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Mormonism’s Doctrinal Race Problem

March 16, 2011

Over at Main Street Plaza, we are having an interesting discussion. The post “Why are we leaving the church in droves?” is months old, but the discussion has rebooted thanks to a new (believing) commenter to MSP, “jason”

Beyond “jason’s” absolute butchering of English conventions for grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, jason’s comments highlighted the problems with defining a Mormon orthodoxy.

The question seems simple. What do Mormons believe? If we ask about any particular issue, members should be able to agree in general on what the “official” church position is.

The problem is…we can’t.

Jack wrote about the elusiveness of Mormon doctrine in Denial is a river in Utah. I have reluctantly come to admit that cultural Mormon doesn’t because there is no stable foundation for it. But in fact, it seems that Mormon orthodoxy doesn’t exist for the exact same reason.

Jack really summarizes the problem well: for any alleged Mormon doctrine, you will find 1) Mormons who insist that the alleged doctrine is anti-Mormon lies, 2) Mormons who insist that the doctrine as stated lacks historical or theological nuance, and finally 3) Mormons who insist that the doctrine is current Mormon truth.

Let’s explore with jason’s example.

I won’t start with jason’s first message to the thread, but even from his first comment, you could glimpse his “logic” — if you disagree with him, you have been corrupted by the liberal gay. If you leave the church, it is because you are corrupted by the liberal gay. I am not making this up.

In his rants about the corrupting influence of the liberal gay agenda, another commenter asked him to find even one quote from Jesus about homosexuality. After pulling scriptures that were not from Jesus, I called him out on the fact that he was not pulling quotations from Jesus. He responded that the prophets speak for Jesus, of course.

I thought I’d have fun with this line of logic:

In other words, you openly admit that Jesus DIDN’T say these things. Someone else said them (allegedly) for him. Gotcha.

I guess the real question would be when prophets speak as prophets and when prophets speak merely as men. Or, what do you think about black people?

OK, I feel bad for being a flippant troll, but I thought this would be a good point for Jason to think about the nature of continuing prophecy…maybe old prophets say things that aren’t exactly doctrinal. Maybe they speak with limited understanding. Maybe they see through a glass, darkly.

Nope! Here’s how Jason responded.

Andrew S– what do i think of black people? I love them, im from louisiana half my friends are black, my niece and my nephew are mixed and i dont see black. I know what your getting to.. and yes i do believe the mark of cain and the lamanites in the scriptures recieved dark skin. I in NO way believe blacks are evil i just believe their ancestor was cain and ham i believe it was through the flood, yes i do believe that it has something to do with remaining nutral in the pre-existence during the war in heaven.

albino african

Is this a righteous black person?

…Now, I just want to say something. I have been accused occasionally of being anti-Mormon. I think these allegations are unfair. I don’t try to make the church look bad by bringing up “folklore” and passing it off as Mormon beliefs. I don’t even count actual old teachings of the church as legitimate Mormon beliefs.

But I cannot help it if a member, in 2011, touts racially-charged folklore beliefs as if it were gospel.

…but I gave Jason benefit of the doubt. Maybe I was misinterpreting him. After all, one comment…that’s not enough to establish a pattern.

So I asked:

jason,

so, will righteous black people be white in the afterlife?

His response:

yes i believe the mark of cain will be removed and glorified people will be a glorious white beyond description. I also believe in dna upgrade which when cells upgrade they take on more light and light is not a dark color.

To his credit, I think “glorious white” or “light” is different than white…but still.

I literally cannot help this.

And I thought, in a later comment, that maybe he would see WHY this was offensive. He begins:

andrew– I do see it buddy and ill be strait..If i were black id be hurt, pist, betrayed, unloved by heavely father…

But why would he feel hurt? Pissed? Betrayed? Unloved?

and id feel lower then other people who werent nutruel. I know i would feel like crap and id have an enternal struggle wether to join and agree or to flip them the bird and deny their gospel. Just because someone is of color they can leave this earth the most rightous saint to ever live and leave this earth after christ. Dont let satan get you down and whisper into your ears things that depress you and give you hatred towards the church. i look at it in a different way, get pissed at satan. i try and do so good that satan wouldnt hold a candle to me. I almost look at it as a competition he will never win against me cause he lost he’s in hell and me and you got our bodies and PASSED our first estate.

I literally cannot help this.

To be fair, he doesn’t think blacks are inferior (even for the neutrality). He sees no connection between saying blacks were neutral (and thus not “great in heaven“), the skin color, priesthood limitations, and black “inferiority.” And yet he is certain about the neutrality and the curse.

Why does this happen? Haven’t modern leaders spoken out against these folklore doctrines and past doctrines? (Seth was really adamant about showing that even past leaders had conflicting points.)

Well, here’s the problem. The way that modern leaders renounce previous church doctrines gives members like jason leeway to believe whatever they want to. From his own mouth:

…i have to disagree with you on the whole folk doctrine concept. If we start to believe what a lot of the founder of our church have said as folk doctrine then the church would not be true cause we would have no foundation, not saying that the seed of cain is a big issue cause its not, but we can also see in the book of mormon that even the lamanites had their skins darkened by God when they became rebillious and broke off from the nephites, this was not only opinion but taught as doctrine and you can find it in the book of mormon its scripture. My opinion is its the opposite way around I tend to believe it was only changed at the time because of the emense preasure on the church during the civil rights movement. This may make me more of a “ultra mormon” or an early mormon type, i totaly disagree with “modern mormonism” moving to the left i believe and know it is a sign of the times and that there is a weeding out taking place in the church right now. The lord is getting his people ready for his comming.

(Emphasis added)

In other words; it’s not that previous leaders spoke with limited understanding, but that current leaders are “moving to the left.” But there’s more to this thought process…it’s not a haphazardly decided theology.

jason spells it later on:

Andrew– yes God does reveal new things to his current prophets but in no way will it ever nigate the doctrine of previous prophets it may add to it or give a bigger picture of what happend but doctrine is doctrine and does not change. It may have things added to it but if Tell brigham young something is true and he tells the people its true, then how would it give any current prophet the right to go back and say that prophet was wrong. Ive never heard a prophet say that anyway they just kinda try and avoid the converstion entirely.

(Emphasis added)

In the past, I theorized that the reason current authorities roll out new doctrine in the way they do (it’s generally in a muted way that doesn’t cleanly address and unequivocally denounce previously doctrinal statements) is precisely so they may not alienate and disturb the members who believe in older doctrine. This way, people who want to see new revelation rejoice with the new revelation, but people who are comfortable with the old doctrine can still insist that the old doctrine is doctrinal. Both sides may be right, and may point to whatever quotes they want.

jason wants to believe that a current prophet cannot defy a previous one…and of course, he can respond to numerous interviews and articles by saying that the prophet or general authority didn’t contradict the previous prophets…at best, they avoided the conversation.

