Revelation and the Brotherhood of Man

May 16, 2004 | 18 comments
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Ha! I can beat Nate Oman at pompous blog titles any day (even when I’m just recycling one aspect of his question in less philosophically sophisticated terms!). And I apologize for the gendered language, but “The Siblinghood of Humankind” just ain’t got that swing.

Astute readers (or literate nine-year-olds, really) will have noticed by now that I have a teensy tiny little problem with authority, especially when other people have more of it than I do. It has occurred to me that I have long since passed the age when such authority issues are appropriate, and even the age when they’re appealing in a Rebel-Without-a-Cause sort of way, and that my life might be easier if I would just get over it already. So I’ve been trying hard to figure out just why it is that I can’t cheerfully acknowledge other people’s stewardship over me and get on with the obedience training. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Church governance is, in theory, conducted by revelation. We also speak often of personal revelation, with the ever-present caveat that one cannot get personal revelation for anything or anyone outside of one’s stewardship. That doesn’t really pose any problems for me–it makes sense to have some structure which avoids the out-and-out chaos of perpetual pentecost.

The trouble for me is that I have some (well, a little) experience with receiving revelation, and my own experience teaches me that it is a messy, frequently ambiguous process. And I’ve quite often gotten it wrong–I can see with the benefit of hindsight that what I had thought was revelation was wishful thinking, indigestion, or misdirection (by the “natural man” or maybe Satan, though I’m always a little unnerved by talk of revelations from “another source” and wouldn’t readily attribute my own missteps to such an a/Adversary). Against this backdrop of experience, it is hard for me to place a high degree of trust in the conclusions others might draw from engaging in the same process.

However, it is equally difficult for me to suppose that other people are so much better at receiving revelation than I am that the process is qualitatively different for them. It’s easy for me to believe that others are *much*, *much* better at it than I am; in fact I rather hope that my own ability to perceive divine whisperings is on the low end of some bell curve! But I have spent enough time around friends and relatives who are doing the kinds of callings that require regular inspiration to know that plenty of people struggle to receive and interpret promptings from the Spirit, even when they’ve been serving in “leadership” positions for a long time. So when someone tells me that “leaders” are receiving revelation about what I should do, I always want to know what *kind* of revelation, and whether it’s clearer than the kind I usually get.

I think what I really resist is the notion that “leaders” are somehow so different in their experience of the divine that they are reliably more trustworthy than I would be in the same leadership position. It doesn’t help, of course, that most leaders are male, and that I won’t likely get a chance to experience the way a bishop or a stake president receives revelation. But still, gender issues aside, it is discomfiting to think that God might communicate more clearly with some of his children than others. I want to think that we are all much more alike than we are different (hence the title of this post), and I don’t like the idea that there might be a hierarchy of understanding God which somehow correlates with the hierarchy of the church.

And if God does communicate with leaders more clearly than with the rest of us (yes, this would be the time to interject the seminary scripture about the Lord speaking with Moses face-to-face), is it impossible or wrong for them to describe the experience to the rest of us? Maybe it wouldn’t really help if President Hinckley said “I saw Christ in the temple last week, and we were talking about women and the priesthood…” but it sure seems like it would.

So, was it just Moses? Is it just prophets? When you’re released as a Stake President and called as an Area Authority, do you get exactly 10 revelation-units (RUs) better at understanding God? Or are authority and revelation not so closely linked? Why doesn’t anyone talk about how revelation comes to leaders?

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18 Responses to Revelation and the Brotherhood of Man

  1. Nate Oman on May 16, 2004 at 11:04 pm

    Kristine: I am not sure why I need to believe that leaders are better at getting revelation that I am? Is the superior quality of the revelation supposed to put all of my authority angst to bed? I am honestly a bit confused here…

  2. Kingsley on May 16, 2004 at 11:21 pm

    Yes, it almost sounds as if you’re saying, “Doctrine x would be easier to swallow were it coated with a miracle story,” etc.

  3. Kristine on May 16, 2004 at 11:48 pm

    I don’t know if *you* need to believe that leaders are better at getting revelation than you are, but *I* need to, or at least I’d like to, believe that if I’m going to trust them when they tell me to do things that don’t make sense to me. If I had been one of the Israelites who just had to look at the serpent to be saved, I would have been more likely to do it if I had known that Moses got more than just subtle little hints from God.

    I think, Kingsley, that it’s not so much a miracle coating for the doctrine, but of the person–if I’m going to allow a church leader to have more influence over me than I would normally let another human being have, I want to know why I’m trusting him. The usual human reasons for bestowing such trust (academic training, demonstrated concern for me personally, the testimonials of others) don’t seem to apply here, and so I’m wondering if there’s some other way to establish trustworthiness.

