Liberal Mormonism I: Diagnosis

March 24, 2008
By

Let me be clear about a few things. First, I have been diagnosed as a liberal Mormon. Second, liberal Mormonism has been discussed before in the Bloggernacle, with one site devoted entirely to it. Third, I’m not talking about politics. Finally, this means some Mormons have problems with me.

I am talking about liberal Mormon theology. For me, this cannot be divorced from liberal Christian theology, just as conservative Mormon theology is influenced by conservative Christian theology.

Liberal Christian theology started with Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German who attempted to reconcile Protestantism with the Enlightenment. He emphasized the importance of the subjective human response to religion, rather than the objective truth claim of religion. An example of this would be the assertion that the freedom from anxiety that awareness of Christ’s sacrifice brings us as Christians is more existentially significant than which model of the Atonement is the most accurate or whether the Atonement occurred in exactly the way the Gospels attest.

This became one current in liberal theology, while the biblical critics of the 19th and 20th centuries would make objective investigation of the scriptures a central concern of liberal theology by investigating the authorship of the books of the Bible and by interpreting the texts within the circumstances in which they were written. An example of this would be scholarly findings that some of the raw material of the Pentateuch (serpents as powerful malevolent beings guarding trees of wisdom, a catastrophic flood, giants, ribs taken from men to form women, etc.) was adapted from Sumerian stories known to the Israelites from their captivity in Assyria (and later Babylon).

Given the subjective and objective premises of liberal Christian theology, what are the assumptions of liberal Mormon theology? Here are some of my suggestions:

  1. Reason and evidence must have an appropriate influence on the formation and periodic revaluation of our religious beliefs.
  2. Therefore, the well-established findings of the natural and social sciences, historical methodology, etc., all have things to tell us about Mormonism.
  3. Questions of historicity are thus best decided by historians, anthropology by anthropologists, biology by biologists, and so forth.
  4. Only a few narrowly defined truth claims can be considered binding on a Mormon in good standing. All others may be individually decided, since the subjective response to religion is more important than it’s objective truth, where it is more difficult to obtain clear information. Example: I am very certain that being a Mormon makes me a better and happier person, somewhat less certain that God exists, and least certain that God has a physical body with two hands and two feet.

Given the above:

Are liberal Mormons real Mormons?

Do you know any liberal Mormons?

Are liberal Mormons those with more questions than answers? :)

Discuss, my friends:


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57 Responses to Liberal Mormonism I: Diagnosis

  1. angrymormonliberal
    March 24, 2008 at 6:43 am

    For all of the ‘Yes, you can be a democrat and a good mormon’ that has to come out of Salt Lake, there are some advantages.

    We don’t have to claim Chris Buttars and Evan Meacham.

  2. March 24, 2008 at 6:53 am

    Oh, solipsims, definitions and philosophy, what treacherous slopes you have!

    I’m a believer in understanding the real complexities of a situation, but I also like to tie things to reality. I don’t hold much with titles like ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or whatever. Even my political views are rather colored by a deep disdain for the label ‘libertarian’ or ‘anarchist’, both of which seem to fit me better than ‘republican’ or ‘democrat’.

    So if you ask me if Liberal Mormonism is defensible or a good idea or whatever, I’m going to simply say, “well, is it true?”. That is, does the Spirit of God testify to you that this is right and good? If so and it helps you become closer to God, then I don’t really care. If you are living a better life, and closer to God and Christ this way, then I don’t really care all that much if your beliefs on every detail match to mine. One of us will be right, one of us will be wrong, or we will be both wrong (but we will not be both right if we disagree on a point of doctrine–sorry, that’s a point on which I am certain, being a believer that there is at some layer an objective reality that can and will be uncovered at some point; the final veil to be pierced, if you will).

    So, if Mormonism makes you a better person, then live the life and believe the things you have to live and believe in order to be a Mormon. Otherwise it isn’t really making you a better person, now is it?

  3. March 24, 2008 at 7:51 am

    Benjamin, I have to agree. Doctrine is, by definition, true.

    The sciences (both soft and hard) can inform us about the world around us, our society and culture. When they come into conflict with teachings of prophets, however, they must be second guessed. The direct word from God is more important than the findings of man in a research study or lab.

  4. John Nilsson
    March 24, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Angrymormonliberal,

    I’m not talking about politics. I have often found that left-of-center persons in the Church are just as dogmatic about gospel truth as the Rush Limbaugh types (The “I’ll vote for Hillary but to balance that out, insist on taking the sacrament with the right hand” types). I have been diagnosed as a LIBERAL Mormon, NOT a MORMON Liberal. To me, this makes all the difference in the world.

    Ben O,

    I have kept this discussion tied to assumptions which underlie doctrine itself. It’s how I and other liberal Mormons APPROACH doctrine and relate one doctrine to another. That’s where the discussion could get interesting. If you agree with my four stated assumptions, you may be a liberal Mormon too, regardless of what your theological conclusions are…

    Cory,

    The definition of doctrine is “what is taught”. The fact that you say that what is taught is by definition true tells me where your flag flies.

  5. Ray
    March 24, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Given your definition:

    Yes. No question about it.

    Lots – including many who self-identify as politically conservative.

    Probably as a general stereotype, although anyone who defines a particular belief as “doctrine” tends to believe in answers more than someone who defines nothing as “doctrine”. Therefore, I view “conservative” and “liberal” as very broad designations that each include many varying degrees of rigidity within the general category – in politics or religion or any other application.

  6. Cicero
    March 24, 2008 at 8:59 am

    “Are liberal Mormons real Mormons?”

    No.

