Friday, September 12, 2008

Creeds, Living Oracles, and Freedom of Thought (Is there a Mormon Doctrine?)

One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may
-Joseph Smith

I am a bit hesitant about putting up LDS-themed posts on this blog. I’m not trying to become part of the Bloggernacle and I don’t want to bore our non-LDS readers. I also would certainly hate for this site to become ‘The Gospel According to Garff’. This blog is definitely not a “Mormon blog” it’s a Steve and April blog. That being said our faith is a significant facet of our lives and our thinking, which are after all, the subjects of this blog. I figure a lot of readers may not be interested in many of the topics we often post about: music, law, history, running, dogs, Los Angeles, etc... And I’m not so presumptuous as to think that everyone reads every post. We all skip the ones we don’t really care about.

I have already done one LDS-themed post;
But though it drew largely upon Mormon sources, it was a topic that applied more to faith and worldview in general and not just to Mormonism in particular. One thing I did in that post that I will continue is that I put in some of my photos because blogs are boring with out pictures.

This will be the first post in a two part series: Deflating attacks on faith. Virtually all anti-Mormon attacks rely on one of two faulty assumptions:

1. Mormonism is Creedal and

2. Church leaders and especially prophets must be perfect.

Once these assumptions are shown to be false not all of the attack, whatever it is, goes away but it does loose most of its sting. I want to address each of these assumptions in this two part series as well as some of the most common arguments that rely on them. The attacks based on the first assumption tend to be a little more ridiculous than those based on the second. These attacks usually involve digging up some quotation from the Journal of Discourses, a general authority or just a regular Mormon and then saying: “Ah ha! That’s what all Mormons must believe.” This fallacious generalization is not unique to attacking Mormonism. “All Christians are crusaders,” “all Muslims are terrorists,” etc… As poor as this line of reasoning is in these and many other similar instances it is especially fallacious when used to attack Mormonism.
Many faiths are Creedal in nature. That is that they have at their core some set of doctrines or principles that must be accepted in order for a person to be considered a full believer. One example is the Nicean Creed. The Nicean Creed is a statement of faith. It is a set of doctrinal propositions that many Christian churches require their faithful to accept in order to be in harmony with their church. There is certainly good reason to do this. Without some sort of creed that is both mandatory and universal to the members of a particular church ideological anarchy could result.
But because so many other religions are creedal in from I think that many people simply assume that Mormonism is as well. But this assumption is incorrect. Mormonism is inherently non-creedal. One of Mormonism’s most central tenets is the rejection of all creeds in favor of the ongoing pursuit of truth. This principle is perhaps best evidenced in the principle of continuous revelation. If you are to embrace the possibility of continuous revelation then logically you must reject all creeds. At their heart creeds are fixed and cannot be changed. They are the final word. To fully accept the principle of continued revelation one must be willing to change their viewpoint at any time in light of any newly reveled truths.
Another example of Mormonism’s non-creedal nature can be found in the faith’s acknowledgment of a diversity of viewpoints among its members. Joseph Smith characterized the Latter Day Saint viewpoint towards diversity of belief when he stated:
“I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine; it looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter-day Saintism Methodists have a creed which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled” (Documentary History of the Church, Vol. VI, 273- 274)

Joseph Smith rejected formal creeds in favor of freedom of thought. This does not imply any sort of relativistic stance towards truth. But rather the idea of a community of believers who aid each other in the discovery of truth “let it come from whence it may.” Mormons are at the liberty of believing and thinking what they please and are a group that is widely diverse in belief and opinion. Just ask a group of Mormons if they believe in evolution. You’ll get a different answer from each one.
Of course many LDS do believe that the Gospel is a set of creeds (from the position I am arguing I have to be careful about being too critical of this view lest I contradict my self by arguing that the fact that Mormonism has no creed is a creed). There are several reasons people often believe that the Gospel is creedal. One stems from the hierarchical nature of the church and some of the steps that it has had to take in order to prevent ideological anarchy. Obviously the church can’t allow people to preach every single idea that they have. The church has to protect the flock from those who might, even inadvertently, lead them astray.
Another source of this confusion is the fact that we often talk of “Mormon doctrine.” When most people think of the word ‘doctrine’ they think of something that cannot change. That is they think of a creed. In this sense of the word I believe that there is very little Mormon doctrine. A better term would perhaps be “Mormon thought.” This term too may be problematic in that it is a little weak. Doctrinal statements in the Church are more authoritative than mere thoughts or opinions even if they don’t rise to the level of creeds.
LDS thinkers often try to explain changes in the church by appealing to a distinction between doctrines and practices. Doctrines are eternal and unchanging where as practices can change. I believe this distinction to be extremely problematic. For one thing it does absolutely no good except retrospectively. You can’t know if something is a doctrine or a practice until it changes. “Is plural marriage a doctrine or a practice?” “Well it changed so it must be a practice.” “What about priesthood being given only to males?” “Who knows? Maybe it will never change, maybe it will.” “What about any other current LDS belief?” “Again, who knows?” In fact, logically speaking, this distinction could only ever pick out practices and could never tell you if anything is doctrine because we can never know what may change in the future. It simply divides all LDS thought into two categories: those that have been shown to be practices, and those that have not yet been shown to be practices.
Another problem with this approach is that someone may decide that something is definitely not a practice but is an unchangeable doctrine. What then happens if the prophet receives a revelation to change that something or the church simply stops practicing or believing in it? I guess it’s time to leave the church and go join the fundamentalists (at least you won’t have to pay taxes anymore). I think that we should not worry about this distinction and instead exercise a little faith and follow the prophet.
Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine is occasionally given the status of a creed. By the standard definition of doctrine as creedal and unchanging the book fails to live up to its title. In fact according to Gregory Prince in his History of David O. McKay, the prophet was opposed to the publication of Elder McConkie’s work primarily because of its title. He was afraid that members may think that the book was a definitive and authoritative statement of LDS belief or in other words a creed (the prophet also commissioned a committee that reportedly found thousands of errors in the book). Mormon Doctrine instead of being a creed represents the viewpoints and conclusions of a very able scholar and great LDS thinker.
Often the Articles of Faith are seen as a kind of Mormon creed. There is something to this idea. They have the appearance of a creed in many ways. They represent a concise statement of LDS faith. Furthermore they are often treated as if they are a creed. Children memorize and recite them. We pass them out on little cards to people who want to know more about our faith and they were the basis for Talmage’s influential book. But The Articles of Faith were never intended as a creed per se. They were an attempt by the prophet Joseph Smith to explain the faith to a newspaper reporter and were not specifically written to the members as some sort of catechism (though they were later published, along with the entire Wentworth Letter, in The Times and Seasons). Brigham Young actually opposed their canonization in the Pearl of Great Price not because he opposed any of their teachings but because he was afraid that they would be viewed as a creed by Latter-Day Saints. Also the wordings of some of the articles were modified in both 1851 and 1902 (though these changes were minor and mostly grammatical in nature).
As important as the Articles of faith are, like any other belief, they are not an absolute creed. If the prophet revealed something that would modify or even contradict one of them the living voice of the prophet would trump the written word. We are not bound to believe any set of principles come what may. We don’t have to try and accept every statement by every Latter-day Saint from every time and then attempt to justify, explain, and harmonize them. It feels so good not to be trammeled.

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