Imposed Openness

How is God infinite and embodied? Are we born in the spirit world or have our spirits existed forever? What is the nature of “intelligence”? What is eternal progression?

These are issues that LDSs have different views on. Leaders throughout the history of the Church have also expressed a variety of views in responding to these kinds of questions. The fact that 2 different LDSs can hold opposing views about these issues and both still be considered “faithful” is a primary reason that some see Mormonism as having postmodern tendencies.

“Postmodern”, of course, could mean a number of things; but when people use it in this case I take it to highlight the degree of interpretive “openness” within the tradition. In other words, multiple–often contradictory–viewpoints are taken as permissible within the same community. The contours of LDS belief are postmodern in the sense that no one narrative rigorously systematizes these diverse viewpoints.

Not everyone, of course, agrees. What I want to highlight in this post is the tension between the points of disagreement. There is a glaring conflict between claims of LDS openness and the degree to which alternative views on these kinds of topics are actually welcomed in church settings. In other words, one would think that a tradition that allows a diversity of views on things as important as the nature of God would tolerate the expression of this openness. On the contrary, properly following the manuals usually entails suppressing it. It seems as if this kind of openness, while permissible, is not welcomed.

There are a number of reasons for this tension. In searching for a way to describe it, I propose to use the term “imposed openness”. An imposed openness occurs when a variety of viewpoints are deemed acceptable, but the situation is not desirable by the community of interpreters. In this case, I don’t think that most LDSs believe that there are in fact multiple correct points of view on these issues. Ultimately speaking these questions do have answers, and there is not more than one right answer. Unfortunately, our position as human beings with limited capacity for understanding and limited knowledge of the situation entails that we only grope after the solution to these questions. Openness, therefore, is a result of our ignorance or the limits of our knowledge; and is not something purposefully sought out. Our openness is imposed, therefore, by the constraints of our circumstances and not because our theology desires it. Ontologically speaking, most LDSs do not believe that multiple views on these important issues is permissible. While we should be satisfied with permissibility (perhaps throughout our mortal lives), we must not equate this with an endorsement that there are multiple correct beliefs, or multiple truths.

While I do not share some of these views, I think this analysis captures the crux of an important problem–ontologically speaking most LDSs are not postmodernists; and while many permit an openness of views on some very important issues, many of them will tend to do so begrudgingly as nothing more than the result undesirable circumstances attributed to the limits of our understanding. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised that expressions of this openness will continue to be unwelcome in church settings.

  • http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com Clean Cut

    Nice post. Well done.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    Oh, this is going to be so helpful to me personally, smallaxe. Thank you.

  • http://newcoolthang.com Matt W.

    This is interesting. I think the issue is that we often note it is impossible for both points of view to be true, much less permissable. I think it mainly ties back to the central concept of mormonism being the acquiring of knowledge being through prayer and subsequent revelation.

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    There is no doubt that there is some openness to our theology, and this must remain for future revelation to be relevant. But I also feel that there is an interpretive tradition within the church that ought to be respected. This interpretive tradition is communicated in our manuals and other official sources. Deviation from this tradition should be done cautiously and honestly.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    A friend of mine once made a very similar observation about the postmodern turn in Mormon academic circles, that they were epistemological pluralists but ontological monists. I think you’ve offered a great way to see this same issue.

  • http://latterdayspence@blogspot.com Clean Cut

    “Interpretive tradition is communicated in our manuals and other official sources. Deviation from this tradition should be done cautiously and honestly.”

    Eric, I understand what you’re saying. However, I don’t share the same respect for the interpretive tradition that you do. I’ve seen it be wrong far too many times. Obviously we could talk about the priesthood ban, but also a manual published in the 70s about achieving a celestial marriage that totally botches what it means to be a god. (For the record, people need to drop this idea that it means we will become worshipped beings). We could talk about the common interpretive tradition for the King Follet Discourse and how it is inconsistent with the text itself. In that case I wish more of us would challenge that interpretation and create a new tradition–one that does not misunderstand that the Father’s mortal experience was more like unto Christ’s (who was sinless and had the power to take up his life, etc) than ours. I personally think there should be some investigation into this common interpretive tradition about having “spirit children”, and if that’s really the proper way to interpret having a “continuation of seed” in light of the teaching that spirits are uncreated and eternal. While there can still be debate (ie: spirit birth), I just think that paying too much respect to tradition can easily send everyone off in one (wrong) direction.

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    I would hope that when you go about creating you own new tradition that you are honest and open about it being your own new tradition.

  • http://latterdayspence@blogspot.com Clean Cut

    Why? The writers of the various manuals of which you speak don’t give such a disclaimer. “Gospel Principles” seems to clearly adopt the spirit birth model, yet they don’t give any credence to other ideas within the Mormon tradition. Hence, the purpose of this post.

  • http://newcoolthang.com Matt W.

    CC: Eric makes a good point that if we are attempting to combat “opinions” being made into new traditions, we really do need to first maintain the new tradition that it is okay to openly have opens, but to set them apart as such. If we forcefully teach that our interpretation is the only possible one, we may find ourselves in the same spot as McConkie or Ostler, where they are wholly rejected by many due to one point of deviation.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com Nitsav

    I think my main problem with some of these topics is that they are often presented as having equal revelatory weight, as if “spirit birth” lept forth fully formed from JS’ revelations . My students are often surprised when things they take for granted as having been revealed to JS turn out to be nothing more than a (strong) tradition.

    I wish statements about traditions and grey areas (which certainly exist) would be combined with manuals and such. For an example, see my post here, with the directive to BYU Religion profs.

