Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Weaknesses of the Leaders and their effect on the doctrine

The hand of prophets found in the divine
I strongly believe that even in the Lord's church, the hand of men is inevitable. It is impossible to work with human tools without them leaving fingerprints on the work of God. Paul, with his flair and education, took a very bold and fiery course that helped steer the church of the first century away from its Jewish roots. Was this good? Bad? Well, he was called of God, and his actions were acceptable to the Lord, despite any shortcomings he may had. More specifically, he was called at that specific time, to utilize his talents and abilities and influence the church for good. The Lord needed him in that calling at that very specific time.

Another example would be Moses. Moses, a self-doubter and poor speaker, was also called of God and led the church of his day from physical bondage into the promised land. He himself never entered into that land himself. His approach, with incredible strictness, may have come in part from his training in the courts of pharaoh, while the practical portion of his ministry (being spiritual, military and political leader to his people, governing in all things for his people) may come from his own life in the desert before becoming a prophet. We do not know for sure, but thinking on this can be instructive.

However much speculation can be put into this topic, it is difficult to really see exactly which parts of the Gospel as given to the Jews are Moses and which parts are God's. Why? Because we really do not have a good view of his personality and very little in the way of contemporary accounts about him. With Paul, there is a bit more knowledge about him available, but even so, there are not multiple contemporary accounts of his life.

Not so with Joseph Smith. He is a man who raised controversy no matter what he did. Many hated him and spouted out vile rhetoric against him and his religion from the beginning. Others proselytized and preached about Joseph and his greatness. As a result, we have a great deal of documentation from both camps about this man. Some essays, books and scholarly papers ridicule and deride him, while others praise his many accomplishments and say little about his weaknesses. Where is the balanced writings about his life? What is the truth? How could so many conflicting statements be made about one man? And how does this affect the doctrine and covenants he revealed?

Leaders as human
The truth is, Joseph was a man. By virtue of that, he made mistakes, sometimes many. In fact, examining the lives of all the prophets, I cannot escape the conclusion that no matter the calling in the Lord's church, no matter the high potential offered by this Mormon theology, there is not any one leader we have ever had who was not merely a man. I am not phrasing this in sexist terms as a comment on the lack of women in leadership roles; that is a different topic altogether. Most of our leaders are men. Being a man is not altogether a bad thing (we believe that God was one at one time), but it does mean one is prone to error and mistakes, self-aggrandizement and self interest, even pride and other mistakes.

That does not mean I believe the leaders of the church, now or in the past, to be insincere or untruthful as they saw the truth. On the contrary, I think specifically that Joseph, the man, was a very sincere person. But by today's standards, he is peculiar. Truthfully, by the standards of his own day, he is still considered peculiar. In point of fact, most prophets run outside the popular track of society.

In Joseph, we have man in recent history claiming to be a prophet and to having visions. Naturally, this is going to be met with skepticism or derision. Because he had frailties and weaknesses, because he even had vices, many doubted his claims, as is their right. But does his humanity invalidate his claims? There are many essays defending the humanity of prophets, and these make a good point. A prophet is not a prophet at all times. There are times when he is just a man. Joseph Smith even said he was only a prophet when he acted like one (as quoted on Jeff Lindsey's excellent defense of leader fallibility).

I believe that very humanity is one of the greatest strengths of a prophet. Humans do not respond as well to those with whom they cannot relate. A perfect person would not gain many converts (Christ himself did not have many converts from his own preaching, but through the work done after his death and resurrection). Humanity is a temporary state that is designed to teach us and see if we can be faithful enough to return to our father in heaven (see Abraham 3:25)

How the humanity of leaders might affect the doctrines and the covenants
Despite the many weaknesses, these men were called to do phenomenal things, things that touch upon the heavens. Human capacity is limited and cannot comprehend all things from the eternities. These imperfect vessels still have to do their jobs, but their own understandings and interpretations creep in to the truth. As I mentioned before with Moses and Paul, we have leaders who have left their fingerprints on the gospel today.

