One of the many striking episodes in the life of the prophet Elijah is his nearly-missed encounter with God atop Mt Sinai. Discouraged by the failure of his prophetic zeal to reform the Israelites, Elijah is instructed by the word of the Lord to go forth and stand on the mountaintop. It is not lost on Elijah that Sinai is the sacred site of the Lord’s appearance to Moses, and Elijah no doubt expects to encounter the Lord in the same way Moses did, in thunder, lightning, smoke and sound. A great tumult descends upon the mountaintop, but in it Elijah fails to find God. Instead, the prophet’s theophany unfolds unexpectedly.
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
The Lord is in the still small voice. God, inexplicably and without precedent, has vacated the elements and processes of the natural world. Underscoring the point, the text devotes more words to naming where God is not than where God is: God is not in the wind, not in the earthquake, and not in the fire. He is in something entirely different from the tumult of Sinai: the sound of sheer silence.
Scholar Karen Armstrong points to this episode as a turning point in biblical theism: from this point forward, the Lord withdraws from the forces and spaces of the physical world in which he dwells earlier in the Old Testament. When Moses stood on Sinai, the Lord revealed himself directly in wind and earthquake. Elijah himself revealed the Lord’s power through spectacular fire on Mt Carmel. But now, Elijah finds, the Lord must be found in physical absence. This requires Elijah’s patience and stillness and prophetic imagination–and his willingness to persist through repeated failures of the Lord to materialize in the expected places and processes. It is no easy thing to divine the will of God when, inexplicably, God migrates. That address is not easily googled.
To Elijah’s experience we can add other examples, sudden or gradual, of the shifting locus of revelation. In the New Testament, the early apostles use an ancient method of divination, cleromancy or casting lots, to discern the will of God when they appoint Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot in the apostleship; cleromancy subsequently drops out of the biblical record. In the Book of Mormon, the Lehite band uses the brass ball to discern the Lord’s direction on their journey to the land of promise; by the time Alma bequeaths the ball to Helaman, it no longer functions as an oracular medium but simply as a didactic relic. In the early restoration, Joseph Smith uses his seer stones to translate the Book of Mormon; by 1830, he apparently begins dictating his revelations without the use of the stones. In each case, an object or process which once functioned reliably to reveal the Lord’s intention evidently loses its relevance as a revelatory medium, and servants of the Lord must look for new access to the divine will.
This history of vacated oracles elicits various explanations. Skeptics claim that the oracles were humbug all along; defenders look for explanations to exonerate the reality of revelation. Upon the Liahona’s failure to reliably guide the Lehite band, for instance, Laman dismisses it as a fraud, one of Nephi’s “cunning arts” ( 1 Nephi 16:38). By contrast, Alma explains the demise of the Liahona by arguing that human faithlessness is to blame: “[The Lehites] were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased” (Alma 37:41). Alma is quick to throw his forefathers under the bus here, but I think his point is basically right: when an object or ritual is no longer able to command the faith of the community in which it serves, it loses the power to call forth divine revelation.
Notwithstanding my utter lack of personal experience in this matter, I take it that a medium of revelation must work to focus and open the attention of the revelator in particular ways. It may work to screen out the personal feelings of the revelator when faced with several options, as in the apostles’ casting of lots; it may work to de-familiarize a situation or problem and thereby allow new impressions to enter the revelator’s mind, as in the “curious workmanship” of the brass ball; it may work to screen out irrelevant stimuli by focusing the revelator’s attention, as in Joseph’s stones in the hat.
To perform any of these functions, the medium must command cultural respect, epistemological authority, and a certain amount of religious awe in its community. And what kinds of thing command respect, authority and awe in any given community is contingent matter, a product of myriad cultural, historical, and epistemological factors likely to vary widely across time and place. The Lord clearly embraces this diversity and sees fit to open another channel of communication when the previous mode, for reasons of cultural change, scientific advance, or, yes, declining belief, ceases to connect the human and divine. Yet he rarely sends an official change of address notice.
