The New Mormon Theology: Toward A Shared Religion

About the author: Taryn Nelson-Seawright, better known as Serenity Valley, is the stunningly beautiful wife of J. Nelson-Seawright/Roasted Tomatoes. For the past year or so, she has displayed her literary genius at Latter-day Saint Liberation Front. Those who have met her say that her awe-inspiring intelligence, incredible charm, and humble, touching modesty are only a few of her best traits. Oh, and she definitely did not write this introduction.

Toward A Shared Religion

During the last several years, I have often seen mention of the new Mormon studies, and (more specifically) the New Mormon History. I have witnessed efforts to stimulate and sponsor a new, or at least a reinvigorated, Mormon literature. I have seen the emergence of a new class of Mormon media. I have witnessed the development of online Mormon communities for fellowship, for instruction, and for edification.

But to what end? What is the use of so much new Mormon culture, when we have not addressed an issue much more essential to our shared religious life than our magazines, our books, or even our history? That is, our divided, methodologically manipulative, and occasionally acrimonious, theological life?

We are probably in wide agreement on some basic points: God lives, God loves us, God sent Christ to save us, God wishes to be reunited with us. But beyond that, division abounds. Does God love us unconditionally, or not? Does Christ’s atonement apply to all who earnestly seek it, or only to those whose endurance never wavers? Is repentance conditional on a broken heart and a contrite spirit, or does it further require exact completion of a carefully outlined process? Is God’s revelation to each of us the ultimate standard of proof, or is it mediated by our relationships with church authorities? We have a multiplicity of opinions, often argued with rancor, and often supported by means of dubious methodology. We have developed a tradition in which we make arguments not through some process of reason–for example: “God has revealed such-and-such, as well as such-and-such, and so it follows that such-and-such may be true”–but with proof texts. And for such a young religion, we have an astounding number of sources for those proof texts, often contradictory, which makes theological argument a slippery thing. We find quotes from general authorities or isolated verses from scripture which support, or seem to support, our points, and we treat them as trump cards. We ignore each others’ contradictory trump cards, though, regardless of our similar evidentiary standards.

In theory, we have three basic sources on which to base our shared understanding of God: the scriptures, the ordinances, and God’s revelations to our prophets. (Personal revelation is not included in this list, though it is clearly a legitimate source of our personal understanding, simply because it is not necessarily replicable). In practice, of course, we interpret both the scriptures and ordinances in light of statements we consider part of the body of prophetic revelation.

Our dependence on prophecy by church leaders makes sense. We are, after all, Mormons. But our application of this dependence is flawed for two reasons. First, for theological purposes, we often consider any spoken or written statement any general authority of any capacity has ever made to be magically endowed with canonical status. Second, we make no practical distinction between reported revelations and statements of personal opinion. We may say, “Sometimes a prophet speaks as a prophet, and sometimes a prophet speaks as a man,” but if a particular statement fits our rhetorical goals, we don’t question its origin.

The former is a flaw because it gives us a bafflingly large, self-contradictory body of statements. There is perhaps an informal hierarchy of authority among those statements; more recent statements are weighted more heavily than older statements, authors who have held higher church office are more credible than authors of lesser station, and anything published in the most recent Ensign is a gem. But this system of rankings is not uniform. We often neglect statements which disagree with our ideas, no matter what. We never search out all statements which either support or disconfirm our pet theories, presenting both for our audience’s (or our opponents’) consideration.

That hardly matters, though, given the fact that many, perhaps most, statements made by general authorities are not prophetic. They may be loving, they may be wise, they may even be published by Deseret Book. None of that implies that their words are necessarily divine, and in fact, our prophets traditionally tell us explicitly when God has revealed something. Then, they present it to us, and we vote to accept or reject it as part of our canon; that is, as definitive. Bruce R. McConkie’s interpretations of the scriptures and ordinances are not definitive. Hugh B. Brown’s interpretations of the scriptures and ordinances are not definitive. However, the scriptures and the ordinances are definitive, though open to interpretation.

It’s a good thing, too. While the basic foundations of our church–the Book of Mormon, the Bible, temples, personal revelation, the prophets–have been constants more or less throughout our church’s history, our interpretations and use of them have changed, time and time again. While we would like to believe that these changes are always led by God, a mere glance at the historical record shows us that our general authorities can be influenced by secular trends as much as the rest of us. This has always been true of Christ’s church; in Corinthians, for example, the apostle Paul discouraged marriage among his flock on the grounds that Christ’s return was imminent and that the chaos that led up to it would make marital relationships too burdensome. As the apocalypse did not occur at that time, we may safely assume that God did not reveal that it would. Yet Paul–certainly of status equal to our general authorities, to say the least–was influenced by his contemporaries’ fashionable readiness for The End and made public statements which many later generations gave prophetic weight.

Our flawed methodology allows all of us on every side of theological conversations to dig into our positions and slide into debate, then into argument, and finally into stony, unacknowledged silence, without finding some common ground which leads us to seek answers together. We have no true standard of evidence, and this enables superficial dialogues which contain little or no real communication–after all, we can all prove what we say, so why listen to those with differing viewpoints? We must solve this dilemma or risk theological schisms, though perhaps unacknowledged ones.

I do not argue that we must all come to some quick and absolute agreement on God’s exact character, or God’s exact relationship to us–such agreement might well be impossible for a church grounded, however theoretically, in personal revelation. But our current situation, in which some of us follow a liahona, others follow an iron rod, and the two measures of God’s will may never meet, is untenable. Who has not heard (or said), “Oh, well, she’s not really our kind of person…she’s very orthodox,” or “I’m not comfortable in his Sunday School lessons–he’s a Liberal Mormon”? Who has not seen theologically driven social divisions in our wards and among our stakes? Who among us has not been classified disdainfully as a Utah Mormon, an East Coast Mormon, a European Mormon, or the like? This rancor, which we often brush off as unimportant, is a slow poison creeping through the body of Christ’s church. It is based in our mutual disdain for others’ understandings of God, and we cannot be healed until we create a common set of rules for discourse–rules which push us to consider all evidence, weight it appropriately, and in so doing, listen to each other.

Comments

  1. Steve H says:

    As I understand it, only the prophet exercises the keys necessary to interpret srcipture for the church as a whole, and I tend to operate under that assumption (though I’m not sure I buy into your interpretation of Paul, who I don’t read as being so entirely blind to his situation). There are a number of popularly taught notions that I don’t accept, simply because I’ve seen no one show me where a prophet of God had anything to say about it. I do, however, think that while it is difficult to take an isolated statement by any gereral authority as authoritative, we have to be careful of any position we hold that tends to make all or most of the brethren look completely off base on basic principles (i.e. “you just don’t understand, marriage isn’t so important really in the grand sceme of things if you look at it like this . . .”) or that assumes we have something to give the world that they couldn’t find without us. “Hey, look, I’ve found an answer in the scriptures that almost everyone has missed, but that is essential to truly understanding the gospel and that we can’t live without.” The kind of attitude that sets us up as a light to the church in ways that are outside our stewardship is the sort of thing that gets dangerous. No one of us is going to have a thought that is somehow going to save the church from error. We don’t need a reformation, and if there’s anything truly important that his church needs to know to seek salvation, God will reveal that through his appointed servants.

  2. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:

    Steve H,

    Thanks for the comment. It’s made me depressed–I was up late getting this post formatted, and now I’m worried that its intent is unclear.

    I’m actually thinking about us hobbyist types here, not the president of the church. He doesn’t generally back his religious ideas up with random GA quotes, because, well, he’s the prophet, isn’t he? It would be pretty weird for President Hinckley to start quoting random, minor GAs’ publications to support his teachings. And he can hardly help interpreting scripture in light of GA opinions, since he himself is a GA.

    Our leaders present us with a different type of theological process entirely, one I don’t address above, and one I certainly don’t feel qualified to critique it.

    I don’t think that bloggers or authors of popular press LDS theology–the folks to whom this is addressed–will somehow save President Hinckley from guiding us toward theological error. That’s not really our job, and I certainly don’t think I implied otherwise in my post. I do think we as a community can use careful argument to limit our own wild speculations; when we do speculate we can do it more reasonably; and perhaps if we agree on a set of ground rules, we can have more productive conversations. Certainly we can stop segregating ourselves along the lines of our theological divisions, if we can only learn to have conversations.

    Well, it’s very late, and I’m going to be very tired at work tomorrow, so I’d better stop typing.

  3. Mark Butler says:

    As I see it, the only way to have more productive discussions is for the participants to become theologically literate. That means studying the history of systematic Christian theology from the time of Christ up to the present day, and the unique characteristics of classical Mormon theology, systematic theology in particular.

    The purpose is not so much as to inform our own positions, but to have a shared language that we can use to talk about these things. And systematic theology is the only possibility for non-revelatory reconcilation of the paradoxes of scriptural authority, as well as the only likely means for gaining personal inspiration on the subject, not the final answer as a rule, but inspiration *according to our understanding* – leading us in the direction of truth from our individual habits of error.

    I might say further that there seems to be a reluctance to use the language of scripture – technical academic terms have their purpose, but theological terms are better where appropriate, and the best is the language of scripture itself – a language suited for religious discussion, not the dry amorality of academia. How can one learn to appreciate the proper semantics of scriptural language if one does not use it, think in terms of it, have it written in ones heart?

  4. Mark Butler says:

    I might add, that though our discussions might become more coherent, ultimately the issues will have to be settled by canonical revelation, and I am not convinced the Lord sees fit to do that just yet.

    There is a ambiguity between the two primary strands of LDS theology that seems to suit his present purposes. If there were not a straightforward map between the two, we would have reason to be worried, but it appears there is and that it was well appreciated by the New Testament Apostles and by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

  5. Elisabeth says:

    Hi, Taryn – great post! I think Mark Butler is right about the majority of Mormons not sharing a sophisticated understanding of history and scriptures in order to identify and effectively communicate the nuances of theology, practice and experience from a “Mormon” perspective. I think one reason for this is that Mormon pedagogy is focused much more on rote learning and parrotting back “Sunday School” answers rather than on free inquiry and open dialogue.

    But I think the biggest obstacle to understanding our brothers and sisters in the Church is that Mormons are constantly looking for the one true way to believe or do something. The universal truth claim of Mormonism as the only true Church on the Earth leads people to believe that there is a way to discern the “only true” X in every detail of our – and other Mormons’ - lives.

    Many other religions embrace the uncertainty and diversity of religious belief, but Mormons have a strong tradition of orthodoxy that makes it difficult to accept the validity of multiple interpretations and practices. Not only is it enough that we are all trying to following the loving example of Christ, but we must follow in lock-step unison together.

  6. Taryn,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Elder Eyring gave a talk about ten years ago on how one should pay special attention to statements made by prophets which they support with quotes made by other prophets. He linked this to the law of witnesses (establish every word by two or three). Additionally, D&C 107 (I think) places equal weight on unified statements by the FP and unified statements by the Quorum of the 12. Both are endowed with special status above and beyond individual statements.

    Thus I think if one were looking for the answer most likely to be right, studying the public statements of the leaders along with the scriptures would often give one a very good feel for that. If the Brethren really do split heavily down the middle (as opposed to a couple isolated statements on one side and pretty much everything else on the other), well then I guess that’s good evidence that the answer is not really known.

  7. I remember hearing the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

    I haven’t heard it preached so much lately, but it used to make an occasional appearance in sacrament meeting talks, and fits in well with Paul’s writing to the Corinthians on avoiding divisions in the Church.

