Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Trust No One To Be Your Teacher

A few years ago, I tuned into a BYU commencement address on the car radio:

"Some of you graduates will continue your educational studies. Keep up the good work! We’re proud of you! Most of you will not pursue more formal education but will embark on your chosen career. We’re grateful for you and wish you well.

Brothers and sisters, regardless of your choices for the future, you will continue to learn. As long as you live, you will learn. It is part of God’s plan for us. You will grow intellectually and spiritually. Just as Jesus the Christ 'increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man,' so may you.

To increase your wisdom and stature, you will exercise your agency. You will choose your teachers and your role models. Choose them wisely. Heed this counsel of Alma: 'Trust no one to be your teacher . . . , except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments'" (Elder Russell M. Nelson, 23 April 2009, BYU Web page; see Mosiah 23:14: http://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/mosiah/23?lang=eng).

Trust no one! I was startled. The idea seemed unrealistic. It was one of those "Who, then, can be saved?" moments, and I began to wonder. . . Trust no one? And just how many men of God will these new graduates find in the academy or the office? Or how about those teachers and ministers who pick the Bible to death, line upon line, precept upon precept? Who, then, can be your teacher? your role model? Elder Nelson's statement pours cold water on a good many dissertation advisors, department chairs, CEOs. But there you have it. Choose and Heed are in imperative mode. So is Trust no one.

The words quoted by Elder Nelson come from another speech, another commencement. Alma the Elder, addressing his new community--refugees from the oppressive rule of King Noah--refuses to be named king (Mosiah 23:7):

But he said unto them: Behold, it is not expedient that we should have a king; for thus saith the Lord: Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another; therefore I say unto you it is not expedient that ye should have a king.

Here, in a one-liner buried in the narrative, is one of the greatest revelations in all scripture:

Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another. Ye shall not esteem.

Then comes the corollary:

One man shall not think himself above another.

Alma continues:

13 And now as ye have been delivered by the power of God out of these bonds; yea, even out of the hands of king Noah and his people, and also from the bonds of iniquity, even so I desire that ye should stand fast in this liberty wherewith ye have been made free, and that ye trust no man to be a king over you.

14 And also trust no one to be your teacher nor your minister, except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments.

Trust no king, and trust but few to teach and few to minister.

The wording of the 1830 Book of Mormon has been modified, yet the original sentence grammar does not offend the ear:

"and that ye trust no man to be a king over you;

and also trusting no one to be your teachers nor your ministers, except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments" (Joseph Smith Begins His Work: Book of Mormon 1830 First Edition, Wilford C. Wood, ed., 203).

After hearing Elder Nelson, I felt glad I was not standing on the threshold of graduate mentoring. I inwardly imagined a few graduates finding mentors of sound religious faith and values--and such are yet many--and hoped that the rest might come to see their new Bishops and Stake Presidents as if their true dissertation advisors or business administrators.

Such glad safety is illusory. Every time I pick up a book, leaf through a newspaper, or watch the television commentator, I begin trusting someone to be my teacher. Latter-day Saints often use the idiom: "the author is not a Latter-day Saint, but it is still a good book." The questions ought to be, upon taking up a book: Is he a man of God? Does he or she live a godly life?

Are matters of morality so very delicate? They are. Trust no one.

Surely the counsel of Elder Nelson cannot apply so generally? It does. Choose Wisely. Trust No One. And the last might be restated: Read but Verify. That is, Read Wisely, read with the eyes open, read through the lens of gospel light.

The list becomes long.

"Trusting no one to be your teachers" becomes:

Trusting no one to be your historian;

Trusting no one to do your science;

Trusting no one to be your compiler of facts, your journalist, essayist, rhetorician, your literary critic, your biographer, your mathematician.

I read broadly, but my trust does not flow so broadly as the leaves I spread to read. As Robert Frost teaches in "Wild Grapes": "Nothing tells me/That I need learn to let go with the heart." ("And have no wish to with the heart. . . The mind--is not the heart").

Latter-day graduates who aspire to the honors of academia ought ever to remember: "The mind--is not the heart." And they ought to discover for themselves the little lingering note of wonder, the catch in the breath: The mind -- is not the heart.

There are teachers, and then there are teachers, but who qualifies as the False Teacher? To answer, we turn to Samuel the Lamanite, who gives us the following signs by which we may identify 1) the false teacher and 2) the phony reformer (Helaman 13:27-28, http://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/hel/13?lang=eng).

27 But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet.

28 Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him.

"If a man shall come among you" begins Samuel the Lamanite, and he does such and such, and then you do so and so, then you may know you are following a false teacher.

He shall say: "Do this" and "Do that" and even "Do whatsoever", that is to say, "Whatsoever your heart desireth." There is a point of subtlety here. The false teacher does not begin by saying "Do whatsoever your heart desireth." There comes first many a Do This, many a Do That, and then there follows quite a long journey: "Walk after the pride of your own hearts." Finally, he teaches: Now you are ready to go ahead with "whatsoever."

All must be soaked in smooth and "flattering words unto you." The false teacher is your friend, your guide, he cloaks you in the garment of praise.

In return, you are to fund the teacher "of your gold, and of your silver" and "lift him up," or promote him. You become his chief propagandist and fundraiser.

"And because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well"--"you're doing great, making great progress," then--and this is a powerful conclusion--"ye will not find fault with him."

What do we see, then?

A man comes among us, flatters us with pretensions of friendship, praises us, and we instantly buy into it all; we fund him, roll out the red carpet, promote him, praise him to the stars, and--because he is our great and wonderful friend--we will not, would not, ever "find fault with him."

Even worse, says Samuel, should that same man not only preach but minister. He preaches and he editorializes: Do this, Do that, Change this, Change that "and ye shall not suffer." Change whatsoever.

