Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Personal Revelation and the "Ideal"

I've been mulling this one over for a while, and now that I have a few moments, I decided to sit down and write it. Since most of my writing these days has consisted of law review articles, you're going to end up with footnotes. It's an occupational hazard. [1]

I find the rhetoric used in the church to describe the "ideal" to be off-putting. It's usually trotted out in the context of family relations, but it can apply in other situations as well. It goes something like this: The "ideal" is a man and a woman who married in the temple in their early 20's (after the man served an honorable full-time mission), upon which the woman got pregnant within a year or two, quit her job, and became a full-time homemaker. [2] Any other situation is "less-than-ideal" and is something that the parties to the situation should feel at least slightly bad about. We can't acknowledge these situations with more than a few off-hand comments in talks because if we focus too much on them, then the "ideal" will be compromised.

In addition to causing heartache and pain to members whose lives have, for whatever reason, taken a different path, this notion of the "ideal" is in direct contradiction to our belief in personal revelation. Personal revelation comes through the Holy Spirit, a member of the Godhead. How could following instruction from God be less than ideal?

If someone receives personal revelation on a subject that differs from the "ideal", that doesn't make acting on that revelation not ideal. That revelation creates, for that person, a different ideal. For example, I have a good friend who became very close friends with a man not of our faith. As they got closer, she prayed about it and received a prompting to marry him. She was quite surprised by this, and she asked again to make sure she had understood correctly. She had. They've been married for 10 years, and they have a wonderful marriage and family. Marrying him became her ideal.

Personal revelation can serve to liberalize, as in the above instance of marrying a nonmember, but it can also serve to make things stricter for a given individual. For example, men are expected to serve a mission, and women are not. [3] When I reached the age where I was making the decision of whether or not to serve a mission, I received a witness that I should go. This revelation, which came from God, made my personal obligation to serve equal to the obligation of any man. Serving a mission became my ideal, and I would have been disobedient to God if I had chosen not to serve.

Instead of using the term "ideal" to describe the default position, I propose we use a different term which can avoid the baggage of value judgments. Perhaps something like "general rule", "default", or another suitable synonym. Basically, the idea is "do this unless you have revelation to do it differently". This phrasing is consistent with how Elder Oaks frames the issue. He has said:
As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. . . . But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught this same thing in another way. When he was asked how he governed such a diverse group of Saints, he said, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” In what I have just said, I am simply teaching correct principles and inviting each one of you to act upon these principles by governing yourself. [4]

As a people who believe in personal revelation, we need to make our speech consistent with our doctrine.

[1] I once wrote a 7 word sentence that was followed by an 87 word footnote.
[2] In talking about the rhetoric of the "ideal", I don't mean to imply that there's anything wrong with marrying young or being a full-time homemaker.
[3] See e.g. Gordon B. Hinckley, "Some Thoughts on Temples, Retention of Converts, and Missionary Service", October 1997 General Conference, reprinted in November 1997 Ensign p. 49. Available here. (Accessed April 7, 2010). ("I say what has been said before, that missionary work is essentially a priesthood responsibility. ... We do not ask the young women to consider a mission as an essential part of their life’s program. ... Again to the sisters I say that you will be as highly respected, you will be considered as being as much in the line of duty, your efforts will be as acceptable to the Lord and to the Church whether you go on a mission or do not go on a mission.)
[4] Dallin H. Oaks, "Dating versus Hanging Out", CES Fireside May 1, 2005. Available here. (Accessed April 7, 2010).


C.J. said...

I couldn't agree more!!! Well said!

Anonymous said...

I find your posts very comforting and relate to many of your thoughts and experiences. Thanks for going to the effort to write them.