offices. They're not. So President Monson is always the president of the Church--his role is Church president, but as Joseph Smith even said, "a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such".

That darn primary song--so catchy because it's set in a minor key--doesn't help us understand the difference either! http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com/2010/04/follow.html

Clean Cut said...

Now to your question about what is spoken at General Conference. From time to time something said might be so profound to me that it will speak to/resonate with me--the Spirit confirming it to my soul--and becomes part of me and part of divine communication. I naturally feel compelled to follow those. We seldom, if ever, get dramatic "commandment" type messages coming from our prophet-leader, although they often give good counsel. We can take what good counsel we can and personally decide how to/whether we should apply it in our life according to our own understanding and circumstances.

To paraphrase Richard Poll, history shows me that the role of the president of the church is more of a priestly function than a prophetic one. In many ways, he gives wonderful advice (love your neighbor, beware of addictive habits, serve people, get out of debt), but these messages are not exclusive to Mormons. So we also would do well not to oversell our message by saying that these sermons always represent unique divine inspiration (putting these men up on a pedestal) when these kinds of messages are also being given in one form or another by other good and "wise"--sometimes even "holy" men and women outside of our faith tradition.

Also remember that Elder D. Todd Christofferson, speaking a year ago in the April 2012 General Conference, said that "it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.

"President [J. Reuben] Clark observed: 'To this point runs a simple story my father told me as a boy, I do not know on what authority, but it illustrates the point. His story was that during the excitement incident to the coming of [Johnston’s] Army, Brother Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with defiance to the approaching army, and declaring an intention to oppose and drive them back. In the afternoon meeting he arose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk. …

“… The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.”


I also find the footnote (#6) of Elder Christofferson's talk interesting:

. J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Church Leaders’ Words,”. Of the story his father told him about Brigham Young, President Clark further wrote: “I do not know if this ever happened, but I say it illustrates a principle—that even the President of the Church, himself, may not always be ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost,’ when he addresses the people. This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly speculative character) where subsequent Presidents of the Church and the peoples themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ "How shall the Church know when these adventurous expeditions of the brethren into these highly speculative principles and doctrines meet the requirements of the statutes that the announcers thereof have been ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’? The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest” (“Church Leaders’ Words,” 10).

Clean Cut said...

Another more realistic view was expressed by Paul--that he and other prophets "see through a glass darkly" and see through faith, not by sight. I think this means that we all must become a little more comfortable with uncertainty.

So I have no problem with the principle of obeying God--that's fully scriptural. But I take issue anytime someone tries to elevate obedience to man (not scriptural) to be on par with obedience to God. Because not everything a mortal in a high leadership position says (even if they claim it comes from God) necessarily comes from God.

Hence, even at a General Conference, it's not an "automatic" that everything spoken from the pulpit is from God. Most of the time the messages are quite universal and benign, and I don't have to question every single thing said, because for the most part they're all "good", and I seek after goodness and all those other things mentioned in the 13th article of faith.

However, I distinctly remember the feeling once (while watching conference at home) that overcame me when an apostle said something that immediately caused the Spirit to confirm in me that it was not of God and I audibly spoke out at the TV (almost by instinct) "that's not right". I knew that the message was harmful. And I knew it instantly. It was interesting to me to see that I was not alone in feeling what I felt, and that particular message was indeed changed/edited by the time it came out in the printed version. Just like Terryl Given implied, their words are not always "sage and inspired".

Clean Cut said...

Margaret Young recently shared some wisdom that I think is applicable applicable 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...

I'm sure you're familiar with the old joke that Catholics say the pope is infallible but they don't believe it, while Mormons say their prophet isn't infallible, but many don't believe it. Well, collectively we still seem to have need to accept that we do not have a doctrine of infallible prophets or inerrant scripture. David O Mckay once said, "when God calls a man to be a prophet He doesn't unmake the man".

Elder Holland in his recent conference talk spoke about being patient with the imperfections and mistakes of church leaders, but it doesn't always exactly seem to be a two way street when the rhetoric leads many to believe people should obey/follow and do what "we're told"--almost unquestionably as though that is a virtue (even though they're imperfect and have made mistakes in the past--some quite big--and can make them again.)

