105–106: Mormon “Doctrine” and Other Fuzzy Things

June 20, 2012
By

Are there statements about God, humans, the universe, and any other thing that a Latter-day Saint “must” believe to be considered a “Mormon”? And, if so, how literally does one have to take these so-called “doctrines”? Are they close-to-perfect encapsulations of eternal truths that are consistently taught in scripture and that have hardly changed or evolved throughout time, with modern LDS pronouncements simply further clarifications? Or are doctrines far “fuzzier,” more fluid statements suggesting where Mormons are encouraged to focus now but always with the anticipation that, as the Ninth Article of Faith states, there are “many great and important things” still to be revealed? Furthermore, are “ideas” or “truths we can state” really what we should focus on? Does “knowing” some truth actually translate directly to becoming more godlike in nature? Would God really prefer that someone is able to list beliefs or name attributes of godliness over someone who has come to embody compassion and other spiritual qualities? Are we giving “doctrine” too much power? Are we letting “statements that we are supposed to believe” distract us from what’s vital? Are we allowing the discomfort of conspicuousness when we imagine that we are being pressured to say we assent to various teachings (that fall apart, horribly, when held up to scientific or intellectual scrutiny) drive us from fellowship with other Latter-day Saints?

In this two-part podcast, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Gina Colvin, Charles Harrell, and Chris Cobb take on all of these issues, and much more. Are there different, healthier ways to view the question of Mormon teachings and doctrinal discourse? Is doctrinal presentation, especially in Church curriculum, a straightforward process of teaching truth, or is there much more at play–assumptions (cultural, Western, cognitive, gendered, and countless other types) motivating what is selected as more or less important? The panel explore what it means when leaders might say that this or that doctrine is “binding” upon members and whether or not it is actual “doctrines” that are canonized or simply sources (scripture) that are granted authoritative power–and, as is evident about any scripture, whatever doctrines might be offered therein call always to a wonderfully wide spectrum of interpretation? The panel also explores whether we might be in a moment within Mormon development when doctrines are being scaled back, when less emphasis is being placed upon teachings and more on community, doing good in the world, “becoming” better Christians/human beings.

Listen, then engage–please! A lot here. (And hopefully a greater feel by the end that one of these “a lots” is a lot of roominess for all sorts of approaches to the teachings that help shape the Mormon tradition.)

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Links to some sources discussed or referred to in the podcast:

Charley Harrell’s Mormon Stories podcast episode (January 2012)

“This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology, by Charles R. Harrell (Greg Kofford Books)

Gina Colvin’s blog, KiwiMormon

LDS Newsroom statement, “Approaching Mormon Doctrine”

“The Challenges of Defining Mormon Doctrine,” by Loyd Ericson (Element, Spring/Fall 2007)

FAIR position statement, “What Is ‘Official’ Mormon Doctrine?”

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  • the narrator

    The biggest challenge with discussing “doctrine” in Mormonism is the problem between the relationship of doctrine and truth. Last Sunday I had the /joy/ of teaching the “Teach the Doctrine” lesson for the Teacher Development class. As someone kindly pointed out in the manual ”
    the phrase “doctrine of the kingdom” refers to the revealed truths of the gospel. ” (
    http://www.lds.org/manual/teaching-no-greater-call-a-resource-guide-for-gospel-teaching/lesson-4-teach-the-doctrine?lang=eng). 

    At the heart of Mormonism–at least as it is taught by the Church’s prophets, seers, and revelators–is that we have a privileged access to true doctrines that other faiths do not. “We have the truth!”
    But then what does it mean when those truths are changed, or if we do not have any idea what those truths are.Anyways, since you linked to my Element article, I feel it safe to point to my rejoinder to Millet and Oman, where I end by drawing out this problem further. 
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/97816360/Pages-From-Master-Pages-Vol-5-1-Spring-2009 Really enjoyed your discussion though. I’m of coursed biased, but Charley’s book is IMO the best source for understanding the rich history of our “doctrines.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisallmanlovesyou Christopher Allman

    Dan, I think you are projecting your own preference for fuzziness onto other people. Studies show that in GENERAL people prefer certainty over ambiguity  But there are also studies which are even more interesting that show  a preference for certainty or ambiguity is a personality trait. This means that while many people prefer certainty, there others  like you, I and probably most of your listeners who enjoy fuzziness or  at least have a higher tolerance for it. (I’m trying hard to find the reference for this study but haven’t located it just yet)
    I believe this preference for (or tolerance of)ambiguity is one crucial part of what makes us the liberal, fringy Mormons we are, who like nuanced discussions and forging our own path. 
    Because this is our own preference it seems ideal but  for  those with different tastes than us, ambiguity/fuzziness/uncertainty is   uncomfortable  and even distressing and that is a key part to who they are as people too.
    One benefit I have found since losing my faith is a realization that there is no ideal way of being that we are all striving for but a variety of personality traits that have evolved over millennia which serve a variety of purposes and they are all (well, mostly) okay, (even the ones that drive me crazy to be around). Without people who love certainty human history would be incredibly different and probably less rich, since it is certainty (even though it may often be false) which has led people to many noble achievements.
    Studies have shown that having too many options can decrease our happiness, so while I do like fuzziness and options and see it’s many benefits, I realize there are also benefits to those certainty loving people, one of which is they are often happier because they know exactly what it is they should be doing/believing etc. and never have to second guess or doubt themselves about being on the right path, which is very comforting.

    • Chris Cobb

       I think Dan finds great joy in his position, and thus wants everyone to experience that joy. But I have to agree uncertainty scares the $#%% out of people!

    • http://standingsittinglying.wordpress.com/ Katie L.

      While I love me some fuzzy ambiguity too, I think this absolutely true.  Nice point.

    • Dan Wotherspoon

      Lots to discuss here. Thanks for the great post!

      I definitely honor temperamental differences regarding certainty vs ambiguity. I don’t think there would have been any point in the discussion where I would have argued contra basic predispositions. Many times in previous podcasts, I have talked about the Richard Poll descriptors of Iron Rod and Liahona Mormons. And, like you, I totally honor that the Church needs both types. (Great presentation of that above! I want to steal it!) I also have found my way toward loving and really enjoying people with opposite temperaments than me. As such, I don’t think, in this way, that I’m particularly guilty of “projecting” my temperament onto others.

