What is Revelation Anyway?

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Many of the tensions among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and between members and those that do not (or no longer) affiliate with the Church seem to boil down to different understandings of revelation. For example, questions about anachronisms in the Book of Mormon or the early Church’s practice of polygamy are fundamentally questions about the nature of revelation, the authenticity of purported revelations, and one’s obligations to those who claim the titles “prophet, seer, and revelator.” These questions have been simmering since the First Vision, flaring up from time to time in response to any number of issues, including, for example, the recent policy change regarding children of same-sex couples (i.e., How can you argue that both the original policy and its retraction are revelations or the result of revelation?).

In light of this history, I want to explore the concept of “revelation.” I hope that this will be useful in relation to these ongoing tensions, though it does not directly address them. More than anything, this essay explores the terrain on which these different positions are situated, the underlying concepts on which these discussions are premised. I admit from the start that I am not an unbiased commentator. I consider myself a desirous follower of Jesus Christ and an “active” member of the Church. For me, this entails a commitment to “sustain” church leaders, which I willingly do. That said, I do not understand this to mean that I must necessarily agree with everything church leaders say, or that I should always feel bound to entirely accept and adopt their ideas and counsel. Instead, from my perspective, it means that I remain willing to engage with them supportively and charitably, honoring them in their leadership roles, and helping them bear the weight of the responsibility to shepherd and bless God’s children. In my experience this has typically included general agreement with and uptake of their council, though I believe there are ways to disagree while still sustaining them. Rather than trying to draw a line between sustaining and apostate modes of disagreeing, I want to take a step back and consider the idea of revelation itself. This is because I believe that our responses to Church leaders ultimately derive from our implicit understandings of what it means to receive revelation and what revelation is fundamentally about.

I’ll begin by referring my readers to Brian’s previous series on the nature of scripture. In those essays, Brian argues that scripture might best be understood, not as a transparent exposition of doctrine, but as an artistic representation of truths that exceed human expression and understanding. Considering scripture to be the quintessential example of revealed truth, this leads rather straightforwardly to questions about the nature of revelation. If, as Brian argues, the prophetic writings contained in scripture are irreducible to neat doctrinal truths, what can we say about the revelations which inspired them? More fundamentally, what is revelation and what is it all about?

It seems to me that two broad usages of the term are prevalent in the Church: the first referring to the processes by which God communicates with people—promptings, visions, etc. (i.e., the medium), and the second to the content of such communication as understood and articulated by the recipients (i.e., the message). Both of these usages are implicit in “Moroni’s promise:” “If ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:3-4). The medium is the Holy Ghost, and the message is that the Book of Mormon is true. What is at stake in this passage and these concepts of revelation is the transmission of information. But even here, if we are precise and attentive to the actual experience of the many people who claim to have received this manifestation in fulfilment of Moroni’s promise, I think we will usually find that the “answer” was not so much a direct affirmation of the truth value of the proposition that the Book of Mormon is true, but rather a sense of peace, joy, love, or connection to God. 

My broad thesis is that God is not primarily interested in transmitting information to us; rather, His primary desire is that we recognize and experience our ongoing relatedness with Him. In other words, God is not simply interested in communicating with us, but in being in communion with us. This does not suggest that communication qua information transmission is irrelevant, only that it should be viewed as derivative and in the service of communion. 

What’s Wrong with Communication?

One of the issues a communication-centric view of revelation must grapple with is the inherent imperfection of human communication. In many ways, the etymology of “communication” (i.e., “making common”) is misleading, as truly shared understanding is mostly illusory: In reality, human communication is what allows us to have enough shared understanding to get on together. A phrase as simple as “We had pizza for dinner” actually has many possible meanings, depending on the variety of things people associate with those words (e.g., what is on the pizza, what time of day is referenced, if such a meal is desirable or not, etc.), but there is usually enough overlap that our different understandings are not particularly noticeable. Although we do not always notice it, even the most perfectly composed message delivered in the most appropriate medium ultimately becomes something of an interpretation as it is translated into the recipient’s language and understanding. What this suggests about revelation is that, however perfectly God communicates a given message to an individual, once that person seeks to articulate it in language with available terms and concepts (i.e., translating it into publicly accessible language), whatever pure information there may have been originally becomes tainted with humanness. 