At last I arrive at the substance of this post. I want to suggest with the discussion above a frame for understanding last week’s reversal of the Church’s November 2015 family exclusion policy. Amid the mixed feelings of relief and anger elicited by the announcement is a potent cultural anxiety about revelation itself: were the Brethren mistaken in implementing the policy in 2015? What else can the reversal imply? If the policy was a misstep, are their claims to revelation falsified and their moral authority moot? Or is there a reasoned way to understand this event that both acknowledges an error (rejoicing for the correction) and allows for continued faith that revelation guides the church?
This post is transparently an effort to suggest something like the latter, and will satisfy neither those who defend LDS leaders as all-but-infallible nor those who deny any revelatory power entirely in the high quorums. It is highly speculative, both because the process of institutional decision making is opaque to lay members like me, and because all reasoned explanations of faith must remain provisional. With those caveats prominently posted, I proceed. My sense is that the 2015 policy was an institutional misstep on the part of the Brethren, which they came to recognize in the intervening years and corrected last week. My suggestion is that the mistake may have occurred because of a shift in the locus of revelation which the quorums, like Elijah, did not recognize at first. Let me explain.
President Nelson’s public account of the process by which the policy was ratified is striking in its emphasis on the role of the prophet at the time, President Monson, as sole medium for the revelation.
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together and share all the Lord has directed us to understand and to feel, individually and collectively. And then, we watch the Lord move upon the President of the Church to proclaim the Lord’s will. …
[W]e wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter. Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of His hope for eternal life for each of His children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer and sought further direction and inspiration.
And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson.
The highest leadership, in President Nelson’s telling, are faced with a difficult choice among an array of options for codifying the Church’s institutional response to gay marriage. Like the apostles of old deliberating between Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, they seek to discern some sign of the Lord’s will to ensure that they do not merely enshrine their personal views on this fraught and important matter. This communication comes in the form of the Lord’s moving upon President Monson. Like the spindle of the Liahona, President Monson points in a particular direction, and, having seen this process play out before and filled with faith in its surety, the other members affirm the decision. Perhaps especially because President Monson suffers the cognitive declines of old age, his declaration is seen as conveying the will of the Lord and not his own human view.
So what goes wrong? One could conclude that the Lord has ceased to speak to the Brethren, or that their personal anti-gay prejudices drowned out the divine word, or that the very notion of revelation is humbug. I accept none of these explanations. Perhaps, instead, they were looking for revelation at a past address, like Elijah atop Mt Horeb. It may be that we are in the midst of something like a divine shift in revelatory medium. Perhaps an executive decision of the President of the church as the singular “living oracle” is no longer the means by which the Lord will speak most reliably to his servants. To find the Lord now, perhaps, the Brethren will look to a fuller, more collaborative, social and transparent process of inspired judgment among the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, rather than to the process of preliminary group discussion giving way to the Prophet’s deciding revelatory word described by President Nelson.
We might point to several cultural reasons why such a hypothetical shift could occur. The respect and trust commanded by traditional structures of hierarchical authority have dramatically declined in recent decades, especially among young people. In many areas of society, the institutions and offices that once aroused trust and even awe no longer hold that cultural eminence. Perhaps it is no longer the case that the cultural stature of a single powerful institutional leader, even a manifestly good and wise one, can command the reverence necessary to open a channel to God. Contra both Laman and Alma, we need not interpret such a failure of revelation as evidence that either President Monson’s claim to revelation was false or that the community lacks diligent faith. It may be the fault of neither the leader nor the community, but simply an historical process of cultural evolution that has quietly shifted the locus of revelation from the clouded top of the Church’s hierarchical priesthood mountain to a slightly more open and process-oriented site of communal inspiration.
Indeed, we know that such a shift is already underway, based on the the witness of the highest leaders themselves! For twenty years, Elder Ballard’s influential 1997 book Counseling with our Councils has moved church culture toward a more communal model of revelation that makes better use of the combined inspiration, wisdom, and experience of council members. In recent years, Elder Bednar has taken the baton. In a widely quoted 2010 training broadcast, Elder Bednar said:
I think we have the mistaken notion that every element of revelation coming to the ward has to come through the bishop. By virtue of his keys, he has to acknowledge it and affirm it, but he doesn’t necessarily have to be the only vehicle through whom it comes.