      If I were to guess, without re-listening to the podcast (crazy busy last few days, hence so slow in replying here), I think you and perhaps others (reading more comments below) may think I mean “ambiguity” as equivalent to “fuzzy,” and/or that I don’t recognize that people are typically reluctant to change their way of thinking. On this second point, William James (in Pragmatism) is terrific: 

      “The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they
      are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy.  The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by
      modifying his previous mass of opinions…until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter…. 

      The new idea is then adopted as the true one.  It
      preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them enough to make them admit the novelty, but conceiving them in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible. [A radical] explanation, violating all our preconceptions, would never pass as a true account of a novelty.  We should scratch around industriously till we found something less eccentric.  The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of his old order
      standing.”

      James here concentrates mostly on “ideas”–and when it comes to that, especially the entrenched ones he is concentrating on, he’s right. Hard to budge!

      Put in now, though, what I’m talking about when I say “fuzzy.” (And here I have to admit that in been going for a fun title to the podcast I may have caused an emphasis to be heard that I don’t think bears out from what I would have said in the podcast. Sorry about that!) What I mean by “fuzzy” is totally in terms of the ability for religious truths to be captured even close to adequately by words. What I mean by “fuzzy” is in resonance with this poem by Hafiz (one of my favorites): 

      I have a thousand brilliant lies
                  For the question:

                  How are you?

      I have a thousand brilliant lies

                  For the question:

                  What is God?

      If you think that Truth can be known

                  From words,

      If you think that the Sun and the Ocean

      Can Pass through that tiny opening

                  Called the mouth,

      O someone should start laughing!

      Someone should start wildly laughing—
      Now!

      By “fuzzy” I don’t mean contradictory (see other comments below where that is brought up). Few like ambiguity or contradictions. 

      What I will argue, however, is that when someone truly has spiritual experiences, they naturally “get” what Hafiz is talking about. They get that words are inadequate. It may take a long time and lots of experience in the presence of spirit to allow it to change the kinds of rhetoric they use in things like Sunday discourse, but everyone whose soul has soared at some time does “get it” when they hear someone else mention the inadequacy of words and concepts in capturing all that their experiences have meant in transforming them. I find that when this reminder is given, they do nod and agree and hearken in their minds/hearts back to times when experiences have exploded what they previously thought or could say. So that’s more what I mean when I might say in this or other podcasts that people “enjoy” fuzziness. These moments of breakthrough are exquisite. If a person has had them, they long for them. If not, I think, like William James who admits he has not (he calls himself “tone deaf” to the spiritual realm, at least in comparison to many he studies), they recognize how these types of experiences would be delightful and perhaps the most important thing that might happen to them.

      This is why I claim we should shrink the category of “doctrine.” It’s a word and concept that has far too much cache for something so easily shown to be so woefully inadequate. Add to that how it points away from the churning power and essence of religion–experiences with spirit/universe/love that are the only true triggers for fundamental change and expansion of soul. Doctrine is highly deserving of being re-thought! 

      We, of course, can’t escape discussion of Mormon teachings. I even love talking about all the unique ones (or at least unique way ideas existing elsewhere are combined in Mormonism). But my claim is we should all the time remind that what our minds can grasp and mouths can say are not what religion/Mormonism is about. We should consistently share that teachings “point toward” truths but do not fully capture them. Doing so gives wide room for everyone, no matter where they are in their own experiences with God/religion/Mormonism. When we do this, we AREN’T teaching against “doctrine” (only how it’s over-valued as sets of statements that sometimes comes off as “we must believe to be saved (or to be ‘in the fold’)” and we ARE directing attention to experiences everyone in the room has had (or at least will recognize as desirable and will perhaps seek after them).

      ——-

      There is more to point to that I only have a couple of minutes to at least suggest now: After a lot of immersion in spiritual things, people really DO shift their orientation toward truth to orientation toward goodness, delight in holding wildly diverse insights in delicious tension, play, etc. I love Katie L’s “I love me some fuzzy ambiguity” line in this thread. (It’s in this way above that I read her, anyway.) In general, at first, not many enjoy ambiguity/fuzziness, but after some time experiencing spirit in their own lives (that the same energies people call spirit are the energies that are at there own cores), things change. Delights (including all the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, etc) ahead–and plentiful!   

      • http://standingsittinglying.wordpress.com/ Katie L.

        You read me right, Dan.  :)  To me, the very LEAST interesting question we can be asking is “is it true?”  Of course it is and of course it isn’t.

        The much more important question is, “How does this transform me?”

        • Dan Wotherspoon

          Brilliant line! Awesome.

  • Paula

    Another terrific panel and podcast!  My comment is a bit tangential to the podcast theme of doctrine.  Between parts one and two of the podcast, I stopped to check Facebook and found Joanna and John had both linked to a new Ensign article that supports the notion that staying with a spouse who has lost their testimony is indeed a loving and faithful choice.  While Joanna and John lauded this progressive stance, I found myself getting  angry and sad as I thought about my darling niece.  She is on her third marriage after each of her  ecclesiastical leaders outlined the spiritual jeopardy she would be in if she remained in her temple marriage to her husband who had lost his testimony.  I don’t know if this ecclesiastical advice was doctrine or policy, but it certainly was influential in the decision she made to leave this wonderful man.  So while this Ensign article is a needed forward step, I am feeling discouraged that the church is so slow to address issue after issue.  
    As I listen to part 2 of this episode, and Dan’s heartfelt plea to stay engaged in the church, I am willing to be open to the fact that God may have had a hand in this as a message for me.  The concluding thoughts of the episode did provide me with some calm and perspective in the midst of my hissy fit.  Thank you my dear Mormon Matters, Mormon Stories peeps!  And though I’m not a man or a father, I will happily donate $12 to a podcast that aids in lowering my blood pressure. =)

    • Chris Cobb

       Yeah that was sort of sexist on my part huh? To only challenge the men/fathers/husbands… :) I read the Ensign article today and think it is a great step forward in my opinion.

