Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Authority (Part 16: Personal and Priesthood Inspiration)
In the October 2010 general conference, Elder Dallin H. Oaks discussed two different lines of communication from the Lord: the personal line of prayer and inspiration through the Holy Spirit and the priesthood line of counsel and direction from institutional authority. Elder Oaks pointed out that both lines are necessary: “We must use both the personal line and the priesthood line in proper balance to achieve the growth that is the purpose of mortal life.”1 But what happens, in an imperfect world, when inspiration coming through the personal line happens to be out of harmony with communication coming through the priesthood line? Often, when this occurs, the individual is in error and needs to reexamine his or her life and the source of the inspiration. But it is also possible for direction through the priesthood channel to be in error. Since priesthood leaders are not infallible, and since the whisperings of the Spirit are often difficult to decipher, this is actually more than a possibility. Let me illustrate with a close-to-home example.
Turning Down Callings
Many years ago my wife received a call from our bishop to serve as ward Primary president. Being a good soldier, she accepted. But immediately afterward she had a very unsettled feeling—call it a stupor of thought, but it was actually more troubling and more focused than a mere stupor. It wasn’t just that she was a young mother with two little children and was feeling overwhelmed. Something more fundamental was amiss. So, after praying about it and talking it over with me, she decided to go back to the bishop and explain her unease. In essence, with a great deal more tact than I possess, she told him she thought his inspiration was faulty and asked for a second opinion. Well, he was a humble man, and he prayed about it, and the next morning he called her and said, “Sister Terry, you’re right. This calling is not for you at this time.” At that time we didn’t know why this had happened, but not many weeks later my wife began a long ordeal that resulted in the birth of our third child—twelve weeks early—and the ensuing roller coaster ride that would have prevented her from fulfilling this calling. A few years later, after life had settled down a bit, the same call came from a different bishop, and she accepted with no feelings of unease.
In contrast to this experience, consider another woman’s story. Her bishop extended to her a calling to write the script and music for a special program celebrating the Relief Society’s birthday. Normally she would have been happy to accept such a calling, but this time she had a dark feeling and felt strongly that she was being prompted to turn the calling down. When she told the bishop what she was feeling, he questioned her faith and berated her for not believing in his right to receive revelation for his ward. She tried to assure him that she was not questioning his right to revelation, but that she seemed to be receiving a revelation as well. A few days later, her father suffered a massive heart attack and was hospitalized for several weeks before passing away. During the same period of time she would have been preparing for the Relief Society program had she accepted the calling, she was instead spending time with her father and then planning his funeral.
So, how do we know when our leaders’ inspiration may be faulty, or their decisions in error? Just the way my wife and this other woman came to know that their callings were not right—by listening to the Spirit and to their own feelings. Most often the counsel and requirements and callings that come to us from our leaders don’t require a great deal of consideration or prayer, but sometimes they do. And in certain situations, we need to be courageous enough to confront them about it, or to respectfully disobey, or even at times to appeal to higher authorities. Many of the participants in the Mountain Meadows Massacre felt a great sense of dismay over what their leaders were asking them to do. But they went against their better instincts. If even a handful of them had stood up for what they felt was right, they could have prevented a terrible tragedy and an embarrassment to the Church that has now plagued us for over 150 years.
I have seen a particular quote a couple of times recently claiming that we will be blessed for following our leaders, even if they are wrong. But I cannot imagine the perpetrators of the massacre at Mountain Meadows earning any special blessings for their obedience. This matter of obedience to authority figures is more complicated than we are often led to believe, and the pressure to conform is very strong in the Church. Thus, although “follow the Brethren” is generally a good rule, we need to understand that it is not a blanket requirement covering every possible situation.
A Culture of Conformity
When I was a young student in a BYU singles ward, I had an elders quorum president who devised an ingenious plan to achieve 100 percent home teaching. He informed us that if we didn’t complete and report our home teaching by the twentieth of each month, he and his counselors would go out and do it for us. As I recall, his tone was somewhat incriminatory as he explained the new program. Now, I’m sure he had nothing but the finest of motives. But it was apparent that the numbers were more important to him than the people. It was also evident that his expectations were not entirely optimistic. The resulting impression was that he was trying to coerce or manipulate us into performing our priesthood duties. As I’ve considered his program for preventing failure in home teaching, I’ve concluded that it had striking similarities to another plan that promised sure success with no possibility for failure—Lucifer’s plan in the premortal existence. This fallen angel may have tried to coerce us to do right, but if we happened to fall short, we still didn’t need to worry—he would have saved us anyway, in our sins.
Our Heavenly Father, by contrast, will almost never infringe upon our free agency—and I this term that has fallen out of favor intentionally, because we are not just agents in the sense that we are responsible to carry out the will of another (our Heavenly Father in this instance); we are free agents. “Agents unto themselves” (D&C 58:28) is the term the Lord used to describe us, and we are free to use our agency to do his will or to thwart it if we so choose. I’ve lived for close to sixty years now, and in those six decades I’ve come to the conclusion that there is virtually nothing more sacred to our Eternal Father than our freedom to choose. Indeed, he is a remarkably hands-off parent, preferring to nudge or entice rather than shove or demand. It appears he is determined to allow us to have our own experiences, live our own lives, face the consequences for our decisions and actions, and earn both our rewards and our punishments. There is undoubtedly a lesson here about the importance of individuality in the eternal scheme of things. And our pains and conflicts and frustrations and sorrows shape us much more effectively than a life of ease and serenity and perpetual pleasure ever could. Consequently, God’s perfect commitment to our free agency also involves huge allowances for us to fail. And it must. If we are not allowed the freedom to fail, we will most certainly fail anyway—at the only thing that really matters, namely, our ultimate goal of becoming like our Lord and Savior.
