In the Church, but not of the Church (part 1)


So, being an Elder means a couple of things in this church. You can confirm people members. You can serve a mission. You can be endowed. And, despite all efforts, you cannot for the life of you manage to bring a lesson manual to church. In our EQ this Sunday there were a total of four manuals (including the teacher). They were over 40 men present. What this means is that you get some sketchy interps of the lesson material and very few people to call the instructor out (because let's be honest, the kind of guy that bring a manual is not going to be a troublemaker). Unless he's me, of course. So, here's the quote in question:

If we had before us every revelation which God ever gave to man; if we had the Book of Enoch; if we had the untranslated plates before us in the English language; if we had the records of the Revelator St. John which are sealed up, and all other revelations, and they were piled up here a hundred feet high, the church and kingdom of God could not grow, in this or any other age of the world, without the living oracles of God.

The teacher dude summarizes this quote (without reading it aloud!) to mean that, without a prophet, men cannot know how to be saved. Now, I'm becoming well-known for my wacky (and probally incorrect/heretical) readings, but I feel like this guy is out to lunch. So I raise my hand and disagree. I read the quote aloud and then say, "it only says that the Kingdom won't grow, it never says you can't know how to be saved." He disagreed. He said something that didn't really answer my question about ordinances and how you need them. His rejoinder was lenghty.

I responded that I have no problem with needing ordinances, that's not what I'm arguing, I'm arguing that you can still know how to be saved. I thought, but did not say for fear of direct attack on my evidence that Catholics actually get what you have to do to be saved: take part in sacraments, live well and rely on God. They get it! (Well, for the most part. There are obviously problems with their system but they're pretty close.) As, in fact, do a lot of groups. I think the Buddhist that really strives to live the Eightfold Path to the best of her ability is on a pretty good track to salvation. Or the Moslem who practices the Five Pillars. Et cetera, et cetera.

Other classmates jumped in now and defended the ordinance argument, which as I said, was not in question. I'm all for ordinances and saving our dead and temples and having problems smoothed out in the Millenium and so on. I guess my point about how those on earth during the apostasty would be screwed out of salvation was taken in a very Mormon sense (they just need ordinances) and not in the sense I intended (that they were capable of attaining large chunks of gospel truth). And really the argument wasn't even about the doctrine/veracity of what was being presented (maybe you can't know salvation's story without a prophet. I doubt it, but give me a quote from the prophet on it and I'll consider it). The argument was over a misreading of the quote.

I think part of the problem is that we no longer have a sense of the "Kingdom of God" like Brother Woodruff would have. For him it was a temporal/spiritual construct that was designed to be actively built and gathered around the oracles of God. Today we talk more about a community of believers, the stakes of Zion and the progression of the work and not so much the Kingdom. We're no longer millenialists like we used to be.

The whole "discussion" bothered me for several reasons:
  • I was right but not recognized as such
  • people got caught up in the ordinance question, though that wasn't the issue
  • people acted like I didn't have a leg to stand on and needed to be told basic gospel principles that weren't really pertinent
  • people were not actually thinking about/engaging in the question, rather they gave canned answers
  • the discussion suggests a lack of faith in the belief that good is found in all systems of belief
  • it highlights the theological certitude that is the unfortunate result of thinking we have all truth

All these reasons add up to the one major reason why I hate Mormon meetings. We, as a people, have become theologically, spiritually and intellectually lazy in our discussion of the Gospel. The majority feels like we have the answers and they cannot change, so the same arguments and reasoning that you learned at age 12 is still valid at 22. We act like there are no legitimate questions to be raised, no issues to discuss, no possible alternate interpretations of a scripture, no areas where we can assert boldy "we don't know", no place for the inspiration of the spirit. We sit in Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society and hear the same lessons we've heard our whole lives. We should have questions, concerns, problems and honest confusion about some of this stuff. The Gospel is simple in application but deep in meaning. We approach it like 8th graders tackling The Scarlet Letter.

