– Matthew 23:13
Allow me, if you will, to borrow a line from Pure Mormonism’s blog. A while back he posted an article truly worthy of its title – a talk by Ron Poelman – and used the title “The Best Conference Talk You’ve Never Read.” While I’m not one for hyperbole, or maybe I am, the source of this post may just be worth reading, even if you already have 2nd place in your list of most important things to read filled up. Indeed, one of those commenting on the Poelman article even brought up this talk which, back when I originally read it, I meant to follow-up on. Like many things, though, it got lost in the shuffle that is my brain (interesting note: I make pizzas – a fair amount of them – at farmers’ markets and it’s usually a fair bet that I’ll forget something. Today, of all things, it was the sauce. Good luck making pizzas without sauce). So when I say it got lost in the shuffle, it probably did.
The reason I decided to bring up this talk was because one of its main topics or ideas, what the author terms as the “tyrant,” and a guilty one at that, is worth some attention. It’s a tyrant we see more and more in our lives, and the church, and unnecessarily so. I’m not sure when the tyrant first arrived on the scene, though apparently it was present (or becoming so) back in the day when this talk was given. Certainly, though, the tyrant gained esteem, honor and power in the 1980s with a General Authority Who Won’t Be Named. Modern examples seem to have gained strength in several different ways, but perhaps most notably in the way we use “in the name of Jesus … “ to end everything we say, invoking His name as if everything we said – every prayer, every talk and ever sermon – were divinely inspired by Him. A useful history/study can was done by someone over at BCC a while back, and it’s interesting to see how that trend came about. This same generic authority, it was noted in the study, “is the first to consistently use [“in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”].”
If you read the post I did some time back – “Anyone Care to Disagree” (footnote 2) – you’ll see some evidence of the topic at hand, namely that of dogmatism. Dogmatism is the “guilty tyrant” Stephen Richards refers to throughout his discourse, and one which might be worth looking into a little deeper outside this article. When I say dogmatism, I use a loosely defined form of the word. Some may define it as “arrogance,” while others may define it as “authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from.” This latter definition is probably more accurate and useful to this discussion.
I must admit that I’ve had my fair share of dogmatic times in my life. I prefer to see those times as me walking in the shoes of a modern day Pharisee. One time, four or five years ago when we were out eating dinner with my in-laws, my father-in-law accidentally ordered a Tiramisu dessert. When we were back at home a healthy discussion ensued where I couldn’t believe he had actually tried it. I told him that there’s no way he should have eaten it, that we cannot eat such things and that it was a certain breaking of the Word of Wisdom. Now, not only would I not care that he ate it, but I would more than likely take a bite of the same with him.
I also have a close friend who sees the world and church through a different set of lenses than I do, and is providing me with the same experience I gave my father-in-law. If I find anything that contradicts the current teachings of the church, or something that illuminates this or that teaching, or anything that says that someone within the church said this or that, this friend won’t even touch it unless it comes from a church approved source. And, even then, hard copy is better. For example, a week or so ago I had a discussion with this person on the Word of Wisdom and I talked about how it was never a commandment and never meant to be a commandment. I conceded that it was certainly a good recommendation, but it was written using very specific language. In debating the actual words that were used in the scriptures, I inquired how we, as men, could turn something into a commandment when the scriptures specifically state otherwise. To these points, my friend asked for sources. Not just any source, mind you, but LDS-approved sources. I opened up the internet version of the LDS scriptures (scriptures.lds.org/dc) to read Section 89, but even that to this friend wasn’t enough. They requested an actual hard copy. What’s interesting is that I doubt this sort of experience is all too unique. I’d wager (were I to be a wagering kind of guy) that this sort of mentality is held by most members. Things simply must come from approved sources, and, I believe, this is largely the result of scaring members that they’ll be “deceived” if they search after any mysteries.
Over the past couple of years I’ve come across several statements about avoiding such deception. In most of these comments, there is typically only one way, we’re told, whereby we can be assured that we can avoid deception. If we venture outside these proscribed boundaries we risk losing everything. As such, we rely on the “church approved” documents and materials. Anything else just isn’t trustworthy.
And, yes, you probably guessed it, the only way we can really be safe is this: “All we need is to follow the Prophet in all that he says and we will not be out smarted.”
There it is again: follow the prophet. In all he says.
