Feast upon the Word Blog

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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.”

29 Responses to “Respecting our Elders: on being faithful to the Brethren… Freudian style…”

  1. Robert C. said

    Joe, great post—I hope its length doesn’t deter others from reading it. I also don’t have a good sense of how comprehensible it will be to other readers since I’ve been reading you for too long. I also don’t have a good sense for how controversial your ideas are since my views are (i.e. have become) quite similar, for which you are most significantly to blame.

    A couple quick thoughts/questions in response, and then I want to get out of the way to hear others’ thoughts:

    What do you think the authority of Church leaders means/entails? Shouldn’t we be faithful to everyone we encounter? Is the authority of Church leaders merely what we economists might term a signaling device, an agreement that these are the others whose words we will take up and engage?

    Also, I think I’ve heard too many “don’t take your problems to higher authorities” spiels to be persuaded by your (seeming) admonition to “go directly to them,” and of course this seems problematic when taking up the words of dead prophets (at least for those of us lacking in faith to commune very meaningfully with the dead…). I would think that what is most important is how we take up these words in our ward, family, stake, blog, etc. communities. And I think we must do so quite seriously and with a lot of charity. But then, I think this is something we are explicitly doing here on the blog (from time to time at least, if not most of the time). So this is where I question your Freudian analysis, are we really not acknowledging that this is what we are doing?

    Finally, let me try to state explicitly (sorry for ruining the poetic effect…) what I take you as pointing to in your Isaiah 6 quotations and the way you first take up this question—please help me see where I’m misreading you or failing to grasp what you mean. Isaiah, in recognizing that he is part of a community of unclean lips, recognizes that thinking of his selfhood independently of his community (and of God) is a deception. Only in his theophanic encounter with God does he see himself and his community for what they really are (i.e. through God’s eyes). This new way of seeing is what the new name on the stone symbolizes and marks a genuine relationship with God finally [re-]acknowledged (I’m sure you notice how I’m trying to relate this to my response to Adam on the Reading Abraham blog—I think this challenges the view I tried to articulate there because here the new name seems to mark a bit of a discontinuity or disconnectedness, or at least a sharp change-in-direction, which my thoughts there really accommodate…).

  2. Jim F. said

    Joe, I like this very much but I need some time to absorb it. My only quibble is the same as Robert C’s: I’m not so sure that we either can or ought to take our disagreements up with particular General Authorities.


  3. Floyd the Wonderdog said

    Exegesis of the living prophets’ words. Interesting concept.

  4. SJ said

    This post seems so pretentious and repetitive and self-important that I had to quit reading about haflway through or shoot myself in the head.

  5. Robert #1, I don’t know whether SJ’s #4 means that my post is precisely comprehensible, or precisely imcomprehensible!

    I think your question about faithfulness to the Brethren vs. faithfulness to everyone is important. I would draw a distinction I’m sure your sick of by this point between faith and charity: I think faithfulness to the Brethren is a facet of faith and faithfulness to everyone is a facet of charity. Curiously, hope intervenes…

    As for your quibble (and Jim’s #2): I agree with your concern, and the possibility that I might be interpreted that way crossed my mind as I wrote, but I meant something a little different. I suppose there are two ways of “going directly to the Brethren.” On the one hand, I can contact a particular authority to hash out details. On the other hand, I can give myself to the words of that authority still more thoroughly, more profoundly. That is, I can seek out further understanding by consulting more material. If I come across a verse in 1 Nephi that bugs me, the best way to sort it out for me is to consult the whole of 1 and 2 Nephi (and thus to avoid the seance). Does that help?

    SJ #4: Is the post pretentious and repetitive and self-important, or does it only “seem” so? Suicide seems like a rather extreme response to something that only “seems” to be so profoundly pretentious, etc. And I can’t help but wonder what point you here call “halfway through.” The first half was intended to be somewhere between a joke and a serious endeavor: pretentious and self-important (repetitive? I confess that still baffles me!) on purpose, but in order to make a point.

    To take a word from Floyd #3, “Exegesis of the post itself. Interesting concept.” And thus back to Robert’s point: faithful only to the Brethren?

  6. douglas hunter said

    Joe, I am sorry it took me so long to get to this post, Its really a lot of fun. Perhaps SJ was just trying to get under your skin, or perhaps SJ just didn’t see the humor. In any case I wish I had time to post a serious relply, beyond saying good job.