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    Gospel principles is an official manual of the church, used for many years as the sunday school manual for new converts. It represents the official doctrines and interpretations of the church – and therefore needs no disclaimer. This does not mean it contains absolute truth, but it is the official teachings of the church.

  • Mark D.

    For the record, people need to drop this idea that it means we will become worshipped beings

    Sure, as long as one doesn’t think of any divine person, in and of themselves, as “worshiped beings”.

  • Mark D.

    By the way, for any denomination that does not have a systematic or comprehensively specified doctrine and theology, I think this divide is inevitable. I just don’t see it as a divide between member and member, but rather a divide between what is the “doctrine of the Church” and what isn’t.

    Given that fact, to avoid confusion and endless arguments in Sunday School, it makes an awful lot of sense to teach and discuss the canonical doctrines of the Church in church, and leave pretty much everything that is not a doctrine of the Church for other forums.

    Pre-mature de facto canonization of doctrinal errata and interpretations can be significantly worse, as the history of the past half century or so amply testifies.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com Nitsav

    “This does not mean it contains absolute truth”

    Aren’t you, then, giving it a disclaimer after suggesting it doesn’t need one?

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    No. The book itself does not claim to contain absolute truth (I don’t believe). It is simply one official source of the current teachings of the church.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com Nitsav

    The problem as I see it is that some do not seem to distinguish between official manuals and “absolute truth.”

    The manuals contain proposition x, which is ipso facto absolutely true and accurate.

    I think many assume “Church doctrine” (as expressed in manuals and other publications) to be based on revelation and therefore absolutely true and internally, externally, and diachronically consistent.

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    I think a lot of people don’t understand ‘absolute’.

  • http://thepierianspring.wordpress.com/ aquinas

    It’s probably the case that no two people in any religious community will hold identical beliefs. It is true that Mormons hold shared or communal beliefs (sometimes the line between belief and practice is blurred, we clearly have beliefs as to what practices are valuable) and that is what binds them and creates a sense of community vis-à-vis the outside world, but then again, we can belong to multiple communities based on shared commitments.

    And because we are part of more than one community we bring with us different forms of criteria. In some communities we judge ideas based on the work they perform, or their explanatory value, the merit in the idea itself, or the results and implications of ideas. In a religious community, some criteria will be more dominant, we often judge ideas based on the authority of the person explicating the idea, or on the perceived revelatory status or nature of the idea, or even tradition and consensus. I think this is really the heart of our problems, the clash of criteria in our discussions. And depending on our perspectives we invoke different sets of criteria for different sets of issues.

    Certainly not all disputes are the result of a difference in criteria but sometimes invoking the same kinds of criteria people will still disagree.

    think some ideas are probably beyond analysis in certain venues because they are held sacrosanct and Latter-day Saints as a whole may share that view. I would guess that for most Latter-day Saints there is a kind of elasticity factor that determines which ideas are open to discussion and which ideas are not. Shared values as to which ideas are open to discussion itself determines a kind of community. But again, even when the community is comfortable discussing certain ideas, the tolerance for which criteria may be applied varies.

    I think there is a concern that if we analyze our doctrines and theology based on criteria other than revelation or authority or tradition that it will eventually undermine the entire “revealed” nature of the religion; or the polemic that this is what other religions do and we don’t want to be like them, there are identity factors involved. Despite observations about a lack of creeds in Mormonism, clearly every religious community (including Mormonism) develops boundaries for what is and is not acceptable belief or behavior. And the idea of what criteria we use to judge ideas (indeed whether we should judge them at all) is probably a discussion that might prove to move the discussion forward.

  • SmallAxe

    But I also feel that there is an interpretive tradition within the church that ought to be respected. This interpretive tradition is communicated in our manuals and other official sources. Deviation from this tradition should be done cautiously and honestly.

    This is in response to this comment and the related conversation that follows.

    I think we have to accept that the church, if it wanted to, could provide a highly authoritative account of its own theology. Manuals and such should, therefore, be given more weight in defining doctrine/theology than something written by say a member of the church. The problem though, IMO, is that the manuals tend to ignore the openness mentioned in the post. I would find the manuals more authoritative if they said something to the effect of, “There have been positions A,B, and C on this issue in the history of the church. Position A is the right position.” Or, “There have been positions A,B, and C on this issue and since we await further light and knowledge we should accept any of them as tentative.” As they stand, however, they tend to ignore the existence of positions B and C while putting forth A; then in a new version of the manual they ignore positions A and B while putting forth C.

  • SmallAxe

    A friend of mine once made a very similar observation about the postmodern turn in Mormon academic circles, that they were epistemological pluralists but ontological monists.

    I think I’d modify this slightly to say that epistemologically we’re pluralists, but ontologically we’re monists. At the same time I’d reemphasize the fact that most LDSs do not find the epistemological situation desirable.

    I’d say that our position is somewhat akin to epistemicism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemicism

  • http://latterdayspence@blogspot.com Clean Cut

    SmallAxe, your comment (#19) expresses EXACTLY the concern I have. Well said.

  • http://latterdayspence@blogspot.com Clean Cut

    Matt W (#9)–I would simply advocate doing what SmallAxe just suggested. I’m fine with allowing others the freedom to believe and not force my position on anyone, but I certainly don’t want what I see as “good” or “correct” being ignored in place of only one position I do not share.

  • SmallAxe

    Nitsav,

    Your link in #10 isn’t working.

  • SmallAxe

    The book itself does not claim to contain absolute truth (I don’t believe). It is simply one official source of the current teachings of the church.

