Does God need us to experiment more with His word?

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the question of who said a statement is often more essential than the merit of the statement’s contents in determining whether or not that statement will be received as authoritative.  Our prophet is authorized to receive revelation for the church in a way that individual members are not, and while many of the things he says and we accept as doctrine are inspired and thus have high content merit, it is probable that we also canonize comments that he did not intend to be accepted as doctrine.   Due to the potential for each of the prophet’s words to take on doctrinal weight that can impact the course of Mormonism, the prophet and other authorities whose words carry similar degrees of weight must necessarily be restrained in their speaking in order to prevent the canonization of mere speculation, personal opinion, or off the cuff remarks.

But while church authorities must operate within a context that requires restraint, common church members face few serious consequences when they publicly express, create, and invent new ways of viewing their religion.  In a sense, common members are more free than church leadership to follow or experiment with new,  intriguing intellectual and gospel paths.  This leads me to a thought: In order for the gospel to become more complete and for us to reach our fullest understanding, do God and his prophets need common church members like us to experiment more upon the word by talking about and imagining our own religious stories in order to create a context in which the prophet can eventually ask the questions common members raise and which good ideas can be discovered?  In other words, do common members need to motivate revelation by asking questions and writing new stories that can eventually shape our religious moment and give the prophet a context to respond to? 

On a recent post, Mark A. Clifford wrote a comment that has stuck with me and motivated me to write this post:   “As wonderful as Latter-day Saintism is as a religion, it is by far more awesome as an enactment. Joseph Smith, instead of merely being “the Prophet”, is also the “way to be a prophet.” His revelations can be understood to describe, and thereby limit, what is true. But for me they do not function best in that role. Rather, they are meant to show the way to know. And they invite us to become “prophetic knowers” ourselves. They activate the imagination, which is an essentially religious faculty.”

Mark’s words speak beautifully for themselves.  And if we accept his paradigm, then maybe future revelation depends less on knowing well what we already have and waiting for the prophet to ask for and receive revelation than it does on us following Joseph Smith’s example by inquiring of God and writing our own religious stories that might one day pave the way for new scripture–or even become scripture.  To put it in simpler terms, if we really were acting upon the knowledge God already revealed to us, then wouldn’t we be following Joseph Smith’s lead and asking for more?

Comments

  1. Arrrrgh! Last year some guy commented on your blog about a painting he had seen where one of the Magi was wearing clothing native to Brazil. I need to learn more about this painting but i can’t find any information. One wouldve thought this would have been of some interest to Mormons. But did any of you guys bother to ask him about the painting or have him elaborate? NO! Man, you guys really dropped the ball on this one. You’re all fired. FIRED!

  2. Paul’s experiment is probably not what you were asking about … though the process of preaching a sermon to see what the Spirit confirms and what it does not is an interesting thing to do once in a while …

    Brigham Young and others seemed to indicate that new truth would come to us only if we did not wait for the prophets but were seeking and learning it on our own.

    if we really were acting upon the knowledge God already revealed to us, then wouldn’t we be following Joseph Smith’s lead and asking for more?

    Indeed.

  3. Paul (1.)-
    You bring up a very poignant, profound concern with this post.

  4. Well, I think I recently experienced this phenomenon on BBC. Remember the poll about gender being eternal? I commented how at one point in my life I struggled with that question. I pondered (alot!) and prayed about it. After time I received a gentle warm reassurance answering my question. Yes, I shared that personal knowledge with others. It was my own personal revelation. Decades later the language of the Proclamation on the Family supported, and in my mind validated, the inspiration I had received. But in the wonderful dialogue and comments on this blog, other strongly disagreed with what I wrote. I’m okay with that but it does support the notion you mentioned that it all depends upon WHO says something. Seeking truth and arriving at a consensus at what is truth to guide our lives are important but different pursuits. I will follow the Prophet. I will follow my own inspiration — but pray about it constantly to reaffirm what I know, but it really depends upon what is said as to whether I can/will follow the inspiration/revelation of another. It seems an important component of all of us continually seeking new revelation is our willingness to KNOW and follow the revelation that we’ve already been given. I believe that if we read, study and ponder the scriptures as well as our modern prophets to a sufficient degree — I have no idea how we’d measure that point — THEN the Lord can give us more revelation. Why would He give us more if we don’t utilize what we already have? And, on an individual basis we all should be experimenting on the Word for what it means in our individual lives. And oftentimes just living our life trying to obey the commandments is what the experimenting is really all about.

  5. Do we create an environment in which people feel free to “experiment on the word”? The bloggernacle has lots of intriguing ideas and idea-makers, I think, but how do these people act in more orthodox settings? Some of our “idea-makers” have found themselves facing disciplinary councils for suggesting such ideas as a possible female gender for the Holy Ghost. Is there a perceived limit to how far we may “experiment”? If so, is the real answer to just go anonymous on Bycommonconsent?