Or, perhaps this: “Members must have a very strong testimony of Jesus Christ and the Restored Gospel in the way the doctrines teach, a strong testimony of the scriptures and doctrines of the church, a strong testimony the Prophets counsels and be willing to follow the leaders of the Church in ALL that they are told to do by them. If Church tells them to do or not to do something they do not agree with they will dismiss it. They will then fall victim to the consequences of their actions. They will either leave or be excommunicated. I feel the majority of the separation will be voluntary.”
As both of these statements evidence, and trust me there are many more like it, the only way for us to avoid deception, and avoid any “separation” in the last days is to follow the leaders of the Church in “all that [we] are told to do by [the leaders].” Another common refrain, which also ties into the issue of dogmatic beliefs, is that some things are better left unstudied. Mysteries, as we commonly refer to them today, are derided as unnecessary, fraught with deception and generally referred to as taboo. One such comment reads this way:
“The deeper mysteries or taboos will not save us … they can distract us from doing what we have been told to do or even lead us out of the Church. … the basics is where safety and salvation is at.”
Poppycock, I say. (Just using the word “poppycock” like that seems to make things sound better.) Believing and, worse, trusting someone in all they say is the epitome of idolatry and the very essence of trusting in the arm of the flesh. Never mind that brother Joseph (and many others) have urged us to study more and more, today that very act is frowned upon within LDS culture. Why study when the correlation department has already done the work for us? Assuming that we have to do all that someone says is the very doctrine of infallibility that is elucidated by this quote from Hugh Nibley:
“One does not have faith in propositions, creeds, or institutions, to which one is merely loyal. One has faith in God alone—all else is subject to change without notice. Faith does not seek security by boxing itself in with definite and binding creeds, as did the Doctors of the Church in a time of desperate uncertainty and insecurity. . . . Professor Gaylord Simpson likes to cite the case of Santa Claus as providing the futility of all faith. But has belief in Santa Claus ever closed the door to knowledge as loyalty to a scientific credo so often has? Is it better for a child to believe in Santa Claus with the understanding that someday he is going to revise his views than for him to be taught what is scientifically correct . . . from infancy, so that he will never, never have to revise his views on anything and thus go through life always right about everything? Which course is more liable to lead to disaster, the open-ended Santa Claus, or the ingrained illusion of infallibility? (“Sophic and Mantic,” CWHN 10:332.)
A few days back Justin posted a link to an interesting discussion over on MormonMatters.org which has been a fun read. Fun in the sense that it’s incredibly refreshing to see some of the thoughtful comments that are more or less devoid of the dogmatism that pervades our LDS culture. In that article the following exchange, from David McKay (then president of the church), is reported to have happened:
“At a reception McKay attended, the hostess served rum cake. ”All the guests hesitated, watching to see what McKay would do. He smacked his lips and began to eat.” When one guest expostulated, “‘But President McKay, don’t you know that is rum cake?’ McKay smiled and reminded the guest that the Word of Wisdom forbade drinking alcohol, not eating it.”
What I love about this statement is (even accounting for the doctrinal error in suggesting that the Word of Wisdom forbids the drinking of all alcohol) is the tolerant attitude he portrays. Many members (if not most) would have used that time as a “missionary moment” and as an opportunity to flaunt our general holier-than-thou attitude that we’re all too good at (i.e. I’m essentially better than you because I don’t drink beer, don’t smoke and don’t even drink caffeine – the prophet supposedly told me it was bad – but I do love me some meat. No one’s told me to refrain from eating meat at every meal in the last 150 years, so that’s become mostly outdated). Here, though, McKay simply makes a joke out of the whole situation and enjoys a treat. No harm, no foul.
Stephen Richards points out in his article Bringing Humanity to the Gospel – Richards, the focus of this post, that:
“Ridicule and ostracism often amount to compulsion. I deplore their existence. I fear arrogant dogmatism. It is a tyrant guilty of more havoc to human-kind than the despot ruling over many kingdoms.”