    I’m in agreement with Nitsav here. And in case I wasn’t clear in #19, the problem is that manuals are not self-reflective about the situation of openness described in the OP.

  • Jerry

    My biggest complaint about about the manuals is as soon as you become prophet everything you have ever written or said is now full doctrine. It may be good advice but now it gets written into manuals and taught as if it was direct revelation from God.

  • annegb

    As usual, a lot of this is over my head. But I don’t experience a lot of openness in my religious activity. There’s no room for dissent in my ward. For instance, I was practically burned at the stake for saying I thought our policy (prior 1978) toward black men holding the priesthood was racist. If I say Democrats are righteous—and I do—-I get dirty looks.

    If I qualify someone else’s statement about works with a statement about grace, I get that “Arlene will never go to the Celestial Kingdom” vibe from the room.

    Women still are not allowed to open sacrament meeting with prayer in my ward!

    I think we’re crazy. Mormons, that is.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com Nitsav
  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    This post helped guide part of our Sunday School class today, smallaxe. During a discussion of “stocking our arks” with the tools to face crises of faith, especially those brought on by conflicting interpretations of scripture or between science and what some members perceive Mormon doctrine must be, I talked about our having difficulty talking openly about those conflicting interpretations. (Really, I was *living* the difficulty, because I wanted to convey that it was no more heretical to accept, say, the testimony of geology when it came to the age of the earth than it was to accept the speculations of “young earth” creationists who have dominated the debate ever since Joseph Fielding Smith went so public with his misstating of the scientific viewpoint — but it was nearly impossible for me to say what I wanted to say because the teacher I alternate with, who insists very vocally and often that the earth is 6,000 years old and not a day older, was sitting in the room, and I didn’t want anything I said to sound like a personal attack.) It helped to be able to say that “some have this view and have very good reasons and authorities for it; others have this competing view and have equally valid reasons and authorities. Obviously they can’t both be true, and it’s difficult for us to discuss them freely because we don’t like to think that we don’t have clear answers to every question. Still, it is important for those whose views are not the dominant ones to realize that where there is no clear doctrine, it is not heretical to hold those competing beliefs and no one’s faith should be shaken by evidence that supports a competing belief.

    Long note for an example that may or may not be quite what you meant, but your post helped me find a way to express a thought I’ve been struggling to put into words. Thanks.

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    I knew there was a good reason for team teaching.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    Thank you for endorsing my correction of the false notions taught by my alternating teacher, R. Gary. I didn’t know you had it in you to welcome the correction of your own preaching of false ideas.

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    Ardis, you’re welcome. I endorsed team teaching because the mere presence of your alternate made it “nearly impossible” to say the manual is wrong about the Flood.

  • sister blah 2

    “it is important for those whose views are not the dominant ones to realize that where there is no clear doctrine, it is not heretical to hold those competing beliefs and no one’s faith should be shaken by evidence that supports a competing belief.”

    I really like this comment, Ardis. We have a really outstanding GD teacher in our ward who does a great job of walking this line—he maintains orthodoxy by never avoiding or apologizing for important doctrines, but he is good about clearly marking boundaries where we don’t know or multiple ideas are possible. That’s especially hard to do when you’re dealing with class member comments that try to assert more detail or surety on some things than we really have. But he’s pretty diplomatic about it.

  • sister blah 2

    Oh wow! At Nistav’s link I find this much more articulate version of exactly what I was trying to say:

    Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church.

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    Smallaxe:

    In response to the A B C comment – I see a remarkable consistency in our current manuals. Sure, a person might find some statements by Orson Pratt, or Brigham Young that may seem contradictory. But I do not see such A B or C contradictions in the current manuals.

    Also, I agree that there is not explicit statements of openness in our manuals. Yet, there are very few details in the manuals either. Obvious questions remain. Thus I think there is an implied openness due to a lack of specific details. Along with an imposed openness on the necessity of future revelation.

  • SmallAxe

    I don’t experience a lot of openness in my religious activity.

    Yeah, this is what I was trying to explain in the post. On the one hand you have LDSs who laud the opennes of our tradition. On the other hand that simply doesn’t jive with most LDS experience. My explanation for this is that there is in fact a great degree of openness permitted in our tradition (the temple recommend questions, for instance, are pretty minimal in terms of the correct beliefs one must have to get the recommend); but this openness is not desirable. Rather than being something we value, it’s something that we feel reflects our ignorance of certain answers. So while we permit a variety of answers to these kinds of issues, we don’t actually believe that all of them are true. As such, we continually search for the right “one” and seek to present that one answer in official church settings.

  • SmallAxe

    This post helped guide part of our Sunday School class today

    Wow. That’s great (or scary depending on one’s perspective). You handled it more tactfully than just about anyone could. I’m not sure if you’ve already done a post (or series) on this in the past, but some pedagogical tips on being diplomatic would be helpful.

  • SmallAxe

    I endorsed team teaching because the mere presence of your alternate made it “nearly impossible” to say the manual is wrong about the Flood.

    Not that it is wrong, but that it could be wrong; which seems to be the point of the post.

  • Christine

    Smallaxe: It seems quite desirable to me to acknowledge our lack of knowledge of the way things are but to believe that there is a fact about the way things actually are that we’d like to know about. So if I believe that one among a number of possibilities is likely the truth, but I don’t know which one, isn’t that more or less an accurate reflection of our actual knowledge about matters in the gospel and otherwise? It appears to me that you believe that is an undesirable state and we should be open to acknowledging that all of these competing views could be correct at once. Have I misunderstood you?

  • SmallAxe

    But I do not see such A B or C contradictions in the current manuals.

