On the Brilliance of Hollow Slogans

February 7, 2006 | 33 comments
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Last week, a bizarre demand was thrust on me by a flier advertising a leadership training program: “BECOME YOURSELF!” the photocopied handout vigorously proclaimed. Who, I wondered, does this flier suppose that I am being right now? Obviously not J. Nelson-Seawright; otherwise, there would be no reason to request that I become J. N-S, would there? Perhaps I have, without quite realizing it, been impersonating Woody Allen? Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez?

While the instruction to become myself seems nonsensical when taken at face value, it can in fact have a kind of meaning when embedded in a broader network of ideas and meanings. In this particular case, I am almost certain that the desired set of meanings originates in the self-help theory retailed by Phil McGraw, Wayne Dyer, and so forth. Self-help theory typically assumes that each of us has an authentic self, indeed almost a Platonic ideal version of ourselves, that is hidden by acquiescence to societal demands — such as courtesy, familial responsibility, honesty, punctuality, morality, and so forth. If only we could decide to abandon our commitment to those societally imposed pressures, we would be able to recover and express our authentic natures, thereby in effect becoming ourselves. Hence, the perplexing instruction on the flier is perhaps best understood as a request that I cease acquiescing to any request or demand whatsoever.

Yet there are other systems of meaning within which the instruction to become oneself might be seen as having genuine meaning. For example, we could read the flier in light of the now somewhat archaic definition of “become” as “to agree or accord with; suit, befit, grace.” Using this system of meaning, “become yourself” is a request for the reader to behave in a manner which is appropriate to the reader’s social position — a rough equivalent, I suppose, of asking someone to “act their age.” This reading makes the slogan perfectly comprehensible, but I am delighted to note that the final message it produces is the exact opposite of the intended self-help meaning.

Being asked to become myself reminds me, of course, of the many times that advertisements in various media throughout my childhood and young adulthood instructed me, “Be All You Can Be.” Obviously, three of the things that would be possible for me to become over the next few days — three of the things I “can be” — are a purse-snatcher, an arsonist, and a corpse. Do the US Armed Forces have some kind of interest in convincing me to be all of those things? How am I supposed to fulfill the instruction to be all that I can be, an instruction that would seem to require me to become each of those things and also simultaneously not to become any of them?

I think the old military recruitment ads presupposed something like the following network of ideas: the reader or viewer is an adolescent or early adult male who feels adrift in life and who believes that he is not living up to his potential. This audience member could achieve much more in life, if only he had discipline and focus. Hence, a term of service in the Army will help the young man live up to his full potential — and therefore become the very best possible version of himself — by supplying the lacking personality traits through rigorous training. Hence, “Be All You Can Be” means something like “Serve in the Armed Forces to Acquire Discipline.”

Yet other systems of meaning can make this slogan have the opposite practical implication. Suppose that the concept of “being all you can be” is translated in utilitarian ethical terms as “adopting the course of life that results in the greatest good for the largest number of people.” If the reader/viewer of the advertisement in question was deciding between either joining the military or becoming a doctor and participating in humanitarian medical work among AIDS sufferers in sub-Sarahan Africa, the utilitarian ethical reading of the slogan may well favor the non-military career, the many and substantial positive results of military service notwithstanding.

It is helpful to think of phrases like “Be All You Can Be” and “Become Yourself” as hollow slogans. I would define a hollow slogan as a short phrase whose meaning depends radically on a network of presuppositions, concepts, and meanings that are not universally accepted within a given society. Hence, “Get down!” or “Sign on the dotted line” are not hollow slogans; their meanings are fairly well established among English-speakers. But “Become Yourself” is a hollow slogan because a substantial number of people within our society have networks of meaning that lead them to want to interpret the phrase in ways that differ from the original intent. It’s likewise important to keep in mind the difference between hollow slogans, as I’m using that term, and empty phrases or phrases with no meaning whatsoever. “Have a nice day” in contemporary American conversation seems to me to have no meaning at all, whereas hollow slogans do have non-trivial meaning when connected with background theories and conceptualizations.