  • Larrin

    I’m almost done with part 1 where you guys are talking about ground-up revelation. I’m surprised there hasn’t been any discussion of Christofferson’s talk from the last conference. My favorite part of his talk is actually in a footnote, where J. Reuben Clark adds his own commentary on the story of Brigham Young correcting himself later in a conference. Here is the footnote: 
    “J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Church Leaders’ Words,” 10. Of the story his father told him about Brigham Young, President Clark further wrote: “I do not know if this ever happened, but I say it illustrates a principle—that even the President of the Church, himself, may not always be ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost,’ when he addresses the people. This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly speculative character) where subsequent Presidents of the Church and the peoples themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ “How shall the Church know when these adventurous expeditions of the brethren into these highly speculative principles and doctrines meet the requirements of the statutes that the announcers thereof have been ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’? The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest” (J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Church Leaders’ Words,” 10).”

    • Larrin

      Looks like I spoke too soon about discussing Christofferson.

  • Lietta

    I ‘think’ this podcast was helpful.  In other words, I’m not sure I know more about what is considered Doctrine, but assuredly more comfortable with the concept that doctrine may not be easily harnessed or captured by means of listed statements defining what doctrine is or isn’t.  As I encounter members who will make declarative statements to me about what doctrine is, I will be less inclined to buy into the absoluteness of said declarative statement and will assimilate it as an additional element to consider in putting together the larger picture (I heard a new friend and exploring member call the larger picture as the view from 30, 000 feet).  

    I thoroughly appreciated the conversation exploring the word ‘binding’ and relating it in favorable light to community; Dan adding definition to the word religious as in tie together.   I like the ideas shared of a passion prompting people to create a Zion community; idea of also being a cerebral examination that could be channeled in areas besides doctrinal exploration.

    Doctrine in the scriptures requires interpretation.  Thank you – freedom to interpret as I see it from my world view colored by a diverse exposure to differing religious belief sets.  Appreciating the thought expressed of crumbling views of following specific doctrine or one is not considered a Mormon.  

  • http://twitter.com/MarkAstin Mark Astin

    $12 + tip is in the (e-)mail.

    Thanks Dan and panelists for another excellent discussion. Dan, you may keep me in the Church yet.

    • Larrin

      I listened to this very podcast while doing the dishes. Unfortunately my wife says my graduate student salary isn’t big enough to donate $12.

    • Chris Cobb

       Right on brother!

  • Larrin

    I loved where you guys said that canonized scripture is a source of doctrine rather than doctrine itself. Blew my mind. So simple when it’s been spelled out but honestly it had never crossed my mind.

  • Jennarae

    “I just want everyone to stay in the damn church long enough to put it all together”-Dan W. Love it-and I may just ride this out afterall!

  • Jacob Brown

    I really love Harrell’s insight and frankness about doctrine. I think the definition he gives for doctrine near the end is the most useful. Doctrine is simply authoritative statements of what is appropriate belief. For people who don’t see the complexity and contradiction, Mormon doctrine is simple. For people who embrace the complexity and contradiction, Mormon doctrine is simple. It is the people who see the complexity and contradiction and want to get rid of the complexity and contradiction who are frustrated and unsatisfied by Mormon doctrine.

    Mormon doctrine is not coherent or noncontradictory even when you apply the doctrinal filtering procedure described in the LDS Newsroom statement. It’s messy. Why would you expect it to have continuity or harmony in its many parts? It is the product of nearly two hundred years of evolution driven by revelation, social, cultural, and political change, and finally global expansion. It is a product of humans.

    Of course, members expect doctrine to be unchanging and consistent. They are taught from a very young age that church doctrine is received from God. Either we have a hard time understanding God, or he has a terrible time communicating with us. Clearly God could get his doctrine across better if he just set up a channel on YouTube or started a blog. Heck, he could even start his own TV station like Fox News or Trinity Broadcasting Network to let us know what he thinks about what is going on and how we should respond. Honestly, this holy writing technology is way out of date.
    :)

  • Scamomil

    I just wanted to say to Dan, thank you so much for all your hard work you put into the Mormon matters podcast. You are inspiring to me. I can tell you are a very spiritually mature person and I hope I can make it to that level of spiritual maturity as well. Sometimes when I get a little frustrated with a church meeting or maybe by something someone said I think to myself “what would Dan Wotherspoon do?”. Heh. Thanks again for being such a spiritual giant trying to help people like me take in the bigger picture.

  • Jacob Brown

    I thought in was really cool how Gina reacted to the limited cultural perspective betrayed by Hinckley’s conference talk comments about “the President.” Then I began to think about it a little more. Isn’t Mormonism in its entirety THE most mono-culture of all thriving religions?

    “Made in America” fits Mormonism better than any other religion. Joseph Smith is the “All-American Prophet.” America is the Promised Land. Adam-ondi-ahman is in Missouri. The Garden of Eden is somewhere near there, too. God had is hand in establishing the Constitution of the United States. The Book of Mormon is about an ancient American people and is full of American political, social, and religious ideology. The only authoritative form of the Book of Mormon is in English (okay, I admit that it’s 17th century British English). Early Mormons required the saints to gather in Utah as part of establishing an American Zion for God’s last dispensation. You wouldn’t believe how many conference talks point out how blessed America is above all other lands.

    Of course, none of the aforementioned is doctrinal. It’s just my on speculation-ridden interpretation of Mormon history and thought.

    • Gina Colvin

      Yes yes and yes!!!! It is unequivocally and utterly mono-cultural. Gosh – lots to say about that one issue alone. Perhaps we could encourage dan to do a podcast on that topic.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rolf-Straubhaar/17800265 Rolf Straubhaar

        Brilliant idea!  Bring on some folks to see how this varies across countries, regions and continents–bring on some Latin American folks, European folks, First Nations folks, etc.

  • JT

    Charles, thank you so much for your book “This is My Doctrine.”  As Chris said, it is certainly amenable to randomly dipping into one doctrinal topic at a time (at least after the 1st chapter), but I have been cruising straight through these last three days, finding gems of insight that wonderfully set Mormonism in the broader context of an evolving sectarian tradition.  That Mormon prophets sought to legitimize their theological innovations with questionable proof-texting puts them in good company – most of the New Testament writers!  This provides such a refreshing and humbling perspective to bring to one’s living in, or alongside, our peculiar tradition.

