Some Ironies of Continuing Revelation

March 17, 2014 | 21 comments
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I was recently having a conversation with an orthodox Jewish law professor about the challenges faced by Mormons and orthodox Jews as they seek to adapt their religion to life in liberal societies. He was struck by the parallels between Jewish and Mormon discussions, and then said, “Of course, I assume that the idea of continuing revelation makes things much different for Mormons.” His comment got me thinking, and here’s what I wrote in response:

Chaim,

You’d think that ideas of continuing revelation would make discussions of change — including basic theological and liturgical change — easier for Mormons, and in a sense it does. However, there are two reasons that the idea of continuing revelation provides less flexibility than many folks — including many Mormons — assume.

First, very early on in the church ideas of personal revelation and continuing revelation led to antinomian chaos. This isn’t that surprising to anyone that has studied the history of religion. In Mormonism the solution was the creation of an institutional structure — the church — that gets endowed with a great deal of theological significance and that limits the kinds of legitimate claims one can make for revelation. Mormons believe that God talks to everyone, but we don’t believe that God will talk to me for someone else, unless God has given me some responsibility for that person, generally through the ecclesiastical structure of the church. There is thus less room for legitimate claims of authority based on personal revelation than one might assume. At the same time, the emphasis on revelation tends to delegitimizes attempts to introduce change through other mechanism, such as creative reinterpretation of old texts. It can happen, but there is NOTHING in Mormonism even remotely analogous to the immense hermeneutic creativity — and celebration of that creativity — that one finds in Judaism.

The second rigidity introduced by continuing revelation is that the fact that we believe the president of the Church and other high leaders can receive general revelation from God. This creates the temptation to see all actions by the hierarchy as inspired. I don’t believe this and think that this belief is a doctrinal error. It is, however, widespread among Mormons. There is thus a danger that every practice blessed by the hierarchy — including practices that may have little or no support in scripture or revelatory experience — will be seen as a non-negotiable revelation from God.

The problem is that even a theological moderate like me who doesn’t believe that God constantly inspires the hierarchy has to admit the possibility that practices or teachings beyond the formal canon may have revelatory support. And I am loath to say that the criterion for discovering what is or is not from God in the tradition is the application of liberal ideas of justice. The upshot of all of this is that it is possible to have theological upheaval and revolution in Mormonism but it is very difficult to push or advocate for such revolution. Indeed, in most cases I think the idea of continuing revelation tends to have a pretty conservative effect on Mormon doctrine and practice. It’s ironic.

Best, Nate

21 Responses to Some Ironies of Continuing Revelation

  1. Aaron Brown on March 17, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Yep.

  2. Aaron Brown on March 17, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    “… in most cases I think the idea of continuing revelation tends to have a pretty conservative effect on Mormon doctrine and practice.”

    It’s tempting to want to change this to say “the NEGLECT of the idea of continuing revelation….” has this effect. But of course, your point is that what continuing revelation IS in Mormonism is something other than what Mormon liberals (including myself) pine for.

    Early antinomian chaos may have led to our current rigid structure, and perhaps that structure and its accompanying notions of limited stewardship were an inevitable development. But its worth lamenting the widespread Mormon attachment to simplistic notions of unchanging, eternally static DOCTRINE also, which attachment serves to dampen revelatory possibilities in the modern church, methinks. And this is a conceptually different point than the one you’re making.

    Aaron B

  3. Thomas Eastmond on March 17, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    George Johnson has identified a similar ironic process with respect to science. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/07/science/when-studies-are-wrong-a-coda.html?ref=science&_r=0)

    Science gets its authority from the principle of reproducibility — the idea that a study’s results can be reproduced, by anyone who follows the same protocols, and obtain the same results. But the fact that a study is theoretically reproducable, is different from the question of whether it actually has been reproduced. Most studies haven’t been — and there are indications that *if they were*, the attempt at reproduction would falsify them.

    The problem is that there is less incentive to spend your time and resources confirming someone else’s results, than to publish results of your own. As a result, scientific studies enjoy a kind of aura of authoritativeness based on what they are theoretically capable of being, rather than what they actually are.

    Likewise apostolic statements. Yes, the Brethren are capable of receiving revelation — but there is some daylight between “capable of” and “is.”

