by Caleb Jones
The rhetorical tone of the scriptural phrase “Unto what shall I liken?”8 breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, and reveals the author’s hand and intention in the process of revelation. Breaking the fourth wall is a literary device that evokes a conversation between the author, messenger, and audience. It ties all parties together and invites them to consider each other’s realities and perspective when we might otherwise fail to. It brings a sense of self-awareness and agency about what’s being communicated that can be missed. And it’s this self-awareness and agency that is so important for faith today.
Patrick Mason recently gave what I hope will become a pivotal talk on faith and doubt.1
“One of the ironies we haven’t fully appreciated in our discussions of doubt is that to some degree our church culture is responsible for many people’s reactions to troubling information. Whether consciously or not, they are simply applying what they learned in well-intentioned but ultimately damaging Primary and youth lessons… So those who see a little bit of dirt in church history are acting in ways that seem entirely commensurate with what they have been taught their whole lives—God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, so we turn away from sin and touch not the unclean thing…. Unable to manage the cognitive dissonance, these people’s relationship to the church becomes tenuous, and often breaks. Many feel that they cannot participate with integrity in church meetings where certain details are either neglected, covered up, or denied. In short, they have become switched off. Some of these people not only leave the church, but also abandon Christianity and even theism, since God, Jesus, and Mormonism had always come as a package deal in their minds.”
Now, Patrick Mason here is explaining only one particular characterization of faith and doubt — there are many others. For a broader exploration of a psychological model of doubt and faith I recommend “Why Some Leave And Others Stay: An Explanatory Hypothesis”2 by Steven Garff (a colleague and friend of mine). My focus here will be on the origins of this particular dissonance, how to acknowledge it, steps to its resolution, and what tools and models can help us move forward.
One of my favorite quotes, that serves as a backdrop, is by William James from his book “The Varieties of Religious Experience”3 when he said: “Religious language clothes itself in such poor symbols as our life affords”. I think there is great insight in that perspective: that religion is limited to the semiological capabilities and domain of those it finds expression in. And as our knowledge, aesthetics, culture, language, etc. change, our religious expression will change too as we find new ways to express those religious longings and revelations.
This can be taken all the way back towards our primordial beginnings. As our developing species traveled across the earth, we have carried our symbols with us. We’ve left our signatures, our portraits, and our projections. Through surveys of stone-aged symbols and artifacts, we see patterns of migration and cultural contact.4 Religion too has evolved, branched, cross-pollinated, and co-evolved with us over time influenced by culture, language, music, economies, interaction with the divine, and other forms of semiological expression.5
In Mormonism, our scriptures (much like Christianity) make reference to “likening”, “comparing”, and “typifying”. Models, maxims, parables, allegories, metaphors, etc. are all symbolic expressions in our scriptures and teachings.6 And within the initial section of the Doctrine and Covenants we have a warning about the limits of the commandments we have and how we have received them as they are tailored to the limits of our language and given in our weakness and in our errors:
“Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.”7
The reason I chose the title this after the scriptural phrase “Unto what shall I liken?”8 is because its rhetorical tone breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, and reveals the author’s hand and intention in the process of revelation. Breaking the fourth wall is a literary device that evokes a conversation between the author, messenger, and audience. It ties all parties together and invites them to consider each other’s realities and perspective when we might otherwise fail to. It brings a sense of self-awareness and agency about what’s being communicated that can be missed. And it’s this self-awareness and agency that is so important for faith today.
In order to illustrate this I will be looking at each word in the phrase “Unto what shall I liken?” from the context of religious expression and revelation. Along the way I will point out this fourth wall, when it should be broken, and ways to move forward in faith.
First is the word “unto”: a functional word indicating reference or directionality.
A Buddhist teaching highlights the difference between a subject and the object that points to it. “A person who only looks at [a finger pointing at the moon] and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon”.9
Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. highlights point how the “scriptures are replete with allegorical stories, faith-building parables, and artistic speech” and that we must discern when to apply figurative interpretations.
