The Divinity of the Church, Expressed as a Percentage

NOTE: I started this a few days ago, then decided it was dumb and put it aside. It may still be dumb, but it does seem relevant to how I think about the issues raised by Frank’s posting of Elder Eyring’s talk, and, I think it’s tangentially related to Nate’s Blogscar-nominated “On Authority” (for which you should all go vote at Intellecxhibitionist [sic]). And, alas, it should now be revised to begin, “My second-most-recent scuffle…”

My latest scuffle with the longsuffering John Fowles has me thinking again about how to explain myself to people who think about the Church differently than I do, even if we feel similarly about it. In her great essay “Lusterware,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich describes her surprise when a friend sent her a letter describing her recent realization that “the Church is only 90% divine, and the other 10% is human.” Laurel says in the essay (I’m paraphrasing now, because I can’t find the book) that she would put the percentage of divinity lower, and the human input much higher, but that an institution that is even 10% divine is worth clinging to with might.

I think that we all come to our contemplations of the Church with different underlying assumptions about just how much divinity is involved in the workings of the Church as an institution. Unfortunately, these assumptions are rarely articulated, so that someone like Laurel’s friend, who believes God to be minutely involved in *most* of the day-to-day machinations of the Church might well be horrified by the musings of someone like Laurel (or me) who thinks that the Church operates largely as a human institution, with wonderful and miraculous, but occasional, direct intervention by God.

Lots of factors go into our view of the institutional church. Off the top of my head I can think of these:

1)Temperament–some people are constitutionally more able to accept authority than others. If you don’t believe me, come visit and observe my two older children sometime–my second child routinely answers requests with “OK, Mom”; if those words come out of my firstborn’s mouth, I call the pediatrician immediately, as I can be certain he is quite ill. Authority and institutions are just less galling to some people than to others, and I suspect that people to whom accepting authority comes easily and naturally are far more comfortable with the notion of godly bureaucracies than people with the opposite disposition. (I leave it as an exercise for you, gentle readers, to guess whose DNA might be responsible for my oldest child’s, um, independence.)

2) Familiarity–in my (admittedly limited and biased) observation, it’s somewhat more common for lifelong members of the church to be comfortable speaking of the church as an earthly institution. Having grown up (or become long accustomed) to the stable presence of the Church in one’s life makes it easier to be unthreatened by a consideration of what is less-than-perfect about it. People like my mother, on the other hand, who found the Church later in life and experienced it as rescuing them from their bleaker life without it, are more inclined to be defensive, and to view any criticism of the institution as an attempt to tear it down. It’s the difference between loving the cousin who grew up across the street from you, and cherishing your dearest friend who has not always lived close by.

3) Experience with leadership–I’ve had the opportunity to observe church leaders (at least local ones) with some regularity. My dad and most of my uncles have been in bishoprics and branch and stake presidencies for much of my life. My little brother is now a bishop (I still can hardly type that without chuckling a bit–he’s a great kid, but he’s my *little* brother). In particular, my dad was a bishop when I was a tween and young teen, and I wonder if my heightened adolescent awareness of his flaws as a parent didn’t also make my hyperconscious of his missteps as a bishop. I’ve been lucky enough to also be friends with many of my church leaders, and to hear them speak honestly and sometimes self-critically about their struggles and their failures as well as their successes. Being close to the human beings involved in church governance makes it easier (for better or worse) to be cognizant of the humanity of the process. I suspect that this is a factor in the common willingness to critique policy or practice at the local level, but to draw the line at any criticism of policies or pronouncements that come “from Salt Lake.” It’s easier to imagine that those farther away from you, whose human foibles you don’t see, are somehow involved in something more mysterious than what you’ve seen.

4) Distance–I know it will seem like I’m contradicting the point above, and perhaps I am, but I think distance can also make people think of church governance as a more human process. I’ve never been a bishop, and won’t be, and so the only way I can think about what it’s like is to imagine myself in my brother’s head. I can relate to him as a human being, but I can’t really relate to him as a bishop because I don’t know what it *feels* like to wear that mantle. I have to think of him as my-brother-only-a-little-more-inspired, because I just don’t have any other framework; the-bishop-who-used-to-be-my-brother might be more apt, but I don’t have any way to know what that means. Similarly, I have to think of his inspiration-seeking as something like my own all-too-human wrestling for it, although it may be a completely different process for him. Perhaps it is a mark of monstrous egocentricity that I want to understand leaders’ revelation by imagining what it would be like to receive that revelation myself. In any case, the fact that I can’t quite imagine it seems to be, for me, a barrier to thinking of the process as different and less humanly complicated than my own strivings.

