Why I Think We’re Having the Wrong Conversation
Last year Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project, rocked the Bloggernacle by making a presentation at FAIR about equality between the sexes. While her data on “the crisis” (her words) in the Church regarding women and leadership opportunities is drawn from a narrow sampling of vocal agitators for change (analysis here), she made some excellent observations.
I don’t disagree that there is a crisis for some. For others, a great, silent, moving-forward-with-faith army of others, crisis is considerable overstatement. Framing one’s argument with a crisis is, however, good rhetorical and marketing practice. And for what its worth, I have to agree that there’s a crisis, but of an entirely different sort. I’ll get to that later.
The individual experience of some, which is by nature of mortality quite wide-ranging, is not my focus here. If that has already sent you moving for the basket of tomatoes, hold on a second. I want to talk about sweeping generalities, in that sense that most of us do who want to find The Truth. Neylan makes some very salient points about The Truth.
First, our conversation about equality has used the fallen world’s terms for far too long. Neylan states:
Why do we do this? Why, when confronted with an intentionally inflammatory accusation like “gender discrimination,” do we instinctively default to defensive claims that our women are actually just the same as our men because they speak in church, go to school, and get to feel the Spirit the same way? We so often instinctually fall back on earthly paradigms to describe our structure. In an effort to bridge our own experience with the experience of our external audience, we rely on comparisons to hierarchical power structures of fallen world institutions: governments, corporations, and universities in which men and women ideally work side by side to advance to opportunities available to both genders. We talk in terms of opportunity, advancement, visibility, of hierarchical power, which are hallmarks of advanced worldly institutions, in America at least.
Neylan is reaching for something else, something not inflammatory or reactionary but true. She doesn’t want a “watered down version of the real thing, with lots of sugar added” – she wants The Truth. She’s willing to state point-blank that she doesn’t need it to be in a secular pattern using secular terms. She’d like the institution of the Church to reflect The Truth of an eternal relationship of celestial equality between men and women, and she’d like it to be spelled out. I hear that all the time in the Bloggernacle.
- “In order for that to be clarified, there’d have to be another section added to the Doctrine and Covenants.”
- “Until we have a clear revelation about Heavenly Mother, we’re all just floundering here.”
- “It’s a nice theory, but until we have apostolic comment, that’s all it is.”
The issue isn’t that people are agitating for change in the Church structure to match the secular; the issue is that people want revelation. Good news!
That’s actually easier than it sounds. Our faith is structured on the rock of revelation and authority. The dispensation of the fullness of times was brought to pass through the faith and obedience and revelatory prowess of a small and simple man, uneducated in secular ways and therefore able to imagine a heavenly order that was unworldly. From Liberty Jail, he wrote:
The things of God are of deep import and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind O man if thou wilt lead a soul into salvation must search into and contemplate the darkest abyss and the broad expanse of eternity, thou must commune with God. (TPJS, 137)
We know, in our heart of hearts, that debate will not resolve this issue, that we can’t resort to anything we experience in the world’s growing march toward enlightenment to tell us about heaven. In the historical example that is used to explain every cultural force that presses against the church and the subsequent answers that come (the revelation to give the priesthood to every worthy male) we do actually see the workings of the Lord to bring about The Truth. (I now have the attention of agitators and conservatives alike).
It was by slow revelation, inspired by intense, long-standing cultural pressure. Isn’t every problem we face? The Word of Wisdom came about because of the cultural pressure Emma placed on the prophet because of a filthy environment she had to clean up. He got more than he expected when he took the problem to the Lord, but isn’t that the purpose our problems serve? To open willing minds to greater views? And how did that revelation to Spencer W. Kimball occur?
By careful and ponderous and solemn thinking.
For months the prophet was urgently concerned, spending many evenings in the temple, distracted and pensive. He talked to other church leaders extensively, asking their academic and spiritual opinions. He was tentative in asserting his own opinions. In fact, we have no record of him sharing his opinion of how things should be with anyone. In the process of his soulful search, others seem to have changed their minds (most notably Bruce R. McConkie), seeing his intensity and humility, led by his requests that they do intensive research as well to help him. Elder Packer is reported to have asked him why he would not let it rest, and then immediately answered himself that of course he could not, the Lord would not let him (see the excerpts linked above).
