Thursday, February 23, 2006

Back in Black: Clearing Out the Muddled Middle

After referring RoastedTomatoes to two previous posts of mine, his response made me wonder if isolated readings of various of my posts might give conflicting ideas about what I ‘really think,’ or incorrect or at least incomplete ideas about how I see the big picture. In part this is a reflection of genuine internal disarray on my part, but that’s not the whole story. As suggested by my opening post, I have rather skeptical inclinations these days. But perhaps impertinently, that doesn’t stop me—as can be observed in scattered threads and comments—from opining on what Mormonism really is, as opposed to what some might wish it to be or become. In doing so I have often asserted a conservative version of Mormonism—almost always, I think, with regard to behavior and practice, though I have expressed a variety of views on the relationship of freedom of thought and expression to doctrine.

So in the aggregate, there’s a sort of good cop / bad cop thing going on in my posts, reflecting a natural inclination on my part to see and clarify things in relatively black and white terms. The good cop in me tends toward challenging those who would like a ‘grey,’ pick-and-choose form of Mormonism they can more easily live with—a challenge that takes the form of trying to understand and explicate Mormonism on its own terms (i.e. how its prophetic leaders understand it). But also, the bad cop in me explores whether the epistemological underpinnings of Mormonism can be relied upon at all (as in the two older posts I referred RoastedTomatoes to).

The overall project is sort of consistent: to question and probe both ‘white’ and ‘grey’ forms of Mormonism, and to ask whether the ‘black’ of a secular worldview makes more sense, and if it could possibly make a fulfilling and more realistic life. (My intention was to reflect this not only in my opening post, but in the blog description at the top of the page.) I recognize that aficionados of ‘grey’ will see this as pushing the ‘grey’ into a ‘white’ straw man that the ‘black’ can more easily overcome. I don’t know what to say about that, except, let’s have the discussion.

I should also say that in the process I have come to appreciate a rare handful of people who are willing to thoughtfully consider the full range of issues, perhaps ‘grey’ to some extent, but who also seem to retain a clear understanding that a Mormonism without real top-down textual and/or institutional authority—authority with ‘teeth’—is simply incoherent. I appreciate being able to try and understand their ways as a possible alternative to both secular ‘black’ and what I see as unworkable versions of ‘grey’: the untenable notion that a cafeteria, pick-and-choose sort of Mormonism is viable, or the quixotic wish that a bottom-up, grassroots reformable Mormonism is in the cards.


Alright, I still need to read your linked posts, but let me just start my input so:

Black, white, gray...they're just tools we use to make an otherwise incoherent reality somewhat coherent, though I would suggest that so weak are any tools we have as to make any perception of coherence a kind of useful mirage. Hah, how's that for intellectual despondence?

Unfortunately, I really think it's true. I mean, what exactly is "cafeteria Mormonism" in a church that is founded on picking and choosing ideas from Christianity, Judaism, and other religious/secular traditions? I'm not saying that this "cafeteria religion" isn't an inspired process; in fact, I'm thinking that the cafeteria part is at the core of inspiration. As soon as we as Mormons stop picking and soon as we submit ourselves entirely to that toothy institutional authority...we have become the antithesis of the enlightenment that inspired such men as Calvin, Luther, and Joseph Smith.

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 2/23/2006 11:54:00 PM  

Now, having read through the linked posts and re-read this one, I'll add that you appear to be grabbing for the rod. Not a bad fact, just knowing it's there may be a requisite for venturing abroad as you have often done. The rod (whatever it is) allows you to get your bearings...for Calvin, Luther, and Joseph Smith it was the Bible. For Mormons like us, its the church. I'm very thankful for a church that was built upon a living example of free-thinking and experimentation...and for a church that, despite much culture and tradition to the contrary, yet maintains the spirit of independent truth-seeking. In this sense, it is in fact a vessel of god's wisdom and love.

Excellent post, Christian.  

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 2/24/2006 01:01:00 AM  

Christian, one of the nice things about blogging is you don't have to be consistent across all your posts, past and present, just coherent in each post individually. Periodically taking a different tack on an issue is part of the fun. Bloggers who never deviate from their script might win a few points for consistency, but I don't think they really get much growth from the whole exercise. And isn't that one of the main purposes of the sort of writing most bloggers do? That anyone does? 

