Mormonism: What it isn’t, and what it might be

A brief exchange with John H. on our popularity-contest-winner of a thread has brought up some questions I have, which might be best examined in a separate post. I said:

"So, John H., if Palmer’s book didn’t merit any sort of action by the Church, and bearing in mind all of the info you presented us about Church changes, etc., what, to you, is there that is Mormonism and not up for Palmer types to discredit? I’m not necessarily saying there has to be something, I’m just curious to know if you think there is (or if anyone else thinks there is)."

And John H. replied:

"I’m not sure there is anything, Bob…I don’t think it’s an issue of trying to discredit so much as it is trying to reinterpret."

Perhaps this is simply a weakness of mine, but I have a hard time letting go of at least something, anything, that would be static in the Church. In other words, if John H. is correct, I feel like that would mean the Church is, at best, just a collection of ever-changing doctrines and/or gospel principles that at any time can be "reinterpreted" (if the reinterpretation is directly contrary to the original interpretation, then I still think of it as synonymous with discredited) by any one of its members.

Is there nothing that is not ours to discredit, ahem, reinterpret? This would set up Mormonism to be an open book waiting to be written by anyone who happens to have a pen. That, clearly, isn’t the case (at least from my experience).

So now that we know what Mormonism isn’t, what might it be?


  1. Doesn’t the notion of continuing revelation open up the possibility that everything’s open to revision?

  2. Bob Caswell says:

    Steve, do you really mean “everything”? For example, do you think the possibility exists that one day we’ll find out God doesn’t have a body and that the Holy Ghost does?

    And one more thought, in the context of the Church as a whole, isn’t “continuing revelation” rather limited to those who have the authority?

  3. I think you are making an excellent point. If everything is up for grabs then we descend into a kind of nihilism. There is a difference between recognizing human fallibilism and saying that there is no ground.

  4. “For example, do you think the possibility exists that one day we’ll find out God doesn’t have a body and that the Holy Ghost does?”

    I don’t think we can answer that — we don’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes. Until Joseph Smith, we didn’t know that God had a body, and that’s relatively recent. I think it’s pretty wide open. I don’t think that reduces us to nihilism, but it should keep us on our toes, at least, to remember that God can send us updates and revisions.

  5. Bob Caswell says:

    But Steve, isn’t the whole basis of our Church on the possibility that everyone can “know” certain things to be true for themselves? God having a body is part of most Mormons testimonies, I’d say. So how to you reconcile something that people actually “know”, with the possibility that it may be utterly false? Again, it sounds like a religion where nothing is known and nothing can be true.

    I suppose I’m indirectly disagreeing with you here. I think certain rabbit holes aren’t bottomless. Now it’s just a question of figuring out which ones!

  6. I agree with Steve. We just may find out that God doesn’t have a body. More likely is that as we discover and understand more and more about whatever kind of body he has, we’ll realize that our understanding of it has been completely naive and incomplete. What we think of when we say ‘body’ is probably woefully inadequate to describe God.

    Either way, though, I think the potential is there for a serious ‘reinterpretation’ of the doctrine that God has a body (sorry, Bob — I just think it’s the best word in this case).

  7. Bob Caswell says:

    Ok, Logan, so the potential is there for a serious “reinterpretation”… But is this same potential there for every aspect of Mormonism? Should I keep giving examples like, oh say, God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate entities… If this is “known”, then doesn’t that exclude the possibility that they are one and the same being?

    It looks I may be the only one bold enough to actually test the waters here with aspects of Mormonism that I think are *relatively* static (in other words, sure we don’t know exactly what kind of beings these three entities are, but that doesn’t change the static truth that they are the separate entities).

    Not to challenge anyone’s testimony or anything, but in the context of this discussion, what does anyone “know” that is “true”, if the the potential is always going to exist that the opposite is true?

  8. I wonder if John H. can weigh in and clarify the ground rules of this discussion a little. Has Bob accurately restated your opinion? What is the difference between reinterpreting and discrediting? To reinterpret implies to me that there is some common base upon which all can agreee.

    The current direction of the discussion has me leaning in the Bob camp, but I think it may be because we haven’t really decided what we are discussing. For example, if continuing revelation opens up the possibility to revising anything, why not revise, to the point of elimination, the idea of continuing revelation? What about the existence of a God?

  9. No, Bob, I don’t want to take every issue one by one and come up with a hypothetical way to revise it. But I think you’re confusing “know” with “completely understand”. It’s kind of like when engaged couples say things like, “I know that we should never go to bed angry”. Once you’re married, you kind of chuckle at that sentiment. You can see what they’re getting at, that it’s important to work things out, resolve issues, etc., but the way you resolve things with your spouse is much more complicated than what that little saying suggests.

    While the details of the statement may be wrong — it is possible, I think, to wait until the morning to talk about certain things and still have a strong marriage — the ideas it’s meant to express still have a lot of truth to them. I think it’s similar with things people say they “know” in their testomonies. The details of what they say they “know” may be inaccurate, but those details are just an imperfect expression of what they feel is true.