    “Do you know any liberal Mormons?”

    Yes, plenty

    “Are liberal Mormons those with more questions than answers?”

    No, quite the opposite.

  7. Jeff Spector
    March 24, 2008 at 9:05 am

    With such a strong centralized organization, it is hard to imagine how “Liberal Mormonism” plays itself out. In other religions, those who interpret the doctrine and practice of their particular persuasion usually have a different place to go. Ergo, Orthodox versus Reformed Judaism, Assemblies of God versus Unitarians, etc.

    Within our construct, you can’t really do that. Of course, you can sit in Church and think anything you want, but if you draw the line at certain practices, you may not be able to sustain your membership.

    You can’t really teach so-called Liberal principles, but you can, in the privacy of your own home, do things that might be construed as Liberal to more consecrative practitioners.

    Such as: How you observe the Sabbath, what drinks you will and won’t drink, whether you have scripture study each day and your method of doing it, prayers, etc.

    I don’t know if I am off track here, but I was trying a different angle than the one blog from Times and Seasons that John cited in his article.

  8. Cicero
    March 24, 2008 at 9:15 am

    No doubt several people will wonder at the shortness of my answer to your first question, but to me it is very simple.

    From your definition of “liberal” it seems to me a “liberal” Mormon could have doubts about the literal divinity of Christ and about his literal Resurrection from the Dead.

    If you do not believe these two things as objective truth then you are not Christian, let alone a Mormon.

    Furthermore, your precept stated in assumption 3 strikes at one of the essential elements of Mormonism, that of the concept of Divine Revelation as a source of truth. If you truly reject such revelation as a source of objective truth, how can you claim to be in any way recognizable as a Mormon?

    On a side note, I am disturbed by the number of liberal thinkers who accept assumption 3 as it is the antithesis of classical liberal thought and decidedly unscientific. Claims to objective truth can be made in 3 ways: Revelation by someone of superior knowledge, Personal observation, and Logic. Classical Liberal thought tends to distrust the first, and indeed you reject God specifically as a source of truth as He is the ultimate authority appealed to by those arguments. However you are willing to give preeminence to men you give the title of “expert”. This does not conform to reason, as you reject God as a dependable source of revelation due to a lack of personal observation (or at least the inability to replicate such revelation at will), however personal observation ought to have shown you that the experts among men are decidedly undependable, and this has been repeatedly displayed.

  9. March 24, 2008 at 9:30 am

    Good post, John, you raise some interesting questions.

    Definitional disputes are always a semantic minefield, and acknowledging that risk, allow me to weigh in on this one. One more caveat: I personally hate these kinds of labels precisely because they are so amorphous and I think create more confusion and strife than any benefit by using them.

    If I had to give my definition of conservative versus liberal Mormons, I’d put it a bit differently:

    Conservative Mormons start with the proposition that whatever a Church authority has said is God’s word and should simply be obeyed, rather than questioned, scrutinized, or evaluated through the lens of the “philosophies of men.” Any examination of a Church leader’s statement starts with the conclusion that the statement is correct, so the examination is limited to understanding how or why the statement is correct, or how that correct statement can be applied to our lives. Conservative Mormons tend to be more strict, exacting, and consistent in their obedience to Church authorities.

    Liberal Mormons start with the proposition that Church authorities, though inspired, are also capable of erring, and that man’s philosophies are useful in detecting those errors and formulating alternative perspectives and approaches. As a result, liberal Mormons tend to be less strict, exacting, and consistent in their obedience to Church authorities. The New Order Mormons are a good example.

    Are liberal Mormons real Mormons? I would suggest the same test applies to both liberal and conservative Mormons:

    Do you keep your baptismal covenants and (for those endowed members), do you keep your temple covenants?

    There are a lot of other tests you could come up with, but it seems the best way to measure whether someone is a good [fill in the blank] is to use that organization’s own criteria for being in “good standing.”

    For what it’s worth, John, I didn’t read anything you said that caused me to think your views disqualify you from being a Mormon. It seems the Church is more concerned about practice/behavior than belief. And note that the temple recommend question is: Do you BELIEVE in God . . .” rather than, “Do you know with every fiber of your being that God has a glorified body of flesh and bones . . .” With the exception of a couple questions about belief, the remainder of the temple recommend questions all center on a person’s behavior. It seems to me liberal Mormons are just as capable as conservative Mormons of “passing” a temple recommend interview, so long as their views don’t lead them to break their covenants, which I don’t see as a necessary part of being a “liberal Mormon.”

  10. March 24, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Cicero *#8), looks like we were typing our comments at the same time but that you posted yours first. You raise an interesting point that I wish I would have included in my previous comment.

    In your comment to John N., you stated that “you reject God specifically as a source of truth . . . you reject God as a dependable source of revelation . . . .”

    If I understand the liberal Mormon position correctly, it is not that they reject God as a source of truth, or reject God as a dependable source of revelation, but rather, that they recognize even prophets and apostles “see through a glass darkly” and “know in part” and “prophesy in part” as Paul said in that verse of scripture. So it is not so much a question of trusting God, but trusting man’s limited, fallible means of spiritual discernment.

    The liberal Mormons I’ve known seem to apply that reservation to themselves as well as to church authorities. I know conservative and liberal Mormons who have told me about their having exactly the same kinds of spiritual experiences and spiritual witnesses, but the difference is that the conservative Mormon seems to trust the authenticity of those experiences, and the accuracy of his personal interpretations of those experiences, more than the liberal Mormon does.