“Even the most devout and sincere believers in the Bible realize that it is, like most any other book, filled with metaphor, simile, allegory, and parable, which no intelligent person could be compelled to accept in a literal sense. …
The Lord has not taken from those who believe in his word the power of reason. The Lord expects everyone who takes his “yoke” upon them to have common sense enough to accept a figure of speech in its proper setting, and to understand that the holy scriptures are replete with allegorical stories, faith-building parables, and artistic speech.”10
Leonard J. Arrington highlights how the goal of religion is to express religious truth first with things like historicity playing an important, but secondary role with “symbolism as a means of expressing religious truth”:
“Because of my introduction to the concept of symbolism as a means of expressing religious truth, I was never preoccupied with the question of the historicity of the First Vision—though evidence is overwhelming that it did occur— or many of the other reported epiphanies in Mormon, Christian, and Hebrew history. I am prepared to accept them as historical or as metaphysical, as symbolical or as precisely what happened. That they convey religious truth is the essential issue, and of this I have never had any doubt.”
All of this points to some fundamentals of semiotics which I think are important to cover briefly (and at only a surface level) to provide some context.
Looking at the opening section of the Doctrine and Covenants (verse 24), we can view this from the lens of semiological communication. “I am God and have spoken it” reveals the speaker or author. “Unto my servants” identifies the target audience. “In their weakness, after the manner of their language” acknowledges the limits of the imperfect medium of communication. And “that they might come to understanding” frames this in the stated purpose of producing a greater understanding. This is the basis of semiological communication. And it is absolutely critical to understand in order to develop a healthier and more sustainable relationship with and expectation of the role of revelation in mankind communing with God. Without this understanding, the fourth wall will remain in-tact and our ability to participate critically and faithfully in the process of revelation will be limited.
To illustrate this, I’ll go quickly go through some of the basic aspects that make up semiological communication. At the base of semiotics is the idea of communication: particularly communication between two or more, self-aware individuals. The difficulty is how do you communicate something from an unfathomably complex mind to a different, independent, and likewise unfathomably complex mind.
The person communicating has, in her mind, an object to communicate. This object is what is being “signified”. It can be a picture, concept, sound, truth, smell, taste, aesthetic, experience, fiction, model, etc.; anything that can be communicated via a chosen medium of communication.
In order to communicate this, she must encode this into abstract symbols or “signifiers”. In this case, she chooses the concepts of “mountains”, “colors”, “and ruins”. She then must select symbols within the medium of communication. Here she is using the spoken english words “mountains”, “colors”, and “ruins”. This process is called “semiological encoding”.
The other party must then understand those communicated symbols, construct abstract symbols, then form an object to try to understand the original idea that the other had. This process is called “semiological decoding”. And I think we’ve all had experiences, particularly this year, where this process didn’t work as well as we might have hoped.
But even when communication is possible, the process of decoding can break down on issues of comprehension, relevancy, engagement, value judgments, trust towards the author, and non-neutrality of the communication medium itself. Furthermore, even before communicating, the task of encoding can break down on ideas of accurate sign selection, biases, lack of trust with the audience, compensating for the audience, and the non-neutrality of the communication medium as well. This, I think, is what Paul was referring to when he talked about “knowing or prophesying in part” or “seeing through the glass, darkly” with the hope and faith of a time of greater clarity.12
Brigham Young, in one of his beautifully blunt quotes, points out how the process of revelation is inherently an imperfect process hampered by our own perceptual limitations:
“I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fullness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principles so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections.”13
Here the Mormon notion of creation requiring the use of the material available is an apt analogy: We see visions of greatness and receive revelations as we commune with the divine; then we seek to find ways to express those visions and revelations using the crude symbols our lives, languages, and cultures can afford. Once we acknowledge our inherent limits of understanding, expressing, and communicating revelation, we can begin to see the need to create more self-awareness about the process of revelation as breaking the fourth wall does as a literary device.
The word “what” references the thing or things in question.
James E. Talmage observed that God is often treated as a projection of our own traits.
“[Mankind is] prone to conceive of the attributes of God as comprising in augmented degree the dominant traits of their own nature.”14
The Greek and Roman mythologies were very much projections of human nature: the embodiments of our different natures. As a tool for exploring who we are, there are benefits here.
But as New Testament scholar NT Wright points out, there are problems when our own human nature becomes an object of worship.15 In regards to modern society’s obsession with eroticism, he noted: “The goddess Aphrodite, even if unnamed, is believed in and served by millions.” In the wake of the global financial crisis and scandals, he points out that: “We still assume that even though something has gone horribly wrong, that the only thing to do is to shore up this idol and get it going again.” And critiquing our modern machines of war he said: “No matter how many body bags are brought home we still assume that that’s how the world ought to work.” This kind of idolatry has a long history with religion and we are just as susceptible to it today.