Comment by Dave | 2/24/2006 03:48:00 AM  

Gentlemen, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'll be pondering and composing responses to the extent I can during the day. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/24/2006 09:41:00 AM  

Watt,  while three categories are obviously insufficient to capture all of reality, even just Mormon reality, I think they can be useful in understanding in broad brush the range of possible attitudes about one phenomenon central to Mormonism: the reliability of divine knowledge, and individual vs. institutional authority to receive and declare it. (I suppose the categories are sort of like the iron rod / liahona dichotomy, but with a secular view added as a third alternative.)

We give lip service to the ideal of independent truth seeking, but when push comes to shove (that is, when there's a disagreement with the authorities) the use of Joseph et al. as examples is not really relevant for members who wish to remain committed, because unlike us now, these luminaries didn't have any legitimate authority to answer to. Of course one is always free to become a Joseph or Luther but this then entails rejection of existing authority. If I can make time I'll try to expand on this later. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/24/2006 02:43:00 PM  

Dave,  I think people come to blogging for various reasons . But yes, I think you're right: for those interested in working out things that are (for them at least) unsolved problems, that they come at it from several angles, and that their views evolve over time, is not unexpected. I just wanted to provide some context for anyone who might be wondering what those opposing angles might be in my case! 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/24/2006 02:49:00 PM  

"We give lip service to the ideal of independent truth seeking, but when push comes to shove (that is, when there's a disagreement with the authorities) the use of Joseph et al. as examples is not really relevant for members who wish to remain committed, "

So true, but no point in letting that stop us from bringing it up anyway...mormAnarchy, baby!

"...because unlike us now, these luminaries didn't have any legitimate authority to answer to."

I think they actually did...perhaps more so, at least in Luther's, JS did too, and he often got his a** kicked for it. Of course, the first step for Luther and for Jospeph was to reframe otherwise legit authority as illegit. And the price they paid for this reframing was likely higher than what we would pay today. 

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 2/24/2006 07:19:00 PM  

Watt,  yes, this agrees with what I was trying to say. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/25/2006 09:13:00 AM  

Christian, thanks for this thoughtful post. It seemed to me from the first time I read it that there was something wrong with the project that you articulate here, and I wanted to take the time to be comfortable in identifying what I see as the problem before I commented. You discuss one strand of your project as involving "trying to understand and explicate Mormonism on its own terms (i.e. how its prophetic leaders understand it)." I see what seems to be a serious problem here. You describe a unitary Mormonism-from-above, as if all leaders in the church have always agreed about the meaning of Mormonism. This idea is demonstrably false. Historically, top Mormon leaders have disagreed about multiple mortal probations, the identity of God, the role of women in the church here and in the next life, who should have the priesthood, the proper relative importance of Anglo and Native American folks in church leadership, the historical content of the Book of Mormon, the meaning of celestial marriage, the meaning of revelation, whether the church needs ongoing revelation, whether people are fundamentally uncreated, whether God the Father is currently progressing, whether people should obey church leaders when they believe that a specific piece of council is incorrect, and so forth. Furthermore, there is evidence that some of these disagreements are live controversies among the leadership today. So to defend a Mormonism-from-above, one must first select a version of Mormonism from the mix-and-match. But that choice is underdetermined--because of contradictory information--on the basis of official statements.

Then there's the idea of "a Mormonism without real top-down textual and/or institutional authority." In Mormonism, authority is both top-down and bottom-up, by institutional design. Nothing can be canonized, and nobody can exercise leadership, without popular vote. That vote has been vitiated in practice, but Joseph Smith or God or someone instituted it as a formal, doctrinal requirement in the first place. Hence, Mormonism as a tradition includes the idea that top-down authority derives its force only from bottom-up acceptance. This idea is reflected in teachings about how God maintains his dominion over the universe and in other spheres.