    This is the Buddhist in me talking, but I think that mental constructions and verbal expressions of truth are inherently limited and incomplete. That isn’t to say that there isn’t truth in the universe. But the details we talk about and point to are just meant to guide us toward a more complete understanding. They aren’t necessarily unchanging or “true” in and of themselves.

  10. Bob Caswell says:

    Thank you, Marko, for giving us some better examples. I’m not too excited with this being a discussion solely on whether or not reinterpretation is discrediting, I’m more interested in what Mormonism actually is, if ever changing. Those who favor the word “reinterpret” can always find some common base. For example, one believes God has a body and another believes he does not. The common ground would be that they both believe in God. But the problem with common ground (at least for me) is that most times it’s outside of the scope of the actual conflict, err, reinterpretation. I stand by my original definition that if reinterpretation directly conflicts with original interpretation, then there is a discrediting factor. I guess one could say not all reinterpretation is discrediting by giving good examples (i.e. Logan) but others (i.e. Bob) would say, well, what about the reinterpretation that IS discrediting.

  11. Marko, you nihilist — brighten up for once!

    This whole thread thus far sounds like oh no, continuing revelation means that we can reformat everything! Chaos!

    But that’s not really what we’re talking about. Oh no, folks. Actually, what I think this thread really amounts to is just a reiteration of what man’s nothingness is compared to God. Continuing revelation comes along with the understanding that we basically know nothing about the nature of God or our own destinies, and so it’s awfully presumptuous for us to assume we’re up on all the facts and that things will just keep on truckin’ in the current direction.

    Also, I don’t believe that the principle of continuing revelation permits us to be skeptics about the status quo. Rather, we need to have faith in the system laid out by the status quo if revelation is to continue. It’s ironic, I guess, that for us to change and progress we need to have faith in the powers that be as presently constituted.

  12. Bob Caswell says:

    “it’s awfully presumptuous for us to assume we’re up on all the facts and that things will just keep on truckin’ in the current direction.”

    Steve, I was more asking if we’re, like, up on maybe one fact…

  13. What, are you ignoring me, Bob?

    I don’t think “facts” can really express truth completely. Once you distill it to a sentence, paragraph, mental image, what-have-you, it’s incomplete.

  14. Why is it so uncomfortable to suggest that we have no absolutes?

    We can’t just isolate one fact or two out there, because they don’t exist acontextually. Take “God has a physical body” for example. I think that’s standard mormon doctrine, so we’ll try to label that a fact. Problem is, that doesn’t really help us, until we try to define what that body is and means, and how it came to be. And we simply don’t know much about God’s body or his physical nature, other than “perfect”. That’s fairly useless, in my opinion, and it’s far from a factual statement, because it’s not like we’ve all come to some objective criteria for these things.

    So, yes, there are lots of doctrines that I believe in and that I think will be around for a long, long, time, but our perceptions and definitions are in constant flux. And they should be, IMHO, or else we’re not progressing.

    Frankly, what most people take to be facts are just unexamined assumptions. I believe in certain doctrines, sure, like everybody else — but I also try to remember that man’s perceptions and definitions are gossamer.

  15. Marko,

    I think the idea of continuing revelation has undergone revision. This is something that John Hatch alluded to earlier. For some time there was special defference paid to Joseph Smith Jr. as a special kind of revelator. This seemed to change as those who knew him as adults died off. Not that there weren’t revelations in the meantime, but I think it is hard to contest that the volume, continuity, and nature of the revelations changed after he was gone.

    Secondly, continuing revelation has been removed from the earth in some measure in the past, during the apostacy for instance.

    btw Marko, what has prodded you into participation?

  16. Bob Caswell says:

    Logan, I like where you’re going with your Buddhist ways…

  17. Bob Caswell says:

    So things can change and are incomplete, etc. In the context of the Church as a whole, what things can we change ourselves and still be part of Mormonism (which, so far, is becoming less and less of anything we can actually define, one of the original points of this thread). Anything, everything? That can’t be right (I think)…

  18. random John — I don’t think it is controversial to say that the idea of continuing revelation has undergone revision. In fact, I think its scope is probably one of the more mysterious parts of Mormonism. My point was more that if there are no limits to reinterpretation, it really would descend into nihilism.

    I think Steve makes a good point, though (and I wonder if this was John H.’s original point), that despite the existence of truth and our faith that Mormonism as we understand it is a decent approximation of that truth, we can’t know that any particular fact is absolute.

    I agree with Steve, although I suppose my problem with this theory is that it is fun to think about, but we ultimately have to ignore it to live and act in the real world. We gain a level of confidence about something and then act upon it despite the possibility we may be wrong or even fooling ourselves.

  19. Frank McIntyre says:

    Here are some possibilities, using God’s body strictly as an example of a doctrine about which we might expect to know more, but about which we now know something:

    1. Our understanding of God’s body is incomplete and we await further scripture. But that further scripture is likely to be consonant with what we now have. SO God does have a body, we just don’t know all the ins and outs.

