First, read this quote from James Talmage’s Jesus is the Christ, which is quoted (among other places) in the Doctrines of the Gospel manual (published in 2000):
“For over seventeen hundred years on the eastern hemisphere, and for more than fourteen centuries on the western, there appears to have been silence between the heavens and the earth. Of direct revelation from God to man during this long interval, we have no authentic record.”
Then, read this quote from Elder Ballard’s 1994 General Conference talk:
“The beautiful simplicity of Christ’s gospel was under attack from an enemy that was even more destructive than the scourges and the crosses of early Rome: the philosophical meanderings of uninspired men. The doctrine became based more on popular opinion than on revelation. This period of time was called the Dark Ages. They were dark largely because the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ had been lost.Then in 1517, the Spirit moved Martin Luther . . .”
Finally, read this take from Fiona Givens, co-author of The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life:
“[During 'what we call the apostasy'] the church is not destroyed, it does not utterly disappear. It retreats underground, where the Spirit nourishes it. That was so overwhelming to me: how does God nourish a church in the apostasy? How does He nourish a church that no longer has priesthood keys and ordinances? Well, He sends her the greatest philosophers, poets, writers, composers and thinkers of all time. God doesn’t create ex nihilo; one can’t restore something that isn’t already there; the building blocks for the Restoration were always there. I mean, that’s just awesome.”
(I highly recommend the entire interview with Ms. Givens, found at the Mormon Women Project. It’s a gem!)
Per quote 1 — the notion that God would remain categorically silent to every soul born for 1700 years (and then, presumably, only talk to Mormons) seems to fly in the face of everything the scriptures teach about the light and love of God. Thankfully, our discourse seems more tempered than this, generally.
The second quote allows for God to inspire and even “speak to” a few choice souls; it seems typical of what I grew up hearing about the apostasy and the need for a restoration; in particular, it views historical “characters” such as Martin Luther as inspired players in a drama that culminates in Joseph’s visions.
The third quote is a rather radical departure from the normative narrative, viewing the “dark ages” as a time of vibrant spiritual beauty in certain quarters; Givens urges Mormons to take seriously the 13th Article of Faith and engage in a serious study of theology that includes drawing on the best spiritual thinkers of the Christian tradition to enlighten our own theology. She describe the spiritual greats of medieval and Renaissance times (including female mystics such as Julian of Norwich) as providing the building blocks for the restoration.
While I like Givens perspective the best (by far!), I’m not wholly comfortable with any of these quotes. So I sat with it this weekend, trying to figure out why.
I think my ambivalence comes down to this:
While I’m highly sympathetic and personally committed to seeking out wisdom from other religious traditions for personal and group edification, I am wary of co-opting great religious thinkers as primarily actors in our own institutional narrative.
Communication between humanity and divinity is complicated business. It is a miracle, every day, when any of us feel the touch of divine in our life.
It’s easy to admire and quote Mother Theresa as one who lived a saintly life. But if we see the hand of God in her life, if we are inspired by her light, then perhaps we should also grapple with the fact that her spirituality was animated and fed by her faith’s sacraments, by the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, by strict adherence to a creed that we sometimes glibly reject as corrupt. She, and her faith, deserve that dignity.
Givens quotes Joseph Smith as saying,“If the Presbyterians have truth, embrace that. If the Methodists, have truth embrace that too. Get all the good in the world if you want to come out a pure Mormon.”
I’d only add that such truth-seeking should be accompanied by a profound spiritual humility — a humility should prompt us to embrace the mystery of a God big enough and loving enough and wide enough to defy our attempts to create neat narratives out of messy, beautiful human history.