Paradigms and Stumbling Blocks

September 16, 2013 | 72 comments
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I started thinking about the phrase “stumbling block” recently. It’s such a common phrase that it’s easy to take its significance for granted. And maybe miss its meaning and current relevance.

The literal meaning of the words is obvious, and “stumbling block” is in that sense basically the same phrase as “tripping rock”. But “tripping rock” is fresh and so it forces you to take a look at what the words actually mean: a stone that causes people who are walking somewhere to fall. Why should such an apparently innocuous concept be so deeply ingrained in scripture that it becomes an integrated part of our religious lexicon?

I thought I’d consider another such phrase for comparison. If you used the phrase “tipping point” in the first half of the 20th century, the literal meaning would be clear. But as the graph below (created using a simple Google tool that searches a vast library of books and checks frequency of use), the term didn’t really come into its own until the second half of the 20th century. Of course the Malcolm Gladwell book of the same name explains a lot of the uptick in recent years, and is probably the reason (directly or indirectly) that you’ve heard the phrase. But Gladwell’s book was published in 2000. What explains the upwards trend in the 1960s?

A quote from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who was a pioneering computer scientist, might explain that: “Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems.”

2013-09-23 Tipping Point Graph

The concept of a tipping point–of a region where a small change can lead to much greater effects–is a concept that bears a lot of focus in the modern branches of science that were spurred by the extremely complex logistical problems of World War II. Complexity itself (or chaos, in prior decades) has grown in importance in economics, meteorology, computer science, physics, math, and a host of other disciplines that are either new or have undergone dramatic change in the second half of the 20th century.

While an expert trained in one of those fields might associate the term “tipping point” with related technical concepts (like a similar technical term: saddle point), in the broader consciousness the precise meaning of the word is obscured by its use as a buzzword. It’s familiarity obfuscates instead of clarifying. The same thing, perhaps, that has happened to the phrase “stumbling block” on a much, much grander scale.

2013-09-16 Saddle point

The red dot in this illustration is a saddle point: an equilibrium point that is stable in one axis and unstable in the other.

So here’s why I think that original, literal meaning of the phrase “stumbling block” may have been important. In order to stumble, you must first be walking. If you are walking then, most likely, you have some destination in mind. A stumbling block causes you to stumble when you are on the way to some other destination precisely because you don’t even notice it’s there. It’s a feature of the landscape through which you’re traveling on the way to some other location that escapes your notice.

Traditionally, the term “stumbling block” was linked to the term “scandal” and it referred to the activities of others, which had the appearance of evil, that may lead a person to sin. If your Elder’s Quorom President insults you and you stop coming to Church, then his rudeness is a stumbling block. Similarly, the poor behavior of Nephite Christians described in Alma became a stumbling block insofar as it prevented those who were not members from joining the Church. These are not a very satisfying example for me, because they miss the idea of a stumbling block being unnoticed. If bad behavior turns people away from the Church, then any synonym for “obstacle” or “repellent” would do the trick. Why stumbling block?

I have a hunch a modern example might prove illuminating. If I had to guess at a big stumbling block that was affecting the Church (and, what the heck, I’m going to guess) I would argue that it’s an assumption that there’s a reliable correlation between righteousness and leadership callings. This isn’t going so far as to say that leaders are infallible, but it assumes first, that “righteousness” can be boiled down into some kind of simple, 1-variable aggregation (like the g factor of general intelligence) and 2- that the higher you go up in the Church hierarchy the more of this characteristic you have.

This gets people into all kinds of trouble for reasons too numerous to enumerate, but what’s interesting to me is that it seems to be one of the very few points on which the most hardened and doctrinaire Mormon (who won’t allow face cards in the home) and disaffected ex-Mormons agree: that if Mormonism is true then the leaders ought to be exemplars of righteousness and pillars of virtue. This assumption seems to be lurking behind a great many of individually less-onerous assumptions. Problem with the historicity of the Book of Mormon in the context of the assumption that it describes all of the Western Hemisphere? No problem: adopt the limited geography model.

Except that Elder McConkie was still declaring that Lamanites  were “the principal ancestors of the American Indians,” as late as 1981 and it was as late as 2007 that the Church modified the phrase to “the Lamanites are among the ancestors.” Additionally, Joseph Smith and the Doctrine and Covenants also frequently seem to completely blur the lines between “Lamanite” and “Native American” with no distinction whatsoever. So the assumption of an expansive geography of the Book of Mormon, despite being unsupported by the text, remains propped up by the underlying assumption that the leaders of the Church are reliable in general.

Are they? Is that really a necessary ingredient of our faith? A cursory look at the Old Testament patriarchs would suggest that it is not. Nor, I think, does our doctrine really require it. That the decisions and actions of the leaders will be for the benefit of the Church need not imply that they are invariably correct or even more correct than the actions or decisions of other members who aren’t in leadership positions any more than the belief that all trials can be for our benefit implies that all trials are intended by God. That He can make majesty out of a mess is part of what makes Him God, after all, and so we have the potential to sustain our leaders not because we think they are the best of the best but simply because we’re contributing to the team effort. After all, isn’t that why they would need our support?

D&C 21:5 tells us to receive the word of Joseph Smith (and, by implication, our modern prophets) “as if from mine own mouth,” and we usually assume this means that the word of the Prophet, at least acting in his role as prophet, is as good as God’s. But that’s not actually implied at all, and quite the opposite seems indicated when the same verse urges us to practice “patience and faith” in this endeavor. In other words, we’re commanded to treat the words as if they were God’s, even though they might very well not actually be what God would say if He were around personally. We do our best to honor our leaders doing their best, but we’re really just all muddling through together.

This is an uncomfortable proposition because it takes away the safety net. If we can’t rely on the word of modern prophets to be infallible then there’s no bedrock to which we can point and say “This, this is the ultimate starting point.” It might be uncomfortable, but what other reading of D&C 68:4 actually makes sense?

And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.

What kind of comfort can we expect in a world where Abraham was asked to kill his son? Rest is not for this realm. What kind of foundation can we rely on that isn’t Christ Himself? And if our relationship with Him is not rock solid (mine is not), what surrogate could cover the deficiency? This is the world as it truly is, not as we wish it to be. Only when we frankly accept how truly dire the situation is will we really understand that the Gospel, which assures us there is hope despite our total inability to grapple with these problems successfully, really is indeed the good news.

 

 

72 Responses to Paradigms and Stumbling Blocks

  1. Old Man on September 16, 2013 at 9:31 am

    “A cursory look at the Old Testament patriarchs would suggest that it is not.” One reason I love the OT.

    Nice post.

  2. Howard on September 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    …the underlying assumption that the leaders of the Church are reliable in general. Are they? Is that really a necessary ingredient of our faith? Well what sense does it make to follow unreliable leaders?

    You’ve omitted a very important data point concerning the BoM limited geography model; the timing of the shift to this model was very suspiciously linked to the release of genetic research showing Native American genetic markers are inconsistent with any detectable presence of ancestors from the ancient Middle East! The limited geography model just happens to dodge that scientific bullet…at least for the time being.

    What kind of comfort can we expect in a world where Abraham was asked to kill his son? Much comfort when we understand that God was teaching Abraham to think more like God by placing him in a simulation to bring him face to face with who he is. Disobey God? Kill his son? What would you do? Wouldn’t the experience teach you something about yourself?

  3. Nathaniel Givens on September 16, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    You’ve omitted a very important data point concerning the BoM limited geography model; the timing of the shift to this model was very suspiciously linked…

    By this bizarre rationalization, every scientist who has ever abandoned an old model when new data comes in is behaving suspiciously. You have got to be joking.

    Disobey God? Kill his son? What would you do? Wouldn’t the experience teach you something about yourself?

    Again: Really? This is your idea of comfort? I didn’t say it wasn’t an educational world, just that it wasn’t a comfortable world, primarily because learning tends to involve discomfort.

  4. Howard on September 16, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    Oh! So the church is waiting for new scientific data to update their models? I thought they used revelation for that? When did that change?

  5. Nathaniel Givens on September 16, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    Oh! So the church is waiting for new scientific data to update their models? I thought they used revelation for that? When did that change?

    Are you seriously proposing an either/or dilemma for revelation vs. learning?

  6. Steve Smith on September 16, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    “So the assumption of an expansive geography of the Book of Mormon, despite being unsupported by the text, remains propped up by the underlying assumption that the leaders of the Church are reliable in general. Are they? Is that really a necessary ingredient of our faith? A cursory look at the Old Testament patriarchs would suggest that it is not.”