    As I work my way through the final chapters I’ve been struck by this human drive to scour ancient scripture for ambiguous nuggets to enlist in the service of new doctrine.  Even Joseph Smith, with his extraordinary authority born of direct contact with celestial beings, needed to leverage paper authority.  It’s striking to me that even his newly minted scripture required an extraordinary degree of Bible leverage.  It seems that no Mormon doctrine could have gained acceptance without its leaders carving ancient scripture into a touchstone.  To me this dependence on prior authority marks the greatest difference between religion and science as a means of establishing knowledge – which is a separate, and less important, issue than simply living a life of compassion and service.  As Jared Anderson wrote in a recent essay, “I dream of religions so good that it does not matter if they are true.”

    This issue relates to the innate need many (most?) people have for ideological certainty as discussed early on.  The doctrine of the Second Anointing came to my mind.  What an extraordinary need for certainty Joseph Smith tapped into!  It seems to me that the virtuosity of Mormon certainty has been its greatest strength as a binder of people.  I agree with Chris and Charles’s take on this. As Chris said, its what motivates people to follow a Prophet into the wilderness. Take this away and you would likely have another strain of Unitarianism-Universalism (U-U), whose tenets I deeply respect but am not motivated to join. 

    Dan, your fuzzyphile projecting on the Mormon base sounds to me like wishful thinking.  Why not give U-U a try?  Why not bring your expansive approach to theology to a community of more welcoming collaborators? Charles posed the deep question, “Is it a matter of [you] wanting that fuzziness or of coming to a recognition, or realization, that that is the nature of reality?  I can turn that question on myself in a reverse form, “Is it a matter of me NOT wanting that fuzziness or of coming to terms with my perception of [Mormon] reality?  

    In my moments of greatest honesty I suspect that introspection alone fails to answer this question – I know too much psychology.  So I’m left to suspect social reasons for abandoning my religious faith rather than “fuzzying” it up in order to remain attached to “my people.”  Since I was a convert, Mormons never really became “my people,” and that’s what likely made the difference.  Then everything looks different from the outside and the door does not swing back in so easy.

    Gina, I loved every one of your comments.  I’m going to listen again and look for your blog.

    Thanks All,

    JT

    • Larrin

      It’s been a while since I listened to Dan’s story on Mormon Stories, but I believe Dan did attend a UU church for a period of time. 

      • Dan Wotherspoon

        Yes, a regular for about six months. Loved it, enjoyed the vibe, got introduced to fun ideas and thinkers. They weren’t “my people,” though, nor did I hear any real claims that excited my mind/spirit the way certain Mormon ones do.

    • Chris Cobb

      I had a note to bring up Second Annointing/Calling & Election, because one response from alot of people is “The only doctrine we need to focus on is what we need for salvation” Well those two items seem REALLY important but they’re NEVER discussed. But I failed to bring it up…

      Interesting as a convert you didn’t feel that the church was “your people” because I’m the exact opposite. I’m a convert and totally feel that about my congregation and Mormons worldwide… I’m curious how old were you when you joined the church?

      • JT

        Chris,

        Mormonism appeared to me at age 11 when my charismatic 18-year old
        brother, who I idolized, returned home from a summer abroad a convert.
         The Mormon story he told penetrated my young brain, laced as it was by
        brother-worship.

        My parents weren’t so thrilled with Mormonism, so I laid low until
        college. I joined as an earnest  20-year old with no special spiritual
        confirmation – just an intuition about God wanting me to finish that
        book and get off the fence.

        Being very busy studying Engineering I trusted that a genuine testimony
        would kick in if I did the right things. “People”-wise, Mormonism was
        just Sunday meetings in a relatively affluent New England ward.  Very
        nice folks and plenty of accomplished professionals who I assumed were
        where I could and should be, both spiritually and professionally.  It
        all felt pretty solid … but I knew so little and accepted so much.  

        I chose graduate school over a mission and soon met a beautiful Mormon
        girl.  That boosted my enthusiasm for the whole enterprise and got me
        into the Temple.  The temple was a shocker.  As I look back, that shock had as
        much to do with my innate disposition against group affiliation as the
        disturbing signs and tokens.

        Which gets me back to the point I was trying to make about an the innate
        need most humans have to belong to a group – to have a “my people” –
        with all of its advantages and costs.  It seems that you and Dan, have
        such a need, whether born into it or acquired later.  All perfectly
        normal.  From what I gather Dan has struggled with dissonance to
        preserve his attachment, perhaps you as well.

        For some reason, perhaps partially genetic, I have the opposite
        disposition. Superficial signs include not sticking a college decal on
        my car and not wearing a Phillies baseball cap.  And when I was
        confronted with the tight in-group vibe of the Temple ritual I felt no
        small measure of anxiety and instinctively started looking for the exit.

        What I am proposing is that If this were not my disposition – that is,
        if I enjoyed the normal group attachment need – I may have begun a
        program of celebrating the theological fuzziness rather than taking
        Occam’s razor to the whole Mormon “binding” enterprise.  I would have
        privileged rationalizations for believing and staying inside over
        rationalizations for disbelieving and moving to the edge and then out
        entirely.

        In saying this I make no claim about which approach is better, either in
        terms of achieving broader truths or inclusive happiness.  What is
        personally important to me, in addition to preserving my autonomy, is
        not spending my life fooling myself into thinking I’m doing such and
        such for one reason when it is largely about another.  And that’s the
        bit of the personal truth I don’t trust introspection to reveal.

        Which is why despite all the problems of Mormonism I used to pave my way
        to the exit, I suspect that if it weren’t for this innate disposition, I
        would be figuring out ways to stay in the pews, like you, Charles,
        Gina, and Dan.  And this means I do respect this approach – at least as
        far as it is an individual owning it and not a group coercing it.  I
        think this understanding and attitude has enabled me to do my part in
        keeping my otherwise faithful Mormon family together these past 25
        years.

