“All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it…”
I will inform you that it is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one, to receive instructions for those in authority, higher than themselves; therefore you will see the impropriety of giving heed to them; but if any person have a vision or a visitation from a heavenly messenger, it must be for his own benefit and instruction; for the fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom.
-History of Church 7 Vols. 1:338, 339
Consider the not unusual case in which two people who, having searched, pondered and prayed in all faithfulness and earnestness, come to two different conclusions regarding how they ought to believe, speak and/or act. The first way of resolving this disagreement would be with an appeal to priesthood authority in which one side acquiesces to the presiding authority of the other. The second way would be with an appeal to inter-personal reasoning in which, very roughly speaking, the less persuasive side acquiesces to the more persuasive side. The chart below summarizes many of the central differences which underlie these two mechanisms for resolving differences in prayerfully considered positions.
The first difference I would like to discuss between these two mechanisms for resolving disagreements in prayerfully considered positions is their respective origins. Priesthood authority is an ancient institution which is considered pre-modern in nature. Its major influences in western society and culture trace their lines back through Christianity to the ancient Hebraic religion of prophecy found in the Old Testament. Inter-personal reasoning, on the other hand, largely traces its modern influence back through the scholastic institutions of philosophy which originated in democratic Greece. The sense in which inter-personal reasoning is less ancient than priesthood authority is that the former had never gained sufficient cultural clout amongst the masses to be considered a serious competitor to the latter until the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The root of many of the difference between these two mechanisms lies in the different ways in which they are structured. Priesthood authority is structured hierarchically such that no two people have the same authority over some group of people. Each group of people has one and only one presiding authority which is authorized to speak for and direct that group. This stands in stark contrast to inter-personal reasoning which has an egalitarian structure such that no two people have differing authority over some group of people. Each person within the group is granted full and equal access to the truths that represent and guide the group.
Within both of these two differing and incompatible structures, disagreements are seen as problems of sorts, but the nature of these problems as well as what counts as a legitimate solution to them differs greatly between the two structures. Within priesthood authority, a disagreement between two prayerfully considered positions is a problem because no two people are equally authorized, not only to publicly advocate any given position, but to receive celestial guidance on the issue in question. Accordingly, at least one person must be speaking beyond the limits of their priesthood stewardship and must thus be a false prophet. Within inter-personal reasoning, however, a disagreement between two prayerfully considered positions is a problem because two contradictory positions cannot both match whatever God’s position is. Accordingly, at least one person must either be deceived or deceitful regarding their access to heavenly information.
What a solution to the problem of disagreement in prayerfully considered position looks like also differs greatly between these two differing traditions. Within a priesthood organization, the solution to public disagreement is characterized by a unity free of all outward competition and contention between people. In most cases it is clear which person is uniquely authorized to receive answers to any prayers regarding the issue at hand, thereby leaving nothing to be worth arguing about. Within inter-personal reasoning, however, the solution is characterized by a consistency which can only be reached through a process of competition and contention between positions. Furthermore, most cases in which prayerfully considered positions disagree, it is not at all clear which positions is most free from contradiction with other truths, thus leaving much to argue about. Whereas priesthood authority is primarily geared toward minimizing tension between people rather than positions, inter-personal reasoning is primarily aimed at minimizing tension between positions rather than people.
The structural differences between priesthood authority and inter-personal reason also lead to very different conceptions regarding the scope of the heavenly truths which we receive in answer to our prayers. Within priesthood authority, we are only allowed to receive answers to prayers regarding issues that are a part of the stewardship to which we have been publicly called. Any suggestions, advice or corrections which come outside the proper priesthood channels, then, must either come from mortal men or from the devil, but not from God. Since, on the other hand, stewardship is not at all relevant to inter-personal reasoning, all people equally have heavenly access to the universal and timeless truth regarding any and all issues. Consequently, any suggestions, advice or corrections from any person have every right to be equally inspired by God and thus merit consideration and attention.
This difference in scope for the answers we receive to prayers entails significant differences in the loyalties that we express to the Lord’s prophets. Within a priesthood organization, what matters most is that we sustain and follow our living leaders, the leaders which have actually been ordained and set apart to have stewardship over us in the here and now. It is in this way that our living prophets are (other things being equal) able to correct, trump or supersede those prophets which have led other people in different times and places. Inter-personal reason, however, sees all true prophets (indeed, all people!) as having equal access to timeless and universal truth. In this way, it is very much possible that the prophets that have or will lead other people in different times and places are able correct, trump or supersede the living prophets which happen to currently be appointed over us.
