Not by My Voice or the Voice of My Servants

April 27, 2004 | 8 comments
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I have the great good fortune of announcing Emma’s first words. For no particular reason I was tickling her and urging her to say “I prefer not to” like a little Bartleby, when the blessed event occurred, if ‘occurred’ is right word, since what actually happened is that Emma said nothing, which I took to be an affirmation of the opposite sentiment. “I prefer to” is quite the mouthful for our three-month-old prodigy and we couldn’t be more proud.

I’ve just read about another prodigy, of a more common type, as common as there are men and women.

President Samuelson writes in BYU Magazine that a mother reproached him one day. The mother had tried to get her BYU daughter to wear less-tight clothing, but the daughter refused. Seems the daughter had gone dressed in the wetsuit style in front of both BYU profs and President Samuelson himself, none of whom had taken her to task for it. Who was her mother to defy the Lord’s anointed?

Who indeed? While I admire the young lady’s birthright to rationalize, I wonder if her arguments might not have been misplaced. Silence isn’t always consent.

“Isn’t always” means “sometimes,” of course, and of course silence can be consent. When my mother started asking uncomfortable questions and one of us tried to change the subject she somehow always guessed who it was that had raided the ice cream [answer: everyone], confession or no. When Pilate answers “what is truth” we know what to think of him. Likewise Christ’s relative silence on sexual morality probably means he accepted the usual mores of the Jews. Silence is initially ambiguous. Sometimes it remains ambiguous, and is meant to be. Sometimes it can be resolved.

Because silence can sometimes speak, I am not content to merely wave off certain arguments from silence I’ve met. I have in mind three arguments on moral matters, based on inferences from Church silence. The first is the argument from the Church silence on gay civil marriage. The second is an argument from Church inaction against private, vanguard attempts to practice a communal life. The third is an argument against life beginning at conception, based on the Church’s failure to define the beginning of life. Here’s why these arguments don’t work for the Church.

1). The Church is a mortal institution captained by mortal men. Mortal men have limited time and interests–they may simply not think to seek divine guidance on a subject in the midst of all their other concerns. That subject may still well be a part of the gospel. Second, mortal institutions have limited resources and have to contend with outside opposition. On some issues, the game may not be worth the candle. On political questions, for instance, the gain from involvement may pale with the benefit of being seen as apolitical.

2). The people of the Church are also flawed. Our Lord might well wish to not make pronouncements too far ahead of His people lest He condemn the bulk of us (a new convert in my nine-year-old class once asked my why God takes such pains to keep things back, and this is what we worked out). But if God does keep things back, then the silence of the Heavens, and of the Church, might just indicate that we’re still struggling with preliminary principles, or even that certain members of the Church itself need to lay a better groundwork.

3.) Besides advancing from revelatory truth to truth, as in #2 above, we also advance by being “agents to ourselves,” and by, as Moses said, becoming prophets ourselves. If God and the Church leave some true principles and right actions unclear, even if indicated, we are left with a space in which we must try and work them out for ourselves and must get personal revelation as confirmation.

Besides these normal, there are additional Church reasons for taking silence as silence, nothing more. At least when it comes to life beginning at conception, however, I have seen an additional Church argument for construing the silence, advanced I think by Brother Clark Goble. It goes like this: Granted that God doesn’t say all that He could. Still, we know Him; we know He cares deeply about righteousness, and us. He might keep back higher-order laws and less consequential commandments, but he will not leave us in ignorance about basic and universal sins like murder. We would need to know if life began at conception, to avoid doing murder. God hasn’t revealed anything to the Church about life beginning at conception. Therefore, life doesn’t begin at conception (although the embryo might have some lesser status and some lesser sins with relation to the embryo might still be possible). The argument has the unfortunate implication that slave-owning wasn’t a serious sin. But even if the argument is correct, its application is not sound. Though the light of Christ everywhere warns against murder, and the prophets always denounce it, murder involves intentionally killing what one knows to be a person. In contrast, unknowingly causing a death is no sin at all, unless the millions of Lamanite smallpox victims are held to Christopher Columbus’ account. I accept that God will always rebuke serious sin, but not that He will always act to prevent one unknowingly taking a human life.

I accept that God acts through prophets. I accept that their errors are their concern and not mine. I do not accept that everything God wishes to do is done through Prophets, or at all. I think that the temporal treasures brought to the storehouse of Zion will include principles that members have had to ponder on and puzzle over without the benefit of a direct pronouncement from God. Among those treasures I hope will be a clearer idea of what a mortal person is, of how half-divine religious law and religious institutions should inform mortal law and mortal institutions, and a foundation of communal living fit for erecting Zion on.