    Nathaniel, I agree, LDS church leaders aren’t always reliable. They were duped by Mark Hoffman and his forgeries. They have said things in the past that they have distanced themselves from (i.e. discouragement of interracial marriage, justifications for denying priesthood to blacks), and they’ve contradicted themselves/reversed their positions (i.e. Russell M. Nelson and the concept of God’s “unconditional love”, Joseph Smith, correlation, and the concept of eternal progress to becoming gods, and Gordon B. Hinckley stating in his interview with Larry King that he doesn’t know that we teach that doctrine).

    But I get the sense here that you are painting a picture of an LDS church that you idealize about, but simply isn’t. Because at some point having faith in/relying on the prophet appears to be an essential ingredient of being LDS. Every general conference I listen to there are admonitions to follow the prophet and heed his council. To obtain a temple recommend I must say yes to the question of whether or not I sustain the president of the church, the First Presidency, and Quorum of the Twelve as a prophets, seers, and revelators. I understand that this doesn’t imply that I regard them as infallible in word, but a great degree of reliance on their words is undoubtedly implied. Do you mean to say that we shouldn’t regard the leaders to be necessarily reliable when it comes to just peripheral insignificant matters, or do you mean that when it comes to their central claims as well? Because many don’t regard them to be reliable not just on their claims about BOM geography but also their central claim that the BOM is an ancient text that predates the 19th century. Should LDS people begin entertaining the idea that the BOM and the Book of Abraham are not actually ancient texts but products of the imagination of Joseph Smith and/or other nineteenth century figures simply because we shouldn’t regard the LDS church leaders to be reliable?

  7. Howard on September 16, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    No Nathaniel I’m not seriously proposing either/or but it is a commonly expressed position.

  8. Howard on September 16, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Also it’s interesting to watch prophets corrected by both science and secular enlightenment and wonder about the meaning of it!

  9. Jon Y. on September 16, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    I know this is going to sound silly, but wouldn’t it be OK to switch paradigms depending on what we are trying to accomplish? Can we believe whatever BOM geographical model or Biblical creation model we need for personal and spiritual reasons and then be perfectly content believing in historical and evolutionary models to describe artifacts and fossil records?

  10. Steve Smith on September 16, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Jon Y., it depends on what historical issues you focus on. Belief in theistic evolution is greatly compatible with Mormon beliefs largely because the LDS church make literal belief in any sort of theory of universe origins a requirement for being a member in good standing. As long as you profess belief in God, Jesus Christ, and the holy spirit, you’re free to believe what you want about evolution. From the 1950s up until the 1990s, we frequently saw in many books and articles written by academics and church leaders attacks against evolution. But the FP and Q12 couldn’t never agree on the level of threat that belief in evolution posed or as to whether or not to discipline members for expressing a belief in it. Consequently there has been no proclamation as to what people should believe regarding the origins of life and species.

    Now the Book of Mormon is totally different question. Yes, you are free to believe and promote whatever geographic model you please. But you will likely face discipline if you openly promote the idea that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction written by Joseph Smith or another 19th century figure. You don’t have to state your belief in the Book of Mormon as an ancient text to be a member in good standing. You aren’t asked such a question in the temple recommend interview. You could even secretly believe the BOM to be a 19th century text and be OK, but not openly, although it could be hard to negotiate some callings if you believe such.

  11. Steve Martin on September 17, 2013 at 1:01 am

    St. Paul called Jesus “the great stumbling block”, because we hate the fact that He al;one is our righteousness. No other way to salvation but through Him and Him alone.
    Not our good works, not other gods, not a lot of Him and a bit of us…just Jesus and His forgiveness for the ungodly…alone.

    If you can’t quite cotton that one, then you have just tripped over that Stone.

  12. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 7:06 am

    Steve Smith-

    I confess to a feeling of frustration as I respond to your post, as though I’m now going to have to repeat the points I made in my original post, but louder this time.

    Your central assumption seems to be that the commands to obey / sustain / etc. Church leaders provide a reasonable justification for the assumption that leadership and general righteousness go hand in hand.

    They. Do. Not.

    The Church is not a meritocracy. It is not a sports team where the most talented players are first string. It is not an orchestra where the best musicians are first chair. It is not a high school where the best student is valedictorian. It is not an awards stand where the highest pedestal is for first place. It is not a beauty contest where the most attractive wins the crown. It is not an army where the best soldiers are promoted. It is not an elite university that accepts the best applicants. It is not Hogwarts, closed forever to the Muggles. Need I go on?

    What’s really important here is that not only is there a lack of any basis for the idea that the Church is a meritocracy, but there is clear, specific, and plain evidence to the contrary. How does the Lord accomplish His work? Through the weak things of the Earth, whether it’s a barely educated, backwoods, New York hick who becomes a prophet or paring Gideon’s army down from tens of thousands to just hundreds, the Lord has repudiated–in both word and deed–the idea that He works with the best to accomplish his objective.

    He. Works. With. The. Least.

    Is there a predisposition towards hero worship in Mormon culture? Yes, of course there is. President Hinckley gave a talk in Richmond many years ago, and for whatever reason they used the lectern from the primary room of my ward when he talked. Afterwards, they installed a plaque before bringing it back, and my mom was like “Great, I thought I had left the Catholic Church, but now we’ve got relics again.”

    The whole point of my post is that there is a widespread belief and practice that leaders are the best of us, but that it is unfounded and in fact contradicted by the words of those self-same leaders and also by scripture. Nephi didn’t want to be king, but his people wouldn’t listen. Joseph Smith didn’t want to be a saint, but now we sing “Praise to the Man,” and I’m sure somewhere he’s pulling out his hair.

    What folks need to realize is that the reason we’re called to obey our leaders is not that our leaders are better than us. That would be trusting in the arm of flesh, which is kind of major no-no. Please note that Nephi never said “don’t trust in the arm of the flesh, unless the arm of the flesh has a really high calling in the Church, then it’s totally OK and you should totally do it forever.”

    Here’s the simple point: you can sustain a leader even when you think they’re fallible. Even when you think they’re not that bright. Even when you think they’re wrong. Of course we all have to decide for ourselves where to draw the line between supporting an errant leader and the point where the harm outweighs the benefit. And that’s the whole point! A command to obey is not a license to shut our brains off.

    Why does God use such crappy leaders? Because:
    1. He wants us to realize that we have potential to be used as tools in His hands despite our imperfections.
    2. It’s all he’s got.
    3. He wants us to realize that the glory is His, not our leaders’.
    4. We can’t coast to the Celestial Kingdom on autopilot, and having fallible leaders is like a way of jarring us periodically from our stupor.

    OK, now I’ve basically written two posts this week. But this is vitally important: obedience and freedom are not mutually exclusive. The purpose of the hierarchy of the Church is not to lay aside our freedom, to lull our freedom to sleep, or to execute our freedom for the sake of obedience. The purpose is to bridle our freedom and proactively use it to submit ourselves to the Lord.

    When I follow imperfect leaders it’s not because I think they deserve it. It’s because the Lord has asked it of me, and it’s an infinitesimal price to pay for what I owe Him. My obedience and sustaining of my leaders is first and foremost a matter between me and my God.

    (There are other reasons as well, having to do with building a Zion society, but really that reason is enough.)

  13. Jon Y. on September 17, 2013 at 8:11 am

    Great post (both of them). My family watched the recent Disney film “Oz the Great and Powerful” that had a similar theme. I’ve shared with friends how the story intersects with our approach to leadership at work, in politics, and at church too. I usually get pauses and confused looks.

  14. Greedy reader on September 17, 2013 at 9:22 am

    To me, sustaining my leaders means showing respect and not inserting myself between them and the people they are called to lead. I can still do this even when I depart from their counsel.

  15. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 10:08 am

    NG: One of the first posts I read of yours made a strong statement about how leaders are just ordinary men nothing more and nothing less. It made me want to listen a bit closer to what you were saying because it is not the everyday view of things.

    I’d like to see if I can get you to clarify one particular part of your reasoning. You have a pretty long set-up about stumbling blocks but the pay-off at the end is more brief. Here is the step that I’m the most curious about.

    You say that that we are commanded to treat the words( of leaders) as if they are coming from God but then you discuss what is meant by “as if”.

    It would seem to me that one key part of treating something “as if” it came from God would be to assume that it is the truth because the assumption is that God is telling you the truth.

