In Tents # 82 A Note on Hermeneutics part 2

October 31, 2017, Happy All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day.

It’s been  a hectic month. In mid September my wife got quite sick and ended up with the horse spittle spittling her with four units of that elixir forbidden by Deuteronomy 12:23, and my time has been taken up with other things as well so this will be short, with a longer post to follow in November.

I was probably about 14 when I first learned blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood–I must have been about 14 because we were home teaching and my father and Karl Snow started talking about it.  At first I thought they were wrong. We had learned in grade school about the Civil Rights movement, about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves and such, and it seemed very odd the church would discriminate like that. A few years later my seminary teacher told us blacks had been denied the priesthood because they had not been valiant in the war in heaven  I found that a hard teaching to accept. The logic behind it went something like this: We know our actions in this life affect our state in the next life so it’s logical to assume that our actions and pre-earth life affected our condition in this life.

But in the next life I will be able to remember what I did here and understand the consequence of my actions, but none of us has a memory of our life before birth so there’s no way for us to double check on our actions and assess the consequences, no way to repent of something we can’t verify through memory.

A few years later, in September or October 1978, our new Mission president, Marvin Curtis, held some get-acquainted conferences and passed out and talk called “All Are Alike Unto God” explaining that it was given by Bruce R McConkie to the church educators at their annual symposium–his instructions on what to teach about the recent revelation on priesthood. I read it with great interest, particularly this paragraph:

There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

How liberating! I didn’t have to feel anymore that my dislike of the priesthood ban and the explanations some members made for it placed me at odds withmy Church. But Elder McConkie’s talk also gave me a way of  bracketing certain things, of approaching disagreements or difficult times, a way to ask whether new light and knowledge might newly illumine a situation, or whether, when thinking someone else was speaking with limited understanding I might also be hearing with limited understanding. (It occurs to me this may be part of what  John Keats was getting at with his famous comment about “Negative Capability, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”)

Elder McConkie delivered that talk 39 years ago. The only person still alive who was in the Quorum of the Twelve at the time is Thomas S. Monson. The only person in the current Quorum of the Twelve who was a general authority at the time is M. Russell Ballard. Just about all the faculty who heard Elder McConkie’s talk–except maybe freshly minted PhD.s–have retired, and many have died (including, I see on the sidebar, Doug Thayer, who used to send out news and obituaries of the emeriti to the emeriti and surviving spouses, Who will take his place?).

The midnight’s children of June 8-9, 1978 have teens a preparing for missions now. It’s been two generations since Elder McConkie taught those who teach in the church not to teach the teachings that so upset many in my generation and my parents’.

So you can imagine my dismay recently when I came across the following paragraph from a blog post by Ganesh Cherian of Wellington New Zealand, “A Former Bishop’s Doctrinal Dilemmas

During this particular lesson one of my fellow high-priests informed us that two friends (a former Bishop, and a Stake President) in England had recently left the church over the Race and the Priesthood essay.  As dutiful leaders they had instructed their congregations,  referring to the ‘the seed of Cain’ explanation for withholding the priesthood from Black members of the church until 1978.  This recent ‘clarification’ had apparently  undermined their understanding of both revelation and doctrine.  Though I haven’t left the church, this shift to more transparency is a challenge for me as well.  Not because I don’t welcome these revisions.  They seem very fair and thoroughly researched.  But like my fellow high priests, I too used these now discarded explanations and doctrines throughout my leadership to teach – and now I’m left to wonder.

It’s that word dutiful that causes my dismay. If no one with general authority to teach doctrine to the Church has been teaching the the seed of Cain explanation for nearly 40 years, who taught those men it was their duty to teach it as doctrine? And who taught whoever taught those men it was his or her duty to teach about the seed of Cain?

I’ve thought about this for months, and I think the answer to my question has something to do with our tendency to define truth as unchanging–our meaning Western Civilization all the way back to the Greeks.

Against that tradition, the definition of truth in D&C 93 is revolutionary and subversive.

23 Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth;
24 And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

We’ll talk about why this is revolutionary and subversive in the next column, or maybe the next several. In the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on that word dutiful and where those dutiful teachers learned their duty.

3 Thoughts on “In Tents # 82 A Note on Hermeneutics part 2

  1. Dennis Clark on November 1, 2017 at 10:33 pm said:

    I’m with you , Harlow! It’s the sense that somehow we have a duty to teach such repellent ideas that is so troubling to me. Sometimes I just have to keep silent, but in the Gospel Doctrine class I attend now, almost all of the mostly-much-younger-than-me teachers and students are far more willing to kick in ideas and dissents and doubts than, say, my GD class back when I was teaching it.

    But since I always stick close to the text, and offer interpretations based on my literary-critical training, I could just muffle them with baffle-gab most of the time.

  2. Harlow Clark on November 3, 2017 at 6:17 pm said:

    Thanks for your comment, Dennis. I was fortunate when I was teaching Gospel Doctrine to have supportive branch leadership. I adopted a technique I had heard from my neighbor Aina Walker: So Jeremiah was cast into the miry pit. Who else was cast into a pit? I talked a lot about types and shadows and echoes and one group repeating the experience of an earlier group.

    I did get into trouble one time when I was teaching Jacob 7, Jacob’s sermon about how the Lamanites love their wives and children, unlike the Nephites. I said “This is the beginning of a theme that shows up throughout the Book of Mormon, where the Lamanites are often more righteous than the Nephites, and apostate Nephites are the ones who stir up the Lamanites. The stake Sunday School president was present and didn’t hear the word apostate. He asked the branch president, “What do you do when someone’s preaching false doctrine?” “We’ll handle it.”

    As for baffle-gab that’s partly why I use so much wordplay. It partly hides what I’m talking about. The first paragraph of this post was designed to baffle search engines.

    A lot of what I’m doing here is deeply subversive of Protestant styles of exegesis. And I don’t mind undercutting Protestant exegesis, but early Mormons brought Protestant hymn and traditions and assumptions about the nature of truth and scripture with them, and I don’t want people to feel I’m trying to undercut faith.

    So there’s a matter of personal protection. I suspect one of Jesus’ purposes in telling parables was to keep himself out of prison, to put off John’s fate. There’s a political story being told in the gospels, but it’s in the background. The evangelists were concentrating on the story of salvation, not on the politics.

  3. Dennis Clark on November 18, 2017 at 1:20 am said:

    I get to agree with you on this point, and especially on the political implications of the the gospels. Jesus was not ever merely resigned to his death. He fought to keep his work of salvation building and building. He was away across Jordan when Mary and Martha asked him to come back and heal Lazarus. I love the symbolism — Jesus coming back to his own death in order to raise Lazarus from the dead.

    In a way, that Lazarus can stand in for the entire Jewish state at the time, especially given that within a few more years, the Jews would be scattered and their temple thrown down.

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