    1.5 (1) but I hold out the possibility that in the occasional rare case scripture is actually wrong. I never really act on this possibility, but I accept that it could happen some percentage of the time.

    2. One might believe that our understanding of God’s body is so incomplete that the revelation we have is, in fact, meaningless. Thus even though the scriptures say that God has a body, thet’s of no value because it is as likely to be false as true.

    3. (2) plus the belief that further information about God may come through non-priesthood sources (Grant Palmer type books, Toscano, etc.). So now one doesn’t particularly believe the current revelations, and is willing to eject them in favor of a messenger who lacks Church keys to revelation. This would seem an explicit rejection of the pattern for determining “true messengers” so carefully laid out by Joseph Smith.

    I favor (1) or (1.5). (2) seems to strip scripture of any truth claims, but might still leave one in the Church, depending very much on how far one is going to take it. Possibly this leaves one emasculated in terms of your usefulness to the Kingdom. (3) pretty much sounds like you have no testimony of anything that is likely to save you. But that is okay because somewhere between (2) and (3), you cease to have any particular understanding of what it might mean to be “saved”.

  20. Bob Caswell says:

    Maybe that’s my problem, Marko… I’m too much of a how-does-this-work-as-I-live-in-the-real-world and less of a everything’s-a-nebulous-cloud.

  21. Alonzo Gaskill (my institute teacher) once said that many religions are like a cylindrical hole in the ground. He said you could go deeper and to some point and then it ended. For instance, you can know all there is to know about Catholicism (his example, not mine). He then described Mormonism as a hole that not only goes deeper and deeper, but gets wider as you go down as well.

  22. Bob/Marko,

    Look at it this way: we can’t objectively know the facts (putting aside knowing through the Holy Ghost, which is another pickle altogether). To be able to do so would make faith pointless…

  23. Bob Caswell says:

    Steve, you’re helping me, but I’m not quite there. First of all, putting aside “knowing through the Holy Ghost” is a pretty big thing to ask and second, faith, to me, is a form of knowledge as it becomes more complete.

  24. Frank McIntyre says:


    Faith becomes dormant in some things, and our knowledge becomes perfect. So I think you are right in relating the two.

  25. I have often been in the camp of epistemological problems and seriously questioning what we “know,” if anything. However, it does seem at some point and at some level we accept that we “know” something. Thus as one philiosopher put it we all get on the freeway in mass and drive fully believing that the person next to us could hit us but won’t. Thus we put aside certain elements of our scepticism and accept absolutist knowledge at a certain level. Thus, although we may not fully comprehend what it means that God has a body it is a claim in a certain sense that we can know (at some level). And thus serve as facts–though perhaps I have stripped fact of so much of its heft that I have rendered it weightless and useless for the discussion. However, it has always seemed to me that when we bear testimony and say “I know God lives” etc. we are being hyperbolic. I would not question the spiritual experiences of others but it does seem that one necessary to knowing in a strong sense that God lives is seeing him. While reading scripture and prophetic discourse and having personal answer to prayer greatly strengthens my faith when I bear testiony I use know in a way that is not the same as when I say I know I have a mom b/c I have seen her (though in all fairness I have’nt seen any DNA tests either).

  26. I think Steve spoiled the whole thread by giving the answer in the very first comment: Doesn’t the notion of continuing revelation open up the possibility that everything’s open to revision? Yes, I think it does.

    Both the polygamy revision (from crown jewel of the plan of salvation to prohibited practice) and the priesthood revision (from restricted to certain racial lineages to conditioned only on worthiness and maleness) suggest that any gospel principle or historical practice is potentially open to revision.

    More recently, I’ve observed minor doctrinal revisions taking place before our very eyes. “Free agency” is now recast as “moral agency” or simply “agency,” the upshot being we’re only free if we choose correctly, otherwise we’re in bondage to sin. And “Satan’s plan” is now a disfavored concept, the new understanding being that there was only one plan, God’s plan, which Satan opposed or attempted to undermine. A minor doctrinal revision which seems to have stalled was the attempt to define God’s love as conditional rather than unconditional.

  27. Bob Caswell says:

    Dave, those are all fine examples, but you haven’t addressed some of my initial questions:

    “So now that we know what Mormonism isn’t, what might it be?”

    “…in the context of the Church as a whole, isn’t “continuing revelation” rather limited to those who have the authority?”

    “In the context of the Church as a whole, what things can we change ourselves and still be part of Mormonism. Anything, everything?”

    As I haven’t heard any answers to these questions, the thread, for me, has yet to be spoiled.

  28. “…in the context of the Church as a whole, isn’t “continuing revelation” rather limited to those who have the authority?”

    Yes. Only those with authority can receive continuing revelation for the Church as a whole. So we can get that out of the way.