Church ought to provide the ideal environment for the doubters, for questioning, for admitting that something simply doesn't make sense to you. But most aren't going to church to learn. They're going to put on a good face and nod at the appropriate times. To build a community of believer (which I am form, though perhaps a larger community that doesn't exclude the doubters). And, in the case of singles wards, to nab a spouse (since marriage is a checkbox on the route to salvation).

These attitudes really, really pisses me off and I'm trying my best to let everyone in my ward know when I have questions, when I'm confused, when something may not be a simple as typically presented. Some people seem to enjoy this. The vast majority, though, just find me uncouth and therefore avoid me for these concerns or comments (like when I shared that testimony and testicle have the same root. There was a visible shudder).

I was already in an irritated mood, though, when this came up. Earlier someone had brought up the idea that "if the prophet says it, do it! then you'll know why." Problems here abound. Briefly: it "presupposes a spiritual laziness displeasing to God" (thanks, Alonzo Gaskill); it does not factor the role of the confirmation of the spirit into the mix; and it suggests that every time you try out council, you'll see why it was given (not so: we cannot see the end from the beginning like our Father in Heaven.) I had also raised my hand to ask why that's good advice since a gift or a prayer without real intent profiteth nothing (Moro. 7.6). The argument here was also silly and fruitless, apart from one guy who suggest a spectrum of intention.

To close this rant, two quotes. The first is the quote that we didn't get to in the EQ lesson but I wish we had. If I were the teacher, here's where the lesson would have centered. Props to WW on the phrasing "intelligent obedience".

It is necessary that all the members of the Church should exercise their powers of reason and reflection, and thoroughly understand why they take the course which God points out. Intelligent obedience on the part of His Saints is desired by our Father in Heaven. He has given us our agency to think and act for ourselves, on our own volition, to obtain a testimony for ourselves from Him concerning the truth of the principles which He teaches, and then be firm and unshaken in the performance of all which is necessary for salvation.

The second comes from Elder Widtsoe's Evidences & Reconciliations. Elder Widtsoe is my new Mormon hero. His life's goal was to show that rationality (i.e. science) and religion could work together. He argues this beautifully through several books, including E&R. This is from the 1960 version, page 16.

It is a paradox that men will gladly devote time every day for many years to learn a science or an art; yet will expect to win a knowledge of the gospel, which comprehends all sciences and arts, through perfunctory glances at books or occasional listening to sermons. The gospel should be studied more intensively than any school or college subject. They who pass opinion on the gospel without having given it intimate and careful study are not lovers of truth, and their opinions are worthless.


Robert said...

Dai I don't think you see, our church is the only church on earth that has the authority to perform those ordinances.
(kidding, btw)

alea said...

robert, we've had this discussion: Catholics disagree and Prostestants don't care. Frankly, I don't know who that argument appeals to.

Katya said...

Earlier someone had brought up the idea that "if the prophet says it, do it! then you'll know why."

Even worse, the week before conference we had a high council whatever dude speaker tell us, among other things, that you should always obey the prophet, even if it means doing the wrong thing, because you'll still be blessed for having followed the prophet. Um, no. I have a conscience for a reason. If I think that something is wrong, I'm going to go with that. (If I think that something is neutral, or I don't understand the point of something, that might be a time to just obey for the sake of obedience. But not if something's wrong. I'm going to be judged for my own actions based on my own knowledge of right and wrong - not on anyone else's.)

Petra said...

I didn't really read the post, but that's okay as long as I feel guilty about it, right?

No, seriously. This is why church is actually more pleasant in a language I don't quite understand: if it's inane, I don't notice, because I'm busy with my electronic dictionary.

(Also, we should move into the same ward sometime and raise Cain.)

alea said...

katya- I agree that we were given a conscience for a reason. and that obeying the prophet despite better judgement is a scary proposition.

petra- are you suggesting I should apply for library jobs in the Bay area?

Ryan McIlvain said...

Was I out of my head (probably, but for the sake of the sentence let's assume I'm being rhetorical) or was I actually "touched" by the latter half of your post? The Widstoe quote especially. Keep up the good work, Dai. You'll convert me yet.

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