    I totally understand and agree that leaders are humans and sin and are fallible, but if you extend this line of thought to also the words and doctrines they espouse you seem to be led to the conclusion that we have no idea what the gospel is or what correlation, if any, the church has with God or with reality.

    Similarly, applying this to ourselves, knowing that we are fallible, we don’t know when we are accurate in our assessments.

    But you don’t seem to want to say we have no basis for beliefs at all, but you don’t offer up your assumed “order of reliance” (personal witness, logic, scripture, averages over time, empirical evidence, etc.)in ascertaining valid conclusions.

    If Gods ways are this mysterious, why believe in God at all?

  16. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Mtnmarty-

    It would seem to me that one key part of treating something “as if” it came from God would be to assume that it is the truth because the assumption is that God is telling you the truth.

    I don’t think that’s a key part, or even a necessary part at all. To be frank, it seems rather silly.

    I totally understand and agree that leaders are humans and sin and are fallible, but if you extend this line of thought to also the words and doctrines they espouse you seem to be led to the conclusion that we have no idea what the gospel is or what correlation, if any, the church has with God or with reality.

    Not at all. The mistake here is basically the false choice fallacy: either our leaders are PERFECT (the correlation between what they say and the truth is 100%) or our leaders are USELESS (the correlation between what they say and the truth is 0%).

    All I’m saying is that our leaders are IMPERFECT (the correlation between what they say and the truth is less than 100%).

    Sometimes are leaders are wrong. Sometimes they are inspired. Who decides which is which? We do, as individual members. That’s the whole point. That’s why free will and obedience are perfectly compatible. That’s why we need to stop treating our leaders as a golden calf (following them blindly) or resenting their imperfections (leaving in anger because it turns out that the humans in leadership positions are actually… wait for it… humans.)

    I’m grateful for leaders for many reasons. I believe that the President does receive revelation for the whole Church that I, without that mantle, cannot receive. So I’m grateful for the counsel and guidance on a strictly individual level. I’m also grateful that we as a community tend to take turns being the leader, at least at local levels. This reinforces the reality that we should be relying on God, not on His imperfect conduits, and that we have to be patient and forgiving of our leaders. After all: it could be us up there one day.

    Obviously the reality falls short of this. There is a very particular “type” of person who gets called to higher leadership positions, predominantly very successful American businessmen. There are also intense network effects based on family relationships that end up looking like nepotism. It’s also fairly common for these kinds of people to campaign for leadership positions, to get the “Mission President” or “Area Authority” merit badge to fulfill some particular sense of personal need.

    I’m not blind to the gap between reality and ideal, but it’s sort of expected for our mortal probation.

  17. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Let me add one more thing, in general.

    If we have to reconfirm every revelation we hear from a prophet, then a prophet may seem superfluous.

    But I don’t think that the role of prophets is primarily to answer questions we were already thinking about. I think often the role of prophets is to call our attention to topics or questions we aren’t thinking about.

    Even an imperfect prophet is a valuable blessing.

  18. Greedy reader on September 17, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Nathaniel, I agree. I think my own judgment is good but imperfect. Inspired leaders are there to check my excesses and my blind spots.

  19. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    NG: I don’t think that’s a key part, or even a necessary part at all. To be frank, it seems rather silly.

    I’m looking at it like the transitive property or a mathematical substitution, neither of which seem that silly, so I must be misunderstanding you. When I think I will treat b “as if” it were a, I assume I can substitute b for a wholeheartedly.

    If I tell someone they can treat my proxy “as if” it were me, I don’t expect to be able to get out of a contract because the proxy is fallible.

    I’m just misunderstanding what properties “as if” has in your interpretation if not “conservation of truth” in the substitution.

    You are apparently thinking of it more like empirical data points of varying reliability and we have to assume fallibility across all the data points.

    I’d understand this a bit better, I think, if you put some rough weights on how you think people should come to decisions about what to believe. Is it 90% reliance on leaders, tradition and parents and 10% personal confirmation, or is 90% on personal faith, and 10% on leaders, tradition and parents. Or the senses get 25%, reason gets 25%, prayer gets 25% and 25% is blind dumb luck or some other formulation.

    I can agree with your conclusion that we each have to decide at the end of the day but if I agree with you that leadership should not be the subject of hero worship or excessively relied upon, I don’t know what to make of the history and future of religious institutions.

    How much weight does one give institutional factors in determining the difference between Thomas Monson, Warren Jeffs, Pope Francis, Richard Dawkins, your spouse, the TV preacher and Nathaniel Givens?

    Its not that reliable, but I give Nathaniel Givens more weight than Pope Francis because of institutional factors. I’m not sure under your approach whether a good pope is better than a bad prophet.

  20. Clay Cook on September 17, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    I found this post interesting in light of the Godel Doctrine lesson #35) this week on the Martin Handcart Company. It amazes me how we can take such a tragedy and make it into such a myth of faith. The teacher started the lesson m=by asking “Why did this happen?” Response were typical, “a test of faith”, “the riners fire” etc. I my opinion the tragedy of the Martin handcart company happened because of the blind faith in the leaders and the unrighteous dominion of the leaders. Most survive situation occur because of poor choices and there consequences. The leaders including Brigham Young made poor choices from the beginning everything from using green wood to build the carts to not having resupplies at Fort Laramie. People who complained were chastised as not having faith and were told that God would save them and keep the snows form falling. We live in physical world full of chaos and entropy and our choices often have dire physical consequences and they have nothing to do with God or Faith. As Nathaniel states, “And that’s the whole point! A command to obey is not a license to shut our brains off.”
    One other comment I would like to make on the post by Howard, he states “You’ve omitted a very important data point concerning the BoM limited geography model; the timing of the shift to this model was very suspiciously linked to the release of genetic research showing Native American genetic..” I would refer you to a review of Metcalfe’s article in Sunstone March 2004 “Reinventing Lamanite Identity” by John Tvedtnes in the FARMS Review Vol 16 Issue 2 pgs 91-106. The limited geography model dates far back as 1917 and even further as Joseph Smith learned more about Central America after reading Stephens Incidents of Travel. The Book of MOrmon taking place on the entire continent and the all Native Americans being related to the Nephi/Lamanites of the BofM are two myths that we need to let go of.

  21. Greedy reader on September 17, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Mtnmarty #19 —

    You want a formula. I don’t understand your need for this, and I don’t see how formulas can get you through every situation. Or even most situations. Life is too messy for that.

  22. Steve Smith on September 17, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    “You can sustain a leader even when you think they’re fallible. Even when you think they’re not that bright. Even when you think they’re wrong…. A command to obey is not a license to shut our brains off.”

    NG, I get your central point, and I agree that there is room for disagreement with authority in the LDS church. Indeed LDS people can regard some statements made by LDS church leaders to be dead wrong and still be considered faithful and obedient. But what you’re ignoring is the fact that there does indeed exist a body of statements that are regarded as revelation; meaning, God’s words transmitted through his mouthpieces, the prophets and apostles. It is in these revelations that the leaders’ words are considered infallible, because they are considered to be God’s words. And openly questioning and doubting these ‘revelations’ is considered to be direct disobedience, not only to the church, but also to God, and will likely lead to formal discipline.

    The problem in your argument is that you’re begging the huge questions of: what is revelation and how do we know it is revelation? In other words how do we know when the leaders are speaking for themselves, and can be openly questioned without formal discipline, and when they are transmitting God’s words, and cannot be reasonably questioned and openly disagreed with without church discipline? For the church will tolerate the Rod Meldrums of the world who express their loyalty to the church but come up with unconventional explanations of Book of Mormon geography. But they don’t seem to be tolerating the Denver Snuffers of this world nor the September Sixes. There is a realm of infallible speech that defines Mormonism that is considered to be beyond doubting. For to openly doubt it makes someone no longer Mormon, either because they no longer consider themselves to be Mormon because of holding such beliefs or because they are ostracized by the rank and file Mormons and formally disciplined by the local leadership.

  23. Howard on September 17, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Clay, that’s called good apologetics. Following the release of the DNA evidence the BoM introduction page was changed from: Lamanites…“are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” to are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” Shortly after that the limited geography model became a favorite. Witness science correcting prophets.

  24. Steve Smith on September 17, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Ah, one more thing, I DO actually have to shut my brain down or keep silent on a number of topics, for instance, in the event that I believe the Book of Abraham to be a complete work of fiction concocted by Joseph Smith and not worthy to be considered part of the standard works, if I want to retain a good standing in the LDS church.

