Tag Archives: authority

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #6

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

Postcard #3 There are many paths up the same mountain

Postcard #4 I sense that feeling the Spirit is a universal, not exclusive, gift

Postcard #5 My faith doesn’t obligate me to believe anything that isn’t true

tankman

Postcard #6 I’m committed to following my own moral compass.

What will you do?

The day is September 11th, 1857. A wagon train of 120 emigrants has been trying to make its way past your settlement and on to California. Normally you would be anxiously engaged in commerce—supplying provisions to these wretched folk at a handsome profit. But not this morning. This morning finds you and fifty of your Mormon neighbors escorting the emigrants into a mountain meadow. You hear a militia leader promise the travelers they will be safely conducted out of the settlement, but you know the truth. At the signal, you and your brethren are to turn on the emigrants and open fire. Shoot them in the head—every man, woman, and child.

What will you do? 

In your gut, you know this is cold-blooded murder, even if you did hear them uttering foul oaths and slurs. And yet the orders are clear. If this were a matter of military protocol, you could refuse to obey this unlawful command from a superior officer. But the group of men issuing the orders are also your religious leaders, and your allegiance to them is unconditional and absolute. Submission to priesthood authority signifies your faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion to God himself. A scripture comes to your mind: Whether by mine own voice, or the voice of my servants, it is the same.

So, what will you do?

Until a few years ago, I wasn’t sure how I would have answered that question. 

I was taught to believe that obedience to my Church’s leaders was always right, even if they asked me to do something wrong. I accepted this way of thinking because those leaders taught me that obeying them was the same as obeying God. I should trust them, they said, because they would not–could not–lead us astray.

Surely no Stake President would order me to shoot unarmed men, women, and children. And surely no prophet would persuade my 14 year old daughter she’s been chosen as his next wife and that by accepting his proposition our family’s exaltation would be guaranteed. These disquieting scenarios from history are easy to dismiss because they seem so improbable in today’s church. But they could teach us much. We have learned by sad experience . . .

Now that I am less naive about human nature and Church history I’ve become more cautious about surrendering my moral agency to human leaders. 

This willingness to ignore the whisperings of our own conscience frightens me. I’ve come to believe that yielding our agency to mortal men ignores basic realities about human nature. For one thing, it eliminates the need for moral discernment. For another, it renders us extremely vulnerable to potential acts of unrighteous dominion. 

Fortunately, our ecclesiastical history shows, on the balance, a preponderance of virtue. But an honest account must also admit to injustice, violence, and vice–and these were often perpetuated precisely because members were willing to violate their conscience out of loyalty to someone whose words they believed to be equal to God’s. 

Leaders are human. I say this with generosity. Like the rest of us, the men tasked with leading the Church don’t always see beyond their cultural biases and paradigms–despite what I trust to be their earnest desire to be faithful to what they view as God’s will. Mormon theology permits no doctrine of prophetic infallibility—for it would render agency inoperative. 

I’m grateful for the combined wisdom and counsel of Church leaders–I would be foolish to esteem it lightly–but sustaining priesthood leaders does not justify me in violating my own conscience. The Nuremberg defense (“I was just following orders”) was an insult to the memory of 6 million Jews and I find myself shocked whenever I hear friends and neighbors admit that they would choose to obey the prophet even if they knew he was wrong, because they felt God would reward them for their obedience.    

As a child, we would sing “Choose the right, when a choice is placed before you. In the right the Holy Spirit guides, and its light is forever shining o’er you…” I don’t hear that song much these days. There is a risk, perhaps, in encouraging 14 million people to develop the moral discernment necessary to work through the rightness of each choice. The Spirit, after all, bloweth where it listeth.  Still, part of me grieves to hear our children bellowing Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet; He knows the way!  

I suppose a part of us prefers to be unburdened of the moral responsibility for choosing, for working through the moral calculus of life’s toughest choices. But don’t we abdicate our moral birthright when we allow another to be the keeper of our conscience?  

the-moral-compassI readily admit that my sense of right and wrong is limited–I’m as susceptible as anyone to biases, paradigms, and ingrained cultural attitudes–still, I am ultimately accountable. I can’t shift the burden of moral responsibility on another, even in the name of obedience. I must follow the moral compass within my own heart, the one that points to kindness, to mercy, generosity, equality, and love.

