Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Nobody expects the Resurrection

And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy.
—Matthew 28:8

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
—Monty Python

I've been very depressed off and on over the past few weeks. Important opportunities related to preparing for my academic career seemed to have been shut in my face—in one case entirely unexpectedly, just as I was about to walk in through the door—and the setbacks left me feeling like a failure. I'm approaching 40, I have a household to provide for, I've never had a full-time career, I desperately need to start one—and yet I haven't advanced any farther, for all practical intents and purposes, than where I was twelve years ago. I thought: What a disappointment I must be to my department and my university, after everything they've invested in me over the past five years, when now I have nothing to show for it.

And then today, entirely unexpectedly, out of the blue, such a relief that I'm afraid to believe it's really happening for fear of jinxing it, one of the doors that I'd assumed was shut for good looks like it may be open after all. Suddenly I feel like I'm back on track; the future looks so much more hopeful than it did as recently as this morning. Thank God.

And because it's the Easter season, and I spent some time today prepping for an Easter-themed Taize prayer service this Friday, the thought came to my mind: So I get an Easter Alleluia after all. My setback has been transformed into possibility.

It's luck that this door has (fingers crossed) unexpectedly opened. Some Christians might want to call it "grace," but I don't like that use of that term, because it implies a more assertive providence than I see at work in a world where things like the Holocaust happen. So let's just call it luck. My Easter faith—which I confess has been harder to sustain this past month than at times when things are going well—is that if this particular stroke of luck hadn't occurred, God would have helped me turn failure into possibility in some other way. Months or years from now, I would be writing about a different Easter moment, a different set of possibilities God had opened up out of those depressing setbacks in April 2009—assuming that in the interim I hadn't been killed by terrorists or gaybashers or swine flu or a random auto accident, in which case any effort to make meaning out of my life would have had to escalate to an entirely different level. I'm trying to keep my faith realistic, here.

But the point I wanted to make tonight is this: As I was thinking about today's windfall in the context of my faith that the resurrection is God's power at work in our lives to open up new life and new horizons, the thought came to me that resurrections are unexpected. In the Gospels, Jesus' resurrection takes the disciples by surprise. Jesus has told them it's coming; we as readers know it's coming; but they don't get it, so they don't see it coming. The unexpected nature of what happens—the unexpected crossing over from despair to hope—is part of the Easter experience. God opens up possibilities you didn't see coming. Hope hits you when you weren't expecting it, in ways you weren't expecting. You round the corner, unsuspecting, and find the stone rolled away from the tomb. You find doors standing open that you didn't think could be opened.

That's all. I feel a bit drained, emotionally. I don't know what else to say. Alleluia, I guess. And of course, some big thank you's—to God, and to the human agents who brought this new possibility about, and to the people who were helping me find some other way to move forward before the new possibility unexpectedly opened instead.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Gifts of the Spirit

Here are some key principles that stood out to me from the readings for Lesson 15 of the D&C/Church history Sunday School curriculum.

1. Inspiration from the living Spirit takes precedence over the authority of the written word. When he introduced the new missionary discussions, Gordon B. Hinckley quoted D&C 46:2 to drive home the point that "notwithstanding those things which are written," missionaries were free "to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit." The guidance of the Spirit trumps correlation, trumps handbooks of instruction, trumps "proper procedure," trumps official policy. If that sounds like a recipe for anarchy—well, who was it who said that the Spirit blows where it listeth [pleases, wishes]? Allowing written policies to be set aside at a flash of inspiration is, I admit, an utterly impractical and inefficient way to run an institution—but then, a God who says that he's going to call on the "weak and simple" to do his work doesn't sound like a God who's all that invested in efficiently run institutions.