    For what it’s worth, I think there is great value to recognizing that even our prophets and apostles “see through a glass darkly” and “prophesy in part” and “know in part.” We have seen what happens when individuals have so much confidence in their personal interpretations and opinions that they write books containing those interpretations and opinions, but title their books in a way that misleads readers into believing those opinions or interpretations are official doctrine. One such author later acknowledged he had previously been speaking from limited understanding when he put in print definitive statements that were overridden by the 1978 priesthood revelation.

    We could all benefit from a little humility about whether or not we already truly see God as He is.

  11. John Nilsson
    March 24, 2008 at 9:54 am

    Jeff,

    I see your point about central organizations prohibiting liberal Mormons starting their own variant of Mormonism, using the Judaism model. That gets more into PRAXIS than I intended, however. There are Catholics, for instance, like Hans Kung or Pope John XXIII, who have seemed to operate within a strong central organization and yet apparently held to some of my stated assumptions above. Mainline Protestant denominations like the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Lutherans have been riven by the conservative/liberal split within their own ranks. I appreciate you trying to keep the discussion away from the other links I cited. I want to try something new, to talk about the assumptions we make which lead us to various beliefs. For instance, I have seen Mormons use my assumptions above to come to entirely orthodox conclusions on a whole range of Mormon beliefs, and I have seen others come to heterodox conclusions.

  12. ungewiss
    March 24, 2008 at 9:55 am

    Cicero (#8), I’m not sure why you get to redefine “Christian” as “one who has no doubts about the literal divinity of Christ and about his literal Resurrection from the Dead.” I suspect that if everyone used that definition there would be very few “real” Christians left in the world.

  13. John Nilsson
    March 24, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Andrew,

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. I have had experiences which at the time I thought were spiritual which years later I have reclassified as emotionalism based on the “by their fruits ye shall know them” test. I have also had experiences which were more mundane, but years later I have reclassified them as highly spiritual, again based on the “fruits” test in my life. This ties in to the emphasis on the subjective response to religion which Schleiermacher emphasized above. I have found that I am less certain of my own experiences the older I get and am more willing to question my interpretations of theology, which is one reason I enjoy perspectives from those of you in the Bloggernacle.

  14. John Nilsson
    March 24, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Cicero,

    Above you say,

    “From your definition of “liberal” it seems to me a “liberal” Mormon could have doubts about the literal divinity of Christ and about his literal Resurrection from the Dead.”

    That is true. A conservative Mormon could also have doubts about the Resurrection. Maybe those doubts arise from a different source than my four assumptions, but nowhere did I say liberal Mormons doubt or that they have a monopoly on the phenomenon. All human beings doubt, including the President of the Church. If one did not ever doubt, one would scarcely be human.

    I suppose my question for you is not about beliefs, but about the methodology you use for sorting through the messiness of life. If two statements by authoritative Church leaders conflict, is it only a seeming conflict, and if so, whom do you decide to follow? The more recent authority? The one saying whichever is closest to the current party line? The authority who seems to be closer to the spirit of Christ? Is there a place for reason in these judgment calls?

  15. March 24, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Are liberal Mormons real Mormons?

    That depends a great deal on your definition of a “Mormon,” doesn’t it? I, for example, would distinguish between Mormonism (the faith established through Joseph Smith) and modern LDS-ism (a faith no closer to Joseph Smith’s religion than any other group that claims descent from his teachings).

    While I know several “real Mormons,” and most of them happen to be LDS members, they usually tend to be viewed with great suspicion by their fellow LDS. They’re those “liberal” types who don’t believe, for example, that the doctrine of the LDS church has been unchanging. They’re those “liberal” types who don’t accept every recent statement by the LDS public relations department, about what is, or ever has been, Mormon doctrine. They’re those “liberal” types who believe Joseph Smith actually knew what he was talking about, when he gave the King Follet Discourse.

  16. March 24, 2008 at 10:35 am

    …and indeed you reject God specifically as a source of truth as He is the ultimate authority appealed to by those arguments. However you are willing to give preeminence to men you give the title of “expert”. This does not conform to reason, as you reject God as a dependable source of revelation due to a lack of personal observation…

    I disagree. Aside from outright atheists, I know of nobody who rejects deity specifically as a source of truth. Rather, I know many who reject mere mortals as infalliable determiners of what truths deity reveals.

  17. Ray
    March 24, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Cicero, If you change the base definition, you change the entire discussion.

    Fwiw, in every objectively measurable way, I am a rock-solid conservative Mormon. Those who know me and hear me speak often identify me as such. They see my current and past callings, my large family, my occupational choices, etc. and make an assumption based on what they observe.

    Based on that visual assumption, I get away with teaching much of what is called “liberal” in this thread without being called “liberal” by my fellow ward and stake members. That absolutely fascinates me. I personally hate these labels, since they almost never capture the full picture for individual members, tend to separate instead of unify and cause argument and contention where none is needed or helpful or uplifting. I appreciate a post like this, but I know upon reading it that some people automatically will make sweeping generalizations to exclude others from the ranks of the believers. That saddens me more than I can express here.

    I wish (truly and deeply) that John’s first two questions were obviously rhetorical – that no Mormon would have to answer them seriously. How you or I understand our religion is a matter with which you and I need to struggle individually. As for me, I choose simply to judge not, that I be not judged. Even though I disagree adamantly with your answer, I have no problem accepting anyone who agrees with you as a believing, faithful Mormon.

    So, for the record, I am both a conservative Mormon AND a liberal Mormon – according to how others view my statements and beliefs. To me, I am a Mormon.