    I was looking for the source — it seems to be some sort of pan-denominational motto, attributed (falsely) to Augustine, as well as to many other Christian luminaries over the years. It is apparently the work of a Lutheran, Rupert Meldenius, from around 1627.

  8. Taryn, this is great stuff.

    For my part, I don’t think the problem is that we lack a unified theology. Instead of a unified, systematic theology, I think we as a people need to embrace the chaotic, free-wheeling, open-ended, indivudualized theology that we now have. I agree with you when you call for a set of “rules for discourse” that would enable us to respectfully listen to and learn from each other.

    I’m still plodding through Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling (loving every page). This weekend, I read a few passages that I think are relevant here. Bushman quotes Joseph on religous creeds:

    “The most prominent point of difference in sentiment between the Latter Day Saints and sectarians was that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing any thing not contained therein; whereas the L. D. Saints had no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time… The creeds set up stakes, and say hitherto shalt thou come and no further–this I cannot subscribe to.”

    Bushman also quotes Joseph on the Methodists, saying they “have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty to believe as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled.”

    Bushman then editorializes a bit, noting that notwithstanding Joseph’s very open-ended view of theology, he set up a system for identifying true revelations, authorized preachers, a hierarchy of Church authorities, etc. Bushman then writes “The balance between freedom and control makes it difficult to keep Mormonism in focus. Was it authoritarian or anarchic, disciplined or unbounded?”

    Obviously, we’re still trying to put Mormon theology “into focus” even today. In the end, our theology can’t be total chaos–we certainly need some core truths on which we agree. But I wish we as a people could be more open to ambiguity and complexity, more patient when revealed answers are lacking and all we have now are our best guesses.

    I believe this leaves us with an exciting, participatory theology. If we as a people could embrace this, and then do better discussing the questions and potential answers, I think we could have unity as a people, even if our theology isn’t yet unified itself.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post, O stunningly beautiful Taryn.

    Playing “GA poker” (“I’ll see your Hugh B. Brown and raise you a Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie”), as many of us are wont to do, seems like a pretty poor way to determine truth.

    Often when I teach I’ll talk about the various “schools of thought” in the Church on some issue. I’ll point out which authorities believe what and what their basic scriptural sources and reasoning are. People aren’t used to that kind of frank disclosure (they’re used to a presentation of the one, sure, unified Truth), but I’ve had pretty good results and response with my attempts to do what you suggest: consider all the evidence, weight it appropriately, acknowledge where differences of opinion exist, and realize that contemporary culture often has a role to play as well.

    I agree with Travis, that we’ll never have a systematic theology in the traditional Christian sense, and I think that is, or at least can be, a strength.

  10. Steve Evans says:

    Taryn, thanks for the post. Personally, I believe that Mormons are far more concerned with immediate behavioral answers than with a systematic theology. Even the comments to your post reflect a concern with getting the right answers as a sign of a correct theology. With those priorities in mind, Mormonism is far more likely to remain a series of code-of-conduct rules than to adopt any sort of system.

    I like the language Travis uses above, but frankly I am not sure there is any such thing as an “open-ended, individualized” theology. In my mind that defeats the purpose of the thing. How exactly would a seminarian obtain a degree in Mormon Theology?

    In the end, it may not matter. At best our theologies are guesswork and reasoning on the basis of scripture and anecdote. Like Wilco says, “Theologians, they don’t know nothin’ bout my soul.”

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, Steve, you get major points for quoting Wilco. We’re big fans in our house.

  12. One of the doctrines of the church I find most compelling is the idea that we can have personal spiritual experiences that dictate the paths of our individual lives and beliefs. I think the church faces an inherent tension when it puts so much emphasis on individually gained testimonies. Trying to lead a large, diverse church where each member is emphasized to discover truth for themselves while at the same time trying to maintain a set of coherent beliefs has to be difficult. But to refocus on what we can do as members…

    In addition to rules of discourse, I would argue that we need empathy and acceptance (though maybe these should be the basis of the rules of discourse). Rather than assume that our way is the best way, we should accept others’ spiritual experiences at face value. Try to understand their perspective, how it’s an important truth in *their* lives (even if we disagree), etc. In fact, Eve has a great post over at ZD on this very topic right now.

  13. I’ve said this on the Disagreeing with the Brethren blog that if there is a point of doctrine that you do not agree with coming from the mouth of the prophet, that it isn’t the prophet you need to reconcile yourself to, but to the Lord.

    The Prophet of the Lord is in constant prayer with Heavenly Father regarding points of doctrine. Are we? We want to know the will of the Lord on an issue. Do we go to Him for it? The Brethren do. They are not infallible. They make mistakes. Heck, some of them actually sin! Gasp! But when it counts, they go to the Lord in prayer to ensure they speak the will of the Lord. We should do the same before we go publicly about points of doctrine, else we might actually be found to maybe not be doctrinally correct. This is why speakers in church are encouraged to pray about their topics before they give their talk.

    It is essential for every single member of the church to know the will of the Lord before they speak on the will of the Lord. If they don’t, the chance of being correct falls from 100% to anything below. Personally, I’d like to be 100% concerning the will of the Lord.

  14. I’m with Steve in that it seems to me that most Mormons aren’t interested in the particulars of theology but how our behavior is in terms of the generally perceived Mormon commandments. I’m not certain if people want to know the specificity of doctrine always, sometimes I think people feel weighted by it so they don’t seek it out.

    Here’s how the schism works for me: I am a little bit oppositional defiant (sorry I worked in therapy for a long time) which means I need the bulk of the Church to be conservative in order to be counter culture. I respect that way of seeing the world. I withdraw however when I get repeatedly told that I’m evil and sinning or worthless to the Church. There’s only so much of that I can take and then I take a break for awhile. Some of my “liberal” friends can’t take that though and never come back.

  15. They are not infallible. They make mistakes.

    Dan, give us some examples of the Brethren making mistakes in matters of doctrine.

  16. Daniel writes:
    But when it counts, they go to the Lord in prayer to ensure they speak the will of the Lord. We should do the same before we go publicly about points of doctrine, else we might actually be found to maybe not be doctrinally correct.

    Daniel, I doubt President Hinckley, or most presidents before him would claim that prayer (or any other means) “ensures they speak the will of the Lord.”
    Instead, through guidance from past practices, scripture, prayer, consultation, thinking, etc., they try to approach the “will of the Lord.”
    But, is that ensured? No, unfortunately life isn’t that easy (see previous church doctrines such as ban on temple blessings for blacks, blood atonement…)

  17. Steve Evans says:

    Daniel, Sid, etc.,

    Quibbles aside, even if we take Daniel’s comment at 100% it still doesn’t go anywhere in terms of addressing Taryn’s overall point of arriving at a Mormon theology.

  18. Taryn,
    Don’t be depressed. I didn’t misunderstand you. I’m simply addressing some of the sorts of dispute that the differences in methodology can, but don’t necessarily have to, lead to. The stakes often seem high when we’ve been seeking wisdom on spiritual issues, and I’ve seen more than one instance where those involved have called each other apostate (along with a great percentage of the prophets, etc.) or have claimed that their involved philiosophical reasoning trumps teh plain sense of scripture, requiring strained interpretations (or outright rejections) of more or less large parts of the scriptural body. They then claim that this new understanding is essential to understanding the gospel. In terms of our conversations here and elsewhere, I’m simply suggesting one way of knowing when we’ve crossed the line. Daniel is coming close to what I’m talking about, in that, while the statements of the brethren are far from infallible, we need to really think twice before we assume we know better than they do. And where they speak collectively, we’d better think more than twice. I’ve heard the proclamation on the family called a “memo.” Frank seems to be on the mark to me when he speaks about statements by the united first presidency and quorum of the twelve, at least.
    Travis, I think you are right if what we mean is that we are free to belileve what we want where there is no clear revelation to the contrary. In fact, belief is never a reason to excommunicate anyone (as per Joseph’s comments on the Methodists), while preaching some beliefs that contradict clear revelation may be.
    Mark, #4 seems to me to be rather helpful, as a comment; #3 seems to be problematic. I can’t help but think that historical Christian theology can be misleading as often, or moreso, than helpful, and I can hardly think we can limit the search for more light and knowledge to those who specifically take the time to learn that history in detail. It would severely limit the pool of those who are eligible for insight.

  19. Nice points, SV. Not only is Mormon doctrine a muddle, but the process by which Mormon doctrine is formulated or promulgated is a muddle. Even the simple concept of canonized scripture — which ought to help distinguish between reliable versus speculative doctrine — is little help anymore.

    The Manifesto of 1890, for example, about as confusing a statement as one can imagine, was submitted for a vote of the general membership only because of political pressure (it was not originally intended to present the statement to the membership). Its status is still a puzzle. Is it a Revelation? Is it scripture? Just a press release? If it was a Revelation, why the need for another Manifesto fifteen years later? It’s not even clear who really drafted it.

    Fast forward a century and things aren’t much better. What is the Proclamation on the Family? Is it a Revelation? A doctrinal statement? A policy statement? A press release It is universally treated as uncanonized scripture. And just what sort of category is that? A document that everyone agrees to treat as if it were scripture even though it is not? Leaders are seemingly unwilling to canonize the Proclamation — doesn’t that signal “speculative” or “mere policy”?

  20. “This rancor, which we often brush off as unimportant, is a slow poison creeping through the body of Christ’s church. It is based in our mutual disdain for others’ understandings of God, and we cannot be healed until we create a common set of rules for discourse—rules which push us to consider all evidence, weight it appropriately, and in so doing, listen to each other.”

    Actually, I view the multiplicity of theological ideologies in Mormonism as one of its strengths and, as a result, I find all attempts to find the “one, true way” slightly disturbing. We were founded by a group of armchair theologians and we blissfully remain in that circumstance. I believe it to be for the best, because I think that the amount of “saving knowledge” that there is to be had is fairly small and that it is accessible to almost everyone.

    I think that the most important contribution that the church makes to the eternal salvation of the Saints is the authority to perform certain sacred ordinances. I don’t believe it impossible to get revelation without membership in the church. I do believe that one can get more pertinent and more powerful revelation if one has undergone proper ordinances and remains worthy of the blessings appertaining thereunto. I base this entirely on how I hope/think things work, which may cause ya’ll to question my authoritative stance (so, there’s that).

    As a result, Faith, Repentance, Baptism, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost are those things necessary to introduce us into the Celestial Kingdom, I think. I, therefore, believe that anything additional to that is unnecessary and, therefore, not important enough to constitute saving knowledge. As a result, I don’t believe God really bothers with making extra knowledge clear to us (except perhaps as occasional special blessings for the exceedingly curious).

  21. I really like what Kevin outlined as describing schools of thought in Mormonism. I have found this particularly useful in my own formulations of belief and when I am asked questions on a particular subject.

    I think it is quite important to recognize that the Church hierarchy has the God given mandate to formulate the “authorized” doctrine for the church. What is authorized today, may not have been authorized yesterday and perhaps will not be tomorrow (though it may yet be as well). The recent Proclamation is still used to teach the Saints is authorized, as was Brigham Youngs 1850′s sermons on the mysteries of theogony. His sermons are no longer authorized doctrine and fall into a body of data that we can used to formulate schools of thought.

