Challenging Authority, Redefining Leadership
In this recent podcast with Caroline Kline and Gina Colvin, Caroline mentioned that feminist theology begins with challenging authority. For the past several months I’ve been working on a series of blog posts about leadership and authority, so Caroline’s words rang true to me. In almost every conversation I have about female equality in the church and feminist theology, it always comes to a screeching halt when the authority of the prophet is evoked. It ends with a line like, “I have faith in the prophet. If he changes things then I’ll support it.” What can you say in response to that? There are no words to challenge authority believed to come from God, and without a challenge of patriarchal authority, feminist theology cannot blossom. I want to begin this series of posts with my own experience developing an ability to challenge authority.
I went through about a two year long intensive battle, trying to maintain a reverence for men whom I saw as leaders with authority to speak for God, while simultaneously trying to wrap my head around things that weren’t adding up for me. I had grown up singing “Follow the Prophet” in primary. I was very well conditioned to believe that when the prophet spoke, my only job was to follow. It was comforting to have this external authority. All I had to do was follow and I would be led in the right direction. In seminary I was given an analogy of a maze. How great was it to know that there was someone sitting above the maze I was walking through? He could see the whole thing and tell me which way to go. It was so simple
Until I started hitting dead ends in the maze. I was still following directions from above, but I was not getting anywhere. I kept thinking maybe it was me. I was trying my hardest, but maybe I wasn’t following the prophet perfectly. In the Fall of 2012 I had what I refer to as my week of perfection. After years of trying to do everything the prophets had ever said to do, not waiting to get married or have children, staying out of debt, fulfilling my female role of wife and mother to stay home and raise my children no matter how poor that made us, paying tithing, devoting my whole self and life to family and church….etc. etc. At the end of this particular week I had successfully been the perfect homemaker. Yes, one perfect week of homemaking in my life. We held family home evening, family scripture study and prayer, again the list goes on and on… I remember this week only because I had been perfect in doing everything the prophet commanded, and…I was exhausted and unsatisfied…dead end.
This was the same time as the election between Mitt Romney and Barrack Obama. I was struggling to understand how so many of the church leaders I revered espoused political views that felt limiting and one sided to me. A whole slew of issues were coming at me. Why did men who spoke for a perfectly loving God teach a theology that was androcentric and limiting to women? Dead end. Why had men I revered from the past as well as the present taught doctrines that placed some humans (ie. black people, Native Americans, LGBT members) below other humans? Dead end. I came to a point where I had to make a choice. Either these things truly came from God, and God didn’t care about my happiness or the happiness of a vast majority of the world’s population, or the leaders of the church did not have authority from God to speak these things. Because I wasn’t willing to consider the latter, I continued for months to beat my head against a wall of unanswerable questions. The questions were unanswerable because I wasn’t willing to open the door and go where the answers were. I wasn’t willing to question authority. It was a grotesque battle between an enormous power trying to explode out of me, and my well-conditioned desire to keep it contained.
Then one day in February, I finally allowed myself to contemplate the possibility that these men had no more authority to speak for God than I do. It was a quick little thought that I held onto for a few seconds before trying to shove it back in, but it was too late. The explosion came. I was flooded with a light of consciousness and the answers to all of my questions seemed so obvious to me. I was finally able to put my questions and doubts into place like pieces of a puzzle. I had always been intrigued with the idea of pure intelligence flowing through a person. Now I felt that idea to be an accurate description of what I was experiencing. I felt a closeness to the divine feminine that I had never experienced before. My understanding of feminist theology was finally able to blossom. My mind came alive with a beautiful understanding of the world and my place in the world as a woman. As the power of my own internal authority took over, my need for an external authority waned, along with my need to force the words of prophets into my expanded understanding of God and life. I realized that the power trying to explode from me was not an evil force, but a natural internal authority to digest information and determine truth for myself. I was discovering my own DNA of divinity that every human being has.
Over the years since this experience, I have learned many different languages to describe what was happening to me. From LDS scriptures, books on philosophy, principles of yoga and other eastern philosophies, feminist theory, and other schools of thought I have found a connecting thread that points to a different definition of authority and leadership than the one that our church and our world currently embrace. In this post I have used my language to describe my own experience. In my subsequent posts I will use some of the other languages and thoughts I have found through my studies to present this new definition of leadership and authority.
In my own familiar Mormon language, this Doctrine and Covenants scripture caught my attention over a year ago. D&C 1:19-20 reads:
“The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—
But that every man might speak in the name of God, the Lord, even the Savior of the world.”
This passage jumped out at me because of its resemblance to my new understanding of authority. Yet it doesn’t at all resemble the church that I have come to know, a church that was founded by the very man who wrote these words down. It appears that Joseph Smith envisioned a world where authority was internal, not external. He saw leadership as something that arose from the “weak things,” the marginalized, subjugated people of the earth, to overthrow the “mighty and strong ones,” the established and entrenched leadership.
I had read this scripture many times before, but the thing that really grabbed me this time reading it was the idea that “every man might speak in the name of God.” My mind went back to that fleeting thought that caused a grand explosion for me: “Maybe the prophet has no more authority to speak for God than I do.” How many times have I been told that I am “missing the mark,” “steadying the ark,” “thinking you know better the prophet,” because I have claimed this authority, because I have rejected those things that the prophets have said that don’t align with my conscience? Yet the very church that produced these criticisms of my internal authority was founded on the principle of individual divine authority that will evolve to overthrow the establishment of external authority. The foundation of the church is built on the ability of every single person to speak in the name of God. I believe the evolutionary progress of humankind requires each of us to develop that internal authority and to reject external authority.
I will continue with these thoughts in my blog posts over the next few months. What do you think? What has been your experience challenging authority? Does this D&C scripture align with your experience and your understanding of authority and leadership?