Organizational Management in the Church

March 9, 2010 | 84 comments
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800px-Farmer_plowingI’m sitting in my organizational management class right now. That (combined with having just finally finished Lengthen Your Stride, which opened my eyes to the challenge of managing a global organization) has got me thinking about why the church is structured the way it is.

Many attributes of the church that we like to complain about here in the bloggernacle serve very useful purposes in maintaining cohesion across dozens of nations and millions of people. Here are some ponderings, none of which are grounded in anything other than my teacher’s lecturing and my own mental meanderings, so take them for what they’re worth.

  • Why is the church conservative? I don’t mean politically conservative, but conservative in its sense of “resistant to change”. Change is risky, short-term loss with no guarantee of long-term gains. Members who disapprove of the change are more likely to leave that non-members who approve of the change are to join. It’s kind of like speaking in general conference — there’s nothing you can say that will get people to join the church, but there’s a lot you can say to get people to leave the church. In other words, people join a volunteer organization for what it is, not for what it’s not — and that means the current membership of an organization is going to tend to be satisfied with the way that organization is. (Of course, that ignores the issue of those who were raised in the church rather than choosing to join it.)
  • Why is our Sunday school curriculum so focused on the core, basic doctrines? Of course, from a personal, spiritual perspective, it’s because they’re important to our lives, and we need to understand them, be reminded of them, and live them to receive the blessings of the gospel. Also, from an organizational perspective, accessible, non-controversial messages are the least likely to cause contention. In some sense, boring Sunday school lessons are less likely than interesting ones to cause schism among the diverse, international membership of the church.
  • Why does the church shift local and general leaders from position to position and place to place? Again, there is the personal growth and development that we gain from serving in a wide variety of positions. From an organizational perspective, this also prevents any single leader from developing a “personal parish” of followers. This mitigates the risk of schism due to a single charismatic leader attempting to wrest control of his or her flock. I can’t imagine that any single member of our current church leadership would successfully draw a large portion of followers away from the body of the church by starting his or her own church.
  • Why is the church so heavily managed by policy and correlation? Correlation and policy are the tools of bureaucracy. For all that we hate the term “bureaucracy”, it really has a lot of advantages. Bureaucracy maintains stability in spite of the individual local leaders’ diverse opinions. This means that members can be reasonably sure what to expect when they attend church each week, and that there is no crisis when there is a change in local leadership.

Languages evolve from complex to simple, and I believe that organizations do the same. Organizational founders are innovators. Organizational successors are clarifiers. I like to daydream about how wonderful it would have been to have lived under the voices of Joseph and Brigham, but it’s easy to forget how chaotic it was. I don’t mean the chaos from external persecutions, but rather the chaos of many the many new religious innovations introduced by those prophets. Almost two centuries later, it’s easy for us to say which of their teachings should be privileged and which should be forgotten, but at the time I imagine the doctrinal life of church members had a sense of wild madness to it.

84 Responses to Organizational Management in the Church

  1. James Olsen on March 9, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    Good thoughts to think about. It’s interesting that Joseph almost made anti-creeds a creed, founded a church on continual revelation, and spent a great deal of time ranting against those church members who couldn’t handle the “sense of wild madness” that his subversive/innovative/destructive/exalting revelations and social structuring surely caused – and that even with such a foundation, we do not escape our humanity, and as you point out, have relied ever more on the stability of bureaucracy. Surely the pace and nature of our current growth and exploding diversity, however, together with our current mass media access to ourselves and history that feeds an obsessive self-consciousness, brings about a similar sense of wild madness; and we’ve always had hosts exiting as well as the larger hosts entering. So which model is better?

  2. Dane Laverty on March 10, 2010 at 12:22 am

    I love Joseph. His god is the only god I’ve ever heard preached that made any sense to me. His grand vision of community is the one great work I wish to see all humanity involved in.

    The problem, of course, is that it’s not Joseph’s god I love, but my god that I write into Joseph’s sermons. It’s not Joseph’s vision I see, but my vision, which I legitimize by ascribing to Joseph’s mind. I am certain that Joseph agrees with me, but I’m not certain that he’d say I agree with him. Whenever I have some personal disagreement with a doctrine, I take solace in knowing that, if Joseph were handy, he would take my side, but there are plenty of others who have read Josephs sermons and studied his works, and who come to conclusions entirely opposed to my own.

    My point is that I love the madness, but only because I presume (as I suppose we all do) that I am right, and the swells of madness will trend to support me.

  3. Kent Larsen on March 10, 2010 at 5:40 am

    Dane, this is a very good observation. One of the holes in the study of Mormon history is the lack of a good study of LDS organizational change at the nuts and bolts level.

    Quinn’s 2 volumes on power come close, but I’m not aware of anything that really covers why, for example, LDS missionary service was shifted from married men to single men and women, and from three years or more to two & a half years, to two years for some and two and a half for others, to two years, to one and a half years, and finally back to two years. There are dozens of other major areas of Mormon practice and culture that remain unexamined from an organizational perspective.

    As for your comment in (2), I think exactly what you describe was the experience of many early saints. They would be caught up in Joseph Smith’s charisma and excited about the doctrines, and then something new would pull the rug out from under them. Polygamy must have been a shock to many, many members.

    I doubt most LDS Church members today would have remained faithful in those days.

  4. Gwenydd McCoy on March 10, 2010 at 6:50 am

    “Languages evolve from complex to simple”…this is not a true statement. Languages do not become more simple over time. i know that this is a side step from the topic, but the idea that old-english is more complex then african-american vernacular is incorrect, and not supported by any credible linguistic theory of language or language change.

    so to say that language is like organizations, is not correct.

  5. John C. on March 10, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Actually, many languages do simplify in many aspects over time. However, they also tend to develop new complexities. For instance, as English simplified expression of syntax, spelling became more complicated. Language must maintain some complexity or it will cease to be distinctive. In that way, I tend to think the development of the church parallels linguistic development very well.

  6. James Olsen on March 10, 2010 at 8:40 am

    I suppose it depends on how you define complex & simple. Many systems (biological systems are the paradigm example, but this certainly includes human social institutions) actually tend toward complexity.

    Jan Shipps is working on a book right now looking at the organizational changes in Mormonism since the 1960s. Last I heard her subtitle was something like “From People to Church Membership.” Not very flattering in my mind.

  7. Gwenydd McCoy on March 10, 2010 at 9:13 am

    “as English simplified expression of syntax, spelling became more complicated”..spelling has nothing to do with actual language. the changes in syntax did not change spelling. spelling changed as writing conventions, and more specifically, phonology changed.

    the idea that something in language becomes more ‘simple’ or ‘complex’ is relative to the language with which you are most familiar. the idea that the english verbal system is simple is only seen if you think that its simplicity is related to verbal morphology, disregarding other things like auxiliary verbs, adverb placement, negative markers, etc..

    or, the fact that english has over 50 prepositions doesn’t necessarily mean that it is more complex. in fact, it might be simpler because, theoretically, the added prepositions could clarify meaning. That fact that many mayan langauges or haitian creole have less then 10 prepositions doesn’t mean that they are simpler, they could be more complex, because meaning is harder to get at.

