A recurrent problem in Mormonism is that of how to make sense of patriarchal blessings which make promises that don’t come to pass, or are even just plain wacky. (For some recent bloggernacle discussion of the issue, see here and here.) One common explanation when this happens is to interpret it as a communications breakdown, so to speak; perhaps the patriarch has simply misinterpreted the will of God, and pronounced blessings which reflect more of his own biases and expectations than genuine inspiration. Given that these blessings are mediated through fallible human beings, it’s inevitable that they’re going to have flaws at times.
I’m in basic agreement with this perspective. If someone asked me to theologically account for various instances in which patriarchal and/or other priesthood blessings weren’t fulfilled, I’d probably appeal to it. Nonetheless, I think tackling the problem solely from this angle overlooks an important factor, one having to do with the nature of religious ritual, and the requirements for participating in it meaningfully. And I think it’s important to bring that element into the conversation.
A couple of years ago, I had an experience with a specific promise in a priesthood blessing which didn’t come true. I certainly didn’t go into this experience with the idea that the person giving the blessing was infallible. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for just how much it hurt to have this happen. It took a while before I could even talk about the experience; I felt ashamed for having been so gullible. I asked myself how I could have been so silly as to actually believe what the blessing had said. I also felt deeply betrayed, and angry. I wondered if it was my own fault, if the lack of fulfillment was evidence that I was particularly wicked and undeserving. It also made me question earlier positive experiences with priesthood blessings; given that this one had turned out to be false, how much faith should I have in previous ones I had found meaningful?
Having wrestled with this kind of thing, I’ve been somewhat taken aback to see how often people get criticized if they report such experiences–especially if their faith has suffered as a result of them. They might be told that they are at fault for their apparent inability to make distinctions between fallible human beings and God. Their expectations were too high, I hear. They should have done a better job of remembering that rituals performed by mortals are inevitably limited in their attempts to convey the divine. At times the assumption almost seems to be that if people get hurt, it’s only because they set themselves up for it.
But as fond as I am of healthy skepticism about religion, I think this criticism misses something basic. If you go into a religious ritual with a kind of “I’m taking this all with a large grain of salt” attitude, you are subverting what makes the experience potentially powerful. To take a detached, critical stance, one which involves continually evaluating various bits and the extent to which they are actually divine, is to limit your ability to encounter God there. Participation in ordinances calls for a kind of suspension of disbelief–an attitude of openness and faith, a willingness to be fully engaged and present. If I take the sacrament, for example, while in a kind of intellectually critical mode of the sort of I bring to my academic work, my participation is likely to be much less meaningful.
But the downside of this requirement of openness is that religious ritual also has real power to hurt, to deeply shake someone’s faith and trust in God. And when that happens, I’m not sure that we can simply respond that the person has simply, in essence, taken it too seriously. If we’re going to accept, and even be moved by, Sister X’s report that her patriarchal blessing convinced her that God knew and loved her personally, we can’t then tell Sister Y that her more negative experience with a patriarchal blessing shouldn’t really mean anything, or shake her faith. As religious believers, we take our rituals, our blessings and our ordinances, very seriously. We assert that they have the power to literally change lives. This is something that can be tremendously faith-affirming to experience. But because of this, they also have the potential to cause real spiritual damage. To deny this aspect, I think, is to trivialize some of the most potent aspects of our tradition.