  22. Julie M. Smith says:

    So not that this is any of my business, but I am curious about the fact that Taryn and J. share a hyphenated last name. Did you combine your names with the hyphen when you married? Was the hyphenated name J.’s and Taryn took it at marriage? Or something else?

  23. Re: original post, I’m not sure that I believe we need to have a solution to this. Surely the different streams of thought or emphases or faith walks could coexist within Mormonism, even without settling these issues of canon and cultural prescription (whether to make it a Reformon strand or to establish neoconservativism/neo-orthodoxy). I think being unkind to each other and a tendency to classism and exclusionism are the problems rather than the variety of approaches to questions and answers within Mormonism is the problem. I do not believe that even within the established groups that we are routinely kind to each other. Orthodoxers can be cruel to other orthodoxers, just as the liberalistas can be cruel to their own.

    I would personally favor an emphasis on God, kindness, and understanding rather than seeking to sort out the canon just now. I like having close friends who believe the Chandler-Lebolo papyri were written by Abraham himself, just as I enjoy having friends who are secular or cultural Mormons.

  24. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 19 Yeah, what’s up with that? Why the shift from vision and revelation to official declarations and proclamations? (This question is primarily directed at those who can comfortably speculate beyond answers like “Because the Lord hasn’t given one….” I realize that for many there is nothing to discuss here.)

    Contrast all this to the Community of Christ. Check out D&C 161 and 162:

    http://cofchrist.org/docs/wc2000/en/wordsofcounsel.asp

    http://cofchrist.org/wc2004/section162.asp

    I think Section 162 is just beautiful. You’ve heard me say this before, but sometimes I think the long-term future of Mormonism lies with the Church based in Missouri.

  25. Thanks for the post, I agree with your assessment of the situation. One reason for these divisive attitudes could be the assumption that the “Truth” carries a moral obligation. Also, that the amount of “Truth” that someone posses is proportional to their righteousness. This assumption will naturally lead to strife in the face of disagreement. If someone disagrees with us, then either they are not living up to their moral obligations or we are not. If we let go of that assumption and distinguish between intellectual assent and moral activity, then there may be less acrimony on both sides.

  26. #3: Mark, I’m not sure I’m on board with the idea that we really need a true systematic theology–by any traditional definition, I think such a thing would preclude the use of revelation as a source. But when you say, “The purpose is not so much as to inform our own positions, but to have a shared language that we can use to talk about these things,” well, I agree with that statement wholeheartedly.

    #4: I don’t think there’s any problem with our leaving issues, even major issues up in the air. In fact, I agree that such a course might well be God’s will for us, if we can just stop fighting about those issues.

    #5: Elisabeth, so do you think that a change in our pedagogy would positively influence our mode of theological discourse?

    #6: Frank, while I’m not sure I agree with the derivation of your theology-checking method (I’d rather find support for it in the scriptures or in a direct revelation to a prophet), I haven’t much argument with the method itself. It seems like good common sense.

    #7: Bill, I’m totally into that motto.

    #8: Travis, yeah, I’m not so concerned about the development of a unified theology as the elimination of a random theology. I like the lack of creeds, myself. It allows us to remain open to all-important personal revelation.

    #9: Kevin, tell me you’re going to be in our next ward, because I want to attend your Sunday School classes.

    #10: Steve, yup. Can you just imagine BYU offering a degree in theology?

    #12: S, I think that what you suggest would change us for the better.

    #13: Daniel, thanks for your comment–but I don’t think it’s topical. I’m not suggesting that anyone start disagreeing with our prophets; I’m suggesting that we should change the way we rank-and-file types talk about theology among ourselves.

    #14: Amri, gee, people saying nasty things to you hurts your feelings? What are you, a pansy? :)

    Really, the way in which we as members often talk to or about each other is a problem, because it does drive people away.

    #18: Steve H, your comment brings up an interesting question: why, exactly, are the stakes so high? Why do we so often forget our baptismal covenants when we talk about our personal religious ideas? Why do we abandon our commission to mourn with those that mourn, etc.? We’re all Mormons. We share, or we ought to share, a basic commitment to God and each other that overwhelms our purely intellectual conflicts.

    #16: Really interesting points, Dave. I share your questions.

    Comment by Dave — June 19, 2006 @ 10:10 am

    #20: HP/JDC, I should clarify that I don’t think our multiplicity of theological ideologies is the source of our poisonous rancor. Rather, I think that the manner in which we discuss our theological differences enables the rancor, and I think that more care in our methods is a step toward having the kind of open conversations which will combat it.

    You say, “Faith, Repentance, Baptism, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost are those things necessary to introduce us into the Celestial Kingdom, I think. I, therefore, believe that anything additional to that is unnecessary and, therefore, not important enough to constitute saving knowledge.” Wow, baby, do I agree with you on that.

  27. So are we to regard all GA’s commentary on the scriptures (except perhaps the current prophet) as something akin to “rabbinical commentary” on the Torah?

    Is Joseph Smith’s Journal of Discourses similar in status to the Jewish Kabbalah? What about the Temple ceremonies?

    The problem is that we are repeatedly told to regard the General Conference issue of the Ensign (and The First Presidency message in each month’s Ensign) “as scripture.” Which is to say “as cannon.”

    Who said that anyway? =)

  28. SV,
    I agree with you that the rancor comes from our method of presentation. I think that Kevin’s “schools of thought” approach is probably the best way to handle this. That said, I think that enumerating what is necessary and what is merely interesting would also help us.

  29. Taryn/Serenity Valley, I really like the clear, systematic way you lay out the collective problems of our theological life. As you note, too often it descends into what Kevin nicely calls “GA poker.”

    I agree with Mark Butler (#3) that we should more often use the language of scripture to speak about our religious life, but I’m skeptical that a more thorough grounding in all manner of theology would result in any great reconciliation. I think there are very good reasons to doubt that any human system of reasoning, partial as they inevitably are, ever could. I also think that as it is too many Sunday school classes operate on the implicit premise that prophetic statements and scriptures are piece of a giant puzzle in the sky and that with enough hermeneutic tricks we can assemble all of the pieces into some internally consistent metaphysical system. Prophetic pronouncements and scripture are not metaphysics (as betrayed in part by the type of language they use) and we can’t treat them as metaphysics without profoundly misreading them.

    Religion is fundamentally different from every other field of study in that its implications embrace and transcend the deepest, most personal, most vital aspects of our lives. I think the way we study it at church should reflect that difference. Sripture study at church is most fundamentally a matter of repentance, worship, and devotion.

    (Just to be clear, I have no hostility at all to systematic theology as an academic discipline–my sister Lynnette has devoted her academic life to it. I just think in needs to be kept in its place :>)

  30. Elisabeth says:

    Eve -that’s an important point. We should resist attempts to reconcile the mysteries of religious experience with logic – because both are corrupted in the process.

    To answer SV’s question – I think changing the pedagogical approach to emphasize the validity of different interpretations and experiences would be key to allowing a space for differences in Mormon culture, but this would be effective only after we can resist our very human need to tie all of our doctrinal loose ends up into a pretty little bow around a package of religious dogma that seems to change every 50 or so years.

  31. #21: J. Stapley, I wouldn’t argue against the church heirarchy’s authority so much as against the membership’s sloppy interpretation of what is and is not authorized by the heirarchy. I also really, really dislike the idea that things the leaders haven’t given us to sustain count as fully authorized, because that goes against the very grain of our church’s revelatory foundations and relatively democratic traditions. Perhaps we need some sort of semi-authorized status for these things? You know, they’re not binding doctrine, necessarily, but we’re to keep them firmly in mind?

    #22: Julie, don’t worry, I’m happy to explain. My maiden name is Nelson and RT’s bachelor name is Seawright. I tried to keep my maiden name after we married, but all my coworkers ignored my attempts to do so, and then when we’d been married a year, RT and I went to South America for a month. My passport listed me as Taryn Nelson. I’d accidentally left my wedding band in the shower in our California apartment, so Venezuelan govnernment officials and hotel staff saw RT’s wedding band, didn’t realize we were married, and spent the month treating me like a scarlet woman. When we got back, I was sick of the whole thing. I decided to get a new passport under the name Nelson Seawright, because I knew we’d be travelling again and if I’d been listed simply as Taryn Seawright, people would have thought I was RT’s sister.

    Five years later, I’m known in our personal life as Taryn Nelson Seawright, and RT begun to use the full name socially as well. When he came to BCC, he was asked to publish under his real name. But he publishes professionaly under a slightly different variation of the name, as blogging–especially about religion–can cause social scientists professional problems, and it’s best to keep his fields of interest separate for the purposes of lit searches. So we threw in the hyphen for some added professional insulation.

    Really complicated, huh?

    #23: smb, as I’ve said above, I’m really concerned here with our inability to talk to each other, not our disagreements per se. I think it enables us in our quest for unrighteous factionalism and lack of charity, though you’re certainly correct in your assertion that other things contribute to the problem as well.

    #24: MikeInWeHo, that’s a really interesting question, one that I’d like to see a sociologist address. I don’t agree that the Community of Christ holds the long-term future of Mormonism; or rather, I sure hope it doesn’t, as my marching orders are to be LDS, and I’d hate to think that God has made me a Latter-day Saint just to mark time.

    #25: Johnny, I certainly think that knowledge of truth does carry moral obligations. I don’t think that posession of truth gifts us with moral superiority, though.

    You say that our problem lies in our assumption that, “If someone disagrees with us, then either they are not living up to their moral obligations or we are not. If we let go of that assumption and distinguish between intellectual assent and moral activity, then there may be less acrimony on both sides.” I believe you’re right.

  32. SV,
    I have to believe that the unamimous statements that the FP and Q12 have put out of late, meaning the Living Christ and the Proclamation on the Family, will eventually be sustained and cannonized. The emphasis on them really makes them stand out from anything that has happened since 1978. It’s just a matter of when.

  33. Doc, I seriously doubt it. Look back at the 1845 Proclaimation of the Twelve to the World. We typically canonize revelation. Even OD1 and OD2 describe the implications of an actual revelation.

  34. Doc,

    I wouldn’t be surprised by that at all. How does that tie into our theological methodology, do you suppose?

    I wonder sometimes if they’re really necessary as a part of our cannon, rather than as timely sermons. In particular, I wonder whether we need to canonize the Living Christ thing. It’s beautiful, it’s a good thing for us as members to be reminded of, and I always look forward to hearing our leaders’ testimonies of the Savior, but Christ’s status as our loving, merciful, living messiah is already firmly and explicitly outlined in the scriptures. There’s nothing new in the Living Christ piece. It seems more like an important reminder to us of Christ’s centrality to the Gospel than a new revelation of said Gospel.

  35. Steve Evans says:

    Doc: “It’s just a matter of when.”

    Let me know when it happens so that I can start taking those things seriously, then.

  36. Mark Butler says:

    Issue 1: The rationality of God

    The Glory of God is intelligence. Theological questions have answers. God is not a bundle of contradictions. Irrational mysticism is the way of the Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox. Classical Mormonism is more like Enlightenment rationalism (as opposed to scholastic rationalism) than any other theology founded in scripture.

    Issue 2: The need for a single theology

    I don’t think we need one, in the short run. Nor do I think one will ever be established without prophetic authority. We simply need acknowledgement that there is more than one school of thought on a broad scope of issues, even among the highest leaders in the Church.