    I suppose more recent examples of this would be practically eliminating references to heavenly mother and altering the notion of “eternal increase” in the Gospel Principles manual.

    Also, I agree that there is not explicit statements of openness in our manuals. Yet, there are very few details in the manuals either. Obvious questions remain. Thus I think there is an implied openness due to a lack of specific details. Along with an imposed openness on the necessity of future revelation.

    To a large degree I think I’m in agreement with what you have to say here. However, I would again stress the tension between those who value openness and those who do not. IMO, the notion of what you call implied openness usually serves as a pretext not to discuss things (“since we just don’t know”) rather than a true tolerance of multiple views.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    some pedagogical tips on being diplomatic would be helpful.

    Me? Diplomatic? When the laughter in the ‘nacle quiets down …

    Because scientific challenges to Biblical traditions was one of the issues we discussed, I had wanted to illustrate that by referring to the age of the earth. Everybody has heard that debate; it would have been the clearest example to use (clearer that whether the Flood was global or local, because not everybody is aware of that challenge). But in this case, because of the vehement way the alternate teacher has asserted the young-earth idea, very emotionally and in multiple lessons, I couldn’t explicitly challenge that without embarrassing him — it would have been too direct an assault on his authority as a teacher. So the diplomacy came in by sacrificing clarity of example to preserving the dignity of the other teacher.

    Contrary to R. Gary’s oft-spouted assertions, I do not teach that the manual is wrong. I do not preach evolution or any other idea that is as non-canonical on the one side as God’s-magic-wand-of-creation is on the other side. The manual does not suggest teaching that the earth is 6,000 years old; it actually includes the statement that the days of creation are NOT 24-hour periods. So it is the other teacher — the one who shares R. Gary’s one-note fanaticism — who taught that the manual was wrong. I simply wished to correct that false teaching without at the same time embarrassing the man who had taught it.

    Diplomacy is taking the other guy’s feelings into account.

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    Ardis.

    My views regarding the length of a creation day were posted on the web five years ago (click here). It seems your alternate and I would disagree on this point.

    Actually, sometimes you do teach that the manual is not the gospel truth. For example, earlier this month (on the thread “Teaching and Discussing the Flood”) you announced plans to “bring up alternate views of the flood and other stories in Genesis,” as a way of pushing your class “not to mindlessly repeat folk doctrines.” (click here).

    Five months ago, a certain statement in the manual was “false and problematic” and promoted “seriously false doctrine” (click here).

    As far as your misrepresentations of me and my blog, I can only say that you are truly my blogging sunshine. I actually look forward to your verbal violence. It validates the entire blogging concept. I’m just glad you can’t reach through the web and get hold of my throat. /grin/

  • SmallAxe

    R. Gary,

    Is the manual ever wrong? Or, could the manual ever be wrong? If so, how do you handle this in a SS setting?

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    There’s a difference, R. Gary, between mentioning the existence of X and teaching X as doctrine. That is a subtlety that I know is lost on you, but it exists. Pres. Packer recognized the difference when he spoke about the “great difference” between “studying things” and “studying about them.”

    What makes you think I’d ever want to touch you? The idea makes my skin crawl and my stomach lurch. (And since we all know that adding a smiley absolutely neutralizes the meanness of anything anybody ever writes on a blog:) :)

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris Henrichsen

    I think that there is a difference between blogging that the manual is wrong and railing against the manual in class. I usually handle this by using the manual as an outline and not as a source. It is not the gospel truth. They are very limited in scope.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris Henrichsen

    R. Gary and Ardis,

    Enough, already.

  • SmallAxe

    Hi Christine,

    So if I believe that one among a number of possibilities is likely the truth, but I don’t know which one, isn’t that more or less an accurate reflection of our actual knowledge about matters in the gospel and otherwise?

    I’m not sure most members would agree with you. Claims of “knowledge” in the gospel context tend to be quite certain.

    It appears to me that you believe that is an undesirable state and we should be open to acknowledging that all of these competing views could be correct at once. Have I misunderstood you?

    I don’t necessarily believe that all views could be correct at once. Some may be (and are) more persuasive than others. I suppose if I was arguing for anything more than an explanation of the tension described in the OP, it would be that we move toward the way you state things in your first question: some things are not as clear as we make them out to be, and in those things we must remain open to the possibility that other positions could be right. I agree with Nitsav, and I think he probably stated it more eloquently.

    At the same time, I have blogged on the possibility of multiple right options before: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2007/09/salvations/
    And I think, generally speaking, it’s more productive to speak of truth in the plural (i.e., truths) rather than the singular.

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    SmallAxe asked: “R. Gary, Is the manual ever wrong? Or, could the manual ever be wrong? If so, how do you handle this in a SS setting?”

    Here is my answer (mostly personal opinion).

    The manuals are not scripture. Most of them contain things that will be changed with the next revision and most invite comments. But send your comments to the address given as opposed to criticizing the manual in class. If you are a SS teacher and believe something in the manual is wrong, focus on another part of the lesson or get a substitute. Your SS calling isn’t a soap box.

    Even when it’s carefully presented as just someone’s opinion, there’s a problem with mentioning the existence of an alternate view in SS because the alternate view doesn’t nourish. This problem was beautifully illustrated by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland as follows:

    “The philosophies of men interlaced with a few scriptures and poems [are] a kind of theological Twinkie—spiritually empty calories…. During a severe winter several years ago, President Boyd K. Packer noted that a goodly number of deer had died of starvation while their stomachs were full of hay. In an honest effort to assist, agencies had supplied the superficial when the substantial was what had been needed. Regrettably they had fed the deer but they had not nourished them.” (Ensign, May 1998, 25.)

