Sunday, October 25, 2009

D&C 162

(About this reflection)

Another Grant McMurray revelation—the last in the canon.

I see an unresolved tension at work in this revelation. That statement might not surprise McMurray, who says in the introduction that "even as I present [these words] to the church, I do so sensing that there is more to be said." He invites the church "to join in the task of discerning God's will for us. I am not yet sure what form that will take . . ." So in that spirit, let me offer my own sense of what more there is to say by way of advancing the project to which this revelation calls the "people of the Restoration" (162:1a).

The basic tension I see in this text is that it calls the Saints to pay closer attention to their past, but the text itself doesn't actually engage closely with that past and therefore isn't very helpful as a model for what it seems to be calling the Saints to undertake. The text as it's presented to the church is still overly preoccupied with breaking away from the old forms and the old language—even as it urges the Saints to be cautious of that very impulse.

Ick. That sounds so academic. But I'm trying to articulate something that I think is vitally and practically important for how Latter Day Saints live out the tradition God has given us.

Here's where the text urges the Saints to listen more closely to tradition, or to the past:

Listen carefully to your own journey as a people, for it is a sacred journey and it has taught you many things you must know for the journey to come. Listen to its teachings and discover anew its principles. (162:2a-b)

You have already been told to look to the sacraments to enrich the spiritual life of the body. . . . Be respectful of tradition and sensitive to one another . . . . (162:2d)

You are a good and faithful people, but sometimes you fail to see the power that is resident in your own story and fellowship. Listen carefully, listen attentively, and sense the Spirit among you. (162:8a)
In between that, though—and here's where you see the tension—the text keeps pulliing in the opposite direction, insisting on the value of novelty:
Do not yearn for times that are past . . . [D]iscern the divine will for your own time and the places where you serve. You live in a world with new challenges, and that world will require new forms of ministry. (162:2b-c)

You have already been told to look to the sacraments to enrich the spiritual life of the body. It is not the form of the sacrament that dispenses grace but it is the divine presence that gives life. Be respectful of tradition and sensitive to one another, but do not be unduly bound by interpretations and procedures that no longer fit the needs of a worldwide church. (162:2d)

The spirit of the Restoration is not locked into one moment of time, but is instead the call to every generation to witness to essential truths in its own language and form. Let the Spirit breathe. (162:2e)

The richness of cultures, the poetry of language, and the breadth of human experience permit the gospel to be seen with new eyes and grasped with freshness of spirit. (162:4a)
To which I say, Amen—with reservations. Do new times require new forms of ministry? Of course. Should the Saints not be unduly invested in the precise forms of their sacraments? I agree. Should we allow the gospel to be seen with new eyes? Emphatically! "Let the Spirit breathe"? Fantastically put!

But . . . I think this text makes an assertion that ends up giving too much force to the impulse for novelty. Look again at verse 2e: "The spirit of the Restoration is not locked in one moment of time . . ." Sure, yes. Important to say. ". . . [B]ut is instead the call to every generation to witness to essential truths in its own language and form." Well . . . no. The Restoration is more concrete than that. The Restoration is not a call to express essential truths in whatever language you find available in your time and place. First of all, the whole notion that truths exist independent of language and can be expressed in multiple languages is really problematic. It's a common metaphor for thinking about how language and truth work—I have a hunch I've probably used that metaphor at various times in this blog—but it's misleading. Anyway, even if we agree to run with that metaphor, the Restoration isn't just a call to invest truth in many languages. The Restoration is itself a particular language. It has a particular vocabulary, a particular grammar. The language can certainly change over time, as languages do: certain terms or symbols can become archaic or obsolete; new ones can be invented or imported from other languages; the "grammatical rules" can change to make formerly unorthodox expressions permissible. But there can come a point at which a language has changed so much that what you've really done is created a new language.

It looks to me like that's the direction D&C 162 is moving in, despite its concern that the Saints engage more closely with tradition. The text doesn't use much of the traditional language of the Latter Day Saints. There are references to "the peaceable kingdom," to "Zion," a reference to "the great and marvelous work." "The Spirit of truth." Jesus Christ is named a couple of times, though he's also referred to in more abstract terms as "the One"—"the One whose name you claim" (162:1b), "the One you follow" (162:6c). The primary symbol for God in this revelation, other than "the Spirit," is a Voice, "the Voice that speaks from beyond the farthest hills, from the infinite heavens above, and the vast seas below," "the Voice that echoes across the eons of time and yet speaks anew in this moment" (162:1a-b). There's discussion of the principles of "stewardship" and of "the inestimable worth of all person," which I assume is meant to be recognized as a paraphrase of "the worth of souls is great in the sight of God."

