History and Faith
by Richard D. Poll
What the Church Means to People Like Me
A natural reaction to my title might be, “Who cares?” For who, with the possible exception of my brother, Carl, are “people like me”? I have a wife and daughters who find me in some respects unique. I am sure there were students at Brigham Young University and Western Illinois University who hoped that I was unique. And by the time I have finished there may be some among my readers who will share that hope.
Yet I have chosen the topic because I believe that in some important respects I represent a type of Latter-day Saint found in almost every ward and branch in the church. By characterizing myself and explaining the nature of my commitment to the gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I hope to contribute a little something of value to each of you, whether it turns out that you are “people like me” or not.
My thesis is that there are two types of active and dedicated Latter-day Saints. I am not talking about “good Mormons” and “Jack Mormons,” or about Saints in white hats and pseudo-Saints in black. No, I am talking about two types of involved church members, each deeply committed to the gospel but also prone toward misgivings about the legitimacy, adequacy, or serviceability of the commitment of the other.
The purpose of my inquiry is not to support either set of misgivings but to describe each type as dispassionately as I can, to identify myself with one of the types, and then to bear witness [p.2] concerning some of the blessings which the Mormon church offers to the type I identify with. My hope is that this effort will help us all to look beyond the things which obviously differentiate us toward that “unity of the faith” which Jesus Christ set as our common goal.
For convenience of reference, let me propose symbols for my two types of Mormons. They have necessarily to be affirmative images, because I am talking only about “good” members. I found them in the Book of Mormon, a natural place for a Latter-day Saint to find good symbols as well as good counsel.
The figure for the first type comes from Lehi’s dream—the Iron Rod. The figure for the second comes also from Lehi’s experience—the Liahona. So similar they are as manifestations of God’s concern for his children, yet just different enough to suit my purposes.
The Iron Rod, as the hymn reminds us, was the word of God. To the person with a hand on the rod, each step of the journey to the tree of life was plainly defined; one had only to hold on while moving forward. In Lehi’s dream the way was not easy, but it was clear.
The Liahona, in contrast, was a compass. It pointed to the destination but did not fully mark the path; indeed, the clarity of its directions varied with the circumstances of the user. For the members of Lehi’s family the sacred instrument was a reminder of their temporal and eternal goals, but it was not an infallible delineator of their course.
Even as the Iron Rod and the Liahona were both approaches to the word and kingdom of God, so our two types of church members seek the word and the kingdom. The fundamental difference between them lies in their concept of the relation of men and women to the “word of God.” Put another way, it is a difference in the meaning assigned to the concept “the fullness of the gospel.” Do the revelations of our Heavenly Father give us a handrail to the kingdom or a compass only?
The Iron Rod Saint does not look for questions but for answers and in the gospel—as he or she understands it—finds or is confident that the answer to every important question can be found. The Liahona Saint, on the other hand, is preoccupied with questions and skeptical of answers, finding in the gospel—as he or she understands it—answers to enough important questions so as to function purposefully without answers to the rest. This last sentence holds the key to the [p.3] question posed by my title, but before pursuing its implications let us explore this scheme of classification more fully.
As I suggested at the outset, I find Iron Rods and Liahonas in almost every LDS congregation, discernible by the kinds of comments they make in gospel doctrine classes and the language in which they phrase their testimonies. What gives them their original bent is difficult to identify. The Iron Rods may be somewhat more common among converts, but many nowadays are attracted to the Mormon church by reasons more appropriate to Liahonas. Liahona testimonies may be more prevalent among lifelong members who have not had an emotional conversion experience, but many such have developed Iron Rod commitments in the home, the Sunday school, the mission field, or some other conditioning environment. Social and economic status appear to have nothing to do with type, and the rather widely held notion that education tends to produce Liahonas has so many exceptions that one may plausibly argue that education only makes Liahonas more articulate. Parenthetically, some of the most prominent Iron Rods in the church are on the BYU faculty.
Pre-existence may, I suppose, have something to do with placement in this classification, even as it may account for other life circumstances, but heredity obviously does not. The irritation of the Iron Rod father confronted by an iconoclastic son or daughter is about as commonplace as the embarrassment of the Liahona parent who discovers that her teenager has found comfortable answers in seminary to some of the questions that have perplexed her all her life.