  7. CEF said

    Joe – I would like to compliment you for not only being willing to take this on, but jumping into it head first. :) You are correct, this one issue is probably at the crux of difficulty for LDS being able to discuss points of doctrine that seem to be in question and some that seem to be settled. Grace being the one that comes to my mind, it is my favorite hobbyhorse. I believe grace in the Church was for years settled, but not so any more.

    This trauma/reluctance that you bring up, that makes it difficult to talk about issues that there seem to be some room to interpret, is something I struggle with. It has already been said, there is no real way to address this issue. We cannot talk directly to the GAs, and the leaders we can talk to, already have a predisposed position on such things. That being, don’t rock the boat.

    I am reading the newest book out about Einstein, and he said, something that allowed him to have such an inquiring mind, was his unwillingness to accept authorities as the end of all discussion. Obviously, he did not do well in school.

    I believe our belief in having prophetic leaders has been one of the reasons we have grown so well in the past, but unless we can come to grips with the fact that they are only men like the rest of us (susceptible to error), they could very well stagnate growth in the Church.

    With the advent of the Internet, it is much too easy for conflicting comments between GAs to come to light, leaving one to wonder, how do such things play out? So what is the answer? If we place too much emphasis on the role of prophetic leaders in the Church, there are too many questions that are left unanswered, and if we downplay their role, we are left with not enough difference between us and them. Here is one example.

    A few years ago, Pres. Hinckley was on Larry King and was asked the question of how do you see yourself in the Church? I believe the answer Larry was looking for was prophet. The answer Pres. Hinckley gave was role model. I wish I could be more positive about this.

  8. m&m said

    unless we can come to grips with the fact that they are only men like the rest of us (susceptible to error), they could very well stagnate growth in the Church.

    Yes, they are human like the rest of us, but the Lord includes things like the council system, the law of witnesses, and the mantle of revelation to protect against much of the effects of their humanness. (I constantly look to the law of witnesses to help guard against quote wars, also recency take precedent. Always.)

    There are also many different committees that look at various issues. It’s not like the Brethren live in a shell and don’t always seek to push the envelope on learning and growth and continuous improvement for the Church. I get the sense that they are on top of things more than we can know and that growth will happen MORE as we trust that rather than take on the role of thinking we need to be the ones to push the envelope for them or try to “catch them” in their humanness and cast too casually what they say because of that.

    As passionate as I am about following the prophets, I was surprised at how my faith had to kick in when I heard the following…I suppose because I’ve heard so much of skepticism about the prophets’ words (a sort of holding them at bay) in the bloggernacle that it took a bit of a toll on me. I always hoped the following to be true, but to hear it, I found a part of myself saying, “Are you sure?” Not in a spirit of challenge but in a spirit of hope, like, “Wow” and also “that’s not what a lot of people think.” His testimony reaffirmed mine once again. It took my faith in the leaders’ divine direction up a notch. The advent of the Internet may only be a test. Will we still look to them in faith, regardless of what quote might be dug up to try to undermine or question what is taught now?

    Anyway, here’s the quote from Elder Holland (and this is not necessarily just in response to CEF but as a general contribution to the discussion):

    Not often but over the years some sources have suggested that the Brethren are out of touch in their declarations, that they don’t know the issues, that some of their policies and practices are out-of-date, not relevant to our times.

    As the least of those who have been sustained by you to witness the guidance of this Church firsthand, I say with all the fervor of my soul that never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth. I bear personal witness of how thoroughly good they are, of how hard they work, and how humbly they live. It is no trivial matter for this Church to declare to the world prophecy, seership, and revelation, but we do declare it. It is true light shining in a dark world

  9. Robert C. said

    m&m, thanks for this comment and quote. I’ve been wondering about skepticism (and doubt, as it pertains to faith and hope…) a fair bit lately, as well as the nature of communities (incl. gender roles in communities), so your point is particularly interesting for me to think about.

    One follow-up thought for now: I think it is misleading to think about faith (and hope and doubt etc.) apart from our communities. So much of the Gospel seems to be about being faithful to that which we have been given, by our parents, our Church leaders (local as well as high levels), community structures, the Holy Ghost, etc. I think each of these kind of givens presupposes a hierarchical relationship that is different than the relationship we have to our neighbor or our spouse (as an “equal partner,” even if the husband presides in the family…). I think this hierarchical nature is crucial to understand and comprises an important addendum to Joe’s post (I’ll let Joe say whether this is making explicit something that is implicit in the post, or is something that the post doesn’t address…). What I do think is explicit in Joe’s post is the importance of learning first-hand the wisdom and inspiration contained in the declarations of our leaders, something that might begin with a blind faith but, if taken seriously, will become a type of knowledge or testimony gained by experience.

