Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Modern Revelation: A Paradigm that Fosters the Intellect

On Mormon Inquiry, Dave has a post on The Evangelical Mind that refers to an article on pointing to "built-in barriers to careful and constructive thinking" found in typical evangelical movements. This issue came to mind again this morning when I read a story about the Seventh Day Adventists insisting that the earth was made in six 24-hour days ("literal 24-hour days forming a week identical in time to what we now experience as a week," according to a recent Adventist decree). I respect the Adventists, but feel that they are locking themselves into an untenable position on this issue. While we must take the Bible seriously, if we mistake it as the source of all revelation and see it as the final authority rather than our living God, then we shut out the possibility of further revelation, limit the scope of future knowledge, and create a paradigm in which intellectual inflexibility often ensues. Sadly, mental rigor mortis can be mistaken for firmness in the faith.

On the above-mentioned post at Mormon Inquiry, Dave asks if we Latter-day Saints have the same challenge. Comments from Clark Goble and myself on that post identify the LDS belief in continuing revelation as a key factor that frees us from the barriers that may keep some of our fellow Christians from being able to deal effectively with scientific progress or with other intellectual developments outside their religion. In practice, of course, it is natural and comfortable for us humans to build our own barriers against thought (LDS examples are not hard to find--myself included), but that is not what our religion and our God ask of us. And naturally, our critics will assume that we have abandoned thought simply by virtue of being LDS or Christian or non-atheist, but this is an unthinking assumption on their part. True LDS religion opens up the doors of intellectual progress, challenges us to look forward to further revelation, calls us to learn from the best books, urges us to get all the intelligence we can, tells us to see true religion and all other true knowledge as compatible, and teaches us that the Spirit works not just on our hearts but also our minds (see D&C 8:2-3 and 9:7-9).

Latter-day Saints, do you understand how radical and intellectually liberating our concept of continuing revelation is in today's world? The Ninth Article of Faith, which we tend to take for granted and not contemplate nearly enough, has momentous importance: "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." This means, of course, that we do not have all truth. We do not know it all (and do not have a monopoly on truth). Further, taken with the Eighth Article of Faith, we can understand that no text written by inspired humans, copied and edited by humans, translated by humans, and printed by humans can possibly represent God in perfect accuracy, but even if it did contain all that God had revealed with no loss, no error, no human influence of any kind, and no limitation in language, it would still be incomplete. It would not be the final authority on all matters, for that authority resides in God the Father, not in any physical object made with the hands of man (can the Bible be an idol? Bibliolaters, beware!).

God has not finished speaking - nothing in the Bible says He has, and Revelation and other books of the Bible indicate that there will yet be more prophecy and more revelation. (Here's a tip to our critics from Paul: "Despise not prophesyings" (1 Thessalonians 5:20).) We don't know it all - and that is a remarkably liberating thought. It inspires us to continue learning, to revise old assumptions when they appear to have been wrong, to assimilate new data, but not in a way that lets us be tossed about by every sleight of man: see Ephesians 4, which shows that it is the divine guidance provided by prophets and apostles - continuing revelation - that helps us avoid such deception, coupled with the anchor of a testimony of God and the revelations of the standard works (knowing, however, that they may not be perfect due to human influence and that they are not yet complete).

If there are conflicts or great unresolved matters, we can look to further revelation and information to provide clarity. Thus, when faced with new knowledge that seems to challenge our preconceived notions, we do not need to flee or build walls to keep the new knowledge away. We can examine it and move on. We keep our trust in God, and look to Him as the ultimate authority, knowing that when previously revealed information does not provide what we need, we know He can and does reveal more.

This dynamic is illustrated in our approach to science. I believe that Latter-day Saints once commonly assumed that the earth was created in six 24-hour days and was 6,000 years old. When scientific data contradicted those claims, the intellectual flexibility of our religion allowed us to go back to the text and realize that the word "day" in Hebrew can refer to an era, not just 24-hours. Nothing in LDS scripture actually required a young-earth view of Creation. In fact, LDS scriptures tell us specifically that God has not yet revealed the details of the Creation, and that significant future revelations await us on this matter. Here is Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-35:
32 Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things-

33 Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof-

34 Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.