Let's take a hypothetical situation concerning Joseph Smith. What if the Lord told him to create rituals for the temple, based on certain eternal truths and including certain covenants. Furthermore, what if the Lord made this commandment without any specific information as to how to fulfill the task? How do we know that Joseph Smith didn't use some of his knowledge of Masonic rituals (knowledge that came through his brother Hyrum, long before he became a Mason) to construct the temple ceremonies? Apologists will say he did not, that Masons stole from the original ordinances in Solomon's temple. On the other hand, critics say Joseph stole the rituals outright. I take a more moderate view, not the all or nothing approach. Perhaps Joseph did see things that appealed to him about the Masonic rituals and incorporated them somewhat into the ordinances already revealed to him. Perhaps he did this because he saw some truths in Masonic ritual and wanted to utilize and preserve them. However the information got there, the Lord certified it as inspired and of God, and that was the end of the story. They became (and still are) official. They became binding to the saints of his day, and anyone baptized into his church today must also accept these human-influenced yet divine ordinances.

The pattern of human influence found in the scriptures
I believe this is the pattern the Lord follows: sometimes being very specific, and sometimes very directive, leaving the details to the individual. Why? Perhaps to involve his prophets in a meaningful way instead of having mere puppets. Do we have any evidence of this kind of behavior? In the book of Ether, we learn of the brother of Jared, a very righteous man who saw the premortal Christ. He was commanded to make boats and was given very specific instructions as to building them. There was a problem, though. There was no light source, and fire would not work (it would take their air supply and leave them with smoke in their airtight ships). Rather than tell Jared's brother what to do, the Lord said "What will you have me do?" (see Ether 2: 25). The brother of Jared thought and came up with his solution, then came to the Lord and said to touch these stones and make them glow (see Ether 3). He was not commanded in all things, and was a good and faithful servant (see D&C 58:26). I believe this is a pattern the Lord uses with all of us, from his prophets on down to the newest convert or smallest child. If we have the needed faith, we will come up with our own solutions and have the Lord put his stamp of approval upon it, despite its earthly origin and Joseph's inherent weaknesses and failings.

Imperfection does not invalidate callings
I have expressed less than fond feelings for Brigham Young on occasion, but do not hold this against his prophethood. I have said that I don't care for all things Elder McConkie said and did. Again, his weaknesses do not disqualify him from being a called apostle of the Lord. Every man who has led the church has been a human being and therefore weak and imperfect. One mistake many Mormons (and former Mormons) make is saying it is all or nothing, they either are prophets all the time or not at all. They may not put it into such words, but the essence of their argument or doubts come from such closed and erroneous thinking.

These leaders are the chosen vessels of the Lord. While it is considered dangerous to the testimony to dwell on their weaknesses, they do have weaknesses and make mistakes. I don't see this as a problem the church should hide from. In fact, the fact that the church presses forward and continues to help the lives of others, despite the many failings of leaders (and missionaries, and regular members, and so forth), is a testimony that there may be something to this church after all. Why are we shying away from this truth?

Let us be more forthcoming about our leaders. Let our leaders be more forthcoming. I do not mean to brag of their weaknesses, nor to revel in or celebrate them. But not be afraid to admit that they happened. Yes, Joseph Smith Jr. drank alcohol (according to the claims of this page, claiming he was a fallen prophet). Yes, B. H. Roberts had his doubts. Many men left the church after seeing remarkable things (the three witnesses, many of the original apostles, most of the 8 witnesses, etc.), yet the work has continued. The truthfulness of the restoration message has not changed, despite their weaknesses. Let us not forget that.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Scripture reading and listening to the prophet

My wife and I have been listening to the prophet and actually reading the Book of Mormon, with the intent of finishing before the year is out. This has been an interesting experience before. I have read the book over a dozen times and had somewhat burned out on those pages. I even recently (last Christmas, I think) retired my old scriptures, given to me by my parents at age 8. The verses were heavily overlaid by multiple colors and accompanied by scribbled notes in the margins. There have been times when, while reading that set, I was actually impressed at my spiritual insight from previous readings. But alas, I needed a new set. That doesn't mean I got rid of the old set of scriptures. They are still sitting on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust.