    Thank goodness you didn’t ask whether continuing revelation received by those in authority is the only motor of change in the Church!!

  29. Dave,

    Is it possible that the move from “Satan’s Plan” is an attempt to hide the fact that BYU is implementing it? :)

  30. Bob Caswell says:

    Steve, you’re one for three… But you picked the easiest of my three questions. I dare you to answer the other ones!

  31. Bob, the rest of your questions are too vague. Are you talking about how much crazy stuff can we believe and still go to the temple? Are you talking about how much coffee we can drink and still take the sacrament? For me, the remaining questions you have don’t mean much unless you root them in practice and define the boundaries of your inquiry.

  32. Bob Caswell says:

    So asking what Mormonism is, is too vague, huh? How’s this, what is Mormonism to you, Steve? Make up your own boundaries if you need to, but this whole time I thought you were the nebulous-cloud man!

  33. H.L. : “Thus we put aside certain elements of our scepticism and accept absolutist knowledge at a certain level”

    That’s I think an incorrect phraseology, although you’re right on. What really happens, I think, is that we disregard skepticism on points below a certain threshold, and consider them as facts for everyday purposes. That’s not the same thing as admitting the presence of absolutist knowledge, but has a similar end…. what do you think?

    p.s. new around here H.L.? Welcome!

  34. I think you’re right. I wonder though when we accept them as facts for everyday purposes, is there a functional difference between accepting them as absolutist unless we have a mental caveat. Like: I am merely acepting this now as a necessary tool for functioning in everyday life but I know in actuality that I do not know this fact, nor can I even actually know it in an absolutist way.I suppose I would be interested in any practical ways the two ideas lead to different ends (as you say they lead to similar ends) what would the differences be as I doubt any of us use a mental caveat on a practical level.

  35. BTW I am new. Matt Parke invited me to party. I suppose as a happier friendlier element to combat all the cold mean NYC dwellers on the blog.

  36. Bob,

    I don’t mean to imply there’s no “ultimate” truth and that we should all join the moral relativism club.

    Since it was made on a “Grant Palmer” thread, my point was merely that it isn’t fair for people to accuse someone like Palmer of turning his back on clearly established truths. Given the changes over the years involving our most fundamental doctrines (Jehovah as Christ, comes to mind), there’s room for discussion.

    Having said that, it doesn’t mean we don’t learn something or come to a fairly final conclusion. On the other thread, I pointed out that Joseph Smith progressed in his own knowledge of what his calling is. I’m not suggesting that means he’s a fraud. It means that when we have certain assumptions, we perceive the truth differently.

    How long did the Church assume that the Book of Mormon took place on the entire American continent? That’s changed. Most indicative of all, is the changes to the temple ceremony. We have the temple’s sacredness drilled into us since birth. We’re told how important it is, how essential it is to salvation. And yet, just 15 years ago, major changes were made (and not for the first time). It does mean the door is open, I think. But it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from revelation and come to an idea of what some truth might be.

  37. HL, first of all I don’t think it’s a conscious mechanism for most issues. But for those points where we may consciously consider these things, I think it’s good to understand that you only consider these things as practical considerations, because there is a crucial element of humility involved in recognizing the transitory nature of human knowledge. We can be awfully arrogant otherwise, I think.

  38. I think the reinterpreters are much too enthusiastic sometimes; like the Barlow example I gave on the other thread, they seem willing to assign major implications to (e.g.) journal entries that can be interpreted in a host of ways, including the orthodox way, and then get haughty or hurt when their subjective interpretation is rejected. Now, I get hurt and haughty, too, when my interpretation is rejected, but I’m not going to accuse anyone of anti-intellectualism or of being blind, frightened hillbillies and so forth. Orthodox believers need to realize that they are standing on very solid ground, historically speaking, and that naturalistic interpretations of Church history are highly debatable to say the least.

  39. john fowles says:

    Steve wrote, Actually, what I think this thread really amounts to is just a reiteration of what man’s nothingness is compared to God.

    That is a very true observation but it does not mandate an acceptance that maybe JS was deluded or flat-out lying. In other words, it seems that some things must be static. Sure, they can lead to further light and knowledge that we can’t even imagine right now; but that further light and knowledge doesn’t have to change what amount of truth that we already have or reveal that certain origin-claims are actually fraudulent. Yes, the prophets are only people and make mistakes, but does that necessitate skepticism in what JS taught? I think that Bob has a very good example with the notion of God’s and Jesus’s bodies and the Holy Ghost not having one. I am puzzled by Steve’s ambivalence on that point (we don’t know how deep that goes)–after all, that doctrine really is pretty straightforward.

  40. JF, to whom are you objecting? No one’s suggested “an acceptance that maybe JS was deluded or flat-out lying.” You’re swatting at imaginary enemies. Perhaps a different thread?

