History and Theology

It is often said that, in place of a theology, Mormonism has a history. In fact, of course, Mormonism has many histories and many historiographies. Yet if there is plurality in our history, there is far more in our theology. Few, if any, major questions of theology are really permanently settled in Mormon thought. The Mormon tradition presents believers with a range of possible theological stances regarding the godhead, the atonement of Jesus Christ, the meaning and nature of revelation, the source and scope of priesthood, the nature of family, post-mortal life, the authoritativeness of scripture, and virtually every other important question. Ongoing debates among Mormons regarding the advisability of developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or the possible conditionality of God’s love, are instances of this general state of theological openness.

Under these circumstances, I think it is logical and comprehensible that people seek answers to questions about God and faith in our past. The historical record may not be univocal or uncontested, but it is publicly accessible in a way that directly theological resolutions to many religious issues are not in Mormonism. Even so, this recourse to history to answer theological questions stands in need of some consideration. Does the past contain definitive answers about God in a way that present experience does not? Are the beliefs and practices of the earliest Mormons more authoritative, closer to an original divine truth than those of current Mormons?

There is certainly an attraction to saying that the past holds answers for the present. Most Mormons today seem to report relatively little charismatic experience, while we tend to imagine the years of Joseph Smith’s life, in particular, as a time when the divine routinely intruded into the mundane. If there are differences in beliefs and practice between now and then, it is easy to conclude that the experience of the past must be the better of the two. Gordon B. Hinckley has occasionally made remarks suggesting that he shares this perspective of the Joseph Smith years as a time when revelation and theological information was far more readily available than at the present. In two separate 1997 interviews, Hinckley made remarks along these lines:

Let me say first that we have a great body of revelation, the vast majority of which came from the prophet Joseph Smith. We don’t need much revelation. We need to pay more attention to the revelation we’ve already received. (Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Interview, April 13, 1997, by Don Lattin)

Now we don’t need a lot of continuing revelation. We have a great, basic reservoir of revelation. (Compass Interview with Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, aired Nov. 9, 1997)

In some tension with this point of view is the idea of continuing revelation, of a God who continually reveals Himself in line with the changing needs of His people. Revelation may have ceased, or slowed to a relative trickle, among Mormons since Joseph Smith’s day. But if so, our scriptures condemn us:

…if these things have ceased, then has faith ceased also; and awful is the state of man, for they are as though there had been no redemption made. (Moroni 7:38)

If we do believe in continuing revelation, then an argument can easily be made that changes since the earliest days of Mormonism have God’s hand in them. In fact, such an argument is routinely made about the development of the priesthood. Likewise, advocates of limited Book of Mormon geographies generally claim that the probable support of Joseph Smith, and the manifest support of several of his contemporaries, for a hemispheric reading of the Book of Mormon is not authoritative and simply reflects the limited understanding of the time.

This reading of our history as not being an authoritative source when the beliefs of the past differ with those of the present is consistent with the widely cited scriptural statement that theological knowledge grows “line upon line, precept upon precept” (see Isaiah 28:10, 13, where this model of revelation seems to be a punishment for wickedness and a means to the destruction of Jerusalem; see also 2 Nephi 28:30, D&C 98:12, and D&C 128:21, where the text assumes its more familiar positive meanings). If God speaks gradually over time, a bit here and a bit there as we are prepared to receive it, then it seems reasonable to assume that present practices and beliefs are — at least potentially — superior to those of Joseph Smith’s day. But if this is the case, then it follows that history is not a reliable source of theology at all, since historical precedent will always bend to current belief and practice.

This is a coherent belief system, and yet I worry that it is inadequately attentive to the possibility that some changes from the past may be due to culture or even simple error rather than the workings of God’s hand. Even so, I favor a second account of why history should usually not be seen as a resource for theological argumentation. Let us suppose (counterfactually, I think) that the Saints of Joseph Smith’s day knew God’s mind on all important issues of the day and in all particulars. Notwithstanding the existence of a time of perfect knowledge, we would still need new theology today. There are two major reasons for this.

First, our questions today are not generally the questions that were foremost in Joseph Smith’s time. For example, in the 19th century, the theology of the family was, of course, an issue — but the issue then involved whether families should include only one or more than one wife, not how to adjust to single-parent families, approach emergent societal acceptance of same-sex couples, or react to the manifold theological dilemmas associated with feminist claims. Furthermore, Joseph Smith’s question about God was which church He approved of — not whether He exists at all given the availability of irreligious explanations for the origins of life and the universe. New questions demand new theology, and perhaps new revelation. A turn to history simply will not, in itself, suffice.

Second, even where our questions are the same as those of Joseph Smith’s days, our language and systems of concepts are not. We do not share a culture with the earliest Mormons, although our culture is obviously in some respects descended from theirs. We lack many of the networks of meanings and associations that they had readily at hand. As a result, our words are not their words, and to at least some extent our minds are not their minds. The theological task of interpreting God’s answers for people who think with 21st-century American minds and speak 21-century American words is inevitable and can never be circumvented by a recourse to the past.

All of this is not to say that history and theology should go their separate ways. Instead, my argument is that we ought to have a certain modesty about the theological questions we expect our history to answer. The record of the past cannot tell us what God is; only God can do that. Documents in the archives cannot tell us the right, or the better, system of beliefs or practices. However, those documents can preserve for us a sense of the multiplicity of beliefs and practices that the Saints have found useful in one place or another. History does not answer theological questions, but it does something almost as good: it raises new questions by reminding us that our way has not been the only way. That is, I think, all the theology we can ask of our history — but it is perhaps enough.