2. The Spirit works in diverse ways. D&C 46 and Moroni 10 both underscore the idea that the Spirit works in different ways for different people: there are "differences of administration . . . according as the Lord will" (D&C 46:15), "diversities of operations . . . that the manifestations of the Spirit may be given to every [person] to profit withal" (D&C 46:16); the Spirit's gifts "come unto every [one] severally, according as [Christ] will" (Moro. 10:17). These passages caution us against a narrowly circumscribed understanding of how and where God is at work. "Deny not the gifts of God, for they are many" (Moro. 10:8); "I would exhort you . . . that you remember that every good gift cometh of Christ" (Moro. 10:18). God doesn't work only in the ways that I'm familiar with from my own experience. Among other things, I think these passages call us to recognize God at work in the sprawling, messy diversity of religious traditions, with their "differences of administration" and "diversities of operations."

3. The Spirit works in non-rational ways. Read with a strong eye for historical context, D&C 46 and Moroni 10 are plugs for a pre-modern belief in the immediacy of the supernatural over against Enlightenment rationality. There are such things as miracles, Mr. Hume—visions and faith healings and speaking in tongues, all religious phenomena that 18th- and 19th-century Enlightenment intellectuals stigmatized as "enthusiasm" or "fanatacism." Now granted, I'm modern enough in my sensibilities that I'm going straight to a doctor when I'm sick, and I don't want to attend a church where people stand up in meetings to speak in tongues. (Church leaders have become modern enough since the 19th century that they don't want that either.) But postmodernism has prepared me to recognize an inspired message in these passages' critique of Enlightenment. Modern rationality does not have a corner on truth. Bona fide revelation comes through non-rational means—means that seem foolish and incredible to intellectuals trained in Enlightenment traditions of criticism. The Book of Mormon, for example.

4. The workings of the Spirit must be critically discerned. There's a huge catch to everything I've said so far. Yes, it's true that inspiration trumps institutional procedure and policy, that the Spirit works in diverse and non-rational ways. But it's also true that it's very easy to mistake human foolishness for divine inspiration. Which means that there's something to be said, after all, for submitting claims of inspiration to the curbs of reason and policy and procedure. That's the truth I recognize—grudgingly, I would add—in D&C 46:27, about how the bishop and the elders "are to have it given unto them to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God." I'm suspicious of how that verse opens up a way for church leadership and bureaucracy to shut down the diversity that is celebrated elsewhere in these passages. The spirit of discernment commended in verse 27 needs to include the humility to recognize that God works in ways we don't expect, ways that don't jibe well with what we already know and are accustomed to, that don't fit institutional imperatives. But I have to admit that, yes, there's truth in verse 27, as in verse 7, with its warning against being "seduced . . . by doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men." However, it is also true that . . .

5. The diversity of the Spirit's gifts challenges us to be tolerant and charitable. This idea is most emphatically expounded in 1 Corinthians 12-13. Paul's famous metaphor about the church as one body composed of many members comes in the context of teaching about the diversity of spiritual gifts and manifestations. And it's in that same context that he delivers his famous sermon on charity. The point of the body metaphor, at least as it's laid out in 1 Corinthians 12, is to challenge the church to honor diversity as an expression of charity. The foot shouldn't think that because it isn't the hand, it's not part of the body. The head can't say to the feet, I have no need of you. "Those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary" (1 Cor. 12:22).

I don't see how this teaching can be reconciled easily with practices of heresy-hunting and excommunication (even though Paul himself didn't seem to see the contradiction). If there are differences in spiritual manifestations—and if, as Paul says, we're all seeing through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12)—then why would we expect that all members trying in good faith to discern the truth through the Spirit are going to arrive at the same conclusions about, say, Book of Mormon historicity, or same-sex marriage, or evolution, or the war in Iraq? And how can those who arrive at one conclusion justify saying to members who arrive at a different conclusion—and yet who remain committed to serving in the Church (I don't fit that category, by the way; I'm talking here about others, not myself)—"You are not of the body; we have no need of you"? How do aggressive apologetics, and injunctions to stop publishing, and excommunications, exemplify charity, which is kind, is not easily provoked, believes all things, and hopes all things, recognizing that now we know only in part, even those things given by prophecy, but that someday all will become clear?

