Thoughts on how Ranciere’s work on equality & hierarchy might help us think about LDS Priesthood and stewardships


Note: These are some thoughts lifted from the Dews From Heaven blog. In the course of a discussion, I tried to explain my thoughts on what Ranciere is saying in The Ignorant Schoolmaster and how that might apply to priesthood callings and callings generally in the Church. I thought it was worth posting just those thoughts here since I’ve written on this blog about Ranciere in the past and it would be helpful for me to have all those thoughts in one place.

The whole idea behind being an “ignorant schoolmaster” is that you are a master not by virtue of having more intelligence, but simply by a structured situation. The structure almost has to be artificial, or arbitrary, to really work. The master has to see her or himself as equal to the student. When both the student and master see themselves as equal, then the call of the master to “pay attention” to the assignment or whatever is their “thing in common” has more effect. If the student constantly assumes they are inferior to the master, then there is the temptation to just wait until the master explains it to them. (Emancipation is when the student comes to realize they don’t have to wait to be explained to, and that there is always something they can think or say about the thing in common. Of course, that requires that the master actually gives them a thing in common, and asks questions that don’t have a specific, definite answer that only the master can validate.)

Anyway, the point is, when both individuals recognize the equality of intelligence, then they both see the hierarchical structure for what it is. It allows a master to impose their will on the will of another, rather than their intelligence on the intelligence of another.

Ranciere points out that when a hierarchy of intelligence is created (rather than an artificial hierarchy) it has to be based on a justification of superiority and inferiority — I am the master because I know more or have greater intelligence and you are the student because you know less or have inferior intelligence. Power must be justified to keep the hierarchy in place. But, if a student realizes that the master does not in fact have greater knowledge or greater intelligence, then hierarchical structure begins to crumble and the master loses his or her power. The student no longer has someone imposing intelligence or will upon him or her, and learning ceases.

This can get us into trouble in the Church, if we think that so-in-so has a particular calling because that person is inherently more spiritual than me. If that person makes what appears to us to be a mistake or something immoral, then we can began to question their spiritual superiority. Then we begin to question that person’s position within the hierarchy, and we no longer accept the imposition of will or decisions that come from that calling.

Of course, to really work appropriately, the person in the callingalso needs to recognize the spiritual equality (or intellectual equality, I don’t know that those are so separate in the end) of those serving “under” her or him within the hierarchy. I think when this is done right then spiritual growth occurs, in parallel to the learning that occurs within Ranciere’s model.

…Kim said some really cool things about D&C 121, so I’m adding those too: “The thought occurs to me: what if we were to understand the (lack of) priesthood structure in the early church (phases 1-3) as intentional, then? That is, rather than seeing Joseph kind of haphazardly make things up as he goes along, gradually consolidating power until he’s at the top of a great Mormon pyramid scheme, perhaps God purposefully revealed the priesthood in a way allows for the saints to experience it as non-hierarchical for several years. Then, by the time the complete hierarchy is finally revealed, the arbitrariness of that hierarchy is fully revealed, as simply one response to the needs of the kingdom at the time. Perhaps the early “lateral” priesthood was thus intentional, instead of being a watered-down, waiting-for-further-revelation, proto-version of the other? That’s the direction your Ranciere synopsis has me thinking in, anyway.

“And I like that picture, in some ways, because of the warning in D&C 121 about decoupling priesthood and power. The second a hierarchy is no longer seen as arbitrary, it becomes a question of power and situating oneself in a certain power network. Perhaps D&C 121 is reminding us to relate to priesthood hierarchy in an emancipated way?”

I like the idea of D&C 121 warning us against turning things into the wrong sort of hierarchy. I think that’s a very good reading! Your comment makes me think of D&C 107:21 – “Of necessity there are presidents, or presiding officers growing out of, or appointed of or from among those who are ordained to the several offices in these two priesthoods.” I like the phrase “of necessity”. I want to hear it as: It was necessary to have leaders for practical reasons, but not because they were of a different type or superior.

I think there is actually something to the idea that ministering works in a hierarchically structured situation — I allow my visiting teachers to counsel or help me because of their calling, even though I know they are my equals. In our terminology, we might say that it is by virtue of their stewardship that they can help me, and I even recognize that they can receive revelation to help me. But the moment that they are released from that assignment, I no longer assume that they can receive revelation, or at least not in the same way. They could help me as a friend, and I assume friends too get prompted by the Spirit. 🙂 But I mean that in the Church we recognize that those in structured circumstances have rights to revelation for those under them, or within their stewardship. A Bishop receives revelation for the ward not because he is who he is, but because of the calling he has. It is by virtue of his temporary place or arbitrary (arbitrary because God created it or called him, and because it is not because he is inherently better).

So ministering might be like the work of a teacher in Ranciere’s model. I think that works well.