All of this seems important to me because Mormon boundaries with respect to belief and membership are defined in terms of hollow slogans. It seems to me that, beyond the standard Christian affirmations, a fully-acceptable Mormon must be able to say with conviction: “the Book of Mormon is true,” “the Church is true,” and “President Hinckley is a prophet.” Yet we require no creedal affirmation of the correct interpretation of each slogan, we conduct no catechism in which authorized explanations of each phrase are offered, and our worthiness interviews rarely involve in-depth probing of the actual belief system standing behind each claim.

Hence, the woman who bears her testimony that the Book of Mormon is true may be expressing a personal belief that the book is an inerrant history of the pre-Colombian Western Hemisphere, that the book is a dramatic prophetic expansion of a much smaller ancient source, that the book is important to her because it has brought her closer to Christ even though she has no particular interest in its historical claims, that the book is a genuine 19th-century prophetic composition, or one of many other sets of ideas. Each of these possibilities is consistent with the affirmation that the Book of Mormon is true. Therefore, while some of us might classify these meanings as falling at quite different levels of spiritual or intellectual progress, each possible meaning is a kind of testimony of the Book of Mormon. Similarly diverse sets of meanings lie behind statements about the truth of the Church and the prophetic calling of Gordon B. Hinckley. Thus, each of these affirmations seems to fit within the category of hollow slogans.

The title of this post emphasizes the brilliance of hollow slogans. What does that brilliance entail? In my view, hollow slogans in the church are wonderful because they create unity out of diversity. They allow people with sometimes remarkably different fundamental beliefs and perceptions about the gospel and the divine to share language, affirmations of faith, and as a result the sacred intimacy of fellowship. Hollow slogans help us, as a people, to meet the divine command of unity by masking our inevitable mortal confusion and differences in perception about the most sacred things. Surely that result is worthy of some celebration.

I’d like to close this post by expressing my conviction that the Book of Mormon is true, that the Church is true, and that Gordon B. Hinckley is genuinely called to be a prophet.

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33 Responses to On the Brilliance of Hollow Slogans

  1. Kaimi Wenger on February 7, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    Note that phrases like “becoming who we are” also tend to show up in places like Green Day songs. Not that that has any relation to their hollowness, of course.

  2. gst on February 7, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    I’m not certain that it’s directly on point, but remember also the slogan of Rommelwood Military Academy: “A Tradition of Heritage.”

  3. J. Nelson-Seawright on February 7, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    gst, thanks for that! I’m pretty sure that “A Tradition of Heritage” is an example of what I’m calling an empty slogan — i.e., a phrase that couldn’t possibly have any meaning at all — rather than a hollow slogan that does allow for meaning, but in which the meaning needs to be filled in from a broader belief system.

    Also, the Simpsons are my personal fifth standard work, so they’re always directly on point.

  4. gst on February 7, 2006 at 2:49 pm

    Well, if you like that one, how about the “Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.”

  5. Jim F. on February 7, 2006 at 5:02 pm

    On your view, does a hollow slogan have a range of possible meanings, but nevertheless exclude some possibilities, or is it completely determined by the subjectivity of the interpreter?

  6. J. Nelson-Seawright on February 7, 2006 at 5:16 pm

    Jim, I think a hollow slogan almost certainly has an infinite range of possible meanings. At the same time, some meanings are certainly prohibited. To return to the Book of Mormon example, it seems relatively easy to imagine endless variations on the expansion theory, with different portions of the book assigned to ancient and/or modern sources. All of these ideas would be fully compatible with an honest claim that the Book of Mormon is true. However, a person who believes that the Book of Mormon is a fraud concocted by Joseph Smith for the purpose of accumulating wealth and power would obviously be unable to honestly use the phrase, “the Book of Mormon is true.”

  7. Jim F. on February 7, 2006 at 6:33 pm

    Thanks JNS, that answers my question quite reasonably. I wasn’t sure whether you were arguing for the other alternative, “understanding as mere subjectivity.” Now I see that you obviously aren’t.

  8. LisaB on February 7, 2006 at 7:34 pm

    Hollow LDS slogans = “vain repetitions”?

    You know, I had to laugh as soon as I read the first paragraph of your post because the title of our RS lesson Sunday was “Become the Woman You Want to Be.” I almost immediately turned to searching for a scripture I haven’t been able to re-find for months (rather than listening), when the woman next to me asked “So, you’ve already become the woman you want to be?” I smiled at her joke and said nothing, but if I’d been honest, I’d have said “Yes, I have. Haven’t you?”

  9. manaen on February 7, 2006 at 8:29 pm

    And sometimes poignant guidance comes from what were intended to be mundane phrases, e.g. the street-crossing sign that says “Walk With Light.”

    Re: “Become,” Elder Oaks offered “The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”

  10. Naiah Earhart on February 7, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    “version of ourselves, that is hidden by acquiescence to societal demands — such as courtesy, familial responsibility, honesty, punctuality, morality, and so forth”

    I actually find it to be the opposite. It is acquiescence, certainly, but not to social ideals and traditional expectations (certainly not to honesty or morality), but to social pressure to overinflate one’s self image (to pander to pride, to ‘save face,’ look like a ‘big shot,’ etc.) I actually mentioned this in the entry I wrote today. (If you’re at all in terested, it’s here.)

    I would also draw a distinction between hollow marketing slogans meant to entice one to make a quasi-rash, impulse-based decision and the common verbage of the LDS or any ecclesiastical organization. One exists to manipulate, and the other to facilitate. In any body of thought, a common vocabulary must be used, Granted, there could be more depth to things like Choose The Right and Families Are Forever.

    –shoot, dinner’s ready; I’ll finish my comment afterward–

  11. Naiah Earhart on February 7, 2006 at 9:57 pm

    Ok, ok, where was I…

    Hollow slogans do carry a level of brilliance, in the art that is required to write them well (well being such that they are effective at catching attention and swaying the emotions of the reader).

    back to ‘hollow slogans’ in the church: Consensus vocabulary within a group is quite the opposite of hollow; it’s loaded with varied meanings. While the LDS Church does not take it’s doctrine to any sort of dogmatic level of intricacy and detail, there is a common understanding that within those questions in a temple recommend interview is the room for every wo/man’s conscience to determine the truthfulness of their answer.

    Even with common vocabulary, and even in a church where the meanings of the phrases are more precisely defined, there is room for endless personal interpretation and understanding of the various doctrines and their subtle interactions. No two people experience the same word in the same way–as a result of lifelong differing experience with language and associated experiences, stories, associations.

    So, yes, there is common phrasology, but even if it were more narrowly defined (just what *is* true?), there would still be the impossibility of identical belief between anyone. So, we might as well have room for individual interpretation. :)

    Hmm, did I have a point in there, somewhere?
    If I did, it would be the difference between hollow slogans and common verbage–that the former is meant as marketing & manipulation by playing on the emotions of the reader, and that the latter is a communal necessity that, even when open to as much interpretation of the examples you cited or even when narrowly defined, is hardly hollow, but rather quite full with varied personal interpretation.

    Up in the first half, it’d be that I do believe that people allow their ‘selves’ to be obfuscated, but not by such lofty motives as you mention here, but rather by pride and a need to ‘seem.’

  12. Dan S. on February 7, 2006 at 10:55 pm

    J.,

    I agree with your assertion that speaking a hollow slogan can foment unity amongst “believers” who already have at lease one positive experience on which to base their sacred perception upon, which fills the ‘hollowness’ with meaning. Presumably, a hollow slogan can have an equally disconcerting sting to a “non-believer” who has at least one negative experience to base their disbelief upon.

    However, do you feel that a hollow slogan has any brilliance when it is spoken to an “un-believer”, or rather, a person who has no experiences with the concept spoken of in the slogan, no framework with which to encompass the ‘hollowness’ – such as a potential convert? In other words, do you feel that hollow slogans are good for missionary work?

    -Dan S.

  13. J. Nelson-Seawright on February 8, 2006 at 10:32 am

    Naiah, I agree that any community must have a shared language. What distinguishes our shared language from that in many (although certainly not all) other religious communities is that we systematically refrain from imposing authoritative interpretations of that language. The Catholic church has obviously developed an elaborate catechism, set of creeds, and library of non-canonical but authoritative writings that explain the philosophical and theological content of its language. Protestant churches at least adopt creeds and confessions that specify in greater detail the content of specific affirmations, and they often publish more specific authoritative explanations. We, on the other hand, have a great deal of non-binding discourse but a near-total lack of explicit, obligatory clarifications of the meaning of our faith claims. Other churches definitely don’t have identical interpretations of central statements; my point here is that our statements are even more wide open for competing interpetation.

    Let me briefly reiterate that I don’t mean “hollow slogans” to lack meaning. Rather, with such slogans, the meaning needs to be filled in from background beliefs and conceptions. When you say that, “there is a common understanding that within those questions in a temple recommend interview is the room for every wo/man’s conscience to determine the truthfulness of their answer,” this in fact captures my point. The member’s conscience, conceptual understandings, and networks of beliefs are what is relevant in determining the truthfulness of such answers — not some authoritative collective standard.

    Dan, my guess is that hollow slogans are typically somewhat baffling for true outsiders. I don’t have systematic evidence about this, though, so I’m just going to speculate based on my own experience and perceptions. Please note that I understand this to be an unreliable technique — but nonetheless useful, in that it invites those with greater insight to step in and clarify. In my experience, people often have some kind of meaning to attach to the word “prophet,” so they have a relatively strong reaction to claims that Joseph Smith or other modern individuals are prophets. However, the nature of the reaction depends substantially on the person’s religious background. For some modern Christians, anyone with Pentecostal gifts is a prophet and hence the LDS claims are neither remarkable nor threatening. For others, the situation is obviously quite different. Claiming that the Book of Mormon is “true” seems somewhat less meaningful to outsiders than claims that the Book of Mormon is “scripture.” The latter is a claim that has a more or less shared meaning within the Christian tradition, whereas the former is an affirmation whose implications may often not be obvious to people outside our networks of meaning. The same is, perhaps, the case of statements that the church as an institution is “true.” Some outsiders seem to lack experience with the idea of true or false institutions, often reserving such categories for doctrines, etc.

  14. Paul Mortensen on February 8, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    JNS:

    For a long time I have struggled with my Mormon identity, trying to figure out whether I belonged and whether or not my beliefs even qualified me as Mormon. As an adult I’ve always defined my Mormonness (is that the correct word?) in terms of whether or not I felt I could honestly secure a temple recommend. I have gone without a temple recommend for about 7years despite attending church on a weekly basis, holding family & personal scripture study, holding callings, living the WoW, and doing my best to live all of the behavioral requirements of Mormonism. My problem with the temple recommend interview has been that I have had problems with the underlying beliefs it addressed. I know that my beliefs on such items as prayer, the BoM, prophets, the atonement, and salvation (to name a few) are radically different than the “average” or “modal” beliefs held within the general church membership. I know that if I bear the testimony, “I beleive in prayer,” that I am communicating something radically different than the averge member and I feel that to be dishonest– or at least a form of dishonesty if one prefers to measure morality on a sliding scale. That dishonesty discourages me from walking into an interview with a bishop or SP and making an affirmative declaration regarding my “Mormonness.”

    While your analysis of “hollow slogans” seems to resolve my moral dilemma I think it turns Mormonism into an empty vessel into which one can pour any idea. You do try to place limits in #6 but you phrase that in terms of honesty– which is the very dilemma in which I find myself. Your initial post takes a soup approach wherein the empty vessel is filled with carrots, celery, spices, broth, and a host of other flavors that come together to make something wonderful and all are willing to share and enjoy. But what if that empty vessel is my gas tank or a medicinal capusule. Those vessels have very specific purposes and require very specific contents– especially as it relates to purity– to achieve their designed goals. Diluting either of those vessels with, say sugar, is likely to have severe consequences. How do we know that the Gospel follows the soup model and not the gas tank model?

  15. Naiah Earhart on February 9, 2006 at 12:52 am

    Ah, and now I am nodding my head.

    (As in, general gesture of assent and agreement–There really needs to be a more decisive way to say that in the blogosphere. What is the blog-comment equivalent of a head nod…???–rhetorical question–)

  16. Adam Greenwood on February 9, 2006 at 2:15 am

    “In my view, hollow slogans in the church are wonderful because they create unity out of diversity. They allow people with sometimes remarkably different fundamental beliefs and perceptions about the gospel and the divine to share language, affirmations of faith, and as a result the sacred intimacy of fellowship. Hollow slogans help us, as a people, to meet the divine command of unity by masking our inevitable mortal confusion and differences in perception about the most sacred things”

    This is the key passage. The unity of hollow slogans, like the thin peace of liberalism, is laudable but ultimately only a stopgap.

  17. Matt Evans on February 9, 2006 at 8:12 am

    JNS,

    Hollow slogans don’t facilitate unity, they are obstacles to our celestial unity, as they simply mask our genuine disagreements (disunity) in ambiguous language. We can’t know people as they really are if we misinterpret their words. Most importantly, those who recognize the ambiguity in our common church language, as you and I do, must point out that ambiguity and speak more precisely so we can overcome our differences. We can’t overcome our differences without acknowledging them. And deliberately speaking ambiguously to falsely lead a listener to believe we agree when the speaker knows there is probably disagreement is a classic rhetorical trick employed by politicians (think “Preserve Social Security”) and an absolute obstacle to Zion. Rather than celebrate people masking their differences in ambiguity, we should condemn that rhetorical sleight of hand, and work to create a more precise language.

  18. J. Nelson-Seawright on February 9, 2006 at 11:36 am

    Paul, the idea that Mormonism is primarily a network of symbols that need to be filled up with meaning by individual adherents has been advanced by Jan Shipps in the past. So even the extreme version of this idea that you’ve raised has been seen as fitting the evidence by at least one smart person.

    From my point of view, if there were a divine expectation that all of us mean the same things when we express the Mormon-making affirmations, then we would expect to see clear, systematic explication of what that meaning ought to be in one of our standard works. But in fact our canonical texts are totally lacking in systematic theology — in effect, if there is supposed to be one and only one acceptable interpretation of the phrase “the Book of Mormon is true,” then it’s disappointing that the Book of Mormon doesn’t supply that interpretation in any specific way.

    When you list a range of topics on which you differ theologically from the “modal” view within the church, it’s worth remembering that the modal view (whatever that might be — we lack systematic evidence about what the Mormon membership in general believes on almost any particular point) relies on unspoken theories, conceptualizations, and understandings drawing on a mix of canonical and uncanonical sources. Non-modal views that are compatible with our central affirmations are thus not inherently different in status from modal views; both acquire their meaning from an unspoken network of ideas, which the audience for the affirmation may or may not share. Hence, if it is not dishonest for someone holding one interpretation of the claim that the Book of Mormon is true to make that statement without elaborating all of the background understandings behind it, then it is also not dishonest for someone with a different set of understandings to make the same claim.

    With respect to honesty, the issue is obviously partly subjective. However, I think it does draw at least some intersubjectively clear boundaries. In particular, it seems clear that people who in fact mean the opposite of the plain meaning of an affirmation cannot honestly make that affirmation. As in comment #6, a person who believes the Book of Mormon to be false and fradulent and to teach morally damaging precepts is clearly unlikely to possess an understanding of the world that fits in any honest way with the claim that the Book of Mormon is true. Different understandings of where the divine value of the book lies, however, do not necessarily raise the same issues.

    Adam, I agree entirely. In the next life, when we see as we are seen, hollow slogans will be unnecessary.

    Matt, the thing is, almost all of us probably differ with each other in at least some details with respect to religious issues. But there are also ways in which we don’t differ. What hollow slogans within Mormonism let us do is focus on our often quite important elements of agreement. I think that we are sometimes tempted to disregard areas of agreement, unity, and consensus in our race to hammer out our differences. But in fact, I see no prospect for resolving our differences of belief or opinion within the mortal time frame. Even the highest leaders of our church have sometimes had decades-long debates over such fundamentally important issues as the nature of God (see Brigham Young v. Orson Pratt, rounds 1-57). And obviously major variations in theology and belief exist within the church membership today. We haven’t yet found a way of satisfactorily winning these debates with each other, and so I don’t expect that divinely-commanded unity lies in that direction. Indeed, the history of Protestantism teaches that endless schism is perhaps the typical result of mortal attempts to solve all theological controversy. Our hollow slogans are valuable tools in the project of preventing schism, but also in the more spiritual project of remembering that our shared acceptance of the Mormon canon, the church institution, and our community means a lot — even though profound divergences remain.

  19. Matt Evans on February 9, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    JNS,

    But the whole point is that you’re not finding common ground — you’re fabricating it. If two people mean and understand something different by “the Book of Mormon is true” they aren’t agreeing on anything when they agree to the statement. This is especially important if, as it looks like you’re doing, you know that some (most?) Mormons don’t accept the substance of your statement “the Book of Mormon is true,” and are deliberately avoiding particulars because you know they’ll invalidate the alleged point of agreement. “Unity” based on this ambiguity is as phoney as suggesting there’s bi-partisan “unity” in Congress because every congressman agrees with the hollow slogans “Social Security should be preserved” and “America can be better.”

    To find common ground between church members, they must agree on the content of the shared statement. If one unilaterly broadens the statement without agreement from the other, they haven’t found “common ground” because they disagree about the substance of the statement you’re basing their common belief on. In other words, so long as members disagree about the meaning of the statement “the Book of Mormon is true,” that statement can’t be a basis for our unity.

  20. Frank McIntyre on February 9, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    Matt,

    I think I agree with you, but let me try an example to see if I have the notion right. When I say “The BoM is true” I mean A, B, and C. You mean A, B, and D but understand that I mean something slightly different. But the commonality is because we both explicitly agree that the _core_ of believing the Book of Mormon is believing A and B, thus we are ok even though we have different beliefs.

    JNS, I think your approach is troubled because, to use the above example, you want to say that one might mean just A, and isn’t that great that nobody realizes that the person doesn’t believe B. But the person may not even _know_ that most leaders consider B needed! He thinks the slogan is more hollow than it actually is. This is a potentially huge loss and I think one of the purposes of having leaders is to clarify the content of statements. If B is not needed, it also can help to have leaders clarify that, should a jihad arise against those who hide amongst us!

    As for Protestants, we have a much more workable way of using authority to address schisms– in that Church leaders do address what it means to believe that Joseph Smith really was a prophet and the Book of Mormon is true. And they certainly speak out all the time on the implications of President Hinckley being a prophet.

    Furthermore, one need not hide behind such slogans to remain a member. It is extremely rare for someone to be excommunicated simply because of their _private_ beliefs. So this “unity” is both undesirable on its face, as it hides our ability to learn truth, and not needed for membership, since membership is not predicated on anything it hides. It seems an obvious danger is that people are not going to change their views when they need to, if they are hiding behind overly beliefs about how hollow slogans are. And we would be sorely tempted to assume that whatever we believe fits in that slogan, even if it is not the meaning the Lord wishes us to use.

  21. J. Nelson-Seawright on February 9, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    Matt, you’re disregarding as meaningless the fact that the individuals in question are declaring allegiance to the Book of Mormon — regardless of the more specific intended content of their statements. Yet this kind of allegiance, while not rich in intellectual content, does a lot to hold communities together. (That’s one of the reasons people like to see everyone in Congress make the statements you mention.) If we can agree that the Mormon community has some inherent value, and especially if we see the creation of that community as divinely intended, then we would do well to recognize the positive role of hollow slogans in maintaining community.

  22. J. Nelson-Seawright on February 9, 2006 at 1:10 pm

    Frank, our leaders do indeed speak out all the time on the issues in question — and in fact contradict themselves and each other. (A claim which has been amply documented in the historical and theological scholarly literature on Mormonism; I’m going to avoid providing details.) With respect to what the leaders think is needed in terms of belief to be a Mormon or even to achieve exaltation, we lack systematic data, having access only to the opinions of the self-selected handful who have made statements on the matter. Those statements do reflect a diversity of opinions, but we have no way of knowing how representative they might be.

    Explicitly stating that a particular belief is not necessary is quite akin to disavowing the belief in question. This kind of act would obviously tend toward disrupting community, so I can see why the leaders almost never do it — even when the belief is, for example, that people of African descent are inherently less spiritually valiant than others. There mostly hasn’t been a tradition in Mormonism of systematically defining what, exactly, our beliefs should be or should mean — McConkie’s countervailing efforts notwithstanding. If the Lord urgently wishes us to adopt specific meanings for the slogans in question, then the absense of systematic explanations of those meanings from our canonical texts, etc., is a serious oversight — much as the absense of a statement of sola scriptura from the Bible is a severe problem for Lutheranism.

    It’s far from obvious to me that using hollow slogans as a way of maintaining our sacred unity as a community impedes anyone’s ability to learn truth, unless the truth in question is the irrelevant one of what in particular a specific person thinks about theology. Can you spell this argument out further? How does worshiping with a group of people who make unifying affirmations despite having inevitable differences of interpretations below the surface prevent you from learning truth about God?

  23. Frank McIntyre on February 9, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    JNS, the benefits to community of hollow slogans are easily outweighed by the costs of watering down the content of statements. To put another way, either the point being hidden does matter or it doesn’t.

    1. We can agree to disagree if the point in question does not matter.

    2. If it does matter, well then we’d best seek to resolve our problems.

  24. J. Nelson-Seawright on February 9, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    Frank, I think your approach is too binary. In fact, things matter to different degrees. If specifics of theological belief matter, but they matter less than the divine command to create a loving and united community, then hollow slogans may well be worth their costs (again, whatever those costs might be).

  25. Frank McIntyre on February 9, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    “It’s far from obvious to me that using hollow slogans as a way of maintaining our sacred unity as a community impedes anyone’s ability to learn truth, unless the truth in question is the irrelevant one of what in particular a specific person thinks about theology. Can you spell this argument out further?”

    Because the hollow slogans are not in fact known to be “hollow” by everyone. I tried to lay out that scenario above. Another example would be all the different interpreations someone might give to the BoM being true. You thin the phrase can mean any of those and unity is preserved. I would guess that many people would not feel that unity if they felt the phrase was as nebulous as you treat it. For example, if someone says, “I believe the BoM is true, in that it contains truth, but Joseph Smith made it up,” many members would rightly say that this is not sufficient testimony to qualify one as “believing the Book of Mormon is true” in the sense we wish to use it. And they would rightly be angry (not unified) by this usurpation of their phrase to mean exactly what they do not believe.

    As for what one needs to believe to be Mormon, I dealt with that above. You can stay Mormon and believe absolutely none of the doctrines, as I understand Church policy. You can’t go the temple, though.

  26. LisaB on February 9, 2006 at 1:41 pm

    Manaen #9 I said I’m content with the woman I want to be. I’m still working on the what God wants me to be part.

  27. J. Nelson-Seawright on February 9, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    Frank, lots of church members react with equal shock and horror when they find out that somebody believes a “limited-geography” version of the Book of Mormon. Avoiding this kind of conflict is exactly why I think we need the hollow slogans for worship settings.

    Being a full member of the Mormon community obviously requires temple worthiness. So what’s required for a temple recommend is really what’s at issue, no? And, in fact, what’s required for a temple recommend is assent to a series of underspecified affirmations — just exactly the phrases and slogans under discussion here.

  28. Frank McIntyre on February 9, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    JNS,

    Re: temple interview: The prophet holds the keys is rather specific. The “no apostate groups” is rather specific. Most of the rest is behavior. To be a good member requires certain behaviors more than certain beliefs. Since we believe obedience brings knowledge, right behavior hopefully leads to right belief eventually.

    As for limited geography, this seems to me to fall in the category of “doesn’t matter”. I’ve never had anyone react with shock and horror to the theory, but if they did I’d be happy to talk about any reasons they had for considering “continent-wide” explanations an important doctrine. I would not feel the need to hide that disagreement because I don’t think it creates any problems for us as a people to believe on that differently. But suppose I hid that belief behind an empty slogan, and then came to find out that it did matter to those with keys. I’d rather find that out sooner than later.

  29. J. Nelson-Seawright on February 9, 2006 at 2:54 pm

    Frank, the behavior questions are certainly beside the point; you’re right. However, the first four questions involve beliefs and are phrased in terms that would count as “hollow slogans.” First, one must have “faith in and a testimony of” the three members of the Godhead. Specific beliefs about that Godhead, including past mortality of God the Father, whether God is Adam, whether Jesus is coeternal with God, God/Adam’s Father in another world, God’s Son via Mary, or different aspects of the same being as in Modalist Mormon theology, are unspecified.

    Second, one must have a testimony of the Atonement. Which of the many theories of the Atonement one must accept is never clarified. Did Jesus perform the Atonement by suffering for the aggregate total of all repented sins in Gethsemane? Did He perform the Atonement by accepting death as the ultimate act of submission, placing the Creator at the mercy of the Created and destroying all eternal boundary lines? Did He perform the Atonement simply by being born, by bringing divinity directly into the mortal realm? Did He perform the Atonement by offering a sacrifice so immense and infinite that it simply overwhelms justice, making demands for individual punishment moot? The temple recommend interview instructions provide no clarification about which of these positions (or the many others in existence) one must adopt.

    Third, one must have a testimony of the “restoration of the gospel in these the latter days.” As always, clarification is scarce. What, in particular, must one accept as having been restored? The “gospel” can be a minimalist statement of first principles and ordinances, as in the Book of Mormon. Alternatively, it can be taken as including every detail of belief in a particular person’s worldview. Furthermore, what do we mean by “restoration”? Need we believe that every detail of whatever we take the gospel to be is the same now as it was when taught by Moses to the Israelites? Or when taught by Paul to the gentiles? Or can we affirm that different times and places receive somewhat different revelations of the divine?

    Fourth, there are affirmations related to church leadership. The president of the church must be said to be a “prophet, seer, and revelator” and to be “the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys,” while other top leaders are said to be “prophets, seers, and revelators.” These phrases clearly are not so specific as to have only one possible meaning. The phrases related to roles sometimes are taken as near-guarantees of infallibility, and other times are assumed to imply plenary authority for any decision or command whatsoever. In other interpretations, such phrases reflect divine leadership but presuppose mortal error on the part of the individual in question, such that each member retains a moral duty to disobey when instructions seem incorrect. Still others read the prophet-related titles as meaningful and as reflecting the calling of all believers, who are all supposed to obtain full access to revelation. With respect to authority to exercise all priesthood keys, the very meaning of the phrase is underdetermined. What are priesthood keys? Surely different interpretations of the nature and extent of such a difficult concept have coexisted in the church.

  30. Frank McIntyre on February 9, 2006 at 3:03 pm

    J,

    You are arguing that the questions could have multiple meanings. Once again, I am not disputing that. But either the different meanings don’t matter right now (which is probably the case), in which case you aren’t papering over important disputes but over unimportant ones, or they do matter, in which case I think one should not paper over the dispute because, as assumed, it matters.

    But once again, none of that is actually about being a member.

  31. Paul Mortensen on February 9, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    Frank:

    You wrote: “You can stay Mormon and believe absolutely none of the doctrines, as I understand Church policy. You can’t go the temple, though.”

    What’s the value of being Mormon then? Yeah, yeah, you drug out the “correct behaviors brings about correct beleifs” trope, but that whole concepts depends on the existence of a 1:1 relationship between behaviors and beliefs. Would you grant that it is possible that personal experience with behavior can lead two different people to two different belief structures? For example, my experience with prayer leads me to believe A and B while your experience with prayer leads you to believe C.

  32. Matt Evans on February 9, 2006 at 7:36 pm

    J.,

    Changing the standard from “the Book of Mormon is true” to “declaring allegiance to the Book of Mormon” doesn’t change the fact that the statements can only unify people if they agree on their meaning. If some people believe that believing the Book of Mormon to be true precludes limited-geography, then there won’t be unity regarding the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness so long as others’ belief in the Book of Mormon turns on limited geography. What I think is more likely, concerning geography, is that few people understand “Book of Mormon is true” to prohibit the limited-geography theory, so I doubt much disunity is due to that point. But whether or not that’s the case, the fact remains that if they disagree on the meaning of what the statement “Book of Mormon is true” must mean, their belief that “the Book of Mormon is true” isn’t a belief they hold in common.

    The version of unity you’re defending is superficial and worthless. If it worked, the country could be “united” on abortion simply if all of us who oppose abortion started saying we are “pro-choice” because we agree that no one should be forced to have an abortion against their choice (and, we would whisper under our breath, even if it is their choice). Everyone re-labeling themselves pro-choice would do nothing to unite the country on abortion, and I doubt NARAL Pro-Choice America would feel united with George Bush and Gary Bauer just because they started saying they’re “pro-choice too.” As Frank suggested above, they’d probably be angry at Bauer’s attempt to hollow their statement of it’s meaning.

  33. Frank McIntyre on February 9, 2006 at 10:49 pm

    Paul, I don’t see why not. It’s a big world. Of course, I think that consistently behaving right will eventually lead one to know the truth, in this life or the next. And at that point we could agree on the truth of A, B and C.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.