  1. JNS,

    Good post. It is interesting to contrast the LDS search for theology in our early history with the wider Christian search for theology in the early Christian church. Time has a tendency to narrow the playing field in Mormonism and elsewhere. It takes time for various doctrines to take shape and then be renounced as heretical. It seems to me that in both places (the early Christian church and the early LDS church) we find examples that broaden our understanding of what directions our theology might go. Yet it seems that Mormonism, in general, is more enthusiastic about finding out about the odd theological ideas people held in the early Mormon church than the Christian world is, in general, about finding out the odd theological ideas held by first century Christians.

    By the way, is it just me, or has BCC been mega slow for the past week?

  2. JNS, great essay. I’m a little more sanguine about history, in part because I study it, but in part because I think it’s a useful exercise to attempt to inhabit another’s mind from across a distance.

    Also, by way of historical accuracy, the claim that antebellum Americans were not dealing with atheistic explanations of life’s origins is simply incorrect. The threat of deism/atheism/infidelity was real and quite frightening for them. God’s answer to Smith’s quest for forgiveness and a true church was also a response to a deep anxiety for antebellum Christians: God truly existed. The arguments of evangelicals today haven’t changed much in the last two hundred years, to be honest.

  3. “We need to pay more attention to the revelation we’ve already received.”

    Have you ever thought that maybe this is the reason revelation has slowed to a trickle, hence Moroni’s condemnation.

  4. I just realized I might not have been clear. By “mega slow” I was referring to the amount of time after I click on a link until I see the post.

  5. What if the lesson of Mormon history is that the perceived failures of the Latter-day Saints in the short run ultimately lead to successes in the long run? Wouldn’t this lead to some dissatisfaction in the present and create the appearance of more authentic religion in the past? At the same time, shouldn’t this apparent need to find God’s hand through hindsight give us pause as we presume to know better than the people of the past?

  6. Doc (#3),

    I’m glad you singled out that phrase.

    “We need to pay more attention to the revelation we’ve already received.”

    That is not a simple problem to address given the Church’s recent statements that “Much misunderstanding about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revolves around its doctrine” and “Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church.”

  7. Jacob, yes, there have been some server challenges at BCC this week.

    I’m actually unsure whether doctrinal variety reduces over time in Christianity — there seems to be really a fair amount today — or in Mormonism, for that matter. While some belief systems are clearly off limits in modern Mormonism, a vast and perhaps slowly expanding array are not.

    Sam, I agree that the quest to understand very different minds is a worthwhile one. But the task of translating religious ideas across such cultural divides seems to require theological interpretation, with the related precommitments. The best we can hope, I think, is for a constructive hermeneutic cycle here, where ideas about God and religion inform history which in turn suggests possibilities about God and truth. History in such an endeavor wouldn’t be a substitute for theology, but a partner of it. And then there remain the fundamental problems of category: what was believed or done is a question of a different type than what is eternally true.

    Obviously, atheistic accounts of the universe have been around for a pretty long time. My claim above was that Joseph Smith seemed not to be considering such accounts when he prayed, which is — I think — historically accurate. Furthermore, I don’t think most people who doubt the existence of God today would find what I think is the most direct rebuttal to atheism in Smith’s body of revelations (Alma 30:44) at all satisfactory. While atheistic arguments were indeed available, they seem not to have been a major focus of Smith’s religious thought — and our stock of theological responses to this family of arguments, questions, and concerns is a bit sparse and in need of renovation.

    Sterling, I think that’s a helpful suggestion indeed.

  8. This is a great post, RT. I tend to give history more weight in theological matters, however. I don’t think that starting with a blank slate each generation is possible or advisable. In many ways, our theology is tied to narrative and narrative is (or can be) the story of history.

    For Mormons, we have lots of resources for parsing our history and while I don’t think that freezing the Church at 1844, or any other time is healthy (it is a living Church after all), approaching Joseph Smith’s conceptions of, say, the endowment can and should have an effect on our theological narrative. I believe that there are few (can’t think of any) theological topics that can’t be flavored by history.

    History in this case may constrain theology…but this is wear your appeal to revelation is quite important. Perhaps we do live in a time when the pattern of questioning God for revolutionary answers is past (at least for a time). The result is that any expansions lay on a personal plane.

  9. Name (required) says:

    From #7:

    I don’t think most people who doubt the existence of God today would find what I think is the most direct rebuttal to atheism in Smith’s body of revelations (Alma 30:44) at all satisfactory.

    I know that the Alma 30:44 rebuttal doesn’t do anything for me. In the past there may have been atheistic ideas. People wouldn’t be able to explain certain things (creation, life, weather) and some would use God as part of the explanation. Others would find the ‘God story’ too hard to swallow, but wouldn’t necessarily be able to come up with a better story. Things are different now. Now its seems that there is a fairly complete scientific explanation for many of these questions. The details of the science are constantly being tweaked, but the basic theory is fairly well established. If there is modern revelation, I’d love it if it was able to produce a modern rebuttal of atheistic ideas. I’ve tried praying like Lamoni and his father (‘Oh God, if there is a God, reveal yourself to me’) and I didn’t have the same type of experience that is found in the book of mormon.

