If this is not the first time you read my blog, you’ll know I’ve visited this topic before. I am not sure how much I am covering the same ground here (yeah, I can read as well as anybody, and I just read the article), but I think this is an interesting subject in its own right.
There’s always been questioning about who has the authority to declare doctrine, in all religions. Let’s say that in Islam, Muhammed is the ultimate source of authoritative commentary. But the 666 shuras of the Qur’an hardly cover everything under the sun. (From Arabic: القرآن al-qur’ān, literally “the recitation”; also sometimes transliterated as Quran, Qur’ān, Koran, Alcoran or Al-Qur’ān. See Wikipedia for more.) Where does one turn to get more understanding? Well, as it is, there is no central authority for declaring Muslim doctrine, so whatever Imam/Mullah you respect most is likely to have your ear. But this is just to illustrate that the question is by no means peculiar to Judeo/Christian tradition (of course, thinking about it, Islam is of the Judeo/Christian tradition, no matter how vehemently many a Muslim would try to deny that).
For The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the answer is clear &mdas; or then not, depending on your view point. Ostensibly, there is The Prophet, the President of the First Presidency, a “prophet, seer and revelator” (see D&C). But there are also his counselors and the Quorum of The Twelve Apostles, which brings the number to fifteen total.
(Then you have the First Quorum of The Seventy, if you want to make it even more complicated — they are not called “prophets, seers and revelators”, but they form a body equal in authority; this is fully the case only when there is some reason, why the ordained Apostles are too few to form a “quorum” [there are fewer than seven available for reasons of health, travel or like, and the matter is urgent — otherwise we should wait to have the Apostles meet]).
Okay, so in addition to the standard works (Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants and Pearl of Great Price), we have the words of living oracles. There is one snag, though. They are all also human, and have preconceptions, opinions and misunderstandings; it would be expecting the impossible to expect these never to affect their utterances.
Many, many people have been brought up in a tradition that states, that the Bible has come from God as it is with us now, word for word; and that there is no truth outside the Bible. (Often enough, the same people do not know that much about the Bible, like how and when it came together or what’s in it today — if you feel like arguing with that, don’t bother, just be one of the ones, who know…) To them the idea that there is a “moving target” makes it frustrating. Now I’m saying, in fact, that it’s not really fair to comb through all recorded speeches or letters by, say, every ordained Apostle since Priesthood was restored, for inconsistencies.
Why? Because, for one, the Apostles of early 20th century are very unlikely to have said anything concerning Internet pornography. Just to throw the most obvious example on the table. There are a host of other, much subtler points. The Lord speaks when men listen, he does not force us to hear. And when he does, the men he speaks to have an obligation to use their own faculties to bring the message across. Sometimes someone may say something in absolutist terms in their wish to lay the matter aside for the time being (you know, like saying that some particular thing would never happen), not realizing, that they are perhaps exceeding their authority and saying something that the Lord has not told them. Even so, they were not “evil” men, just human. A careful reading of the Bible shows us that quite often the Lord just gave the Prophets general ideas. When Moses was sent, he complained that he himself was of slow speech. He knew that much would depend on his own ability to express what the Lord had told him.
For such a predicament we have a perfect solution: We all have the right — or even an obligation — to do our best to have a personal relationship with the Lord. Then, when something happens to make us wonder if that particular piece came from the Lord, he will let us know, within reason, and with some conditions, how we stand in regards to it. Almost always, when we sincerely try to do what we believe is the Lord’s will; and if scripture study (study, not just memorizing good verses for bashing others) and meaningful prayer are among our daily habits, we can come to a peace of mind and conscience within a reasonable time. However, most of us are a little bit impatient…
But a lot of the stuff you hear even in General Conference is not necessarily revelatory. It’s often just stuff that brings across the points that the speaker wants. How many times have you heard a football or baseball story in Conference? But the Lord speaks to men in their own language. (Disclosure: I dislike sports stories, except the kind like in Elder Wirthlin’s October 2008 address, about his grandson, who would just watch a ball hit his way in the outfield sail past and then pull another from his pocket and throw it towards the pitcher.)
Often the members tell each other stories that are meant to be either faith promoting or have a clear warning. It’s presumably more effective the more outlandish the story is — except when the listener is someone like me, who thinks that people don’t want or need to be lied to. One reason we never had Santa Claus at our house is, that we didn’t want the whole deception thing. If someone told our kids about Santa, and they asked me, I’d say he’s a legend that people like, because it makes them feel good/gives them an excuse to do things. But let others keep their stories, OK? Folklore is okay, as long as we understand it as such. If we start taking (let alone putting out) lore as gospel truth, we risk alienation at the point when truth gets out. Besides this, I am writing a piece on what Mormon Culture is on my other blog it won’t be out until Friday or Saturday, though.
The gospel is quite capable of standing on its own merits.
As you notice, I am not answering the question I ask in the title as much as I am trying to provoke you to do your own thinking and searching.
Bottom line: There is no secret ingredient. We all have access to it all.