Queries toward Zion in the Wake of the Polygamy Essays

Reactions to the recent Gospel Topics essays on polygamy (here and here) have been widely varied, running on a spectrum from “WHAT?!” to *yawn*. The fact of this diversity raises some interesting questions, especially in light of Jesus’ statement “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” The point isn’t that we all should have had the same reaction (although there has been commentary to that effect); rather, the urgent question is whether we as members of the Church can come together in the face of such diversity—and if so, how.

Given such challenges, I think it more appropriate to pose questions than to offer answers. Positing answers before we really know the questions seems counterproductive, so let’s work together to try and clarify the stakes in this issue for us as a Church community that is (or at least should be) striving for Zion. This notwithstanding, I feel that I must put forward my own provisional answers at the end. Try them with charity, dear readers, which means taking the good and paying the bad nevermind. I’ll not object to the process of sifting that’s required to tell the difference between the two.

Also, in raising these questions I am thinking of the institutional Church, but I’m actually much more interested in how we as ordinary members interact with each other in the pews, on Facebook, and on our blogs. The diversity of responses to the polygamy essays shows that we, in many respects, are the institutional Church, because local conditions often affect our experiences and knowledge more than central directives.

These questions are necessarily abstract, but upon careful consideration I think that providing illustrative examples (as I did in an earlier draft of this post) would invite readjudication of those particular issues, thus distracting from the questions themselves. Besides, if you’re reading this, you can almost certainly think of examples of your own. I invite you to consider these questions in light of episodes from your own life and ponder how you might more effectively further the cause of Zion in future encounters. While my own efforts at building Zion (including this post) are assuredly imperfect, all I can promise is that I will keep striving to do better.

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1) What is the proper basis of Church unity? Is it assent to a certain set of propositions? Submission to hierarchical authority? Participation in Church worship? Profession of spiritual witness?

1a) What is the proper basis of Church unity if we disagree about what the proper basis of Church unity ought to be (as I suspect we are likely to do)? A version of this question applies to all that follow: since these are fundamental questions (or are at least trying to be), how do we handle the fact that we as members of the Church are liable to answer them differently? Is there a way for us to be one even if that is the case?

2) How much attention to the nitty-gritty details of Church history does unity require? I think that we can all agree that both requiring a catechism on the particulars of Joseph Smith’s polygamy and ignoring the topic altogether would be mistakes, so where, in the space between, does the balance lie?

2a) In aiming to strike this balance, how do we account for the fact that different people have different attitudes to the subject and different needs regarding it? All have a similar claim on Zion.

3) Given that individual personalities and circumstances imbue us with different perspectives, how might we balance expressing our perspectives with the obligation to be open to how others think and feel? Worthy contributions can emerge from the full range of perspectives.

3a) Put another way, how do we resist the importation of the American culture wars into our Church community (especially given that a majority of Church members live outside the US)? How do we keep our interactions with other members of the Church from resembling partisan disputes?

3b) In particular, given the continuation of sealing practices that enable men to have multiple wives for eternity (as acknowledged in the first essay), how do we make room for women’s complex, diverse responses to polygamy past, present, and future? Going beyond awareness, how can these responses carry due weight in our culture? How can we resist our tendency to keep women’s voices within the bounds of certain prescribed roles?

4) How do we honor the authority of those we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators while allowing that they, like we, are prone to human error?

4a) How do we handle differences of opinion about which actions of our leaders are inspired and which result from human error?

4b) How do we sustain local leaders with whom we have differences of opinion?

4c) How should we navigate the tension between centralized authority and personal revelation (allowing that the latter is rather shallow if it only serves to rubber-stamp the former)?

5) How, in practice, do we show love toward people with whom we disagree?

5a) Especially, how do we do this when the people in question seem to be assaulting cherished beliefs?

5b) Given the advice in D&C 121 about how to correct others in love, how do we decide when correction is needed and appropriate? How do we keep ourselves from exercising unrighteous dominion over others?

5c) How do we show those with whom we disagree that our heaven would be incomplete without them? How do we come to believe this ourselves?

6) What have these questions failed to see?

Before I come to my provisional answers, here is some music to accompany your own reflection on these questions (HT Kristine). The text is from John 13:34.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyqdRfRXKW0]

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Here are my own first efforts at imagining practical ways of addressing these questions. In putting forward answers, I acknowledge that any such attempt is inevitably partisan in some respect. Accordingly, I may be making demands on the charity of others that I cannot repay, so I ask your forbearance.

I believe that the only possible basis for unity can be a commitment to the project of Zion. This commitment will produce different actions in different people, and these actions will sometimes seem at odds with each other. Indeed, they may go beyond seeming to actually being at odds with each other, but the baseline commitment to Zion can, no doubt with difficulty, at least provide some assurance that the people with whom we disagree are acting in good faith.

