People frequently claim that Mormonism is an essentially atheological religion. It is not always exactly clear what is meant by this statement, but it generally seems to me something like we place right practice and sacred stories at the center of our faith rather than an abstract set of propositions. Whatever the merits of this claim, I think that it is hard to deny that the concept of â€œchurch doctrineâ€ is enormously important within the church discussions.
Consider the following examples:
Eliza: â€œPresident Ezra Taft Benson taught that Martin Luther King was part of a communist plot; how can a good Mormon support the civil rights movement?â€
Emma: â€œThose were just his opinions. That was not church doctrine.â€
Brigham: â€œThe Book of Mormon is so scathing in its denunciations of war that all Mormons ought to be pacifists.â€
Heber: â€œThat is just your opinion; that is not church doctrine.â€
Sussanah: â€œIs it church doctrine that one must be a polygamist to enter the celestial kingdom?â€
Somewhat closer to home, someone might ask whether â€“ to pick an example entirely at random â€“ Sister Beckâ€™s recent conference address represents church doctrine. After all, it was given in conference.
Despite the image of lock-step saints marching in perfect unity, the fact of the matter is that Mormons disagree with one another quite a bit. While there are certainly disagreements between the true believers and the skeptics on the fringe, I actually think that the most interesting disagreements among Mormons donâ€™t center on the question of whether church doctrine is right or wrong, true or false in some final and absolute sense. Rather it seems to me that the trickiest (and most common) disputes about church doctrine center on two questions. First, how do I identify whether any particular claim or rule is church doctrine or not? Second, to what extent does some particular teaching have a claim on Latter-day Saints simply because it is church doctrine?
I have been puzzling about these questions for some time, and a while back I finally tried to collect my thinking into a set of coherent arguments. The result is a pair of articles. The first, â€œJurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine, will be appearing in the next issue of Element and the final version of the article can now be downloaded for free from SSRN. The second, â€œA Defense of the Authority of Church Doctrine,â€ was published in the last issue of Dialogue and can also be downloaded from SSRN.
The first article tackles the question of how we identify what is church doctrine. My conclusion is that we have no simple rule that allows us to identify what is or isnâ€™t church doctrine. Rather, we always discover church doctrine through an ongoing process of interpretation. This means that the precise contours of church doctrine are always contestable, not in the sense of arguing whether church doctrine is good or bad, true or false. Rather I am talking about contestability over the content of what is or is not church doctrine. Doctrinal diversity is not managed epistemicaly (that is by knowing exactly what is doctrine) but rather ethically and institutionally through norms against contention and the hierarchical structure of the church. The inherent contestability of church doctrine also sheds light, I believe, on the nature of Mormon discussions of history. (My thesis is that most LDS discussions of history are actually discussions about authority; we are less interested in understanding the past than figuring out which bits of it have a claim on us now.) I also think that the contestability of church doctrine sheds light on the interplay between independent judgment and authority within the practice of obedience itself. (My thesis is that obedience to church doctrine necessarily requires the exercise of independent moral judgment not only in choosing to follow church doctrine but also in identifying the demands of church doctrine itself.)
My second article builds on the first article by seeking to justify (and understand the limits of) church doctrineâ€™s authority over church members. I begin by arguing â€“ somewhat counter-intuitively to some â€“ that authority is actually a special kind of reason giving that purports to exclude other reasons. This understanding of the concept of authority itself suggests the contours that arguments in favor of an authority must take, namely that they must justify the claim of authority to exclude the operation of other reasons, rather than simply outweighing those reasons or demonstrating their mistakenness. There are, I believe, at least three sorts of arguments that can be made justifying the authority of church doctrine: The first is the argument from covenant. Mormons are bound by church doctrine because they promise to obey it. The second is the argument from epistemic advantage. Even if we reject the notion that church doctrine is infallible (and I do reject this notion), we can be justified in thinking that church doctrine is systematically less error prone than we are. The third is what I call the argument from communal participation. My idea here is that church doctrine is much like the rules of a game â€“ the â€œgameâ€ of Mormonism if you will. Active Latter-day Saints participate in this game and to violate the rules is a form of cheating and hypocrisy. All of these arguments in favor of the authority of church doctrine are defeasable, but only under limited circumstances. Hence, I conclude that one is not necessarily always obligated to follow church doctrine, but the mere assertion â€œI think that doctrine X is wrong,â€ is generally insufficient to justify a Latter-day Saint ignoring the dictates of church doctrine.
As far as I know, this duo of articles is among the few sustained attempts to provide a philosophical analysis of church doctrine. That is nice, but I also suspect that to the extent that they spark discussion it also means that at the end of the day virtually everyone will decide that the pieces are mistaken to a greater or lesser degree. In addition to laying out my own thinking on the subject, however, these articles are also to a certain extent an exercise in blogging. I tried out virtually all of these arguments out first in the context of the bloggernacle. Part of the reason that I wrote them is because I wanted to see if I thought that it was possible to work blog-level arguments with greater rigor, and part of the reason was that I wanted to see to what extent it was possible to kick a blog argument into the slower but more rigorous world of print. Time will tell. I do think that it would be great if blogs could increasingly function as a first draft of ideas that ultimately get a fuller treatment elsewhere.