The Angel and the Hermit, and church governance

The Gesta Romanorum, a medieval collection of moralizing stories, includes the tale of a hermit who despaired at the world’s injustice and resolved to abandon his calling. An angel appears to the hermit and brings him along on his divine errands: the angel smothers a soldier’s infant child, steals a precious goblet from a kind host, casts a pilgrim from a bridge to his death, and gives the precious goblet to a stingy, unwilling host. The hermit, horrified, is certain that the angel is of the devil. The angel, however, explains: the soldier had grown miserly and covetous since the birth of his child, but now would better his ways; the kind host had taken to drinking from the precious goblet, but now would become sober; the pilgrim died a good Christian, but if he had walked farther would have committed grievous sin; and the miserly host will go to hell.

The point of the story isn’t that we should commit random acts of assault and larceny, or that the scales of justice will be balanced in the afterlife. Instead, the tale expresses (in a particularly medieval way) a basic insight about decision-making. Strictly speaking, it’s impossible in most real-world situations to judge the soundness of a decision by its outcome. Did you pick the right major? Marry the right person? Accept the right job offer? Sorry, there’s no way to rewind history and try each option to find out where they would have led. Even worse, soon after every major or minor decision we make, further decisions made by us and others and impersonal events make it impossible to simply attribute cause and affect (at least without the help of an angel). To know if a decision was right or wrong, you would have to observe every possible outcome of every decision made by every person who might potentially impact your life. And even if we could do that, there’s no guarantee that a God’s-eye view of success would correspond to our own criteria.

Think about it in terms of buying a lottery ticket. You might win, and the money might solve all your financial problems and let you develop to your full potential. Or the money might enable you to develop truly self-destructive habits that will harm everyone you know. You probably won’t win, but maybe the thrill of contemplating possibility and hope will help you learn to embrace risk and try new things. Or one losing lottery ticket will send you down a path of debt, deceit and addiction. Or your boss will see the lottery ticket on your desk and take it as a sign that you’re ready for a high-risk, high-reward role in the organization. Or your boss will take it as a sign that you’re a compulsive gambler and an intolerable risk.

Did you make the right decision? You can’t know for certain just by observing the outcome at the current moment in time. Even the best plans fail, and that failure doesn’t mean that another plan would have been better. Or your success might have had nothing to do with your foolhardy, slapdash plan. You might have hit that half-court shot when your team was up by 2 with 20 seconds remaining, but it was still a dumb thing to do.

What you can do, however, is ask yourself: how good or bad is my decision-making process? Am I taking into account important information? (The odds of winning the lottery are astronomically low, and I have bills to pay.) Do I re-evaluate my decision-making process to improve it? (Since I have bills to pay, I should lower the amount I’m spending on spontaneous purchases like lottery tickets.)

Which brings us to church governance. It’s tempting to look at history or current events and say: The Church was mistaken when it did X, or the Church’s plan for Y was successful. But the awkward truth is that no (mortal) person knows what catastrophe was averted by an uncomfortable solution, or what blessings were forfeited by some seeming success. I’m particularly skeptical about criticism of what the Church should have done in response to historical fascism, or should do today when dealing with Russia or China; the ugly truth is that every option is bad, with horrible potential consequences lurking around every corner. The same is true of the Church’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic: every nation on earth, with access to the best medical experts known to man, failed in some way, and if the Church at least managed an outcome where most of us don’t hate the rest of us, we’re probably doing okay.

The point of the story from the Gesta Romanorum is that we should use our best judgment while maintaining intellectual humility about the outcomes, think carefully about our decision-making processes – and seek divine aid in decision-making. If there is any way possible to get input from an omniscient source even a small fraction of the time, our decisions will be much better than they would be otherwise (I feel like this is a point Frank made about 10 years ago).

You can look at the history of Church organization as a gradual but consistent effort to shift somewhat more toward informed, deliberate decision-making (through councils and consultation structures or better access to historical sources and archives) and away from individual decree, and this is overall a good thing. At the same time, and consistent with its origins, the Church has consciously retained seeking and obtaining divine knowledge as the central goal of its decision-making processes.