  25. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Greedy,

    I’m not wanting the formula, I’m using the formula to understand the logic of the argument. But now that you think of it I’ll take the bait. We’ve made the most sense out of messy situations by way of a few good formulas. If someone can’t put it into a formula, it probably isn’t that useful. or P(useful) = k times degree to which a formula is used.

    But to use the literary: What do you think is meant by the passage quoted

    And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.

    I’m just not seeing how that passage is anything but a pretty strong endorsement of leadership.

  26. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    The problem in your argument is that you’re begging the huge questions of: what is revelation and how do we know it is revelation?

    No, that’s not the problem at all. The problem is that people want respite from responsibility, and that defeats the purpose of our mortal existence.

    As for the question of what is or is not revelation, the answer is simple. People just don’t like to hear it. Which is, perhaps, why you missed the fact that I quoted it in the original post. D&C 68:4 says:

    And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.

    There’s your answer and, in terms of simple language, it’s not hard to understand. The problem is that it doesn’t do what people want.

    What people want is to be absolved of responsibility. They want a formula, a rulebook, or an oracle to which they can defer tough questions.

    God says: “If you want to know if it’s scripture or not, you’re going to have to have your own connection to the Holy Ghost sufficient to figure that out.” In other words: “The burden is on you.”

    People say: “That sounds like hard work. Please give us a cheat sheet.” In other words: “Please take away this bitter cup. No really, I am not going to drink that.”

    And, when God refuses to give out a cheat sheet, people just invent one. They invent doctrines of prophetic or scriptural inerrency or sufficiency or infallibility, all of which serve more or less the exact same purpose as the original golden calf: a simulacrum of the divine that doesn’t ask us to do any genuine hard work.

    You want to know what the rulebook is for when leaders are speaking authoritatively and when they aren’t so that you can know when you’re allowed to openly criticize them. The question is deformed.

    None of us knows the answer to the first half. Isn’t that staggeringly obvious? I mean, think this through. If the Prophet knows when the Prophet is speaking revelation and when he’s not, wouldn’t he just tell us? He doesn’t. Ergo: he doesn’t know. He believes, obviously, but he doesn’t really know. So if the prophet doesn’t know when his own words are straight from God or not, what on Earth makes you think there’s some quick and easy reference guide for the rest of us? There isn’t. We’re all in the same boat here, you, me, your bishop, the stake president, the relief society president, your dad, my neighbor, the Apostles and the Prophet. We’re just flubbing around doing the best we can. That’s all there is. You can ask for a golden calf all you want, but if you get one it didn’t come from God.

    But the real problem is that you seem to think that an answer to the first half and none will ever be forthcoming) would somehow give you license to know when it’s OK to denounce, oppose, or refute your leaders. As though we’re supposed to sustain our leaders conditional on their success. Where do you get such an idea?

    We sustain our leaders because God asked us do. Not because our leaders earned it by doing well enough on some cosmic executive review to pass muster. We’re talking about a lay clergy here, not middle management of a fortune 500 conglomerate.

    It’s not about being right, people. It’s about being together. Obviously, leaders sometimes say or require things that are so wrong that they are evil and we need to ignore or refute them. Once again: there’s no cheat sheet. You should follow your conscience and do the best you can to figure out if and when such a situation has arisen and what to do about it, and your leaders can’t do any better than that for their part.

    In a nutshell it comes down to this: everyone’s looking for the path of least resistance. They either think they found it (which is a delusion) or they realize it’s not there and they get angry and feel that something has been robbed from them (which is bitterness). The key is just to realize that there isn’t an easy path.

    Leaders and scripture are there to help us walk the path. Not to carry us on it.

  27. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Steve Smith-

    Ah, one more thing, I DO actually have to shut my brain down or keep silent on a number of topics, for instance, in the event that I believe the Book of Abraham to be a complete work of fiction concocted by Joseph Smith and not worthy to be considered part of the standard works, if I want to retain a good standing in the LDS church.

    Your brain is not your mouth. Even children learn that sometimes it’s not a good idea to say something that is (as far as they can tell) true.

  28. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Steve Smith,

    But I think Nathaniel is saying that not knowing what is revelation and what isn’t and experiencing the excommunication of people who are correct but not leaders are central to God’s plan. God tells us to follow leaders but they are just like the rest of us and not that reliable. Don’t expect that accurate of an understanding in this life.

    The theory would make sense to me, if one didn’t really believe in God, but like Laplace I have no need of an hypothesis for God if his leaders, well, like kind of suck.

  29. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Mtnmarty-

    I’m sorry, but I really don’t understand your argument here. First you quote D&C 68:4:

    And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.

    Then you say:

    I’m just not seeing how that passage is anything but a pretty strong endorsement of leadership.

    This is 180-degrees from the logical conclusion of that verse. Look, here’s what a “pretty strong endorsement of leadership” would look like:

    And whatsoever they shall speak shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.

    See? Now that passage would strictly endorse leadership. But that’s not what it says. That’s missing an absolutely vital qualifier: when moved upon by the Holy Ghost .

    So what decides if a leader’s words are true or not? The Holy Ghost. Which, you know, is the same entity that confirms all truth. So a plain English rendition would be “The leaders are correct when they are correct.” That’s not an endorsement of leadership.

    The two principles that seem pretty clear here are:

    1. Ultimately you have to make your own mind up about everything. Period. Full stop. It seems simple enough until you realize just how far people are willing to try and go to wriggle out of it by hook or by crook and find something, anything to take the responsibility out of their hands.

    2. Leaders are still pretty awesome. Let’s say you accept #1 for the sake of argument. Would you appreciate getting counsel from someone who was in no way guaranteed to be right, but who had a responsibility to try and receive revelation and a promise that you would be blessed for obeying them? I think that’s a cool idea.

    Let’s make it really, really mundane. Bishop calls you to a calling. Maybe he’s inspired. Let’s say he’s not. Let’s say he even screwed it up and misunderstood a revelation. Your response, since it’s clear the Bishop isn’t asking you to do anything wrong or harmful, is to just say “Well, I’ll treat this as though it came from the Lord” and you go ahead and do the best you can. Well, now you have the Lord bound, don’t you? He said to obey the leaders, and you did. So now it’s up to the Lord to make up for any screw up on the part of the Bishop.

    Personally, that’s how I view the Martin & Willie experience. Monumental screwup on the part of at least some leaders (I’ll let the historians debate the specifics), but I believe those who earnestly followed their leaders not as blind sheep but as trusting little children will have every scar made up to them. Maybe not in this life, but certainly in the life to come. That’s my faith: that God makes up the pain we endure when we’re earnestly trying to follow His Son.

    See how it’s easy to treat a leader’s words as if they came from the Lord without actually having to believe they are what the Lord would have said if He were there himself? It just requires being generous with the failings of our leaders and willing to overlook them and hope they overlook ours as well.

    It’s the Christian thing to do.

    And why not just skip the middlemen? Why have leaders at all? Because God isn’t trying to save individuals. He’s trying to save communities. The interdependence is not incidental. It’s a feature, not a bug.

  30. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    NG:

    I personally find confirmation from the Holy Ghost incredibly easy, so I don’t think believing in personal responsibility and conscience is the hard way, its the really, really easy way. I’m way more a believer that “everybody want to rule the world” than that the grand inquisitor is correct.

    If one is going to study something out in there own mind, what methodology are they going to use, before they ask for a confirmation and what role does leadership play in that.

    Take the Denver Snuffer case. How much weight do we give his excommunication in determining whether his writings are worthy of study. Any? From your comment about learning as a child not to tell truth to power, maybe we should give it more study because he is saying things close enough to the truth that human leaders felt it threatening.

    Almost everyone I know selectively quotes leaders to support positions they already have, so why does hero worship strike you as avoiding responsibility?

  31. ASM on September 17, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Mtnmarty –

    The truth-claims of a prophet’s teachings do not rest on the factual accuracy of everything he says, nor do they even depend on his using correct moral judgment in everything he does. Rather, the measure of the prophet is whether, by following him, we find the truth of the gospel in our individual lives and in the community of saints. Thus the truth of a prophet’s calling is measured as much by what we do in response to his leadership as by what he does in leading us. The same is true of every calling in the church.

    When the Lord says that we ought to treat the prophet’s words “as if” they came from the Lord himself, we are mistaken if we understand this as the last word on the matter. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. It is the Lord’s invitation to us to begin the process of building Zion, a process that requires to engage actively and creatively with the prophet. The Lord is not saying that the prophet will never make a mistake. Instead, he is promising that by devoting our loyalty to the church, we will have the Lord’s blessing as we work to overcome mistakes, whoever commits them.