In effect, I worry that you've described a project of creating an unnaturally homogeneous Mormon orthodoxy -- an orthodoxy which has really never existed at either the leadership or the mass level. Whether the goal is to use this orthodoxy as the foil for depicting secularism or for some other purpose, I find the project of purging Mormonism of its elaborate historical and doctrinal multivocality profoundly unsympathetic. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 2/28/2006 02:56:00 PM  

RoastedTomatoes, thanks for the great comment, this is a discussion I am keen to engage. Unfortunately I can't do it justice at the moment, but will try to do so tonight. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/28/2006 04:47:00 PM  

RoastedTomatoes,  I agree that there have been differences between individual leaders at any given time, and that there have been changes over time as well. But at any given time, particularly in the modern era, there is nevertheless a significant body of material about which there is consensus among the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It seems to me, based on Sec. 107, that the body of material about which there is unanimity among these leading quorums at any given time adequately defines what constitutes "Mormonism-from-above," to use your phrase. (Thanks to correlation, nowadays this means with pretty good reliability anything published with the Church's logo and copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

Perhaps "by common consent" was originally meant in a bottom-up way, but it very quickly evolved away from that. Almost immediately, in fact: despite intermittent flashes, it was essentially gone by the time of Joseph's death. Sustaining in fact functions not to legitimize the leaders, but the members doing the sustaining. It is the members not sustaining the leaders that get their fellowship compromised, not the other way around. There simply is no institutional mechanism, no officially sanctioned way, for power to be exercised from the bottom up.

A few years ago I heard a member of the Presidency of the Seventy say in a stake leadership meeting that the single biggest problem the Brethren face is "keeping the doctrine pure." This sentiment, reflected also I think in Elder Oaks' talk "Alternate Voices," strikes me not as a celebration of "doctrinal multivocality," but precisely the opposite. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/28/2006 11:07:00 PM  

Christian, the hegemony of the current and related authoritarian concerns are certainly one of the strands in Mormonism. But these have never been unanimous positions among the leadership, and they aren't today. One thing that makes these comparisons difficult is that the advocates of the more authoritarian position speak louder than the others.

With respect to the principle of common consent, it's noteworthy that Joseph Smith wanted to drop Sidney Rigdon from the First Presidency the year of his death but was outvoted at the General Conference. So in Rigdon stayed. That sounds like effectual, bottom-up power lasting to the very end of Joseph's life to me.

Even correlated Mormonism publishes divergent opinions. The Institute manuals, for example, contain an awful lot of material that's currently out of favor, such as, for example, the infamous "couplet" about God and man.

Especially to the extent that you're using Mormonism as a null hypothesis against which to test secularism, it's only fair to allow Mormonism its Hugh B. Brown version as well as its Fielding Smith/McConkie version. A stronger test can be conducted if the null hypothesis is allowed to be as inclusive as possible... 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 3/01/2006 01:24:00 AM  

RoastedTomatoes,  the Rigdon incident was indeed one of the "intermittent flashes" I had in mind. It is inconceivable that something like this could happen today, however. The other major one that comes immediately to mind was the canonization of the Article on Marriage (which forbad polygamy and required public marriages) during a conference in Joseph's absence---reportedly a development that chagrined Joseph. However, he obviously did not feel bound by this in the Nauvoo years, considering himself having the top-down authority necessary to reveal doctrine and implement practices that overrode the bottom-up provenance of the Article on Marriage. This proved incalculably more weighty, in terms of influence on both doctrine and conceptions of authority, than the Rigdon incident.

I acknowledge that correlation is imperfect and incomplete. The institute manuals are old unwieldy beasts, the most notorious neglected seedbeds long left untended by correlation. I predict their next long-overdue iteration will show great changes and simplifications.

You make a good point about needing to be careful about versions of Mormonism used as a null hypothesis against secularism---for this reason, as I mention at the end of the main post, I pay close attention to the approaches of certain greyish individuals. But I don't think I'm arguing for Smith/McConkie over Hugh B. Brown. Some leaders have had wider tolerance than others for variance in doctrinal opinions, but there seems to have been uniform feelings against divergences in practices. Moreover, what has Brown or anyone else in recent memory said that is suggestive of bottom-up authority? Or that doctrine or practice would be decided by anyone other than the united voice of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve? I would be surprised if Brown quibbled with that.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/01/2006 01:01:00 PM  

Actually, a slim majority of historians seem to think that Joseph arranged for the Article on Marriage to be passed in his absense; it may have been a deliberate stratagem to deflect the rumors resulting from his Kirtland practice of polygamy. So that's not clearly an example of bottom-up authority. But the doctrine of bottom-up authority is immutably part of Mormonism, regardless of the practice...

