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.

To judge or not to judge: not much of a question

Justice_scales

I recently noticed a web article on Facebook which explains, in essence, that idea of “Love the sinner, hate the sin” isn’t a good way for Christian to approach such things. Instead, we are supposed to love our neighbor, and hate our own sin.

Now, surely hating our own sins is a good idea. And certainly loving our neighbors is part of the Christian call.

It is not surprising that this approach is superficially appealing. It speaks to the primary “sin” or zeitgeist of the modern, liberal (in the traditional sense of the term, not the politicized variety), secular west. And, that is this: tolerance is the great good, and the only sin that is unpardonable is the sin of intolerance. (I have written about this in detail here.)

Problem #1: Moral Confusion

For starters, though, if this doctrine was really implemented, it leads to moral confusion, if not outright moral paralysis.

If we are only allowed to recognize our own sins, then we become mute in the face of the great evils of the world. I had nothing to do with the murder of six million Jews—thus, under the dictates of “ignore others’ sins,” I’m not either supposed to or required to abhor and resist things like the Holocaust. But, that is absurd.

A double standard?

Now, I’m sure that the author or advocates of this theory don’t really believe the Holocaust or ISIS, or the kidnappings by Boko Haran, or Mao’s murder of millions by famine or Stalin’s in the gulag were of no moral moment; or that we shouldn’t denounce, resist, and even fight and die against such sins and evils.

They simply apply their ideas inconsistently. Thus, they see no irony in denouncing those who notice sin in others—because after all, wouldn’t it then inappropriate for them to point to my supposed sin in recognizing sin in others? Should they be preaching this doctrine at all, save in the chambers of their own hearts? It is logically inconsistent.

But, this doctrine is useful—and thus attractive—if one wishes to silence people who speak against sins that one wants left uncriticized—be it unwarranted divorce, or abortion, or homosexual acts, or whatever.

To speak against these acts is to be intolerant (the great secular sin, remember). So, this “don’t notice others’ sins” claim is a clever method of trying a bit of religious ju-jitsu against the Christian. But, it isn’t likely to be invoked when we are confronted with the sins or evils that the liberal secularist wants to eradicate: like homophobia, or racism, or sexism, or “intolerance.” Those will continue, one suspects, to be fair game for identification. They might even be decried, and those judged guilty of the same might even be persecuted or shamed into silence.

But, either ignoring great evil or selectively focusing only on a certain select class of sins isn’t this doctrine’s only weakness.

Problem #2: Personal evils

Perhaps even more troubling is how this idea eviscerates one of the great beauties and powers of Christianity—the idea that God can liberate us from the effects of others’ sins upon us. This applies not just to the massive, industrial-scale evils of genocide and terror discussed above. It applies to the searing personal ones as well.

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? (Matthew 18:21)

Under the proffered doctrine, one might expect Jesus to say something like, “Peter, you shouldn’t be noticing the sin at all. Hate your own sins, my man.”

But, that isn’t what Jesus says. Instead, he says:

Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:22)

The very idea of forgiveness, the whole doctrine itself, presupposes two things:

  1. The existence and genuine reality of sin and evil; and
  2. The recognition and identification of that sin and evil by the Christian, and the necessity to react to it in a way that will be spiritually helpful, rather than damaging.

But bluntly, one cannot forgive what one does not spot. (I have written elsewhere of the difficulties people encounter when urged to “forgive” before they have counted the cost of a sin upon them.)

Here again, I suspect the author and advocates are not really taking their doctrine fully and seriously. Are we really to tell a victim of rape, or child abuse, or physical violence that they are not to even notice that they have been deeply wounded, violated, and sinned against? One hopes not.

Is someone violates my trust, am I not to have it register? If a sin causes me sorrow, am I to deny the reality of my tears? The beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–12) presuppose the recognition that one has been sinned against—and yet Jesus offers freedom from that. He does not, however, start by a denial that such suffering has occurred, or an insistence that we not notice it. (That, if anything, seems more Buddhist than Christian.)

Only among our own, or up the power structure?

Another related idea is that Jesus only intends a critique of his own religion or people, and then only of what we might call “the power elite.”

This likewise isn’t true. Jesus was quite happy to call Jews to account for sin. He did not reserve that right to himself; he clearly instructed his followers to reject the teachings and acts of others (e.g., Matthew 7:6; 16:6; Mark 8:15), which certainly implies that one will notice, assess, and then reject.