But what if one prophet does go against another? Suppose that this situation is possible. Who wins out? For jason, the story is intriguing:

i was just trying to make the point that one prophets doctrine can not negate anothers doctrine. Doctrine should never change that was the whole reasn joseph looked for a church to join cause the doctrine was always changing and He knew that his God would have one doctrine that worked for everybody. I believe were in the last days im a big last days buff! And i believe there is about to be a weeding out in the church and im just a person who trys not to put my trust in the arms of flesh but to question first. I believe it was one of the founding fathers who said “question, question even the existence of a god for if there be a god he shall surely make himself known unto you”. I guess the point im trying to make with that in these last days i have no clue who will be amongst those weeded out. We could even have some leaders weeded out. idk?? So lately i find myself sticking to the doctrine i have always know to be true. i do sustain the current prophet and believes he talks for God but i also know that ive found a few contradictions in interviews given so i have to rely more on my personal revelation and what ive learned since a young boy to be true cause the spirit had testified it to me. hope that makes sense??

Emphasis added.

This may have been the most fascinating comment ever. It maybe deserves a part 2 post dedicated just to it.

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82 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    His remarks sound an awful lot like the rhetoric you hear from the FLDS Church, and other apostate fundamentalist breakaway factions about why the current LDS Church is lost, or corrupt, or misguided – unlike them, who have the true way of doing things.

  2. “I literally cannot help this.”

    That’s why it’s a Sisyphean labor. No matter how much evidence you (and Seth) marshal and no matter how well you present it, it is literally impossible to change Jason’s mind.

  3. Seth,

    That’s EXACTLY what I thought. Prioritize early leaders over more current leaders?? Might as well just go ahead and say that the current leadership has apostasized.

    The only difference is that the FLDS, etc., do say that the modern church has apostasized. But jason doesn’t believe that modern leaders REALLY contradict past ones. They either 1) avoid the subject or 2) are just providing their opinion.

    kuri,

    Indeed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that way (impossible, that is), which is why it’s so alluring to keep trying to present more information.

  4. I’m speechless.

  5. I see this as an interesting consequence of the way the LDS Church disseminates its doctrine.

    Make no mistake, the ‘hush hush’ approach has its advantages. The leadership can disavow ‘legacy doctrines’ that it finds inconvenient or embarrassing, but by doing so quietly, it avoids ruffling the feathers of the rank and file. No one need know that Prophet X contradicted Prophet Y.

    The downside, however, is that by not discussing doctrinal changes openly, it leaves large portions of the membership absolutely clueless about what LDS doctrine is at any given time. This leads to confusion, factionalism, and (may I say) entertainingly paleolithic comments from some Mormons.

  6. I’m tickled by this post and this thread in so many ways.

    Someone remembers that I exist in spite of my lengthy inadvertent hiatus from blogging, Jason is providing a model example of exactly the kind of Mormon who deeply rejects popular notions of “doctrine” and “folklore” (all to the tune of his own righteousness and faith in the church v. the liberal/communist/apostate tendencies of his fellow faithful and active Mormons who disagree, of course), and Kuri used the word “Sisyphean.”

    SISYPHEAN!

    It’s a great word. Everyone should use it more.

    Carry on.

  7. hawkgrrrl,

    I know, right?

    Daniel,

    Exactly right. The worst thing about this whole debacle is not just that jason (or any other member) is “clueless” about what LDS doctrine is at any given time…but that there literally is no way to know what LDS doctrine is at any given time. After all, any analysis or evaluation we could make depends on certain assumptions that we have about Mormonism — that another person may not hold.

    That’s what’s most fascinating about this, I think. I thought that jason would prioritize modern leaders over past leaders (Isn’t that one of the 14 fundamentals? “A living prophet is more important than a dead one.”), but he did exactly the opposite — he trusts the “founding leaders” and the “early prophets” over the current prophets.

    Jack,

    On the other hand, I think the “tune of his own righteousness and faith” is incredibly intriguing. His disagreement with Seth isn’t all that surprising…but it seems like he wouldn’t exactly fit into a modern LDS conservative box either (he doesn’t follow the 14 Fundamentals!) He doesn’t follow the “chain rule” all the way (e.g., I prayed about the BOM and had a confirmation of that. Therefore, Joseph Smith was prophet. Therefore, all of the rest of the prophets were prophets. jason only goes so far as the “early prophets.”)

  8. “…If we start to believe what a lot of the founder of our church have said as folk doctrine then the church would not be true cause we would have no foundation…”

    This is exactly how I believed when I was in the church. As long as there were no contradictions, I could muster the faith to believe in all of it, even with the many doubts.

    Was I raised to believe that blacks couldn’t get the priesthood because they were less-valiant? Of course, because prophets don’t make mistakes- so the ban wasn’t a mistake and it wasn’t unjust, and that explanation satisfied both those criteria. However, unlike Jason, I did not believe that the current prophets were leading the church astray, because, well, past leaders said that wouldn’t happen (it’s starting to sound so circular). I was taught that the less-valiant spirits in the pre-mortal existence must have run out in 1978, and that is why the blacks were given the priesthood from then on. That’s what I was taught and that is what I accepted. I had no idea that some members considered all of that folklore. I thought that was the accepted answer for all of the members of the church.

    LDSOrigins (formerly known as Guestwriter 800+ on here)

  9. LDSOrigins/GW800,

    I was taught that the less-valiant spirits in the pre-mortal existence must have run out in 1978, and that is why the blacks were given the priesthood from then on. That’s what I was taught and that is what I accepted. I had no idea that some members considered all of that folklore. I thought that was the accepted answer for all of the members of the church.

    WOW. I guess this REALLY puts a new spin on the “best generation” trope in the church. Black people born after 1978 really are the best generation.

  10. “WOW. I guess this REALLY puts a new spin on the “best generation” trope in the church. Black people born after 1978 really are the best generation.”
    :) Well, they were now tied with non-blacks, anyway.

  11. This was an interesting thread. I think it’s a case where a kind of LDS member who wouldn’t normally be represented in the Bloggernacle joins in the online discussion. To me, the conflict between Jason and Seth illustrates the dilemma that the LDS leadership has with social change such as the trend toward increased acceptance of committed gay couples. If the leadership moves too quickly, members like Jason will rebel. If it moves too slowly, it will lose its young people and educated progressives.

    Elder Bednar held a Q&A session a few weeks ago (see here for a transcript) for a Young Single Adult group. His non-answer about how to “help gay friends” ended up being completely defensive. It was a remarkable exchange. There’s no way Elder Bednar could have left that meeting without feeling under pressure.

    I think the view of the Brethren being at the helm is overly simplified. True, they control the purse strings and the top-level messaging, but what Mormonism is and how it evolves are results of an organic process that the folks in SLC don’t control.

    Change in the Church is always bottom up rather than top down. I think the best (and perhaps only) way to determine Mormon doctrine is by taking a poll. If a supermajority (say 75%) of LDS people believe in X, then X is Mormon doctrine. For example, when it comes time for the Church to revise its stance on the historicity of the Book of Mormon or the Tower of Babel, it will be when a majority of members see these stories as a spiritual guide rather than as a literal history of people who actually lived. I’m guessing we’re already there with the Tower of Babel. I’d say that more than 50% of Mormons don’t believe that human linguistic diversity originated as explained by the Bible. The Church, as recently as 1997, went on record reaffirming its view of the Tower as literal history, but that’s more or less irrelevant. What matters is what most Mormons think.

  12. This is fascinating.

    But this is always going to be a problem in a church whose approach is covenantal and not creedal.

    A Mormon is defined by the covenants he or she makes, not by the list of creeds he or she adheres to.

    You’ll find this problem in any church that doesn’t have a clearly defined list of creeds. Poll any member of the UCC on what the UCC believes, and you’ll get a different explanation every time.