Divergence from the accepted "temple-recommend interview" standard in practice and behavior is certainly universally condemned within Mormonism. But that's about orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. On questions of belief and doctrine, there is certainly an authoritarian strand within Mormonism -- a strand that is currently near the historical peak of its powers. But there is a strong libertarian tradition within Mormonism with respect to doctrine and belief, as well. And, that's what's directly relevant to the kinds of issues you're discussing.

People who rewrite the behavioral rules for themselves are writing themselves out of mainstream Mormonism. I think we both agree on that, and I think that's where your argument has persuasive power. But while people who prefer doctrinal freedom within Mormonism may sometimes fall victim to the currently-dominant brand of Mormonism, this group has a strong claim to inclusion in the historical mainstream of Mormonism. The famous quotes from church presidents and Apostles about how Mormonism has no creed, about how we are free to believe whatever is true, about how it doesn't matter so much what we think as that we think, and so forth are a legitimate part of the tradition. An effort to purge this part of Mormonism -- and the concomitant freedom for individual doctrinal exploration and revision -- would seem to be more a power play than an act of intellectual honesty. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 3/03/2006 12:28:00 PM  

I don't recall reading solid arguments that Joseph arranged for the Article on Marriage. I'll have to check, but my recollection is that while the notion that it was not at Joseph's behest was emphasized in late accounts, those who drafted it (Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps?) were not sympathetic to Joseph's early experiments with polygamy. I guess I haven't absorbed the views of "the slim majority of historians"... if you recall some sources offhand I'd be curious to check them out.

There's more I'd like to say about relationships between doctrines and practices, definitely an important issue here---I'll try to do so later this evening. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/03/2006 05:00:00 PM  

Regarding orthopraxy v. orthodoxy, I think we're iterating towards partial agreement---certainly I agree there is much less latitude with behaviors---but I also think that doctrines and practices cannot be completely disentangled.

"But the doctrine of bottom-up authority is immutably part of Mormonism, regardless of the practice." I don't know, is it meaningful to say bottom-up authority is a part of Mormonism---that it even exists as a doctrine---when there is no way for any such authority to be exercised? Can a doctrine truly exist disembodied, untethered to any practice? Agency is granted by God and the Church, but basically it's freedom to choose to join them on their  terms. Are there any indications that God or the prophets have ever been interested in bottom-up negotiation of their doctrines, and the practices that follow from them?

Temple and baptism worthiness are primarily focused on behavior, but that's not the whole story: there are certain key required beliefs as well, and also the requirement to sustain the prophetic leaders. At some point here beliefs become action: thinking and reading are more towards what we would call the belief end of the spectrum, but writing comes much closer to behavior (as so many, from E. D. Howe, to the authors of the Nauvoo Expositor, to Fawn Brodie, to the September Six, to Grant Palmer have found). (There's irony in the context of this discussion, that I sense sufficient freedom of belief to put my name and face to speculations about God's non-existence, the dubiousness of revelation, etc.; while perhaps you don't sense sufficient freedom of belief to attach your full name to many of your writings... ? ;-> Though I only feel free to openly express strong doubts because I do not presently participate in ordinances, even though I attend every week.)

Regarding the statements about not having a creed, it being important to think, and so on: these seem to apply mostly to things about which the the leading quorums have not clearly spoken---which is, of course, almost everything under the sun! But there are some things about which public differences with the Brethren can land one in hot water.

Actually though, in referring to 'grey' not being viable, I wasn't so much referring to the fact that it can lead to one's fellowship being endangered (though that is a concrete demonstration that there is not infinite latitude even with belief). In terms of untenability, I was thinking of the potential incoherence of trusting the testimony of the prophets about the plan of salvation and the unique efficacy of our ordinances, while simultaneously believing that other nontrivial things they say in the name of God are wrong. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/04/2006 12:14:00 AM  


Doctrine and practice are of course connected, but the connection involves multiple options; for any given practice, a variety of beliefs and doctrines can provide compelling meaning.

