The Tallest Building

You can tell what’s informing the people by the size of the tallest building in the place
— Joseph Campbell (interview with Bill Moyers)
slc skyline.jpg

The Power of Myth's Joseph Campbell explained to Bill Moyers how the power to inform society has shifted through the ages from religious to political to economic entities, using Salt Lake City as a case in point. He reminded us that, at first, the Salt Lake Temple stood tallest right in the heart of the city. Then the State Capital building was constructed up on the hill, even taller than the temple. When the Church Office Building was completed in 1972 it became, by far, the new tallest building, marking the transition of power over information from the political to the economic sector.

Members of the Church might take issue with his assessment, since we view the Church Office Building as an administrative expedient and not a symbol of economic power on par with the Wells Fargo Center, which happens to be the current tallest building in Salt Lake City, with the Church Office Building now standing only second tallest. With the Wells Fargo Center in place, it is an interesting exercise to pause and consider whether Mr. Campbell's observations are correct about the people at large; whether or not banks, money-interests and corporations are what are informing society. I WONDER.

Given that Salt Lake City is headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and representative of the society of Saints, we are going to take a closer look at the possible symbolism behind the juxtaposition of the two tallest Mormon buildings in our center-place. Are the people more focused on what the Church Office Building stands for or what the Salt Lake Temple represents? 

What do you think of when you see a picture of the Salt Lake Temple? It makes me think of a personal endowment of power and knowledge from on high. There has not been a time that I have gone to the temple without feeling I have communed with the heavens. It represents my personal connection to God.

The Church Office Building, essentially an appendage of the Church Administrative Building, is where the administrative support staff for the organization of the Church is housed. It includes the Church magazines, films, and administration for temples and missionary work. That tall, straight building is like the spinal column of Mormondom - our central nervous system. And the Administrative Building is where the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are housed. They are the head and the brain of the Church. That building, here, represents God's communion with living prophets, who we are commanded to receive as if the Lord Himself were speaking. 

The since-departed Joseph Campbell, looking into this arrangement from the outside, would probably remark that human administration would seem to be what's informing the people as evidenced by our tallest building. But, as Angela pointed out to me, the temple is the great symbol of our membership in the Church. It may not be the tallest on the skyline, but it is the universal image, recognizable by any member of this worldwide community.

So, what IS informing the Latter-day Saints? Are we dependent on prophets, stake presidents and other ecclesiastical leaders for information and guidance? Is the responsibility to obtain knowledge and direction placed squarely on the shoulders of the individual? Or is it a balancing of both? Do we not cause these two buildings, through constant effort, to exist united within us? Shouldn't they be in agreement? What if the messages from the two buildings don't always harmonize, and we find our personal sense of right pitted against the word of the Lord revealed through His prophet?

Brigham Young was describing the ideal when he said:

Live so that you will know whether I teach you truth or not...Live so that the Spirit of the Lord will abide within you, then you can judge for yourselves.
— Brigham Young

It is because of what we feel in the smaller building (the temple; representative here of personal communication with God) that we are able to sustain what we are being told from the tallest building (revelation directed down through our prophets and thereby binding on us). As President Young noted, the same Spirit that prompts a prophet to speak can also testify to us that his words are the will of God for us. But not all members of the community of Saints are prepared or qualified at any given time to enter the temple, just as there is a large portion of us who can't always trust in our own spiritual moorings in these times that try men's souls. When there is a discrepancy between the revealed word and what we feel is right, we are left to choose. We can either rely on ourselves or we can rely on the prophet. If we rely on ourselves to the exclusion of his counsel we may be subject to condemnation; but if we rely on the prophet we are always justified. We have the scriptures before us and we can see the results of both paths repeatedly played out since the beginning of time on the earth.   

Was there ever a people in the history of the world who were chastised by the Lord for heeding the words of the prophet too keenly? I don't recall one single instance where the Lord made it known to His people that they should have been more wary of following the weak, fallible man He had put in a position to guide them because they should have known better. God never condemns a person or a people for following His authorized servant. As with the case of Eli, high priest of the Israelites, who unrighteously permitted his sons to desecrate their holy office and the offerings of the people, Eli received his punishment at the hand of the Lord, but the people were certainly not chastised for obeying him despite his wrongs. God is capable of taking charge of His prophet.

Are we in danger of deifying or idolizing our prophets? How can there be ANY danger in that? After all, Joseph Smith taught that when God visited Moses at the burning bush He said to the prophet, "Thou shalt be a God unto the children of Israel" (History of the Church, Vol. 6, pg. 47-479). Apparently, we cannot revere the prophet too much. The greater danger is the temptation to somehow find a way to dismiss his words. We can rationalize that he is too "fallible" (such a popular word these days) to be a trustworthy source of information but we would not be justified. It would be wiser to follow the example of the Prophet Joseph Smith when he declared:

I believe all that God ever revealed, and I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief.
— The Prophet Joseph Smith

When the two tallest buildings of Mormonism seem to be at ideological odds with each other; when our personal sense of right is different from what is issued from the office of the First Presidency, the history of the Lord's dealings with His people should persuade us to favor a trust in the president of the Church. He is our tallest building, a landmark that is a fixed point of reference in these times that are more and more difficult to navigate. Add the words of the living prophet to all the words of the prophets available to us that have ever lived and we have something truly solid. That is why we thank God for a prophet.

What say ye?