Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hard Questioning

I wrote most of this a couple of years ago when I was unsettled by this topic. I still think most of these thoughts are accurate. I'm less invested in the outcomes, since I no longer see myself as having a future of potential influence within the standard structures of the LDS church. Partly because I feel these things less, I'm finally ready to share them and hope that others will recognize these same issues and enact changes that will make Mormonism even better. I plan to keep working to improve the things in the world that God seems to be leading me towards, and I'll keep doing what I can to build Zion.

Questioning and Getting Answers

What is the experience of questioning and getting answers in the LDS church? I really thought about this a lot a couple of years ago after listening to the interview with Hans and Birgitta Mattson on Mormon Stories. How does one learn more than has been taught, or unlearn a mistaken teaching? Few of us doubt the existence of mistakes in past and current LDS teachings, but what is the experience of learning more--or differently--than the current, dominant teachings?

Hans and Birgitta Mattson's experiences and my thoughts

From the experience of Hans Mattson, it is clear that general leadership is extremely busy with administrative functions. They have little time or energy for theological and doctrinal thought that is not related to policy or immediate action. They have to steal that time from their busy days just like the rest of us, and maybe more than most of us. Asking difficult historical or doctrinal questions of general authorities is discouraged by the culture, according to Brother Mattson (and my experience/perception). Most of us just don't have access. This is one of the drawbacks of a very flat structure where nearly everything is done at the local level. The very few general authorities just can't physically do much more than the essentials, and they have decided answering historical and doctrinal or theological questions is not usually essential. Unfortunately, access isn't the only obstacle. Sometimes leaders--at different levels in the heirarchy--actively discourage questioning and searching. Also culturally, we most often say that only one person is allowed to get revelation on troubling theological questions (or at least allowed to express revelations publicly). Unfortunately, this is the same person saddled with the most administrative responsibility. There are also many teachings that we should seek our own inspiration and not rely on the prophet for everything. We need to learn to trust ourselves. It's understandable that many mid-ranking leaders would wish to spare their potentially overburdened superiors from frivolous demands, but all actions have consequences. So what is the fallout if an ordinary member, who will never get to know the Prophet, seeks his or her own answer? This is what I've seen and imagined:
  1. The new answer agrees with something already revealed, and everyone is happy. 
  2. The individual is satisfied to keep a subversive or contrary answer private, and everyone is happy. 
  3. The answer disagrees with current policy and is made public:
    1. It is minor enough, or local leaders are tolerant enough that the breach is allowed to exist.
    2. The person is alienated into leaving the LDS church, or at least decreasing activity.
    3. The person is disciplined into silence or leaving. 
    4. The disagreement with current policy or doctrinal perceptions is not of a kind that leaders and members fully recognize or understand, or it agrees with broader cultural norms so much that it gets ignored or accepted without conscious reflection.
    5. The issue is passed up the line until:
      1. It is stopped and the idea is silenced or disciplined.
      2. The president of the church takes it under consideration and we receive new guidance on the subject that is then instituted as a top down policy. 

Seeking an Official Answer

What does a member do who wants an official answer? This has always seemed reasonable to me, since we are told that we should seek answers from God, that God only speaks to the whole world, officially, through His Prophet, and some of the things we want answers for effect the whole world. How can that member know if an answer is being sought, or if the best questions are being taken to the Lord in prayer? If there are discussions of difficult historical, doctrinal, or social issues going on among church leaders--if revelation is being sought--how can a member know it?
  1. Trust it is happening, or that it isn't really important, because the Lord is at the head of the church.
  2. Infer it from public statements or policy changes, or hear it through rumors of varied quality. 
  3. Some lucky members can know what's being thought about from family and personal connections.
  4. Ask church leaders, but at best receive an acknowledgement your question was noticed, and at worst be sent back to ask powerless local leaders.

Knowledge Accessible to Ordinary Members

Ordinary members, and even leaders not in the privy councils, don't know what is being discussed, how it is being discussed, who is discussing it, what information is available to those discussing, what questions are being asked, what revelation is being sought, etc. They don't know the members of the 12 or other high leaders. What can most members know about church leaders? They may have:
  1. A personal testimony of the calling.
  2. A sense that these are loving, well-intentioned men (when you have any personal contact with them).
  3. Lots of stories of in the moment, personal, or administrative inspiration.
  4. Official church publications.
  5. Public speeches.
  6. Public policy decisions and webpages, sometimes filtered through several layers of governance.
  7. Several, infrequent statements, both scriptural and extra scriptural, that affirm the humanity, frailty, and fallibility of our leaders, and that we err when we expect them to be free from weakness or limitations.
  8. Several, but more frequent, statements that leaders are inspired and following God.
  9. Occasional teachings that God speaks according to our understanding and preparation.
  10. Teachings that we should be seeking and acting on our own revelation.
Many people feel unheard, unrepresented, and even unwelcome within the LDS church. This seems like a problem to me. We aspire to be at one, to take the Gospel to the whole world, and to save all humanity, so when we fall short because of our own choices it seems like a problem.

Projecting Onto Leaders

I'm going to project, now, onto my church leaders. All of them grew up pre-internet. Almost all of them, and perhaps all, grew up in a world where Mormonism wasn't respected. Many governments around the world did not officially recognize the LDS church. They knew people persecuted--truly, legally persecuted--by the country they lived in because they were trying to live their religion. They all understand that the sacred is not to be made public, so they understand keeping secrets. They have seen the fallout of public disagreements on inflammatory issues. I imagine that all these things lead to a bias against openness--a wariness. It's also possible that leaders are nearly as open as ever, but the church has gotten so big that size has effectively closed off the workings of leadership from the average member. Whatever the reasons, leaders keep decision making processes opaque to the vast majority of members. There are real, human dangers to openness. Unfortunately, we are experiencing the real, human dangers of opacity.

The Ideals I Hope For

I believe the ideal is complete transparency. We all struggle to do our parts, just as the Prophet does his, and while we don't flaunt our weaknesses, we don't seek to cover them. We create ways for the voices of the poor and the alienated to be heard, and we become of one heart and one mind.

The reality is, you open up and it's likely someone will slam you. So how can we, as we move in and out of positions of influence in the LDS church, change the institution toward the ideal of at-one-ment without opening it to destruction in this world red in tooth and claw?

I hope we can each and all begin to accept the responsibility to change this Church and Kingdom of God into the society where we are truly at one. We have a great starting place--a vast community where people teach and learn and give. What can we do to make it a place where we are changing hearts towards the vulnerability of Zion? If we want a community of gods--gods who don't have to turn to authority for every answer, because at some point there will be no higher authority or more knowledgeable expert--what must we do?

I think many of the tools are at hand. I also think we will have to use them in unsettling ways for many currently in authority and out--from the bottom to the top. I hope we will get started, anyway.

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