  13. I guess another way of putting it would be to say that in a very real sense, a Mormon is free to believe what he or she wants, so long as he or she keeps his or her covenants.

  14. MoHoHawaii,

    I agree completely (which makes me interested to see more people like Jason in threads like these — because clearly, we aren’t getting a good cross-section from most of the average bloggernaclers.

    What’s interesting is how I could’ve made nearly this same topic with respect to his comments about homosexuality — in other words, even if the church WANTED to change and become more accepted (as they have — slowly — done so), Jason could say they are just appealing to liberal political correctness, and that older beliefs are right and true.

    The sound clip with Elder Bednar was really painful to listen to…I didn’t know someone could speak for so long and avoid a question.

    I guess I’ll push back on your bottom-up change process. Not by saying that I think it’s top-down, but by saying that I think bottom-up change needs “soil” to grow from. There need to be doctrinal room for people to believe either in a literal tower of Babel or a metaphorical one.

    I think that apologists do a great job of finding the ground for diverse beliefs — by picking through all of the statements that every general authority has ever made and making a case for the possibility of an alternate explanation.

    So, the role of current prophets and authorities isn’t to decree new beliefs…but to develop new ground for the *possibility* of new belief.

    It really puts new meaning to the idea of “big tent Mormonism”

    John G-W,

    I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way, but if I had to summarize it, I’d probably say that Jason’s testimony is personal precisely because his covenants, spiritual experiences and confirmations, etc., are personal.

  15. Well, covenants technically are communal. I’m talking baptismal, priesthood and temple covenants. The screening process for allowing people to enter such covenants generally focuses on worthiness (i.e., how we behave) rather than belief.

    It’s not that belief can be completely absent. There needs to be enough of a belief structure in place to support a willingness to make the covenants in the first place.

    I’m right now rereading James Talmage’s Articles of Faith, and he actually speaks quite directly to this. He points out that belief and/or knowledge can be quite irrelevant to salvation… He quotes the scriptures that have devils bearing witness to Christ’s divinity. What they believe (or know!) about Jesus doesn’t matter. Right action/behavior indicative of a saving “trust” in God does.

    I know quoting a general authority (especially a dead one) isn’t proof of anything in a discussion like this. But I think Talmage’s approach is very typical of most Mormons… As long as you’re doing the right thing, there’s fairly wide latitude in terms of what you believe or don’t believe…

  16. John,

    Yeah, after seeing your follow-up comment, I think I had a different interpretation.

    What I meant is this. Jason’s testimony seemed to be founded upon a few things he “knows” (probably because these are the things that resonated with him when he was younger or whatever). These things include older doctrine, the doctrine promulgated by the early leaders, etc., So these anchor his testimony and not what current leaders say. (So it is possible, as he says, that some leaders could be weeded.)

    How I’d say this relates is this:

    It’s not that belief can be completely absent. There needs to be enough of a belief structure in place to support a willingness to make the covenants in the first place.

    What made Jason willing to make the covenants in the first place? Not liberal modern beliefs!

  17. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    Again, I think I’m pretty solid here in saying that the mainstream Mormon view is that if his testimony is based on outmoded ideas about race, he’s standing on shaky ground. The winds will blow and the rain fall, and his foundation will crumble.

    The basic, core principles of the gospel are faith, repentance, baptism, the Holy Ghost, etc. That’s the belief structure you need in place in order to make covenants possible and desirable.

    I just witnessed Saturday the re-baptism of an African American friend of mine. He was a member of the Church before the priesthood ban ended. He knows ALL the Church’s dirty laundry on race. He went through a disciplinary process and was excommunicated for a time. He and I were having a conversation shortly before the High Council approved his re-baptism. I just asked him flat out: Do you have a testimony of the Gospel. He said it was unshakable. This is a guy with extraordinary faith. And it’s based on those core principles of the Gospel… Faith, hope, love, repentance, etc. He also knows that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that he restored priesthood keys, that modern-day revelation is a corner-stone of the Church… His baptism was a very happy day, really amazing.

    A guy who’s sure that that modern day leader has somehow “betrayed” core principles is on his way out of the Church, far as I can tell… Maybe this guy is a proto-fundamentalist…

  18. John,

    Your post is inconsistent with itself.

    As long as Jason has core beliefs in faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost, then the rest of his beliefs doesn’t matter, as you have said in previous comments.

    It’s just that Jason believes core beliefs also include core beliefs about the premortal existence, black neutrality, etc.,

    You say he’s on his way out of the church, and I will agree with you that he sounds like a protofundamentalist, BUT…as Jason says, he’s not going to be led away by Satan’s liberal gay encroaching into the church. He’s going to rely on personal revelation and what he learned when he was a boy because that’s what he knows is true.

    Maybe according to the mainstream Mormon view, his testimony is on shaky ground. But who’s to say that the mainstream Mormon view is right to begin with? Huh? Huh?

    I’ll end this with some words of advice from Jason:

    well something is wrong when you would rather take up for the arguments of homosexuals then a fellow “active and i suspect worthy” member of the chruch. Im not saying you are gay or liberal but i believe liberal mormons are apostate and people like harry reid are sons of perdition. Not saying i dont love liberals also i do but their position is not of God and they will be worse off then if they ever knew jesus in the first place. I just ask you not to apease evil or allow our gay friends to believe their strait in what their doing cause you would only be helping them get burned at christ’s arrival when the telestial people are burned of the earth at his comming. sorry to hear about japan i just turned on the news and want to hear about it but the antichrist is talking, yes i do believe obama is the antichrist and the 12th imam which are the same person. I didnt mean to cut you down buddy or be prideful in my knowledge by any means and if i do i apolagyse and i cant tell you how to intepret scripture but these things are my passion and i had my witness of things to come. The boys from the rocky mountains will come forth to save the constitution and the country when this country is hanging on as if it were a single piece of thread. So its not always going to be about hugging we will at one point need to take a stand and i for one have already drawn my line in the sand.

    I can’t tell you how to interpret scripture, John, but THESE THINGS ARE MY PASSION AND I HAD MY WITNESS OF THINGS TO COME.

  19. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    No, I think you’ve misunderstood my point here.

    Being a Mormon is about keeping covenants. If the gay really bothers this guy, fine. He’s entitled (within mainstream Mormonism) to cling to ideas about homosexuality from 50 years ago, even as the Church hierarchy moves to a more compassionate, inclusive position. He will never be disciplined for that.

    If the evolving position of Church leaders ever bothers him enough that he leaves/quits the Church, then he’s crossed the line into covenant-breaking. That’s when the Church regards him as apostate. But only because he’s left the Church over this issue and rejected the priesthood keys.

    My only point about core beliefs is this: baptismal, priesthood and temple covenants are founded on the ideas of faith (in Christ), repentance, priesthood righteousness (described in D&C 121), obedience, etc. You can’t/won’t enter into those covenants unless you at least believe in those things, and if you don’t at least have a testimony of the Church as a divinely restored institution.

    Your beliefs about blacks and the priesthood or the gay or women or whatever else don’t enter into it. They have nothing to do with making and keeping those covenants.