6. The workings of the Spirit are to benefit people. With this I'll finish. D&C 46:12 tells us that different gifts are given so "that all may be profited thereby." Verse 26 says that "all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God." Moroni 10:8 says that gifts and manifestations of the Spirit are given "unto [people], to profit them." That, it seems to me, is part of the test for discerning genuine spiritual manifestations: Do they help people? Are they a benefit, whether to the individual receiving the manifestation or to a larger community around that individual? Is it, as Moro. 10:18 says, a "good gift"? Of course, that decision itself requires discernment through the Spirit, so in a way we're right back to the relative instability with which we started. There are no clean-cut, clearly written, once-and-for-all answers. Just the Spirit, speaking in its still small voice, in different ways to different people, blowing where it pleases. If you want something simpler and less uncertain, you need to seek out a different God.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Restoration Studies/Sunstone Midwest

Today has not been a day of rest for me. I've been on the go since 4:00 this morning. Didn't get to church. :( I was tempted to skip blogging tonight, but I feel I need to do at least that and the sacrament as a minimal effort toward keeping the day holy.

I'd planned to reflect today on the law of consecration, the theme of my last D&C readings, but I'm going to let that go for another occasion. I want to spend at least a couple minutes "debriefing" myself on the joint Restoration Studies/Sunstone Midwest symposium I attended this weekend in Independence, Missouri. The theme was scripture. I was there primarily to read an excerpt from the two-part article on the Book of Mormon historicity debates I wrote last year for Sunstone's Mapping Mormon Issues project, but they also put me on a lunch panel on the topic "What Makes Scripture 'Scripture'?" That was the title of a mini-essay I wrote for Sunstone magazine several years ago (my first Sunstone publication, I think).

For the lunch panel, I gave what turned out to be a rather passionate little speech about my conviction that God communicates to me through the LDS scriptures, whatever their origin, and about my effort to be simultaneously critically discerning and teachable in relation to the canon. What I said seemed to strike chords in the audience, for which I'm grateful: I'd spent a lot of time prepping that brief presentation, and I'd prayed that God would give me words that might be meaningful.

Afterward, the president of one of the fundamentalist RLDS churches that broke away over women's ordination thanked me for my testimony of the Book of Mormon. It was an odd moment, since I surmise this individual and I would actually have very little theological ground in common. (I wondered how he reacted when I came out to the audience during the Q&A that followed my Book of Mormon historicity presentation later in the day.) But we share, evidently, a conviction that God has spoken to us through the Book of Mormon. My impression from the symposium was that Community of Christ is in the middle of trying to decide what to think about the scriptural status of the Bible, much less the Book of Mormon. I knew, of course, that there's a retreat from the Book of Mormon on the part of Community of Christ leadership; but I was surprised, and dismayed, to be told by the church's leading theological consultant that the church takes the position that belief in or use of the Book of Mormon is not a test for fellowship or membership. At the risk of sounding like certain FARMS writers with whom I would not want to be identified—and with the clarification that I agree that attitudes toward the Book of Mormon should not be a "test" for excluding or expelling individuals from church membership—I have to say that a church which is no longer committed collectively to the Book of Mormon as canonical (whatever they may think the book is or means) has developed to a point where I think it's at best uncertain whether they should still be considered part of the larger Latter Day Saint movement.

Anyway, the point I wanted to make before I go to bed is this: When I write this blog, I'm usually imagining LDS readers, and I'm therefore very aware that my approach to a Mormon spirituality is radically liberal by LDS standards. So it was odd to find myself this weekend in a setting where my highly liberal approach to the Book of Mormon made me a kind of reactionary. Being in that position cast in sharp relief, for myself to see, how important the Book of Mormon and other distinctive LDS scriptures are to me.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


He was crucified, died, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven to sit down on the right hand of the Father, to reign with almighty power. (D&C 20:23-24)

May you know the exceeding greatness of God's power to us-ward, which he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and set him at his own right hand, far above all principality, power, might, and dominion, and has put all things under his feet. (from Eph. 1:18-22)
We're just back from the Easter vigil. Christ is risen. God's victory is accomplished. As I looked forward earlier in the week to this moment, I found my reflections tending toward a spirit of defiance. My "Aleluia!" has become a kind of warcry.

