My first year in grad school, I took a macroeconomics course in which we used a framework known as the “trilemma.” In essence, the trilemma (also known as the — and I swear I’m not making this up — unholy trinity) posits that countries with their own currencies may choose a maximum of two out of three economic policies: 1) a fixed exchange rate 2) independent monetary policy and 3) free movement of capital.
I won’t take the time to explain why it works this way here. Because I can’t. Because I’m terrible at macroeconomics.
Luckily for me, the details aren’t important to the issue at hand, and we’ll come back to the trilemma in a moment.
Like many of yours, my phone buzzed just after 9 a.m. Thursday morning. I was taking what turned out to be a serendipitous morning off work with my family, and a friend had sent me the news heard ‘round the Mormon world: the KSL article was titled Church to allow baptism, blessings for children of LGBT parents.
The next few minutes are a blur. We read the article, hardly believing it. Aubrey cried, then cried some more as our phones buzzed off the hook with messages from friends who were just as shocked and happy as we were.
My perspective on the effects of the policy — and the mixed feelings upon its reversal of elation, regret for what might have been, and desire for more — would be neither as valuable nor as eloquent than those expressed by many others, including my sister Nicole and my wife Aubrey. I’ll just say that I’m delighted by the change.
But while many are feeling celebratory, I’ve also noted a feeling of distress among some genuine, kind, and faithful members.
Not because they loved the policy; those I’ve heard express their distress are among the most loving and inclusive people I know. But because the policy’s implementation and its rapid reversal bends to the breaking point a paradigm held close by many members of the Church: that when it comes to important doctrines (and yes, policies) — the ones that really affect people — a loving God is the one who put them in motion.
Among the most upvoted comments on the LDS subreddit r/latterdaysaints were these:
These comments illustrate what I agree is a real, tough problem: it’s very difficult to reconcile the belief that both the policy and its reversal were the result of revelation — and not believe that God is capricious and inconsistent.
In other words, I think we’re faced with a trilemma of our own. I’d diagram it like this:
Remember, in the trilemma, you can choose any two; but by definition, those two rule out the third. To test the logic, let’s briefly go through the options.
Option A is a logically tenable position that was held by many faithful and humble members of the Church prior to Thursday — and I think in many ways, this position was born out of the admirable attributes of faith and humility.
Even if those holding this position were upset or distraught by the policy (and I think that’s many, many members of the Church), they found a way to accept — due to their faith and humility — that it was inspired. God’s ways are not our ways, and because God loves all of us perfectly, this would be for the long-term good of everyone involved.
To be clear, you may have disagreed with this position, as I did, but it was relatively easy to maintain and remains logically consistent.
The problem arises because we now have to deal with Thursday’s reversal. Once we try to squeeze “April 2019 was inspired” inside that circle, we force out one of the others: either God must be inconsistent and capricious, because he flipped on something that heavily affected people’s lives within just 3.5 years — or, we insist that God is consistent — in which case, “November 2015 was inspired” has to leave. In other words, we’ve created Options B and C below.
(Just to cover all the bases, we could also stick with the original two options in the circle, believing that November 2015 was inspired by April 2019 wasn’t — but that would be an odd, fringe position to take, and I don’t think there’s a need to explore it.)
In option B, we accept that both the November 2015 policy and its April 2019 reversal were inspired by God.
In a sense, this is the party line — Russell M. Nelson said in 2016 (before becoming President of the Church) that each of the Quorum of the Twelve “felt a spiritual confirmation” that the policy was “the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord.” At the same time, the Church’s official announcement on the reversal states that the changes “reflect the continuing revelation that has been a part of the modern Church since the Restoration.”
This is where it gets really tough. If we try to force “God is consistent” into the circle, what we end up with is some form of the “policy was right for its time” argument.
That argument’s essence is that God doesn’t change, but the context does — and thus, God’s instructions relative to the context do, too. This is one most of us have heard as a justification for the much longer priesthood-temple ban.
Important note: I’ve been told quite a few times that God acts differently in different situations. Said with as much love and respect as possible, I agree. My response is just below this note in the original version of the article. I have no problem with God acting differently in different situations, and it would be impossible to fathom a God that didn’t. I just don’t think we have sufficient evidence to believe he would do so in this case without doing some gold-medal-winning mental gymnastics. I see no need for that argument either, since documented evidence for prophets making big mistakes is available with a few keystrokes.