  20. But why would the evolving position of church leaders ever cause him to leave/quit the church?

    As he notes:

    yes God does reveal new things to his current prophets but in no way will it ever nigate the doctrine of previous prophets it may add to it or give a bigger picture of what happend but doctrine is doctrine and does not change. It may have things added to it but if Tell brigham young something is true and he tells the people its true, then how would it give any current prophet the right to go back and say that prophet was wrong. Ive never heard a prophet say that anyway they just kinda try and avoid the converstion entirely.

    It’ll never happen, John. And even if it does happen:

    Dont let satan get you down and whisper into your ears things that depress you and give you hatred towards the church. i look at it in a different way, get pissed at satan. i try and do so good that satan wouldnt hold a candle to me. I almost look at it as a competition he will never win against me cause he lost he’s in hell and me and you got our bodies and PASSED our first estate.

    …one prophets doctrine can not negate anothers doctrine. Doctrine should never change that was the whole reasn joseph looked for a church to join cause the doctrine was always changing and He knew that his God would have one doctrine that worked for everybody. I believe were in the last days im a big last days buff! And i believe there is about to be a weeding out in the church and im just a person who trys not to put my trust in the arms of flesh but to question first. I believe it was one of the founding fathers who said “question, question even the existence of a god for if there be a god he shall surely make himself known unto you”. I guess the point im trying to make with that in these last days i have no clue who will be amongst those weeded out. We could even have some leaders weeded out. idk??

    Without a creedal orthodoxy, there is NOTHING that can touch him. He can hunker down even as the rest of the church “progresses” right into Satan’s path.

  21. Seth R. permalink

    In all fairness Andrew, the creeds haven’t exactly solved this problem for Catholics and Protestants.

  22. Seth,

    BUT if you DO disagree, you join a different denomination.

    So, no one will ever choose your Evangelical Lutheran with a Methodist with a Roman Catholic.

    You don’t masquerade ruining one denomination for everyone else.

  23. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    Well, yes, that’s my point.

    If he stays true to his covenants, there’s a place for him in a Church that doesn’t make adherence to a set list of creeds a requirement for membership.

  24. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    On the other hand, he’s wrong to say “X” is “Mormon Doctrine.”

    Mormonism has always eschewed that kind of approach to Mormonism.

    Bruce R. McConkie tried to systematize in that way, and it got him into trouble. And look at all the mad discussion that Mormon Doctrine has generated.

    You’ve got a very valid point here, which is that “Mormon doctrine” is difficult if not impossible to pin down. Yes, almost everyone can cite some general authority, living or dead, to buttress a particular theological position — sometimes diametrically opposed positions — on almost any issue.

    But my point is, we’re not that kind of Church.

    Bottom line, Mormonism exists because God spoke to Joseph Smith. Mormonism has always existed in covenantal terms as a series of concentric relationships.

  25. John,

    When you say “Mormonism exists because God spoke to Joseph Smith,” the natural question that arises afterward is, “What did God say?”

    Jason is just saying that God said some things to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, etc., about gays and blacks that are fundamental.

  26. Seth R. permalink

    Try investigating the differences between the conference of North American Catholic bishops and the Latin American or African ones sometime.

  27. Is it anything like the difference the differences between Anglicans/Episcopals that is causing more conservative churches (e.g., the African ones) to consider schisming, or at the least to break away from ECUSA?

  28. John G-W: If I understand you correctly, you’re drawing a distinction between ‘covenants’ and ‘beliefs’.

    But how can you draw that distinction, when covenants are based on beliefs? Beliefs about how to perform a baptism, beliefs about gods, beliefs about what constitutes a valid sacramental prayer, beliefs about who has priesthood authority. The idea that it’s necessary to be endowed is a belief.

    Beliefs are how the covenants got to be the way they are in the first place. Dismissing ‘correct belief’ seems like it would raise more difficulties, not fewer.

  29. I agree with Daniel here.

    I mean, I will go as far as to say that there isn’t a concretely and narrowly defined Mormon orthodoxy. So, I think that the basics are pretty bare, and then diversity is permitted elsewhere.

    BUT the problem is that most members don’t see things as Mormon orthodoxy being loosely defined with numerous diverse beliefs being allowed. They see their idiosyncratic set of beliefs as being right — and if you don’t believe that, you are a heretic. Multiple people can then believe radically different things, be temple recommend-holding members, active as can be, but think that they have a unique handle on what is really orthodox.

  30. Seth R. permalink

    I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility Andrew. But anyway, I merely brought them up as an example of how having a creed does not necessarily yield uniformity of belief or policy.

  31. Seth,

    but they do lead to a clearcut exit pathway.

  32. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    I didn’t say it’s possible to dispense with belief altogether. I did say you need enough belief to provide the foundation for saving ordinances and covenants.

    I don’t think I’m pulling this out of my butt. I’ve never heard of anybody being asked in a baptismal or priesthood or temple worthiness interview whether they believed that blacks are descendants of Cain. It’s not relevant. You have to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that Joseph Smith restored priesthood authority to baptize in his name, and you have to believe that Jesus taught everyone needs to be baptized. That’s pretty much the sum total of what you need to believe for baptismal covenants to be possible.

    Apart from those covenant-making situations, the Church quite simply doesn’t ask what you believe.

    It’s not that the Church is unconcerned about belief… But the Church decides what belief is important through its correlated curriculum… Correlation determines what is taught on Sunday morning, so that’s what the Church in essence has said, This is what’s going to help you be a better Saint. The Church currently frowns on folks riding doctrinal hobby horses…

    You can do very well in the Church focusing on the basic, core Christian values and beliefs… And the Church will not kick you out for having non-conventional beliefs, so long as you obey the rules and keep covenants…

  33. It sounds like you’re talking about ‘core’ beliefs v ‘peripheral’ beliefs, and that the church can tolerate a bit of shift in the ‘peripheral’ as long as members believe the ‘core’ doctrines.

    But this is the very problem. The set of beliefs that are ‘core’ and the set of beliefs that are ‘peripheral’ are never explicitly distinguished from each other. You could take a poll in a ward and get very different answers as to which beliefs are core and which are peripheral. Everyone makes their own decisions on where the core is, which means there are six million versions of Mormon doctrine walking around.

    And then when doctrine changes, people say “Oh, well, that wasn’t core.” It gets shifted to the periphery ad hoc, right at that very moment.

    I think your ‘core’ idea is kind of correct as to how the system works, but this is a way of avoiding the conflict, not settling it.

    I happen to think that there’s only one core doctrine: “The Church is true.” Anything else — gays, the Book of Mormon, Jesus — could get thrown under the bus in 40 years, 20 years, tomorrow. People would just say “That was peripheral.”

    • That is, if they noticed at all. These things happen quietly. “I don’t know that we emphasise that.” That’s also part of the problem.

      BTW, I’d love to hear you explain to a scrofulous old polygamist who moved his family to Canada that “the Principle” was no longer ‘core’.

  34. Daniel,

    regarding core vs. peripheral beliefs, I actually think that would be interesting to survey. Over at Wheat and Tares (and elsewhere), Bruce Nielson made the challenge to me that if you (or anyone) went around to ask people sincerely what they believed to be the core doctrines the church teachers, most lists would be virtually identical.

    The core list simply would be a very conservative, minimal list — perhaps one, in fact, that doesn’t include a lot of uniquely Mormon ideas. For example, things like what John mentioned earlier: baptism, priesthood, repentance. These are the “safe” things that are repeated over and over (whereas peripheral doctrines get rare mention, if ever.)