I love Isaiah in this regard. Isaiah brings an iconoclastic perspective. In the opening chapter of the Book of Isaiah, Isaiah critiques how religious symbols can become ineffectual and counterproductive. Whenever I read this scripture I “liken” it to the set of religious symbols most relevant to me in order to ask if how I’m using my religion would likewise be critiqued by Isaiah.
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of tithes, and fast offerings; and I delight not in the casseroles, or of home teaching, or of the visiting teaching.
When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my church?
Bring no more vain oblations; hymns are an abomination unto me; the fasts and sabbaths, the general conferences, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the celestial rooms.
Your meetings and your family home evening my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.16
How are we using our tithes and fast offerings? Does the Lord delight in our casseroles and HT/VT? Do we remember who we worship? What do our hymns provoke us to do or be? What effects do our sabbaths and general conferences have on us? Is our use of sacred spaces in our temples worthy of God? Would the Lord hate our meetings and family home evenings?
Of course, my selection of LDS symbols here is somewhat arbitrary. Regardless, however, these are intentionally provocative questions. But I think that is the point being made in Isaiah here. Our religious symbols, when detached from how they relate to the larger picture of what they signify in God, become ineffectual and counterproductive. They become idols and we become idol worshipers, mistaking pointing hands for the moon they point to.
Isaiah isn’t merely an iconoclast though – and neither am I as I see great value in our religious symbols and practices. But Isaiah is truly prophetic as the purpose and meaning of those symbols are re-attached to their intended use: To become “clean”, to “put away evil… doings”, to “learn to do well”, to “seek [discernment]”, to “relieve the oppressed”, to “plead for the widow” — all this in the framework of forgiveness with God.17
In my membership in the Mormon Transhumanist Association, I’ve seen the topic of what kinds of gods we should worship and become discussed at length. I appreciate the founder of the MTA, Lincoln Cannon’s, perspective on this:
“Whatever the secular response, perhaps properly excusing itself from vying for the high spirit of humanity, the Mormon Transhumanist response is a quickened heart and brightened eyes. We have heard this story before. This is our calling and our choice has not changed. Children of God would try to play God, and more. We would learn how to be God. Dangerous indeed, and worthy of exquisite caution and utmost reverence. But for the child, there is no other way. Mormon Transhumanism stands for the idea that humanity should learn how to be God, and not just any kind of god, not a god that would raise itself in hubris above others, but rather the God that would raise each other together as compassionate creators. Humanity should learn how to be Christ.”18
After acknowledging our inherent limitations in expressing the revelations we receive, this acknowledgment of how our own biases will color our attempts at expressing what truths we’ve received from God reveals another piece of this wall that would keep us from more fully participating in the process of revelation together.
Returning to the scripture referenced in the title, next up is the word “shall”. This denotes choice or freedom of the author.
Freeman Dyson makes a point that’s relevant here. In his book “Infinite in All Directions”19 he reflects back on the attitude of science at the beginning of the 20th century:
“There was a time in the 1920s and 1930s when it seemed that the landscape of physics was almost fully mapped. The world of physics looked simple… between them only a few unimportant valleys still to be surveyed.”
And he observed the prodigiousness with which physics was passing through as it has begun to survey these valleys realizing how much more magnificent physics is than those reductive treatments in the early 20th century:
“…we are beginning to understand that the jungles are the richest and most vibrant part of his creation… After we began seriously to explore the valleys in the 1950s, we found in them flora and fauna as strange and unexpected as anything to be seen in the valleys of the Amazon… Instead of a few succinct equations to summarize the universe of physics, we have a luxuriant growth of mathematical structures, as diverse as the phenomena that they attempt to describe. So we have come back to the rain forest, intellectually as well as geographically.”
I’ve had the opportunity to ask Freeman Dyson about how this analogy might also work for religion. We see the same types of worldviews: one with creedal mountain peaks and dogmatic, reductive explanations that claim to explain all and another worldview which finds home in the flourishing of the diversity of expression and the acknowledgment and exploration of the unknown. He agreed and mentioned to me that this “is especially true in the context of the Mormon religion.”20
So what are some of the transformative results this kind of exploration of the flora and fauna in the valleys can provide? And how can we meaningfully explore this jungle?
