13 March 2007

Criticizing the Church: A How To Guide

One of my major irritations with the bloggernacle (the Mormon blogging community), and probably Church culture in general, is criticism of the Church. As I've blogged about before in The Problem of Perfection: Part II, I feel very torn over how we should be doing it, if at all. On the one hand, blind faith is the opposite of what the Church is about. After all, one of Brother Brigham's greatest fears, according to urban legend, is that the saints will follow their leaders down to hell. Questioning and gaining a personal testimony of each principle is an important part of what we believe. "Seek and ye shall find," and all that jazz.

But then we come up against point eleven of President Ezra Taft Benson's classic address Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet: "The learned may feel the prophet is only inspired when he agrees with them, otherwise the prophet is just giving his opinion—speaking as a man." This worries me, because this is exactly what happens in a lot of Church-critical debates, and I wonder sometimes if I myself might not be guilty. I can't think of any major incidents at the moment, but I never want to be in danger of falling over that edge.

So how can I be intellectually honest and seeking to know of myself and yet keep myself away from the danger of hearkening not unto the counsel of God?

Enter Hugh Nibley stage right. (No groaning! You know you missed him when there was no Nibleyesque musing last week.) I just finished reading his speech "Criticizing the Brethren" (available at GospeLink.com or in volume 13 of his collected works), and I've officially decided it should be required reading for every Church member, or at least everyone in the bloggernacle. Dear old Hugh's writings--mostly quotes pulled from Joseph Smith--resolve exactly the dilemma I've been having on this subject.

The Good News
So the good news is this: Hugh Nibley, Joseph Smith, and the Church want to be criticized. In spite of the apparently centralized structure of our Church, as Times and Seasons recently remarked, the LDS Church doesn't have as strict of a definition of doctrine as we think it does. And this is not mere oversight on the part of our Church leaders. They've left us room for differing beliefs on purpose, as Hugh Nibley points out with this Joseph Smith quote:

I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believe as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled. It dont prove that a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine.

In other words, outside of a few basic and central beliefs, the Church gives us space for a wide range of beliefs. The range of Mormonism within your typical ward--from orthodox Mormons with 13+ children to new-agey liberal Mormons--is not a temporary problem to be resolved by Book-of-Mormon- or General-Conference-bashing with your neighbor, nor something that needs to be corrected at all. It's an intentional part of the gospel, and it's not as important as we think to clearly deliniate who's right and who's wrong. Nibley relates why:
All of us believe things that aren't true, things that will be proven false in time to come. Scientists like Galileo, Newton, Heisenberg, Planck, Hawking, and Penrose all have had differing beliefs about the very nature of our existence, the most fundamental doctrines of reality. Einstein used to bring God into it. But they all respected each other and didn't damn each other for wrong ideas.

On doctrinal issues that haven't been clearly stated as true or false, we should be able to agree to disagree, to acknowledge that all our opinions are subject to further revelation. As C.S. Lewis says, we should be capable of being in doubt, of saying, "God has revealed this much, and here's what I conjecture about the rest, but I don't know."

. . . With Reservations
Having established that criticism is an essential part of the way the Church works, Hugh Nibley has some qualifications to give, which I'll briefly outline below:
  1. Be humble and teachable in your criticism. "You don't know so damn much." We believe in a gospel of continual revelation, so it's likely that the whole basis for your argument could be made irrelevant by new revelation.
  2. Focus your criticism on what you can control: yourself. "Search your hearts & see if you are like god." Undoubtedly, you aren't. Therefore, most of your criticism should be devoted to getting rid of the beam in your own eye, rather than your neighbor's.
  3. Criticize with the Spirit, not with the intellect. Don't rely on your own judgement in the matter. "We frequently are so filled with prejudice, or have a beam in our own eye, that we are not capable of passing right decisions."
  4. Don't accuse when you criticize; debate instead. "To be constructive, criticism must reach the person for whom it is meant and, of course, he must have a chance to reply--but that is discussion, not criticism."
  5. Don't worry so much. If God is really leading the Church, then it cannot fail. "What would Jospeh Smith do about evil? He didn't worry, because God was in charge." Trust a little more.
  6. Check your motivations. Often. "The critics are really just showing off." Beware of criticizing just so that you don't seem complacent. Also, beware of the "knee-jerk reaction, when upset, to blame the Brethren," or I might add, your neighbor.
  7. Is the matter trivial? Why waste your time? "These things are of too trivial a nature to occupy the attnetion of so large a body." If it's not really important to your eternal salvation, should you really be bothering? Preach nothing save repentance, after all.

