Trusting GAs More than Ourselves

A recurring question in intellectual Mormonism involves what we should do when we disagree with advice or theology taught by the General Authorities. Two extreme answers to this question — what economists describe as “corner solutions” — are the most frequently considered in the ensuing discussions. Neither is sensible. The first corner solution involves always accepting what the General Authority says and disregarding our own moral sense or reasoning. This approach is unreasonable because it makes our own moral sense and spiritual insights unnecessary, or even dangerous. If we believe that God gave us these faculties for a reason, then it is uncomfortable to adopt a rule that totally disregards them. The second corner solution involves always accepting our own beliefs or preferences and disregarding the comments of the General Authority. This is unwise even if we believe that the General Authority has no special moral insight — because that leader does certainly have some moral insight, and it is always irrational to discard information for no good reason.

One of the most intelligent arguments in favor of either of these corner solutions that I know of is Frank McIntyre’s oft-repeated argument that, adopting a mathematical model of moral reasoning and inspiration, believing only that the General Authorities are marginally more inspired or morally wise than we are justifies disregarding our conflicting beliefs or moral sense and adopting a General Authority’s position. (I cannot immediately locate one of Frank’s presentations of this argument, but I trust that he will be willing to provide a link in the comments thread.)

This position represents an enlightened Mormon version of what might be described as 20th-century decision theory: find the best expert you can and rely on him or her. More recent research on decision-making has cast doubt on this perspective in the secular world. A readable and very informative popular-press presentation of much of this research is James Surowiecki’s 2005 book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Under a wide range of circumstances, the studies discussed by Surowiecki show, the aggregated judgment of many fairly uninformed individuals can be more reliable — often far more reliable — than that of one or a small number of highly informed experts.

Another fairly recent, and highly readable, book that addresses these issues is Philip E. Tetlock’s 2006 Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? In this book, Tetlock shows that the quality of expert judgment is often surprisingly low, and that judgment quality does not have a strong connection with intelligence or with experience. Instead, the quality of expert judgment is closely connected with a distinction between two cognitive styles: that of the hedgehog, who knows one big idea extremely well and uses it in all circumstances, and that of the fox, who knows a lot of different little things and is most experienced in bringing seemingly divergent concepts, facts, and theories together. The hedgehog-type expert performs poorly, while the fox performs well.

We cannot, of course, generalize safely from these studies of secular experts to the more spiritual expertise ascribed to General Authorities. Yet one can perhaps be excused for asking whether the new overall perspective that trusts collectivities more than individuals and jack-of-all-trades reasoners more than single-approach specialists casts doubt on the wisdom of allowing General Authority advice or perspectives to totally determine our conclusions.

In fact, the answer on this point depends in substantial part on our assumptions. So let’s make those assumptions as clear as possible. To do so, let’s follow Frank’s lead and adopt a simple mathematical model of moral/theological reasoning. Suppose the issue under consideration is one-dimensional, so that different positions can be represented as points on the number line. Let us adopt the further assumption that, for this issue, there is a single correct answer — which is some number known to God but not to us. Let us call that number TRUTH.

Through moral reasoning, inspiration, or some combination of the two, we each receive a signal on the issue, which we can label as BELIEF_i (with i varying from individual to individual). We can, with perfect generality, write a formula for this individual perspective: BELIEF_i = TRUTH + ERROR_i. After all, we are all mortal. Inspiration is thus, to greater or lesser degrees, a noisy channel for us. So also our moral reasoning is prone to error.

How reliable our perspectives are as a reflection of the underlying truth is fully determined by the amount of error in those perspectives. Unfortunately, we never observe that error. So we will have to make assumptions about how large we expect it to be. Our expectations regarding the magnitude of error for a given person involve two components. The first is bias: over a very large number of independent moral or theological issues, do we expect the person to be correct on average, or is the person’s perspective systematically distorted? For both General Authorities and rank-and-file members, there is good reason to expect some bias. People are products of their time, and that inevitably colors how we think and what we believe. As is well documented, for example, Brigham Young was systematically prone to distort theology and moral decision-making in the direction of denigrating people of African descent. From the perspective of the present, we can recognize that distortion as the bias that it was; at the time, classifying it as systematic error may have been more difficult. No human is ever exempt from these kinds of biases.

The second component of error is variance: even if an individual is correct on average over a large number of independent issues, she may still be off by some extent on any given issue. Variance is related to the average amount that an individual is (randomly, not systematically as with bias) off-target for a given issue.

One of the best available summary measures of error is the “mean squared error,” which is just the sum of the variance and the squared bias for a given individual. If we expect a General Authority to have a smaller mean squared error than we personally believe ourselves to have, and we are forced to choose only one or the other, then it is sensible to prefer his judgment to our own. A General Authority may have smaller mean squared error compared to us for a variety of reasons. He may have the same biases as us but a smaller variance, due either to experience or better inspiration. Or, perhaps, the divine guidance he receives reduces the degree of bias in his judgments and beliefs, compared to our own.

However, it is evident that we have a range of options other than simply accepting our personal perspectives or those of the General Authority. In fact, for a huge range of assumptions about error structure, it is possible to construct a perspective that totally disregards the position of the General Authority but is nonetheless superior to that of the General Authority. Suppose that there is a large group of non-General Authority individuals. Furthermore, suppose that the the difference between the squared average bias among those individuals and the squared bias of the General Authority is not larger than the variance of the General Authority’s error. In this scenario, the simple average of the perspectives of all the non-General Authorities will have effectively zero variance, and will therefore be mathematically preferable to the point of view of the General Authority.

A simple average of all the non-General Authority perspectives and the insights of the General Authority — i.e., a composite position that treats the General Authority as just another voice — will really be no different from the non-General Authority perspective discussed in the previous paragraph. However, if the General Authority is assumed to have unusually low mean squared error, then a weighted average of the General Authority and non-General Authority perspectives may sometimes be better than the General Authority perspective alone, or the simple average of rank-and-file perspectives alone, or (certainly!) our own individual perspective alone. (Mathematically, a large enough sample of rank-and-file perspectives will always, and indeed should always, totally swamp a single General Authority perspective, given the assumption above about biases. But including a higher-quality General Authority perspective may substantially improve a perspective based on an average of a small or moderate number of rank-and-file perspectives.)

It is never wise for us to trust that we individually have the right answer to an important question. But it’s also rarely wise to trust that any other individual has the right answer, either. Safety lies in numbers — in bringing together the insights of many, many people. As Joseph Smith’s revelations teach us,

What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

The Lord’s voice is the Lord’s voice, whether found in the words of canonized texts or the insights of the person sitting next to us in Sunday School. Our best route to truth is to respect our own judgment and inspiration, that of our fellow rank-and-file members ,and that of the General Authorities. Perhaps this is one reason that we worship as a community, rather than solely individually: we need other people, beyond just the leadership in Salt Lake, to find divine truth.

Comments

  1. Very cool. I wondered when reading this how it squares with the recent policy statement on doctrine. I realize the difference between truth and doctrine, but shouldn’t they intersect or overlap to some degree?

  2. Spandex King says:

    I agree. I hate it when our Bishop just says that we must all be in alignment with the brethren in Salt Lake.. I think this makes us look like a cult. We are not a bunch of mindless wonders that just blindly follow instruction. We must, or should take ownership in the decisions and way we lead our lives. Great post

  3. I think that this is why there are plenty of individual pronouncements throughout our religious history, but relatively few official declarations. I also think that this is why there are fewer and fewer individual GA’s making individual pronouncements than in the past – because the collective body has learned that the rank and file members tend to equate individual pronouncements with official doctrine.

    I’d be interested to know if you were considering the structure of quorums and councils as you posted this.

  4. Spandex King says:

    #2 Clarification
    I should clarify that our Bishop uses this line when conflict in our ward has occurred. It is usually been when there is a gray area in a decision. For example: Our young women are never allowed to wear a swimsuit in any Church activity. Even when it involves water, and the young men wear swim suites. I’ve never seen a Church directive that young women are not allowed to wear a swimsuit of any kind. I know there are modesty issues involved but there are appropriate suites. When questioned why our Bishop uses the “Follow the Brethren rule and won’t discuss it. I hate that.

  5. I had some similar thoughts as Ray in # 3. Richard Bushman in RSR points to the creation of church councils as one of Jseph SMith’s great innovations, and I have been reading Elder Ballard’s Counciling with our Councils” recently, and have been impressed with the insights provided their. He at least seems to recognize that any one of us is not likely to have all the definitive answers.

    I think it points to the wisdom in church discliplinary councils that even though the final decision is up to the SP or Bishop, all of the primary discussion is done with the other members of the council present, providing for different insights, and reducing the “variance” as I believe JNS was discussing.

  6. a random John says:

    Spandex King,

    In order to properly implement a “follow the brethren” rule you bishop should at least be able to point to the rule/utterance he is following. Otherwise this is just an excuse used when “because I said so!” won’t fly.

  7. Norbert, I think the press release on doctrine does have some connections with the ideas I’m talking about here. In particular, that press release does place some emphasis on the role of multiple individual witnesses, rather than reliance on centralized experts:

    Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine. Moreover, the Church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together.

    It is unclear to me how the authors of this statement would advise us to approach situations in which an individual’s spiritual experiences point in a somewhat different direction from the perspective of a General Authority. But I see the emphasis on multiple independent individual witnesses in the press release as quite compatible with what I’m saying here. So also is the statement’s emphasis on not relying on the statements of individual General Authorities. I would have wished that the statement had been more expansive about the need for us to share our moral reasoning and inspiration with each other, but that’s life, I suppose.

    Ray and Kevinf, I agree: quorums and councils are a good idea for (at least) the reasons I discuss here. The recent decision-making literature gives some ideas about how to maximize their usefulness. The leader in a quorum or council ought to try as hard as he or she can to create an atmosphere in which every member feels comfortable expressing an individual perspective. If the leader, for example, speaks first on an issue, that may put social pressure on other members of the group to agree — with the consequence that the council’s decision or perspective really is only one person’s. Open, plural discussion is imperative. Likewise, leaders should be careful to seek out information and perspectives from people outside the group. 3 or 12 perspectives can be good, but 200 are better.

    Spandex King, it sounds to me as if your bishop is really asking for absolute submission to his own individual judgment, not even that of some General Authority — since there is no policy whatsoever that I know of against swimsuits in the absolute.

  8. In other words, what a random John said.

  9. JNS–Very interesting proposal, especially given the discussion Joe started over at Feast Upon the Word, where he describes the fears people have as they favor either the scriptures or the Brethren over the other.

    One question about your post and the book, “Wisdom of Crowds.” Does the comparison of members=crowds and GAs=experts really fit with the book? I thought one of the points in the book is that crowds do not act with wisdom when they are too homogeneous, too conformist.

  10. “Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine.”

    Note that members are encouraged to receive “confirmation,” not necessarily to come up with their own ideas.

  11. BrianJ, if crowds listen to a single voice and rigidly follow that voice, then they’re discarding their own individual information and they are — as a collective — no better than the individual voice they rigidly accept. So I’d suggest that we can do better as a community at finding truth and reaching good moral judgments if we voice our disagreements with each other — and, in fact, especially with General Authorities — before we come to consensus and decide.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Perhaps a concrete example of this might be the Church’s development WRT the topic of birth control. I’m old enough to remember when the church was evolving from an earlier “BC is an inherent and unmitigated evil” mode to the current “these decisions are between the couple and the Lord” mode. One factor to keep in mind is that GAs almost by definition are older than the mean age of the membership, and are going to reflect the cultural values of their generation. If it were up to the GAs alone, I’m not sure that the policy ever would have changed. But the mass of the ordinary membership, which were the ones who had to deal with and bear the brunt of the realities of either having very large families (even up to 12 or 13 children) or an unsatisfactory curtailment of marital intimacy, slowly pushed the Church to move in this direction, which in my view is the better part of wisdom and a net gain for the Church (perhaps resulting in less numbers but also resulting in happier and healthier members).

  13. Interesting to recall a regional PH leadership session I attended in the Ogden, UT tabernacle some 15 or so years ago, where Pres. Faust, made the following comment:

    “Don’t let the manuals keep you from seeking the inspiration due you in your callings”. I don’t have the exact date with me, but I have kept those notes from that meeting for several such gems.

    He may have said “handbook” instead of “manuals”, but the intent was clear. You can have inspiration, so go get it.

    This also brings to mind the incident from GC about 20 years ago, where one of the GA’s apparently was at variance with the rest of the brethren, and had to re-record his general conference address, and the text in the church publications was changed as well. I believe it ws Elder Poelman, but my memory is not good. I think it was documented in a Sunstone of the time. I’d like to find that information again. Anybody have a reference?

  14. Poelman’s talk:

    the two versions

  15. Bill,

    Thanks!

  16. Nick Literski says:

    The last stake president I had was frankly a master of councils. As his stake executive secretary (and frankly sort of the “token liberal voice” in stake presidency meetings), I was often asked for my opinions. I well remember one occasion when I disagreed with the proposition of one of his counsellors intensely. While they were well intentioned, I felt they were based upon a nearly “immoral” way in which he was judging stake members.

    It happened to be a time when the stake president decided to go around the room for our thoughts. I was sure that MY thoughts would be very unwelcome, especially to the brother whose ideas I opposed. I didn’t want to cause discord in the meeting, and I didn’t want to get an authoritative lecture on why my very deeply felt revulsion was actually rebellion against “the lord’s way.”

    I sat there, hoping the stake president would run out of steam before getting around the room to me. He didn’t. I tried to weasel out with “President, I don’t think I have anything to say on the matter that would be helpful right now.”

    He paused a moment, looked at me, and said, “It’s obvious you have some thoughts.” He insisted that I share those thoughts, and I did so—in detail. I tried to be humble about it, but I was frank and open. Much to my surprise, the entire discussion changed at that point. The stake president handled the situation in a way that didn’t make anyone in the room feel “wrong,” yet the ideas I’d opposed were entirely dropped from consideration.

    It was an experience I learned a great deal from, whether it be applied in an ecclesiastical or secular setting.