We have not been talking about a ward council meeting. We’ve been talking about a revelatory experience with the members of the ward council. … In these latter days, given the forces of the adversary and the darkness, no one person in the family and no one person in a ward is going to be the conduit through which all of the answers come.
It is interesting to compare Elder Bednar’s description of the ideal ward council meeting with President Nelson’s description of the meeting in which the 2015 policy was affirmed. Based on those public comments, it seems as though the highest quorums placed extraordinary weight on President Monson as the sole vehicle for revelation and the conduit through which the answer would come, in a way that does not seem entirely in line with their evolving model of ward and stake council deliberations. For any number of reasons–love, veneration, solicitude, institutional procedure–perhaps the Brethren were looking for God in too narrow a space, the frame of President Monson’s individual prophetic person.
Obviously, I can’t know any of this for certain! The leadership, for understandable reasons, keep their deliberations private, and I have no particular evidence that their 2019 decision to walk back the policy was based on a more open, communal and participatory mode of revelation. The fact that new apostles have entered the quorum, including Elder Gong who has an immediate family member who is gay (joining Elder Christofferson in that category), suggests that something like that might be the case.
What’s the point, then, in engaging in a speculative exercise that has little chance of being definitively confirmed? For one thing, it allows us to think about the question of prophetic fallibility in a more structured way. As has been often observed, Latter-day Saints do not hold the principle of prophetic infallibility, but we are extremely reticent to discuss particular instances of prophetic or institutional errors. Part of this is due to the Christian charity and long-suffering we owe to one another. But much of it, I think, is due to a not-unfounded anxiety that impugning any particular instance of prophetic revelation will call its very basis into question. And it may well do so, without some kind of principle by which to discern, over time, whether and why an institutional decision was made in error. In the absence of any explanatory principle, it is difficult to trust the revelatory process in other particular situations, even if we are convinced of its overall reliability. In the absence of some organizing explanation, we risk simply imposing our own views as the metric of prophetic truth, and dismissing those things we disagree with. To avoid this creeping undermine of prophetic authority, it’s often easier to default to a position of all-but-infallibility. Neither position, it seems to me, squares with the real power and character of the Latter-day Saint tradition.
In the end, I’m pretty unconcerned with defending the particular explanation I’ve put forward here–namely, that the mistaken policy was the result of a cultural shift in the locus of revelation. That may or may not be the case: as I’ve said, this essay is largely an extended conjecture, albeit one I’ve tried to root in scripture and support with the available evidence. I offer it only as an exercise in thinking about failed revelation that takes us out of the either-or blame game: either the prophets are frauds, or the membership is faithless. My particular explanation has the virtue of affirming the reality of revelation while providing a structured way to think about how and why it might occasionally falter. It assumes the good faith, compassion, intelligence and divine inspiration of the Brethren–qualities I readily affirm–while freeing us from the presumption of institutional infallibility. There may well be better, more accurate explanatory models available, but if they are to succeed in guiding the thoughts of Latter-day Saints, I think they must be rooted in scripture, LDS tradition, and a presumption of the reality of revelation.
But why, in the end, defend the authority of the priesthood hierarchy? Why go through this possibly tortured and definitely protracted exercise in, if not explaining away then certainly explaining down, an institutional move that caused great anguish to many members of the church? Not for the sake of the hierarchy itself, certainly. Not to flatter the egos of the Brethren, nor to coddle the feelings of the membership. Not to shore up the institution for its own sake. The only defensible reason, I think, is the sincere conviction, which I hold, that Mormonism provides for millions of souls a powerful proximity to life itself–that is, to Christ. Through the latter-day performance of the Restoration, individuals can participate in the life of Christ and both partake of and distribute that saving grace.
Obviously, this is an extraordinarily delicate subject for believing Latter-day Saints. Revelatory authority goes to the heart of LDS self-understanding, and to the heart of a deep tension between personal and institutional authority in our teachings. After staring at this post for a day, I’m not sure if I’m saying something shocking or just shockingly banal. In the end, I hope it may give a reason for patience and faith, most especially patience and faith in one another.