Doctrinal Disparity & Fragile Faith

Just over a week ago, the New York Times ran a well-considered and well-written (not to mention, front-page above-the-fold) in-depth examination of the expanding role of women in the LDS Church. The portrait it paints is even-handed, nuanced, and insightful, even if a bit discomforting for the increasing number of women and men who share the sentiment expressed by Joanna Brooks that the “great unfinished business of the church is gender equality.” Although the modifications may seem minute, and the pace may feel glacial for those who see inequality as structural and systemic (and therefore not merely a matter of personal feeling), lowering the minimum age requirement for sister missionaries, granting sister missionaries new leadership roles, allowing women to pray in General Conference, and creating a new international board for the Young Women organization are undoubtedly positive steps forward.

The Times article, along with a nice follow-up piece, deftly deal with the strengths, weaknesses, and limitations of the institution today. For most members, however, there’s one limitation in particular that’s more or less set in stone. As Managing Director of Public Affairs, Michael Otterson, says, “Culturally there’s an understanding that women’s roles are going to be more and more important, but doctrine [regarding the priesthood] is not going to be changing.” The authors thus correctly point out that the even if the recent changes represent an expanding vision, the “church will go only so far: Ordaining women . . . is out of the question because it is a matter of doctrine.”

While a statement like Otterson’s is not at all unexpected or unusual, it is interesting, even if a bit perplexing, for at least three reasons. First, given that the doctrine of the priesthood has changed in highly significant ways throughout the history of the church, why would anyone flatly presume that change either isn’t possible or won’t be forthcoming?[1] Second, if the role of women continues to expand to allow them to do things previously reserved strictly for priesthood holders, it isn’t entirely clear why that wouldn’t have any impact on the doctrine? Third, given the Church’s track record on the development of doctrine generally, as well as its commitment to continuous revelation and an open canon, why would anyone assume that any doctrine either wouldn’t or couldn’t change?[2]

As a potential case in point, over the past four or five months, the church has rolled out a handful of essays covering some of the more controversial aspects of church history and doctrine—Are Mormons Christian?, First Vision Accounts, Race and the Priesthood, Plural Marriage in Early Utah, Book of Mormon Translation, Book of Mormon and DNA Studies, and Becoming Like God. The general consensus seems to be that these statements represent a response by the church to an increasing number of disillusioned and disaffected members who have distanced themselves from the institution, at least in part, because they discovered credible information that runs counter to official narratives of the church on these and similar sorts of issues. In one particularly candid conversation about the difficulty (at Utah State University in November 2011), then Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen said,

I’m speaking of the fifteen men that are above me in the hierarchy of the Church. They really do know. And they really care. And they realize that, maybe, since Kirtland we’ve never had a period of—I’ll call it apostasy—like we’re having right now, largely over these issues. So we do have another initiative that we’ve called “Answers to Gospel Questions.” We’re trying to figure out exactly what channels to deliver it in and exactly what format to put it in, but we want to have a place where people can go.

The gospel topics section of lds.org thus appears to be the primary distribution channel for this initiative.

The essays are also a part of the church’s desire to be more open and candid about matters that have the potential to challenge one’s faith, to correct what is perceived as a massive amount of misinformation and misunderstanding on the Internet, and to demonstrate a commitment to the value of serious research and scholarship as a part of faith rather than antagonistic to it. Regarding these objectives, Steven E. Snow, the current Church Historian, says,

My view is that being open about our history solves a whole lot more problems than it creates. We might not have all the answers, but if we are open (and we now have pretty remarkable transparency), then I think in the long run that will serve us well. I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation—with the access to information on the Internet, we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.

He goes on to say that there’s no reason to think that reliable research about Mormonism can’t be done by both LDS and non-LDS scholars, and that, so far from diminishing faith, “the more you study, the more your faith will grow and develop.”

As expected, each one of the new essays has its strengths and weaknesses. Although they are devotional reflections, each one addresses the difficulties in a more responsible way, provides a more broadened perspective, engages with academic scholarship, and acknowledges that there are issues that remain unsettled. However, there are also various points at which they perpetuate incorrect, misleading, or disingenuous points of view, several of which will be noted below. Furthermore, it remains problematic that they are released without any publicity, their authorship is anonymous, and their overall status remains in question—i.e., should they viewed as doctrinal, official, binding, etc.? Nonetheless, the fact that they contain both helpful and harmful elements is probably unavoidable given the tight-wire that the authors must surely be required to walk.[3]

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All this provides the backdrop for my central concern here, which is the notion of doctrinal disparity and its potential relationship to fragile faith. Whatever one thinks of the general concept of official church doctrine (and it’s an enormously complex and contentious matter), my basic contentions here are that particular doctrines are more flexible and fluid than is often assumed, and embracing this phenomenon has the potential to be beneficial.[4] Put differently, on my reading, one of the sub-texts or implicit themes of the new gospel topics essays is that many doctrines have changed in significant and substantive ways over the course of the church’s relatively brief history, and this reality should be taken seriously as one considers their meaning and role in Mormon discourse.

