Saturday, June 6, 2009

Avoiding personal apostasy

In this month's Ensign, there is an article entitled Avoiding Personal Apostasy. It's pretty much what you would expect. It addresses none of the real problems with church doctrine, history, or evidence. It assumes that those who leave the church do so because they want to sin, they are offended, or they find fault with church leaders. Naturally, any substantial criticism of the church or its leaders can't possibly be true, and must be an indication of personal apostasy which came about for one of the above reasons.

I won't even bother addressing the majority of the article, except to say that the reason for my unbelief, and the unbelief of many others I know, has nothing to do with anything Elder Claudio D. Zivic assumes must be the cause. As with everything I believe or disbelieve in life, for me it comes down to evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and in my view, the evidence for the LDS church's extraordinary claims is woefully insufficient. The only way I could hold a literal belief in the LDS church would be for me to decide ahead of time that I would believe, and then twist and interpret the evidence to fit the belief. I did that for long enough to know that I can't do it forever. Plenty of people are able to do it, but I am not one of them.

What concerns me more is the paragraph in which Elder Zivic casually dismisses the possibility that the LDS church is in error. In fact, he goes even further, dismissing the possibility that the LDS church could ever be fundamentally in error. He says,

We need not be concerned about the possibility of another apostasy of the Church of Jesus Christ. We have the privilege of living in the dispensation of the fulness of times. This gospel dispensation, which began with the Prophet Joseph Smith, is the last one before the Second Coming of the Savior.

Second ComingFirst, people have been saying this kind of thing about the end of the world for millennia. Christians have been saying it ever since Jesus was said to have preached that the kingdom of God was near at hand, and that many within the sound of his voice would not taste of death before they saw the Son of Man coming in his glory. Seriously, the second coming has been "any day now" for two thousand years. Joseph Smith, Sr., the first patriarch of the LDS church, gave many, many blessings during the 1830s and 1840s, in which he claimed that the receivers of the blessings would live to see the Second Coming. Shouldn't we start to suspect that maybe "imminent" doesn't mean what we think it means?

Second, and more importantly: "We need not be concerned." The prophet will never lead us astray. Never mind that the prophet led us into polygamy. Never mind that the prophet implemented institutional racism for 130 years. Never mind that the prophet is still implementing institutional sexism. Never mind that the prophet made up a "Egyptian alphabet and grammar" that bears no resemblance to actual Egyptian, and used it to translate a history of Abraham from papyri that have nothing to do with Abraham. Never mind that... never mind that... oh, never mind anything that's not in the Sunday school manual. Anyway, thou shalt not criticize the prophet, and don't worry yourself about any of these "apostate" ideas. We need not be concerned.

Kool-Aid ManIt frightens me whenever anyone uses the words "we need not be concerned", especially in reference to religious belief. Advising others to abdicate their responsibility to think critically about their beliefs, and advising them to follow their leaders without question, is extremely dangerous. It's not the kind of advice that would be considered valuable in any arena except religion. "We need not be concerned" leads to tragedies like the Peoples Temple suicide, the September 11 martyrs, and to take a Mormon example, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This is not melodrama for its own sake; this is what happens when you think you have God on your side, and are not concerned about the possibility of being wrong.

I much prefer the words of my favorite LDS prophet (if I have to pick one), Joseph Smith, Jr. He said,

We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God . . . would despise the idea.

Others, in the extreme exercise of their Almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without asking any questions. When the elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves.

Need we be concerned about the possibility of being led astray? Despite the assurances of Elder Claudio D. Zivic, there is, indeed, cause for concern.


Kristen said...

It's true that following the prophet and believing that the prophet will never lead the members astray are mainstream beliefs. For me, the balance comes in that we also believe in personal revelation for ourselves and our family. Many people don't take the time to think about or pray about what the prophet teaches, but I believe it is a important part of our religion. We don't have to blindly follow the prophet, rather we should be accountable for what we believe and what we will or will not do with our beliefs. The interesting point comes when what the prophet teaches and what we feel is true for ourselves or for our family are not in sync. In theory this will never happen (or at least not with big things), as what is right for us at this time in history will be revealed to both the prophet and ourselves the same. In the worst case scenario that you allude to, I'm sure some of the people would drink the Kool-aid. But as for me, if my personal revelation said "spit and run!" I think I'd go with that.

