This post is a brief attempt to approach a question: How can perpetually sinful individuals trust that they have received revelation on behalf of another?
James Alison (a Catholic theologian) presents a broken-hearted ecclesiology which, according to Rosalynde Welch, means to ‘love the institution for what it gives to us and what it allows us to give’, but that we must ‘do so with a broken-hearted awareness of its imperfections’. Mormons can certainly find value in this approach and yet institutional differences require a supplement to this broken-hearted ecclesiology. An LDS ecclesiology must include how we, as lay members of the Church, are a constitutive part of that imperfect institution whilst simultaneously claiming that God can speak through us .
This claim is problematic because we are fallen and therefore susceptible to self-deception and distortion. This fall is not rectified merely through receiving certain ordinances and consequently, fallen people must struggle to respond to God’s voice as we make decisions about how to live. That struggle becomes even more complex when someone is called to receive revelation on behalf of another. Therefore, leaders must always be vigilant and careful in serving others or claiming revelation on their behalf.
According to the Stephen L. Richards, part of the genius of Mormonism is governance through councils. And yet, how does a council of fallen individuals function so that God can speak through that collective? Is it possible that God can move through us despite the sinful actions and impure motives that we bring to that council ?
Returning to Alison, he argues that (derived from Girard) ‘The desire of another directs our seeing’ . For example, ‘the other through whose eyes we are learning to see is the rivalistic other’ then what we can see is shaped by that relationship. If revelation is to see anew, through God’s eyes, then the interaction between ourselves and the desire of the Other must become a central feature of the revelatory process. Fallen individuals are embroiled in various assemblages of desire but Christ offers us a mechanism by which we can accept Him as the Other who directs our desire/seeing. Alison writes: ‘Our learning to see through Jesus’ eyes will eventually result in us desiring with Jesus’ heart’. What relevance does this insight offer in terms of thinking about revelation as leaders?
Foundational to the success of this ecclesiology is a collective commitment to bring about the coming of the Kingdom in the lives of members. It also requires a group who are seeking to have Christ reveal his will in them. This commitment, as noted above, is often seductively tainted with desire for success, acknowledgement and prestige. In short, our relationship with the other members in that council are often tainted with feelings of inadequacy, pride or, even, rivalry. This tainted commitment provides a willingness to settle for the impression of unanimity; an unanimity that is easily fractured because the group’s cohesion is built upon the failure or lack of recognition of Christ in those other people; rather the focus is upon our desire for prestige(?) as seen through them.
In practical terms, this process of accepting Christ as our primary Other requires time. Our ability to see anew is determined by our relations with those others in that council. ‘The desire of another [council member] will direct our seeing’ because we have not wholly taken Christ as our Other. Taking Christ as our Other in this context, I believe, requires being able to see Christ in those other members of the council . When our commitment to the Kingdom becomes more significant than any other desire we possess we may be prepared to receive God’s word through us.
The semi-permanent nature of most council meetings provides a context in which we are repeatedly forced to confront the limitations of our vision through the desire of another. This confrontation comes in part because we cannot avoid what otherwise might be fleeting glimpses of our corrupted desires. Although our lives involve varied relationships, all of which impact upon us, by bringing us again and again into that collective we are compelled to see our fallen selves through our inability to receive a lasting and committed unanimity. Councils, then, become the places where our hearts break and by which we are able, once again, to seek out Christ as the primary Other of our desire. It is in the process of seeking Christ out as this Other, and seeking him in the other people in the council, that we are able to see anew and receive revelation.
In this sense, the deadlock between two opposing viewpoints requires that both individuals move from that council with a renewed desire to repent and reconsider the other position in a willingness to seek God’s will. The disagreement becomes a call to repent rather than an opportunity to justify our position. As such when our hearts break in realisation of our own mixed motives we are better prepared to hear God’s word in seeking a divine unanimity.
Thus Alison’s view of a broken-hearted ecclesiology can be extended to a Mormon context and used to elaborate another way that we must inhabit the Church. Recognising the imperfections of the institution is also to recognise the imperfections in ourselves; which have become a constitutive part of that Church. A broken-hearted ecclesiology must be mixed, in Mormonism at least, with an ecclesiology for the fallen, which provides a way for us to receive revelation on behalf of another. It is also a call to respond with commitment and charity to those councils who struggle to hear the voice of God.
1. In using this phrase I work from the assumption, articulated by Philip Barlow, that ‘the Church is [not] essentially divine, marred only by the weakness of human administrators, but rather that the Church on earth consists entirely of human beings (with all of their limitations) who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have been touched’ (A Thoughtful Faith, p. 239)
2. This post is in part motivated by reading various accounts of First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve meetings. However, I feel that it also has relevance for how other councils (esp. disciplinary councils and perhaps some Presidencies) can function. I freely admit that there are also some councils that these ideas have less relevance for.
3. James Alison, On Being Liked, DLT: London.
4. Thanks to Ronan (and Brad) for this insight.