Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Our Innate Moral Sense, Part III

So what role does religious authority play in the grand scheme of things? In the first two parts of this essay, I've argued that human beings are endowed by their Creator with an innate moral sense that becomes their compass for life, the means by which we steer ourselves morally and ultimately return to God. But if we have an innate moral sense, why would we need external religious authorities and institutions? Doesn't the "Light of Christ" already give us everything we need?

The answer obviously is no. Morality has no meaning without community. This is because everything we are here to accomplish as human beings requires community both as a means and as an end. And community is impossible without organization. And organization requires leadership. And what the restored Church and the restored priesthood mean is that now this community can extend not only across time and space within this dimension, but beyond the veil and into eternity.

So if we have an innate moral sense, it should not surprise us that this moral sense naturally draws us/drives us into community, and ultimately into eternal community. So religious authorities are the crucial players, the facilitators in helping us to accomplish what we need to accomplish. If our innate moral sense is drawing us back to God, and if part of that drawing back requires that we work communally and link humanity back together as one great family, our innate moral sense cannot ultimately set us apart from community or against religious authority.

This is why one of the most important phrases uttered in fast and testimony meeting is: "I know this Church is true."

This all makes eminent sense to me at least in principle. Of course the challenges of mortality and our human flaws and imperfections -- among leaders as well as among members -- make this not so much a smoothly oiled train chugging steadily along the track toward the Empire of God, as a sailing ship that occasionally breaks a rudder, loses a sail, or runs up against hidden reefs, and that requires constant care and attention from its captain as well as all of its sailors in order to steer us all truly back into safe harbor.

Then of course, there is the principle of faith, which is spoken of much among Mohos. God chooses to work through a priesthood authority structure, and reveal certain information to those who are in positions of leadership. Part of the discipline we need to develop in this life involves acting by faith; not always knowing the answers to everything, but learning to trust those who have been called to positions of trust.

Of course, faith operates at the level of the individual relationship with God too. I have had the experience of receiving a revelation in which the Spirit prompts me to act in a certain way or do a certain thing, without telling me why. Or sometimes the Spirit has prompted me to simply wait in patience. I am required to trust that if I follow the prompting, the reason will eventually become evident. Faith develops humility, it forces us to be interdependent. Not just dependent, but interdependent, because when I receive a prompting to act, the prompter is counting on me, just as I am trusting the prompter. It is a two-way street.

And that is no less true in the communal context, when an inspired leader asks me to act in a certain way. The trust is a two-way street, and the rewards for learning humility and building trust also flow two ways between leader and follower.

So what do we do when something that a religious authority says or does or teaches or asks us to do seems to conflict with our innate moral sense? What can we do?

Note I am not speaking here about what happens when a religious teacher's instructions conflict with our hungers, desires, or even perceived needs. In that situation, the moral imperative is to follow. I am talking about conflicts between religious authority and the highest sense of self, the most authentic spiritual self. I believe this can and does happen, and it can be one of the greatest trials of one's life to figure out exactly what is happening. It's not a comfortable position to be in.

It is tempting to slip into extremes when that happens. It is tempting to utter intemperate words. But I think if we listen, if we follow the Spirit, we can maintain integrity and eventually work things through. And I trust -- the Atonement allows me to trust -- that all errors will eventually be corrected and all breaches will eventually be healed. But in the mean time, we have to struggle, sometimes in painful ambiguity.

Has the religious leader made a mistake? Is he or she getting a false revelation from God? Or has he or she failed to seek a revelation at all, simply going by his or her preconceived notions, assumptions and prejudices? Or am I wrong? Have I somehow discerned incorrectly? Have I mistaken petty desires and wants for true moral imperatives? Am I being misled? Discernment is critical, which is why I always come back to the importance of listening well.

But assuming we have done our homework -- and this is not easy -- I don't think there is any answer but that individual conscience can never be violated. It can never not demand our primary allegiance. If I do not follow my conscience, nothing else has meaning. Certainly my allegiance to the Church and Church leaders has no meaning anymore either. What meaning could such allegiance have if it does not flow from my heart, if it is not a result of my primary allegiance to conscience?

Does not the act of upholding authority contrary to conscience have a corrosive effect on one's innate moral sense? Does it not convince us that we cannot possibly know the difference between right and wrong ourselves any more? Does it not make us increasingly dependent on external authorities to become our conscience for us? Does this not, as Voltaire suggested, then prepare us for the commission of every atrocity, so long as that atrocity is sanctioned by authority?

Those who are in positions of moral authority in the Church can and do understand this. But there is also such a thing as institutional self-interest, and such a thing as institutional temptation. And probably the primary institutional temptation is the hunger for smooth running, and impatience with those who don't run smoothly.

For me, this boils down to patience. It boils down to listening to God, doing what I need to do, having patience and waiting. I trust that all truth will be manifest in the end. All truth is still unfolding. What we see is not what we get. And I believe that when God's Empire is established in its fullness, we all will be surprised by it.

2 comments:

-L- said...

This is one of the most beautiful amazing things I've ever read. I've been meaning to come back and read this series for a long while, but I've been quite distracted recently.

Thank you thank you thank you.

I really enjoyed this quite a lot.

This part in particular is thought provoking: "Does not the act of upholding authority contrary to conscience have a corrosive effect on one's innate moral sense? Does it not convince us that we cannot possibly know the difference between right and wrong ourselves any more? Does it not make us increasingly dependent on external authorities to become our conscience for us? Does this not, as Voltaire suggested, then prepare us for the commission of every atrocity, so long as that atrocity is sanctioned by authority?"

If after all the introspection and consideration one's "conscience" (and not merely one's desire) still conflicts with an authority, I think I completely agree with that line of thinking. But I've seen so often the case where a desire (a need?) masquerades as idealism and is used to trump good advice that is hard to hear.

On the other hand, you've allowed for just such conflicts and cautioned against them, and so I really really do like everything you've written here. Now I need to read some of your other posts! :-)

J G-W said...

-L- Thanks so much... I was hoping you would read this.