The Problem of Pain

The problem of pain is not in its logic. It only defeats false Gods, or Gods unconstrained by the realities of the nature we live daily.

The problem of pain is in the gut wrenching sadness of watching a parent lose a child and thinking of your own precious children. Of watching a man or woman lose the love of their life. Of watching families uprooted, homeless and cast upon the whims of unwilling strangers, thinking of the time you were jobless, homeless, and on the road with two kids, whatever stuff you could fit in a sedan, and only safe because of the luck of belonging to a family able to help. Of visiting your neighbor and smiling and talking like good neighbors do, but noticing empty cupboards in their tiny, broken, rented home, knowing your kids--who may be limited in where they go to college by what scholarships they can get--will be going to college (or its future counterpart), but who knows where these childhood friends will go from this tiny town with one in six adults unemployed. Of walking by the friendly old man who is always out giving candy to kids on Halloween, with a smile and happy words, and seeing his perpetual rummage sale--and realizing how poor many of your neighbors must be for his to be even a marginal business--selling stuff you wouldn't even donate to a second hand store or give to a friend.

That is the problem of pain. When I don't shut it down or blame it on somebody so I can pretend it's fair, or at least deserved, I see it for what it is. It is evil. It hurts. It hurts even when it doesn't hurt us. We hurt and we rage at injustice. At an unjust universe. At an unjust God. Yeah, even the Gods that might be real. They aren't stopping the pain. They aren't fixing the problems. Even if they might fix them later--balancing out all that wrong on some imagined scale of eternal justice--that doesn't do squat for here and now. What's unrighteous about that anger? Anger at big, powerful people, comfortable in their positions, with enough resources to fix things if they cared enough? You want to know how I'll react if you tell me that anger's unrighteous? Probably you don't, but I probably wouldn't react much. Everybody says dumb things. It's a pain, but usually not much. I've survived worse.

But when my heart hurts, when I see happy kids with deprived futures, when I see kind, uncomplaining people with no hope or purpose but to get by until they die, when I feel irreparable loss--big or small--sometimes I either cry or scream, or both. Maybe not on the outside, but maybe so. And it doesn't matter that our Heavenly Parents have an answer. Especially not since that answer seems to be that the universe is unjust and uncaring--even the one they live in. It's just pain. There is no fix. There is no right answer.

One thing that makes it better for me? We cry together. We scream and rage against that pain together, and we say NO! NO PAIN HERE! NOT IF I HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY ABOUT IT! And sometimes we do have a say, so we do something. But sometimes we don't, so we still scream. We still cry. And we love each other, because that's all we can do. We create that out of the uncaring universe. Maybe we have to live forever with the problem of pain. Whatever explanation we give, it's still pain. But every loving being we make in this universe--as parents here, or as Parents hereafter--makes the universe care that much more.

Image Credit: Wellcome Trust

Don't Disparage Death: a Call to Curb our Transthusiasm

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1833 – 1898

As a transhumanist I am full of hope that one day the knowledge of certain death will no longer be the prime mover of the human heart. Whether by digital or biotechnological means (or both) I believe it is possible that within my lifetime I may witness breakthroughs in science that could extend the life of bodies and brains, and the existence of individual minds well beyond one century. I hope, but humbly so, recognizing that for now and the foreseeable future--what lies beyond the singularity is not foreseeable--we die.

Death and Medicine

As part of my residency training, I spent the month of December in the hospital caring for some very sick patients, some of whom medicine could not help. I became a doctor because I believe in the healing power of compassionate medical science and want to extend its reach, but more often than I anticipated I have been humbled by the limits of what I can do for those who are dying. During this month of "wards" I had the responsibility of calling and leading four family meetings to discuss the diagnosis and prognosis of  a terminal illness in their loved one, the futility of current medical treatments aimed at cure, and what is for now the best alternative we have: palliation and hospice.