5) Negative experiences: people who’ve had really bad experiences with church leaders often revise their estimate of the divinity involved in the day-to-day workings of the church downward, as a sanity-saving measure. Since many (most?) people who have really bad (I’m talking *really* bad–life-alteringly bad, not just “I’m offended” bad) experiences end up leaving, the ones who stay may end up sounding like disaffected cranks or apostates to people who have had mostly or exclusively good experiences with their leaders and obeying their leaders’ counsel.

I’m not sure exactly, what I hope to convey with all this navel-gazing (although I confess to taking some sick pleasure in the thought of Nate and Frank writhing in autobiography-and-pop-psychobabble-induced agonies while reading). Until we have some sort of chip implanted in our hands, that can transfer the relevant details of our experiences to our interlocutors when we shake hands, perhaps the best we can do is to take stock of our own responses, figure out if we’re 90-10 folks, or 50-50, or 5-95, and allow the possibility that other members of the church with equally strong testimonies of the gospel may have different ways of understanding how the divine principles they believe in translate into institutional practice.

22 comments for “The Divinity of the Church, Expressed as a Percentage

  1. Kristine–

    I like your taxonomy, but could I suggest another way to look at this? Institutionally speaking, there is no “Mormon Church,” but instead thousands of local “mormon” churches (deliberately leaving off the caps); there is no “Mormon Experience,” but millions of “mormon” experiences. When it comes to an individual’s experience of leaders, what a person experiences is local, idiosyncratic, and ultimately defining. If you are lucky enough to allways have leaders who are in tune with the spirit in spite of their human failings, then–for YOU–the Church is an institution lead by divinely inspired humans that have been made better than what they actually are by the grace of Christ. If you are unlucky enough to experience bad leadership, to have the jackboot of unrighteous dominion come down on your throat, then the church is a very human institiution and if you stay, you come to believe that the grace is there in spite of the unambiguously flawed people behind the podium.

    The real trick is for people to admit that their reality is just that. If you are lucky enough to live in a nurturing unit–or a unit that nurtures you–thank the Lord, but don’t judge those who have seen their souls beaten into the ground. If you are being sinned against by local leaders, dont give up on the ideal and don’t imply that those who are experiencing priesthood leadership the way it should be are deluded, ideological shills, etc.

    BTW I am told that being a Bishop or Branch President is an agony of carrying other’s crosses and being skewered by your own failings.

  2. Who is to say that humanity is not divine. “Humanity,” as I use the term, does not include the heinous crimes that so unfortunately exist in the peripheries of church leadership. And I wholeheartedly agree with Boris’ injunction to not judge those whose “souls have been beaten down.” Those who keep the faith after such harrowing experiences are, it seems, well suited for the world to come. But rather, I address the little quirks and annoyances that cause so much grieving and Sunday-night dinner-table bashing (I am not innocent). But how often do our frustrations become irrelevant when compared to that same leader’s tender nurturing and understanding at the appropriate times. Oh that a Bishop didn’t have to put his faults on stage. But he does, and he does so willingly. Your Bishop and mine likely go home after a PEC, interview, confession–you name it–alone, falling to their knees and wishing so that they had done things just a little bit differently for the benefit of the courageous that try, through these leaders, to lay their souls on the altar. Because I can think of few things, at least on this side of the veil, more divine than a flawed representative of humanity falling to his knees for my benefit, I place myself in the 100-0 category.

  3. Kristine, this is a great post. First of all, I agree with Laurel that even if it is only 10% divinely guided, that is reason to embrace it with might. Of course, you can guess that I personally think the Lord is a little more involved than that. Still, that doesn’t mean that I think that the Lord is calling 90% of the shots in this institution. Even if he were guiding the Church in only approximately 5-10% of its affairs, I still wonder how appropriate certain kinds of criticism are.

