[This blog post was written by my good friend Brandon Habermeyer, a BYU graduate in philosophy and film studies. It has also been cross-posted at the FairMormon blog.]
I remember hearing a quote in my institute class from the late Hugh Nibley, who is reported to have said something along the lines of, “In order to be a good Latter-day Saint you need to have an infinite capacity for boredom.” This quote, I think, humorously holds some truth, but for certain reasons that I think it shouldn’t be true. Put differently, true, honest discipleship does not afford us the chance to ever get bored. And the reason for that, I believe, is found in the reflective margins of the ninth article of faith, which will be the basis of this post today.
“We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Article of Faith 9). For me this article of faith reveals one of the more fascinating paradoxes of Mormonism. We believe in continuing revelation. Because we believe in continuing revelation it seems that we cannot have a theology that is any more than provisional, or temporary, because to claim otherwise is to claim that we’ve reached a plateau, a conceptual end, a spiritual license to cease from asking, knocking, and seeking. To claim that our doctrine, in other words, is absolute and immune to change, has no need for further clarification and articulation, and represents the final, inalterable word of God seems to establish what in sectarian language we call a “creed.” And creeds, by their very nature, cannot be trumped by further light and knowledge. From the perspective of the Prophet Joseph Smith, creeds were not looked favorably upon. Joseph taught, “The creeds set up stakes and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further,’ which I cannot subscribe to.” A few months before the Prophet had similarly expressed, “I want the liberty of believing as I please; it feels so good not to be trammeled.”
Our founding prophet believed that creeds fixed limits on human ingenuity and closed the doors for truth and further light and knowledge to spring from any source, regardless the label. The astounding paradox here, however, is that even Joseph would soon come to learn that this sort of untrammeled, unbounded freedom that he wanted the Saints to experience and enjoy had to be regulated and ordered within a community of restraints, lest it spin wildly out of control. We can bring to mind here several examples from church history.
Take, for example, the extravagant behavior of people possessed by spirits at the camp meetings that Joseph attended. These were people who exhibited uncontrolled, pseudo-spiritual emotions, believing themselves in possession of divine revelation, yet were neither edifying nor enlightening to those participating. Another example we can consider is Hiram Page, who, like Joseph, was also receiving revelations from a seer stone, yet, according the historical account, was receiving revelations that “were entirely at variance with the order of God’s house, as laid down in the New Testament, as well as in our late revelations.”
Suddenly Joseph was faced with a very challenging question. He wanted at one point for everyone to voice scripture and see God. Though without procedures, without order, leadership or law, the question would remain how he could avoid the pitfalls of other charismatic religions that did not circumscribe boundaries for human expression. And would differences of opinions about what counts as divine revelation oblige him to then tolerate a diversity of views indefinitely? Well, according to Joseph the answer was no. There had to be a single spokesmen divinely appointed whose amplification of authority at the center would in turn amplify and energize the authority of the entire congregation.
And that is a wonderfully fascinating and unique paradox to consider, because while the structure of the church from an outsider’s perspective may look like tyranny or despotism, from an insider’s perspective it looks like ordered benevolence—the kind that means to empower each of us individually, as well as collectively. To get a taste for how rich this paradox is, consider a passage from Richard Bushman, a reputable and faithful church historian.
Revelation meant freedom to Joseph, freedom to expand his mind through time and space, seeking truth wherever it might be. But [Joseph also had] a desire for order [to] balance the freeing impulse. By licensing his followers to speak with the Holy Ghost, he risked having the whole movement spin out of control. Against the centrifugal force of individual revelation, Joseph continually organized and regulated. Though he was the chief visionary of the age, he showed little sympathy for the extravagant behavior of people possessed by spirits. He preferred edification and orderly worship to the uncontrolled emotions of the camp meeting…[This] balance between freedom and control makes it difficult to keep Mormonism in focus. Was it authoritarian or anarchic, disciplined or unbounded?
That is a really good question because it addresses the tension of our want for an open canon, and by implication continued revelation, yet also our need for stakes, order and authority, all which can be seen in the Prophet, as he was often torn between the impulse to obliterate the creeds yet also sanction them within a legalistic vocabulary of authority, priesthood, laws, and ordinances. These outward manifestations, which are believed to be eternal and unchanging, are what give our religion its pulse, its structure, its feelings of safety and superiority, but they can also be great stumbling blocks for those who may have suffered abuse of authority in the setting of organized religion.
