The Church is a “what”?

Stephen MarshMormon 6 Comments

I’ve a friend who is a linguist who often addresses things by asking people to find metaphors for them. It is interesting to ask people just what the Church is, not descriptively, but metaphorically. Something that is extremely accurate, I’ve found, is to compare the Church to a flotilla of barges, being sailed to a destination. Slow, dependent on the wind, dealing with tides and currents, with turbulence issues around the edges.

It is also alien to the way most people think of the Church in an era dominated by compasses, beacons, and concepts of travel where one sees or knows the end goal clearly and makes progress towards it more or less in a straight line. Courts, legislatures and little children all look at straight lines as the way to resolve most problems.

For example, if monopolies are bad and we have five of them, most people assume that if we are best at no monopolies, four is better than five. Or one is better than two.

From experience, we know that such a result is not necessarily the best, that a straight line is not necessarily the right solution. A town with a just a monopoly on employment (a single employer) or on labor (a single union) is not as well off as a town with both where the two monopolies balance each other.

There is actually math and a theory that is conclusive on this point, called the theory of the second best.

What this means is that if we can’t have perfection, the best alternative is not necessarily a point in a straight line. Many criticisms of the directions the Church has taken are at their hearts complaints that the Church’s approach does not look sufficiently linear.

Keeping the second best in mind helps when one considers the “halo” or side effect of any approach, leadership or guidance. The unintended but unavoidable results, the turbulence in my metaphor. Sometimes it seems minimal, such as stressing the Word of Wisdom about the time cigarettes produced nicotine that could be absorbed in the lungs, which cuts down lung cancer. But it means some people give up the pleasure of pipe smoking, and here is turbulence in people who abandon chocolate and white flour.

There is always turbulence, a fringe halo of side effects, to any direction. The entire thread on who can attend a temple marriage and the avoidance of outside displays touches on that. On the one hand, ostentatious displays are reduced, social pressure and a host of problems are avoided, on the other hand there are feelings that are hurt. For every person who is activated, there is a person who is offended.

Turbulence is not what the guidance says or intends, yet it happens anyway. But all instruction, all guidance has that effect, no matter how harmless it seems. I had a dear friend whose bishop was an uneducated man. All he knew how to do was to love people. She was better served by a harsh and judgmental man who told her to abandon her physically and sexually abusive and unfaithful husband. I still love the bishop, I’m still sorry for the pain he caused my friend.

Minimizing turbulence is not as easy as it may seem, nor as obvious. Any act, any word, creates its own turbulence. To calm one set of disruptions creates another. It simply is not as easy as it looks, and the more complex the system, the harder it is. The linear approach is not only obvious, dangerous and wrong, it doesn’t deliver the results that seem within its grasp.

Thinking of the Church as a collection of sail driven barges helps. Barges are slow to change direction, not easily given small and subtle course collections. In a collection, they generate all sorts of turbulence, especially at the edges, yet the turbulence can help move them together. Driven by sail power they never point directly at where they are going, but adjust to resist pressures, seen and unseen, present and to come.

A flotilla needs to adjust not only to the present weather, but to the upcoming weather and to currents in the path.

Additionally, as we are on a globe, the shortest path is always a curve, not a straight line. Without the big picture, sail craft (and airplanes for that matter) look completely lost.

Consider, from Moses to Peter, the word was no pork chops, no lobster, no shrimp. No blended fabrics and all men were to wear beards. Now we do not think twice about wearing a cotton polyester blend (ok, some people do), eating a pork chop, having a shrimp cocktail or shaving every morning before work. Those who like lobster are free to eat it, my kids can eat bacon at friends houses without worry.

Was keeping kosher important to God. Yes, it was essential to preserving Israel’s cultural identity in order to have the right place for Christ to be born into the world. Was God free to change that in an instant? Yes, and he did. I think that is both a lesson and a parable for programs and teachings and doctrines.

God gave a commandment to Israel for them to follow, to abide patiently for his purposes. He then gave guidance when the question arose and they were blessed in both circumstances.

For us? We should keep faith when God gives us similar commandments, understanding that the purposes may well be as abstract, and as important, as the ones fulfilled by the law of Moses in its time.

Is that second best? Yes, the world is still fallen, still imperfect and we are not able to clearly see all of the path. Still, even if we could see perfection truly, even if we knew it, we still would not get there if we took the broad path instead of the narrow one. There is a lot to be said for listening to navigators, following curves that are shorter than straight lines, and letting God guide us safely home.

Comments 6

  1. I think that may be one of the more insightful metaphors I’ve read in a while. I’ll probably use it frequently with absolute shameless plagiarism. I’ll be sure to say that I read it somewhere. 🙂

    Thank you.

  2. Stephen,

    I appreciate the trouble you took to relate your metaphor to the recent discussion on attendance at temple sealings on this site. Do you see other advantages to your metaphor in helping Church members deal with turbulence, or to see turbulence as something other than malevolent?

  3. Post

    I’ve been working on this metaphor since 1997 when I was talking with Kathy Pullins and it hit me that this was a good metaphor for the Church (my wife was speaking for her at the Womens Conference that Kathy was in charge of — my wife’s talk is at ).

    But it hit me that turbulence and overshooting was unavoidable. Any position will always have turbulence and overshooting as a result. It just is and just is unavoidable. I think we need to understand both things, and to understand what kinds of turbulence and overshooting any position will create, what harms it causes and what harms it avoids.

    Stay in the center of a river channel and the current will sweep some away. Stick to the edges and some will be crushed against the banks. All we can do is minimize it the best we can. But I see turbulence in just about every position. Consider abortion and how it wraps over into the stem cell debate. Encouraging women to gain homemaking skills and how that causes some to feel that women shouldn’t be educated or have employment skills.

    It is a good reason to teach people to think for themselves and to understand that they can have a personal relationship and guidance from the Spirit, to carry them past those sorts of things.

  4. Which is why I think the post a while back about this being an essentially creedless church (and I think it is, despite the articles of faith) is important. I think what we run into is that so often we want to define what God has not seen fit to define. We want to have absolutes, where really it doesn’t matter, and in fact it may be very important that the absolute NOT be available just yet. We yearn for truth, but when we describe it verbally, we do so imprecisely, and that causes turbulence.

    I think that our language is part of the great barrier here. Our language describes and works in a linear fashion, it forces our mind to traverse in a very straight path, but I think that often times the truth is extremely complex, non-linear and difficult to describe in a linear fashion. Yet when you see it through a spiritual lens it suddenly becomes very clear and simple. Then you attempt to describe it. And you lose it. I think that’s what has happened to many of the prophets, and to many of the early saints. They attempted to describe ideas and concepts that they say through a spiritual lens, but language failed them.

    The church attempts to do the same thing-describe spiritual concepts and eternal principeles in linear language, and it is only able to acheive a flawed approximation. Nothing we do will ever perfectly describe the eternal concepts, but they might help convey enough information to spark the spiritual experience. I think that’s what the scriptures are about–providing enough information to provoke a spiritual experience that will convey what you really need to learn. The church is attempting the same thing as a whole. Thus, the policies are convoluted, the language tortuous, and sometimes we feel like people are going at things a bit oddly.

    Still great metaphor, and I’m going to blatantly plagiarize.

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