Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Foundational Principles of Creation

Somehow, whenever the topic of religion comes up in conversations with friends, discussion inevitably runs to problems stemming from the abuse of power. Why is that?

I heard one of the best talks ever on the subject of religious authority during our ward conference two weeks ago. The text is one familiar to Mormons. The presenter, the second counselor in our stake presidency, spoke on Doctrine & Covenants 121:34-46, but he presented it in a way that helped me understand the role of the church and the plan of salvation in new ways. I will try to recap it here...

He started by pointing out that even though this text has traditionally been understood to apply to priesthood authority, it really applies to everyone -- women, men, priesthood-holders or not.

As a gay, excommunicated man, all of a sudden I was all ears. In other words, this applies to me too.

What he was about to discuss were foundational principles of creation itself, principles that will help us to understand how God is God.

Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson — That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

Our teacher asked, Why do the many who are called fail to find themselves among the elect? His answer: Pride.

Priesthood power cannot be manipulated. It is not our personal plaything. It can only be exercised on the basis of righteousness.

That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.

The sad end of those who let themselves become consumed with pride. But now comes the part where God says, "Hey you, I'm talking to you!"

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.

"Almost all men." (Yup, says my internal running commentary, that would mean living, breathing people who hold so-called authority right in the here and now. But does that mean all our religious institutions must by definition be hopelessly corrupt? Nope, replies the internal commentary. It merely reminds us that if you were in your bishop's place, you probably wouldn't do much better. It merely explains in precise terms why actual institutions fall short of the ideals to which they should adhere. It merely calls both for patience and vigilance.)

Our teacher enjoyed pointing out God's sense of humor here. "As they suppose." As soon as we "think" we own power, we in effect lose real power. Next comes the good part...

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—

True power is not based on power. It is based on love. True obedience is not won through compulsion, but by example. Our teacher here gave a lovely speech about how no leader worth his salt -- religious or other -- will tell us, "You better do as I tell you, or else...!"

Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost

Our teacher hastened to add that "sharpness" here should be understood as "clarity," not to be confused with vehemence or judgmentalism.

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.

Never let anyone walk away without knowing that you love them.

(My internal commentary says, "It's not just enough to say you love someone." People see right through that. If you don't really mean it, you are already lacking the prime ingredient needed to successfully "reprove." Perhaps better to keep quiet.)

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.

"Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly." "You all understand what that means," our teacher said.

I did understand. (My internal commentary here requires a whole post all its own. Tomorrow.)

The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.

Before getting all excited about scepters and dominions here, remember what the whole point of this sermon was. He who will be first among you must be the servant of all.

So there should be no surprise about that very last phrase, "and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee." Of course, if we learn the secret of true power that is not based upon power, not the least bit of compulsion will ever be needed for our reward to find us -- lovingly and voluntarily.

Mormons have heard this same sermon preached again and again, many different times and many different ways.

It still doesn't change the fact that it is the Best Sermon Ever.


Knight of Nothing said...

It is a very moving and insightful sermon. But my questions are rather cool: why is God the source of this wisdom? Why not humanity? And what precisely is this "power" that one may wield only meekly? It seems to me that it is the power to reconcile with one's fellows and with oneself. This is the most worthy of goals. But right now, the question in my mind is: Is it God's "foundational principle of creation," or simply some kind of cosmic law of judo, in which the "power" of the apparently strong undoes itself?

J G-W said...

All excellent questions... None of which, ultimately, I could presume to answer for you. This is a because my understanding of the "foundational principles of creation" includes the notion that we can only acquire wisdom on our own, through our own effort and our own spiritual path.

Humanity can be a source of wisdom. It's not a dichotomy (i.e., the wisdom of God vs. the wisdom of man). But in order to find true wisdom, we have to understand our true place in the scheme of things. It's when humans set themselves up as the be all and end all that we start to run into problems.

I loved the way you put that... "Cosmic judo, in which the 'power' of the apparently strong undoes itself." That's excellent! In the LDS understanding of the cosmos, there are eternal laws to which even God is subject, or else he would cease to be God. So yes, there is a kind of "cosmic judo."

In the LDS canon, there are at least three creation accounts. One is found in the "Book of Abraham" (chapter 4). In this account, the gods (yes, plural) create the cosmos in a kind of dance with creation itself: they express their will, and then they wait and watch for creation to obey. It's quite extraordinary, from the point of view of this insight in D&C 121:34-46.