Bottom-up authority does have an institutional incarnation, as we've discussed, in common consent. The fact that common consent is neutered in practice doesn't eliminate its doctrinal meaning, it just means that our current institutions fall somewhat short of our doctrine. But that shouldn't really surprise anyone who remembers that we also institutionally fall short of the law of consecration, etc.

With respect to baptismal interviews, you state that "there are certain key required beliefs as well." I've talked, in another context, about the way these beliefs are really somewhat hollow slogans . That is to say, they are theologically underspecified. The lack of a catechism explaining in authoritative voice how we must understand those questions in order to receive a temple recommend allows a wide range of interpretations and hence a great deal of freedom of belief.

On the examples of people being excommunicated for their writings, it may not surprise you to learn that I think every one you've listed was a mistake, and indeed not justified by the canonical texts on excommunication. Furthermore, on almost every case, there is some evidence of a lack of unanimity about the decisions at the highest levels of church leadership. But that is, in a way, neither here nor there. The Mormon tradition also includes people with substantially dissident beliefs and writings who aren't excommunicated; Sterling McMurrin would be a prime example.

In your last paragraph, we've reached what I take to be further clarity. However, I think you've taken an atypical view of the doctrine here. As I understand it, Mormons aren't supposed to trust the testimony of the prophets about the plan of salvation. Instead, we're supposed to hope that testimony is true and obtain direct, independent personal evidence. You and I can agree that this idea has problematic elements of its own, but it's clearly the teaching of the Book of Mormon, the missionary discussions, etc. If this teaching is taken seriously, there's no remaining incoherence in taking the leadership seriously on subjects where independent divine evidence is obtained and not on other subjects. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 3/04/2006 12:25:00 PM  

By the way, the main reason for my pseudonym is professional; I've been trying to keep my name associated with my research, and not my religion. I talk pretty much the same way in church on Sunday that I do online... And, in Berkeley, at least, it hasn't seemed to cause me any problems. | 3/04/2006 12:27:00 PM  

RoastedTomatoes,  the notion that the Church currently falls short of its doctrine by failing to implement bottom-up common consent is an interesting idea, but I'm not sure the comparison to the law of consecration is apt. The standard lore surrounding the withdrawal of the law of consecration is that the members failed to live up to the instructions of the prophets; by contrast, if the current understanding of common consent (i.e. that it is a test of the members rather than the leaders) is incorrect, it is the prophets that are failing rather than the members---a qualitatively different scenario. It seems to raise a host of difficult questions, such as why God bothers to keep his people shackled under prophets, why he implemented a Kingdom  of God rather than a Democracy of God, etc. Moreover, unlike the case of the law of consecration, there doesn't seem to be any lore about bottom-up common consent being restored at some future day.

I found the hollow slogans post interesting at the time but unfortunately didn't get a chance to comment. I thought there are some potentially troubling implications. It seems to me that if one makes private definitions that differ substantially from the common understanding---something that would become clear upon more complete discussion---one might carefully consider when non-standard usage crosses the line of equivocation or even dishonesty. Moreover, the hollow slogan logic could be applied to statements or questions about practice as well as belief, allowing "a wide range of interpretations and hence a great deal of freedom of [practice]"---something we seem to agree isn't viable. Under Bill Clinton's definition of "sexual relations," for example, he could affirm that he lived the law of chastity.

The examples of excommunication/disfellowshipping I chose spanned the entire range of Church history in order to suggest that intolerance of strongly dissident views is not some new phenomenon---and anyway, if it were a new phenomenon, doesn't the logic of the dispensation of the fulness of times lead to the expectation that the Church would be getting closer to God's will as time goes by, rather than further away? Aside from Pres. McKay's personal intervention, I think someone like Sterling McMurrin was left alone because (if I understand correctly) he was not active in the Church and was an open unbeliever. As is common procedure with inactives, for practical purposes he had already cut himself off, making excommunication superfluous. If he had claimed to be a loyal member, participated in ordinances etc., while being a dissident, perhaps things would have played out differently.