    “Language must maintain some complexity or it will cease to be distinctive’…language mustn’t maintain complexity, languages are complex, this independent of any changes that take place

  8. Mike S on March 10, 2010 at 9:16 am

    #3 Kent

    “I doubt most LDS Church members today would have remained faithful in those days.”

    I agree and would have had a really hard time if Joseph asked my wife or my 14 y.o. daughter to be another of his wives. I would have failed that test and been kicked out right then. I don’t know how they did it.

  9. Jonathan Green on March 10, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Gwenydd’s point is correct. Languages change over time. Some things become simpler, from one way of looking at things. Some things become more complex.

    But aside from that one point, I liked your post, Dane. Consistency and correlation are huge benefits to people who are faced with geographic instability.

  10. Michael on March 10, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Dane,

    Without discounting the insightfulness of your observations, the points you make are true of any organization and are familiar to most good corporate managers and leaders. It is part of what is drilled into you when you seek an MBA.

    There is a natural tendency for middle players in an organization (such as mid-level general authorities, auxiliary leaders, or church employees) to have a vested interest in the status quo without consideration of how it impacts the FUTURE relevance and viability of the organization. It is in their self-interest to promote their own stability and protect their own income source to the detriment of the greater good.

    When we are talking about the Kingdom of God upon the earth, this is not a good thing. It does not get us closer to the establishment of Zion and discounts the need for Latter-day Saints to be comfortable with the messiness of continuing revelation and challenges of accepting further light and knowledge. Since we learn through the Holy Ghost only to the extent that our behaviours change in accordance with the greater eternal wisdom we receive, then the inertia you speak of is one of the greatest threats to the church. It creates a level of “comfort in Zion” that is not meant to be and is not scriptural. It also carries over negatively into the Mormon culture and creates unnecessary obstacles for those Latter-day Saints that are comfortable with the messiness of continuing revelation. If they are not orthodox in cultural matters then they are stigmatized as also not being orthodox in true gospel principles when it is usually the opposite in reality.

  11. Bob on March 10, 2010 at 10:30 am

    A language may change some details within it, but will be come more complex an a Culture becomes more complex. Bill Gates and I speak English. So I should be able to sit down and discuss ‘mother boards’ with him__right?
    IMO- The Mormon Church is top heavy with organization and management. Islam has far more followers and less bureaucracy. But it seems to run OK (?)

  12. Gwenydd McCoy on March 10, 2010 at 10:52 am

    “will be come more complex an a Culture becomes more complex.”…this is comparable to the great Eskimo Hoax about snow (http://users.utu.fi/freder/Pullum-Eskimo-VocabHoax.pdf)

    “So I should be able to sit down and discuss ‘mother boards’ with him__right?”…adding words to the lexicon doesn’t mean that language is necessarily more complex. or speaking about things that other cultures don’t have doesn’t mean that our language is more complex. plus, this tacitly assumes that people speaking in other languages, such as some unwritten Bantu language, cannot talk about mother boards. this is not the case. they may use other words, but the complexity of language allows them to speak about it just like you and bill gates.

    language is quite different from organizations that humans create. and shouldn’t be compared in terms of complexity. they can be compared in that some languages adopted lexical items to deal with life (i.e. somali speaker’s classification system of camels), just as some organizations adopt policies and procedures to deal with their circumstances (i.e. having a 3 hour block on sunday, instead of primary and others during the week)

  13. nasamomdele on March 10, 2010 at 11:01 am

    I work for a 50,000 employee, multi-national corporation.

    1) It is ultra-conservative- focused on bottom lines and to that effect, focused on reducing costs

    2) Our culture is based on 3 core principles that are repeated over and over

    3) The company is infuriatingly bureaucratic.

    For the Church as well as a company like mine, I think this all translates to a few things:
    1) Remarkable staying power
    2) Remarkable talent development and loyalty based on remarkable opportunities and responsibility
    3) Reduced exposure to risk and risky behavior (freelancing)

    It is incredible to be in a hugely successful and influential company, though I admit, I envy the guys down the street working for the employee-owned small shop working on a lot of local projects.

  14. Jacob F. on March 10, 2010 at 11:51 am

    I just finished Lengthen Your Stride last week. That book does a great job explaining the priesthood policy change. (The draft manuscript on the CD-ROM is even better.)

    The book caused me to wonder (1) why the policy wasn’t dropped much earlier (I regret that it wasn’t dropped by John Taylor), and (2) what current policies (currently defined as doctrines even?) will be dropped in the future based on a similar “greater understanding” gained through revelation.

    Maybe focusing on the basics isn’t such a bad thing, since it may prevent the body of the church from latching onto obscure policies and transforming them, in their minds, into doctrines. Also, maybe a review of what church doctrine really is (which ones are firmly established in scripture)–which I think is the aim of the new Gospel Principles book–is a good antidote.

  15. Bob on March 10, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    #12: I looked up your link to ‘Eskimo Snow Hoax’. It was too long to read, so I will just dimiss it on what I know.
    I do not ski, but have friends who do. They have many names for the snow they ski. I have no problem thinking Eskimos likewise have many different names.
    I guess it comes down to our meaning of ‘more complex’, and what makes up a language. A one year old has a language/culture that I think is less complex than mine.

  16. Gwenydd McCoy on March 10, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    bob- you might be right in that “A one year old has a language/culture that I think is less complex”…but that is not what you said. you said that as a culture gets more complex so does language. what i am saying is that while as a culture gets more complex (whatever that might mean), language does not get more or less complex.

    the point is that systems invented by people might follow this trend towards complexity, which is partially what dane was talking about. that is systems created by humans can show complexities of human organization and change accordingly.

    by the same token, language development in a child is in no way like the development of a organization. child language develops regularly and consistently around the world and becomes a language that shares certain commonalities with all other languages, e.g. all language is inherently complex independent of cultures and knowledge of the world. thus, comparing language to culture is not proper in this situation because while it appears as though they interact (eskimo hoax, and even your skiing example), they are separate entities, thus language will always be complex despite the changes in culture. and even in the case of the one year-old child, her language is complex, just not developed.

    an organization is a part of culture, and thus can become more complex or less complex (depending on the meaning) as the culture changes.

  17. John C. on March 10, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Actually, Jonathan, I think you agreed with my point not Gwennyd’s. I’m a little surprised to see such dogmatism in a linguist about linguistics. I can only imagine Gwennyd sees something perjorative in the term simple. Also it seems strange to me to deny written language is a language, especially when she acknowledges that phonology is at the root of spelling confusion in English. Something new every day, I suppose. I’m sorry for perpetuating the linguistic threadjack. Dane, it’s an interesting post.

    Gwennyd,
    As evidenced above, I think you are being too dogmatic here by far. Especially since you seem to be agreeing with me about how simplification in one area leads to complexities in others. I overstated it in saying that it is language itself that in compensating (because, of course, language ain’t sentient), but I didn’t think the metaphor was too stretched.