I like the analogy of the Church President as the guy with the keys to the car (the car is the church). Julie Smith summarized the analogy thusly: "God lets him drive wherever he wants. You need someone with the keys to drive the car. God will not let the car be driven into a ditch. He would remove the driver first. But that doesn’t mean that the prophet can’t drive a longer-than-necessary route, take a detour, or swerve so hard I throw up out the window, etc. I can rest assured that I should be in the car but not necessarily that I will enjoy the ride."

Ultimately it is a personal decision as to how much deference to give to "the Brethren." While we must deal with those consequences, we mustn't have unrealistic and unnecessary expectations. Armand Mauss has said that the ultimate test is "the ratification of the Holy Spirit, which places a heavy burden on the hearers as well as the speakers in General Conference."


Clean Cut said...

I suspect even Brigham Young would have agreed to this more personal and thoughtful approach to our faith. He famously expressed concern about an almost unthinking "follow the leader" mentality that many LDS would (and do) "settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually"

-Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses. 9:150-151

From reading his biography, I also know Spencer W. Kimball expressed concern about the "unthinking follow the leader mentality" after Ezra Taft Benson gave his "14 Fundamentals" talk at BYU about following the prophet. Kimball wasn't happy about that talk at all, and Benson was even asked to and did apologize privately to the general authorities at the time. If only the apology had been a little more public we might not continue to see newer general authorities still quoting it in general conference!

I like Philip Barlow’s perspective (he's the Leonard Arrington Chair of Religious Studies at Utah State University (and as another aside, if you ever get your hands on a library copy of "Adventures of a Church Historian" you must read it--Lenoard Arrington is truly one of my personal Mormon historian hero's) though I know reasonable people can disagree. Anyway, Barlow 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."

That is the framework I personally have adopted as well.

I wrote about my change in prophetic expectations on my blog a couple years ago:http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com/2011/09/prophetic-expectations.html

Forgive me if it seems like I'm not fully drinking the obedience Kool-aid. It's just that there is a human element in all of this which we must not forget. As the father of our constitution, James Madison, once cautioned: "When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated."

Richard Poll added after quoting Madison: "Because I believe with Madison that everyone, including Paul and other prophets, sees eternity "through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12), prophetic infallibility, scriptural inerrancy, and unquestioning obedience are not elements of my faith."

And of course we mustn't forget the tragic lesson of the Mountain Meadows Massacre--unquestioning obedience to "authority" rather than following the dictates of our own conscience can cause real harm and long lasting pain.

And lest anyone think that when our leaders speak the thinking is done, this is really good:

"When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done"


Papa D said...

Tell us how you really feel, CC. *grin*

Clean Cut said...


Jared said...

You have done a lot of thinking on this subject. I appreciate what you've written in reply to my question.

After all is said on this subject I've adopted what Elder Harold B. Lee said:

It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they write. I don't care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator please note that one exception you may immediately say, "Well, that is his own idea." And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard church works, you may know by that same token that it is false, regardless of the position of the man who says it. We can know or have the assurance that they are speaking under inspiration if we so live that we can have a witness that what they are speaking is the word of the Lord. There is only one safety, and that is that we shall live to have the witness to know. President Brigham Young said something to the effect that "the greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord."
The Teachings of Harold B. Lee P. 541.

Jared said...

Regarding our responsibility as followers of Christ:

Our most important task as followers of Christ is to fulfill our baptism covenant an obtain a remission of sins and thereby receive the baptism of the Spirit by fire and the Holy Ghost.

Clean Cut said...

Good quote by HBL, Jared.

I'll just add a few others that pertain to the topic for future reference:

This one has been attributed to Joseph Smith, but all I can track down for sure was that it was published in the Millennial Star in November 1852 (obviously while Brigham Young was the President of the Church.)

“We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them even if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves" (Millennial Star, Volume 14, No. 38, Pages 593-595).


