June 18, 2009
The Priesthood is Magic
Here's the basic process of how you get a PhD at an American university:
1. You graduate from high school or get a GED.
2. You graduate from college with decent grades.
3. You take the GRE.
4. You apply to universities and get accepted somewhere.
5. You do coursework for a few years.
6. You pass your comprehensive exams.
7. You do a lot of research and write a prospectus for a dissertation.
8. You write the dissertation.
9. You defend the dissertation.
10. You get a diploma.
It generally takes somewhere from four to fourteen years, and you change considerably over the process--supposedly you mature and your ideas become more complex, and you also get poorer and more cynical and tired of living without decent insurance. But after that, you're considered an expert in something--not necessarily something important or relevant to your life in general, but something. You even have a title to demonstrate that.
In other words, you have to earn the degree, and there are tests and requirements to help ensure that people do. And while some PhDs are more prestigious than others, the power or relevance of any is greatly limited outside of certain contexts. Having a PhD in art history doesn't help you make wise decisions about retirement investments. Plus, most people don't really give a shit that you decided to go to school forever.
Here's how you get the priesthood in the Mormon church, which supposedly is this great power that can affect almost every aspect of the priesthood holder's life:
1. You're born male.
2. You're baptized. Let's say for argument that you're baptized at age 8, which is the soonest people can be baptized into the Mormon church.
3. When you turn 12, you're made a deacon in the Aaronic priesthood, provided you go to go church from time to time and aren't a juvenile sex offender, though there's some wiggle room on that last bit. Twenty-five years ago or so, the bishop asked the congregation of my home ward to sustain the decision to give the priesthood to a kid in the ward. Everyone agreed that this was completely appropriate--except for my mother, who raised her hand to say that she was opposed this. It caused quite a stir--it had never happened before in our ward that anyone could remember. After the meeting she was asked why she objected, and she pointed out that the boy they wanted to give the priesthood to had been caught molesting his neighbor's four-year-old daughter. Eventually the leaders agreed that that was a reason to withhold giving the guy the priesthood--but it never occurred to them themselves. He was 12; he was male; his parents brought him to church; why wouldn't he be made a deacon?
4. When you turn 14, provided you still attend church and aren't in juvey, you are made a teacher in the Aaronic priesthood.
5. When you turn 16, if you're still attending church and not in juvey, you are made a priest in the Aaronic priesthood. It's desirable that you adhere to other commandments of the church, like not fornicating or stealing or getting drunk or high, but I'm sure I'm not the only person who knew her male friends were getting rip-roaring drunk or stoned on Saturday night, then blessing the sacrament with raging hangovers on Sunday morning. (Wearing sunglasses and falling asleep while you're on the stand before the congregation is a pretty good giveaway.)
6. When you turn 18, provided you're still attending church, not a felon, and express a desire/willingness to have it, you graduate to the Melchizedek priesthood and become an elder. That's right: you're made an elder at 18, which confuses a lot of people who quite logically assume that "elder" means "dude who is older."
7. You'll probably stay an elder for a good long while, but eventually, when you're almost old enough to be a REAL elder, you might be made a 70 or a high priest.
Anyway, the point is, being made a deacon, teacher, priest or elder isn't a recognition of anything special about a person, except for HIS gender. You don't EARN the priesthood if you're male; you can only FORFEIT your right to it, by breaking a commandment (or rather, by getting caught). And as homophobic as the church is, it's striking that being gay doesn't automatically disqualify a man from the priesthood; you can BE gay and have the priesthood; you just can't DO gay.
Getting the priesthood doesn't require any special wisdom or goodness or maturity; instead, it's supposed to CONFER those things. Except that it doesn't, as GMA notes in this comment, writing,
So when you?re ordained and nothing changes, and they tell you that you have the priesthood and it?s the most important thing in the universe but you don?t feel anything, you start to question what this whole thing is all about...
Instead, it makes it harder, not easier, to be righteous, and even Joseph Smith recognized that when he wrote "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion" (D&C 121:39).
The real point of the priesthood is that it's A) magic and B) the way you show who's in charge.
It's this mysterious magic power that works when men who have it put their magic hands on the magically-receptive heads of others. It's how the sick are healed and evil spirits are driven out and spaces sanctified. The only ritual accessory needed is a little oil to put on the heads of people getting blessings. Other than that, you don't need fire, or smoke, or special rocks, or anything.
It's not surprising that Joseph Smith would claim and confer a special magic power, since he was always interested in magic.
But the fact that this power is magic means it doesn't have to be A) just or B) logical.
Magic gets to pick who it exercises it. Magic doesn't have to explain to mere mortals how it works. Magic only works as magic, in fact, if it's mysterious and unexplainable. If its functions and processes are understood, it's called science. (There's my undergraduate education coming in handy again: I picked that insight up from a book I read in 1985, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances A Yates.)
The priesthood sucks because it works without accountability to human beings. It doesn't have to meet their needs, or be fair, or be earned, or be monitored, or be understood. In fact, it maintains its mystery and its power by NOT doing those things, by being random and selective and illogical.
This is one more reason I don't want it, and think institutions should renounce it.
Posted by holly at June 18, 2009 2:56 PM