O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. (2 Nephi 4:34)
Religion is meant to draw one closer to God. Its entire purpose is instrumental. It is not the end itself, but a means to an end. While this seems a fairly uncontroversial claim to make, its implications for the religious adherent are profound. Couched within this seemingly innocuous claim is the idea that one must ultimately transcend one’s own religion. A religion is successful only insofar as it becomes of secondary importance to its followers’ spiritual wellbeing.
Based on my observations, a majority of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints struggle with this concept. Or, perhaps more accurately, the concept never even occurs to them. For many observant Mormons, devotion to the Church simply is devotion to God. The two cannot come apart. To disagree with any teaching or practice of the Church is to oppose God’s will. For the record, I wholeheartedly reject this kind of thinking, and I believe it stands in direct opposition to the precepts of Mormonism itself. But my aim here is not to denounce blind obedience. Instead, I wish to focus on just how difficult it is to dedicate ourselves to God rather than to religion.
It is important here to return to the notion of transcending religion. What do I mean by that? Well, one thing I don’t mean is that one’s religion becomes totally irrelevant. That’s not the kind of transcendence to which I am referring. But, undoubtedly, one’s relationship to one’s religion can change. It seems to me that it should change as one spiritually matures. An analogy with secular knowledge may be useful. Imagine a school that offers a wide variety of classes. Students of the school are taught not only factual information, but appropriate methodologies for conducting their own research. Students are even encouraged to research and test the information they are taught, to verify that it is correct. Now, if a student masters the research techniques (as well as anyone can) and is therefore capable of her own research, she no longer relies upon the school as the lone disseminator of truth. She can acquire the truth directly. She has transcended the school. In theory, the school could flounder and the student would have nothing to worry about. In principle, it would no longer matter what the school does. Imagine you are the student. So long as the school maintains its research standards, which can be verified only by matching the school’s research results with your own, you’re in good shape and can trust that the school remains reputable. But if it ever publishes research that your own research seems to discredit, it needn’t matter to you. So long as you trust your research, you can rest on your own convictions.
Sounds easy, right? Not very. Put yourself in the shoes of a student who feels her research does contradict the latest research officially published by the school. If you really believe the school has always been a top-notch institution, where are you more likely to direct your doubt? Quite likely, at yourself. And perhaps at a certain stage in your academic development, this makes sense. But what if you’ve reached that point where you feel extremely confident in your capabilities and you’re just plain getting different research results? What if you’ve checked and rechecked the data, seventy times seven? Furthermore, what if you know the school is capable of making mistakes, even if few and far between? Wouldn’t you then be convinced that you are right and that the school is wrong? You’d think so. You’d hope so. But I bet you’d have a very difficult time with it. And I still think you’d be more likely to doubt yourself than the school. The question is, if you’re really using the best methodological techniques out there, should you reject your own research and side with the school?
I believe that God wants us to rely on Him. I believe that turning to God is the right methodology for acquiring certain kinds of truth. Relying on religious leaders is not the same as relying on God, no matter how intimately the two are related. Not when we believe that we have access to God and that we should verify everything through Him. But this puts us in a very precarious position. How can we know that we rely on God and not on men? What could possibly be our trial of faith in this matter? How could we possibly prove ourselves in relation to this principle?
Lately, I’m wondering if the ultimate test of faith doesn’t come in rejecting all other authorities but God. It seems obvious enough that we shouldn’t have any authorities above God, but neither should we have co-authorities. Religious leaders are meant to be servants, delivering us messages that we can confirm by our own access to Divinity. The point is not to trust in the leaders. The point is to trust in God. For many Mormons, there isn’t any motivation to seek out the distinction. But I wonder if full spiritual maturity doesn’t require us to do so, in which case a test must come. And what better way to test us than to reveal to us personally a truth that is at odds with the current practices of the Church. I cannot think of a more poignant trial of faith. Do we trust men, or do we trust the Spirit that we’ve been told should be our guide in everything? If your answer is, “Well, anything that contradicts the Church must not come of the Spirit, so I’d side with the men,” then you’ve proven where your allegiance lies—in the arm of flesh. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not chastening you. I think that’s where a lot of us are. But it’s not where we should be.
In all of this, I can’t help but think of Abraham. Many of us are baffled by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. We’re equally baffled by God’s requesting the sacrifice. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not what God would do. If Abraham were rational, he would have known that such a request could not have come of God. Or, at least, this is what human reasoning, laws, and the like would tell us. Now, I’m not here to make any claims about the veracity of the Abraham story. But it certainly seems as though a greater test of faith cannot be had than that which asks us to rely on spiritual sensitivity at the expense of strongly held, preconceived notions. For Mormons, such notions are a dime a dozen.