After these emotional and difficult conversations, my patients and their families came to accept the reality and imminence of their mortality and resolved to come closer together, to turn away from false hope, to face death with courage and dignity and to stop the madness of bed alarms, monitor beeps, IV replacements, early morning vital sign checks, blood draws, side effects, scans and the other thousand unnatural shocks the inpatient flesh is heir to. Despite my efforts, and those of many other doctors, there was one patient I could not spare from these tortures: a 70 year old Eastern European immigrant with glioblastoma multiforme--the boogie man of all brain cancers.

His wife of 40 years, and self-published herbalist, remained in complete denial of his diagnosis/prognosis after multiple neurosurgeons had evaluated his scans and determined his tumor inoperable. His deficits included complete aphasia (inability to speak), almost complete paralysis and only minimal responsiveness. He had developed several very serious infections during the previous few months with drug-resistant organisms requiring the strongest antibiotics modern medicine has to offer, which only provided him marginal improvement.

Despite all of this evidence that he will soon die, no matter what we do, his wife remained adamant that his condition is only temporary and that he can be completely cured and return to his prior state of health. She insisted that everything possible be done for him. I have learned and accepted that sometimes no amount of objective evidence can displace a firmly held, but false belief. I wanted so desperately to direct this woman's strong hope toward something achievable, such as a dignified and pain-free death for her husband, but at the end of the day she was his next of kin and it was my duty to respect her wishes. I am a supporter of the hospice philosophy in such cases, which cares for the dying and those seeking refuge, restoring dignity and fulfillment in the midst of irresistible suffering.

Within this past few months my mother and grandfather were both hospitalized with serious illnesses. As the medical person in my family it fell to me to interpret what the doctors were saying for the rest of my family, and often the impossible task of predicting what lay in store for them. It is humbling to see the health of those I love in decline and know there is little I can do to stop it. Medicine is a form of humanism in that we accept the animal body, warts and all, and seek to facilitate its healing compassionately. Enhancement, while very important to transhumanism, is still far from the minds of most physicians as the primary objective of medicine is to remove the barriers to health and relieve the many sources of physical suffering, and for now our hands are already full with these!

I believe my unique past experiences with the infirm, the dying and the dead have given me perspective and a vocabulary to discuss these issues with compassion and clarity.

My Early Experiences with Death

During her nursing career my mother worked in hospice, and frequently brought me along on her home visits when I was young. At first I was afraid of her patients, older people who were missing teeth, spoke loudly, smelled bad, and were often grumpy. But sometimes they were delighted to see me, asked my name, and told me their stories. One of my friends, a woman named Martha, had large, expressive, frightened eyes. She lived in a floral print recliner with her cat. She always admitted that I helped her feel better, and sometimes her eyes would even smile. When my mom told me she was gone, I imagined her gaping recliner, filled only by her lonely, pining cat. I missed her, but was comforted that I had known her and been her friend.

Shortly after returning from my LDS mission in Brazil, I was engaged in a conversation in the halls of church between blocks about looking for work when a brother I had not formally met who had overheard stopped in his tracks and offered me a job. I accepted, then asked what sort of business he had--"A funeral home," I was told. "Oh!" was all I could think to say. Having already accepted, I began the internal rationalization that follows all hasty decisions, and quickly concluded it might be educational. Thankfully, it was!

I was able to help transfer the bodies of the deceased with care and respect from their home beds, living room floor, the hospital, the road, and transport them to the funeral home where we washed them, embalmed them, dressed them and prepared them to be viewed one last time by those who loved them. I attended their memorial services in many different faith traditions, and was present for both the digging and the filling of their graves. I tried to be present for their families' grief, and when appropriate to share in that grief. As you may imagine, it was a difficult duty, but very rewarding. This experience pushed me to leave the familiarity of my family and my small town to begin my higher education with the goal of becoming a doctor.

My next experience with work for the dead was with those who were still living but on borrowed time: I became a nurse's assistant, and following after my mother I found work in hospice. After relocating to the Phoenix area to attend Arizona State University, I was hired by Hospice of the Valley as a CNA where I had the privilege of training in the facility where (unknown to me at the time, since I never met her) my Jewish grandmother had passed away only a few months before.