I don't deny that independent spiritual witness is an important part of Mormonism, but I don't get the sense that the scriptures support the idea that if confirmation is not yet obtained one is then free to not follow the prophets; rather, the idea seems to be that this is precisely when authority would be most valuable and necessary, to tell you things you don't already know, or know yet for yourself. Particularly with regard to behavior, at least; in connection with doctrines and beliefs I vacillate, and have at times argued  something more like your view, only to subsequently fall back into skepticism of a coherent view of doctrine and authority. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/04/2006 09:05:00 PM  

Details aside, I think our differences in perspective might be reduced to the following summary (please correct me if I miss something important). You think that legitimate Mormonism is defined by the apparent majority position of the current leadership, and that ideas supported by a minority, by non-leadership groups, or by historical or scriptural precedent alone aren't part of the package. I think that there's precedent in some of the Mormon canonical texts and in Mormon history for a more inclusive orthodoxy.

If that summary is right, as I think it more or less is from a review of our conversation here, then I'm not sure whether the image of something like my position as a "middle" point between authoritarian variants of Mormonism and secularism is really accurate. The reason is that the differences between my kind of position and the McConkie kind aren't actually movement toward secularism as much as toward something like a Christian existentialism. Acknowledging the reality of uncertainty and the ubiquity of human error, attributing to scriptures and prophets the role of pointing toward God rather than that of providing error-free communication from him, and to individuals a duty to do the best they can with the muddle and rely on Christ for the rest doesn't seem like a compromise with secularism. Indeed, there's really nothing secular about that proposal. Rather, it's a different kind of Mormonism. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 3/05/2006 12:24:00 AM  

I find this discussion interesting. In the Mormonism that I understand, there really isn’t a lot of room for grey. The idea that you may disagree with a teaching of the church has always made me feel that I am the one out of harmony with the Spirit. If access to revelation is the same for all, then we should be in harmony with the leaders of the church (if they are inspired). If they aren’t inspired then we ought to examine why we profess to be Mormons in the first place.

We also place a great premium on obedience. Our view of Abraham’s obedience to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac as the supreme example of obedience when it went against all logic and law are testament to this concept. Abraham had been strapped to an altar himself and delivered by an angel of God when he was going to be sacrificed to a false god.

In the administration of the temporal affairs of the church, I have seen differences of opinion. I have seen Stake Presidents and High Councilors have differences of opinion that are expressed. I have seen frustration many times. I have also seen obedience to the decision of the leaders once all opinions have been heard. This is an example of the appeal to Abraham’s example that plays extremely strongly to all Latter-day Saints.

The reason I found your blog in the first place is that I have struggled with trying to find reconciliation for myself between organic evolution and the teachings of the church and scriptures. I have to admit, that I haven’t found one. I’ve seen and attempted to try to do so and have not found any place where I feel like I’ve made a secure choice except to have the type of faith that Abraham did and go against what seems to be logic.

If the church is true and if there are prophets at the head of it then the choice is clear on what we should do. If it isn’t, then we are no better off than we were prior to the restoration of the gospel; or even more disturbing would be the idea that it may not really matter at all.....

Comment by ho_hum | 3/05/2006 02:42:00 PM  

RoastedTomatoes,  the summary of my position is not quite right, and the summary of your position is not useful, as what a “more inclusive orthodoxy” includes or allows is not specified. As for my position, I don’t think a mere majority of current leadership is sufficient to define legitimate Mormonism; rather, I think agitation against and disobedience to the united (not mere majority) voice of the leading quorums, while simultaneously considering oneself a legitimate and faithful Mormon, is incoherent, because a ‘Mormonism’ without prophetic authority is no longer orthodox and ‘orthoprax’ Mormonism. (In addition to being incoherent, such agitation may also be a fool’s errand, inducing defensiveness and retrenchment on the part of the leadership that will only impede the activist’s cause, even if it is just.) I recognize my summary position would need unpacking, including for example a definition of what constitutes ‘agitation,’ and an acknowledgement that unanimous but informal consensus might not be the same thing as a united explicit statement. Also, it is important to note that my position, with its emphasis on behavior (“agitation”), does not require prophetic infallibility or error-free divine communication, nor prohibit discreet suspicion that there is some slippage between official positions and “Truth.”

