Singing in ten-thousand part harmony

This is one of those posts where the reader has to zag through a preliminary feint and counter-feint before arriving at the beginning. Last week a writer named Joni Hilton wrote an article for Meridian Magazine in which she criticized “liberal Mormons” for all manner of personal and theological errors, charging that, among other transgressions, liberals are “cafeteria Mormons” who observe only the convenient parts of Mormonism.

This morning Patrick Mason wrote a thoughtful rebuttal to Hilton’s piece, arguing that all religions are “internally plural,” harboring an array of scripturally-rooted possibilities for faithful belief and practice, all of which are available to disciples. I might quibble with Patrick’s defense of the cafeteria metaphor: I think it implies far too much emphasis on personal preference and convenience, despite Patrick’s careful qualification, and I think few of us consciously choose our beliefs in the way we choose an item from a menu. But I think Patrick’s deeper point about harmonious diversity with the Church is perfect:

In his discourse on spiritual gifts Paul emphasizes that within the body of Christ it is the Holy Spirit “who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”  The diffusion of gifts and perspectives is appointed by God, who “arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”  The purpose of this diversity within the body of Christ is not to create division, but paradoxically to create harmony and complementarity, “that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (NRSV, 1 Cor. 12:11, 18, 25).

I liked Patrick’s post so much that I wanted to add an “amen” and a short postscript of my own, an idea I shared in the Gospel Doctrine lesson I taught yesterday. The lesson, number 37, focuses on living prophets, prophetic authority, and obedience, and I approached the lesson with some dread.  How to teach the lesson in a way that is stimulating but faithful to the scriptures, and alienating to neither the traditionalists nor the religious progressives in the room? Using this essay to shape my thinking, I decided to frame obedience to prophetic counsel not as conformity for its own sake, but as a condition that is more likely — though never sufficient on its own — to bring us into loving harmony with our community and unity with Christ. From this perspective, familiar scriptures on prophetic authority take on a different significance:

What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

We often focus on what this scripture tells about living prophets and the authority of their words. But it may be more interesting to consider what it tells us about the Lord and his voice, about his immense generosity in dispersing his power and authority among his children. About his trust in us, his desire to share with us everything that is his, to raise us up as his friends and companions and kin.

And what does it suggest about the Lord’s voice? Even under the narrowest possible interpretation, in which the “servants” with whom he shares his voice are only his chosen prophets and prophetesses, the Lord’s voice is prodigiously multiple. Imagine the number of dialects and timbres in which the Lord’s voice speaks. Imagine the number of historical moments, embedded contexts, implied assumptions, and ethnic allegiances from which and to which the Lord’s dispersed voice communicates. If we take this scripture seriously, we can only conclude that the gospel is profoundly multivocal. This should come as no surprise. It is after all the pneumatological wisdom of Pentecost, and an important theme of the Book of Mormon. The Lord speaks with ten thousand voices, and he shares all of them freely with his children.

So Patrick, after you finish up at the cafeteria, come join me in the choir. Choose any part. It’s ten-thousand part harmony.

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