Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Church's Cardinal Sin of Blasphemy/Idolatry

There's a well-known Book of Mormon story in which a humble prophet named Abinadi engages alone in a hostile exchange with the corrupt, rich, and powerful institution consisting of King Noah and the religious leaders of his time (Noah's priest's.)  They thought that if Abinadi were a true prophet he'd bring the "glad tidings" that "all is well in Zion" so they could continue to congratulate themselves on the church/culture they had managed to establish for themselves.

But the true "glad tidings" happen to be that because of Jesus Christ we can repent! The grace of Christ--even if suffering must be endured to receive it--truly is amazing! Naturally, those who don't think they have anything of which to repent won't find this message to be one of "glad tidings." It's more likely they'd see the outspoken man crying repentance as being "overly critical" and negative. Far better to simply silence the voice and cast him out--his reputation burned--so they can continue on with their merry lives and the status quo.

Fortunately, the Book of Mormon was meant for our day and should be likened unto ourselves. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the true message of repentance is like a breath of fresh air. But when the simple suggestion that even an apostle can be "wrong" is met with a reaction of "blasphemy," our mortal servant leaders have indeed been elevated into the realm of idolatry. And if we're to learn anything from Abinadi (who didn't escape from his predicament alive), let it be this: Grace is our only hope for escape from this and many of our other problems too.

the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.
"he was detained on charges of blasphemy"

When the top brass of an institution become too sacred to question, the corporate culture stinks. Yet, to many lay members of the church, the fifteen mortal men running the institutional church have apparently become a sacred cow--"above criticism."

*sa·cred cow
an idea, custom, or institution held, especially unreasonably, to be above criticism (with reference to the Hindus' respect for the cow as a sacred animal)

At the beginning of his excellent post, "Living with Fallibility", James Faulconer (a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University and BYU philosophy professor) wrote about how "Mormons have a joke that is so old it has become a cliché: Catholic doctrine is that the pope is infallible, but they don't believe it; Mormon doctrine is that the prophet is fallible, but they don't believe it." The joke works because there's truth to it.

capable of making mistakes or being erroneous.
"experts can be fallible"

(synonyms: error-prone, errant, liable to err, open to error;
imperfect, flawed, weak)

incapable of making mistakes or being wrong.
"doctors are not infallible"
"an infallible sense of timing"
never failing; always effective

(synonyms: unerring, unfailing, faultless, flawless, impeccable, perfect, precise, accurate, meticulous, scrupulous)

We cannot have it both ways. We can't reluctantly acknowledge fallibility yet act as though we should expect infallibility. We can't acknowledge God uses the "weak" things of the earth to do His work (so that we'll put our faith in Him), but continue to act as though we can place our faith in "strong" mortal leaders. These words actually mean something. Unless we invent our own definitions, these ideas are not harmonious. Faulconer goes on to observe that the way Latter-day Saints have traditionally taught about their prophet-leaders has led many to believe in false assumptions that in turn have led to tragic consequences. Sadly, I see those tragic consequences every day. I cannot in good conscience bring myself to look away and ignore them.
Faulconer expresses my own feelings when he shares hope that the new church essays may signify an important change in strategy and gives "hope that they will help Latter-day Saints rethink what it means to recognize authority and to have a living prophet." The blunt problem is, the majority of people don't read the essays, and many of those that do don't allow what they read to change the status quo of their thinking or simply fail to grasp the implications. Notable internet exceptions, notwithstanding (thank you Julie Smith). Faulconer writes:
We have often been guilty of a kind of idolatry of our leaders, implicitly imputing the characteristics of God to them because we thought that is what it meant to be called by God. To my knowledge few of our leaders asked for our idolatry, but we fell into it anyway. Perhaps our new strategy will help us repent.
I can truthfully say that recent interactions with fellow Mormons (online and in person) have convinced me that most Mormons haven't even recognized the need to repent. Many apparently see nothing wrong with this idolatry, nor with the status quo. I sincerely appreciate Jim's thoughtful analysis and feel the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be better off by taking it seriously. But I also feel a sense of chagrin because his voice and others like him will largely go unnoticed. It doesn't appear that we're collectively anxious to rethink and repent.