        So Mormonism remains a part of me, but I am not a part of it, except as a
        husband, father, brother, in-law, and friend to a bunch of individuals
        who happen to be faithful Mormons.  I can live with that.

        Best wishes,

        JT

        • Chris Cobb

           I wonder if my experience has been different than yours because I went through the youth program (i.e. “grew up” in the church) and I went on a mission. I reflect on both of those phases with fondness and think in many ways they were foundational to my relationship with the Church today. Or maybe I’m just one of those people who crave community?

  • Anonymous

    I haven’t quite finished the podcast yet, but I am really struggling with something Dan said.  I can’t quote you verbatim (sorry Dan!), but the sentiment I got was that there is nothing we HAVE to believe in order to belong.  As someone who has let her TR lapse because I know I can’t answer a couple of the questions in the way I know the person giving them interprets them (and that feels dishonest to me), I struggle with the notion that there are not certain things I HAVE to believe to belong.  Let me give two examples:  A literal belief in the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a literal belief in the restoration of the priesthood.  

    I truly am uplifted every time I hear Dan’s enthusiasm for all things spiritual.  It makes me hang on for another week or two!

    • Anonymous

       Oh shoot.  Jumped the gun again!  Another 5 minutes and I would have gotten to that discussion.  I’m still not sure I’m clear how to resolve it, but I appreciate your discussion!

  • weston krogstadt

    I believe one must believe the golden plates literally existed in order to be a Mormon.  The Book of Mormon is the keystone of the LDS religion, and if Joseph Smith really had the plates then God really had a plan for him.  That’s why the witnesses to the plates came in two different groups.  If Joseph Smith had just forged some plates made out of copper or tin, then the three witnesses are there to testify that an angel came down from heaven and showed them plates with the appearance of gold.  If the testimony of the 3 witnesses are attacked because they had a vision and saw the plates with “spiritual eyes”, then the testimony of the 8 witnesses can come forward declaring they “hefted” and “handled” the plates with their physical hands.  ”A Bible a Bible we have got a bible and there can be no more Bible!”  God knew what the nasayers would be saying long before they started saying it. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/gina.colvin Gina Colvin

       This is such an interesting area.  I understand how seminal the official narrative is and how seamless it appears when all you are doing is making a choice as to whether or not you will believe.  However, in my situation I grew up with a story, compounded by numerous prophetic declarations that pinned my genetic  identity to the BOM narrative.  ie.  I was a literal descendant, I was a child of Lehi, my ancestors traveled with Hagoth etc.  For me, that story was official doctrine uttered by successive Presidents of the church – until of course it was no longer doctrine.  This was a story that was given to me and something that I grew up ‘knowing’ and having some certainty about.  But then that same story was taken away from me and naturally caused me to question the whole narrative framework that that story came out of.    But I can say, utterly and emphatically that despite my questions and issues with the narrative of the BOM genesis, that I am 100% true blue Mormon!! Whether I like it (and sometimes I don’t) or not. 

    • Chris Cobb

       I agree… the “gold plate question” is really the lynch pin in the whole thing… Joseph easily could have had a vision and felt called to start a church and just been plain crazy… if there were golden plates seems to link/tie/ground the whole thing in reality… it would make the whole thing True (with a capital T)

  • John W. Morehead

     Thank you for this. I think this topic, approached from a variety of
    perspectives within Mormonism, is helpful and instructive, not only for
    Mormons of various stripes, but also for evangelicals. We tend to assume
    doctrine is primary for your religious community as it is for ours, and
    that it is defined and functions similarly. In reality this is not the
    case, as your discussion demonstrates. I hope such conversations inform
    our ongoing dialogue and understandings of each other.

  • http://ldstalk.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Gina, don’t you know that you’re not supposed to mention church finances on Mormon Matters?  Loved how uncomfortable Dan got about it.  It’s like you said “Voldemort”.

    I would say this is one area where Dan is not excited about ambiguity in religion.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gina.colvin Gina Colvin

       I did not know that about Dan!!  Wow!  Dan is this true?  Do you get uncomfortable when we talk about  church finances?  What’s the give bro?

    • Dan Wotherspoon

      Squirrel!

      Took me a long time to find the part Tim must be thinking about. Gina talking to help differentiate about “policies” versus doctrine, curriculum, etc. She’d done a great job. I said, “terrific,” and then I asked if others had anything to add on “policy.” None came, so we moved on. I certainly was
      thinking of time (yes, as host, even with these crazy long conversations, I do worry about that sort of thing–and especially when I’m aware from pre-circulating discussion areas how much we still wanted to cover). Are you saying, Tim, that we should have dove deeper on “corporation soles”
      vs the Church’s registration as a charity–on a podcast that focused on “big picture” questions regarding doctrine? Maybe a little Dug going on with you?

    • http://standingsittinglying.wordpress.com/ Katie L.

      Wha??  I listed to it twice and didn’t get anything like that out of it.

  • HuskySouth

    Loved the Podcast!!! It will be a great talking point for me, and made me recall a scripture. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. – 2 Timothy 4:3. I could not have paid people to show the accuracy of this verse any better than this panel.
    Do you guys even realize how illogical this all sounds? I think Chris was the only one that seemed remotely concerned about deductive reasoning. Think about how it benefits you, if you follow Dan’s suggestion through to its logical conclusion. STAY IN THE CHURCH EVEN IF YOU ARE STRUGGLING WITH YOUR BELIEF. When you do, you get the following: To sit through a minimum of three hours of mind numbing boredom each week, to pay ten percent of your income to help build a shopping mall. You get to listen to conference and hear men dressed in nice suits say things that you know are not true (well maybe true for now but probably won’t be in a couple of years). You get to be intellectual stimulated by unbiased people like Daniel C. Peterson, and Scott Gordon. You get to watch your friends mentally deduct IQ points when they find out what you believe, and you get to read from a book that has the same historical validity as peter pan. Now, even if you don’t choose to attend services, watch conference, read the BOM or pay tithing then stay anyway because it will make the rest of us look less ridiculous for hanging in there ourselves.  Who knows, in only twelve years you may be just like me, with your feet firmly planted in mid air.
    Listening every week is such a hoot. It’s like watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail over and over again. Please people make your contribution to keep the podcast alive. Donate for my own entertainment value, if not for anyone else.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gina.colvin Gina Colvin

       I hadn’t thought of that!  Yes it is a bit Pythonesque isn’t it!  Glad you are getting something out of it – LOL!

