Today’s guest post is by Cody Hatch.
Recently, for our 20th wedding anniversary, my wife and I visited Rome, Italy. It’s an incredible city, absolutely packed with history. As someone who loves history, I was enthralled.
While there, we took the obligatory (do it once, but wow–it’s crowded) tour of the Vatican museums, Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was on this tour that I was struck by the dangers of worshiping the authority and ecclesiastic structure of one’s faith (I’ll call it
“ecclesiolatry”). It seemed that everywhere I looked within the Vatican I was reminded, by virtue of the papal insignia, of the preeminence and supreme authority of the Pope and Catholic Church. If you are unfamiliar with the papal insignia, it consists of two crossed keys – one gold and one silver – tied together with a rope, and topped with a triple crown. You can see an example of it within the Wikipedia entry for the subject. The keys represent those given to Peter by Jesus and are the keys of loosing and binding both in heaven and earth. The triple crown symbolizes the Pope’s triple power “as ‘father of kings’, ‘governor of the world’, and ‘Vicar of Christ'”. The ubiquitous insignia within the art and architecture of the Vatican buildings clearly is intended to communicate the preeminence of the Pope’s authority, and throughout history, that authority was wielded to enforce the dogmas and creeds of the Catholic Church.
As I was on the tour I couldn’t help but draw correlations between the trappings of authority within the Catholic Church and a similar emphasis within the LDS Church, where the keys and authority of the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve are consistently emphasized. I considered that, in both cases, the expectation of obedience to that authority is utilized to enforce a particular set of dogmas within each respective church. I understand the need to provide some sort of structure and management of church affairs, but, at least in the case of the LDS Church (I’m less familiar with Catholic culture), it seems to me that the expected obedience to authority creates a culture where differing views are not well tolerated, impinging on the agency and spiritual growth of individual church members as well as the greater religious community itself.
I reflected on the admonition contained in D&C 121:41, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood…” and could not help but think that our rhetoric on authority often times runs afoul of that counsel. As I read through the list of virtues that follow that admonition, I am struck by how challenging they are to cultivate in oneself, and that, if one is to do so, one must have a healthy dose of skepticism of one’s ability to adequately differentiate between God’s will and one’s own. How often have our own biases been conflated with the will of God? I would submit that many of the problematic themes within our church’s history can be distilled to a hubris where we believe we fully understand God’s will. It seems that, no matter the topic – polygamy, slavery, the priesthood and temple ban, scriptural literalism, human evolution, the nature of God, civil rights, interracial marriage, women’s rights and concerns, and most recently, LGBT rights and fellowship within our community – we have to frankly consider the probability that the biases of human, fallible people were peddled as the thoughts and intents of God, and that in each case the agency and spiritual growth of some of God’s children was trampled upon or otherwise impinged by that conflation. Such a conclusion should compel us to be much more humble and circumspect in our faith claims, but all too often we resort to rigid, dogmatic claims that reduce the size of our tent, becoming, either explicitly or implictly, hostile to those who do not fit that correlated, spiritual template.
That focus on authority makes Zion-building a more difficult endeavor than it need be. We have a wide range of spiritual approaches within our communities. Some are atheist while others might be agnostic, deist, liberal-leaning, conservative, and even fundamentalist in their beliefs. Given God’s command to be one and build Zion, it seems to me we will be less prone to egregious errors (like those in our past) and more effective at building thatZion-like community when we resort to persuasion, long-suffering, meekness, pure knowledge, etc. rather than arguments from authority. Much like the Portugese man-of-war, which consists of individual organisms, each choosing their role but
functioning as one, we must allow for individual spiritual growth and the individual development of spiritual gifts if we are to have a strong, diverse community capable of nourishing and strengthening all with whom we come in contact. Also like the Portuguese man-of-war, we may even need to tolerate the innovations and differentiation of individuals within that community if the community is to evolve with changing circumstances and thus meet the changing spiritual needs of this world. As long as we insist on a rigid, dogmatic, authority-driven religious community, we will continue to lose those whose spiritual needs cannot be met within such a community.
The teachings of Jesus are revolutionary and inspiring. They push us to grander thinking and action in an attempt to ensure God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. If we are to have that powerful, enduring religion, one that remains relevant in our changing society,
we must be realistic about the limitations of our understanding of God and see beyond the insignia and trappings of authority, finding the institutional humility to make room for other ideas.