  4. Ben S. on March 17, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Very nice Nate. I encountered several Jews making this assumption about how “continuing revelation” would ease change in the Church, when I attended Torah Study for about 18 months.

    As to being a theological moderate, you (and I) are in good company.

    Constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs even of the Church; not even good men, no, not though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally and at need that God comes to their aid.

    -Elder B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:525″

  5. DavidH on March 17, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    Continuing revelation does give flexibility to the body of Christ to diverge from prior policies, practices, scriptures and doctrines, but under the supervision of its leaders. Thus, leaders could conclude almost 100 years ago that the garment design traced to Joseph Smith’s time was not a design that was timeless and unchangeable, and they shortened the garment. Ironically, many people seem to believe that the current (shortened) garment is somehow a timeless unchangeable standard for appropriate dress so much so that infants (or at least 3 year olds) must wear them.

    In a regular human body, the mind does listen to the other parts of the body, but much of the time the mind makes the decisions that the other parts of the body usually follow (some exceptions might be reflexes). By analogy, the change in garment design under President Grant reflected input from members that the to the ankle and wrist design wasn’t working in real life (i.e., a message of pain suffered by the body of Christ was communicated to its central mind, which made a decision, soliciting God’s input). The change did not come out of the blue. According to David Burgener’s book on temple ordinances, a proposal to eliminate sleeves from the garment was voted against by two members of the 12 in the 1930s, and that was that. Even so, on female garment tops, the sleeves have become very short anyway.

    I think there is a huge tension in LDS teachings, on the one hand, that God and God’s teachings are unchangeable (thus the recent statement on priesthood for women), yet accepting continuous revelation. Often when an announced revelation changes things, people who believed in the old principle or policy or practice get left in the dust. Thus, many chose not to follow Joseph’s private teachings about plural marriage and others chose not to follow the Woodruff manifesto. That is why it was so important in 1978 to announce not a change in “eternal” doctrine, but that a “predicted” change had come about. Even though the 1969 First Presidency statement on race was flatly wrong about the origins of the practice, but it played an important preparatory role by announcing that the policy was not eternal and would change in the Lord’s due time.

    The Church’s announcement that women as well as men were considered to be president of BYU also plays a preparatory role for the eventual selection of a woman, by signaling that being male (with priesthood) is not a requirement.

    Given the composition of the leadership now, there has been no signaling that priesthood ordination during mortality for women may happen (notwithstanding that the temple rites prepare men and women to become priests and priestesses in the hereafter). But there has been some signaling that there may be further adjustments made with respect to church programs and structure that may allow more participation or influence by women.

  6. sj on March 17, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Further complicating the problem is the cultural assumption that receiving new revelation in relation to a current problem constitutes “caving” to worldly pressures. This is unfortunate since most of JS’s revelations were in response to pressing problems. If we had a more pragmatic view of how Church policy is changed (instead of pure revelation) necessary course changes could be more easily managed.

  7. r. oman on March 17, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    one of the rough spots is the blurred line between heavenly law and secular law in historical practice for both religions. one must change for pragmatic reasons and one must not change for some sort of dogmatic rigidity. but at one point the were both administered through the same religious structure.

  8. SusanS on March 17, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    David H—”According to David Burgener’s book on temple ordinances”—ref.?

  9. Steve Smith on March 18, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Well written, Nate. I think that a comparison between Mormonism and Shi’a Islam in regard to the idea of continuing revelation and its effects would actually be more apropos than a comparison with Judaism.

  10. Sarah Familia on March 18, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Very nicely stated, Nate. As sj (#6) pointed out, the idea of revelation bearing any relation to current questions or problems seems threatening to many Mormons. Although we don’t believe in ex nihilo creation, some of us do indeed seem to believe in ex nihilo revelation.

  11. Bryan S. on March 18, 2014 at 10:06 am

    “Further complicating the problem is the cultural assumption that receiving new revelation in relation to a current problem constitutes “caving” to worldly pressures.”

    This argument is used by anti’s, progressives, and exes all the time to either argue that “See we were right and the church caved to us!” or “See the church doesn’t have revelation, it just caves to pressure and a decade too late at that!”

    Can one really blame people for getting defensive when being attacked on that front?