  18. John Nilsson
    March 24, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Nick,

    I can always count on incisive commentary from you. I agree with you that historical change is objectively real, and that the religion of Joseph Smith is not the religion advocated by current Church leaders. That is so obvious as to pain me to have to type it…even conservative Mormons can see that and chalk it up to continuing revelation, I suppose. I am fine with practicing and believing different things than Joseph Smith did. For instance, on a somewhat trivial note, he believed different things about the Bible from me (for instance, that Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews) but I am not sure that he can be faulted for that. Biblical scholarship was in relative infancy in his day. He may have been persuaded by evidence had he lived long enough to come across it.

    Ray,

    I share your reservation about these labels, but I deliberately chose the word liberal to describe what I see as one way of sorting through religious issues I am confronted with. I toyed with “progressive” but I don’t like it’s fashionable political connotations and I’m not sure I especially believe in progress as an overarching concept. I quickly rejected “critical” as too pejorative, “thinking” as too condescending, and “Liahona” as too vague, and Richard Poll’s daughters own the copyright on that one anyway ;)

    I like “liberal” because it is a completely harmless word which unnecessarily sounds rebellious without being radical in any fundamental way in current Mormon culture. People have called me liberal often enough for it to stick, so it must have cognitive content. But the main reason was that I saw that rather than talking about a set of beliefs, I was talking about a way to get underneath the foundations of our beliefs at our assumptions about knowledge and religion itself. I appreciate your comments.

  19. Jeff Spector
    March 24, 2008 at 11:30 am

    I don’t really like the word “liberal” anymore because it has taken on the persona of a pejorative among so-called conservatives, especially in the political sense. And since the majority of Mormons tend to the red side of the house, I think they would define the word to describe “less conservative” Mormons in the same manner.

    I agree with Ray on the point that you can be a pretty straight laced member and able to teach more esoteric ideas because they know (or think they know?) where you are coming from. Someone seen as always fighting leadership or doctrinal points will get labeled and less likely to get a fair hearing of their ideas.

    I don’t buy into the Church PR conspiracy. I think the church has simplified its messages to go to a more international audience.

  20. kevinf
    March 24, 2008 at 11:55 am

    John,

    Labels are tough, as evidenced by some of these comments. No matter how you define the word “liberal”, there are those who will have a knee-jerk reaction to it. I think that the concept of self-definition, though, is useful. Just don’t count on a lot of others to validate your definitions, without some difficulty.

    Cicero, without intending any offense, I think you have had something of this automatic reaction to a label. John, from what I have read, is trying to define how he can assimilate other sources of knowledge into his Mormon faith. To use his example of “Questions of historicity are thus best decided by historians”, does not deny that the Book of Mormon may be a historical document, only opens the door for additional tools for understanding from our otherwise limited perspective. That may be helpful for some, but not for others. I find it is helpful for me, and helps me to refine my testimony. It does not for me create any cognitive dissonance with my basic beliefs, nor does it invalidate the spiritual truths I have received.

    Doubt is not automatically a bad thing, especially when it prompts us for further investigation, study, and prayer.

    I would under these rules be considered liberal in that I look at other sources of knowledge to augment my faith, but pretty conservative in my actual practice of my religion. There certainly should be and is, I believe, a place in the church for “liberal Mormons” just as there is for “conservative” members.

  21. Ray
    March 24, 2008 at 11:59 am

    Personal threadjack alert: kevinf, drop by; I’d like to get your opinion on something.

  22. Joel
    March 24, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    I think that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” force us rhetorically to box ourselves up in a definition that probably doesn’t fit well. I think that most Mormons probably take some things on the authority of their leaders, while we have to work through other things intellectually. I would probably frame myself as a “study-it-out-in-your-mind-and-ask” Mormon. Mostly because I find that scholars (I am a historian by trade) basically operate on the same “do-the-best-you-can” approach as the leaders of the church.

  23. March 24, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Ray (#17) couldn’t have said it better myself. I agree completely, Amen and amen.

    I strongly dislike labels because their inherent ambiguity causes confusion and misunderstanding that leads people to unnecessarily shut their eyes and ears to important information or perspectives. As Ray says, if you’re careful, you can get conservatives to accept liberal arguments and vice versa as long as you just avoid using labels or “red flag” rhetoric or terminology.

    If you want to undermine your ability to influence and edify people, just call yourself a conservative, a liberal, an anarchist, or whatever. As soon as you’ve thus labeled yourself, you’ve just prejudiced half your audience against listening and agreeing with you even if you’re right, and the other half will accept what you say simply because you’re “one of them” even if what you say is wrong.

  24. John Nilsson
    March 24, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    On the other hand, to have a meaningful discussion, we have to define terms, which I have done. My definition of liberal in the Mormon context is informed by what I understand the word to mean in the larger Christian context. Conservative is a useful label for those who prioritize tradition over reason, perhaps.

    In my next post I will get more specific about the consequences these attitudes have had in one Mormon’s life, my own.

  25. March 24, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    John, I agree terms need to be defined in a discussion, but I wonder whether that’s the same thing as a self-applied label like “orthodox” or “conservative” or “liberal” or “anarchist.” It seems to me that if the labels confuse and prevent people from truly listening to each other, then those types of labels are actually counter-productive to discussion, rather than enhancing it.

    I think this is particularly true when it comes to religion and Mormonism in particular. I’m afraid the tendency to tribalize Church members by grouping them into factions of orthodox, conservative, liberal, etc. only tends to fragment the Church when Jesus’ ultimate plea was that we might all “be one.” It seems the name of Christ is the only label we’re asked to take upon ourselves. The word “Mormon” has unfortunately been thrust upon us and adopted for sheer pragmatism’s sake. But I’m not sure adding further prefixes (e.g., liberal Mormon, conservative Mormon) is either necessary or wise.