Instead of divining God’s one will, we can see that God’s will is infinite in diversity but within a domain. Doctrine and policies can be treated less as dogmatic edicts and instead can be approached as milestones — line upon line. Fixed religious symbols can instead be used as aesthetic tools to find meaning — acknowledging the diversity of meaning and application that they have. Rather than relying solely on devotional or reductive interpretations of scripture, our view and application of scripture can be expanded by literary analysis. We can see how singular, static interpretations of the gospel spoil over time and can follow the pattern of manna by going back to gather the basics of the gospel as we reinterpret with more light and knowledge. Instead of there only being one possible right way or outcome in seeking God’s will we can see many (even infinite) possible outcomes within the domain of God’s will that we may explore with God. Rites and rituals, rather than being treated as final, can instead be seen as expressions of evolving faith. And passive acceptance can be abandoned for the self-awareness that comes from active choosing as we take responsibility for our own beliefs rather than abdicate them to another.
As we engage in the task of exploring these valleys, Adam Miller provides a great perspective on how we can do so while avoiding singular, reductive approaches.21
“As a philosopher I’m not primarily interested in what Mormonism was, or even what it is, rather as a philosopher I’m interested in what Mormonism can do, what can it think, what can it build, what can it feel, what can it ruin, what can it heal. To understand a thing we have to understand not just its kernel of actuality or even its line of development, but its halo of potential. We have to understand the powers it habitually commands.”
“In short we have to grasp the character of its agency. The only way to substantially define Mormonism is to grasp the shape of its power to act and to be acted upon. To grasp Mormonism we have to connect with it as a power rather than as a thing. We have to grasp it as a verb rather than as a noun.”
One analogy that further illustrates the point Adam Miller is making can be found in the language and symbols of mathematics.
In exploring the space of Mormonism, there are many approaches with various limitations. One way to explore or participate in Mormonism is to see Mormonism as only as what it is at this moment in time: to see Mormonism as a dimensionless point. This requires a degree of ignorance to its pathway in history as well as the variety of perspectives about Mormonism that are had within it and its leadership. This creates very brittle faith. Sadly, many view Mormonism this way. It is one of the most powerful bricks in this “fourth wall” I’ve been describing.
Introducing the dimension of history, we can see how Mormonism isn’t merely what it is today, but acknowledge how it has been through history and where it’s headed. Mathematically, this introduces a new concept: length. This adds the much needed context of history, but it still fails to grasp Mormonism in the way Adam Miller points out we could.
Next, we can begin to see Mormonism as a domain of possibilities. Mathematically, we’ve introduced another dimension and we now have area, circumference or perimeter, diameter, arcs, intersections, etc. with new equations governing those. With this, we acknowledge where Mormonism is now, where it has come from, and what its current trajectory is – but we then can see how its path through history wasn’t its only possible path, its current state isn’t the only possible current state, and its trajectory isn’t the only possible trajectory within this domain.
As we see this, we can then start to understand the various dimensions that operate on and within Mormonism as this domain takes shape giving that shape volume. We begin to see how Mormonism operates differently in different people’s lives and within different communities. While these higher-dimensional shapes and figures are more complex than points, lines, and two-dimensional shapes, they are no less defined.
Adding more, we can begin to see how this can get quite complex with hypercubes, hyperspheres etc. as we include the many dimensions which shape Mormonism such as scriptural interpretation, ritual expression, epistemology, science, mythology, history, Christology, culture, language, politics, etc. All of these act on and within Mormonism to form the shape of its domain and range of its agency and expression. While this can produce infinite complexity, it can also be a source of great beauty not dissimilar from fractal shapes as Mormonism collectively chooses how to recursively express and re-express its basic, foundational truths into the spaces and times of generations and cultures in the diverse lives of the members of its body.22
At this point we’re beginning to not just identify parts of the wall that would keep us out of revelation, like treating Mormonism as a dimensionless point, we’re now beginning to see how we can operate beyond this wall and enter the space of revelation as we expand our view and open our minds to the possibilities God has in store for us. I believe this is the “mist of darkness” in Lehi’s dream that we all must pass through to better access the fruit (1 Ne. 8:23-24).