The ultimate result of all the dogmatism we adhere to, I think, is a judgmental attitude. When we adhere to dogmatism, we adhere to a set of beliefs which suggest that we are right, and they (anyone, really) are wrong. When we suggest that we follow all that the leaders of the church say, we’re already well on our path towards infallible dogmatism (a little redundant, but it works). When we suggest that we are creatures prone to error, while our leaders are infallible, we’re entrenched in dogmatism. This is quite similar to a thought Denver Snuffer shared in Come, Let Us Adore Him that seems to fit here:
“(Matt 21:23-27) … ‘by what authority doest thou these things?’ For those who have no connection with heaven, authority is always everything. Once they establish they have ‘authority’ the debate is over, so far as such people are concerned. They never learn that the rights of the priestly authority are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven; and when they have no connection to heaven they have no authority.”
In talking about the Priesthood, Richards continues:
“When the Gospel was restored in this age all the goodness and mercy of Christ was restored. … The powers of the Priesthood were restored, but with a constitution defining the nature and procedure of this divine authority so explicit, so kind and merciful, and so beautiful as to stamp it with the unmistakable signature of the Christ himself. The essence of the new constitution of the Priesthood, as of the whole restored gospel, was and is election without coercion, persuasion not compulsion, no unrighteous dominion, only patience, long suffering, meekness, kindness and love unfeigned.”
Whereas today it’s easy to confuse the Priesthood – or rather those within the Priesthood who sit in seats of judgment – as leaders using their calling and position to impose sanctions and restrictions on members, or at least order, the above comment necessarily reminds us that Christ would have us seek for (and offer) mercy and love and persuasion, among other necessary attributes. Continuing on, Richards states:
“The revelations of God which restored the Gospel and breathed new life and vitality into it were exceptionally straightforward and plain, far freer from ambiguity and uncertainty then are the revelations of the Bible generally speaking. Nevertheless, the revelations of the new dispensation, as well as those of the Bible, were in the beginning and are now interpreted by men, and men interpret in the light of experience and understanding. A prophet can receive and deliver the express word of God in the precise manner in which God chooses to express himself, but the application of God’s word in the lives of men is dependent on the wisdom of men. The spirit of God will influence the judgment of a good man and augment his wisdom, but the finest of human wisdom is to be distinguished from the word of God. One may fail, the other never. No man lives or has lived whose judgment is perfect and not subject to error. To accept the doctrine of human infallibility is to betray gross ignorance of the divine plan of human life-the fall, mortal probation, repentance, and final election. There could be no election with perfect knowledge, omniscience. We walk by faith in mortality and by faith we exercise our agency.”
This is an interesting point. There is “no election without perfect knowledge … we walk by faith … and by faith we exercise our agency.” Faith, as the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith, according to this same epistle, is what Abel exercised in offering his sacrifice; what Noah exercised in building an ark, what propelled Moses’ parents to hide him after his birth, what led Moses to deny the pharaoh’s family, what made the walls of Jericho fall down and many other events. Faith led to all these events. And, if this is the case, if our agency is limited through a dogmatic culture, a culture that prescribes our routines and manuals and prevents us from studying or doing this or that, then this same dogmatism is really serving to destroy faith. If faith is hindered by such actions – and I’d argue it is – then dogmatism is the ultimate destroyer. When we seek to control others, in any way, we not only lose any priesthood we may have had, but we also serve to destroy opportunities for people to exercise their faith. Therefore, following this line of thought, more tolerance to allow for people to exercise their God-given agency and ability to elect what they choose to elect is the route we should take.
When Richards originally gave his sermon, he mentioned how the “very elasticity of prayers, ceremonies and procedure” was “additional evidence … of the adaptability of … religion to human needs, and therefore of its divinity.” What Richards saw as elasticity seems to have hardened, like an old rubber band, over time. Ceremonies and procedures are generally not only prescribed today, but written down for us. We now not only have written procedures for things, but there is also an unwritten “order” of things that we’re told to follow. We’d be hard pressed to walk into a Sacrament meeting that wasn’t already planned in advance, a Sunday school meeting that didn’t already have the subject planned out (years in advance, given the use of manuals these days) or any other church meeting that wasn’t scheduled or planned out. When was the last time we saw a meeting that was quite literally “conducted … after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, by the power of the Holy Ghost”?
That doesn’t mean that the spirit can’t or won’t influence and inspire those directing the meetings, nor those participating in those meetings, but we certainly prevent some “fly by the seat of your pants” type spiritual moments from occurring due to the desire to control everything that happens. I honestly don’t know what those meetings would look like, how they would be run or what would happen. Knowing myself (and having been able to observe others), it would probably take a couple of weeks, if not more, for the routine to run out of our system and clear our minds of what we feel we “should” be doing to fill the time. It would be a detox of sorts, ridding ourselves of burdensome monotony and scheduling and allowing us to be led here or there or wherever the conversation and Spirit may go.