Mel said...

The problem with depending upon personal revelation in following the prophet is a major one: if our personal revelation disagrees with what the prophet says, we are wrong, by the definition of the church, and in danger of falling into apostasy.

dbd said...


Do we agree that the prophet/brethren instructed the membership to support (donate time and money to) Prop 8? Your kids are too young, but I have a gay child and this official 'denial of rights' broke my heart (and my beliefs) but opened my mind to investigating the institutional bigotry against blacks and women found in church history and current practices. The prophets have been wrong in the past (but of course the apologists claim they were just speaking as a man), so how do we KNOW that their current words are true?

Thomas said...

Saganist, good post. One item: That closing quote is, I believe, from Elder Charles W. Penrose, not Joseph Smith himself, even though it's often attributed to the Prophet.

Kristen said...

I should have mentioned in my original comment that I feel a lot of sympathy for Saganist and those in his situation. If your conclusions upon personal study, reflection, and prayer do not match up with the official doctrine, it's true that you are thought of as wrong and in danger of apostasy. I think that is unfortunate. In my first comment, I mostly wanted to point out the church doesn't just teach blindly following the prophet, although at times it does sound like it. We are taught to find out for ourselves, to study the facts and pray to determine if it's right. I think it is wrong to blindly believe anyone, including our prophet, just because they say to do something. Doing exactly what someone tells you to do without thinking and deciding for yourself sounds a lot like Satan's plan to me. I don't have a problem with the prophets and leaders in the church receiving revelation and deciding what is the best path for the church to take. I like to think of the church as being on this big broad path that is built to accommodate the church as a whole. We as individuals are on our own spiritual paths with unique testimonies. Some of us stay on the path, some of us are weaving on and off, some of us are very far off, but all of us who are striving to learn truth and be good people are heading in the right direction. I wish the leadership in the church would be more accepting and understanding to those whose testimonies are not textbook. dbd, I'm not sure how the campaign started out, but by the end the spokesperson for the church was saying that the church was holding to their position, but each member was able to decide for themselves. I would love it if this philosophy could be expanded to all things in the church. I for one did not agree with Prop 8. Since the church so obviously supported it, I wasn't going to be disrespectful in my church meetings and argue against it. However I felt comfortable being on my own path on that issue, and don't feel called to repentance for those beliefs. Sorry Saganist to steal your post. I think my comments are longer that your original post :). Although Saganist's spiritual path may be different from mine, I respect it, and I know that he is a wonderful and amazing person.

Saganist said...

Kristen, I know that church leaders sometimes pay lip service to the idea that each member should work out the truth for themselves, and should rely on personal revelation. But Mel is also correct to say that if you come to a different conclusion than the brethren (even through careful study and prayer), then you must be wrong. You can have any color car you want, as long as you want black.

It has even been taught that if your leaders ask you to do something that conflicts with your conscience, you should choose to obey your leaders anyway and the Lord will bless you for it. That's the exact opposite of the quote I posted at the end, allegedly said by Joseph Smith. BTW, Thomas, did Joseph Smith really not say that? That's too bad, because that is one of my favorite quotes attributed to him. Drat.

Kristen, I am glad that you feel the personal freedom to follow the dictates of your own conscience. I worry for those members of the church who do not feel that way, and articles like "Avoiding Personal Apostasy" are not helping. If anything, articles and talks like this strongly reinforce the idea that the church is the ultimate authority, and the leaders must never be disobeyed. I would estimate that this "follow the prophet" message is preached at least 10 times as often as the message about seeking personal revelation.

Saganist said...

I just realized that instead of linking to lds4u (not that there's anything wrong with that), I could have linked directly to the official church site that is quoted there. Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet is a very interesting article in itself, and one of these days maybe I'll write a separate blog post about it. The actual quote in question is, "My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it."