My point is: yes, you can find in this text certain traditional Latter Day Saint terms and concepts. But the dominant impression I get from the document is that of novelty—a new language for God, a distinctively modern idiom. There's nothing wrong with any of that per se. I'm not some conservative railing against liberal innovation. I certainly don't think McMurray should be trying to imitate King James English. And I think the images we're given of "the Voice" are very cool. Even so, I feel . . . impoverished. I love D&C 162; I feel the Spirit speaking to me through this text; there's highlighting all over my copy. But I find it odd and disappointing that a document which gently chastises the Saints for "fail[ing] to see the power that is resident in your own story" and urges them to "listen carefully to your own journey" doesn't attempt to speak more extensively in the traditional language of the Saints, the language of the canon. How can we listen to the tradition if its language isn't being spoken? Couldn't turns of phrase from elsewhere in the canon been more richly woven into this document, thus multiplying the visible connections between this revelation's teaching and the teachings of revelations past?

Milking my language metaphor for all its worth: D&C 162 reads to me less like it was written in the language of the Latter Day Saints than like it was written in a Latter Day Saint/liberal Protestant creole. Not that there's anything wrong with creoles, I hasten to add. But is that really where God wants us to go? The impression I'm getting from D&C 162 is that the Spirit wants to urge the Saints not to take that route, but the man through whom that revelation comes is not well-versed in the language of the tradition himself, because he's received his professional training at institutions where other languages are spoken. He himself isn't listening to the Latter Day Saint tradition and its distinctive scriptures as much as he's listening to the theological conversations of other communities and learning to speak their languages.

That's judgmental of me to say, of course. I'm going to let it stand because I'm prepared to be judged by the same standard. There are those in the LDS community who would fault me for exactly the same thing for which I'm faulting Grant McMurray and other Community of Christ liberals: too much love of novelty, too little respect for tradition. As McMurray says, it's a matter of trying to discern where God wants us to go.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

D&C 161

(About this reflection)

This is one of two revelations produced by Grant McMurray, the first president of the Reorganization who was not a descendent of Joseph Smith. I appreciate the modesty with which the document was presented to the Saints: it was written and presented to the church in 1996, but McMurray waits four years before initiating the process that led to the document's canonization because, he said, "I felt it was important that the church live with the words and not feel compelled to make any urgent decisions about them." That principle rings true—that the canon should be composed of texts which have proved their value to the faith community over time.

I was going to excerpt passages that spoke especially powerfully to me; but when I sat down to start doing that, I realized that I'd end up copying down probably most of the text, so I think it makes more sense to just provide a summary of what, for me, are the highlights.


The document opens with a call to fix our eyes "on the place beyond the horizon to which you are sent." We are assured that "the great and marvelous work is for this time and for all time." We are exhorted to "be faithful to the spirit of the Restoration," which is said to be "a spirit of adventure, openness, and searching."

We are called to "become a people of the Temple--those who see violence but proclaim peace, who feel conflict yet extend the hand of reconciliation, who encounter broken spirits and find pathways for healing." The Temple should "stand as a towering symbol of a people who knew injustice and strife on the frontier and who now seek the peace of Jesus Christ throughout the world."

A major focus of the revelation is the "arduous" and "even painful" task of "creating sacred community." We are asked to "open your hearts and feel the yearnings of your brothers and sisters who are lonely, despised, fearful, neglected, unloved." We should "invite all to share in the blessings of community created in the name of the One who suffered on behalf of all." We are cautioned not to "be fearful of one another" but to "respect each life journey, even in its brokenness and uncertainty. . . . Be ready to listen and slow to criticize." Later, in the same vein: "Be tender and caring." "The gifts of all are necessary in order that divine purposes may be accomplished."

I know those instructions are true. Oh hell, let's use the word I usually avoid because I hate its authoritarian connotations: I know those commandments are true. And there's nothing self-congratulatory about my saying that, because they are commandments that chastise me.

We are told to "be respectful of tradition" because "the story of scripture and of faith empowers and illuminates." At the same time, we should not be "captive to time-bound formulas and procedures."

