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.