November 5, 2009

I see through a glass darkly and I kinda like it

It's the old dilemma about following imperfect prophets:

Is prophetic revelation a messy, imperfect process where doctrines and practices change and evolve over time and even prophets see through a glass darkly (like the rest of us)? Or do prophets and apostles really have the kind of clear, direct pipeline to God that merits unquestioning obedience? It seems like most members and leaders of the church like having it both ways.

The slippery slope goes like this: "If leaders in the past made mistakes (potentially the priesthood ban or something like it) then what about now?" I personally see the problem as part of a direct invitation to take more personal responsibility for our relationship to God. Sort of like when Nephi took things straight to God even though his dad had visions and so forth, and later when his dad "spoke as a man" leaving it up to Nephi to get some personal revelation on where to find some grub.

But what if you take some personal responsibility and you take an issue up with God and arrive at a different conclusion than the prophets? It seems that Mormon culture encourages questioning/asking, but always with the assumption that we will, of course, arrive at "the right answer."

I think the hope is there that we arrive at the "right answer," but in my own experience it hasn't always worked out that way. There have been times when my own answer differed or I didn't feel I received an answer at all either way. Granted this is not a common occurrence and it generally makes things a lot more difficult of course. But at the same time I recognize that I received my answer, not a charge to spread it as far and wide as I can.

Sure, go ahead--ask. But then you will get the right answer and it will be in agreement with whatever the prophet has told us. So what if it doesn't? Does that mean he's not a prophet? Or does that mean we are wrong? It seems like are the only two logical conclusions.

First, I don't know how often a prophet or president of the Church would be in direct communication with God face to face. I believe revelation from God more usually comes, even to our leaders, through the Spirit and is conditioned on the circumstances and capacities of the recipient.

Second, there's an old quote from Brigham Young I've thought a lot about. The crux of Brigham's argument is that we're responsible for ourselves. I know we often hear about the importance of following the counsel of the prophets and I believe that's good advice. I can certainly understand why leaders don't constantly say "but I may be, or probably am, wrong, so take it for what it is worth." I imagine they take their position very seriously and do the best they can. But at the same time, I have to be willing to live with a certain uncertainty in these matters. For me, that's all part of our little test down here:
What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually....

Let all persons be fervent in prayer, until they know the things of God for themselves and become certain that they are walking in the path that leads to everlasting life; then will envy, the child of ignorance, vanish, and there will be no disposition in any man to place himself above another; for such a feeling meets no countenance in the order of heaven. Jesus Christ never wanted to be different from his father: they were and are one. If a people are led by the revelations of Jesus Christ, and they are cognizant of the fact through their faithfulness, there is no fear but they will be one in Christ Jesus, and see eye to eye. (Brigham Young, 12 January 1862, Journal of Discourses 9:150.)
This approach can make things more interesting. I see through a glass darkly and I kinda like it.

November 2, 2009

Review: BYU Studies 48:3 (2009)

The latest BYU Studies is a phenomenal "special feature" issue with a series of articles discussing the latest Joseph Smith Papers volume. In September, the first volume of the "Revelations and Translations" series of the Joseph Smith Papers was published. This landmark volume contains the Book of Commandments and Revelations (BCR) which includes the earliest surviving manuscript versions of many of Joseph Smith’s revelations and the only prepublication manuscript copies of some of them. Seven of these revelations were never canonized.

John W. Welch, the issue's editor, can hardly contain his enthusiasm:
Imagine!...having the BCR is something akin to uncovering a discarded draft of the Declaration of Independence or some of the missing records used by Luke in preparing his gospel (p. 5).
This issue of BYU Studies includes four enjoyable papers on BCR that were presented in a plenary session of the 2009 Mormon History Association meeting in May 2009. These articles, written by members of the Joseph Smith Papers editorial team, provide details not included in the Revelations and Translations volume itself.

Robert J. Woodford, "Introducing A Book of Commandments and Revelations, A Major New Documentary 'Discovery,'" (pp. 7-17).