  35. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    No, I’m not talking about “core beliefs” vs. “peripheral beliefs.”

    I’m talking about a covenantal approach to salvation vs. a creedal approach.

    There’s a difference between saying a belief is structurally required in order to sustain certain covenantal commitments, and saying that a belief is “core.”

    And the belief, as I said, is only required from the point of view of the believer, not from the point of view of the Church. If a believer doesn’t accept, for instance, that Joseph Smith restored priesthood keys, why would they be baptized into the LDS Church…?!

    I’m not sure how much more clearly I can say this… The Mormon faith system is about entering into a covenant with God. Without the covenant, there’s no belief that can save you. Belief is quite literally irrelevant outside of the covenantal framework.

    There’s no system in Mormonism for ensuring conformity in beliefs… Thus your (correct!) observation that there’s striking lack of uniformity about a great many things that have at one time or another been taught as “doctrine.” Mormonism doesn’t require adherence to a fixed creed for precisely the reason I’ve tried to spell out here…

    Joseph Smith actually did this self-consciously to a certain extent. He wanted to encourage the Saints in the quest for knowledge. We have historical evidence that he encouraged debate and discussion about true doctrines; he allowed conflicting doctrines to be simultaneously taught… This is all consistent with a system that is covenantal and not creedal.

    • There’s a difference between saying a belief is structurally required in order to sustain certain covenantal commitments, and saying that a belief is “core.”

      And I’m saying the covenants are based on beliefs. How do you separate them? Why do the questions for a Temple Recommend include questions on what you believe? Saying Mormonism isn’t creedal is absurd. It is creedal, it just has huge areas of vagueness that it hasn’t been advantageous to resolve.

      There’s no system in Mormonism for ensuring conformity in beliefs

      Of course there is. There are massive General Conferences where correct doctrines are supposed to be taught. Church leaders could sort things out by claiming revelation, and yet this confusion still exists. Does that mean that leaders don’t care what members believe? Then why have the hierarchy at all? What you’re suggesting is that leaders don’t care if members get it right, which is worrying when heaven’s at stake.

      he allowed conflicting doctrines to be simultaneously taught… This is all consistent with a system that is covenantal and not creedal.

      You’ll have to excuse me, but it’s also consistent with a system that is pulled out of someone’s ass.

  36. John G-W,

    And the belief, as I said, is only required from the point of view of the believer, not from the point of view of the Church. If a believer doesn’t accept, for instance, that Joseph Smith restored priesthood keys, why would they be baptized into the LDS Church…?!

    Because they are socially expected to as a result of being raised in the church? Because they want to date the bishop’s daughter? *Insert other social reason here* There are plenty of scenarios that do not involve belief…

    The real issue is that it wouldn’t make sense to refer to such a person as a “believer.” But you seem to have no problem saying, “believer” as opposed to “member” — as if belief is…to ANY extent…a good metric.

    It is not true that a person could just go through motions and be saved. E.g. just SAY the right things to be baptised, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, etc., etc., The idea is that he or she believes the right things as well — even if the only one who can truly discern is God, who knows a person’s heart.

    • Yeah, I know Mormons emphasise the works, but this ‘covenant’ idea takes it to an extreme. I guess all that stuff Paul was saying about being saved by faith just became non-core.

      That said, I’d rather be punished for wrong actions than for wrong belief any day.

  37. If you take scripture literally, you’ll be a bigot and proud. Ask the fundamentalists, they know. They read it plain and ask no questions. If you’re not white and delightsome – which sounds a bit like yoghurt – then you’re not in the gang.

    Here’s my thing about the 1978 declaration.

    “Wasn’t President Kimball’s Kleenex breakthrough long overdue? After all, 1978 was twenty-three years after Rosa Parks and fifteen years after “I have a dream.” Jimi Hendrix was dead and Muhammad Ali’s best years were behind him. Mormons remain prickly about the subject today, insisting that their institutional racism is a thing of the past and can’t we all just move on. But many fundamentalists reckon that the Kimball declaration was as forced as the 1890 Manifesto on polygamy. So a cloud still hovers. It’s probably fair to say that there wouldn’t be so much prejudice if it wasn’t for those Mormons.”

    New book coming out soon about Mormon fundamentalists called Secrets & Wives. Check it out: http://on.fb.me/e15ldf

  38. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    Daniel, it seems to me y’all have a vested interest in insisting that there’s no underlying logic in Mormonism… That it’s all just hooey and nonsense pulled out of Joseph Smith’s ass (your words, more or less) and that folks are idiots for adhering to it… That’s your prerogative. But then you can’t really claim this is about trying to get understanding.

    What Paul had to say about faith relates directly to the heart of everything I’ve been saying here. Faith is action motivated by trust. We believe that Christ is the way, the truth and the life, so we act upon it by being baptized and committing our lives to truth, hope and love. This is belief enabling a covenant; action flowing from trust.

    Call it a core principle if you want. There is a logic underlying the Mormon faith that does enable us to sort this kind of stuff out.

    More importantly, the covenants allow access to a living God who is the source of light and love… It just requires patience and faith on our parts to access it. I can testify to that.

    Andrew — you said it extremely well yourself. I have nothing to add to that, except to agree that works, without faith, are empty and have no saving value.

    • I have said nothing about anyone’s mental acumen. (Why must people resort to this tactic?) I am talking about the system here.

      What I and others are pointing out here is a curious contradiction: Members of the LDS Church have (I think) a perception that there exists a body of doctrine that is well-defined and agreed-upon. However, it doesn’t take much probing to find a lot of variation in Mormon doctrine, both regional and generational. In a top-down hierarchy like the LDS Church, this could be readily resolved, but it’s not. And so we see this conflict between the Jasons and the Seths, both believing what they like, and both claiming divine imprimatur. Statements from Mormon leaders being as plentiful and contradictory as they are in many areas, the tangle is not easily resolved.

      My explanation for this is that people believe what they want to believe. Leaders have no real impetus to sort this out themselves, lest they engender further ‘prophetic’ complication and contradiction.

      Your solution to the problem is to claim that the beliefs aren’t important, but the covenants are. I find this unsatisfactory, since covenants are based on beliefs.

      So let me ask you the question that I’m really getting at here. Why would you say that a god is the author of this confusion, when a simpler answer is that the religious system is evolving by entirely human means?

  39. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    I sense this discussion is just going around in circles, and is maybe past its reasonable end… But, I’m a sucker for punishment, so here’s one more try…

    The religious system is evolving by human means, but not entirely so.

    This is actually comprehensible within a system of belief that insists God can only work through persuasion, not coercion, that God’s children have to learn on their own, through experience, trial and error.

    The ones who are willing to stick with the path are the ones who actually hear the voice of God and are willing to follow it…

    Wheat and tares… We’re in the middle of a process, not the end of it.

    • This explanation is familiar to me, because I relied on something like it for a number of years. It went like this:

      • God is in charge of the church
      • Church doctrine changes
      • God is letting us make work things out, use our own brains, and even make some mistakes
      • God allows us to develop, and intervenes as little as possible

      All well and good. Except that the less intervention I saw from God, the more it looked like he was doing nothing, and everything was being done by the people. There isn’t much difference between a god that does nothing and no god at all.