    I was particularly interested in your # 2. This makes a lot of sense but seems to fall a little short. For example, I am a life-long member but get very defensive about such criticisms, as you have observed. I don’t know why that is, but I have observed the same thing from you if anyone talks about Sunstone. That provokes automatic defensiveness in you in much the same way that critical talk of the Church provokes defensiveness in me. Still, the observation in # 2 does seem accurate in many cases.

  4. Kristine,

    I think it is interesting how the same experiences can lead two people in the opposite direction. Thus Distance and Familiarity both get on the list. Experience can increase or decrease our ratio. Bad experiences, I suppose are defined as those that don’t make us more trusting, so that doesn’t swing both ways because it is defined as not. Temperament is certainly a big deal, and somethig we are expected to do something about. So while it is true that these things are factors in one’s own testimony of the Divinity of the Church, how they factor depends not inconsequentially upon us and how we choose to view them.

    That said, I don’t see that we need to condemn people who think the Church is 1-99. They are wrong, but the judgement part is God’s problem, who can sort through when they acted and when they were acted upon.

    Lastly, any post that encourages people to think of themselves in terms of a ratio has to be good!

  5. “I have observed the same thing from you if anyone talks about Sunstone.”

    Touché. (or, I guess “touchée, since I’m female?)

  6. there seems an unnerving propensity for many members to need to quantify activity at church meetings or at the temple or home teaching or at some social happening for the purpose of judging a particular person in doubt. When they can arrive a a certain level of activity or devotion, as they suppose, they commence the “judgement” of their own. As Frank McIntyre says above, those “who think the Church is 1-99 . . .are wrong.” with the amazing amount of scripture availabe that indicates that time, or quantification, of most any of our mortal activities to be of very little consequence in the grand scheme of things, we still want to put the checks in the little boxes, mentally if not institutionally. we are, at least, ever so unique in our individuality that it would take diety to unravel all those mortal experiences and mesh them with the intentions (although the road to hell may be paved with them–is that a shakespear or some such other writer’s idea cum scriptural text?) or testimony or being actively engaged in doing good, to come up with a reward (reward?–ah, a topic for another comment) commensurate with the totality of the individual. as a group who is willing to take upon our shoulders those burdens of others of us whose arms hang down, who struggle with their own devils, who need sincerity in their dealings with those of us who may be more blessed, as it would seem, (ah–blessed–another topic for another comment!), we need to understand that we, as well as the Corinthians, can operate as a group only with all those parts available and welcome. As President Hinkley, a live prophet, notes more then occasionally–more or less–“we need to do a little better” (is it just me or has he mentioned that or similar statements quite often lately–how could i make an index of these comments?) anyway, thanks for your input–be gentle.

  7. Interesting and valuable post, Kristine. Your concept 2, Familiarity, to define the difference between the convert and the lifelong member strikes a chord. It seems that the true convert will indeed embrace the Church with an almost 100%-divinity view, while the lifelong member may be enclined to experience more of the social, and thus earthly function of the Church, as part of growing up with it. It seems to me, ironically, that the latter often provides a better safeguard to remain active. While the convert, upon the first serious disappointment or conflict, may be so disenchanted that his view shifts drastically to 0%-divinity. Various Scriptures mention that process. Hence the fact that even ecstatic converts can also, sometimes within weeks, leave the Church, easily and bitterly. Your other factors all tie in with that experience.

  8. Haaving served in several callings in several wards and branches (I was active duty military for a while, and that means a lot of moving) that gave me the opportunity to participate in offering callings at differnt levels, I believe that most of those callings were on the “divine.” Those rooms were filled with good, capable men, and yet some of those decisions were better than we could have come up with on our own.

    That said, I believe the “humanity” to be every bit as important, if you see it as a “capital H” Humanity. By that I mean, if the motivation was one of sincere love and concern for the people involved, Humanity approaches Divinity to where they are nearly the same.

