Tag Archives: revelation

The revelatory power of Gentiles

Imagine this scenario, if you will:

Somewhere, on the East Coast of the United States, a young, prominent feminist, well respected by her peers and community and considered a good, honorable person, is sitting in the breakfast nook of her Boston home, meditating. She is meditating on how she could heal the bridge between the patriarchal (in a bad way) influences in Western religion and women who seek spirituality within the Christian context but cannot feel like they are full participants in certain denominations. As she is meditating, the Holy Ghost descends upon her and she sees a vision. A man clothed in a white robe appears before her and says, “Your meditations have been heard by God and you will receive your answer. Send word to a man named Thomas S. Monson, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He will tell you what to do.”

At the exact same time, President Monson is sitting in the celestial room of the Salt Lake City temple. He has been fasting for several days now, and in the middle of his prayers, he falls into a type of trance. He sees the heavens open up above him and a strange vision appears before him wherein God commands him to do something He explicitly told the Prophet not to do. President Monson refuses, wanting to stay strictly adherent to the rules. This vision appears three times, each time God commanding President Monson to disobey a previous commandment. After the third time, President Monson puzzles over this when President Uchtdorf, one of his counselors, comes in and tells him someone wants to see him.

President Monson meets with the messenger, who tells him of our stalwart and good feminist, and of her strange request to receive word on what to do. President Monson decides to return with the messenger to Boston and meet this faithful sister who was not of our faith, and when he meets her and finds out what she seeks, President Monson is moved upon by the Holy Ghost and decides that now is the time for women to receive the priesthood. He baptizes the feminist and ordains her to the office of a priest.

This story sounds kind of crazy, huh? And yet, it basically happened 2000 years ago, according to Acts chapter 10. Of course, then, it was the centurion Cornelius, and the prophet at the time was the apostle Peter. Still, this chapter in The Acts of the Apostles presents an interesting conundrum, and that is, a Gentile (someone outside of the faith, even marginalized at that point) not only receives visions and is visited by heavenly messengers, but helps to interpret a vision the head of the Church had received, which results in the historical reversal of what was once considered God-ordained procedure.

Could this happen in our Church today? Theoretically, yes. But is it feasible? That’s for you to decide.

When Peter decided to reverse the current long-standing tradition that Jews and Gentiles not mingle, and instead declared the famous stance that God supposedly takes, specifically that He is no respecter of persons, it was not only a seismic cultural shift wherein this strange Nazarene cult would eventually break away from its parent Judaism and become a world religion and a force to be reckoned with on its own, but it also led to explosive growth in the Church, the charge spearheaded by Paul.

However, it also did not take long for Paul to issue this warning in Romans to those very Gentiles who helped the Church’s ranks swell with larger numbers. Comparing the Gentiles to wild branches grafted into a host tree, Paul warned, “Boast not against the branches…. Thou wilt say then, the branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well: because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Romans 11:18-21).

Paul’s warning and Peter’s experience with Gentiles brings about a good lesson that we as Church members could learn for ourselves. We sometimes as a culture take a combative stance towards anything not Mormon. We forget, like some white Americans do today, that we are all immigrants, and essentially, our religion is a religion of converts. Cornelius is a good example that the world is full of people who, Gentile as they are, can be good people. In fact, they can be good people that have the potential to receive the Holy Ghost as well as we (Acts 10:47) and even spur massive cultural shifts in the Church for our own good.

Be not highminded, but fear — for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he spare not thee.

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The Origin of Standards?

Within every religion lives a tension between authority and personal spirituality. If you veer too much towards the authoritarian side, you have a cult. But if you err too much on just personal spirituality and opinion, you have scrambled, decentralized New Age mumbo-jumbo, not a vibrant religious community. Now, some people like cults (as Creed says in The Office, being a leader is more profitable, but being a member is more fun), and some people really like decentralized New Age stuff, but for most of the people I know, people want a sense of belonging and community, but don’t like it when religious leaders try to tell them what to do with every single aspect of their lives.