    There is no special method for determining when the prophet or any other leader is mistaken. There is no formula for determining the correct response to such a mistake. There will be mistakes, and there will sometimes be conflict and suffering because of them. We can only deal with a leader’s mistakes the way we deal with anyone else’s mistakes: with faith, hope, and love.

  32. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Mtnmarty-

    Take the Denver Snuffer case. How much weight do we give his excommunication in determining whether his writings are worthy of study.

    The relevance of the excommunication depends on the goal for your study, don’t you think? I think we all have to learn another simple lesson, which is that sometimes very, very flawed vessels convey divine beauty and truth. I mean: look at the biography of many of the world’s greatest artists. Plenty of them are full of things that would keep them out of the temple, to put it lightly. So the idea that there’s some kind of general “What’s your standing with the Church?” to “How much weight should I give your views?” is absurd.

    This is because obedience to leaders isn’t (only) about being right. It’s about being part of a community. That seems to be the thing you’re totally oblivious too. It’s as though you’ve completely missed the fact that establishing leaders is a part of establishing a society. The Prophets are followed not (only) because doing so makes a lot of people individually more correct, but because doing so makes a lot of individuals into a people.

    Snuffer’s excommunication clearly makes his statements ineligible for inclusion in that kind of community-building approach, but it has no real impact whatsoever on their independent veracity.

    From your comment about learning as a child not to tell truth to power,

    I chuckled at that. What I wrote was that we learn that not all true things need to be said. Telling truth to power is not something I had in mind. Is that honestly what you thought I meant? I was thinking things like maybe not lecturing someone who has made a foolish decision that has cost them dearly about the exact reasons why their mistake was so foolish when, in the moment, a comforting shoulder to cry on would be far more appropriate.

  33. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    NG, I get you a little better now, but I still think the point of the passage is to support leadership not to caveat that they need to be moved upon by the holy ghost. Just rhetorically, why the 6 restatements of the power and only 1 caveat?

    If I was going to write it to minimize the role of power I would write they speak for god, except when they aren’t inspired, just like everybody else, and only until another prophet says something different, so you’re pretty much on your own, no easy answers, better pray about it yourself, you know, like a lot.

    I can see you interpretation but it doesn’t read that way to me. It seems way more like, when the leader talks while holding the fasces, look out because God’s power is right behind it.

  34. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    The Lord is not saying that the prophet will never make a mistake. Instead, he is promising that by devoting our loyalty to the church, we will have the Lord’s blessing as we work to overcome mistakes, whoever commits them.

    There is no special method for determining when the prophet or any other leader is mistaken. There is no formula for determining the correct response to such a mistake. There will be mistakes, and there will sometimes be conflict and suffering because of them. We can only deal with a leader’s mistakes the way we deal with anyone else’s mistakes: with faith, hope, and love.

    Amen.

  35. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Mtnmarty-

    I can see you interpretation but it doesn’t read that way to me. It seems way more like, when the leader talks while holding the fasces, look out because God’s power is right behind it.

    I can’t account for your particular feelings about the quote, but I think the logic is pretty straightforward. Verification of a leader is the same process as verification of scripture is the same process as verification of everything else: it all comes down to the Holy Ghost.

    How you get from there to “this is statement about the power and authority of leadership” is simply beyond me. Sorry, not sure what to add to that.

  36. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Nathaniel,

    Thank you so very, very much for this paragraph below.

    This is because obedience to leaders isn’t (only) about being right. It’s about being part of a community. That seems to be the thing you’re totally oblivious too. It’s as though you’ve completely missed the fact that establishing leaders is a part of establishing a society. The Prophets are followed not (only) because doing so makes a lot of people individually more correct, but because doing so makes a lot of individuals into a people.

    You are absolutely right that I am oblivious to this and primarily due to my mormon upbringing, you know what used to be the one true church. Avoiding peer pressure was paramount, not building community. Individual conscience, individual testimony. Punished for our own sins. It was all about the individual. Joseph was an individual against the organizations the other churches. The leaders weren’t leaders to bind us in partial and fallible revelation, they were leaders because they had been right the longest and the best. I’m not bitter that the spirit of that church is gone, I’m just astounded. Its got nothing to do with anyone’s righteousness leaders, members or the excommunicated, its just a new spirit.

    I’m old wine and I can’t into the new bottle of were a community first, truth or no truth, rather than we are a community because we share the same truth.

    Sorry for misunderstanding about the truths that are best left to oneself. The reason I did think of truth to power is that Steve was talking about not being able to declare the book of Abraham as problematic and I didn’t think of that in the context of “Does the Book of Abraham make me look fat?” type of way :)

    As always, I enjoy your posts but your comments even more!

  37. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Again Nathaniel, thanks for your effort to help me understand even if what I mainly understand is that I’m now old and times have changed. Like I said, its the rhetoric not just the logic that makes me feel its supporting power. Its just a generation divide. In my formative years, no one that believed in prophets questioned their inspiration. So the caveat about the holy ghost wasn’t a caveat that mattered all that mattered is what came next.

    Again thank you so much for replying to my comments, its tough to not for me to be understood let alone convincing, but its valuable information for me.

  38. Steve Smith on September 17, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    NG, I’m sorry if my arguments frustrate you, but I’m not writing simply to annoy, I’m writing simply because I really don’t think that your arguments are compatible with Mormonism (and I do wish they were) or organized religion for that matter. And this isn’t because I’m a hardcore believer who thinks the LDS leadership to be near infallible, but it is rather because I don’t believe a lot of traditional LDS doctrines and believe the leadership to be dead wrong on a lot of its core claims, but feel compelled to remain in silence in an LDS setting lest I jeopardize my relationships with family and friends who are rank and file believers and/or come under the scrutiny of local leadership. I agree that people should engage in a true religious/spiritual quest to find the answers to difficult questions and shouldn’t rely on a list of can-and-can’t-dos and can-and-can’t-believes to inform themselves. But at some point if you want to remain a Mormon in good standing you have to either accept a set of core doctrines as beyond questioning or remain silent. In fact one shared trait of all institutionalized religions is the acceptance by its believers and central leadership of a core set of doctrines that are beyond question, and the excommunication (tacit or formal) of those who do openly question, doubt, and especially challenge this core.

    You write that “your brain is not your mouth. Even children learn that sometimes it’s not a good idea to say something that is (as far as they can tell) true.” That makes me think that perhaps you agree with Boyd K. Packer’s saying that “some things that are true are not very useful.” So what if I believe it to be a just thing to go about correcting what I believe are delusions under which the LDS church leaders have come, which I perceive to be perpetuating an injustice that must be righted? Suppose I strongly believe that gays should be treated as equals and therefore deliberately attempt to undermine the church’s efforts to pass Prop 8, or deliberately attempt to encourage members in my ward (suppose that I even did this only outside church) to reject the brethren’s call for action and stand in solidarity with the gay rights movement? What would be the more just cause? Taking action towards what I believe to be a just and worthy cause, something that perhaps I even believe to be the work of God, or suppressing my desire for action merely to keep peace with the LDS church? I get the sense from the OP and your first reply to me that you would say that the former would be the more just cause. But then I get the sense from your second reply that it would be the latter.

  39. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    The truth-claims of a prophet’s teachings do not rest on the factual accuracy of everything he says, nor do they even depend on his using correct moral judgment in everything he does.

    So, the truth-claims don’t depend on the truthiness of what is said, but rather on its ability to motivate us to action. I don’t disagree with your statement because there is no special method to tell whether you are making a mistake. However, is the converse true, that is, if your statement motivates me to avoid Zion at all costs as, does that make it false?

  40. Mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Above comment was for ASM

  41. Steve Smith on September 17, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Here is the fallibility spectrum:

    1) The prophets and apostles have always been infallible in word and deed
    2) They used to be fallible, but not after being called to their position
    3) They are fallible in deed but not word after being called to their position
    4) They are fallible in deed and in word, but not when bringing forth a revelation
    5) They are fallible in deed and in word, but are better than the rest of us; therefore, they shouldn’t be challenged
    6) They are fallible in deed and in word, but hold a divine position. The person may be questioned and even challenged, but not the position.
    7) They are just as fallible in deed and in word as the rest of us. They mean well, but their words and actions are not made better by their position, and their arguments should be determined as right or wrong based on available evidence and reasoned analysis.
    8) They are fallible, probably wrong in their central claims, but are under a delusion and mean well.
    9) They are fallible, probably lying (meaning they know that they are perpetuating falsehood) for personal gain and glory, and do not mean well.
    10) They are fallible, and are perpetuating a devil-inspired evil.