Richards, later, continued his talk by focusing on several “vices” and what we should be doing to those who succumb to such vices. After a rather lengthy discussion on what he would say to those who fall prey to “brilliant, seductive advertising” or the idea that a practice is “universal,” he states:
“I want us to continue to lay emphasis on good, clean, wholesome living, but not in such a way as to in any manner obscure the primary objective of our work, which is to open the doors of the Celestial Kingdom to the children of our Father. We do not know how many will enter. We hope for all. For my part I desire to deny none entrance for weaknesses of the flesh if the spirit is willing.”
And, while reminiscing about these same vices (cigarettes, card games, etc), Richards concludes:
“I have said these things because I fear dictatorial dogmatism, rigidity of procedure and intolerance even more than I fear cigarettes, cards, and other devices the adversary may use to nullify faith and kill religion. Fanaticism and bigotry have been the deadly enemies of true religion in the long past. They have made it forbidding, shut it up in cold grey walls of monastery and nunnery, out of the sunlight and fragrance of the growing world. They have garbed it in black and then in white, when in truth it is neither black nor white, any more than life is black or white, for religion is life abundant, glowing life, with all its shades, colors and hues, as the children of men reflect in the patterns of their lives the radiance of the Holy Spirit in varying degrees.”
A poignant – and thoughtful – ending to a worthwhile discourse. I admit to being far too dogmatic at times, requiring those around me and within my sphere of influence to adhere to what I say (or at the very least pay attention to it). In times like these, it’s important to remember that this strange journey of life provides us all with different experiences, pathways and feelings. May we all, as fellow traveler’s here on earth, enjoy this variety and difference without trammeling others for their beliefs.
Interestingly, this same idea is indeed what Joseph Smith seemed to have in mind back in the 1800s. His father seems to have “reacted against the strict discipline required by … contemporary religions of the day,” and, according to Leonard Arrington, ministers of his day were seeking to product “spiritual athletes – that is, work unceasingly at being a religious person.” Brigham Young was raised under such auspices, claiming:
“When I was young, I was kept within very strict bounds, and was not allowed to walk more than half-an-hour on Sunday for exercise. [In fact, he said], the proper and necessary gambols of youth [were] denied me. . . . I had not a chance to dance when I was young, and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the high way to hell, if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it. . . . The Christian world of my youth considered it very wicked to listen to music and to dance. … they bind them to the moral law [and] when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents.” [Journal of Discourses, 2:94.]
Because of such a dogmatic upbringing, as reiterated in Arrington’s article, some 90% of the parents of Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s generation did not belong to any church. The guilt they felt for enjoying the ordinary things of life was evidence of just how far they strayed. I wonder if we, as LDS, aren’t raising a similar generation of kids who are will feel guilt at everything they do. We proudly teach them all the vices they simply must avoid and instill in them the same guilt those parents felt. We even produce sin where none exists, all because of what? Is it control? Fear? Both? Something else?
Perhaps it’s time to revisit the experience Joseph Smith had, as related by Arrington:
“But before [Joseph Smith] went through the stage of rebellion, before the development of a guilt complex, the Lord granted to him, at the age of fourteen, that glorious First Vision. The Lord got to him, in other words, before the religions of the day were able to deaden his youthful exuberance and openness, his capacity for enjoying the mental, cultural, and physical aspects of life. He thus avoided the artificially severe, ascetic, fun-abhorring mantle that contemporary religion seemed to insist upon. He was pious, but not inhibited; earnest, but not fanatical; a warm, affectionate, and enjoyable personality–a prophet who was both serious and playful–a wonderful exemplar of the precept “Man is that he might have joy.”
And, lest the humor get lost on us, pay close attention to the wording of this paragraph from the same article:
“Jedediah M. Grant, who knew the Prophet well, underscored this point when he declared that Joseph Smith preached against the “super-abundant stock of sanctimoniousness” that characterized contemporary religion. According to Elder Grant, a certain minister, out of curiosity, came to see the Prophet in Nauvoo and carried this sanctimonious spirit so far that the Prophet finally suggested to the minister that they engage in a little wrestling. The minister was so shocked that he just stood there rigid and dumbfounded, whereupon the Prophet playfully acted as though to put him on the floor and help him get up and then called attention to the so-called Christian “follies” of the time, the absurdity of the long, solemn, “asslike” tone of speaking and acting, and the dangers of excessive piety and fanaticism (Journal of Discourses, 3:66–67).