While a strongly individualistic and/or bottom-up approach to revelation and governance might well be a different brand of religiosity rather than a compromise with secularism, with respect to the particular issue of attitude towards prophetic authority, I think it does define a middle ground between Mormonism and secularism, in a way I may try to explain in a follow-up post. I don’t know enough about Christian existentialists’ attitudes towards prophetic authority over a community to say much about that connection. I do know that Jim Faulconer seems sympathetic to Christian existentialists, and yet seems extremely deferential to the written canon, apparently preferring it over personal revelation. (I don’t know, it could be that he is less enthusiastic about institutional authority that goes beyond the canon, and that the written canon---which requires sustaining by the membership---is in the end a minimal sort of bottom-up form of authority after all.) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/06/2006 09:58:00 AM  

ho_hum,  thanks for your interesting comment, to which I am quite sympathetic. Unfortunately responding to RoastedTomatoes has exhausted the resources for blogging I have available this morning. I will try to respond further this evening. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/06/2006 10:02:00 AM  

Christian, other than in official joint statements such as the Proclamation on the Family, how is one to know for sure that the leadership is united? History teaches us that many, perhaps most, conflicts among the leadership aren't publicly aired at the time. This minimizes the scope of your position as summarized here, I think. All you can really be taken as saying if you insist on definite leadership unity is that the scriptures and the official declarations/proclamations are binding. Anything else involves speculation on the part of the person who proposes it as a unanimous commitment of the leadership. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 3/06/2006 11:10:00 AM  

Christian-What types of issues, doctrines, ideas, theories would you consider the position of the ‘church leadership’ ones which could be abrogated or changed? How would you feel towards the concept that previous ‘revelations’ or ‘proclamations’ are now defunct and/or inappropriate?

For example, the concept I’ve been struggling with is organic evolution. There are many ramifications that this theory can have towards revelations, statements and writings of the church leadership. I cannot find a comfortable ground to stand upon which does not lead me to question all types of things regarding revelations. Take for instance the temple ceremony, the Book of Abraham, the statement made by the First Presidency back in 1911 about evolution and so forth.

Let’s say that now the church comes out and makes an abrupt change on the things previously issued regarding the subject. I would probably feel less inclined to believe there were prophets at the head of the church than if I just needed to have faith that there must be something that is being passed off as a deception regarding evolution.

Comment by ho_hum | 3/06/2006 02:16:00 PM  

ho_hum,  there are many educated Mormons who don't have a problem with evolution and think there aren't any fatal contradictions, and it is worthwhile to try to understand why they think and feel that way (there are a couple of books on the subject you may be aware of). I personally, however, share your concern. I worry there may be greater problems than typically realized or acknowledged, if the Mormonism that would result would be so different from the traditional view of a procreating God as to call in question Mormonism as a whole.

Your questions are too big to answer in a single comment! I signed on at the Mormons and Evolution blog to work out some ideas over time, but I haven't gotten very far, only tinkered at the margins so far. I think two possible approaches that aim to maintain belief may be (1) to think carefully about the nature of authority, and the specifics of various texts, to find the 'soft spots' where traditional ideas might be rolled back without losing anything vital; and (2) to not actively seek a resolution, and argue (like here , for instance) that the Lord hasn't intended to reveal anything remotely approaching the scientific specificity of evolution, but only to indicate the nature of our relationships to him and to each other. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/06/2006 05:12:00 PM  

RoastedTomatoes,  the strength of my top-down sensibility varies according to the specificity of unanimity among the leading quorums, and I agree that it is relatively circumscribed---in fact, it is this limited scope of declared unanimity that I see as the primary source of doctrinal freedom within Mormonism, rather than a bottom-up conceptualization of revelatory authority.

I agree that unanimity is clearest in the case of official declarations/proclamations, but especially in recent years I think materials published under the Church's logo and copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. largely represent at least an informal consensus of the 1P and Q12---particularly those documents with a notation stating the date approved (e.g. "English approval 8/01" just under the copyright notice on the back of the title page of the Wilford Woodruff manual), which I think refers to approval by these quorums---and as D&C 107 requires of all their decisions, these approvals are likely unanimous nowadays (if not, I would be very interested to know it).

The unanimity requirement excludes many solitary or factional positions among the leaders, but it also encompasses many cases of interest. For instance the Proclamation on the Family covers much of the agitation and activism I had in mind in writing this post. Another example is Book of Mormon historicity, which seems to be covered by JS-H in the Pearl of Great Price, the Church's recent press release on DNA, etc.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/06/2006 06:51:00 PM  



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