Friday, April 4, 2014

Continuing Revelation--Seers and Craftspeople Part 2

For me, Mormonism is unsettling. I long ago bought in to the proposition that Mormonism encompasses all truth. We do have some amazing truths that are not widely accepted or understood, but the fact that we don't have it all, yet, still bothers me. Mormonism should encompass all truth, but far too often we put up walls that keep some truth out. Modeling my thoughts after Lee Smolin's critique of Science, I offer my critique of Mormonism. At times I use Dr. Smolin's own words. I offer this in hopes that we will truly fulfill our generation's role in furthering the work of Zion and building the kingdom of God on earth.

What is Mormonism?

Mormonism is many things, but among them it is a community striving toward a shared goal--the immortality and eternal life of all. There are a small number of shared practices that Latter-day Saints consider essential on this journey, but Mormonism has resisted any canonization of dogmatic theology. In theory, new revelation will always trump old dogma, and until we are in God's presence, the final word on how to get there hasn't been spoken. In this regard, Mormonism is like science. We are more committed to the goal of exaltation than to any creed or individual prophet. Prophets don't speak the final word, but instead are guides for a particular time and place. If new circumstances or understanding come forth, we expect past prophetic utterance to give way to new light and knowledge. I would propose an ethic I believe many Mormons adhere to, including many of our prophets and general authorities:
  1. If unity on an issue can be arrived at by people of good faith, applying rational argument and spiritual promptings to publicly available evidence--including prophetic utterances--then it must be regarded as settled.
  2. If, on the other hand, rational argument based on the evidence (including revelation), patience, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned do not succeed in bringing people of good faith to unity on an issue, Mormons must allow and even encourage people to draw diverse conclusions based on their personal understanding, experience, and circumstances.
I believe Mormonism has succeeded to the degree it has because of this attitude that we teach correct principles and allow individuals to govern themselves--even if we adhere to this ideal imperfectly. Let us look at some ways we sustain this ideal.
  • We canonize very little. Not even all of Joseph Smith's revelations or greatest sermons have been canonized. Official declarations are made, but are often left to fade into the history of a particular time and place.
  • The great majority of decisions regarding day to day matters and the function of individual members within the church are left to local, lay leaders who change quite frequently. While sometimes constraining guidance is given at the general level, local leaders often have great leeway in its application, and local members are allowed to teach, preach, and decide many things regarding the functioning of aspects of the local congregation.
  • Every member is told to seek personal revelation, and is told that it can and will come. The fact that we attempt to set up hierarchies of validity, or sometimes tell each other that our personal revelations are wrong (the skeptic telling the conservative believer that her feelings were wishful thinking, and not revelation, or the conservative believer telling the radical idealist that his experience of Heavenly Mother wasn't real revelation) has not succeeded in undoing the freedom of thought maintained by this teaching. We must learn to be aware that revelation can be in error, and we must make efforts to avoid and correct such errors, but we must learn to be prophets.
  • Every member recognizes that the goal is building Zion and obtaining eternal life. None of us can do it alone. A particular program may help a group of saints for a time, but when its usefulness wanes, we must be prepared to change and grow. The inspiration of the past will never get us all the way to building Zion, so we must continue to press forward according to the new circumstances and knowledge of the saints.
  • At the same time, each member of the scientific community recognizes that the eventual goal is to establish consensus. A consensus may emerge quickly, or it may take some time. The ultimate judges of scientific work are future members of the community, at a time sufficiently far in the future that they can better evaluate the evidence objectively. While a scientific program may temporarily succeed in gathering adherents, no program, claim, or point of view can succeed in the long run unless it produces sufficient evidence to persuade the skeptics.
  • Membership in the community is open to any human being who desires to come to Christ, and is willing to show that desire through faith, repentance, and baptism. Considerations of status, age, gender, or any other personal characteristic may not play a role in the consideration of a members value to the community. Entry into the discussion of what is required for members of the community to achieve exaltation has further criteria. A member must master certain knowledge of the scriptures and of modern prophetic utterances, and must show a level of preparation to receive spiritual instruction through maintaining a certain degree of moral and ritual behavior in his or her life.
  • While orthodoxies may become established temporarily, the community recognizes that all members of the body of Christ are needed, that practices need individual adaptation, and that an openness to ongoing revelation at all levels of administration is essential for the health of the church.
When people join Mormonism, they give up certain beliefs to which most of us are inclined, to some degree: the need to feel that they are right all the time or the belief that they can be in possession of the absolute truth in this fallen world. In exchange, they receive membership in an ongoing enterprise that over time will achieve what no individual could ever achieve alone. They also receive expert training in the craft of being Mormon, and in most cases learn much more than they ever could on their own. Then, in exchange for their labor expended in the service of Mormonism, the community safeguards a member's right to think any way he or she feels is supported by prophetic utterances and personal revelation.