The new set is a quad, containing all four major works that Latter-day Saints consider scripture in one binding: the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. I have used them somewhat, but never really broken in the new pages. Most of my Sunday school lesson preparation takes place on my laptop using the online scriptures and GospeLink 2001. I don't even use a lesson manual, instead opting to get the material from the website. I tried once to start going through the Book of Mormon using my new set, but didn't get past early 2nd Nephi.

Kari, on the other hand, has never read the Book of Mormon all the way through. It's not as if she has never read the book, though. She has read various passages, attended seminary while in high school and religion classes at BYU. She tells me she just never got as much out of personal scripture study.

So, my wife and I actually started reading the Book of Mormon together. We take turns reading five verses at a time, out loud. Sometimes, one of us will have comments. Not all comments are spiritual. Sometimes, we chuckle at strange word-choice of Mormon or bizarre behavior from one of the people described in the scriptures. Sometimes, an odd thought only vaguely inspired by what we read will get us on a random path of discussion. Often, I will point out things I have read that support the Book of Mormon's authenticity. Still other times, I will point out things I have read from critics that supposedly disprove the book, and my understanding of those kinds of statements. It has been a good learning experience for both of us. Kari is learning how all those stories fit together. I get a chance to talk out some of the issues, good and bad, that I've seen with the Book of Mormon.

An added bonus has been spending time with my wife. We do not always have time together, considering work (for both of us, depending on the time of year), school, children and church callings, we do not always get enough time with one another. This schedule of reading every day means at least a portion of the day is spent focusing on accomplishing a task together. It's nice. We have both observed that days we forget to read are less smooth. Just like the old seminary answers (i.e. life will be much better if you just read and pray).

One additional benefit of reading the scriptures together is that I notice things I never noticed before, gained insights I had never before supposed could be gained, at least not with as great clarity. For example, over and over, I see evidence that the Lehites (anyone descending from Lehi, whether those in Nephi's or Laman's camp) are not alone in the land. I can't tell if it is a cultural arrogance that they don't overtly talk about the other groups (with the exception of the people of Zarahemla and the Jaradites), or if it is just assumed that the reader will understand. While I'm not prepared to make a detailed list (because I am reading out loud and not taking time to mark or take note or anything), I recall time and again where a person or people are discussed that have no connection with the Nephites or Lamanites, but still someone who belongs in the land.

My working theory is that both the Nephites and Lamanites absorbed into other cultures, perhaps as the ruling classes (as the Nephites did with the people of Zarahemla). Their religions got blended into the local traditions, but the racial/cultural separateness never disappeared completely. I don't have any real evidence supporting this, but I can't help but feel there are more people than we are being explicitly shown.

At any rate, reading the Book of Mormon at a brisk pace means I am able to make connections I wouldn't make at a slower (and more solitary pace). It is definitely a different kind of experience. I'm not sure exactly what the prophet had in mind by wanting all the members of the church to read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year, or why it was so important for this year, but I suppose it doesn't matter. We are doing it and are reaping certain benefits, and that is what following the prophet (as a principle) is all about. Just doing it.

I, however, still like to probe, poke and prod at things until they bleed in an effort to understand. So I haven't just done this out of blind faith. But that's just me.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Teaching in Sunday School and the weakness of leaders

As a Sunday School teacher, I have certain responsibilities. Not all of them are comfortable. Each week, I have several young minds that I must guide and challenge. A certain percentage of their spiritual edification is on my shoulders. I am called to teach them the Truth. But I cannot, by my own nature, just give them the straight lesson from out of the lesson manual. I also do not want to fill their heads with speculative doctrine. I also refuse to water down the gospel for them.

These are just kids. They are 14 and 15 years old. Little life experience and little to challenge their belief system in this land of the saints. Do I challenge them? Well, I try, but in a way that will build their inner strength and make sure they are committed to whatever they choose to believe.