    In my view, SS class members should be nourished with doctrine not fed the philosophies of men. The doctrine is in the manual, the standard works, and the words of living apostles and prophets. The alternate views are philosophies of men. How is it possible to nourish while pointing out the existence of an opinion that contradicts the manual?

    That’s what I think. Thanks for asking, SmallAxe.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    R. Gary,

    The doctrine is in the manual, the standard works, and the words of living apostles and prophets. The alternate views are philosophies of men. How is it possible to nourish while pointing out the existence of an opinion that contradicts the manual?

    What about when the scripture contradicts the manual and/or the modern prophets and apostles?

    Best,

    TYD

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    R. Gary: because the alternate view doesn’t nourish

    Really? How do you know an alternate view won’t nourish?

    If a class were discussing possible interpretations of canonized scripture it seems to me that recognizing that there are alternate views on unsettled issues probably does nourish. If nothing else understanding there can be alternate views on a subject discourages our people from exegetical hubris.

  • SmallAxe

    Even when it’s carefully presented as just someone’s opinion, there’s a problem with mentioning the existence of an alternate view in SS because the alternate view doesn’t nourish.

    FWIW, I agree that SS is not the forum to deride the manual; nor is it the personal soapbox of the instructor. I do think, however, that one can tactfully present alternative views in SS, even those that disagree with the manual. The text for SS is the scriptures and if a passage of scripture could be or has been understood three different ways, I see no harm in presenting each of them as well as the arguments for and against each reading. In personally teaching SS this way, a number of students have expressed how “nourished” they felt because they realized that it is okay to believe in either of these readings and still be faithful members of the church.

    I would argue that any approach that latches on to one reading, dismissing other legitimate readings, actually does more harm than good, even if it follows the reading provided in the manual. Creating the appearance that LDSs must believe a certain way in issues that do not require such uniformity of belief does damage equal to not nourishing our students with the good word or God. To follow the Packer analogy above, it would be like forcing people to have a diet constituted of bread and bread only; and man cannot, of course, live by bread alone.

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    Yellow Dart, personally, I think you should report this problem to the address given in the front of the manual. You can also discuss it on your blog or on this blog. But I recommend not in Sunday School.

    Geoff J, when the Sunday School manual solicits a variety of scripture interpretations, I say go for it. Discuss it as requested. Adhering to the manuals will bring us to a unity of the faith, which is another way to describe being nourished. On the other hand, I predict disunity will be the result when the manual is contradicted in Church. But that’s just my opinion.

    By the way, do you think adhering to the manual is intrinsically hubristic?

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    SmallAxe, I sincerely appreciate the tone of your comment. You’ve mentioned concepts on which we can agree: The proper forum to deride the manual and the personal soapbox of the instructor being two of them. I also agree that the text for SS is the scriptures. The teacher, on the other hand, is given a manual, and you and I will probably have to agree to disagree on whether adhering to the manual causes more harm than good. Thanks again for the discussion.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Gary,

    The current Sunday school manual says “This manual is a tool to help you teach the scriptures”. In other words, the scriptures are the text for the class and the manual is only a helpful tool to assist teachers teach the text. Teaching the scriptures properly includes discussing various possible meanings and interpretations of the sacred texts.

    And yes, I think choosing single interpretations of certain texts on subjects that are not settled by revelation (like say on certain literal vs. figurative questions) sometimes does indeed display hubris.

  • SmallAxe

    you and I will probably have to agree to disagree on whether adhering to the manual causes more harm than good

    That may be the case, but that is also at the heart of this post–there is an openness imposed on us by the limits of our knowledge. What do we do about that openness? Your response, in a SS setting, is to acknowledge it if the manual acknowledges it (as rare as this may be), and ignore it if the manual does not acknowledge it. My response is to acknowledge it when confronted with it; and present the manual as one position among several on the issue (although often times the most authoritative position). I want to be clear, as far as I understand, about where we disagree.

    If this is indeed where we disagree I’d be happy to debate the merits of each position. I do not think your position is meritless, just that the merits of my position are most certainly superior.

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    Geoff J, the January 2010 Ensign is centered on studying the Old Testament. Five times (see pages 10, 33, 40 twice, and 72), readers are referred to the book Teaching, No Greater Call. This book is a 255 page Church resource for teachers. According to “Information for Priesthood and Auxiliary Leaders on Curriculum,” leaders are to supposed ensure that every teacher has a copy of Teaching, No Greater Call (get yours here). This is what the book tells teachers about Church lesson manuals:

    Use Church-Produced Lesson Materials

    “To help us teach from the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets, the Church has produced lesson manuals and other materials. There is little need for commentaries or other reference material. We should study the scriptures, teachings of latter-day prophets, and lesson materials thoroughly to be sure we correctly understand the doctrine before we teach it.” (“Keeping the Doctrine Pure,” p.52.)

    “Church-produced lesson manuals are carefully prepared to ensure that the doctrines of the Church are kept pure…. You should be true to the teachings and guidelines in these manuals.” (“Adapting Lessons to Those You Teach,” p.102.)

    Again, these instructions apply to all teachers in the Church. So the O.T. manual isn’t just a helpful tool to be discarded when you disagree with it. If you have a Church calling to teach, loyalty to the manual is part of your calling.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com John C.