The picture is complicated by the fact that changes of type do occur, often in response to profoundly unsettling personal experiences. The Liahona member who, in a context of despair or repentance, makes the “leap of faith” to Iron Rod commitment is rare, I think, but the investigator of Liahona temperament who becomes an Iron Rod convert is almost typical. The Iron Rod member who responds to personal tragedy or intellectual shock by becoming a Liahona is known to us all; this transition may be but is not necessarily a stage in a migration toward inactivity or even apostasy. My opinion is that one’s identification with the Iron Rods or the Liahonas is more a function of basic temperament and of accidents than of pre-mortal accomplishments or mortal choices, but that opinion—like many other views expressed in this essay—has neither scriptural nor scientific validation.
[p.4] A point to underscore in terms of our objective of “unity of faith” is that Iron Rods and Liahonas have great difficulty understanding each other—not at the level of intellectual acceptance of the right to peaceful co-existence but at the level of personal communion, of empathy. To the Iron Rod a questioning attitude suggests an imperfect faith; to the Liahona an unquestioning spirit betokens a closed mind. Neither frequent association nor even prior personal involvement with the other group guarantees empathy. Indeed, the person who has crossed the line is likely to be least sympathetic and tolerant toward his erstwhile kindred spirits.
I have suggested that the essential difference between the Liahonas and the Iron Rods is in their approach to the concept, “the word of God.” Let us investigate that now a little.
The Iron Rod is confident that, on any question, the mind and will of the Lord may be obtained. His sources are threefold: scripture, prophetic authority, and the Holy Spirit. In the standard works of the church the Iron Rod member finds more answers than does his Liahona brother, because he accepts them as God’s word in a far more literal sense. In them he finds answers to questions as diverse as the age and origin of the earth, the justification for capital punishment, the proper diet, the proper role of government, the nature and functions of sex, and the nature of man. To the Liahona, he sometimes seems to be reading things into the printed words, but to himself the meaning is clear.
In the pronouncements of the General Authorities, living and dead, the Iron Rod finds many answers, because he accepts and gives comprehensive application to that language of the Doctrine and Covenants which declares: “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (68:4). This reliance extends to every facet of life. On birth control and family planning, labor relations and civil liberties, the meaning of the Constitution and prospects for the United Nations, the laws of health and the signs of the times, the counsel of the “living oracles” suffices. Where answers are not found in the published record, they are sought in correspondence and interviews, and once received, they are accepted as definitive.
Third among the sources for the Iron Rod member is the Holy Spirit. As Joseph Smith found answers in the counsel of James, “If any [p.5] of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God,” so any Latter-day Saint may do so. Whether it be the choice of a vocation or the choice of a mate, help on a college examination or in finding “Golden Prospects” in the mission field, healing the sick or averting a divorce—in prayer is the answer. The response may not be what was expected, but it will come, and it will be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
Implicit in all this is the confidence of the Iron Rod Latter-day Saint that our Heavenly Father is intimately involved in the day-to-day business of his children. As no sparrow falls without the Father, so nothing befalls men or women without his will. God knows the answers to all questions and has the solutions to all problems, and the only thing which denies people access to this reservoir is their own stubbornness. Truly then men and women who open their mind and heart to the channels of revelation, past and present, have the Iron Rod which leads unerringly to the kingdom.
The Liahona Latter-day Saint lacks this certain confidence. Not that he or she rejects the concepts upon which it rests—that God lives, that he loves his children, that his knowledge and power are efficacious for salvation, and that he does reveal his will as the Ninth Article of Faith affirms. Nor does he reserve the right of selective obedience to the will of God as he understands it. No, the problem for the Liahona involves the adequacy of the sources on which the Iron Rod testimony depends.
The problem is in perceiving the will of God when it is mediated—as it is for almost all mortals—by “the arm of flesh.” The Liahona is convinced by logic and experience that no human instrument, even a prophet, is capable of transmitting the word of God so clearly and comprehensively that it can be universally understood and easily appropriated by all humanity.
Because the Liahona finds it impossible to accept the literal verbal inspiration of the standard works, the sufficiency of scriptural answers to questions automatically comes into question. If Eve was not made from Adam’s rib, how much of the Bible is historic truth? If geology and anthropology have undermined Bishop Ussher’s chronology, which places creation at about 4,000 B.C., how much of the Bible is scientific truth? And if latter-day scriptures have been significantly revised since their original publication, can it be assumed that they are now infallibly authoritative? To the Liahona these volumes [p.6] are sources of inspiration and moral truth, but they leave many specific questions unanswered, or uncertainly answered.