The consequence of such an understanding of communication comes to a head when Church-authorized revelations make claims or commandments that are controversial. A particularly relevant example in this regard is The Family: A Proclamation to the World, which has generated significant controversy both within and beyond the Church. Consider the following sentence: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” We do not know exactly how this sentence or the document as a whole were drafted, but then-Elder Oaks suggested in a recent talk that it was a “revelatory process.” I, for one, do not doubt that, though I know people both in and outside of the church who have legitimate reasons to think otherwise. Even accepting that it is entirely true, however, it is not self-evident what exactly this means. At one extreme, it is imaginable that this sentence was revealed word for word, with the human authors acting as little more than scribes of divine dictation. The scenario that strikes me as more likely is that this sentence emerged as the authors discussed the topic in response to a perceived need and drafted the document, taking into account their individual and collective promptings, convictions, and understandings, and presenting their product to each other and to God for approval. In this latter scenario, the human authors act as something like a team of translators, making sense of a non-linguistic “text” and articulating it as best they can in English. In either case, the sentence retains some ambiguity. Even assuming that it is indeed an example of divine “truth” revealed verbatim, there are many lingering questions: Does “gender” mean the same thing as biological sex in this instance? Does the word “essential” suggest that gender is actually part of our essence or is it used here as a synonym for “important?” Is gender essential in the same way in premortal, mortal, and post-mortal worlds? What is the relationship between one’s gender identity and purpose? 

My purpose in posing these questions is not to foment doubt regarding church leaders or the validity of The Family: A Proclamation to the World, nor do I intend to justify those whose antagonism toward the church cites this document. My purpose here is to underscore how complicated it is–impossible even–to transparently transmit information. Recognizing this complication does not necessarily lead one toward or away from the Church.

Once we accept that messages, even divinely revealed truths, are not entirely transparent and self-explanatory, as I see it, we are left with two choices (assuming, of course, that we do not succumb to total relativism and solipsism). The first I will call “explicating the communication,” and the second I will call “fostering communion.” These are not mutually exclusive choices, but represent different focal points in a vision of God’s relationship with humankind. (For the purposes of this essay, I only consider responses that retain a sense of faith that God can and does communicate with His children, and I only consider responses that view scripture as a text to be understood (e.g., as opposed to merely being read ritualistically) and a legitimate part of God’s communication to humankind.)

Explicating Communication

How we might go about explicating divine communication depends, of course, on how exactly we conceptualize revelation in the first place. With a concept of revelation as “translating heavenly communication into human language,” we would want to try to understand the human authors’/translators’ original intent. Understanding what they were trying to say, in this paradigm, would get us closer to the original “text,” assuming that the authors/translators had indeed discerned it accurately in the first place. With a concept of revelation as “divine dictation,” on the other hand, there would be some wiggle room for us to disregard the authors’/translators’ intentions, as they may have not entirely understood the message they were transcribing. In this paradigm, we would want to study the text itself, seeking to triangulate it with other revelations. 

There are two episodes from 3 Nephi that strike me as relevant to this discussion. The first is in 3 Nephi 19, which records a moment when Christ prays to the Father. Of the onlookers, it notes, “And the multitude did hear and do bear record; and their hearts were open and they did understand in their hearts the words which he prayed. Nevertheless, so great and marvelous were the words which he prayed that they cannot be written, neither can they be uttered by man” (vs. 33-34). This story complicates the view of revelation as translation. While it may be an extreme example, it demonstrates that God can communicate in ways that are understandable to the recipient, but inexpressible in human language. It seems possible that something similar happens to various degrees in other instances of revelation. 

Consider, as another example, the episode in 3 Nephi 23, when Christ commands his disciples to write something they had failed to record previously. They do so, and then the chapter concludes with these words:  “And now it came to pass that when Jesus had expounded all the scriptures in one, which they had written, he commanded them that they should teach the things which he had expounded unto them” (vs. 14). What strikes me about this moment is that the authors themselves are not considered the primary authority regarding the things they wrote. Jesus takes their writings and explicates them, helping the authors understand the implications of and interconnections among the things they had written (or whatever it means to expound all the scriptures in one). In this example, although individual people write down what they had witnessed, the real author is God. This might suggest that, with sufficient understanding of all the scriptures, we can comprehend the truth, but it might also suggest that only God is capable of such a thing. 