    R. Gary,
    I’m curious if you read my recent critique of the manual at BCC?

    Also, I think you can be true to the teachings and guidelines in the manuals and still deviate from them (including contradictory evidence on some points).. At most, each lesson has 3-5 points to make. How they are made can be left up to the teacher. If the teacher has an alternative path to the same point (for instance, Ardis’s example of gospel teaching above) then more power to them. Following the spirit and magnifying their calling and all that. I don’t think you disagree with this point, actually (although I could be wrong) but I wanted to note that the manuals don’t demand as much loyalty as might be implied by your comments.

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    I am not sure imposing openness would be a good idea. I don’t think that it would do long term good to have sunday school lessons start to resemble bloggernacle discussion. This would likely lead to a debate style discussion. And this can lead to hard feelings and confrontation as evidenced on this and many other posts.

    Personally, I think the church does things just about right. Have simple manuals, without much details, focusing on practice. This might not always be my cup of herbal tea, but is probably a wise way to go. Leave the debate to more private settings outside the place of worship, and outside the official curriculum. We can all enhance our gospel study privately if the curriculum seems a little unsatisfying.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    How would you suggest handling it, Eric or others, when a class member offers an idea from one of those areas of differing belief? In the creation lesson, for instance, what if two class members made equally forceful but contradictory explanations of what it meant for God to have organized the earth out of existing elements — one insisting that God scrunched together huge chunks of rock from broken-up planets, and the other bearing his testimony that God used existing atoms of iron and lead, but nothing bigger.

    They can’t both be true, but both beliefs exist. I would never allow a Sunday debate on a fringe topic, but teachers have to respond to comments somehow, without saying one or the other was right. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that both ideas exist.

    And if only one (either one) of those ideas were raised by a class member, would you accept it without comment, mention the contrasting speculation as balance, or brush it off with a vague, “Well, so some people believe”?

  • oudenos

    It seems to me as though there are just certain people who will always see their relationship with church published materials as passive. In my experience there is very little one can do to change their outlook and most attempts to do so will be met with resistance and sometimes accusations of LBM (looking beyond the mark), PMMS (philosophies of men mingled with scripture), SM (stick to the manual), SSW (stick to the standard works), etc.

    For reason that still remain mysterious to me, these people find comfort or reassurance in the roteness of lessons straight from the manual with the same predictable back-and-forth discussion between teacher and students. But since these folks are my family members, associates, and a good portion of LDSs whom I have met, I have learned to cede them their space. I just ask that they do the same for those of us who do not see things as they do. In other words, R Gary, openness cuts both ways, you take your slice and let others take theirs, and we will all be happier and nobody has to be excluded.

  • SmallAxe

    I am not sure imposing openness would be a good idea.

    Eric, just to make sure we’re using our terms in a similar way–openness is not something we impose on a class or situation; rather openness is imposed on us by the context or the limits of our understanding. To use Ardis’ example, it’s just the case that there are multiple plausible explanations for the creation and I don’t think, given our present situation, we can firmly conclude which one is correct.

    The issue, as far as SS is concerned, is whether or not to acknowledge the openness. If the manual presents one position as correct, but there are other plausible explanations, what do we do? This is the issue at stake, and so it’s not so much a question of should we or should we not impose openness; but rather should we or should we not deal with the openness in SS. As I said in #50, my position is that we should, at the very least, recognize that a diversity of opinions does and could exist and explain that faithful LDS have held each of these opinions. Any position which dictates that LDSs must believe a certain way when other legitimate positions exist, actually does a great deal of harm to those who do not hold that one position.

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    Ardis/Smallaxe:

    I think it may be best to acknowledge the limits of our understanding, rather than grant legitimacy to every off the wall thought. So I would probably go with, “the church teaches this in the manual, but we certainly do not know much of anything about the details”.

    It is the manual (in my opinion) that has the greatest claim on legitimacy. Now, some issues may change over long periods of time. But my personal opinion should carry much less weight regarding what the church teaches/should teach than an official manual. The two are not even close.

    I think we should all be humble – especially at church – about our personal opinions. So I may not be expressing myself very well, but openness does not mean that every opionion is legitimate.

    Acknowledge openness is different from forwarding a personal opinion.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    I very much agree with your remarks on humility, and acknowledging the limits of revealed knowledge *and* human understanding, and not preaching personal opinion.

    The tricky part for a teacher under your method, though, is when the manual doesn’t say one thing or another. That is very often the case when there is no clearly established official doctrine, but where standard opinions have developed among church m embers. Other than saying he was created in God’s image, the manual did not, for instance, say a word about the origin of Adam’s body — did it appear because God spoke and commanded it to be? was Adam’s physical body planted here from another physical world? was it the pinnacle of eons of evolution? was it something else entirely? Almost everyone in the church holds some variation of one of these ideas, yet the manual had not one single word to say on it.

    So when a class member advances any one of these ideas (and no teacher can control what is going to pop out of a class member’s mouth), the teacher can’t just fall back on “Well, the manual says …” because the manual doesn’t say.

    The best I’ve been able to come up with is “We don’t know,” or, when a partisan continues to insist that his private view is church doctrine, “So-and-so held that view, while this other authority believed it was thus-and-such, and the church really has NOT made any official statement.” That neither endorses any particular view nor advances my private opinion. (My class members — and any of you — would be hard put to identify my private opinion; some of you THINK you know, but you’re wrong. When I dispute R. Gary, it is not because I hold an alternate belief in most cases, but because I dispute his assertions that Idea X is established church doctrine. I do not advance my private opinion in class.)

