Living prophetically means letting go of the need for certainty
Periodically we all experience moments of insight and inspiration. Such moments bring clarity to an idea or answer a question that has been unconsciously plaguing us. I experienced such a moment of insight at a recent congregational retreat. Paul and Carolyn Edwards were the guest ministers. They opened their class by sharing with the group a cartoon taken from the April 11, 1977 issue of The New Yorker.
The cartoon shows a group of people listening as one of their number declares, “It is so!” In the next frame all the voices of the crows are lifted in disagreement: “Never! It is NOT so! No way!” In the third frame a huge and menacing personage appears over the horizon and says emphatically, “IT IS SO!” The final frame of the cartoon shows every single voice in the crowd again, but this time in agreement: “Yes indeed! Verily! You Betcha! Without a doubt! It is so if HE says it is so!”
As I reflect on this cartoon, I realize that in many ways this scene is typical of the way many within the church deal with decision making, leadership, and followership. These patterns are greatly influenced by how we understand the authority of decision makers and how we view our role in the process of developing common consent within the church.
Authority to Say So
Authority, in its simplest form, is the ability to say for a group, “It is so.” In the most positive sense, this ability grows out of the respect the group has for those in authority and is enhanced by the skillfulness with which those in authority accurately articulate those things to which the group has already given its formal agreement.
In its most negative sense, the ability to say, “It is so,” is nothing more than evidence of fear or awe in which the group holds its leaders. Such attitudes make disagreement with leaders unthinkable.
Throughout my years as a church member I have generally seen authority used with the utmost care and discretion. From pastors to apostles to presidents there has been a genuine desire to avoid speaking for the people in a way that will remove their ability to think for themselves. When our leaders have exercised such tact and discretion, the Saints have risen to the occasion and, after some struggle, have eventually come to a decision that has been more helpful than any which could have been made by pronouncement.
Joseph Smith III understood the dangers inherent in the ability to say, “It is so.” Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century he strove diligently to help the General Conference see that its process of deliberation would be enhanced if the Conference moved from a priesthood-dominated gathering to a representative delegate Conference. Time and time again his proposals to eliminate ex officio status for various classifications of priesthood were rejected. Yet slowly and patiently he worked with the Saints to move the general body of opinion away from an exclusivist point of view and toward one more open, democratic.
At times some people urged him simply to pronounce through revelation the direction he felt the church should go on the matter. More than once Joseph indicated to close associates some degree of inspiration for his point of view. But he steadfastly refused to substitute a prophetic pronouncement for the considered will of the Conference.
On his deathbed Joseph counseled his son and successor, Frederick M. Smith, not to be too hasty in pushing the Saints on this issue. The result was that the final movement toward a truly democratic and representative Conference was not taken until 1982, when the last vestige of ex officio status was eliminated. Such a time line for action appears slow, yet when the decision was made there was a feeling of true consensus.
Reexamining Old Ideas
Not all decisions in the local congregation or at the World Church level are arrived at by such a patient process of consensus building. Often it is not possible to wait a hundred years for a situation to resolve itself. Appropriate leadership does not always mean waiting for a ground swell of new opinion. Leaders often must lift up new possibilities and encourage people to reexamine old ideas and processes.
Such a future-oriented leadership style involves great risks. For a while the ability to say, “It is so,” carries with it the ability to motivate and point in positive directions, these are not the only possibilities. There have been times when leadership authority has not been carefully exercised in the church. Often the greatest risk appeared when members chose to defer instead of confer, and leaders have let us do so. At such times it has often been easier to say, “It is so because he or she says it is so!” rather than grapple with difficult issues in a constructive way.
The result has been that from time to time the church has failed to ask, “Why is it so? Is it really so? What about it is so? SO WHAT?”
False consensus results when church members fail to ask the “so” questions of their leadership. In the short run, false consensus may first appear to be a harmonious way to deal with difficult issues. Human experience has shown that when individuals default on their responsibility constructively to participate in decision making, further conflict almost inevitably results.