    NG, you seem to be a 4 or 6 on this spectrum. I’m more of a 7 or 8. The majority of LDS people range somewhere from 2 to 5, although 3 tends to be most predominant worldview. Ex-Mormons are typically a 9. Evangelical anti-Mormons are between 8 and 10.

  42. Nathaniel Givens on September 17, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Steve Smith-

    I don’t think I’m really on your spectrum. I mean, #4 is pretty accurate, but the problem is that it doesn’t apply to leaders specifically. Everyone is infallible when they are bringing forth revelation. The only difference is that leaders have a broader scope of revelation, but that doesn’t make them any more or any less fallible than anyone else.

    Now, as for your arguments in #38, all I can say is that I’m pretty sure my arguments are fully compatible with Mormonism, but your beliefs might not be. Please note that I don’t know what those beliefs are, and so I have no opinion one way or the other. But you are right to observe that any religion must have a certain set of beliefs that are non-negotiable. If you think Christ was not the Savior, you can’t be a Christian. If you think Mohammad was not God’s prophet, you can’t be a Muslim. If you think the Joseph Smith was not a prophet, you can’t be a Mormon. And so on.

    The problem I have with your perspective really comes down to this:

    But at some point if you want to remain a Mormon in good standing you have to either accept a set of core doctrines as beyond questioning or remain silent.

    For me, that’s putting the cart before the horse. You shouldn’t believe X or Y in order to be Mormon. I made a decision when I was a teenager that I was going to stay in or out of the Church based on what I believed was true, no matter the cost to my family or relationships. It wasn’t an easy commitment to make, but it is (ironically) required for all of us. Staying within the Church because you want to maintain relationships is in a sense commendable, but it’s not Mormon. It’s not even Christian. The New Testament is pretty clear on that point.

    All I’m saying is simply this: You should be true to what you sincerely believe. If you’re warping your beliefs in order to preserve your status in a religion (any religion) than your life is already an oxymoron, and the problem doesn’t lie with the religion.

    I guess the one difference is that ultimately I think the decision “Am I Mormon?” is one that you make, not one that you let other people decide for you. Of course they will also have their own opinions, but that’s not your concern. You concern is this:

    1. What do I believe are the core, non-negotiable tenets of Mormonism?
    2. Do I accept them?

    Talking about being forced to stay silent or accept beliefs you don’t actually believe just sounds like you’re handing over these decisions that are yours by right and responsibility to some nebulous “they” to make for you.

    And, like I said, that’s a problem that’s deeper than the faith claims of any particular religion.

  43. Chris Kimball on September 17, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    I think there are two different topics being discussed (mostly in comments, but the OP addresses both):
    1. That there is not a reliable correlation between righteousness and leadership callings.
    2. That there is not a reliable correlation between a leader’s statements and the truth.
    Stated this way, I would find both “stumbling blocks” as they affect real people and cause us to stumble. But I would also find both overstated.

    It is common sense and experience that there is not a 1.0 correlation between righteousness and leadership callings. But the empirical evidence–my experience–of many decades in the Church in different areas is that most leaders most of the time are really good people. Whether I agree with them all the time or not, they are almost to a person well meaning, thoughtful, prayerful (to say nothing of trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind . . . and reverent). There is a positive correlation, albeit less than 1.0.

    It is also clear to me that church leaders are not always right. There is not a 1.0 correlation between statements by church leaders (at any level) and the truth. But operating within their sphere and responsibility, leaders tend to be right more than a coin toss would allow. Because they are experienced. Because they have perspective. Because God works through them.

    There is a sort-of formula I use to crystallize the conversation about leaders getting it right. Suppose a set of issues or questions that most of us run about 50/50 on. And suppose I am offered an expert/sage/guru/experienced person/prophet who gets those matters right significantly more than 50% of the time. Now how might I behave? If the “significantly more” is (a statistically reliable) 55%, then I’m interested but I’ll probably go looking for a better expert. If the “significantly more” is (a statistically reliable) 98% then I’ll be tempted to treat that as effectively 100% and follow blindly. But what if the “significantly more” is 70% (and I’m convinced that’s better than anyone else I can find)? I’m going to pay attention. I’m going to give that person a great deal of respect. But I’m still going to decide for myself what to do, time after time after time.

    I suggest that this mortal existence is more like the 70% case than the 98% case.

  44. ASM on September 17, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    Mtnmarty –

    I don’t entirely understand your question in 39 about my statement motivating you to avoid Zion. But here’s a thought on your comment.

    Factual accuracy and good moral judgment are highly relevant to a prophet’s truth claims, but the truthfulness of a prophet’s calling does not depend on his being factually accurate or morally correct in everything he says and does. That’s another way of saying that prophets are not infallible.

    A true prophet motivates us to truthful action. Truthful action is action that brings us into genuine and loving relationships with God and each other.

    There is no special method to know whether a church leader is mistaken. By that I mean that we must use the same methods we use in any other situation to decide whether someone is right or wrong. Then we deal with the situation as best we can, extending love and forgiveness generously.

  45. ASM on September 17, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Mtnmarty –

    In my original comment, when I said that the Lord invites us to the work of building Zion, I had in mind the definition of Zion as “the pure in heart.” (D&C 97:21) A true prophet invites us to love each other and to partake of Christ’s love, which heals us and makes our hearts pure.

    In 39, you asked what it means if someone’s statement drives you away from Zion. Perhaps you meant that a leader’s mistake might hurt us and make us feel unwelcome in the church. This happens, and if it has happened to you I extend my sympathy and love.

    This kind of hurt is where the rubber meets the road in a discussion about fallible leaders. How can we follow a prophet or other church leader if that person has hurt us by making mistakes? This is when we most need faith. Faith is not belief in a factual proposition. Faith is the commitment to act in love and to remain loyal to the hope of Zion even in the face of human weakness and error.

    All of us have to decide for ourselves whether a prophet’s mistakes stretch our faith too far. In making this decision, though, we must be aware that it is often anger, resentment, or pain that bring us to question our faith. A truthful response to anyone’s mistakes can never be motivated by anger or hurt. A truthful response always emerges from love. It is very difficult to respond with love when we are hurt. But God’s love is infinitely deep and lasts forever, so it is never too late to find his help in putting our pain aside.

  46. mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    ASM, thank you for the comment. You are aware of hurt and anger and love than me and therefore almost certainly a better person than me but my concern was more about the ability to be a seer and prophesy. I’m not expecting infallibility Chris’s 70 percent seems pretty good but I think it pointless to believe in a God or be part of a church where those sustained as seers are no better seers than anyone else. I understood your comment to be downgrading the role of seer relative to the role of motivator to good deeds. You have more wholesome and practical life goals and so my comment didn’t really apply so thanks for clarifying.

  47. Jon Y. on September 17, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    Steve Smith, First, I think you’re in a very tough position and hope you find a place that’s more comfortable soon. Second, you are certainly not alone with your concerns. Much of what has been written by NG is very useful, but I think we all need to find a viewpoint that accommodates as much that’s good about human ideas feelings as possible.

    Personally, I’m learning to be comfortable with paradox. I don’t need to find the grand theory of everything so it all fits perfectly together. This is too far out of reach that finding compatible theories for evolution and creation, Book of Mormon geography theories, and the like are sideshow distractions. The question I believe we should be asking “What is this good/used for?” We use evolution for biology and the concept of being literal offspring of God for transcendence to a higher purpose. These truths do not really cross paths and can’t be said to conflict in a pragmatic sense if we do not use one working model to meet the needs of the other.

    Finally, Elder Packer’s comment “some things that are true are not very useful” certainly isn’t a unique idea. In fact, I wonder if he borrowed that concept from Benjamin Franklin. I end with quoting from Franklin’s autobiography concerning truth as it relates to human group and spiritual needs:

    Before I enter upon my public appearance in business, it may be well to let you know the then state of my mind with regard to my principles and morals, that you may see how far those influenc’d the future events of my life. My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but, each of them having afterwards wrong’d me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith’s conduct towards me (who was another freethinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho’ it might be true, was not very useful. My London pamphlet, which had for its motto these lines of Dryden:

    “Whatever is, is right. Though purblind man
    Sees but a part o’ the chain, the nearest link:
    His eyes not carrying to the equal beam,
    That poises all above;”

    and from the attributes of God, his infinite wisdom, goodness and power, concluded that nothing could possibly be wrong in the world, and that vice and virtue were empty distinctions, no such things existing, appear’d now not so clever a performance as I once thought it; and I doubted whether some error had not insinuated itself unperceiv’d into my argument, so as to infect all that follow’d, as is common in metaphysical reasonings.

