Grassroots-Style Dispensations

July 7, 2009 | 18 comments
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Are Mormons exclusivists or universalists? I think the answer is pretty clearly a refutation of the dichotomy—we’re somewhere in between or perhaps a new animal altogether. (2 Nephi 33:12 would be a good slogan.)  But when it comes to our discussions of dispensations and the legitimacy of other movements, I think we often emphasize our exclusivist scriptures and doctrine (e.g., D&C 1:30) over the more universalist.  After taking a quick look at one of our more exclusivist approaches, I want to highlight another uniquely Mormon approach that is more universalist.

Our exclusivist rhetoric is paradigmatically captured within what I will call the Nibley Approach to analyzing similarities between Us and Them—specifically as concerns dispensations of the gospel.  While Nibley is by no means unique in employing this approach, I first started thinking about it on my mission while listening to his lecture tapes.  Nibley employed his approach primarily when looking at ancient civilizations, but the approach gets used just as often when we look at our contemporaries.  Nibley had an amazing talent for uncovering new or previously unrecognized similarities between aspects of ancient religions and the Restoration, or else reinterpreting well-known elements of ancient religions within the light of the Restoration in order to make similarities and dissimilarities appear (his essays in Temple and the Cosmos are a good example).  The framework for understanding these similarities—what I’m calling the Nibley Approach—is typically the Dispensation-to-Apostasy framework, the descent from true to false priesthoods.  Similarities between ancient Mediterranean and contemporary LDS temples, for example, appear within the Nibley Approach to be evidence for a full-fledged dispensation (known or unknown) that once flourished in the region at some point and then subsequently fell into apostasy.  The observed similarities are thus “echoes” or remnants of true religion that survived the transition from a true dispensation or legitimate, authorized religion into a time of general apostasy.

I think that this approach is firmly rooted in our Mormon outlook; we all seem to make use of it. For example, while touring Luxor with a group of BYU students in 2004 almost all of us expressed a significant relation between Egyptian and Mormon ritual, though there was a wide spectrum concerning how much significance individuals wanted to read into what as we gazed at the depictions on ancient temple walls. Some went so far as to speculate whether Abraham might have inspired or set up a minor dispensation in Egypt, the remnants of which can be viewed on the walls of the ancient temple today.  Unfortunately for Mormon enthusiasts, archeology and other ancient studies are uncannily skilled at uncovering the apostate periods that contain the “echoes” of true dispensations, and lousy at uncovering and bringing to light ancient groups and religions wherein full-fledged dispensations flourished.

I should state upfront that the Nibley Approach is not the only approach that Nibley used.  Nor do I think it an illegitimate approach (at least not always).  But we certainly have other means within our Mormon toolkit for looking at the past (and present).  We can juxtapose the Nibley Approach with what I will call Grassroots-Style Dispensations.  God has certainly inspired full-fledged dispensations (complete with divine investitures of authority and sanctioned ritual worship), and ancient and modern prophets have all spoken about these dispensations falling into various degrees of apostasy.  But these same prophets have also taught us that God will reveal “line upon line, precept upon precept” to his children (see here and here), without a clause restricting such piecemeal inspiration to full dispensations. “God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.”  In addition to our “spoken” languages (English, Arabic, Swahili…) this surely includes our cultural languages. Remembering that we’re all of us—whether living in “apostate” or “covenant” times—children of God, and remembering Christ’s teaching that our Father knows how to give good gifts to his children, it’s easy for us to replace or supplement our Nibley Approach with a Grassroots Approach.  Instead of only revealing truth in a top down manner within full-fledged dispensations, God also inspires individuals, families, nations, and civilizations from the bottom up.  He answers the yearning for truth with light for the understanding—whether this yearning comes from a prophet, a Canaanite pagan, or an atheist.  Consequently, it’s just as likely that a prophet like Abraham was inspired by the Grassroots Dispensation in ancient Egypt and so learned important truths (astronomy, temple worship, etc.), as it is that he inspired changes to Egyptian religion.  We know that this is what often happened with Joseph Smith.