    Issue 3: Prophetic authority

    The authority of the LDS magisterium (FP & Q12) is *far* more definite, indeed it is *decisive* in matters of policy, implementation, and practice. It is not decisive in terms of ultimate theology, it is shall we say pedagogical – leading us in the direction of truth, rather than a last word statement on the subject. If God wanted to reveal every aspect of his operations and a full blown systematic theology, I am sure he could manage it.

    There appears to be value in this kind of temporal diversity, because it allows us to approach the truth according to our understanding, and not falter because we do not comprehend the last word – a full blown LDS theology is necessarily a couple of orders of magnitude more subtle and sophisticated than conventional Christian orthodoxy – what I call singularity theory, as opposed to concert theory.

    LDS theology is about concert or it is meaningless, it is just that the scriptures usually teach us in terms of singularity, and many insist on taking that singularity as the last word, instead of as an approximation intended to guide us at last to the higher and deeper truths of the order of heavenly society.

    And that is the outline of the controversy – some want to read singular terms as metaphysical singularities, as Christians have generally done for 1600 years, and others insist that those terms betray a much more sophisticated underlying reality of plurality, order, and structure. Liberty, agency, discretion bound together in dynamic loving unity. God only looks like a singularity from a distance – as we get close the details start to fall out, and absolutism is a willing denial that those details even exist – all cloud and mystery, nothing behind the veil – God is veil. An apophatic LDS theology is a curious creature indeed.

  37. Steve Evans says:

    LOL, thanks for the definitive outline, Mark!

  38. Mark Butler says:

    One more thing – I would say that a theology that is not systematic after a kind is not a theology at all. God presumably does things for a *reason*. He has a plan. His will isn’t arbitrary. He has a method to any apparent madness. Negative theology is an oxymoron.

    So while there may be more than one reasonably coherent systematic theology, is is the practical duty of every Saint to form an idea of one in his or her mind, and refine it through serious study, pondering and prayer. The doctrine of irrationality is the ultimate cop out. Joseph Smith would never say any such thing – quite the opposite.

  39. Mark Butler says:

    Steve, you see I want my warts exposed so they can be chopped off. Consider my style as throwing down the gauntlet to any worthy opponent. I troll for debating partners. Expressing views as equivocationary mush simply makes everyone think they agree when they are far, far apart.

  40. Steve Evans says:

    Mark, your approach is an interesting one. I didn’t know that we were looking for debating partners here. But yes, your warts are exposed.

  41. Mark Butler says:

    The Proclamation on the Family is a decent candidate for canonization, because it covers several issues that were considered too obvious to include in prior generations. The Living Christ however, is redundant as a matter of doctrine, from what I can tell, so I doubt it will be canonized.

    I can think of dozens of abundantly clear passages of Joseph Smith (not the KFD, which would need serious editing by Joseph Smith himself) that are amply deserving of canonization. TPJS to me is the next closest think we have to scripture. Not direction, but scripture. Direction is the province of living prophets.

  42. Mark Butler says:

    You see I want to learn – and how can I learn without a teacher? A teacher who will tell me why am I wrong and not just preach the doctrine of incredulity.

  43. Mark #36, your remarks are really interesting–definitely a distinctive perspective, I think. However, on your Issue #1, I find myself reluctant to agree with your statement. If by “classical Mormonism,” you’re referring to the 19th century variety, well, it’s clear that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff didn’t usually develop theological ideas by rational reasoning from first principles. Instead of this roughly “bottom-up” approach, all three proceeded more or less “top down”–producing major new ideas and principles in a single blow, and then working out the details and supporting concepts through a series of gradual approximations. This is kind of “backwards” from a rational theological perspective, but it is nonetheless how Smith, Young, and Woodruff worked.

    The other two most influential theological figures of the 19th century (in my estimation) were Orson and Parley Pratt. Those two did proceed in a more rationalistic mode than the other three. So there is certainly a rational-theological tradition in Mormonism. But I think Smith, Young, and Woodruff were substantially more influential; the irrational, existential, subjectivist, revelatory mode seems to somewhat dominate the rationalist mode in our early history.

  44. sorry mark, incredulity is all I have for you. and (sadly?), BCC ain’t much of a place for a debate like you seem to relish. Maybe the FAIR boards?

  45. By the way, Mark, a tiny vocabulary request. In online discourse, the word “troll” has a distinctive usage; it refers to individuals who want to destroy conversation, rather than engage in it. I know you mean something different, but for the sake of clarity in conversation, I’d nonetheless ask that you avoid describing yourself as a troll. (Unless you really do just want to break up the conversation.)

  46. I do like Mark’s distinction between scripture and prophetic direction. It seems like a useful way to distinguish between two sources of theological authority without panning either one.

  47. Mark Butler says:

    I agree that Rationalism, in the mode of starting from first principles and working up to doctrine without a backbone of revelation is pretty bereft theologically speaking. I mean rationalism in terms of insisting that ultimate theology is actually coherent, and self consistent. That entails a variety of metaphysical issues with regard to the proper semantics of a variety of terms and how their referents relate to each other.

    I do not mean to start a full blown formal debate, by the way – it is just that in general theologies cannot be proved, only disproved. Proof is by revelation or inspiration, and we cannot establish that here on secondary theological questions, as a rule.

    As far as “troll” is concerned, I assumed that the audience had some sort of semantic sophistication – enough to catch the irony and self-deprecatory nature of what I said. But if that sort of irony is beyond the comprehension of too many, I will refrain.

  48. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 31 I’m with you: It’s doubtful that many people here think the CoC is the future, but as a presqu’apostate I’m not taking my marching orders from SLC and thus get to enjoy things like D&C 161/162. I do believe that active LDS would do well to consider that there is more to the legacy of the Restoration than just their Church, though. By my count, the majority of people who currently identify with the message of the Restoration are not active, testimony bearing members of the SLC-based Church. They’re mostly inactive/cultural LDS, New Order Mormons, CoC, members of other small Mormon groups, or various other odd cases (like yours truly).

    Why might the CoC be the future? Because they bravely confronted the last taboo and the core problem faced by Mormonism as a faith community: the BoM origins issue. They lost some members over it, but it opened up their future as well. Personally, I’m not surprised that the Lord spoke to them afterward.

    If Taryn is right and there is a “slow poison creeping through the body of Christ’s church,” I would argue that it’s not due to a lack of “a common set of rules for discourse.” Rather, it’s a FEAR of what might happen if the core historical problems were to be honestly and openly addressed. It’s as if there’s this terror that it’s all a house of cards: Open the door to the notion that the BoM isn’t an ancient book and all is lost. Such a shame. Does anyone out there besides me think the Church might actually emerge stronger on the other side of that hurdle?

    What would be the theological consequences of just allowing members to hold (and argue for) whatever view of BoM origins they felt was correct?

  49. Mark Butler says:

    A bad troll attacks the beliefs of others, or asserts things in bad faith, by the way. I am quite in earnest – bold strokes perhaps, but faithful and sincere ones I believe – sort of like the first stages of a painting. Too many serve fogginess and ambiguity in the name of fidelity and diplomacy. I say you start with the fundamental outlines and add the details as you go along. If the fundamentals are wrong, no amount of detail can help. They do not need to be *perfect* however.

    We have to start somewhere to communicate at all, a dissertation on each point is often of lesser value than a rough outline. I think the contempt for roughness and approximation is a twentieth century disease. Approximation is what language is all about.

  50. Mark Butler says:

    Sorry – “a troll attacks”

  51. Taryn,

    “I’d rather find support for it in the scriptures or in a direct revelation to a prophet”

    I referenced two different scriptures and an Apostle on the subject, so I think I’m ahead of the curve as far as being scripturally based :)

    And by direct revelation, what do you mean? Prophets get direct revelation all the time by the still small voice. Perhaps you mean you want the prophet to say an angel told him? I think one would do better following things agreed upon by the last three prophets than waiting to believe it until Moroni comes back and agrees with them.

  52. a random John says:

    When the Church released Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, I really enjoyed teaching out of it because there were contradictory statements in almost every lesson. If there weren’t any in a particular lesson, at least one statement in the current lesson would contradict one from the previous lesson. Find two apparent contradictions and your lesson was done for you, since you could have one paragraph read in class, highlight what you wanted from it, and then head for the other, highlight again, and then try to get the class to resolve the problem.

    The interesting thing that I found was that there was a richness in examining what could appear to be a paradox. The class could usually come up with a deeper understanding of the issue by carefully examining the statements.

    Sadly I do not find such gems as frequently with the more recent manuals. I don’t know if this is because the presidents used as sources in the recent ones said fewer contradictory things (I doubt it) or if the manuals are more carefully edited to prevent this sort of thing (probably) or if I am not as careful of a reader (definitely).

  53. Mark Butler says:

    #48: Reasonable perhaps, but Joseph Smith is definitely a much better writer of revelation than Brother McMurray is – there is power in scriptural language that should not be idly discarded in favor of the demotic of the day.

  54. Mark Butler says:

    #52: Maybe we should quit teaching logic to people who do not have a thorough grounding in metaphysics. Teach that all being is not the same being – that semantics correspond to a wide depth of conception, pattern, and structure, not simple singularity alone. Contradictions would not look so silly, but rather a puzzle of both semantics and correspondence to ultimate reality.

  55. Maybe it’s because I’m a theology junkie, but I’m confused about the disease you are hoping we can “heal”, SV. Is this a “why can’t we all just get along” post at heart? If so, I am all for kindness and charity too.

    There are very few places where LDS theology is discussed and that is part of the reason I try to provide a platform for such discussions with my posts at the Thang. Things occasionally get heated there but I really like and respect my regular theological sparring partners and have great respect for their talents, faith, and minds. I sense a rapport among the regulars there even if there is little bit of roughhousing at times. I don’t see much of the “rancor which is a slow poison creeping through the body of Christ’s church” in the discussions and debates I host. Where are you finding such rancor? And how are doctrinal disagreements in 2006 different than those from, say 1906? Do you think something is new and different now that requires fixing?

  56. Seth R. says:

    I’m kinda disappointed no one wants to engage the possible parrallels between GA commentary on the scriptures and rabbinical commentary on Jewish scripture. I don’t know much about the history of Jewish theology and would really appreciate someone who has studied it chiming in on whether the comparison is appropriate or not.

    Aside from the uniquely Mormon image problem of comparing GAs to “Pharasiacal innovators” (whom many Mormons still blame for the Bible not being “translated correctly”), is Bruce R. McConkie just one learned rabbi interpreting and commenting on the Lord’s written word?

    I think it’s important for this discussion that we note how other religions have dealt with this problem, aside from Taryn’s vague reference to “creeds.” I know that the Roman Catholics have a specific mechanism for cannonizing pronouncements, but I don’t remember it. What about Islam? (a model in where we definitely DO NOT want to go perhaps?)

    So, any pointers from the comparative religion scholars?

  57. Frank,

    Yes, I would like it if the prophet clearly stated, “This is a revelation. God/an angel/Christ revealed it directly to me.” That is, after all, the way our church was founded; and I do, after all, believe that God can and will reveal Himself and His intentions directly to us, when the need arises. And since direct statements have often been made during our church’s history, and they are necessary for clear communication, I think they’re preferable. Especially since our GAs, and even our prophet, are perfectly entitled to speak for themselves as well as for God, and I’d hate for them to feel as though they can’t do so because we’ll all decide that everything they say must be prophetic. That would be stifling and very stressful. Easier to eliminate the possibility of unclear communication.