I served the dying across the socioeconomic spectrum. I began working the night shift on weekends in a small inpatient unit on the campus of the Maricopa County Hospital. While there, I cared for people from various backgrounds (e.g. former school teachers, the homeless, and developmentally disabled) and ethnicities (e.g. African-American, Central and South American), and learned to respect and care for them equally. I remained at that position for 9 months, and was then transferred to work as on the campus of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale,where my patients were mostly well-to-do, upper middle class white people. By experiencing such contrasting environments of healthcare, I began to understand some of the strengths and weaknesses of our system, and developed a commitment to improve access to high quality care for all people as a future physician.

How Death Can Heal

In the summer of 2010 I was reunited with my Jewish family, thanks to my father's wife, whose last wish while dying of ALS was to see me reunited with their family. In our second meeting, after the emotional reunion around Father's Day, they asked me to explain the hospice philosophy and what they could expect if they decided against going back to the hospital for aggressive care the next time she deteriorated. It wasn't long after that she did pass away, peacefully in her home surrounded by her loved ones. It was at her funeral that I first recited the Mourner's Kaddish, the prayer uttered by so many Jews through time at the death of a family member or friend: a prayer that praises God and renews hope for the coming of His kingdom. This hope can be glimpsed in the Zionist hymn Hatikva, now the national anthem of Israel.

The Kaddish is associated with the Holocaust for many non-Jews, whose only exposure is reading Elie Weisel's Night. It is a quintessentially Jewish thing to express praise and lamentation, worship and worry, hope and heartache together--Job-like-- in the same breath. Many survivor's stories (Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi, etc.) stress the strong desire to live and find meaning--something to live for--as the only thing that got them through. Those who lost this fire, who had accepted the God-role of the guards whose will it was that they should die, were referred to as "Muselmanner" by other prisoners, and they did indeed die more quickly. I believe this deep desire to live, to survive, to hope in the face of imminent death is why Judaism has avoided extinction in the face of its very obvious out-competition by its spiritual children, Christianity and Islam.

I believe this same strenuousness drives the desire for eternal life among religious transhumanists; however, our hope in post-humanity should be balanced with our humility prehumously. After all, our immortality may not come in the way we envision or hope for it. I doubt the victims of the holocaust envisioned their legacy as black and white photos of piled, naked, emaciated bodies, but we have not forgotten them. In their mortem they are immortal, in their dying they are born to eternal life.

As a humanist, I do not feel that my individuality warrants immortality, or that I myself am of much value in the universe, but that humanity as a whole does and is. I would rather see all people live happy, healthy lives for 100 years and preserve the cycle of life, growth, reproduction, flourishing, ageing and death than to interrupt that cycle so that a few can live 1000 years. It may be a value-based position, but I very much doubt that, pragmatically, we can have it both ways.

In demonizing death we deprive ourselves and devalue an experience that has driven our species since its dawn. The first millenarian may be born, but it's probably not you or I. Should this lead us to lose faith? Should we gather our loved ones--Goebbels-style--and go quietly into the night?  Such an absurdism deserves its own reduction. Existentialism was born in the dying breath, the aleph, of those who taught us there is more to life than joy: that suffering, too, is worth living for.

“Unto what shall I liken?” - Breaking the Fourth Wall of Revelation

We share an evolutionary history of language and semiotics as evident in this survey of common symbols found on stone age artifacts which follow patterns of human migration. 

Religion too has evolved over time influenced by culture, language, music, interaction with the divine, and other forms of semiological expression. 

One of my favorite quotes, that I think gets at the crux of this, is by William James when he said: 

"Religious language clothes itself in such poor symbols as our life affords" 

I think there is great insight in that perspective. That religion is limited to the semiological domain of those it finds expression in. And as our knowledge, aesthetics, culture, etc. change, our religious expression will change too as we find new ways to express those religious longings. 

