The Mormon’s prophetic existential crisis

You are truly about to enter a realm of Mormon existential horror. I am asking some very difficult questions. Do not take my warning lightly.

You are truly about to enter a realm of Mormon existential horror. I am asking some very difficult questions. Do not take my warning lightly.

Note: This is no way a declaration that I think that the Church is false in anyway. I’m sure people will think I’m ready to go apostate any second but I think that’s the easy way out. I believe there is a way to reconcile the role of prophets in our spiritual, religious lives without compromising our core, doctrinal beliefs.

I have a confession to make.

I hold a really heretical belief according to Mormon orthodoxy. I believe that God still progresses in knowledge.

I think He has a perfect knowledge when it comes to things such as, say, physics or biology or how to redeem mankind. But when it comes to creating spirit children and getting to know them, I do not believe He spins a spirit child out of gossamer thread and then instantly understands that child’s personality. He must watch the child, observe him or her, witness the child grow and react to situations. Only then can he truly say He knows the child.

After all, don’t we profess that damnation is the lack of progress? And if God already knows everything there ever was and everything there ever will be, then he cannot progress in knowledge and thus…God is damned.

Of course, Orson Pratt didn’t think so, and he wrote on this subject many times. He taught that God was omniscient and all knowing. He sided with the teachings found within in Lectures on Faith, where God cannot be fully trusted unless we believe God knows everything already. A compelling argument, for sure, but one that I believe needs qualifying. Because I believe this statement needs qualifying, I can firmly place myself in the heretic camp, at least for this specific subject. I can be orthodox about a lot of things, such as the seriousness of priesthood responsibility or the redemptive power of the Atonement or the deification of Jesus Christ and his mission to exalt man. But in this category, it’s enough proof to burn me at the stake, if you feel inclined to create an inquisition.

Eventually, Brother Pratt’s teachings won out in the infancy of the Church as our theology and doctrine slowly coalesced and solidified into the correlated, packaged lessons we have today. But Orson Pratt had an enemy, one who vehemently disagreed with this idea, one who frequently called him out and told him to reject and abandon the idea that God no longer had to progress in knowledge.

That dissenter’s name was Brigham Young.

Of course, Brigham Young eventually lost. But he didn’t go down without putting up a good fight! Frequently, he called Orson Pratt to toe the line Brigham drew in the sand, and many times Orson Pratt came back and apologized in public for spreading such false teachings, only to go back and write another letter or book or preach a sermon in General Conference teaching it. It infuriated Brigham Young to no end, especially since Brigham Young was, well, the prophet.

Thus, impeccable irony that at the university which bears President Young’s namesake, another fiery apostle by the name of Bruce R. McConkie would outline President Young’s idea of a God who continued to progress in knowledge thusly:

This is false-utterly, totally, and completely. There is not one sliver of truth in it.

We also know that Elder McConkie later apologizes to the Church for teaching that Africans would never receive the priesthood in this life. After the ban lifted, he later returned to the same university and says:

We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.

This brings up an uncomfortable problem, however. When Elder McConkie taught the Church that Africans would never receive the priesthood, was he wrong? And if he was wrong, why would God allow him to be wrong? Is he not an apostle, one who holds the keys of heaven, whose words bind in heaven as he binds on earth? And if Elder McConkie was still right when he taught Africans would never receive the priesthood, when did the truthfulness of that statement change? Elder McConkie himself admits he was wrong; that the new truth and light “erases all thedarkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past.”

How do we know when these people speak for God, and when they are the victims of their own prejudices and socialization?

How do we know when these people speak for God, and when they are the victims of their own prejudices and socialization?

Elder McConkie offers the following remedy for this problem: “All I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet.” But here’s the problem. Brigham Young, apparently, was wrong when he taught that God continued to progress in knowledge. At least, current Church teachings generally reject such an idea. And Brigham Young was, as far as we know, a prophet. But, he was wrong. On a lot of things. So how do we know that what the prophet says is right? And if we are only to believe what the current prophets say, why do we continue to trot out decades-old statements by former prophets and apostles during our theological lessons as if they mean anything? Certainly we believe that they must have some sort of precedent or weight, yet how can we even believe if they continue to be accurate or truthful after receiving more light and knowledge in our day? Must we wait for another prophet to declare its inaccuracy? And if the former statement was wrong when the prophet declares it to be, wasn’t it really wrong the entire time and we as a Church, both institutionally and culturally, refused to challenge falsehood, but merely accepted it because an authority figure said so? Yet, without some kind of ecclesiastical authority, would not the maintenance of theology simply break down into a free market of ideas based upon the societal and cultural whims of the people rather than what God expects of His children at that moment in time, even if it may be difficult or unpopular?

Many members tell us that is exactly why the Church asks us to pray about what the prophets say before we believe it, but if we were frank with ourselves, we know that the Church would also say that if we prayed correctly and asked the right questions, we would fall in line with the current prophet’s teachings. But if that prophet holds the disastrous potential to be inaccurate about some very important issues, what happens if we feel the Spirit tells us that God’s mouthpiece might be speaking out of opinion rather than revelation?

The early Christian Church faced a similar problem with the rogue preacher Montanus. The man, along with the two prophetesses who lived in the desert with him, declared that God spoke to him and told him that the current Christian church was corrupt. So convincing was he that even the hardcore apologetic Tertullian joined his religious group. To combat this idea that the Spirit could talk to anyone, they closed the canon of scripture and declared that in order for revelation to occur, it must occur through the proper channels, that everyone can receive revelation for their personal lives, but that revelation involving the church as a whole body must come through ecclesiastical authority. Of course, this situation sounds similar to the Saints today.

Perpetua and Felicitas, two possible Montanist martyrs.

Perpetua and Felicitas, two possible Montanist martyrs.

