“It’s the MOST WONderful TIIIME of the YEARRRRRR.” The leaves are starting to change color. The evenings and mornings are a bit crisper. Even the birds’ singing suddenly sounds sweeter than ever.
General Conference must be coming this weekend.
Twice a year, I can’t help formulating hopes and expectations, or making predictions about what we might hear in the next General Conference. There are a few things that are givens. We can expect to hear spiritual messages that transcend the issues discussed most often on LDS blogs. We can expect to hear speakers relate sincere, heart-felt experiences that bring comfort to those who are struggling with loneliness, loss, sickness, guilt, or feelings of inadequacy. Those are messages I know I can expect to hear every conference. But the anticipation that slowly builds in my mind over the couple weeks before Conference is whether we will hear anything about the issues typically discussed in the Bloggernacle by those for whom the Church is more than a religion or a lifestyle, and who make a hobby out of studying Mormonism from an academic standpoint.
Major changes in the Church have been announced at General Conferences in the past, and when the Ninth Article of Faith tells us that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” I can’t help wondering whether any of those “great and important things” will come out this Conference.
I invite you to express your own hopes, expectations, and predictions for this coming General Conference in the comment section below. But before doing so, I’d like to share with you a few of mine.
1. Consensus and Clarity About the Nature of Revelation
I have come to believe we are a bit schizophrenic in the Church when it comes to defining and explaining what “revelation” is, particularly as it applies to revelations received by the Prophets and Apostles. Some Church leaders and members seem to view revelation as a process whereby God transmits his exact thoughts and words directly to the Prophet, who then passes them on to us without any human interference or input, such that revelations handed down by the Prophets are completely free from any human considerations (e.g. economic, political) in their origin, and completely free from any human error in the Prophet’s perception and interpretation of what he believes God told him. Some LDS apologists have referred to this version of revelation as reflecting a “fundamentalist” mindset, so for the sake of ease I’ll refer to this as the “Fundamentalist Version” of revelation. The Fundamentalist Version of revelation is usually presented when Church leaders are trying to create unity and motivate members to rally around a particular program or policy and carry it out without question or challenge. The Fundamentalist Version creates compliance and squashes dissent because if we view revelation as a pure transmission of God’s will devoid of any human imperfections, then members will feel no room to question or refuse to comply, and Church leaders will feel divinely justified in reprimanding and punishing those who do. A few examples of scriptures or quotes used to support the Fundamentalist Version of revelation are: “whether it be from my mouth or the mouth of my servants, it is the same” or “the Prophet will never lead us astray.” And when something the Prophet says or does seems not to make sense, the scripture “[God’s] ways are higher than [man’s] ways” is often invoked, the implication being that if what the Prophet says or does doesn’t make sense, it must be because it is one of those “higher” divine truths, rather than because the Prophet has made a human error. The Fundamentalist Version of revelation seems simple, clear, and provides a feeling of comfort and safety to people looking for a reliable guide to help them navigate through the perils and uncertainties of the world. But this Fundamentalist Version of revelation also has a significant downside: it creates an image of Prophets as being men who do not err in their revelations, so when people encounter evidence that seems to overwhelmingly demonstrate that Prophets past and present have erred, this Fundamentalist Version of revelation provides no framework to reconcile those obvious human errors with the belief that so-and-so was a genuine Prophet of God. In other words, the Fundamentalist Version of revelation creates the expectation that Prophets and their revelations are infallible, because despite the occasional acknowledgements of prophetic fallibility in theory, telling people that whatever the Prophet says is what God says creates an illusion of prophetic infallibility in practice. As a result, when Church members who embrace the Fundamentalist Version of revelation encounter convincing proof of human error in the statements or actions of Prophets (and if the Internet provides us an accurate glimpse, there are many such people) they become disillusioned and stop believing in the concept of revelation altogether.
However, there is another version of revelation within the Church, one which has long existed alongside this Fundamentalist Version in our scripture and in Church leaders’ statements. And because it has become so popular with LDS Apologists, we could call it the Apologist Version of revelation. In the Apologist Version, revelation is understood to be a collaborative process between a perfect, omniscient God and imperfect men with limited understanding who “see through a glass, darkly.” In the Apologist Version, we understand that revelation is a transmission of divine knowledge oftentimes received as somewhat vague “impressions” that can be misperceived and misinterpreted by fallible men who have cultural biases, human passions, political and economic considerations, and pride. As a result, we hope and expect that revelations will usually reflect God’s will on at least a general level, but we recognize that sometimes those revelations will err in their specifics, or (hopefully rarely) be wrong altogether. This version of revelation is usually presented in the context of apologetics when responding to uncomfortable evidence that seems to conclusively demonstrate that the statements or policies of past or present Prophets and Apostles have been in error. Thus, the Apologist Version of revelation is often used to persuade someone that he should not lose his testimony of Joseph Smith as a Prophet because it allows someone like Joseph Smith to inadvertently mix human errors into his revelations and still be a Prophet. In support of this version of revelation, apologists cite the acknowledgments in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants that God’s servants “err” in ways that are eventually “made known” but that their revelations should be heeded nonetheless. Or we find the Apologist Version of revelation in Joseph Smith’s famous quotes that “some revelations are from God, some are from man, and some are from the devil” or that “a prophet is only a prophet when he speaks as a prophet.” The overall idea presented in this version of revelation is that it sometimes contains human errors, and therefore we ought to expect to find such errors without losing our testimony of Church leaders’ prophetic callings when we do. Of course, the drawback of the Apologist Version of revelation from the perspective a Church leader is that it causes some Church members to feel free to doubt, question, challenge, or refuse to comply with the Prophet’s purported revelations on the grounds that they reflect the will of man rather than the will of God. And such doubting and dissent is a hindrance to administrative effectiveness in any organization.