My point here is not that any attempt to explicate divine communication is useless, only that the processes of explication, like the revelations themselves, are not transparent and straightforward. Although I think there are good reasons to analyze, contextualize, and triangulate revelations, I also think that we need to accept that “the final word” is beyond our reach. We can and should seek to approach truth, but we may never definitively arrive, at least not in mortality, within the constraints of human language and understanding. As Paul notes, in mortality, we “see through a glass darkly.” 

Fostering Communion

With this relatively well-known turn of phrase from 1 Corinthians 13:12, I pivot to the fostering communion paradigm. Paul’s metaphor is generally invoked as I have used it here, in reference to the lack of clear understanding inherent in mortality. I think this usage is appropriate but incomplete. The verse reads, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”  Implicit in the image of seeing face to face and knowing as we are known is a reciprocal relationship: This does not simply refer to one’s access to information, but to the quality of an acquaintance–not so much knowing something as knowing someone. Ultimately, I believe it is this latter kind of knowing that is at stake in revelation.

What is particularly interesting about this passage is that it contrasts seeing one’s distorted reflection in a mirror with seeing another person. The difference between “now” and “then” in the verse is not simply that an image becomes clearer, but the focus expands to make room for a relationship with someone else. This contrast parallels the distinction I am trying to make between communication and communion, as the former can be entirely experienced by and contained within an individual, while the latter demands ongoing relation.

This shift from communication to communion is resonant with Jesus’ declaration that He is the truth (John 14:6). That remarkable statement construes “truth” not as abstract(able) ideas or facts, but as a divine being; not an object, but a subject; not truth, but Truth. A similar idea appears a few chapters later when John records Jesus’ prayer: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). These references to Truth and knowledge heighten the terrible irony of Pilate’s philosophizing as he questions the accused Jesus, asking “What is truth?” (John 18:38), moments before consenting to His death. The danger of a communication/truth-centric approach to revelation is that we, like Pilate, may end up dabbling in epistemology while neglecting the Truth. 

“Revelation” that deals with Truth in this sense has to do with encountering the divine. What is revealed is not information, but God, in all His loving interrelations with us; it is about communion more than communication. Indeed, Jesus Christ Himself can be considered the consummate revelation. This does not simply mean that Jesus’ life taught people about God (i.e., transmitting information), but rather that He related to them as God; He did not simply communicate with them, but communed with them. This may be why John ends the book of Revelation not with reference to informational communication, but with a prayer for eventual communion: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (22:20). Ultimately, what is to be revealed is not truth but Truth.

 Although I do not deny that God can and does reveal information to people, this kind of communication must be viewed as part of a larger whole. In other words, the fact that God communicated something to someone is only a snapshot of His ongoing relating with that particular person and humanity in general–and sensing one’s relatedness with God is more fundamental than understanding the truth value of any particular revelation. 

Again, I am not suggesting that communication and communion are mutually exclusive, only that our primary focus should be on communion. I think, for example, of the Israelites’ reception of the ten commandments. Inscribed in stone, the Decalogue is perhaps the quintessential example of the revelation of policy, doctrine, and other small “t” informational truths. But even in revealing these commandments, God’s first pronouncement is, “I am the Lord thy God” (Exodus 20:2). Encountering God at Sinai was the primary Revelation, and all the subsequent revelations were truths of a secondary degree. Having encountered God–the God who led them out of Egypt–the Israelites can obey the law of Moses, remembering that these prohibitions and injunctions are the requests their God makes of His peculiar people. To understand and obey the commandments without a sense of that particular relationship is possible, but hollow. Indeed, it seems that this was what frustrated Jesus so much about some of the scribes and Pharisees: They had explicated revelations profoundly, but had minimal communion with God. This is just as relevant to us today. As we seek to receive, understand, and obey revelations, we must embed these efforts within a broader dynamic of communion. 