In Mormonism, our scriptures (much like Christianity) make reference to “likening”, “comparing”, and “typifying”. Models, maxims, parables, allegories, metaphors, etc. are all semiological expressions in our scriptures and teachings. 

One of my favorite scriptures that illustrates this is in Doctrine and Covenants 88:46.

Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?

The reason I absolutely love this instance where the word “liken” is used, is because it breaks the fourth wall and reveals the author’s hand and intention in the process of revelation. 

Breaking the fourth wall is a literary device that evokes a conversation between the author, messenger, and audience. It ties all parties together and invites them to consider each other’s realities. It brings a sense of self-awareness and agency that otherwise can be missed. And it’s this self-awareness that is so important for faith today. 

Looking at each word in this phrase from a semiological perspective can illustrate how this self-awareness can occur. 


First is the word “unto”: a functional word indicating reference or directionality. 

A common Buddhist teaching highlights the difference between a subject and the object that points to it.

"I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. highlights how the “scriptures are replete with allegorical stories, faith-building parables, and artistic speech." 

"Even the most devout and sincere believers in the Bible realize that it is, like most any other book, filled with metaphor, simile, allegory, and parable, which no intelligent person could be compelled to accept in a literal sense..."

"The Lord has not taken from those who believe in his word the power of reason. The Lord expects everyone who takes his "yoke" upon them to have common sense enough to accept a figure of speech in its proper setting, and to understand that the holy scriptures are replete with allegorical stories, faith-building parables, and artistic speech."

(Doctrines of Salvation, Bookcraft, 1956, vol. 3, pg. 188)

All of this points to some fundamentals of semiotics which I think are important to cover briefly (and at only a surface level) to provide some context.

At the base of semiotics is the idea of communication: particularly communication between two, self-aware individuals. The difficulty is how do you communicate something from an unfathomably complex mind to a different, independent, and likewise unfathomably complex mind.

The person communicating has, in her mind, an object to communicate. This object is what is being “signified”. It can be a picture, concept, sound, truth, smell, taste, aesthetic, experience, fiction, model, etc.; anything that can be communicated via the chosen medium of communication. 

In order to communicate this, she must encode this into abstract symbols or “signifiers". In this case she chooses the concepts of “mountains”, “colors”, “and ruins”. She then must select symbols within the medium of communication. Here she is using the spoken, english words “mountains”, “colors”, and “ruins”. This process is called “semiological encoding”. 

The other party must then understand those communicated symbols, construct abstract symbols, then form an object to try to understand the original idea that the other had. And I think we’ve all had experiences where this process didn’t work as well as we might have hoped. 

This process breaks down when there is no longer a shared communication medium or shared set of communicable symbols to use. And even when communication is possible, the process of decoding can break down on issues of comprehension, relevancy, engagement, value judgements, and non-neutrality of the communication medium itself. 

Furthermore, even before communicating, the task of encoding can break down on ideas of accurate sign selection, biases, lack of trust with audience, compensating for audience, and the non-neutrality of the communication medium as well. 

This, I think, is what Paul was referring to when he talked about “knowing or prophesying in part” or “seeing through the glass, darkly” with the hope and faith of a time of greater clarity (1 Cor. 13:9-12).

This all comes back to the topic of religion. We see visions of greatness as we commune with the divine. Then we seek to find ways to express that greatness using the crude symbols our lives can afford. 


The word “what” references the thing or things in question. 

James E. Talmage observed that god is often treated as merely a projection of our own traits. 

"[Mankind is] prone to conceive of the attributes of God as comprising in augmented degree the dominant traits of their own nature."

The Greek and Roman mythologies were very much projections of human nature: the embodiments of our different natures. As a tool for exploring who we are, there are benefits here. 

But as New Testament scholar NT Wright points out in an Veritas he spoke at titled "What Gods Do We Believe In Now?", there are problems when our own human nature becomes an object of worship. 

