Some Jewish reading recently has triggered some LDS thoughts and parallels. I jotted these down in between lengthy organic chemistry homework sessions, so they’re less refined than I’d like, but still important to get out there. (I’m trying to shed my perfectionist writing tendencies.)
James Kugel is an insightful and approachable Hebrew Bible scholar. He’s also an Orthodox Jew who retired from Harvard to go live in Israel. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible details differences between how ancient and modern audiences understood the Bible and why, exposition which many people find disturbing or even undermining of faith. Most interesting is that like Marc Brettler’s very different How to Read the (Jewish) Bible, which is more of an introduction (Brettler is another Orthodox Jewish Hebrew Bible professor) Kugel’s How to Read the Bible includes a section at the end of his book about how he reconciles his faith with his knowledge. This spills over onto his website (or used to, I can’t find it now), as well as an SBL presentation I heard years ago. Apparently, he is now sought out by struggling Jews trying to reconcile strong scholarly evidence with individual faith and/or traditional views. If it helps, there’s a loose analogy between Kugel/Hebrew Bible and Richard Bushman/Mormon history.
A recent interview with Kugel (with comments from others) struck me several times as illustrating parallels to current LDS struggles and some responses. The whole thing is worth reading, especially if you’ve read the earlier fictional accounts of such struggles in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise, which can contextualize the crux of these issues from a Jewish perspective.
Jon Levenson, a Jewish studies professor at Harvard and a former colleague of Kugel, sees a way to cross the theological chasm: Just because the Bible has a human history, it does not logically follow that it has only a human history or that it lacks a transcendent source, namely God, says Levenson, who describes himself as a “somewhat unorthodox Orthodox Jew.” “What is needed is a more sophisticated model of divine revelation, one that can take account of the modern discoveries, for example, the complex pattern of composition in antiquity, without losing sight of the theological dimension.”
One of the things I see Mormons similarly struggling with is the apparent humanity in scripture and modern LDS leadership. We want inspired scripture/leadership to be easy, inspired at all times, perfectly consistent with itself and our expectations; in spite of lip service to fallibility and multiple authoritative statements, we’re uncomfortable with the idea that God lets the humans drive most of the time and that we’ll eventually get where we need to go with such a system. I’ve said before that
I regularly expect that most of Church administration, hierarchy, and teaching is largely human. I believe God can and does speak to prophets, and I don’t think that belief is incompatible with the idea that the vast majority of day-to-day things that come from Church HQ consists of humans doing the best they can….I find that to be both realistic and believing.
I think there’s a substantial disconnect between lay ideas of “prophethood” and the reality, one of the things I had in mind in that same post when I said
We have a culture, we inherit a tradition, about definitions, about the past, about many things. Those create expectations, which combine with experiences we interpret from within our own personal worldview (which is shaped by those traditions, expectations, definitions, etc.)
Prophets are not prophets because they have a red hotline phone to God (it’s called prayer, we all have it) or an unlimited backstage pass to some divine ultimate-answer library. That is getting things backwards and then expanding. Rather, what makes a prophet a prophet is that God chooses to speak to them. That’s the way the prophetic causality flows. Similarly, the label of “inspired” or “revelation” on certain content doesn’t guarantee the exclusion of all human aspects from that content; rather, it guarantees the inclusion of some divine aspect among that humanity. I’ve touched on both of these aspects before, here, here, and here.
[Kugel] points out in How to Read the Bible—that Orthodoxy, almost despite itself, isn’t really about the Bible. “Judaism has at its heart a great secret,” he writes. “It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling…Yet upon inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of its words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words.”