I would like to shift gears a bit and focus on the tension inherent in revealed religion and what it implies for how we as members of the church interpret revealed doctrine in the light of our continual need to clarify and expound what has already been given. And I would like to provide some suggestions on how we can be anxiously engaged in this latter-day work by performing what is probably the most oft repeated phrase in the New Testament; “to ask, knock, and seek” revelation for ourselves, as well as our families.
Towards the end of his life the Prophet lamented, “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them . . . fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions.” Something that really astounds me about this quote is to consider Joseph’s audience. He’s speaking specifically about members of the church who, because of their “traditions,” or perhaps rigid posture towards interpreting doctrine, immediately “fly to pieces like glass” whenever new revelation, new articulation, or new clarification is given to what has already been established. I think there’s some truth to that. I think sometimes we, as members of the Church, are perhaps too comfortable in our traditions. But we should be careful about unconsciously settling into inherited, even popular, traditions, at it was President Harold B. Lee who taught that one of the functions of the Church is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comforted.”
I’ve had friends of mine tell me that because we live in the “dispensation of the fullness of times,” and that because we belong to “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30), that this must unequivocally mean that our quest for truth and understanding has come to an end. They’ve said things to me like, “We have it all right here in the standard works,” an attitude that seems to say: “A Quad! A Quad! We have got a Quad, and there cannot be any more Quad.” This is somewhat of an ironic attitude because, as Bushman points out, “The Book of Mormon . . . prepares the way for itself by ridiculing those who think the Bible is sufficient.” But it also warns against anyone who restricts God in the present from speaking anywhere and anytime, even if His voice at times appears to go against the grain of rigid orthodoxy (2 Nephi 29).
Elder Neal A. Maxwell warned that “such members move out a few hundred yards from the entrance of the straight and narrow path . . . thinking, ‘Well, this is all there is to it’; and they end up living far below their possibilities.” The belief that our search for truth can come to an end because we think we already possess all the truths pertinent to our salvation is, I believe, one of the more subtle attitudes that lulls us into the mistaken belief that “all is well in Zion.” It is to incorrectly believe: (1) that we already understand fully what has been given, and (2) that we need not educate ourselves beyond the standard works, despite the Lord’s mandate to “seek out the best books” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:70, 74, 77-80).
This pacified attitude has been rightfully called “the myth of the unruffled Mormon,” which Frances Menlove describes as follows:
This myth [of the unruffled Mormon is] simply the commonly held picture of the Mormon as a complete, integrated personality, untroubled by the doubts and uncertainties that plague the Protestant and oblivious to the painful searching and probing of the non-believer. The Mormon is taught from Primary on up that he, unlike his non-Mormon friends, knows with absolute certainty the answers to the [thorniest] problems of existence, that in fact his search has come to an end, and that his main task in life is to present these truths to others so that they too may end their quests.
I think there is enough scriptural precedent for us to be suspect of this attitude. I’ve mentioned two here already, specifically how the Lord’s calls us to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith,” or otherwise to “seek out the best books words of wisdom . . . that we may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine . . . in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God . . . of things both in heaven and in the earth . . . things which have been, things which are at home, things which are abroad . . . a knowledge also of countries and kingdoms—that ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you” (D&C 88:70, 74, 77–80).
Surely, then, if we are to be prepared to serve in the Church at our highest capacity, we have our work cut out for us! And while we are in possession of distinctive and sacred truths, we should never feel as though we’ve arrived at a spiritual plateau, or that we’ve figured everything out, or that we should be afraid to ask questions—even tough ones. For me personally, I believe we should study and teach truths in our lessons that are in harmony with gospel principles, even if those truths sometime fall outside of the purview of the standard works or correlated materials. I take my lead here from Joseph Smith, who taught that “one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from where it may.” The Latter-day Saints, the Prophet insisted, should be “ready to believe [and teach] all true principles that exist,” regardless the source. Brigham Young further confirmed this principle when he taught, “Mormonism embraces every principle [of truth], for time and all eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to Mormonism. . . . Such a plan incorporates every system of true doctrine . . . whether it be ecclesiastical, moral, philosophical, or civil . . . [and it is our duty] to gather up all the truths . . . wherever they may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue and people, and to bring [them] to Zion.”
