In American society, there are times when a court has to decide what the legislature meant when it drafted a particular law or statute. One of the rules of statutory interpretation or construction requires that every part of a statute be presumed to have some effect, and should not be treated as meaningless unless absolutely necessary. In other words, when reading a statute, the court must read the language to allow all parts of the statute to stand. If a court were to read a statute in a way that a particular provision was superfluous, the reading of that court would most probably be overturned on appeal. Logically, it doesn’t make sense for the legislature to include provision (iii) if the way the statute is applied makes provision (iii) unnecessary.
For example, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of Tennessee states that “the General Assembly shall have no power to . . . alter the salary of any office” until the term of that office is over. So, when the Commissioners of Shelby County voted themselves a pay raise while they were still in office, the Tennessee state court got to decide whether they could do that. The court looked to the Sixth Amendment, and, reading the language, decided that, if they allowed the Commissioners to change their own salaries while they were in office, the introductory phrase of the statute would be unnecessary i.e., the General Assembly shall have no power, was superfluous. The only way to make sense of the whole statute was to actually give the General Assembly no power. So, the court held that the Shelby County Commissioners acted in violation of the Tennessee Constitution when they gave themselves a pay raise.
This rule of statutory construction has been on my mind lately. Not as it relates to reading statutes, but as it relates to trying to make sense of the triumvirate of divine mandate, prophetic counsel and a personal inspiration available through the Holy Ghost or Spirit. Seems to me that many of us live using only two of the three. It’s safer that way; less room for error. Which one of the holy three is superfluous? Individual spiritual discernment.
I remember reading a fridge magnet about twenty years ago. The language on it boggled me. Sort of still does. It read: “When the prophet speaks, the discussion’s over.” I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that believing that God speaks to a prophet and provides guidance and counsel through him requires the cessation of all discussion. I still can’t.
The application of the prophetic utterance is, I believe, my jurisdiction. That’s where I take the counsel, consider the underlying commandment, and contemplate the most appropriate way to live that in my life and the life of my family. That “application sphere” is where I practice becoming an agent. Problem is that in becoming that agent I could make the “wrong” decision. By that I mean a decision that might, at worst, lead to pain, heartache, or, invariably, just messiness and ambiguity. (A decision is not wrong just because my application of it looks different than another’s.) To eliminate the potential pain and to live as “clutter free” as possible, it’s tempting to live only according to prescribed formulas (preferably published by Deseret Book, because it makes them all the more righter). Where do we find these formulas? Sometimes, we just make them up.
In our religious culture, the interpretation of direction/counsel tends to morph beyond principle into dogmatic prescription. Counsel, provided initially in principle form, mutates into rigid steps on how to live (with a plaque/locket/charm to commemorate them). Not that the giver expects such lock-step adherence; it’s the hearer’s reluctance to be found wrong or out of line that creates a need for prescription, for lists, and for turning to authority on how to live.
Take green tea for example. (I chose this because I just encountered two diametrically opposed viewpoints on it. Both believers convinced.) Can we or can we not drink it? The thought never crossed my mind and I really have no idea. But my trainer’s convinced it’s verboten, and an other friend swears, uneasily, by it. So she's going to her local leader for permission. I'm thinking that if you’re coming to your leader to determine whether you can do something, then something’s amiss. That fact that we feel to ask means that somewhere in that internal mechanism which measures our ethical temperature drinking green tea feels slightly out of line. But we want to drink it; it helps us lose weight. So, to reduce the internal discomfort, the nagging fear we might be doing something wrong, we seek confirmation outside of ourselves on a position that actually runs contrary to our internal promptings. In essence, we seek to make our gift of spiritual discernment superfluous. We turn over to our leaders the responsibility for our actions.
Never are we a happier people than when we are told exactly what to do, because then we couldn’t possibly go wrong. Rather than deciding what a principle means to us and finding the way to live it that sits well, we turn elsewhere: back issues of the Millennial Star, obscure treatises published by who knows which press, our local church authority. Yes, there is a security that is found in specifically following prescribed ways of living. One never really has to consider whether that way is right, wrong, appropriate for the situation, or optional. One doesn’t have to question one’s position. If things go wrong, we are safe from the self-reflection that normally accompanies mistake, error or reversals of fortune. After all, we were following the counsel of our leaders. The danger in this approach is that that we learn to trust only authority outside of ourselves, and we develop very little personal capacity to reach our own decisions, to practice the necessary art of choosing and deciding when there is no clearly defined way.