  26. March 24, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    I do not like labels either considering the misunderstandings that go through cognitive symbolism and semantics.

    I would like to see Mormonism become like Judaism where we each have more autonomy in our interpretation of how we want to live it and worship. In so doing we might, hopefully, have more great Mormon thinkers like Judaism has.

    Great Post John Nilsson…getting us thinking.

  27. March 24, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    @ Andrew Ainsworth (25) – I agree, that labels are less than perfect, and they often reinforce sterotypes. Yet at the same time, labels allow us to (like generalisations) bring quickly to mind a massive body of information, that we can then further define ourselves within, or against. Should we thrust on each other labels? Well, only if we further define and clarify within those labels when needed. Should we cast off all labels applied to us? No – we should just clarify our relationships to those labels. After all, the Church still uses ‘mormon.org’, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. If we all only took upon ourselves the name of Christ (ie. Christians), then how would the Church define itself against the Presbyterians, without engaging in lengthy discourse every time? Labels are handy, as well as problematic. Let’s not get rid of labels – let’s just encourage people to be smart about their use.

    @ Stephen Wellington (26) – Similarly, think of the usefulness of labels in defining political positions, for example. ‘Anarchosyndicalism’ might be long-winded, but explaining the whole concept takes books! We define ourselves against these labels, which takes considerably less time. I take the point though, there are difficulties.

    I agree that we should all feel personally responsible for our understanding of the Gospel, and not assume that there is significant strength in the deceptive simplicity of some of the things that are peddled as ‘the simple truth’. Feeling the need for this responsibility seem to be the major difference between theological orthodoxy and liberalism. There’s a lifetime of learning to be done – and more! Language is an important tool in new thinking… remember, if you don’t have the words, you can’t think the thoughts! You certainly can’t communicate them to others.

  28. Jeff Spector
    March 24, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    Steve,

    “I would like to see Mormonism become like Judaism”

    Coming from that situation, my problem was there was never a right answer, You could basically believe whatever you wanted and you could find someone to agree and validate you.

    I found that less than fulfilling.

  29. March 24, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Yes point taken Andy. You are very right. There are pros and cons to it all. But in terms of the political spectrum, and it has been mentioned a few times before on mormonmatters, classical liberalism is close current day conservativism and perhaps paleoconservativism considering the rise of the Neocons. Classical liberals called for a continued reduction in state size and function which is similar to modern day libertarianism.

    That is what I was trying to get at.

  30. Just for Quix
    March 24, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Andrew #25– (On an aside: I don’t mean to hijack nor divert the thread, but I liked your Part 1 of your Depression piece before it quickly went up and down on the 20th. It seems headed in a thoughtful, “Freakonomics”-like follow-the-data-or-be-damned kind of direction. I look forward to seeing what comes of your article.)

    I don’t dislike labels. What I dislike is the need for pigeon-holing some have to not see the interbleed between labels. Political liberalism doesn’t necessarily follow doctrinal liberalism. I find the latter issue which John originally raised interesting. When I was LDS the only connotation it seemed you found on the topic of “liberalism” was of a political type, and usually with a sneer of disparagement. It’s practically impossible to have doctrinal discussions _at an LDS church_ informed by this perspective. It’s not like as an LDS member that you can seek out a bishop and ward experience that embraces this doctrinal bent even if one is so inclined.

    That said, from looking at recent Pew Forum study the Protestant mainline traditionally theologically liberal denominations are really struggling in retention and growth. It makes me wonder if such a philosophy creates an environment of faith that doesn’t spiritually appeal to enough people, if it reflects a general disconnect with the intellectual environment of America, if it fails to resonate with the younger generations, or something else?

  31. hawkgrrrl
    March 24, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    “In so doing we might, hopefully, have more great Mormon thinkers like Judaism has.” From your mouth to God’s ears!

    I too hate labels, although all words are labels, and it’s not like we can communicate without them. Regardless of the word “liberal” the distinction being made here seems to be a “questioning” Mormon vs. an “accepting” Mormon. Personally, I don’t see how you get to be a Mormon in the first place without some questioning.

  32. John Nilsson
    March 24, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Great comments, everyone. I love how these threads elicit discussion on the merits of discussion itself!

    Jeff,

    I loved your comment: “my problem was there was never a right answer”! It made me laugh out loud. I have the opposite problem: in my church experience there is never a wrong answer! At least if everyone is playing “Mormon nice”. The most outlandish things are said without retraction and nothing less than a “thank you, sister, thank you, brother” uttered in response.

    Just for Quix,

    I was surprised to find how many conservative members of so-called liberal denominations there were until I followed the outcry over ordaining gay clergy in the Episcopalian Church. There have been similar debates in the ELCA, Presbyterian Church U.S.A, United Methodists, and American Baptists. The differences within denominations are usually greater than the differences between them. I would hope that there is some kind of a third factor which makes these less attractive spiritual options for Americans, like the fact that many of these denominations no longer perform the same ethnic haven function they used to (Scots-Presbyterian, German/Scandinavian-Lutheran, upper-class English-Episcopalian, middle-class English-Methodist), but you may be right that these churches cannot compete with the lure of unadulterated secularism on the one hand and fundamentalist certainty on the other.

  33. March 24, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    #28:
    Fascinating, Jeff. So, are you attracted to the idea of being “authoritatively” told what you are to believe, or are you attracted to having a perception that you have all the “correct” answers? Or do you just collapse these two, out of a sense of near-infalliability on the part of leadership?