What about administering, though? I like the point that you can’t say one person just ministers and another just administers. Where the administration is an administration of ordinances (rather than administration of a program), I think we might see that administration as Ranciere’s “thing in common.” A teacher gives to others something that both teacher and student can work on together. With ordinances, priesthood holders give to someone something they already have, and then they together to think and talk and work on understanding that thing. So maybe administering is something done within the work of ministering? Or sometimes one priesthood holder can administer an ordinance, like the sacrament, but it is a “thing in common” for other priesthood holders and those without priesthood (RS teacher, visiting teacher, etc.) to talk about when they minister?

…Kim asked, “It sounds like you’re saying that both ministers and administrators fill the role of a Rancierian teacher, is that right?”

Okay, I suppose what I meant was that the ordinances themselves were the thing in common, which could be provided by a minister or an administrator. In Ranciere’s stories, the “thing in common” was given by the teacher but it wasn’t created by the teacher. For example, if I pick an art book and open to a picture of a painting by Monet, and then I tell Jacob that artists use colors to create moods and feelings, I have given him something to work on. I haven’t told him what Monet is communicating with colors, and I don’t have one right answer I am looking for. The book and the piece of information are our “thing in common.” Then I ask questions, “What colors do you see Jacob?” “Are there different kinds of colors in different parts of the painting?” “How do they make you feel?” “What is the scene about? Do you think the colors are communicating something about the scene?” “What else do you think about when you see the colors in this painting?” In that case, I did give him the book and information to start with. But, that information could have been given to him by someone else. It is not something I created, based off of my “superior” intelligence, or only something I could validate. It is a piece of information he could have read on his own and received it that way, but in this case I delivered it to him. But at that point it is something we hold in common, and we can get to work on learning from that point.

Does that help at all? Administration (of a thing in common) is not the teaching moment itself, but a part of constructing the teaching situation. I might also give Jacob two paintings and just ask him to think about what is different. Giving him the books wasn’t the teaching situation, asking him what he thinks about it is the potentially emancipating teaching moment.

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3 responses to “Thoughts on how Ranciere’s work on equality & hierarchy might help us think about LDS Priesthood and stewardships

  • Mike B

    Interesting thoughts. I guess one good thing about having a lay ministry is it can help us see the arbitrariness of our (local) leaders’ callings. Of course, it’s still easy enough to say about a leader that if God called him, then that must indicate his spiritual superiority.

  • Karen

    I’ve been thinking about that today, Mike. I suppose we could differenciate between being humble, and therefore ready to listen to the Spirit, and being spiritually superior, as in, by their very nature more spiritual. Maybe? I don’t know what I think yet I’ve just been thinking a bit about this this morning since I copied these comments over.

    I want to think about Nephi’s conversation with his brothers, where they say God doesn’t make things known to them, and Nephi is frustrated because he seems to say that everyone is equally able to receive revelations (for themselves, at least?). Anyway, that’s a long way off from a real answer but that’s where my brain is headed.

  • Karen

    I think this is a complicated question, but I think it’s important and possible to figure out at some point. 🙂 And I know I’m inevitably going to be sloppy as I try to work this out, so let me know where the flaws are in this explanation:

    1) Many places in scripture seem to say that we are equal spiritually; that is, every human being on earth is born with the potential to communicate with God (through prayer and the Holy Ghost).

    2) But we also read that there are “chosen vessels,” and prophets, and so forth.

    3) Alma’s language in Alma 13 is curious in this regard: “Or in fine, in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren; thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts….” I see here a possibility of reading Alma as saying that we all have the same potential to be close to God and to be leaders, but some harden their hearts and some don’t. The reason some get chosen as leaders is because they are willing to soften their hearts. Note the agency in that language — some “harden their hearts” (not have their hearts hardened). Those who exercise their will to pay attention to the Spirit are chosen as leaders in God’s kingdom.

    4) I also see in scripture times where a prophet’s job is to help others see they can be close to God like he is. D&C 84:23-24 say that Moses tried to help his people be close to God like he was: “Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God; But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence.” If they had not “hardened their hearts” they could have been close to God like Moses. Alma in Alma 13 tries to help his people see the possibility of entering into God’s rest like Melchizedek’s people did. The blessings priests like Melchizedek or Alma receive (being cleansed and entering into God’s rest) are available to every other human being, if they repent.

    5) So might we say that those called to lead, and I mean especially those called as Apostles and Prophets, are those that have been emancipated? They are those that have come to recognize both their potential to speak with God (through prayer and the Holy Ghost), and that they are no better or more important than any other human being on the planet? It seems to me that they would make the best leaders possible. They know that if they don’t harden their hearts, they can actually speak with God. They also know that they aren’t wise or important in and of themselves (they are weak, just like every human being), and so they recognize their need to pay attention to the Holy Ghost in their work. (In Ranciere’s model, I think we would say that the best kind of teacher/learner is the one who recognizes their ability or potential to learn, but who also recognizes that learning is only going to come the same way it comes to everyone else: by paying attention.)

    6) And, also, I think that our leaders would be most thrilled if we also came to humble ourselves like they have, meaning, if we came to recognize that God wants to speak to us, and we came to realize that we need to pay attention to that.

    Wouldn’t that be Zion, in the end?

    Thoughts?

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