Either way It does seem to go hand in hand with what Brigham Young taught here:

"What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually." -Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, p.150 1862

“I have often said to the Latter-day Saints – 'Live so that you will know whether I teach you the truth or not.' Suppose you are careless and unconcerned, and give way to the spirit of the world, and I am led, likewise, to preach the things of this world and to accept things that are NOT of God, how easy it would be for me to lead you astray! But I say to you, live so that you will know for yourselves whether I tell the truth or not. That is the way we want all Saints to live" (Brigham Young, 1874, JD 18:248).

“President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel - said the Lord had declared by the Prophet, that the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church - that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls - applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall – that they were depending on the prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves, envious towards the innocent, while they afflict the virtuous with their shafts of envy" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Five 1842-43, p. 237-38).

Papa D said...

I love those quotes - and wish every member of the Church understood and accepted them.

"We claim the privilege of worshiping God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow ALL (people) everywhere the same privilege . . ." applies just as much to us as individual members of the LDS Church as it does to those outside the Church.

Clean Cut said...

Amen to that Papa D. Amen.


Kelark said...

Hey Clean Cut,

It's been a while. How are you? I remembered reading a quote so I went and Googled it. It is from an Address to All Believers in Christ, p.30 - p.31. I only am quoting part of the paragraph but it was in reference to the Canadian copyright mission Joseph sent some men on. "Joseph did not know how it was, so he enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: "Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil." So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man. When a man enquires of the Lord concerning a matter, if he is deceived by his own carnal desires, and is in error, he will receive an answer according to his erring heart, but it will not be a revelation from the Lord."

This seems to go along with Jared's question.

I find it interesting that the quote says that the source of revelation cannot always be discerned even if it is from the Devil and equally troubling is that the heart will not confirm the truth because it is not reliable.

So my question is and maybe you answered it is, if the prophet can't know the source of revelation with certainty and the prophet and the hearer can't trust their heart how can the truth be confirmed? Also what then is the distinction of the LDS over the erring churches that God told Joseph were corrupt?


Anonymous said...

I have felt since my mission (the mission opened my eyes to many things) that the church leadership has moved and is continuing to move, albeit slowly, away from the original principles and ordinances put in place by the restoring Prophet Joseph Smith. The church leadership is becoming more like the Pharisees year after year. And the leaders will not have any one questioning anything. I do think there are some good leaders who recognize this but they can not make needed changes on their own. I am all for obedience to the commandments of God. But when the church starts telling male missionaries which side of the head they are to part their hair and other little details concerning said part, members need to start realizing that something is very wrong. RS

Clean Cut said...

Kelark, I just now realized that I completely forgot to respond to your questions:

"if the prophet can't know the source of revelation with certainty and the prophet and the hearer can't trust their heart how can the truth be confirmed? Also what then is the distinction of the LDS over the erring churches that God told Joseph were corrupt?"

Because I've tended to be long winded in the comments on this post, I'll most likely have to continue to respond in multiple comments since there is a limit of words per response.

I prefer to make a distinction between the restored gospel of Jesus Christ on the one hand, and the institutional Church on the other. There's no question that I prefer Elder Ronald Poleman's 1984 talk in it's original state, before he was asked to amend it and re-tape it (and a cough track added to it). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcM7koDc-jg

More on that "best conference talk you've never read" here:

Ultimately I don't prefer to frame the issue of churches in terms of differences because it leads to an "us against them" mentality, as though the only reason to belong to this church is because it is "different" than other churches (not that it's not, because of course there are key differences). But that's not my driving impetus for being a member.

I like framing it in terms of all the truths I gain from Mormonism and how it makes sense of life. And ultimately that's a much, much longer conversation that I doubt you or I have time for right now. I would definitely recommend a great book, however, that describes some of the elements that I personally find most compelling in Mormonsim. It's written by Terryl and Fiona Givens and titled: "The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life":

I think that so much of the conversation comes down to how we're defining our terms and what we understand them to be. I recently had a debate with a fellow member of the Church about whether or not the Church is "perfect".