Tradition resists change. From the lay member who thinks "all is well" to those hard at work at Church headquarters, to the apostle who declares essentially the same thing in general conference ("all is well"/"the Church has never been stronger!") it is clear that not everyone is on the same page with "the new strategy of making our story public even when we find it difficult to explain [to] help prevent the kinds of pain we see some people suffering now", as Faulconer writes.

I submit that if we're okay with Latter-day Saints believing in prophetic infallibility, we should continue to teach that our leaders cannot lead us astray and continue to print Ensign messages and sing primary songs about following the prophet as though that's a sure and safe infallible standard. Until Mormons are collectively ready to face the hard reality and own the actual historical record, we have an uphill battle to help Latter-day Saints rethink and repent.

It would be to our advantage to truly and thoroughly embrace the good news and the bad news of prophetic fallibility, sooner rather than later. Only then can we recognize what Faulconer so eloquently stated:
My hope is that the conversations the recently published materials create will help us learn that being called by God isn't an either/or. It isn't that either the person is called by God and never makes a mistake in their calling or he isn't called by God at all. I hope we will begin to see the falsity of that dichotomy, that we will develop a more mature understanding of our relationship to those who lead us, one in which we neither idolize the prophets nor assume that their humanity means we ought to no longer follow them.
In light of this more "mature understanding", how should we "follow them?" Knowing what we now know about their past track record, how should we "trust" them in the present?  What should it mean to "trust" them in light of our "mature understanding?" We can start by recognizing that priesthood keys do not equate to any degree of holiness or infallibilty. We can still trust our prophet-leaders to be called of God and to receive inspiration in their calling. We can trust them to put our best interests at the forefront, and to even be prophets of God at the rare times when God actually does speak through them as opposed to the times when they simply give us good counsel. But we're not trusting them to be perfect. We're not trusting them to never make mistakes or to not be "wrong." Therefore, we should probably stop acting like they can't. We ought to repent of that notion--that idol of infallible leadership.

It takes hard work to follow prophets because you have to seek personal revelation/inspiration to discern when a prophet is acting as a prophet. Contrary to popular belief, the President of the Church is the president 24/7, but he becomes prophetic only when he becomes prophetic. "Prophet" is not an office--it's a gift. Regardless of whether or not those gifts are exhibited, we sustain 15 men and designate them as the only "prophets" for the entire church. We've become accustomed to constantly referring to Church presidents as "the prophet", and perhaps the semantics have unintentionally contributed to the idolatry. Conflating all-important obedience to principles with unquestioning obedience to persons will also likely lead to idolatryamong many more tragic consequences.

Adam Miller has done an admirable job trying to help us rethink what it means to recognize authority and to have a living prophet and to repent of our idolatry. But how many members of the Church have even heard of Adam Miller? It's nice that the Maxwell Institute has published his work, but the way the Ensign recycled an old CES message and added "Follow the Prophets" as a title to it for the First Presidency January 2015 edition convinces me we still have a ways to go. (It's hard not to sound condescending here, but many unthinking people will continue to see nothing wrong with this, because hey, isn't the Ensign also infallible?!)

Adam Miller:
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.
If the gospel is about God's perfect love (and it is), particularly embodied in Jesus Christ, why in the world do we insist on making this into the church of the prophets? Wasn't Abinadi's point to get the priests to look past the prophets themselves and to land their sights squarely on Christ and His atonement? It has always been so easy for God’s people to misread the scriptures and focus on the lesser law/lesser things. Prophets (like Abinadi who in turn quotes Isaiah to make the point even more explicit) give their lives to get us to remember the central focus of the scriptures is the atonement of Christ--not the authority of the religious leaders!