    Also, I think local wards are a great place to learn about sustaining very-human leaders. My testimony of the inspiration of particular local leaders is very different than my testimony of particular higher-level Church leaders—I’ve had some rather quirky bishops and EQ presidents, but I think I can say without exception that I felt each of them was inspired to at least some degree. Sometimes it was a a real struggle for me to recognize this inspiration for various reasons, but I think the method for recognizing this on a local level is applicable to higher levels of leadership.

    This raises the following question for me. One of my mission presidents said it was dangerous to have favorite apostles, I think because it would tempt us to treat more casually the words of other apostles. So I’ve wondered, should our testimony of Church leaders be particular or general? I’m inclined to think that as faith matures our testimony of our leaders’ inspiration becomes more particular. For example, a new convert might gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon and have a general belief that the Church is true and that Pres. Hinckley is a prophet. However, after being a member of the Church for several years and hearing, studying, and living Pres. Hinckley’s admonitions, the member gains (hopefully!) a more particular, more mature type of faith in the Church and Pres. Hinckley as a prophet of God. In this sense, I think it is somewhat unavoidable to have unique and varying testimonies about each of the apostles. I think the same goes for various books of scripture. Also, I think love functions quite similarly. The Spirit may give me a general love for humanity before I have particular experience with anyone specifically, but as I have more experience with particular individuals, my love for that individual (and, consequently, humanity in general…) takes on more particularity and thereby grows and matures.

    At least I think this is one way of applying Alma 32 to this issue….

  10. BrianJ said

    m&m: thanks for that quote. (Can I ask just one little favor: cite the reference, please?)

    All: I’m trying to think of a scripture that tells us we should second-guess, scrutinize, or otherwise hesitate to accept a prophet’s words. I can think of a famous quote by Brigham Young along those lines, but no scripture.

    Joe: I’m still trying to grasp the meaning of your post (your prose is too high for me), but I do want to comment on this line:

    “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.”

    Yes, I fear that I don’t really understand the scriptures, and that I don’t really comprehend the meaning of our leaders’ words. But, every day, I still have to act. So, just as I am responding to your post without really knowing what your post is about, I have to respond to the scriptures/prophets without really knowing what they’re about. Things aren’t as “solid as [I’d] like them to be,” so in the end I have to shrug, turn to God, and say, “I hope this is right.”

    And maybe that’s the “something” you think “we [aren’t] prepared to hear”: that we can’t put responsibility for our decisions/actions onto the Brethren or the scriptures or anyone else.

  11. m&m said

    Sorry, Brian, it was from Elder Hollands Oct. 2006 Conference talk: “Prophets in the Land Again.”

    What I do think is explicit in Joe’s post is the importance of learning first-hand the wisdom and inspiration contained in the declarations of our leaders, something that might begin with a blind faith but, if taken seriously, will become a type of knowledge or testimony gained by experience.

    Wow. That wasn’t explicit to me. You have summed up why I am so passionate about prophetic counsel — because of the knowledge and testimony I have gained through experience in experimenting on their words.

    Your thoughts about favorite apostles are interesting to me. While I have them, I find that I end up really latching on to what I hear repeatedly from more than one of them — the whole law of witnesses thing. I will hold pretty tightly to one prophet’s words, but if I hear them repeated, them I’m riveting my attention as Elder Eyring once counseled (1997 Conference talk: “Finding Safety in Counsel”).

    That said, I do feel that one of the apostles works in close contact with my guardian angel, for nearly every time something comes out of his mouth, I feel the message is just for me. :)

  12. Robert, I think you are right to want to add the addendum to my post. I might well write that addendum as a separate post! I would write out a few thoughts on it now, but I’m not sure I could do it justice in a short comment.

    Might I add that I have not tried to raise in this post any question of whether the Brethren are right or not. In a sense, I’m not particularly concerned with that question, and for two reasons, reasons I will articulate simply by quoting Brigham.


    “Now let me ask you, if you trust to my faith, to my words and teachings, counsel and advice, and do not seek after the Lord to have His Spirit to guide and direct you, can I not deceive you, can I not lead you into error? Look at this and see to what mischief it would lead, and what an amount of evil could be done to a people if they did not live so that the Spirit of the Lord would dwelll with them that they might know these things for themselves.”