But, he was likewise willing to critique pagans (e.g., Matthew 6:7; 18:17; 20:25).

Other Biblical data

Besides the gospels, there’s a great deal of other data that shows that this stance simply isn’t Christian or biblical in any meaningful sense.

At the very beginning of the Christian era, Peter speaks to a large crowd. Presumably he’s putting into practice something of what he learned from Jesus. And his very first remarks address sin:

Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:

Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain… (Acts 2:22–23)

Shouldn’t Peter just be forgiving and loving them? Apparently not—he is confronting them with their sinful behavior, and even labels it “wicked.”

But, in a key and more profound sense, Peter is forgiving and loving them. It would be unloving not to speak the truth—to ignore or wink at their sin. And, he is pointing them to the source of forgiveness. His own forgiveness matters little for them (though it matters for Peter, of course). They need God’s forgiveness, and so Peter’s invocation of their sin is prelude to an offer to help solve it.

Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.

Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:36–38)

Now, to be sure, they can accept or reject the offer. But, Peter seems duty-bound to make it. And, that offer presupposes the existence of sin. It makes no sense to offer someone the atonement and redemption of Christ if one is unaware that one is a sinner. Notice that some in the crowd “were pricked in their heart”—they had not known (or faced up to) their sin, until Peter called them on it. And, Peter went on at length, saying “Save yourselves from this untoward generation.” In other words, he indicted all of sin. Far from never mentioning sin and simply spreading love blossoms around, Peter mentioned everyone’s sin.

He returns to this theme repeatedly:

But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses….And now, brethren, I [know] that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers. (Acts 3:14–17)

Notice that Peter is not simply calling the power elite to task—he calls everyone, the lowly Jews up to “your rulers.”

Peter later calls Ananias and Sapphira out for lying to the Lord (Acts 5).

Stephen, the first martyr, is pretty clear about sin (Acts 7:40, 51–53) and gets killed for it.

And, don’t get me started on Paul’s writings, or we’ll be here all night.

“Judge not”

It is common, of course, to invoke Jesus’ command to “Judge not, that ye be not judged” in these circumstances. Yet, as we have seen, Jesus at times seems to have encouraged his followers to do some judging, of both ideas and behavior. Furthermore, he encouraged us to follow his example—and the early Christians did so.

Those who invoke this trope tend to ignore (if they know) that elsewhere Jesus explicitly says, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). So, there are contexts and ways in which judgment must be undertaken.

Judge not and judging righteously

So, how might we reconcile these ideas? We are both not to judge, and yet to judge. Was Jesus really that inconsistent? The early Christians did not think so.

I think the best treatment is by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Judge Not and Judging.”

I strongly recommend you consult the entire thing. I offer, in conclusion, only a few highlights:

We must, of course, make judgments every day in the exercise of our moral agency, but we must be careful that our judgments of people are intermediate and not final. Thus, our Savior’s teachings contain many commandments we cannot keep without making intermediate judgments of people: ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6); ‘Beware of false prophets….Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:15-16); and ‘Go ye out from among he wicked’ (D&C 38:42).

We all make judgments in choosing our friends, in choosing how we will spend our time and our money, and, of course, in choosing an eternal companion. Some of these intermediate judgments are surely among those the Savior referred to when he taught that ‘the weightier matters of the law’ include judgment (Matthew 23:23).

I will let Elder Oaks conclude, and again encourage the reader to consult his far better treatment of the issues we’ve raised here:

Let us consider some principles or ingredients that lead to a ‘righteous judgment.’

First of all, a righteous judgment must, by definition, be intermediate. It will refrain from declaring that a person has been assured of exaltation or from dismissing a person as being irrevocably bound for hellfire. It will refrain from declaring that a person has forfeited all opportunity for exaltation or even all opportunity for a useful role in the work of the Lord. The gospel is a gospel of hope, and none of us is authorized to deny the power of the Atonement to bring about a cleansing of individual sins, forgiveness, and a reformation of life on appropriate conditions.

Second, a righteous judgment will be guided by the Spirit of the Lord, not by anger, revenge, jealousy, or self-interest….

Third, to be righteous, an intermediate judgment must be within our stewardship. We should not presume to exercise and act upon judgments that are outside our personal responsibilities….