Mormonism as an ethical and imaginative community

Lee Smolin calls this kind of community, in which membership is defined by adherence to a code of ethics and the practice of service and ritual developed to realize them, an ethical community. . .
". . . some ethical communities exist to preserve old knowledge rather than to discover new truths." Mormonism has the potential to also be an imaginitive community. "This is a community whose ethic and organization incorporates a belief in the inevitability of progress and an openness to the future. The openness leaves room, imaginatively and institutionally, for novelty and surprise. Not only is there a belief that the future will be better, there is an understanding that we can [only imperfectly] forecast how that better future will be reached."

Although the institution of the LDS church gives a successful Mormon many reasons to believe he understands truth and will be exalted, any good Mormon knows "that the minute you succumb to believing that you know more than [the next revelation], you cease to be a [Mormon]." Mormonism is thus both an ethical and an imaginative community.

"What should be abundantly clear from this description is that [differences are] essential for the progress of [Mormonism]." When Mormons decide prematurely that they know the will of the Lord for all time, Mormonism is in danger. This is amply evident in the struggles to change and progress in the modern history of Mormonism--from Joseph teaching that people would fly apart like glass when he tried to reveal something new, to the many who left the church when revelation came to end polygamy.

I believe that enough Latter-day Saints adhere to the ethic of ongoing revelation that progress continues to be made, despite the inclinations of any large organization toward conservative orthodoxies and their attendant wastefulness, and even hurtfulness. Progress must be viewed over time.

There is always room for improvement in how we seek and follow revelation--both personally and publicly. This seems especially true, today, when technology is forcing societal changes on the LDS church at a rate unlike any seen before. You know this is happening when there are great differences of opinion among faithful Latter-day Saints divided largely by age. This is particularly noticeable in questions of women's rights and gender identity. It is not uncommon for a faithful, thoughtful, righteous young LDS to feel that LGBT members should be allowed to marry, or that women should be given priesthood authority, but that until the Prophets speak, they will follow the word of God for today. God must have His reasons to guide His church in this way. This orthodoxy limits the discussion of difficult issues, and limits the questions that can be asked of God in order to obtain new revelation, but it cannot stop discussion or prayer completely.

The exaltation of humanity relies on the possibility of achieving unity in the long term. We must fully experience at-one-ment and build Zion. However, Mormonism progresses because we hang on to that ideal of teaching correct principles and allowing everyone to govern themselves. Information is always incomplete, both when we look at the lives of others and when we attempt to gaze into the heavens. No one can predict with certainty what the Lord will reveal, tomorrow. All we can do is train one another in the crafts of seeking and receiving revelation, and of building Zion. After that, we must trust individuals to follow their best understanding and personal revelation. As long as we continue to seek and serve, Mormonism will eventually succeed.

The task of exaltation will never be finished in this world. "It will always be necessary to fight off the dominance of orthodoxy, fashion, age, and status. There will always be temptations to take the easy way, to sign up with the team that seems to be winning rather than try to understand a problem afresh. At its finest, [Mormonism] takes advantage of our best impulses and desires while protecting us from our worst. The community works in part by harnessing the arrogance and ambition we each in some degree bring to the search. Richard Feynman may have said it best: Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion." Might I say: Mormonism is the organized surety that new revelation will never end?

Seership and the craft of revelation

One thing everyone who cares about Mormonism seems to agree on is that major changes are needed to build Zion. Both those who desire revelations of new doctrines, policies, and practices and those who believe that current doctrines, policies, and practices are largely sufficient, believe that ongoing revelation is essential. We have not arrived. All is not well in Zion. Something big has to happen.

"It goes without saying that people who are good at asking genuinely novel but relevant questions are rare," and that the ability to look at what has been revealed and see any substantial lack in the knowledge that has been given. The fulness has been restored. The skills in receiving revelation of this kind are quite distinct from the workaday skills that are a prerequisite for joining the ranks of LDS leadership. It is one thing to be a craftsperson, highly skilled in receiving daily, personal revelation needed to help individuals and run an organization. It is quite another to be a seer--seeing into the heavens to expand our vision of Zion.