Our modern leaders have made explicit statements that support the idea of Grassroots Dispensations.  In their 15 February 1978 Statement, the First Presidency said,

The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucious, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others received a portion of God’s light.  Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals. . . . Consistent with these truths, we believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation.

We could multiply scriptural references and prophetic statements to continue making the point: God isn’t merely content with a trickle-down dissemination of light and truth to his children who live without the benefit of authorized temple covenants. He also reveals light to any of his children seeking light, and speaks the truth to them in their own language.  Thus, when looking in ancient history (or contemporary societies) we don’t just see remnants of truth, which at one time were had in full; we also see light and truth that God has revealed without the umbrella of what we typically call a dispensation.  And as stated by the first Presidency, this includes divine “callings” to those without priesthood (e.g., Bridget Jack Meyers).

This Grassroots Approach has many implications for how we see and understand the world around us, and especially how we see other religions and claims to divine guidance.  I’m going to hold back and only mention two of them.

First, I wonder how good we are at recognizing the voice of God in other languages.  It’s surely easiest and perhaps safest for us to take refuge in the obvious sources: those canonized in Mormonism and the revelation we receive in our own lives.  Sorting out the truth from the interpolations of men in the Apocrypha and other good sources is much more difficult.  Serving a mission in the Bible Belt I often came across the gift of tongues used in Charismatic churches.  At first it was very difficult to be comfortable focusing on the prayer I was saying while an investigator we’d just taught mumbled unintelligibly all the way through it.  A friend of mine once ran out of a church when the “holy rolling” began because she could “feel the devil in it.”  Maybe the devil was in it.  But maybe God was in it—speaking according to those Christians’ language.  I often wonder how many of us would likewise run out of a Nephite Sacrament service; I’m convinced that their services would appear even more exotic to us than those of our contemporary Charismatic cousins (it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to read Mormon 6:9, conducted in an ancient setting, as a little terrifying).

Second, the Grassroots Approach suggests that other (non-Mormon) groups can have light and understanding that we don’t have.  Since we’re commanded to search for additional truths, to study and learn, to seek out everything that is “lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy, or of good report,” we have an obligation to keep our eyes open for these truths.  God certainly reveals truth to his prophets, truth we need to know and live.  But, as Joseph Smith’s experiences make clear, God often does so as the prophets are looking out at the world and what is available in other groups.  And God tells us in our revelations that if we search other sources with the aid of the Spirit, we “shall obtain benefit therefrom.”  As Brigham put it,

[Mormonism] embraces all truth in heaven and on earth, in the earth, under the earth, and in hell, if there be any truth there.  There is not truth outside of it; there is no virtue outside of it; there is nothing holy and honorable outside of it; for, wherever these principles are found among all the creations of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his order and Priesthood, embrace them. (JD 11:213)

There are other ways of interpreting this quote than the one that I am urging.  Someone I am very close to is very uncomfortable with my family’s practice of incorporating Jewish elements into our Sabbath observance.  She cites quotes like this one in claiming that if these “other elements” were really a good thing, God would tell his prophet this and all Mormons would then know and follow suit.  I’m much more of a we-must-be-anxiously-engaged-in-good-causes-and-do-many-things-of-our-own-free-will kind of guy.  And I think it’s clear that Brigham is telling us that wherever we “find” truth, we need to embrace it and recognize it as genuinely part of our religion.

Consequently, I think we ought to be excited about studying other groups of our Father’s children, their doctrines and practices.  I believe that if we faithfully make as much use of the Grassroots Approach as we do the Nibley Approach, we will be open and led to the discovery of many of the truths of Mormonism that we don’t currently possess.