Woodford gives a brief overview BCR and its provenance, and identifies those (including himself) who worked on its publication preparation. He describes how researchers identified the way BCR was referenced for publishing the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. He concludes with some suggestions for future research based on BCR. For example, analyzing alterations in the revelations raises historical and theological implications. The so-called Book of Mormon copyright revelation and a piece on the "pure language" are of interest. The dates revelations were received and the historical setting can be reevaluated. "Each researcher will find his own area of particular interest" now that the BCR has been published and made available (p. 16).

Robin Scott Jensen, "From Manuscript to Printed Page: An Analysis of the History of the Book of Commandments and Revelations," (pp. 19-52).

In this highly technical article Jensen more fully traces the provenance, context, and content of the BCR. He meticulously describes the physical makeup of the book as well as its significance to scholars. "When scholars approach newly discovered documents, several important questions arise. When and why was it created? Who created it? What was it used for?" (p. 21). For Jensen, reading the words on the page alone only yields half an answer to these questions. Only by studying the internal and external evidence, the manuscript words as well as the history of Mormonism and the nature of archival record keeping, can we fully appreciate the document in question. Jensen explains how "forensic paleography" helps researchers find out when a document was created, how it was used, and what it might have meant to the people involved in its creation. In other words, Jensen is asking questions about what the BCR can teach us about the very process of revelation itself.

Steven C. Harper, "Historical Headnotes and the Index of Contents in the Book of Commandments and Revelations," (pp. 53- 66).

John Whitmer, the principle scribe for the BCR, included interesting date and header information for many of the revelations, allowing researchers to reassess the date and context of many early revelations. Clues will help reassess timing of aspects of the Book of Mormon translation, the location of the organization of the Church, the date when section 20 was revealed (calling into question speculation about Christ's birthday being the 6th of April), the timing of the "parchment of John" revelation, the identity of James Covill, the circumstances surrounding a meeting where men were asked to testify to the truthfulness of Joseph Smith's revelations, and how early members understood the imperfect revelations from a 24-year-old ploughboy prophet. Harper notes his essay does not finish much historical reassessment, but is meant to encourage it by describing how the BCR's index of contents and historical headnotes can be examined by scholars. 

Grant Underwood, "Revelation, Text, and Revision: Insight From the Book of Commandments and Revelations," (pp. 67-84).

Underwood explores how textual revisions shed "important light on the process by which Joseph Smith received, recorded, and published his revelations" (p. 67). What is revelation? A direct word-for-word message from God, or the human articulation of the message? Something in between? Tracking some changes between the BCR and later published versions of the revelations allows us to see how Joseph Smith and his contemporaries understood the process. For the most part Underwood says pre-July 1833 revisions were mostly grammatical and stylistic, or clarified meaning. After that point in preparation for publishing the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants changes were made to update, amplify, and incorporate newly revealed polity or doctrine (p. 68). He tracks who made most of the corrections, surprisingly few in the hand of Joseph Smith himself, who was the one called to make such changes. Underwood explains a "latitudinarian" view of the revelations, where Joseph trusted associates to make changes so long as the general sense was not adjusted. Thus, divine communication has a human component which needs to be taken into account, or as Jeffrey R. Holland stated: "The scriptures are not the ultimate source of knowledge for Latter-day Saints. They are manifestations of the ultimate source. The ultimate source of knowledge and authority for a Latter-day Saint is the living God" (p. 81). Underwood deftly utilizes scholarship on revelation from several different faith traditions and non-LDS scholars to help readers better understand revelation and the written word.   

Ronald E. Romig provides a brief response to these papers and a short historical overview from the perspective of the Community of Christ (pp. 85-91). In the Book Review section Thomas Coens, an associate editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson series gives a non-Mormon scholar's perspective on the landmark inaugural installment of the Joseph Smith Papers. He tips his cap to the rigorous scholarship involved in the Journals volume and provides a few personal thoughts on the volume. James B. Allen also reviews the Journals volume.

In addition to these special articles, the issue includes a piece on Eliza R. Snow's poetry, LDS athletic tournaments from 1950-1971, and book reviews of the Twilight series, Bushman's Very Short Introduction to Mormonism and a few other selections. A paperback copy of this issue is available for $9.95, or a digital copy can be downloaded for $7.00. See for more. This is a highly recommended issue.