    Re: the still, small voice: well, if the still, small voice happens to say, “This is Heavenly Father speaking; I’m giving you a revelation for the church; I’m just doing it very quietly”, then that’s still direct revelation. Why shouldn’t we proclaim it? Don’t we describe our own personal direct revelations as direct revelations, even when they are delivered in an understated manner?

    RE: D&C 107: actually, it’s quite explicit. It outlines the internal organizations required of each quorum, as well as their places in the heirarchy, and it outlines their administrative duties. (In fact, it specifies that the 12 are supposed to travel the world, acting as witnesses to Christ’s name; they are given one and only one kind of revelatory authority; that is, they are to recieve revelations as to whom they should ordain as evangelical ministers. Nothing more.)

    The section further requires that any action a given quorum takes–that is, any administrative action–must be taken in unanimity or not at all. Lots of folks get to bless the church, but the only person to whom the section ascribes revelatory or prophetic powers is the president of the church. So it doesn’t support the idea that a preponderance of GA statements to the effect that such-and-such is true is actual proof that such-and-such is true. It also doesn’t support Elder Eyring as a source of unmitigated revelatory authority, though we can certainly use his talk as a proof text, if we’d like to do so. (I should add that I respect Elder Eyring, I take his advice seriously, and I sustain him as a church officer).

    Please give me the citation for the Law of Witnesses–I know it’s mentioned, but I can’t think where, so I can’t contribute anything useful about it as it applies here.

    And of course, I do think your rule of thumb is a good one; I just don’t think it’s absolute or final for our theories. Certainly, it’s a good short-cut when we haven’t got time to research, consider, pray about, and wait for personal revelation on some point of theology, which is the case much of the time.

  58. Geoff, Mormons actually discuss theology, a.k.a. the study of God’s nature and relationship with human beings (that’s a concise summary of the OED definition), frequently. All the time, even. It’s just about all we do talk about. As I said, we argue about the nature of God’s love for us, the nature of our repentant relationship with God, the extent and nature of the Atonement, all the time. If you haven’t seen that, then hey, I want to join your ward. (Though I shouldn’t complain–the ward I’m currently living in is a vertitable gem of fellowship in disagreement). I don’t really know whether we had the same problems in 1906 that we have today; I don’t really care, either. We’re in the here and now, after all.

    When we do disagree, even on relatively minor points, we often do it with great vitriol; our habit of proof-texting furthers this because makes us all feel so confident that we ignore what our opponents say. I do think we could just fix the problem simply by being charitable toward each other, but even if we did that, I’d still be concerned about the proof-texting, because it doesn’t get us anywhere.

    As far as Thang goes, well, yeah, you clearly find what you’re doing enjoyable, and you’re not likely to mar it with nasty, ill-considered attacks. That makes me happy. :)

  59. When is something considered canonical; when spoken by a “Prophet” from the pulpit? If Brigham Young stands at the pulpit in the Tabernacle and preaches that Adam is the God of our world, and that those who don’t believe in this doctrine will be damned for it, shouldn’t that be considered canonical?

    I would think that if an angel, God, or Christ appeared to the LDS president or other GA, that it would be mentioned, yea even shouted from the mountain tops.

    Perhaps the reason it is not mentioned is because it never happens.

  60. Mark N. says:

    There is perhaps an informal hierarchy of authority among those statements; more recent statements are weighted more heavily than older statements…

    This would seem to be backwards, at least to me. If Spencer W. Kimball declares a statement made by Joseph Smith, Jr. to be heretical, should I believe it?

  61. Perhaps the reason it is not mentioned is because it never happens.

    I think that there is significant evidence to controvert this statement. As much as I may wish that they would anounce such events, as early as Lorenzo Snow, there is a concious effort to not disseminate first hand accounts of such events.

  62. Mark N., that’s a hard one. Even if John Q. My Favorite GA says something that contradicts previous canonized information, well, I must at least think really hard about accepting it. My personal opinion is that if the president of the church announces an actual, honest-to-goodness revelation that precludes prior canon, we should give it a chance. We should pray about it, seek personal revelation as to its validity, and vote accordingly if it’s presented to us for acceptance. That’s the model Joseph set up, and he stuck to it, even when the church chose not to canonize things he brought before it. And it could serve us well.

    But it’s rare that anything that’s part of the official canon is actually changed, isn’t it? Even the priesthood ban reversal didn’t change canon, did it? (I don’t think BY’s thoughts on race were ever actually voted in).

  63. J Stapley,

    Why is that? Why hold back declarations of heavenly communication? I don’t understand that position.

  64. Mark Butler says:

    Anything removed from the canon (notably Lectures on Faith) is evidence of a serious mistake, often with schism inducing consequences. We should not rush to canonize things. In my opinion a revelation should almost be unanimously accepted by the Church before canonization, even if it takes a century to do so.

    It doesn’t have to be “thus saith the lord”, either, but it does need to be a concise exposition of religious doctrine. Paul’s letters are an excellent example.

  65. Steve Evans says:

    No. 63, it may have something to do with casting pearls before swine.

    It not a new practice, for that matter – Joseph Smith routinely withheld the full details of his communications with angels and heavenly messengers, as I’m sure you’re aware.

  66. Steve, But aren’t the swine the ones that need to hear it the most? So what if 9 mock if 1 is swayed to the truth.

  67. Rick, that just isn’t so, and I’m surprised that you’re asserting that idea. It’s a well-established principle that the basic tenets of the gospel are to be understood and accepted before the fulness of God’s will is to be revealed. Paul spoke in terms of milk before meat, and a similar concept is at work here as well.

    In other words, if you are not “swayed to the truth” on the basis of the scriptures before you, more revelation from God is not going to do the trick.

  68. But I’m talking about new revelation about new topics. Joseph Smith stated that polygamy was a revelation from God. This was a new revelation that was backed up by heavenly assertion. Wouldn’t something like the priesthood revelation merit a similar assertion? This was, after all, new revelation. Just an example.

  69. Steve, you bring up another interesting topic. The milk before meat principle. How many generations have to pass away before we understand the gospel enough to recieve the fullness? Don’t we keep starting over each time another generation passes away with no new revelation?

  70. Sorry Rick, I don’t agree with the distinction you’re making. Are you saying that for you to believe in any new practice or policy within the church you’d need angelic testimonials backing things up?

    It seems to me that there is no basis to believe that we are entitled to any such thing, and as a matter of faith we should be prepared to follow our leaders without seeing cherubim and flaming swords behind them at all turns. Now, if your litmus test for a true revelation from God is to hear the prophet describe a vision or an angelic visitor, you’re bound to be disappointed and will no doubt end up leaving the church. No prophet has done this on a consistent basis in the history of the world.

  71. rick, No. 69, until you start living what you’ve got, I would think. Do you believe and follow the teachings of the church as currently presented? If not, get used to dairy products.

  72. 70. The answer is no on both accounts. But, if it happens, why not tell us about it? Inquiring minds want to know…

    P.S. I don’t blindly follow anyone regardless of priesthood authority. That is a dangerous practice. What if they are wrong?

  73. 71. Enjoyed that one. Made me laugh.

  74. “What if they are wrong?”

    That’s the essence of faith right there, and it explains a lot about your role as antimormon. It is dangerous indeed to follow leaders we sustain as prophets of God.

    What if we are wrong? Yes. What if we are wrong about the Book of Mormon, the Atonement, about Gordon B. Hinckley or any other element of the restored Gospel? It is that risk, that unknowable aspect, that is the reason why faith is a crucial element in our salvation. You want a riskless faith, one in which you have nothing but guarantees. I would answer that those who are obedient to the commandments of God obtain a testimony of things, and the question “what if they are wrong” swiftly disappears. Inquiring minds want to know, but only obedient and faithful minds ever find out. It’s a very basic concept, but I can understand why you find it elusive.

  75. SV (#58),

    That is interesting that you have seen lots of vitriol and theological/doctrinal disputes in the church. My experience on Sundays has been the exact opposite. That is, it seems that many Mormons consider the phrase “contention is of the devil” to be the paramount concept in the church and will avoid objecting to even blatantly false doctrines at times. I am often pained by the lack of lively doctrinal debate among the faithful rather than an excess of it.

    That is certainly not the case in the bloggernacle of course — lively debate is the point of many blogs. But it seems to me that most of anger and venom is over political issues and not theological issues. Subjects like feminism, same sex marriage, or other social or political hot topics seem to generate the real contention. Sure, GA quotes and proof texts get pulled out in those brawls, but I guess I never considered those topics theological arguments. Perhaps the fact that I don’t post on those politically and socially charged issues is why I don’t see the vitriol you are describing… Discussing whether there really is such a thing as spirit birth is not likely to elicit hateful exchanges it seems. :-)

  76. I like the comparison of GA commentary with rabbinical commentary–though I’m pretty sure the rabbis know their scriptures better than Mormons do. They read SLOWLY, looking at the many possible meanings of a word. (What, for example, does the tribe of Ephraim really refer to? What does the blessing “multitude of nations” mean? How about the actual Hewbrew words “Maloa ha-Goyim”? [Most will recognize "Goyim" as often referring to gentiles.] A Jewish blog says (somewhat tongue in cheek) that Mormons know all about Ephraim. Here’s the quote: “When was the Prophecy of Ephraim Fulfilled? Well, the Mormons think they are fulfilling it. Almost every man women and child is given a Patriarchal Blessing by a High Priest who is a Patriarch in the church and are declared to be direct descendants of or adopted into the house of Ephraim. A large number are also of the House of Manassah. Some others can be Judah, Benjamin, Levi,Etc. But mostly Ephraim.”
    I wonder if others get the same image as I do when I think about a rabbi as compared to a GA. I see Rabbi David Cohen, who was the principle of a school I taught at years ago–a man with large, kind eyes behind thick glasses, a full, white beard, and always wearing a yarmolke. I can imagine Rod Steiger from _The Chosen_, too, like a gaunt and well-combed Santa Claus, eyes kind but stern, deliberate in his movements. I imagine a Rabbi leaning over his scriptures intently, focusing so hard you know you must not interrupt. I imagine him wearing his phallacteries and prayer shawl and almost dancing his prayer, loving the Torah, rejoicing in it, just as (metaphorically) he loves and rejoices in his wife. Now, the Mormon GA. The first one I see is Thomas Monson, wearing that harmless smile. (Lord, please don’t let me sound condescending.) He is not terribly worried about the depths of meaning in the scriptures, but about which of his many stories will “delight and instruct.” How long has it been since he quoted “The little tin soldier is covered with rust?” Is his audience young enough to not remember the last time he quoted it? I know he passes through the endowment ceremony often, which I see as a very slow dance of praise–a communal dance, which I can actually picture in faster motion, and it’s quite lovely. James E. Faust will weep as he recalls his pioneer heritage, or his father saying, “I thought I could count on you.” The GA who was arguably our best scriptorian was tragically arrogant, or so it seemed. He thought he understood the scriptures so well that he could write the definitive book on Mormon Doctrine. That book has done tremendous damage, for try as we might, we can’t get it off the Deserert Book-shelves–though it contains horrifying racial slurs (see “Races of Men” and “Caste System.”) I picture rabbis searching scriptures together and discussing one or two verses at length, arguing respectfully, entering and exiting the room only after touching the Mezuzzah, and respecting the name of God so much that they’ll spell it G-d. The picture changes quite a bit when I think GAs preparing for Conference. I see them writing their talks on their computers, sending them to the Correlation Committee, re-writing, then sending them to the teleprompter guys. Debating? Nope. Praying? Certainly. The talks are often inspirational, but aimed at a broad audience, and therefore full of gentle anecdotes and serious warnings. Some truly stand the test of time. (I think Benson’s talk on pride manages to, and I’d cannonize several of Hugh B. Brown’s.) But I have to admit that I don’t find myself in deep thought when I read a GA talk. I often enjoy it, and sometimes Neal Maxwell could really touch me. But we have become such a correlated church, that in many ways the real joy of praise has been sucked out of our talks. (Don’t you old bloggers miss Sterling W. Sill–the guy who said if he had to take one book to a desert island, it’d be Shakespeare?) I think we need more dances–in the temple, in the chapel, at home. I think we need to sing God a NEW song, re-invented from our own lives, re-lived in our renewed commitments, reconsidered in our dynamic thoughts and prayers. I also have to admit that I don’t particularly like paragraphs that begin, “Elder so-and-so has said…” No, Brother–or Sister. Sing me a new song. Make it up (as Leonard Berstein says in his Mass) as you go along. For if God is to be truly encountered, that face-to-face will certainly transcend all commentary, Jewish or Mormon.