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18 Responses to Grassroots-Style Dispensations

  1. Marc Bohn on July 7, 2009 at 11:15 am

    I like the universalism of Brigham Young’s sentiment and think there is certainly much to be gained from being anxiously engaged and seeking out all good and truth that is to be had in the world. It brings to mind the advice Henry Eyring describes his father giving him as he headed off to school comes to mind: “Well, I want to say this to you: I’m convinced that the Lord used the Prophet Joseph Smith to restore his church. For me that is a reality. I haven’t any doubt about it. Now, there are a lot of other matters which are much less clear to me. But in this Church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true. You go over to the University of Arizona and learn everything you can, and whatever is true is a part of the gospel.”

    I do, however, think there are institutional concerns that can be raised as part of this “universalist” approach though. On more than a few occasions I’ve seen converts struggle to make sense of what long-held beliefs, traditions and rituals they can and/or should hold on to as they embrace their new found faith. While I certainly don’t subscribe to the notion that only those things officially delineated as “good” by the Brethren are actually good and worthy of pursuit, I think the converse is also true, simply because the Church hasn’t identified something as unhelpful, a distraction, or simply “not” good, doesn’t make it worth pursuing or holding on to.

  2. James Goldberg on July 7, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Excellent analysis! This is basically the model I’ve been using for a while to understand interfaith paralells, for example, between the Sikh faith my grandfather was raised in and the LDS one he joined. I like the “grassroots” terminology, though. Very cool.

    To respond to Marc’s comment: that’s what the individual guidance of the Spirit is for, right? Every family ought to prayerfully consider their own traditions, maintaining the best and sorting out the less useful. That’s true of pioneer-descended families and brand-new converts alike.

  3. SmallAxe on July 7, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Here’s a related post that might also be helpful: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2008/09/the-perils-of-parallel-o-mania/

  4. Dennis on July 7, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    An analogy of mine that might be helpful here is that there are many stones rolling down a mountain, not just one. The restored church may represent the largest (if it can be represented by one stone at all), but there are certainly others that are making progress (i.e., rolling), quite independent of the church. In time, all will come together into one stone, cut out “without hands,” meaning that God’s hand was involved in all.

  5. Dave on July 7, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    That is sly, SmallAxe — just linking to an earlier post rather than boldly declaring your disagreement with the cultural similarities approach.

    Here’s another related post that might be helpful: History, apostasy, and faith-promoting rumors. Jonathan’s comments on apostasy as history versus belief in apostasy seem applicable to the larger dispensation-and-apostasy framework as well.

  6. Bridget Jack Meyers on July 7, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    James ~ I didn’t even know you were a guest blogger for T&S. I had to go back and read your June introduction. I’m so sorry I missed it though because that would have been a great place to share the awesome story of how I met you and your wife (give her a hug from me btw).

    And as stated by the first Presidency, this includes divine “callings” to those without priesthood (e.g., Bridget Jack Meyers).

    Well, if you want to get technical, I hold just as much priesthood outside of Mormonism as I would within. :P I’m even living that terrible joke about holding the priesthood every night in bed…

    Regarding your second point, “other (non-Mormon) groups can have light and understanding that we don’t have,” my question would be, to what extent can Mormons acknowledge doctrines in other systems as “truths” if those doctrines contradict what the church currently teaches or practices? Does this approach only accept good things in other religions so long as they don’t contradict LDS teaching, or can it say that these contradictory things are true in their own way, that perhaps God has granted light and knowledge to such people which the current LDS church isn’t ready for?

  7. Cameron on July 7, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    The first thing I thought of upon viewing this post were the scriptures that talk about how God is not a respecter of persons – how he respects all who obey his laws.

    So, the answer is both.

  8. Bookslinger on July 7, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Jack, #6, I think there are truths in other churches which the LDS church is silent on, or used to teach but has become silent on.

    The LDS church has a way of “dropping” previous teachings (or statements by the First presidency or Qof12) that is frustrating to non-LDS (and many LDS) in the way that your recent post described. Did we drop it because a) it was wrong, or b) it was superceded/modified with further-light-and-knowledge, or c) still true, but not expedient to promulgate anymore due to i) the members’ inability to handle it (United Order) or ii) politically incorrect, or iii) was a stumbling block to some, or iv) became too unwieldy to manage.