One morning after their morning meeting in the temple, President Kimball told the brethren he had cancelled lunch, asking them to remain in the temple with him. He spoke for two hours about his search, read applicable scriptures, noted every objection that could have been made and presented the answers he’d received. He asked their response, and all responded favorably to change. The biography continues (see excerpts above):
President Kimball asked, “Do you mind if I lead you in prayer?” There were things he wanted to say to the Lord. He had reached a decision after great struggle, and he wanted the Lord’s confirmation, if it would come. They surrounded the altar in a prayer circle. President Kimball told the Lord at length that if extending the priesthood was not right, if the Lord did not want this change to come in the Church, he would fight the world’s opposition. Elder McConkie later recounted, “The Lord took over and President Kimball was inspired in his prayer, asking the right questions, and he asked for a manifestation.”
During that prayer, those present felt something powerful, uniting, ineffible. Those who tried to describe it struggled to find words. Elder McConkie said:
[It was as though another day of Pentecost came.] On the day of Pentecost in the Old World it is recorded that cloven tongues of fire rested upon the people. They were trying to put into words what is impossible to express directly. There are no words to describe the sensation, but simultaneously the Twelve and the three members of the First Presidency had the Holy Ghost descend upon them and they knew that God had manifested his will….I had had some remarkable spiritual experiences before, particularly in connection with my call as an apostle, but nothing of this magnitude. All the brethren at once knew and felt in their souls what the answer to the importuning petition of President Kimball was….Some of the Brethren were weeping. All were sober and somewhat overcome. When President Kimball stood up, several of the Brethren, in turn, threw their arms around him.
This is the undercurrent among those who consider this issue and are dissatisfied in the Church today. They want a revelation. They want cloven tongues of fire. They want The Truth and the end to contention and confusion. I do too.
But what if the Lord can’t give us Pentecost on this issue? What if that is why we get “a watered down version of the real thing, with lots of sugar added”? What if that is why further light and knowledge, as revealed in the Word of Wisdom ten-dollar-answer-for-a-two-dollar-question, isn’t forthcoming?
In a fireside address in February 1987, President Ezra Taft Benson gave the infamous talk “To the Mothers in Zion.” I remember it well: a 20-year-old newlywed, I’d just shared my feeling earlier that day to my temple-sealed husband that we were going to have a baby, and he had responded that he was going to leave me because of it, after a rocky Christmas in which we’d temporarily patched up another “I’m leaving you.” (My first child was born 9 months to the day from that fireside, four months after he did leave me.) You can bet the issue of motherhood was front and center for me, in February and all through that year.
In that address, he powerfully pleaded for mothers to “come home.” He said:
I beg of you, you who could and should be bearing and rearing a family: Wives, come home from the typewriter, the laundry, the nursing, come home from the factory, the cafe. No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother–cooking meals, washing dishes, making beds for one’s precious husband and children. Come home, wives, to your husbands. Make home a heaven for them. Come home, wives, to your children, born and unborn. Wrap the motherly cloak about you and, unembarrassed, help in a major role to create the bodies for the immortal souls who anxiously await. When you have fully complemented your husband in home life and borne the children, growing up full of faith, integrity, responsibility, and goodness, then you have achieved your accomplishment supreme, without peer, and you will be the envy [of all] through time and eternity.
The separation among women in the Church was immediate and dramatic. The prophet had overstepped – the prophet was a visionary. But if you read the talk, they weren’t his words. The quote above is actually from President Spencer W. Kimball, given in a fireside address in San Antonio in Dec. 1977, just a couple of months before he would undertake to embrace the twin difficult issue of priesthood and men and the effect on families. The prophet, a prophet with a deeply ingrained tendency to speak carefully on tense cultural issues and to seek the will of the Lord before his own, was pleading with all the people of the Church, both women who were interested in public careers and their husbands who often pushed them to augment family finances, to come home.
A careful reading of President Benson’s words ten years later reveals the same spirit:
This evening I pay tribute to the mothers in Zion and pray with all my heart that what I have to say to you will be understood by the Spirit and will lift and bless your lives in your sacred callings as mothers.
President David O. McKay declared: “Motherhood is the greatest potential influence either for good or ill in human life. The mother’s image is the first that stamps itself on the unwritten page of the young child’s mind. It is her caress that first awakens a sense of security, her kiss, the first realization of affection; her sympathy and tenderness, the first assurance that there is love in the world.” (Gospel Ideals, p. 452.)
