Prayer for Mormons is an important ritual and symbol of our faith, and alongside our daily habits of prayer are some very grand expectations of revelation. Joseph Smith started all of this. When he prayed, the heavens opened and revelation poured in. And he expected the people to be similarly inspired and revelatory. Any argument that he was territorial in the revelatory department is patently defensible. He loved it when people got revelations (but he loved it better when they agreed with his revelations). He reveled in them and encouraged them. His most momentous spiritual occasions were occasions where the outpourings of the spirit rested upon all present.
So our religious legacy is an emphasis on revelation. Nowadays however, revelation tends to be a more ‘corporatised’ kind of revelation. Boyd Packer (bless his cotton socks) put paid to a generalised revelatory culture amidst the Mormons by his insistence on a hierarchy of revelation which looks like a “I can get it for you, but you can’t get it for me” sort of practice. Unlike Joseph Smith, revelation for Packer is orderly, hierarchical, procedural, perfunctory, and has definitive boundaries.
Unfortunately, it seems that Packer’s ideal holds sway a little more emphatically these days than Smiths but I do understand the need to ‘manage’ the masses. We simply couldn’t have millions of Mormons sending in their revelations to Church Administration for their prayerful consideration – it would take too many resources and who would they employ to do it? – its not the sort of thing you’d put in a job reference. “I recommend X for this position. X has an outstanding record of accurate revelations and comes with a huge thumbs up from God – I know this because God told me himself”.
I personally like the revelation thing. Its so hopeful, and on those occasions when spiritual synergy is at its peak, and everyone is having their Pentecost, its breathtaking. And there is this wonderful notion abroad, that if everyone is talking to God, we should all be getting the same answers. But what happens when we don’t?
What happens when Sister A feels overwhelmingly (after talking to God) that her call should be to auxiliary B? Then she has an interview which Bishop C and he, in collaboration with Counsellors D & E, feel an overwhelming impression that God told them that Sister A’s service is required in auxiliary F? In the current institutional context there seems to be only one of three possibilities:
1) Either God is telling them both different things
2) Sister A’s service could be equally valuable in auxiliary B & F, but all things considered B seems the best place at the moment.
3) Neither of them are listening to God and she should really be in G.
I asked Nathan about how he made sense of this contradiction and who he thought was wrong. He was emphatic about the fault lying with the individual, not the Bishopric. He thinks that the vestry have got a better handle on things because they have a bigger picture than the parishioner – which is a fair point.
However, I would argue that one of the more problematic notions we live with in Mormonism is that the revelation that comes from those in the upper echelons of the institution is somehow more revelatory than even we can get for ourselves. And much of how we operate as a church functions on this very notion of revelation. For some people this is the lynchpin of Mormonism.
A church leader once told me that he had to believe that God was revealing things to the church leaders or else all of this seemed for naught. This worried me some, not because I believe that we mortals and our church leaders are incapable of supernal interchanges with the divine, its that this notion of God revealing his will to us through a hierarchy of institutional power, seems a bit mechanistic and managerial, and frankly it has gotten the church in a load of proverbials in the past. Because, how do you take it back if its wrong? If you say a revelation comes from God through your superior authority, but you get it wrong, who is going to take the flack? In my experience its usually God.
Take for instance Brigham Young’s statement:
“..Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” – JoD: vol.10 p. 110: (March 8, 1863)
It seems so far removed from any notions of sanctifying and transformative Christianity that it boggles the mind. Yet, here he was proclaiming his hotline to God, spewing out all of this hatred and justifying it to the people with a supposed seal of heavenly approval. If at his death bed he confessed, “I’m a racist pratt, got it from mum and dad, and should have shut my mouth” perhaps today our hymn book and our choirs would look at little more funked up and ‘gospel’ (and I’d be seriously into that).
So if we weren’t so hung up on the idea of revelation as pure streams of light and knowledge descending upon certain of the ‘chosen’ and filtering down to the masses, church leaders could back up a bit and say: “Whoah, BY was a product of his time and unrighteously used his authority to conflate matters heavenly with matters political.” or, “Perhaps, Joseph had a wee problem in that area and shouldn’t really have the cornered the adolescent help” or “GBH shouldn’t have given George Bush the thumbs up in conference”.
I wouldn’t mind, and I’m sure those thousands currently leaving the church in droves wouldn’t mind either. You see, I think we humans are better than we are given credit for by the brass at coping with each others foibles, and wouldn’t really be unseated if we saw it in our leaders. I think we’d be better at managing these supposed revelatory contradictions if we were a bit more exercised in it and had some language for it. We don’t need affectations of religious inerrancy to give us hope or even loyalty. What we need is more honesty, vulnerability, and humility – even if it does need more PR management than slick media clips of shiny happy mormons.
I wish I could capture the energy of revelation visibly on film. If we could see revelation I’m sure it would look like swirling trajectories of colour moving in us, around us, through us and toward us. I don’t truck with it being a single dimensional stream of knowing bouncing down the chain from God in its purest form until landing unadulterated in the laps of the people.
If we imagine our utopia or our Zion to be constructed like a Kandinsky, each one of us with our pot or pots of colour to contribute, then I think we might not be so territorial about revelation. If we imagined that each of us potentially has our own conduit to the divine our leaders might be seeking to harness that kind of transcendent energy for the good of our communities rather than being afraid of it because it stepped onto their sacred ground. We’d be open to the possibility that the topography that the seeds of revelation are planted in is as varied and as diverse as our own souls, and will eventually flower into its own unique and lovely species.
So back to the problem of poor good Sister A. I don’t think that either of them are wrong. The problem is with the strong discourses in our church which tend to work to micro-manage revelatory possibility into tidy units of institutional and hierarchical authority. If the interview was institutionally structured to be more probing, thoughtful, less closed ended, without the expectation of simply a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ – then perhaps we’d see more joyful ownership of Sister A’s own revelatory potential. Perhaps she would feel respected as she expressed her innermost convictions. In this respect I think we could do with a church culture which is a little less dependent, a little less eyes up the chain, and a little less fearful of giving more than our hands and our hearts to the cause. We’d be giving our souls as well.