    • Chris Cobb

       NOBODY EVER EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!

      uh… thanks for the comment? As I hinted at, but didn’t dive into, in the episode is that the lack of modern revelation has been a huge hurdle/sticking point for me. So I hear what you’re saying…

      But I also don’t believe the only parts of life that have value are those that can be deductively reasoned.

      Here’s to donations keeping the podcast alive!

    • Dan Wotherspoon

      At first I thought you were taking that 2 Timothy scripture seriously as something that is bound to
      your heart. If you had been, I would have composed a different answer here, as there are dozens of
      people in my life who understand scripture and its messages as practically unmediated communication from God (words that have broken through all the barriers to pure communication that postmodernism outlines) who still very much cause me to pause, spur me to re-evaluate where I might be headed and how fast, and who show me through their lives and love that there are indeed “costs” along with the “benefits” of moving into more explicitly critical spaces the way I do. I’m grateful to have these people in my life. My heart is bigger because I can’t dismiss them and the kind of power they embody even as I find I can’t join them (either because of our different temperaments or training) in staying almost solely within the story as presented.

      When you moved into your section about how “illogical” the kinds of ideas I share sound, about what Sunday meetings and believer discourse is all about, as well as into sarcasm mode, I could see, however, that you don’t hold scripture or the powerful ideas (like the one in 2 Timothy) it contains sacred–not nearly as much as you do logic and rationality. I have a ton of friends who feel similarly. My response to them and you is that I believe you are making a category mistake by imagining that religion and faith are matters for the mind, that it is even about “beliefs” to begin with. Faith, for me, is characterized by “trust” in the powers I connect with and that drive me toward expansiveness and increased love, not by any set of “beliefs” or “statements” about these energies (whether its a “god” driving it all or if they are more impersonal in nature), and religious teachings are only as good as their ability to draw us into spaces where we might experience our fullest selves, connect with the energies (mentioned above) that animate the universe, recognize them in us and have them flow through us in ways that transform how we see and experience everything else. In previous podcasts, I talk a lot about “liminal” (threshold) spaces–existential moments where the unexpected might break through, kairos time rather than chronos time. This, to me, is where we should focus. Religion did not originate in (nor is it primarily fueled even today by) ideas or truth claims but by these energies. Religious rituals that employ anything and everything from drumming and dance to role-playing and “likening” to immersion in anti-structural activities and erasing social distinctions all help us “get out of our heads” and shake loose the identification of our egos with our identities. Anyone who approaches religion as a thing primarily for mind to comprehend will never “get it.” As Chris says, there are many valuable things to engage with in life that cannot be arrived at through deductive reason.

      I’m happy to go toe-to-toe with you or anyone in intellectual discourse. We can talk about logic, rationality, following things through to their logical conclusions. What I would ask of you or any of these conversation partners is that you/they apply their love for head things equally across the board, to all the non-rational things that drive and feed you/them and not just in relation to religion that you/they find so silly. I’m working on putting together a philosophy of science episode that at least in part will address a decently good overview of the history of science/religion dialogues, concepts of falsifiables and non-falsifiables, exactly how rationally or empirically driven science actually, etc. If you’d like to be part of it, please write me separately so I can know who you are and invite you. Or you can simply remain a listener, or not, for the podcast’s Pythonesque entertainment value.

  • Chaste_and_Benevolent

    Thank you for this podcast.

    I don’t think that the most significant difference is between “hard” doctrine that claims certainty and “fuzzy” doctrine that is less certain or more conditional. To me, the most important difference is between beliefs that distinguish Mormonism from other faiths – for example, its “one true church” exclusivism and missionary impetus, its emphasis on temple ordinances, and its hierarchy of prophetic authority — and beliefs that are more broadly shared, such as community and compassion.

    It may be true that Mormonism is all about doing good and becoming a better person. But this is also true of most other faiths. In that case, why be Mormon? In other words, what is it that makes someone Mormon rather than, say, simply Christian?

    For many, the answer seems to be in their “Mormon DNA”: It is the tradition in which they were raised, in which they are comfortable, and that resonates with them. But are mere feelings or personal preferences a sufficient foundation for the continuation of a faith community? Without a core of consistent truth claims that distinguish Mormonism from non-Mormonism, isn’t it likely that liberal Mormonism will simply dissolve into the larger world?

    I’m curious to know what others think.

    • Carey_Foushee

      From what I got out of this particular discussion I would say just because “doctrine” is not a clearly defined non-changing set of views, there still is a unique set of Mormon doctrines that constitute the way we engage in our approach to understanding ourselves and the universe.  In other words there still is a thing called Mormon Doctrine, and although some can try to write a book about it, the real doctrine — the stuff that has real meaning is what you personally experience and the Holy Ghost manifest as true to you.  

    • JT

      “But are mere feelings or personal preferences a sufficient foundation for the continuation of a faith community?”

      Apparently.  Feelings are powerful – powerful enough to rationalize and spiritualize, powerful enough to repress and project, powerful enough to sacrifice, suffer, and die for. 

  • HuskySouth

    I just found this hyperlink that illustrates how some people outside the church perceive the “floating” doctrine issue http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzypKxr9knA. Whether you like this guy or not, you have to agree that he has a point. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been using the philosophy of  ”new light” to justify their changing doctrine for years. How can church leadership expect us to accept their view of “continuing revelation” to be any more rational than the Jehovah’s Witnesses “new light”?

  • JT

    A question for Charles,

    Do you expect that your book “This Is My Doctrine” will be reviewed by the Neal Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (the FARMS review or now, apparently, “Mormon Studies Review”)?

    Thanks

  • C. Harrell

    JT, 

    That is a good question. I am unaware of any plans to review the book. With the apparent change in emphasis in Mormon Studies Review (
    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/utes/54358137-78/mormon-institute-peterson-studies.html.csp ), I would hope that such a review would respect the complexity and nuance of theological history and not be too quick to defend against a work challenging traditional LDS doctrinal narratives.