      Eventually I asked myself, “What would the church look like if no god existed?” And I had to conclude, “Pretty much like it does now.” I think that’s where the answer lies.

      Thanks for answering my question, John.

  40. John,

    I don’t get it.

    What is it that I “said it extremely well” myself?

    Because here is what I said:

    It is not true that a person could just go through motions and be saved. E.g. just SAY the right things to be baptised, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, etc., etc., The idea is that he or she believes the right things as well — even if the only one who can truly discern is God, who knows a person’s heart.

    In other words, it’s not just about actions. It’s about BELIEFS.

    Even you talk about *believers*, not just *actors*.

  41. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    Andrew: I think I’ve tried to distinguish from the get go between beliefs that relate directly to making and keeping covenants, and beliefs that don’t. I’ve never said all belief was irrelevant. I’ve insisted all along you need enough belief to adhere to the covenantal structure of the faith. But beyond the covenantal structure, the Church quite literally has no system in place to enforce doctrinal uniformity, nor even to develop a systematic theology. We do not do that. Other faiths do (with formal creedal statements and theological seminaries). Mormons don’t and never have.

    I agree with your statement insofar as it underlines a key formula (the key formula I’ve been pointing to here), that most of us have been able to recite in our sleep since we were wee Sunday School tots: faith = belief + action.

  42. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    And again, there’s a reason Mormons don’t and never have…

    Because faith to a Mormon is defined as a living relationship with a living God who speaks to us in real time through the Holy Spirit.

    From a Mormon perspective, you typically only start to insist on doctrinal uniformity, you only start to frame faith as intellectual adherence to a set of propositions, when there’s no actual relationship with God. So you’re trying to substitute man-made creeds for a relationship… But your faith is actually dead.

  43. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    I think Seth has a point… Other churches have tried to create doctrinal uniformity but with not much success. The Correlation Committee is the closest Mormonism has come to trying something like that (with equally varying results).

  44. One of the most interesting things about the Jason/Seth exchange was that Jason seemed genuinely surprised that Seth would dispute the (folk) doctrines about black people. As Daniel said in his first comment, I think this is largely the result of correlation, and of the command not to offer classes in church that go beyond the simple manuals.

    I’ll bet there are plenty of young people in Jason’s ward who don’t believe that “blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence” and other folk doctrines. The fact that they disagree on such points isn’t that big a deal, but it’s ridiculous how many Mormons don’t even know what their fellows believe. It makes is structurally impossible to honestly answer specific questions about what Mormons believe.

  45. Chanson,

    This is exactly right. As I stated above, I believed as Jason does- and I thought everyone else did as well. How could I not, if a prophet had said it? However, I was not aware that my friends were not being taught the things from church history that I was taught; and even if they were, it might have been taught in a different context that allowed for the rejection of what prophets have said. Neither idea had entered my mind. I didn’t discuss it with them, because I thought we were all on the same page with these things.

    It wasn’t until I had no good reason to believe in Mormonism anymore that I started mentioning some of these things to the people close to me and received responses that covered a spectrum of belief that I never knew and, in a way, made the whole thing seem even more ridiculous.

  46. Exactly. Personally I was taught that black people bear the curse of Cain, and that the curse was passed down through Noah’s son Ham (because Ham’s wife was black, as explained in the PoGP). But I’m nearly forty, and I learned that from my mom (a multi-generational member). Converts and younger people might never hear these doctrines and can be totally unaware of them. Simultaneously, some members may be informally passing these doctrines along (as Mormon doctrine) to their children without realizing they’ve been “de-emphasized”.

  47. I remember when I found out that the church doesn’t officially and unequivocally reject evolution and that some members in good standing actually accept it. Wait — you’re allowed to believe that and still be a good Mormon?! Like LDSOrigins, I’d had no idea. I hadn’t even known it was open to discussion.

  48. My first moment of shock at realizing we could even believe outside of what church leaders had taught was actually with the very topic on hand. It was when I stumbled upon this article on blacklds.org, written by Armand Mauss.

    http://www.blacklds.org/mauss

    It was the first time in my life that I felt the exhilaration of reading something that made so much more sense to me than the gymnastics I was constantly going through trying to get all the teachings to fit. That exhilaration was accompanied by feeling that wasn’t quite guilt (since the author seemed to be a member in good standing), but anxiety, since I was still worried that I was entering dangerous territory.

    • That’s sad how intellectualism leads to anxiety for many Mormons. It makes it hard to “speak the truth.”

  49. Just the sheer relief that I no longer had to try to believe something as stupid as young-Earth creationism was huge. And then when I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to go through complicated mental gymnastics every time I came across a General Authority contradiction or mistake, that I could just say “Well, I guess he was just wrong about that,” I felt so liberated. (For awhile, anyway.)

  50. It’s interesting that in the discussion of whether or not there is a Mormon creed, no one has mentioned the articles of faith. Is this because they are so anaemic that they don’t satisfy the desire for a robust belief system? Or because they are seen as something for primary children? Are they more of the things that Mormons don’t emphasize any more?

    I don’t imagine many Mormons would disagree with the articles as written, although they would probably disagree on minor points of interpretation (does believing the BoM to be the word of God mean you have to believe in a literal BoM? Does it mean believing absolutely in the story of how it was translated? Do you have to assume that the BoM is utterly inerrant?). So why haven’t the articles been trotted out as either the Mormon creed or at least the basis for it?

    After all, they were written by Joseph Smith to answer that very question of what constitutes the Mormon belief system.

  51. Megan,

    Thanks for the comment.

    The thing about the Article of Faith is that they exactly fit the idea of a creed (after all, “creed” comes from “credo”, which literally translates to “I believe”).

    But of course, the Articles of Faith don’t say a LOT about the uniquely LDS beliefs that the church teaches.

    I mean, you raise up some important issues. Believing in the BoM doesn’t say ANYTHING about whether you should believe the BoM is a literal history (and if it is a literal history, it doesn’t say whether it took place in a small area, or in the entire western hemisphere, or elsewhere.) There’s just not a lot of clarity in what it means to say the Book of Mormon is “the word of God.”

    And maybe that’s the entire point.

    • Very true. I think that’s why I find it interesting – after all, this is what the founding prophet SAID was the creed!

      Maybe the problem is that Mormonism, like gnosticism, is built on the idea of ‘secret knowledge.’ The temple is the obvious example, but honestly it spreads to far more than that. There’s the ‘milk before meat’ practice of keeping some of the more unusual teachings of the church suppressed, there are the issues with church history that are not taught, the multiple versions of the first vision etc. After all, it’s at the very roots of the church, with Joseph Smith’s inner circle who were told of and allowed to practice polygamy.

      So it seems there is simultaneously a conviction that there IS a creed, an important one, and also tendency not to talk about most sacred things, so that ‘inner’ creed simply isn’t discussed. The articles of faith, then, are the ‘milk’ creed (and were always meant to be as they were produced for the non-Mormon outer world), and as the church has become more and more reticent about discussing difficult issues people are left to construct their own ‘meat’ creed out of things they were taught as children, things they maybe heard at a fireside or from a high councilman, and their own interpretation of scriptures and temple rituals. Because there is no mechanism for discussing these, and no official – and unambiguous – dictum from the 15, these personal, inner creeds not only flourish, the are able to exist simultaneously and without conflict, each person convinced that THEY have it right!

