Respecting our Elders: on being faithful to the Brethren… Freudian style…
Posted by joespencer on May 18, 2007
Our conversations on the blog, whenever they are the most prolific, are—let us be quite honest here—ultimately neurotic. Since I’m obviously thinking of Freud here, let me explain the point. The neurotic (and remember that Freud says that all “normal” people are neurotic to some degree or another) is defined by repression: there is some kind of trauma that the neurotic has never brought into language. In analysis, the neurotic essentially circles around and around this repressed trauma, always approaching it but unable to bring it directly into language so as to work through it. Analysis thus often goes on for several years while the analyst tries to help the analysand confront that traumatic experience linguistically (the “talking cure”). (Different branches of psychoanalysis, of course, have very different ways of helping the analysand confront the trauma, some far more effective than others obviously.)
So I’d like to diagnose our blog today: we are neurotic, suffering from the inability (or at least the near inability) to articulate a particular trauma, and it is something that makes it difficult for us, often enough, to do what we would like to do here. After nearly six months of watching us free-associate, I think I’m prepared to try to force us to articulate—to symbolize, to bring into language—this trauma, the “fundamental fantasy” that often keeps us from getting down to work. (I hope everyone recognizes that I write all of the above with a smile!) So, here we go.
One more word of explanation should set us on our way. Freud, in a number of his books and in a number of different ways, identified the basic conflict that underlies all neurosis. We are probably all at least vaguely familiar with the idea of the Oedipal conflict. The way Freud articulated this conflict late in his life (in his Civilization and Its Discontents) will be most helpful here. Selfhood (the ego) is born of a conflict between the material drives (flesh) and social demands (spirit): the id and the superego result (in normalcy) in the ego. Another way to make this same point is to say that it is in the natural conflict between the biological fact of my body and the historical fact of institutions that I as myself—I as individual, as psychical—come into being. Since the institutional demands that I sacrifice some of my material drives (or localize/contextualize them), I become a citizen/daughter/member/individual/ego/soul. Neurosis occurs (in an unhealthy way) where one’s relationship to the institutional (the Other) is fully instantiated and yet remains unsound: some kind of unspoken difficulty with the institutional per se needs to be brought into language so that it can be worked out.
Now, to bring this to bear on our many discussions: if any one theme seems to underlie almost everything we say, but is never quite brought out thematically, it is this instantiated yet unsound relationship we (the intellectually inclined saints?—so I’m led in light of the PBS special and its aftermath) have to the institutional as it is manifest in our religion, that is, to the Brethren. There is a very real trauma that remains to be spoken here (let me point out that I think we as a collective whole are neurotic on this point, though individually we may all have dealt with this…), something we are inevitably drawn to but of which we feel we cannot speak directly. We circle around this issue again and again: every post either receives only six or seven comments or is threadjacked by a prolific conversation that works all around this trauma but never articulates it. So: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I blog in the midst of a people of unclean lips, and mine eyes have seen the Brethren, the Heads of the Institutional Church!” Yet I hear the fluttering of seraphic wings: I shall yet speak a name (albeit a name that no one knows but myself)…
Let me be clear from the outset that I think there are two ways of dealing with our collective psychological condition. If in this conflict between our drives and the Brethren we develop a (neurotic) psyche, I think Paul gives us, in 1 Corinthians 15, a curious way out of the whole difficulty: he would invite us to obtain a soma pneumatikon (a body according to spirit/the Spirit, translated “spiritual body”) and thus shed our soma psychikon (a body according to the psyche, translated “natural body”). Though the context might be read to suggest that this shift is to happen only in some distant resurrection, I think it can also be read as something that can happen now. Cf. Romans 12:2, “Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed…” In short, I think a first way out of this entire difficulty is to have the Spirit call us out of our “selves,” out of our ego-tistical existences entirely: if we live as the summoned subject, as the responsible I, etc., then our very neurosis disappears with our selfhood. In other words, charity covereth a multitude of sins.
But I recognize that this first way is perhaps too radical a leap for an entire blog’s writer/readership. So a second way is simply to draw this trauma into language and to deal with it, hopefully normalizing ourselves and allowing ourselves to get on to real work. Let me at least begin to symbolize our difficulty.
So the missionaries were over for dinner last night, and at one point during the conversation, Elder Sorenson, a wonderful young missionary who is going through some major changes in his thinking lately, asked me “So how do you discern between when a prophet speaks as a prophet and when a prophet speaks as a man?” Isn’t this the question we’ve been circling around for months now? So here’s the answer I gave him:
The distinction itself here betrays an important presupposition: we are not free to question the prophet as prophet, but we are free to question the prophet as man. Let me rephrase the presupposition this way: the faithful do not/cannot question the prophet as prophet, but the faithful may/can question the prophet as man. I would like to call the distinction (prophet as prophet versus prophet as man) into question, as well as the presupposition that guides it (the faithful do not question prophets but may question men). But this requires me to explain quite a bit more.
First, I think we need to recognize that there is some equivocation in our talk about prophets. There are what we might call institutional prophets and there are what we might call charismatic prophets. The former are those who are prophets by virtue of their place in the institution of the Church: they are called to be prophets, seers, and revelators, presidents or presiding officers. The latter are prophets by virtue of a gift of the Spirit: they prophesy under the influence of the Spirit as they are guided to do so. I think the distinction drawn in the above two paragraphs is something we really only introduce in trying to think about the former sense of prophet, while I think it is only valid in trying to think about the latter sense of prophet. That is, one who has the gift of prophecy should be taken as a prophet when s/he prophesies in the name of the Lord (given that the Spirit confirms it, etc.), and should be taken as a wo/man when not prophesying in the name of the Lord. But this distinction fails with an institutional prophet because such a prophet stands in that office all the time (it is an institutional office, after all, not an existential prophetic event, that is there in question). In other words: if we understand by “prophet” the institutional office held by, say, an apostle, we are never allowed to take that prophet as a man, but always as a prophet. By definition.
