Why is the concept of holiness so closely related to self-denial? This isn’t just a Mormon thing, or even a Christian one. We see it in the Buddhist monastic tradition, the yogis of India, and the shamans of many cultures. The holiest people are the ones who can undergo the longest tests of endurance.
Most of us are more familiar with what holiness isn’t than what it is. For us, the essence of holiness is “not me”. I would guess that this is the reason we associate “holiness” with the ability to endure trials — we expect to find holiness in something greater, stronger, or more powerful than ourselves. When we find a person who demonstrates great longsuffering, we don’t understand that person, but we instinctively revere her or him.
I think that this instinctive divide between “me” and “holy” is the root of the professional clergy class. From ancient times, the priests or shamans of a society have set themselves apart with distinctive dress, habits, forms of communication, and associations. Intentional or not, these clergy obtain power by becoming “not me” or “not human”. They become unrelatable transhumans, and it is by virtue of their unrelatableness and transhumanity that we revere them.
Much has been made of how Joseph Smith’s work blurs, or even erases, the line between the mundane and the divine. One great example of this is in our system of rotating lay clergy. Bishop Clark was Brother Clark down the street last year, and he’ll be Brother Clark again in a few more years. In a sense, this let’s us peek behind the curtain of divinity to discover that it’s really just more humanity behind it — “it’s turtles all the way down.”
To me, this system strikes at the heart of priestcraft. Priests can only “glut themselves” on the labor of others to the extent that they can convincingly present themselves as possessing secret knowledge, power, or abilities. In contrast, a lay clergy system demonstrates that heavenly power is available to every one of us.
Of course, it doesn’t really work out this smoothly in practice. Some bishops becomes stake presidents, and then general authorities. At this point, our clergy becomes inaccessible and professional to the rest of us. They become transhuman, invoking the same reverence and despair for their ascribed secret knowledge as any other professional clergy.
Is it inevitable in any religious organization that people start worshipping people? I imagine it must be. The same thing happens with bishops in the local wards. We, aware of our fallibility, desperately hope to find a foundation that is infallible, and when people don’t make themselves transhuman, we make them transhuman for us.
We understand that Christ is the only sure foundation, but He’s inconveniently absent. So, rather than depending on ourselves to find and know him, we depend on others to do it for us. We are so much more sure of them than we are of ourselves. It’s so much more comforting to make them the stewards of our agency and salvation, and so frightening to take that kind of eternal responsibility with it’s grave consequences for ourselves.