In regards to modern society’s obsession with eroticism, he noted: 

"The goddess Aphrodite, even if unnamed, is believed in and served by millions.”   

In the wake of the global financial crisis and scandals he points out that: 

“We still assume that even though something has gone horribly wrong, that the only thing to do is to shore up this idol and get it going again.” 

And critiquing our modern machines of war he said: 

“No matter how many body bags are brought home we still assume that that’s how the world ought to work.” 

This kind of idolatry has a long history with religion.

I love the opening chapter of Isaiah in this regard. Isaiah brings an iconoclastic perspective. Here, Isaiah critiques the uselessness of the religious symbols at the time.

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.

When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?

Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.

Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.

Whenever I read this scripture I “liken” it to our sets of religious symbols to ask if how I’m using my religion would likewise be critiqued by Isaiah.

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of tithes, and fast offerings; and I delight not in the casseroles, or of home teaching, or of he visiting teaching.

When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my church?

I think it's important that we "liken" this scripture to our own day. Perhaps casting this in the mold of Mormonism we might get something like this:

Bring no more vain oblations; hymns are an abomination unto me; the fasts and sabbaths, the general conferences, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the celestial rooms.

Your meetings and your family home evening my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.

And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.

How are we using our tithes and fast offerings? Does the Lord delight in our casseroles and home teaching & visiting teaching? Do we remember who we worship? What do our hymns provoke us to do or be? What affects do our sabbaths and general conferences have on us?  Is our use of sacred spaces in our temples worthy of God? Would the Lord hate our meetings and family home evenings? 

Of course, my selection of LDS symbols here is somewhat arbitrary. Regardless however, these are intentionally provocative questions. But I think that is the point being made in Isaiah here. And we can know when idolatry has taken root precisely when these questions are seen as offensive or unnecessary.

Our religious symbols, when detached from how they relate to the larger picture of what they signify in God, become ineffectual and worthless. They become idols and we become idol worshipers, mistaking pointing hands for the moon they point to. 

Isaiah isn’t merely an iconoclast though -- and neither am I. Isaiah sought to restore the purpose and meaning of those symbols by re-attaching them to their intended use: To become clean. To put away evil doings. To learn to do well. To seek discernment. To relieve the oppressed. To plead for the widow.

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; 
Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. 
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.


Returning to the scripture, next up is the word “shall”. This denotes choice or freedom of the author. 

I challenged my son last year to take notes during a General Conference talk, but to try to use symbols as he did so. This is what he came up with. 

There's a hint in who the author of the talk was in the symbols my son drew. Can you guess it? Here's a hint: airplane.

As you might have guessed, this is from a talk given by Deiter Uchtdorf titled "The Gift of Grace" from the April 2015 General Conference.

Freeman Dyson makes a point that’s relevant here. In his book “Infinite in All Directions” he reflects back on science at the beginning of the 20th century when there were the great mountain peaks which dominated scientific visions and attitudes:

"Maxwell's equations of the electromagnetic field, Einstein's theory of general relativity, these were the great mountain peaks which dominated our vision for a hundred years. But God did not only create mountains, he also created jungles. And today we are beginning to understand that the jungles are the richest and most vibrant part of his creation."

"God's creation was richer than either Maxwell or Einstein had imagined. There was a time in the 1920s and 1930s when it seemed that the landscape of physics was almost fully mapped. The world of physics looked simple… between them only a few unimportant valleys still to be surveyed."

"Now we know better. After we began seriously to explore the valleys in the 1950s, we found in them flora and fauna as strange and unexpected as anything to be seen in the valleys of the Amazon. Instead of the three species of elementary particle which were known in the 1920s, we now have sixty-one (and we've revised these since). Instead of three states of matter, solid, liquid and gas, we have six or more. Instead of a few succinct equations to summarize the universe of physics, we have a luxuriant growth of mathematical structures, as diverse as the phenomena that they attempt to describe. So we have come back to the rain forest, intellectually as well as geographically."
(parenthetical comments my own) 

I had the opportunity to ask him about whether this analogy could also work for religion. That we see the same types of worldview: one with creedal mountain peaks and simplified, reductive explanations; the other which finds home in the flourishing of diversity of expression and the exploration of that rich flora and fauna. The former seeing itself as complete with only a few unimportant trivialities to tie up. And the latter seeing itself as incomplete with an endless diversity to explore.