The revelation calls the Saints to "create diverse communities of disciples and seekers." Our call is to "become a global family, united in the name of the Christ, committed in love to one another, seeking the kingdom for which you yearn and to which you have been summoned. That kingdom is a peaceable one and it shall be known as Zion."


My impulse at the moment is to feel angry and depressed: Why can't LDS leadership hear the Voice that speaks in this language? But I'm going to check that impulse. For one thing, it's not entirely fair: I could find these principles in LDS discourse, though they may not be expressed so powerfully and are buried beneath a lot of authoritarian, dogmatic, diversity-fearing sediment. The other reason to check this impulse is that what LDS leadership, or the LDS community more generally, does or does not do is beside the point as far as my obligations are concerned. D&C 161 articulates the gospel call in a way that commands my assent, and my task now is to live up to its principles in the context in which I find myself.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

D&C 153-160

(About this reflection)

I read this week the revelations of Wallace B. Smith, great-grandson of Joseph Smith, Jr., and the last Smith descendent to lead the Reorganization. For my post this week, I simply want to excerpt passages where I felt the Spirit speaking to me.


Be of good cheer, O my people.
Neither be discouraged by uncertainties
nor disheartened by the seeming lack of understanding on the part of some
regarding the kingdom-building task.
If you will move out in faith and confidence
to proclaim my gospel,
my Spirit will empower you,
and there will be many who respond,
even in places and ways which do not now seem clear.
Support one another in love,
confident that my Spirit will be with you
even as I have gone before you and shown you the way.
(D&C 154:7)

Trust in my promises,
for they have been given for your assurance
and will bear you up in times of doubt. . . .
I am aware of your uncertainties,
but if you will call upon my name,
my Spirit will go before you into whatsoever place you are sent,
and I will continue to bless you as you have need.
(D&C 156:7-8)

The temple shall be dedicated to the pursuit of peace.
It shall be for reconciliation and for healing of the spirit. . . .
It shall be a place in which the essential meaning of the Restoration
as healing and redeeming agent
is given new life and understanding,
inspired by the life and witness of the Redeemer of the world . . . ,
an ensign to the world
of the breadth and depth of the devotion of the Saints.
(D&C 156:5-6)

As you go forth to witness of my love
and my concern for all persons,
you will know the joy which comes
from devoting yourselves completely
to the work of the kingdom.
(D&C 156:11)

I have heard your prayers when you have cried out to me,
and I have been with you in the places where you occupy.
I am aware of your desires to serve me,
and my assurance is that as you go forth,
your offerings of faith and service are acceptable to me.
In all your efforts, therefore,
continue to trust in my grace
and respond in love to the leadings of my Spirit.
(D&C 157:16-17)

Do nothing in haste,
but continue to trust in the enduring promises
of the One in whose name you have been given life.
Then, as you gain ever more confidence
in sensing the leadings of my Spirit,
you will begin to see with new eyes,
embrace the truths that are waiting for your understanding,
and move joyfully toward the fulfillment of the tasks
that are yours to accomplish.
(D&C 159:7-8)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

RIP Mercedes Sosa

Mercedes Sosa has died. She was an Argentine folk singer who was exiled during the last military dictatorship. With her music, she bore witness against oppression and encouraged those who thirst for justice.

As a tribute, I'm posting the lyrics to the song I primarily associate with Mercedes Sosa. It's actually not her composition—it's the work of another artist, León Gieco—but I associate the song with her because I know it through a concert recording she did.

The English translation is my own, and rather free for the sake of intelligibility. Periodically I try my hand at working up a singable English translation, but no luck yet; I've heard one, but it's mediocre.

As a Christian, I have a problem with the second verse, though I can say yes to the sentiment that we should not simply acquiesce to injustice.

For the time being, there's a recording available at Youtube (not my creation).