  4. greenfrog on May 17, 2004 at 12:10 am

    Why follow the leadership of others who are subject to the same difficulties of understanding as we are? (BTW, I share this view of the process.)

    I only know of one reason: In order to have an organization that enables us to accomplish greater things than each of us would be able to accomplish alone or through other communities based on less valuable truths.

  5. Kingsley on May 17, 2004 at 12:43 am

    Kristine: But if Church leader x says do y because Christ came to me last night, he still might be lying–how do I know that Christ came to him? How does simply telling a story make him more trustworthy? On the other hand, if I believe the Holy Ghost has revealed to me that Church leader x is an Apostle holding the Keys of the Kingdom handed down from Joseph Smith, trustworthiness has already been established, & unusual sacred experiences (such as Elder Haight’s) are simply a pleasant bonus. (I believe Pres. Packer hinted pretty strongly somewhere that the Lord had “commanded” the Twelve “not to” spend too much time sharing such experiences, for what it’s worth). So as tricky as it is, it comes down to me getting a revelation about their status as prophets of God.

  6. diogenes on May 17, 2004 at 12:58 am

    It seems to me that Kristine proceeds from a faulty premise: that the current structure of the church is intended to optimize leadership.

    It’s entirely possible — indeed quite likely — that the structure is intended to do something else entirely. For example, to see how we will react when placed in the position of following those whose capacity for inspiration is less than ours. Or, for that matter, to see how we will react when placed in positions of leadership knowing that we aren’t any better — indeed perhaps are much worse — at receiving divine guidance than those over whom we have stewardship.

    Recall Harold B. Lee’s aphorism that the purpose of the Church is not so much to comfort the afflicted as it is to afflict the comfortable.

  7. Kingsley on May 17, 2004 at 1:09 am

    Kristine: Of course, I was speaking directly to your “Maybe it wouldn’t really help if President Hinckley said ‘I saw Christ in the temple last week, and we were talking about women and the priesthood…’ but it sure seems like it would.”

  8. Clark Goble on May 17, 2004 at 11:02 am

    I tend to agree with Diogenes. I think the real test of discipleship is what to do with uninspired leaders. My sense is that you feel that one should only obey when the counsel is correct. While I’m not convinced one should always obey when the counsel in incorrect, I personally think that often we should. For one, part of being a leader is learning how to lead. If the people you are trying to lead ignore you at every mistake then the chances of you learning how to lead are pretty negligible. Just like the chances of someone learning how to teach are pretty low if everyone just walked out if they didn’t do that great a job.

  9. Davis Bell on May 17, 2004 at 12:11 pm

    Clark, how is one to discern if the counsel is “incorrect?” Isn’t the inability to discern the correctness of what we’re being told by leaders the problem in the first place?

    Kristine, on its face I agree it’s “discomfiting to think that God might communicate more clearly with some of his children than others.” However, the more I think about it, the less troubled I am. When one factors in the variables of faith and righteousness and other factors that stem from the reciever, and the idea that God is doing what’s best for us at all times — i.e. trying some by not communicating clearly with them, it’s less so.

  10. cooper on May 17, 2004 at 2:29 pm

    Kristine I find your exploration of this subject interesting.

    I am reading your question as to the inspiration of leaders to be more on a local level. I have the same problem. Not because I doubt that they don’t have inspiration, but because I have seen many of them in action. At times when inspiration is needed most are times when it is least convenient I’ve found.

    Example: The Primary president has just annnounced she is pregnant and needs to be on bed rest. The young women’s president goes to her bishop because she is having a problem between two out spoken YW. She needs his assistance to deal with the problem. A new sister has just moved into the ward and doesn’t have a calling. The Bishop releases the YW pres, the Primary pres and puts the new member in as YW pres. Then extends a calling to the old YW pres saying he knows she was to be the primary pres all along. YW pres then prays about it and gets no confirmation as to the primary calling and still feels she should be the YW pres. Was the Bishop using inspriation or was he using the path of least resistance?

    Many times when a member of the Bishopric is extending a calling he needs to be interviewing the person prior to the call being extended. He should then listen to the spirit and confirm that the calling should be extended. Even when you know this person would be great in this calling, maybe the Lord will say, “you know they have this, this and this going on right now, maybe we should call X instead. But time seems to bear heavily on administration. Sometimes the spirit is left behind for expediency’s sake.

  11. Kristine on May 17, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    But Clark, if people follow you even when you’re wrong, what would you learn besides a mistaken conviction of your own inerrancy?