    I grew convinc’d that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life;

  48. mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    NG, you say that one can’t be a mormon and not believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. But aren’t you dumbing down the definition of prophet so far in saying that prophets are no more reliable than the rest of us that you don’t really believe prophets are prophets they are just people who got a revelation or two right?

    Two can play at the redefinition game. Someone who believes that Christ taught sound ethics and follows them is clearly a christian even if they don’t think he is a savior. I mean people who believe in Kant’s ethics are Kantian’s right?

    Wow am I ever glad there is a God in heaven who created a world where we could have this discussion. Its a miracle. Really.

  49. mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Jon Y if people kept their religious beliefs confined to transcendence there wouldn’t be much conflict with science now would there but many religious people want religion to explain the world and say things about the world based on religious reasoning where religious reasoning doesn’t work very well. Will you please ask them not to? :)

  50. Erik on September 17, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    Great post. I do have one more thought on how to interpret D&C 21:5 however. I take v. 4 as very important in interpreting this correctly. Here we are told to “give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them” – or in other words, give heed to what is RECEIVED from God as it is received – and then follow THAT “as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.”

    I take this to mean that we are to give heed to the revelations of God as they are received by our leaders, not to simply take “as if” from God’s mouth anything that a leader might say about polygamy or blood atonement. I believe that this goes both for the very clearly identified written revelations in the D&C as well as for other inspired statements or actions of church leaders.

    One last point. Since leaders do not always explicitly identify what they teach as revelation from God (and since they are not always themselves aware of ways in which God might be revealing Himself through them – and on occasion misidentify revelation, see fx. Adam-God), it is ultimately our responsibility to test by the Holy Ghost whether or not what they said constitutes revelation from God. That’s where I do find value in considering anything a leader says as being at least possibly “as if” from God’s own mouth.

  51. ASM on September 17, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Mtnmarty –

    What do you hope that a true seer would give you? It sounds as if you are looking for something like an above-average success rate on prophetic predictions. Am I misreading you?

  52. Jon Y. on September 17, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Mtnmarty-

    I’ll keep trying!

  53. Clark on September 17, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Howard (2 & 23) John Sorenson’s book An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon came out in 1985 and immediately became hugely popular, even among the brethren. This is simply revisionist wishful thinking to say that the genetic issues had much to do with it. The limited geography model was mainstream thinking when I was at BYU from 1989-94.

  54. mtnmarty on September 17, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    ASM,

    Predictions, warnings, revelations, commands, the whole nine yards.

    I love singing with friends or at church but when I pay to go to the Opera, I’m looking for something better. I like learning about the gospel at Sunday school and in family home evening, but is it too much to ask that if God wants ten per cent we can get some leaders that are better than the rest of us. Nathaniel thinks its avoiding responsibility to hold leaders to this higher standard, I think that if God knows a lot of stuff, I can expect he’ll get us some great leaders. I’m not trying to avoid the hard work of my own testimony, I just want leaders that are inspired and getting meaningful accurate revelations. I’m not saying we don’t have them or we do, I’m just saying the reason there is pretty good consensus that an inspired church should have good leaders is that otherwise God would be giving us a stone when we want food. He just doesn’t seem like that kind of guy.

  55. Jon Y. on September 17, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    Mtnmarty-

    “Nathaniel thinks its avoiding responsibility to hold leaders to this higher standard”

    I don’t think Nathaniel meant that at all. Well, it might help to define “higher standard,” but of any standard we might agree on I’d bet we could find someone who does it better than any given leader does. Furthermore, if a leader does something far below my expectations and retains his or her position I still owe them my best support and cannot let that disturb my faith in what I know to be right or true.

  56. Nathaniel Givens on September 18, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Mtnmarty-

    NG, you say that one can’t be a mormon and not believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. But aren’t you dumbing down the definition of prophet so far in saying that prophets are no more reliable than the rest of us that you don’t really believe prophets are prophets they are just people who got a revelation or two right?

    I absolutely do not think that a Prophet is just someone “who got a revelation or two right”. A Prophet is a person specifically called of God by revelation and ordained with a specific mantle of authority/responsibility. As such, we owe them our willing and mindful loyalty and support.

    All I’m saying is that: Hey, the Church ain’t a meritocracy. Don’t expect these Prophets (or any of our leaders) to necessarily be more righteous than your average Joe Schmoe Mormon.

    Fundamentally we don’t follow Prophets because they are necessarily good at what they do. We follow them because God asked us to do so, even though they are sometimes bad at the whole prophet gig. I mean, virtually every major innovation of Brigham Young has turned out to be completely wrong (Adam-God, blood atonement, and blacks and the priesthood). I can acknowledge that, and still say that he was a Prophet of God.

  57. Nathaniel Givens on September 18, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Oh, and I missed this earlier comment of yours, Mtnmarty-

    You are absolutely right that I am oblivious to this and primarily due to my mormon upbringing, you know what used to be the one true church. Avoiding peer pressure was paramount, not building community. Individual conscience, individual testimony. Punished for our own sins. It was all about the individual. Joseph was an individual against the organizations the other churches.

    The purpose of all that individuality is to build a community, in my mind. A real Zion community has to start with individuals who come together of their own independent volition.

    One of the major problems I think people have with Mormonism is that they take whatever level of understanding they have, and then assume it to be final. That is the lethal assumption that kills the tree of faith. You have to be willing to constantly reintegrate what you’ve learned so far into something new you learn ahead.

    In this case, observing the emphasis on individuality in Mormonism is good. Assuming that it’s an endpoint rather than a step on a staircase is bad.

  58. Howard on September 18, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Clark,
    The introduction that reads “…are the principal ancestors…” was added by Bruce R. McConkie in 1981, interesting that he could be proven wrong a mere 4 years later.

  59. mtnmarty on September 18, 2013 at 10:45 am

    NG: Thanks. For your nuanced responses, it is appreciated.Your perspective is a sensible one. One small add on. As you have argued it, we don’t know for sure that Brigham Young was mistaken, just that the balance of belief is against him today.

  60. ASM on September 18, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Mtnmarty –

    Two thoughts:

    First, the point of this discussion is not to deny that a prophet should be an extraordinary person. The point is to keep us on track even when the prophet lets us down, something that will inevitably happen sometimes.

    Second, I don’t understand why you seem to think that building a community of saints and bringing people to Christ don’t really count as extraordinary achievements. The point of prophetic “predictions, warnings, revelations, commands, the whole nine yards,” as you put it, is not to dazzle us like an elaborate operatic production would.

    When the Lord said that we would know his true servants “by their fruits,” what are the “fruits” he was talking about? I believe that we are the fruits, both individually and collectively. We know a true prophet not by the pyrotechnics in his sermons, but by the quality of his followers.

  61. Howard on September 18, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Clearly there is a considerable difference between the Great Prophets including Moses, Jesus and Joseph and modern church Presidents. Given their apparently lessor intimate relationship with God greater error is to be expected. I think it would be easier to deal with that error if more latitude were allowed in church discussions and from the pulpit regarding whether a President’s or one of the brethren’s words are revelation, inspiration or opinion and encouraging a larger tent of accepted belief without the questioner being moderated.

    Also in practice the authority of the brethren and even the 70s seems to be elevated and conflated to be the equivalent or near equivalent of the President’s to speak for the church and the world which oversteps their stewardship by a considerable amount!

  62. Howard on September 19, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    Pope Francis has warned that the Catholic Church’s moral structure might “fall like a house of cards” if it doesn’t balance its divisive rules about abortion, gays and contraception with the greater need to make it a merciful, more welcoming place for all.

  63. mtnmarty on September 19, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    LDS members. I assume Jeffs counseled his young women followers to be chaste and obedient. If I use your criteria of quality of followers and these two examples I would have to conclude that Jeffs was the better prophet because I believe his followers are more chaste and obedient than Hinkley’s followers were good neighbors. If we set aside personal righteousness, we have one less reason to doubt Warren Jeffs as a true prophet. Maybe I lack faith but I believe at least some of his followers believe the Holy Ghost has testified to them that he is a true prophet. This is why I have been arguing to retain the presumption that we should expect God to provide us leaders and prophets of above average righteousness. The thought that I can only ask Jeff’s followers to pray about it and not also use his corrupt acts as evidence of him not being a prophet of God is something I am unwilling to concede since I think that standard should apply to all.