This implicitly warns us to avoid thinking that we know all there is to be known about the Creation, and also warns us about the limitations of science, for even after all the advances man can make, we will rely on God to give the correct answer: Here is how the earth was made.

Our flexibility on the Creation is paralleled by our flexibility on understanding the reality behind the Book of Mormon. Early LDS leaders tended to assume that Book of Mormon told us everything about the origins of ancient Americans for all of North and South America. In the past century, LDS scholars and leaders have increasingly recognized that other migrations were possible, and when information came out pointing to heavy Asian origins for many of the ancient peoples of the Americas, it was easy to recognize that many nineteenth-century assumptions were not required by or even compatible with the text itself. Thus, to our critics chagrin, when they point to evidence that Asian genetic influence is dominant among Native Americans, it did not cause our testimonies to fly to pieces. In fact, the DNA evidence poses no serious trouble for the Book of Mormon, but may require some of us to discard old assumptions about the text and read the book more carefully.

Part of the healthy LDS approach to matters of the intellect also comes from recognizing the limitations of our leaders, including the prophets. Just as no text that passes through human hands is infallible, no human leader, whoever inspired, is infallible. The Bible shows that prophets can and do make mistakes. We revere our prophets, but recognize that they may have biases and other shortcomings, and do not demand that every opinion and every sermon is something we have to accept. By the same token, we should recognize that some of our own views may be incorrect and may need to be corrected.

Let us rejoice in the restored doctrine of continuing revelation. Surely if there is a true Church of Jesus Christ on the earth, it will be one that He leads as He led His original Church: through continuing revelation to living prophets and apostles that He calls and authorizes. Surely if there is a Church of Jesus Christ that He recognizes as His Church, it will be one that accepts continuing revelation from Him. We don't need the faith-promoting urban legend about the "17 Points of the True Church" (if the story is really reliable, let me know, but I don't think so). To get started, one should consider this one point first: a true church of Jesus Christ, IF such exists at all, will be one that is open to continuing revelation from Him. And I'm so grateful that such a church is on the earth today.

Latter-day Saints, do you appreciate how significant, how expansive, and how intellectually exciting the doctrine of continuing revelation from God is? We should rejoice in this matter and look forward with great earnestness to receiving yet more from Him. But we hold back the flood of revelation, I fear, in not fully accepting, using, and living what has already been revealed. Now get out those scriptures and study - and take time to learn from the other "best books" that came from sources outside our religion as well. The more we open and fill our minds, the more God can add.

6 comments:

Ronan said...

I broadly agree, and have certainly never found my LDS faith an obstacle to rational thought. But we are wrong to assume that Mormonism provides a clear route to critical thinking. You say that we are not wedded to the idea of infallible leaders - in theory no, but in practice we do in fact tend to this. There are not many Mormons who would cheerfully contradict the Brethren. As for Mormons not falling for the "impossible" biblical stuff: try bringing up the possibility that Noah's flood was not universal in Sunday School, but be sure to sit next to the exit. Or try to get a rational discussion going of polygamy, freemasonry, or the multiple first vision stories. Good luck! As I said, my faith actually enlightens my pursuit for rational truth, but I would never hold up the Church has a paragon of intellectual virtue.

cayblood said...

Typo--I think you meant to say "no human leader, HOWever inspired..." You put "whoever." Otherwise, thanks for the insightful comments. I do agree with the previous post, however, that most Mormons don't understand these principles very well.

Anonymous said...

"True LDS religion opens up the doors of intellectual progress, challenges us to look forward to further revelation, calls us to learn from the best books, urges us to get all the intelligence we can, tells us to see true religion and all other true knowledge as compatible, and teaches us that the Spirit works not just on our hearts but also our minds"

This is a nice theory but in reality, the church itself does nothing but give lip service (calls us to learn from the best books) to this ideal. There is no "best book list" and instrutors are told to stick to the church produced material and NOT to use other information, "best books" or otherwise. Also, regarding obtaining "all the intelligence that we can," there is even a greater emphasis in the church on not becoming a "so-called intellectual."