  18. Gwenydd McCoy on March 10, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    john c – “I think you are being too dogmatic here by far.”…most likely, i try not be warm water as much as possible, but life is more gray than black and white, as you suggest.

    in any event, i don’t think the comparison holds. but his post is good at addressing the point

    not to thread-jack, a side note for:

    john c – “I can only imagine Gwennyd [Gwenydd, it's welsh, that is dd, hooray for welsh] sees something perjorative in the term simple”… yes i do (especially when it is used about one’s own language), but that is beside the point here. the point is that language and church or any other organization are not comparable in this regard.

    “Also it seems strange to me to deny written language is a language”…it is a language or at least a representation of language, but i don’t think that is what dane, or anybody else, was referring to in this case.

    “especially when she acknowledges that phonology is at the root of spelling confusion in English.”…i never acknowledged that phonology was the root of ‘spelling confusion’ because there is no confusion, there are rules based on phonological history that doesn’t always align with current phonological production. but this is beside the point, the point was that it is not syntax that causes spelling change. in english people don’t spell ‘shoppe’ as ‘shop’ because of any syntactic change but because of writing conventions related to phonological change.

    “you seem to be agreeing with me about how simplification in one area leads to complexities in others.”…i don’t agree with you on this point to the extent that you are making it. you said:

    “English simplified expression of syntax, spelling became more complicated”…i wouldn’t say that english syntax was simplified, because it wasn’t, it is still very complex, just as complex as old english or any other language. all i would claim is that it changed, and this change has nothing to do with spelling. because a language changing from verb final to subject-verb-object of modern english has nothing to do with the spelling of ‘know’ (from konowen something like german können), that has to do with a phonological change that occurred and has seemed to have left a clue to the words linguistic past in the spelling

  19. John Mansfield on March 10, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    From the McWhorter lectures, I recall that the most complex languages are those spoken by a few thousand isolated people, and the simplest are those that have experienced strong interactions between foreigners in the recent past. Simple means dropping things like gender or most conjugations and declensions. Complex means something like having seven plural verb forms instead of one or two, and countless particle markers, and every language accretes complexity over time until some culture collision pares it down. What do you say, Jonathan Green?

  20. Bob on March 10, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    I drop off a friend at the Burbank Airport once a week. There is a lady there for traffic control. She wears white gloves, and has a VERY simple language___STOP!/GO!.
    I am sure if she needed a more complex language, She could add some words.

  21. Jonathan Green on March 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Not only is Gwynedd correct, but she gets major points for both citing and linking to the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.

    Sorry, John C., I wasn’t responding to your comment specifically. I do think that your position and Gwynedd’s are quite close, with the exception that the example of spelling conventions isn’t good (because even if English had had no writing system whatsoever, reduction of morphological complexity was still accompanied by increased complexity elsewhere in the language). A better example might be how Germanic reduced its verbal system to just two tenses compared with several more in earlier PIE, while English and the rest of the Germanic languages have added various synthetic constructions to express similar gradations in meaning. (An example of increased complexity from PIE to modern languages would be the vowel system, where some reconstruct only 1, 2, or 3 vowels, compared to the one or two dozen vowels in the modern descendants–but I mention it only as a counterexample, not as an adequate summary of the whole story.)

    I don’t think Gwynedd is being dogmatic (although I would not separate “writing conventions” from “actual language” so starkly). Rather, this is something where (to my understanding) a pretty stable scholarly consensus has been reached, and where notions of linguistic simplicity have been used for mischief.

  22. Jonathan Green on March 10, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    OK, that last comment should have posted an hour ago, when it was still relevant. While we’re all sorry for the linguistic detour this thread is taking, it really is too bad that we so rarely have a chance to argue about the important things in life, like linguistics.

    So, let’s try this. Gwynedd, if John C. were to express his overall point as, “As one part of a language becomes less complex, other parts of the language tend to become more complex,” would that be something you could agree with? I think that was the overall point of his original comment (right?), and I think that sounds about right.

    John Mansfield, that sounds like a hypothesis that’s been advanced concerning creoles and pidgins. It’s not my area, but I would disagree with some of the ways you have it formulated. Namely, morphological complexity is only one form of linguistic complexity, and I don’t agree that languages simply build up cruft over time until they lose it to creolization; even without interaction with other languages, there are linguistic processes operating that may systematize things all on their own. And even in the case of creolization, at no point in the process will you have people who only speak a “simple” form. At all points in the process, the language as spoken will have linguistic complexity. That’s my understanding, at least.

    So, Dane, about that organization structure you were mentioning…

  23. Gwenydd McCoy on March 10, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    i am sorry for moving this post in another direction. perhaps this kind of discussion is best suited for the Language Log.

    although the idea of linking human organization to language structure and/or use is interesting because, we are primarily able to form complex systems because of our complex language. however, this might not be write because ants have a complex system of organizing themselves as well…

  24. John C. on March 10, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Gwenydd,
    I am very sorry for misspelling your name (although there is a certain irony in that). It would have been simple to double-check, and yet I failed. Also, I seem to have argued that there is a causal relationship between syntactic and spelling change. That wasn’t exactly what I meant (I meant something much more along the lines of “when one area loses complexity, other complexities are introduced”). So, shame on me for pulling a random and inapt example out of my hat instead of putting real thought into it.

    Jonathan,
    That about sums it up from my view. I hadn’t realized that there was a linguistic consensus against “simplicity” as a category, but it’s been about 10 years since I studied it with any rigor and so I will bow to your expertise.

    All,
    Sorry, again, for the threadjack.

  25. Gwenydd McCoy on March 10, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    jonathan, i suppose that you are a linguist? which is why john m. seeks your opinion.

    to address what you said in reference to a point that john was trying to make: “As one part of a language becomes less complex, other parts of the language tend to become more complex,”. i can mostly agree with this if we are talking about our perception of complexity; however, this is something that is so relative. that is, verbal morphology on korean verbs is ‘complex’, i.e. lots of morphemes. english, not so much. but there are other things that go into making and expressing a verb. english verbs and verbal expression are complex entities without without morphemes. they carry complex meaning, complex syntactic structure/requirements, complex phonology, complex discourse functions. so i don’t really think that some things become less complex other things become more complex. i think that somethings seem complex, but in reality the complexity is always there.

  26. Gwenydd McCoy on March 10, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    john c- yes mis-spelling is somewhat ironic in this case…but no harm done

  27. Jonathan Green on March 10, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Gwenydd, yes indeed, I started life as a linguist, although outside of Germanic historical linguistics my competency drops off a bit, and even there I know five other Mormon Germanic historical linguists who have much better credentials than I do. I’ve taught it and use it in my teaching frequently, but it’s not my field of research, sadly. I wish we had more linguists as regular participants. Thanks very much for your comments.

  28. Dane Laverty on March 10, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I love linguistics, and I love the direction the comments are going. I think it’s wonderful how an arbitrary six-word sentence from the post has sparked discussion in a wholly different direction than I had expected.