Mormonism is no exception when it comes to this tension, which leads to many people trying to define where to draw the line. The recent General Conference tackled this issue in a variety of ways, but of all the talks, I believe Elder Oaks’ talk on “Priesthood lines of communication” and “personal lines of communication” will stand the test of time. Elder Oaks built a model of communication with God that involved two basic lines of communication – Priesthood and personal. Priesthood lines involve how God dictates church-wide changes and instruction. For example, only annointed, faithful leaders have a direct channel to the Priesthood line for changes to their stewardship to prevent any kind of miscommunication or power struggles within the flock. However, for personal situations, circumstances, and instructions, the personal line of communication with God is always open. People can contact God and through the Holy Ghost, they can receive instructions for their own specific lives.

Elder Oaks, of course, presents some caveats. For one, the personal line shouldn’t ever contradict or fight with the Priesthood line. So if God tells the prophet to tell members to say x, you really shouldn’t be getting y. But Elder Oaks also provides some specific instructions to the members not to demand instructions from leaders on every little thing, and also to not abdicate moral decision making to the Brethren. This accomplishes a lot of things – mainly, it forces members to make decisions on their own, but it also (hopefully!) prevents leaders from passing down erroneous, man-made advice as doctrine at the request of members.

This brought up an interesting question to me. What about our “standards”? Are they derived from Priesthood lines or personal lines of communication? My wife says, immediately, “It’s a personal thing.” But what about the For Strength of Youth pamphlet, which encourages members to follow certain standards? Some of the advice is pretty specific, like the (in)famous one pair of earrings only rule. And these standards are most definitely handed down from Priesthood authorities (and most members expect themselves and others to keep those rules).

Others I ask say immediately, “It’s a Priesthood thing.” After all, that’s the whole reason why we have a prophet, right? But then how do we parse Elder Oaks’ talk? What exactly do we have jurisdiction to say that our personal line is more relevant than the Priesthood line (if at all)? The Brethren encourage us to make our own decisions. Are these just empty words, lip service to the concept of agency?

This tension is nothing new; in fact, this last General Conference reeked of it. Despite Elder Oaks telling the members to explicitly not look to the Brethren for specific, individual advice, especially on how to run their families we had:

David M. McConkie of the Sunday School Presidency, who told us that we shouldn’t ask questions that have already been answered in the manuals or scriptures;

Elder Claudio R. M. Costa, who based his talk on a previous talk by Elder Benson, which took a fairly conservative, Priesthood-line-oriented stance on following the prophet (basically, you better if you want to be faithful in any sense of the word);

President Boyd K. Packer, who now infamously warned members to not vote to “legalize immorality”;

and Several other speakers of the Church who warned against, among other things, the “addictive” power of video games (one suggested hiding controllers from the children) and sleepovers, both fairly specific advice.

So where do “standards” come from? We have some pretty official rulings in the Church when it comes to things that require obedience. Faith in God and the Atonement is one thing. Baptism is pretty important. Temple marriage is a huge deal. Church attendance is heavily encouraged. But then we have all of these, for lack of better terminology, “minor” rules, most often refering to dress, how we conduct ourselves, and what various activities are appropriate or not for children. For example, grab a random subset of Mormons and ask them what activities are or are not appropriate for the Sabbath day. You will get a myriad of answers.

Sometimes, we like it that way. After all, personal flexibility is always a good thing when it comes to individual weaknesses and strengths. My wife doesn’t care about earrings or swearing, but she really likes playing video games with her dear husband (as nerdy as it sounds, she feels like our marriage grows closer when I keep her out of danger by healing her in raids), and she hates gore in media (and wishes everyone would stay away from it). That’s just how her spiritual personality operates. And that’s where the trouble comes in. We say the Church should not have to legislate in every little thing. So how come they do, and how come the cultural majority expects us to follow them without question or regard to circumstance? Couldn’t we do away with the rules and stick with our “personal line” interpretation, or shouldn’t we expect our religious community to follow the rules and have specific expectations?