Because I see these two different versions of revelation existing within the Church, anytime the subject of revelation comes up in a talk, either directly or indirectly, my ears always perk up and I listen closely to which version is being presented: the Fundamentalist Version or the Apologist Version. Overall, it’s my feeling that the Fundamentalist Version of revelation is most often presented in sermons and lessons by both Church leaders and members, with a sprinkling of the Apologist Version from time to time, such as when uncomfortable situations arise where it become necessary to acknowledge prophetic error in attempt to save someone from losing his testimony altogether. However, I think anyone who has been paying attention to FARMS, FAIR, and the Church’s media and public affairs departments have good cause to believe that the Apologist Version of revelation is becoming more popular and is being invoked more frequently, perhaps in an effort to stem the flow of folks losing their testimonies over troublesome episodes in Church history that seem to reflect human error in Church leadership. So with the Church’s media and public affairs folks quoting apologists with seemingly increasing frequency, I am constantly curious to see whether and when the Apologist Version of revelation will become the dominant version of revelation presented by Church leaders at General Conference.
Very briefly, four more issues I’m always wondering whether will be addressed:
2. A clearly-worded, official repudiation of the statements made by past Church leaders to support the pre-1978 priesthood ban for African Americans. The policy changed in 1978, but there was never an accompanying clear, official renunciation of the many statements that past Church leaders had made to support it. Many of those statements are still sitting on Church members’ bookshelves at home. And when people ask the understandable question of why the ban was ever instituted in the first place, those old statements, some of which are extremely hurtful, are sometimes trotted out by misguided members. We know a committee was formed to draft such a statement several years ago, and there were high hopes such a statement would be presented at the 20-year and 30-year anniversaries of the rescission of that ban, but it didn’t come. Will it come this Conference?
3. Will we receive messages aimed at preparing Church members to continue to generously donate their time and money to support legislation to prevent Same-Sex Marriage? Or will the negative backlash from some quarters regarding the Church’s heavy involvement in Prop. 8 result in a more moderate approach that simply “encourages” members to do so, but this time without creating a mechanism of administrative enforcement for that “encouragement”? I have heard anecdotal stories about General Authorities saying that Prop. 8 was nothing compared to what the Church will be doing in the future, so we shall see what comes out about that topic in Conference.
4. Clarification about what the “central” components of the Restored Gospel are. Recently, a notable LDS apologist who specializes in Egyptology and the Book of Abraham, Dr. John Gee, gave a talk in which he provided a list of what was “central” to the Restored Gospel. His list included the Book of Mormon, but excluded the book of scripture that he has researched and defended for so long: the Book of Abraham. Dr. Gee’s speech prompted discussion about the criteria for determining what the “central” components of the Restored Gospel are, and also fueled speculation about whether Dr. Gee’s exclusion of the Book of Abraham reflected a lack of scholarly confidence in Joseph Smith’s claims about that book of scripture in attempt to establish a “fall back position” where the Church can argue that academic challenges to the Book of Abraham should not undermine anyone’s testimony of Joseph Smith’s status as a Prophet on the theory that the book is “not central to the Restored Gospel.” Was Dr. Gee’s statement a prelude to a change in the way the Church views, teaches, and uses the Book of Abraham? My guess is probably not; the Church seldom seems to move that quickly. But the Church’s relatively recent revision of the Introduction to the Book of Mormon, which was preceded by an emerging consensus among LDS scholars that the Book of Mormon action took place within a limited geography rather than upon the entire American Continent, demonstrates that these types of issues are receiving the attention of the General Authorities, and that the General Authorities are willing to adjust the Church’s claims about its books of scripture. So perhaps something is in the works on this issue.
5. Warnings, admonishments, and clarifications about what the General Authorities view as being appropriate and inappropriate online discussion of LDS doctrine and history. Elder Ballard’s recent encouragement to become involved in online discussions about the Church seems to have enlarged the pool of Mormons participating in the Bloggernacle and other online discussion fora. However, it seems only a matter of time that Church leaders will recognize that Church members’ increased involvement in online discussions about Church history and doctrine will only increase the likelihood that they will come into contact with uncomfortable information that they otherwise would not have encountered. Around 20 years ago, Elder Oaks delivered an address in which he warned Church members about participating in symposia and becoming involved with “alternate voices.” But Elder Ballard’s encouragement to become involved in the world of online discussions seems to have departed from that approach, or to have at least created ambiguity about the degree to which faithful Church members should be involving themselves in online discussions and debates, even with the intent to defend the Church. Will the General Authorities issue any warnings or admonishments about the “proper” way to discuss Church topics online, or the “proper” online fora to visit? If so, it seems Elder Ballard would be the most likely Apostle to deliver that message.
Overall, I should say my expectations are not high that issue #2 will receive any mention in Conference. While I do believe it is possible, it seems the Church prefers to make such statements more quietly in between Conferences, rather than making any sort of dramatic public announcement that will attract attention to an uncomfortable topic. But I do think it’s very possible we will hear messages addressing issues #3 , #4, and #5.
So, what are your hopes, expectations, or predictions for this coming General Conference?