A fourth principle of a righteous intermediate judgment of a person is that we should, if possible, refrain from judging until we have adequate knowledge of the facts.…

A fifth principle of a righteous intermediate judgment is that whenever possible we will refrain from judging people and only judge situations. This is essential whenever we attempt to act upon different standards than those of others with whom we must associate–at home, at work, or in the community. We can set and act upon high standards for ourselves or our homes without condemning those who do otherwise….

A final ingredient or principle of a righteous judgment is that it will apply righteous standards. If we apply unrighteous standards, our judgment will be unrighteous. By falling short of righteous standards, we place ourselves in jeopardy of being judged by incorrect or unrighteous standards ourselves. The fundamental scripture on the whole subject of not judging contains this warning: ‘For with what judgment je judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again’ (Matthew 7:2; see also 3 Nephi 14:2)….

A standard can be unrighteous because it is too harsh–the consequences are too severe for the gravity of the wrong and the needs of the wrongdoer…. [1]

Conclusion

Can and do people—including and especially Christians—judge unrighteously? Of course.

But, the mere presence of a judgment is not sufficient evidence that such unrighteous judgment has occurred. To make that judgment, ironically, requires the same approach as any judgment. It requires judging.

So, we all must and will make such judgments. We might as well be honest with ourselves that we are making them.

It is either that, moral nihilism, or self-deception.

Jesus hadn’t much patience with the last two options—you might even say he judged them as wanting.

Endnotes

========

[1] Dallin H. Oaks, “Judge Not and Judging,” address given at BYU on 1 March 1998, reproduced in Brigham Young University 1997–98 Speeches; all citations here are from this address unless otherwise noted.

The discipleship of the stressed.

It is easy to be righteous when things are calm and life is good and everything is going smoothly. The test is when there is real trial or temptation, when there is pressure and fatigue, anger and fear, or the possibility of real transgression. Can we be faithful then? That is the question because “Israel, Israel, God is calling.” Such integrity is, of course, the majesty of “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” —right when forgiving and understanding and being generous about your crucifiers is the last thing that anyone less perfect than the Savior of the world would want to do. But we have to try; we have to wish to be strong. Whatever the situation or the provocation or the problem, no true disciple of Christ can “check his religion at the door.”

Jeffrey R. Holland, “Israel, Israel, God Is Calling,” devotional address, January 2012, italics in original.
This is why our tendency to do less well when stressed, tired, worn out, or genuinely wronged is so sobering and telling.

Perhaps at least, we can keep wishing, and not use such extenuating circumstances as excuses. While we should welcome God’s mercy on such points, we ought not to be too merciful with ourselves in advance.

Cafeteria Christians

As General Conference begins, may I be preserved from any desire to be a “Cafeteria Christian.”

Our relationship to living prophets is not one in which their sayings are a smorgasbord from which we may take only that which pleases us. We are to partake of all that is placed before us, including the spinach, and to leave a clean plate!

Neal A. Maxwell, Things As They Really Are (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1978), 74.

The trial of your faith

As we discussed yesterday, there is a growing sense among some that discipleship does not—or should not—demand anything particularly difficult, or at least nothing that involves the loss or sacrifice of a true good.

Those who adopt this stance seem to have not paid attention, either to scripture or to the lives we live daily.

One of the more difficult is responding to things we think are wrong—things which may even be wrong. Too many act as if such things deserve a “pass” or don’t follow the same rules.

[Something] that happens in our lives is named “the trial of your faith.” As long as we live in the Church and in the world the process that’s going on is the trial of our faith. Sometimes we say: “The Brethren did ‘this’ and it tried my faith.” Or we say, “the bishop did ‘this’ and it tried my faith.” Well, maybe it does. That’s fine—that’s what life is all about. One of the great objectives of being in the Church is to see whether we’ll pass something that is named “the trial of our faith” in spite of everything that goes on, that may or may not be what it ought to be. If something ought not be the way it is, that’s sad—that’s just part of life—and we have to survive and do the right thing ourselves in spite of it.

Bruce R. McConkie, “1st Peter,” unpublished lecture transcript, University of Utah Institute, 27 May 1968; cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluation Doctrinal Truth (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005), 325.

The sins and mistakes of others, then–no matter who they are–provide us no excuse, no exception, no relief from the stern demands of discipleship.

Indeed, it is for just such moments that discipleship comes into its own.