He agreed and mentioned that this is especially true in the context of the Mormon religion.

So what are some of the transformative results this kind of semiological approach can provide? How can we meaningfully explore this jungle? 

  • Instead of divining God’s one will, we can see that God’s will is infinite in diversity but within a domain.
  • Doctrine and policies can be treated less as edicts and instead can be approached as milestones.
  • Fixed religious symbols are instead used as aesthetic tools to find meaning.
  • Devotional or reductive interpretations are expanded by literary analysis.
  • Singular, idealized interpretations instead follow the pattern of manna and are re-integrated and re-applied anew.
  • Instead of there only being one possible right way or outcome we see many (even infinite) possible outcomes within the domain of God’s will that we may choose from.
  • Rites and rituals, rather than being treated as final, are instead seen as expressions of evolving faith.
  • And passive acceptance is abandoned for the self-awareness that comes from active choosing as we take responsibility for our own beliefs rather than abdicate them to another.


The word “I” in this scripture brings the author directly into the picture. And the concept of prophetic authorship and authority is a hotly debated topic in Mormonism. There is a fascinating, and sometimes tragic, history behind why these debates are framed the way they are today which is beyond the scope in this essay. But I want to see if I can provide a way forward which is informed by this kind of semiological approach I’ve been underscoring here. 

The debate hinges on this question: When is a prophet acting as a man or acting as a prophet? This question has some problems. 

First. Why isn’t anyone asking when a prophetess is speaking as a woman or speaking as a prophetess? Technical authoritarian definitions aside, we have functional prophetesses today even if unordained. I watched this most recent April 2016 general woman’s broadcast and their leadership and efforts to focus our faith more on refugee outreach is nothing short of prophetic. 

Second, it proposes a false dichotomy. It forces us to pull apart the agency and person from the divine calling. It de-humanizes religion. This is a mistake and often leads to implied or explicit infallibility of leaders or the total rejection of them. Fundamentally, the man or woman is always present in the limitations of their knowledge to decode what they feel from God and then, in turn, encode that in a way which others can then decode. 

To borrow the William James’ quote above: 

"God’s revelations clothe themselves in such poor symbols as the lives of God's servants afford."

A land mine in the ground on this debate in Mormonism is the treatment of Wilford Woodruff's words when he said (regarding the first Official Declaration), "The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray... If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place." While I don't disagree with that statement, the interpretations of it and the immediate arguments that follow are almost always escapist in nature and invoke bolts of lightning, sudden diseases inflicted on prophets, etc. But all abdicate responsibility to discern away from individuals and remove it from the work of discipleship. The logical result is that we must, even if temporarily, deify prophets into realms of infallibility - thus removing their agency in those moments.

So how can we move forward? The way this debate is formed, it seeks to develop rules that put all the discernment on the mantle of authority. It results in very escapist arguments, hyper-devotional interpretations, authoritarianism, and circular reasoning. I believe such arguments are not only unnecessary but pull us away from Christ.

A powerful way forward is to keep Christ at the center of the discussion. We already have hermeneutic guides to apply here from the scriptures themselves. Here are four of them.

First Christ asks us to “hang all the law and the prophets” on the two great commandments: love God and love thy neighbor (Matt 22:37-40):

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 
This is the first and great commandment. 
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Second, Paul warned than prophecy will fail when it is detached from charity (1 Cor. 13:8):

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail

Third, Moroni taught in his parting wisdom that anything that provokes us to do good and believe in Christ comes from Christ (Moroni 7:14-16):

Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.  
For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.