The word “I” in the phrase “Unto what shall I liken?” brings the author directly into the picture. The concept of prophetic authorship is a hotly debated topic in Mormonism. There is a fascinating, and sometimes tragic, history behind why we’ve found ourselves in debates of authority today. I want to see if I can provide a way forward which acknowledges the authority of prophecy but which is informed by this kind of semiological approach I’ve been underscoring. The debate hinges on this question: When is a prophet acting as a man or acting as a prophet? This question has some problems.
First, why isn’t anyone asking when a prophetess is speaking as a woman or speaking as a prophetess? Institutional definitions of priesthood aside, we have functional prophetesses today. I watched the April 2016 General Women’s Session and their leadership and efforts to focus our faith more on refugee outreach is nothing short of prophetic.
Second, it proposes a false dichotomy. It forces us to try to pull apart the agency and person from the divine calling. This is a mistake, is deeply unfair to our called leaders, makes the work of sustaining very difficult (even impossible), and often leads to implied or explicit infallibility of leaders. Fundamentally, the man or woman is always present in the limitations of their knowledge to decode what they feel from God and then, in turn, encode what they see and feel in a way which others can then decode.13
A landmine in the ground on this debate in Mormonism is the treatment of Wilford Woodruff’s words when he said:
“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray… If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place.”23
While I don’t disagree with that statement as it is, the interpretations of it and the immediate arguments that follow are almost always escapist in nature and invoke or imply bolts of lightning, sudden diseases inflicted on prophets, etc. What those interpretations all seem to have in common is that they abdicate responsibility to discern and correct away from individuals and remove it from the work of discipleship. The logical result is that we must, even if temporarily, deify prophets into realms of infallibility – thus removing their agency in those moments and our agency to think critically. It also places all the discernment on the mantle of institutional authority which reinforces escapist arguments, hyper-devotional interpretations, authoritarianism, and circular reasoning. I believe such arguments are not only unnecessary but pull us away from Christ and are deeply unfair both to leaders and the members they lead. If the concepts I’ve been describing so far form parts of this “fourth wall”, this escapist interpretation of Wilford Woodruff’s words here is its foundation.
So, how can we move forward with faith, trust, sustaining, and with our hearts turned towards Christ?
It’s important to note that, as disciples of Christ, Mormons are “duty-bound” to reject that which is not harmonious with God’s revelations as pointed out by Joseph Fielding Smith Jr.:
“It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine. You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. Every man who writes is responsible, not the Church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the Church is duty bound to reject it. If he writes that which is in perfect harmony with the revealed word of the Lord, then it should be accepted.”24
I will point out here the rather ironic title from the section of “Mormon Doctrine” titled “Are the General Authorities Human?” that this quote is cited in. The existence of that section illustrates this cognitive dissonance. I’ve spent some time gathering quotes from LDS authorities on the topic of the limits and role of authority itself which illustrates a greater balance in how we approach authority.25
Additionally, we can remember that the Lord has created a church that can correct wrongs. BH Roberts points out how we are not required to “wait until God kills off unworthy servants before a wrong can be righted”.26 While some forms of correction will be institutional, ultimately the Body of the Church itself must also be relied upon to correct wrongs. If/when prophecy advocates something that is false, that prophecy will fail not because God magically comes down with a bolt of lightning to remove our agency and solve the problem for us; it will fail precisely because disciples of Christ will simply say, “No.” to anything which would come between them and their discipleship in Christ. But this is a delicate balance with lots of room for things to go awry (in both directions).
One approach, which has disastrous results, is for members to pit their own righteous desires against one another — to divide the body through contention. An example of this is Peter’s defense of Jesus as he was arrested. The defense of Jesus was a righteous desire. Unfortunately, his zeal that lead to contention was out of line (Luke 22:49-51; John 18:10-11).
Currently, I’m saddened and ashamed of all the ears being cut off in my church today. Swords are drawn on various sides as authoritative exercises of institutional power cut off members who are hurting – and swords of indignation are swung at the flaws in the institution. We even see this play out in families where faith can become a contentious wedge rather than a healing balm.
