Over at some-other-blog, Margaret Young writes in a comment: “Card-carrying Mormons do often believe that Blacks were fence sitters in the pre-existence and that polygamy is essential to eternal progression. Neither position has been formally repudiated by the powers that be. We have merely distanced ourselves from them.” This comment, I think, highlights two different possible views on how Mormon doctrine dies.
It is true that any number of statements have been made-at-some-time-by-some-church-leader, and have never been formally repudiated. Margaret points out two of the more pernicous examples in her comment. But the phenomenon is broader than that: Church leaders have made statements about women’s roles, about Blacks, about the civil rights movement, about other churches, about polygamy, about Mary, and a hundred other topics. The vast majority of these statements have not received any formal repudiation.
Does this mean that they (continue to) exist as valid Mormon doctrine? The question is complicated.
On the one hand, such statements carry potential weight. In a culture and religious environment where the words of prophets are given great credence, the fact that a prophet at one point said something about some topic is bound to be important. Even unofficial statements matter. One need only glance at the stack of copies of Elder McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine at any Deseret Book to see a vivid illustration of the process. Yes, the book is Not Official. However, absent official repudiation, its ideas continue to receive wide circulation. This is one view — the “old ideas never die; they must be killed” approach, so to speak. Under this approach, church statements are like law. They may remain unnoticed for years or decades, but as long as they remain “on the books,” they are technically binding and potentially enforceable at any time.
The alternative view points to a social reality: It appears that not all unrepudiated ideas are created equal. Ideas which were originally stated some time ago exist in constant danger of oblivion. For such ideas, the path to relevance comes only through recent repetition. Unrepudiated authority is potentially powerful because it may at any time be repeated; President Hinckley may cite to a statement made fifty or a hundred years ago by a prior prophet or apostle. This recirculates the idea, giving it a new boost of credence. An unrepudiated idea from Heber J. Grant or J. Reuben Clark or John Taylor which is recirculated in general conference is placed once again into the community’s consciousness.
However, the converse is also true. To the extent that they are not repeated and reinforced, unrepudiated ideas slowly fade from the community’s consciousness. This is in large degree because of the structure of Mormon belief. Mormon theology is unusually informal, vague and undefined. Because the church does not issue encyclicals or Summa Theologica, our theology is largely of the what-the-prophets-say-today variety. Given that reality, another view of doctrinal death is possible: That informal distancing may be as doctrinally fatal as outright repudiation.
It seems to me that Mormon belief is in this regard quite similar to an oral community history, or a poem passed down from one generation to another through repetition. And because our theology is an oral history, repudiation through distancing becomes possible. Lines that are not repeated with sufficient frequency slowly fade from the poem altogether, no longer existing actively in the community’s consciousness. Old ideas may never die, but they do slowly ride off into the sunset until they’re forgotten.
I’m inclined to the latter view. However, that view’s descriptive accuracy is inversely related to its ability to exist as a meta-rule. If our theology is as fluid and undefined as that view suggests — and I think it is — then there can be no truly definitive answer as to how a doctrine dies. There are instead a multiplicity of views on the topic, some more law-like and some more oral-history-like.
Each paradigm seems true at different times. Sometimes old statements and ideas receive more of a “law” treatment, and sometimes more of an “oral history” treatment. And since our theology is as fluid as it is, in the vaccuum of official instruction, individual members freely apply each view to different ideas and statements, as they see fit.
In practice, I think, doctrines often do die through distancing. But there will always be church members, in your ward and mine, who are ready to pull out some fifty-year-old statement from Elder McConkie to support some statement or other. True, we will all roll out eyes at such assertions, because we know that old unrepeated statements exist in a netherworld of uncertain life. But the indeterminacy of Mormon theology allows us to do no more than cast those doctrines into the netherworld. Our belief structure being what it is, they cannot truly be killed — but neither are they really alive.