    The point: reductively accepting the words of any of the Brethren without seeking the Spirit might be said to be to regard them as “right,” but I’m hardly convinced on the point; to believe/decide/understand that they are “right” is something predicated on careful interpretation in the Spirit, and that prerequisite is almost never met… it is still too premature to talk about whether the Brethren are “right” (much less about whether we are “right”) about anything!


    “He [Joseph] was called of God; God dictated him, and if He had a mind to leave him to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine. And it was not for me to question it, if the Lord was disposed to let Joseph lead the people astray, for He had called him and instructed him to gather Israel and restore the Priesthood and kingdom to them … If He should suffer him to lead the people astray, it would be because they ought to be led astray.”

    The point: faithfulness to the Brethren is a great deal more than regarding whatever they say as “right”; have we even begun to think about what they are saying?

  13. Brian, I’m not sure what your comment means! I’d like to chew on it for a bit longer.

  14. Two eaten comments… hmm… [now rescued from spamfilter]

  15. Ben said

    You lost me with Freud, but I endured :) I think you make some very good points about faithfulness and questioning the presupposition.

  16. Karen Spencer said

    I wanted to connect two paragraphs, one from the post and one from lds.org.

    This paragraph comes from the lds.org newsroom comment that cherylem posted a few weeks ago:
    “Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.”

    This seems to me to be what Joe was getting at in this paragraph:
    “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.”

    Any thoughts?

  17. BrianJ said

    Karen—thanks for pointing that out. What an excellent and helpful addition to the discussion!

  18. CEF said

    Joe – Like BrianJ, I too would like to hear more from you about the fear that causes us to … “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.” Just what do you think causes this fear and what is it that we are unwilling to take up directly/hear?

  19. CEF and Brian,

    I see two different fears here, one I’ll call “conservative” and one I’ll call “liberal,” though I should hope no one reads too much into those names.

    I’m imagining a kind of spectrum of attention here, at one end of which attention is given fully to the Brethren, and at the other end of which attention is given fully to the scriptures. What I’m calling “conservative fear” is felt by someone who hangs out near the Brethren end of things. She certainly reads the scriptures, but when there seems to be some conflict between them and the Brethren or between them and “Church doctrine,” she takes the Brethren over the scriptures. She takes books like Mormon Doctrine to be a helpful guide to the scriptures, and she cites footnotes with “TG” as interpretive clues to the meaning of a text. The fear she feels is manifest in her treatment of the scriptures: she is afraid, I think, to take the scriptures at their word for fear that they might not say what she is being told they say. She fears that if she were to get too serious about the scriptures, she might find she is being deluded. To some extent, I would say that her distance from the scriptures is based on her fear that the Brethren are not what she thinks they are.

    Somewhere on the other end of the spectrum is the person who feels what I’m calling “liberal fear.” She attends General Conference and reads the Ensign articles from General Authorities, but she spends most of her time in the scriptures. She studies commentaries on the Bible by non-Mormon authors, pays attention to historical sources, learns something of the Greek and the Hebrew. But she makes sure when she listens to or reads the words of the Brethren that she does not think too critically about their messages. She takes the scriptures as a key to thinking about their teachings, subjecting those teachings to the categories and doctrines she finds in the scriptural texts. She general avoids dealing with the Brethren’s words regularly, and she certainly does not seek them out. I think the fear she feels is manifest in her treatment of the Brethren: she is uncomfortable, I think, in approaching the words of the Brethren because she is concerned that if she believes exactly what they tell her, she will have to sacrifice the scriptures, since the scriptures would not be what she presently understands them to be. She worries that if she were to trust the Brethren too thoroughly, she might find that she is wasting her time in the scriptures, that she has studied a great deal and that very little of it is eternally important. To some extent, I would say that her fear is a function of the fact that she fears that scriptures are not what she thinks they are.

    Both of these fears are built on the same difficulty: the Brethren and the scriptures, we all seem to fear, do not match up. That is, we are all engaged in a great balancing act, trying never to tip too far in either direction, at least not vocally. We worry that disagreeing with the Brethren (from the one end of the spectrum) or with the scriptures (from the other end of the spectrum) may lead those on the end of the spectrum opposite us into apostasy, to a loss of faith. There is, then, one fear, really: we fear that the Church is going astray, that it is veering from its original footing, that we have to choose between the Brethren and the scriptures.