Now, when I use the word change, I do so in a purposefully vague way so as to allow for the full range of its potential meaning. What I have in mind, in other words, is a sort of spectrum of possibilities. At one end there might be very subtle and minor modifications to some teaching, things that are barely perceptible, yet slightly shift one’s point of view. In the middle, there would be changes that are much more noticeable, but are usually taken in terms of expanding or deepening our understanding rather than contradicting previously held perspectives. At the other end, however, would be radical changes, whereby a teaching that was formerly held as doctrinal is now explicitly rejected or repudiated. Here there is at least some degree of disparity or disagreement between the former and current positions. What I’m suggesting, then, is that the new gospel topics (at least implicitly) demonstrate that doctrines don’t merely change in the first or second ways, but also the third.

I realize that many will want to get off the bus at this point, and immediately push back. “How can that be? Doctrine represents nothing less than the mind and will of God. If doctrines are eternal and unchanging, how could they possibly ever contradict each other? If doctrines teach divine truth, then how could one be incompatible with another?” To which one response might be, “Why start with the presupposition that doctrines are eternal and unchanging? Why not instead assume that, no matter how inspired, doctrines are necessarily partial and limited, that they always belong to and are influenced by some historical situation, are necessarily mediated through a human lens, and reflect the currently-held and officially-authorized understanding of some divine truth? Why not presuppose that they are always subject to further light, knowledge, and revision—even if that means rejecting a belief that was once held as doctrinal?”

Given that many competing perspectives and contradictory narratives can be found throughout scripture, given that deep change has taken place in the church with regard to several official doctrines, and given the centrality of the notion of continuing revelation, this seems to me a more plausible position. To borrow from, and perhaps misuse, the famous statement made by Bruce R. McConkie after a revelation clearly demonstrated that many long-held doctrinal assumptions were incorrect, perhaps we should more readily admit that we always speak “with a limited understanding, because we do so without the light and knowledge that has yet to come into the world.” I’m thus suggesting that an openness to change, even profound change that leads to doctrinal disparity, is a more compelling place to start when critically examining the nature and role of doctrine. Furthermore, I think that this would result in the least amount of collateral damage when doctrines undergo radical reformulations.

Take the priesthood/temple restriction on black members of the church as a case in point. Without a doubt, the most significant and gratifying part of the new statement is the following:

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

The explicit disavowal of racist ideas and unequivocal condemnation of racism certainly deserves praise, but the failure to explicitly acknowledge the institution’s role in and responsibility for these racist ideologies deserves critique. Furthermore, as the quote indicates, the ideas that were used to justify the restriction are mistakenly referred to as ‘theories.’ I’m well aware that there has been a long-standing debate about whether the priesthood/temple ban was a matter of policy or doctrine, but my reading of the history, texts, and the teachings leads me to the conclusion that any supposed theories were unabashedly understood as doctrines by leaders and members alike.

I know because I was one of those members. Not only was I taught the racist ideas form my primary days forward, but I myself followed the example of my parents, teachers, and leaders by teaching them as official doctrines until my late-twenties (which was the early 2000s). In fact, although I don’t know how many of my family members, friends, and fellow ward members have actually read the new essay, based on several conversations, I think I can safely assume that many of them haven’t, and thus still view the disavowed teachings as doctrinal.

Anecdotes aside, I think the historical evidence is extensive and conclusive, but one only needs to read the statement issued by the First Presidency in August 1949 to see that these ideas were not taught as hypothetical musings, but as divine commandments and official doctrines. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that the new essay perpetuates the misleading notion that they were held as mere theories. Nonetheless, given that these doctrines have now been officially disavowed, I think this provides as clear a case as any that not only is doctrinal change (in the third sense) theoretically possible but it has actually happened.

