“And behold, others he flattereth away … and he saith unto them: I am no [prophet], for there is none.” (2 Nephi 28:21)
“When we reject the counsel which comes from God, we do not choose to be independent of outside influence. We choose another influence… Rather than the right to choose to be free of influence, it is the inalienable right to submit ourselves to whichever of those powers we choose.” (Henry B. Eyring, Ensign, May 1997, p. 25)
Discipleship and Euthryphro’s Dilemma. At one point in His ministry, Jesus taught a doctrine which seemed patently absurd to his disciples – so absurd, in fact, that many of them turned away from Him at that point. In so doing they were using their trust in doctrine to constrain their trust in a prophet. Jesus then turned to the Apostles and asked if they too would leave to which they responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” In so doing they were using their trust in a prophet to constrain their trust in doctrine. We all must also pick and choose who or what we follow in our lives. By picking a ‘who’, we necessarily also choose a ‘what’ and by picking a ‘what’, we inevitably also choose a ‘who.’ Many times we frame the decisions we make in terms of ‘what’ so as to occlude, disguise or otherwise repress the ‘who’ which necessarily accompanies any such choices. While I am willing to concede that our motives for doing this are not always so sinister in nature, I do want to suggest that – contra Euthyphro’s dilemma – there is no deep, intrinsically binding or non-question begging reason for prioritizing doctrines over prophets in our lives.
The “Who?” and the “What?” of Discipleship. The bloggernacle is a place in which Mormons of various stripes come together in order to put forward, justify, critique and undermine various beliefs and behaviors. Significantly, the justification for these beliefs and behaviors can always be framed in terms of an appeal to speakers or speech, teachers or teachings, prophets or prophecy, in summary, people or propositions. This is a choice which we freely and continuously make, even if we do not realize it. The religious tradition of which Mormonism is clearly part encourages us to frame and justify our beliefs and behaviors in terms of the people that we follow, whether they are our priesthood leaders, our university professors, our favorite author or a political activist that inspires us. The liberal democratic world around us insists instead that we justify our beliefs and behaviors in terms of propositions, whether they are official church doctrine, peer-reviewed literature and data, a well-articulated perspective or an engaging political cause. One tradition asks, “Who do you believe and follow?” while the other asks, “What do you believe and follow?”
Because I Said So. Seeing the differences between these two different ways of justifying our beliefs and behaviors can be very difficult at times if only because the very process of learning to gain the critical distance necessary in order to articulate these dissimilarities also trains us to repress such differences. Such training as we learn in schools, the media, etc. purposefully gives the impression that there is only one “true” way to go about justifying our beliefs and behaviors rather than two from which we can freely choose. From this perspective “Because I said so” is never a good enough reason, even if it is God that is saying so. Within the modern tradition we are taught in school, then, legitimate authority is found not in God at all, but in the propositions and reasons which He has access to. As a consequence, the democratic world never presents Euthyphro’s dilemma as a dilemma at all, but as unambiguous endorsement of one mentality at the expense of another. Seeing any appeal to persons rather than propositions as a legitimate option, then, can be very difficult for us modern democratic citizens, but let’s see if we can’t unring this bell all the same.
The Genealogy of Beliefs and Behaviors. Within the priestly/prophetic tradition of religion, one is a Mormon because he believes and follows Joseph Smith and his successors. One is Darwinist because he follows Charles Darwin and his disciples. One is a feminist because he has been taught by Audre Lorde (or some other such feminist author) to see the world in a particular way. And so on. In other words, we not only can, but typically ought to construe various thinkers and authors as true or false prophets especially when they do not see him or herself as such. By contrast, within the liberal democratic tradition, one is a Mormon because he accepts and defends various Mormon doctrines. He is a Darwinist because he accepts and defends the evidence and arguments for evolution. He is a feminist because of the systematic injustices which he perceives in the world. And so on. One tradition sees our beliefs and behaviors as a form of discipleship to those who originated or revealed such things while the other tradition sees a significant difference between the origin and justification for such things.
Do Men Gather Grapes from Thornbushes or Figs from Thistles? While justifications that appeal to persons rather than propositions are strictly prohibited by one worldview, such appeals are actively encouraged within the other. Religious attempts to justify various beliefs and behaviors by describing the person who advocates such things are described throughout our scriptures and church history. Indeed, we might note that those beliefs and behaviors that cannot be so justified tend not to be receive very much consideration or attention within our religious tradition. Within such a religious perspective, true teachings come from true teachers and false prophecies from false prophets as a normative rule rather than an empirical fact. Any attempt within the liberal democratic tradition to justify or ground beliefs and behaviors with an appeal to some person constitutes a fallacy with some Greek name or another. Such beliefs and behaviors stand or fall without any regard for their particular origins. From this perspective, then, there are few, if any true teachers or false prophets (since everybody is fallible!), only true teachings and false prophecies. By severing the origin of a belief or behavior from its justification, the normative connection between the truthfulness of a prophet and the truthfulness of his prophecies has also been severed and repressed. To reiterate, the democratic world implicitly teaches us that there are no true or false prophets worthy of our attention – only true or false prophecies.