The end sum of these reservations is this: we should have it both ways. Criticize, seek out the truth and the deep doctrines, but keep it mostly to yourself. There can be so little certainty in any criticism that it's hardly worth sharing except in the most disinterested, philosophical or private, personal conversations. Think before you speak: are you really going to want to be held to this opinion 3 years or 10 years down the road? I'll say it again--be willing to be in doubt. Stay aware and seeking in your heart, but be wary of trusting your own imperfect judgement. And above all, rely on the Lord.

The phrase I loved most in this article was Hugh Nibley's description of the Church as "an organization made up so largely of nonconformists." My liberal readers may scoff at thinking of their "orthodox" Mormon friends as nonconformists, but that depends on your definition. I'd say all that's required to be a nonconformist is to not do things for the purpose of conforming to a norm. It means following the genuine reasoning of your heart and the feelings of your mind (another Nibley analogy). Surprisingly, this noncomformist path doesn't lead us all in the same direction. An absolutely true Church with many variable paths--who could have predicted it? But then, to go back to C.S. Lewis, if it's something we wouldn't have imagined perhaps that testifies that it is true.


Not Too Pensive said...

Is the matter trivial? Why waste your time? "These things are of too trivial a nature to occupy the attnetion of so large a body." If it's not really important to your eternal salvation, should you really be bothering? Preach nothing save repentance, after all.

I've heard these matters called "daisies on Kolob" discussions - an insignificant detail on an insignificant point of doctrine.

Taking a Pearl of Great Price class this semester (which I highly recommend, by the way) has really made me question what, precisely, we do know and how much of our scripture is really symbolic. It seems that much of what I thought I knew was superficial - the digger I deep, the less I know with certainty - especially when it comes to "daisies on Kolob" questions.

Great post. Very thought provoking. Thanks.

Cathryn said...

I second NTP. Great stuff, Liz. If not Nibley's essay, then your summary should be required reading--especially for BYU students (and college students in general).

It reminds me of something Jon said on his blog that I can't get out of my head: "There is a hurt in learning. The University has increased my ability to rationalize; anything that God asks of me I can now hunt and spear a better reason why I need not follow."

Geoff J said...

Nice post. I'm with you on your conclusions.

Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Not to be critical or anything, but the 14 Fundamentals talk was by then Elder Benson, not President Kimball.

Liz Muir said...

Oh dear, what an unclassy mistake, which I have now fixed. Thanks Mr. Anonymous. If I knew your name and address, I'd send you a boquet of newly sharpened pencils.

RoastedTomatoes said...

"The learned may feel the prophet is only inspired when he agrees with them, otherwise the prophet is just giving his opinion—speaking as a man."

The difficulty is that we know that prophets sometimes speak as men -- so we do have to make that distinction somehow. Benson is right to point out the solipsism inherent in drawing the line to fit our personal beliefs, but he doesn't really offer us a reliable way of drawing that line without such self-regard. So I see this as an invitation into a fundamentally unresolvable dilemma, rather than a clear solution.

"Criticize with the Spirit, not with the intellect."

Yet we are also told that, before we can have the Spirit, we have to study the matter fully out in our minds. Intellectual conversation -- sometimes critically-flavored conversation -- is a central part of the studying-it-out process, isn't it?

"If God is really leading the Church, then it cannot fail."

Well, the scripture you link on this actually says nothing about the church, right? It says that God's works cannot fail -- but that the work of men, even in the prophetic context of translating the Book of Mormon, can fail. If things we criticize are the works of man within the overall godly church structure, then this point might arguably be turned on its head.

I certainly do enjoy Nibley's description of the church as "an organization made up so largely of nonconformists." So many different things for us to fail to conform to!

Ryan said...

Well done.

I heard a great quote recently (how it applies to this topic I'll let you decide):

"An intellectual is someone who is educated beyond their intelligence"

The Faithful Dissident said...

Great post, I'm sorry I never discovered it until now!

I've thought a lot about this stuff too, and did a post about it in my blog a while ago: