June 25, 2009

Who Speaks For Mormons?

The following is a column written
for the new religious web portal, Patheos.com.

Respectful religious dialogue is becoming increasingly important as the world becomes a global village and worldviews collide. Dialogue is critical in helping societies negotiate how to run the neighborhood in the face of inevitable conflict over politics, economics, religion, and other issues. Whether this conflict is destructive and violent or constructive and peaceful depends largely upon how world religions adapt to changes as believers from different traditions encounter each another. The tone of the conflict usually depends on the goals of each participant.

One approach I favor in religious dialogue is a respectful engagement that seeks first to understand and respect the beliefs of the other. While I believe spreading the message of my religion is important, one effective method of doing so rises from a foundation built on common ground. (At the least, such a common ground can be a mutual desire to understand one another). Morally, this approach fulfills the commandment to "do unto others." Pragmatically, it reduces the possibility of arguing past one another, or getting hung up on peripheral issues. One simple way to know if you understand the position of the other is by attempting to restate the position of the other to his or her satisfaction.

Significant problems remain in this idealistic approach. For instance, the beliefs of any one religion can be remarkably diverse amongst its own adherents. This is no less true for my own religion -- identifying "official Mormon doctrine" has been compared to nailing Jell-O to the wall. The idea of "doctrine" itself is difficult to pin down. Is doctrine equal to "truth"? Is doctrine something all Mormons must accept? What constitutes Mormon doctrine? In order to facilitate better communication between members of other faiths (as well as harmony among Mormons), various efforts have been made to identify a standard for Mormon doctrine.1 I'd like to further discuss a few of these efforts in order to answer the question "Who speaks for Mormons?"

Based on a Judeo-Christian outlook, Mormons believe God reveals His will to His children in order to help them navigate mortality and return home to Him. Such revelation can be given to particular individuals for their own life situations, or to leaders in behalf of the Church as a whole. According to the founding prophet Joseph Smith, this revelation is continuing and "adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed." Mormons look to personal inspiration from God, written scripture, and the words of living prophets and apostles for guidance in belief and practice.

However, Mormons do not believe these scriptures or prophets are perfect. Prophetic declarations reflect aspects of the culture in which they occur and can later take on new meanings in different circumstances or be overlooked altogether. The dynamism of continuing revelation makes it difficult to take a "snapshot" of Mormon belief as a whole at any given time. Different Mormons may understand LDS doctrines differently.

Joseph Smith objected to various creeds that require strict belief in officially defined doctrines, but Mormons are generally expected to agree on some fundamentals. For example, in order to be baptized, one must profess belief in Jesus Christ as Savior of the world and in prophets who help guide the LDS Church. More than assenting to intellectual doctrines, however, Mormons also participate actively in a community forged by ordinances, living in a continuing sacred history as depicted in and extending from scripture. What Mormons become through righteous acts and faith in Christ is often considered more important than any specific peripheral doctrines Mormons might believe.

Mormonism is lived and experienced as much as it is believed. Moreover, various "folk" doctrines tend to spring up from time to time, some becoming generally accepted while others are jettisoned along the way. As Mormonism becomes more of a global religion, official Church statements and publications have become narrower in scope, streamlined, and applicable to the growing diversity in the Church.

Considering these circumstances, how can Mormon doctrine be determined in order to facilitate healthy interreligious discussion? There is still no comprehensive and official answer to this question and Mormons continue to answer the question differently. For instance, Robert Millett, a Mormon professor of religion, has described an "authoritative approach" wherein official Mormon doctrine is defined by appealing to what are considered authoritative sources like scriptures and the statements of prophets.2 Sociologist Armand Mauss described a "scale of authenticity," ranging from canonical to popular or "folk" doctrine.3 Mormon philosopher James Faulconer has argued that Mormonism is "atheological," consisting more of keeping covenants between humans and Christ rather than of various unchanging doctrinal facts.4

Given this variety of Mormon views, perhaps the most practical way to discover "who speaks for Mormons" is to develop an awareness of the diversity itself. In any given dialogue this variety can be acknowledged and a basis for what a particular Mormon accepts as authoritative can be discussed. If the goal of dialogue is constructive discussion rather than polemical debate it is important to allow each individual the right to speak for his or her own faith. This approach requires patience, time, effort, trust, and respect, but it bears the fruits of interreligious understanding.

Blair Hodges is a student at the University of Utah majoring in Mass Communications and minoring in Religious Studies. He is the former News Editor of The Signpost, the newspaper at Weber State University, and a frequent blogger.


One useful discussion on this topic is Loyd Ericson's "The Challenges of Defining Mormon Doctrine," Element, vol. 3 Issue 1-2 (Spring and Fall 2007), pp. 69-90. The image is "Dialogue" by Doc Ross.

See Robert L. Millett, "What Do We Really Believe? Identifying Doctrinal Parameters Within Mormonism," Discourses in Mormon Theology, James M. McLaughlan and Loyd Ericson, eds., pp. 265-281. An official statement from the Church's Public Affairs department emphasizes aspects of Millett's authoritative standards. See "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," LDS.org Newsroom, May 4, 2007, http://www.newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/approaching-mormon-doctrine.

See Armand L. Mauss, "The Fading of the Pharaohs' Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood Ban Against Blacks in the Mormon Church. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 14, no. 3, Autumn 1981.

See James E. Faulconer, "Why a Mormon Won't Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Element vol. 2 Issue 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 21-37.


Kent (MC) said...

Blair, I agree with everything you wrote. I'm glad you are out there to shape public opinion on these issues.

BHodges said...

Kent, thanks for taking the time to read this stuff. It's really nice to hear feedback, and it feels less like speaking into the void.

ricke said...

Good post, Blair, and plenty of food for thought.

Clean Cut said...

Adding my late "applause"...

BHodges said...


BHodges said...

By the way, I stumbled across this "response" of sorts to my piece by Bob Betts, something of a professional anti-Mormon. His response is a great example of a person who has no intention of trying to understand my religion, and as a result, would not make for a fruitful exchange:

Too bad, Blair didn't answer the question. He defined the problem, quoted a few people with their opinions, then suggested that "the most practical way to discover 'who speaks for Mormons' is to develop an awareness of the diversity itself."

As soon as the Mormons discover who will speak for them, then the first topic they should speak on is the unsubstantiated legitimacy of Joseph Smith's prophet-hood. There is no sense discussing doctrine, if that cannot be established.

As I've said to many, "If Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then we should all be Mormons. But, if he wasn't, then nobody should be." As Joseph Fielding Smith said, "Mormonism...must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith."

So, not only does Blair Hodges reveal the lack of a spokesman for the Mormon religion, but, apparently would like to skip over the fact that Mormonism is not even an established Christian church among most evangelical Christians. Fundamentally, Joseph Smith is the stumbling block. The dominant reason Mormons leave the Mormon religion is disbelief in Smith's legitimacy.

Blair starts off with a perspective that "respectful religious dialogue" is need in this world. He favors "a respectful engagement that seeks first to understand and respect the beliefs of the other." Well, many, many evangelicals like myself have diligently sought understanding of the Mormon religion. But, I have no intention of respecting Mormon beliefs, as taught by a false prophet, which are unsound doctrine in every biblical respect. Smith was not who he proclaimed himself to be, and the Bible must be ignored for anyone to believe that he was a true prophet.

If the Mormon religion is a false, counterfeit religion, then what basis is there for respect for beliefs, or dialogue about doctrines? Until dialogue should establish Smith as a true prophet, there is no basis for dialogue.

Whoever is decided upon to be the spokesman for Mormons needs to start with Joseph Smith. If Smith cannot be legitimized, end of dialogue.

BHodges said...

I wanted to add a few of my other notes here so I can remember them for future reference. They are tangentially related to my comments about understanding the view of the other. These points are from Barry Kroll, “Arguing About Public Issues: What Can We Learn from Practical Ethics?” Rhetoric Review, 16:1 (Autumn 1997), pp. 105-119.

Arguments about controversial issues easily slide into disputes with a ethical edge. Thinking about moral philosophy and applied ethics can help improve the quality of these arguments.

Top Down Approach: Establish principles first, then apply to practice. Principle dictates, practice adjusts. This method overlooks complexity or appeals to authority only. Inappropriate for ethical questions.

Two alternate approaches:
Causist: (Aristotle, case reasoning), or Pragmatist: (Dewey).

Work against the tradition of demonstrative, deductive, closed fist. Start from the particulars, go from the bottom-up. “...for causists and pragmatists, ethical analysis begins by attending to the particular issues and values at stake in a dispute, describing (and re-describing) problems in ways that enlarge our vision and direct our attention to all that is at stake in controversies” (107).

Casuist= develop skills of interpretive perspicuity (clarity and precision) so they can see the importance of morally relevant details and apprehend how they relate in human affairs.

Pragmatist= develop skills of reflective analysis so a person scrutinizes an issue, not contests.

Priority in the discussion is given to inquiry and analysis, not right and wrong. In their zeal to argue, some might rush in to support their side without patiently considering alternatives, or minding “...the responsibility to consider ideas or studies that do not support whatever potential conclusion he or she may intend to reach” (107). “One way to encourage this kind of fair-minded inquiry is by asking students to describe—without assessing or advocating—the claims and issues involved in an argument” (107).

Focus on cooperative rather than adversarial approach. The goal is changed; not to win but to arrive at solution or understanding acceptable to both sides. Coalescent Arguments: joining together in exploration. Picture them beside me not against me.

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