To all the forces of destruction and sorrow and darkness, I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

To the uncertainties of my future, I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

To the global recession, I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

To everything that constrains the lives of people I knew in the Dominican Republic (you know the names and faces I hold in my heart, Lord), I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

To the exploitation of neighbors in my apartment complex, I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

To the fear-mongering of right-wing pundits in this country, I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

To the anti-gay prejudice that has led—especially among Mormons, my own people—to warped souls, and wrenched families, and electroshock, and suicide, I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

To the tyranny perpetrated in the name of the "war on terror" and to the disaster that is Iraq, I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

To my mother's cancer, and all the unhappiness she has experienced over the course her life, I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

To the crippling disabilities that are slowly killing my niece, I say:
Christ is risen! Aleluia!

Trample them under your feet, Lord.
Trample them down.
Aleluia! Amen!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A financial setback

Today, a month of anxious waiting came to an end. A couple funding opportunities that would have greatly facilitated the writing of my dissertation and allowed me to go on the job market this fall have failed to materialize. It's been somewhat demoralizing. In one case, the circumstances have left me feeling, "My work wasn't good enough." In another case, I was actually awarded the funding, and then just a few days later the funding got cancelled because of the economy. My outward response to that one was gracious, but inwardly I'm seething mad—not at anyone in particular but at what feels like the injustice of the situation: I earned the prize, but then it was taken from me.

So I'm left feeling a bit depressed. And to be honest, I feel angry at God. But then I think to myself: Oh for crying out loud, John-Charles. It's a financial setback. It will make the next year or two difficult and stressful. You'll be poorer. But all it really means is that you'll be in the situation most doctoral students are in when they're working on their dissertations, without the luxury of certain forms of financial aid you've gotten used to. Get your head out of your fricking navel. There are so many worse things that happen to people. Where the hell do you get off fishing for pity—from God or anyone else?

Then again, if God observes the fall of every sparrow; if our Heavenly Parents desire to give their children good things; if Christ has taken upon himself all our sorrows, then there's something to be said, some comfort to be taken, from knowing that God does feel bad for me. As soon as I say that, I wince at the self-aggrandizement. Ah f--- it: I'll allow myself the luxury of a few moments of unadulterated self-pity, a few moments of gratefully soaking in the knowledge of God's empathy. It makes me feel better.

Okay, there. Done. Thanks be to God.

Easter's coming. I've said that I believe the Easter story is God telling me that tragedy and heartbreak and destruction are never the end of the story. If I can have faith that's true for the big tragedies, I can have faith it's true for the microscopic ones, too. Pick myself up and move on. Jesus is walking with me—or rather, he invites me to walk with him as he heads off to tackle much bigger problems than mine.


Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother—

Help me provide for my family.
Open my eyes to opportunities for work.
Guide me as I make tough decisions.
Ouch! Let me rephrase that: Guide Hugo and me and as we make tough decisions.
Help me get the dissertation written in as timely a manner as possible.
Help me find a teaching position that will let me put our family on a stable financial footing.

I know lots and lots of people are praying for these things.
And I know lots and lots of people don't get the things they're praying for.
I certainly don't deserve to have my prayers answered any more than they do.
But I'm praying anyway because... I just have to. For my own peace of mind.
And because you ask me to.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Palm Sunday

This afternoon, Hugo and I attended the Palm Sunday service at the Advocate, the Episcopal church we attend. (I don't "belong" to the Advocate, but it's the place where I "camp out" spiritually as a Mormon exile.) The service began outside with a procession, everyone clustered around the cross waving palm branches as the crucifer made a circuit through the parking lot. Later there was a semi-dramatic reading of the passion story, from Gethsemane to the burial and sealing of the tomb.