    This topic is an excellent one to discuss. If you talked with missionaries or read some conference talks, you would get the impression that the church has all the answers. When you dig down into various issues, it seems like the church really doesn’t offer any answers at all. I used to feel sorry for clergy in other churches that would openly admit that they really didn’t know what happens after death. Now I feel like our church is in the same boat.

  10. #9 – Yeah, all of my spiritual experiences that can’t be explained satisfactorily certainly don’t hold up to the basic theory of science that has settled the question so well. I’m a little sorry for my response, but this is one where my natural sarcasm simply can’t be suppressed – since the last paragraph is so over the top as to be almost a caricature.

  11. Name (required) says:

    #10 – You were being sarcastic? I do appreciate that you told me–I wouldn’t have known otherwise. (Am I being sarcastic here or not? Its hard to tell sometimes.) I’d appreciate it if you’d be a little more clear in your response. I’m not exactly sure what it is that you take issue with.

    Actually, Alma 30:44 is IMO an example of one of the great problems with the book of mormon. If Mormon ‘saw our day’, he would have seen that Alma 30:44 wouldn’t be satisfactory for the people of today. It may have been satisfactory for the people in the mid 1800’s, but not today. Thomas Paine seems to make a similar argument in ‘Age of Reason’. Its basically the Deist’s argument that evidence for God is found in nature around us. Its not all that persuasive today.

    Maybe mormon/moroni saw joseph smith’s day and put things in the book of mormon that related to his time, but I find that the book of mormon does a poor job of speaking to the issues of my day. Of course, certain issues (pride, prayer, charity, war) apply to all ages, but I find very little in the book of mormon that speaks specifically to the issues of today.

  12. walkinginthewoods says:

    Thank you for a well-written, thought-provoking essay–

    I think we are “evolving”–

    metamorphos(sp?)ing . . .

    would be better, perhaps–

    I don’t like “progressing”–ick!!!

    I believe that we are coming closer to other Christian practice and thought for a reason; I think God is pulling us all together–

    because we know that we aren’t going to be alone to greet Him when He (Jesus) comes–

    we are arrogant to suppose that we have a monopoly on righteousness (as Mormons or Christians or religionists of any type)–

    we have authority and ordinances, but we don’t have a corner on righteousness–


    anyway, that being said . . . I believe that becoming “born again” is not a coincidence; it is in the Book of Mormon, and while our grandparents’ generation may not have been comfortable with it, I believe it is MEANT to happen.

    As far as contradictions in what the *brethren* say, etc.–about revelation, etc.

    I think we talk entirely too much; most of us would be happier “working the ‘gospel'” (sorry to use ‘gospel’; it is ubiquitous, but it is what most Mormons understand)–

    we can’t work it, so we talk it–

    we live in and work in Babylon, and we talk Zion–

    and after a while, we get tangled up in our words–

    but sometimes words ARE worth reading, and yours were–

  13. J. Stapley, I certainly have a lot of respect for your position on this. Even so, I think there are some questions still to ask about what you have to say. I agree that narrative is and should be a central component of our theology (although it causes me some concern that our shared position on this point is so responsive to trends in academic theology in the broader Christian world!). However, I’m not entirely sure how close a correspondence there is between our history and our narratives. Certainly the narratives that drive our theology involve historical figures. Yet the normal practice of the Saints today is to use only heavily theologized accounts of our history when thinking about theology; the other, perhaps more multi-faceted, accounts are often reserved for history rather than for theology.

    To move the Saints away from this position and toward a stance in which history, rather than theological narratives, played a more central role in developing our religious ideas would require a more detailed argument. Why should we believe that the forgotten details and byroads of Joseph Smith’s era are a legitimate part of our theological narrative? Were they forgotten for a reason? How should we distinguish between the relatively unfamiliar aspects of Smith’s time that are to be forgotten — such as, perhaps, the aversion to professional medical care — and those that are to be maintained? What’s the basis for thinking that God’s voice to us is to be found in the obscurities of our past, rather than in the present? Answers to these questions may be possible, but I haven’t heard them worked through yet.

    I’d also ask whether it would be true that discovering Joseph Smith’s interpretation of a given point of theology necessarily constrains current theologizing? After all, there are ample theological resources within Mormonism for arguing that Smith’s views on points where there is a variety of perspectives are just one man’s position. I agree that reconstructing his perspectives and trying to translate them for 21st-century audiences is a useful endeavor (although a heavily theological and not purely a historical one). The same should be done for other thinkers, as well; we don’t have enough work yet on the theological lives of rank-and-file Mormons at different times in our past, and a variety of early leaders other than Smith provide us with theological positions worth exploring. Yet it seems to me that what history can offer on these points is not constraint to theology, but rather a removal of constraints: by reconstructing lost ideas about God and truth, history can offer additional positions, not yet considered in current times, to theology, thereby spurring religious creativity and, at times, a turn to revelation.

    Name (required), I think your plight is a more common one than we would perhaps like to admit. I feel that we as a church and a world desperately need theology and even revelation that responds to the growing number of people with your questions and doubts. It’s my statement of faith, or perhaps hope, that there are good answers. But I have little of a rational nature to offer you.