Excuse me. Did you just say"whatever they choose to believe"? How weak and aimless! How ambivalent! But the truth is, I do not tell them what to believe. I present to them what I have learned in a way that hopefully makes sense to them and encourage them to pray and seek the spirit. I answer and encourage their questions. I want them to think about the gospel, not just accept it. Work and struggle through these deep concepts, until they accept them and make them their own, or reject them and choose a different life. I don't think fence-sitting is healthy. If you are going to be in the church, you should be there because you believe (or know, as the case may be). Anyone staying for the wrong reasons is not doing anyone any favors.

This attitude and approach has meant that there have been times when we completely strayed from anything close to the lesson I had prepared, and yet, it was a powerful class experience. And that is the whole point. They are learning.

In my class, I do not teach them questionable doctrine, but perhaps I sometimes border. Today was the lesson on the need for prophets in the church. I focused on how the prophets are human and make mistakes. In so doing, I quoted Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Bruce R. McConkie. I was not at all disrespectful. I wanted them to come away with a sense that no one, not even our leaders, should be set on a pedestal and worshiped or considered perfect. I believe there was one man who was perfect, and his name was Jesus Christ (at least, his anglicized name).

As a child, I used to believe that the prophets were almost perfect, say %95 perfect. I actually thought in terms of percentages. As I understand it now, percentages make no sense in a discussion of perfection, if for no other reason than because even the best of humanity would have a laughably low percentage of perfection.

As an adult, I am more reasonable. I understand that leaders are human beings. They have frailties, biases, weaknesses. Many of them are woefully and inadequately prepared to compassionately deal with the burden of the sins of another person. Many are insensitive. Some turn a blind eye to certain behaviors of friends. Some are overly strict. Some have double standards for men versus women. I have known many of these instances to happen to people I know. It can be frightening to think about.

How bodes this for the church? Well, if I believe at all that these are men (and the occasional woman or two) called of God, I have two choices. Believe that the church has been corrupted or accept that imperfect leaders is a part of the plan. I choose the latter. I believe some of the strength of the church comes from the realization that if it were the church of men, it would have fallen apart years ago with all this untrained and often hypocritical leadership (including missionaries and women's group leaders). But because it is God's church, it still stands, despite the imperfections running rampant.

How do you convey that to 14-year-olds? I use something like a modified Socratic method and walk them through the logic, but of course, I try to invite the spirit to work on them as well. I show them, as best I can, that despite weaknesses, the calling is still to be respected. There are leaders of the church, past and possibly present, with whom I have not agreed. That does not change that they were called of God, according to my belief system.

My belief system has had to become more accommodating, to allow for weakness of others. I used to be very condemning, but have learned I condemned myself much more than anyone else. I have realized that Christ operates on the principle of forgiveness, not just for sins, but for all the weaknesses and frailties we each have. Can I do less than that?

Friday, October 14, 2005

My views on Elder McConkie

My brother (mathoni) and I tend to see many things similarly. However, I notice that as we both mature, our views have become more divergent. In a great many things, I see more conservativism in my opinions than his. None of what I ever say would be for the purpose of criticism or undercutting his ideas. However, there are things upon which I disagree with him. I give this as a preface so all may know that as I continue my blog, I am not condemning my brothers views.

Bruce R. McConkie remains one of my favorite apostles. I am no critic of his, though I will acknowledge that he made some errors. Most well-known is his 1st edition of Mormon Doctrine, a book I have always wished to purchase, but one for which I lack the funds at this period of poverty in my life (okay, it's not really that bad). In this book, numerous things of questionable authenticity were said, including the Catholic Church being the Church of Satan, the unfaithfulness of blacks in the pre-earth life, etc. This link is very informative, and except for the potential user comments, is rather neutral:

Interestingly, some minor changes have been made in different printings of the 2nd edition, of which I have two different copies. Most notably is again the reference to blacks and the priesthood, with regards to the 1979 revelation.

Take note that Elder McConkie was only a Seventy when he first published his book, and took a lot of heat from the First Presidency and the Twelve. His role as an expositor of doctrine was not as authorative as it later became when he was made an Apostle.