"The distinction does not mean that the seer is not a [faithful, orthoprax Mormon]. The seer must know the subject thoroughly, be able to work with the tools of the trade, and communicate convincingly in its language. Yet the seer need not be [Peter Perfect]. There is only one person I can think of who was both a visionary and the best [Mormon] of his day: [Jesus]; indeed, almost everything about [Jesus] is singular and inexplicable."

"Master craftspeople and seers [love Mormonism] for different reasons." Master craftspeople seek revelation because, for the most part, they have discovered that it leads them to happiness. It reassures them that all is well in the world. It guides them to lovingly serve those around them. They work hard to receive it, but it comes relatively easily to them.

"Seers are very different. They are dreamers." They delve into Mormonism because they have questions about the nature of existence that Sunday School hasn't answered. If they weren't Mormon, they might be seeking fulfillment through meditation, or searching for meaning through secular humanism, or looking for God in monastic service of the poorest of God's children. They may be more universalist in their views, and may question various orthodoxies. It is only to be expected that members of these two groups misunderstand and mistrust each other.

"Of course, some people are mixtures of both. No one makes it through [years of service and leadership] who is not highly competent on the technical side." But the majority of Mormons are craftspeople when it comes to receiving revelation. Seership is actively reserved for only 15 men, and in practice only for one. Yet even he is required to hide, or never use, that gift until he is sustained as the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I believe a revolution is being forced on us. We need a revolution in how Mormonism is practiced and how revelation is sought and received. We need to draw on the long-standing ethic of Mormonism--the aspirations dating from biblical times that all humans will be prophets, and that the testimony of Christ is the spirit of prophecy. We need to find a way to teach our youth to seek revelation, but not just revelation in a box. Not just revelation tightly bounded by current policies, practices, and perceived doctrines, but revelation that reaches out to the worlds of possibilities declared by Joseph Smith.

"I have nothing against people who practice [revelation] as a craft, whose work is based on the mastery of technique." In fact, I love and revere many who do. I believe they have been called and chosen by God to direct His work in the latter days. Their understanding of revelation is what makes normal Mormonism so powerful. "But it is a fantasy to imagine that foundational problems can be solved by technical problem solving within existing theories. It would be nice if this were the case--certainly, we would all have to think [and pray] less, and thinking [and praying are] really hard, even for those who feel compelled to do [them]. But deep, persistent problems are never solved by accident; they are solved only by people who are obsessed with them and set out to solve them directly. These are the seers, and this is why it is so crucial that [Mormonism cultivate them] rather than exclude them."

But who are the seers who will open visions of Zion and exaltation to us? I honestly don't know. Unlike the scientific community, where an alert and open expert like Lee Smolin can identify some likely candidates, I don't even know where to look. There are certainly tens of thousands of faithful, intensely committed Latter-day Saints who are seeking to know the will of heaven. They study their scriptures, pray, attend church, serve in many callings, and in addition study LDS history and seek wisdom out of the best books in many areas of knowledge. Some are so committed to Mormonism that they will stay LDS even if they are marginalized for perhaps believing too much in some idealistic teaching of Joseph Smith. Maybe this is where we will have to look for our seers. In many parts of the world, there are no fifth generation members--and very few second. They have had spiritual witnesses of Mormonism, and are ready to give their souls to it. They know how to live righteously and how to listen to God's promptings, but maybe they don't know all the forms of American Mormonism. Maybe these people need to be placed where they can receive revelations for the entire church. Maybe they will make mistakes, but maybe they will see things from their different cultures that will point our minds to new glories. Maybe our seers are in distant lands.

Why don't we take some risks? Let our scholars share their uncorrelated inspirations in the Ensign--not just obscure Mormon journals. Call young, enthusiastic, and talented members to councils as advisers to the day-to-day decision makers. Maybe they don't yet have the skills to run an organization, or they don't have the time to be bishop or Relief Society president, but they have grown up in worlds we don't fully understand. I can see this at just a 20 year distance from my students, neices, and nephews. Let's give potential seers permission to seek for, and power to act on revelation that may be new or uncomfortable to us. It seems worth the risks, to me. "The payoff could be discovering how [God] works."

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