Contrast this with Jesus’ response to Peter and Malchus as he stops Peter and heals Malchus’ ear. Can we see in this example how Christ is perhaps calling us to put away our religious and institutional weapons and instead see and heal the suffering of others? With so many who are hurting today, we have a much greater need for healers and peacemakers than we do for zealots. I think we all have the responsibility to find ways to put injured ears back on and begin listening to one another. And it’s precisely this kind of response that I think holds the key to how we can correct errors and how we can participate as the fourth wall is broken.
To begin with, we must ensure we are approaching scripture and revelation relying on the imperative of charitable interpretation: Christ asks us to “hang all the law and the prophets” on the two great commandments: love God and love thy neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40). Paul warned than prophecy, detached from charity, will fail (1 Cor. 13:8). Moroni taught in his parting wisdom that anything that provokes us to do good and believe in Christ comes from Christ (Moroni 7:14-16). Joseph Smith gives a pattern whereby we can judge the efficacy of the exercise of priesthood authority (Doctrine and Covenants 121:36-37, 41-42). Dieter F. Uchtdorf teaches that our church will be nothing but a “façade” or “shadow” of what it is meant to be if it is without charity.27 And John the Evangelist taught that we must overcome fear and put love first as God has (1 John 4:18-19).
These teachings (and others) create a filter which every member of the body can apply to answer the question: “Is what is being said by a prophet or prophetess the word or will of God, or not?” The personal application of this filter is important as history (both ancient and modern) indicates that prophets/prophetesses make mistakes not just in their personal lives but in the very exercising of their prophetic calling — just as we all do in the exercising of our own callings.
This kind of hermeneutic filter creates a much more robust way forward. As a disciple of Christ, I am not obligated to follow teachings that fail these tests, no matter who utters them. But conversely, and this is important, as a disciple of Christ I am obligated to follow teachings that do pass these tests even (and especially) if it requires change and repentance on my part.
This gives institutional prophecy the power and authority to call to repentance when that repentance leads towards Christ. But it also gives power to the disciples of Christ to be a balancing force against imperfections of the process and partnership of prophecy as we aspire to the desire Moses expressed when he emphatically said, “[I] would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”28
But another problem still exists from this. While we’ve approached the fourth wall and disarmed it from the dangers of purely institutional and authoritative interpretations (focusing on charity), we now face the issue of what to do when people get different results in trying to interpret and apply religion with charity.
To begin with, it’s important to realize that diversity in discipleship is not a weakness and is, in fact, a strength as Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught:
“…while the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. …This line of thinking leads some to believe that … [everyone] should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God… As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity…”29
But acknowledging that differences are not bad is just the first step. We then need tools for how to operate and sustain one another within this domain of diversity of discipleship.
George Handley gave a great lecture titled, “On Criticism, Compassion, and Charity”30 which shows how those attributes can be used together to strengthen individual discipleship while engaging with the church and community in constructive and charitable ways.
On criticism he says:
“…criticism is not the same thing as contention. Contention isn’t what happens when people disagree. It is what happens when they lose trust and respect for one another. Criticism, on the other hand, is the means by which we protect ourselves from deception and by which we strengthen our autonomy as moral agents. It implies that we can see ourselves in a context of difference and plurality.”
He then highlights how compassion is a vital companion to criticism:
“Compassion is an important companion to criticism. If we never allow ourselves to feel what others feel or see through another’s eyes, our critical judgment will become centripetal and self-reinforcing. We will end up only talking to those we already like or identify with. It can lead to cynicism and categorical mistrust of others. Compassion, which means to “suffer with,” can trigger learning and change.”
And he explains how charity operates on the tension between criticism and compassion:
“Charity… is the means by which we learn to live with the tension between criticism and compassion. And I want to make it clear that wherever charity emerges, there Christ is also…. It helps us not to be driven by emotion, to weigh things in the balance, both the good and the difficult, and it recognizes that there is a gap between our thoughts and God’s thoughts that we must seek to overcome by a perpetual search for more truth. In this way, it helps us to avoid polarized and polarizing conclusions.”
Bringing this together with a focus on relationships he concludes:
“I hope we can work harder to create an atmosphere for honest conversation and exploration as brothers and sisters. Since faith is strengthened more by relationships than by ideas… We need you. We need to hear your pain. We need your questions. We need your gifts. We will all be better for working this through together… There are others who are hurting. We are all members of the same body… Let’s listen together… I have heard some people say that this a “sifting” moment in the church. Let’s be clear: you and I have no right to be sifters. We are commanded to be gatherers, one by one.”
