Praising and Complaining About an Apostle

A few days ago, Elder M. Russell Ballard gave a timely talk to teachers and parents about promoting and sustaining faith in young people.[1] Many welcomed it as a useful and inspired summary of principles which he and others have long advocated.

One thing troubled me, however, as I watched the reaction of Church members who discussed it on social media. And it troubled me because they were members.

The troubling side-show

In almost the next breath, many of those who were publicly applauding his talk’s content soon switched to complaining. Why complaining? Because Elder Ballard had also mentioned the importance of marriage in LDS doctrine and theology, and this troubled some members who are at present single.

Some wished they had not heard this section. One man faulted the apostle for not providing any concrete examples of how a single member could alter this current state of affairs. Others postured that they had merely been thrown a consolation prize of being assured that life would be better in the hereafter. And so on.

I do not deny—as the leaders of the Church have pain at pains not to deny—that being single can be a painful burden, especially in a Church and theology that holds out marriage and parenthood as a divine summit.[2] (Single members sometimes forget, however, that we currently-married members were once single in our turn, and so do know something about that experience.)

And, I realize that if something touches an area of pain for us, we can occasionally “react” rather than think. Yet, I found the display troubling. People actually went to the trouble of putting their reaction down on digital paper, as it were, and spreading it about. That takes some forethought and intent.

Unsurprisingly, those who were excited by the talk seemed to be those who had long believed in or advocated for a similar approach in the Church’s youth curriculum and seminary program. This too is understandable—it can be gratifying when our concerns, intuitions, or inspirations are validated and publicly endorsed by someone with priesthood authority. This not only confirms our personal strivings and our sensitivity to God’s Spirit, but it can smooth the way to implementing them locally when an apostle endorses such an effort.

There was, however, an incredible irony in this display of enthusiastic praise followed by grumbling and complaining. In the first breath, they were praising Elder Ballard’s talk and saying how wonderful it was. But, in the very next breath, they were criticizing a relatively small section of that talk for being either untrue, or unhelpful, or hurtful, or whatever.

A difficult but necessary question

This raises a difficult question, which we might all do well to ask ourselves—when we rejoice in apostolic or prophetic teaching, are we rejoicing because it is apostolic and prophetic, or are we rejoicing because they happen to agree with us?

From what I saw, I fear that in some cases there was a definite slant toward the latter. “Finally,” some seemed to suggest, “an apostle has got it together and said what I’ve long known needed to be said.” This was swiftly followed by, “Now, if only they would get on board on this other issue of how to give (or avoid) counsel about marriage. Then I could have enjoyed the meeting fully. Close, but no cigar.”

In a sense, such apostolic guidance is thus seen as valuable and praiseworthy not because it represents the inspired word of the Lord to members of the Church, and not even because it is true (though those who praised it certainly believed that it was true), but instead because it allows a somewhat Nietzchean power play—apostles have social power and authority, and so that power and authority can be leveraged by me for my purposes to get my ideas ratified.

Put another way, are some not relieved that their intuitions were correct (because they knew that already), but instead happy that their previous certainties can now more easily be implemented?

Three possibilities

It seems to me that there are three possibilities regarding Elder Ballard’s remarks about marriage. These options are:

  1. They are a summary and reaffirmation of inspired prophetic teachings on the subject, acceptably expressed;
  2. They are a summary and reaffirmation of inspired prophetic teachings on the subject, marred by an insensitive delivery or unhelpful approach;
  3. They are mistaken.

Let us consider these in reverse order.

Mistaken?

We certainly hold no doctrine of apostolic or prophetic infallibility in the Church. But, even if we presume that the counsel was mistaken—why would one undermine an apostle who is also advocating a course that we too endorse? After all, if he is mistaken about the marriage issue—why not assume he’s equally mistaken about curriculum? Why undercut the authority I hope to appeal to on the matter of teaching and curriculum?

This looks like an attempt to maintain superiority and control in our own eyes, or others’: we demonstrate how critical and unsparing we are, how well we distinguish truth from error. No one sneaks anything by us!

Or, it’s an effort that reveals the underlying problem—we see ourselves and our beliefs and priorities as normative. Thus, when an apostle agrees with me, he’s right. If he doesn’t, then he’s mistaken or insensitive at best. We’re back to using our endorsement of an apostle’s talk as nothing more than an exercise of social power.

Correct but insensitive?

All the above considerations apply here—if we don’t agree with prophetic infallibility, we believe even less in prophetic stylistic perfection.

If Elder Ballard was correct, but simply poorly phrased, all the less reason to break out the rhetorical knives on Twitter or Facebook. We risk becoming like those who rejected Peter because he had not been to the right schools (Acts 4:13), or Moses because he was slow of speech (Exodus 4:10), or Samuel because he was a Lamanite (Helaman 13), or Jesus because he came from the backwater Nazareth (John 1:46; John 7:52).