    Ray, yeah, this particular conflict of world views is a tricky one. My experience, like yours, is that there is a divine world that is accessed in non-rational ways but that is nonetheless real. On the other hand, I have to admit that science has non-theistic explanations, or perhaps better stated mechanisms, for many or most of the non-rational experiences that I interpret as divine. So it’s all in the interpretation, but the difference in interpretations seems irreconcilable.

    walkinginthewoods, I’m glad you liked my post. I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at, though.

  14. 9 – Just because something doesn’t have all the answers doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any. Don’t know if that sentence just made sense, so I’ll put it another way. Has science taught us the nature of the singularity before the big bang? What I’ve read would seem to suggest that it hasn’t. That doesn’t mean that science hasn’t given us any answers about the things that happen in the universe.

    11 – Hmmmm! So lessons on pride and war aren’t specific enough for the problems of our day, particularly here in America? Interesting.

    In reference to Pres. Hinckley’s quote about not needing new revelation, well, I would guess that he is not talking about personal revelation. I also think that if we were better at following personal revelation, God will grant us with greater revelations to be placed in our standard works. I’m particularly wondering when we’ll be able to read all the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon.

  15. Name,

    The most compelling argument coming out of Joseph’s revelations would have to his personal witness coupled with the Holy Spirit. Alma 30 does not hold a candle to that.

    Of course, speaking of Alma 30 and the world we see, I think the atheists have had to go out of their way to deal with the fact that even small tweaks in physical constants would mean no planetary bodies at all or, for that matter, no universe as we know it. Not that there aren’t great arguments to be made about how this all could work without divinity, just that those arguments don’t sound particularly more convincing than assuming God made the Universe. They end up being essentially an alternate, fairly lame, religion.

  16. Adam Greenwood says:

    Excellent post. I oscillate between thinking that all people everywhere are basically the same and between thinking that an almost impenetrable gulf can lie between different places and cultures. I mostly suspect that Joseph Smith’s Jacksonian America is a pretty foreign place to su.

  17. Name (required) says:

    14-When I implied in post #9 that the church doesn’t have answers, my intent was merely to echo what was said in the original essay:

    Few, if any, major questions of theology are really permanently settled in Mormon thought. The Mormon tradition presents believers with a range of possible theological stances regarding the godhead, the atonement of Jesus Christ, the meaning and nature of revelation, the source and scope of priesthood, the nature of family, post-mortal life, the authoritativeness of scripture, and virtually every other important question.

    In #11, I did not mean to imply that lessons about pride and war aren’t useful for our day. What I was implying is that I see no evidence that the book of mormon was written specifically for our day, as taught by ETB. War and pride exist in our day, but they existed abundantly in every age.

    #13-Its nice to have an occasional expression of empathy rather than just something like, ‘don’t be so stupid for doubting’ sort of response. Thanks. I would be interested in answers, though. Do they take requests at conference?

    #15-Joseph’s witness (first vision) would be quite compelling if story didn’t change as time went on. Richard Bushman describes Joseph as understanding more about his first vision as time went on. Those antagonistic to the church just come out and say that he fabricated details as time went on. In either case, the witness isn’t particularly strong when it changes over time and isn’t internally consistent.

    The witness of the Holy Spirit is good, but like is kind of like the ‘digestion’ that CS lewis talks about. I’ve seen a lot of people recieve witnesses about the spirit about false/contradictory ideas.

    Science has decent arguments for many things. The arguments are not flawless by any means, but I’ve found that if you can explain something fairly well with or without the use of god, the ‘without’ version tends to hold up better over time. Example: people used to get possessed by evil spirits all the time in the bible. Now people have epilepsy or other various disorders. The ‘evil spirits’ seemed to disappear when the real desease were discovered.

  18. Well, I can say from personal experience that critics of the LDS Church love to use this as a club to beat Mormons with.

    To them, our religion seems slippery, opportunistic, ever-changing, and even dishonest. Usually they cite the usual suspects: polygamy, racial policy, Adam-God… Journal of Discourses stuff…

    And I have to concede that they make a tough point to argue with, especially when they try to nail us down on stuff like the nature of God and eternity, our own divine destiny, and other stuff that usually is considered too “out there” for your bog-standard Mormon Gospel Doctrine class.

    Personally, I actually like a flexible theology that allows many differing opinions. But it drives counter-cultists absolutely bonkers. They take as just one more piece of evidence of the “grand Mormon fraud” as they see it.

    I’ve made the argument that Mormonism is more concerned with orthopraxy than orthodoxy, and that doctrinal tests should not be made the touchstone of one’s interface with the divine.

    But it still sounds weak, and I’m not really completely satisfied with my own arguments.

    Does God ultimately care about orthodoxy?

    If not, why? And if so, why doesn’t His Church have one?

    Shouldn’t the “true Church” have a working orthodoxy?

  19. Name (required),

    Your original comment expressing a desire for orthodoxy was a lot more compelling than your example of the “multiple First Vision accounts.” I’ve read them and the supposed inconsistencies are more illusory than real. The central narrative of the event is largely intact throughout all the accounts. Most changes can be easily explained by the circumstances and needs that each account was addressing and mere human error – our memories of events change over time.

    Ultimately the multiple accounts of the First Vision is one of those nit-picky and trivial accusations that are designed to do little more than annoy the reader without inherently proving anything of themselves. The hope of the anti-Mormons presenting the accusation is that it will possibly be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and undermines confidence in the target. But it’s still just a straw.