    I don’t want to get too far into theodicy and dictating to the universe what should exist but at least consider this. If there is a diversity of righteousness in the world (and I think there is) and a just and knowledgable God exists (and I think he does) is it really too much to ask that we be given leaders of above average to exemplary virtue? I know there is a spectrum here but I think Nathaniel really is saying we can’t expect anything above average.

    If he is right(and I concede he might be) but if he is, then I don’t think the God of that type of universe deserves worship.

    Again, Nathaniel may be right on the facts but if he is, I think it just shows there is no just God. I prefer to contest his reasoning rather than the existence of God.

  64. Clark on September 19, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Howard (61), I’m far from convinced the idea of picking trumping prophets. Joseph Smith may well have known more than some prophets, but he also was likely much more ignorant in other ways. Jesus is a special case obviously and it’s often interesting to wonder what he did know as a mortal. I think that to be fully human even God as a mortal would have to be very fallible – although clearly some don’t like to contemplate that idea.

    The problem is of course that often people use the notion of fallibilism in order to simply discount anything they dislike or that goes against their political biases. I think we need something that preserves a notion of fallibilism without going overboard into self justification and buffet style Mormonism.

  65. Clark on September 19, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Howard (58), I think it undeniable that many of the things Elder McConkie put into chapter headings and the like were well intentioned but often in error. I don’t think that detracts from the effort he put forth nor his own abilities. Something needed to be written. I do wish they were better updated with the better scholarship we have today. But honestly they function for what they are. I think the danger is in people seeing what are at best study aids as more than that.

    I should note that the limited geographic model goes back much earlier. Elder Oaks (Apostle since ’84) noted that when he was at BYU in the 50’s that model was taught to him. (See the ’93 quote from Oaks at the beginning of this article) Certainly in the 90’s it appears many, if not most, GAs followed the mainstream limited geography model. I’d note that Southerton’s book didn’t come out until 2004 and his article in Anthropology News was 2003. Murphy’s article in American Apocrypha was 2002. I’d note that an Ensign article in 1984 pushed the limited geography model.

  66. Chris Kimball on September 19, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    Howard (62), if you’re going to refer to Pope Francis, for purposes of this discussion I would have thought you’d start with his reply to “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” It actually is quite fitting. His first reply:
    “I ??do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

  67. Howard on September 19, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Clark,
    I would guess all or nearly all of the brethren since the beginning of the church have been well intentioned but that doesn’t make them right, someone to follow or a prophet. I think it’s much more about how easily and clearly God communicates with a prophet than it is about how much knowledge a particular prophet might hold. If God isn’t communicating with you directly by concept dense zip file downloads and the best you can do is to play the child’s game of Hot and Cold while you ask yes/no questions and wait for a feeling, you aren’t much of a prophet.

    My point about the limited geography model and the BoM introduction page is that it dodged around the challenge of DNA evidence which cast a strong shadow on the words of several modern prophets.

    Chris Kimball,
    Thanks for making that point.

  68. mtnmarty on September 19, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    ASM,

    My post above was directed to you but the first half got cut off. It had to do with the fact that the qualities we use to judge the fruit also depends on what our leaders have taught us are the good qualities and blah, blah, blah. The big finish still made it though!

  69. Clark on September 19, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Howard, I think the problem of the DNA evidence is that it engaged with a folk tradition that was already dying out rather than the mainstream scholarly view. I think the introduction would have been changed anyway. As I said, I think people have wished for a long time that the church funded better study aids for the scriptures. Especially now that most people are using the scripture program on iOS or Android at Church. It would be trivial to revise yearly the study aids.

    Regarding your other point, I don’t think God communicates in a consistent way or fashion. He certainly doesn’t for me. Some things are clear, somethings are more ambiguous that I’m apt to misinterpret, some things come easy, some things I have to struggle mightily with. I think there’s a lot of indication that was true of even people with far greater experiences than my own like Joseph Smith.

    I think saying that prophets only play hot or cold is misrepresenting the claims of all the prophets I’ve met and most leaders as well. I’m not saying that might not be the case for some people. It’s certainly not for me. However my experience is that most people with powerful experiences rarely share such matters publicly. I’ve heard some prophets like Pres. Hinkley describe pretty impressive things in quasi-private places yet be far more ambiguous in public.

  70. Nathaniel Givens on September 20, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Pope Francis has warned that the Catholic Church’s moral structure might “fall like a house of cards” if it doesn’t balance its divisive rules about abortion, gays and contraception with the greater need to make it a merciful, more welcoming place for all.

    That’s wishful thinking. He explicitly repudiated the idea that they were going to adjust the rules on abortion, gays, and contraception in the very interview you’re quoting:

    The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

    There’s zero change in substance. Pope Francis just has a different focus than the previous two Popes. I’m not sure how much longer that will last, however, giving willful misreading of his comments like yours. In fact, his strongest pro-life statements came in just the last day or two, possibly in reaction to all the wrong assumptions about his interview.

  71. Nathaniel Givens on September 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Mtmnarty-

    I don’t want to get too far into theodicy and dictating to the universe what should exist but at least consider this. If there is a diversity of righteousness in the world (and I think there is) and a just and knowledgable God exists (and I think he does) is it really too much to ask that we be given leaders of above average to exemplary virtue? I know there is a spectrum here but I think Nathaniel really is saying we can’t expect anything above average.

    From my original post:

    If I had to guess at a big stumbling block that was affecting the Church (and, what the heck, I’m going to guess) I would argue that it’s an assumption that there’s a reliable correlation between righteousness and leadership callings. This isn’t going so far as to say that leaders are infallible, but it assumes first, that “righteousness” can be boiled down into some kind of simple, 1-variable aggregation (like the g factor of general intelligence) and 2- that the higher you go up in the Church hierarchy the more of this characteristic you have.

    I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about this, but I think that both of those assumptions are wrong. Most of the emphasis goes to the second (are the Church leaders more righteous, given that there is such a thing as “righteous” that we can talk about in terms of quantity?) but I don’t even believe there is such a concept. I think that righteousness is highly complex, multi-faceted, and context-dependent. People have different buttons that can be pressed, blind spots that they ignore, and strengths and weaknesses that can make them seem like stronger or weaker leaders based on the particular situation they find themselves in.

    Do you really think that the early Saints were a different breed than the current members? I do not. I think that given the same environment we’d get much the same reaction: heroes, cowards, and everything in between. A lot of what made Moses Moses was the fact that there was a big job to be done. A lot of what made Joseph Smith into Joseph Smith was that he was the first. Could Gordon B. Hinckley have done as well? Could some random local bishop? I think there probably are some alive today that could have done close to as good a job as Joseph Smith. Maybe better.

    In any case, the point is that I just don’t buy the idea that you can line people up from most- to least-righteous like you can from shortest to tallest, so I’m not sure it even makes sense to complain that the Lord doesn’t pick the most righteous.

    And, last of all, it contradicts his stated mission. The Lord says he will work with the weak things of the Earth. Can we please just take Him at His word?

  72. Ja on October 21, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    2 things:
    Mathematically speaking-“the transitive property or a mathematical substitution, When I think I will treat b “as if” it were a, I assume I can substitute b for a wholeheartedly” is valid only related to the constant role of a and b. Our a’s and b’s values change. Look at slopes. The x and y are related in a ruled pattern, but the value changes. I feel like there are times our leaders are part of an x^2 parabola. It is dependent on the value of x what the true value of y is. It is necessary to be part of the defined function, but there are times when values vary.
    As far as leaders go- I feel like they are to lead the people. At times, we are worshipping the golden calves in life, so we need the basics. Babies are fed milk because they can’t process the tough meat, like Jews eating Kosher (milk and meat cannot be together). Our leaders “feed” us what we are ready to process. As we (grow teeth) are more ready for the higher laws, we can gain further knowledge. I think there are many times we as a people (church as a whole) may not be ready to process it all, but there is plenty of meat (sacrificed flesh) to go around. How long we are nursed for depends on us. It is comforting and convenient to be spoon fed, but we are able to take in more as we gain awareness and insight. Think about telling the little ones about Santa. Sometimes, youth (spiritually) in the gospel need to believe and it is joyful unto you are part of the gift giving. We all have gifts to share. Anyway, the point is leaders are there to teach the ideals and the lessons that the slowest and least mature are ready to take in. There are plenty of symbols and advanced lessons too, but we need to know where we are.