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Post Script: The Mountain Meadows Massacre  involved many factors besides Mormon settlers being steeped in a culture of obedience. I don’t wish to oversimplify this tragic event. Mormon readers may find a sympathetic but historically responsible explanation in the Ensign article linked here.

Pioneer Spirit: Reclaiming our Spiritual Imagination

pioneer: noun. 1. one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; one who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 2. one of the first to settle in a territory.

Pioneer Day. Our day to celebrate how our spiritual progenitors followed their leaders to the Promised Land and made the desert bloom like the rose. That willingness to subjugate self-interest in the service of the common good is a legacy bequeathed to us by those forebearers. In the Mormon beehive, we’re all taught to hum the same tune.

But there’s another meaning of the word pioneer. According to Merriam Webster, a pioneer is one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 

In this sense of the term pioneer, can modern-day Mormons also claim a spiritual heritage? If so, to what extent has institutional and cultural Mormonism kept the “questing spirit” alive? Do we hold the conviction, burning bright in Joseph Smith’s day, that the door of knowledge swings open only when someone with a question comes knocking?

This, I’ve written before, used to be the essential spirit of Mormonism, and Joseph Smith was its primary advocate, resisting all attempts at reining in his expansive, even audacious,  imagination. This may be seen as an embarrassment now, as Church leaders are left with no intellectually honest way to reconcile theologically incompatible teachings, or to harmonize early doctrines with subsequently taught doctrines, but it’s also the reason we arrived at a theology as paradigm-shattering as that presented in the King Follett Address.

Surely the Church is more than a museum to protect historical artifacts from breaking. Surely its leaders are more than curators, ensuring that nothing gets knocked over. The terms prophet, seer, and revelator used to signify particular roles. Are any of those roles reflected in the phrase, maintaining the status quo? 

Even in religious life, a breakthrough requires a breaking through.

As I’ve been grappling with the question of how a Church once infused with the questing spirit could now view public questioners as faithless and subversive, warranting extermination from the beehive, I stumbled quite accidentally on a passage from a book* I’ve been reading that presents a cultural critique of Buddhism. The author, Stephen Batchelor, points to a general trend among religions. He explains that the founding figures, possessing a genius for imagination and the “capacity to express an authentic vision that responds creatively to the needs of their particular situation,” attract an eager following. (And surely there is nowhere a more apt description of Joseph Smith!) But once established, the new faith’s enthusiasm for new ideas soon cools. “For while the founding figures were imaginative and creative, imagination and creativity were rarely qualities encouraged in the schools and orders they established.”

Why not? Why doesn’t the institution perpetuate that founding spirit of innovation and creativity?  The author’s conclusion is that over time, “the preservation of orthodoxy became the main priority.” He elaborates:

While originating in acts of imagination, orthodoxies paradoxically seek to control imagination as a means of maintaining their authority . . . and to suppress authentic attempts at creative innovation that might threaten the status quo.

The more hierarchic and authoritarian a religious institution, the more it will require that the creations of imagination conform to its doctrines…

This is what I see happening. It’s not new. An honest appraisal would acknowledge that Joseph Smith himself fended off challenges to his authority, sometimes ruthlessly. But at least that Prophet was not afraid of a free marketplace of ideas. Why the insecurity now? Do we not believe, as the apostle Hugh B. Brown believed, that in that marketplace, “truth emerges triumphant?”  That apostle went on to say, “Only error fears freedom of expression.”

Batchelor finishes his observation by stating that religions may find it convenient in the short term to silence those who ask what is possible,

Yet, by the suppression of the imagination, the very life of dharma practice is cut off at its source. While religious orthodoxies may survive and even prosper for centuries, in the end they will ossify. When the world around them changes, they will lack the imaginative power to respond creatively to the challenges of the new situation.

On this Pioneer Day, I celebrate those among us who open up new lines of thinking, who invite us to reexamine our assumptions, who keep knocking on the door of knowledge. I celebrate the bishops and Sunday School teachers and neighbors who maintain a space for people who ask questions. I celebrate the breakthroughs–the breaking through–we’ve experienced in our short history after enough people dared to raise their voices against injustice or inequality or incomplete truth-telling.  I celebrate those among us sufficiently awake not to be lulled into thinking All is Well in Zion. These are Pioneers worthy of our legacy. And this is their day.

 

 

* Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. (p.108)