Eve’s recent post at ZD on the magical GA got me thinking about how such a phenomenon fits in the larger history of Christianity. The LDS conception of religious potency is so closely intertwined with hierarchical leadership that it is not surprising that these businessmen and lawyers are able to receive such devotion by those seeking ecstatic or thaumaturgic experiences. What is interesting to me is whether or not the religiously potent can exist outside of the structures of LDS authority, as it has in so many other Christian traditions. If such a condition does not presently exist, can we expect it as a phenomenon that inevitably spills over?
The demand for extra-ecclesial religious potency has been a relatively consistent phenomenon in Christian history. (I speak of Christian history because that is what I am most familiar with.) Whether it be in the form of esoteric teaching, ecstatic or visionary experiences, or healing, Christians have frequently sought other kinds of experiences which exceed the capacities of ordinary church life offered by official leadership. Indeed, this is precisely the environment in which Mormonism was born, and Mormonism itself has benefited from converts who were willing to look outside their religious structures. Today, the missionaries attempt to replicate and produce extra-ecclesial authority for non-Mormons.
In the broader scope of Christian history, the monastic communities have often found themselves in tension with sacerdotal authority. The monks drew their authority from ascetic or ecstatic closeness to God, or their devotion to the poor, or perhaps even their great learning (hence the numerous monastic orders). These monastic orders have oscillated from para-church organizations, to contra-church organizations throughout Catholic history. In some sense, they even started as extra-church organizations, and were only later incorporated and tolerated by the church.
The priests, in contrast, drew their authority from the order of the church itself. They were authorized to perform ordinances such as the Eucharist and baptism. They ran the affairs of the church and church services for the laity. They had no claim to special knowledge, or particular levels of devotion, or other external marks of qualification. They had the authority simply because they had it.
This same tension is manifest between itinerant preachers and pastors. One relies on the authority that they can generate around themselves, while the other holds the authority because of the office.
It seems that this latter model, the sacerdotal, has primary dominance within the LDS church. At the same time, informal leaders have emerged with special charismatic qualities, or perhaps special knowledge. I would love to be able to think through how different types of power and authority manifest themselves outside of or around LDS church structure.
Perhaps the increasingly secular context of Mormonism sufficiently reduces the demand for such religious power that the hierarchy is able to satisfy it? Are we content to be managed rather than ministered to? Or does management produce its own kind of ministry that satisfies our spiritual needs enough to kill the demand for extra- or para-church authority?