I think Mormons have absorbed a lot of Protestant ideas and attitudes. One would be, at times, a parallel of sola scriptura, that “scripture alone” is authoritative. I think the LDS parallel would be sola revelation. Stepping back a bit, we need to recognize that the LDS system of authority is much more like Judaism and Catholicism. That is, there is a binding canon, but there is also an authoritative interpreter standing between the canon and the believer. In Judaism, this is the rabbinic tradition; in Catholicism, the magisterium. In LDS, that role is filled by the prophets and apostles. And in what follows, I’m either stating the obvious, splitting hairs, or messily cleaving with a chainsaw something that should be uncleavable, depending on your perspective. In sola revelation, LDS fail to recognize the divinely appointed role of LDS prophets and apostles in making authoritative declarations. That is, ideally, every formal policy, doctrine, General Conference talk, interaction, etc., is inspired and guided by “direct revelation” (whatever that means. I suspect that while many decisions must be made in the absence of strong revelation, a ” since we’ve received no revelation but must make a decision at this point in time, option B makes the most sense, and we feel good about it.”)
As is so often the case, a gap exists between the reality and the ideal. Let me give some examples.
Someone who reads D&C 89 and says “hey, the Word of Wisdom lets us drink beer” is following sola scriptura. It’s true, D&C 89 does allow that, and the history of interpretation bears it out. (If that means nothing to you, see here for a good overview or Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition: A History of the LDS Church from 1890-1930 for a historian’s published account.)
Someone who reads D&C 89 and demands to know where the revelation is that changes or narrows it (to prohibit beer, for example) is following sola revelation, not recognizing the divinely appointed role of prophets and apostles to guide the Church with or without revelation. That is, while I believe they seek revelation on nearly everything, receiving a “approved” doesn’t necessarily mean “this is absolute perfection and will result in the best results possible.” I think another example is the length of mens missions. At one time, they were shortened to 18 months. At another time, lengthened to 36 months. And then returned to 24 months. This, to me, seems like a clear example of trial-and-error. I suspect a good amount of thought, prayer, and “studying it out” was spent on each decision, and that each probably received some light form of divine “approved.” Yet 18 months was not the ideal, nor 36, and 24 may eventually prove to be too much of a one-size-fits-all, or need to change for other reasons. (See the end of my post here “we cannot easily extrapolate” for an application with Abraham and Isaac and the JST.) I suspect, as that liberal Elder McConkie expressed, that even prophets “are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 547.)
To draw a different analogy, canonized revelation on the books is a bit like law. It may be The Law, but law is not self-interpreting. It requires an authoritative judgment to declare what the written law means, and how it is to be implemented, enforced, or ignored in actual practice. (Google for the multitude of articles about crazy unenforced laws that were still on the books, like “As late as 1987, it was illegal to wear blue underwear on Thursdays in Kentucky.”) Now, The Law on the books can change, can be amended, updated, or invalidated. But even if The Law stays the same, the authoritative interpretation may change, based on better understanding of the Law, circumstance, or other things. (I believe this legal analogy approach is taken by Nate Oman in this Dialogue article, but haven’t reread it recently.)
Sola scriptura, in essence, denies both that The Law can be amended, and the necessity or existence of any authoritative interpreter.
Sola revelation allows for The Law to be amended, but denies the role of authoritative interpreter.
The fullest recognition of the divinely appointed system in the LDS Church, I believe, is to recognize both.
The role of authoritative interpreter is played in the Church by Apostles, acting in concert (not individually), ideally with strong inspiration. However, that inspiration may not be forthcoming or if it is, it may not indicate what we assume it does, that the approved thing represents the best of all possible things. Would it be helpful to think of Apostles as stewards of the Church who also may receive revelation, instead of Infallible Prophets who can’t NOT receive revelation? (McConkie talks about administrating, but I like steward better than administrator.)
To return to Kugel, his interlocutor doesn’t find him terribly helpful in restoring his faith after the fact. That seems to indicate to me (to paraphrase something I read somewhere recently), it’s much easier to shape paradigms in a healthy and robust direction early on than to perform emergency paradigm surgery after a spiritual crash or on the middle of the battlefield. We have too many casualties that way.