The Danger of So
Beyond the obvious dangers associated with false consensus, other less obvious, negative results can develop from the imprudent use of the ability to say, “It is so.” When individuals default on their decision-making responsibilities the richness of giftedness is lessened. One of the most fundamental human characteristics is the desire for full expression of personal potential. Within the church the affirmation that “All are called according to the gifts of God unto them…” implies that each individual’s gifts are important to the whole church. When decisions are made that do not use universal giftedness, such decisions devalue the gifts of those excluded from the process.
Second, decisions arrived at without the full participation of all interested parties always diminish the potential for the best decision. Points of view are overlooked, further information is ignored, and the synthesis that takes place when varying personalities interact is missed.
Finally, as individuals feel progressively excluded from the decision-making process, either by choice or by default, an atrophying of personal essence occurs. Every time we ignore our calling as fully capable being, we become less of who we are and more a mirror that only reflects the real decision makers. Thus, it is no surprise that congregations which do not utilize participatory decision-making processes may appear to be more homogeneous than others, when in reality they may have divisions that run quite deep.
Individuals may outwardly integrate into such a community but feel alienated from the group and its leaders. Such people appear to be in full agreement with the directions being taken, while inwardly they seethe at their powerlessness. This false feeling of community is exposed when difficult problems arise within a congregation. Instead of support, passive resistance and open hostility often cause a splintering of the congregation.
From the beginning of our faith movement, Latter Day Saints have looked beyond the present with a sense of vision for what ought to be. Beginning with Joseph Smith , Jr.’s assertion that the canon of scripture was not closed on present-day issues, we have been willing to ask if established things are really so.
We have used the term “prophetic people” to indicate our belief in present-day influences from divinity in our decision-making processes and in our witness. But beyond this we are called continually to ask, “Is it really so?” in at least three areas.
First, on the stage of world and national affairs, a prophetic people refuse simply to say, “It is so,” just because it is presently so. Such people constructively try to change situations in the world that others simply accept as “the way things are.” To be prophetic in a political and economic sense is to call the world beyond the present state of affairs to a new vision dominated by principles of justice, peace, and reconciliation rather than the present realities of greed, war, and avarice.
In relation to the identity and mission of the church, a prophetic people do not accept the statement of the traditionalist that, “It is so,” just because it used to be so. People of vision do not allow the understandings of the past to be forgotten, but, at the same time, they refuse to be bound by the past understandings when dealing with present issues and the interpretation of past events.
Third, concerning the influence of the Divine, prophetic people will not simply substitute revelatory direction for careful contemplation and investigation. The Oliver Cowderys of the present church continually try to “take no thought” except to ask God, while those who desire most to live in a prophetic way take seriously the Divine challenge in Doctrine and Covenants 9 to “study it out in your mind. …” Prophetic people recognize their role in the prophetic process as participants rather than just recipients. As they work together with God toward the unfolding of Divine/human interaction, they are impelled by the principles of human worth and Divine love.
Freed from the Burden
The burden of “so” is inherent in leadership. It is particularly present in a church that has a hierarchical understanding of priesthood and leadership. With out history behind us and our traditions ever with us, how can we minimize the burden of “so” and still not lapse into a state of leaderless drift?
The answer to this question may lie in the collective ability of the church to let go of the need for certainty and embrace a radical tentativeness. For if we are always driven to final resolution of questions, it is certain we will ultimately fall back on the authority of those who can say, “It is so!” to relieve us of the tension of the uncertain.
Rather than giving in to our lust for certainty, the church is called to be people of God who stand in the breech between yesterday and tomorrow and proclaim that even though we may not have the final answers, we have the assurance of Divine grace that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of our uncertainty. We must learn to let new discoveries emerge in the process of mutual interaction. Only then can we escape from the need to have someone pronounce what is so for us. Only a people such as this can ever be freed from the burden of “so.”