To our Heavenly Father, individuals are always more important than any measurable organizational success. He doesn’t manage by the numbers. He leads us, as individuals, back into his presence, IF we will follow. This conditional statement brings up the incompatible notions of control and liberality. Some in the Church—primarily those who believe they are managing the Saints to heaven—seek to control not only outcomes but also personal choices. They seek to take the “if” away, and this interferes with free agency. Thus, there exists in the organizational Church great pressure for its members to conform unquestioningly to an approved pattern of both thought and behavior.
Conformity has in many ways replaced individual, intelligent expressions of righteousness in the Church. In a very real sense, organizational pressure to conform has supplanted the simple invitation to follow. Consequently, conformity has not only replaced an appropriate tolerance for failure but in the process has become its own brand of failure. The higher law, which is always open-ended and can be fulfilled in myriad unprescribed ways, is being supplanted by a lesser law, which always focuses on specific minimum requirements.
Although the most visible manifestation of conformity among Latter-day Saints is probably the corporate uniform required explicitly of Church employees at work and implicitly of all priesthood holders at Sunday worship services, other forms of conformity are more troubling. Conformity is ultimately a state of mind, not merely a matter of appearance. Indeed, we seem to have developed a culture of conformity in the Church, a socially reinforced resistance to new or original ideas and patterns that impedes our ability to spontaneously follow the Spirit or express any appreciable degree of individuality. It most certainly impedes our ability to entertain unforeseen possibilities and our willingness to embrace change.
It is interesting to observe that seventy years after J. Golden Kimball’s death, Church members who never heard him speak still love to tell stories about Mormonism’s cussing, coffee-drinking General Authority and still purchase books about him.2 Uncle Golden was, of course, beloved by his contemporaries—after Brigham Young’s, his was the best-attended funeral in Utah Mormondom’s first century—but what is it about this man that still fascinates Latter-day Saints? The answer is obvious. He didn’t fit the devout, restrained pattern of propriety we’ve come to expect of Church leaders at all levels. He was unpredictable, uncontrollable, and impetuous, yet loyal through and through. And we find this extraordinarily refreshing. But we realize with regret that a J. Golden Kimball will never again appear in the Church hierarchy. And soon even the idea that such a man ever did exist in Mormondom will fade away.
Perhaps of greatest concern, the culture of conformity we have nurtured in the Church often reveals itself in the unwillingness—perhaps even the inability—of its members to “think outside the box” and to question or even examine authoritative statements, ill-defined doctrines, and strictly cultural traditions. In contrast to the mental rigidity of many of today’s Saints, Terryl Givens points out that a common activity in the Church in Joseph Smith’s day was the debating of gospel questions such as “Was it, or was it not, the design of Christ to establish His gospel by miracles?” and “Was it necessary for God to reveal Himself to mankind in order for their happiness?”3 Joseph not only encouraged and attended these debates, but he also participated occasionally. In February 1842, the Prophet recorded that he spent an evening attending a debate, adding that “at this time debates were held weekly, and entered into by men of the first talents in the city, young and old, for the purpose of eliciting truth, acquiring knowledge, and improving in public speaking.”4
Today, such debating has revived after a fashion, courtesy of the Internet and the blogosphere, where anonymity provides some protection for participants who may fear Church censure. But this spirit of debate in “eliciting truth” has not spilled over very effectively into our meetings and classes, where the official Church curriculum offers only narrow doctrinal explanations and shallow “discussion” questions for the Saints’ gospel study and teaching opportunities, and it certainly has not attracted the participation of top Church leaders, as in Joseph Smith’s day.
My friend Warner Woodworth suggested almost thirty years ago that BYU students were being molded into the corporate framework “to make them good, loyal servants of power.” He, like Joseph Smith, recognized “a special need for confrontation with alternative ideas” in order to arrive at certain crucial truths. He then told of a visiting Stanford professor who mentioned that “while he observed BYU students to be pleasant individuals, their educations were hampered by a lack of classroom conflict and critical thinking.” According to Woodworth, we need “a certain kind of barefooted, ragamuffin, irreverent spirit of debate. Too many Mormons seem to believe that the glory of God is conformity, not intelligence.”5
How, we might ask—we acolytes of Joseph Smith, the world’s premier questioner and the ultimate nonconformist—how did we ever arrive at such a destination? The answer, I believe, has a great deal to do with how we view authority, how we view our relationship with God, and what we understand about the source of his authority, as discussed in part 14 of this series. This is certainly a topic we ought to spend a lot more time discussing and thinking about.
1. Dallin H. Oaks, “Two Lines of Communication,” Ensign 40, no. 11 (November 2010): 86.
2. See, for instance, Eric A. Eliason, The J. Golden Kimball Stories (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007).
3. Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 80–81.
4. Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 4:513–14.
5. Warner P. Woodworth, “Brave New Bureaucracy,” Dialogue 20, no. 3 (1987): 31.