  20. Name (required) says:

    #19-I agree that there is some amount of nit-picking in the anti-mormon analysis of the first vision. Even apologists, though, like Bushman talk about Joseph originally understanding the first vision as a certain experience and then later understanding it as a different experience. I’m not trying to make this a major issue, I’m just responding to #15’s claim that it is the best evidence against atheism.

  21. 17 – the original post isn’t saying the Church doesn’t have any answers, just that the answers that we have aren’t 100% settled. You seem to be saying that because it doesn’t have it all settled, it doesn’t have any answers. That’s what I’m arguing against.

    I also would suggest that while “our day” has it’s own challenges, most of those challenges are probably related to those issues that “apply in all ages”. In that sense, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible and other scriptures, were written to give us the tools to deal with these issues.

    I do want to apologize if my first response (and this one) makes you feel stupid for doubting! 8) Sorry, couldn’t resist the play on words. I don’t think you are stupid for doubting. It also takes a brave person to go on a religiously inclined site and take an atheistic stance.

  22. Name (required) says:

    #21-Ok, the church has all the answers, but is not sure if any of the answers are correct. This line is a bit harsh, but if it is the case, it is almost like not having any answers.

    Don’t worry about making me feel stupid. I want to be made to feel stupid if what I belive is wrong. Just point me in the right direction (in some reasonable, logical manner) and I’ll be happy.

    I’m not really brave, and (believe it or not) I’m not really trying to take an atheistic stance–just the much more spinelss agnostic sort of stance.

  23. RT, I think that we agree more than we disagree. Your questions and concerns are all valid and I believe important. I think that, as you have said, to a traditional narrative, history doesn’t constrain theology, but actually cracks it wide open. This doesn’t mean to me that there are no limits. Basically, what I am saying is that history, sans revolutionary revelation, prevents us from extending too far.

    I realize that we probably disagree on this point.

  24. Name, I also didn’t mean to imply that you should feel stupid for doubting. Stupid has nothing to do with it. I simply think it is over-simplistic to claim that science has settled all the questions that religion tries to answer and that the Church has no answers.

    Even more than that, however, I bristle whenever I hear someone complain when we claim to know then turn around and complain when we claim that we don’t know for certain. It’s the inconsistency I can’t accept. Pick one stance to argue against and give us a snowball’s chance in Hell to make a good argument.

    You might be perfectly serious, but “Just point me in the right direction (in some reasonable, logical manner) and I’ll be happy,” sounds disingenuous when you won’t accept whatever stance we take.

    If we posit that the Church has all the answers, you won’t accept it and call us arrogant and deceived and blind; if we posit that it has the best answers available but they might not be perfect (like asserted in this post), you won’t accept it because you think we should be positing the first option; if we posit that the Church has better answers than anyone else, but nobody really knows, you will ridicule us in the same basic manner as with the second option; if we are untrue to our own convictions and experiences and take an agnostic stance, saying perhaps doctrine (including whether or not god really exists) doesn’t really matter but the social organization is wonderful, you might accept that – but it’s not what we feel and believe.

    All of that might not apply to you, and I apologize sincerely if I am wrong, but when I read comments that reject both an expression of certainty *and* expressions of non-certainty . . . I feel like I’m being asked if I still beat my wife. If you are as convinced in your agnosticism as I and others are in our theism, then it would be better all around simply to agree to disagree – which I am more than willing to do.

  25. Ray, are you sure you aren’t confusing this guy with a culmination of stuff you’ve gotten from other atheists/agnostics?

    Cause it seems to me that you are reading an awful lot into these posts that simply wasn’t said, or even implied.

  26. Name (required) says:



    a) I’m not claiming that science has all the answers. My original post said that the scientific answers are constantly being tweaked.

    b) I’ll stick to my point that if you have answers to questions, but you don’t know if your answers are correct, then you don’t really have any answers. If the answers are mostly correct, but might be off if a few minor details, then I would say that you DO have good answers.

    c) I’m not sure where I’ve been inconsistent. Please point that out to me.

    d) I don’t think that I’ve called anyone ‘arrogant and deceived and blind’. Sorry if I have.

    e) Maybe I mis-represented myself as an agnostic. I’m not a guy who doesn’t believe that it is possible to find absolute truth. I’m trying to find absolute truth–I’m just not sure if I’ve found it or not.

  27. Name, I do apologize then.

    It appeared that you were taking an atheistic stance, then you softened that by saying it was more of an agnostic stance. Your (b) and (e) change the whole discussion for me, since that is basically how I interpret “seeing through a glass darkly” – the ultimate measure of our understanding. Even with the insight of prophets, we still don’t see perfectly clearly – we still are a few clicks off in the optometrist’s office, limited by our own inability to see the big picture “face-to-face.” Thank you for making those clarifications.

    Again, probably another case where the words we are required to use in a forum like this (especially the fact that we are faced with space constraints) inhibit our ability to avoid misunderstanding.

  28. Name (required) says:

    Off topic–the ‘see through a glass darkly’ quote was on the Star Trek-Nemisis movie that I watched a couple of nights ago. It was made in reference to looking at your self, as if in a mirror (darken the back of glass and you get a mirror). I haven’t looked at the biblical context to see how that view would fit in.