Truth as Solidarity with the Lord and His Servants. Within Mormonism, priesthood is the authority by which revealed truth is structured amongst people rather than propositions. Given that truth is (at least in part) a particular relationship which holds between people, the speaker is thus at least as important as his speech since his speech gains some credit, legitimacy and/or justification from the relationship which the he has with his audience. Within the liberal democratic tradition, however, truth is a relation which holds exclusively between positions and is thus structured by logic, experience and other such universal principles which constitute an argument. Given that truth is a relationship between positions rather than people, the speaker and his relationship to other people is totally irrelevant to legitimacy of his speech and as such can be safely ignored. Authoritatively binding relationships between people have been subverted and replaced by normative relationships between propositions that we call arguments or reasons.
Asymmetries in the Legitimacy of Speech. Within the Mormon tradition, priesthood authority structures people by setting apart a particular authorized speaker from a corresponding audience over which he has stewardship. Thus, the words spoken by a priesthood leader to his audience carry very different weight and significance than those same words do when spoken by the audience to him. Priesthood stewardship thus defines the legitimate scope of any person’s beliefs or behaviors, it being the essential difference between personal revelation and official revelation. Liberal democracy, however, rejects any such boundaries since they believe such distinctions serve to divide rather than unify people. The “arbitrary” nature of social distinctions between people is thus replaced by a universality in both access and subservience to propositions, a universality which equally (de)legitimizes every person’s beliefs and behaviors. Within the liberal democratic tradition, then, the speech of a priesthood leader to his audience is no different (all other things being equal) from the speech of an audience member to their priesthood leader. There is, then, little if any essential difference between personal revelation and official revelation, only true and false revelation. While one tradition focuses on whether a revelator in question has the proper, personal relation to his audience and other true revelators, the other tradition focuses on whether the revelation in question has the proper, impersonal relation to other true revelations.
Oral vs. Written Communication. A religious tradition which takes the particular relationship between a priesthood leader and his specific and contextually limited stewardship will accordingly place a large emphasis on oral communication. The paradigm of prophetic speech is when an authorized prophet speaks directly to his listeners as Jesus did to His audiences, giving them immediate instructions as to how they ought to believe and behave within that specific context. It is in this way that one can speak as one having authority: “you have read X, but I tell you Y.” Such face to face encounters throw the (dis)obedience of the audience to the speaker in stark relief. The liberal democratic tradition, by contrast, would rather not listen to the oral communications of a living prophet, for this would necessarily set such a person apart from his audience. Instead, this tradition will prefer the written words of a prophet who is not immediately present as a person with unequal privilege and is thus easily neglected, forgotten or otherwise repressed so as to restore a state of affairs in which all people have equal access to the same truth. We can find no better example of this than in the Protestant doctrine of “sola scriptura.” By focusing on the disembodied words within a book, obedience to the prophet as a contextual person with a divinely appointed audience is thus obscured. This preference for written rather than oral communication from the prophets strongly correlates. I suggest, with a testimony of the gospel as an abstract set of universal propositions rather than a testimony of the prophets and priesthood leaders as living persons.
Disassociation from vs. Disconfirmation of Priesthood Authority. On the one hand, religious traditions not only allow but actively encourage us to follow our inspiration in whatever direction it leads us so long as such beliefs and behaviors never correct, falsify, challenge or undermine those of our priesthood leaders. If we follow this principle to its conclusion, we are not even authorized to receive revelation for or against any church position as such, only for our personal relationships to these doctrines or policies and the men who authoritatively advocate them. The liberal democratic tradition, on the other hand, allows us to follow our inspiration in whatever direction it leads us, especially when such inspired beliefs and behaviors serve to correct, falsify, challenge or undermine those in authority. If we follow this principle to its conclusion, we are all equally authorized to receive revelation for or against any and every position, including those which govern and represent the church. We are also encouraged to reveal, endorse or advocate such positions to other people, for it is precisely by properly linking up as much revelation as possible, no matter where or who it comes from, that universal truth is revealed.
True or False Prophets – It Matters. Within Mormonism, it is one thing to question, think or believe whatever we (imperfectly) feel the Lord might lead us to question, think or believe – for this just is what it means to be a true prophet. It is something else entirely to speak, teach, prophecy or otherwise advocate those same things to people outside of our stewardship – for this just is what it means to be a false prophet. Within a liberal democratic tradition, however, to question, think or believe whatever we (imperfectly) feel the Lord might lead us to so do in our own personal lives does not necessarily mean that we are actually true prophets. Similarly, to speak, teach, prophecy or otherwise advocate such things to people outside of our stewardship does not necessarily mean that we are false prophets. Again, one tradition actively highlights the truth or falsity of prophets while the other finds such a distinction as unhelpful at best.