We join those who dismiss a prophet because he has an accent, or a speech impediment, or because of the cut of his clothes.

If what he is teaching is true, oughtn’t we to endorse and push it to all—not murmur and fault-find to give others a potential excuse to ignore the truth?

Correct, full stop?

And, finally, if this is the case—and I personally think that it is—we have even less excuse. We might pause and ask, however, whether our desire to find fault or minimize the authority of apostolic counsel reflects fear that we aren’t doing all we can in an area that pains, saddens, and frightens us.

But really, what other purpose is there in prophets and apostles?

If they are merely instruments of social power to enable us to push our own agenda, why bother? Life is too short to waste on a faith that operates that way, the embodiment of all the worst atheist caricatures about religion.

If they are so fallible that I substitute my conviction of my own correctness whenever I disagree—unwilling even to remain quietly questioning while I wait upon the Lord—why have them? You or I could do as well.

But, if they truly are prophets, watchmen on the tower—who see further and better not because of any innate worthiness or merit[3] but principally because of the divine authority given them and in which we ostensibly sustain them—shouldn’t my discomfort at some teaching or phrasing at least give me pause?

Should my first reaction perhaps not be to rush onto Facebook or my blog to air my grievances or cluck my tongue? Even if I don’t need to hear a particular message, am I so sure that many others do not? And, if they do, am I not guilty of a grave sin if I through my murmuring and complaints impair others’ ability to hear it?

Conclusion

In this particular case, I have it easy. I agreed with everything he said. Rejoicing was easy.

But, the day will undoubtedly come when I do not, at least at first blush. (In fact, I’ve had such experiences in the past, and so fully expect I will have them again. There is not, I think, any shame or sin in that. What matters is how we respond.)

This is the danger and difficulty with living oracles, which religions have always striven to tame: you cannot control a live prophet, while dead ones committed to the page can be massaged and finessed. But, it is also the power and necessity of them. As President Eyring noted years ago,

Leo Strauss, in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophies, had it right when he saw that the prophets give us the greatest gift when they tell us truth which does not square with our reason. He said: “True prophets, regardless of whether they predict doom or salvation, predict the unexpected, the humanly unforeseeable. What would not occur to men, left to themselves, to fear or to hope.”[4]

So, I write this now so that the judge of memory may hold me more strictly to account when my own next trial comes in such a matter, as it must for everyone.

ENDNOTES

[1]An Evening With Elder Ballard: How To Achieve Mature, Lasting Conversion to the Gospel,” lds.org (26 February 2016).

[2] I hope to say more about this another time. For one recent example, however, see Dallin H. Oaks and Kirsten M. Oaks, “Trust in Heaven’s Timing,” 146 stake broadcast from Marriot Center, BYU (16 September 2012), reproduced in Ensign (February 2016).

[3] Though I hasten to add I regard them all as people of great worthiness and merit.

[4] Henry B. Eyring, “Faith, Authority, and Scholarship,” in On Becoming a Disciple–Scholar, edited by Henry B. Eyring (Bookcraft, Salt Lake, 1995), 64.

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Was Jesus ‘unchristian’?

I hope they, our children, will not be eccentric. Please, my beloved brethren, teach our children and youth to be humble even in their righteousness. May they never become “holier than thou” or speak their own goodness or outstanding qualities. We remember the two who went up into the temple to pray.

–      Spencer W. Kimball, “What I Hope You Will Teach My Grandchildren and All Others of the Youth of Zion,” (July 1966).

Beware the person who tells you how humble they are, how Christian, or how virtuous.

And, watch out for those who tell people with whom they disagree that they aren’t “doing what Jesus would do.” To be sure, this may well be true, after all.

Then again, who can ever be said to wholly do what Jesus would do? Everyone fails that test and standard. And, to reply by arguing that one really is doing what Jesus would do—even if true—is a losing proposition from the start, since Jesus never felt the need to insist upon his own righteousness.

This is something of a rhetorical nuclear option—when faced with it, one either:

a)      Becomes angry at the charge one is not behaving as a Christian—clearly an unchristian act, and an ironic self-fulfilling prophecy; or

b)      Becomes side-tracked in an effort to calmly demonstrate that the charge is false—again, almost certainly an unchristian response, always a losing battle because of our perpetual inadequacy in the face of Jesus’ perfection, and certainly a distraction from the real issue; or

c)       Refuses to be baited, and presses on with the important truth at issue.

Such a charge is, at any rate, hypocritical. If the one making it is a Christian (or has pretensions to be so) he or she ought to be exceedingly cautious, lest this blade cut him as he wields it.