I wouldn't hesitate to say that my wife is "perfect" for me, even though she and I both know that she isn't perfect. My bigger concern is how far the gap is between me and her on that spectrum, because I'm much farther away from that "perfection" goal, although I don't really choose to fret about it too much in the meantime. :)

So I asked him these questions:
What is the church? Is it the members? (D&C 10:67)
The organization as carried out by the members?
The revelations from God instructing us on the organization?
The ultimate direction we as members are all headed in?
Or is it "the corporation sole" of "The Corporation of the President of the Church" since legally and technically The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was disincorporated around the time of the Manifesto and has never been reincorporated?

For more on this last point, I'll just refer you to the nine part series at By Common Consent entitled: "Correlation: An Uncorrelated History" starting here:

But particularly part 6 here: http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/03/19/correlation-an-uncorrelated-history-part-6-church-and-priesthood/

Clean Cut said...

I recognize there is a wide latitude of possible beliefs and interpretations. I confess, the "Liahona Mormon" in me seems to be more preoccupied with the questions than the answers. (See "What the Church means to people like me"):


Here's where it gets complicated though. And I'll state right off that bat that I have had to adjust my faith paradigm on many occasions that now leads me to have different expectations of our prophets than perhaps others sitting next to me in the pews: http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com/2011/09/prophetic-expectations.html

I have a hard time putting "trust in God" and "trust in the prophet" together as though they're synonymous . Trust God--no problem--he's perfect! Putting trust in the arm of the flesh/imperfect prophets with a sub-par historical track record? That's a little harder. I do think some of our church leaders are extremely "spiritually gifted" and filled with amazing wisdom. I think that wisdom comes after a long life lived and so I don't just discount their opinions, but they are HEAVILY shaped by the lives that they've lived. (Hence, the fact that Joseph Fielding Smith could be completely anti-evolution whereas other apostles like Widtsoe and Talmage (who were scientists) were for it (as well as the world class scientist Henry Eyring Sr, who happens to be one of my heroes:


Clean Cut said...

It's hard to know when they are speaking for God and when they are speaking as themselves. As Joseph Smith said, "a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such", and David O. McKay once said that "when the Lord calls a man to be a prophet, he doesn't unmake the man", so I don't insist on taking everything they say as prophetic when history shows me that their role is more of a priestly function than a prophetic one.

They have a stewardship over the entire Church. They have the keys. The prophet has all the keys and he's in the drivers seat. God will not let the car be driven into a ditch. He would remove the driver first. But that doesn’t mean that the prophet can’t drive a longer-than-necessary route, take a detour, or swerve so hard I throw up out the window, etc. I can rest assured that I should be in the car, but not that I will always enjoy the ride. :)

I think God ultimately wants a self sustaining church, where he doesn't have to intervene. One way he helps us get there is by allowing us to practice, mess it all up, correct it ourselves, and learn from our mistakes. If he was the one driving all of the time, we would never learn how.

This is how I view the Church--not an essentially divine organization marred only by the human weaknesses and foibles of its leaders/members. We--the church--are entirely a human organization responding to the divine with which we have in faith been touched. God doesn't micromanage us. Acknowledging the human element in the Church™, as well as the fact that there have been errors in the Church™ in the past (such as the priesthood ban and also the rationales once used to defend it and that are now completely disavowed in the "Race and the Priesthood" essay on the church website) and logically the fact that errors can occur today doesn't mean there is no divinity in the Church. It's not all or nothing, black or white.

Binary thinking--that it's either all one way or all the other--is extremely problematic, not the least of which would mean that the Lord doesn't honor the agency of the prophet at all, and that the prophet is therefore nothing more than a puppet. We and all the prophets "see through a glass darkly" as we walk by faith rather than have direct knowledge as though we (or the prophet) has a clear Heavenly Fax/Phone number. The church has continually evolved and adapted throughout time as humans bring their concerns before God and God honors the desires of our hearts. The one true constant in this church is the fact that it continually changes and improves and progresses past the "status quo"--and thank God for that or blacks would still be barred from our most sacred temple rituals, and black men from holding priesthood.

Clean Cut said...

Of course, your question can also be turned around and asked about confirming the truth of scripture itself.