  6. I think this makes a lot of sense and would like to see it developed further. I think it would need to be done carefully, however. Our religious tradition differs from Buddhism, for example, where the different “types” of Buddhism all talk about leading to the same goal, but are just different paths of reaching the goal. Our religion is much more “correlated” and doesn’t seem to welcome much “unorthodox” teaching.

    It would be a wonderful idea, however…

  7. Thanks Natalie, this is very intriguing! Margaret’s comments make me wonder what happens when we disagree about our visions and get incompatible answers to our questions. I have very opinionated views on things like evolution, that I’ve actually felt directed towards throughout my life. However, there is a vocal contingent of the blogosphere that sees me as fallen. It is vital we make room for differences if we do have different revelations. How to accommodate this I do not know.

  8. Can there be two different, seemingly opposing revelations and both be true? I’m with SteveP on evolution, but not as public as he in my stated views. And when I’ve written on homosexuality, I’ve disallowed comments because I know how controversial that subject is–and worse, how much unChristian dialogue it seems to generate. I’m wondering, for example, how SteveP would accommodate the views of those who see him as “fallen” within his paradigm. Is there room for a portion of their vision of truth? At what point do we say, “You have now moved into darkness”?

  9. SteveP is fallen. I think we can all agree on that one.

    Beyond that, there aren’t a lot of points that are so absolutely and so completely understood that there isn’t need for a healthy helping of humility. While supporting evolution as the mechanism for life having developed on earth, I’ll bet SteveP would be the last man to insist that he fully understood the process and the extent to which it may have been divinely directed or even set in motion. I admit I don’t understand R. Gary’s opposing view, since he merely asserts and never explains, but it’s possible that even he would admit that there are details he doesn’t fully understand. There’s room between the two views for there to be truth that we don’t yet have and that would fully resolve the difficulties. In fact, I’m counting on it.

    Beyond a small set of absolutes (e.g., Jesus Christ is the Son of God, whose Atonement was essential to our salvation), just about everything is open to some degree of interpretation. If the conflicting answers received by individuals are all from God, I have no problem accepting that they’re both true, with some missing, coordinating idea that would resolve the conflicts. I also have no problem believing that such conflicting answers are not all from God, or equally well interpreted.

  10. Beautifully put, Ardis (except the part about SteveP’s fallen condition–which is still up for debate). I have a testimony of the atonement but consider that I understand only a fraction of what it ultimately means or how it functions. I love reading others’ insights. Kent White, for example, has sent me his musings (I think they’re on newcoolthang) and opened my eyes to many possibilities. I’ve shared those insights with my husband, who has then gone on to pursue further implications. Wonderful ways to “experiment on the word.”

  11. My first reaction to this is to say that I think it is “experiment on the word” not “experiment with the word”. Big difference.

    It seems to me that experimenting with the word=philosophies of man, mingled with scripture.

  12. And to add to that, there is a place for mingling the philosophies of man with scripture in the course of trying to understand, so long as it is remembered that it IS the philosophy of man, and not scripture itself, and is not taught as such.

  13. Latter-day Guy says:

    “Do we create an environment in which people feel free to “experiment on the word”?”

    That depends on who is currently serving on the “Strengthening Church Members Committee.” :)

  14. Thomas Parkin says:

    “To put it in simpler terms, if we really were acting upon the knowledge God already revealed to us, then wouldn’t we be following Joseph Smith’s lead and asking for more?”

    Ab-so-freakin-lutely. ~

  15. Fallen, but not knocked out. :)

    Ardis your point is exactly right. I don’t claim to see anything but the physical processes implied by the evidence. There are deep metaphysics that I can’t even touch. Except through faith. I think R. Gary and I would agree on your set of absolutes. And I like your description of missing coordinating idea that would bring them together in another dimension. In fact, this must be true. I think the facts of the universe and the revelations both are true. Just because I can’t put them together completely yet does not mean they can’t be. It is an act of faith (I hope) that things will be worked out in the end, but we don’t need to reject one or the other. I’m a “Both/And” believer on evolution and our Faith.

    For me it all comes down to the commandment to ‘Love.’ Others will have different views, but if we have given into ceasing to love them. Then we are lost. I think we need to keep in mind we are all fallible. That we might be completely wrong in our view of things, as might our neighbor, is always a possibility. That’s were humility comes in and recognizing the “differences in administration” when it comes to personal revelation.