I believe though, that the “right for its time” argument, applied here, is on very shaky ground.
First, we’re basically in the same cultural place now that we were in November 2015; there hasn’t been some huge shift in the landscape that meant we are more ready for this now than we were three years ago.
Second, this policy inarguably caused a lot of pain — with very little evident benefit. Though this point is, in some sense, a utilitarian one, I still struggle to imagine that a God who bases decisions on love (as opposed to utility), would implement a policy knowing this would be the effect.
And this policy just really seems to have been so unnecessary. It was a bomb drop out of nowhere at the time; had it not been implemented, none of us would have noticed. We would have moved on, as we were.
Though I don’t agree with the “right for its time” argument in regards to the priesthood-temple ban, in that case, I’ve at least heard speculative reasoning that attempts to connect some contextual dots (e.g., because society at large was racist, the Church would have lacked converts and been unable to grow, God’s work wouldn’t have moved forward, etc.).
There are no dots here. We can’t point to contextual reasons this could have been helpful. In order to buy the “right for its time” argument, in this case, we have to completely throw up our hands and admit total ignorance — a lack of moral responsibility I find disturbing.
To me, then, the trilemma stands (and as additional evidence for it, the feeling of distress and dissonance evidenced by those who feel they’re supposed to believe both 2015 and 2019 were inspired). It’s forced any reasonable understanding of “God is consistent” out of our circle, leaving us with a single remaining option.
Option C is the closest to where I land (though I’ll caveat that in the trilemma, you can choose zero or one or two, you just can’t choose all three).
Another way of stating Option C is to say that those men that we members consider prophets got this one wrong before they got it right.
I recognize that this option can cause some discomfort. One attempt to alleviate that discomfort calls into action the “policy vs. doctrine” argument, with its implication that “policy” is made by imperfect people and changes, while “doctrine” is revealed by God and doesn’t. Unfortunately, that distinction doesn’t apply here: President Nelson went on the record saying that this policy was revealed.
With that potential escape unavailable, I believe a paradigm shift away from more traditional thinking is required in order to embrace Option C — the option I think most of us want to embrace. I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe it touches our hearts and spirits as the most loving and inclusive — the most representative of the God we believe in.
The key question is if prophets can get matters of incredible importance wrong. For a fuller take on this issue, please take a look at this article, but in short, I think they can.
From Adam-God, to blood atonement, to race equality and gender equality, our prophets have gotten things wrong before. Big things. Things that have hurt people.
What if we shifted our paradigm a bit, and imagine that a prophet really has one primary purpose — to point us to a loving God?
Ancient prophets are the reason we even have a starting point for thinking about loving heavenly parents and a Savior, while a continued reminder from modern ones is the reason for these debates about how to best follow them (I’m borrowing some thinking here from Patrick Mason, a really thoughtful LDS historian and thinker that we did an interview with on this precise subject for Faith Matters).
And beyond that primary prophetic purpose, what if everything were a bit more… flexible? What if the good and sincere and fallible men who lead us and who are no doubt heavily affected by their context, as we are, were just that: good and sincere and fallible men? What if there were a whole lot more room for us to mix our own conscience and spiritual promptings with input from prophets as we figure things out?
I agree that on some matters, even our God-given innate ability to reason falls short. We simply can’t know why some things happen, or how to handle ourselves when they do. But God has a doctrinal backup plan for us there: an entire third member of the Godhead whose primary purpose is to guide us through those moments of obscurity.
Would we be doing justice to both God’s greatest physical creation — the neurological human ability to reason — and to his greatest messenger, if we subverted them in our toughest decisions?
This may be an odd place to “bear my testimony,” but: I believe that God exists, that he loves us with perfect and unconditional love that is anything but capricious — and that he’s willing to work in this Church and through its members.
There is a whole lot I’m wildly uncertain about; on the aforementioned point, my uncertainty has narrowed significantly. It took me two faith crises and 34 years to get here, but I have reason to believe really, really strongly that God’s love is unbreakable, and our lives should be spent in an effort to become purer expressions of that love.
What do you believe? Why do you believe it? Is there room for a testimony that allows Option C to be true? I hope so. Because I believe it makes room for both a faithful and moderated view of what it means to have a prophet, and a belief in an infinitely loving and all-inclusive God.