01 December 2008

Different Perspectives

A good friend of mine is a Church employee. He was born and raised in Utah County, as was his wife. Though he has traveled some (always in some Church-related capacity), they have never lived anywhere but Salt Lake or Orem. Recently he has asked me some very pointed questions about Prop 8, wanting in good faith to know the perspective of a “non-Utah Mormon” who has seen the issue close up as he knows he has not.

We've discussed virtually every issue and factoid that's been raised since this whole thing started. You can probably guess which side he supports. I've explained to him my perspectives and how I understood the arguments on both sides of the question.

Three conclusions emerged from our conversation. First, we both have faith in and a testimony of the gospel. Second, he says I am what he calls a classical liberal, someone who has the basic view of rights and role of government that Jefferson and his contemporaries had, and who makes no important distinctions between economic liberties and civil liberties, and this colors my view of proposed laws that affect civil liberties. He's probably right. I think that he is politically very conservative but not pig-headedly so.

Third, and most salient here, was our different perspectives on the First Presidency's letter that kick-started the whole Mormon Machine into action in California. Essentially, we differed on how to identify revelation. I laid out for him the history of First Presidency letters over the years which have shifted Church policies and teachings, sometimes 180 degrees about, even flatly contradicting previous FP statements (e.g. on birth control). Since truth is always internally consistent, I told him, this history suggests to me that First Presidency letters can sometimes include the personal advice and opinions of the First Presidency. Otherwise, to use the same example, if birth control was “contrary to the teachings of the Church” in the 1960's when David O. McKay issued his letter on it, it would still be “contrary to the teachings of the Church” today. But it isn't. I don't see this shift as the result of revelation since it seems highly unlikely to me that the Lord would instruct the prophet that birth control was sinful at one point and then just 40 years later, for no apparent reason, change His mind and tell another prophet something else. Occam's Razor always applies: All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best. The simplest solution here is to explain this shift as the result of near-universal acceptance of the use of birth control in the United States and the almost complete breakdown of all objections to it on any basis. I did not analogize specifically to Prop 8 but my friend's discomfort with this line of analysis confirmed that he understood where it could lead.

Friend in question did not see things as I did. To him, letters from the First Presidency constitute The Voice of The Lord on whatever question they address. Therefore, if those letters change Church policies or positions, then that constitutes continuing revelation. He believes that all official acts of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are based on revelation and that any “correction” (as he sees it) should come from God alone. He acknowledges that we both believe in continuing revelation but he does not see “the Brethren” making “corrections along the way” whereas I do (and he's right, that's how I see things). He sees them as “always inspired” and believes I see them as “working through things until they eventually get it right, if they do.” I think that last phrase was a bit overstated, but he is correct that I see even top Church leaders as often using their own best judgment in running Church affairs. I believe they do receive revelation in that process but I've seen enough in the Church to know that many if not the majority of decisions taken at all levels are taken according to the individual leaders' own opinions and personal judgment. Sometimes those decisions proved to have been inspired after all. Sometimes they are demonstrably bone-headed and reversed. I allow for both possibilities. Friend in question would simply see all decisions of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve as always inspired according to particular circumstances.

I pointed out to him various quotes from past presidents of the Church which urged individual members not to rely on their leaders without question, but to get for themselves a testimony that what they were being taught and the ways they were being led were truthful, that prophets were only prophets when speaking as such, and that they always remained fallible men whose own experiences colored their perceptions. He acknowledged all of this and it made no difference. To him, FP letters are the modern equivalent of “thus saith the Lord” and are to be followed. Period. I'm sure he wouldn't object to individual efforts to gain a testimony of any particular FP instruction because to him, there can be only one right answer to such efforts.

He assured me that he didn't doubt my faithfulness, that we simply had a different perspective on this issue. I suspect that privately he worries I am on shaky ground because I “question The Brethren” and even “presume to correct them.” For my part, I think his approach is a little bit pie-in-the-sky-ish and it doesn't reflect the reality I have personally seen of how the Church is run.

Naturally this made for a very interesting discussion about Proposition 8 in particular. I'll spare you the details of that. But it seems pretty clear to me that he's the “Iron Rod” type of Mormon whereas I'm more of the “Liahona” type. And I'm curious to know what others think of Friend in Question's approach, whether in the context of Prop 8 (assuming we're not all heartily sick of the subject yet) or otherwise.


Abelard Enigma said...

To him, letters from the First Presidency constitute The Voice of The Lord on whatever question they address. Therefore, if those letters change Church policies or positions, then that constitutes continuing revelation.