Whereas I see many in the church who flaunt the seriousness of religion around as something to bind us down, even in “asslike” tones, perhaps we could learn a little from brother Joseph’s jovial nature. Whereas he was referred to – throughout his day – as brother Joseph, now we have “our beloved prophet” or we’re told to use the official titles whenever we address someone in church – Elder, Bishop, etc. “Religion was not to confine spirits,” as Arrington states, “but to expand them.” Joseph gladly taught people the essence of religion and worship, and his teachings, again according to Arrington, taught “very graphically that [religion] was not sanctimonious.”
Arrington’s conclusion ought to be mine, also. As we look at the dogmatism around us (and, if you see none, I hope you enjoy it), I hope we can encourage a different worldview that encourages independence, agency and uniqueness.
“We all have exaggerated expectations of life, and sooner or later we discover that we are less clever than we had thought, that we have to be satisfied with less income, less popularity, even a less ideal marriage than we had hoped for. In an unhealthy situation this leads to resentment, projection of blame, distress, and maladjustment. The Latter-day Saint has an ideal background for coping with this situation as he adjusts his ambitions to the place in life which the Lord has in store for him. I pray that as individuals and as families we may laugh together, just as we pray together; that we may recognize our heritage, its … weaknesses along with its … strengths, without fear; that we may develop the cultural pride which others will expect of the Lord’s chosen people; … and that we may continue to exhibit that loyalty to the principles of the gospel that would make the angels in heaven rejoice.”
 http://puremormonism.blogspot.com/2010/02/best-conference-talk-you-never-read_13.html – retrieved 09/08/2010.
 https://truthmarche.wordpress.com/2010/01/26/anyone-care-to-disagree/ – retrieved 09/08/2010.
 Invoking the Name of the Lord – A Quantitative History. http://bycommonconsent.com/2007/08/30/invoking-the-name-of-the-lord-a-quantitative-history/. Retrieved 09/08/2010.
 The word idolatry means, at least according to the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, “excessive attachment or veneration for any thing, or that which borders on adoration.” In other words, if we replace the word veneration with its own definition, we come up with this definition of idolatry: excessive attachment or the highest degree of respect and reverence; a feeling or sentiment excited by the dignity and superiority of a person, or by the sacredness of his character, or that which borders on adoration. I’ve discussed idolatry here. This idea of granting certain offices or people a perceived superiority takes on even more meaning if we consider these words by Hugh Nibley: “The moment I even think of my priesthood as a status symbol or a mark of superiority, it becomes a mere hollow pretense. At the slightest hint to gloating or self-congratulation the priesthood holder is instantly and automatically unfrocked.” (“Best Possible Test,” CWHN 12:536.)
 http://mormonmatters.org/2010/09/07/coke-rum-cake-and-president-mckay/. Retrieved 09/09/2010.
 http://puremormonism.blogspot.com/2010/08/why-dont-they-like-us.html. Retrieved 09/09/2010.
 See Come, Let Us Adore Him, page 63.
 See, The Unwritten Order of Things by Boyd K. Packer (15 Oct. 1996). In this discourse, Packer states how proper clothing is required to satisfy our “Sunday’s best,” how programs ought to be written out such that a Liz or Bill or Dave never appear on the program (rather Elizabeth, William and David are how things should be), how funerals are not to be used as a time to reminisce about loved ones passed on, that those in senior positions are not to be questioned and several other “unwritten” rules we must follow. Pretty soon we’ll be like the Pharisees (if we’re not already there), where the order our leaders enter and exit a room will be either a written rule, or one of the unwritten variety Packer refers to: “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own aconscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.” (See John 8:9.)
 See Learning the Law. http://whitegreenredblack.blogspot.com/2010/09/learning-law.html. Retrieved 09/10/2010.
 See Moroni 6:9.
 “I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their Church. I WANT THE LIBERTY OF THINKING AND BELIEVING AS I PLEASE. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church 5:340)
 See also, Journal of Discourses 3:66-67.