  77. Margaret,

    Here’s my rabbi story. I was at the Western Wall. This wizened old guy was handing out kippot to the goyim. He asked me if I was a Jew.

    “No, sir, I’m a Christian.”

    He gave me a smile. “Welcome, then. You know what we Jews think about Christians?”

    “Please tell me.”

    “Well, we think God smiles on all — Jew or Gentile — as long as they keep certain rules.”

    “Which are?” I asked.

    “Be good to your neighbour. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Believe in God. Believe that God can neither beget nor be begotten…”

    There was a twinkle in his eye when he explained that last “rule.”

    “Well, that kind of rules Christians out then, doesn’t it?” I said.

    He smiled. “Welcome. Welcome.”

  78. Seth R. says:

    Well, Pres. Hinckley is really big on this whole inter-denominational outreach right now. M. Russel Ballard is personally spearheading such an outreach program in the Salt Lake Valley. Maybe we can benefit from a bit of “cross-pollination.”

    I have to point out though … Mormon Doctrine did contain more than racial and religious slurs. There was quite a bit of other stuff you know …

  79. Bored in Vernal says:

    #78 Margaret–
    How in the world can we stop our wards from this recent practice of using recycled conference talks in sacrament meeting? I am one who listens to all the conference talks when they are given, and on top of that, I subscribe to the Ensign!! The little heretic in me whispers: They weren’t that interesting the first time. I can’t _bear_ to hear them again! Please! A new song!

  80. Geoff, I’m glad you’ve had such a positive experience at church. I’ve had plenty of good experiences as well. But I’ve also seen people display a lot of anger–red faces, unkind words, visible disgust–in church, especially as regards God’s love (is it unconditional or not?) and the nature of repentance (does God always forgive the repentant? Is a contrite spirit more important than a lengthy ecclesiastical process?).

    I grew up in a part-member home in Utah. I was accustomed to having people walk up and telling my mom that God’s disapproval of her marriage to a nonmember had sentenced our family to an eternal separation. When bystanders suggested otherwise, well, there was some anger on all parts, let’s put it that way. I’ve certainly seen great acrimony in theological conversations online. Our ward in Lima last year was actually having a nasty pitched battle over the nature and importance of the Atonement. And in our last ward in California (not our current ward), theological divisions spawned all sorts of social divisions.

    You’re right when you say that discussions of spirit birth don’t stimulate anger, but real theological conversations often do stimulate anger. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons our political divisions are so angry; they are often rooted in different strands of LDS theological thought.

  81. Steve, even when you believe, even when you have a lot of faith, even when you’re doing all you’re supposed to do…it’s still an all milk diet. It’s called “correlation.”

  82. Geoff,

    Sorry, rather than saying “real theological conversations”, I ought to have said “really direct theological conversations”. I didn’t mean to be rude.

  83. Taryn,

    I’m sorry I won’t be able to get to all of your comment today. But, real quick, the topical guide lists a bunch of scriptures on applications of the law of witnesses (for capital punishment, generic trials among Saints, book of life recordings, and revelation). Here’s a quick copy and paste of some:

    D&C 6: 28
    Deut. 17: 6
    Matt. 18: 16
    2 Cor. 13: 1
    Ether 5: 4
    D&C 128: 3

  84. Thanks, Frank, for the citations. I was blogging on breaks yesterday, so I didn’t have time to do much for our conversation. This afternoon (or maybe this evening, I’m sorry for the delay), I’ll take a gander at the TG & co., and I’ll reply with my thoughts.

  85. rleonard says:

    Hey SV,

    I have never seen a fight in a ward over doctrine. Tell us more about #80

  86. Jonathan M. says:

    #77, Margaret: coming from a Jewish background I think you idealize traditional Judaism somewhat. In my experience too many adherents are concerned with the ‘letter’ of the law rather than the spirit thereof. Nevertheless, you make a valid point. What is wrong with discovering, discussing, or hearing something ‘new’? I believe the problem lies largely in the concept that for the investigator, what we have is almost by definition’new’.
    That is part of the initial attraction. And given the emphasis still placed on membership numbers, rather than on the concerns of those long-time or lifelong members who consider themselves Mormon, that is likely to remain the case for the forseeable future. For me, I have to say I continue to value enormously my membership in the Church, despite my skepticism as to the ‘divine’ origins of the scripture Joseph brought forth. Unfortunately, many members with similar feelings are understandably wary of voicing their opinions openly. Here, far from Zion in Australia it is arguably easier to do so. Perhaps I overestimate the numbers who suppress their beliefs, but it is hard to imagine a God who would condemn those who find belief in the supernatural challenging. I guess this is essentially a plea for more seasoned, lifelong members to speak out publically concerning their doubts. If more would do so, I suggest that disfellowshipping and excommunication might soon drastically reduce, and we might actually find open debate and Mormonism are not mutually exclusive. The flip side of course, is that initially there may well be a veritable flood of excommunications. It is going to take real bravery. Excommunication, BTW, barely exists within Judaism, which I think is a good thing. After all, how can one truly be excommunicated from a people? True, the possibility of ostracism is no fun, but am I being too optimistic in seeing it as a temporary state, with the ‘ostracisor’ as the one in need of repentance?

  87. Jonathan M. says:

    Sorry, that reference should be to comment #76. I don’t want to pick a fight with a fellow Englishman, Ronan!

  88. Jonathan,

    I don’t think Mormons are excommunicated from being “children of Israel” either. As far as I know, my stated lineage from my Patriarchal Blessing holds regardless of my “Church Fellowship” status.

    Of course, that’s sorta apples and oranges.

    I think Mormonism actually occupies a unique theological ground between religions and has a distinct opportunity to bridge the gap between religions. Furthermore, being a “new religion” we have the opportunity to choose what to adopt from the older, established religions.

  89. rleonard,

    One example: in a US ward we used to attend, I saw several arguments in Sunday School about the nature of repentance (is it a state, or is it a process? Does God love us more when we’re righteous than when we sin?). Random proof texts were pulled out. Much appeal-to-authority bonking occurred on both sides. People implied, even straightforwardly said, that those who disagreed with them were deluded, sinners, preaching false doctrine, etc. Voices rose. People took offense, not just at the accusations, but at the fact of disagreement itself.

    During another theological dispute, the Sunday School teacher explicitly reprimanded people for disagreeing with her interpretation of scripture; she finally went so far as to bring her copy of Mormon Doctrine to class to back her up. We had a number of such conflicts. As time went on, there were people who chose not to talk to each other in the halls because they thought so poorly of each other.

    Those are relatively minor occurences, of course. Our Lima ward, though, had an ongoing pitched battle about the importance of the Atonement. The bishop, a former Catholic and a big advocate of the old-fashioned Great and Abominable Church theory, apparently decided that it simply shouldn’t be talked much about, because he’d found some sources which seemed to imply that considering the Atonement central to religion was a wicked, Catholic thing to do. In consequence, he was quite openly hostile toward those who mentioned it. He even displayed his anger at the podium. (Most of the ward was pro-Atonement, of course). The Lima situation was, of course, abnormal, because the bishop was disregarding our leaders’ heavy recent emphasis on Christ and the Atonement–for example, the Living Christ paper or darned near any page of any Liahona of recent years–in favor of older, certainly less official sources. But he’d learned the proof-text model of theology, and he used it like a club.

    Clearly, the underlying problem here isn’t the poor use of sources. But it’s a major enabler of conflict, because it makes everyone who practices it feel as thought they are immune to criticism. I’m most concerned about written discourse, though.

  90. SV,

    You had some pretty wierd Gospel Doctrine classes apparently. I never heard an argument in Gospel Doctrine in my entire life, and I’ve been through several wards.

  91. Mark Butler says:

    Jonathan M., I “doubt” that anyone would ever be subject to Church discipline for speaking out about the fact of their “doubt” – the problem is when doubters start publically ratiocinating in favor of doubt, and indeed give the appearance of promoting apostasy, if not actually doing so – trying to change the Churches most fundamental doctrines.

    It is a pretty safe game to dissent from minor points for reasons based in scripture, but when one *teaches* and *promotes* dissent from the fundamentals, it looks as if one is trying to start a new church in opposition to the true one. At some point that will not be tolerated.

  92. Mark Butler says:

    I have often seen the potential for arguments bubbling under the surface in most of my Gospel Doctrine classes, but it rarely goes any further than that – an expression of disagreement or two, some hard feelings, that is about it.

  93. Doesn’t every Utah ward have a self-designated “final say” person? Ours usually rises to his feet and sometimes concludes “in the name of Jesus Christ”, thus resolving any difference of opinion. I must say that I have noticed myself growing quieter over the years. For one thing, we all know the expected answers and somewhere along the line, I think I decided not to parrot them anymore. Jonathan (#86), I think you’re right that I idealize Judaism. We celebrate Passover and Chanukah in my home, and I have a deep response to the symbolism. But I’m not a practicing Jew, so I don’t know about that faith’s most common flaws. Do you think anyone idealizes Mormons? I think we’re seen as odd and blindly obedient. I had a student tell me that one of friends said Mormons are the best new hirees. Why? Because they won’t think on their own; they’ll just follow orders. True or not, somebody out there perceives us that way. BUT, our missionaries do bring power with them. I’ve felt that. Part of it is their innocense, part their purity. It saddened me deeply when I had to accept the fact that my son would not serve a mission. I wanted him to feel the power of good and consecrated young men choosing to tithe their lives. This son is looking everywhere for some belief system and right now knows only that it’ll include yoga. BTW, I also idealize Black Baptist and AME congregations–if only for the music. And I personally recognize the discipleship of Pastor Chip Murray of the First AME Church in L.A. His body language is always open-armed, courteously questioning, listening. When I was with him, he expressed gratitude over everything, and pronounced blessings on all who spent time with him. That image of Pastor Chip has stayed with me. I would love to see more disciples like him.

  94. Margaret, I have never seen anyone abuse the name of Jesus Christ like that, outside of testimony meeting.

  95. Seth R.,

    I find that either people really identify with my stories, or find them astounding.

    I’d guess that this stuff is regionally based, but I’ve seen it in Utah, in California, and in South America, and most places I’ve been, some wards have the problems and some don’t. I never see such nonsense in my current ward, certainly. Our ward in Buenos Aires was quite peaceful. Our ward in Venezuela had plenty of conflict, but never of the type I described above. My wards in Utah were very much a mixed bag.