    Charley

    • JT

      Thanks Charley,

      I hope so too.  Your work deserves it. 

      I went to the NMIRS website today see if there was a review.  I was surprised by the change to “Mormon Studies Review” and did not know what to make of it.  Only now do I see what happened – thanks for the link.  It seems there might be a better chance for such a review! 

      Let me say again how much I appreciate what you’ve accomplished with this book and how impressed I am am with what you call your “hobby.”  I think you made some excellent structural and stylistic decisions that make it accessible and useful for the general reader – of which I am one – while revealing the complexity and depth of scholarship that goes into what you’ve digested for us.

      Best wishes,

      JT

  • eliza

    This episode was really helpful in allowing myself room to not take certain teachings so literally.  I feel a constant tension between feeling like I have tons of space to believe what I want to in Mormonism and feeling like I’m fooling myself.  If 95% of my ward would think I’m a heretic if they knew what I actually believed, what does that say about the space I actually have at church?  I found a lot of strength from listening to Claudia Bushman talk in another episode about how temple recommend questions are just a “ritual” and just focusing on if we think God would find us worthy, but sometimes beating around the bush with what you really think is mentally exhausting and feels disingenuous. For someone who is candid and social, it really sucks to avoid mommy groups and interacting with people in the ways I used to because I can’t say what I really think. I also think people with fancy advanced degrees sometimes get more tolerance than some of us regular folk. In this discussion, there was a lot of focus put on what you “have” to believe when your baptized as the standard for what you “have” to believe now…But, as a RM, the expectations for belief, I feel, are much different. In short, I want to hug you, Dan, for making me feel like Mormonism is big enough for me…and I also want to punch you because sometimes it feels like this big tent Mormon world you create is not reality.  You once mentioned in a podcast about how you weren’t allowed to ordain or baptize one of your kids because you were found unworthy because of your beliefs.  Sometimes it just feels like you’re projecting the reality you hope for rather than the reality that actually is on your listeners. 

    • Gina Colvin

      Its like the civil rights movement.  It has to start somewhere.

  • Drewskione

    I love This is My Doctrine is a super awesome book.  Money well spent, just saying.  

  • Drewskione

    “This is My Doctrine” is money well spent!   

  • Michael Johnson

    Dan, The LDS church has never been a grassroots organization. They teach us constantly that the church is led by Christ himself through inspired men. To suggest the leadership is influenced by anything other than God is contrary to the teachings of Mormonism.

    Do you believe the church is led by inspired men Dan? Do you believe Christ is at the head of the Church? If not, I can’t understand how you can have faith in a church with leaders that have taught this from the beginning. Joseph Smith excommunicated any who challenged his position as the mouthpiece for God. Church leadership refutes notions that the church is influenced from below or from external forces. Either you agree this is the case, or you admit church leadership lies.

    • Dan Wotherspoon

      I’m not sure what part of the podcast or comments might have spurred your line of query here. Help!

      In short, though, I don’t think you can defend your claim that the processes by which the church, including doctrine and teaching, evolves are simply top down. Far too many examples in church history of revelation or changes coming after feedback or suggestions from the community or interaction with external forces.

      As far as your last paragraph goes, come on! I refuse to acknowledge the validity of any attempt to set up a set of propositions and chain of connections such as the one you try here, and especially when it ends in such a blatant “either/or.” Read some Book of Mormon and the lawyer tricks Zeezrom and others try to play!  

      I love the church, I hear and take seriously counsel from church leaders. Are they infallible, perfect mouthpieces? Heck, no! Your language reveals you play in a realm of unrealistic expectations. At some time, as we pay the price in our own scripture study, prayer, seeking, receiving, we begin to trust the feel and taste of revelation for ourselves. Many of the prophets, beginning with Moses and into the Latter-day Restoration, talk about “Oh, that all were prophets,” meaning that the ultimate desire is that we all grow up to faith and trust in the connection to the divine that is all our right. We’re children of God. We’re divine ourselves. This is what growing into perfection (in attributes, as well as clear mirroring of the Divine will) means. Do I think I’m “there” yet? Holy hell, no. I’m always listening, always watching for wisdom from church leaders as well as far wiser folks than me. 

      If you’ve ever heard me on podcasts, one of my main tropes is to emphasize that we are all on a journey. I don’t want to offend you, but I’m calling it as I’m experiencing it: the way you’ve set up your questions makes me think that you believe you’re actually done with the journey because you can say “yes” to all of the yes/no’s and either/or’s you propose. My experience of this kind of flimsy thinking and bravado-type confidence suggests to me that you’ve yet to really begin. 

      Happy to keep engaging if you wish….

    • DT

      “Either you agree this is the case, or you admit church leadership lies.”

      Respectfully, I see this need to frame it as a binary choice as the other side of the coin under discussion.  Attempts to force reductive choices rather than allowing for “fuzzy ambiguity” are no more useful coming from the dissenters than from the Iron Rods in the Church.

      • Michael Johnson

        There is no fuzzy ambiguity in the LDS church’s assertion that it is lead by Jesus Christ through inspired men. That’s what the men at the top who decide what Mormonism is expect faithful members to believe. That’s a fundamental belief in Mormonism.

        You can believe in the flying spaghetti monster and claim you are Mormon, but just saying you’re Mormon doesn’t make you one. Surely anyone who claims to believe in a particular religious tradition should *actually* believe in the basic tenets of that religion.

        I heard Dan making several statements which made it clear he has some problems believing some of what is required to gain a temple recommend if answered honestly. He either believes in Mormonism as it is, or he doesn’t. I don’t see why there is any need for fuzziness. If one aspect of Mormonism is false, say the BoM, then all of those supposedly inspired men who repeatedly testify of the historicity and truthfulness of that book are no longer credible, and everything else they say is suspect. Their inspiration and connection to Christ then is also doubtful. It’s a house of cards *especially* when the claim is repeated ad infinitum that the leaders are inspired of God and Christ is at the head of the Church. Given that Mormons believe God the Father and Jesus Christ are perfect, any flaw in LDS dogma or policy condemns the church with more force than if it were simply a reading circle or policy think-tank. 