The most recent statement, “Becoming Like God,” offers another good example. When I teach my introduction to Mormonism class, some of my students are both fascinated with and disturbed by the belief that humans have the potential to become Gods and might rule over their own planets one day. Our discussion usually begins with a review of “Mormonism 101: FAQ” on the church’s website, and their level of intrigue shrinks just a bit as they learn that the idea of becoming “gods”[5] or getting one’s own planet are merely mischaracterizations and misunderstandings that stem “from speculative comments unreflective of scriptural doctrine.” They’re aware, however, that there’s more to the story, because they’ve read the chapter in their textbook, Mormon America, which quite capably examines the nuances of LDS doctrine of deification.

The new essay obviously elaborates on the answers given in the FAQ, and draws out some important similarities and differences between the LDS view and that of traditional Christianity. The primary difference highlighted here seems to be that, whereas traditional Christians understand the eternal parent-child relationship as metaphorical, Latter-day Saints understand it in thoroughly literal way.[6] Thus, while both groups might affirm that God is our Father, Latter-day Saints maintain that every human being is literally the offspring of deity, and thus ontologically of the same kind as God. And, because every person is “divine in origin, nature, and potential,” this opens up pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal possibilities that apparently wouldn’t make sense in a traditional Christian context.

Both groups, however, affirm that humans have the potential to become fully one with God and partakers of the divine nature in the afterlife. And, even though the essay asserts that the early Christian doctrine became more limited in scope as the centuries passed, traditional Christians, like Latter-day Saints, do imagine heaven in terms of “the relationships they have now and how those relationships might be purified and elevated.” To be sure, there are as many conceptions of heaven as there are Christian denominations, but many believe they will live with their loved ones after they die. Thus, in spite of the fact that God and humans belong to the same sort of “species,” which is something every branch of Christianity would reject, what life might be like in the hereafter, and what deification ultimately comes to, probably isn’t radically different according the account presented in this statement.

Of course, one major difference might obviously be that husbands and wives can continue to procreate in the hereafter, but this possibility isn’t addressed, except in a rather oblique way.[7] In other words, because the differences are not explicitly pushed to their logical conclusion (as they once were), the similarities seem to overshadow Mormonism’s distinctive perspective. So, as with the ideas referred to as theories in the priesthood essay, what I learned when I read this essay is that the doctrine of deification that I was taught as a child is now officially considered non-scriptural speculation. This is why one of its more problematic aspects is the way that the popular media is criticized for perpetuating such “cartoonish images,” when in fact those images aren’t entirely unfair representations of ideas that I was raised to believe were true doctrines.[8]

Although this essay represents a less significant shift than the one on priesthood, one way to read it is that the church is letting go of previously held positions. Why am I confident that they were indeed doctrinal? Because there are numerous of scriptural passages, statements by church leaders, and church publications that unquestionably teach that human beings have the potential to become Gods and Godesses (understood in the capital ‘G’ sense). In both official and non-official venues the doctrine of deification has been repeatedly presented in some variation of the following by Orson Pratt:

As our Father and God begat us, sons and daughters, so will we rise immortal, males and females, and beget children, and, in our turn, form and create worlds, and send forth our spirit children to inherit those worlds, the same as we were sent here, and thus will the works of God continue, and not only God himself, and His Son Jesus Christ have the power of endless lives, but all of His redeemed offspring.

This quote concisely captures what has surely been the most widely-held view within Mormonism throughout most of its history. The doctrine is (or at least was) that human beings have the potential to become fully divine in precisely the sense that God the Father and God the Mother are divine beings. Just as our Heavenly Parents are engaged in the work of creating and populating planets, (because we have the seeds of divinity within us) we each have the potential to participate in exactly the same work. In short, just as God did before us, human beings can become worthy of worship and govern worlds. The new statement, however, appears to implicitly reject this stronger traditional notion of theosis.

I would, therefore, agree with Holly Welker’s critique over at Religion Dispatches that the “doctrine that male and female human beings may become gods has been absolutely foundational to LDS belief,” that the “previously unequivocal doctrine that men and women may become gods is softened to something much more vague,” that the doctrine of having one’s own planet “is absolutely a matter-of-fact way Latter-day Saints have discussed this doctrine amongst” themselves, and that the media have not caricatured but accurately reflected this long-standing self-understanding. Indeed, the essay strikes me as a bit disingenuous insofar as it dismisses and fails to be fully candid about the content and status of the traditional view. What seems clear, then, is that the stronger doctrine of deification (becoming Gods) was once considered the official position, and the new essay jettisons that view in favor of a weaker one (becoming like God)—one that isn’t entirely at odds with, e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy.[9]

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If these are at least fair, even if debatable, characterizations, then I hope it’s reasonable to affirm the reality of doctrinal disparity. Not only do I think that a careful reading of LDS scriptures, sermons, and curricula as they have developed over the past one-hundred eighty four years would serve to further substantiate this phenomenon,[10] but fully confronting this aspect of change also has the potential to foster a deeper, richer, and more mature faith. The alternative isn’t necessarily a more shallow, limited, and naïve faith, but I do think it has a tendency toward a greater degree of fragility (i.e., more susceptible to shattering if put under pressure).