Unfortunately, we know what happens when such rigidity occurs. After all, the Book of Mormon narrative begins with a man who believes that the current religious ecclesia was wrong. Lehi fights against the religious authorities, teaches his children to reject their teachings, and eventually separates from the current ecclesia proper. Fleeing into the desert, performing priesthood ordinances without the “proper authority,” Lehi was doing all kinds of stuff totally forbidden and outside of the legitimate hierarchal structure. In the end, we as Mormons declare Lehi and the other “loony” prophets like Jeremiah as right, but how could we have known that in the current situation? How many of us would have left the authoritative structure and fled into the wilderness (either physical or spiritual) with Lehi, turning our backs on the religious ecclesia which we grew up in all of our lives?

We declare that this dispensation of the restored gospel will last until the Second Coming, that our dispensation is special. But are there times when it’s okay to retreat into the spiritual wilderness, away from the ecclesiastical structure that claims legitimacy and primacy in theological matters? Will there ever be a time when, like Lehi, we challenge the current authorities and take our families out into the metaphorical desert? And if such a case occurs, how will we ever know? Did Lehi, from the minute he chose to leave until his death at the shores of a distant, unfamiliar land, ever doubt that he was doing the wrong thing? Did he ever wonder that perhaps, he was simply a lonely, self-exiled heretic who has destroyed any chance for correct spiritual knowledge, salvation, and truth for his family?

These, perhaps more than any other set of questions in my Mormon life, borders on collapsing our theological system into an existential abyss, and I have no easy answers (or, really, answers at all) for such an inquiry. I wish I did. I wish I could rely on the prophets as oracles or arbiters of truth, but it turns out that reality (as always) is a much more complex affair.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Mormon’s prophetic existential crisis

  1. justjillsblog

    I haven’t much to say on this, but I want you to know I really enjoyed reading it and am certainly thinking about it.

  2. I believe that the truth is that our Heavenly Father is still growing/progressing/living. Therefore, so are all of His children, even His chosen prophets, and even His chosen Son, Jesus Christ. The purpose of the Prophet is not, I believe, to dictate what is gospel truth, and what is false, but to oversee the teaching, and sharing of the saving doctrines and ordinances throughout the world. To do this does not require a perfect knowledge of all the most complex questions and theological answers. It only requires the fore-ordination, or calling to the office, and living in accordance with one’s covenants made with God… It is well within the bounds of any person to be right sometimes, and wrong others. It expected that we all, at all times, are praying, and receiving new insights on eternal truths. I do not imagine that any Prophet, nor God would believe or teach that they are beyond learning and growing. Such an idea would contradict (in my opinion) eternal life, the entire purpose for our existence.

  3. My son had me watch a program on the cosmos, online, at Nova (PBS et al) recently (an online archived podcast – there is a series of Six (6) episodes). It was interesting to see the correlation between some theories posited on the program (ate least as possibilities), and how (if they are at all true) would seem to correlate with things like the fore (& back) knowledge of God. As declared, for example, here—

    1 THUS saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, the Great I AM, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity, and all the seraphic hosts of heaven, before the world was made;
    2 The same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes;
    3 I am the same which spake, and the world was made, and all things came by me.

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 38:1 – 3)

    If you are omniscient, but don’t know all things, you’re not really omniscient, are you. Of course, the argument for “surprises” is certainly squelched, isn’t it?

    But, as we find as, for example, when God speaks to Adam and Eve, asking them questions he already knows the answers to, one gets to appreciate (or should) how, apparently, God can discourse with his children who have very limited knowledge, but can act as if the future is open, and there are yet choices to be made (even while knowing what choices will be made)! (Getting my head around this concept took many years—but, I finally did, seeing that, truly, the future IS open, while God still knows the choices we will each ultimately make, all the same!

    Of course, how spirits are “made” is another conundrum (at least for us to try to understand). Time is something that has “beginnings” and “endings”. But, how spirit children are “made” (or modified?) is something we may possibly never know, unless and until we become gods and godesses. For example, this (following) scripture implies that “intelligences” (spirits?) are eternal—

    18 Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.

    (Pearl of Great Price | Abraham 3:18)

    Hence, if God the Father was “destined” (foreknown?) that he would become a god, and, if he has always existed, at least as a spirit, then the expression of him being “god from all eternity to all eternity” holds true, doesn’t it?

    And the same may be so for us, despite our currently being fallible, yet redeemable!

    We read that during the great millennium of peace and rest, that people will not “die” (per se), but will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye”. Was that, is that, perhaps?, how we “become” spirits? Or, might there be a “gestation” period? Don’t know! And I suppose I won’t know, until, and unless, I become a god!?!

    I think that there are indeed many mysteries which are known only to God, as the Book of Mormon informs and reminds us, is definitely true. And, like any prudent parent, he knows which to divulge, which to not divulge, and which to let us muse upon.

    On this issue, I would side with Uncle Brigham (he was/is my 3rd great uncle, or 3rd great grand uncle – he is my mother’s father’s mother’s father’s mother’s younger brother. So someone correct me, please, on how I correctly should state that using ‘greats’ and ‘grands’ etc). But not just because he is family, nor even because he was president of the Church (I had found one statement made by President Joseph Fielding Smith to be completely inaccurate, because, I believe, he did not understand completely a prophecy declared by God through Joseph Smith, though I still hold Joseph Fielding Smith to have been the prophet of God when he was). But because on this issue, versus Orson Pratt, whom I admire in many ways, was correct.

    “Damned” means “stopped in progress”. If God knows everything, past, present, and future, he certainly is not stopped in progress. He progresses, I believe, as he helps us to advance.

    The “fathering” or “parenting” of an eternally existing “intelligence” or “spirit” is the issue that intrigues me (what that expression truly means).

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