Using Elder Oaks’ guide to would-be critics of church leaders, I’d like to explore some of the implications of this important text. In this talk, he recommends five options for those who wish to criticize the church. First, one can overlook the difference. This doesn’t mean that one must accept the leader’s view, but simply not act on it. Second, like the first, is to reserve judgement and not act on it for a time. This requires that one reflect substantially before acting because upon further consideration one may change their mind or the situation may be resolved. Third, one may meet and discuss the criticism privately with the leader. Fourth, one may meet privately with a higher leader to discuss the problem or send a letter. And fifth, one may pray for a resolution. Options 1, 2, and 5 require complete silence, while options three and four offer the relative silence of a “private” meeting or letter. None requires that one simply accept the leader’s views. The strength of Elder Oaks’ teaching is that silence is offered as a spiritual practice as a virtue. I’d like to compare this practice to the practice of biblical interpretation based on inerrancy.
Biblical inerrancy as an intellectual position aims to preserving the reliability of God as a source of truth such that the text provides a guide to living that one can trust. This does not mean that there aren’t contradictions, tensions, and challenging things in the text, but rather that such points serve a higher purpose of disclosing greater wisdom, forcing one to more closely read the text. However, rather than seeing inerrancy as primarily an intellectual position, I’d like to explore it as a spiritual practice, a discipline of interpretation. One finds a problem in one’s reading of the Bible and engages in a practice of interpreting the text through a set of pre-defined interpretive moves. The practice itself is seen as a spiritual exercise.
Similarly, LDS cultural taboos on criticism of church leadership as an intellectual position is meant to guarantee a kind of reliable guide to living. While such a stance does not depend on the inerrancy of the church leader, it does depend on the inerrancy of the church leader’s advice as providing a reliable guide to living. Criticism is inappropriate because, in its most dogmatic form, one cannot make a mistake by following leadership’s teachings because they are the appointed leaders, right or wrong. As Elder Oaks says, this brings together two practices, silence and obedience, as providing a path to spirituality.
There is a shared circularity in both of these views. For biblical inerrancy, one is supposed to believe that the Bible is inerrant because they Bible says that it is inerrant (never mind that it doesn’t actually say that). Similarly, for church leadership, one is supposed to uncritically accept their teachings, because, well, they have taught that we should uncritically accept their teachings. In both cases, one can claim to break from the circularity of the argument by appealing to an outside anchor, which may be called a witness or a testimony, that provides external certification of the claim such that it no longer appears to be circular.
Despite the similarities of the claims about inerrancy and non-criticism, the important distinction between them rests on the different ways that one approaches the authoritative voice. For inerrancy, one must presume that the text is inerrant, and must struggle to make sense of it. For the taboo on criticism, one is perfectly free to consider that the leader has erred. In the latter case, however, this belief must not be made “public.” Only “private” criticism is possible, whether in the form of simply remaining silent, or addressing the issue in a private meeting or private letter.
The value of “silence” or “private” criticism lies in the effects it has on the would-be critic to ponder and contemplate the nature, worth, and content of the criticism as a sort of spiritual exercise. Further, this silence is held up for the preservation of “unity,” a greater good than truth. Like the position of inerrancy, one is forced to reconcile oneself with the object of criticism in the service of a higher value. This teaching is offered as a spiritual practice which I think holds great value.
The one potential problem with the taboo on silence is shared by the problem of inerrancy. What if one questions the very foundations of the taboo? What if one questions inerrancy itself as the basis for interpreting the text? What if one wants to criticize the stance of silence itself? There appears an unresolvable tension. This has the potential to explode the circularity of both positions. While one cannot vocalize publicly, but only privately, other types of criticism, if one seeks to criticize silence itself as a practice, the injunction to silence cannot be used as a justification to refrain. That is, if the criticism itself is that the Bible doesn’t teach inerrancy, the logic of the system falls apart. Similarly, if one’s criticism is that silence is a problematic practice with respect to certain kinds of criticism, the logic of silence fails to hold. Must we, then, simply assert that silence is the proper way to deal with criticism in the same way that the question of inerrancy must be simply asserted as the proper way to read the Bible?