And with that, Holy Week has begun. On Maundy Thursday, we'll go to a supper that commemorates the Last Supper, with washing of feet; I'm helping provide music for that service. Early Friday afternoon, the Advocate will do a bilingual Way of the Cross through our little town, for which Hugo and I prepared the Spanish translation. On Friday evening, I'll drop in for a while on a "wake," where people sit near an icon of Jesus wrapped in his burial shroud and "remember" him. Late Saturday night, we'll attend the Easter vigil, which commemorates the moment of Christ's coming forth from the tomb. And then on the morning of Easter Sunday, we'll drive down to attend an Easter service with friends in Charlotte, about three hours away, and spend part of the day with them.

Holy Week and Advent/Christmas are the center of my Christian observance, at least on a yearly scope. (On a weekly scope, the center of my Christian observance is the sacrament, which I bless and administer for myself at home.) The services I participate in this week are very important liturgical means for marking my Christian discipleship. They're disciplines: I do them because I consider them an obligation that comes with affirming a Christian identity. They're acts of worship, of devotion, of remembrance, centered on Jesus Christ, his suffering, death, and resurrection.
May Christ lift you up,
and may his sufferings and death,
and the showing of his body to our ancestors,
and his mercy and long-suffering,
and the hope of his glory and of eternal life,
rest in your mind forever.
(Moroni 9:25)

Heavenly Father—

I was about to pray that I would have a "meaningful experience" during my Holy Week observances this week.
But on second thought, I think the Spirit's prompting me to realize that having a meaningful experience isn't really the point.
I do this as a discipline, a commitment, something that needs to be done, entirely independent of whether doing it gives me certain satisfying feelings or insights.

So I'll pray simply for this:
That you will consecrate this performance for the welfare of my soul.
That the devotion I offer you this week will be acceptable to you.
That I can be with Christ in his suffering this week, whatever that means exactly.
I'm guessing it will turn out to have a lot to do with my being with a group of other individuals who are gathered in Christ's name.
If you're calling me to be with Christ in that sense—in the sense of encountering Christ in other people and their needs—help me to recognize him when I see him and to know what, if anything, you want me to do for him.

I'm here, Father.
I'm here, Jesus.
I guess that's what this prayer boils down to. Just that.
I'm here.

In Christ's name, amen.

On revelation

My reading this week was on the theme of consecration. I've decided to wait to write about the reading, though, until after Holy Week (which begins today, with Palm Sunday) and Easter. Today I want to respond to a comment someone posted about last week's reflection, "Joseph Smith is not a gospel principle." The commenter raised the question: Where does a liberal Mormon draw the line in deciding that some texts or teachings produced by Joseph or other church leaders are inspired and others aren't? "Are you going to do to the D&C what Jefferson did to the Bible: cut and paste the parts you like into your own book?"

I've reflected a little on this issue in an earlier post, "How can you pick and choose?" I want to take it up again, though, partly because I have to give a presentation in a couple of weeks about my understanding of scripture, and this offers me a good chance to achieve some more clarity on the subject. Also, the subject seems appropriate (even if in an ironic kind of way) as a theme for reflection on the occasion of General Conference.

So, here goes.


Hi, Andrew--

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts! I'd like to respond by trying to summarize the experiences that have led me to understand revelation the way I do.

I grew up at a time when the leading scriptural authorities in Mormonism were Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, whose views on scripture and revelation were basically fundamentalistic. Those commentators made some allowance for the idea that modern revelation could supersede earlier revelation, or for limitations of human authors (to explain things like weird grammar). But the basic understanding was the revelations were produced through a supernatural process approaching a kind of divine dictation—God gave Joseph Smith the words to write down. The various scriptural texts are therefore "true" in the simple sense that they expound a consistent body of doctrine and are perfectly reliable in the here and now as a guide for living and salvation (with the understanding that some mysteries will be clarified later and some changes will eventually be made in Church practice, like restoring the law of consecration and maybe polygamy).

