by Christian Y. Cardall
Greg is one of our frequent commenters, a thoughtful lawyer with an intense interest in what constitutes "doctrine," and what its significance is. His insightful questions and comments often irrupt into threads on various doctrinal concepts related to evolution. One of my comments in response became so long, I decided to promote it to a post in order to provide a place for more focused discussion of this question. This appears somewhat midstream in a series of exchanges across several threads, but I don't know that I can easily find or summarize what has gone before. Hence I simply begin here by meeting Greg on his own turf, trying an analogy with the law. (For more competent discussions along these lines by a real lawyer, explore the posts by Nate Oman at Times and Seasons.) Greg, eat your heart out!
I recognize that the leading councils of the Church have the right to establish doctrine, but I also believe that what is "official," or "canonized," or bound in leather at any given time is not pristine, perfected, glistening and crystalline Truth, but only a community's best collective judgment and perception of it, based on many complex factors I will not get into. I don't dispute that there has to be some sort of order, some mechanism for settling things (at least provisionally) for a community to cohere. I suspect, however, that the fact that it does not always represent the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth is historically demonstrable.
Where does this leave me, operationally, with notions of keys and authority and doctrine? Trying to play in your pond, here is my analogy with the law.
The Supreme Court settles "doctrine" and creates precedents that other courts must respect, for the sake of order. But this does not mean these are immune to refinement or utterly irreversible. There are law schools and think tanks where discussions rage and new ideas form. Either vertically, "up the chain of command" through appellate proceedings; or horizontally, through direct influence by way of law review articles, amicus briefs, or informal consultations, such discussions may end up influencing extensions, revisions, and (rarely) reversals by the Supreme Court of their own "doctrine."
Now, to "cash out" the analogy's application to the Church: the leading councils are like the Supreme Court. Their settled positions are accepted for the purposes of official Church discourse (and, for behavioral standards, Church membership). This means that in Sacrament Meeting talks, Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society discussions, and other "official" venues, I stick to the accepted positions (similar to courts respecting established precedent). But we know historically that "settled" on a time scale of years may still be "provisional" on longer time scales of decades and centuries. Moreover, experience with the real world sometimes suggests that Doctrine is not equivalent to Truth. Hence around the dinner table, and at other unofficial venues formal (e.g. magazines) and otherwise (e.g. blogs), discussion proceeds, in analogy to law schools, think tanks, etc. Some of the results of such discussions influence doctrine through vertical channels, either directly via private discussions between leaders at different levels of the hierarchy, or (probably more often in the Church) through promotion of leaders carrying their private views into office. There is probably some horizontal influence as well (though not as much as in the case of law reviews and amicus briefs in the legal setting), through consideration of the work of trusted and faithful scholars (I'll avoid the radioactive word "intellectuals" here).
A glaring omission here is the role of revelation. I don't know if any of the classical muses were associated with jurisprudence, but perhaps the notion of "revelation" might be accommodated in the legal analogy by creative legal genius divining a "right to privacy" from whole cloth, or deriving Brown v. Board of Education from a footnote in a case on the interstate commerce of milk (as I recall Nate Oman's description). Even with this omission, however, I think the description above captures something of the workaday realities of doctrinal "evolution." (My apologies for the pun---or, maybe not!)
[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Because the subject of this post is of wider relevance, I am going to leave this post open for comments here as well. I do this with some trepidation, mindful of the confusion that such "polygblogy" on my part may lead to. For comments on this post as it relates to evolution, please go to the original post to comment. Otherwise, you are welcome to comment here.]