Avoiding spiritual gangrene

God refuses to give his children an aspirin for treating the consequences of sin when what we need is surgery. He will refuse to give us a rubdown when what we need are splints or a cast. He is not a silent, indifferent monarch in the sky, nor is he an indulgent grandfather figure who will give his children the irrelevant and incomplete therapy of partial truth. Only a portion of what he knows can we understand; and so much of what he would have us avoid, we must avoid by simple faith in what lies behind his “divine don’t.” This leaves us in a position like that of Adam, who acted in part on faith: “I know not, save the Lord commanded me.” (Moses 5:6.)

 Neal A. Maxwell, “Talk of the Month,” New Era(May 1971).

More and more I am seeing a strange idea. The idea is often present implicitly, but I’m starting to see it stated outright, as a sort of axiom or self-evident point.

That claims is that nothing God will ask of us would make us unhappy, or cause us discomfort, or make us suffer, or ask us to give up something good.

Certainly, nothing God asks will make us unhappy in the long view—but that long view extends beyond death and into the millennial years of the Lord.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” however.

For those who push it, the utility of this point of view is clear, though—one can simply use one’s reaction against a commandment or demand as evidence for whether it comes from God.

With such reasoning, Lehi’s journey in the desert could have been safely discarded. Indeed, Laman and Lemuel did so, complaining years later that but for Lehi’s visionary nature,

it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions. Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy” (1 Nephi 17:20-21, italics added).

Those who so argue will find many with welcoming, itching ears. But, those are not ears that have listened very closely to Jesus’ warnings. Eyes and hands are unarguably good things. Yet, Jesus tells us that even they must be severed and cast from us, on occasion. And, not insignificantly, such warnings come in the context of sexual morality:

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Matthew 5:28–30).

One of the cruelest things people do is assure others that their sins aren’t sins, or that they won’t be regarded as sins for long. This distracts from the steeling of self to do the plucking out, cutting off, and casting away.

Such things will undoubtedly hurt. But, it is a poor physician who assures you that a soothing poultice will do when amputation is the only answer. Gangrene does, eventually, set in.

And when it does, the quack is nowhere to be found.

On bracketing the truth

It is common, in some circles, to hear people talking about “bracketing” truth claims—to lay aside any consideration of whether certain ideas (often with religious implication) are true, and simply talk about the ideas in an entirely secular context. For example, one might discuss the resurrection of Jesus without trying to address the idea of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. Instead, one might focus on what early Christians understood by the claim “Jesus is risen.”

Such an approach can be appropriate, at times.

Unfortunately, those who adopt it have a depressing tendency to declare that their approach is the only legitimate way to do valid scholarship on the topic. Thus, anyone who does not bracket the truth claims or implications of the resurrection is said to obviously be engaged only in polemics, or apologetics, or narrow sectarian discourse unworthy of attention or respect. To challenge such notions in print is seen as boorish and unbecoming. Curiously, this perspective is generally just asserted—not argued with evidence and logic—and generally comes heavily larded with a large dollop of disdain. (I speak, on that front, from some personal experience.)

But, leaving aside the obvious intellectual problems which such a stance raises, there are substantial risks for the Christian disciple, for the covenant Latter-day Saint.

Check your religion at the academy door?

All too often, this type of approach is essentially “checking your religion at the door.” But, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was pretty scathing toward anyone who’d consider that, in any context:

We check our religion at the door”? Lesson number one for the establishment of Zion in the 21st century: You never “check your religion at the door.” Not ever.

My young friends, that kind of discipleship cannot be—it is not discipleship at all. As the prophet Alma has taught the young women of the Church to declare every week in their Young Women theme, we are “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in,” not just some of the time, in a few places, or when our team has a big lead.

“Check your religion at the door”! I was furious (emphasis in original).[1]

It is true that the “at all times” and “in all places” and “in all things” would seem to leave relatively little wiggle room—especially when the subject of one’s work bears directly on that witness of God. I don’t see how a Christian could approach the resurrection neutrally, and I think it would be spiritually dangerous to try, and intellectually self-deceptive to believe one could.

Let Your Faith Show

Elder Russell M. Nelson seems to be of the same mind as Elder Holland, and applied the ideas specifically to political, academic, and intellectual work:

Clinicians, academicians, and politicians are often put to a test of faith. In pursuit of their goals, will their religion show or will it be hidden? Are they tied back to God or to man?