For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God

Notice that this wisdom is "given unto [us]" -- all of us.

And fourth, Joseph Smith gives a pattern whereby we can judge the efficacy of the exercise of priesthood authority (Doctrine and Covenants 121:36-37, 41-42).

That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. 
That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. 
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; 
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile

So we have filters which every individual can apply with the authority that comes with earnest discipleship in Christ to answer the question: “Is what is being said by a prophet or prophetess the word or will of God, or not?” The personal application of these filters is important as history (both ancient and modern) clearly shows that prophets/prophetesses make mistakes not just in their personal lives but in the exercising of their calling — just as we all do in the exercising of ours. 

This kind of hermeneutic approach has a provocative but, I think, much more robust way to interpret Woodruff's words:

If/when prophecy advocates something that fails these tests, that prophecy will fail not because God magically comes down with a bolt of lightning to remove our agency and solve the problem for us; it will fail precisely because disciples of Christ will simply say, "No." 

But conversely, and this is important to balance this interpretation, when prophecy advocates something that passes these tests and which might go against commonly held opinions or practices, disciples of Christ will repent and turn to Christ.

This gives prophecy its rightful power to call to repentance as that repentance leads towards Christ. But it also gives power to disciples of Christ to be a balancing force against imperfections of the process and partnership of prophecy as we work towards Christ together.

There's an important lesson from Ezekiel 14:9-11:

And if the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel. 
And they shall bear the punishment of their iniquity: the punishment of the prophet shall be even as the punishment of him that seeketh unto him; 
That the house of Israel may go no more astray from me, neither be polluted any more with all their transgressions; but that they may be my people, and I may be their God, saith the Lord God.

The people of God cannot use prophets to excuse their belief or actions. It seems that we're all in this together (both prophets and those that follow them). Prophets need us and we need prophets as we work together towards Christ and God's Kingdom. We all reap what we sow together -- whether good or bad. Perhaps this kind of discernment can orient us towards the fulfillment of the desire expressed by Moses that all of the Lord's people were prophets together (Numbers 11:29):

And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!


Finally, the word “liken”. 

By this point I’ve belabored the point about semiologically likening, so I’ll just make a final concluding remark that I think brings a level of authenticity much needed. 

Richard Bushman in his book “Rough Stone Rolling” points out how the Book of Mormon “multiplies the peoples keeping sacred records”. That the Nephites, Jews, tribes of Israel, and indeed “all nations” are spoken to by God and that they each write (or I’ll add “decode” and “encode”) what they hear. And he points out how the Book of Mormon teaches that God chooses what “he seeth fit that [the nations] should have" (Alma 29:8) —  invoking agency of the Author — and Bushman highlights how "all peoples have their epic stories and their sacred books". And we can see this variety of encoding/decoding going on across cultures, languages, geographies, and times. 

Semiological understanding expands the notion of scripture away from creedal ownership to instead whatever hermeneutically passes the tests of what is the word of God. Canon, however, can be selective. Whereas scripture spans creeds and religions, canon becomes whatsoever a group feels inspired to use to maintain identity or hold themselves accountable to.

NT Wright makes a similar connection when he sums up the 3 biblical coordinates of wisdom Christians have to orient themselves as they navigate their discipleship (again, from his talk at the Veritas forum mentioned above). 

  1. We are called to reflect the Creator’s wisdom and care into the world.
  2. We contextualize our wisdom as being part of a much larger world full of interlocking connections and mutual relationships.
  3. That our knowledge is never in isolation. That while we can be bold and humble in stating what we have seen and know, but will always covet other angles of vision.

This is why I love this phrase “Unto what shall I liken?”. This breaking of the fourth wall of revelation evokes a much needed conversation between the author, messenger, and audience. It ties all parties together and invites them to consider each other’s realities. This is a gift of grace from God. And I believe as we do so with self-awareness and agency that otherwise is sometimes absent, our religious discussions will be elevated and a sense of authenticity and Christ-centered faith can better grow.