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.