Does it happen? I’ve been the guy submitting the name of what seemed like the only available person for a calling, and the guy getting called because I was available and willing (I was not exactly an inspired or inspiring choice for a Cub Scout leader; the best that can be said is that pack meetings started and ended on time). But I’ve also been in the room when everything clicks into place and a seemingly intractable problem is solved, and I’ve personally seen decisions made and confirmed by inspiration in ways that seem too blunt and obvious for a God who supposedly works in mysterious ways; sometimes, it seems, He is happy to club us over the head until we believe. I accept the Church’s claim to be led by inspiration because I’ve seen it happen. The cynical take, that it’s all for show to shut down arguments, is simply false. How often does inspiration play a role in decisions? At least often enough that even a nobody like me has seen it multiple times.

3 comments for “The Angel and the Hermit, and church governance

  1. In Chile, prior to the pandemic, there was a social conflict that raised and united the entire country to generate a change in the rules that govern society for a more egalitarian one. The left and feminist groups took the opportunity to win the elections and try to push for a new constitution. This was completely twisted and the draft of the new constitution was rejected, today the extreme right that did not want a new constitution has 75% of the representatives to write the new constitution. Who would have thought that in less than three years a society that demands equality would be completely dominated by the extreme right?
    In short, my hypothesis is that in complex systems such as a society, a country and the world, when radical changes are made, the groups that have the capacity to quickly understand the new rules of the game and adapt it to their particular objectives will win and the effect of the measure will be twisted based on the ability of the groups to take advantage of this new situation and the system will begin to self-regulate, producing effects that will increase inequalities.
    In the Church it is similar, a good idea that is not shared by a council or by the members will not have the desired effect, but in private each person or family will act according to their own objectives. Hence, it is essential to work in the councils so that under inspiration an idea is shared, a vision accepted by all.

  2. The classic case of this is, of course, Zion’s Camp. Also, all the sweat that went into settlements that were quickly abandoned. Also, the fact that Joseph Smith spent years after receiving the initial revelations as a day laborer when one might think that his preparatory time would have been better spent in something more religion-adjacent. If this-life efficiency is the benchmark that we’re measuring things by then deity seems to come up short, but of course in hindsight things make a lot of sense that seemed crazy at the time.

  3. “The Angel and the Hermit” suggests that apparently bad decisions can lead to good consequences. Sartre’s short story “The Wall” points out that apparently good decisions can lead to bad consequences, but the Book of Alma does it even better: Alma’s mission to Ammonihah leads to an appalling massacre; the attempt by the sons of Mosiah to create peace between the Nephites and Lamanites prompts two invasions and another massacre; the mission to the Zoramites to try to prevent them from defecting to the Lamanites leads them to defect to the Lamanites and start another war; and Helaman’s effort to reorganize local units of the Church prompts the rebellion of Amalikiah and the biggest war yet.

    All we can do is the best we can, and I appreciate the emphasis on good decision-making processes. But we need to be humble enough to recognize things can and will go wrong anyway–and apply that to others as well. Also, we can’t be held responsible for the reactions of others, especially reactions that are unreasonable and unforeseeable (burning women and children alive was not a reasonable or foreseeable reaction to Alma’s preaching in Ammonihah).

    On the other hand, one could argue (and I suspect most members would) that all the terrible things that happened in response to missionary work in the Book of Alma were worth it because some people were converted and saved. (In saying that I think it’s important to note that neither God nor the missionaries carried out those terrible things.) That’s close to “The Angel and the Hermit”, and reinforces that what looks like a failure to us may not be to God. I have to remind myself of that when it comes to the Church’s extremely costly effort to prevent legalization of same-sex marriage in the US.

    As a side note, I have to point out that when the Nephites tried to use missionary work to create political outcomes and failed (peace with the Lamanites, the Zoramites not dissenting to the Lamanites) C.S. Lewis would probably say they got what was coming to them: “God will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of heaven as a shortcut to the nearest chemist’s shop.” The Nephites didn’t get the political outcome they wanted, but their missionary work succeeded in saving souls.

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