I had such a test decades ago when one of my medical faculty colleagues chastised me for failing to separate my professional knowledge from my religious convictions. He demanded that I not combine the two. How could I do that? Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside.

Whether truth emerges from a scientific laboratory or through revelation, all truth emanates from God. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet I was being asked to hide my faith. I did not comply with my colleague’s request. I let my faith show!

In all professional endeavors, rigorous standards of accuracy are required. Scholars cherish their freedom of expression. But full freedom cannot be experienced if part of one’s knowledge is ruled “out-of-bounds” by edicts of men.[2]

If that’s what he thinks about medicine—a subject relatively untouched by most LDS doctrines—what of fields that touch LDS truth claims more intimately?

Every essay a testimony?

Does this mean, then, that every written work need include a bearing of testimony? Hardly—the audience and venue may or may not make that appropriate. But, C.S. Lewis’ intellectual mentor, George MacDonald, gave a wise caution:

Is every Christian expected to bear witness? One who believes must bear witness. One who sees the truth must live witnessing to it. Is our life then a witnessing to the truth? When contempt is cast on the truth, do we smile? [When the truth is] wronged in our presence do we make no sign that we hold by it?… I do not say we are called upon to dispute and defend [against falsehood] with logic and argument, but we are called upon to show that we are on the other side… The soul that loves the truth and tries to be true will know when to speak and when to be silent. But the true man will never look as if he did not care. We are not bound to say all that we think, but we are bound not even to look [like] what we do not think.[3]

Sadly, too many are so worried that their faith might show, that they end up looking like that which they do not really believe, and do not really think.

This impression is only strengthened when they attack, ridicule, or with a sneer dismiss others who do let their faith show more overtly in their academic work. One wonders if this is to avoid feeling guilty for their own lapses, or if it is part and parcel of assuring others that they really are on the academic, secularized “team.”

“Satan need not get everyone to be like Cain or Judas….He needs only to get able men … to see themselves as sophisticated neutrals.”[4]

Such decisions cannot but have spiritual consequences—what one starts doing merely to avoid making academic waves soon shapes one’s views. That which we defend and advocate—or which we refuse to defend or advocate—affects what we end up believing. This should not surprise us, if we consistently exclude (or actively avoid) spiritual evidence, since such evidence cannot but bear on many questions of ultimate importance:

In our own time, Joseph Smith, the First Vision, and the Book of Mormon constitute stumbling blocks for many—around or over which they cannot get—unless they are meek enough to examine all the evidence at hand, not being exclusionary as a result of accumulated attitudes in a secular society. Humbleness of mind is the initiator of expansiveness of mind (emphasis added).[5]

Compartmentalization and citizenship

Thus, compartmentalization or bracketing has real risks:

The mind can become “hardened in pride” (Daniel 5:20; Habakkuk 1:11). And it can also engage in self-deception, as Korihor finally acknowledged (Alma 30:48–50). The mind can let itself become defensively compartmentalized, a fortress astride the path to faith (emphasis added).[6]

And, some of that risk derives from the “incessant requirements” of an academy jealous of our mental and procedural allegiance:

For the academician in his search for truth and in his efforts for its preservation or dissemination, the admiration and esteem of his peers is both useful and desirable. But these too can be easily corrupted into an inordinate desire for “the praise of men.” Sophistry can come to be preferred to simplicity. The language of scholarship, necessary in its realm, can come to be preferred to the language of faith. Once again, even for the person of faith, the incessant requirements of such associations can come to cloud one’s perspective.[7]

But, if we were to follow the apostles on this point, doesn’t that risk putting one’s academic career or reputation in potential jeopardy? Yes, indeed it may. But, we were warned about such risks:

For one reason, it is unfashionable to be spiritual. A genius possessed of religious faith is sometimes tolerated among colleagues in the business, academic, or political world. His bilingual ability to converse in the language of his professional realm and in the realm of faith is noted but not often applauded.[8]

Still, as Elder Maxwell cautioned years ago:

The orthodox Latter-day Saint scholar should remember that his citizenship is in the Kingdom and that his professional passport takes him abroad into his specialty. It is not the other way around.[9]

Ultimately, if my citizenship is not obvious, do I perhaps have a problem?


 

[1] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Israel, Israel, God Is Calling,” devotional address, January 2012.