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    SmallAxe, your earlier comment is very thought provoking and I believe it is sincere. I agree that we agree on many points. And I agree that finding the first point on which we disagree will likely be helpful. So here are some ideas that are part of my point of view:

    1. Jesus Christ was resurrected and lives today.

    2. He is the head of the Church.

    3. His apostles and prophets have stewardship over doctrine.

    4. They supervise the process of writing lesson manuals.

    5. Criticism of the lesson manuals is criticism of that process.

    The openness you speak of is imposed by the limits of our understanding, which means we don’t really know one way or the other. In this sense, we don’t actually know the manual is wrong, but we see multiple points of view. When the manual presents one of these explanations as correct but the teacher would have selected a different one, I think SS teachers should focus on other parts of the lesson or get a substitute.

    If a class member brings up something outside of or contrary to the manual, I think the teacher should bring the discussion back to what’s in the manual.

    I myself do not believe the manuals are always 100 percent accurate and true. But I seldom criticize the manual outside of Church and I don’t criticize the manual in Church. If we truly want to help class members get to the Celestial Kingdom, teaching what’s in the manual is better than teaching that the manual is wrong.

    John C., I’m sorry I missed those posts. After quickly looking at the first one on my phone, I’ll probably take the time to read all three.

    oudenos, the restraints aren’t mine, they are set forth by the same organization that sponsors Sunday School. So LBM-PMMS-SM-SSW the sponsors. Their address is in their book.

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    Ardis, your assertion that the Church has no position on this or that idea X is a legitimate point of view. But when it looks to me like the Church’s manuals and magazines expound just such a Church position, don’t you think that is a legitimate point of view also? Yes, we disagree on some things. But does that make my point of view completely illegitimate?

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    (Trying to keep the tone of this very even, and with no intent to provoke another fight …)

    R. Gary, we have very different interpretations of what the manuals and magazines say, sometimes. I can’t understand how you read into them some of the interpretations you do, and you apparently can’t understand how I fail to see what to you is so clear and obvious.

    If we agreed on the meaning — *and* in some cases the authority of the source — of those statements, there would be little disagreement between us. The trouble is, we read the same words and understand different things by them.

    Which brings us around full circle to the OP. Again.

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    Ardis, (and I mean this sincerely) good comment!

  • http://eatingwell.wordpress.com Sam B.

    R. Gary (63),
    I don’t think that your (5) follows (4); even in the most carefully-controlled process, errors can slip through. Their existence, and even criticism, is not ipso facto criticism of the process.

    That said, I also see a huge difference between pointing out other possibilities that fit comfortably within our doctrinal constraints and criticizing the manuals. I may whine about them, but I don’t when I teach. But nothing in the manual suggests that it is a complete exposition of even canonized Mormon doctrine; there is no explicit or implied criticism of the process of writing manuals in pointing out that there is more than is written there, or that what has been put into writing is only one of the possible interpretations.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    I don’t have a ton of time to elaborate this point, but it seems that one of the issues that has gone unquestioned is whether it is even possible to “stick to the manual.” It seems to me that such a perspective denies that any interpretation is happening. Yet, it seems that the manual demands interpretation, not only in supplementing it with personal stories, but even in the order of presentation, and tone in which the content is communicated. These acts are interpretive acts and I would object to anyone’s claim that they are simply following what the manual says because that is impossible.

    Claims of sticking to the manual thus appear as rhetorical claims to situate oneself with a perceived authority, rather than any actual representation of reality.

    This is of course a separate point from actually disagreeing with the manual, but I think that it undercuts any claim to be able to simply channel the manual as an interpretation-free exercise.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/ TYD

    I agree with TT.

    R. Gary,

    Would you say it is a fair characterization of your position, then, that the scriptures are subordinate to the Church manuals?

    Best,
    TYD

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    In agreement with TT — even if some teacher were to go line by line through the manual, reading the statements and asking the questions word for word as printed, no teacher can control what answer is given by a class member. You have to acknowledge the contribution in some way, by agreeing, correcting, relating it back to the point you’re making, asking a follow-up, something. Questions asked by class members require a response from you. None of that is scripted in the manual — even the suggested answers to scripted questions are incomplete sentences and must be fleshed out. It’s all interpretive.

  • http://latterdayspence@blogspot.com Clean Cut

    Ditto to SmallAxe’s comment (#50) and TT’s (#68).

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris Henrichsen

    “In agreement with TT….”

    This is the important thing…whether you agree with the manual, but whether or not you agree with TT. As long as you stick with TT, I am fine with the lesson.:)

    Seriously, TT is right. Whether we are reading the manual or reading the scriptures, interpretation is involved. For me, this interpretive process is an important part of my relationship with my Savior.

    When somebody (including myself) insists that one stick to the manual, it is less about the manual and more about the critics own interpretation not being adhered to by the instructor.

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    TT and I have aaaalways agreed, Chris. We have neeeeever disagreed.

    Oh, um, uh, that is …

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris Henrichsen

    I should add, that I never assume that the teacher is just presenting the scriptures or the manual. They are always presenting their interpretation of the material. That is all anyone can really do. To deny this does nobody any good.

    Whoa, I am sounding very post-modern. Do not tell anyone.

    Ardis: It is good to see that you have repented of you old ways. :)

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    I agree with TT also.

    And Artis, if the manual is really silent on something, then we should feel some freedom to speculate (as long as it is clear that is what we are doing) or say “We don’t know”. We also should be careful that things don’t break down into a debate contest.

  • http://eatingwell.wordpress.com Sam B.

    I actually think a scaled-back debate contest would have some value. A few weeks ago in Sunday School, a debate exploded in relation to predestination/foreordination. It got really heated. And I think it could have been avoided if (a) we didn’t feel like true church = all of the answers (that is, if we were humble enough to admit that multiple views are doctrinally acceptable, and that we don’t really know), and (b) if we had a culture that knew how to politely disagree at Church. Because people don’t feel comfortable disagreeing, the unsaid disagreements seem to have exploded over a disagreement that none of the disagreers really understood or, I think, cared intensely about.