How we have allowed ourselves to go down this "authority" path so long as though it were so literally essential is beyond me. It completely misses the boat to make the main message about the boat, or the crew of the boat. Rather, the main message should be God's perfect lovebecause God is love, and love fulfills all the laws and the prophets. Since only God is perfect, we can trust the prophet to do his best to seek God's will, but not to never be wrong. Maybe we should have an Ensign message about that.

If I were in charge (thank goodness I'm not!) I'd put a stop to the practice of standing in reverence while leaders enter the room. Even things intended to be respectful can unintentionally be taken too far. But since I'm not in charge (fortunately) I suppose I should just be glad that at least we're not bowing down on the ground before them. Hugh Nibley once wrote: "It is quite inconceivable that the gospel should ever be under condemnation, though the Church has been from time to time. They are not the same thing. The one is a teaching; the other, an organization to foster that teaching."
I have serious reservations about the way the church organization presently fosters gospel teachings. Gospel teachings of following Christ are too frequently substituted for messages of following prophets. I'm not a betting man, but I'd be willing to wager we're still under condemnation. Too many Saints have trouble even making a distinction between the church and the gospel. And too many ecclesiastical leaders have trouble making a distinction between an actual "apostate" and a concerned disciple who prioritizes placing their faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ over their faith in a church organization.

We've allowed ourselves to turn the 24/7 office of "President of the Church" into a synonym for "prophet", even though Joseph Smith taught that "a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such." One could be forgiven for wondering whether the Latter-day Saints have indeed placed an additional mediator between us and God. At times it seems as though it's not enough to follow the Savior--the Mediator between us and the Father. Apparently it's becoming expected that we now make "the prophet" into a mediator between us and the Mediator. We must repent of this idolatry--this cardinal sin of blasphemy.

On the one hand we have these wonderfully nuanced essays that should cause us to re-evaluate our paradigms of what to expect--and what not to expect--from prophets, helping us to "see that prophets don't usually get definitive answers to their questions, and even when the answer is definitive, they don't often, if ever, get definitive directions for how to put into practice what they have been told." On the other hand there are some who clearly want to double down on the old paradigm. How long shall we halt between the two? We can't acknowledge in our historical essays that even our prophet-leaders can be seriously wrong and then continue to spread the message in the Ensign that you don't need to think for yourself, but just do what you're told and you'll be "safe."

This life wasn't meant to be safe--it comes with great risk. Life wasn't meant to be easy, as though God were a GPS system telling us how to avoid the pitfalls and the detours. He doesn't even do that with prophets. He gives them the keys and then trusts them to get the church to safety in one piece without taking over the steering wheel. Every once in awhile the prophets take longer-than-necessary detours or swerve so hard some are made to feel like throwing up. But we're in it for the experience. And we learn most from the hard experiences. If we're wise we'll learn from our mistakes in order to make the trip better in the future. We won't deny nor condemn others for their mistakes, rather we're to "give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest" to us those mistakes and imperfections, so "that [we] may learn to be more wise than [others] have been" (Mormon 9:31.)
While it's not my place to grab the steering wheel (not even God coerces the driver), I still have a responsibility to love and help the driver as best I can. I believe our prophet-leaders are entitled to our sympathy, our support, and our suggestions. We're not lemmings just along for the ride. We're free agents. It would be easier to just sit back and trust the authorities. But we've seen what happens when we go down that path. (And that path starts looking a lot more like Satan's plan than God's plan.)

The easy path is to let someone else do all the thinking for you. It's harder to follow prophets when you have to seek revelation/inspiration for yourself to discern when a prophet is acting as a prophet, discerning if the counsel is inspired and/or applies to your circumstances. If all we do is tell people to sit down and shut up in the proverbial boat, we're no longer expecting people to exercise freedom of the mind and think for themselves, seeking their own spiritual confirmation. Or is the expectation to be told what to do, just obey, and get in line and don't rock the boat? If so, Hugh B. Brown is probably rolling in his grave.