That's the general understanding that dominated the Mormon communities I grew up in, and it was the understanding I subscribed to until I became a young adult—to be more precise, until I started work on my first college degrees—at which point it stopped being plausible to me. I saw too many internal inconsistencies or contradictions across scriptural texts, shifts in worldview, reflections of the historical environment, sexist and racist attitudes, failed prophesies, and self-serving teachings or instructions. Of course, orthodox scriptorians and apologists have developed ways of trying to explain away those kinds of problems; but those explanations ceased to be convincing to me. It was simpler to believe that the problems were due to these texts being human creations like any other text.

Now, up to this point, my story is a textbook case of an intellectual converting away from fundamentalism. But things are complicated by the fact that I also have a testimony of the scriptures of the Restoration. That testimony rests centrally on the experiences I had as a missionary, smack dab in the middle of my college education, the period in my life when I was beginning to find Mormon orthodoxy to be intellectually implausible (though experiences I had growing up in an LDS home have also been important in developing my testimony, as have experiences I've had in my post-mission years). As a missionary, I saw how the scriptures of the Restoration—and to a somewhat lesser extent, the teachings of contemporary LDS leaders—served as vehicles for communicating personal revelation and the life-changing power of the Spirit. I experienced it in my own life; I watched it happening in the lives of people I worked with. I know the scriptures are true in the sense that I've seen the Spirit use them to touch people's lives, my own and others'.

So the problem I faced in the years following my mission was: How do I make sense of these two experiences together—the intellectual developments that have made it impossible for me to subscribe to an orthodox understanding of the scriptures as supernaturally revealed texts, and the spiritual experiences I've had while studying and teaching from these same texts? The working solution I've arrived it—at least for now; who can ever say what the future will bring?—is the one you see reflected on this blog. The texts are human creations, flawed, biased, limited, self-serving, at times even self-deluded. But—a huge "but," and at this point I have to start talking in terms of the mysterious grace of God—these texts are the means that God uses to communicate with me.

Because the texts are human creations, they have to be read critically: I have to discern where God is trying to communicate something to me as opposed to where I'm just reading a reflection of Joseph Smith's own ideas or hopes or fears or fantasies. At the same time, though, because I am coming to these texts to be taught by the Spirit of God—which, like the wind, blows where it will—I have to approach the texts in a teachable spirit. That's why I can't just start cutting and pasting the parts of these texts that currently seem to me to reflect God's will and leave the rest on the cutting room floor. Revelation is a process, and it's entirely possible that parts of the text that, currently, I don't think have anything to do with God will turn out to be avenues through which God teaches me something. This is a kind of critical humility—not the self-abnegating humility of the hypothetical orthodox Mormon you describe, Andrew, who accepts everything a church leader says as inspired. But it isn't the blithely self-confident criticism of a Thomas Jefferson, either. It's something in between.

You raise the concern, Andrew, of a slippery slope. I want to speak to that concern, though what I'm going to say probably won't assuage it. The crucial question for me is this: What is at stake for orthodox Mormons in resisting the idea that the scriptures, or the teachings of contemporary church leaders, should be read critically? Answer: Maximizing the authority of church leaders. If a person starts asking, "So which passages in the Book of Mormon are inspired and which ones aren't?" [though I should interject that I wouldn't pose the question that way], or "Which passages in the D&C are inspired and which ones aren't?" that person is essentially passing judgment on Joseph Smith's claims to prophecy—which from an orthodox perspective would be fine if the judgment were simply, "Yes, this man is a prophet and I'll follow him to the end of the earth." But orthodoxy can't tolerate a judgment that says, "Here Joseph's words are inspired, but here they aren't."