Such differing perspectives between the relationship between the prophets of differing places and times naturally entails a difference in perspectives regarding the nature of the truths receive from heaven. From the perspective of priesthood authority, the answers to our prayers are typically a kind of guidance which we will always need so long as we are separated from God’s presence. Revelation in general is likened unto a compass or path which leads us in the right direction no matter where or when we live. From the perspective of inter-personal reason, however, the answers to our prayers are typically an uncovering of timeless and unchanging truths or heavenly data which give us more information about the nature of the earthly and celestial realms. Revelation, then, is more like a picture, mirror or map that remains constant regardless of where we live, when we live or what destination we would like to pursue.
These differences very naturally entail rather different conception of personal revelation. For example, we are told that “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” Within a priesthood organization, this is a wish that all levels within the organization were guided by revelation over their respective stewardships. Furthermore, were all the Lord’s people prophets, personal revelation might very well lead some people sometimes to abandon or deviate from their priesthood leaders, but in no sense would such personal revelation ever be allowed to correct, falsify or oppose the words of the priesthood leaders. That is the key difference between all the Lord’s people being prophets and some of the Lord’s people being false prophets. From the perspective of inter-personal reason, however, this passage amounts an abolishment of authoritative leaders altogether. Were all the Lord’s people prophets, then each person’s personal revelation would be in total harmony and there would be no need for priesthood leaders which are seen a human, and therefore fallible intermediaries. Until then, however, inter-personal reasoning does allow for – even encourage – personal revelation to helpfully correct or loyally oppose/falsify priesthood leaders.
Which leads us to the very different ways in which these two traditions construe human fallibility. In the case of priesthood authority, the universal fallibility of men and women leads us to trust the Lord’s wisdom and guidance. This, in turn, leads us to a greater trust in those priesthood leaders who have been uniquely authorized to receive revelation on various issues. Their revelation may not be perfect, but it is still better than our unguided thoughts and preferences. Inter-personal reason, by contrast, sees the fallibility of all men as a reason to distrust our priesthood leaders and hold them at a critical distance. This means that we must continually seek to verify (and falsify!) the instruction that we receive from our leaders by praying for ourselves. Thus, whereas the tradition of priesthood authority suggests that we trust the Lord’s revelation to his authorized leader over the arm of our own flesh, inter-personal reasoning urges us to trust in the Lord’s personal revelation to us over the arm of our leaders’ flesh. To be sure, when it comes to personal guidance in our individual lives, both traditions basically say the same thing. When it comes to church doctrine and policy, however, the two perspectives couldn’t be more different.
All these differences between these two mechanisms for resolving disagreements between prayerfully considered positions contribute to very different appraisals of dialectic debate and argumentation. From the perspective of priesthood authority, the give and take of dialectical debate is a form of contention, strife, compromise and disharmony. Dialectical debate is a power struggle in which the words and power of God are obscured, twisted and mingled toward the ends of men. From the perspective of inter-personal reasoning, however, dialectic debate is a cooperative enterprise in the pursuit of honest communication and open dialogue regarding the eternal truths that we have each received. If dialectical debate is indeed a form of power struggle, then inter-personal reasoning sees it as the means by which stratifications of power and the distortions to truth that they cause are dissolved. One tradition sees dialectical debate as the greatest obstacle to divine truth while the other sees it as the most promising passage to divine truth.
Having gone to some lengths, now, to disentangle these two mechanisms for resolving disagreements between prayerfully considered positions, I would now like to emphasize the disharmony and competitive relationship which exists between these two mechanisms. I have already shown how each mechanism sees the other as an obstacle or impediment to itself. This is because one tradition relies upon social distinctions while the other relies upon an absence of social distinction. Priesthood authority not only stands in judgment of inter-personal reasoning, but sees the reasoning of mortals as superfluous at best and an interference at worst. Conversely, inter-personal reasoning not only stands in judgment of priesthood authority, but also sees the appeal to authority as superfluous at best and an interference at worst. In other words, when it comes to the resolution of prayerfully considered positions there is an irreconcilable zero-sum-ness between these two incompatible mechanisms.
The most common way of reconciling these two mechanisms lies in the expectation that in the end the full consistency of beliefs and the full consistency of believers will be one and the same Truth. I want to sideline this expectation, not because it is false but because it does not resolve any disagreement or answer any questions in this life. In this life, there will never be a complete lack of contradiction between believers or their beliefs, which means that we will always be forced to make decisions in the here and now as to which or whose prayerfully considered position to endorse. These choices must be made regardless of what harmonies will and will not exist in the hereafter.