    I believe the Great Parable is the one of the Prodigal Son. The more I study it, the more I am convinced the parable is more about the father and the older brother than the prodigal himself. There is a reason the prodigal went looking to his father, and not the brother–the father is where the love was. After all those years, the father was still looking for his son, and ran to him when he saw him from a considerable distance. If our actions, and those of the leaders, show the same concern as the father had for the prodigal, then I believe we are a close to Divine as is Humanly possible.

  9. Kristine,

    Interesting post. I think I fall into the 100% divine column in that the Church is the organization that the Lord himself provided for the purpose of administering the gospel. The Church as a whole is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” according to God himself, and with it, collectively speaking, he is well pleased. (DC 1)

    On the other hand, because the programs of the Church are administered by humans, and all of the frailities they bring, that administration of Church policies and procedures may be flawed. As I have mentioned, I have been a bishop, and can atest that it is not easy. What I do to please one family or individual in suggesting courses of action may, in fact, cause an uproar with another. Therefore, the “divinity” or “inspiration” of the leader becomes completely subjective based on one’s personal point of view, but only because that one is also flawed, being human.

    Let me give a minor example. The stake issued many years ago a Dress Standard for the youth. Shortly after being called as the bishop, the stake re-emphasized that standard in a parent/youth fireside. In my ward, we decided to take it at face value, and on many occasions the Young Women president asked some of the young women to go home from Mutual, change to something more appropriate, and come back. Unfortunately, we had one young woman whose mother took great offense at this, and quit coming to church. The YW president and me were both “called on the carpet” for this and told that the standard could not be enforced, that we were to accept the girls regardless of how they were dressed; the most we could do was remind the young women of the standard. This was devestating to the YW president whose only objective was to do as the prophet has called us to do, to raise the standard, to do our best, and a little bit better.

    For this mother, I was the bishop from hell. On the other hand, those young women who conformed their lives and standards to those set by the stake were blessed for their willingness to demonstrate obedience.

    The question might be asked “was the standard divinely inspired” or “man-made”. Does it matter? Remember what the Lord said in DC 1- “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself…my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice, or by the of my servants, it is the same.”

    I found that on my mission, whether I thought the mission president was right or wrong, my blessings came not from doing what he asked, but from obedience to the Lord’s chosen servant.

  10. I’m such a contrarian that I’m usually misunderstood, but here goes nothing.

    I find the whole percentage measure to be a case of dueling authoritarianisms.

    My experience has been (I am not refering to Kristine because I don’t know her) that those for whom authority is especially galling are those quite convinced of the correctness of their own judgment. As the old saying goes, “people who think they know everything are very irritating to those of us that actually do.” I was much more anti-authority before I had been kicked around a little bit by life.

    Don’t the scriptures resound with special cases, unique situations, fallen leaders, wanderings in the desert, plagues, and dominions of all kinds, righteous and unrighteous? Why do we think we deserve something more certain and stable?

    I think that it is a constriction of divinity to assume that unchanging truth and a perfect God mean that if leaders were 100% inspired they would all act similarly. One truth and one course of action are not the same thing.

    I would be interested in an additional measure. That measure is what percent of righteousness or salvation or a wonderful church is based on how much one forgives others and how much on how well one performs personal duties and commandments?

    100 – 0 means its all forgiving others. No matter what you do, if you forgive others, you’re fine.

    0- 100 means following rules is the most important thing and forgiving others gets about the same weight as not drinking coke or not watching football on Sunday.

    I’m probably an 80-20 person in a 20-80 church, but I think a 50-50 world would be a very, very nice place. So I’ll promise to get more excited about obeying rules, if an 20-80 person out there agrees to start caring a bit more about compassion rather than self-perfection.

    Who knows, we may start a trend and average this thing out!

  11. If I can be so bold, I’d suggest the ratio is 100-100. Hence the controversy. The Church is entirely divinely led and entirely a human institution.

  12. By the way, why does this need to be revised to read “the second-most-recent scuffle”? Was there a scuffle subsequent to our discussion of “A Defense of Whining?”