Why would I say this? Just a few days ago, John Dehlin posted the following on Facebook: “I’ve had a few people contact me lately informing me that one of the newly released church essays (most often the “Race and the Priesthood” essay) actually triggered their crisis of faith. Has anyone else encountered this phenomenon?” Unsurprisingly, a number of people indicated that they or someone they knew were troubled by one of the essays, and I’ve seen similar reports in other online venues over the past few months. The question is, therefore, why would they bring about a crisis of faith? As Elder Uchtdorf said in his October 2013 conference address, “Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple.” I’ve heard a lot in recent years about the notion of inoculating the Saints against exposure to difficult events, ideas, and doctrines, but inoculation may not be necessary if inadequate presuppositions and unrealistic expectations weren’t so prevalent.

What does faith mean when it is such that discovering the truth might be fatal rather than enlivening? What kind of faith is being fostered when complete candor, openness, and honesty are not the standard? In what way is a narrative that paints a positive picture but is less than accurate faith-promoting? Could it be the case that that eliding historical details, ignoring theological errors, and covering over cultural mistakes have the potential to do more harm than good? Is it possible that the expectation of absolute doctrinal purity and immutability (i.e., doctrines are perfect, divine, and changeless in the third sense) might actually (and ironically) contribute to a faith that is less than secure? What if a deep-seated resistance to any notion of doctrinal disparity has actually exacerbated some of the pain and suffering associated with faith crises?

Radical doctrinal change in any religion is always difficult, painful, and slow. However, when a course correction is necessary, it should be frankly acknowledged for what it is, and mistakes should be humbly admitted if necessary. Errors, however, are virtually never admitted, so there is very little motivation to think that my account might have any merit. Nonetheless, my contention remains that while embracing the reality of radical doctrinal change might be initially disorienting and disconcerting for many in the short term, it more closely coheres with the messiness and complexity of the evolution of religious belief, it can reduce the level of shock and suffering that inevitably occur when difficult discoveries are made, and can thus help foster a more mature way of placing one’s trust in God. Simply stated, doctrinal disparity will continue to contribute to fragile faith until the former ceases to be rejected as anathema to the discourse of Mormonism.

 


[1] Not to mention the very complex relationship of women to the priesthood because of both the role of women in the performance of temple ordinances, as well as disagreements related to the original organization of the Relief Society.

[2] In fact, don’t statements like this make it more difficult for the church if/when such modifications are made?

[3] Not to mention the many committees they must have to pass through.

[4] I readily concede at the outset that my position has the potential to be detrimental as well, but my sense is that the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term challenges.

[5] Why the word ‘gods’ is put in quotes isn’t entirely clear, especially given that it’s scripturally-based (e.g., D&C 132:20; Abraham 4).

[6] I recognize that the essay’s account of traditional Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy is overly simplistic, but that’s beyond the scope of my comments here.

[7] “Latter-day Saints tend to imagine exaltation through the lens of the sacred in mortal experience. . . .”

[8] It’s worth noting that I become even more deeply committed to them, when, as a young missionary I was taught them from a Mission President who was an extremely knowledgeable, gifted, and articulate teacher and administrator in the Church Education System. Accordingly, when appropriate, I freely discussed them in formla and informal church settings, and their doctrinal status was never questioned.

[9] I haven’t done a careful analysis, but in my experience the notion ‘becoming like God’ is a relatively new way of expressing the doctrine, and sounds quite similar to the notion of attaining a likeness of God, ‘so far as is possible,’ expressed by Pseudo-Dionysius. Having spoken to several Christian philosophers and theologians about this issue, they’re actually quite happy to learn about this modification. I take the fact that they see no serious reason to want to quarrel with the new view as a strong sign that the difference between LDS and traditional Christianity isn’t nearly so stark as it once was.

[10] Charles Harrell’s excellent book, This Is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology, does precisely this kind of work.


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