As we make pace on our own Pilgrim's Progress, we now encounter not only the False Teacher but that near kin, the Reformer.

Susa Young Gates observed a breathtaking trait in her father, President Brigham Young (she is setting out a short laundry list of his weaknesses, and, as we all know he had a "strong" weakness or two, while yet "a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments"):

"Those who posed as reformers towards him and his people, who would destroy the Church and Kingdom of God, and especially if they were themselves 'whited sepulchres' he hated with a passion that often vented itself in violent speech. His family, who heard never an unrefined word from his lips, were nevertheless not shocked when he denounced or even cursed in the pulpit the renegades" who privately, and often also in public, cast aspersions on wives and children.

His children, you see, furrowed little brows over hearing themselves publicly described as bastards. Daddy would step up and defend his little ones, those who could hardly speak for themselves (compare Elder Dallin H. Oaks, "Protect the Children," General Conference, October 2012). All of which explains the use of childish language in so defending; for he was saying what both defenseless children and walked-on saints would have much liked to have said--and if he had not so spoken, the very rocks perforce would have come to speech. The man knew appeasement; he knew how to quiet a brooding crowd. Brigham Young was as much a carrier of an antique folk culture as he was messenger of a gospel culture, and I like the way Brigham Young never held back.

Which aspersions? Oh, you are wonderful people, but how sad to see these "disadvantaged" (read: "illegitimate") children, these "poor" ("oppressed") wives. Oh, you have done such wonderful things in such a short time, but how sad to see the Priesthood taking the helm, rather than the judge, the governor. Don't you care what people might say of your children? Are you, good people, after all, un-American?

Protect the Children (or, Mr. Young, you talk strangely): "When our women and children were left on the banks of the Missouri, in a helpless condition, I said to one of the United States officers, who had been threatening those who were left behind--

'While I am gone to find a home for my family, if you meddle with them, or insult them in the least, by the Gods of Eternity I will be on your track.' 

And had their threats been executed, I would have slain them, even though I should have had to go into the heart of Washington city to do it.

Says he, 'Mr. Young, you talk strangely.'

'Well,' I said, 'let my family alone'; 

for they wanted to persuade them back to the other side of the river, to afflict them still more" (Journal of Discourses 1:363).

Not every uniformed officer or professed reformer is a "whited sepulchre"; Brigham Young said it required the gentle Spirit of God to see through a man while his lips poured forth words sweet as honey. President Young's day was a day of subtlety, of charmed rhetoric, of--to our roughened ears--undreamed-of sophistication and manner. It was a day of hats. It was all soaring Saruman calling on Gandalf Greyhame; Gondor visiting the Shire folk. For a caller to evoke the subtle duel by essaying in lofty counterpoint on the titles of "his excellency, the great governor, Brigham Young" called forth the barbaric pinpoint: " 'Brigham the Carpenter' will do":

"His daughter [Susa Young Gates] relates that when he was governor a traveler addressed him with all of his federal, military and religious titles, to which Brigham replied, 'Sir, you have omitted my most cherished titles: Carpenter, Painter and Glazier.'" He himself said he preferred "Brigham, how are you?" to "'Governor Young', 'Governor Young,' in a canting tone" (Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young, American Moses, 244-245; Journal of Discourses 1:363).

Despite such frank pinpoints, Brigham himself, as the famous Fitz Hugh Ludlow noted, was "mannerly to a degree astonishing," acting with "perfect deference to the feelings of others," although possessing power seemingly "the most despotic known to mankind." Ludlow professed great friendship, believed himself sincere in that friendship, liked Brigham Young as much as did everyone else who ever met him (excepting a certain officer), indeed found him to be absolutely sincere and endearing; at once, he also deemed his power, that is to say, his priesthood authority, "a crime against the Constitution" (Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young, American Moses, 326). How many visitors charmed, or mystified, by an audience with Abraham Lincoln, also came to see in him a despot and his actions crimes against Constitutional law? Even some of Lincoln's oldest friends finally so concluded. After the assassination, Brother Brigham mused over what his own meeting with Lincoln might have been like: they would trade story after story in humorous repartee.

Neither can we imagine the Nephites and Lamanites as children, ungiven to speech. Samuel the Lamanite is sarcastic, and he vents, and he curses. Tired of his threats--and doubtless disgusted--the people righteously throw rocks, sanctimoniously shoot arrows, and Samuel leaps from the city wall and flees for his life.

But let's be serious: Who would reform into ineffectuality the Church and Kingdom of God? (How often we hear the claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, bereft of its first fire, blends into the crowd--just another protestant faith! just another academic subdiscipline!) Not Thomas Kane, not Alexander Doniphan (these two being the paradigmatic friends in our history); not every man who comes among us. Consider the signs: promote him, give him money, find no fault with him. Do this, Do that. Don't do this. Don't do that--and words sweet as honey. None of these words describe either Kane or Doniphan, but they do describe others of Brother Brigham's day. Of course, it takes the Spirit of God to discern the matter, but it never hurts to start with the subtle yet sufficiently plain wording of the Book of Mormon, a significant role of which, says a modern Prophet, is to expose "the enemies of Christ." "God, with his infinite foreknowledge, so molded the Book of Mormon that we might see the error and know how to combat false educational, political, religious, and philosophical concepts of our time" (Ezra Taft Benson, "The Book of Mormon is the Word of God," Ensign, January 1988).

Trust no one. In coming days "humble followers of Christ" will doubtless shake hands with a few calling "reformers" and "flatterers," and we would do well to fortify ourselves against these professed friends with that same armor we put on to withstand what President Benson calls "the evil designs, strategies, and doctrines of the devil in our day"--though we need not vent, I suppose.

And we must never, never curse. Young college graduates! your professors and advisors may be present.












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