Multiple Authorities

Multiple Authorities February 23, 2009

The notion of authority can imply a range of ideas. Among this range it can mean “the power to act in behalf of”, as well “the possession of specialized knowledge”. An authority in the former sense would be a decision/policy maker for an organization or a representative of an organization. An authority in the latter sense would be an expert or reliable source of information on a particular topic.

In my opinion it seems that the Church (and LDSs) are continuing to move toward a refinement of the notion of authority which places the leadership of the Church in the former category rather than the latter. In other words, leaders of the Church are representatives of the Church, but are not necessarily reliable sources of information on particular topics (although they may of course be reliable sources of information on policy). An interesting question would be which topics  are they still considered to be reliable sources of information on; and is this body of topics narrowing? But perhaps that can be addressed in a future post. Rather in this post I would like to focus on the question of whether or not this refinement is something others are noticing as well; and if so, who is filling the space of the “expert”?

While this is somewhat of an over simplification, I think it does present enough of a picture to raise the issue of whether or not this shift in the notion of authority, opens space for those not representing the Church in a leadership capacity, yet are “experts” in particular bodies of knowledge, to have some “authority” within Mormondom.

To illustrate this with a concrete example (and of course no quantifiable data), if one has an interpretational question about the scriptures, who does one turn to? My sense is that less and less people are turning to leaders in the Church, and more and more people are turning to “authorities” in the “expert” sense.

This space, which has probably existed for some time, has traditionally been filled by Deseret Book and CES, both of course operating within the structure of the Church. My question, however, is whether or not we can sense either a broadening of this space to include more non-Church affiliated “experts”, many of which bringing more “academic” approaches, or at least a shift within this space where these approaches of those doing work on Mormonism have a stronger hold than those traditionally occupying this space.

Based primarily on personal (and mostly random) observation, it seems that Church leaders are becoming increasingly comfortable with this division of authority (although perhaps not in word), thereby increasing the space for authorities in the “expert” sense. At the same time, academic approaches (some from those employed by Church institutions such as BYU) have begun to fill this space and now compete with Deseret Book and company. I might even go so far as to speculate that this approach seems to be making up ground, or taking marketing share away from other “authorities”.

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