A while back I gave a sacrament talk about how the Restoration is an ongoing thing. It was tough to gather enough recent rhetorically requisite quotes from authority to uphold my main thesis, so I was particularly happy when President Uchtdorf delivered this one:
Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us—Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he received priesthood keys, the Church was organized. In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now. It includes “all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal,” and the “many great and important things” that “He will yet reveal.”
It’s wonderful (and for me, paradoxically egotistically self-affirming) to hear from the pulpit that we still have important things to learn as a Church, not just as new converts. But isolated statements like this one are up against some institutional inertia sustaining the view that we have pretty much everything figured out, especially Truth-wise. If we want to know how the “ongoing process” perspective play out in our actual church lives we might take a look at the Church’s recently announced plans for a new Sunday School curriculum for adults. The new curriculum has the potential to paradoxically affirm the idea of an ongoing process of Restoration while also denying or obscuring it.
For one thing, the change in curriculum itself as a bald fact bears out Pres. Uchtorf’s description of “an ongoing process.” Bracketing for a second the various views about differences between changing “doctrine” and “practice,” this shift in approach signals that Church leaders take current circumstances into account and try to adjust accordingly. Past adjustments to the Sunday School program were more teacher-focused (see Exhibit A: the Teaching: No Greater Call manual and the lack of any Learning: No Greater Response companion). If the Deseret News report about the new changes can be trusted as representative, focus has shifted from teachers to individual class members: “Improved learning skills are necessary” for Church members in order to improve our Sunday Schools. The teacher/learner role is collapsed: “the use of individual agency to spiritually prepare, to seek learning and to share with or teach others” are the guiding principles.
The folks in charge of the new curriculum seem to emphasize the need for open discussion, which itself isn’t really a new thing (see again, Exhibit A above, and its repeated emphasis on generating discussion). The big change then seems to regard what is being discussed. I think most members will take any change as an improvement over our tragicomically outdated manuals. But a few people have expressed concern that the Church is moving even further away from sustained reading of our scriptural texts in favor of a discussion of broad “truths” which we already know, and which we then undergird with proof-texted scriptures wrested from their original contexts in a catechism-type fashion. This is an old concern., as we see in Exhibit B: a master’s thesis written in the 70s by a then-soon-to-be prominent Church educator:
“[Since the BoM is not a] formal theological treatise, the concepts of Deity which it teaches come in a rather piecemeal fashion which creates the danger of taking individual passages out of their proper context and perverting their meaning.”
This is former BYU religious education professor Joseph Fielding McConkie. Learners who are interested in teasing out the contexts and the multiple perspectives of our scriptures sense the danger McConkie describes, but may see problems with his two-part solution:
“The first rule of interpretation, then, is that each individual passage must be interpreted in light of the message of the entire book, for it is all regarded as scripture. Accepting the premise that the Book of Mormon is scripture, it is then proper to proceed on the assumption that all scriptures are in harmony, that they do not contradict each other. Hence, the second rule of interpretation is that passages which appear to be in conflict should be read so that they harmonize.”
Thomas Alexander, another distinguished BYU professor, has described this sort of approach as what I’ve decided to label “the myth of cumulative coherence.” All scriptures are in harmony and they never contradict each other. They only build one on top of the other in a progressive fashion. Alexander says this approach generally results in “bad history” by giving an “unwarranted impression of continuity and consistency.” A third BYU professor, Craig Harline, recently published a piece in BYU Studies which also calls into question this sort of simplistic view of history (you can also catch it on YouTube).
Having taken a look at a lot of Mormon history, I’m inclined to sympathize more with Alexander and Harline than McConkie when it comes to both learning and teaching in the Church. But I’m also encouraged by the bare fact that three BYU professors can publicly express different views. I can think of no better way for our new curriculum to meet the goal of “improved learning skills” and encouragement of “the use of individual agency” than to somehow communicate that the ongoing process of the Restoration includes changes and reversals, and that history can be messy, and that a variety of perspectives are welcome, and that we can talk openly with each other about them. It’s true, we Latter-day Saints need to improve in the specific area of scriptural exegesis, but I believe we can begin to partially address that problem in the process of meeting these other goals because we’ll be creating the necessary room to discuss such things to begin with. I’m interested to see how it all shakes out.
The fact that we’re changing things up with our Sunday School approach suggests that as a Church we have room to maneuver, to learn, to grow. But it doesn’t necessarily clarify whether we also have some room to make mistakes or to account for them or openly correct them. Depending on how the new curriculum works in practice, it has the potential to paradoxically affirm the idea of an ongoing Restoration process while also denying or obscuring it.