  52. Seth R. permalink

    Inerrancy isn’t really an option for the Book of Mormon, since the prophet Mormon himself talks about the book having possible weaknesses and errors.

    • Yeah, it’s not as if it is the most correct of any book on Earth or anything.

      • Seth R. permalink

        And what exactly is that popular slogan supposed to mean?

        • Why that depends on whatever interpretation of the word “correct” is more convenient for you, dontcha know?

          • Seth R. permalink

            I think that accusation could be just as easily leveled at critics of the LDS Church as anyone Carson.

          • Never have I heard a critic stretch a word like “translate” quite as devoutely as an apologist.

          • Seth R. permalink

            You’re changing the subject.

  53. Megan,

    I would just like to echo what Andrew has already said. I thought about bringing up the Articles of Faith, but I would say that there is more of what is required to make one LDS in the baptismal/temple questions; and even those have so much room for interpretation by the responder.

  54. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    It’s true that the Articles of Faith sort of look like a creed, but they don’t play that function within Mormonism.

    The Articles of Faith were used to try to explain Mormonism to an outsider. They have never been used as a test of orthodoxy within the faith… And that’s an important distinction when you’re trying to identify whether a religion takes a creedal approach to faith.

    The failure ever to use the Articles as any sort of a litmus test — even when they so clearly look “creedal” — is as good a demonstration as one might need that Mormonism is not a creedal faith.

  55. I wonder how many members would actually agree with you, John.

    As a member, I thought that virtually everything a prophet or apostle said in a talk was adding to and clarifying the Mormon creed. “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” and all that.

    • Now wait a minute, you’re only supposed to use that scripture when it is convenient for The Brethren. In these sorts of situations, only scriptures that validate the “prophets are just men” idea are relevant. Capiche?

  56. John, I think that it’s important to remember the context in which the articles were produced. Joseph Smith wrote them in answer to an external question about what Mormons believed. The structure, the language were all quite deliberate in an effort to mirror the creeds of established churches. In other words, the articles are meant to lend legitimacy to the LDS church. It seems to me that the desire to clearly state a unique creed is secondary.

    Take the statement about the godhead for example – one of the fundamental (and emergent as it wasn’t there from the start) beliefs of the LDS church is their unique view of the nature of god: the physical body, the absolute separateness of the father and the son. This was very, very controversial and still is as it opens the LDS church up to the accusation (a true one) of polytheism (yes, I know the counter is that Mormons only WORSHIP one god; that doesn’t hold water for the majority of Christians who insist on the belief that there IS only one god). So, if the article of faith were meant to be a creed for the members it would clearly state the nature of god in Mormon belief. If, however, it was intended to be a creed for external consumption then it would remain ambiguous, not contradicting what was being taught, but not explicitly stating it either. “We believe in god the eternal father and in his son, Jesus Christ, and in the holy ghost.” A believing member can emphasize the “ands” while the outsider simply sees a standard, vanilla statement of belief in the trinity.

    HOWEVER

    I think it’s not correct to then extrapolate out and state that Mormonism is a creedless system, particularly to assume that the general members would agree with that statement! Ritual alone does not, CANNOT create a robust religion. Many, many early Christian sects shared their fundamental rituals – the sacrament, baptism etc. But with the organization of a structural ‘catholic’ church there had to simultaneously be a clear statement of beliefs. Ritual is essential, but belief is equally so. Heck, you can’t even have the debate over faith being the fundamental necessity to salvation or works being necessary without making a statement about belief [faith].

    As I said above in a reply to Andrew, the thing isn’t that Mormonism has no creed – I think the creation of the articles of faith actually affirms that Joseph Smith recognized the importance of a codified creed – it’s that from the very beginning, from the early days of the church, there has been a gnostic approach to that creed. In other words, the true creed of the church has always been secret. Joseph Smith’s inner circle knew about polygamy long before it had to be confessed more generally. The temple is denied to the general public and is only available to the cognoscenti – and that’s where the deepest beliefs are meant to live!

    What has caused enormous difficulty is that because of this secretive nature, and because of the shifting approach of the church to quite fundamental credal beliefs, there has been a slide from an overtly stated (at least to the membership), quite unambiguous creed to an amorphous, hinted at, implied set of beliefs. Look at the enormous difference between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the earliest prophet discussing the meanings and nuances of Mormon belief and compare it to the statements of the modern prophets.

    Brigham Young, I believe, would have spat nails at the implication that anything he said over the pulpit was him ‘speaking as a man.’ And yet this wild, exciting, ecstatic approach to knowledge has caused enormous problems for the church as science has made advances (no Quakers on the moon, no horses in the new world at the time of the BoM) and society has become more moral and accepting. Brigham’s statements are an embarrassment, his overt racism, his violence, his misogyny are anathema, not to mention his intriguing but now refuted ideas of who Adam was, and although he absolutely stated them as prophetic and credal, they have to be downgraded now to the unfortunate personal beliefs of a man who was a product of his time. And it’s not just 19th c prophets – what about Kimball with his appalling, happy belief that the Native American children he saw were becoming more righteous and thus turning lighter?

    With things like this in its past, the modern church realizes that clearly stated creeds are dangerous, particularly for a fringe church like the mormons who have, at their very core, beliefs that in a modern world are difficult to accept in a practical and direct way. Far better, it seems, to simply back away from clear statements on doctrinal issues, far better not to clarify whether polygamy will be practiced in the celestial kingdom, whether men will truly become gods, whether god himself was once a man.

    But that doesn’t feed the members. The members believe there is a creed, I would argue that they desperately need a creed. But because it is no longer discussed, whether out of fear or unease or uncertainty or simple disinterest, members now supply it for themselves out of half-remembered bits of things picked up as children, or something a charismatic sunday school teacher said one day, or their own interpretation of the temple ritual, or their readings on Fair or in Bruce R. McConkie.

    You can see the need on the internet as members try to hash out these personal, very important questions for themselves. It’s not true to say that it is unimportant to salvation to know whether black people were ‘less valiant’ in the pre-existence – it’s VITAL to know that! It implies all sorts of things about premortal life, about repentance, about the purpose of this existence, about equality in god’s eyes. If a creed on this, and polygamy, and the nature of mother in heaven, and a dozen other things, wasn’t important, wasn’t necessary to Mormons then they wouldn’t be debating it, worrying over it, dissecting it.

    A simple statement from the authorities would answer these questions. But it would also alienate so many members who have, for years now, worshiped based on their personal creeds, and it would leave them open to the judgment of the next generation who will inevitably, if history is consistent, disagree with the ‘truths’ stated in the creed of today.

    • Seth R. permalink

      Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox do not worship “one god” Megan.

      They worship three.

      And not a single one of them can coherently explain how those three are supposed to be “one” somehow.

      So I wouldn’t say that creeds did them that much good on that score anyway.

  57. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    I’m not sure you’ve understood my point.

    The LDS has no formal creedal tests. That makes it non-creedal.

    That is not to say it is without beliefs. It does have — as you point out — bodies of both esoteric and exoteric knowledge/belief. But in general, the members have been left to figure out on their own what to think of leaders statements.

  58. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    I shouldn’t say “no” formal creedal tests. To the extent that baptismal and worthiness interviews incorporate questions about beliefs, that’s a form of creedal test.