I believe that the world is a chaos, tending toward entropy. I believe, in other words, that life is weighted towards death. It falls to us, then, to choose life, and I believe that choosing life means taking the dark materials around us and constructing what beauty we can to fling into the void. Because the void devours all, we must make more and more beauty. In a twist on the ontological argument for the existence of God, I believe that Zion is the apotheosis of human beauty. Can we rebel against our persistent drive to foist petty squabbles upon our fellow saints and then sustain the rebellion over time?

I believe that in constructing beauty we have to take it wherever we can get it. That emphatically includes other people. If we cannot see the beauty in them we are robbing ourselves, betraying the spark of divinity in them, and failing Zion. This, though, is the hardest thing of all, because it is so very easy to hate, to disregard, and to dismiss.

I believe that people and relationships are more important than propositions and principles. We ought to maintain human connection at almost any cost except the fundamental dignity that enables our connections in the first place. In every person there is enough of the void to justify separation and even violent rejection, but we need to rebel against that and see beauty in them, however improbable it may be. In fact I believe that human connection is the most important and most durable form of beauty.

And I believe that if we are bent on making beauty, and if we insist on letting others know the beauty that we see, that then and only then can we kindle such a love as will set the whole world aflame.

Comments

  1. Wow. Those are tough questions. What comes to mind (broadly speaking to the whole) is “Lord, is it I?” If every single person sincerely asked, “Might I be in the wrong?” and sincerely considered how the opposite view might – just might – be right, it’d go a long way toward mending partisan division and pride and a host of other unhappy tensions.

  2. Thank you for this thought-provoking challenge. This question in particular–“How much attention to the nitty-gritty details of Church history does unity require?”–has prompted a tangent that I may attempt to develop into its own post.

  3. Jen K. Yes, I had that scripture very much in mind when writing this. It’s very easy to say, “Lord, it is somebody else,” and calls for civility and charity often have exactly that partisan edge to them. I was trying very hard to avoid that in this post. Maybe I succeeded, maybe not, but at least I tried.

    Peter: I look forward to reading your extended thoughts on the subject!

  4. Bro. Jones says:

    “I believe that the world is a chaos, tending toward entropy. I believe, in other words, that life is weighted towards death. It falls to us, then, to choose life, and I believe that choosing life means taking the dark materials around us and constructing what beauty we can to fling into the void. Because the void devours all, we must make more and more beauty. In a twist on the ontological argument for the existence of God, I believe that Zion is the apotheosis of human beauty. Can we rebel against our persistent drive to foist petty squabbles upon our fellow saints and then sustain the rebellion over time?”

    I love this. I spoke to this thought when I taught Gospel Doctrine on Sunday. I said, “Yes yes, the world is going mad and signs of the times, but truly I don’t think most of us in this room–or any of us–will be alive to see the Second Coming in the flesh. If that’s true, then we need to build Zion with the hope of Christ’s return, not allow madness and despair to take hold and just figure Jesus will fix it all when He shows up.”

  5. I think that too often we dismiss the possibility that those who are not formerly called as Apostles, can and do act as a prophet and prophetess. While it seems that we begrudgingly acknowledge this, it is usually only in the context of discussing callings, formal duties that we have been asked to do or direct family obligations. I think that the false walls we put up show up most clearly when we talk of prophecy, but those same walls are there, just less easily seen, in almost all Mormon interactions. I believe those walls are what keep us from approaching Zion.

    As long as those walls rule our social and spiritual interactions, we have agreed to have half of our Zion shackled by the lack of opportunity to inform and shape the programs and theology of the church. As long as the “prosperity gospel” is modeled, if not outright taught, in our wards and stakes, we are giving up the striving for equality for all who live among us. We choose to be of the world, but not in it, a basic perversion of the real commandment.

    When we let politics from any particular country slip politically divisiveness into our wards, and teach politics as doctrine, using proof text quotes to backup whatever we believe politically, we are cutting off the Savior, mid-thought, so that we can go back to our bickering. When we choose to stop associating with people who are different than us, we have already moved down the road away from Christ and His followers.

    I don’t know how much this helps, if at all.

  6. juliathepoet: I agree that a more universalized idea of prophecy is important to Zion. Key texts for me in this regard are Numbers 11:29, where Moses says, “Would that all the Lord God’s people were prophets,” and Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 14, where he talks about the prophets prophesying in turn and then judging each other’s contributions by the spirit of prophecy. I find that a lovely vision for what a church community can be.

  7. All of these are excellent questions Jason and provoke deep introspection that hopefully lead to loving dialogues with the those we call sisters and brothers.