  29. Michael on March 10, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Well I don’t like the direction at all. My comment just got lost in all this linguistic stuff! Yous guys are no fun at all.

  30. JMaxx on March 10, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    I was just on Amazon and there is a new book avaialbe, supposedly written by a former employee of the Church, that discusses in great detail, the day to day effect of the “organizational management” of the Church.

    http://www.amazon.com/Book-Mammon-Open-Corporation-Mormons/dp/144959837/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1268258531&sr=1-10

  31. Bob on March 10, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Jonathan and/or Gwenydd, when you state you are ‘linguists’, what does that mean? Or, what department of study are you talking about? All my study of linguistics, was a subset of my study of Anthropology. Maybe how we define language is different because of how we studied it?

  32. Bob on March 10, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    #30: Is this the same guy doing the series at BCC?

  33. JMaxx on March 10, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    #32

    I don’t know.

  34. Gwenydd McCoy on March 10, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    bob – i am a theoretical linguist, along the chomsky strain but not exclusively chomsky. when i say this i mean that i study the theoretical models of language structure that supposedly the brain has.

    i don’t think that how anthropology and linguistics proper define language differently, anymore. there was a time that it was, but the definition of linguistics post-1950s is generally related to definition of linguistics proper.

    My understanding is that anthropology is now more concerned with how peoples use language to represent different aspects of life.

  35. Cameron Nielsen on March 10, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    For my bureaucracies are not your bureaucracies, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
    For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my aways higher than your ways, and my bureaucracies than your bureaucracies.

    I likened!

  36. John C. on March 10, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Generally, linguists refers to people who studied linguistics (I was a major in college). As noted, I graduated 10 years ago, so I’m not surprised that the field has shifted somewhat. Back when I was involved, anthropological linguistics meant something ;)

    Bob, it isn’t. Don’t be daft.

  37. Bob on March 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    #34: I am an empirical Boasian. I guess that’s cause our diffenent views. But we need to get back to Dane’s post now.
    #36: “It’s not”. If you mean my #32, I see now I was wrong in my question that maybe Daemon Smith was the same as Daymon Smith. Sorry for being daft.

  38. Dane Laverty on March 10, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    Incidentally, my comment on languages evolving from complex to simple comes from my basic (and perhaps erroneous) understanding that Sanskrit, Old English, and Old Slavic each had a wider array of declensions, conjugations, phonemes, and exceptional cases than their modern descendants have. I liked that as an example of how people learn to shed their unnecessary baggage and hold onto selected core principles over the course of time.

  39. Mark D. on March 11, 2010 at 12:05 am

    I understand why the Church needs to be unified, and have an unambiguous determination of what is the doctrine of the church and what is not. On the other hand, there is a incredible risk that eliminating everything that there isn’t a consensus on will dilute the doctrine of the Church down to the point where on all but the most fundamental of issues it doesn’t really have anything to say at all.

    Members and others do not have to agree with every aspect of the doctrine of the Church to be interested in what it has to say. And if it indeed says very little, people won’t pay very much attention.

    There is a similar issue with announcing positions without trying to actually persuade anyone why they should be adopted, as if the art of persuasion and ultimately theology are too close to the gutter for an organization that prides itself on fideism.

    Clearly there are advantages to theological minimalism, but the ability to influence the culture at large isn’t one of them.

  40. Mark D. on March 11, 2010 at 12:12 am

    Re: “The Book of Mammon”

    Speaking of titles that will guarantee that few if any will pay any attention what you have to say, this has got to be near the top of the list.

  41. Bob on March 11, 2010 at 1:25 am

    #39: I don’t understand the risk you see in a simple Gospel? Nor anything unified or unambiguous in the Church’s doctines beyond the simple Gospel message?

  42. Dane Laverty on March 11, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Mark, I agree with what I think you’re saying here. It is the distinctively Mormon parts of our doctrine that I love, and I hope not to see them lost in a move toward mainstreaming our worship.

  43. Dane Laverty on March 11, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Also, Mark, you hit on something important with this: “There is a similar issue with announcing positions without trying to actually persuade anyone why they should be adopted…”

    The reasons given to support a doctrine often become quickly outdated, e.g. the Word of Wisdom. This doesn’t mean that the doctrine itself is wrong, just that it needs to be understood in the context of an ever evolving global knowledge base.

    I used to prefer, “That’s just the way it is”-type explanations, since they wouldn’t lean too hard on our fallible justifications, but now I appreciate that owning the burden of rationally justifying our doctrines ensures that we are continually engaged with them. This has the advantage of helping us to privilege the doctrines that are the most relevant to our day.

  44. James Olsen on March 11, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    I really like your latest comment Dane (#43). In general, I thought this was a great post and you’ve made some great comments. I like the idea of our taking up the burden of rationally justifying or jettisoning (i.e., reforming) our current stabilizing bureaucracy. I know I sound very either/or in my comments above, but it’s clearly not an exhaustive dichotomy. As you hint here, we ought not either rest content with bureaucracy merely because it has a stabilizing affect or was necessary when implemented. Nor ought we to jettison it all together, but take it up in such a way that it makes sense of and appropriately stabilizes our current needs and projects as a people (if we think it’s not doing so already; and if that’s the case, we need to spell out why and not merely complain about certain uncomfortable features).

  45. Bob on March 11, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    #39: “Clearly there are advantages to theological minimalism, but the ability to influence the culture at large isn’t one of them.”

    IMO, billions of people are looking for one ‘minimal’ thing___Hope.
    The Church has to reduce it’s message to that, then it will become the ‘mainstream’.

  46. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 11, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    The Church in 2010 has MANY differences in operation from the Church in 1968, just before I left on my mission. The extension of the priesthood to people of African descent is an obvious big one, but there is also the change to the block meeting schedule, the rise of calls to senior couple missionaries, the increase in female missionaries, the creation of the Quorums of Seventies as the intermediate level of church leadership around the world, the creation of the integrated scriptures (with cross references from and to the Bible), the emphasis on the scriptures as the text for gospel study, the renewed emphasis on actually studying the Book of Mormon and teaching from it and not just the Bible, the effort to provide Seminaries and Institutes to the maximum number of members, the increase in members in foreign nations called as missionaries, the conversion of Ricks College to BYU-Idaho and all it entails, the new guide for missionaries that gives them more ability to respond to spiritual guidance as they teach, the international church magazines, iincreased efforts in international aid in disasters, simplifications to temple ordinances, and so on. If all these changes had happened in a single year, we would appreciate how much of a change they are, but they have been gradual changes over four decades, so the overall sense is of continuity. Yet the changes have been significant. The fact that more than half of all Mormons are now outside the US and speak languages other than English is a major demographic change from the Church as I knew it in 1968.

    In light of all these changes, the fact that so much else in the Church is conserved is fortunate, because it provides continuity in the midst of real change.