  96. Jonathan M. says:

    Margaret, I do think there are those who idealize Mormonism: at one time I did, particularly attending London’s Hyde Park Ward, and the Oxford Ward in the seventies, both of which had many lifelong Mormon Americans as (temporary)members. Part of the attraction was discovering educated people who believed in something so peculiar. These were often descendants of pioneers; they had a history in some ways reminiscient of the Jews. For me, as a Jew searching for something ‘different’, the Church seemed to fit nicely. To me, neither Jewish or overly Christian, yet recognisably Western, I found what I was looking for at the time. Were I to discover the Church for the first time tomorrow, I doubt that I would even develop an interest in it at all. But…it became a part of who I am, and I do not regret that.

    I hope the Church does not continue its seeming drift toward conservative Catholicism, or become a carbon copy of the Community of Christ. Instead, perhaps it can learn from the Jews: their (sometimes excessive)respect for culture,study, ritual and tradition, and indeed from the modern Catholic Church where theological liberals rub shoulders with conservatives with little fear of sanction. Guilt might be a problem, though…

  97. “This son is looking everywhere for some belief system and right now knows only that it’ll include yoga.”

    I hope that in his journey of faith seeking a belief system he will consider reading this article in the most recent Sunstone: http://www.sunstoneonline.com/magazine/issues/141/141-20-31.pdf

  98. Mark Butler says:

    If any ward has that kind of contention going on in Gospel Doctrine class, it is a failure of priesthood leadership. It is their job to put a stop to it, and promote civilized, subdued discussion instead. The spirit of contention is the spirit of the devil, because the devils primary objective is to destroy the unity of the Church – the only way he can gain power over us is to divide and conquer. Same as in the war in heaven.

    Also Gospel Doctrine class is supposed to be about gospel doctrine – not gospel theology, not gospel speculation, not about someone else’s doctrine, but the formal doctrine / teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ. That is why non-current documents other than the scriptures are inappropriate. They are no longer the formal doctrine of the Church, if they ever were.

    In my opinion, if someone cannot make their point in all politeness by a direct appeal to the scriptures or the contemporary teachings of the living prophets, they should hold their tongue. The scriptures have ample material for discussion, if only we become familiar with them firsthand.

  99. S.V. and MY: Besides Utah I’ve lived in wards in San Antonio, Korea, Louisiana, Massachussetts, Pennsylvania, Belgium, France, and Great Britain, and I’ve never seen anything like the divisive discussion of doctrine that you describe. I’m among the astounded, and I’m happy to be there.

    To some degree I like the analogy between rabbinical commentary and pronouncement by General Authority. The problem, of course, is that the analogy is made difficult by the belief that the GAs have divine authority in a way that the rabbis don’t.

    Though I have no particular objections to attempts at systematic theology, I think they are doomed. Like the Jews, we are more a community of practice than a community of doctrine. But, of course, that analogy also runs aground since we have a structure of authority and a church, things utterly lacking in the Jewish tradition.

  100. Mark,

    I agree with you on all counts. That’s why I’d like for us to change our discourse. :)

    Jim F.,

    Yes, we as a community are unified by our practice and not our doctrine. It’s nice, isn’t it? Also, I’m glad you’re astounded by the idea of anger in Gospel Doctrine class. To bring this discussion back to the content of my original post, I’ll ask this: are you astounded by the idea of nutty proof-texting in blog discussions & popular press books on Mormon theology?

  101. Seth R. says:

    Well, we often tend to become cariacatures of ourselves online. I know I do.

  102. mullingandmusing says:

    I haven’t had time to read all the comments, but here is my contribution:

    #6: Frank, while I’m not sure I agree with the derivation of your theology-checking method (I’d rather find support for it in the scriptures or in a direct revelation to a prophet), I haven’t much argument with the method itself. It seems like good common sense.

    I think what Frank shared does have both prophetic and scriptural support. He was repeating a theology-checking method from Elder Eyring (a prophet), which also has scriptural support:

    The Apostle Paul wrote that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Cor. 13:1). One of the ways we may know that the warning is from the Lord is that the law of witnesses, authorized witnesses, has been invoked. When the words of prophets seem repetitive, that should rivet our attention and fill our hearts with gratitude to live in such a blessed time.
    (Henry B. Eyring, “Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, May 1997, 24; emph. added)

  103. Kudos to SV for a brilliant piece of writing.

    One verse I love in the BOM, and know is inspired:

    17 There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in aone•, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.

    http://scriptures.lds.org/4_ne/1/17#17

  104. mullingandmusing says:

    I wonder if Elder Holland might have some solutions to this dilemma that SV presents. What if we focus on Christ and what it means to follow Him? Elder Holland’s most recent Conference talk gets to that point – that He is the solution to all that is broken and needs fixing (which would include our discourse, no?)

    There was a paragraph in there that had a blink-and-you-might-miss-it gem…this might be relevant here.

    “My desire today is for all of us…to have more straightforward personal experience with the Savior’s example. Sometimes we seek heaven too obliquely, focusing on programs or history or the experience of others. Those are important but not as important as personal experience, true discipleship, and the strength that comes from experiencing firsthand the majesty of His touch.” (emphasis his)

    So, using that as a possible source of help for this situation SV brings up, perhaps we can each seek for more personal experience with the Savior (and His example, which is an interesting idea, IMO), worry less about the things Elder Holland mentioned (programs or history or others’ experiences – which, incidentally, are often things focused on in the ‘nacle (that just hit me)), and strive for more “true discipleship” in our lives (I suppose we might all have different points of view of what that would mean; maybe the trick is trusting that we are each seeking to do that and giving each other the beneift of the doubt in the process). Perhaps if we somehow ALL make the Savior and His example more of a focus in our lives (in our discussions, even?) this problem could improve on its own…??? (BTW, I’m NOT trying to point any fingers or be divisive – Elder Holland invites us ALL to do this.) Might part of the problem in the bloggernacle be that sometimes we “look beyond the mark” and miss or forget Christ?

  105. mullingandmusing says:

    SV, I have a question. (I’m sorry if I’m violating my own comment above — I really am not sure how to do what I suggested…just mulling and musing!); I really want to understand this, though, because I tend to think that different definitions of what constitues prophetic utterances may be part of what contributes to the problem you address.

    You say,
    many, perhaps most, statements made by general authorities are not prophetic. They may be loving, they may be wise, they may even be published by Deseret Book. None of that implies that their words are necessarily divine, and in fact, our prophets traditionally tell us explicitly when God has revealed something. Then, they present it to us, and we vote to accept or reject it as part of our canon; that is, as definitive.

    I’ve always taken a much broader view of what is “scripture” and “prophetic” counsel (I suppose that is obvious). I’ve never felt that a prophetic declaration, by one or many leaders need be prefaced by a “thus saith the Lord” or followed by a vote of acceptance to be prophetic and scriptural in its own right. I actually think that most of their words ARE divine, and I trust in their authority to be special witnesses for the Savior (this even inlcudes the Seventies who are “especial witness” (D&C 107:25)) and to expound His teachings and will for us.

    How would you reconcile your definition of what is scriptural with such scriptures as D&C 68:4:
    “4 And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.”?

    Is that a fair question? I think its relevant to the process of determining what it means to be a true disciple (back to Elder Holland). I tend to think that unity in doctrine (as the Savior taught we should have in 3 Ne. 11) comes mostly by looking to our leaders to lead the way (as the Savior taught in 3 Ne. 12:1-2).

    Howver, Of course, not everything that is discussed in the ‘nacle is in a realm where current prophetic statements (which should get most of our attention in terms of our “marching orders” (don’t shoot me for that phraseology – please cut me some semantic slack -it’s late! [smile])) have relevance. So, obviously, that can’t always be the solution to the problem you raise. But I think the differing definitions of what is “prophetic” may be part of the problem.

    Might also part of the problem be that perhaps that sometimes we are discussing things that don’t have capital-A Answers?…which means we should all take more deep breaths and realize when that is the case, and consciously be more willing to listen and explore and learn together, rather than to “be right?” Either that, or we could change what we discuss, but that wouldn’t be nearly as “fun,” would it? :) After all, controversy is typically what breeds conversation in the ‘nacle. In my mind that is a big source of the problem right there. Controversy breeds contention as well. What to do?

  106. Mark Butler says:

    M&M, J. Reuben Clark gave an excellent talk on this subject in 1954:

    When Are the Writings and Sermons of Church Leaders
    Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?
    President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., of the First Presidency
    Address to Seminary and Institute Personnel, BYU, 7 July 1954.
    http://emp.byui.edu/MARROTTR/ClarkWhenAreWritings.pdf

    He quotes D&C 68:2-4 and then says:

    The very words of the revelation recognize that the Brethren may speak when they are not “moved
    upon by the Holy Ghost”; yet only when they do speak as “moved upon” is what they say
    considered scripture. No exceptions are given to this rule or principle. It is universal in its
    application. The question is, how shall we
    know when the things they have spoken were said as they were “moved upon by the Holy
    Ghost”? I have given some thought to this question, and the answer thereto, so far as I can
    determine, is: We can tell when the speakers are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” only when we,
    ourselves, are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” In a way, this completely shifts the
    responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.

    As to the related issue of doctrinal truth and fidelity, I recently commented on the subject here:

    http://blog.defensorveritatis.net/?p=173#comment-1256

    (According to my mode of ignorance of course)

  107. Mark Butler says:

    There is also a question of authority. General Church leaders have *much* more authority to speak for God in terms of what we should be doing *here and now* than in terms of laying out the definitive systematic theology of the eternities. Why? Isaiah has the answer:

    For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
    (Isaiah 55:8-9)

    And again in the D&C:

    But remember that all my judgments are not given unto men; and as the words have gone forth out of my mouth even so shall they be fulfilled, that the first shall be last, and that the last shall be first in all things whatsoever I have created by the word of my power, which is the power of my Spirit.

    For by the power of my Spirit created I them; yea, all things both spiritual and temporal— First spiritual, secondly temporal, which is the beginning of my work; and again, first temporal, and secondly spiritual, which is the last of my work—

    Speaking unto you that you may naturally understand; but unto myself my works have no end, neither beginning; but it is given unto you that ye may understand, because ye have asked it of me and are agreed.
    (D&C 29:30-33)

    I don’t suppose you have seen the Stargate episide where Jack O’Neill gets all of the knowledge of the Ancients downloaded into his mind for a while?

  108. mullingandmusing says:

    Mark,
    1. I feel the Spirit almost without exception when I hear (or read) the words of our leaders, which is why I personally feel they speak the divine. That’s my experience, and for discussion’s sake, I suppose I should clarify and own that as a personal thing. But if that is my experience, then it doesn’t seem right for someone to make a blanket statement that our leaders usually don’t speak prophetically or divinely (although I’m realizing that what is being discussed is probably more narrow than what I was thinking about).
    2. If the Spirit doesn’t come when I hear what they say, it may be because I am out of tune (even just from being tired or distracted). I also think there is value in Elder Eyring’s counsel to hold the counsel for a while, seeking to see the gold in it.
    3. One of the best ways to test words from a leader is to follow them – to put them to the test. (John 7:17) I suppose that is what was meant by “we are more a Church of practice.” But I think that practice is often based on doctrine.

