Thursday, April 21, 2005

On Doctrine

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.]


One question is whether or not doctrine serves primarily a coordinating function -- which I take it is what you argue here -- or whether or not it has epistemic as opposed to merely institutional authority. Here, I think that your analysis is unduly caught up on the issue of infallibility and the relationship of doctrine to "Truth." First, one may affirm that Church doctrine has epistemic authority -- ie provides us with privileged access to knowledge of the divine -- without also affirming that it is infallible. By rough analogy, I might say that a Noble prize winning physicists statements with regard to physics are entitled to epistemic authority without also affirming that his statements with regard to physics are infallible. Second, there is clearly some notion of Truth that is kicking around in the assumptions of your discussions about doctrine. What exactly is it?

In my view the concept of Church doctrine presents two major problems: 1. How do I identify what it is; and, 2. How do I understand its authority. I take it that our usage implies both that it is identifiable and in some sense authoritative. Any adequate theory is going to have to address both questions in my humble opinion. 
Comment by Nate Oman | 4/24/2005 11:25:00 AM  

Nate, my teasing apart of Doctrine and Truth, and my keeping the epistemic authority of doctrine at arm's length, arise from two factors. One is the particular rhetorical context out of which this post arose, and the second is my concern about the validity of the alleged bases for knowing that prophetic statements correspond to ontological reality.

First, the particular rhetorical context: On the evolution blog there are those who want to defend propositions at variance with scientific ideas having substantial empirical support. For example, some may argue for a paradisiacal Earth with no death whatsoever until Adam's fall 6000 years ago, and use 2 Ne. 2 to defend it. I may wish to argue that the context and specific language ("from what I have read I must needs suppose...") of 2 Ne. 2 suggest that this is Lehi expressing his best opinion and reading of the scriptures, as taught in his personal family home evening, but that it's not Truth, because it contradicts abundant physical evidence. Now because I respect the status of the scriptures as canonical doctrine, I'm not going to make this argument while teaching Gospel Doctrine class; but in this case distinguishing Doctrine from Truth allows me to maintain integrity and sanity while respectfully participating in the official discourse. ("What is Truth?" is a question for the ages; here in this limited rhetorical context you can see I'm referring to a paricular very limited subset: propositions with substantial empirical support.)

There are several reasons for being careful about the epistemic authority of prophetic statements. For one thing, there are numerous disclaimers in the scriptures themselves against infallibility of the scriptures, that acknowledge the fact of imperfect human intermediaries and their culture. Beyond that, I think our revelatory touchstones for prophetic authority (e.g. D&C 1:37-38, D&C 21, and D&C 28), while affirming the unalloyed prerogative of the prophet to speak for the Church, can nevertheless be read as falling short of endorsement of the ontological correctness of prophetic statements (a subject for another post, as this comment is getting quite long). They clearly affirm what you call the "coordinating function," but arguably leave the epistemic authority in question.

Clear scriptural warrants for epistemic correctness seem to be limited to (1) ratification by the Holy Ghost (Mor. 10:3-5, D&C 68:4), which can only be identified and corroborated on an individual basis, and (2) direct sensory witness (e.g. handling the body of Christ). I have concerns with both of these that temper my enthusiasm for assumptions of epistemic authority: social conditioning in the case of (1), and inaccesibility of the witnesses in time, space, and/or openness to cross-examination for (2).

As far as "What is Doctrine?", I think the modern answer is "That which is correlated at present." Frustration at the fact that this is a moving target is ameliorated by allowing for some daylight between authority over official discourse and epistemic authority.

This may seem strange, but might make some sense from the perspective that what God is testing us on is not an ability to correctly ascertain the ontological realities of the universe in their fullness, but an ability to charitably relate to him and a Zion community. (Of course, some of the former is needed to be able to do the latter. And I don't deny that your analogy with authoritative physicists may be useful too.)
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 4/24/2005 04:45:00 PM  

Christian: I think that you confuse the issue of espitemic authority with the issue of fallibility. One may acknowledge fallibility while at the same time acknowledging some epsitemic authority. We do this all the time with all sorts of expert opinion. I appreciate your issue about rhetorical context. I guess that I find it unfortunate that the endless debates contra the claim of infallibility end up submerging what I ultimately see as much more important issues. 
Comment by Nate Oman | 4/24/2005 09:45:00 PM  



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