Personal Revelation in an Authoritarian Church: Balance of Power or Détente?

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If you have gotten your 40th Anniversary copy of Exponent II, then you know that many past editors were asked to choose their favorite essay from their tenure at the magazine. The essay I have most often shared from my decade of as associate editor is the following piece by a wise woman and dear friend that taught me that “Contention comes not from having different ideas of what is right, but from the effort to prove another person wrong.” 

By E. Victoria Grover first published in The Exponent in Fall 2000

Sooner or later, almost every Latter-day Saint experiences conflict within the framework of his or her religious community. That conflict is particularly challenging when it seems to involve differing interpretations of the will of the Lord. In a religious environment that places great value on both personal revelation and obedience to authority, what are we to do when these two principles clash?

The Church has clear structural and ideological answers to these conflicts when they occur: Either the hierarchy of authority or the principle of stewardship tells us which interpretation will prevail.

But what do we do as individuals when we feel the promptings of the spirit get overruled? When we seem to find ourselves ill-used by someone else’s decision or perhaps even believe we are victims of the injustice within the Church? Whether it’s a matter of how Church welfare resources will be distributed or where new ward boundaries will be drawn, hundreds of decisions are made by those in authority with which we may deeply disagree. How do we deal with this when it happens? What is there for us to learn from these experiences, and where are the dangers? Finally, what is unique about the Mormon view of the dispersement of spiritual power and how can the implicit tension it creates enlighten us as individuals and as a larger community of wards and stakes in Zion?

About ten years ago, I had an interaction with a new bishop that changed the course of my spiritual life forever. In that short meeting, it became rapidly clear that he and I had very different views on fundamental principles of commitment and obligation. Over the next week, I struggled with a flood of feelings surrounding the bishop’s decision and the implications it held for me and my children. I prayed for understanding, and when it didn’t come, I prayed for relief. I felt a pressing weight of confusion, despair, and helplessness each time I thought about the difference between my conception of what was right and the bishop’s and how his decision was now going to affect my life. I felt my anger slice like a hot blade through the very cords that bound me to the ward and to the whole Church. For the first time in my adult life, I could envision the Church going forward without me in it.

I can’t remember at what point during that week I finally received an answer, but I recall the answer very clearly. Alone in my bedroom as I wept and poured out my story of injustice to the Lord yet one more time, I suddenly felt a piercing affirmation coming out of a place of emotional stillness that was not part of me, telling me very simply, “You are right.” Motionless, I listened for the rest of what I wanted to hear—the part about how the bishop was wrong and the wrath of a righteous God would soon fall on him like a thunderbolt! But that message never came. Instead, the Holy Ghost poured love out on me, and in those wonderful minutes of spiritual clarity the absence of any accusation against my bishop spoke volumes. The bishop, right or wrong, was not my concern. Instead, I saw the task of enlarging my heart and strengthening my soul lying before me, and with the assurance of God’s love and the blessings of free agency won for me by Mother Eve, I knew I had all that I needed to move on.

When our ideas or opinions are overruled by others, the first and most natural reaction is to contend with those others on behalf of our heartfelt beliefs. But contention is extremely dangerous because it hardens our hearts and drives away the Holy Ghost. It is possible for people to hold different views of what is right without succumbing to contention. People can state their views, explain them, even point out possible flaws in another person’s thinking, without invoking the spirit of contention.

One way to do this is to clarify in your own mind the purpose of the explanation in light of unconditional respect for the free agency of the person with whom you are speaking. If the purpose of your explanation is tainted by a desire to overcome the other person with your words—to convince, to control, to win–you move into dangerous territory. If, while you are speaking, you feel your respect for the other’s free agency draining out of you, watch for contempt to replace respect and any remnant of charity to disappear. You are now contending, and the purpose of your discussion has changed from explanation of defiance, from enlightenment to domination.

Contention comes not from having different ideas of what is right, but from the effort to prove another person wrong.

For all our talk about tolerance and diversity, contention as a way of sorting out our differences is both honored and glorified in America’s culture. The world often asks us to fit people and their disagreements into the dichotomous arrangement of “right and wrong.” While there certainly are important laws and principles that fit that arrangement—and knowing that we must guard against the danger of trying to rationalize away our very real sins—still, the rule of “right and wrong” serves us poorly in most disagreements with others. Even so, it is what we naturally fall back on whenever conflict occurs. As we start to fall, we grab onto contention to prop us up and support our need to be seen as “the right one” in a dispute. Even when we try to acknowledge valid issues on both sides of an argument, the very fact that we have taken sides push us us into the “us/them” duality and its corollary, which says, “they” are wrong and need to be stopped—or changed—by “we” who are right.

Christ asks his disciples to see conflict with different eyes—with out spiritual eyes—and get off the see-saw that says, “If I’m up you must be down!” he wants us to look at our brothers and sisters as a part of ourselves and realize that contending with them is as foolish as the foot contending with the hand on the same body. I believe Christ would agree with the comic strip philosopher Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The Church asks us to gather ourselves together in communities of many different people. Different is difficult and this gathering into communities has created challenges since Joseph Smith first restored the Gospel. The challenge is intensified by our belief in individual personal revelation. It is disciplined by asking our obedience to hierarchical authority. The tension between personal revelation and authority keeps us each vibrantly humming and engaged in both the workings of the Church and the pursuit of our own salvation. I believe the latter task is the more important one for each of us, from President Hinckley on down, and the Church organization serves us best when we keep that fact in mind. Then we realize that it doesn’t really matter whose idea gets acted on in the day-to-day business of running the ward, the stake, or the Church itself.

What is important is how each of us uses the Church community to refine our souls, to come unto Christ, to make our selves perfect and complete. When we come before him, Jesus will not ask us if we won in our disputes with others or even if we were on the right side. Instead, he will ask if we won our struggle against the natural man, the desire to control, the need to be essential, to feel powerful, to be right instead of righteous. If we are called upon to sacrifice on the alter of God our most tender and delicate parts—a piece of our ego—then truly in that act we become one with or Savior.

The philosopher/psychiatrist Sheldon Knopp said that all the significant battles are waged within the self. These are the only battles Christ is truly interested in.

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5 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    Fantastic. Powerful. Thanks for bringing it to our attention again.

  2. Rachel says:

    This was so nice to read. Thank you for sharing it, Heather, and thank you for writing it, Victoria.

  3. Jeff G says:

    Fantastic post! Within a voluntary organization such as the church, each person is completely free to receive and follow revelation for their stewardship and – counter intuitively – there is no reason whatsoever that all divine revelation must be logically consistent with that of another person. (Missionary me simply couldn’t understand how a person could receive an answer of “no” to their prayers about the church. So young. So naive.) Different people can receive different promptings for their different stewardships. Once we admit that there isn’t any binding logical consistency across stewardships, there is no longer any means or motive to argue. If we disagree, ask a higher authority (God) to guide you in your own stewardship and proceed accordingly. Nobody is stopping any of us.

  4. Janna says:

    Victoria does it again. Amazing. Reaching this changed me.

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