Advice for a Mormon Intellectual, Part 2
Finally, we make a mistake if we forget that revelation will often give us answers we would never have expected and things we cannot explain. If we have had the experience of praying for help with a church calling and receiving revelation—not just wish-fulfillment or the coincidence of good feeling with our intentions, but genuine revelation—then we are more likely to listen when a prophet speaks, even if what he says doesn't concur with what I and my intellectual friends have been thinking, even if he doesn't or can't explain what he says.
As Elder Dieter Uchtdorf reminded us, since the leaders of the Church are human it is surely true that "members or leaders of the Church have simply made mistakes." That part of his talk made headlines internationally, in spite of the fact that he didn't say anything that should have been surprising.
But we ought not to let that snippet from his talk overshadow what he said only a few sentences later: "no decision of significance affecting this Church or its members is ever made [by church leaders] without earnestly seeking the inspiration, guidance, and approbation of our Eternal Father." "Mistake" ought not to be our first response to what we are told by the leadership of the Church.
If we've had revelation ourselves, then we know that it is almost always given in response to current needs and issues, but that it doesn't come on command, when it would be useful by others' standards. Nor does it usually come accompanied by an explanation; the Lord seldom explains himself. Like the rest of us, even with revelation sometimes the Brethren have to teach and act with less than a complete story.
That isn't to say they are unclear or that decisions about church doctrine or practice is made on the fly and is mostly just interpretation. I believe that our leaders are called to get things right, and they do. But they almost always lack the kind of collateral rational support that a systematic theology might provide—and which we would sorely like to have if what they say doesn't coincide with our desires and expectations.
That is not to say that we ought not to look for reasons that explain the teachings of the LDS Church. It is only to say that we ought not to assume that the leaders of the Church can give us those explanations or that we will always be able to figure them out.
6) Don't begin studying Mormonism, and especially don't do Mormon theology, without having thought deeply and carefully about faith, law, grace, works, and other common religious terms. They may not mean the same within Mormonism as they do in other places. They may not mean the same thing in each instance when they are used within Mormonism. These terms are not unambiguous, either as experienced by Mormons, or as we find them in Mormon scripture and teaching. But understanding them is central to knowing how to think about your faith.
7) As much thoughtful study of Mormonism as is required, you need to do even more critical study of your own discipline. You need to understand its models, categories, assumptions, descriptive language, pre-suppositions, etc. What does each mean? What does each entail?
Are there assumptions in the discipline to which you will have to take exception? If you're going to run the risk of analyzing your faith critically, you must be sure you have not committed yourself to using as a measure something less true and less revealed and revealing than Mormonism itself.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.