    I agree that fundamentally, relationships are prime. By that I mean that they should both be first in value and priority. But in pursuing and considering them we should seek to become as a prime number, only divisible by one, meaning our Savior with whom we seek atonement. For is that not what Zion is, to be of one heart and one mind?

    Now that said, I think in the modern Church the greatest challenge to this project Zion has and will continue to come from differing interpretations and weights of importance to the answers in your question and sub-questions number four:

    4) How do we honor the authority of those we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators while allowing that they, like we, are prone to human error?

    4a) How do we handle differences of opinion about which actions of our leaders are inspired and which result from human error?

    4b) How do we sustain local leaders with whom we have differences of opinion?

    4c) How should we navigate the tension between centralized authority and personal revelation (allowing that the latter is rather shallow if it only serves to rubber-stamp the former)?

    It will always come back to who is in charge? And how do we balance individual stewardship, direct relationships with our Heavenly Parents, and kinship with our Savior with the expectation to sustain our prophetically / divinely called leadership?

    Where does sustaining diverge from disagreeing? Is there a space for faithful disagreement without devolving into apostasy? I would argue there is but not all will see it that way. Where does asking questions diverge from advocating expectations? Is there such a principle as faithful advocacy for change? Again, I would argue there is but there is no apparent vehicle above the local level for accomplishing this. Is it true that we can knock and ask God but we cannot directly ask the Prophet due to the structure of the modern Church?

    And unlike politics, while all lived Mormon life is local, not all influences to that lived experience are.

  8. 3) Given that individual personalities and circumstances imbue us with different perspectives, how might we balance expressing our perspectives with the obligation to be open to how others think and feel? Worthy contributions can emerge from the full range of perspectives.

    3a) Put another way, how do we resist the importation of the American culture wars into our Church community (especially given that a majority of Church members live outside the US)? How do we keep our interactions with other members of the Church from resembling partisan disputes?

    3b) In particular, given the continuation of sealing practices that enable men to have multiple wives for eternity (as acknowledged in the first essay), how do we make room for women’s complex, diverse responses to polygamy past, present, and future? Going beyond awareness, how can these responses carry due weight in our culture? How can we resist our tendency to keep women’s voices within the bounds of certain prescribed roles?

    Jason, these are such good and important questions! I wish every Mormon could read and ponder them. This post is, truly, emblematic of that which is virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy about Mormonism. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on these contemporary issues!

  9. Can we rebel against our persistent drive to foist petty squabbles upon our fellow saints and then sustain the rebellion over time?

    Poignant rhetorical question that I think I will be pondering for some time. Again, thank you.

  10. Gilliam: you’re quite right to draw attention to the authority questions, and the way that they push us to live on the local level. I think that the ramifications of our authoritative structure receive too little attention in so-called liberal (“so-called” because I hate the label, however useful it may be) attempts to articulate what is beautiful about Mormonism.

    john f.: I’m glad you appreciate those questions, and I’d be quite interesting in hearing your responses to them.

  11. The polygamy issue (3b) is complex precisely because of authority issues (4 and 4a). Joseph claimed divine origin for the doctrine of polygamy. This puts it automatically in a different category than the race issue, which (when the church dug into it) did not have divine origin. The church could safely chalk it up human error (4). Polygamy, if divinely instituted, cannot ever be labeled a mistake in the eyes of the church. It can be argued that it was a command for that time period alone, but not a mistake. I’ve argued with my husband that you can still label the original command as divine, but admit that the implementation of the program was flawed by human error. In my husband’s view they are one and the same — if the command was divine, the implementation by definition cannot be a mistake (which brings us to issue 4a).

    Issues 2 and 2a – some people care about history and some people don’t. To people who see no connection between history and matters of faith, you will never be able to force them to care about details of dead people. These people won’t have crises of faith over scriptural historicity, evolution, polygamy, or race. For those who care about history and believe that it enhances their religious beliefs, this apathetic view is just foreign. It doesn’t have to do with culture, upbringing, or whatever — this is an individual personality issue. How much the church as an institution focuses on history (emphasizing accuracy vs. only the comfortable facts) will depend a large part on the personality of whoever’s in charge. What you get in your church classes depends on who the teacher is (regardless of what the manual says). A teacher that likes history will give you nitty gritty details. A teacher that doesn’t will spend more time with spiritual application.

  12. Excellent points, Mary Ann. The authority issues really are the heart of this. For me, I see no other way than to believe in the possibility of well-intentioned error. I believe this because I commit such errors all the time. :)

    I think that you’re right about teachers (I teach GD with only the barest recourse to the manual). In the end I believe that we’re just not going to get it right all or maybe even most of the time. The least we can do is try to be mindful of the needs of others, while also trying to express our truths (i.e., conundrum number 3).