    When thinking about this kind of thing, I fall back on my 20 years experience in the US Air Force, another large organization (it used to be over a million military members, plus civilian employees, contractor employees, and family members) which underwent significant change in the last few decades, especially with the end of the Cold War and the reduction in the strategic nuclear mission and the new emphasis on smaller national level wars largely against insurgents and terrorists. The armed forces have a lot of emphasis on tradition, including rank and formalities and uniforms, even as many aspects of the work and the instruments used to accomplish it change drastically with new technology and political developments, such as the enactment of many environmental regulations governing government operations. Especially with the change to an all-volunteer military in the wake of the Vietnam War, the armed forces have many of the same organizational issues that the Church has, in terms of recruiting and training and leadership and accomplishment of missions, as well as setting and enforcing high standards of behavior.

    I think that, to a great extent, the “conservatism” of both the Church and the armed forces is important in allowing both large internationally deployed organizations to adapt, often rapidly, to significant changes. The aspects of continuity give the organizations the flexibility to adapt to new technologies and new political and social conditions.

  47. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 11, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Let me add one example to the kind of change I have seen in the Church in my lifetime, specifically the degree of study of the Book of Mormon.

    When I was on my misison in Japan in 1969-71, Bruce McConkie, then of the First Council of the Seventy, was a supervisor of the missions in Japan and Korea. Every six months he would come over and attend conferences of the members and spend a day with the missionaries, both in large teaching meetings and individual interviews.

    In one of the teaching meetings, a missionary asked him “How can the Book of Mormon contain the ‘fulness of the Gospel’ when it does not talk about temple work and baptisms for the dead and eternal marriage?” Nowadays it is a standard part of the curriculum in Gospel Doctrine classes and Seminary to cite the passage in 3rd Nephi 27 in which Jesus explains that his Gospel consists of the First Principles and Ordinances, along with enduring to the end faithfully. But McConkie did not have that passage at his fingertips, or even refer to it generally. It was something that some of us found on our own, but was not part of the standard repertoire of Church teachings.

    Ten years later, in 1981, at the instigation of a member of our District Council in Japan, we had a goal for members to go back and read the Book of Mormon all the way through, which was an unusual challenge at the time. Like the time a few years ago when President Hinckley challenged all members to do so, we enjoyed special blessings from it, including some special personal revelatory experiences for memnbers of our branch. This was before Ezra Taft Benson called for new emphasis on studying the Book of Mormon in 1985.

    At the same time, the establishment of FARMS next to BYU generated a new focus on serious application of scholarly research into the Book of Mormon, producing the thoughful insights that have illuminated the Book of Mormon as a document with roots in both the ancient Middle East and ancient Meso-America. This has been just part of the trend toward more serious religious scholarship among Church members, in ancient languages and religion, and in Church history in the 19th and 20th Centuries, much of it culminating in achievements like the new Church History archive building, the Joseph Smith Papers project, and the Book of Mormon Critical Text project, and the recently published research on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Even though ordinary Church curriculum materials are kept simple, the opportunity for members to learn more about the scriptures and Church history has never been greater. We have all sorts of informed scholarship to help us appreciate the meat in the Book of Mormon that we didn’t even know existed a few decades ago, going far beyond the homiletic essays about scripture stories that were so common in earlier decades.

    Frankly, I am not aware of any comparable trend of expanding scholarship and increased member scriptural study in any other major US denomination in the last half century. There have been major organizational trends, such as megachurches and home churches, and political trends, such as the American Catholic Bishops’ response to the child sex abuse scandals and calls for homosexual marriage. But my reading of sources like Christianity Today and First Things and other publications has not indicated any movement toward increased personal scripture study as an element of the teachings or organizational emphases of any other sect.

  48. Alison Moore Smith on March 12, 2010 at 1:24 am

    Interesting stuff to think about, Dane.

    Mildly related: probably the best bishop we’ve ever had was Dave Cherrington, a professor organizational behavior at BYU. The mix of being really adept at running the ward and his wonderful manner was an amazing combination.

  49. Dane Laverty on March 12, 2010 at 1:28 am

    Thank you Raymond. None of my characterizations of the church (including its “resistance to change”) were meant to be negative, just descriptive. As several commentors have pointed out here, these attributes are common to all organizations, not just the church.

    You are also right that the church does change. However, the fact that the church changes doesn’t mean that it is not resistant to change. In the examples you gave, over the past forty years the church has dropped a racist policy, revamped its teaching curriculum, had a re-org of its upper middle management, and changed some strategic focuses. Those are certainly significant, but forty years is also a long time.

    I’m not addressing the question of whether the church *should* be less resistant to change (the answer to that question, from 100% of respondents, is “Yes, the church should be less resistant to change, but only if it changes in the ways I want it to.”) I’m just observing that it is.

  50. Mark D. on March 12, 2010 at 11:32 am

    I don’t understand the risk you see in a simple Gospel?

    One way of looking at it is that a minimalist approach to the Gospel makes Mormonism look just like every other Christian denomination on the planet, minus an attempt at theological seriousness.

    Take Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith for example. What percentage of the contents of those speeches figure in any way shape or form into the normative doctrine of the Church, the curriculum, general conference or otherwise? The answer is none of it.

    That is to say nothing of the neglect of the scriptures themselves. In any given sacrament meeting, it seems to be more the exception than the rule that any single scripture is even mentioned, let alone quoted or paraphrased. Joseph Smith could hardly go two sentences without paraphrasing something from the New Testament.

    So I can’t help but think that if an outsider visits one of our meetings they would not tend to think that they are visiting a group of believers who are sincere but who have little or no grounding in the scriptures, and don’t really care about theological questions at all. In other words, Mormonism as it stands is increasingly an oral tradition that is passed on from member to member with only the most superficial resort to the written word. In other words, not just primitive Christianity, but an (arguably) primitive approach to Christianity.

    The issue is, “Does that approach have a cost?”. In my opinion it does, and the main cost is in intellectual and cultural influence, even in the lives (and in the minds) of its own members.

  51. Dane Laverty on March 12, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Mark D.,

    Well said.

  52. Mark D. on March 12, 2010 at 11:44 am

    So what do we do to cure this? The usual answer is Gospel Doctrine, Seminary, and Institute classes? But the approach taken in _all_ three doesn’t address the problem at all. It is devotional and practical – to help people to have a spiritual experience and to rededicate themselves to righteous living.

    That is all well and good, but it doesn’t scratch the surface of the intellectual void about how Mormonism has any more to say about anything than the denomination across the street.

  53. Mark D. on March 12, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Thanks Dane.

  54. Bob on March 12, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    #50: Mark, I don’t think having a simple Gospel message would make Mormons look like every other church. Mormons would not look like Catholics or most others Faiths.
    I think all faiths have a ” theological seriousness” to them.
    Besides, is it not the goal to have all of mankind on the same Gospel page?

  55. Dane Laverty on March 12, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Bob, I don’t think the goal is to have all mankind on the same page. It’s to have all mankind on the awesome page. Being on the same page is only valuable insofar is it is a good page.

  56. Bob on March 12, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    #55: I agree with you. But Mark wants his own page,so he doesn’t look like everyone else.

  57. Mark D. on March 12, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Bob, I am just pointing out why Mormonism, as a theology, has very little in the way of cultural or intellectual influence on the outside world. I am not convinced it has much in the way of _intellectual_ influence on its own members.

    Catholicism, by contrast, has an enormous intellectual influence on its own members, and in particular on the ones that attend Catholic secondary schools. Where attending a Mormon school, or seminary, or institute is not likely to have a perceptible intellectual influence at all. The reason why is that the church is adamantly opposed to systematic theology.

    The problem is that systematic theology is the means whereby religious traditions have an influence on the way people think about generally secular questions. Refusing to have a systematic theology abandons the field to strictly agnostic approaches to all serious questions.

    If you attend a Mormon university and cannot tell how Mormonism applies or what it has to say about your field of study, that is because it doesn’t say anything and the authorities don’t want it to. Catholic schools (traditionally at least) are at the opposite end of the spectrum. There is Catholic scholarship on virtually every topic under the sun, and Catholic leaders actually care about inculcating it.

  58. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 12, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Mark D: I am not sure about how much influence Catholic theology has on the way most Catholics live and act in society. In light of the way many Catholic members of Congress refuse to do anything that would restrict abortion on demand, it has been said that the Catholic Bishops in the USA would have more success with their social agenda on public policy if allo the Catholic members of Congress were replaced by Muslims and Mormons.

    The fact that Catholic theologians over the centuries have addressed all sorts of issues, with a great deal of thoughtful consideration, does not necessarily mean that the conclusions they draw are closer to the intent of God. The first message of God to Joseph Smith was that these deep thinkers had steered their churches into some dead ends. This is especially clear with respect to many of the aspects of the creeds that clearly derive from the Greek philosophical tradition, which dictate the nature of God to be radically different from the descriptions in scripture.

    Given that lesson about the fallibility of men trying to think their way to God, it should not be a surprise that Latter-day Saints have reservations about the ability of the methods of theology to achieve reliable understanding about the truths of God. That skepticism was renewed for many of us when the revelation of June 1978 blew out of the water the detailed rationales for the priesthood ordination ban that had been reasoned out based on various passages in the Bible and the Book of Abraham.

    My own experience of Seminary and Institute was that it had significant effects on my understanding of the Gospel and my conviction of its truth. When I was a college freshman at the University of Utah enrolled in the Honors Intellectual Tradition of the West sequence, before my own mission, during a discussion of the New Testament, my paltry knowledge of the scriptures was enough to bring to the attention of our non-Mormon PhD professor a number of statements in the Epistles of Peter about salvation for the dead that he was unfamiliar with. My Institute classes introduced me to C.S. Lewis, and our guest speakers included Henry Eyring, Hugh Nibley and Neal Maxwell. When I taught Seminary and Institute in Omaha as a calling, I tried my best to make it an intellectual experience for my students, helping them to confront serious questions and finding serious answers in the Restored Gospel.

    It is clear that Hugh Nibley and a few of his colleagues at BYU engendered a second generation of serious scholars who can apply their tools to study of the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, not so much to create a grand design that can be taught in lieu of the scriptures, but to really understand what the scriptures have always been saying all along. Mormon religious scholarship may not create the giddy architecture of a theology of Augustine or Aquinas, but it is largely because we are more concerned with relatively low-rise intellectual structures that have solid foundations.

  59. Bob on March 12, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    #57: Mark, we are starting to agree. But I am not sure that in speaking about Mormonism and a “systematic theology”__”There’s no there there”(?) That’s why I think keep it simple is better for the larger body.

    As for the outside world: as long Mormonism relies on the words of JS, the BoM, the D & C,__ to prove itself, the outside world will not be interested.

  60. James Olsen on March 12, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Mark D. – I agree with much of what you’ve said, especially about the danger of the church’s official actions/curricula/institutes being in danger of not having a significant intellectual influence on its members. A couple points: first, our opposition to systematic theology has great potential advantages if we would take them up. And one certainly doesn’t need systematic theology in order to have significant intellectual impact (Islam and Judaism are good examples). Second, while I agree we lack the institutional influence, Mormonism itself, particularly our history and the theology laid out in the opening of our dispensation, has already and will undoubtedly continue to have tremendous impact on intellectuals in the church. Rather than applying a rigid theology to outside questions, we nonetheless bring more or less well-defined predispositions and insights to our fields of study. Case in point: my dissertation centers on embodiment and its relation to language. Not only was my interest in the topic largely influenced by my Mormonism, the routes I have taken have likewise been so influenced.

  61. Bob on March 12, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    #60: But the Church has never liked it’s ‘intellectuals’, nor wished them make an impact on it’s members.

  62. Mark D. on March 13, 2010 at 1:39 am

    But the Church has never liked it’s ‘intellectuals’, nor wished them make an impact on it’s members.

    “Intellectuals” is a bit of a pejorative. The issue is not whether intellectuals have any impact on the church, but whether the church wins not only the hearts but also the minds of its members.

    And admittedly the main reason why the church is hostile to systematic theology is that the authorities are afraid that doing otherwise would risk a repeat of the apostasy. What I am saying is that there is a price to be paid.

  63. Bob on March 13, 2010 at 9:21 am

    #62: Mark, do you think the GAs have now outsourced any possibe “systematic theology” to it’s ‘intellectuals’[Provo.etc.]?

  64. Mark D. on March 13, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Bob, I agree that the GAs have outsourced theology to Provo, and the religion department in particular. However, the religion department is notable for not actually doing anything resembling systematic theology.

    We have BYU religion types who debate grace, works, and the operation of the Atonement in an environment devoid of the most fundamental hypotheses that could give substance to their positions. That tends to reduce what they say on the subject to a collection of ‘just so’ statements.

    It is well understood in LDS circles that the Augustinian import of Greek onto-theology into Christianity was defective. Okay, so fix it. Everything about classical Christian theology post-Augustine follows the implications of onto-theology and creatio ex nihilo like water flowing downhill.

    But when the most dominant theological influence in the church seems to be Protestant ideas about grace, works, and salvation, I half way wonder if the advocates of this reconciliation have spent any effort tracing these ideas back to their origins. In a deterministic, creatio ex nihilo world, like that of both Augustine and Calvin it is difficult for anything to be anything but grace.

    The dominant LDS theological perspective these days is the “God as magician” view. The problem with that idea is that it makes any theological explanation superfluous. God can have anything he wants, any time he wants. That makes the “plan” of salvation meaningless, the Atonement meaningless, suffering meaningless, pretty much the whole gospel meaningless.

    The first century of LDS theology was not nearly as shallow. Prominent LDS authors understood why natural law was necessary for the gospel to make any sense, and so on. The dominant trend for the past half century or so has been rather to discard much of what makes Mormon theology promising and revert to classical Protestant theology wholesale, apparently without the slightest investigation into the ultimate justifications for the Protestant approach to theology in the first place.

  65. Dane Laverty on March 13, 2010 at 11:32 am

    The goal of systematic theology is not to discover the truth about God; every theology becomes woefully outdated fairly quickly. Rather, theology forces us to engage with (and confront) the doctrines we teach. It causes us to explain and justify, and in the process, appreciate, understand, or reject beliefs and practices that are (or are not) useful to us in our work of building the kingdom of God on the earth and in our hearts and homes.