    As for my ‘ambivalence’, perhaps you’d care to elucidate us on how the doctrine of a physical God is straightforward. Describe Him, perhaps. An exalted man, you might reply. Let’s leave the adjective aside for now. Caucasian? Tall? Bald? No, all we know is “perfect.” Well, that’s not really going to help us, is it? What about exalted? Again, that only has meaning in relationship to other concepts, the fulness of which is not yet available. So, all these doctrines (that you insist must be static) are only straightforward so long as you’re content to remain with ambiguities and zero points of reference. Further light and knowledge can mean a completely different vision of things — we shouldn’t be so cocky.

    Generally, JF, you’re confusing skepticism with intellectual humility. Perhaps that is why outsiders take Mormons to be arrogant — we put forward personal interpretations of doctrinal certainties as objective reality, and personal revelations as the Truth.

  41. Steve: Is there something less virtuous, fine, poetic, sophisticated, balanced, etc., in simply believing that “God has a body of flesh and bones” means “God has a body of flesh and bones,” especially when Joseph has given me no cause to doubt him (differing accounts of the First Vision, biblical passages in the Book of Mormon, etc., notwithstanding–taken in context with Joseph’s whole accomplishment and human nature in general, these examples are interesting, enriching historical gnats)? In other words, what is wrong with the straightforward, party-line view, given the fact that I have looked at the same stuff you and John H have (so long as I do not try to force it down your smart, sincere, saintly throats)? There have been plenty of party-line fellows (e.g. Cardinal Newman) who have managed to be subtle and prodigious and useful in spite of themselves; perhaps it’s simply a matter of temperament?

  42. That being said, I do not pretend to know what color God’s skin and hair are, what He wears, how tall He is, etc.

  43. Kingsley, you’re right of course: there’s nothing wrong in simply believing that “God has a body of flesh and bones.” I happen to believe it, too. I don’t doubt Joseph Smith.

    Nor is nothing wrong with the party line — I believe that, as well (with a few minor tweaks — but everybody has those).

    In fact, I’m not sure why you think that I have some sort of problem with conventional mormon thought at all. Rather, I would think that it’s the converse; lots of conventional mormons have a problem with the non-conventional ones. Maybe that’s just perception and temperament, though.

    The fact of the matter is that if we all sat down at a table about it, we’d probably all come out very similarly on all of these individual issues. My only real point here is that while we should have faith and believe in our Church, we might also want to be humble and aware that we aren’t nearly as smart (or sincere, or saintly) as we normally think we are.

  44. er…. nor is anything wrong with the party line…

  45. Steve: I would be interested in your response to my Barlow example on the other thread. Oftentimes I read a claim about Joseph that fits in well with the naturalist view, and then, upon following the footnote, find little (or no) support for the claim. In other words, I love complexity and critical distance as much as the next fellow (I have read Ulysses 20 times, for heaven’s sake), but in reading Church history I constantly find that the “orthodox” interpretation is by far the most defensible. You and D. Fletcher are in the same ward? I may be in Manhattan this summer–perhaps we could do lunch.

  46. Steve, I’m not sure John is the one confusing intellectual humility (fallibilism) with skepticism. But I suspect, in advance, that there will be a large divide on how people come down on that.

  47. Clark, you can’t accuse me of not being intellectually humble! What other options do I have? Fallibility is my mainstay.

    Or, if you’re really being serious, please let me know where I’ve gone wrong. On this thread, at least, I’ve tried to be pretty reasonable about things…

  48. Steve, you told me once that you can’t think of a single Mormon doctrine that is immutable — that Pres. Hinckley could receive a revelation tomorrow turning upside down the current understanding of any single aspect of doctrine and/or scripture. All is up for grabs. Such is the nature of continuing revelation.

    That led us to mull over the question of whether there is any change that would be too radical for the majority of church members today to accept all at once. There are a number of potential changes that fall in that basket. Is there any change that could not be introduced very gradually? I say no.

  49. Right Wendy — as I recall we were talking about what could happen vs. what was most likely to happen. In the early days of the church those two fields overlapped each other a lot more, I suppose, for reasons mentioned above. Interesting, though…

  50. A close relative flipped out when Elder Holland (along with the First Pres., I’m sure) decided, as an experiment, to change the three-hour Sunday block to a two-hour affair in Chile (my brother is serving his mission there); said, “What does that tell you about the state of the Saints!” etc., never mind the fact that it was the Brethren’s and not the Saint’s decision. I was surprised by his reaction, because he’s as party-line as they come (he considers me to be a great radical). Joseph complained (or was it Brigham?) that the Saints flew apart like glass whenever some new doctrine or practice was introduced, a blemish that’s probably not changed with time; but I would say that Sunstoners and Ensigners are equally guilty of it.

  51. D. Fletcher says:

    The black/priesthood revelation/change happened pretty quickly. There were some people that left the Church over that, but not really too many.

    Something I’ve been thinking about though: when I had my traumatic episode last spring, I was literally overwhelmed by supportive emails from anti-Mormons. I think the Web, these blogs, might be the Church’s next big hurdle (after same-sex marriage). Information, real and all-too-false, travels very fast here and now. What would the Church do if, say, 25% of its members suddenly waved digital goodbye one day? If a letter was found from Joseph Smith, saying something like “I made up the Book of Mormon to empower myself,” all it would take is one blog “revelation” and there might be mass exodus.