Contrasted with the worldly appeal of equality of pay (certainly a good thing) and equality of worldly opportunity (no downside to that), the prophet offers to women a peek at eternal power. Rather than trappings, the Lord offers real power, and the prophet is doing his job and reminding us, warning as a watchman on the tower, that the world is coming to destroy. In the letter from Liberty Jail, Joseph talks about this power, and it’s recorded in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
Does this not sound like the power of motherhood that President McKay, and President Kimball, and President Benson were talking about? Does it not resonate with the power of ministry that Jesus taught his disciples when he clarified that he wanted ministering, not ADministering from his earthly kingdom?
And what of continuing discussion on the sexes from our prophets? In 1995 (on my 29th birthday!) the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve made a solemn proclamation, of the type enjoined upon the Prophet Joseph in Section 124. Read carefully the revelation to Joseph and you get an idea how the Lord feels about “solemn proclamations” sent to the world either then or now.
And what did President Hinckley’s newly formed Church administration affirm? Eternal verities that have not ceased to cause contention and division within the church on cultural issues we keep bringing in from the world in the nearly two decades since. “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” The words grate if you don’t want to hear them. Until we hear them peaceably as a Church, it’s unlikely more will come.
The Word of Wisdom was given as a principle with a promise when the behaviors and attitudes about health it revealed were not culturally accepted as true. The Lord, understanding that it was better for those 19th Century spirits to have time to acclimate themselves to the eternal truths contained, invited obedience and faith. In the years since, the revelation has been verified by science and by experience. In the same way, the world does not accept the revealed truths of the Proclamation on the Family as true, but the Lord has not chosen to stamp this revelation with a “This is The Way It Is” seal that causes the less faithful to stumble.
He instead invites, and waits.
I recently noticed an entire subtext to the Word of Wisdom I’d never seen before. In my recent reading of the Doctrine and Covenants I’ve noticed many subtexts that are revealed through “careful and ponderous and solemn thinking.” Curious, I approached the Proclamation with new eyes. And yes, it’s there. In all our revelations, if we would have Zion, we see the laws of that society reflected.
The plan is child-centered. Its eventual goal is a unity of all in the work of God, which is the immortality and eternal life of all God’s children – the children of a Mother and a Father. The work of mothers and fathers is ministry, and the kingdom reflects that ministry. No other voice has the staying power of a mother’s in the salvation of a child. “The mother’s image is the first that stamps itself on the unwritten page of the young child’s mind. It is her caress that first awakens a sense of security, her kiss, the first realization of affection; her sympathy and tenderness, the first assurance that there is love in the world. (President McKay, above)
We can know with complete certainty of the character and work of our Heavenly Mother precisely to the degree that we will value and protect her reflected work on the earth, as revealed over and over and over by prophets. The revelations that will shout The Truth from the housetops in all its glittering clarity will come when the simple call to “come home” is met with joyful gratitude for the opportunity rather than a defensive retreat to worldly definitions of power and influence. Power is not based in equality. It arises from consecration. A call for the kingdom to be remade in the world’s image is the least likely to invite The Truth.
And here is where we come to the true crisis.
We aren’t ready. We not only aren’t ready for Zion’s consecration because we can’t even agree about paying our tithing, much less giving all we have, we aren’t ready to know the character of the Gods. It will cause too many of us to stumble, so we are left with elementary, introductory, training wheels commandments and policies until we can learn to have faith in God and trust in our prophets. We are not ready for the company of those who’ve made consecration their existence, and since we are waiting for their return to prepare for the Savior’s return, that isn’t going to happen any time sooner either.
We aren’t waiting on God. He’s waiting on us. The true crisis is that we aren’t running to consecrate all we have, and running to be obedient to the principles of the heavenly structure of the family, that we aren’t running to obey every principle we have so that more will be revealed. We aren’t running to build Zion, and he’s not going to do it for us because he can’t. Priesthood power comes on principles of practice in ministering.
The upside is, there are people who are. When the announcement allowing younger people to serve missions was made, they came running. This is the generation that will bring Zion because they know how to run to God on the words of a prophet. We would do well to get on board and have the conversation they’re going to want to have. If we don’t, we may find ourselves left behind by those with greater faith.
That conversation won’t be about equality. It will be about consecration.
How sad to have ridden the luxury liner and realize we missed everything the journey was about.
Image credits not otherwise given: neylanmcbaine.com, lds.org