        The rigidity and absolutism taught by LDS leadership is what Mormonism is. Liahona Mormons are fringe. Iron Rod Mormons are required.

        Again, the church absolutely claims that it is led by men inspired of God, therefore any statement made; any doctrine or policy required of the membership that proves to be false or damaging to members means God is intentionally leading the Church in a direction that makes members miserable and the world more likely to reject the message, OR church leadership are deluded and/or lying.

        What fuzzy ambiguity allows for men who claim to speak for God to be on the wrong side of EVERY civil rights struggle, only to later follow the Godless secular world’s higher level of compassion and empathy? 

        • DT

          I can’t speak for Dan, but my own experiences and understanding differ sharply from the way you’ve characterized what it means for church leadership to be inspired.  I suppose there’s little purpose in letting the discussion devolve into a ‘yes-they-are, no-they’re-not’ debate.  I’ll simply state my view that the absolutist outlook that I must accept the church and its beliefs as either 100% true and perfect or completely false and dishonest, whether espoused by members or critics, isn’t a theology, but an ultimatum. 

  • Mike

    Dan Gina Charles and Chris,  
    I’m a little late posting here, hopefully you are still following comments.  I was wondering, which of these would best describe what you believe about Joseph Smith most of the time?  Doubts are fine to have of course but what do you usually believe about him? 
    1. Was he a Prophet who really saw authentic supernatural beings?
    2. Was he a fraud with some interesting ideas?
    3. Was he simply a sincere lunatic?

    • http://www.facebook.com/gina.colvin Gina Colvin

      Hey Mike – any other options?

      • Mike

        sure, those are just the only three I can come up with.  I’d love to hear what you believe about JS or how you view him. 

        • http://www.facebook.com/gina.colvin Gina Colvin

           Mmmmmmm.  That is a huge question and a complex one.  I believe that anyone charged with the responsibility of apprehending the mind and will of God is involved in an almost impossible task, yet God continues to ‘call’ people to have a try.  I believe that he wants a people – a people who will prepare the earth for Christ to come and rule and reign in his Zion.  I believe that JS was called to understand the heavens and communicate these endowments of divine knowledge to humankind (as I believe that others have been similarly called across time).    I believe in that respect he was remarkable.  But I’m not sure of three things;  1) How much of what JS did and said is worthy of my time and attention?  2) How much of what JS did and said is relevant in the creation of a universal ‘church’ and a Zion people?  3) How much of what we do today is based on those original endowments of divine knowledge?

          What about you?

    • Chris CObb

       

      I mentioned above in one of the comments that I think a
      better question is “Were there Gold Plates?” Even your option #1 has multiple
      sub-options that would lead JS to believe he was doing God’s will (i.e he wasn’t
      a fraud) yet still conclude the claims of Mormonism. A few options:

      1) He was crazy/schizophrenic

      2) He fell and hit his head

      3) He saw an angel of light but it was the devil deceiving
      him

      4) God and Christ appeared to him to usher in the final
      dispensation.

       

      I don’t believe he was a fraud, I believe that he believed
      he was a Prophet. Lunatic? Nah, I can’t buy that fully (although you could make
      the case for some sort of mild mental issues.) For me, there is too much going
      on to be totally orchestrated by a full on crazy person.

       

      Ultimately, for me, its not an question I get hung up on.
      Like most things in life I sort of chalk it up to “I guess I’ll never really
      know” There are more important things I prefer to think about/work on.

       

      However, if you ask the question about the Gold Plates… well
      there were 11 other people who saw them… so who knows. I see equal reasons to
      believe and not believe.

       

      I feel a lot like Gina. Some really powerful and compelling ideas
      sprung forth from JS’s head… I have a desire to believe that they are from God.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timmcmahan Tim McMahan

    I challenge Dan’s final plea in this blog post: http://ldstalk.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/follow-the-fowler/

  • apriles

    There is no such  thing as “Mormon” doctrine. Mormon himself worshiped the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ. So there is Christ’s doctrine and there is false doctrine. If you want to know Christ’s doctrine, it’s not hard to find: “Repent and come follow me. Now is the day of your repentance.” Certainly if you are to draw close to the Lord and follow him, you must know him as both God and Savior. But the fact is, essentially, people aren’t interested in knowing him, nor are they interested in what the Lord has to say. They’d rather put words in his mouth. In vain did Joseph Smith try to share some of the plain and simple truths the Lord imparted to him, because people have itching ears that listen to every vain and false philosophy.

    Today’s so-called “Mormonism” is so far from basic truths that you will be reprimanded if you admit that the Lord commanded us to pray to him and that the Lord is Jesus Christ. So, you might as well ignore what people dream up as “doctrines” and just follow what the Lord himself said. Otherwise, you will never truly know the Lord. You’ll only hold up some false image of him that others created … instead of knowing the true and living God.

  • Kerry A. Shirts

    I recently just finished Harrell’s book and am working my way through it for a second time. What I find fascinating, other than he is working full time if I understand it correctly at BYU, and is a full fledged Mormon, is that the church has kept him! And this is a compliment to the church! Unfortunately I think Harrell tries to have his cake and eat it too in some places where he speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Please do NOT take this wrong, Harrell’s book is one of the best to come out in YEARS, and I absolutely LOVED the way he wrote it, the style, the layout, etc. It was just shocking to me is all. If ideally the idea is to avoid proof texting and let the texts speak for themselves, (p. 12, quoting Brian Hauglid), then why is it that everyone proof texts the scriptures anyway in order to come up with their own interpretations as the entire book shows?! And then we turn around and call that inspiration from God?!
    One of the real beauties of Harrell’s book is that it absolutely, fundamentally, MAKES YOU THINK. And I love it for that. A very well done book I give 5 stars out of 5 on. I encourage everyone to read it. Now then, WHY doesn’t the church use THIS kind of wonderful stuff for our Priesthood meeting lessons? I would start going back to church if we had good things like this to discuss.

  • Alison

    I like the idea of fuzziiness (because it leaves room for those of us on the fringe) as well but at the same time then I’m not sure what the “covenants and doctrines” I’m committing to endure are?