    It’s just too big and too quick for the Church leaders to control, soon enough to extinguish any fires.

  52. john fowles says:

    Steve, here’s all I pretend to know: God has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s but the Holy Ghost does not have a body of flesh and bones, were it not so, he could dwell within each of us. The point is, regardless of the things we don’t know about the nature of God, we know this much and my point was that there is no basis for us to assume that subsequent revelation might change this. I was just supporting Bob’s example, and my comment of “ambivalence” came from what appeared to be your refutation that we really know anything about the nature of God. The record that we have simply does not support that view.

    I think it is interesting that you are focusing on intellectual humility. From my perspective, the “doubters” are not approaching these issues from a position of intellectual humility but rather are exalting their own intellect and reason to ferret out what the Gospel is “really” about rather than following Church leaders. I mean this sincerely: don’t you think that following Church leaders and subscribing to the “official party line” of the Church as the official definition of Mormonism (to return to Bob’s post) is more intellectually humble than figuring out if JS really ever did see an angel or translate anything?

  53. john fowles says:

    D. asked If a letter was found from Joseph Smith, saying something like “I made up the Book of Mormon to empower myself,” all it would take is one blog “revelation” and there might be mass exodus.

    That would only be right. If such a letter turned up people would be justified to leave. After all, it would mean that affirmative fraud (and not even mere delusion) were the basis of this Church. I know that many believe that already, but I side with Kingsley in thinking that their historical grounds for such a belief are far less secure than they make them out to be.

  54. JF, there’s probably no shortage of pride on both sides…

  55. Bob Caswell says:

    D., pardon me if I’m reading too much into your comment, but it sounds like you’re treating the Church like a business trying to retain its customers after a hypothetical faulty product when out… even though such faulty product has not yet been produced (i.e. JS’s made up BOM letter).

    Is writing about issues we have in the Church not good enough? We need to theorize on how the eventual downfall of the Church would happen?

  56. Bob Caswell says:

    “there’s probably no shortage of pride on both sides…”

    The cool thing to say at this point, of course, is “That’s why I like to think of myself as being in the middle.” Even though in reality I have no idea which side I’m on…

  57. These sort of “what if” questions can be extended to anything, ad nauseam: What if when your mother dies you find a hidden box of letters which proves she was a prostitute for fifteen years in Hong Kong? Would your idea of her change then, buster? Would it? Huh?

  58. There’s a difference between being intellectually humble and intellectually dishonest. If you find evidence that makes you think that your belief is incorrect, it’s not humble, but dishonest to pretend that you still believe in the way you did before. You either have to come up with some intellectual reconciliation, or else you have to revise your belief in some way. It won’t do to just say “I’m a humble believer, so damn the cognitive dissonance; I’m going to ignore contradictory evidence.” God is not going to be any more pleased with those who didn’t use their brains than he is going to be with those who didn’t use their hearts.

  59. john fowles says:

    Kristine, I agree with that. It’s why, in my opinion, cognitive dissonance is part of our experience on earth. It brings things down to faith.

    I still wonder, however, whether it is really accurate to say that the “doubters” are intellectually humble precisely because of where their doubts take them intellectually. That seems counter-intuitive to me because it really does seem more humble to subordinate your intellect to the Church’s official stance than to refute the Church’s stance (built, claims the Church, on revelation) based on one’s own reasoning.

    My point was independent of your assertion regarding intellectual dishonesty. I was never suggesting that if D.’s letter from JS were found, that it would be more intellectually humble to stick with the Church’s claims. That would indeed be intellectually dishonest. That is a different situation from e.g. the apparent absence of horses on the continent and their mention in the BoM though.

  60. In my experience, whatever position I take is the most intellectually humble. Thus, for an apologist, the Church’s official stance is the most humble.

  61. Bob Caswell says:

    That’s funny, Steve, in my experience, whatever position I take seems to be the most prideful! Maybe that’s the only constant in the Church, pride! :-)

  62. Steve, what I mean is that the distinction between fallibilism and skepticism is one of doubt. With fallibilism it seems one recognizes intellectually one might be wrong but doubts one is wrong. With skepticism I’d say one recognizes intellectually one might be right but doubts one is right.

    But all of that begs the question of what one believes and how seriously one believes it. If one takes the position that any doctrine one ostensibly has a commitment to might be wrong and then takes that “might be wrong” seriously to the point of basically doubting then I think one is a skeptic and not just a fallibilist.

    I’m not going to say where I think this is happening. I’d just say that in the post Palmer discussions in many forums I’ve noticed a common argument that is along the lines of “well it might be wrong since these other doctrines changed in understanding.” This reminds me of some responses to science which will do things like put labels on textbooks that something is “just an other theory.”

