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Conformity with whom or what?


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Like Mike, I was drawn most to this quotation from Pris' inaugural post on the Manifesto:

"And so, we find ourselves on the edges of orthodoxy, walking the perimeter of the playground of the gospel."

I'll start by explaining a bit about myself, for those that don't know me (and those that do, at that). I'm a convert to the Church of two years. I'd consider myself a good bit short of being a "good" Mormon, but I don't do any of the "bad" things either. Translation: marginally worthy male that does his best sometimes and significantly less than his best other times.

I believe that the Church is true, although it is imperfect. In my estimation, imperfection is an inherent attribute of the influence of mortal man. Less than perfect people, even when inspired, can never do a perfect job all the time. Nevertheless, the Church does provide an invaluable guide to its members and to the world, as well as being the only organization on Earth with the authority to perform the ordinances of the gospel.

This idea led me to an interesting debate with a friend. Riana (pseudonym) and I could not be more different. She is a conservative Republican from Colorado, I am a liberal Democrat from Oklahoma. She is a thin young lady, I am a fat young man. She finds disagreement with the Church to be repugnant in nearly every way, I find it to be an essential part of intellectual and spiritual progress. I do respect her a great deal, but worry that her intelligence is not used well. She respects me some, and believes that I flirt with the high road to apostasy.

I do not believe that everything that is said by a general authority, apostle, or even the prophet can be upheld as doctrine, even when those words are spoken in general conference. Riana believes that if it is said in Conference, it is scripture. Aside from contradictions in Conference talks, my essential argument is the above: imperfection is a part of the human experience. If one wishes to argue that prophets and apostles do a perfect job of stating doctrinal truth, one must argue that they are perfect (at minimum, perfect in their calling). Then, if apostles are perfect in their calling, three questions immediately arise:

1) Why?

2) What of the obvious imperfections that we've seen in the Quorum of the Twelve in the past? The early history of the Church saw the disfellowshipping of a number of apostles and (I believe) one excommunication. Somebody had to be wrong there. Things have been taught in Conference concerning a number of issues that the Church no longer upholds. Do these things not count? Did we reach a point of perfection in the recent past? If so, when?

3) Where does the chain of perfection in callings end and why? We're all called to something in our ward or stake by the same priesthood that calls prophets and apostles. I know that I'm not perfect in my calling. I know the bishop isn't perfect in his. So where does it start? Are stake presidents perfect? What about area authority seventies? Maybe the Presidency of the Seventy? Or just the senior apostles? Asserting perfection seems to carry lots of baggage.

A couple of the things that Riana pointed out deserve some significant attention. For example, this talk by Elder Holland in the April 2003 Conference brings up some difficult issues associated with being skeptical or questioning. Being too skeptical can lead to a broader apathy or apostasy. This I grant, with a few caveats:

1) Elder Holland is mostly talking about basic things. It is vitally important to be convinced that Jesus is the Christ, that the First Vision happened, that the Church possesses the authority of the priesthood, and the like. It isn't so important to be convinced of white shirts, the importance of a clean-shaven man, or other cultural things that have nothing to do with doctrine. It might well be a sin to drink caffeine (I'm lukewarm on this one), but it certainly isn't the most pressing issue in our journey to eternal salvation, unless you're a lot better than me.

2) Elder Holland's talk is entitled "A Prayer for the Children". He's dead right that you shouldn't be teaching skepticism about basic principles to your children. Intellectual discourse should be saved for a time when maturity is sufficient to handle it. One should teach the difference between doctrine and norms, but one should not teach skepticism that can be overblown. His argument is specific to parents and one's duty as a parent should be separated from one's duty as an individual.

The point that I want to make, before this gets too long, is that conformity with the standards of the gospel is quite important. However, we shouldn't mistake conformity with the culture, conformity with traditions, or conformity with norms with the "conformity" that Joseph Smith and Elder Holland reference (see D&C 128:13).

The point of sustaining leaders isn't to assert their perfection, but to stand by them despite it. I know that my bishop has not given me perfect counsel. He wanted me to go on a mission at a time that I knew would not be right. Nevertheless, he cares a lot about the ward and does the best he can to make us happy. I don't owe him unquestioned or universal obedience when he isn't right. But I do owe him respect for taking a hard job and trying to make the best of it and I owe him the respect of not dragging him through the mud for imperfections.