  29. Sorry, I forgot to mention that a) – that understanding of truth is constantly being tweaked – is precisely what the Church teaches and practices – that nothing is set in stone and unable to be tweaked or even discarded if directed by revelation / inspiration / continuing enlightenment. It’s one of those things I find to be ironic – that many people who argue for some kind of evolutionary view of the acquisition of knowledge complain when a religion basically accepts that view as applied to revelation – that it can be here a little, there a little, tailored to the level of understanding of those receiving it. I think it really is quite ironic.

    As I said, #26 changes the whole discussion for me.

  30. Name,

    When you feel the spirit confirming the truth of the Joseph Smith vision, it is a powerful and singular experience. If you have not had it, you should look into it. If you have, perhaps you should revisit it. Good luck.

  31. Name (required) says:


    Thanks. You can’t argue with a testimony. All I can say is ‘that hasn’t been my experience.’

    You suggest ‘looking into it’, ‘revisit it’. I have been looking into it. I’ve been studying, I’ve been praying. So God just gives you this powerful and singular experience at his own leisure? If you study and pray about it for 1 year and never have a powerful, singular experience, do you conclude that its not true? 2 years? 5 years?

    If you are committed to studying and praying until you have that experience, isn’t that being a little biased? Its like being committed to interrogate someone until they confess–you are only looking for what you want to hear.

    President Hinkley addressed this in a conference talk some year ago, I think. He said something like, ‘what do you do when you study and pray and you don’t receive a witness?’ The answer was that you study and pray longer. While I agree that this is a good answer up to a certain point, at what point do you conclude that its not true?

  32. You know, my questions in #18 weren’t really rhetorical…

  33. Seth, although they may not have been rhetorical, I’m not sure they’re answerable. Joseph Smith certainly saw exaltation as a process centrally involving the collection of truths about God, as have many leaders since. And some scriptural prooftexts point in this direction, too. So there are certainly resources for constructing an argument that — orthodox or not — the quest for religious truth is central to Mormonism. Regardless of how that set of issues is resolved, though, I see a lot of virtue in not imposing the possession of such truth as a prerequisite for participation in Mormon worship or community. Such prerequisites so often open the door to coercion and unrighteous dominion.

    J. Stapley, my response would be that the limits are theological, not purely historical. It’s your theology that tells you which aspects of our history should constrain and which should open new avenues of exploration. That’s not a problem, since theology is an honorable endeavor. It’s just a matter of clarity.

  34. Name (required) says:

    #31, Sorry. I have the same questions, so I didn’t respond previously. Here’s an attempt:

    Does God ultimately care about orthodoxy?

    I wouldn’t care if I was Heavenly Father. As a mortal father, I don’t really care if my kids are ‘right’ in the various arguments that they get into. I just with they wouldn’t argue so much. If I was God, I’d be happy if my children just got along.

    If not, why? And if so, why doesn’t His Church have one?

    See above. If I was God, I would know that I could teach them all the details when they get back home. They are all going to have a lot of misconceptions about things no matter what they are thinking right now.

    Shouldn’t the “true Church” have a working orthodoxy?

    Oh yeah. Here is where my argument falls apart. If I was God, I wouldn’t really care what church people belonged to. Jesus didn’t seem to be very institutional in his approach. His message seemed to have been ‘get along, do good, and you’ll go to heaven’.

    I thought my story was going pretty well untill the ‘true chruch’ thing came up. Can someone help me here? Where am I going wrong?

  35. Name (required) says:

    Should be ‘I just wish they wouldn’t argue so much’ above. Sorry for the typo.

  36. RT,

    I’ve really wanted to contribute to this discussion, but have been unfortunately busy. I also haven’t read all the posts, so my appologies if I’m rehashing what has already been said.

    I wanted to raise a question though. In taking your assertion seriously, that we should have a certain modesty in the kinds of theological questions we expect our history to answer, where should we turn to answers for theological questions?

  37. SmallAxe, that’s a great question — and one for which I think Mormonism has only arrived at a small number of possible partial answers. Descriptively, it would seem that we mostly turn for answers to theological questions to the current hierarchy. The resulting answers are not typically terribly specific, and generally not final; different leaders in a given generation often differ on the details, and leaders across generations seem to differ at more than just the margins.

    A second partial answer would be our canonized scriptures. Yet as Joseph Smith noted long ago, hermeneutic issues immediately arise: people speaking from different theological positions read the same texts in very different ways. Unless we share theological precommitments, we’re likely to emphasize different scriptural texts and read shared texts in divergent ways. So, well, that lands us in the broader Christian world in which the relative persuasiveness for a given audience of competing readings of foundational texts becomes the coin the the theological realm. Alternatively, some Mormons throw the hermeneutic issues back to our leadership, which puts us in the situation of the first paragraph.

    A third approach, which I tentatively find appealing, draws on my earlier comments about how truth may be more likely to be found in the broad consensus of the Saints than in the hands of any individual or small group of experts. If this is an appealing proposition, then a reasonable extension would seem to be to allow the Saints to become familiar with a wide range of Mormon theological positions and eventually accept the position that is the long-term equilibrium of the mass of engaged Saints. In this model, the development of Mormon theological positions remains quite open — as it is and has been. Potential resources for the creation of new positions include the scriptures, historical anecdotes, personal revelation, or some poster in your neighbor’s house. What becomes important is the decision rule, which tries to aggregate together the voice of the Spirit in the hearts of each of a broad collection of individuals. This approach won’t arrive at final solutions to all theological problems in finite time, and there are a lot more details to work out. But this is a light sketch of one possible answer that I find initially attractive. (It may be worth acknowledging that this idea is similar to Catholic liberation theology’s epistemology. I think this is okay; Mormons gather truth wherever it might be found, and I think that Gustavo Gutierrez and his peers have really a lot more than they probably think in common with Mormonism.)

  38. JNS, your last paranthetical is spot on, imo. I studied liberation theology under Harvey Cox, and I was struck at the time by how familiar much of it seemed to me. There were a few things that were a bit jarring, but overall it surprised me how close it was to what I already believed.

  39. Let me ask a follow-up question. It seems that the current paradigm is antithetical to your position in that “truth” is not considered as something determined by a majority.

    What do you think it will take to change that paradigm?

  40. Ooo!! I’m at Cal State Long Beach, and for “fun” I decided to take a Religious Studies class on Current Religious Thought, and it is all Liberation theology. Your comment on that does seem spot on. I’m actually going to do my paper on Feminist Liberation theology, and I’m surprised at how much common ground I’ve found so far, too.

  41. SmallAxe, I’m not entirely sure what the current paradigm is, actually. Do most Mormons function with a well-worked-out epistemology? Do most Mormon theologians have such a beast? I just don’t know.

    I should also note that my perspective doesn’t claim that truth is determined by a majority, but rather that it might be best discovered by following the long-term discoveries of what would eventually become the large majority of spiritual seekers. It actually seems possible that something like this is how, in practice, most of us go about deciding theological questions in any case…

  42. Name Required,

    I’d like to jump back to #31. I have had the same thought many times about how long one should seek an answer from God before one decides that the answer is “no.”

    I don’t really know the answer, but I have a few humble suggestions about revelation. Some might not be right for you, and maybe you’ve already tried some, but here they are:

    1). This one is a question: You say you have not received a singular experience in relation to Joseph Smith’s first vision. I would like to know something before we proceed: When have you received a singular experience? Do you know what it feels like to receive revelation? Do you feel like God has revealed anything to you, or are you still trying to discover if there is a God to reveal things to you? If you are still uncertain about revelation and God in general, then perhaps only #2 will apply to you until you have grown confident through experience that revelation happens.

    2). Especially if you are still trying to determine if there is a God, have you tried to follow the doctrine taught by Jesus, which is, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”? (John 7:17). If you get stuck, try praying about what you can do to serve God, or about whether he wants you to be a member of the church. One of my strongest spiritual experiences was to tell me to stay in the church, and not explicitly that the church is true. He also has revealed to me it’s truth, but the former experience was much more impressive. When I search deep inside, I have almost never been without knowledge of what I should do.

    3.) As a life-long church member, I have found that when I have received confirmation from God about the truth of something, and then if I later doubt the things which he has revealed, I am sometimes restricted from receiving further light until I am willing to simply accept the fact that he has already revealed that thing to me and move on. He sometimes refuses to re-reveal. Have you had any spiritual experiences in the past that you are ignoring or forgetting? If you haven’t had, then this doesn’t apply to you. But looke carefully in your memory, you may have.

    4.) I know this sounds trite, but I have found it to be true, especially of lifelong church members (are you one, I wasn’t sure?): Perhaps you do know some things, but you have allowed yourself to become clouded so that you do not know that you know. (this was addressed in Oct Conference in a talk by elder callister, wherein he mentioned a story where (I think it was Harold B Lee) didn’t think he knew at one point)

    Anyway, I am sorry this is a long post, but I have thought very extensively about these issues, and I sincerely hope you can find an answer from God. I can honestly say that while my answers have not always been immediately clear as to their explicit meaning, I have consistantly receieved answers, sometimes miraculous ones, to my questions. I hope this offers hope. As to when to give up on receiving the answer you seek, I would say that it is safe to say that if there is an “ask, and ye shall receive” God, we could expect to eventually receive either a “yes” or a “no.” Until we have received one or the other, my practice has been to follow Pres. Hinckley’s council that you mentioned, and to never assume that a non-answer means “no” or “yes”.

  43. Name, regarding Alma 30, I would say you’re probably right that it doesn’t work as an argument for the existence of God in today’s society, but I don’t think that how we should be reading the text. Rather, I think there is a lot for us modern readers to think about in terms of what signs really are, and how we seek for them. That is, I think a careful reading of Alma 32 suggests that our modern way of looking for evidence and signs and even theological arguments for a proof(-sign) of God, are fundamentally anti-thetical to the process of faith and the way in which we should be reading scripture.

    JNS and smallaxe, I think this way of looking at the gap between theology and history is misguided. I think Brueggemann has precisely this problem in mind in much of his writing. In his Theology of the Old Testament, he talks about the way in which Jewish scripture was a way to think about theology and history simultaneously. Not dogmatically, but more dialetically, or dialogically. In continually reinterpreting the past, esp. in the process of reading scripture, we come to understand God and ourselves better. So we learn about the nature of the family by studying the problems that were encountered in our community’s past and how they worked on them—and in so doing we learn about the family issues we face today in a less provincial sense. That is, if we are simply take up the theological issues we face today and look for answers in our past or in scripture, then we are not really getting beyond ourselves. But, if we really get into the text, then the deeper theological issues, of both the past and the present, will begin to work themselves out. Thus, the hermeneutic circle effectively encompasses both theology and history.

