big rainbow

What is revelation?

“The Church is so invested in a narrative of obedience to authority that there is very little room to acknowledge that leaders are flawed, that revelation is messy, and that sometimes we just plain get it wrong.” So wrote my friend Katie L. in a blog post recently at Feminist Mormon Housewives, where she essentially called on the Church to repent of the idolatry of holding up its leaders as de facto infallible representatives of God.

Katie’s essay was a well-written and provocative post. While I wouldn’t go as far as she did in using the term “idolatry” — I wouldn’t say she’s wrong, but I’m more timid than Katie is — it did get me thinking about the nature of revelation. In her essay, Katie called for a “major paradigm shift” involving the abandonment of leader worship. While I agree that is a temptation that is easily succumbed to, I’m not sure that’s where we need the paradigm shift initially. The shift may need to come first in how we view revelation.

I think a common view is that revelation in the Church works like this: God has something he wants to tell the Church’s leaders. If the leaders are receptive and worthy, God will in effect dictate the words of the revelation. Indeed, this is possible — Joseph Smith talked about receiving some of the text of the Book of Mormon in such a fashion.

But is this the norm? I believe it is not. The norm, for regular folks like me as well as church leaders, seems to be that revelation comes through mental and spiritual impressions as much as anything else. While those impressions may be strong, and here’s the key, we interpret them through our own shortcomings and limited knowledge.

The problem with the traditional model is that it leads to what Katie talked about. If we believe that revelations are in fact dictations from God, there seems to be little room for the recipient’s personality, culture and other factors to play much of a role. This can lead to some either-or thinking — either the prophet (or other leader or regular person, for that matter) understands the words of God or he doesn’t. So if we find that the leader has committed an error, that becomes a reason to toss everything he says, or that the Church says. That’s a story that seems be common among many who have left the Church.

But couldn’t the process be a lot more dynamic than that? Doesn’t it make more sense that God would give someone a strong impression and then allow the individual to fill in the details?

Former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley suggested as much in an interview with Larry King a few years ago. Here’s a part of that interview:

King: So if you change things, that’s done by an edict given to you.

Hinckley: Yes, sir.

King: How do you receive it?

Hinckley: Well, various ways. It isn’t necessarily a voice heard. Impressions come. The building of this very building [the Conference Center] I think is an evidence of that. There came an impression, a feeling, that we need to enlarge our facilities where we could hold our conferences. And it was a very bold measure. We had to tear down a big building here and put this building up at great cost. But goodness sakes, what a wonderful thing it’s proven to be. It is an answer to many, many needs. And I think it’s the result of inspiration.

King: And that came from something higher than you.

Hinckley: I think so.

It’s quite clear from this interview that President Hinckley was claiming he received revelation — but he implies that based on his knowledge and background he (and certainly other church leaders) filled in the details, such as the site and design. If someone else had been the prophet at the time, perhaps the building would have ended up far different.

To me, that’s how revelation seems to work. It’s a process that’s subject to human limitations and, yes, even error. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons we need continuing revelation.

Let me give a few of examples of how this may have worked in practice:

  • Paul the Apostle received an impression that a church gathering should be a time where people act with dignity. But based on his own culture, he applied that impression by telling women that they shouldn’t braid their hair or wear pearls — adornment that at the time and place was undignified at best.
  • Upon inquiry, Joseph Smith received an impression that members of the church take care of their bodies. To that impression he filled in the details based on the best health advice of the day. Had he been the prophet in 2014, perhaps the Word of Wisdom would have recommended getting exercise and avoiding fatty foods, and it probably wouldn’t have said anything about using tobacco to treat bruises.
  • Similarly, President Hinckley was impressed that we should treat our bodies with outward respect. To that he filled in the details based on his own background as someone growing up at a time when tattoos and multiple earrings were acquired only by lowlifes.
  • More than a year ago, church leaders were impressed of the need to expand the missionary program. Based on their own knowledge of the capabilities of the Church’s young adults and other factors, they filled in the details with the changes that are now in effect.

To be clear, these are just educated guesses about how things came about. But I do find it interesting that we seem to give Paul the freedom of applying his own culture to the impressions he received, yet with modern church leaders we seem to assume that all they say came directly from God. We seem to be denying them the right to be human, to apply their own knowledge and backgrounds to what God conveys to them. As a result, rather than God’s direct revelations alone being engraved in stone, we take the fallible extrapolations of men and treat them as more than what they are.

I should point out that I have no problem with following the Word of Wisdom (I even eat meat sparingly), I would never punch holes in my ears or ink up my skin, and I welcomed the changes in the missionary program. My point isn’t that the way the “details were filled in” is wrong so much that details were filled in by fallible humans rather than dictated by God — and thus they can be subject to scrutiny and change, perhaps even without the need for new revelation.

How far am I willing to take this idea? I’m not sure. But one of the things that got me thinking about how revelation works was an written interview recently done by historian Richard Bushman, a patriarch and active, faithful member of the church. In the interview, Bushman was asked about the role that Sidney Rigdon played in the development of the Church’s theology. Bushman’s answer was fascinating, and I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention. He said:

Joseph Smith was very eclectic. He drew upon ideas from all over, including Masonic ritual. I am not aware of source criticism of Rigdon’s influence, but I am inclined to think it was fairly large. It is quite possible that the idea of Restoration came from him. Restoration in the Book of Mormon refers to the restoration of Israel, the return of Israel to its favored place in God’s eyes, not the restoration of the New Testament church. Rigdon who was a restorationist along with Campbell could very well have turned Joseph’s thinking in that direction. I also think he may have been responsible for the phrase “creeds are an abomination.” That was hobby horse of Alexander Campbell’s. Since Rigdon was involved in writing Joseph Smith’s 1838 history, he may have been one to introduce that language into the account of the First Vision.

That’s a radical statement for a faithful historian to make, especially since it touches on a foundational account. But as someone who sees a huge human role in even the writing of Scripture, I find it a tentative conclusion that is plausible.

Since the Church’s recent statement that placed the former exclusion of black males from the priesthood in the context of the racist culture, a question commonly asked in the bloggernacle has been: “Well, if church leaders were wrong then, why should we trust them now?” But perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask. Perhaps the question should be: “Since church leaders are human and thus subject to error, what can I do to ensure that I am following the guidance of the Holy Spirit?” We are tasked no less than Church leaders are in discerning God’s will.

Photo by Mike Lewinski/CC BY 2.0

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s