It is a clear and central tenet of Mormon belief that we are led by revelation, by living prophets. It is less clear perhaps to everyone what this means. I know it probably baffles many of my academic colleagues. I would like to suggest here, however imperfectly and briefly, what it means to me.
My understanding is no doubt incomplete, not only because I am learning and growing in my own ability to receive personal revelation but because I am not privy to the process at the highest levels of church governance. We have often been told that it is not altogether unlike the same process at the more local levels of church governance and that is where I draw my insights from.
If I have learned anything in my time in church service, revelation by definition comes from the Lord but the process and method by which leaders and individuals gain inspiration can vary. Indeed, sometimes revelation surprises the recipient of the revelation most of all. Revelation involves reasoning, but it is ultimately unpredictable and sometimes flies in the face of reason. That is not to say that it is unreasonable, of course, but in my experience it rarely matches our most rational expectations. While this can be challenging at times, if we think about it (rationally of course!), this is as it should be. If revelation always came in direct harmony with our expectations, then we could hardly call it revelation at all. It would be indistinguishable from the result of human deliberation and casting a vote. While such deliberation is essential to reaching greater understanding in a democratic society, in the church we seek revelation by combining the needs and thoughts of a group with our faith in a higher power. This does not mean we put reason aside but it does mean that we have to trust in a higher authority than in our own individual or even our collective wisdom.
I think skeptics outside of the church and even some believers within the church want to imagine that the process of revelation as it is practiced by church leaders is entirely stripped of reason, deliberation, or counseling with one another. That is because, on the one hand, it makes revelation more easy to mock as an idea or, on the other, more easy to defend as a purely transcendent transmission of information from God to man.
The first section of the Doctrine and Covenants makes it clear that revelation is a form of communication, not merely a transmission of information, between God and his children, and that means that it involves some kind of translation from God’s understanding into our own. In verse 24, we read: “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” So our humanity is part of the process.
In my experience, different leaders get different kinds of revelations. I think it is entirely possible that different Bishops get different revelations about whom to call or how to lead or whom to reach. That might seem like a contradiction of the very idea of revelation or it might suggest that revelation is just a cover for individual whims. But we must remember that this is a church of changing leadership, of perpetual trust in the collective whole and not in one individual alone. The first impulse Joseph Smith had was to share the burden of revelation with as many as he could. He wanted everyone to see the face of God. So the plurality of the membership and of revelation becomes the church’s strength, not its weakness. While revelations are not necessarily unique and idiosyncratic, least of all those that come from the highest levels of church governance, each individual is a unique medium of the Lord’s will. I have known some Bishops who were exceptionally gifted at reaching certain individuals or handling certain problems. But like all strengths, these abilities mean that other abilities were less pronounced. Perhaps a Bishop who has the ability to speak clearly and unambiguously when it is most needed also struggles to know when to have a soft touch. Or vice versa. A Bishop might relate better to the youth than to the elderly. But this problem is precisely why we depend on continuing revelation. People are perpetually called and if you look back over the history of a ward or stake, you can see a wide variety of gifts that have been called upon to do the Lord’s work. Revelation depends on many laborers in the work of God knitted together in their commitment to move that work forward by sharing their strengths and thus supplementing each other’s weaknesses. That is why it is so important that we sustain each other in our callings and why we should seek to include as many as we can within the family of the church. The priesthood provides structure and a sense of order to help synthesize our talents in our common project of building the kingdom. That structure works best when it is focused above on what the Lord wishes to teach us at the same time that it is in touch with and a conduit for the concerns and faith of all members. We are better together under the direction of God and we are better together for every person who stays.
Throughout my church life, I have heard criticisms about the callings of certain individuals to certain callings. I confess to have sometimes felt them privately. Public criticisms emerged just this weekend with the calling of three new apostles. Because the church is a global family, I can certainly understand the desire to see a non-white or foreign born apostle called. But it is, I think, a misguided use of faith to place private expectations or hopes ahead of what the Lord wills. There is no denying that race or culture or language matter; they shape our life experiences and insights and perspectives. I have spent the better part of my professional life studying such issues. If they didn’t matter at all, there would be no need for expanding the gospel, no need for greater inclusion of God’s children into the fold, and perhaps we would have never received any teachings about caring for the strangers, for the oppressed, for those marginalized or even for our enemies. The Lord wants us to “enlarge the place of [our] tent” (Isaiah 54:2). More racial diversity in the upper levels of church leadership would no doubt open up new and different conversations with the Lord. But it would also be overstating things to imagine that this would make all the difference, or even the most important difference. What qualifies an apostle is first and foremost their witness of the Savior. And that same leadership is encouraging us to be inclusive, generous, compassionate and caring of all God’s children. So we have our own work to do.
If you accept the premise, as I do, that we are led by revelation, somehow and in some way you need to articulate to yourself what your responsibility and loyalty is to what has been revealed, precisely when it is not to your liking. You can vote against it, of course. You can complain all you want. But it must be admitted that making categorical demands about the direction revelation must take—especially when you were not a direct witness to the process and when your demands come from your own private reasoning—is not consistent with belief in revelation. I understand, of course, that much of this chafing that individuals experience is simply a function of a wavering testimony. And I have great compassion for such wavering. Many members, myself included at earlier times in my life, find themselves unsure if they can truly accept the premise of divine revelation and are simply waiting for more evidence that what is revealed conforms to their expectations before they will make up their minds. I have learned through my own experience that this approach will only push you closer to a denial of revelation altogether. That is because—idiosyncratic individuals that we are—there is almost no limit to the differences we end up feeling, differences that will give us endless reasons to doubt. And this doubt will leave us in a permanent state of agitation about what the church is or is not doing.
I want to kindly suggest that faith and trust in God will help to ease this agitation and help us to find peace in the church. I am not saying you can’t ask questions or that you shouldn’t admit and wrestle with your questions, but perhaps we can try to be more consistent in our belief. If you believe in revelation, then when things go differently than you would have planned, it behooves you to try to find peace with the things that don’t seem to make sense. Prayer helps, especially the prayer for your own personal witness. Counseling with others whom we trust also helps. And putting yourself in the shoes of a leader doesn’t hurt either.
I say this from very personal experience. Twice now I have been called to serve as an ecclesiastical leader, the second time just two weeks ago. And on both occasions my name was announced and the congregation had a matter of seconds to decide to vote in support of me but did so unanimously. Kind notes and expressions of faith followed, helping to shore up my own state of astonishment that the Lord would have chosen me. I felt the most profound gratitude for God’s trust but just as importantly for the trust of the members who, apparently without much hesitation as far as I could tell, accepted the will of the Lord. And in both cases, I can say that I was not 100% confident in my ability to lead. But I was 100% certain that I was not asked to lead. I was asked to be a conduit to allow the Lord to lead. His is the voice a leader seeks to hear. That is perhaps the single most important difference with our worldly definitions of leadership.
When it happens to you—you whose appreciation for your own weaknesses and limitations is especially keen—you feel such profound gratitude for the faith of others who trust that your particulars (in my case, a white middle-class male who is also blessed with a particular form of foolishness) will not stand in the way of the Lord’s will. Their faith might go so far as to believe that your set of life experiences might even be needed in the particular circumstances your ward or stake finds itself in. In my experience, such faith grants such an added source of power to a leader that revelations come much more easily. I can say this much: those hands raised in support signify not a vote in favor of a person but an expression of faith that together we can hope for the Lord’s guidance in our lives as we work together in doing the Lord’s work. If you had asked me if it was rational that I be called, I would have laughed at you. But I must testify that I know that the Lord called me. I won’t share all the reasons why I know this. They are too personal, but I was as surprised as anyone. So, if anyone has a right to complain, it is me. But the point is, it doesn’t matter if it is me or someone else in this position. When revelation comes and the faithful receive it, it doesn’t matter who the conduit is or what their particulars might be. What matters, what is all important, is the living God whose love our collective faith makes available to us.
Yesterday and today I received a witness of the divine calling of these three new apostles. I was deeply moved by the humility they expressed to describe their own surprise. But I was also moved by the powerful language used by President Monson to extend the calling to them directly from the Savior himself. This whole idea of revelation is a scandal really. A beautiful scandal. And I believe it with all my heart. Believing that the Lord could call an apostle gives me hope that he can speak to me.