    The purpose of my post is to call that very fear into question, in fact, to suggest that the spectrum itself is suspect. I’m suggesting that our trepidation is unfounded, that if we take up both the scriptures and the Brethren in the greatest seriousness (that is, not in simple credulity), we will find no difficulty whatsoever.

    Or something like that, at least.

  20. Actually, let me restate my last point. I’m not so much suggesting that we will find no difficulty whatsoever as I am suggesting that we have not even begun to do enough work to make a claim one way or the other, as a people. Our fear is ungrounded because we are lightyears away from the seriousness with which we would have to take these questions up before we could begin to make any kind of claim about them.

    My sense, personally, is that we will find no difficulty whatsoever. Wherever I have followed this out to conclusion, I have found none.

  21. JakeW said

    Oh Joe, why didn’t you say something like that from the get go?

  22. CEF said

    Joe – What do you do with 2Nephi 25:23? To me, there is a movement in the Church, (certain scholars – Robinson, Millet, Ostler to name a few) that are saying the traditional way of interpreting that scripture is wrong. Their interpretation changes the meaning dramatically, and in my opinion, correctly.

    Given what you just said, if we give it more time, study, etc. then we should see that the traditional way that is still taught by the Brethren is really the correct way. Or have I misunderstood what you said?

  23. BrianJ said

    Joe–Excellent descriptions in #19. And the way you describe the fear, it is a bit different than what I was getting at in #10. The fear you describe is the fear that the source (leaders or scriptures) that I am ignoring (or downplaying) is the source that is actually correct. The fear I thought you were getting at, and what I tried to describe in #10, is the fear that both sources are correct, but that I will never be able to understand them correctly.

    I will question, just a little, your description of the “conservative.” You say that she fears “to take the scriptures at their word for fear that they might not say what she is being told they say,” and therefore her real fear is that the brethren she follows are wrong and the scriptures are right. My little quibble is this: I think there is another class of “conservative,” one who spends less time in the scriptures because she is concerned that they are misleading (poor translations, conspiracy of scribes, not current, etc.). “I read my scriptures,” she might admit, “because the brethren counseled me to, but pretty much just the Book of Mormon and some of the D&C.”

    I think a similar version of the “liberal” could be drawn up as well—one who listens intently to certain brethren (you know, the ones who “get” it, like Maxwell, Oaks, et al.).

  24. Jake #21, I would have simply said so from the beginning, if I weren’t concurrently thinking of several other things! I’ve been buried in research on Freud lately, and I have been obsessed with thinking about how Paul’s discussion of the Spirit and charity in 1 Corinthians offers a curious critique on all things Freudian. I had to work that in as well, and that set a strange tone for things, I suppose.

    CEF #22, I think you have misunderstood me. I agree with the shift in thinking about 2 Nephi 25:23 (in fact, if anything, I think the “movement” is not radical enough; cf. the first chapter in the book I’m writing, where I devote some ten or fifteen pages to that single verse… not that anyone here has access to my book yet…). And yet I do believe we’ll find out that the Brethren are right after all. But I’m not suggesting that if we work all the way through the words of the Brethren, and all the way through 2 Nephi 25, that we’ll come to see that they are saying exactly the same thing, nor that they offer the same understanding of grace. I’m suggesting that we will (1) come to a point where we can actually begin to think about the tensions and differences between the Brethren and the scriptures and (2) begin to realize how profoundly they enrich each other. This is why I chose the word “difficulty” before: there will likely be profound differences, sometimes outright contradictions; but I’m convinced that these differences and contradictions will be helpful rather than damning, problematic rather than impossible.

    A further word to clarify this just a bit. I have had, most of my life, a kind of fascination with the abject (and I’ll let the Freudians read whatever they want into that!). What that has translated into in terms of the gospel is that I am fascinated with whatever repels me, and I have an almost perverse attraction to whatever is being overlooked. I’ve never been settled in any one camp in the Church, as a result: a stranger and a pilgrim, I wander, in my studies, wherever the wind blows, trying to bring all hidden things to light, every work of darkness to light. The more I uncover, the more I’m convinced that there is a remarkable truth to be circumscribed into one great whole, and the more I see that we think too narrowly even to begin to think about circumscribing it. Every time, Joseph tell us, we tell the Lord that thus far and no farther, the devil takes power.

    Brian #23, I totally agree with your additions/corrections. I think you’ve plotted your points at different parts of the spectrum, but clearly such that they describe many more people than my own did. Thanks.

  25. Robert C. said

    BrianJ, I think the fear you described in #10 is a very interesting one, the burden of agency I’d be inclined to term it, or what some circles of philosophy might call dread or existential angst. I don’t think we can understand agency or faith very well without feeling this kind of fear or burden of facing a decision (of action) in the face of uncertainty.

    Actually, I think this burden of agency is related to Joe’s post in an interesting way. That is, I think the seriousness with which we take up the words of prophets is directly related to the seriousness with which we take up this burden of agency, and recognize the need for faith (that is, belief in the face of uncertainty) in making that decision. And so, for example, I think Hamlet has proven to be an enduring and interesting character precisely because he took the dilemma inherent in the call toward a specific action (revenge for his father) so seriously. I know many critics have taken precisely this hesitation as being Hamlet’s tragic flaw, but even these critics (with whom I disagree) do not deny Hamlet’s insightful analysis of the dilemma posed.

    So, I think when we do not take prophetic words seriously it is precisely when we think we already have all the answers—on the one hand not recognizing the uncertainty that underlies and defines the very faith we believe we have; or, on the other hand, not recognizing the limits of systematic reasoning, theologizing, or even analysis of prophetic words already given (“we need no more Bible”!). In this sense, I think Joe is right to point toward the seriousness with which we take the prophetic words rather than obsessing with the degree that such words contain truth (I’m suspect that truth can be contained at all—after all, why then would we need continuing revelation? not to mention D&C 93’s description of truth acting for itself…).

  26. brianj said

    Robert, #25: “burden of agency.” Thanks for coming up with three words that define exactly what I was trying to write in #10.

  27. mjberkey said

    I’ve only read the first couple comments here, but I figure that since nobody has been here in months, it would be hard for me to sidetrack the conversation (and I have 10 minutes til my next class).

    A question and a comment for you Joe. I know that there is more involved in this post than I understood (mainly because I just joined the blog), but this topic is of interest to me.

    Question – Where do you come up with this new definition of faithfulness? I would like to accept it, but I feel like you (and really me, when I accept this definition) are begging the question that this is what “faithfulness” really means.

    Comment – I just read a chapter in 1 Corinthians that has really changed my perspective. It’s chapter 8, and I assume anyone on this blog is smart enough to discover the meaning of Paul to the same extent that I did, if they go read it, so I won’t explain. We may, perhaps, be completely justified in doing something that the world around us thinks is wrong. Do we do it anyway? Well, Paul seems to say that we don’t live a law of justice. According to justice, we all belong in Outer Darkness. We live according to charity. We live in a covenant. Is it “lawful” to question or even criticize the brethren? Paul says all things are lawful, but not all things are expedient (that’s not in chapter 8, of course).

    If, by criticizing the brethren, we cause our “weaker” brother (one without our knowledge) to offend, then we must not criticize the brethren. Because unity in the covenant is more important that being right. Perhaps, by criticizing the brethren we not only create disunity and damage trust, but perhaps we will also cause others to wrongly criticize the brethren because they learned it was ok by our example.

    If, however, a such a criticism will save our brother, by all means we should criticize away. But it’s something to be very careful about.

  28. joespencer said


    I entirely agree with your concerns. In fact, reread my fifth and sixth paragraphs in the original post. I’m suggesting there that charity outstrips this entire discussion, but I supposed (with some violence, I am sure :) ) that the question of charity was too much to introduce into this discussion.

    Does that bring us closer together here?

  29. mjberkey said

    Hey Joe,
    I figured you were still out of town. I didn’t overlook your discussion of charity at all. Btw, I already agree with your post. I guess that maybe I’m saying that any other discussion (besides on of charity) is less important (except if it is done in charity of course). Why should we discuss whether or not we are theoretically justified in any thing. All things are lawful, right? And so if the question is, may we question the brethren, the answer is of course. Should we question the brethren? Maybe.

    Now perhaps a discussion of the theoritical justification (which you took from the angle of defining what it means to be faithful) is important, but only to the extent that it edifies the weaker brother. Sooner or later the weaker brother needs to learn that it’s ok to eat meat offered to idols. The idols are just rock carvings anyway.

    And I still would like to get your answer on faithfulness, but perhaps you would rather put that in an email than a comment?

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