  34. Jeff Spector
    March 24, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Here’s another one.

    If in the church we can never DISAGREE about doctrine, in Judaism, you can never AGREE. Maybe, you heard that old saying if you have a discussion with 2 Jews, you get 3 opinions. :0)

  35. March 24, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Quix: the depression post is coming on Wed. morning. I put it up last week when it appeared that our afternoon post had fallen through, but that afternoon post did come through after all, so I pulled mine.

  36. Brother Parkin
    March 24, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    I would _like_ to be a liberal Mormon.
    But while I can fully endorse #s 1 and 2, I have to start hedging my bets with #3 and would reject most of #4.

    Also, while I admire Ray’s live and let live disposition … ultimately you follow out to whatever voice you’re giving heed. And if that isn’t the voice of the Saviour, there you go. There is no foundation to your belief, and when the rains come down and the floods come up: does it really matter whether you have labeled yourself a Mormon or not? I think we have some responsibility as believing members to encourage – never compel, manipulate, foist, berate, but gently encourage, sin palabras even, those around us to heed that voice. If ony by are muddling example, we have the responsibility. And, according to the scriptures, there are signs that follow those who are heeding that voice. I don’t think it is wrong or destructive – rather instructive, actually, to watch that play out. To just say, I don’t know because I don’t share your subjective experience doesn’t seem a sufficient … mode of observation.

    ~

  37. March 24, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Jeff….you quote me as saying:

    “I would like to see Mormonism become like Judaism”

    I think you have taken it out of context. Adding the “where we each have more autonomy in our interpretation of how we want to live it and worship”, I feel, carries with it the message I was trying to put across.

    The problem with thinking one has all the right answers is that one becomes fundamentalist and dogmatic with the archetypal example being, in my opinion, Bruce R. Mconkie. A versatile Mormonism is not at odds with eternal truths. By over-dogmatizing our beliefs we are in danger of producing a 21st century fossilized mormonism that, as John Hamer has said before, will be anachronistic.

    I want to emphasize that dogma is important in maintaining a set of beliefs but nevertheless will again say that eternal truths also allow for a flexible and adaptive religion. I think David O’Mackay understood the balance that was needed in bringing the church into the 20th century and he, in my unimportant opinion, was fairly liberal.

    Mormonism must be accomodating and robust whilst also producing wonderful Christlike people who can function in the world around them. However each member does this, whether it be liberal or conservative, is fantastic.

  38. Jeff Spector
    March 24, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Stephan,

    I agree with you 100%. I think I was just playing around a bit. I think the church has spent a majoity of its life being somewhat liberal. I that Joseph Smith was a free thinker and invited all to join him to explore the gospel with an open mind.

    I think that dogmatic thinking was introduced with JFS and continued on with BRM and some others.

    But again, I agree 1000%.

    Nick, just stop it! :)

  39. Ray
    March 24, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Bro. Parkin, I agree with what you are saying. I only mean that the *practice* of our religion doesn’t have to vary as much as our *perceptions* can and do. I really don’t care in the end if the person sitting next to me in church is a “liberal Mormon” or a “conservative Mormon”, as long as they are *practicing* Mormon – even if they are unbaptized but practicing – even if they are hanging on by the skin of their teeth and not fully active but striving to reconcile their own dissonance. (For example, I would rather worship in our pews and learn in our other meetings and associations with an excommunicated gay man who lives the Gospel to the absolute best of his ability than with a baptized member who is a hypocrite and doesn’t try to live the Gospel.)

    I am one of those who drives many skeptical intellectuals nuts, since I am so adamant in my ability to say, “I know.” Otoh, I also drive some conservative members nuts, since I am so adamant in my inability to say, “I know.” Frankly, however, I admire those who can’t be comfortable saying they “know” the Church is true but live the precepts and attend faithfully every bit as much as those who can make that claim based on powerful, miraculous experience – since, in the end, it is by our fruits (NOT our stated beliefs) that we shall be known. (“Not everyone that sayeth unto me, “Lord, Lord . . .”) Also, I have a deep admiration for anyone who can live the life they want to believe but struggle to do so, since I believe that is the penultimate example of true faith (“the substance of things hoped for”).

    “Are liberal Mormons real Mormons?” Certainly, as long as they are trying their hardest – to the best of their ability – to “Come unto me,” “Keep my commandments,” “Take my yoke upon you,” etc. I’m just saying it’s not my place, since I currently am not a bishop, to make that judgment about anyone else – even by slapping a label on them, since it’s true of ALL Mormons regardless of label.

  40. March 24, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Jeff…that is so funny that you JFS because I was going to put his name in there too but I thought I was treading on dodgy ground. lol Sorry if I reacted a bit strongly…I was enjoying the feeling of moral uprightness whilst I was busy pontificating. :-)

  41. Just for Quix
    March 24, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    John Nillson,

    It is hard to judge the decline of mainline Protestantism just based on my own experience. Based on the Pew Forum, it seems that the regionalization of many faiths probably speaks to what you raise, that Protestant mainline churches are not serving as well as cultural and ethnic havens as once was true. On the other hand, the Pew report does indicate that mainline Protestant churches ages skew older than average, so beside the “ethnic” nature of affiliation in past, it may also indicate the inability of said churches to resonate on matters of faith or practice beyond such traditional ethnic affiliations. Nevertheless, non-denominational Christianity and “unaffiliated” are the only segments not posting net losses.