Truth and Authority. Within the Mormon tradition there is an inseverable connection between truth and authority. Authority is that which sets a uniquely ordained few apart from the rest of us such that they alone have (imperfect) access to God’s truth. Priesthood authority structures not only the church, but our also access to God’s guiding truth such that this truth comes down to the general church membership from above by way of the authoritative structure that is the church. The relationship which the liberal democratic tradition sees between authority and truth, on the other hand, couldn’t possibly be any more different. Within this tradition, authority is not a conduit to truth but an obstruction to it; authority is not a feature of God’s plan, but a bug within it. One tradition sees faithful obedience to true prophets as the best protection from imperfect doctrines – human reasoning being that which is most toxic to divine truth. The other sees faithful obedience to true doctrines as the best protection from imperfect prophets – authority being that which is most toxic to divine truth.
Authority as Censorship. The previous point is worth expanding upon, for these two different perspectives on the relationship between truth and authority are critical to understanding our relationship to the prophets. Let us begin with the perspective of liberal democracy which insists that because authority inevitably corrupts institutions and the people within them, those institutions that are wield authority will always censor, obstruct and distort truths to their own advantage. Accordingly, the liberal democrat sees truth as that which comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comforted. This process by which an audience is empowered while authority is deflated serves to level any kind of authoritative distinctions which might distort truth – it being the proper relationship among positions to which we all persons have equal access. This, by their lights, is the very reason why people must bow to propositions rather than the other way around.
Who’s Clarity? Which Obscurantism? But what counts as undiluted clarity within one tradition, is exactly that which obscures our vision in the other. From the perspective of Mormonism, truth is very nearly defined as that which fortifies and expands the hierarchical monarchy that is the kingdom of God…. Just as the liberal democrat fears! Thus, Mormons see all such attempts at sidelining authority in an effort to see truth unblemished as if they were attempts at sidelining all telescopes in an effort to see the heavens unblemished. Magnifying and reinforcing rather than constraining and chaffing at authority within the church is the surest means to truths that are unblemished by the philosophies and flesh of men. Consequently, these two traditions almost run in equal and opposite directions regarding the relationship between truth and authority. One sees a focus on non-authoritative speech as being an obstruction to the truth which comes to us from authoritative speakers. The other sees a focus on authoritative speakers as being an obstruction to the truth which lies in unauthoritative speech.
Milk and Meat – Simplicity and Sophistication. The religious tradition insists that truth is simple and adapted to the weakest of us –illiterate fishermen being the models of faithful discipleship. The gospel, therefore, is not dumbed down because some of us are stupid, but because some of us are smart. A focus on who we follow neither requires nor desires any kind of sophisticated analysis of Mormon theology or church history. The simplicity of following our ordained leaders is precisely intended to sideline any kind of scholarly or dialectical discussion of God’s dealings with us. The deeper truths are supposed to be found by approximating rather than distancing oneself from the Lord’s priesthood leaders. The liberal democratic tradition, on the other hand, makes no such promises regarding the simplicity of eternal truths. By their lights, the weakness to which the gospel is adapted is not that of pride but that of the intellect – sophistication being the antithesis of simplicity. This perspective sees faithful adherence to ordained leaders as merely a training wheel of sorts to be kicked away once we gain the spiritual maturity that restores the equal relationship that they think ought to exist between us and them.
Obedience as an Expression of Agency. Within a religious tradition there is no more virtue in following an argument to its logical conclusion than there is in following the prophet to the end of our lives. Obedience to our uniquely ordained prophets is one of the most divine expressions of our agency. The choices we make in our lives are ones of who – not if – we will obey. There is nothing deeper or more praiseworthy in choosing which teaching rather than which teacher to follow – the former being no less infallible than the latter. The liberal democratic tradition, however, strongly objects to all of this. To obey another person is to forfeit rather than express one’s agency. True and free agency, according to this perspective, is to be expressed in an adherence to principles and propositions rather than mortal men. All of these assertions are aimed at undermining and erasing any kind of social distinction which might set some people apart from others, social distinctions which in the religious tradition have been ordained of God.
The Bloggernacle: In the World or of the World? We as Mormons are supposed to live in the liberal democratic world, but not of the liberal democratic world. Our church with its religious traditions and values finds itself surrounded by a hostile culture with a radically different set of values and morals, a culture that is aimed at invading and conquering ours. Make no mistake, the liberal democratic attacks against our faith are carried out in the name of morality, but it is a morality that is very different from that which defines our righteousness. Their tradition has nothing but moral indignation for our supposed worship of authority figures – as they like to call it. Our tradition returns the favor by dismissing such unauthorized principles and propositions as the unstable philosophies of men, mingled (at best) with scripture. Within the bloggernacle we see far too many people who inadvertently find themselves trading in their clear and simple faith in the prophets for the sophisticated nuance of liberal democratic propositions. By so doing, they regrettably express their agency by obeying the prophets of that world even though they go to great lengths to disguise this obedience. Let us not be fooled any longer. Before we critique or undermine our priesthood leaders, let us ask: Who is it that we are obeying by so doing? Whose principles and propositions are we using to compromise and undermine our faith in the prophets? Which morality are we upholding and defending, that which we have covenanted to uphold and defend or that of the world around us?