I once made the silly mistake of suggesting that members of the Church might beneficially learn from non-LDS sources, or more specifically, that non-LDS sources might have messages for people in the world, messages from God that could only viably come through them and not from our own leadership. The sentiment itself might not sound so objectionable to most Mormons. My mistake was that I made this suggestion during a Sunday School lesson. And I compounded my error by later reading a quote from a non-manual source.
As former GOP presidential nominee candidate Rick Perry once said, “Oops.”
The fact is, especially outside of the Sunday School context where manual warnings rule the roost, Mormons do refer to non-Mormons, even in teaching specific gospel principles. General Authorities quote fairly regularly from non-Mormon sources, most famously, C.S. Lewis (although he isn’t the most frequently cited non-Mormon in General Conference, not by a long shot. That distinction belongs to Abraham Lincoln!).
This phenomenon stretches at least all the way back to the 1840s when church leaders (possibly even Joseph Smith) approvingly referred to John Lloyd Stephens’ bestselling book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan as a support to the Book of Mormon. Most recently, President Monson’s priesthood session address quotes New York Times columnist David Brooks (who, incidentally, came out in favor of gay marriage in 2003!). So church leaders have been comfortable referring to non-Mormon voices even in official settings for quite some time without necessarily endorsing everything such sources say.
It seems clear that in some official church settings (i.e., Sunday School and RS/PH lessons) we’re restricted as far as non-manual sources are concerned, although I cautiously suggest there is some wiggle-room there, too. But Sacrament meeting talks, much like conference addresses, allow for some unofficial source usage. Visiting and Home Teachers might include something extra in their messages, too, and there’s always FHE for those who are so inclined (can’t wait to have an FHE with my future kids on AMC’s The Walking Dead).
So far so good.
You’ll notice my two examples above, Joseph and Pres. Monson, both involve sources which are presumed by the user to largely already fit within the LDS narrative. Well, I was recently reading a book by non-Mormon biblical scholar N.T. Wright when this question came to mind again: Can LDS folks utilize non-LDS sources without merely re-stating already-established LDS beliefs? In other words: what sort of things could we learn from non-LDS sources (can they challenge widely-held Mormon beliefs, official or non?), and how would such learning shake out in a Church where ultimate doctrinal authority is vested in the standard works and church leadership? These need not be paradigm-changing points, challenges to foundational doctrines, high-flying academic critiques; these can simply be new and interesting suggestions and connections. And there is the always-thorny distinction between orthopraxis and orthodoxy to be considered as well.
In part two I’ll go into more detail discussing ways in which such things have occurred in the past and might occur in the future, inside and outside of Mormonism. Specifically, Augustine’s call to spoil the Egyptians, i.e., to make use of good pagan knowledge, presents an interesting parallel to LDS approaches.