  17. Well, since you are a proponent of disagreement, here I am to disagree.

    First of all, it seems to me that you want to suggest that whenever a prophet is speaking, he is speaking as an individual and with an individual = rank-and-file-ish perspective and authority. That may or may not be the case, and I realize the trick is figuring out which is true. HOWEVER, this happens so rarely (that they only speak as individuals with a separate, invidivual perspective) that it seems to me that reality will generally undermine your whole theory from the get-go. Almost always, when we get counsel, it’s not reflecting an individual perspective. Either the council system and/or the law of authorized witnesses come(s) into play. Sure, once in a while you get one leader who makes one isolated comment that some people want to latch onto as official church doctrine. But really and truly, how often does that happen? I see so many patterns and so much repetition in what our leaders say, that I think your model reflects the exception, not the rule.

    – Your assumptions seem to presuppose that someone who “rigidly follows” the voice of the prophets is not using reason or intellect or agency or is automatically “discarding their own individual information.” That may be the case in some situations, but certainly not all. I also disagree that such following means we are then “no better than the individual voice” — especially because again, rarely is following our leaders about following an individual voice but is about following counsel resulting from authorized councils and counsel that has been repeated and thus ratified through the law of authorized witnesses.

    – I’d be really interested in any scriptural support for your model. I don’t recall ever reading or feeling support for the premises you put forth here: that a prophet’s words are no better than a member’s words; that the best way to get to truth is to disagree with our leaders; that you can somehow measure a prophet’s “quality” level. (How do you propose to do THAT?)

    – I’m interested in your thoughts as to what covenants of obedience mean if we are only obedient after disagreement and rank-and-file discussion and consensus, or are selectively obedient. Also, what point do you think there is to having authorized mouthpieces and witnesses for God and His word/commandments/doctrine if 1) net-net, you think their words really have no more value that any members’ point of view; 2) we should only follow them if what they say “makes sense” to our brains/reason (BrianJ’s point is a good one– we are told to seek for confirmation, which presupposes their teachings are true, not to counsel the Brethen) and 3) if disagreement involving the body of saints is the real way to get “more truth.” I think such a pattern of discussion and especially disagreement ONLY works in a council, not in a community at large. Otherwise, there are too many voices, too many points of view and too much potential for chaos and holding onto individual points of view rather than those of the community. The church at large (rank-and-file) is not a council, so I don’t see how what you are proposing fits into the model the Lord has given. Or perhaps I should ask: Where is the order in your model? What’s the point of having prophets at all? (I’m really interested to know your thoughts on that, not trying to be sarcastic.)

    I also think your model isn’t built on equality (it gives preference to “intellectuals” and assumes that those who don’t feel the need to dissect every prophetic word will somehow be less well off with regard to “truth.”) I also have a hard time seeing where faith fits in. Do you ever think there are times to suspend reason and accept something on faith? Your model doesn’t seem to leave room for that, unless I’m missing something (which is entirely possible).

    I think your best comment here is that safety lies in numbers, and the Lord has already built that safety into His leadership. No one voice ever speaks on a hard topic or one that really defines us as a community. Sure, there will probably be less weight of a prophet’s words in a casual, unofficial conversation, but again, how often does that happen?

    Part of the reason I have so much confidence in following our leaders is because they work by the council system and the law of witnesses. If one leader says something in isolation, I consider it carefully and with a prayerful heart. But when I start seeing patterns in what they say (which is almost always the case), it’s not just about me vs. one other person’s. It’s about my point of view vs. authorized witnesses and mouthpieces speaking together for my — and the church’s — behalf. In my mind, it doesn’t really matter how many rank-and-file members have a different point of view at that point because it’s not their job to receive revelation and guidance for the church. There is no rank-and-file council system to check the words of the prophets. Sure, we each can choose whether or not to accept what those servants have to say; no one is forcing us to do so. But not accepting or disagreeing won’t change the truth of what they say and may even lead us to less truth. I tend to think that if we take on official councils, more often than not we will be wrong, regardless of how many people share our views. That, to me, is a key element of faith. I realize not everyone shares that view.

    The only time I would really see your model coming into play is if there really are different points of view, different opinions (especially of LIVING leaders, not past ones) and we want to weigh them out in our minds. But such things are usually not critical anyway. And many things we hear from them don’t fall into this category in the first place. Again, it seems to me that it really only accounts for isolated statements that usually won’t be of a critical nature. You can’t apply this model to most of what our leaders say, IMO.

    Sorry for being longwinded. Again.

  18. Whoa. That was REALLY long. Sorry.

    HP, you wanted specifics, so I am going to go out on a limb here and say that this may very well be an example of the type of post that could turn a lot of rank-and-file type people away from BCC. Most people I know in the Church don’t take this approach and don’t feel the need to hyperanalyze and especially don’t feel the need to disagree with what our leaders say to come to greater levels of truth. They just accept counsel in faith – of course, not without thought and prayer and using the faculties God has give them (especially because following the counsel requires use of the faculties in and of itself), but without so much disagreement “required” in between listening and accepting to “find divine truth.”

    JNS, one last point: I actually like discussion as a means to think about topics in the gospel, so I am not disagreeing with everything you are saying. I have found that I learn a lot from other people as they can springboard me into insights in my personal study and pondering. I just think you have taken things a bit too far for the comfort level of most of the people I know, including me. :) I could be wrong about others’ point of view, and I could be misunderstanding you, but that is my gut feel at this point. FWIW.

  19. m&m,

    I DO think there is a council of members, as such. We have the option usually two or three times a year, more so if we count general conference, to sustain our leaders.

    Granted, a dissenting vote rarely ever happens, but I have seen it on one or two occasions at the ward level. If there is something wrong (just speaking about sustaining for now) it is likely that the larger the “council” or community, the more likely it is that it will be discovered.

    I had a couple of longwinded examples that I just deleted as they really didn’t help my own thinking. Suffice it to say that I often wonder if we are too quick to sustain in some of our local congregations when we know something about someone that may not be generally known. One more cry for more effective home teaching, I guess.

    Finally, I think there is a difference between “prophet” and other GA’s and their comments. It doesn’t happen often, but I do occasionally find myself wondering about something that has been said, usually in some other forum than GC, such as a BYU forum or devotional talk. That is not to say that I necessarily want to get up on the city walls, figuratively speaking, and start crying to the masses. In those circumstances, I am first responsible to myself, and then my family, and have every right with my wife and I to seek and get revelation that guides our own actions.

    This is an interesting topic, and I suspect that it’s too far into the holiday weekend to get the full exposure. I’m about to leave work, and probably won’t get back to this, either.

  20. Mondo Cool says:

    Thank you m&m.

  21. Too . . . much . . . math . . . brain . . . imploding.

    One factor to keep in mind is that GAs almost by definition are older than the mean age of the membership, and are going to reflect the cultural values of their generation.

    I’m not sure this is true. President Hinckley, for example, is infinitely more trend-savvy than I.

    Personally, I think there is merit in both sides of the coin. There is a balance. Some time ago (and I don’t remember what post it was) I posted some diagrams that showed the parallels between priesthood authority and familial patriarchy. In both models, we are not to simply agree with whatever is said, like sheep, but are to turn to the Spirit for confirmation. Like Brian said, we are not to counsel the brethren (come up with our own ideas about how things should be) but we are to ask for confirmation and understanding of their words.

    I think this model is much tighter because I don’t trust the average member to correctly apply or understand the third level of Spiritual communication – that of direct words. I do believe the average member, however, can more easily operate on the second level – a “yes” or “no” answer.

  22. Steve Evans says:

    Michelle, JNS can speak for his own post, but I think you are misinterpreting him. First, he is careful to discuss behavior on the margins — utterly obeying the brethren without thought and utterly disobeying them — and he makes it clear that neither model works. You took one of his examples of a “corner solution” as if he thought it was the standard operating procedure for members, and the post says nothing of the sort.

    Among other mischaracterizations, you say one of his premises is “that the best way to get to truth is to disagree with our leaders,” when in fact he says quite clearly, “Our best route to truth is to respect our own judgment and inspiration, that of our fellow rank-and-file members, and that of the General Authorities.” Do you disagree with that statement?

    Finally, if you’re looking for scriptural support for his perspective, it is legion, beginning with Moses’ expressed wish that “would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” to James 1:5 (the Prophet Joseph Smith liked that one, IIRC), to Moroni 10. In fact I’d venture to say that the scriptures counsel us more frequently to weigh things out in our mind and to follow the promptings of the Spirit FAR more frequently than the scriptures tell us to use blind obedience. Even the quintessential scripture regarding blind obedience, Moses 5:6, is in fact a testament to the notion of following the Lord directly and testing His word, rather than rote obedience of some sort.

    So, if you’re looking to this thread as an example of something that makes you uncomfortable or that makes you think BCC is a gang of apostates, I think you’ve simply failed to understand what JNS was saying.

  23. I thought she was referring to the statistical model when she said “uncomfortable.”

  24. Steve Evans says:

    SilverRain, that could be so. I was looking at her second comment, where she says “I just think you have taken things a bit too far for the comfort level of most of the people I know, including me.”

  25. THE BOOK OF MORONI
    CHAPTER 10

    4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
    5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

    If we continue to follow this admonition in all things we beleive and are told the Holy Ghost will not lead us estray. Anyway that is my rule of thumb.

  26. John Williams says:

    Awesome post, I’m very impressed.

    m&m, you missed the point. The assumption made is that General Authorities are human and their judgment is imperfect, but that their margin of error is lower than the average member.

    Compounding the wisdom of all rank-and-file members reduces the total error to the point where it is lower than the error of one individual GA. You could assume that the prophet has the lowest individual error, but the crowd might will a lower combined error. Mixing the prophet’s low error into the wisdom of the crowd only improves the chance that we will get a doctrine right.

    Only God has an error of zero, and the goal is to try to approximate this by putting our heads together with GAs and the prophet.

    I feel that a year’s supply of food is a relic of the 1970s, when the Church was run by men who experienced their prime during an era when Mormons grew their own food and therefore storing up barrels of grain was prudent. Today storing food is really Luddite in my opinion. Rich Mormons living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit probably got in their SUVs and headed for Memphis and if they had food storage it was probably flooded.

    So I hope that the Mormon food-storage philosophy evolves into something more practical, much in the way that the Mormon birth control philosophy has.

  27. RT/JNS,
    To be honest, I don’t really understand the math, but I do have a question. It seems like you are saying that even though rank and file members have a higher degree of variance, since they out number GA’s greatly, their pooled BELIEF is likely to be closer to the truth than any individual GA’s. However, wouldn’t sampling issues mess this up? For instance, while it is perhaps possible for me to interview 50 members on a matter of religious significance, it is equally possible for me to read what 50 GA’s have said about the matter (thanks to Gospelink and the like). So isn’t there a reason to prefer the GA pool of advisors to the rank-and-file pool? Further, suppose I interviewed 1000 rabid Anti-Mormons regarding whether Mormons believe in the Jesus of the Bible. Would that provide a more accurate answer than interviewing one GA?

    m&m,
    I’ll let RT defend himself, but I will try to answer some of the arguments you are bringing forth.

    “Well, since you are a proponent of disagreement, here I am to disagree.”

    I am not sure where you got this impression. I don’t read RT as advocating disagreement for its own sake; instead he is doing quite the opposite. He seems to be arguing that we search for as broad a consensus as possible, including both GA and non-GA informants.

    “First of all, it seems to me that you want to suggest that whenever a prophet is speaking, he is speaking as an individual and with an individual = rank-and-file-ish perspective and authority. That may or may not be the case, and I realize the trick is figuring out which is true.”

    Actually, he seems to argue that GA’s may have a minimum of variance error (ie. they are better at receiving/interpreting revelation than we are). He just also seems to be arguing that it would be a good idea to get as many opinions as possible.

    “Your assumptions seem to presuppose that someone who “rigidly follows” the voice of the prophets is not using reason or intellect or agency or is automatically “discarding their own individual information.” That may be the case in some situations, but certainly not all.”

    Actually, RT seems to agree with you (in the post, at least). People who follow the prophet automatically are very rare indeed. Let me give you an example: My brother and I often have theological discussions. In these discussions, sometimes we say that it would be helpful to ask a church leader what they thought (usually a bishop or stake president is brought up). I’ve noticed that my brother is much more likely to suppose that this is a good idea than I am (although I do sometimes think it is a good idea). I tend to figure I can work out theological things myself, under divine inspiration, rather than turning to the bishop, who probably has better things to do. My brother feels like it is part of the bishop’s divine calling to teach (which it is, as far as I know) and that it doesn’t hurt to consult. Which I don’t deny, it just doesn’t often occur to me. Even so, my brother only rarely approaches his bishop with some theological conundrum. My assumption is that the far end of the scale (the person who has given up their agency to the church) is someone who would approach the bishop over every single thing (or a close approximation thereof). Most people tackle most of their theological issues or practical church issues privately, only occasionally invoking the bishop or some other church authority directly. Some people refuse to even consider it. RT is trying to talk about what the majority do, not the outliers.

    “that you can somehow measure a prophet’s “quality” level”
    There are several passages regarding measuring the quality of potential prophets. The oft-cited Matthew 7 contains many, as does D&C 50 and Deuteronomy 18. It seems that making sure that our prophets are “quality” is something that we are meant to do; that said, I am not certain that it is useful to do it with each new commandment or declaration. The Lord doesn’t seem to have much use for letting “fallen prophets” hang around the church.

    “I’m interested in your thoughts as to what covenants of obedience mean if we are only obedient after disagreement and rank-and-file discussion and consensus, or are selectively obedient.”

    I don’t think that RT was directly addressing the idea of obedience. He seemed instead to be discussing the usefulness of assuming that GA’s opinions are to be super-privileged over our own. I am not sure that he is correct, but I don’t think he is advocating ignoring or disregarding the counsel or commands of the GA’s.

    “(it gives preference to “intellectuals” and assumes that those who don’t feel the need to dissect every prophetic word will somehow be less well off with regard to “truth.”)”

    I don’t understand this assertion. Could you explain it a little more?

    “Part of the reason I have so much confidence in following our leaders is because they work by the council system and the law of witnesses. If one leader says something in isolation, I consider it carefully and with a prayerful heart. But when I start seeing patterns in what they say (which is almost always the case), it’s not just about me vs. one other person’s. It’s about my point of view vs. authorized witnesses and mouthpieces speaking together for my — and the church’s — behalf.”

    As I said above, I think that this may constitute a strong argument against what RT is proposing. Assuming, of course, that you and I have read him correctly.