  • annegb

    If I were teaching a SS class and everybody was fighting over some point of doctrine, I’d bring it back to the atonement and the first vision. And ask if either point of view conflicted with the divinity of Christ or the truthfulness of the restored church. And if they didn’t, then I’d make the point “then who cares? Either of you could be right.” Which is only one of the reasons I’ll never be teaching Sunday School.

    Or I could raise the AA question “how important is it?” Which actually a more loaded question than you’d suppose, I guess. Because if I think I’m right—and it could be about something kind of stupid, like when I defended Lot’s wife (Hey! Shut up, you guys! It’s hard to turn your back on your kids!)—well, the fight is on.

    Some Sunday School teachers are better than others in leading a discussion and avoiding the brawl. Some just never allow dissent or discussion, thereby avoiding the brawl, but also avoiding growth.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com Nitsav

    “Whether we are reading the manual or reading the scriptures, interpretation is involved.”

    Indeed. We’ve discussed this before, framed in the “philosophies of men mingled with scripture” rhetoric, the point being that every reading is an interpretation or “philosophy of man.”

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis Parshall

    The only real Sunday brawl I ever witnessed was caused by the teacher’s refusal to allow for alternate interpretations. I don’t remember why it was relevant, but his handout included three repeats of Pres. Packer’s statement “The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.” He kept hammering that in as the solution to sin, teen rebellion, mental illness, just about everything that can possibly affect behavior. One man whose wife has had some mental health issues raised his hand and asked if Bro. K. meant to say that we should never seek psychological care, but instead should rely on reading the scriptures? Bro. K. kept saying, “*I’m* not the one saying that — Pres. Packer says that!” Voices were raised to the level of shouting, Bro. K. pounded his fist on the table, insisting on his dogmatic interpretation, and Bro. O. insisted that Pres. Packer could never have intended his words to be used that way. It was a brawl that ‘nacle fights can only aspire to be.

    And it would never have started if Bro. K. had admitted that his interpretation wasn’t the only possible one.

    Bro. K., by the way, is the teacher whose dogmatism I have to dance around when alternating with him in teaching Gospel Doctrine.

  • SmallAxe

    openness does not mean that every opionion is legitimate.
    Acknowledge openness is different from forwarding a personal opinion.

    Openness does not mean that every opinion is legitimate. Indeed, it raises the question of how we determine what a legitimate opinion is.

    To be clear, the OP was about explaining why on the one hand we seem to have wide latitude in belief, but on the other hand an openness doesn’t seem to cohere with our experience in Mormon culture. My explanation for this is that openness, while present, is not desired by most LDSs.

    The conversation has since moved to how to handle this openness in SS. In this regard I don’t advocate forwarding personal opinion in place of the SS manual. Instead, and similar to your approach, I advocate recognizing a multiplicity of interpretations where they are viable. To put forth the manual as the only viable interpretation in every instance is to ignore the openness that imposes itself on us.

  • SmallAxe

    When the manual presents one of these explanations as correct but the teacher would have selected a different one, I think SS teachers should focus on other parts of the lesson or get a substitute.

    R. Gary, I agree with the spirit of this. Given that any given Sunday the manual provides more than enough stuff to cover in SS, we should generally avoid the places where we disagree with the manual. It’s rarely a good idea to openly criticize the manual in SS (although I won’t say it is never a good idea). I think we all agree here that the kinds of things we say as a teacher of SS should in some sense be (at least a little) more constrained than the kinds of things we would say in other places, such as our homes. At the same time Ardis raises an important point about students, and how the teacher must respond to the kinds of things a student says. I think the best classes I’ve taught were those classes where the students spoke much more than myself. Of course the teacher must decide when and how to direct the conversation.

    1. Jesus Christ was resurrected and lives today.
    2. He is the head of the Church.
    3. His apostles and prophets have stewardship over doctrine.
    4. They supervise the process of writing lesson manuals.
    5. Criticism of the lesson manuals is criticism of that process.

    I agree with the poster above that 5 does not follow from 4. I understand that you cited above Teaching, No Greater Call. That seems to be at odds with the way in which the current manual describes itself–the focus is on the scriptures and the manual serves as a tool (it even notes that we can use “commentaries and nonscriptural sources of information” although we should be judicious in choosing these). This kind of language does not lead me to believe that the manual sees itself as the only tool for understanding the scriptures in SS. Not that we should freely use other material, but it seems to me that where the tool does not work as well as other tools (in understanding the scriptures) or other tools work equally well, we should use those tools or at least let the students know that other interpretations (i.e., tools) could be legitimate ways of understanding a scriptural passage. If the measure of a successful lesson is about helping members come unto Christ, there is nothing wrong with allowing multiple ways to come unto him in some matters.

    I think this conversation has helped me to see more that a fundamental difference is that some LDSs value the openness imposed by our limitations and others see it as a threat to unity and so seek to minimize it. This is more of an observation than a judgement.

  • http://ndbf.blogspot.com R. Gary

    SmallAxe, it was a pleasure to participate in this discussion. My comments actually found more agreement here than I expected. And in addition, my own perspective was broadened.

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis.
    Gary

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TYD

    R. Gary,

    Would you say it is a fair characterization of your position, then, that the scriptures are subordinate to the Church manuals?

    Best,
    TYD

  • SmallAxe

    R. Gary,

    Thanks for participating. Let’s dialogue again some time.


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