I think his comment that “faith is strengthened more by relationships than by ideas” is absolutely critical here. Faith has its roots in the word fides meaning trust. And it’s in placing our trust in God and in one another through our sustaining, forgiving, and discipleship that this trust takes root and bears fruit worthy of God. This is the power of covenants which are always rooted in the context of a relationship.31 If we make religion merely about obedience or what to think, we make it lifeless, brittle, and unsustainable. But if we make religion about faith and trust in God, faith and trust in one another, and how to live, it powerfully comes alive within us and in our communities bearing the fruit of the love of God (1 Ne. 11:21-23). Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel made a similar point:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living foundation; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.”32
Another important part of this is perhaps a healthier establishment of expectations. With a singular, reductive, dogmatic, and authoritarian view of prophecy and revelation, our expectations run out of control as we’re logically required to deify leaders and institutions past, present, and future. This ultimately denies leaders and the body of the church their own humanity; it de-humanizes religion. Acknowledging the limits of each other’s humanity as we work together with criticism, compassion, and charity breaks this fourth wall down and levels the field for us to better engage in the work of charitably sustaining one another and acknowledging one another’s perspectives.
On creating sustainable expectations Armund Mauss said:
“… I have continued to value my membership in the LDS church kingdom and to give it my voluntary loyalty, even when I have believed church policies to be in error in certain respects and even on several occasions when I have felt personally offended… I have felt no more inclination to leave the church than I have felt to leave the nation, though… I have become disenchanted or disenthralled. Yet – and this is important – it has been precisely my disenchantment that has inoculated me against disillusionment, because of the concomitant reductions in my expectations.”
“… an understanding of the church and its leaders as human and mortal has kept me from holding out unrealistic expectations for their performance. This has left me free to offer them my own support, loyalty, respect, and appreciation as fellow laborers in the vineyard, but not as contingent on an inerrant execution of their duties… In these respects, I guess one could say that I have always tried to look on the church and its leaders with faith, hope, and charity, even while keeping my expectations modest. I suspect they might say the same about me.”33
While simply saying “criticism, compassion, faith, hope, and charity are tools we need to apply” doesn’t explain away everything — and it certainly doesn’t remove the need for individual agency (in fact it relies on it) — I do believe it puts us on a much sturdier foundation centered in Christ and deepens the strength of our communities and their ability to be healing forces in the world. It changes the conversation by inviting more to the table as we seek to listen, sustain, and heal as zealotry and authoritarianism are disarmed. It gives us the right tools to operate with once the fourth wall is broken.
Finally, the word “liken”.
By this point, I’ve belabored the point about semiologically likening, so I’ll just make a final concluding remark that I think brings a level of authenticity much needed as we look outward from Mormonism.
Richard Bushman points out how the Book of Mormon “multiplies the peoples keeping sacred records”. That the Nephites, Jews, tribes of Israel, and indeed “all nations” are spoken to by God and that they each write (or I’ll add “decode” and “encode”) what they hear, that God chooses what “he seeth fit that [the nations] should have” (invoking agency of the Author), and that “all peoples have their epic stories and their sacred books”.
“the Book of Mormon multiplies the peoples keeping sacred records. The Jews have their revelations in Palestine, the Nephites have theirs in the Western Hemisphere. Beyond these two, all the tribes of Israel produce bibles, each containing its own revelation: “For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews, and they shall write it, and I shall speak unto the Nephites, and they shall write it and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth, and they shall write it.”
“Wherever Israel is scattered on “the isles of the sea,” prophetic voices are heard and histories recorded. Every nation will receive its measure of revelation: “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto nations, all of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word; yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have.” The tiny land of Palestine does not begin encompass the revelation flooding the earth. Biblical the revelation is generalized to whole world. All peoples have their epic stories their sacred books.”34
We see this also in other scripture such as in the Qur’an where it teaches: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another…” (Qur’an 49:13)
So, how do we better “know one another” beyond our immediate faith communities? This brings us back to Simon E. Davies’ “Evolutionary Tree of Religion”.5 We can see this variety of encoding/decoding going on across cultures, languages, geographies, dispensations, and times. Each is a response of that culture and time to respond to the revelations they received.
Semiological understanding expands the notion of scripture away from creedal ownership to instead whatever passes the charitable tests of what is the word of God in each culture as they respond to the revelations of God using the symbolic tools available to them at the time. Canon, however, can be selective. Whereas scripture spans creeds and religions, canon becomes whatsoever a group feels inspired to use to judge or hold themselves accountable to via a shared selection of symbols. The process of selection itself can be inspired by God, but it ultimately is a choice and a symbolic shorthand.
NT Wright makes a similar connection when he sums up the three Biblical coordinates Christians have to orient themselves as they navigate their discipleship.15 First, we are called to reflect the Creator’s wisdom and care into the world. Second, we contextualize our wisdom as being part of a much larger world full of interlocking connections and mutual relationships. And third, that our knowledge is never in isolation; that while we can be bold and humble in stating what we have seen and know, we must always covet other angles of vision. Looking again at introductory section of the Doctrine and Covenants,7 We have similar guidance as we are taught to seek “wisdom” and “instruction”, correction through “repent[ance]”, and humility as we seek out knowledge through time.
This is why I love this phrase “Unto what shall I liken?”. This breaking of the fourth wall of revelation evokes a much-needed conversation between the author, messenger, and audience. It ties all parties together and invites them to consider each other’s realities through the work of faith, trust, discipleship, and sustaining as we acknowledge one another’s limits and humanity. And I believe that as we do so with criticism, compassion, charity, self-awareness, and agency, our religious discussions, expressions, and revelations will be elevated and a sense of authenticity and Christ-centered faith can better grow.
1 Patrick Mason, The Courage of Our Convictions: Embracing Mormonism in a Secular Age
2 Steven Garff, Why Some Leave Mormonism and Others Stay: An Explanatory Hypothesis
3 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
4 G Von Petzinger, The First Signs: My Quest to Unlock the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols
5 Simon E. Davies, The Evolutionary Tree of Religion (Faith, Myths & Mysticism)
6 Moses 6:63, Isaiah 40:18, 2 Ne. 11:4, Isaiah 46:5, Luke 13:20, 2 Ne. 11:8, Doctrine and Covenants 88:46, Doctrine and Covenants 101:81
7 Doctrine and Covenants 1:24-28
8 Matthew 11:16, Luke 13:20, Doctrine and Covenants 88:46
9 Buddha, The Eightfold Path – Right Understanding
10 Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., Doctrines of Salvation, Bookcraft, 1956, vol. 3, pg. 188
11 Leonard J. Arrington, “Why I Am a Believer,” Sunstone, January 1985, 37
12 1 Cor. 13:9-12
13 Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, Deseret Book, 1977, p. 40
14 James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ
15 NT Wright, What Gods Do We Worship Now?, Veritas Lecture
16 Isaiah 1:11-14 (adaptations emphasized)
17 Isaiah 1:16-18
18 Lincoln Cannon, What is Mormon Transhumanism?, Taylor & Francis, Theology and Science, April 2015
19 Freeman Dyson, Infinite In All Directions, Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland
20 Freeman Dyson, Private email correspondence, April 2nd, 2016
21 Adam Miller, Christo-Fiction, Mormon Philosophy, and the Virtual Body of Christ
22 Caleb Jones, Mormonism and the Fractal Lineage of Gods, (http://www.transfigurist.org/2015/04/mormonism-and-fractal-lineage-of-gods.html)
23 Wilford Woodruff, LDS Official Declaration 1
24 Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. – cited by Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. , p. 609. “Are the General Authorities Human”
25 Caleb Jones, Quotes on Authority, (http://www.navigatingdiscipleship.com/resources/quotes-on-authority/)
26 BH Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints – Page 222
27 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, The Pattern, the Path, and the Promise
28 Numbers 11:29
29 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Four Titles – April 2014 General Conference
30 George Handley, On Criticism, Compassion, and Charity – My Journey as a Scholar of Faith
31 Caleb Jones, Post-secular Mormonism and the Role of Revelatory, Covenant Faith (http://www.transfigurist.org/2015/07/post-secular-mormonism-and-role-of.html)
32 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism
33 Armund Mauss, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport
34 Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling