How Theology Hurts, and Might Help, Mormons
Theologically Mormonism is like a river rather than a building: a building stands because it has a sound, relatively rigid and static structure; in contrast, a river has banks and direction that support its structure, but the river's fluidity is part of its essential structure. Writing about the fluidity of Mormon theologizing, Nathan B. Oman says: "A statement does not become Church Doctrine by virtue of being uttered by any particular Church leader or even by virtue of being printed in the Standard Works." Instead, when engaged in a theological discussion, Mormons usually decide what they take to be doctrinal by reasoning "on the basis of clear cases, fitting the new question into a story that will place things in their best possible light" ("Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine"). In the absence of definitive official statements by the LDS Church, the Mormon understanding of what constitutes doctrine is essentially an ongoing hermeneutic: different persons may well give different narratives that manifest what they take to be the best way of bringing together as many clear cases as possible. Over time some of those narratives take hold and others shrivel away. What takes hold is doctrinal. We assume that process is guided, though not guaranteed, by the Holy Ghost.
There are several complications to that explanation of how Mormons do theology, but it is sufficient for this column. My view is very similar to Oman's. I think that's what theologizing means in a Mormon context, and I think that's the way it ought to remain—except there is a problem.
When beliefs develop and become understood in that way, there is always the danger that things will become part of the theology that are inimical to the gospel, sometimes deeply so. Perhaps the most obvious example is that of the beliefs that were common among Mormons prior to 1978 about the behavior of blacks in pre-earth life. Trying to justify the Church's exclusion of blacks from the priesthood, people invented offensive, racist beliefs, such as that black people were less valiant before this life than were others. These became church doctrine in the hermeneutic sense I have just described: they were commonly adopted as part of the larger explanatory narrative. Though never officially sanctioned or promulgated by the LDS Church, such beliefs were sufficiently common as to constitute Mormon belief. Indeed, they were sometimes taught by high-ranking church authorities as doctrinal. And they had effects on individual Mormons and Mormon communities that were, to say the least, harmful in their lives with black people.
Paul warns us not to be deceived by "philosophy," by which he means the wisdom of the world (Col. 2:8). Latter-day Saints often warn against "mingling the philosophies of men with scripture," which I take to be a variation of Paul's warning: we ought not to allow the world to determine our understanding of the gospel.
But the warning is in vain unless it is understood as an ideal toward which we strive. We cannot but understand things through the lenses of the time and place and culture in which we live. The gospel should offer us a new way of seeing and being, but in this life that new way can never be completely disentangled from things like language and culture.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.