  16. Latter-day Guy says:

    RE 11,

    That is an interesting concept, SR. However, I have often felt that God is limited in what he can reveal to us by our lack of imagination. That’s not to say that we get to invent doctrine, but if we aren’t able to envision things outside of our current paradigm, then how able are we to receive paradigm-shifting revelation? I suspect a “this is the way it’s always been!” attitude puts the breaks on many blessings the Lord is willing to give us.

  17. Thomas Parkin says:

    “That is an interesting concept, SR. However, I have often felt that God is limited in what he can reveal to us by our lack of imagination.”

    We are really limited to receiving what is just across our own personal horizon. I suppose that someone without much imagination has got a limit on their horizon. But those of us with more florid imaginations have a different problem. Troubles enough to go around!! Which is why, though I think we should ask for knowledge in the areas that interest, trouble and excite us, and expect to receive sooner rather than much later, we need to also be actively looking for and be open to receive simply whatever it is that comes next for us.

    “I suspect a “this is the way it’s always been!” attitude puts the breaks on many blessings the Lord is willing to give us.”

    The man with one talent is the metaphor I come back to all the time. Especially, “I knew that thou were a hard man …” ~

  18. “In order for the gospel to become more complete and for us to reach our fullest understanding, do God and his prophets need common church members like us to experiment more upon the word by talking about and imagining our own religious stories in order to create a context in which the prophet can eventually ask the questions common members raise and which good ideas can be discovered?”

    Yes. Sadly, we are now more practiced at being a record keeping people than an experimenting people.

  19. Maybe I’m one of those limited by my imagination, but I can’t help but think this sort of thing has been going on for some time, especially when the membership chooses something different than the church leadership.

    For example, many LDS voted to repeal prohibition, against Pres. Grant’s admonitions. Dealt a major blow to organized crime, but a lot of society’s demons are nourished by alcohol. The brethren used to say birth control was a crime, but gradually the members chose to use it (many prayerfully, I’m sure). The brethren now claim the number of children couples have is between them and the Lord. ‘Course, the church isn’t growing like it used to, either. The civil rights movement pushed and pushed, and ordinary members began to think denying the priesthood to blacks made no sense. The brethren took it to the Lord, and Pres. Kimball received the revelation.

    California’s Prop 8 has really stimulated thinking amongst the membership, and the divide is really starting to show. On the one hand, our theology views gay marriage as a dead end, but on the other hand, we have a substantial group of members who feel the church has little to offer them other than an unfulfilling and possibly unwinnable struggle for celibacy. Practising Mormons have claimed spiritual affirmation for both sides of this argument, and rather than simply dismissing those in conflict with the church leadership as apostates, remember there were many who claimed personal revelation that blacks would get the priesthood before the OD. Personally, I have agonized over this Prop 8 dilemma, but have received no personal revelation, so I stick with the apostles.

    My point is that I think our people aren’t static. They are experimenting on the word. One could argue they’re not using their imaginations but following societal trends, but they’re definitely seeking the Lord’s guidance.

  20. LdG—I don’t know if it IS a lack of imagination, exactly. I have had times of great enlightenment when I hadn’t first envisioned the truth. I don’t think imagination is a prerequisite to revelation.

    But what do I know? I have too much imagination, so I have no basis of comparison.

  21. #19–Experimenting on the word in considering birth control… I’m sure, as Martin suggests, that people prayed over their birth control. I surely did. (“Dear Lord, don’t let this fail…”) I do remember talking to my SP as I prepared to get married, and asking him about birth control. He was a family therapist, and pulled a book from his shelves, opened it to the chapter on birth control and started identifying which methods worked and which were less reliable. This was in 1979. Experimenting indeed.

  22. SilverRain, yeah, I can see what you mean. Perhaps “imagination” is a poor word to describe what I’m trying to get at.

    As a thought experiment, I find it helpful to try to imagine my reaction if, during the next General Conference, the Prophet were to reveal something truly unexpected, something outside of what I can reasonably see in the future of the Church. Things like a mission/temple in China or polygamy being reinstated aren’t “out there” enough for this (well, polygamy might be). Let’s say, they announce that homosexuals are now to be accepted fully as members of the Church and that they can be sealed––that homosexuality is part of a soul’s eternal destiny, and that it will not interfere with deification. The prophet adds, “Forget everything I have said, or what… whomsoever has said [in the Proclamation on the Family]…that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”

    Now, what is the reaction in the body of the Church? Of course, I think that the reaction would vary from individual to individual, but on the whole (at least according to most of the members I know) I think that there would be shock and no small amount of rage. I can imagine that many would leave the Church over such a thing.

    This is not to say that I think that any such revelation will ever happen. But I feel that––for the sake of the members of the Church––there may be things the Lord is willing to reveal, but He does not as the cost would be too great. The members cannot envision such a change within the “only true and living church.”