  12. John on March 18, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Excellent post. The irony I see is that the stratification of “Church revelation” not only propels members into seeing everything the “Brethren” say is from god, but it also subjugates their own opinions into a solidified cultural tradition that by its nature denies personal revelation. In other words, all personal revelation now must conform to all cultural beliefs of higher revelations. If Joseph Smith worked that way, our church would be called The Latter Day Methodist Church.

    This is a dynamic that I think will always exist. If everyone could express their own revelations the eventual result would be a splintered church. Cautious of this, people want to stay well within the lines.

    As a result, the kind of discussion and argumentation you hear in Jewish circles when studying scripture can never be achieved in Mormon Sunday School. In fact, the print materials from the Church also get endowed with a belief that these too are inspired by revelation and therefore cannot be questioned.

    Darned if you do, darned if you don’t. How do you transcend this paradox? Well, I suppose blogging helps.

  13. sj on March 18, 2014 at 11:28 am

    “Can one really blame people for getting defensive when being attacked on that front?”
    No, I can’t, but holding one’s ground just to prove how we are not blown about by the winds of change isn’t a very nice alternative.

    I think the problem boils down to the disparity with how people think revelation happens and how it really happens. Many members, raised in the “thus said the Lord” mentality of D&C think that Jesus quite possibly does appear or speak in an audible voice to the prophet about what should or shouldn’t happen in the church. In reality, what we have are good and inspired men who genuinely grapple with whether or not current trends merit accommodation or resistance. It isn’t easy for them to walk this line. They are bound in the ironies as well.

  14. Anon on March 18, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    Can one really blame people for getting defensive when being attacked on that front?

    When Christ was presented with a double bind, He always came out ahead either by answering the question before the bind could be created or giving an unexpected third answer. Maybe someone could ask Him how he did it.

  15. Clark Goble on March 18, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    I’m not sure Mormons assume everything is inspired. I think they tend to hold a more nuanced view. They recognize many may not be inspired but think that lacking clear information we have to give them the benefit of doubt. i.e. it ends up being a position of epistemological weakness on our parts.

    One can debate whether that’s a difference in practical action. But I think it’s a significant theological difference.

  16. Clark Goble on March 18, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    DavidH, that’s an interesting point. I suspect we’ll see a woman as President of BYU soon. Maybe even within the next decade.

  17. el oso on March 18, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    Clark,
    Do you have any potential candidates in mind? The dean of the business or law school at BYU seems to be a likely candidate. Also, the deans of other academically prestigious colleges like science, engineering, humanities, etc. are probable candidates. The same positions plus top administrators at other large universities also would be good places to find the candidates.

  18. J.J. on March 19, 2014 at 9:50 am

    I think it’s hard to believe that anything the leadership does today is really inspired. They pay too much attention to their New York p.r. firms, polling, and put things through committee after committee before an idea is trotted out as so called “inspiration.” By the time an idea gets out any “inspiration” has long since been destroyed.

    So it seems “modern revelation” is simply an authoritarian tool used to stifle questions and suggestions from outside the hierarchy.

  19. RW on March 19, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    Wonderful clarification, thanks! The way I read continuing revelation in the Church, it boils down to small things like, should we invest money on downtown SLC, or who should be the next member of the 70s. These are easy partly because they are immediate and urgent problems, and partly because they make little permanent impact. The leadership gets plenty of experience in the ongoing baby steps of revelation but without the difficult and important doctrinal and cultural impact that we, cultural progressives, desire.

  20. Clark Goble on March 19, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    J J (18), why do you say that? Because you don’t like the things they do? Is that a good reason to say there’s not inspiration? I think that, for good reasons, the brethren think major changes need very clear revelation. I think one can easily come up with a quite rational and careful epistemology for why the brethren act the way they do. Now this might lead to mistakes. One wonders about 1948 (I think that’s the right date) when nearly all the apostles voted to give blacks the priesthood but didn’t due to one objection. Not having any inside knowledge of God nor what he was doing at the time I’m loath to make a judgement that Pres. Kimball was wrong in the course he took to get a clear revelation for all the apostles 3 decades later.

    El Oso (17), there was no one in particular I was thinking of. I do think the Church is changing on this issue even if perhaps not as fast as some might wish.

  21. Chet on March 21, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    I would be content with a more organic and less corporate approach to missionary work and home/visiting teaching, with fewer quotas ( see handbook 2, sec 5.4). Really, does hastening the work = increasing the guilt ?