Sólo le pido a Dios
que el dolor no me sea indiferente,
que la reseca muerte no me encuentre
vacío y solo sin haber hecho lo suficiente.
All that I ask of God
is that I will not be indifferent to suffering,
that I will not come to the moment of my death
having failed to do what I could.
Sólo le pido a Dios
que lo injusto no me sea indiferente,
que no me abofeteen la otra mejilla
después que una garra me arañó esta suerte.
All that I ask of God
is that I will not be indifferent to injustice,
that I will not merely turn the other cheek
after the first has been clawed.
Sólo le pido a Dios
que la guerra no me sea indiferente;
es un monstruo grande y pisa fuerte
toda la pobre inocencia de la gente.
All that I ask of God
is that I will not be indifferent to war;
it is a terrible monster that tramples
the people’s innocence.
Sólo le pido a Dios
que el engaño no me sea indiferente;
si un traidor puede más que unos cuantos,
que esos cuantos no lo olviden fácilmente.
All that I ask of God
is that I will not be indifferent to deceit;
if a traitor cannot be stopped from having his way,
at least let it not be soon forgotten.
Sólo le pido a Dios
que el futuro no me sea indiferente;
desahuciado está el que tiene que marchar
a vivir una cultura diferente.
All that I ask of God
is that I will not be indifferent about the future,
not despairing like those who abandon their home
to make a new life in a foreign culture.

D&C 145-152

(About this reflection)

My reading for this week was the W. Wallace Smith revelations. WWS was the third of JS Jr.'s grandsons to serve as RLDS president. He's also the president under whom the RLDS Church began the institutional shift that has brought it into greater affinity with liberal Protestantism. (The LDS Church, by contrast, has undergone shifts that have brought it into greater affinity with conservative Protestantism. That's another story, though.) In retrospect, the schisms the RLDS experience in the 1980s under the Wallace B. Smith presidency begin with the W. Wallace Smith presidency.

Incidentally, the section headings are getting longer now. They include, even more frequently than earlier, descriptions from the president regarding how the revelation was received, and summaries of major points from the revelation. I'm wondering if this reflects a certain defensiveness: "Look, these really are revelations; he describes the process," and "Here are the important things we have to take from these documents."

Section 149 is particularly important. It announces that "the time has come for a start to be made toward building my temple in the Center Place" (149:6a). The building of the temple is a powerful expression of the Reorganization's continued commitment to the Zion-building project of the early Saints. At the same time, section 149 offers a soft, indirect rebuke to "some of you [who] have sought security in the words and phrases by which the faithful of earlier days have expressed their knowledge of me." The Lord instructs his servants to "bring to their searching for truth and their service to my people all the treasures of understanding I have opened for them elsewhere. . . . My servants of the leading quorums are commended for their diligence in seeking more light and truth from all available sources" (149:4-5). This is a reference to church leaders having resorted to a Protestant seminary (Methodist, if I remember correctly) for theological education, a major factor in the liberalization of church leadership beginning in this period.

Section 150, given in 1972, appears to speak against the Vietnam War and exploitation of the environment:

These are portentous times. The lives of many are being sacrificed unnecessarily to the gods of war, greed, and avarice. The land is being desecrated by the thoughtless waste of vital resources.
The Saints are called to become leaders in advocating for peace and environmental stewardship:
You must obey my commandments and be in the forefront of those who would mediate this needless destruction while there is yet day. (150:7)
In a similar vein, Section 151 tells the Saints:
You who are my disciples must be found continuing in the forefront of those organizations and movements which are recognizing the worth of persons and are committed to bringing the ministry of my Son to bear on their lives. (151:9)
The Saints are told, in fact, that a shared commitment to these causes will heal division in the church:
Working together to this end will promote unity, resolve conflicts, relieve tensions between individuals, and heal the wounds which have been sapping the strength of the church, spiritually and materially. This you must do in the spirit of love and compassion as revelead in my Son during his journey in your midst. (151:10)
Calls to unity are a recurring theme in the revelations of W. Wallace Smith. Like Frederick Smith's calls for unity, W. Wallace Smith's have a somewhat sinister sound to my ears, given that I know there's another schism coming. With that knowledge, I start to hear calls for unity as a rebuke to the opposition—an insistence that dissenters fall into line. That sends a shiver up my liberal spine, even as my liberal heart warms to the call to seek light and truth from all available sources; to find new ways of expressing the gospel; to march with movements for peace, stewardship, and the worth of persons.

Because of time constraints, I need to set this aside for now. The bottom line is: I'm really ambivalent. In one sense, W. Wallace Smith's revelations are so exciting. There is so much about them that rings true for me, that prompts me to say, "Amen, this is the voice of God!" But I know that this vision for the church prevailed at the cost of alienating something like a fourth of the membership. As a liberal in the LDS Church, I have no power, so it's easy for me to rail against abuses of power by conservatives. In the Reorganization, the balance of power shifted in the liberals' favor, and I feel obliged to judge their use of that power as demandingly as I judge how the conservative LDS establishment has used its power. I'll have to revisit this.