But if I have here already called the distinction between a prophet as prophet and a prophet as man into question, I would like to do so more carefully by calling the presupposition beneath it into question, the presupposition that the faithful can question men but not prophets. Already we can say (if we follow the presupposition unquestioningly) that if we can call men into question but not prophets, then we are—by definition, I think—never to call institutional prophets into question (or at least, we cannot do so and remain faithful, according to the presupposition). And this logic would lead to a very common way of thinking in the Church: whatever the Brethren have said must be quite simply accepted (and probably not read into, thought about, or taken up critically: just accepted, followed, obeyed). But I think there is a problem with the presupposition itself, and for that reason, I think there is something wrong with the conclusion so often drawn.
I introduced into the presupposition the word “faithful,” and I did for a very particular reason: we need to ask about the nature of faithfulness. To be faithful does not at all mean to be unquestioning: to be faithful means to take seriously. For example, if I am faithful to Plato, I take his words with the utmost seriousness, giving myself to the rich complexity of his texts. To be unfaithful to Plato is to read him passingly, to ignore details, context, implications, evidences of thought, etc. I have to recognize a question as a question; I have to look at which character in the dialogue makes the statement; I have to think about the nature of myth before I interpret his myths; I have to recognize irony and humor; I have to laugh when he does, mourn when he does, etc. In like manner, to be faithful to the scriptures does not mean to read them regularly, but to take them seriously: to recognize when the Hebrew or Greek helps me out; to catch allusions; to pay attention to the historical circumstances and context; to go into the documentary sources behind the text; to recognize who is speaking and for what reason; to realize that different authors have different theologies, etc. To do any less is to be, ultimately, unfaithful to the scriptures.
Likewise, I think faithfulness to the Brethren can be thought along the same lines. To be faithful is to take them seriously. I must take Elder McConkie seriously, even if I am reading Mormon Doctrine. So I have to look at the historical circumstances surrounding his writing it; I have to look quite carefully at what he is saying; I have to pay attention to the details of his language; I have to recognize when he drawing on the scriptures and how he is doing so; I have to look at influences of other thinkers in his writing; I have to think of his background in law; I have to think about the audience he intended, etc. Someone who reads Mormon Doctrine rather quickly and decides that all s/he has read is obviously “true doctrine” without thinking about these kinds of questions has not been faithful to Elder McConkie at all! S/he has been precisely unfaithful. I think the same goes for everything the Brethren say: what is the audience? what are the scriptures being thought of/interpreted here? what political situations might have been important here? what was going on in this authority’s life at the time? what philosophies of men might have influenced this person? what background does he have? etc.
If we rethink the nature of faithfulness along these lines, I think it radically changes the way we approach faithfulness to the Brethren. We should interpret a statement made by a current apostle during General Conference today (with the acknowledged worldwide audience, members and non-members alike) very differently from something said by Brigham Young in the 1850’s (with only saints before him). We should interpret a word from Joseph Smith that was written down second hand during a meeting in a radically different way from the way in which we interpret a statement made by Spencer W. Kimball in a written, edited, and published book. And so forth.
The presupposition mentioned above, then, is wrong: we are not faithful when we “simply” accept unquestioningly what a prophet says; in fact, I would suggest that we are unfaithful in doing so (though we might not “rock the boat”). Now, let me clarify that we certainly cross the bounds of faithfulness when we speak ill of the Brethren in public situations: a faithful wife does not complain about her husband to her friends, but goes directly to him; we do not publish books and articles about where the Brethren have gone wrong, but go directly to them (and I think we would be surprised at how appreciative they are).
So, what do we do when we are looking at a verse, and suddenly we find that such-and-such a General Authority has mentioned that verse with a specific interpretation in an official setting (or even an “unofficial” setting)? To be faithful, we are bound both to the scripture itself and to the General Authority, but we are hardly bound (at least at first) to assuming that they might be contextually separate. I would have, in such a situation, to take up the context and situation of the General Authority’s words quite seriously, to see what I can understand and learn about it all. I would have to let what he says open my understanding and change my thinking (though perhaps not about that verse; again, it would depend on interpreting that authority’s words). And then I would be able to go back to the verse and rethink it, or think it from the start, or whatever.
To return, in the end, to Freud: The anxiety we often feel in our conversations is, I think, due to this unthought relationship we have to the Other/Brethren. We feel vaguely that if we interpret a verse without consulting every authoritative word that might bear on it, we are being unfaithful, or will be called such by those who naively assume that whatever the Brethren have said, interpreted in the most straightforward and unthinking way, should be taken as more fundamental than scripture. Or, on the other hand, it is generated by our concern that if we take up the Brethren over the scriptures, we might, in the end, be deluded, missing the picture. In a sense, I think both are geared by a very curious fear: a fear that things might not be so solid as we’d like them to be. And so we circle round the subject over and over, unwilling to take it up directly, because it might tell us something we weren’t prepared to hear.
But what word/name is written on the stone this seraph brings? Whatever it says, it names me, and I can at last respond: “Here am I. Send me.”
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