18 February 2007

The Problem of Perfection: Part III

So I figured out why I had a sudden influx of random people a few weeks ago: I was highlighted on The Archipelago Digest, an LDS blog review/digest cool-thing. Well, belated hello to you all (assuming some of you are still reading). I'm not sure I like the pressure of being classified as part of the Bloggernacle, although I guess I self-sorted anyway. I feel like I should be blogging about more church topics, when lately my blogging has been skewed towards writerly topics. I guess I don't like being confined to one subject area. Well, take me or leave me, I guess. :D

As a result of finding the Archipelago link, I've renewed my attempt at being more involved in the Bloggernacle. And when I say "involved" I mean "added a bunch of random feeds to my Google reader to see if I like them." (I'll post some sort of review in a few weeks.) One post on Zelophehad's Daughters caught my eye: Why I Hate Mormons. If that provocative title doesn't get you to read it, it's basically a discussion of dealing with the imperfection of Church members, and particularly Church leaders. Since I've been meaning to deal with this topic anyway (as part of my Problem of Perfection mini-series-whatever), I thought I'd post my discussion here. Mostly, I'm just wanting to organize my thoughts before treading into the comments section, where there is no edit button.

First off, although it's bad form, I'd like to start with a disclaimer. This is a big spherical chicken. Like, KFC family meal size. There are tons of situations where what I'm saying would need severe modification, especially in instances of abuse. But, as is usually the policy on this blog, try to ignore the exceptions and focus on the general philosophy instead. Good? Good. Moving on.

Okay, so I don't know anything about the author of the post--as I said I'm new to following this blog--but to me, the story sounds little lopsided and out of proportion. I try to be objective when I write, but I know that I color my actions a little, especially when I write rants against other people. It's natural to want to make ourselves out to be innocent--it makes for a better case. When I read this woman's story, I get the feeling that there's a definite amount of bias, probably because of the lack of admission of possible fault in the author. But, as I said, I don't know the details, so I can't really talk about the specific matter.

What I can talk about it this: I find it interesting that we (members of the church generally, and so-called liberal Mormons specifically) seem to think it's okay for us to condemn others for condemning us. The normal kinds of mistakes, we expect others to tolerate and be patient with, but the sin of intolerance is an automatic out. It's as if somehow intolerance is less important for us to forgive than more conventional faults like lying, cheating, and stealing. Which is clearly ridiculous. The atonement, and its corollary that we are required to forgive all men, covers both active sins and faults of character, like closed-mindedness and discrimination.

Just because you get called to be a bishop or Relief Society president doesn't make you perfectly capable. Theoretically, the further up the "chain of command" you go, the more nearly perfect the people are. But I would be cautious about saying even that much. Take Hugh Nibley's grandfather, Charles Nibley, who was the Presiding Bishop. Arguably, that's high up enough to hold him to a pretty high standard. Yet, on his death bed, he told Hugh if an angel came through the door, he would jump out the window because of the things he had done in order to be successful in business. Clearly, the Lord's standard for calling people is not ours. Of course it's not. It seems to me that this idea of a "minimum standard" of perfection for Church callings is largely illusory, or at least considerably lower than most of us set it.

And this difference in standards causes problems for us, because people in Church callings, even those of high authority, are far from perfect. This often causes pain. I'm not saying that it shouldn't. Imperfection hurts, especially when it comes from people we expect to be able to love or trust. The only place it hurts worse than in Church leadership is in our own families, as CS Lewis discusses in The Four Loves: because our families and our leaders theoretically love us and have stewardship over us, we grow to expect a sort of mind reading, unfair though it may be, and when we don't get it, we get hurt.

However, as I see it, there are two ways of looking at the imperfection of people in the Church, and for that matter in the world in general. Either you can say, as Lady Amalthea seems to have, "These people are wrong, ignorant, and stupid. They're hopeless, and if they are the best the church has to offer, it's unfortunate that I have to be a part of it. How can God allow these people to do these things as his representatives? Wouldn't it be much better to have the Gospel without the Church?" For me, this way seems extremely unhealthy, because it implies that idea of a "tolerable level" of perfection, when in fact, from God's perspective, even the best of us make very little progress in this life.

Here's my counter-statement to the above attitude. I can't claim to always apply it, but I try to remind myself of it whenever I am offended by someone's imperfection. "These people have probably never dealt with someone like me/a situation like this before, so I can see how it might be hard for them. Even though these people hold offices in the church, that doesn't mean they are perfect. God does believe in agency, after all: theirs and mine. He will call them, but He will also allow them to make the choices. I need to help them understand and communicate with me so that they can better deal with these situations, and I can better learn why they act this way. From this problem, we can all progress as children of God. "

In other words, we should look at the imperfection of the saints as a tool rather than a problem. Our intolerance of other's intolerance merely throws into relief our own intolerance. We need to bump up against these problems in order to grow in godly patience and love ourselves. The imperfection of the people in the Church is not an obstacle to the gospel. It is the gospel.

(For related thoughts, see Paradox of Tolerance, or posts tagged "tolerance.")


onelowerlight said...

Interesting. I had a similar problem when I was a district leader on my mission. The members of my district were constantly looking for faults in my leadership, and for times when I seemed to do something hypocritical. They analyzed everything I did and pointed out all of my imperfections, then used these against me when I tried to dissuade them from breaking mission rules. I realized, then, that anyone in the church who looks to anyone other than Jesus Christ as their perfect example is not being a true disciple. We only have one perfect example, who is Christ himself, and although we should also look to others, we should not expect them to be perfect, or follow them as if they are perfect. There is only one perfect being that we follow, and that's Christ. We should look to Christ in a completely different way than we look to anyone else, inside or outside of the church

Joni said...

I agree with you. I was reading through some of the comments on that blog and got somewhat frustrated with the huge amount of generalizations running around. All the comments about how Utah Mormons are the worst Mormons and how Mormons should never live piled together and how Provo/Orem are the worst places on earth. I would agree in my most sarcastic moods, but I would just as strongly disagree. People are people. That's just how it is. We don't always know why God calls the people he does to the callings he does-I had a Mia Maid advisor who used to humiliate me-if my skirt showed my knees at *all* she'd make me put her baby's blanket on my lap to cover my immodesty. I had a bishop I didn't really get along with. And I didn't grow up in Utah. Just the same, some of the best people I've met are people who grew up here. It's a poor argument to generalize that way. Anyway-I agree with you.