  44. Robert, I think that’s a very constructive comment. Although your suggestions about studying our history and seeing what worked and what didn’t seem rather more social-scientific than religious, I nonetheless agree with them. However, it’s worth pointing out that this line of thinking originates specifically in a world view that saw God’s action as primarily existing in history and not in the present; Mormonism dissents on that point, and I think we need to account for that in our discussions of the sources of theology. That’s why it seems to me that a Mormon theological epistemology should be less historical than those of other current Christians or of Jewish folks.

  45. Good point, JNS, about a “less historical” current in Mormon theological epistemology.

    I want to make an addendum to my #43 comment on Alma 30: I didn’t mean to sound so . . . dogmatic, I guess. What I think is interesting is that there is, only 2 chapters later, what seems to a sort of undermining of Alma’s own claim against Korihor. It is this tension that is in the text itself that I find very interesting and thought-provoking. That is, I don’t have a good answer for how to work out this tension, but I think it’s interesting that the tension is there, and my thinking is simply that it seems the very existence of the tension in the text is something that is very relevant to our day, even though Alma’s response to Korihor seems outdated….

  46. Sorry to tak so long to respond.

    SmallAxe, I’m not entirely sure what the current paradigm is, actually. Do most Mormons function with a well-worked-out epistemology? Do most Mormon theologians have such a beast? I just don’t know.

    I should also note that my perspective doesn’t claim that truth is determined by a majority, but rather that it might be best discovered by following the long-term discoveries of what would eventually become the large majority of spiritual seekers. It actually seems possible that something like this is how, in practice, most of us go about deciding theological questions in any case…

    A well worked out epistemology, certainly not; but I think we can safely conclude that most of the members of the church and the leadership are realists in the sense they bellieve that truth is something real, independant of me/us, and knowable.

    In the case of the majority and truth as long term discoveries etc., I think we would agree. I do feel however that such a position runs against the grain of the realist position described above. Does it not? And if that’s the case, how does one go about shifting the paradigm to something more like what you are advocating?

  47. SmallAxe, I think you’re probably right that most people in our community are some kind of unconsidered realists. I would also agree that my embryonic position above seems to be at least partly at odds with unconsidered realism. It would seem that, ontologically at least, a more community-centered epistemology is compatible with the idea that truth is something real in itself — although that isn’t a position I’d want to affirmatively defend. The biggest issue, then, involves the idea that an individual can reliably discover truth without relying on culture and the broader community of believers. How could we convince people to understand the world in a less realist way? A tricky question indeed, and one for which I think I lack clear answers. One possible route is to emphasize the ways in which people already act as if they thought that the present-day community were an important ingredient of the quest for truth. But in general, that’s an endeavor for which I don’t yet see a clear strategy.

  48. My personal take:

    As has been said previously, one of the central principles of Mormonism is that God, the Father, can and will speak directly to individuals through the Holy Ghost. Perhaps the single most critical aspect of a belief in the Restoration (outside of the Atonement) is the concept of a modern Gospel (a Newer Testament “Good News,” if you will) that is founded on an apostasy that perverted truth and created a situation requiring a restitution of formerly taught truth. Therefore, many individual members feel the possibility of understanding truth directly from the source of Truth.

    To complicate things even further, one of the strongest tendencies of the natural man is to extrapolate what is felt to come individually from God and apply it to mankind at large – meaning, for example, that all should receive a burning in the bosom or a stupor of thought because that’s what worked for Oliver (even though the scriptures list many manifestations of the Spirit) – or that all can “know” the Book of Mormon is the word of God through prayer (even though our scriptures teach that to some is given the gift to believe on those who know) – or that a mother who works outside the home and doesn’t home school her children isn’t truly dedicated and faithful (even though qualifiers have existed in every talk about motherhood, and no talk of which I am aware in my lifetime even has encouraged home schooling) – or that the Garden of Eden was an actual, physical location (or a figurative story, or a combination of the two) – or that God wants His people to abstain from all forms of caffeine and hot drinks (or that decaf coffee and herbal teas are fine) – ad infinitum. Many members feel like since God has told them certain things, those certain things simply must be applicable to all – church members and/or humanity as a whole.

    Combine those perspectives, and it is no wonder that most Mormons probably see the world in a strongly realist way. In general, I believe this means that theology ultimately trumps history for most members – that history is important, but not as important as what God is saying right now, in this moment, to them and the prophet of their present day.

  49. Ray,

    “Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundations and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received.” Paul Tillich

    I think that statement approaches more of a solution to the problem for me than anything else. I don’t personally think that God’s “gospel” has ever changed, or that it ever will. I think it has to be adapted to the conditions and situations of each dispensation so that it enlightens and uplifts those who seek it as fully as it can without condemning and punishing those who don’t as fully as it might.

    What most members either do not heed, or do not hear at all seems to be that “personal revelation” is indeed individual…meant JUST for one person (or perhaps that person’s family)…and that prophetic revelation is meant for the Church body as a whole. When we start confusing the two, (or worse, preferring our own revelations when they contradict those of the prophet)we lose the companionship of the Holy Ghost and the ability to be “one”.

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