    At what point is our commitment to an idea really a commitment?

    It seems to me that intellectual humility or pride consist not in terms of what beliefs one has or what evidence one has but how one reacts to it. If one sits on them contentedly, then I think one is prideful. If one continues to seek, recognizing that inquiry is a never finished process, then I think one is humble. But I recognize that isn’t the way we normally think of it.

  63. John, I think we probably actually believe in the same process; we just have a different standard for how much one has to accept. That is, I have plenty of questions about Book of Mormon historicity–the DNA stuff is interesting, B.H. Roberts’ questions are interesting, there are lots of things that don’t make sense to me intellectually. However, I think I can submit to the broader claim of the Church–that the book was divinely inspired, and transmitted through the prophetic gift of Joseph Smith, and that it is important for bringing me to Christ–without necessarily believing that it is an entirely accurate account in every particular. You seem to think that humility requires just throwing up my hands and saying “well, Elder _____ says it’s an absolutely factual and complete historical account, so that’s what I must believe, and what everyone else must believe if they’re going to belong to this Church.” On your view, my choosing to reject any authoritative statement that conflicts with what I think is evidence of pride.

    Is that a fair statement of your position?

  64. Bob Caswell says:

    “…divintely inspired, and transmitted…”

    I’ve never seen anything so carefully worded in my life! I think, Kristine, that the “broader claim of the Church” is also that book is not fiction. Now, when you start throwing around words like “absolutely” and “complete”… I’m with you.

  65. Actually let me add to the above since I think it and my prior comment may have come off harsher than what I intended by their meaning.

    The issue basically is that some think humility entails accepting we may be wrong and then acting upon that knowledge. i.e. of our wrongness. I didn’t mean to imply anyone was saying something terribly out of line.

  66. Bob, I’m getting the sense that “carefully worded” is not a compliment here. Right?

    I agree that part of the claim is that it’s not divinely inspired fiction, but even that leaves some wiggle room for lit. crit. geeks like me :)

  67. Bob, for a liberal-minded blogger you’re awfully conservative about this stuff.

  68. Bob Caswell says:

    Steve, honestly, I’ve felt like there was some memo that went around reminding everyone how to be a good liberal; and I somehow got left off the mailing list. No, but really, as I’m coming closer to understanding the intricacies of some of the questions I’ve asked, I’m willing to accept the title of “that one conservative liberal over at BCC”.

    It’s funny, because I’m totally liberal when I’m anywhere else. But something about the way everyone here is sort of expected to think the same way (i.e. be liberal) makes me want to challenge the conventional wisdom of a place like BCC…Even if by challenging, I find out that I may think similarly. It’s just that I have to find out in my own way.

  69. John H.: Given the changes over the years involving our most fundamental doctrines (Jehovah as Christ, comes to mind), there’s room for discussion.

    Is that a measure of how little we have really ever known, or is it more a measure of our advancement into apostasy?

  70. You are all damn liberals, all of you. I am off to watch SpongeBob Squarepants, who espouses all the highest qualities of true Latter-day Saints: perpetual, unthinking cheerfulness, sincere, teary-eyed, open-mouthed shock at unkind behavior in others (no matter how often he sees it), an unwavering belief in Santa Clause, a shiny clean house, a white shirt and tie, a job that he loves, and, for an eternal mate, a slimy meowing slug. Viva Bush.

  71. … a slimy, pacific, cookie-addict meowing slug. Now: just cast your mental eye round your Elders Quorum or Relief Society and tell me I’m wrong.

  72. You know, this may reveal a very corny thing about me, but all I have to do to feel my faith in the Church renewed is listen to God’s choir sing “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing.” Just once, and I’m with Brigham: “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph …”

  73. Kingsley, “Redeemer of Israel” has the same effect on me.

    (Alas, God’s choir is the Harvard Glee Club, and they never sing Mormon stuff)

  74. MoTab did a rendition of “Come, Come Ye Saints” for the Sesquicentennial (? there was, like, an ox skull on the CD cover) years back that sort of floored me.

  75. D. Fletcher says:

    That’s the Leroy Robertson arrangement of “Come Come Ye Saints.” We sang it at Madison Square Garden for that Hinckley hoohah a few years ago — I was the organist, and it’s a bitch to play that accompaniment (written for orchestra) on the organ. We also did “Redeemer of Israel” that day, the Mack Wilberg one I think Kristine speaks of. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is also Wilberg, though in this case I’m a bit partial to my own arrangement, which can be heard on Ariel Bybee’s disk, “Eternal Day.”

  76. If Elder Holland is implementing two-hour church in areas that he has authority to do so, then I nominate him to be in charge of New England next! I also suggest that his assignment change so as to follow any relocations that my family might experience.

  77. john fowles says:

    Kristine wrote On your view, my choosing to reject any authoritative statement that conflicts with what I think is evidence of pride.

    I’m not really saying that it is evidence of pride, just that it is not, as Steve has suggested, evidence of intellectual humility.