Sometimes Mormon apologists can get away with that kind of judgment if it's the only plausible way to deal with an embarrassing statement from a church leader who's dead, like Brigham Young's teachings on race. ("Oh, he wasn't speaking as a prophet in that case.") But orthodoxy can't tolerate that kind of judgment-passing on the teachings of contemporary church leaders. Church leaders don't want to be judged or criticized in that way—Dallin H. Oaks has been breathtakingly, shamelessly explicit on this point. Church leaders want members to accept their words as inspired so they'll do what they say—period. If a pesky outsider suggests that this sounds like blind obedience, public relations people will rush to insist that members are supposed to gain their own testimonies, that they're free to dissent, etc. But watch what actually happens when someone dissents—when someone says, "Well, I think the Spirit's telling me that the church's opposition to gay marriage is misguided"—and all that p.r. spin goes up in smoke. Church leaders expect to be obeyed. And they're convinced, and the orthodox faithful are convinced, that church leaders can lay down that expectation because their teachings are inspired in the sense of being perfectly reliable. The Lord will not allow them to lead the church astray, etc.

My testimony tells me that's just not true. That way of understanding the prophetic authority of church leaders requires (to paraphrase D&C 21) that you accept the words of church leaders as if they were the very words of God. That's idolatry. And it creates situations where unrighteous dominion can flourish. To accept church leaders as prophets in a true sense has to mean something other than, "Their teachings are beyond criticism"—whether we're talking about scriptures written in the past or the talks church leaders are delivering this weekend at General Conference.

I believe in modern revelation. It's a big part of why I call myself Mormon. I believe, as D&C 1 says, that one of God's purposes in bringing about the movement we call the Restoration is that everyone will speak in the name of God. I seek inspiration to guide my life and the work I believe I'm called to do. I have felt moved at times to speak in the name of God against what I understood to be injustice. Church leaders, too, seek inspiration to carry out the work they've been made responsible for; they, too, speak out in the name of God against what they understand to be wrong. In that sense, sure, church leaders are prophets. But we're all prophets in that sense. Church leaders don't have any special access to God that the rest of us don't have. Their office isn't to "receive revelation," as if that were a right and privilege that pertained only to their office. Their office is to administer the church at the global level, and they should be seeking revelation as they do that, just as all of us should be seeking revelation in carrying out whatever responsibilities we've been given.

Again, a combination of criticism and faith is required: We trust that we're receiving inspiration, we trust that we're being led; but we also have to be self-critical enough to realize that we're flawed vessels, with limited understandings, and that what we think is inspiration might not be, or at least could be superseded later by a better understanding. The orthodox have an overabundance of faith in revelation; what they lack is critical humility.

We also have to recognize that because we're all limited human beings seeking inspiration according to our best lights, we're going to end up disagreeing about what's true or what God's will is. Again, criticism and faith are required: the faith to take a stand on what you're convinced is true but the critical humility to tolerate and dialogue with others who are convinced differently. And it takes further inspiration to develop a (provisional) conviction about when you should be open to dialogue and when you should take a firm stand.

I need to wrap up. Let's bring this closer back to the theme of scripture. The bottom line for me: The scriptures are not a collection of memos from God. They're documents produced by a man who believed he was a prophet in a way he actually wasn't, and which were accepted as scripture by a whole community of people who believed that man was a prophet in a way he actually wasn't. By definition, my way of seeing things makes me a marginal figure in that faith community—the community's functionaries have, in fact, ruled me to be an outsider. But I keep reading the scriptures every week because I know what they are: an instrument for revelation—not in the sense that they were produced through supernatural means in the past, but in the sense that the Spirit uses them to communicate with us in the here and now if we keep our eyes and ears and hearts and minds open. They're a devotional tool, though I don't like how pedestrian that sounds. The phrase "devotional tool" doesn't capture what these texts actually mean to me; for that I need the phrase "word of God," but of course I understand that term differently than the orthodox do.

Enough. Again, Andrew, I appreciate your taking the time to write and giving me the chance to think through these issues some more.