You can post all the glowing quotes and theories about the church that you want, but those of us who attend regular services each week know what a mind-numbing experience that it truly is. The key is to just not expect to ever be intellectually challenged at church because challenge = contention = of the devil. The church isn't about truth or knowledge in the classical sense, it is about faith. The terms truth, knowledge, intellect, etc. are all redefined to fit within this framework.

Mormanity said...

I guess I am writing from my rather insular perspective, where a lot of the intellectual excitement from the Gospel comes from my own pursuits and private conversations, rather than what gets delivered over the pulpit. The standard lessons and the sermons need to be basic and controversy is usually avoided with good reason. But the three-hour block is just a tiny part of what it means to be LDS. If that's all there were, then yes, I'd be discontent intellectually. But it's just the beginning.

This is why personal scripture study and personal study of all kinds is so important - the meat and the excitement, the intellectual liberation of the Gospel, occurs at a personal level.

And maybe Wisconsin is just a more exciting place for the Church than the rest of the world. You all really should move out here - there is no finer place to live, in my opinion, especially Appleton. I really enjoy the wide range of discussions and views that go on in my ward, and the receptiveness of the people to discuss things that they hadn't previously considered.

Jason Hull said...

I find it fascinating that in a whole article about how great mormonism is in having modern revelation you didn't give any examples of present-day revelation.

We talk about critical thinking, but let's look at this and see if this applies...

Mormons talk about or think about this religion being better or truer than other religions because the Church is "True." "True" meaning the church receives revelation which brings it life or livingness. Revelation comes fromt he word REVEAL, which implies something NEW that was previously concealed.

Yet it is quite a challenge to find any talk in all the gathering places of the saints, where anyone is speaking of anything revealed from fewer than 100 years ago that in reality isn't just a rehash or a new spin on previously revealed ideas and beliefs.

The last thing I can recall that was "revealed" was women need to wear fewer earings. This in reality is more along the lines of a new rule rather than a new principle or truth. We've added PLENTY of new rules in the last 100 years.... many more rules than revelations. We consistently continue to add more rules either directly or socially in mormonism...and we tend to look at the Jews in Jesus day and shake our heads while thinking, "how could they have gotten so far off track?"

Again let's look critically... The pattern we teach throughout time is prophets. Yet we skip the fact that many of the "prophets" and "apostles" that are mentioned or have contributed to our cannonical works were not the leader of churches, but were in fact warning voices to the established organizations. Anothing interesting fact is that this pattern of God's calling prophets is also coupled with a pattern of apostasy, yet we feel that we are immune from such...even though our own "Modern" revelation in D&C warns us several times that we could be "cut off" or become as the Nephites of old.

Are we thinking critically to think that the church is immune to such a pattern? Are we thinking critically to think that the only way a prophet could "lead us astray" is by being evil rather than being a well-meaning person without anything to reveal? Perhaps we're just too evil or unspiritual maybe thats why we aren't getting revelation... yet isn't the pattern of true prophets to reveal the most when people are struggling rather than simply obeying.

Is someone critically thinking to follow a leader that gives no evidence of having higher knowledge or spiritual principles from God? And then to fill in the gap of thinking critically they make assumptions such as, He can't talk about things that are so sacred because the church is so not ready. This is related to thinking critically as justifying sin. It is justifying belief and relates nothing whatsoever to logic.

I pray that we the LDS will wake up and shake off their 100 year dust and start looking for where the revelation is rather than straining at an ensign and digging for hidden deep spiritual meaning that they must extrapolate to find. We have many rules, but God has no rule about who he has to reveal things to. If we are thinking critically then position has little to do with revelation when compared to seeking and God not being a "respecter of persons." This logically should have figured out in the scriptures.

And anyone that is receiving revelation (something actually new) would have the charge to share it with others, regardless of position. Position was the love of the Jews of Jesus day. Remember the Man himself was of no such position, but had the greatest authority confirming his words...the Holy Ghost.

JASON

Anonymous said...

Hello, I have been taking an interest in modern revelations for some time now and I was wondering, what is the Mormon stance was on The Urantia Book and other revelations received by deep trance mediumship, like the Christian Spiritulist Zodiac Messages ? Do you only accept revelation that comes from Mormon prophets ?