Obviously there's an extreme line somewhere that I wouldn't want to cross in becoming that annoying back-seat driver. I want to always remain loving and respectful, but I feel I have a duty to alert the driver of dangers I may see out my window, especially if the drivers attention is so focused on the road ahead that he doesn't see what the passengers in the back seat may see. Of course it would be extreme if all someone did was ride along in order to criticize your driving. But there's another extreme of actually having an insight that might help the driver out but failing to speak up because of fear it's not your place. And it would be an extreme driver indeed that was too stubborn to listen to suggestions. I believe in trying to navigate the healthy middle ground between the extremes.

Likewise, I sustain the President of the Church. If you don't like the transportation analogies, perhaps you like a musical analogy. The president is like the head violinist in the orchestra. We all have our notes to play but he's in an important seat. I don't pretend he can't flub a note, and I have no desire to constantly criticize, especially when I'm struggling to focus on my own music. I desire for all to feel welcome in the orchestra and to make unique contributions, even in our imperfections. Orchestra's are better when their leadership isn't above receiving feedback from the rest of us. Healthy organizations designate appropriate time and space for feedback (not just conducting occasional surveys) so people can be heard. One place the church might start with is adding a suggestions box somewhere at each stake center, and perhaps at church headquarters too. My first suggestion would be to stop pretending the institutional church can never be "wrong" and thus above sincere apologies.

In my post "On Being Seasick While Staying in the Boat", I write that I don't personally stay onboard this ship because of the crew, and I get very seasick when the voyage is made to feel more about our loyalty to men than our loyalty to Christ:
Joseph Smith once said the people were depending too much on the prophet and "hence were darkened in their minds". Notwithstanding, before long emphasis/focus began to be placed on following the mortal church leaders even more than on following the perfect Savior. Maybe there's a healthy and mindful balance, but I'm pretty sure we're out of balance when it's assumed that by following certain mortals in certain church callings we're automatically following Christ. Autopilot substitution of the former for the latter creates an idol, and some Latter-day Saints turn our prophets into idols without even realizing it. Is it any wonder some of us are getting nauseous? The scriptures warn about trusting in "the arm of the flesh," yet how many equate "trusting LDS priesthood authority" with "trusting God?" 
I can trust that God is perfect, but my trust in prophets is different. I can trust the prophet to have inspiration when acting as a prophet, and I can trust that prophets are doing the best they can in their unique stewardship and have our best interests at heart. But I'm not trusting them to be infallible. The pseudo-doctrine that prophets "can't lead us astray" exists in tension with their expressed fallibility and leads some to mistakenly believe that prophets are perfect in the administration of the things of God. I get seasick when we oversell expectations for prophets, even to the point that some Mormons forget that it's not the (false) fourteen fundamentals of following the prophet that constitute the fundamental principles of our religion, but rather the atonement of Christ.

This isn't to say that I don't respect the crew. They have a unique job and it's not an easy one. I love and sustain them. But I'm not on board because of the crew. Moreover, if the fundamental principle of our religion is the atonement of Jesus Christ, then it's definitely not fundamental that I agree with or even like everything coming from the crew, regardless of how many times I'm told they won't lead the boat "astray". It puzzles me how often that word is used, and yet I'm not convinced we're all on the same page as to what "astray" is even supposed to mean. Some assume this is a "promise" that the ship will never be guided wrong, and some assume it was the Lord who made such a "promise" in the first place. It's clear that we need to work through some tensions that inevitably come from living with fallibility.
If I'm not on board this particular ship because of the crew, can we please stop hearing so many messages about the crew? Can we please hear more messages about Jesus Christ? Other boats do this quite well. If we're humble, perhaps we could learn a thing or two from them. If we even paid more attention to our own history we could learn a thing or two:
"Our inspired prophets sometimes make mistakes
Never blindly follow, caution we must take
It is up to us to know how to discern
In our search for truth we still have much to learn!


Clean Cut said...

Another relevant quote:

"I think that's where, unfortunately, this tension happens with the Church, is that they are prescribing a very set rule, a very set kind of way of going about spirituality, and when people don't resonate with that then they end up feeling like 'Well, I'm the one that's doing something wrong.' Because, of course, the Church is saying 'We're not doing something wrong--this is God--God is never wrong' and so when you're dealing with people or an institution that claims to be speaking on behalf of God, there's really no room for dialogue because God trumps everything else. This is where I see the dialogue breaking down."