    Then we have to ask if an item really contradicts current church teachings, or contradicts merely the “generally held members’ understanding” of church teachings.

    After taking those nuances into account, then I’d say no, it probably isn’t “truth” if it contradicts officially taught current doctrine. If the LDS church is silent on the issue, then, maybe or maybe not.

    One bone I like to throw evangelicals, and it tweaks many members’ understanding too, is 2 Nephi 31:13

    Read that last phrase. Sounds pretty Pentecostal, doesn’t it?

    There’s also an account in History of the Church, vol 1 page 297, in the footnote, where Brigham Young is voice in a group prayer, and speaks in an unknown tongue. After he’s finished everyone looks at the Prophet to hear what he has to say, and he basically said “Yes, that was from God, the Adamic language.”

    Many LDS today say the gift of tongues is _only_ used to preach the gospel, and it’s always a real earthly language for it to be genuine. But I think the correct view is that the gift is _mainly_ used to preach the gospel. The occurances of the gift of tongues in praise and prayer are just much rarer, and accounts are kept more guarded.

    But yes, Evangelicals and Pentecostals should really like 2nd Nephi with all that talk of getting SAY-yuv’d, and “shouting” in tongues.

  9. Bob on July 7, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    #6: “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.” (Joseph Smith).

  10. Rob Perkins on July 7, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Perhaps the contradiction is only apparent, rather than actually a contradiction. (for example, the putative Mormon simultaneously believing in D&C 137 and D&C 76, all while performing proxy ordinances whenever he or she can)

    Perhaps the contradiction is actually a contradiction, but the doctrine or idea long held to be important to God isn’t actually all that important to God after all (that is to say, your putative Mormon has personal revelation that, say, a certain collection of people should receive the Priesthood after all, and is merely waiting for the organization or the surrounding culture to twig to the idea without tearing itself apart over it.)

    Perhaps the contradiction is two memes competing in a mutually beneficial competition/cooperation matrix, where, at a higher level (that is, considered in a system of many more interacting memes), they appear to be in harmony rather than dichotomy. (It’s really hard to find an example of this, but see Isaiah 55 for an expression of this notion in other terms.)

    Perhaps both contradicting ideas are actually false.

    Can you tell?

  11. Bob on July 7, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    I believe Eugene England said something like: “The world is full of contradictions. It’s how we behave when confronted by them, is the test.”

  12. Sgarff on July 7, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Thanks James,

    This is very insightful. It changes the way I look at everything.

  13. Ben Pratt on July 8, 2009 at 1:28 am

    I think this is related to the gift of differences of administration. This is indeed very insightful, and I’ll be thinking about this for a while. Thanks, James!

  14. James Olsen on July 8, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Marc – Henry Eyring put it perfect; and I’m thrilled to have his son in the First Presidency. You bring up a great point about the institutional difficulty. But I think it’s perhaps more a difficulty in theory and not in practice. What’s more, it’s an unavoidable difficulty, even without the call to anxiously seek for truth outside the walls of our church buildings. As James (#2) said, I think individuals and families have an obligation to seek after the spirit here. The reality is, our church leaders simply can’t speak out about every or even most issues and temptations in society. If we don’t have the phronesis to appropriate the “lovely, virtuous, and praiseworthy” while avoiding that which is detrimental to our progression, then we’ll never make very good saints. Keeping the Sabbath day holy is a good example of a commandment that requires our full activity and engagement, without any real guidelines. I think it’s an analogous obligation.

    SmallAxe – I didn’t find the post very “related.” You make a point about comparison to buoy up power structures and make a good point about the similarly distasteful nature of such comparisons if motivated by looking for an inferior “other” or familiar “another.” Your main concern seems to be motivation for comparing likes and un-likes. My post is meant to remind us that according to our own doctrines and history, God is working directly to inspire non-Mormons throughout the world & history; consequently we ought to be reserved in our condemnation, and open to and seeking for truth wherever we can find it. Yes there are dangers, but these are not dangers that excuse us or allow us to abnegate our obligations by sticking with “all is well in Zion.”