    “Most people I know in the Church don’t take this approach and don’t feel the need to hyperanalyze and especially don’t feel the need to disagree with what our leaders say to come to greater levels of truth. They just accept counsel in faith – of course, not without thought and prayer and using the faculties God has give them (especially because following the counsel requires use of the faculties in and of itself), but without so much disagreement “required” in between listening and accepting to “find divine truth.””

    See, I don’t think that you and RT are actually disagreeing here. I think that RT would argue that talking to those you trust (in and out of church leadership), along with prayer and thought (your individual revelation), are the faculties that God would like us to use. Does that make sense?

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    SilverRain, yes, GBH is one cool dude. I was of course speaking in generalities. We are all influenced by our culture, and GAs are going to tend to be influenced primarily by the culture of an earlier time. Distinguishing that which is culture from eternal truth: aye, there’s the rub.

  29. Let me throw out a twist on a commonly quoted scripture that bears directly on this issue – and that of councils.

    “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice (SINGULAR) of my servants (PLURAL), it is the same.” It is the same when the servants speak collectively (plurality of individuals) as a united body (singularity of message).

    In that vein, my personal summary is:

    When a GA speaks, it is our responsibility to: 1) recognize the nature of the statement (personal, individual opinion or the voice of the prophets [e.g., declaration by the Council of the First Presidency & Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or repeated message by multiple GA's]); 2) if the “will of the collective Brethren”, accept it on faith and do our best to understand and follow it – or at least follow it, trusting that our eternal salvation will not be at stake – that we will not “be led astray”; 3) if personal opinion, carefully weigh the statement with what we know of doctrine that is promulgated currently by the Brethren as a collective body; 4) if we think there is a discrepancy, go with the collective voice of the servants; 5) lacking a collective voice, make our decision to accept fully or partially, try to reconcile our initial concern, or dismiss the statement as incorrect or not applicable. The big one – #6 – be willing to live with our decision in a way that keeps us within the fold (i.e., not openly belittling and fighting the GA and demanding he change his statement), while being open to change our mind if we feel prompted to do so upon further enlightenment.

    Prayer and study and dialog and humility seem to be the cornerstones to this process – no matter the ultimate decision in each instance. Pride seems to be the primary potential stumblingblock.

  30. Steve – I was joking. The statistical model makes me uncomfortable, I didn’t really think that’s what m&m was referring to. :D I’m just in a giddy mood from the prospect of three days “ohne” bosses.

    To try to be a bit more serious – I think that the term “opinion” is the part that m&m is tripping on. (Though I know she is more than capable of speaking for herself, this is the feeling I got from her words.) I think we run into trouble when we start talking about the opinions of the general membership. No offense to anyone intended, but I have zero confidence in the righteousness average person’s opinion, even if they are members. I’d be much more interested in hearing other people’s paths to understanding – in other words, what they have found to be true through spiritual confirmation, and why. Though that might seem the same as opinion, I think there is a subtle but vital difference in that most people don’t really seek to understand the Lord’s will, they seek to justify their own. With that in mind, I get shaky when I think about pitting even a large sampling of the popular opinion against the counsel of the leaders, whom I believe have the Lord’s will and my best interests at heart and of whom I have much more confidence that they have truly, humbly sought to understand.

  31. That was supposed to read “righteousness of the average person’s opinion.”

  32. So does this mean that each group has its own Standard Normal model? And are the groups prophets, apostles, other church leaders, regular church members, non-member prophet types, non-members, and then antis or devil worshippers or something? The standard deviation becoming greater as you go down that list? Or when does it start becoming that we’re all human with the same access to Truth and the same human margin of error? Or is it one standard normal model, the bulk of us with equally good insight and equal propensity with a very small percentage of people on either end (those with very bad insight or large human error on the left and on the right good insight and less human error?)

    In just my experience, every time the bulk of people say what the crap are you doing Amri? that’s a bad idea and I think it’s a good idea and do it anyway, it turns out to be a bad idea.

  33. Ah, I love this post. I do something of the sort myself, though not so mathematical. Most things the GAs teach I see the wisdom of myself and follow gladly. A few things seem to me to be off, according to the best light that thought and prayer can show me. In these things I think again, ponder, pray, and see if I am perhaps mistaken. On some of those questions I do come around to the view that I was mistaken, and so I change my view and follow the church leadership.

    A very few things I simply can’t see in that light. Though I always leave room for doubt, I never stop questioning my own conclusions, yet I still feel morally compelled to follow a different path in these few things, while still sustaining the leadership’s authority to decide for and teach to the church according to their light. Some of these cases are just rules to which I’m an exception. I don’t think there’s any problem with those. (For instance, I attempted a garden one year, and spent over $100 for 2 squash, 1 zuchinni, and a few green beans and also injured my back. Because of that experience, I’ve decided the church counsel to grow our own food doesn’t apply to me.) Upon others I simply pray that new revelation will be received, and the church will move in a new direction. I believe with heartfelt conviction, and after much prayer that eventually we could follow a higher light on these few things, and we could be better, as a church, than we are now.

    To me, both corner solutions are failures because neither allow us to exercise our moral courage and strength, and neither foster moral growth. For our moral sense to wax strong, we must exercise it continually. If we follow blindly, either our own impressions, or the teachings of the GAs, then we don’t strive, ponder, question, doubt, and pray nearly as much, and consequently we don’t grow.

  34. Steve,
    First of all, please don’t put words in my mouth. I never called you apostates and I’m not meaning to. HP has asked for specific examples of why BCC may turn people away, and I gave him a possible example. That’s all. Don’t make that more than it was meant to be. Anyway, for good or ill, I’m still here ut hey, bud, I’m still here discussing, right? :) I realize what I say likely won’t change BCC; I was just responding to HPs request. I wouldn’t have said anything otherwise.

    Anyway, let me see if I can explain again. My main point is that the model analyzes ONE GA’s perspective. (This is important and I think it’s something that could be missed in the model.) In my opinion, that is the key weakness of the model. It puts such limitation on its own applicability as to render it close to useless in my mind, except when and if you run across an isolated comment that has never been said before and you aren’t quite sure what to do with it. Or you happen to have a really interesting lunch conversation with a GA. :) Such topics would be interesting for discussion, but would likely not be really important in the eternal scheme of things.

    Of COURSE one person’s perspective will be prone error, possibly more than a group’s perspective (although I do think there ought to be more weight given to a mantle like prophet or General Authority, and I also think it’s a little silly to try to put measurements on “quality” of a position (to measure that error by personal perception), since that is all so prone to bias and error as well.)

    But my whole point is that in receiving counsel from our leaders, rarely do we have some comment in isolation that hasn’t been the result of a council situation (which reduces error significantly) and/or hasn’t been subject to the law of witnesses (particularly authorized witnesses, which by definition will hold more weight and scope). Both of these situations them mean the LORD enters the equation because HIS model has been followed. That throws this whole model out the window, IMO. I am confident also that when our leaders work together that they ARE including input from rank-and-file members, both leaders and non-leaders. I don’t believe they ever act in a vacuum. So by definition, what we receive from our leaders takes JNS’s model and improves upon it in immeasurable ways. The way the Church works, we aren’t going to be subject to ONE human’s perspective. It just so rarely happens that I don’t get the point of the model in the first place. Maybe that’s my problem. I want a model that has practical, not theoretical, implications. Is that why I’m not getting all ga-ga about it?

    Incidentally, it should go without saying that I don’t discount personal revelation. Quite the contrary. I don’t believe in being “blindly obedient” (although I think that label is mis- and over-used). I say that once the council system or law of witnesses comes into play, the margin of error goes waaaay down, the rank-and-file need to get to work to figure out how to implement that counsel (which is where personal revelation comes into play, and where the Lord can help fine-tune the general guidance received by leaders). So, sure, at that point, discussion is interesting, prayer and personal revelation critical. But the purpose of that is not to change or dismiss the counsel, but to get guidance on what to do with it.

    So the next time you have lunch with a GA and he says something you have never heard before, have fun with this model. Bring it to the group and see what we can make of it. If you hear something in a BYU devotional talk that is new and unique, go ahead. Discuss and analyze away. There are things here and there that do pop up, I imagine, but most of them won’t be critical to our salvation, and probably then are nothing more than fun discussion points.

  35. It seems Tatiana and I were on the same cosmic wavelength. What she said.

  36. John Williams (26) maybe that means the food storage program is not right for you. That might be a rule to which you are the exception. I, however, have a very strong testimony of the wisdom of the food storage teachings.

    I was out of work for a time, once, and I never worried that I would starve, because I have enough dried beans and rice stored to last me a long time. Also, I can buy things in bulk on deep discount when they are on sale, and that saves me a lot of money. Lastly, it’s brought me a lot of simple day to day peacefulness. When I run out of something vital I can always dip into storage and pay it back later. No more emergency trips to the store to buy 2 or 3 items that I forgot to get. This is wasteful and inefficient of time and gasoline as well as frustrating. So I absolutely love the food storage program and consider it to be one of the cornerstones of my knowledge that the church is true. So many wise practices taught by the church that I’ve adopted have brought me so much solid joy that I know this organization is not simply another human invention. I know it by these fruits.

    Another thing that gives me satisfaction with the church’s teachings is talking to people on the bloggernacle, realizing we all have things about the church that we don’t feel we agree with, and then realizing that THEY’RE DIFFERENT THINGS. I mean, the fact that so many intelligent and goodhearted members can be totally in accord with things that bother me, and that many things that bother others seem to me to be deepest wisdom, just gives me peace that we can’t be too far astray. =)

  37. Another thing that gives me satisfaction with the church’s teachings is talking to people on the bloggernacle, realizing we all have things about the church that we don’t feel we agree with, and then realizing that THEY’RE DIFFERENT THINGS. I mean, the fact that so many intelligent and goodhearted members can be totally in accord with things that bother me, and that many things that bother others seem to me to be deepest wisdom, just gives me peace that we can’t be too far astray. =)

    This made me smile. I think it’s actually a really interesting insight, too. I have sensed that one of the greatest strengths of the ‘nacle is to see that one can have struggles with issues in the Church but still stick with it. And this is an added understanding to the value the ‘nacle can have.

  38. OK, m&m, at this point several other people have responded to your comments in ways that I agree with. I’m surely, absolutely not arguing that we should automatically disagree with or disregard advice from our leaders. Instead, the question I’m trying to work with is: should we listen only to our leaders, or should we also try to integrate other information into our views?

    HP/JDC, both variance and bias matter. If we interview anti-Mormons, and if we assume that they on average have a great deal of bias on the issue at hand, then we’re going to get bad answers no matter how many interviews we carry out. If, on the other hand, we talk with a couple thousand faithful, salt-of-the-earth-type rank-and-file members over our lifetimes — well, that’s information with a very low aggregate variance, and conceivably manageable bias. It would be a mistake to just throw it out wholesale.

    Everyone else, I’m enjoying reading your comments and I hope to be able to respond more fully later on. But it’s Friday night and my wife needs me. But, let me just say — really good comments.

  39. Kevin Barney says:

    Another factor to bear in mind is that often GA counsel is put forward in only the broadest generalities. It has to be, because they’re standing there at the pulpit addressing a church of millions of people all over the world, in every possible circumstance and condition.

    So, take for instance Elder Oaks recent anti-divorce talk. I kvetched about it a little at the time, because I thought it might persuade the weak-minded to stay in irretrievably bad marriages. As my favorite advice columnist, Amy Dickinson, wrote just the other day, a good divorce trumps a lousy marriage. But my kvetching wasn’t really very serious, because I’m well aware that none other than Elder Oaks himself has emphasized that if you are an exception to the broad principles and circumstances he is describing, then fine, you are an exception and you need to take responsibility for it. Don’t go calling his office looking for specific validation of your particular choices. (I just worry that not every spouse stuck in an abominable marriage will understand that the broad strokes of the talk aren’t meant to cover every possible situation.)

    So if you hear Elder Oaks strongly advising against divorce in General Conference, but your parents and your sibs and everyone you know who loves you is telling you to throw the bum out, that may be a situation where the specifics of your situation and the more specific, broadly based counsel of your loved ones trumps the generic over-the-pulpit counsel of an Apostle of the Lord.

    (I would encourage commenters to try to illustrate their points with actual examples, hypothetical or otherwise; it is easier to conceptualize what you’re talking about that way.)

  40. StillConfused says:

    I used to have my religion in a pretty box on the shelf and blindly follow. Now I have taken my religion out of the box and put it on — in my style and my way. That seems to suit me better. I believe religion to be one of the most unique aspects of our life. While we may all subscribe to a particular brand, we all wear it differently. And that is cool.

  41. John Williams says:

    Tatiana, I guess only God knows whether your error margin on food-storage is wider than mine. You’ve obviously fallen in love with food-storage and apparently even based some of your testimony on it. Perhaps Mormons of an earlier era based some of their testimony on blacks being denied the priesthood or birth control being verboten.

    Let me just say this: during unemployment cash in a bank account is just as good, and in my opinion better, than a closet full of dried beans and white rice.

  42. That, John, was uncalled for. I won’t go all Sharpton on you, but really.

  43. Steve Evans says:

    John, having a basic food storage for emergencies is almost universally recognized as a smart idea. There’s no need to you to mock Tatiana for it.

  44. John, I think a central element of the perspective I’m discussing here involves taking people’s experiences and priorities seriously even when you disagree with them. Not only does this have the potential to lead us closer to truth, as I argue in the post — it also helps us be one as a community in the way we are commanded to be. Now, obviously, your comment could have been written in a spirit of fellowship and I’m simply misreading it. But I worry that Tatiana and others will read it as a way of breaking fellowship. I’d invite you to take the opportunity to clarify your position before that happens.

  45. John Williams says:

    Tatiana, I apologize for being flippant in criticizing your approval of food-storage. I simply do not approve of the Church’s advocacy of it. Please do not feel belittled. Your testimony of food-storage still does not convince me, however, that it is worth doing. Cash is more liquid than a big plastic bucket of grain, and therefore more useful in times of emergency / unemployment. I will admit that food-storage should probably not be compared to blacks and the priesthood and birth control. 2007 Food storage is not as distateful to me as the priesthood ban was in 1976 or as birth control was in 1945. But I believe (and hope) that the food-storage issue could possible change in future just as radically as those two issues have. I hope that we will sunset the Mormon food-storage philosophy in the future.

    I view my margin of error as being small on this issue, but as stated in the post, we do not see our own margin of error.

    Let the wisdom of the crowd decide this issue.

  46. John,

    I think the emphasis on food storage has changed. The most recent pamphlet, just published by the Church, sets out four items: first, get a three month supply of food we normally eat, second, address drinking water issues, third get a financial reserve, and fourth, where legally permitted, work on gradually and reasonably completing the year supply with foods to stay alive. http://www.providentliving.org/fhs/pdf/WE_FamilyResourcesGuide_International_04008_000.pdf

    While a regularly rotated three month supply is still very strongly encouraged, supplementing it with another nine months of the basic, rarely rotated, foods “to stay alive” is now listed as the fourth objective, after assembling the reasonable financial reserve.

  47. Austin-M says:

    Alright, so I’m new here, but have found this place to be both enlightening and brainfrying at the same time.

    Here goes my two cents worth:

    While I feel that open and honest discussion on doctrines are imperative for individual salvation (how can one learn to obey & have faith without a certain amount of knowledge and understanding?), I also believe that there are Prophets & Apostles for a reason.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that from the time of Adam until the time of GBH, there has been any ordained body of men (Prophets & Apostles) that the Lord has allowed to lead His people astray.

    This knowledge alone helps me to believe in the inspiration of our modern day leaders.

    I think that the crowning events that would change my mind is if :

    1. I didn’t believe Joseph Smith was truly a prophet ordained from on High, until the day of his death.

    2. If #1 doesn’t apply, then I do not believe that the leadership after Joseph was ordained from on High, leaving greater room for questioning current leadership. Neither applies in my belief system.

    Also, while I believe all GA’s have great things to say that are both inspiring and true doctrine, I only subscribe to the belief that only the First Presidency & Twelve Apostles (as a body) are Prophets, Seers, and Revelators, whom we sustain as such at GC. I have to evaluate the other speakers based on what I already know to be true. I like what my own mother counseled me as a teenager. She said, “If you will continually study the scriptures, pray constantly, and always seek the Spirit, you will never be lead astray.” I also like Ray’s analysis of an appropriate way to judge. Thanks Ray.

    I believe we can also look towards the early Church as an example. The early Apostles, most particularly Paul, had to constantly correct memberships and leaderships about following pernicious doctrines that crept into the Church. Eventually there were no Apostles to stave off false doctrines and Hellenistic and pagan interminglings into the Church, and VOILA- a corruption of doctrines and practices and the beginning of The Apostasy.

    Surely the Latter Day Leadership have learned a lesson and have to “run a tight ship” in order to keep the Church alive and well. Running this tight ship includes chastising it’s members from time to time, introducing new policies and procedures, issuing proclamations, and no doubt offending some members. Certainly the general membership need to keep this in mind and be willing to have a little discomfort for a greater benefit and eliminate the belief that you have to ALWAYS question EVERYTHING spoken.

    I had more to say, but already wrote a book here, so I’ll save it for another time.

  48. I’m home alone tonite…hubby working late, kidlets in bed. Too much time on my hands….

    surely, absolutely not arguing that we should automatically disagree with or disregard advice from our leaders.

    OK. Sorry if I put words in your mouth. (Did you edit this post at all? Because I could have sworn there was a sentence about something like the “need” to disagree with GAs to find truth. That was what I was responding to, FWIW. And now I’m thinking I was hallucinating or something because I can’t find it. So maybe that can help you understand my misunderstanding.)

    You say: Instead, the question I’m trying to work with is: should we listen only to our leaders [note this is plural, which isn't what your model addresses], or should we also try to integrate other information into our views?

    Your model doesn’t address the plural, it asks: “Should we listen only to ONE leader without any other input. It seems to me the answer should be obvious to anyone. That’s a different picture. However, other views ARE almost always integrated into what the prophets teach (minus a unique statement here and there). Both bias and variance are greatly minimized by the council system and the order of things. Even the extensive travel of our leaders gives them a broader view than most of us have. The model does not account for this reduction in error and obviously that is a bee in my bonnet.

    That fact is also not recognized in comments such as

    It’s also rarely wise to trust that any other individual has the right answer, either.

    Agreed, but at least the doctrine of following prophets doesn’t demand that we “trust any other individual.” Various points of view are already included in what the leaders typically teach.

    So here’s the other hangup I’m having with the post: You say,
    it is possible to construct a perspective that totally disregards the position of the General Authority but is nonetheless superior to that of the General Authority. I’m not really comfortable disregarding what the prophets teach. A random, isolated comment from another leader, perhaps. But my experience is the quest for truth is a lot more successful and fulfilling when the prophets’ words (scriptural and current) are the foundation for my quest, not assumed to be dismissable. For me, that means also watching the patterns and repetition that reduce the error in that foundation. So I’m not sure what to do with that statement you made, JNS. It really throws me off.

    BTW, I can see this model coming into play with a local leader acting alone in giving counsel, though. (e.g., I didnt marry a guy even though our two bishops “felt good about it.” They were great bishops, but I had to ultimately rely on my own personal inspiration on that one.)

  49. OK, one more facet to this that I’m mulling over…. (Hubby’s still working….)

    I think so much also depends on what the leaders are talking about. Not all teachings are created equal. So, taking Kevin’s suggestion to use something specific to illustrate what I mean: Take the position of the Church leaders on what marriage is and is not. This is not simply a matter of one man’s culturally-biased perspectives, biases or opinions. This is a doctrine declared by the united voices of 15 prophets, seers and revelators, repeated time and time and time again at all levels of the church. A group of people may disagree with this and (no matter how large the group is) IMO will not be able to (quoting JNS) “construct a perspective that totally disregards [this position] but is nonetheless superior.” The rank-and-file cannot “reconstruct” a capital-T doctrine like this. Some things only prophets can declare, and this is an example, IMO. We, of course, can still decide if we want to agree or disagree with the doctrine, and we can discuss our struggles with such a doctrine, but discussion won’t create a “greater truth” per se. It might clarify (I feel discussions on the topic over the past 7 years or so have deepened my understanding and appreciation for the doctrine) but discussion on some teachings can’t “reconstruct.” In fact, on some teachings, I would argue that discussion that dismisses something uniformly, clearly and prophetically declared will take away from truth, not add to it.

    (Let me say here that I know some individuals struggle with issues/positions/teachings like this. I trust that the Lord knows our hearts in our struggles and is grateful when we hold on in faith even when we don’t understand some things and struggle with them. I suppose we all have our different struggles that require such faith, no?)

    Anyway, on the other hand, take the example of preparedness that has been discussed. Like Kevin wisely said, often our leaders teach general principles (even if repeated by many/all leaders and/or agreed upon in councils) that leave lots of room for personal revelation and studying it out and figuring out how to implement. One may live in a small apt. and not have much space for anything. Someone else may feel that cash reserves are more valuable than food reserves at their stage of life or in their particular situation. Each person can get input from others, pray and ponder (danithew recently did this on this topic!), and weigh out pros and cons for his/her particular situation. This, however, is not an example of a search for capital-T “Truth” or truth that is applicable to the whole church. It’s personal revelation and the answer stays at the personal level.

    Lastly, though, there IS also a lot we can discover together in the community as well (part of why I like ‘nacle discussion or gospel discussion of any type in any situation). This is why we have church classes and FHE and less formal things like ‘nacle discussions and late-nite chats with friends and family. But for me, and what I feel we are counseled to do, as a basic rule, such discussion and discovery should not dismiss prophetic teachings. I echo what Austin-M said. If prophets aren’t there to sometimes challenge our thinking, what are they there for? I don’t think it’s our job to come up wtih something “superior” to what they teach unless that means building on the foundation of their teachings (scriptural and current, and again, particularly the repeated ones) to find greater truth. My experience is that only building on that foundation can really yield the fulfulling results of learning more and understanding more. Challenging the prophets for me has never led to good fruit. Others may have different experiences, but those are mine.

    Yes, I know. By now you are wishing my husband was home….

  50. JNS, I love your model.

    M&M, I think that the use of councils will in theory reduce error, but in practice it might not work as well as we expect it to. For multiple perspectives to really reduce error, they have to be independent. Well, they don’t have to be completely independent, but the more independent they are, the more likely it is that they will reduce error. Church councils tend to be made up of people who are similar to one another in gender, age, race, and where they grew up, at the very least. This is certainly true of General Authorities. To continue with Kevin Barney’s birth control example in #12, none of them pushed for change in the Church’s anti-birth control stance because they were all of the same generation, or were of close enough generations that they didn’t bring anything like unique perspectives to the issue.

    So I think the idea of councils might be a good way of reducing error, but I don’t think it’s likely to work too well in reality. In statistical terms, the problem is that the errors made by the members of the councils are correlated with one another.

  51. Ziff, I think you are right to a point, except that your comment assumes that the GAs don’t gather general input and information before getting into council mode, and I don’t think that is a correct assumption.

    And the birth control issue in my mind is not as different as some people like to make it to be. The principles have remained essentially the same. You don’t hear the leaders now saying that they don’t care if you don’t have children. The doctrines are not different. So I would argue that maybe things are not that different.

  52. I think I figured out the key difference in points of view here — we have different viewpoints on how much error is inherent in the prophetic councils and roles. I lean on the side of minimal error, others will claim culture or personality or age will increase error more than I think it really does. Agree to disagree point, methinks….

  53. M&M

    I think I figured out the key difference in points of view here — we have different viewpoints on how much error is inherent in the prophetic councils and roles.

    I think you’re exactly right.

  54. I think I can give an example of the church expecting members to follow such a model.

    Since the early 1970s, the church has stressed that every young man should serve a mission. At some point I think in the late 90s there was an overt emphasis on identifying that some young men might have challenges that make them unfit for mission service. Was this a change in policy or focus based on revelation? Did the Lord want emotionally and mentally unfit missionaries for 25 years, then decide it was enough? Obviously not.

    I think it was always the intention of the church leadership that bishops, parents and other church leaders would be able to give counsel to specific young men (and women) who were not fit for missionary service, and to understand President Kimball’s challenge did not apply to that individual. Clearly, those other voices of good, faithful members who understood the gospel principles were not always heard. (I had 2 companions who should not have served because of emotional and mental instability.)

    In fact, an acquaintance of mine was a mission president in Utah in the mid 1990s, and went to stake conferences giving this message in a talk: that not all young men were really fit for the rigors of mission service. He was publicly accused of preaching false doctrine and giving young men an out if they didn’t want to go. Ironically, the talk was at the prompting of the Q12.

    So the church had to make a pronouncement for those members who follow the first corner solution, even though listening to other voices besides just the prophet seemed to be the way to encourage young men to go, but not those who were unfit for missions.

  55. Jonathan Green says:

    Since there’s no way to know, or measure, or quantify, average square biases or variation for various people with respect to truth, what this gives us is not a method for decision making, but rather a way to sketch out our assumptions about moral expertise. That can be a useful thing, but the assumptions here are hugely problematic.

    The key section is here:

    “Furthermore, suppose that the the difference between the squared average bias among those individuals and the squared bias of the General Authority is not larger than the variance of the General Authority’s error. In this scenario, the simple average of the perspectives of all the non-General Authorities will have effectively zero variance, and will therefore be mathematically preferable to the point of view of the General Authority….Mathematically, a large enough sample of rank-and-file perspectives will always, and indeed should always, totally swamp a single General Authority perspective, given the assumption above about biases.”

    The conclusion follows from the assumptions, but I don’t see that those assumptions are obvious, or desirable. There are a lot of questions for which the average of all LDS responses can’t be called correct. For example: how much tithing should I pay? The average of all members’ responses (based on hard facts and cold cash, rather than pious affirmations) would very likely be something like three percent. Somehow, I’m not convinced that’s the right answer. Or should I take a weighted average of 10% and 3%? That doesn’t seem convincing, either.

    Also, the point of the Restoration was precisely to establish a church led by authorized and inspired individuals rather than by synods and general councils. There’s a reason we don’t recognize the Nicene Creed. So assumptions that lead to the conclusion that the average of all members is a better guide to truth than what general authorities teach is, again, hugely problematic.

  56. I’ve only briefly skimmed the comments, but I’m not sure I saw anyone question the concept of moral reasoning for personal decisions per se (though m&m seems to have at least hinted in this direction…). Lately, at least, there’s been an emphasis on personal revelation, and I think that differs from moral reasoning in important ways that the model fails to address. Sure, there are certain ideas and concepts that Church leaders teach us, but when it comes to personal decisions, we have been counseled to find out for ourselves what the will of the Lord is for us personally.

    Now, if I think I’m receiving personal revelation to have a beer each night, then this goes against counsel we’ve been given so dramatically, that I would seriously question my the source of my inspiration, and I should go back and seriously question how I received this revelation. This interpretive process, which seems foundational to testimony, scripture study, experiencing the Spirit, etc., is a radically different process than that captured by mathematical decision-making theory (which might be a good model for making economic decisions, very broadly defined, but not spiritual or truly individual decisions for which, by definition, there is no broad sample—in mathematical terms, we could say that each individual decision is drawn from a sample of one, so no laws of large numbers apply…).

  57. I just saw Jonathan Green’s post, and although I think this was mentioned earlier, it bears repeating: Jesus specifically taught that few will find the “narrow gate” that leads to eternal life, so I would think this seriously calls into question the main assumption of the post (I guess one could argue conditional probabilities in the sense that the sample being considered of Church members is already a “narrow” sample, but I think this is really a bad interpretation of the way we’ve been told to make decisions, a la Moroni 10, D&C 9, etc.)

  58. Sorry, one more thought: What does faith mean for someone who approaches decisions in this way? That there’s high variance and yet a best-guess still must be made? This seems a very shallow notion of faith. I think most of the great examples of faith we are given are described precisely in terms of how they went against the grain of “public opinion,” with Abraham being ready to sacrifice Isaac being perhaps the best example. Also, since I was at the MHA Conference yesterday, I think it is significant that D&C 132 has not been seriously interpreted by historians studying Joseph Smith and polygamy (at least that I’ve seen)—this is where a comparison to Abraham’s faith is explicitly drawn, and if we are to understand Joseph Smith, I think it is important to take this notion of faith quite seriously (and I suppose this is a good time to make a plug for the Reading Abraham seminar!).

  59. m&m, the thing is, if you interviewed 200 rank-and-file members of the church today — or 30 years ago before the big defining-the-family push started — I’m pretty sure you would get something like the same doctrine of the family that the leadership has espoused. Indeed, if you took a random sample of evangelical Christians since the politicization of their movement during the 1970s, you’d probably also get about the same doctrine. Either that doctrine is truth, or it’s bias that we all share — the point of this post isn’t to debate such issues. The point is that this is a bad test case for you to argue that the General Authorities are a categorically different source of truth than other people: many different sources would lead to the same perspective they teach, which should certainly convince us to take that perspective very seriously, but which also shows that this is a bad test case for the claim that “some things only a prophet can declare.” A huge range of people other than the prophet have declared the same idea of the family — and indeed did so before the church started teaching in a major way about the issue.

    Nothing in the post was edited or removed. I don’t at all advocate automatic disagreement with anyone.

    “For example: how much tithing should I pay? The average of all members’ responses (based on hard facts and cold cash, rather than pious affirmations) would very likely be something like three percent.”

    The model isn’t about averaging behavior, but rather belief. Pious affirmations are exactly what we ought to pay attention to — that’s where we share our spiritual witness. Actual behavior is where we share our human failings. I don’t think this is a helpful counterexample.

    “I just saw Jonathan Green’s post, and although I think this was mentioned earlier, it bears repeating: Jesus specifically taught that few will find the “narrow gate” that leads to eternal life, so I would think this seriously calls into question the main assumption of the post…”

    I think this is really also drawing on behavior, as opposed to inspiration. The light of Christ speaks to all; that’s what we want to recover to improve our decision-making. Our failure to follow that light is what leads to the few-finding-the-gate problem, obviously.

    I don’t think faith has to do with high variances and making decisions anyway. Rather, I think faith has to do with believing that there’s any signal in the noise for any human whatsoever.

  60. By the way, someone asked for scriptural references supporting my position. I provided one toward the close of the post — one of the most commonly-distorted scriptures in the Mormon canon. We are commanded to listen to the voice of the Lord’s servants. Who are the Lord’s servants? Often, the answer given is the General Authorities. But if we read more in the Doctrine and Covenants, we see that the term is frequently applied to disciples of Christ with or without leadership roles. We are all the Lord’s servants, so the scripture above applies to all of us.

  61. Thanks, Austin. I will start commenting more often. :-)

  62. My wife just punched me in the arm and insisted that I apologize. Since I believe firmly in the power of “Yes, Dear”, I apologize for commenting more often in the future. OUCH!

  63. By the way, I should point out that people may perfectly well disagree with the assumptions on bias that I spelled out in the post. In effect, such disagreement means that most people, other than General Authorities, don’t have meaningful access to truth about religious and metaphysical. Such a position is perfectly defensible and as compatible with observed reality as any other.

    The council issue doesn’t actually reduce variance by as much as people might think. Aggregated information reduces variance by a square-root-of-N factor. So a decision made by aggregating 15 independent signals has a lower variance than a single person’s perspective by a factor of about 3.87. This probably overstates the variance reduction achieved by the highest councils of the church — because of broadly shared culture and generation among the leaders, but especially because of the well-documented practice of generally deferring to the members with most seniority. But, it nonetheless serves as a helpful kind of upper bound.

    By contrast, a decision made by aggregating 2000 independent signals reduces variance by a factor of about 44.72. So to prefer a decision by 15 to a decision by 2000, the individual signal of each of the 15 has to be about 11.55 times better than the individual signals of each of the 2000. If we were instead to aggregate 200,000 rank-and-file perspectives, that necessary ratio reaches 115.47. So lots of reduction in variance remains to be achieved even after taking into account an aggregation of 15 points of view — unless we assume that those 15 people have little or no variance. Which, again, is a possible assumption although seemingly difficult to defend in light of the historical record of variance among top leaders on some relatively important issues.

  64. JNS #59, oh, if you’re talking about belief in a general sense (like belief in certain doctrines that are roughly equally applicable to everyone), then I think there’s much more relevancy in your model/argument. I think an interesting and related issue is how one obtains information about beliefs, and from whom. If I have friends, relatives and/or Church leaders who I can verify are significantly more faithful or in-tune (orrthodox, or whatever) than the average member, then I think you could show fairly mild conditions in which you’d be better off trusting their advice rather than, say, an average of all Church members (though, presumably, an average of, say, General Authorities would be a way to do such screening; on the other hand, if we could, say, get a sample of all temple-worthy members or something, it’d tip the scales back the other direction…).

  65. The point is that this is a bad test case for you to argue that the General Authorities are a categorically different source of truth than other people

    Actually, JNS, I wonder if that is the case. I was addressing “what marriage is and is not”. I’ve run into a lot of people who think the brethren are simply wrong on what marriage is not. Are you sure a sample would agree that gay marriage is wrong?

    The council issue doesn’t actually reduce variance by as much as people might think. Aggregated information reduces variance by a square-root-of-N factor. So a decision made by aggregating 15 independent signals has a lower variance than a single person’s perspective by a factor of about 3.87.

    You didn’t factor the Lord in, JNS. I think you need to. His involvement in the council system throws the model off significantly, IMO. He doesn’t just sit back and wait for us as individuals and councils to get to TRUTH. He helps fill in gaps where on our own there would be a great deal of error. The error is rarely fully removed, but this is HIS work primarily, so He ought to be in the model somehow. And suddenly, a mathematical model seems inadequate in my mind.

    Also, again, to assume that when our leaders get together they are only including their 15 points of view seems to underestimate the involvement of others in their studying-it-out-process. I don’t know how to represent that numerically, but I don’t think the number would stay at 15.

    Often, the answer given is the General Authorities. But if we read more in the Doctrine and Covenants, we see that the term is frequently applied to disciples of Christ with or without leadership roles. We are all the Lord’s servants, so the scripture above applies to all of us.

    There is a difference, though, between rank-and-file servants and authorized servants. I could include a bunch of scriptures that would put a lot more weight on the authorized servants. That one scripture is usually interpreted by the prophets to mean the prophets as well. Sure, if we are gathered in the Lord’s name (which essentially means discussing His truths) He can be there. But the point is that the words of the prophets always end up being the foundation of what people gathered in His name are focusing on. You can’t get people focusing on the right things without the words of the prophets, scriptural and/or current.

    I may still be missing the point, but it’s not workin’ for me yet, brother. Sorry. :)

  66. Are you sure a sample would agree that gay marriage is wrong?

    Put another way, I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t had firm prophetic stands on this issue to draw upon, I would have jumped on the “rights” bandwagon a long time ago. I suspect I’m not alone in that. In my mind, this is a key reason we have prophets — to keep us from making our own decisions in the aggregate based on rhetoric of the time that can lead us off the path and undermine the plan.

  67. John Williams says:

    re 65

    The Lord is factored in… this is one reason why a individual GA would have a lower error than an average member.

  68. m&m, the Lord is in the model for every single individual; the model presumes that everyone has at least some access to the light of Christ and to inspiration.

  69. John,
    I didn’t get the sense that the error factors he was calcluating in #63 for a group of 15 men factored the Lord in. That was my point.

  70. JNS,
    Sigh. You are missing what I’m trying to say. The Lord’s involvement with an individual is not the same as the Lord’s involvement in a council. Otherwise, He’d let individuals have a lot more power because He’d be able to manage the error rate with just an individual. But He’s smarter than that. The whole is greater than the sum (or mathematical function) of its parts. The council of 15 divinely called men is not the same as the function of 15 divinely-lighted individuals working together as inspired individuals. The council takes on a function all of its own.

  71. He’d let individuals have a lot more power because He’d be able to manage the error rate with just an individual.

    BTW, I realize that we are probably agreeing on this point. But I don’t think you and I see councils in the same way, or at least your model doesn’t seem to represent what to me is huge.

  72. m&m, I think that you believe that the council eliminates all, or nearly all, the error in General Authority positions. Is that correct? This is, of course, a belief in miracles at the level of aggregation within a council — which is fine, because all of us are professing a belief in miracles at the level of individual receipt of inspiration. On the other hand, it’s not at all clear to me that your synergistic theory of councils is supported by the scriptures, which tend, I think, to emphasize personal mystical witness, preaching of the gospel by individual authorized agents at all levels, and communal unity. I’m not convinced that the scriptures emphasize councils as a path to perfect truth. Nor is it clear to me that history says as much; Kevin Barney’s birth control example is on point, since the councils of the church have repealed explicit, official, and unified statements that birth control was evil and have instead adopted a stance of neutrality. Either circumstances changed over the last few decades in a way that changed the fundamental moral nature of birth control, or one or the other unified position of the church councils was incorrect. There are, in fact, many other similar examples.

    Anyway, it’s worth pointing out that the church itself doesn’t claim that councils are infallible.

  73. By the way, you’re right to point out that we agree on the point that group decisions, when made in an open and inclusive way and with respect to each individual’s distinctive insights, can be superior to individual decisions. We may differ on some other assumptions, but this is clearly a point of agreement. Not a bad thing, no?

  74. JNS,
    I think the council system reduces error, and that reduction isn’t reflected in your model.

    On the other hand, it’s not at all clear to me that your synergistic theory of councils is supported by the scriptures,

    I think there are evidences of it in the Doctrine and Covenants (102 and 107 are examples). Modern prophetic words support this concept as well (e.g., Elder Ballard: “God, the Master Organizer, has inspired a creation of a system of committees and councils. If understood and put to proper use, this system will decrease the burden on all individual leaders and will extend the reach and the impact of their ministry through the combined help of others.” He also says the council system invokes “great spiritual power and inspired direction” and can “harness and channel spiritual power” when properly used. The very fact that no unit or auxiliary organization is led by one person testifies to this fact. Even missionaries are never acting as individuals. Families are also encouraged to council together. All levels of church and family organization underscore the importance of councils.

    Also, I think the scriptures put more weight on prophetic counsel and teachings than just individuals “at all levels.” Individuals ultimately cannot fully know what to teach without scriptures. (Elder Hales recently went through scriptural history and showed that without scripture (prophetic words) people fall into apostasy.

    scriptures, which tend, I think, to emphasize personal mystical witness, preaching of the gospel by individual authorized agents at all levels, and communal unity.

    But personal witness of what? Preaching of what? Unity based on what? The common denominator goes back to what the prophets and prophetic councils establish as the truth to seek witness of, the truth to preach, and the underlying potential focus of the unity. Personal light of Christ journeys without the guidance of prophets lead to apostasy and confusion, not pure truth and unity.

    Let me also add, though, that I’m not arguing that the path to perfect truth is only and exclusively found in councils, but as I just noted, those have to be the foundation of that quest. Perhaps you are not disagreeing with that. (I’m still a little bit confused as to what you want to get at, to be honest. I’m thick, I guess.)

    BTW, I will say that I think the birth control issue isn’t really a good example, because like I said earlier, the doctrine really has not changed. The council system has never repealed anything doctrinally. I think sometimes we want to think that things have changed when fundamentally they haven’t. I realize some of the language and approach has changed, but the doctrine hasn’t. Also, in my study of the past quotes on birth control, the condemnation I read was less of the practices but of the attitudes. The leaders today aren’t suddenly saying it’s OK to selfishly pursue one’s own will and ignore the responsibility to multiply and replenish, so again, what exactly has been “repealed”?

  75. m&m, regarding birth control, I don’t know if you have the full story at hand. I’d refer you to Melissa Proctor’s Fall 2003 Dialogue article, Bodies, Babies, and Birth Control, for a very good discussion. Church leaders repeatedly, and sometimes in united policy statements, described the use of birth control as a sin — until relatively recently. One representative example of this is a statement from George Q. Cannon in 1894:

    There is one thing that I am told is practiced to some extent among us, and I say to you that where it is practiced and not thoroughly repented of the curse of God will follow it. I refer to the practice of preventing the birth of children. I say to you that the woman who practices such devilish arts.. .will be cursed in their bodies, cursed in their minds, cursed in their property, cursed in their offspring. God will wipe them out from the midst of this people and nation.

    Joseph Fielding Smith in 1916 said, of those who use birth control, “There is no promise of eternal salvation and exaltation for such as they.” These are two of many quotes that show the attitude of church leaders for much of a century: the use of birth control is sinful per se. That doctrine has indeed been repealed; the church no longer teaches that using birth control is in itself sinful. That’s an important change that has affected millions of Saints — and a major reversal of a once oft-repeated doctrine.

    But personal witness of what? Preaching of what? Unity based on what?

    The answer to all three questions is the gospel of Jesus Christ. 3 Nephi 27 spells out that gospel — in the voice of Jesus Christ himself, no less — without any mention of councils or hierarchy. Councils and hierarchy are important, of course, but they are not the glue; Jesus Christ and His gospel are that.

    I’m not sure that D&C 102 does that much for your theology of councils. It does outline bureaucratic process for disciplinary courts and the resolution of disputes. Verse 2 is the closest to a claim that the councils resolve all uncertainty and achieve infallibility:

    The high council was appointed by revelation for the purpose of settling important difficulties which might arise in the church, which could not be settled by the church or the bishop’s council to the satisfaction of the parties.

    This could mean that the high council is designed to fully resolve difficulties by reaching infallible truth. On the other hand, the last component of the verse, which mentions “the satisfaction of the parties,” suggests that the special resolution at issue here involves authoritativeness, not infallibility. Indeed, the whole section has a bureaucratic flavor to it: councils here are necessary for predictable process, not because they are guaranteed to achieve access to truth in a way different from the aggregated perspectives of the individuals participating in them.

    In Section 107, we find more — but never a promise that councils are infallible sources of truth. For example, verse 31 states:

    …if [various virtues] abound in them they shall not be unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord.

    On the other hand, the scriptures also abound with promises that righteous individuals will be fruitful in knowledge, using various equivalent wordings.

    Overall, it seems difficult to place the infallibility (or near equivalent) of leading councils at the center of the gospel when so much of the scriptural text says nothing about councils. Did the Book of Mormon church have such councils? At least occasionally — but missionaries and preachers in the Book of Mormon don’t place any emphasis on them as a part of the gospel message. I think there’s a possibility for looking beyond the mark here. Church leaders, like the scriptures, are in place to point individuals toward Christ — not to stand between us and Him.

  76. There’s another reason councils are not infallible: God does not command in all things. If he did, councils would not be necessary, we could just apply the revelation given through the presiding authority. Some things, like administrative decisions, he just leaves to our judgment. That’s why getting more opinions is better.

  77. OK, folks, I never said councils were infallible, nor that they should be the center of the gospel, nor that missionaries should preach the council system “as part of the gospel message.” Good grief.

    But personal witness of what? Preaching of what? Unity based on what?

    The answer to all three questions is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Of course. And we get the gospel truths primarily through the words of prophets (ancient and modern). That’s why they are special witnesses of Christ. The scriptures are clear about this pattern. We can’t get foundational gospel truths, ordinances or commandments on our own. We need prophets for that. If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have needed the restoration in the first place.

    We can learn more building on that foundation through the Spirit, but we need to be “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner [stone]” (Eph 2:20) — that’s what it means to be “fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (v. 19). This is helps us know what to teach and preach (e.g., “And he commanded them that they should teach nothing save it were the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets”) (Mosiah 18:19), and what is critical in bringing us to Christ. He’s the cornerstone; prophets and apostles are the foundation. Once we build on that, then we can be unified, “fitly framed together” as Paul says in vs. 21, an “holy temple unto the Lord” a “habitation of God through the Spirit.” There’s an order, and it’s clear and repeated throughout all the standard works. It’s really quite simple and it’s wonderful.

  78. I didn’t feel mocked, I felt like I must have hurt John Williams’ feelings by disagreeing with his position on food storage. I apologize if I was undiplomatic in the way I disagreed. Bank accounts are more liquid than food storage as long as the banks aren’t all closed, as they have been in living memory, and as long as your currency is worth something still, as quite often in history has not been the case, and as long as society isn’t on lockdown to prevent the transmission of some deadly pandemic, and there is food on the shelves in the stores, and on and on. There are a very great number of contingencies which aren’t all that unlikely in which money would do us very little good, and food and water would be the thing we’d want most.

    Other emergencies would be best covered by having cash available at home and not in bank accounts. Others by having a solid bank account. The great wisdom of the church is in counseling us to have all these bases covered. We’re far safer and more secure for following this counsel, though of course there’s no way to be 100% secure.

    However, if it doesn’t apply to some people, then they are the ones who have stewardship of that decision. My sister-in-law, upon hearing about the church’s admonition, and knowing how little I normally cook, suggested I might want to collect a year’s supply of take-out menus. :) I actually have quite a large collection.

  79. A few months in Elder’s quorum someone said something along these lines:

    “My stake president back home said that one of the general authorities told us to follow this program for our scripture study. I don’t know which general authority it was, but if it’s a general authority, I know he is smarter than me, so…”

    It just struck me as odd that here was a really bright guy in graduate school — a five or six-year convert to the church even (which means he didn’t grow up through the acculturation machine that I did) — who just assumed that another person who he doesn’t know is “smarter than him” simply because he has been called to be a GA. I don’t want to exagerate this too much, but that felt a little dangerous to me.

  80. Kristine says:

    m&m–I’d be interested in your response to the points JNS raised on the birth control issue.

  81. The difference is that we believe that every individual may receive revelation relating to their own life and callings. We don’t believe that every individual may receive revelation regarding other peoples life and calling. I seek advice and counsel in calling on my friends for help. I don’t seek revelation. We do, however, believe that prophets, apostles, and those in authority in the church can receive revelation for others, as appropriate to their keys. Smallaxe calls this the “ability to move bodies” and says that this is what distinguishes prophets from the rest of us. I substantially agree (although I believe that the revelatory ability creates the ecclesiastical authority, not vice versa). We really do believe that, although every individual has access to God, that properly authorized church leaders have access to areas of revelation that are usually closed to ourselves (specifically regarding other people) and that, therefore, we should pay very close attention to what they say (moreso than the average man-on-the-street). FWIW

  82. Kristine and JNS,
    My understanding is that the shift was from “publicly stating birth control is sinful” to “publicly stating that the church wields no control over what married couples choose to do in their bedroom.” I don’t know that we can necessarily read this as a change in the status of birth control as sinful. It may instead be an admission that there are bigger fish to fry and that the influence of the Brethren wasn’t being very effective. President Packer has recently said that the reason that there are fewer missionaries is that there are fewer young men and women. I don’t think that the Brethren look on the lowering birth rate stats in the church (and outside it) without some mild trepidation.

    That said, I don’t think birth control is sinful, so what do I know.

  83. Kristine says:

    HP–read Melissa’s article (and Lester Bush’s book) and get back to us. The change is waaaaay more dramatic than you suggest. Going from saying that those who use any birth control are damned to saying a couple can make their own decisions is not a mere shift in public emphasis. It’s a doctrinal, theological sea change.

  84. Birth control may have indeed been sinful in a time when familys were able to provide for themselves to a much greater extent. Now it is practically impossible for someone living in San Diego to start on the path of having 10 kids. All that being said, I don’t think its very wise with a lot of the chemicals people are pumping in their bodies to change the natural order of how their body works to avoid getting pregnant. It surely has some effects, whether they are great or small depends on the individual and a bit of random chance.

  85. Kristine,
    I haven’t read Melissa’s article so I can’t comment on that. What I can say is from my pretty extensive study of the topic (I couldn’t find that 1916 quote, btw — what’s the source on that?), I’ve not seen such a drastic change because the doctrine underlying it all (and even much of the language (e.g., the commandment to multiply and replensish is “still in force”) has not changed. Just because we may get fewer specifics doesn’t mean there won’t be condemnation for choices made in selfishness.

    Another consideration is that perhaps there was more of a condemnation for their day. I think sometimes we worry too much about what happened in the past and judge what happened then through our eyes now, or assume that because things are different between generations that somehow one or the other was “wrong.”

    One of the reasons I’m not on the “things have changed so drastically” bandwagon is because even with the firm statements made 100ish years ago, there was still allowance for situations where having children without restriction weren’t always wise. Turned around, our leaders haven’t stopped teaching the doctrine and commandments that were taught then. There is quite a bit of consistency across generations, even if the tenor isn’t precisely the same. If our leaders now have used language that leaves it to us to figure out the details, that means all the more responsibility on our heads IMO to use our agency wisely.

    I also can’t help but wonder if, just as divorce is “allowed” because of the hardness of our hearts (even as it isn’t ideal in God’s eyes), perhaps the tenor has softened because of the hardness or our hearts. If we were doing OK with it all, we wouldn’t have leaders expressing concern about the falling birth rates in the Church.

    I believe birth control can be a blessing when health is an issue, for example. But note that exceptions existed even in the past, by the very prophets who have been quoted as being so “different” in their views: (this from Joseph F. Smith in the RS magazine, quoted later by Joseph Fielding Smith): “I regret, I think it is a crying evil, that there should exist a sentiment or a feeling [there is the focus on motives right there, not the practice per se} among any members of the Church to curtail the birth of their children. I think that is a crime wherever it occurs, where husband and wife are in possession of health and vigor and are free from impurities that would be entailed upon their posterity. ” Clearly, all use of birth control was not condemned or else there wouldn’t have been these kinds of clarifications/exceptions.

    So, I don’t believe that the quotes included above really help paint the whole picture. There WAS room for some prayerful and careful consideration in some situations, which suggests to me that birth control wasn’t condemned hook, line and sinker. It was the attitude of wanting to avoid the responsibility of parenthood merely for convenience or selfishness. This principle, IMO, exists today – wisdom and order is allowed, but the doctrine encourages us to welcome children into our homes.

  86. I also can’t help but wonder if, just as divorce is “allowed” because of the hardness of our hearts (even as it isn’t ideal in God’s eyes), perhaps the tenor has softened because of the hardness or our hearts. If we were doing OK with it all, we wouldn’t have leaders expressing concern about the falling birth rates in the Church.

    I shouldn’t have speculated like that (re: the first part of the paragraph). But the second part isn’t speculation, it’s really a concern that has been expressed more than once.

  87. Kristine says:

    m&m, the 1916 statement is from the RS Magazine, July 1916. Even when exceptions were allowed, it was frequently taught that the prevention of pregnancy must only be achieved by sexual abstinence. I don’t see how you get from “there is no promise of salvation” for couples that practice birth control, and “it is so easy to avoid parenthood…Men and women can remain unmarried. That is all there is to it,” (First Presidency Letter, RS Magazine Feb. 1917) to the current statement in the CHI without acknowledging that the brethren have changed their collective mind on the issue of birth control. Yes, at the most basic level, the principle that married couples should welcome children has not changed, but on the matter of how many children and whether that number may be controlled by the use of artificial means, they have changed their teaching.

  88. I draw the analogy of trusting GAs to informed consent. As a physician, some patients are happy to accept my recommendations across the board and trust that as a professional I’ll give them the best care possible. Other patients listen carefully to the relevant information and exercise their right to choose care options that I might strongly discourage. Either way, it’s their health, and they receive the ultimate consequences. GAs are spiritual “professionals,” so to speak, with specialized information and training that isn’t necessarily inaccessible to the lay church member, but typically they’ve devoted a greater amount of time and thought to such matters. It’s foolish both to accept their advice without being “informed” about it, or to spurn their advice as inconsequential.

  89. An excellent post, guys. I think we should err on the side of obedience, but in moderation. I mean we should obey everything they say from the pulpit. But have a little sense and realize when they’re just stating their opinion on something and when they’re speaking for the Lord.

  90. Razorfish says:

    We are fortunate to have great and inspired leaders of this Church. And yet, empirical evidence suggests there is room for doctrine to be polluted with personal conjecture. Take the Apostle Paul. Probably the greatest missionary in the history of Christianity. Yet how many would embrace his teaching in 1 Corinthian 14:34 “Let your women keep silence in your churches…for it is not permitted unto them to speak.”

    He may have been a product of his era and culture, but this is clearly inconsistent with our modern view of the world.

  91. On the issue of generational influences: At the risk of posting old info which may have since been disproved, I share research from the early 1980’s. Concerned about generational differences in the workplace, Conoco commissioned a study of the situation. One of the conclusions was that our outlooks on life are set at plus or minus 12 years of age. The political, economic and social world views prevalent when you are 12 years old will profoundly influence how you see the world the rest of your life. What year were you 12? What year was the average GA 12? Compare.

  92. our leaders haven’t stopped teaching the doctrine and commandments that were taught then

    Clearly not true.

  93. Kristine,
    In a sense, it doesn’t matter to me because counsel changes and tweaks over time. So do a lot of things. Like I said, just because counsel is different between generations does not mean that one or the other generation was wrong.

  94. John Williams says:

    Molly Bennion,

    Thank for your post. That is awesome.

    The GAs who have advocated food-storage were likely 12 years old when Mormons grew their own food, so in a way, for them at that era, having grain was like having money in a bank account.

    We live in an era when we don’t grow our own food. We should drop the food-storage mentality.

    Tatiana, (78), with all due respect, I disagree. Our institutions in the United States, western Europe, and Japan are far too stable for the doomsday scenario you propose.

  95. John,
    Sounds a bit like “all is well is Zion” to me. :)

    Kristine,
    In case it wasn’t clear – what I was trying to say is that we shouldn’t expect that all counsel will look exactly the same between generations; otherwise, there would be no need for continuing leadership and a living church, a la Elder Oaks:

    the most important difference between dead prophets and living ones is that those who are dead are not here to receive and declare the Lord’s latest words to his people. If they were, there would be no differences among the messages of the prophets.

    I guess what I’m wondering is what the differences mean to you. Do you think that therefore someone must be wrong? That we can’t trust prophets because things may change? If so, these are the kinds of assumptions I think are dangerous to make, because we aren’t bound by past prophetic counsel that is not repeated, and we cannot judge past prophetic counsel based on current situations because of the whole continuing revelation principle. So in the end, I say, “So what if the counsel has changed? We look at what we get now and we trust it and act on it prayerfully.”

  96. hm…the blockquote thing didn’t work…the second paragraph to Kristine was a quote from Elder Oaks (Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, Oct 1994, 11).

    MCQ,
    “Multiply and replenish” is a commandment that has always been taught, and the doctrine surrounding that commandment (that children are an heritage of the Lord, that it is our responsibility to bring children into the world and care for them, that our priorities should be on the family and the eternal things and not on selfish pursuits, etc.) are the things I was referring to. These things were taught then and they are taught now. I realize tenor and some specifics have changed, but those were the doctrines and commandments to which I was referring which have remained consistent through the decades.

  97. btw, HP, thanks for your 81. Would that I could be so succinct. :)

  98. John Williams says:

    m&m (91)

    Please forgive me for not being an alarmist. I think we do have it pretty good in Western countries.

  99. JW:

    Our institutions in the United States, western Europe, and Japan are far too stable for the doomsday scenario you propose.

    Famous last words. Reminds me of those uttered by the builder of the Titanic, just before it sank.

    m&m: It’s not the generalities we are disagreeing on. It’s the specifics. Multiply and replenish does not say how many or when. Those questons are answered by the prophet and apostles in talks and instructions to church leaders, both of which have changed dramatically over the last several decades.

    As soon as birth control became widely available, The church leaders taught that it was a grave sin and that only remaining single or abstinence were appropriate methods. Now, no less an authority than the General Handbook of Instructions counsels leaders that sex is not simply for procreation, but is rather divinely given for purposes of creating a bond between couples. This is a tremendous change, which does allow for birth control to be part of a couple’s family plan, in counsel with the Lord. If birth control were still considered a grave sin, do you think for one minute that the prophet would stay silent and allow couples to pursue it as a practice, even prayerfully? I don’t. The attitude of the brethren has clearly undergone a dramatic shift on this issue.

  100. m&m,
    Be careful. A statement that the underlying doctrine doesn’t change because change doesn’t matter is remarkably close to having your cake and eating it, too (ie. it is circular). It may be the actual case, of course, but it is poor logic :)

  101. Ugly Mahana says:

    Ummmm John, What’s up with the constant harping on food storage?

  102. A year’s supply of food should feed my family for a year. It could also feed 50 families for a week.

  103. If birth control were still considered a grave sin, do you think for one minute that the prophet would stay silent and allow couples to pursue it as a practice, even prayerfully?

    MCQ, do you think if all was well with the way we are doing things that the leaders would be expressing concern about the falling birth rates in the Church? Couples are allowed to make their decisions, but apparently not all decisions are being made in the right spirit. It’s still up to each individual couple, but the decisions won’t be without responsibility. When we make covenants, that is always the case, even when prophets don’t speak out with specific condemnations at every turn.

    BTW, note that I acknowledged that some of the specifics have changed. But even when specifics were more, say, blunt, there was still exception allowed, which implies to me that condemnation was less about the use per se, but about the selfish and unnecessary curtailing of the birth of children. Again, I have noted in my study of the topic that in many quotes that the attitude behind the use of birth control was a key concern.

    HP, I think it’s possible to acknowledge changing specifics or tone and saying that perhaps we don’t need to worry about those changes (esp. not in a discussion that wants to discuss how trustworthy prophets are) while also acknowledging the important fact that the underlying doctrine of the blessing and importance of parenthood and bringing children into the world, and the basic commandment to multiply and replenish, have never changed. Therefore, one reason in this situation why I think the fact that specifics have changed doesn’t matter much is because the underlying doctrine I have mentioned hasn’t. But even if that weren’t the case, I think it’s important to not necessarily look at changes and assume that one or the other position was “wrong” and therefore prophets can’t be relied upon.

  104. 103
    This is a great point. Who’s to say that food storage would only be to help one’s family for a year?

  105. I think it’s important to not necessarily look at changes and assume that one or the other position was “wrong” and therefore prophets can’t be relied upon.

    I want to point out, one last time for this thread, that nobody’s arguing that prophets can’t be relied upon. In this discussion, such a stance is a pure straw man; everybody here is in favor of relying on prophets. The issue at hand is just whether we ought to take anyone else seriously at all.

  106. 103, 105, right — in most of the world, I suppose that’s the only sensible way to think about food storage. Virtually nobody does food storage outside of the Mormon corridor, so if for some reason my area were cut off from food supplies I’d have a choice. I could either share the food I had with everybody until it was gone, or I could be a food hoarder who faces attacks by hungry mobs.

    Now, in actual practice, there is a second issue here. Most disasters that would lead to our area being cut off from food supplies would also lead to Taryn and me being cut off from our house and anything in it. Pragmatics…

  107. So I’d suggest that we can do better as a community at finding truth and reaching good moral judgments if we voice our disagreements with each other — and, in fact, especially with General Authorities

    JNS, here’s the quote I was responding to earlier on — here you say we should “especially” voice disagreements with GAs. Perhaps you can clarify for me where I misunderstood and what you meant. I’m not trying to be a jerk, I’m still really not understanding what you are driving at.

    Also, forgive me if I’ve been “arguing against straw men.” This has not been my intent. (Incidentally, you have done the same thing with my comments — pulling things out that I wasn’t really saying and arguing against them and missing my main points. Part of discussion like this means we will sometimes misunderstand each other, or read too much into what we think someone is saying. And that doesn’t imply a bad motive, it just means we are not understanding each other yet.) Thank you for trying to point out what I was misunderstanding. I’m obviously still missing what you are saying.

    everybody here is in favor of relying on prophets. The issue at hand is just whether we ought to take anyone else seriously at all.

    And so I’m still confused. How can you be in favor of relying on prophets but then say that the issue is whether to take “anyone seriously?” So, is the model to decide whom to take seriously and when? (I really don’t want to be annoying, so if you would rather have me just drop the questions and keep trying to read and understand, I will do that.)

  108. You know what, JNS? I really worry about frustrating you or this conversation, so I’ll just back out now.

  109. Thank you, M&M, for giving me a way to address J. Nealson Seawright. This thread is worthwhile to me if only for that. You learn something new all the time.

  110. Oh, my, J., sorry if I did something I shouldn’t have done by shortening your name. I thought I had seen it like that at other times.

  111. I think JNS is much better than J, slightly less confusing.

  112. m&m,
    I wasn’t saying that what you said had no value. I was saying that it was illogical. That’s okay with me, because I believe religion is illogical (if we understand logic as being based in materialism and empiricism) and that arguments regarding religion need to understand that. I was pointing out that it was circular.

    Regarding JNS’s quote, you left out an important word. The acual quote is “whether we ought to take anyone else seriously”. You left out the “else” which distorted the quote (not in the block quote part, but in your paragraph). JNS isn’t arguing that we should trust no-one. He is arguing that we should trust our friends, family, etc. in addition to the general authorities. You and he really do agree on this point.

  113. Okay, I’ve enjoyed following this post. There are a few things that trouble me from JNS’s model. And so if m&m is taking a haitus, I’ll throw somethings out.

    By definition, we most likely will not understand the reasoning behind counsel given from a seer. I know it’s not always black and white, but you could argue that if their counsel makes complete sense and is obvious to all, they’re not much of a seer. (I know this applies to only 15 of the brethren and not all GA’s). But in my mind, if we get counsel such as earrings or food storage that doesn’t really seem obvious as to the significance, all the more reason to obey.

    Doesn’t the model treat the GA as acting in a vacuum? It assumes that we can benefit from the collective wisdom of the crowd, and I know JNS addresses the collective wisdom plus the GA as being greater, but couldn’t the GA already have input from a larger body than we ever could hope for? From a practical purpose, I would assume a GA always would. Because of their calling, they are going to have access to more people, to more experience, than me, my family, and friends ever could. For example, Elder Bednar doing question and answer sessions with a hundred or so BYUI students every Monday night for 5 years, versus you or me polling our friends and aquaintances. So even if you discount the mantle of their callings and spiritual insights, your assumption that our collective error is smaller than theirs is suspect, in my mind. In a vacuum, yes. But their position is already enhanced by information from our collective error.

    GA’s often speak in generalities to the masses. Elder Oaks’ divorce talk has already been sited. Each of us has the right to decide if we are the rule or the exception. But that decision should be individual. Of course, an individual should seek counsel from anyone else they trust. But that counsel should be from a standpoint of “Am I the exception or the rule?” Not “Should we all agree that the exception applies to all of us, and not the rule?” Maybe you don’t mean that in the application of your model and I’ve misunderstood. I don’t want to read more into it. But if most GA counsel is for our spiritual protection and benefit, and they already tailor that counsel in a generic manner, hoping we individually can apply it as appropriate, do we not undermine it by altering it on a collective basis? Another way to put it is if their counsel is for the weakest of the weak members, maybe there would be a benefit to me by discussing this with others, but the larger my group becomes, the more likely I’ll be including one of those people. Therefore, if the group overrides the counsel, it may damage the very person the counsel was intended for.

    I guess I’m just a strong believer in BKP’s style of preach the rule, privately minister the exception.

    Next, I think the birth control issue is fascinating, but not necessarily for this discussion. Does anyone have any examples from a current era where this model can or has worked? The birth control example has the GA’s themselves changing the course over decades. But is there an example today, of something GBH has said (or any other GA), that we, collectively, have been better off overriding? To me, the only application of this model is in something like evolution or limited geography. But I hardly ever hear a GA take a position on something like that (and usually only from the internet). And, there is no real application of that position to my life.

    Lastly, the model seems to be completely discounting meekness, which to me is one of the most significant traits of the Savior and therefore is a critical trait that I want to develop in my life. Sometimes there are blessings available for simply walking to the edge of the darkness. I interpret the model to be saying we need to get enough people together to turn the light back on before we move. Again, I apologize if I’ve misunderstood your intent.

  114. Joe, I think meekness has many versions. One important variant can be acknowledging that we need advice from a lot of people before we can make up our minds on an issue. It’s one thing to walk to the edge of the darkness when we know we’re in the light and which direction the darkness is. But humans aren’t even good at consistently knowing those simple things. How often do we confuse light and dark? Learning that difference is hard — and acknowledging that each of us as individuals doesn’t always know can be a kind of meekness.

    The birth control thing is a little more complex than you say; the GAs themselves did change course, but only in the face of massive evidence that the membership had already changed course, decades earlier.

    On issues like earrings and food storage, I think the GA council is far easier to understand, in terms of motives and origins, than you maybe suggest. In both instances, the advice in question is a replication of mainstream social practices from the time and place the GAs in office grew up. Food storage was a program that was emphasized by a leadership group who had grown up during the time that most Mormons were farmers — who typically stored against bad harvest years. The earring advice is from a leadership that grew up before body piercing — beyond one single earring — became a fairly mainstream practice in America. So in both cases, the advice is simply conservative, simply a replication of what everyone used to do in a society in which the action in question served different purposes or had different social meanings. This explanation doesn’t imply that the advice shouldn’t be taken seriously — it should — but just to say that advice from our leaders is rarely hard to predict.

    It may be the case that GAs aggregate the wisdom of the crowd in what they say. On the other hand, we have no way of knowing whether that’s true. What accounts we do have emphasize a pattern of deference, even among top leadership councils, to the perspectives of the few members with most seniority. It seems possible that the extensive conversations GAs have with members follow a similar one-way-flow pattern. At the same time, it’s certainly possible that they don’t. Because we don’t know, we can’t necessarily assume one way or the other. Anyway, if GA advice does incorporate the wisdom of the crowd, then we’ll never lose out by also taking that source of information seriously.

    In asking for examples from the current era, I think the bar is being set too high. The birth control changes were certainly well within living memory. But the church changes positions on major issues slowly and/or infrequently — and assessing whether we’re better off as a community overriding central advice requires historical perspective. We usually don’t even know when the community has overridden advice until some time afterward; somebody has to do the social science. And determining whether the consequences are good or bad requires definition and measurement of those consequences. Really, too tough to tackle.

  115. “Anyway, if GA advice does incorporate the wisdom of the crowd, then we’ll never lose out by also taking that source of information seriously.”

    JNS,

    I just found this post and it looks to have run its course so I’ll write up something and post it when I get a chance. Interesting discussion and I’m glad you thought the model worth discussing.

    In any case, as a statistics Nazi I’ll point out that your above statement is not true. Or rather, for it to be true requires conditions you did not state and you probably want to.

    Suppose, for example, that GAs do aggregate the wisdom of the masses and extract the useful signal from it to optimally combine it with their own information, that is the best possible signal. Period.

    If you mistakenly try to account for it again, in an environment of uncertainty (for example– where you don’t know the true variance/covariance across signals) you could easily end up with a worse estimate. At best you only recover the same thing they got, which puts you no better off.

  116. JNS,
    I agree the birth control issue is more complex. However, I don’t think it’s fair to assume the GA’s changed because we changed. You could very well be right, but we don’t know. In general, any GA counsel (and I think you say or at least imply this) should be a reaction to a cultural trend, in or out of the church. If not, there would be no reason to even bring it up. But there could be other factors involved. I’m not going to try to speculate, because it does seem very complicated, and there’s another thread for it.

    I agree with your position, I guess I just think the model should be applied sparingly and with caution. For me, the risk/reward is too skewed. The failure to override erroneous (or out-dated)counsel results in an inconvenience at best. But a failure to heed correct counsel could have very serious consequences.

    But now I’m thinking I may be applying your model differently than you intend. If all you are saying that each person can and should consult various sources in assimilating a counsel into their life, I agree. But I think the result of that consultation should be personal and private, not collective. Maybe I’m a just a wimp, but whether or not I (or rather my daughter) follow the earring counsel or the food storage, I would hate to be complicit in encouraging someone else to disregard it, because it may (doesn’t have to be, but may) be one of those times you refer to when they (the GA’s) are right.

    I reread my comments and I should preemptively say that I’m aware my “inconvenience at best” statement does not apply across the board. But I have noticed in my own life that often, the more resistant I’m to a specific counsel, the more I’m trying to rationalize a behavior that is keeping me from coming unto Christ.

    And you’re right about setting the bar too high in asking for a recent example. There is no way to know until possible many years later. For me, that just increases the risk/reward position. The risk is too high that I may discover years later that my children all fell away because of my actions regarding some counsel. I’d rather be wrong a few times in the other direction than in that one.

  117. I think the main error with the model (now that I’ve read comments and understand it better) is that the general public does not have the same access to light and knowledge as the General Authorities do. Without that base assumption, the rest falls apart. One Apostle guided by the Spirit can trump any number of other people guided only by reason, logic or experience alone. That is where the faith comes in – one has to believe and trust that the Apostles are guided by the Spirit with the best interests of the Church in mind.

    Whether or not other sources should be consulted – of course. We are told to gather truth wherever it may be found. But we are responsible for the manner in which we gather “truth.” We can easily see what happens when doctrine is decided by popular opinion, rather than revealed by the Lord – you get a slew of Churches and none of them are true.

    I am of the opinion you can get a large group of people to agree with any stance you choose, that doesn’t make it true.

  118. Steve Evans says:

    “the general public does not have the same access to light and knowledge as the General Authorities do.”

    SilverRain, is that true? What’s your foundation for saying so? I guess you could make the claim that people with certain callings are given direct inspiration pertaining to those callings, but that’s a matter of specialized revelation rather than a general matter of not having the same light and knowledge. Isn’t the essential model of Mormonism that all members have the same access to God?

  119. My foundation is several fold. Although any given person may be as in-tune with the Spirit as any given GA, they do not have the calling to receive revelation for the general church (as you pointed out.) To me, that’s an endgame point. But beyond that, I don’t think that you would be as likely to choose a random person from a random sampling and then choose a random GA from a similar sampling and find a greater Spirituality. The GA’s talk, walk and act on the Church and the needs of her people almost 24/7 y . They have access to greater information (with the corollary of a greater ability to receive accurate revelation.) They have also, speaking in generalities, spent a great deal more time on developing their Spiritual muscles.

    Although everyone has the same potential access to God, I don’t believe that everyone has worked on developing that potential equally.

  120. John Williams says:

    SilverRain,

    The model does take into account the superior access to “light and knowlegde” that General Authorities have. This is why GAs are assumed to have a smaller error variance than average rank-and-file members do.

    That’s what makes this model so interesting.

  121. Steve Evans says:

    I think the presumption that GAs have greater “Spirituality” (why capitalize?) than average members of the Church is a dangerous one. It can easily lead us to a form of hero-worship or idolatry that is (IMHO) incompatible with seeking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I am on board with saying that the General Authorities are, so far as I know, great people that are in tune with the Spirit, but I am really loath to say that they are somehow inherently superior. I say this not to denigrate the General Authorities, whom I take to be inspired leaders — but simply as an expression of confidence in Church membership. I’d stand my mother up against any General Authority any day of the week.

    And John Williams is right in no. 121.

  122. I capitalized because I didn’t mean the general meaning of the word spirituality, but I meant greater ability to listen to and follow the Spirit. It was shorthand. And Steve, you’re right – it can lead us to idolatry. But I think the danger is significantly less when you truly take all of the prophet’s council – to study it out for yourself – than the danger in equating popular opinion with GA council.

    John – though it professes to take that into account, I don’t feel that it does so accurately. As long as there is the possibility that a general consensus could be more valid than the council of a valid prophet, I don’t think the variances are properly mapped. In short, I don’t think they overlap in any useful sense.

  123. But SilverRain, taking all of the prophet’s counsel — to study it out for yourself — is precisely what JNS has been arguing for from his first sentence. Are you just objecting to JNS’s premises, or to his conclusion, or neither?

  124. John Williams says:

    SilverRain,

    With all due respect, what you are saying is that GAs are infallible.

    Another important assumption of this model is that GAs are not perfect.

    I think in light of some of the things said by GAs in the past, it’s a safe assumption.

  125. I’m objecting to the connotation to the entire package – that there will be times that taking a poll of friends and family will be more accurate than a prophet’s council. I don’t believe that to be true. Though there may be value in taking other council into your deliberations, I don’t believe that that council is ever “more accurate” than council from Apostles in a general sense. It is far too easy for people to read this and justify a lack of thorough study.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that although the argument may be technically accurate, I don’t feel it is true. I don’t feel that it is a spiritually healthy approach to decision making.

  126. John – no, I’m not saying they are infallible. I am saying that when they speak as mouthpieces of God to the general Church congregation, their advice is of God, and therefore True.

  127. John Williams says:

    Look at it this way, SilverRain:

    It’s a way of explaining anything in the history of the Mormon Church that you may find distateful.

  128. Well, John, I believe that the “advice for their times” thought also explains that without opening the door to doubt in the authenticity of God’s Chosen.

    But I’m also a firm believer in seeking confirmation that any given person is indeed chosen by God. Once I gain that witness, the things that are otherwise hard to swallow become easier.

  129. John Williams says:

    Just don’t drink the Kool-aid if you find yourself in a jungle in South America in a village called Jonestown.

  130. John, #121, the problem with the model is it understates the superior knowledge of the GA’s because it assumes that the GA acts alone, but that we act as a group. On most issues, the GA will already have access to more people and experience than we could ever have access to on our own.

  131. I’d stand my mother up against any General Authority any day of the week.

    Steve, would that be a Steel Cage Match or just Thursday Night Smackdown?

    SilverRain: come in out of the rain, the GAs are just wrong sometimes. Ask Joseph Smith when you see him, he’ll admit to it gladly.

    On most issues, the GA will already have access to more people and experience than we could ever have access to on our own.

    People keep saying that, but I see no evidence that it’s true in every case. Can you give examples to show that we should just automatically assume this?

  132. Just don’t drink the Kool-aid if you find yourself in a jungle in South America in a village called Jonestown.

    Cheap shot JW, but a funny one.

  133. Steve Evans says:

    MCQ, mixed martial arts is her specialty, but I think any form of bloodsport would work.

  134. Your moms has mad skillz, clearly.

  135. John Williams says:

    Joe B. (131)

    The model clearly demonstrates that GAs make better decisions when they do not act on their own (despite their own superior access to knowledge and inspiration).

    So I think you agree with the model, you are just afraid to say it outright because it might sound foreign to Mormon ears.

  136. MCQ – I like the rain. And if you’ll reread my comments, you’ll see that I’m not saying the GAs are infallible. It is a subtle difference, but an important one.

  137. Antonio Parr says:

    How about this: I give the formal utterances of GA’s a rebutable presumption of validity, i.e., unless it offends my core beliefs of right and wrong, I will presume that it is of the Lord. In the event that it is offensive to my core moral/spiritual beliefs, then I have an obligation to go to God in prayer for guidance, for (as referenced above), by the power of the Holy Ghost I can know the truth of all things. If the Holy Ghost dictates something that is at variance with what the Bretheren have said, then I have an additional obligation to seek guidance from the Holy Ghost as to how to handle that difference. If I am in tune with the Spirit, it seems inevitable that I will find the wisdom I need to be true to both my community and my conscience.

  138. I don’t think that the assumption that the GA’s are better than the rest of us is a helpful assumption. They have the specialized skills and revelation necessary for a specialized calling. Beyond that, they likely still belch and pick their nose on occasion, just like the rest of us.

    I think the argument that GA’s have wider-ranging contacts than the average is valid. Those brothers travel just about every weekend to places far afield. I don’t and most people I know don’t. There are, of course, exceptions.

    I also think that m&m’s point about councils is valid. No decision given in the church represents a single viewpoint, which is a flaw in RT’s model. Another flaw in RT’s model is the assumption that people poll others for advice. When seeking advice, generally you talk to a group of trusted advisors (like President Bush does). You don’t usually conduct a poll of everyone you know. As a result, I don’t know that the average rank and file will so outnumber the GA’s in our individual lives. Also, there is the LDS belief that some GA’s are given authority and revelation pertinent to intervening in our lives, while the other rank and file simply aren’t (except that they sometimes are).

  139. John and Steve,

    I think you are thinking the model says more than it does. It does not “clearly demonstrate” that GA’s do better when they work with others than on their own. I think we have a doctrine of counsels that tells us this. But the model does not _prove_ it. It lays out conditions under which that would occur. Those conditions may or may not be satisfied. RT does not show that the conditions are met, he merely points out that such a thing is possible. In order for it to be true you have to already believe that a poll of people is better than a GA. The model does not show that to be true, it is something one has to assume.

  140. Kristine says:

    HP–I think the value of the brethren’s travel is somewhat discounted by the fact that everywhere they go, people are trying to guess what they want to hear and tell them that. I’m sure that some of the brethren are very astute at putting their finger on the real pulse of things anyway, but I have also seen plenty of meetings where the “feedback” sought and provided was no more indicative of realities on the ground than Ensign articles about motherhood.

  141. In order for it to be true you have to already believe that a poll of people is better than a GA. The model does not show that to be true, it is something one has to assume.

    I agree with your basic point, Frank: there are essentially untestable — and scripturally underdetermined — assumptions involved in this debate. But I don’t think you said this quite right. The model breaks the question of whether a poll of people might be able to add to the perspective of a GA down: the assumptions you have to believe for that result to hold are more primitive. And probably accepted by most people, by the way, since I think my model probably describes how most faithful Mormons approach these decision problems.

  142. By the way, one last comment for me in this thread. SilverRain in #118 makes a remark that, I think, reveals an important misunderstanding that may be shared by the dozen or so people unhappy with this post:

    I think the main error with the model (now that I’ve read comments and understand it better) is that the general public does not have the same access to light and knowledge as the General Authorities do.

    The model actually allows the assumption that General Authorities have better access to “light and knowledge” than rank-and-file church members. So that in itself is neither here nor there. Objecting to the model instead basically requires a belief that rank-and-file members not only have worse access to divine truth, but access that is so much worse as to be effectively meaningless. If the same God and the same truth is indeed available to all through personal revelation — albeit perhaps to different degrees of clarity and accuracy depending on personal traits or callings — then we’re in the world of the model.

    Obviously, Mormon scripture and history is highly emphatic on the idea that all individuals have access to the same God and the same truth. Yet, arguably, this idea is less common in current Mormon discourse and practice. Nonetheless, if we accept that concept of personal revelation to all — and if we believe that a unified truth actually exists about divine things — then we’re in a situation where the model may well hold.

  143. JNS,

    I was actually referring to the version that you use as a strong case and that has been referenced in the comments– where the group alone is better than the GA alone.

    There are other assumptions needed to make the perspective of the average benefit the GA (the weak version). One of the more problematic is that you need to assume that the GA has insufficiently accounted for the group view into his view and that you can revisit the question and do it better than he did.

  144. Once again, in 143 I think JNS overstates the case. He says that we are “in the world of the model” if we all have at least some access to the light of God. But you need additional assumptions, which I have pointed out above and JNS understands as well as I, in order for that to translate into the case where a poll of members is better than the prophet or that we should take the prophet’s counsel and attempt to improve on it by referencing a poll of Mormons.

  145. OK, there you go, I wrote up a response over at T&S. Hope you all enjoy it :).

  146. You know I never used to believe anything that Nietsche said. After reading this thread I think he might’ve had something about that whole Ubermensch thing. Some people will look for one no matter what their faculties.

  147. Antonio Parr says:

    Circling back (rather gratuitously) to my post number 138, it seems that a condition precedent to being a Latter-Day Saint is the conviction (or willingness to feign conviction) that God is speaking through the “Priesthood”/prophet(s) of the Church. Hence, some benefit of the doubt for the utterances of the leaders/councils of the Church appears to be a key component of the constitution of what it means to be a Latter-Day Saint.

    And yet . . .

    It doesn’t take much poking around history to realize that leaders have been wrong — sometimes very, very wrong — and at some point we have a need to live a life that includes our living true and honorably to the Light that has been given to us as individuals. (Just think what would have happened if the murderers at Mountain Meadows would have opted to obey the light of Christ instead of following their Stake President. Perhaps their souls and their victims would have been much safer.)

    My experience is that our leaders are remarkably consistent in giving sound direction. To that end, I tend to give them the benefit of the douct to the fullest extent possible, and have been blessed in doing so. However, when I come across something that strikes me as being morally wrong — then at that point I turn to God and ask Him to help me to know how to respond.

    This approach — trust but verify — seems to be one that respects both the Church and our personal relationship with a loving Heavenly Father.

  148. Antonio: Coincidentally (or not) that is the approach we are told to follow by the prophets themselves.

  149. John Williams says:

    Frank McIntyre,

    Like any economic model, this one by J. Nelson-Seawright only holds if the assumptions are followed.

    I just think they are pretty legitimate assumptions.

    I think just admitting that there are GAs who are superior to regular members is a sign of faithfulness to the Church. But GAs are also clearly imperfect, and this model gives us a way to rationally see what that means. The results of this model can help us grapple with issues in Church history that are troublesome, like Black & the priesthood, etc.

    At the end of the day, the prophet of the Church still has executive authority, so what he says goes, even if on one particular issue (maybe food-storage) some of us might actually know better. So another sign of dedication to the Church is going along with things we may not agree with.

    But I think the church already has sensed the value in “polling” to reduce error variance; that is why we have a quorum of twelve apostles, and stake high councils on the local level. I mean, haven’t we all heard or read stories about Dallin Oaks disagreeing with Boyd K. Packer, etc.? If Oaks and Packer are both Apostles, how can they disagree with each other? Which one is right, which one is wrong? Only Heavenly Father knows. Maybe they’re both wrong, but in opposite directions, and averaging their opinion will better approximate what God wants.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to your post at T & S.

  150. John,

    Actually a lot of those issues came out of my original post on the subject. I link to it in my new post. JNS could not find it so you missed out on a truly beautiful piece of craftmanship. Pure Art!

  151. John,
    I agree your #151 comments. (Though I myself wouldn’t use the phrase “some of us actually know better.”) My biggest problem with the model is the application across a body of people. While you might feel the application of the food storage counsel doesn’t apply to you, (and I’m fine with your conclusion), I would not extend that to apply to the collective body of saints you’ve consulted to reach your conclusion. Like I stated earlier, there is danger in applying that position outside you and your family (or outside your stewardship.)

    One could argue that the group you consult all has their own stewardship and that you all reach the conclusion independently, but that goes against the main theory of the model, which is the more people you include, the lower the error. I think reality is the exact opposite: the more people included, the greater the chance of some of them falling off the path, for lack of a better term.

    For example, take the counsel of youth not dating before age 16, and not dating non-members. The brethren examine the data of church attendance, priesthood advancement, missions, temple marriage, etc. They see the numbers, they receive input from people on the front lines (Bishops, Stake Presidents, etc.) and they conclude that there is real danger in dating before 16 and dating non-members. They see a correlation. So they counsel us.

    Then in my ward (hypothetically), we take a poll to decide if it’s good counsel. The youth in my ward (and many of the parents) have only one example of recent memory to judge, where a 14 year-old dated a non-member, and it led to a baptism. So we override the counsel, because missionary work is more important and what’s the big deal? Then in five or ten years we wonder why so few of those youth got married in the temple.

  152. That’s the key, I think. Although we may all have access to understanding of the Spirit, we do not all have the same authority to receive that understanding in a given instance. For example, you have authority to receive spiritual enlightenment in your own life, and that enlightenment may seem to contradict what a GA says. However, that does not invalidate the truthfulness of the GA’s counsel. A random sampling of members do not have authority to receive light and knowledge for you, therefore they will not be more truthful than a GA.

  153. Mark B. says:

    I read only the first few comments, and skipped all the rest and most of the original post, but, with reference to Spandex King’s comment 4, I must say that when I was a lively youth I probably wouldn’t have complained at all if the bishop had told the young women at a swimming activity that they couldn’t wear swimsuits.

    Reminds me of the punchline to a joke: “God be praised! My prayers have been answered!”

  154. JNS,

    I haven’t read the whole thread, so feel free to point me to the relevant commenbts if you’ve addressed this already, but there’s a handy word for your belief that “the simple average of the perspectives of all the non-General Authorities will have effectively zero variance, and will therefore be mathematically preferable to the point of view of the General Authority:” Protestant.

    I’d read the Mormon story to be a meta-rejection of the Protestant model. The most recurring story of the scriptures is that people reject the prophets. Noah, the introduction of the Mosaic law, Samuel, Jeremhiah, Lehi, nearly every Nephite prophet, etc. The Book of Mormon can even be described as a long chain of the many ways righteous communities wrongly trust their own judgment over the prophets, so your squared average model needs to address the 200 counter examples.

    Second, your model doesn’t work for non-Mormons. There’s a reason missionaries don’t tell investigators to poll the public, or the members of their congregation, to know if joining the Mormon church is the right thing to do. Your model needs to address that limitation, too.

    Third, the prophets decide who is a Mormon and who gets a temple recommend in the first place, so your sample definition depends on the prophets.

    Kristine,

    I didn’t read through all the birth control comments, but because the current church policy is that BC is “between the couple and the Lord,” can we rule out the possibility that God has always condemned BC, but because so many people rejected the counsel, the prophets decided to tell people to ask them himself? (This fits with my question to JNS about our inability to know when changes are progress, and when they’re backwards, like receiving the Mosaic Law rather than the gospel.)

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