  12. clarkgoble on May 17, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    I don’t see how that follows Kristine. If I’m wrong, things won’t work well and I’ll notice that. Heavens, I made tons of mistakes as a leader on my mission. I never came up with the view that I was infallible – indeed quite the contrary. I developed a very, very strong sense of my foibles and humility.

    Also the issue is whether people work with you. I don’t think that implies that there shouldn’t be feedback about problems. Merely that how the feedback works should be constructive. (i.e. no gossip about the flaws of a bishop, no backbiting, but rather taking the scriptures seriously about how we are to interact)

    Of course I also have a strong view that we frequently attribute to church structure far more power in our lives than it actually has. I also think that we unfortunately look to the church as something to serve us – which I think is the exact inverse of how it should be.

  13. Davis Bell on May 17, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    It’s seems kind of funny to be worrying about how we ought be teaching those who are called to lead us.

  14. chris goble on May 17, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    Like Kristine, I think I have also been puzzled by the lack of testing of other’s revelations. I don’t think we have a culture where we feel comfortable ever questioning another’s inspiration. Perhaps this is due to the fragility of egos. Perhaps it is due to the ease with which certain people could dominate others. Maybe it’s a slippery slope to D&C 28. Who really knows? For some reason it just seems taboo.

    Perhaps one way to look at the issue is to see why leaders are really necessary? Unless you need to pool the resources of a group, true leadership really isn’t necessary. All that is needed is a way to keep people from stepping on each other’s toes. Because of the importance we give to callings, I don’t think we in the church take this hands off view. Perhaps this is where the conflict arises.

    If the specific things our leaders get us to have the most import, then an analysis of their degree of inspiration is vital. If leaders are there just to direct us in a general direction then a fair amount of flexibility in inspiration seems acceptable. To me, the problem arises from the fact that we associate anything divine with inerrancy and absolutes. I think the world is chaotic for a reason. Trying to invent a world governed by absolutes may be a fun intellectual exercise, but it may just make dealing with day to day realities rather difficult.

    So why don’t we talk about how revelation comes to leaders? The way I see it, is except for fairly rare occurrences, it really doesn’t matter. In a chaotic world there could be quite a few permutations on what could be done. To me, what is more important is what we become as a result of these generally random experiences (random within a certain domain).

  15. Ben Huff on May 17, 2004 at 8:55 pm

    Isn’t this a big part of the importance of the law of common consent?

    And it seems to me we do have a way of questioning revelation somebody else, particularly a leader, has received: we pray for a confirmation, and if we don’t receive such a confirmation, there’s some wiggle room. How much depends on the subject. If the subject is whether there has to be a priesthood leader at the church whenever anyone is at the church, including the Relief Society, not getting a confirmation won’t make much difference. But that issue doesn’t reach very deeply into one’s life.

    Kristine, do you feel people expect you to follow them because they have some abstract authority? How do you see persuasion and love factoring into their leadership?

  16. Adam Greenwood on May 18, 2004 at 10:16 am

    I’m going to join the Nate Oman bandwagon and ask why our obedience would be enhanced by knowing that a leader was receiving superior revelation to us? It seems to me the opposite.

    Obedience is most itself when it obeys to obey and for no other reason. But this is a hard road, the one Abraham walked, and a road I suspect we’re mostly not ready for.

  17. Grasshopper on May 18, 2004 at 11:34 am

    For that matter, how could we know that a leader is receiving superior revelation? It seems to me that the only way to know whether someone else has received revelation is when we receive revelation ourselves. And if our revelation isn’t that clear, then it might not be able to tell us much about the quality of someone else’s revelation.

    When I read the descriptions of modern prophets about how they receive revelation, it sounds a lot like how I do: usually kind of muddled, occasionally clearer, sometimes out of the blue, sometimes after long pleadings, sometimes not at all, and, on rare occasions, with such clarity and power that I am inclined to call it “undeniable”.

    I’m not sure I agree with Adam that obedience for obedience’s sake is the truest form of obedience. It seems to me that Abraham’s obedience was based on his relationship with the Lord, which makes all the difference.

  18. Clark Goble on May 18, 2004 at 1:22 pm

    I suspect it all depends upon what you mean by “know” Grasshopper. If someone is living a good life and appears to be able to instinctively recognize what is going around them, then I think we have prima facie reason to think them in tune with the spirit. If someone is struggling and appears lost, they most likely have lost their way. (For some reason I feel like I’m lecturing in a Buddhist monastery in an episode of Kung Fu)

    Obedience for obedience’s sake seems silly. After all obedience needs nothing of us. The people need us. Thus we obey to help the people.