For me, this method of decision-making violates the rule of statutory construction. This particular world view makes the gift of the Holy Ghost as a tool for decision-making superfluous. Of what use is the gift of the Holy Ghost, if we're asking others how to live our life? Did God give us a party favor? Sort of like a “Thank you for coming, here’s a treat for the ride home.” Where is the growth, the emotional, intellectual and spiritual confidence that must naturally come by wrestling through life’s choices and decisions and coming to stand, however uncertainly at first, within the circle of your own conclusions and decisions? If I don’t do that, how can I be the agent I am designed to be, how can I bring about that good of my own free will and choice? If the answer is always to be found somewhere else outside of myself, how do I develop the self-sufficiency, the self-reliance to make decisions for which I stand fully accountable? In order for the gospel to have any internal consistency, I have to believe that I have been given what I need in order to make informed decisions: a mind, a scriptural base, inspired counsel and the discerning power of the Holy Spirit that is mine and mine alone to listen to. I must use all four of those components in order to reach an authentic, responsible position.
Here's a position I have reached recently. After the vigorous discussion following the post concerning my sister-in-law, I’ve done some thinking and reached some conclusions about the counsel to marry the right person, in the right place, by the right authority. I might not end up in the same place you do, but I have found a place for me to stand, my “decent melody, [the] song that I can sing in my own company.” Here’s how I reached my conclusion-for-now.
The initial, grounding commandment is to multiply and replenish the earth. Is the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth qualified by the “in the right place” counsel? If so, then should one only marry when one has the opportunity to marry in the “right place” or “the right person”? Essentially the question becomes, which holds more power: the first commandment given to our first parents: “multiply and replenish the earth, that you might have joy in your posterity” or the counsel given centuries later, “in the right place, by the right authority, to the right person.” (For some of us, this question never arises, because our life facts are different. But for others, it is the crucible in which faith is tested. Each of us has a question like this, one in which we face the hard edges of our realities.)
What happens then when you live in South Africa, and there is no “right place” for thousands of miles? Do you not marry, even though you might be marrying somebody of the same faith? Of course not. You marry and then save up for the trip to London, even if it takes ten years or it never happens. This application of the right place counsel seems to suggest then that the right place initially, for some, is not always within the temple. That a Rwandan right starting place, given the situation, will be different from the right starting place of another.
Or what happens if you never have the opportunity because you’ve never been invited to marry by the right person i.e., somebody of the same faith? Are you barred from marrying at all? Does the fact that there are no men of the same faith who find you attractive and have asked you to marry them bar you from experiencing the sweet fruits of marriage? Is it really God’s will that a woman is barred, in this life, from the experience of loving a man, of making love, of bearing children, of feeling the child turn in her womb, of teaching and raising children, of working side by side with her husband to fashion a home, a family and a life because a particular kind of man didn’t ask her.
When push comes to shove, I’m not sure I believe in a God who says, “Yes, because of the cultural anomaly which has developed in western civilization where marriage is dependent, not upon family ties and contracts (which used to ensure that just about every woman but those destined for the convent married), but upon men asking and women waiting, women who are not asked by “the right person” do not get to experience marriage in this life.” I just can’t believe in that kind of Father. The Father I prefer to believe in, and I fully concede I might be creating God in my own favorable image, is one who provides the possibility of “the right time, right place, right authority” to all those souls who seek it.
As I think through this, my mind starts to realize that perhaps some interpretations of the meaning of “in the right place, at the right time, by the right authority” are far more circumscribed than the Lord intended it to be. That in our determination to have very clear rules about marriage so that we are taught it correctly, teach it correctly and apply it correctly, we have narrowed beyond divine intent the meaning of his words. Some have created a marriage construct that allows for no deviation, for no alternatives. There can be only one way of approaching marriage; only one way to start; and no other way to get to that right place and authority. (I ache for those with this worldview who find themselves before the unexpected, completely different altar, offering up their fondest desire in order to stay consistent with their beliefs. I only hope it’s a sacrifice God really requires.)
For me, when it comes to the application of principles, the only Christian response is one which starts with “as for me and my house” and which allows all others the same privilege to decide and live how, where or what they may. Can it possibly be that an answer to this, and any other question including green tea, is yes for some, no for others, doesn’t matter for whoever is left over? How can that be? For the same reason that Nephi slew Laban, and Martha cooked while Mary listened. The spirit’s way is a mysterious and personal one. It’s a way which I must come to recognize and trust in my life.
What’s the danger in this approach? Institutionally—that there are many different versions of righteous living, and facing that variety gives some heartburn and leads to interesting conversations with children around the kitchen counter. It requires individuals to stand more fully grounded in the reasons for why they live as they do when others don’t. Personally—that there will be times when I flail around a bit, when my life is not so graceful, when months and years look like rehearsals, instead of the grand performance. I might get it wrong. Perhaps because I desire something so much I cannot see the way clearly. Perhaps because I search and think through with a desired end in mind, instead of an open heart and an open mind. Perhaps because I am listening not to spirit, but to ego, pride or fear.
No matter. Getting it wrong, being clumsy is to be expected as I learn how to make good applications--not right, just good. For the privilege of becoming good and of using all the faculties I have been given, I am willing to stand corrected, in a new place, and begin again the process of finding my way.
(Title: from U2, Stuck in a Moment)