    It’s hard for me to judge what the character of all the non-denominational Christian churches is, and why they are appealing to so many Americans. The one we attend is small (about 800-1000), and very mission-, program- and bible-centered. On the other hand, you also have Joel Osteen’s stadium-sized megachurch, which besides being very uplifting and application-oriented, has been criticised for not being centered enough on preaching from the Bible. While at our church the theological atmosphere is liberal-friendly, especially on minor praxis points, I would hesitate to classify us as a “liberal” church on core/creedal doctrinal matters. I could only guess that these churches in general shake up traditional PRAXIS in order to try to serve their congregations more creatively. (And it does seem that member ages, on average, skew younger as well, which may speak to serving generational needs better.) But until Pew’s belief and practice study is released later this spring I don’t have enough data to form a concrete opinion why non-denominational Christian churches are bucking the trend.

    Now as to the rise of secularism, the Pew Study does cite that while this category is the fastest rising, it is not accurate to describe this segment as “secular.” Only about a quarter of the “unaffiliated” consider themselves athiest or agnostic; the balance as spiritually non-defined. Furthermore a recent, excellent lecture by Tim Keller (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9fmKSwuoDE) on Belief in an Age of Skepticism addresses this point well. It seems America is becoming polarized instead of turning secular. (This also is supported by what you’ve noticed with the liberal/conservative schisms in mainline Protestantism.) Post-modernism and other relativist rationales undoubtedly contribute to many who now consider themselves spiritual but religiously unaffiliated. Anyhow, I found Keller’s point interesting: he argues that it was once thought that secularized Europe was the “future” of societies who outgrew religion. In contrary the data show it is the exception. Religiosity is quite vibrant everywhere else, including countries like China and Russia where it was made illegal. Therefore I am inclined to believe that we need to find better ways to explain and answer the spiritual call(s) of a modernizing culture rather than assume that secularism is the answer. And certainly “liberalism” and “conservatism” don’t seem to explain much either beyond the fracturing that can be observed.

  42. Brother Parkin
    March 24, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    You’re a peacemaker, Ray.

    Blessed are the peacemakers. :)

    ~

  43. March 24, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    John: I’m always such a latecomer on these discussions. It’s no fair. Anyway, I suppose the term liberal Mormon, as you’ve defined it, isn’t such a bad thing to be, up to a point. For me that point is about halfway into assumption #3. When it comes to #4, I guess I might have a problem with the words few, and narrowly defined (depending on your frame of reference). But that’s just me. To answer your questions: (1) yes, (2) yes, and (3) it’s a tie.

    Recently I’ve been thinking a bit more about the emphasis people like President Eyring and Elder Holland have placed on covenants. There’s something powerful about that concept. Is there such a thing as a conservative or liberal approach to a covenant? Is a focus on covenants a more conservative approach to religion in general or more liberal? That’s where my thoughts are right now, I guess.

  44. Gander
    March 24, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    While re-reading Isaiah this month, I was struck by how left-wing some of the old testament prophets are. Isaiah rails against the upper class more than anyone. God’s punishment arrives due to aristocratic landowners more than any infractions of written law. Same with Hosea. These people would not be popular among conservative Republicans.

  45. March 24, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    Are my comments being tagged as spam?

  46. March 25, 2008 at 8:21 am

    John: I’m late, as always. And I don’t have a lot to say except that I don’t think that Nate Oman actually has a problem with you. You seem to fall within the group of “liberal Mormons” who escape his broad-brush criticism, namely those who actually are insightful and aren’t smug. Schleiermacher is interesting, as are all Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment German thinkers. I just don’t know that the dynamic of my faith fits into any category such as “liberal” or “conservative.” I must admit, nowadays my faith is quite simple, in its own way. But I struggled and fought hard to gain it, and I thank God for His tender mercies. I can’t say that I’ve followed any single “approach” to religion that has yielded that faith. I do think, however, that “liberal Mormons” are as welcome to make covenants with God as are any other kind of Mormons. God looketh on the heart, as you know.

  47. John Nilsson
    March 25, 2008 at 9:12 am

    mormonmagmeister,

    you make an interesting point about covenants. Inasmuch as covenants are a concept which other Christians would probably associate with the Old Testament more than the New, although there are some in the New, a religion built on covenants comes off as very traditional and therefore conservative. However, an emphasis on making and keeping covenants in the LDS Church tends to focus on the individual and their relationship to God and thus fits in nicely with the subjective strand of liberal theology. Of course, some covenants are made corporately, and these would seem more conservative to me…

    I like that you have associated faith with struggle, which rings true for me. On the other hand, I know people for whom the scriptural passages alluding to faith as a gift are true as well. Faith comes more easily to some than others and perhaps takes a different form as a result. Thanks for the insights.

    P.S. I don’t really think Nate Oman has a problem with me, I just wanted readers to be aware of the prior Bloggernacle discussion of this topic. And it made for a more sensationalist lead-in to my post :)

  48. JJackson
    March 25, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    The list of “Things I Know for Sure” has grown shorter in the decade-plus since my mission. But the items that have come off that list haven’t been abandonded, they just fit under different titles like “Things I Believe”, “Things I Hope”, and “Stuff I’m Not Sure About, But the Baby Isn’t Getting Thrown Out With the Bath Water”.

    There is at least one recent example of “the church” being not quite as dogmatically tied to a historical position where scientific evidences are piling up. Mentioning the significance of the new word “among” at the beginning of the Book of Mormon in a gospel doctrine class showed me that “the church” is certainly more liberal than a lot of its members.

  49. SAP
    March 25, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    It took me until the chorus of the song to recognize it and realize it was Greg Graffin. I was like, that guy looks like Kevin Costner… Oh wait…

    I suppose my concern is how point 4 works when it comes to the first 4 temple recommend questions about testimony. They are not asking whether you have a testimony about whether being a Mormon makes you a better, happier person. So how might a “Liberal Mormon” respond to those questions?