Sometimes, navigating or reconciling the divide seems impossible. But still, we try.

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The Cohab Standards Week

General Conference has come and gone, and all that goodness got me thinking – what exactly do we mean when we talk about “standards?”

Mormons who grew up in the Church know what I mean; every once in a while, the bishopric or some other form of ward leadership will gather the youth together in a fun-filled fireside romp often titled “Standards Night.” Usually, the firesides came in the form of a good old-fashioned pulpit thumpin’ sermon about the length of our skirts, the age of our dating, and the beverages we drink. We talk about all the no-noes in our religion – alcohol, smoking, drugs, immodesty, heavy petting and necking (whatever that means), exclusive dating, the works.

Well, we’re not gonna pound the war drums against texting in church or flip-flops (thank goodness), but for the next week the Cohab will discuss some of the more particular ideas of what standards mean in our Church, inspired by some recent personal experiences and some excellent talks in last General Conference. So without further ado, the schedule:

Where Do Standards Come From? – We’ll open up the interesting question raised by Elder Oaks’ talk about priesthood lines of communication and personal lines of communication. Should we derive standards from personal lines or priesthood lines? Are standards derived as a form of Church administration, or personal worthiness? Is it a mix of both? How can we tell which is which?

The Best Standards Night Ever – My bishop as a youth gave a standards night one month that left everyone rolling in the aisles with tears of laughter. The next month, my bishop announces another standards night which every youth attended, hoping for a repeat performance. Instead, I was bored out of my skull. He never cracked a single joke about drugs and didn’t bring up sex even once. When I mentioned this to my dad, he rebuked my sharply, saying it was the best standards night he’s ever attended. As I grew older, I began to understand why.

Boys will Be Boys – In the same talk, President Gordon B. Hinckley urged young women to only wear one pair of earrings, and for the young men to please, please, pleease pull up our pants and stop wearing them five sizes too big. The next General Conference, speakers talk about boyfriends who break-up with girlfriends who didn’t pull out their extra pair of earrings, but how come we never heard about girlfriends who dumped their boy-toys who refused to stop wearing baggy pants? Is there an unfair advantage for one gender over the other?

Sleep-overs and Video Games Some General Authorities spoke disagreeably about video games and sleep-overs, talking about the general malfeasance inherent in them. But for me, sleep-overs and video games kept me clear out of trouble and squarely in the Gospel. Dare I say, they even helped my testimony from burning completely out. How flexible can standards be before we start our mental gymnastics into apostasy?

Standards, Culture, and Commandments – The Church continues to work eagerly in sending missionaries to China (as does every other proselyting religion). Friends confide in me that because of the presence of our humanitarian missionaries, we already have a large, underground base of support in China, and when the bamboo curtain finally rises, entire swathes of China will baptize overnight. However, even if such rumors are true, we overlook one incredibly important part of Chinese (and most of Asia’s) culture – tea. Where does the Word of Wisdom lie – culture, standards, or commandment? Is there even a difference?

Keep the Flock Safe, Starve out the SinnersWhile I understand the scriptural basis of the practice, denying the Sacrament to those who aren’t “worthy” of it never sat right with me. The Sacrament is a powerful symbol of God’s redemptive and cleansing power. It’s one of the few physical symbols we indulge in as Mormons on a regular basis. What does it say about us when we deny God’s redemptive and cleansing power only after we’ve already become clean? Don’t those who are sick need that power more than the healthy? Do standards prevent us from ministering to the spiritually needy, or do they keep the plague out of the already healthy flock?

As you can see, we’ve got quite the lineup. I hope you stick around for standards week, and bring your copies of the Book of Mormon to place between your partner for the youth dance afterwards!

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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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