I was listening to Radiolab the other day and heard an interesting anecdote: A philosophy professor was sitting on an airplane in 1966 when a black stewardess walked by. The man sitting next to him said, “Not another negro stewardess!” Years later, the philosophy professor thought about that comment and noted: if the guy on the plane made that comment a few years earlier, it would have been commonplace. Had it been a few years later, it would have been intolerable. But right then things were shifting, and it was as if that guy was “shouting through an open window between two worlds.” To me, the uproar over the policy on SSM sounds like “shouting through an open window between two worlds” that are slowly but inexorably drifting apart.
Our Collective Consciousness
Each generation has a collective consciousness. We are guided by powerful, unseen forces that surreptitiously effect our hearts and minds. While there are still many instances of racism today, it is remarkable that much of the chronic racism that afflicted our culture for centuries has been overturned in a matter of decades. It’s heartening to note how a naturally racist man in 1966 can slowly, almost imperceptibly become a sensitive, accepting man in 1976 without even trying. To paraphrase a Bible scripture: “we are not our own.” We are part of a greater consciousness which has its own impetus, its own direction, and its own mission.
Generational consciousness is a Biblical idea. When God speaks to His people, He speaks to them as a collective: “Oh ye generation of vipers,” “this stiff-necked generation” or “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood.” In the scriptures, one does not stand or fall on one’s own merits, one stands or falls with one’s generation. We cannot separate ourselves from our parents, cultures, or families. When the prophets speak to us today, I believe they speak to our collective conscience as much as they do to us individually.
When I speak of collective consciousness, I don’t mean an abstract set of beliefs from a certain group of people. I believe collective consciousness is a literal thing, like the force that guides the ants in a colony to build nests for the queen, even though individual ants have no idea what is going on.  When Jesus says “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” he is speaking literally. On a certain dimension, He is part of us, not merely one of us, but one WITH us. The Light of Christ is a dimension of ourselves which is connected to God, a part of God Himself. That is why Christ can say, “ye have done it unto me.” Our individual ego is only one part of a larger identity which participates in larger bodies of being and consciousness. I’ve written more about this in my blog God and the LDS Ego.
But even if you doesn’t subscribe to this New Age-ish philosophy, it is still clear that culture dramatically shapes who we are. My sister discussed the new policy on SSM with her young son, who became unexpectedly outraged, as my sister tried in vain to soften the blow and defend the church.
“Kids like him are being raised to be tolerant. His school has a ‘day of silence’ to show solidarity for gays who are bullied. The sex education he receives addresses homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.”
This is more than progressive liberal education. It is the collective consciousness of the rising generation. It’s not something that can be fought.
LDS Conscience vs. American Conscience
There have been a number of conference talks recently about how the Brethren are NOT out of touch with the world. Elder Holland recently said, speaking of his fellow Brethren:
“Never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us.”
I believe this is true. The Brethren deal with the toughest and most difficult problems the church has to face on a daily basis.However, they are from a different generation, and even if they completely understand the problems of our generation, they approach these problems with the consciousness of their generation.
Mormons therefore have two collective consciousnesses to deal with: their LDS conscience, guided by elderly prophets, and the consciousness of our current generation in the outside world. In the 1950s, the collective consciousness of America at large coincided with LDS consciousness in many ways. Being an American and being a Mormon was not all that different. But since then, American consciousness has changed dramatically while LDS consciousness hasn’t (or not nearly as much).
LDS consciousness does change over time. But because we are led by leaders who are always a generation older, it will always lag behind the changing consciousness of the outside world. This is for the best. Change is not always good and it is important to have a force within us reminding us to retain what is best from the past as we rush to embrace the future.
Living With Differences in Conscience
Let us be patient with the conflicts that arise between LDS consciousness and our generational consciousness. As we shout at each other through the windows of our diverging worlds, let us remember that “we are not our own.” We are inadvertently playing generational roles as members of larger bodies of consciousness over which we have no control. Those of us who stay in the church will have to find ways to bridge the divide within ourselves, to reconcile the two consciousnesses fighting for dominance within us. I believe this is possible.
We already do this on an individual level in the context of our own families. Each child diverges from and rebels against the views of their earthly parents to a lesser or greater extent. But even if we disagree with our parents, we are commanded to “honour thy father and thy mother.” We love our parents, show them deference, and listen to their council, even when we sometimes disagree. So it is with our spiritual parent, the church. Let us honour the church, not by agreeing with everything it does, but because it is our spiritual parent. 
- Do you agree that our identity is shaped by the collective conscience of our particular generation?
- Do you agree that “we are not our own,” that our individual ego is only part of an identity which participates in larger bodies of consciousness?
- How can we reconcile our own identities (shaped by the consciousness of our own generation) with that of the church (led by the consciousness of a previous generation)?
 Scientists have noted that individual ants have extremely small brains and no idea what they are doing. A single ant may drag a twig back and forth from one side of the box to another for months on end with absolutely no sense of purpose. But somehow as a group, ants form incredibly complicated structures, demonstrating a remarkable level of intelligence transcending anything within them individually. This is true for humans as well. Another Radiolab episode examined a scientific experiment which has been replicated numerous times: Individuals are asked to guess the number of marbles in a jar. Invariably individuals make wildly wrong guesses and their answers vary dramatically. But when one takes the average of many different answers, they come very close to naming the exact number of marbles. Collectively, we are much more intelligent than we are individually.
 I’ve blogged more about this here, where I compare the church’s relationship to us as a marriage between husband and wife. Heavenly father is the husband, the church is the wife, and we are the children of the union. Heavenly Father and the church may sometimes disagree, but they always show a united front for the sake of their children. The story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar can be used as a similar allegory. Sarah (our mother church) kicks Hagar and Ishmael (SSM couples and their children) out of the gospel tent, in favour of giving the birthright to Isaac (us). Abraham asks God what to do, and God says “hearken to the voice of thy wife.” Abraham and God don’t necessarily want to kick Hagar out, but they honour Sarah’s authority as the first wife. The beautiful thing about this story is that an angel visits Hagar and Ishmael, comforting and giving them a great mission for the future. God will not abandon children raised by SSM couples. He may have a brighter mission for them outside of the church.