As for the authority of the Latter-day prophets, the Liahona Saint finds consensus among them on gospel fundamentals but far-ranging diversity on many important issues. The record shows error, as in Brigham Young’s statements about the continuation of slavery, and it shows change of counsel, as in the matter of gathering to Zion. It shows differences of opinion—Heber J. Grant and Reed Smoot on the League of Nations, and David O. McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith on the process of creation. To the Liahonas, the “living oracles” are God’s special witnesses of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his agents in directing the affairs of the church, but like the scriptures, they leave many important questions unanswered, or uncertainly answered.
The Iron Rod proposition that the Holy Spirit will supply what the prophets have not gives difficulty on both philosophical and experimental grounds. Claims that prayer is an infallible, almost contractual, link between God and man through the Holy Spirit find Liahona Mormons perplexed by the nature of the evidence. As a method of confirming truth, the witness of the Spirit demonstrably has not produced uniformity of gospel interpretation even among Iron Rod Saints, and it is allegedly by the witness of that same Spirit—by the burning within—that many apostates pronounce the whole church in error. As a method of influencing the course of events, it seems unpredictable and some of the miracles claimed for it seem almost whimsical. By the prayer of faith, one person recovers lost eyeglasses; in spite of such prayer, another goes blind.
All of which leaves the Liahona Mormon with a somewhat tenuous connection with the Holy Spirit. He may take comfort in his imperfect knowledge from that portion of the Article of Faith which says that “God will yet reveal many great and important things.” And he may reconcile his conviction of God’s love and his observation of the uncertain earthly outcomes of faith by emphasizing the divine commitment to the principle of free agency. In any case, it seems to the Liahona Mormon that God’s involvement in day-to-day affairs must be less active and intimate than the Iron Rod Mormon believes, because there are so many unsolved problems and unanswered prayers.
Is the Iron Rod member unaware of these considerations which loom so large in the Liahona member’s relationship to the word of [p.7] God? In some instances, I believe, the answer is yes. For in our activity-centered church, it is quite possible to be deeply and satisfyingly involved without looking seriously at the philosophical implications of some gospel propositions which are professed.
In many instances, however, the Iron Rod Saint has found sufficient answers to the Liahona questions. He sees so much basic consistency in the scriptures and the teachings of the latter-day prophets that the apparent errors and incongruities can be handled by interpretation. He finds so much evidence of the immanence of God in human affairs that the apparently pointless evil and injustice in the world can be handled by the valid assertion that God’s ways are not man’s ways. He is likely to credit his Liahona contemporaries with becoming so preoccupied with certain problems that they cannot see the gospel forest for the trees, and he may even attribute that preoccupation to an insufficiency of faith. As a Liahona, I must resist the attribution, although I cannot deny the preoccupation.
Both kinds of Mormons have problems—not just the ordinary personal problems to which all flesh is heir, but problems growing out of the nature of their church commitment. The Iron Rod has a natural tendency to develop answers where none may, in fact, have been revealed. He may find arguments against Social Security in the Book of Mormon; he may discover in esoteric prophetic utterances a timetable for that Second Coming of which “that day and hour knoweth no man.” His dogmatism may become offensive to his peers in the church and a barrier to communication with his own family; his confidence in his own insights may make him impatient with those whom he publicly sustains. He may also cling to cherished answers in the face of new revelation or be so shaken by innovation that he forms new “fundamentalist” sects. The Iron Rod concept holds many firm in the church, but it can also lead some out.
The Liahona, on the other hand, has the temptation to broaden the scope of questioning until even the most clearly defined church doctrines and policies are included. His resistance to statistics on principle may deteriorate into a carping criticism of programs and leaders. His ties to the church may become so nebulous that he cannot communicate them to his children. His testimony may become so selective as to exclude him from some forms of church activity or to make him a hypocrite in his own eyes as he participates in them. His persistence in doubting may alienate his brethren and eventually destroy [p.8] the substance of his gospel commitment. Then he too is out—without fireworks but not without pain.
Both kinds of Latter-day Saints serve the church. They talk differently and apparently think and feel differently about the gospel, but as long as they avoid the extremes just mentioned, they share a love for and commitment to the church. They cannot therefore be distinguished on the basis of attendance at meetings, participation on welfare projects, contributions, or faithfulness in the performance of callings. They may or may not be one hundred percenters, but the degree of their activity is not a function of type, insofar as I have been able to observe. (It may be that Iron Rods are a little more faithful in genealogical work, but even this is not certain.)
Both kinds of members are found at every level of church responsibility—in bishoprics and Relief Society presidencies, in stake presidencies and high councils, and even among the General Authorities. But whatever their private orientation, the public deportment of the General Authorities seems to me to represent a compromise, which would be natural in the circumstances. They satisfy the Iron Rods by emphasizing the solid core of revealed truth and by discouraging speculative inquiry into matters of faith and morals, and they comfort the Liahonas by resisting the pressure to make pronouncements on all subjects and by reminding the Saints that God has not revealed the answer to every question or defined the response to every prayer.