    Does that make any more sense? It’s not exactly “imagination,” but something similar perhaps.

  23. I’m much more skeptical of the idea of scripture writers than I am, perhaps, of scripture makers or scripture finders. The difference would be in the discovery of new records, or in the creation of new records because members of the Church are building Zion and records of our deeds become necessary–as opposed to this idea of writing a story and having it become scripture. That is perhaps a very Gnostic idea, but it only leads to more apocrypha, not scripture. Which isn’t to say that apocrypha doesn’t have truth to it, or isn’t important. But what makes something scripture, authoritative and binding scripture, is whether or not we will be judged from it. (Someone please correct me if I’m wrong about that.) To be frank, I doubt anything we could write in our day would be worth that much.

    I think that members of the Church have been asking for more scripture for a long time, and I think that the Lord has a way of ignoring such requests when they’re based on the wrong question. It’s entirely possible that the reason we haven’t gotten more scripture is because we aren’t doing anything scripture worthy at the moment–which I think is a crucial part of your premise. If we were following Joseph Smith’s example and asking for revelation, we would be told to follow his example and build Zion. I think if we were doing that, the scripture would be rolling in because 1. we would need it, and 2. it might even be about us.

  24. “Does God need us to experiment more with His word?”

    Yes – but experimentation requires careful consideration, purposeful planning and a willingness to change one’s mind and understanding when experiments fail (or succeed unexpectedly) – and a willingness to fail in the first place.

    Honestly, I’m not sure how many members (even those who frequent sites like this) are willing to do all of that – and whatever else it takes to perform real experiments. The purposeful planning of experimentation with the word alone is not something I see much – and, frankly, not something I did in a focused, intentional manner the first 40 years of my life.

  25. Natalie, If you are saying new Church Revelation or understanding, now needs to start from the bottom up, I don’t think Mormonism was/is built that way. Can you give an example where the FP listened to the General Membership, and made a change?
    Personal revelation questions OK ( should I sell my house?), Church revelation questions (Is there gender in Heaven?) should still be handled at the top. (MHO)

  26. Steve Evans says:

    Paradox, the notion of scripture as a basis of judgment is just one of many possible approaches. I’d try reading J. Reuben Clark’s old 1954 saw, “When Are Church Leader’s Words Entitled to Claim of Scripture?”

  27. aloysiusmiller says:

    25. Bob, I cannot agree. There are so many unanswered questions that we are entitled to know but each according to our capacity. One of our huge mistakes is limiting revelation to what job to take and what ward to live in. We are entitled to know the mysteries of godliness. Read D&C 76:114-118. We are entitled to know all the things Joseph Smith was forbidden to write in his great revelation on the three degrees of glory if we purify ourselves and seek the knowledge for ourselves.

  28. Latter-day Guy says:

    25; Easy, Bob — Two piece garments. They were the result of a one-woman letter campaign to the 1st Presidency (years of letters!). Also, from what I understand, the 1990 changes to the endowment ceremony were preceded by polls of the membership. I’m sure there are many other cases in which HQ has responded to the needs/desires/requests/opinions of members. Just because it is the one true church doesn’t mean that there is only one true way for it to run. I suspect that there are many possibilities and that (as in everything else) the Lord responds to the ways in which the general membership and the Brethren choose to exercise their agency.

  29. #28: Thank you for your reply…you are one of today’s winners!

  30. oops, wrong blogger. sorry. You can have your jobs back.

  31. As far as I know, God never said to experiment on/with His words. Alma told the penitent Zoramites to try “an experiment upon my words” (Alma’s) by planting them as seeds in their hearts in order to find out if they were “good seeds” or not. In other words, the experiment was specific-to see what happens when the word of God is given a place in a sufficiently humble and contrite heart, and then nurtured and tended-an investigation Alma sensed that a certain portion of the population was finally ready for.

    “if we really were acting upon the knowledge God already revealed to us, then wouldn’t we be following Joseph Smith’s lead and asking for more?”

    Because “new” revelations are not declared regularly to the “Church body” as a whole, many people assume that active revelation isn’t happening. But those who are personally acting upon the knowledge God has already revealed are receiving revelations as fast as they are prepared to handle them. Like Joseph Smith, as they feast upon the words of God they gain deeper scriptural understanding. As their faith grows stronger, they are blessed with profound spiritual experiences. They are living proof that Alma’s experiment not only results in enlightenment and expansion of the mind, but in the sweet, pure, delicious fruit that ends spiritual hunger and thirst.

    Joseph Smith, as well as other people historically, received numerous revelations that he could not share because others were not yet prepared to hear them. The Lord taught that “the mysteries of the kingdom ye shall keep within yourselves”.

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