Perhaps being a convert and not having been raised in the church colors my perspective. But, I've never understood this idea that our church leaders are just a bunch of puppets with Jesus pulling the strings. I just don't understand why some people refuse to even acknowledge the possibility that church leaders might be wrong - infallibility is not part of our doctrine.

Beck said...

I remember years ago having a similar conversation with my brother-in-law about the fallibility of the Brethren. At that point in my life, I told him they were ALWAYS infallible and their declarations were as if God were here to say them himself. I was very much like your friend.

Fast forward through years of personal experience with stake and ward leadership positions and more astutely watching and experiencing how the Church works, and I have come around completely to the "Liahona" point of view. Many times it is a Trial-and Error system of steps. More often than not we are governed by personal opinions than "thou shalts", and are left to internalize what we can from these personal opinions through the Holy Ghost.

I recently read a talk by Elder Melvin J. Ballard given about 80 years ago, where he declared that the work of the dead for the Africans, Indians and Chinese will not be necessary in this life - but will be left for the Millennium if even then, and that their status was based directly on their faithfulness in the Pre-Existence. It would be interesting to tell that to the Chinese, Indian, and African saints today, right?

The "Iron Rod" approach vs. the "Liahona" approach. I like it! There may be room for both, but the Spirit of the Law, and not the iron-clad-correlation-department-approach-from-on-high is where I fall.

Of course I'm on the verge of falling off the cliff so don't stand to close to me... :)

Scott said...

We taught a guy on my mission who was a dedicated Catholic. He loved the Church's emphasis on family, and he really seemed to like what we had to say in general, but he hated the idea of change in doctrine.

"The scriptures say that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow", he would say, and then point at the Church's abandonment of polygamy or to its change in position re: blacks and the priesthood. He took great pride in the fact that the Catholic church would never change its stance on abortion, for example.

Being a young and naive missionary, I couldn't point out to him the many changes that the Catholic church has undergone through the centuries, but I did explain our belief in continuing revelation and our understanding that although God is the same, that doesn't mean that His instructions to us need to remain the same--He can change His mind.

In the end he was not convinced, and we ended our discussions with him, but I've always remembered that experience as a reminder that I need to be flexible in allowing for changes in the policies of the Church.

I have a friend who works for CES. He was a seminary teacher for a while, and now works in administration at the Church Office Building. We were discussing this topic via email once, and he said that he defines doctrine as the unchanging truths of the Gospel, and differentiates between doctrine and policy, which can change. Seen in that light, one question we can ask is whether the contents of a First Presidency Letter are doctrinal or procedural.

FP Letters which are doctrinal in nature have their origins (I believe) in inspiration.

FP Letters which delineate a policy or a procedure may be inspired, but may also be simply administrative documents that have received the First Presidency's "stamp of approval" ...and may possibly not even have originated with the FP(?). Does President Monson or one of his counsellors actually sit down and compose a letter encouraging members of the Church to attend their party caucus meetings or to donate to a regional food drive that will be taking place? Or is that letter written by some clerk in the Office Building and sent up to the offices of the First Presidency for approval and signatures? My guess would be the latter, and I'm not sure how much inspiration or revelation would be involved in the process.

This ended up being a much longer reply than I intended... But there's my take on things, for what it's worth.

Alan said...


I've been in ward and stake leadership as well, with exactly the same result: a complete transformation from an Iron Rodder to a Liahona, and for the same reasons.

But Friend in Question has also served in Church leadership, so the only way I can explain how he retains his perspective is to conclude that he makes a distinction between the fifteen men at the top and everybody else who aren't "prophets, seers and revelators." Still, as Abe said, even for them, "infallibility is not part of our doctrine."

Friend in Question would think I am looking for ways to rationalize disobedience. I believe I'm looking for complete understanding, something I think the Lord wants us to have at all times.

If you have not heard of the "Iron Rod v. Liahona" distinction before, read this well-known speech by a prominent Church scholar and, not surprisingly, biographer of Pres. Hugh Brown.

Mike said...

I am glad that there are men like you out there to debate like this to get the word out that there is another view than that of the blinded Utah Mormon.

Maybe if I went to law school I could do this, but unfortuantely I am way too controlled by my emotions, getting an education more in the arts to let my emotional, creative side flow.

One day, when my wife is ready to hear of my blogging experience, I will have her read your blog and get her opinion on your opinion, and see how willing she is to be more open on these things.

Bravone said...

Interesting dialog. I agree with the comments above.

Iron Rod vs. Liahona..never thought of that. Wouldn't the Liahona lead to the Iron Rod? :) I am more like a boy scout lost, unsure how to use the compass mom bought and stuffed into my backpack.