Now how is that for a pretentious blog-post title? What the [explitive deleted] am I talking about? In a nutshell, I am talking about the way in which Mormonism deals with how we gain knowledge and how that ability is socially situated. Here is my basic idea: Mormonism has a radically decentralized and democratic epistemology which is balanced by a highly centralized institutional structure.
What do I mean when I say things like “decentralized and democratic epistemology”? When Moroni first appeared in Joseph Smith’s bedroom, Joseph tells us that he quoted from the second chapter of Joel. We don’t usually read these verses, but they are worth reading. It says:
- And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. (Joel 2:28-29)
Moroni then told Joseph that this was a prophesy that was about to be fulfilled.
Mormonism insists on the primacy of revelation in knowing God. The Lectures on Faith go so far as to insist that the only way that we even have a concept of God is because at some point in the past God revealed himself. None of this inherent knowledge of God, Cartesian ontological argument stuff. No sirree! We know about God because he appeared to Adam one day and people have been talking about him ever since. The scripture from Joel – and the pride of place that Moroni insisted it was to have in the Restoration – points to the fact that God’s revelations are not confined to elites. Sons, daughters, old, young, master, and servant are all going to get into the act. We all get to talk to God and he talks to all of us. This is heady, radically egalitarian stuff.
Contrast the Mormon approach to an epistemologically centralized religion, for example Judaism or Islam. In these religions (if we bracket their mystical manifestations) there is one way in which you understand God: You read and interpret his revealed word. Knowledge is entirely centered in scripture and exegesis. Many western scholars of Islam have noted that the Qu’ran is not like the Bible. It is like Christ. For Muslims it is God’s incarnate Word. It – not Christ – is the logos. So great is the reverence for the Qu’ranic text that one of the great theological schisms of Islamic history centered on the question of whether the Qu’ran was created in time or whether it is an eternal, uncreated emanation from God. The Talmud contains a wonderful story suggesting a similar kind of reverence for sacred text. Some deeply learned rabbis are arguing over the interpretation of the Torah. One rabbi becomes so frustrated by his interlocutor’s unwillingness to concede a point of exegesis that he calls upon God to sanction his interpretation. God performs miracles (notably the bending of the walls of the house of learning) testifying to the correctness of the rabbi’s reading and finally a voice from heaven declares “The interpretation of rabbi so-and-so is correct!” The other rabbi is unphased. “Show it to me in the text!” he insists. At which point the voice of God laughs and says, “You have beaten me my sons, you have beaten me.” An uncreated divine text and a God who admits that he too must reason form the scriptures?! That is what I call epistemic centralization.
The problem with the egalitarian approach is that, as many a modern prophet has come to learn, when we take seriously the pouring out of the spirit on to all flesh, there is a tendency for things to fly apart. Hiram Page, James Strange, Joseph Morris, William Godbe, Cody Judy, Paul Toscanoe, and all of the returned missionaries at BYU receiving revelations that “You will be my wife!” There is a definite anarchic side to the democratization of revelation. Judaism and Islam solve the problem by centering all knowledge on one source. My feeling is that the overarching authority of the text provides ballast and keeps their communities from flying apart. In Mormonism we solve the problem institutionally. We have prophets, leaders, jurisdictions, and stewardships. It is the theology of stewardship and institutional authority that explains why Cody Judy doesn’t present a major theological crisis to most of us. Without it, we are left at the mercy of our anarchic side, buffeted about by the winds of personal revelation around us.
Hence, the Mormon doctrine of prophecy depends on a carefully calibrated tension. It is both the spirit poured out upon all flesh, and a living prophet, the living prophet who creates boundaries and limits for personal revelation. We live on the strength and vitality of both approaches.