    Jack – It’s probably best if we don’t go into details on how my wife and I met ;) Next, I personally disagree with your comment about your holding just as much priesthood outside of the church as you would within it, though there’s certainly room for argument here. Finally, I enjoyed everyone else’s responses to your question. I certainly don’t think that Mormonism is capable of endorsing any sort of bland cultural/anthropological relativism (though there’s a good deal of affinity with some of the more sophisticated forms of relativism). And I think the question about doctrine is a little wrongheaded. Recognizing that God doesn’t reveal things in a cultural vacuum, we’ve a good deal of wiggle room accounting for superficial differences and interpretations. We’re also pretty good at stating that people have a limited understanding that isn’t wrong (or at least is quite excusable), even if it does contradict or seem to contradict doctrines of the restoration (biblical notions of Heaven and Hell or Abinadi’s notions of the Godhead are great examples). A good deal depends on context. But rather than worrying about specific doctrines in other religions that appear to flatly contradict those of the restoration, I’m concerned here about our faithfully sallying forth into the vast reaches of human knowledge, exploration, and culture, appropriating every good book, gift, and practice.

    Bookslinger – that’s a great story; the first time Brigham met Joseph. We usually leave out John Portineous Greene who also spoke in tongues on that occasion. We had public speaking in tongues through much of the 19th century. This is a good example of my point that I think we might be just as uncomfortable taking part in services in our own history (early restoration sacrament services, Nephite services, ancient Israelite temple sacrifices) as we sometimes are amongst our contemporary non-Mormons. I don’t think we should let our discomfort keep us either from acknowledging God in “foreign languages” (which certainly doesn’t mean we uncritically endorse everyone’s claim to inspiration) or from seeking for truth in these languages.

    Bob – I personally like the way Terryl Givens has interpreted this quote about contradictions; it’s not that we ignore their contradictory nature and resign ourselves to something mystical or holy in irrationality. Rather, contradictory “truths” often lead us to either a greater understanding that supplants our former understanding, or else leads us to a paradigm shift wherein we can encompass both truths in a non-contradictory (though perhaps still tense) way.

    Ben – that’s a very interesting take on the gift of the differences in administration.

  15. Stephen on July 8, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Regarding the last point in the essay, I was in Sunday School last week and they discussed the admonition to “seek out of the best books words of wisdom.” Immediately the conversation turned not to “what are the great works of world literature that we all ought to read,” or “how can I, as an adult, begin to understand quantum physics” (I genuinely believe that is what this scripture is about) but “how can we make sure that we are not exposed to smut.”

    Now, I am not into smut. I am all for the “War on Smut.” But I don’t think the scriptural injunction above, and others like it, are limiting ones. We are supposed to “seek after” virtuous and lovely things, not just “seek to avoid, unwholesome, r-rated things.” The MPAA will not make us Holy. Again, there is plenty of “flee babylon” in the scriptures, but the equally powerful admonition is to be diligent and study. I don’t think that we score a great many points for a “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” I think that adversary is sloth, as much as smut.

    You mentioned Nibley. As bright as he was, and as much as he struggled with not being overly snide, I think in many respects he was among the humblest of saints. Which is more arrogant, to look at the wide universe of knowledge out there and say “I give up. I am going to watch TV,” or to respond to the scriptural admonition by saying “I will try”? We thumb our noses at God when we avoid knowledge, not when we seek it. We cite Nephi’s statement “nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” as a defense and a comfort, but it should not be. The Angel did not think it was. The Book of Mormon would have stopped there if not knowing the meaning of all things was sufficient. Nephi wasn’t humble because he didn’t know. He was humble because he knew he didn’t know, was unsatified with his ignorance, and sought knowledge in the Lord’s way. The Angel proceeds to tell Nephi the meaning of all things. I don’t understand why that scripture is used in the way it is. The takeaway ought to be “not knowing is not good enough.” After explaining that the best answer to doctrinal questions for which we can’t cite authority is “I don’t know,” President Lee said, “but don’t say you don’t know about things you ought to know about. Study the scriptures and be well informed.”