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Let Your Faith Show,” general conference, April 2014.

[3] George MacDonald, Creation in Christ (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1976), 142. Elder Holland quoted a portion of this, and replaced “think” with “believe”—I think either or both apply.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, Deposition of a Disciple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 88.

[5] Neal A. Maxwell, Meek and Lowly (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 76.

[6] Neal A. Maxwell, Whom the Lord Loveth: The Journey of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2012), kindle location 813.

[7] Neal A. Maxwell, Sermons Not Spoken (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1985), 10–11.

[8] Sermons Not Spoken, 12.

[9] Deposition of a Disciple, 18.

Is delusional too strong a word?–Part III

Part III: A serious conclusion: What if I have questions?

 

The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve’s statement read, in part:

We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding. We feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from Church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them.

Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.[1]

Kelly, certain that this cannot possibly apply to her and her group, has now declared that this means that:

“Now questions [about women’s ordination] can be asked in every ward and every branch in every place in the world…. The prophet of the church said it’s OK.”[2]

In one of the drier moments of understatement you are likely to see this year, the Tribune then noted, “Few other Mormons read the statement in the same way.”

(Doubtless accurate, except Kelly is not a Mormon anymore, having been excommunicated. More properly, then “Few Mormons read the statement” as she does.)

But, seriously folks….

However, in an effort to help Kelly’s apparent difficulties with either honesty or reading comprehension, I close with the advice which Brother Otterson of Church Public Affairs offered to those who do have genuine questions or concerns about this issue.

Otterson responded directly to the concern that, “There is nowhere for women who don’t feel safe in their wards to have a conversation about some of their negative experiences that isn’t seen as subversive.”

This is a fair and legitimate concern, and I think much of the rather limited success that OW and Kelly have had is due to this type of issue—I think the vast majority of LDS women are not really comfortable with their goals, tone, or approach. But, they are at least saying something, and that can be refreshing to those who genuinely have concerns in this area—often with considerable justification, as Elder Ballard has been telling us for at least two decades.

So, what does Church Public Affairs (and, thus, those to whom it answers) recommend in such cases?

This is a serious question and I think is the kind of discussion that the Brethren welcome as they seek to understand the concerns of the members. My advice is to be patient, and trust in those whom we sustain as apostles and prophets and the revelatory process.

As we have said, most bishops, stake presidents and local leaders do a remarkable job. Sometimes, men and women in wards take offense when counsel is given. And, yes, sometimes we don’t handle things well.

First, local leaders should always be given a chance to listen. If approached prayerfully and sincerely, most will.

Second, every member, whether man or woman, should initiate such an interview with a willingness to take counsel as well as deliver a message.

Third, every ward also has a Relief Society presidency. While matters of personal worthiness must remain a matter between the member and the bishop who is a “common judge,” other matters of personal concern to a woman can be voiced privately to faithful Relief Society Presidency members and other local leaders. Without becoming an advocate, such a confidante could not only offer counsel but could be invited to accompany a sister to see a bishop or a stake president in some circumstances.[3]

Note the recommendations: these are private conversations (not held in media circuses), conducted locally (instead of trying to force events at the general Church level), and they are conducted in a spirit of meekness. We do these things individual to individual, and there is nothing about trying to drum up support or stir resentment or pool our grievances with others, in person or on-line. And so, unsurprisingly, this has not been welcome advice in some quarters.

None of that advice has been taken by OW and Kelly, which sadly—but unsurprisingly—has led to her excommunication.

(Indeed, the only ones who seem surprised at her excommunication seem to be Kelly and her supporters—which again makes me wonder about either delusion or dishonesty.)

The Lord’s way has never been about public spectacle, confrontation, unilateral demands, or posturing.

Instead, sincere members who love each other and the Lord seek only to do his will, and to help each other bear the separate burdens that come to all in different forms.

I trust my readers will be more perceptive and more teachable than Kelly has been. She has had ample opportunity, but seems unreachable.

It almost makes you think she wasn’t actually asking a question at all.


Endnotes

[1] The Council of The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, letter (28 June 2014).

[2]Top Mormon leaders repeat ‘only men’ qualify for priesthood,” Salt Lake Tribune (28 June 2014).

[3] Michael Otterson (Managing Director, Church Public Affairs), “Context missing from discussion about women,” letter (29 May 2014), 3, emphasis and bold added.