As I have suggested, the Iron Rods and the Liahonas have some difficulty understanding each other. Lacking the patience, wisdom, breadth of experience, or depth of institutional commitment of the General Authorities, we sometimes criticize and judge each other. But usually we live and let live—each finding in the church what meets one’s own needs and all sharing the gospel blessings which do not depend on identity of testimony.
Which brings me to the second part of my essay—the part which gives it its title: What the Church Means to People Like Me.
Although I have tried to characterize two types of Latter-day Saints with objectivity, I can speak with conviction only about one example from one group. In suggesting—briefly—what the church offers to a Liahona like me, I hope to provoke all of us to reexamine the nature of our own commitments and to grow in understanding and love for those whose testimonies are defined in different terms.
[p.9] By my initial characterization of types, I am the kind of Mormon who is preoccupied with questions and skeptical of answers. I find in the gospel—as I understand it—answers to enough important questions so that I can function purposefully, and I hope effectively, without present answers to the rest.
The primary question of this generation, it seems to me, is the question of meaning. Does life really add up to anything at all? At least at the popular level, the philosophy of existentialism asks, and tries to answer, the question of how to function significantly in a world which apparently has no meaning. When the philosophy is given a religious context, it becomes an effort to salvage some of the values of traditional religion for support in this meaningless world.
To the extent that existence is seen as meaningless—even absurd—human experiences have only immediate significance. A drug-induced hallucinogenic experience stands on a par with a visit to the Sistine Chapel or a concert of the Tabernacle Choir. What the individual does with himself—or other “freely consenting adults”—is nobody’s business, regardless of what it involves.
For me, the gospel answers this question of meaning, and the answer is grandly challenging. It lies in three revealed propositions: (1) man—that is, men and women—is eternal, (2) man is free, and (3) God’s work and glory is to exalt this eternal free agent—man.
The central conception is freedom. With a belief in the doctrine of free agency, I can cope with some of the riddles and tragedies which are cited in support of the philosophy of the absurd. In the nature of human freedom—as I understand it—is to be found the reconciliation of the concept of a loving God and the facts of an unlovely world.
The restored gospel teaches that the essential stuff of humankind is eternal, that we are all children of God, and that it is our destiny to become like our heavenly parents. But this destiny can only be achieved as we voluntarily gain the knowledge, the experience, and the discipline which godhood requires and represents. This was the crucial question resolved in the council in heaven—whether we should come into an environment of genuine risk, where we would walk by faith.
To me, this prerequisite for exaltation explains the apparent remoteness of God from many aspects of the human predicament—my predicament. My range of freedom is left large, and arbitrary divine [p.10] interference with that freedom is kept minimal in order that I may grow. Were God’s hand always upon my shoulder or an Iron Rod always in my grasp, my range of free choice would be constricted and my growth as well.
This view does not rule out miraculous interventions by our Heavenly Father, but it does not permit their being commonplace. What is seen as miracle by the Iron Rod Saints, my type tends to interpret as coincidence or psychosomatic manifestation or inaccurately remembered or reported event. The same attitude is even more likely with regard to the Satanic role in human affairs. The conflict between good and evil—with its happy and unhappy outcomes—is seen more often as a derivative of human nature and environment than as a contest between titanic powers for the capture of human pawns. If God cannot, in the ultimate sense, coerce the eternal intelligences which are embodied in his children, then how much less is Lucifer able to do so. We may yield to the promptings of good or evil, but we are not puppets.
There is another aspect of the matter. If, with or without prayer, we are arbitrarily spared the consequences of our own fallibility and the natural consequences of the kind of hazardous world in which we live, then freedom becomes meaningless and God capricious. If the law that fire burns, that bullets kill, that age deteriorates, and that the rain falls on the just and the unjust is sporadically suspended upon petition of faith, what happens to that reliable connection between cause and consequence which is a condition of knowledge? And what a peril to faith lies in the idea that God can break the causal chain, that he frequently does break it, but that in my individual case he may not choose to do so. This is the dilemma of theodicy, reconciling God’s omnipotence with evil and suffering, which is so dramatically phrased: “If God is good, he is not God; if God is God, he is not good.”