I'll close with a paragraph from Elder Holland's talk that I think best illustrates what conformity ought to mean, especially when we're teaching others:

"Nephi-like, might we ask ourselves what our children know? From us? Personally? Do our children know that we love the scriptures? Do they see us reading them and marking them and clinging to them in daily life? Have our children ever unexpectedly opened a closed door and found us on our knees in prayer? Have they heard us not only pray with them but also pray for them out of nothing more than sheer parental love? Do our children know we believe in fasting as something more than an obligatory first-Sunday-of-the-month hardship? Do they know that we have fasted for them and for their future on days about which they knew nothing? Do they know we love being in the temple, not least because it provides a bond to them that neither death nor the legions of hell can break? Do they know we love and sustain local and general leaders, imperfect as they are, for their willingness to accept callings they did not seek in order to preserve a standard of righteousness they did not create? Do those children know that we love God with all our heart and that we long to see the face—and fall at the feet—of His Only Begotten Son? I pray that they know this."

Unorthodox probably does describe me, but I think the questions above form the heart of "the playground of the gospel". As long as you're on these slides, I think you're doing pretty well.


5 Responses to “Conformity with whom or what?”

  1. Blogger Stephen 

    I believe that the Church is true, although it is imperfect. In my estimation, imperfection is an inherent attribute of the influence of mortal man

    I think that is sound doctrine. The failure to accept and understand that point causes a lot of problems.

  2. Blogger Arwyn 

    I think an important element to this line of thought is that, while we accept imperfection as natural to human beings, we don't necessarily go around trying to find imperfections. Heaven knows, if we look hard, we'll find them.

    Recognizing these imperfections makes it easier to move forward -- that is, to work around them, to remedy them, and so forth. Refusing to recognize the possibility of imperfection, I think, is the first step down a road of blind obedience, a dangerous path and one that we've been taught to avoid by praying and learning the truth for ourselves -- a fundamental principle of the Gospel.

    And I like how you've tied that into the Gospel v. Culture issue. Though I wonder to what extent conforming to the Gospel requires conforming to the culture. If attending the temple is an integral part of belief in the Gospel, and in order to do that, you have to conform to culture -- X number of earrings, or the old no-beards-for-temple-servers rule -- to do that, then might it suggest that just being on the slides isn't enough?

  3. Blogger Pris 

    Good points, but it leaves a lot of gray area. I mean, if we grant that the leaders are imperfect, how can we recognize the imperfection as imperfection and perfection as perfection? Some use where it was said as the dividing line ("When the Prophet said that, he wasn't speaking as the Prophet.") But saying that there is imperfection in GC addresses (which I think you're right on) essentially says that this argument isn't valid. This may be okay, but I think it makes the spotting of imperfection more difficult.

    I've heard the "don't go looking for imperfection" line a lot--and while I think it's generally good counsel, I think it makes the recognizing harder. That is, it seems to me that the best way to recognize imperfection/perfection is practice. So perhaps we should "go looking" for imperfection in order to train ourselves. But, obviously, allowing that quest to influence a testimony would not be good.

  4. Blogger D-Train 

    Arwyn: I agree wholeheartedly that looking for imperfections is a bad idea in the sense of trying to prove the Church wrong or the like. I do think that a critical examination of whatever you hear is a good idea. Critical examinations do not necessarily lead to a more skeptical view of a principle, but to a more balanced view of its application and (perhaps) a better testimony of it.

    The example of culture that you cite is interesting. I think that's a personal decision, but I would feel violated if my bishop ever made me choose between my beard and my temple recommend. I don't think I could shave in that case, half because of pride and half because that would represent illegitimate coercion.

    Pris: Yeah, it's a tough one. That's why I think Holland's emphasis on basic things is wholly appropriate as a qualifier. Church members already accept (intellectually, if not in practice) that one must develop a personal testimony through the Spirit of the basic principles of the gospel. I don't think that anyone can argue that the cultural things that we've talked about, political positions of the Church, specific rules for missionaries, et cetera are "basic things". They're the first principles and ordinances of the gospel for a reason. As long as you're actively moving toward faith and repentance, I don't see quibbles over side issues as all that important to anyone's spiritual journey.

    I think this is one of the things that makes it hard to explain stuff like the Word of Wisdom to nonmembers (for me). I think the WoW is basically a peripheral commandment, in that I think a cup of coffee or a glass of tea doesn't make you significantly less righteous (it may well say a lot about your devotion to other things, but it isn't nearly as important as feeding the poor or helping a friend). So, it's tough to tell people, "yeah, God doesn't want you to do that, but it's not the biggest deal" and still maintain the strength of the message. I personally think the WoW has become too central to our doctrine and that, while important, I can't think it rates with the chastity/charity/faith areas.

    So, I guess my point is that we're all trying to achieve the basic things and that an excessive focus on following leaders in the minute details is not only heavyhanded and potentially inaccurate, but doesn't move us a lot closer to Christ. It should also be said that dissent for its own sake and a failure to sustain leaders despite their failings does little on that front as well.

  5. Anonymous person 

    the church is true- just imperfect people

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