Imagine, then, these two principles at play in our gospel doctrine, priesthood and relief society classes: (1) that we be not afraid to ask, knock, and seek after revelation found in “the best books” and in “words of wisdom,” whether secular or non-secular, insomuch that we, like Nephi, can liken the message within a gospel framework in order to augment what has already been established in the standard works. As Eugene England taught, “The whole point of our message to the world is to add, to provide, on the basis of modern, [personal] revelation, additional, clarifying concepts, new witnesses that will increase and expand others’ faith in Christ.” (2) To never believe that the final interpretation, or final clarification has been given on what has been revealed. For, as Elder Bruce R. McConkie has taught, “The last word has not been spoken on any subject,” doctrine included, and “there are more things we do not know about the doctrines of salvation than there are things we do know.”
I am therefore very much of the persuasion of B. H. Roberts, who said that the very fact that the Church insists on continuing revelation means that we will not merely be content to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit. As Elder Roberts says, we “will not be content with merely repeating some of [Mormonism’s] truths, but will develop its truths; and enlarge it by that development. . . . [We will] depart from mere repetition [and] will cast [the doctrines of Mormonism] into new formulas; cooperating in the works of the Spirit, until they help give to the truths received a more forceful expression, and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of its development.”
One thing that is very exciting for me about these ideas is that we live in a church that encourages us to tenaciously seek after revelation. And while there certainly has been irresponsible speculation done in the name of such continued revelation, and while we should be alerted against pursuing things that the apostle Paul called “vain deceit” (Colossians 2:8), there are, on the other hand, many mysteries, which the scriptures call “the mystery of godliness” (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16; D&C 19:10), which are the deeper, richer things of our existence that I suspect the Prophet had in mind when he charged us to “go on to perfection and search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Godliness.”
I would like to close by sharing my own testimony on this path towards deeper meaning, deeper revelation, both for myself and also for my family. There are many that know me who will be the first to admit that my approach and methodology to studying and teaching the gospel isn’t always the most orthodox. I can be challenging at times, but hopefully my challenges have been served in a faith-promoting context. And while some reading this may not agree with every jot and tittle with what I’ve expressed, I hope you know that I am deeply committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is everything to me—as my wife can attest to you, it is basically the only thing that I know how to speak passionately about. And that passion has come from years of allowing the Holy Ghost to be my companion.
Jesus Christ is my Savior, but not in some nebulous, far-reaching way. The essence that I would project in His ideal personhood would be the same essence that has saved me from a life of boredom and has showed me that boredom is nothing more than a lack of imagination to keep things real and relevant. That same essence, of Spirit, has opened my mind and helped me see truth and goodness in unlikely sources, some of which others have considered uncomfortable and perhaps dangerous, but which for me has been part of what Terryl Givens calls the exhilarating “process, the ongoing, dynamic engagement, the exploring, questing, and provoking dialectical encounter with tradition, with boundaries, and with normative thinking.” All of which encapsulates the charge made by the Prophet Joseph that if we wish to commune with God, and commune with Him intimately and truthfully, our minds must then inevitably “stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse.”
 Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, ed., The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1980), 256. The spelling, punctuation, and grammar of the primary sources quoted here have been standardized for readability.
 Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 184.
 See generally Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2009), 71–91.
 Joseph Smith, History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2], 54, online at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-circa-june-1839-circa-1841-draft-2?p=60 (Accessed July 20, 2014).
 Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, N. Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 285.
 Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 319.
 Harold B. Lee, “The Message,” New Era, January 1971, 6.
 Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 101.
 Neal A. Maxwell, Men and Women of Christ (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1991), 2–3.
 Frances Lee Menlove, “The Challenge of Honesty,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1/1 (1966): 46.
 Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 229.
 History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 5:215.
 Brigham Young, “Building the Temple—Mormonism Embraces All Truth,” in Journal of Discourses, 11:375.
 Eugene England, “What it Means to be a Mormon Christian,” in Dialogues With Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience (Midvale, Utah: Orion Books, 1984), 180.
 Bruce R. McConkie, “A New Commandment: Save Thyself and Thy Kindred!” Ensign, August 1976, 11.
 B. H. Roberts, “Book of Mormon Translation,” Improvement Era 9, no. 9 (July 1906): 713.
 Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 366.
 Terryl L. Givens, “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plentitude,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2006), 59.
 Joseph Smith, Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839, online at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letter-to-the-church-and-edward-partridge-20-march-1839?p=12 (Accessed July 20, 2014).