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?
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.
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.