As Terryl Givens said recently in a Mormon Matters podcast:

"Scripture is a human manifestation of an impulse toward and from the divine. One can't expect textual flawlessness"

His son, Nathaniel Givens, has spoken on this a lot too. His theory is that many of us want a standard that is infallible because we want to be relieved of the burden of continually exerting ourselves to use discernment.

Terryl Givens went on to say quote another author who basically wrote that we want someone to be a "keeper of our conscience". Givens continued: "But the hard lesson is there is never a moment when you can delegate your own volition to another individual leader"


Clean Cut said...

Naturally, much of how we frame this conversation depends on personality and world view. I think there are so many resources within Mormon thought that encourage us to be a thinking people, to ponder and pray, and study things out in our mind, to use our God given faculties of reason and critical thought. I think it is true that while we can agree it is good to trust God or trust Christ, I think it is also correct to say that there is no such things as unmediated or unfiltered revelation. Everything that comes to us comes through our human experience, our human language, and human culture, etc. We see through a glass darkly.

So while I can agree with the idea in theory that "God's instructions are perfect", in practice there is the problem, of course, (and even discussed in General Conference by Uchtdorf), that God’s “declarations” have always been communicated and interpreted by fallible men. This is why it is so important to rely not only on prophetic teachings but also on such doctrinal principles as personal revelation, intellectual study, spiritual study, and the influence of healthy approaches from others who also have our best interests in mind.

Clean Cut said...

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite Mormon authors/bloggers--Jana Riess--and her recent post about Brigham Young and racism.

Referring to prophets, she wrote: "They were human; they were flawed; they were flat-out wrong. They were also prophetic leaders, inspired in many things. I’m going to close with some wise words from the comments on Monday’s post:
'Prophets do not need to be perfect to be prophets. If the Book of Mormon, a canonized book of scripture, can contain “errors of men,” as it says it may contain, why should General Conference be free of any error?'

Clean Cut said...

I've already gone on long enough. As Inigo Montoya famously said "Let me explain. No, there is too much--let me sum up".

I asked a friend of mine about this question of trusting imperfect prophets. I'm going to paraphrase him:

I don't think that trusting the prophets means I am trusting a human being to give me unfiltered or unmediated revelation. I think trust is relational, that is it only makes sense in terms of being in a relationship with another person. We trust someone because they have given us a reason to trust him or her. And that trust can be tested, betrayed, or strengthened. But I can trust that leaders are generally doing the best that they can. I can trust that leaders, while being human, sincerely want to serve others and have the interest of others in mind. I can trust that the prophets feel they are the stewards of the restored church and do not want to lightly change things that they feel were restored by Joseph Smith for a reason. I think Uchtdorf has given us the ability to concede that leaders can make mistakes so we are not trusting them to be perfect:

"And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes. In the title page of the Book of Mormon we read, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” This is the way it has always been and will be until the perfect day when Christ Himself reigns personally upon the earth."


God has chosen to work through the leaders of the church, for whatever reason he has. But I can also believe that God has chosen to work through the body of Christ, the collective members of the Church as well. We can think it very simply as either they can be trusted or they cannot be trusted, but I don't think that is what God is asking us to do.

Within local leadership, I trust that leaders will do what they think is right, but I also feel it is important that we provide leaders with all the information that they need to make informed decisions. Especially, if I am in a counselor role, I believe my duty is to provide the decision makers with all the information and perspectives they need to make informed decisions. It would be folly for me to stay silent and just hope that the leader can read my mind or has the powers of mental telepathy. I vigorously advocate my position before a decision has been reached. When a decision has been reached and I know my perspective was taken into account, I can be more a peace even when they reached a different decision from me. It is easy for me to let it go and give it over to God even if I have a different point of view, because I have discharged my duty. As a counselor, If I stay silent and do not provide my perspective, I'm not helping the decision making process. But I think much of local leadership and local administration is trial and error and people have, do, and will make mistakes as they learn how to serve in various callings. I don't think any human organization has a perfect track record, so if that is the criteria then we should never join any human organization.

Hunter said...

Just another “thanks” for your blog and all your comments, Spence. They continue to be a good source of information and inspiration.