Apologies for the overly autobiographical nature of recent posts. Today, we are moving into an area that I have very little direct personal experience with, so I might be able to resist the temptation to derail the post into my own life.
As with so many other gospel principles, the idea of prophets and revelation has become more complicated for me than what is presented in the manual. The manual begins by saying,
Many people live in darkness, unsure of God’s will. They believe that the heavens are closed and that people must face the world’s perils alone. How fortunate are the Latter-day Saints! We know that God communicates to the Church through His prophet. … Ancient prophets wore tunics and carried staffs. Modern prophets wear suits and carry briefcases.
On its face, there is a certain logic to this. If you accept the straightforward interpretation of the biblical stories, prophets play a central role in the narrative. The bible is full of people who seem to have some kind of special relationship with God and are called upon to share that knowledge with other people. As a missionary, we were encouraged to draw out this logic: If God has always used this method to communicate with his people, and God is an unchangeable, perfect being, it follows that God would continue to call prophets in our day. Why would He stop speaking to us (through the prophet) at the moment when we need Him most?
The Mormon story is very neat. Our modern prophet is just a continuation of a long line of prophets that stretches back nearly continuously (with some punctuation — notably a 2000 year gap after Christ died) to Adam.
On the one hand…
Mormon experience with modern prophets and prophecy should give us a very healthy perspective on ancient ones. We know how deeply flawed and utterly human Joseph Smith and those who took up the role of leading the Church were and are. We should be able to use our contemporary experience with modern prophets to extrapolate the weakness and limitations of ancient ones. This puts us in a unique position to understand that revelation is never so clear as we sometimes suppose. It is always filtered through very human minds and it is oftentimes hugely misunderstood.
For example, it is pretty safe to say that Joseph Smith had an entirely mistaken set of assumptions about the nature of the Book of Mormon. It is clear from the way that he talked about the book and off-hand ‘revelations’ he would relate that Joseph had a model of Book of Mormon geography that filled the whole western hemisphere (hello Zelph, “the white Lamanite”). In Joseph’s mind, the Book of Mormon was a history of the native people of the Americas. The church has since (quietly) walked back some of these claims, and modern Book of Mormon scholarship seems to have settled on a “limited geography model.” Anthropological and genetic research makes clear that the overwhelming majority of native people in the Americas can trace their heritage back to Asia (rather than the Middle East) many thousands of years ago.
A few more examples? Several of Brigham Young’s more creative theological innovations have been thoroughly repudiated by the Church (Adam-God, blood atonement, racist teachings). There is some evidence that Wiford Woodruff held on to erroneous ideas about the timing of the second coming (which may have helped him compromise on polygamy in 1890). We’ve discussed McConkie’s teachings several times already. Gordon Hinckley was duped by Mark Hoffman with the Salamander letter forgery. All of this should cast considerable doubt on the idea that God directly speaks to prophets in unequivocal terms.
One of my favorite poems by Anis Mojgani puts this well. I’ve copied a few lines below, but Mojgani’s poetry in particular is much better listened to than read. You should really go listen to the whole thing read by the author (here — if you are offended by a little bit of strong language, you should get over it and listen anyway. Once you finish that one go and see this and this and this),
we wish to become one with our Lord
we hear the voices and think we know what they say
is the word of God
i hear this i heard this correctly
so we rise and try to translate this word
with the work
with the heart
but our ears are too small
for our hearts to understand the humming of these sentences inside of us
I love those last lines. We are too small indeed to grasp the whole, but it is the human drive to always try.
One of my favorite films is the adaptation of Camelot for the screen. To me, it is a beautiful story of trying and striving (and ultimately failing) to live up to the ideal. Joseph Smith, in my mind, was a modern Arthur. He had a vision of a society that held everything in common, where friendship was the highest law, and the people were ennobled and empowered to govern themselves. This grand experiment failed time and time again (and Joseph’s own weakness was partly to blame for its failure), but he kept trying and reaching for the unobtainable.
On the other hand…
You’ve probably heard this couplet (which I will probably do some injustice to in my paraphrase), “Catholic doctrine holds that the Pope is infallible, but the Catholics don’t believe it. Mormon doctrine holds that the prophet is fallible, but the Mormons don’t believe it.” It is comforting to think that all we need to do is “follow the prophet,” but blind obedience is never appropriate for mature adults. Joseph (and even Brigham) warned against this kind of passive discipleship.
Unfortunately, institutions have a natural self-preservationist instinct that seems to create a set of messages that are biased in favor of their own interests, and what is “good for the Church” is not always good for the membership (see, for example, the troubling story of Elder Poelman’s talk in the — of all years — 1984 General Conference).
On the other, other hand…
I am also troubled by the seeming lack of substance that comes out of the Conference Center every six months. We get talks on social media, platitudes about kindness, warnings against the dangers of pornography and a laundry list of other first-world problems, and a few anecdotes about President Monson’s great acts of service while he was a bishop. All the while, scores of people are being decapitated in Mexico (where there are hundreds of thousands of members of the Church), the United States continues its worrisome practice of drone strikes across the world, AIDS ravages Africa, millions go without enough to eat, or are cold, or homeless…
This past conference, there was quite a bit of excitement about what amounts to a really modest policy change. While lowering the age for missionary service will undoubtedly be meaningful for thousands of young men and women, it was hardly an earth-shattering revelation. The reaction to this small change seems to be symptomatic of a deeper longing and hunger in the body of the church for something of substance to come over the pulpit.
Our modern prophets with their suits and briefcases seem to be more comfortable as cautious administrators of the institutional Church than the ancient pariahs with staffs and tunics challenging social injustice.
The church is as true as the gospel
This past week in Sunday School, we talked about a verse of scripture in Isaiah (which also appears in the Book of Mormon),
Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes;
The part that struck me when reading this verse was the idea of the “stakes.” Stakes are driven into the earth, they are anchored in the dirt. There is no way to escape the reality of the world. The “gospel” doesn’t exist in the abstract. It can only be what we make of it.