    Also, I don’t think we can understand the nature of God unless we are following Him. While we can all do that on our own to some degree, the pattern and path God has given us to follow Him and come to know Him (by becoming more LIKE Him) is the gospel, which is revealed through and taught by our prophets. The “doing” (or, better said, the “becoming” esp. through gospel living and ordinances) is intimately connected with the “knowing” and understanding more about the nature of God. (I confess that the lines between practice, doctrine and theology get a little messy to me. I’m probably too simple-minded for this discussion! And I’m certainly no match for your knowledge of philosophy!)

    General question: If no one has any definitive and absolute knowledge re: theology, why in heaven’s name are we trying to discuss it? :) :)

  109. mullingandmusing says:

    I’m not sure why this topic has captured my attention, but it has (even with all my ignorance).

    John 8:19 Then said they unto him, Where is thy Father? Jesus answered, Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.

    Isn’t it possible that Elder Holland’s words are still applicable in coming to understand the nature of God? If we come unto Christ and become more like Him, we will, by definition, understand more of the nature of God because we will be more like Him as well. Right?

  110. “Easier to eliminate the possibility of unclear communication.”

    For all that, the prophets repeatedly make clear (as you request) that “God is at the helm” (there is a GBH talk by this title). But they repeatedly refuse to delineate every statement by its placing on the “Divine-O-Meter”. President Clark suggests that the burden is on us to dscern the truth of wht they say. Not on them to hand it to us. Elder Faust made similar comments in Nov. 1989.

    “if the still, small voice happens to say, “This is Heavenly Father speaking; I’m giving you a revelation for the church; I’m just doing it very quietly”, then that’s still direct revelation. Why shouldn’t we proclaim it?”

    The prophet does this all the time. He says this is how the Church is run. You want him to acknowledge when it is just his opinion. Well he’s been known to do that too. So we appear to be doing pretty well on this front.

    “It also doesn’t support Elder Eyring as a source of unmitigated revelatory authority, though we can certainly use his talk as a proof text, if we’d like to do so.”

    3 points here:

    I used D&C 107 as evidence of the role of using groups of those with the keys. I did not use it to say that a preponderance of GA statements is “proof”. I also did not wish to use it as proof that Elder Eyring is infallible (that would be dumb).

    You note that we can use his talk as a “proof-text”. But your use of the phrase proof-text is uniformly negative everywhere in this discussion. So what do you mean by this?

    You would like to restrct 107 to administrative stuff. Well I do not see the word administrative. What do you see the text as excluding from the power and authority of the quorums? Certainly only the prophet may speak for the Church as a whole, so if this is what you mean, I completely agree.

    “And of course, I do think your rule of thumb is a good one; I just don’t think it’s absolute or final for our theories. ”

    I said that hearing a bunch of prophets say the same thing (or even a bunch of Apostles) with very few Apostles or prophets saying the opposite is an excellent predictor of what we should believe or do. That it is an excellent predictor I would claim is an absoloutely true statement. But if by “absolute or final” you mean that we should then know that the answer is revealed and will never be improved, then I agree because that is not my claim.

    My claim is that it would be very difficult to beat those odds.

  111. Seth R. says:

    The problem Frank,

    Is that our Church has a pretty tight hierarchical structure and most of the religious discussion on Sunday (and elsewhere) is highly correlated from Salt Lake.

    This stands in stark conflict with this personal mandate to implement the counsel of our leaders through personal witness of the Spirit.

    Currently, our religion manages this conflict by banishing all personal revelation from the public dialogue of the Mormon Church. You see this in the practice of a sustaining vote. You can vote for or against, but it doesn’t change the Church or anyone else. It’s just a personal statement. Also you see this in the current conventional wisdom on “dissent” within the Church.

    You can dissent privately, and even leave the Church privately, but don’t make your views known to others (clarification: don’t make your views known in the LDS public dialogue).

    This has so far, seemed to work alright and the Church has maintained a surprising degree of doctinal integrity and endurance and is much less swayed by the outside pressures that seem to continually shake our Roman Catholic, Episcopal neighbors (and others, of course).

    But the big drawback is that there is very little opportunity for change from the grassroots level on up. I have little way of influencing the Church Office Building, one way or the other. There is an absolute dearth of debate in our Church possibly for this reason. Why publish and debate if it has little practical chance of making a difference?

    Essentially, the Church’s public posture is” “take it or leave it.”

    Fine for holding the fort, but counterproductive if you want to invite useful and constructive input.

    #1.

  112. Seth,

    It is not clear why a more substantial role for grass roots change would be a net gain for God’s Kingdom.

    BTW, If you have input about the manuals, for example, there is an address you can mail your input to. This is grass roots change, is it not? If you have a plan to change the doctrine of the Church, you are going to have a rough time of it. And I guess I’m fine with that :).

  113. rleonard says:

    Hey SV,

    I am astounded by your exp. I agree with Jim F that its a failure of leadership that these types of doctrinal divisions have existed in your units.

  114. Seth R. says:

    Frank, you’re addressing particulars. The primary point of my post was to point out some inherent structural conflicts in the Church organization.

    It’s really my fault though, I haven’t explained myself very well and don’t know how to be clearer about it.

    My concern is that your explanation boils down to “take it or leave it.” I’ve always found that stance to be just as problematic as it is useful.

  115. Sorry to enter the conversation so late, but I have spent a lot of time lurking and really pondering this one. I wonder if we are not looking at it all wrong. For example, the original apostasy took place because of what exactly? People had their own traditions, tried to work too much of it into the gospel, limped along, eventually lost authority and pretty much veered off track and revelation stopped, If I understand things correctly. I am no historian, but this is the correlated teaching of the church in the missionary discussions. What if revelation stopped because the church as a body was no longer righteous and open enough to receive it?

    They argued too much among themselves, there were too many scenes of SVs gospel doctrine example within the church and within the heirarchy that things broke apart. Could not the same thing be happening now. I mean, we’ve been told the authority won’t be taken, but could the reason the leadership appears to have less to reveal to us in regareds to theology have to do with our righteousness as a church body.

    Do we really listen and do those things asked of us by the leadership, in their “loving, wise” counsel. Are we really unified in practice? I’m just not so sure. I think the movement to correlated gospel teaching is largely a result of our inability to have civil discussion regarding these things as a church and as a society at large.

    What if we really started taking the teachings of the savior to heart? What if we learned to look at all our neighbor’s as children of god and learned to see them the way the Lord sees us? What if we could all learn not to be defensive, not to dismiss those who don’t agree with us out of hand? What if we all learned to focus first on the beam in our own eye before focusing on the mote in anothers?

    I have to believe that if we did truly let these things into our hearts, suddenly the “faults” of our leaders would be less glaring, Suddenly, the Lord could reveal things openly and if we discover our understanding was wrong, we would be glad at the chance to gain a more perfect knowledge, even if to our background it seems totally strange at first. If we were all more loving and kind to eachother, and had a greater portion of the spirit with us, maybe the truth would never seem strange, although I have to believe some truths are just currently beyond our understanding (temporarily). In short, I think a major barrier to a unified theology in the church is our lack of unity, being of one heart and one mind. It is always instructive to me to learn about events in scripture where the author writes more happened here but it is too sacred to share. As when Christ visited the Nephites in the BOM. Certain facsimiles in the Book of Abraham are “not to be revealed at this time.”

    Certainly Joseph Smith was very bold in his theology and authoritative in his declarations and he taught some very radical things that the world at large is still very uncomfortable with. What happened to him? He was murdered by a mob. This type of thing has happened over, and over, and over again throughout scripture to prophets of old, the savior, the apostles. Maybe the price of having priesthood authority on the Earth remain is that prophets cannot be so free to boldly declare “thus saith the Lord” without some cult watchdog group ready to pounce, to twist content, to take easy offense. Then they proceed to rake up fear and distrust of the our secular society. Certainly there is a big anti-religion movement sweeping through our pluralistic culture.

    So what is the Lord left to do. I believe he does what he can. He pokes and prods us toward the right direction to the extent we can stand it. He moves us toward valuing the worth of sould, helps us learn to love eachother, Lifts us up, ennobles and redeems people, not just in the church, but throughout the world in an environment were he can work with our prejudices without anyone getting hurt, and we can learn to respect eachother’s differences and withhold judgement. Then eventually when we reach of critical mass of these elect, he will be ready to come and teach us the things we have been unable to hear for so long.
    Maybe when we become what we need to as a church and people, a Zion, then the theology can follow, but not until then.

    Maybe I’m too idealistic, but cynicism is too easy and too prevalent today. Cynicism leads us to judge others in the most negative light possible and see others as only there faults. Cynicism is not what builds me up. Trying to live a Christlike life, that is.

  116. So you’re saying that the current Church stance is somewhat akin to Elijah being commanded to hide in a cave while being fed by ravens?

  117. Seth,
    I’m not seeing the analogy. I think maybe things are focused more on behavior because as a group and as a society, we aren’t yet on a level to where we are capable of being more unified. The prophets are still out there and they are guiding us as they can. I hear GBH all the time in stating how we need to work to better fellowship new members, The wrongs of abuse and racism, etc. ETB and the danger of pride, etc. etc. They are giving important advice on how to become more united and yet we often choose to focus on other issues that divide.
    (disclaimer- I do not hold the brethren to be perfect or infallible, I just think that maybe we need to be able to tolerate their humanity and sustain them before the Lord can raise the level of discourse.)

  118. 115: What if revelation stopped because the church as a body was no longer righteous and open enough to receive it?

    There are days when I wonder just how important (or unimportant) the various doctrines of the church are in comparison with what out behavior towards our fellow man is, or ought to be.

    If I believe that God has a physical body, what does that get me? I think there are benefits to knowing the correct attributes of God, as Joseph Smith put it in the Lectures on Faith, but in the end, on judgment day, will I get bonus points because I was right about that physical body thing? If I believe that Brigham Young was on to something in his comments about Adam being the only God with whom we have to do, will I lose bonus points if I find out that Brigham was all wet and that I was wrong to have put any stock in his words on the matter?

    I doubt we get any points one way or the other as far as our doctrinal beliefs go. What we’ll be judged on was how we alleviated or contributed to the suffering of others, or so it seems to me.

    If the belief in doctrine X causes me to have greater faith in God so that it affects my actions towards others, then I figure the doctrine in question has probably done its job. But that’s about it.

  119. Mark Butler says:

    M&M (#108),

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you have said. The difference comes in technicalities, exceptions, and approximations.

    God teaches us according to our understanding. In my opinion the scriptures are filled with symbols that are approximations to much more detailed realities.

    That does not mean that the approximations are “false” or of little value – quite the contrary. On the other hand they are not to be confuesd with the last word on the subject either. Indeed the *primary* theological difference between our religion and conventional Christian orthodoxy is in our interpretation of certain fundamental scriptural ideas or symbols.

    And even then there is controversy in the Church, with many reverting to the creedalist, hyper-literalist absolutist neo-orthodoxic interpretation of a critical set of scriptural assertions – statements that are wonderful guides, but deadly last words.

    So I think speaking the language of neo-orthodoxy is right and proper, as long as one doesn’t get all dogmatic about it, as if one has the mind of God on the matter, and worse that if anyone disagrees they are going to hell.

    Scriptures do have a proper interpretation, though on multiple levels, which necessarily correlate with eachother.

    [By the way, the Javascript on this website is so inefficient, My Athlon 2100 w/ 1GB RAM cannot keep up with my typing. I would *much* rather have no preview at all, if that is the problem. Maybe an option to turn it off?]

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