  78. “Is that a measure of how little we have really ever known, or is it more a measure of our advancement into apostasy?”

    I think it’s neither. I think it’s just how it is. I don’t like the idea that we know very little. But again, what exactly are we supposed to be “knowing,” anyway? We portray God as the great Pez Dispenser of Truth, dolling out bits when he sees fit, or when we’re spiritually “ready” for it. All of our assumptions about truth then flows from this assumption about God. Perhaps it’s more complicated than that, or that it doesn’t quite work that way.

    It kind of goes back to the discussion of why middle-of-the-roaders aren’t liked by either side. The faithful don’t like the idea that something not only changed and progressed, but might have progressed for cultural reasons rather than revelation (the Word of Wisdom, for example). But non-believers don’t understand why, with that kind of “evidence” one doesn’t just face the music and throw in the towel. Both approaches seem oversimplified to me.

  79. Bob Caswell says:

    “…might have progressed for cultural reasons rather than revelation (the Word of Wisdom, for example)…”

    John H., I like your latest comment with the oversimplified bit… But then the part I quoted above was just because I wanted to nitpick a little… There are some of us who believe the Word of Wisdom (or what have you) is probably based on both culture and revelation.

    For example, when I make decisions in this life, I usually evaluate my options within my own context [culture], and then when I’m ready, I ask God to see if I’m on the right track. What I’m trying to say is that I think there are a lot of things in the Church (home teaching is another example) that aren’t exactly what God might have done had he been here himself… But when the brethren come up with ideas based on their own realm of experience… I bet God thinks, “that’s not quite what I’d do, but I can see how it’ll probably work just fine, so I’ll let it fly.” In other words, I bet most things that come from the brethren originated from the brethren and are endorsed by God, rather than originating from God and endorsed by the brethren. Of course, with all my explaining, I’m sure I’m oversimplifying too…

  80. john fowles says:

    Bob wrote What I’m trying to say is that I think there are a lot of things in the Church (home teaching is another example) that aren’t exactly what God might have done had he been here himself

    Very good point.

  81. John H.
    You said:”Given the changes over the years involving our most fundamental doctrines (Jehovah as Christ, comes to mind), there’s room for discussion.”
    As a matter of interest what was our doctrine regarding Jehovah prior to the one we have now?

  82. I don’t see that the fact that there have been any number of major changes in the past means that everything is potentially open to change. Certainly, as a logical matter everything is open to change simply because I have the ability to imagine it otherwise, as opposed to say my ability to imagine square circles. However, I don’t think that change in x, y, and z serves as evidence per se one way or another about whether there are non-logical limits on the possibility of q. Perhaps there is some theory that generates the conclusion that major changes in the past means that any logically possible change in the future is not in fact foreclosed by some metaphysical constraint. But the very ability to generate such a theory seems inconsitent with the basic claim about the universal possibility of change.

    Of course, if we are making a claim about our knowledge, then the claim is less controversial but even here I think that we have more traction on the problems that some have suggested. As Clarke points out fallibilism does not necessarily translate into skepticism. Furthermore, if we grant that Mormonism is intelligible at some level, then it seems to me that we must also grant that there are better and worse interpretations of Mormonism. This, it seems to me, allows us to suggest that certain possible revisions needn’t be taken all that seriously even if there is no logical bar to them and even if we aren’t certain of the countrours of any metaphysical contraints.

    This is hardly absolutism, of course, but it seems like an awfully long way from skepticisms. It seems to me that we can be functionally certain, if you will, about certain things, even if we disagree about what those things are.

  83. Larry:

    Boyd Kirkland argues in his article that there is no evidence that Joseph Smith taught that Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, is Jesus Christ. Joseph appears to have taught and believed that Jehovah was God the Father. Brigham Young took that doctrine a bit farther, arguing that Elohim is God the Grandfather, and that Jehovah is God the Father (which ties into Adam-God).

    The article appears in Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine and another article specifically on Jehovah was in Sunstone, August 1984.

  84. John H.,

    Thank you for the reference.
    If you look at the original copy of the BofM you will see the references, currently referring to the Son of God in Nephi, actually referring to the Father.
    Now, we can either take this as a change in doctrine in later printings, or we can understand the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son. That is, that the Saviour is a substitute for the Father in the atonement process and therefore any statement regarding the Son can just as easily read Father and vice versa.
    As for the Adam-God Theory put forward by Brigham Young, I will leave that up to Brigham to explain, but I suspect the same principle of substitution will apply there as well.

  85. I have to remark, vis a vis:

    How long did the Church assume that the Book of Mormon took place on the entire American continent? That’s changed.

    that Bruce R’s father-in-law as a young man debated in favor of that position and against the alternative. My first mission companion back in the mid-70s was a big fan of the multiple hill cumorah theories.

    Though it is also interesting the different responses some posters would have if God told them “this is MY Church” and what that would mean vis a vis doctrines and authority.

%d bloggers like this: