Usually, the most educational part of Sunday for me is the drive home from church.
That is when my wife and I discuss the Sunday School lesson, and what we learned from the talks in sacrament meeting. And almost every Sunday, my wife notices something that I missed completely. We listened to the same words, but we heard different messages. I’ve learned to not be surprised, and to look forward to the fresh perspective on the gospel as it is refracted through the intelligence and faith of my partner.
My co-bloggers Stapley and Knowlton have already addressed the way we Mormons define doctrine, and I have nothing to add. However, I would like to suggest that the process by which we relate to our doctrine requires us to be active participants in its interpretation. Doctrines that seem straightforward enough still require us to assign a relative priority and to decide how we will adjust our own lives to accommodate them. As J. Stapley has also made clear, in the game of doctrinal poker, First Presidency messages are aces. I agree, but will add that we seem to evaluate them, and to either discount or emphasize them. The purpose of this post is to inquire into how and why we do that.
Since January 2008, I can remember four letters from the First Presidency which were read in sacrament meeting:
1. A letter reminding us (again) to counsel with our local bishops and stake presidents and not write letters to general authorities.
2. A letter admonishing us (again) to attend our local political caucuses and participate in the political process.
3. A letter reminding us (again) that visual aids are not to be used in sacrament meeting, and also that speakers should not ask the congregation to open their scriptures and read along.
4. A letter about the definition of marriage which is to be read in California wards this Sunday.
Is one of these letters more important than the others? If so, how do we know? From my perspective, they all fit the pattern of counsel that gets repeated periodically, so they would all seem to be equally important. But I think almost all of us have a framework of understanding which we apply to these messages. For instance, I have never been to a caucus or mass meeting in my life, even though the First Presidency sends out a letter every election year exhorting me to attend. If this is an indicator of my apostasy, I guess I’ll have a lot of company in hell, because 99% of my fellow Mormons don’t attend, either. However, I usually try to participate in primary elections, which is more than can be said for most of the residents of Utah this past week. And while many U.S. Mormons discount item # 2 heavily, to the point of ignoring it completely, they consider their involvement with item # 4 a matter of personal faithfulness and a litmus test of obedience to the prophet. My point is that they may well be correct, but we cannot deduce that just from First Presidency statements. So how do we come up with that answer? I am interested in hearing how you explain this.
My own conclusion is that we inject a lot of ourselves into both the questions and the answers, whether we realize it or not. When the bishop read that speakers in church shouldn’t ask their listeners to open the scriptures and read along, I wanted to raise my right hand, shout Hallelujah!, and give a standing ovation, all at the same time. It is something that has bothered me for years, so I was glad to hear that the First Presidency sees things my way. I call upon all right-thinking members everywhere to join with Thomas S. Monson and me in stamping out the scriptures-in-sacrament-meeting heresy.