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.