  66. ji on March 14, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Mark D. (no. 50) — Perhaps a reason that much of the text of “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” doesn’t appear in modern seminaries and institutes is that the text hasn’t been accepted by the Church as doctrinal. We have accepted the scriptures, including the Doctrine and Covenants, as doctrinal. And a problem with systematic theology is who writes it — my oral explanations of theology might differ from yours, and that’s okay — but if we have to agree on a single explanation and write it down, then we’re writing down philosophies of men and disagreeing on those philosophies. I am glad that we don’t have an academically rigorous and printed systematic theology, and I hope we never do.

    This doesn’t mean we don’t have theology in our LDS tradition — we do, and it is very deep. The tapestry of Mormon thought is rich and varied and complex and beautiful. Certainly, “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph” is an important part of that tapestry. But only a small part of the tapestry is official doctrine on which we all must agree to be faithful. All the rest is teachings or examples or helps or ideas or thoughts which help explain some things or help connect the dots, or help to see the big picture — but these don’t rise to the level of doctrine. Maybe they fit within Elder Oaks’s use of the term “folklore”.

  67. Mark D. on March 14, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    ji, The problem is that the doctrine of the Church, especially as circumscribed within the contemporary curriculum is so narrowly defined that most of the contents of any Sunday School or PR/RS class is spent not discussing anything that the Church actually endorses, but rather the random speculations of someones uncle Jim or aunt Jill.

    If we were to limit Gospel Doctrine class to actually discussing the lesson material, five or ten minutes would suffice. There is nothing else to cover. The Church only has quasi-official interpretations of about three or four dozen scriptures. Everything else is up in the air.

    In practice, no one in the Church needs to read the scriptures at all, because the contents are entirely irrelevant to the daily practice of all Church organizations and activities. A handful of proof texts will suffice to carry any member from birth to the grave. The Church, more than any time within my lifetime is neither scripturally nor theologically focused. It is all procedural and charismatic – there is very little in the way of guidance as to how to think about the world, how to use one’s mental faculties to solve problems in a coherent fashion.

    The primary focus of the Church is convince people to follow procedure. The primary purpose of the Spirit is to convince people to follow procedure. The idea that one should actually have mental discipline or training or understanding to best be susceptible to the guidance of the Spirit is not the Church’s problem. Nor is having an understanding of the gospel that is sufficiently rational to impinge on any substantive question.

    So we are talking about organizational management. The problem with organizational management in the Church is that there is hardly a trace of theology in the Church about how any organizational manager should actually manage. It’s like use any random knowledge that you happened to acquire somewhere along the way plus a bit of inspiration, and wing it. Since there is no substantive theology about how or why to solve any practical question in church government or administration, that means that church administration tends to be nothing more than a random consequence of the personal background of the individual involved. There is no training there, because the Church has little to train.

    The Church has little to train, because it has chosen not to have a theology about anything other than a rudimentary list of Sunday School answers. Certainly not anything that would affect how two different managers would be likely to come to the same answer about any real question that doesn’t have a specified procedure in the handbook. The radical differences in administration between different managers and functionaries is evidence enough that the influence of the Spirit is not enough to subdue the personal idiosyncrasies of individuals.

    So the Church is constantly in the position of having to tell people not to do what they think, because what they think beyond first principles is entirely an artifact of circumstance rather than anything resembling a comprehensive shared world view.

    You cannot get a large group of individuals on the same page unless there is a comprehensive, shared world view. And the choice to never depart from first principles guarantees that there won’t be one. The practical upshot is that the talks given by mid-level leaders of the Church are more likely to reflect random speculation than the doctrine of the Church whenever and wherever they depart from something written in the Gospel Doctrine manual.

    And I for one positively despise listening to talks from mid-level church leaders where nothing is more likely than the proposition that they will contradict one another on anything other than what I was taught by the time I was six.

  68. Bob on March 14, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    #67: Mark, I am not sure what you want, but I am pretty sure you won’t get it.
    Most active members are getting just what they want__a life plan, and an assurance if they follow their leaders and manuels, their thinking is right.

  69. Jack on March 14, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Mark,

    Don’t desire it. If we were to get that kind of clarity we probably wouldn’t be able to live up to it.

  70. Mark D. on March 14, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    Bob, One of the leaders of the church recently gave a talk where he lamented the decline of religious influence in universities, noting that Harvard and Yale were originally founded to train clergymen.

    Now suppose that the church were to found such an institution, with precisely such a purpose. The question is, what would be the contents of the curriculum? At this point, there couldn’t be one, because there aren’t any books that the church endorses that cover anything in any greater depth than the Institute manuals, other than the scriptures of course.

    So were the Church to found such a program, there might be enough material for a three month course. After that, there isn’t enough normative material to teach anything. So it is puzzling to lament the decline of religious universities, when the church itself offers nothing that would make any university program particularly religious.

  71. Bob on March 15, 2010 at 8:25 am

    #70: Mark, ” One of the leaders of the church recently gave a talk ……..”. A bit dated__see “God and Man at Yale”, Wm. Buckley 1951.
    But not to worry__the Church is creating hugh databases that the Computer will crunch within 10 years. It will tell all. The question is___will anyone read it?

  72. JMaxx on March 15, 2010 at 11:57 am

    #67

    Wow! That is the best, most accurate assessment of the current state of the Church I have ever read. Congrats….

  73. Mark D. on March 16, 2010 at 1:19 am

    No doubt I exaggerate…

  74. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 16, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Mark D: You must be writing from an alternate universe. I see a lot of intellectual insight concerning religious topics among the Mormons who teach at BYU and elsewhere. My set of recorded lectures on philosophy and theology by Truman Madsen is every bit as sophisticated as the presentation in my Intellectual Tradition of the West Honors Humanities sequence taught by non-Mormons at the University of Utah. Your denigration of the BYU faculty and other LDS professors, and of the Church’s intellectual climate generally, comes across to me as criticism founded in your own pride, a behavior which (one doesn’t need a PhD to know) is condemned by God.

  75. Mark D. on March 17, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    RTS, it has often been commented around here that most of Mormon scholarly activity is not theological at all, but rather historical in nature. Part of the reason for that is that the Church does not endorse scholarly theology.

    And what theology that has a smattering of ecclesiastical endorsement over the past half century or so is essentially a return to Protestant theology pre-1830 on every substantive issue addressed. In other words, because there is no LDS systematic theology, the drift is back towards what we traditionally considered the “apostasy”, and the rejection of virtually everything unique about LDS theology from 1835 to 1935. That is what “neo-orthodoxy” is all about, and JFS2/BRM and almost everything that has come out of the BYU College of Religion in the past four or five decades are a case in point.

    The merit of the neo-orthodox character of JFS2/BRM style theology notwithstanding, at least they had a comprehensive one, it had de facto ecclesiastical endorsement, and was published in innumerable manuals and other publications of the church.