    I think that when we interpret the admonition to “seek” as one to “limit” we wax Orwellian and the angels weep for us. I have begun to worry that in the judgment we may be asked “Why are you so stupid? Seriously, you had a public school, a public library, a university education, access to the works of nearly every great thinker at your finger tips, and yet you are genuinely dumb-even by mortal standards.” I think the “but I didn’t watch any smut” defense is going to be about as helpful as the “but I didn’t lose my buried talent” defense. Even in this market, the Lord is not satisfied with a return of principal.

  16. SmallAxe on July 9, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    SmallAxe – I didn’t find the post very “related.”

    I’m confused why you wouldn’t. What I am calling “inverse Orientalism” you are calling “the Nibley Approach”. I think my post raises some of the problems with it that yours doesn’t.

    Secondly, my post also raises the question of how we go about identifying and integrating these truths from what you call grassroots dispensations. Almost as easy as the comparative endeavor could become one of reducing other traditions to lesser forms of ours, it can also become one of exotifying other traditions such that they become foils to highlight the deficiencies of our own tradition. Not that you necessarily are doing anything like this, but the importation of Buddhism into the West/America is perhaps a good example. “I’m Buddhist” often means “I can’t stand organized religion and meditation is so cool”.

    For the most part, however, I think we’re both value pluralists; and I agree with just about everything you have to say.

  17. James Olsen on July 10, 2009 at 10:43 am

    I’m glad you responded. Given your comments I can see the affinity.

    Your post does raise problems that mine doesn’t; but again, I think this is because we really are approaching two different (if broadly related) topics. I very much appreciate your use and extension of Said, and love your term “inverse Orientalism,” though I think there are significant differences (despite the similarities) between this term (if I understand you correctly) as a motivation for and mode of comparison and the Nibley Approach which is a colloquialized version of Nibley’s Mormonized version of “Patternism” used by the Cambridge School–a sort of subset methodology of the History of Religions School in religious studies–a methodology used to figure out what was going on in earlier periods based on the remnants or evidence of later periods.

    And I agree with your point about the exotification of other traditions. It’s very easy to take the lazy approach of glorifying an aspect of another tradition that you don’t fully understand, but which you can use to criticize aspects of your own tradition that rub you the wrong way.

  18. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 14, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    It is pretty clear in the stories of the experiences of the earliest Church members that many of them had significant spiritual experiences that helped prepare them to accept the Restored Gospel. They were ordinary people, without benefit of authoritative baptism, who were blessed through contemplation of the Bible, prayer and reflection, resulting in personal revelations that were parts of the Whole.

    Many Christians believe that God reveals himself to those who are not Christian through various means, including the evidence of his role in the creation of the universe. The reaction of many Christian churches against the subjectivity of personal revelation, a legalism that is often their grounds for attacking the Mormon emphasis on seeking personal revelation, is not universal, and there are still many Christians, above and beyond Pentecostals of various stripes, who believe that the Holy Spirit communicates to them. I heard one BYU professor, a former Protestant minister, testify at a FAIR conference a few years ago that he believes his call to the Protestant ministry was just as inspired by God as his decision to join the LDS Church.

    My own feeling is that there is real inspiration behind many of the Christian theologians of the present day who are seeking to better understand the nature of God and how salvation is offered to all mankind, and have become advocates of Open theology and of Post-Mortal Evangelism. There are even those who recognize that a real physical resurrection on a perfected Earth is part of God’s plan, or who understand that salvation through Christ means becoming Christlike and Godlike. A general authority who had a house in my old ward in Idaho expressed concern that some of those people were diluting the brand of Mormonism by adopting some of our distinctive doctrines, but it seems to me that there will be many people who embrace those truths who will reduce their resistance to Mormonism, and recognize the long existence of those truths in the Church as prophetic.