Natasha Helfer Parker
Mormon Matters episode 276
"Being heard in today's church"
Minute mark 43:37-44:15

ji said...

I think a person can be simultaneously supportive of and loyal to both the Lord and the Lord's church.

D&C 112:20 and 84:36 guide my thoughts in this matter.

And I always wonder where people live who see church leaders demanding obedience from members. I have seen good men and women doing their best to teach correct principles and build faith. I have heard stories otherwise, but I haven't experienced them.

Tiani said...

Yes, in my opinion, this is the central problem facing the Church today. I get real cognitive dissonance reading the essays and then listening to General Conference emphasize "follow the prophet" over and over again. I was hoping we'd learn something from the essays and start heading in a new direction. I have no problem respecting Church leadership as fallible people doing their best who can receive inspiration and revelation, but I can't follow them "at all times" as "prophets, seers and revelators" who speak for God at all times in their authoritative roles, who by extention lead a bureaucracy that is blessed by the same "infallibility," etc. etc. I had a very hard time with the "Which Way Do You Face?" talk because it twisted the idea of following God instead of the world by making our leaders God. Christ is our Advocate; it seems like it should be desirable for the people to be represented to the prophet, to understand their hearts, their struggles, their perspectives, etc. Not in an effort to change God's mind, but in an effort to show God the love that is had, as servants of God, for our brothers and sisters, and God's children. Those who have love and empathy can better hear the voice of God.

Katie L said...

That passage in Mormon 9 has always intrigued me. 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 this problem which is the idol of infallible leadership.


Clean Cut said...

I appreciate the feedback and the comments. I don't disagree with anything said.

Though I do want to clarify that when I'm talking about criticism I am NOT talking about personal attacks. If that's what someone thinks I mean (as in not showing loyalty to the church) let me clarify. To criticize something means to take something seriously and evaluate it's merits and its shortcomings. If that kind of constructive criticism is seen as "evil speaking", then we simply disagree on semantics.

To be safe, I'll include the sentiments of L. Jackson Newell:

"After further reflection, however, I do agree wholly with one of the points enunciated by Elder Oaks. We should not criticize Church authorities. Per­sonal attacks always diminish the dignity of individual and community life and are never appropriate in government, business, or religion. On the other hand, the respectful and constructive criticism of a leader's ideas or judgments is not only acceptable but necessary for healthy organizational life. In this spirit I will proceed to examine the implications of the increasing calls from LDS leaders for members to follow their counsel, and the escalating actions they are taking against scholars and scholarship."


Smallaxe said...

Authority, in many respects, is our sacred cow, or perhaps our golden calf. It must be domesticated if our religious tradition is to remain an integral part of more members’ lives.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer Napier-Pearce: How does that square with the ongoing doctrine of revelation? That there is a person on earth that is getting divine intervention on a regular basis according to Mormon doctrine.

Fiona Givens: And I think that’s actually one of the cultural fallacies we have. There are a number of ecclesiastical leaders who say that “no, there is no red phone to God actually, we stumble through these decisions on our own. We hope for light.” Patrick talks about this in his books when he quoted Spencer Kimball as saying “I’m a racist and I would have gone to my death defending this policy if something hadn’t happened.” So they are ordinary men and they have their own prejudices and every now and again something radiates through. So if we stop looking at our ecclesiastical leaders as though they were mini-gods, we would do so much better. At the end of the day we are the Church of Christ. We should only follow Christ. Our allegiance and loyalty should only be to Christ, not to intermediaries. Christ was quite firm when he said “do not put your faith in the arm of flesh.” Any flesh. And that includes our ecclesiastical leaders. We’ve gone a little bit wonky from where Christ is. I feel like Christ has been sidelined somewhat and unless we bring him back to the center in our collective life and in our individual lives, this isn’t going to go very well for us.