From what has been said, it must be apparent that Liahonas like me do not see prayer as a form of spiritual mechanics, in spite of such scriptural language as “Prove me herewith” and “I, the Lord, am bound.” Prayer is rarely for miracles, or even for new answers. It is—or ought to be—an intensely personal exercise in sorting out and weighing the relevant factors in our problems and looking to God as we consider the alternative solutions. (Many of our problems would solve themselves if we would consider only options on which we could [p.11] honestly ask God’s benediction.) We might pray for a miracle, especially in time of deep personal frustration or tragedy, but we would think it presumptuous to command God and would not suspend the future on the outcome of the petition.
This is not to say that Liahonas cannot verbalize prayer as proficiently as their Iron Rod contemporaries. One cannot be significantly involved in the church without mastering the conventional prayer forms and learning to fit the petition to the proportions of the occasion. But even in public prayers it is possible, I believe, for the attentive ear to detect those differences which I have tried to describe. To oppose evil as we can, to bear adversity as we must, and to do our jobs well—these are the petitions in Liahona prayers. They invoke God’s blessings, but they require our answering.
To this Liahona Latter-day Saint, God is powerful to save. He is pledged to keep the way of salvation open to me and to do, through the example and sacrifice of his son and the ordinances and teachings of his church, what I cannot do for myself. But beyond this, he has left things pretty much up to me—a free agent, a god in embryo who must learn by experience as well as direction how to be like God.
In this circumstance the Church of Jesus Christ performs three special functions for me. Without them, my freedom might well become unbearable.
In the first place, the church reminds me—almost incessantly—that what I do makes a difference. It matters to my fellow men and women because most of what I do or fail to do affects their progress toward salvation. And it matters to me, even if it has no discernible influence upon others. Even though life is eternal, time is short and I have none to waste.
In the second place, the church suggests and sometimes prescribes guidelines for the use of freedom. The deportment standards of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, the rules for mental and physical well-being in the Doctrine and Covenants, the reminders and challenges in the temple ceremony—these are examples, and they harmonize with free agency because even those which are prescribed are not coerced.
There is a difference here, I think, between the way Iron Rods and Liahonas look at the guidelines. Answer-oriented, the Iron Rods tend to spell things out; sabbath observance becomes no TV or movies, or TV but no movies, or uplifting TV and no other, or no [p.12] studying, or studying for religion classes but no others. For Liahonas like me, the sabbath commandment is a reminder of the kinship of free men and a concerned and loving Father. What is fitting, not what is conventional, becomes the question. On a lovely autumn evening I may even, with quiet conscience, pass up a church fireside for a drive in the canyon. But the thankfulness for guidelines is nonetheless strong.
In the final place comes the contribution of the church in giving me something to relate to—to belong to—to feel a part of.
Contemporary psychology has much to say about the awful predicament of alienation. “The Lonely Crowd” is the way one expert describes it. Former Mormons often feel it; a good friend who somehow migrated out of the church put it this way: “I don’t belong anywhere.”
For the active Latter-day Saint such alienation is impossible. The church is an association of kindred spirits, a sub-culture, a “folk”—and this is the tie which binds Iron Rods and Liahonas together as strongly as the shared testimony of Joseph Smith. It is as fundamental to the solidarity of LDS families—almost—as the doctrine of eternal marriage itself. It makes brothers and sisters of the convert and the Daughter of the Utah Pioneers, of the Hong Kong branch president and the missionary from Cedar City. It unites congregations—the genealogists and the procrastinators, the old-fashioned patriarchs and the family planners, the eggheads and the doubters of “the wisdom of men.”
This sense of belonging is what makes me feel at home in my ward. Liahonas and Iron Rods together, we are products of a great historic experience, laborers in a great enterprise, and sharers of a commitment to the proposition that life is important because God is real and we are his children—free agents with the opportunity to become heirs of his kingdom.
This is the witness of the Spirit to this Liahona Latter-day Saint. When the returning missionary warms her homecoming with a narrative of a remarkable conversion, I may note the inconsistency or naivete of some of her analysis, but I am moved nevertheless by the picture of lives transformed—made meaningful—by the gospel. When the home teachers call, I am sometimes self-conscious about the “role playing” in which we all seem to be engaged. Yet I ask my wife often—in our times of deepest concern and warmest parental satisfaction—what might our daughters have become without the church. When a [p.13] dear friend passes, an accident victim, I may recoil from the well-meant suggestion that God’s need for him was greater than his family’s, but my lamentation is sweetened by the realization of what the temporal support of the Saints and the eternal promises of the Lord mean to those who mourn.
For this testimony, for the church which inspires and feeds it, and for fellowship in the church with the Iron Rods and Liahonas who share it, this Liahona thanks his Heavenly Father.[p.15]