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8 Responses to Not by My Voice or the Voice of My Servants

  1. Aaron Brown on April 27, 2004 at 6:41 pm

    But Adam — with respect to the “does life begin at conception” question, those who lean towards the negative don’t have to rely on the Church’s “silence.” They can rely on President McKay’s explicit disavowal of abortion as murder (although it is “like unto…”) which, if memory serves, was couched in language that supports the very “inference from silence” idea that you find objectionable. (Yes, I’m making claims without references … I’ll go try to find the sources this evening, unless someone else can provide them). As I recall, Brigham Young’s claim that the spirit enters the body at the point of “quickening,” even if not helpful or official accepted, at least suggests that one other prophet was unwilling to locate the genesis of “life” at conception.

    Aaron B

  2. Kingsley on April 27, 2004 at 7:36 pm

    Aaron:

    A quick search of GospeLink 2001 shows that most Presidents of the Church have denounced “abortion,” e.g. President Hinckley: “Abortion is not the answer. This only compounds the problem. It is an evil and repulsive escape that will someday bring regret and remorse.” (“Save the Children,” Ensign, November 1994, p. 53.) An answer to “Does life begin at conception?” might be harder to find. Perhaps the question is moot; perhaps abortion is abortion. Did the David O. McKay quote you’re thinking of go deeper than the quote above?

  3. Aaron Brown on April 27, 2004 at 8:38 pm

    Kingsley,

    To the best of my recollection, McKay’s comment was something like the following: “Since the Lord has not seen fit to classify abortion as a sin from which you cannot repent, it follows that abortion is not the same as murder.” (I’m definitely only paraphrasing here). Since murder is the wrongful taking of life, which in turn means the wrongful causing of a separation of the spirit from the body of another, the inference would follow that life doesn’t begin at conception, because if it did, abortion would have to be murder. (Though could it still be a less heinous form of murder, given the possibility of spirits being given different tabernacles if separated from their initial bodies at a certain age? – a fair speculation within Mormonism, I think).

    Note that I think McKay has separately disavowed the “life begins at conception” theory — i.e. I don’t think his view is only discernable from the one paraphrase I provide above. But once again, I’m not providing any sources at the moment, so I’d appreciate it if someone can.

    Given the paraphrase above, I guess it was technically incorrect to say to Adam that McKay made an inference from silence. I believe he actually made an inference from what he understood to be the “repentable” nature of abortion as a sin.

    Incidently, it is commonplace to hear LDS opponents of abortion point out that one need not believe that “life begins at conception” or that “abortion is murder” to still be very morally opposed to abortion. I agree that this is true, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go quite as far as some might want. That is, abortion may be really, really, really, really bad, but if it technically isn’t “murder” (i.e. the wrongful separation of a spirit from its body) then I don’t see how we can muster up an aversion to abortion that equals that of a devout Catholic, for instance, who can unequivocally claim to “know” that life begins at conception. I suspect that staunch LDS opponents of abortion, like Adam or Matt Evans, recognize that the resonance of an anti-abortion stand will be strongest (and rightly so) if it is premised on the notion that life does begin at conception. Thus, they insist upon it. (I’m sure they really believe life DOES begin at conception, too, and I’m not meaning to reduce their conviction to one of strategy.) Adam or Matt Evans are welcome to correct me if I’m mistaken about any of this.

    Aaron B

    P.S. I’m sorry to turn this into an abortion-focused thread. I doubt that was Adam’s intention, as there are other issues in his post that merit discussion.

  4. Julie in Austin on April 27, 2004 at 10:28 pm

    Adam–

    Great thoughts, very interesting.

    For what it is worth, I seem to recall that during the anti-gay marriage stuff when we were in California, an official church statement that they had no qualms with domestic partnerships. (I know, without a direct source, no one is impressed with this.)

    On a similar issue, I have more often wondered about the Church’s silence on issues/doctrine that *are* clear. For example, so much about gay marriage, has the Church ever weighed in on legislation about divorce, etc.?

  5. Adam Greenwood on April 27, 2004 at 10:29 pm

    I’d have to see the McKay quote, but I’m assuming that it more or less says what you remember. I think his statement fits with what I’m saying, viz., that because God hasn’t clearly recognized the embryonic person as a person, killing the embryo isn’t murder.

  6. lyle on April 28, 2004 at 4:43 pm

    “Likewise Christ’s relative silence on sexual morality probably means he accepted the usual mores of the Jews.”

    Hm. You know Adam, this logic supports the thesis that Christ was married also. Look out Da Vinci Code haters…

  7. Adam Greenwood on April 28, 2004 at 6:45 pm

    More recent statements than President McKay’s have made the the Church’s non-committal response more clear, I think.

  8. Measure on June 8, 2004 at 10:42 pm

    If life began at conception, the church could not condone Stem-cell research, which it has clearly done…

    well, did in the past. In July 2001 the church issued a news release supporting carefully done stem cell research, but now that release has been removed from the church website. interesting. If you type “Mormon embryonic” on google (without quotes) and click on the first cached link, you’ll find an article from the time that quoted the press release.

    I’m unaware of the church publicly retracting the message, but I don’t know why they removed it from the site.

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