Some Implications

If you accept what I have proposed above, namely that there is a difference between divine communication and communion, and that our primary focus should be on communion, what difference does it make, especially with regards to the church’s controversial stances and beliefs? One takeaway is simply that we ought to handle revelation with humility, recognizing that all human communication is imperfect. There is so much we do not know regarding what exactly a given revelation means that we should be open to the possibility that we have not yet understood it correctly or entirely. Cromwell’s words are resonant here: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” This echoes Paul’s warning to the saints at Corinth: “let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). As both Cromwell and Paul demonstrate, albeit imperfectly, this is not to say that we should be anchorless and rudderless, “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). We can and should have convictions and loyalties, but we should also embrace the likelihood that there is more to learn, that there are revelations yet to come (that is, in fact, an article of faith), and that some of these “great and important things” yet to be revealed will alter our current understandings. 

Second, as we grapple with divine communications, we should seek communion with God. While for many of my readers, the Church likely figures in both that grappling and communion, our relationship with God transcends our participation in the church. Recognizing that people can feel an intimate and uplifting connection with God in the most oppressive situations, we should admit that, even if we disagree with the Church on some point, the Church cannot prevent us from communing with God. Ultimately, that is our responsibility. Furthermore, our sense of communion with God surely influences how we understand, experience, and react to revelation, so as we respond to the revelations of church leaders and our own, we should ensure that we are doing what we can to be in communion with God. 

Although I think that we have the most influence over our own sense of connectedness with God, I also believe there is a role for the church in more fully fostering communion. I am not sure what all this might entail, but I think it would stem from a paradigm shift away from truth and toward Truth. This might include focusing less on defending truth claims, justifying certain doctrines, and valorizing certainty, and more on celebrating the redemptive goodness of a God who continues to redeem and sanctify Zion. (Perhaps this is what it means to have an eye single to the glory of God.) In that light, questions about revelation are less daunting, not because they are irrelevant, but because they are contextualized. Against the backdrop of God’s ongoing relating with His children, troubling passages and policies can be viewed as instances of the imperfections inherent in mortality (whether because they were indeed flawed, because our perspective of them was distorted, or because the standard of judgment we apply is flawed). The imperfect and/or imperfectly understood revelations so far received are among the many things that are being restored, renewed, and redeemed. 

As I conclude, I’m reminded of the way many of the New Testament epistles end with a benediction like, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” At the conclusion of writings now considered to be revelatory (and which were certainly intended to transmit information), the writers encourage their readers to be in communion with God. Without that ongoing grace, whatever revelations of divine truth were contained in their epistles would eventually wither away, being detached from the true vine (John 15:1). With that in mind, I conclude with a benediction of my own: In our efforts to seek truth, may we come to know Truth. 

6 thoughts on “What is Revelation Anyway?

  1. Yes yes! I loved these ideas. One other relevant scripture I thought of is in Doctrine and Covenants 1: 24. “… these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language…” A professor I had, Spencer Fluhmann, drew my attention to this idea in a D&C class many years ago, and the idea has blessed my understanding of scripture and leadership ever since.

  2. It seems that this communion was at the heart of the experience of Joseph Smith. Having personally experienced God, he knew things that those who had studied for lifetimes did not. Additionally, he was not immediately able to articulate everything he had come to understand.

    I think the focus on “knowing God” (John 17:3) through personal experience, is the key.

    In the context of D&C 1:37-38, God speaks in many ways. Our responsibility is to come to know him and to seek to understand. Nephi received more understanding because he believed the words and looked to God.

    I think this recent focus on “hear Him” has a lot to do with communion, recognizing that God is communicating a lot more than we might be perceiving and that as we learn to commune, or to listen to and be present with God, we will receive more.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Such a great post! Thank you. Your comments on language made me think of my favorite Hugh B. Brown quote:
    “Sometimes during solitude I hear truth spoken with clarity and freshness; uncolored and untranslated it speaks from within myself in a language original but inarticulate, heard only with the soul, and I realize I brought it with me, was never taught it nor can I efficiently teach it to another.”

  4. Thanks, Hannah. Good to hear from you! Do you know where that quote comes from? It’s beautiful and I’d love to read it in context.

    1. It’s from his book “Eternal Quest”. I haven’t read much of it, but I first heard it from a teacher of mine who was doing a guided meditation and ended it with this. I think about it often.

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