  13. Ah, John, so quick to forgive and forget :) There was a minor tiff in the Powerful Women thread, as I recall.

  14. Kristine, I had a question for your # 2 in the dichotomy that you haven’t had addressed. Wilfried has now backed you up on your observation in # 2. I am not saying that your # 2 is wrong but I wonder how it can account for someone like me: raised in the Church, not believing that God is directing every minute detail (too pragmatically minded for something like that), acknowledging the fallibility of our leaders, and yet still defensive at criticisms of Church policy. In fact, I couldn’t really find a place where someone like me fits in your taxonomy. And yet, I am not such a misfit in this regard, as I would guess that many Latter-day Saints who are raised in the Church share a perspective and approach similar to mine.

  15. John, I don’t know how to account for you! :)

    My #2 is pointing at gross generalities, and I don’t think it begins to explain everybody. It’s only that most “liberal” Mormons I know are lifelong members, not that most “conservative” ones I know are converts. As you’ll see from my contradictory #3 & #4, I’m really just thinking aloud, searching for some explanatory model, not strongly arguing for one that I think works.

  16. I suppose a “liberal Mormon” who does not have a lifetime of roots with the Church might be more likely to just leave if they had the same set of issues. I don’t know if that is the case, but it would explain why the remining liberal Mormons are long term members.

  17. I don’t have time to develop this thought much, but I’ll say this:

    I don’t like the idea of trying to divide the actions of the Church into percentages of divinely inspired and humanly invented decisions, at least partially because I think it’s impossible. I look at my own life and the decisions I make, and if I were to try to sort and classify them into those two categories, I’d be at a loss. Do I do things that I think have been handed down to me from on high, the products of pure divine inspiration? Certainly. I’m a Sunday school teacher and love the calling, and I’m deeply grateful for the times when the Spirit has pointedly directed me to change my lesson plan. However, I’m imperfect, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that there are some things I do that are not inspired whatsoever by the Spirit.

    But this is where the water gets muddy. Sure I do things that are divinely inspired. But my understanding of that inspiration is seen through the very human lens of my own personality and knowledge, so the things I’m inspired to do still have a human element. On the other hand, when I sin and do things contrary to the direction of the Spirit, the way I understand my action and the guilt I feel are colored by my past spiritual experiences, and the time I use to disobey God came from Him in the first place. Therefore, even when I disobey God, my action is not entirely free of His divine touch. It can’t be, because I can’t be, and neither can anyone who has ever been converted to Christ. Even Cain could only become Perdition because God chose to speak to him first.

    In short, I have not made a conscious decision in my life that was not influenced both by God and by my human nature, so the real question about my actions is not whether they were inspired, but whether they were good. The way I judge that is not based on an analysis of my decisions and an arithmetic tally of which were inspired and which weren’t. As much as I can, I judge my actions based on prayer and personal revelation about how consecrated I am, about how hard I’m trying to be like Jesus. If I feel less consecrated than I was yesterday, I try to repent. If not, I should try to repent anyway, so I can be more consecrated tomorrow. I can’t assign a number value to my righteousness or compare it with anyone else’s, but I have an overall feel for what direction I’m headed in and how I can change to get closer to God.

    You can see the obvious difficulty in applying this standard to the Church as a whole. This Church has 12 million members about whom I receive no revelation. I don’t know their thoughts, I don’t know their hearts and intentions, and I can’t know how hard they’re trying. That knowledge belongs to God, and frankly, it’s none of my business when it’s about anyone outside my stewardship, so I don’t just believe that I don’t know how inspired the Church is. I believe that I can’t possibly know how inspired it is.

    I realize that I’m seeing the question differently from most of you and that most of you are probably just discussing what percentage of directives we receive from the Church is right and what percentage is wrong. This is my take on that:

    I receive instruction from the Brethren and from my local leaders. It’s my responsibility to pray, receive spiritual confirmation and explanation of my leaders’ instructions, and follow as best I can. If they’re wrong, that’s the Lord’s business, and I’m sure He’ll let me know what I should do. I have only one concern, and that is how consecrated I am and how well I follow what God tells me. I know the doctrines of the Church are true. I know the leaders of the Church have the authority to do their jobs. I know the specific directives I receive from the Church are from imperfect but inspired men trying to do their best to help those in their stewardships, and I know that how I implement those specific directives in my life is a matter of personal revelation for which only the Lord can truly hold me accountable. How well my leaders magnify their callings is something I don’t need to know and can’t.

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