Also, it is quite important to read mathoni's blog, wherein is an article by Elder McConkie himself on the humanity of the Church's leaders. They are very mortal, and are subject to making mistakes. I have read other talks of Elder McConkie where he even admits specific mistakes.

Much to Bruce R. McConkie's credit, he knew the Gospel better than anyone I can think of. He studied it to such great depths, unparalleled to my knowledge. He wrote a great many books, gave a large number of sermons, and has increased my faith in so many matters. His final testimony is the most moving I've read and listened to, and I endorse it with all my heart:

His Final Testimony

Bruce R. McConkie was a faulted man of God. I hope one day I can become more like him.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Bruce R. McConkie and the humanity of our leaders

I have long been a critic of Bruce R. McConkie, largely because his Mormon Doctrine has been taken so literally by so many members of the church, when the truth is, it has many errors and problems with it and was supposed to have been revised heavily, but instead only received minor corrections suggested by the Brethren.

Perhaps I have been to hasty. I am not a true critic, but it bothered me how many people held him up to impossible pedestal and felt he should have been the prophet of the Church. Despite my feelings, I have always recognized his strength of testimony. He cannot have been too bad a man, for his eulogy contains a list of many good deeds.

I have felt the powerful effects of his testimony, perhaps more than any other apostle. While on my mission, I prepared a lesson for the investigator Sunday School class (this was Easter of 1995). My companion had asked his parents to send a video copy of Elder McConkie's last testimony (given ten years before, not long before he passed away). I said my humble words, then showed the tape, allowing this apostle to express his testimony in words far stronger than I could use. See the transcript of that talk here. There were few dry eyes in that room, including from people I didn't think would be affected.

Yet now, ten years after that lesson, I complain that Bruce is over-quoted by the saints at large. Tonight, I read the transcript to a talk he gave in 1966, asking if the General Authorities are Human. Not only does he address that question, he does it with humor and candor. Apparently, his public persona was very different from his private one (see this discussion at the Millennial Star blog). This address helped me cope with some of my own issues with the . . . humanity of the brethren. It also helped me remember the good light in which I have held Bruce R. in the past. He also said things I have long believed. Well, it's a good thing I made peace with Bruce, because my son is friends with his great-grandson, David.

He says that all members of the church should receive revelation, not just the Brethren. We are all entitled to have the heavens opened up to us. We should not, I repeat, not rely on the testimony of others, not even him ("him" being Bruce). My comment: we were given brains and capacity to think with said brains. We are to use them and apply all the knowledge we have to come to the truth. Then, after we are done, we pray about it, we keep the commandments, we have faith, we wait patiently for the Lord to answer our prayers, and then we receive our confirmation through the spirit. There is no shortcut.

Want to read this powerful and humorous talk by Elder McConkie? Here is a direct link to a pdf file that has the entire transcript.

Introduction to the this blog

This is a place for me to post my exploration of the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have invited my brother to join me in writing on this blog. We each have our pet interests in the church, and although we were both raised in the church, we both have carefully examined what it means to be a believer in this faith. Prophets and apostles, critics, apologists and splinter groups all have their place in this exploration of the faith.

I want to start by posting a portion of a response I wrote for my LDS message board. It's not the best writing I've done, but it conveys the spirit of this blog.
I've been long pondering something about this. You see, missionaries often claim that the Book of Mormon serves as witness to the truthfulness of the Bible and both testify of Christ. So far so good. Christianity is splintered because they don't have that second testament. Um, wait.

On my mission, I remember a man on the street asking my companion and me, "If the Book of Mormon is supposed to cut through the confusion, then why are there so many Mormon factions?" He had a good point.

I decided that that line of reasoning might work for a new investigator, but there has to be more. The church isn't true just because the Book of Mormon exists, or the RLDS church and all the others would also be true. No, it is the principle of continuing revelation that makes a church true. It is the unbroken authority that makes a church true. The Book of Mormon helps, but is not the only thing. It is the Holy Ghost that confirms which is true. You can't just use the Book of Mormon, because it is not enough. Neither is the Doctrine and Covenants (or Book of Commandments). Again, it is the Holy Ghost that will tell you the truth of all things.