If he or she is not a Christian, then this makes the critic particularly ill-suited to judge precisely what Jesus would do or require in the situation. Most people—especially most moderns, and particularly most modern non-Christians—have a gentled, somewhat anemic view of Jesus.

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft put it this way:

Why have we reduced him to “meek and gentle Jesus”? Because we have reduced all the virtues to one, being kind; and we measure Jesus by our standards instead of measuring our standards by him. But why have we reduced all the virtues to being kind? Because we have reduced all the goods to one, the one that kindness ministers to: pleasure, comfort, contentment. We have reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals. But why have we reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals? Because we are implicit materialists. Our ethics are always rooted in our metaphysics, and modern ethics is rooted in modern metaphysics, the modern world view, which is the superstition that all that is objectively real is nature, which in turn we have reduced to matter.[1]

And, more often than not, the charge of being “unchristian” will turn around making someone uncomfortable—declaring an act to be wrong, declaring an opinion to be literal and absolute truth (rather than “one perspective among many”), or insisting that someone is mistaken. Such things are just not done in polite company.

Still, rather than this “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” Jesus the Messiah in the Bible and Book of Mormon is both a rebuke and a terror to the complacent and self-satisfied—and so ought to be to us, most of the time. Jesus and his way of life—The Way, as the early old world Christians called it—can really only be understood in the living of it, or trying to do so.

To put the matter more personally: on the one hand, however loyal one judges oneself to be to Jesus, it is difficult to see how such loyalty is a mark of Christian thought if the Jesus so invoked is so domesticated and selectively constructed that he bears little relation to the Bible.[2]

Jesus’ is not a system of philosophy or a set of axioms that we can somehow simply assent to, and therefore grasp in the abstract. “The sweetly-attractive-human-Jesus is a product of 19th century skepticism,” noted C.S. Lewis, “produced by people who were ceasing to believe in His divinity but wanted to keep as much Christianity as they could.”[3] Instead,

…only discipleship—”follow me”—connects beliefs and behavior, focusing on what we are becoming as well as what we are thinking and doing. Thus, discipleship cannot be merely intellectual. Did not Jesus prescribe and describe this convergence by saying, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me?” (Matthew 11:29). Moreover, the deepest development of discipleship occurs only in this particular manner, small though our yokes may be compared to His.[4]

No one, then, who has not sought and borne that yoke can truly speak of what Jesus requires—because, quite frankly, he often requires things we would much rather not, and have hardly dared think. Small wonder we don’t always measure up fully.

And, none who have borne that yoke for even a few paces would then presume to use someone’s inadequacy as a verbal killing stroke.

Besides, Jesus himself was rarely appreciated for what he said. Just because someone does not violently disagree with us does not make us right or Christian—but, if no one is violently disagreeing, we are almost certainly failing to measure up. And, those who disagree are always most likely to be those most concerned with publicly demonstrating and publicly broadcasting their own rectitude, while quick to marginalize those who do not toe “the party line” to their satisfaction. They care what others think, especially those the world regards as important, impressive, or necessary to placate.

As a crowing irony in a life filled with ironies, I suspect that if Jesus were here today, many people would label him as “unchristian.”


[1] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion (Ignatius Press, 1992), 32.

[2] D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), kindle location 799-804.

[3] C.S. Lewis to Mary Neylan, 26 March 1940; cited in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis (HarperOne, 2008), 67; also in Neal A. Maxwell, Men and Women of Christ (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1991), 35; citing Letters of C. S. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, Ltd., 1966), 181.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, Promise of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2001), preamble.

Charity and its vices (with apologies to John Gee)

At BYU, John Gee has some interesting thoughts on charity, which like humility is perhaps among the most difficult virtues to work on directly.

It made me think of C.S. Lewis’ description of those who function day in and day out in an environment mainly bereft of charity. That lack stunts Mark’s (his protagonist) sense of what charity is, but it also leaves him unable to understand other equally spiritual reactions: righteous anger at evil, or a prophet-like indictment of something against which charity ought to bestir him:

It may seem strange to say that Mark, having long lived in a world without charity, had nevertheless very seldom met real anger. Malice in plenty he had encountered, but it all operated by snubs and sneers and stabbing in the back. The forehead and eyes and voice of this elderly man had an effect on him which was stifling and unnerving. At Belbury [Mark’s academic department] one used the words ‘whining’ and ‘yapping’ to describe any opposition which the actions of Belbury aroused in the outer world. And Mark had never had enough imagination to realise what the ‘whining’ would really be like if you met it face to face.

– C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 218.

Lacking the requisite virtues, or even a proper understanding of them, Mark cannot even understand the corresponding vices. Nor can he understand charity’s fruits.

Belbury and Mark may use the same names for their mental states and emotional reactions as the outside world uses for the virtues, but that does not mean that they or he intends or understands the same things thereby.

His sudden confrontation with the real thing, however, is shattering.