    But the beliefs one needs to assent to — as I’ve stated numerous times in this thread — are fairly minimal. You have to believe in Christ, in the restored priesthood, etc.

    • This seems like such a strange argument. Doesn’t that dramatically weaken the mormon church as a religion? You’re sort of reducing the theology to a handful of vague and easily mis-interpreted questions!

      I mean, look the formal definition (from the OED) of theology is: The study or science which treats of God, His nature and attributes, and His relations with man and the universe; ‘the science of things divine’ (Hooker); divinity.

      The Creed you’re suggesting does nothing of the kind! It simply repeats the first article of faith, no expansion, no explanation, no attributes or nature – certainly no discussion of god’s relations with man and the universe.

      Those things used to be part of regular church teachings – the progression of man, the humanity of god, the organization of the intelligences, the degrees of glory, the pre-existence and the war in heaven – lots and lots and lots of doctrine which, apparently, is neither creed nor dogma.

      It seems an anaemic sort of a gospel to me, and one very difficult to maintain with much passion or interest. It also means that some very fundamental concepts about life, the universe and everything – about our relationships to each other and to god, are being left to interpretation which means you have a community that is, whether it realizes it or not, divided at some pretty fundamental levels.

      I doubt that most members would agree that it doesn’t really matter whether god was once a man, whether they themselves will progress to become gods and to have worlds of their own. They would probably be startled to learn that it’s not actually mormon Creed that families are forever (it’s not on the question list). Maybe you’re right, and there is no spoken or un-spoken creed that covers these things. But, is that a good thing?

      • Megan, I’m not John, but it seems to me that the John’s argument still seems strange because you’re trying to evaluate religion under a metric that he has rejected.

        It dramatically reduces Mormonism as a creedal religion to reduce the “theology” to a handful of vague questions.

        …but John is saying that Mormonism isn’t a creedal religion to begin with. In this case, theology and creeds do not matter, except to the minimal extent that one should believe to enter into covenants.

        You appeal to the definition of theology.

        But Mormonism isn’t about coming to a repository of correct facts about God, but about entering into a living, vibrant relationship with said God (whatever that looks like).

        In this way, a covenantal religion might be said to be MORE about theology than traditional creedal religions are. Because one directly experiences personal revelation, spiritual confirmation, etc., rather than just reciting a list of someone else’s conclusions about what God means to them.

        I think that if you’re looking to a list of uniform beliefs, then yeah, you’re not going to maintain with much passion or interest.

        BUT if you’re looking for a covenant relationship with God, and all the struggling, and searching, and personal revelation that involves, then maybe you’ll find something in Mormonism.

  59. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    Andrew, thanks. That pretty much sums up what I’m trying to say here.

    The only thing I might add is that it seems an odd thing to me to describe religion focused on the basics of faith, hope, love, repentance, etc. as “anemic.”

    • Okay, I can respect that.

      In fact, I really quite like what you’re expressing about a passionate, independent belief about god.

      Except.

      Originally this prophetic religion was truly creed based – I think that can be shown from the early scriptures, the talks given by Smith and Young, and the actions of those first saints. I think those creeds were young and exciting, that they explained things that maybe some of the traditional faiths did not. I think they also broke new ground, and formed the early members into a community who shared not only rituals but unique beliefs – theological beliefs – that helped solidify them, confirm them in their choices, strengthen them when they were cold and hungry and frightened.

      After all, that is what a prophetic religion does. That is the point of a religion that has a prophet at it’s head – a living prophet. It has a living creed that is fed from god himself. If the creed is only the covenants, the ones set down (okay, and moderately altered) in the baptismal ritual, the sacrament and the temple, then creed is dead, it has already been given and honestly, there’s no reason for a prophet. But the church claims more than that, and that claim implies a living, breathing creed, one that hears god’s voice, god’s will, right at the heart of it, speaking, every day, vibrating to a single man who can then spread that good news to all the people of the church.

      And didn’t the last conference underline that, with the reference to those pesky 14 whatever they are’s that say that the words of the living prophet are more important than personal revelation or previous prophetic statement or even the scripture? Doesn’t that say that there IS a creed out there and it’s coming from the prophet and it is essential to salvation and to being a Mormon?

      Of course it didn’t say what that creed actually is.

      The problem is, that it seems lately there has been a substitution of creed. Where the prophets used to talk about the nature of god, and the role of man, and wild and crazy stuff like that, there’s talk now about how many holes people should have in their ears. Instead of a belief-based creed it’s very much a behavior-based creed, and I think that’s actually shown in the creedal test you talk about, the temple interview, where many of the questions are not at all about beliefs, but about behaviors – are you paying tithing? following the Word of Wisdom? Not associating with people who contradict the teachings of the church (whatever those may be considered to be)?

      I think I should make it clear that I have no pony in this race. I’m a natural atheist – I’ve never had a spiritual experience in all my life, in fact I think I’m probably spiritually tone deaf. I only resigned from the church when the actions that were taken in its name over Prop-8 were egregious enough for me not to want to be associated even in name. I was raised Mormon by a delightful pair of parents who remain intelligent, active, passionate Mormons to this day, and I am delighted at their joy in their religion. I don’t want to break it, bring it down, change it or destroy it (okay, lie, I do want it to STOP getting involved in politics. Just stop). But as it’s my cultural heritage, I have an interest and I wonder whether the combination of a relatively totalitarian behavioral religion – one that dictates what underwear you wear, what food you eat, what you do with your time and your income – can sustain such an egalitarian doctrinal system as you seem to think exists, and whether your belief is shared by the majority of people who also define themselves as Mormon.

      • The importance of a prophet is not to have a “living creed.” It’s to have an exemplar for a *living covenant.*

        What Smith, Young, etc., showed was not creeds that were exciting…but a dynamic relationship between people and God that was exciting. The very nature of “revelation” and “prophecy” imply that you never have hardened beliefs. In fact, the beliefs aren’t what matter at all. What makes the relationship alive is the living covenant, and what defines that covenant are the actions that God tasks the covenant people with (and the covenant people’s struggles to live those actions.)

        Basically, it’s a change in emphasis. It’s not that God -> prophets, and the prophets -> you about what you should believe. But the chain is about what you should do.

        You say lately there has been a substitution of creed. Or maybe, creed never was much important, and actions were always moreso important. But then again, you can’t have a “behavior creed.” That doesn’t make sense. “Behavior I-Believe”?

        You can have covenants based on actions, however, because that’s what sustains a relationship.

        For example, the reason why you resigned from the church is — as you admit — not because of something you believed…but because of ACTIONS that were taken in the church’s name over Prop 8…

  60. Yet another TL:DR post – I’m sorry!

    Short version – since I’m a genuine, right from the womb atheist, I can’t speak to whether a religion is really anaemic or not beyond my own impression. I think as an individual, ANY personally derived belief system that is based on honest thought, ethical reflection and study of humanity and history (and scriptures if that is where you derive your beliefs) can be exciting and passionate and truly wonderful.

    But that’s not the same as a large organization, and I’m not convinced that the very appealing idea of the independently derived creed is actually orthodox within the Mormon church.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Ridiculous and the Sublime – March 16, 2011 « The Ridiculous and the Sublime
  2. Why the Curse of Cain remains in the Mormon imaginary | Main Street Plaza
  3. Sunday in Outer Blogness: What do Mormons believe? edition! | Main Street Plaza

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