Friday, April 20, 2012

The Heterogeneous Church

John Winthrop (1587-1649) was an English-American lawyer famous for being one of the founders of Massachusetts. Here's a painting of him:

However, he is arguably most well known for a sermon he gave en route to America, entitled A Model of Christian Charity. In it, he famously uses the term "a city on a hill", taken from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, to describe how the settling Puritans should be an exemplar to the rest of the world. But to me, the most important part of the sermon is how he treats the problem of inequality. He says that inequality in wealth as a part of society is not necessarily a bad thing, for the following paraphrased reasons:
  1. So that God could have more opportunities to manifest his glory (in the rich man, the poor man, etc.).
  2. So that there can be more opportunities for people to show the goodness of God (like how the rich man doesn't abuse the poor, or how the poor man doesn't rebel).
  3. So that people need each other (if there were no poor, there wouldn't be anyone to do the dirty work; if there were no rich, there wouldn't be any employers)
Although I'm quite liberal, and therefore am hesitant to say that there shouldn't be economic equality, these are nonetheless amazing ideas. Rather than apply them to the rich and poor, here I will show several examples of how they apply to the inequalities and heterogeneity in the Church.

First, one of the main complaints about the Church from non-members is that women do not have the priesthood. It is the doctrinal issue which every non-misogynistic member must necessarily struggle with at some point in their lives, as it seems to be extremely unfair. I do not deign to understand the mysteries of God and the church's doctrines, but perhaps we can better understand this policy if we appeal to Winthrop's three reasons. Perhaps part of the reason women do not  have the priesthood is so that there can be multiple ways for people to follow God. Being a priesthood-holding father involves a different set of responsibilities than a non-priesthood-holding mother. This doesn't mean that one path is any better than the other. On the contrary, each is distinctly vital to the success of the family and the Church. But the really important bit is that this set of multiple paths to God is infinitely more fulfilling than if there were only one. Imagine if everyone had exactly the same set of responsibilities as everyone else: there would only be one way to do good, meaning that the piano of God's goodness would only be playing the same note over and over again. For the goodness of God is varied and diverse, and can be expressed in as many ways as can be imagined.

You can apply the same principles to the hierarchy of the Church. The prevailing spiritual ideal since the Enlightenment is that people should seek for spiritual truth on their own, without being bogged down by any organized religion. While the Church's doctrines agree with this sentiment to an extent, (we emphasize personal revelation a lot) it is unavoidably true that it is an institution, and not merely a group of people searching after spiritual truth. In this religion, a person simply can't worship merely as the Spirit prompts them. Members are supposed to go to meetings, fulfill callings and learn from lessons. It would seem, at least on the surface, much better if we could follow the promptings of our own hearts, and worship how we please. After all, isn't that a much more democratic and egalitarian way of doing things? John Winthrop would disagree. For if someone worships in the ways that the Church approves of, they fulfill another democratic ideal: interdependence. When a member goes to Sacrament Meeting, he or she can't be spiritually filled unless certain people (the deacons, the priests, the speakers, etc.) do their jobs. In so many words, it causes worshipers to need each other. These institutions of worship make sure that we aren't all cut off from each other, as they tie us together in an intricate net of responsibility and love.

In summary, we are infinitely better off being diverse and heterogeneous than we would be if we were uniform and homogeneous. It lets us enjoy the benefits of variety and the virtue of interdependence. It ultimately makes us a better people.

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