  50. John Nilsson
    March 26, 2008 at 10:35 am

    JJackson,

    I empathize with your evolution of belief post-mission. Regarding the new word in the BOM intro, I think most active members won’t even notice it. For those of us that do, it is a pleasing recognition that scholarship is being slowly assimilated into our religious truth claims.

    SAP,

    LOL! I’m glad someone commented on the video. I thought it was an appropriate song for my post. Greg Graffin does look a bit like Costner now that you mention it. I chose the acoustic version over the plugged version of the song to please John Dehlin and other lurkers who might be wooed to Bad Religion through a softer, singer-songwriter, James Taylor approach to their material.

    You raise an interesting question about the temple recommend interview. I must say that the liberal Mormon theology I sketched out above was not a set of beliefs, and certainly not the negation of the temple recommend propositions, but a method for arriving at a set of beliefs. To specifically answer your question, though, I’ll need to dig up what the first four questions are!

  51. John Nilsson
    March 26, 2008 at 11:01 am

    OK, an internet search reveals this:

    1 Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?

    2 Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?

    3 Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?

    4 Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?

    Liberal Mormons could hold completely orthodox beliefs and therefore honestly answer all four of these questions affirmatively. But let me assume for the purposes of your question that the liberal Mormon in question has some unorthodox beliefs. I’ll start with question 4 because to my way of thinking this is not a belief question at all, but a sustaining question. For even a heterodox person of a liberal persuasion, I don’t see any difficulties with this question. For instance, if the liberal Mormon in question didn’t believe that the historical evidence for John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John, Elijah, Moses, Elias, etc. conferring priesthood keys on Joseph Smith and others was strong enough to warrant belief in the existence of these keys in the modern Church in a literal way, she could still sustain the president of the Church as the only one authorized to exercise the use of symbolic keys and to preside over the Church, along with her local leaders. This is a question designed, I think, to get at the other end of the belief spectrum, those who might think that Lorin Woolley, Ervil LeBaron, Owen Allred, or Warren Jeffs REALLY have the keys, if you catch my meaning.

    So much for question 4.

    The first three questions are a little trickier. The first question asks about faith and testimony, the next two ask for only testimony. Testimony is defined by Merriam-Webster’s as an open acknowledgment or as a public profession of religious experience. I’m not sure which version the First Presidency is trying to get at, and why it is not worded simply as believe, but oh well. Holding to the second definition, profession of religious experience, a liberal Mormon could again answer in a completely orthodox way the first three questions in the temple recommend interview, because his reason and the evidence he has encountered convince him that these three propositions are all true. Assuming again an unorthodox set of conclusions to these propositions, on the other hand, the liberal Mormon could think to himself that he has experienced God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost symbolically through human beings who speak their words, carry out the acts of love they would do if on the earth, and therefore has an indirect faith and testimony in them. That being said, the poor bishop or counselor just wants to hear a Yes! and does not want or need to be overwhelmed by a description of one’s entire faith journey. The questions about the Atonement and Jesus Christ and the restoration of the gospel could all be answered affirmatively and honestly in the fashion I have outlined for question 1.

    Again, liberal Mormons are not those who hold a unitary set of beliefs which are the simple negation of traditional Mormon beliefs. That is the last thing I have tried to suggest in this post, and the dispelling of that myth is one of the motivating factors for me in writing this in the first place.

    In my schema, liberal Mormons are those who prioritize reason and objectively verifiable phenomena over subjective phenomena when evaluating truth propositions. The subjective response to religion is entirely separate from the truth or falsity of these propositions.

  52. Just for Quix
    March 26, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Agreed, John (#51):

    One can liberally define these propositions and still answer affirmatively. (I have quite a few heretical or heterodox LDS friends who do.) But if anyone’s experience is like mine, having gone through this with three different bishops before I changed faiths, if one chooses not to attend the temple because of quandaries with one (in my case #3) one will quickly find that the popular “conservative” position is the only one that anyone wants to hear. So it seems to me that any liberalized interpretation is a “don’t ask; don’t tell” policy, which just didn’t set well with me when I was grappling with my questions, letting both belief and practise follow accordingly.

  53. Rigel Hawthorne
    March 29, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    1. “least certain that God has a physical body with two hands and two feet”

    Joseph Smith said that God’s brightness and glory defied all description. John in Revelations 1:16 says his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. Both accounts were limited in their description by the terrestial mind. Given the amount of scriptural revelation on the nature of the celestial body and details of the celestial kingdom, I don’t see how anyone could have more answers than questions, nor should they pretend to.

    2. “somewhat less certain that God exists”

    Unless one has had a “Brother of Jared type experience” then this statement rings true.

    3. “I am very certain that being a Mormon makes me a better and happier person”.

    This certainty does not necessarily make any Mormon a “real Mormon”. James 1:26-27: “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the Fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Service and keeping covenants are the ultimate obligations whether a practitioner of liberal or conservative theology. And is it possible to be totally of one side or the other? Don’t most conservatives have their own personal liberality and most liberals cling to a certain favorite conservative tendency?

  54. John Nilsson
    April 3, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Rigel,

    You are very perceptive.

  55. FireTag
    April 1, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    I have a suspicion that the presence of both liberals and conservatives in a religious body are required for the body’s protection against the errors and vulnerabilities to temptation that are particular to the other side. There is even some scientific evidence (how’s that for liberal) that liberals and conservatives have basic personality type differences. (see an article entitled “Two Tribes” that appeared in the British popular science journal New Scientist last summer if you are interested).

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