    So for whatever reason (some of them are good) the Church (outside of CES and the College of Religion) has largely abandoned the comprehensive part of JFS2/BRM style neo-orthdoxy, and what we have left is a theological vacuum, where the Church has chosen to specialize in not only having as few teachings as possible, but also in the neglect of teaching what anyone ever had to say about it. The idea is that if we can’t be _absolutely_ sure about something, it isn’t worth mentioning.

    So essentially you have a repeat of the sola scriptura revolution of the Protestants ten times over. All tradition is regarded as unreliable and borderline worthless as a guide to faith or belief, and a renewed focus on the scriptures without any sort of theological filter or attempt to unify any but their most basic points. And compared to the Protestant theological tradition, we do this in spades.

    And compared to the Protestant traditions, we take the scriptures that are left much less seriously as well, or should I say our treatment (which is a major change from three or four decades ago) of the scriptures is much more sparse. You could attend Gospel Doctrine class, as it is now constituted, for decades and only scratch the surface of what is regularly covered in Protestant Sunday School classes about the New Testament alone.

    Now there is certainly an upside to this sort of doctrinal sparsity and scriptural superficiality – it keeps the Church from being embroiled in theological and hermeneutical disputes and transfers the focus away from the canon towards the latest direction and procedures from the present authorities of the Church. But I think it is hard to deny that this approach isn’t largely responsible for half of the things said in Sunday School class being non-doctrinal nonsense on stilts. If the Church does not teach a comprehensive theology, a folkloric and speculative anarchy will reign in its stead.

    And that is no doubt why many think we would be better off dispensing with Sunday School completely. And perhaps seminary, institute, and half of what goes on in PR/RS classes as well. The doctrinal classes of the Church rarely serve any purpose that isn’t better served by sacrament meeting. An enormous amount of effort to convey what can be written on a few note cards. Such hours of instruction make sense in a denomination with a comprehensive theology, but with the abandonment of comprehensive theology in the Church over the past thirty years, one wonders what all those hours are supposed to be for, other than a reprise of testimony meeting.

    So if the Church is going to stick to the bare fundamentals, for any number of justifiable reasons, perhaps it would be better to dispense with the dead weight of hours and hours dedicated to teaching less and less.

  76. ji on March 17, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Sunday School and other meetings are wonderful opportunities to hear the simple and sweet truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and some testimonies from personal experience. That’s good enough for me — I hope it stays this way. All the folklore which is part of the tapestry of Mormon thought, some of which might actually be true, has a place, but not in our common doctrine. If we tried to doctrinalize all the folklore and philosophies of men, we would be inviting all sorts of academic arguments and hostilities, and we would be distracted from the simple and sweet Gospel of Jesus Christ. At least, that’s how I see it.

  77. Ziff on March 18, 2010 at 12:54 am

    Mark D., I’ve loved your comments on this thread. Particularly this:

    If the Church does not teach a comprehensive theology, a folkloric and speculative anarchy will reign in its stead.

    Brilliant!

  78. Mark D. on March 18, 2010 at 2:13 am

    Thanks, Ziff.

    ji: we would be distracted from the simple and sweet Gospel of Jesus Christ

    I think that position has a lot of merit. And it is clearly the one the leaders of the Church have chosen. I just think that in the long run the price is worth paying.

  79. Mark D. on March 18, 2010 at 2:36 am

    If we tried to doctrinalize all the folklore and philosophies of men

    I don’t think the Church should doctrinalize a comprehensive or systematic theology at all. It tends to set mistakes in stone. The Church could (if the authorities were so inclined) teach the best Mormon theology in a non-normative fashion, i.e. as “tradition” or “ways to approach the problem”.

    And in any case, I think it is a bit unfair to characterize non-revealed theology as the “philosophies of men”. At some point people have to interpret the scriptures, and no one, anywhere, does that without committing philosophy. And indeed the interpretations of many who long preceded Joseph Smith bear enormous influence in the Church, and mostly for good, I think.

  80. Bob on March 18, 2010 at 8:55 am

    #79: Mark, I guess I still don’t know what you mean. Do you want a new “Mormon Doctine” book written and studied. Or, a new set of AoF?
    I think Catholics try hard at a ” systematic theology “, but their members still see Jesus in tree bark.
    I have been trying to keep up on the post at BCC about what I was like billions of years ago, but I just don’t find it a needed pondering(?)

  81. Mark D. on March 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Do you want a new “Mormon Doctine” book written and studied. Or, a new set of AoF?

    No. The problem with Mormon Doctrine was that much of it wasn’t the doctrine of the Church while halfway pretending to be. And that would certainly be less so today.

    There are two parts here: The first is support / respect for the process of thinking about any and all questions from a theological perspective, even though, as a matter of principle the results will not be normative, i.e. things one “should” believe. And certainly _Institute_ level classes could teach people about the state and history of such thinking, and leave the students to form their own opinion on the merits.

    The second, which could come much later in many cases, would be informal ecclesiastical endorsement of a consensus that arises on certain points, and which are deemed by revelation and or inspiration to _strengthen_ members faith and belief. Those kind of things could be discussed in more fundamental classes. The last thing you want is a situation where you have to believe X are you are not a good member, where X is anything not absolutely fundamental.

    Now Catholic belief is easy to caricature, because the Catholic Church is _big_, and perhaps most are familiar with the more ridiculous aspects of some parts of it. But if you take a look at the Catholic Catechism, for example, you see those things that have risen to the level of Catholic _doctrine_, i.e. a summary of the teachings of the Catholic Church, those which the church believes every member would benefit by knowing and understanding.

    In our church, this happens to a degree already. Some version of this process is used to produce and edit every Institute manual, and to a lesser degree every other doctrinal publication of the Church. The difference is that a catechism is comprehensive. It is not supposed to be a legal document though. It is not a creed.

    And I daresay that if every member of our church read and studied the catechism of the _Catholic_ church, our understanding of our own doctrine and tradition (and indeed our faith) would be significantly strengthened.

  82. Michael on March 18, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Mark D.,

    I fully understand where you are coming from and I agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, you are fighting an uphill battle. The regular “raised in the church” non-convert member has very little desire, inclination, or incentive to dig deeper into the restored gospel. If they wouldn’t listen to the pleadings of Neal A. Maxwell to “drink deeply of the gospel” or to become “grounded, rooted, established and settled”, they certainly won’t bother when ordinary members urge them to do so.

    Most members give lip service to personal and family gospel study and true family prayer. They view the church as a social support network to raise their children and provide an “out-of-the-box” community structure. They would not be able to stand independent of the Church from a testimony or spiritual self-reliance standpoint if the church scaffolding was removed.

    Now, that does not mean they don’t have certainty concerning the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Joseph, President Monson, the plan of salvation, etc. Its just that they don’t see any need to go deeper because they feel the initial certainty is all that is needed. Going deeper is “speculation” or delving into the “mysteries”. They don’t realize the depth, glory, and wonder to be learned from deeper study, prayer and pondering. They don’t allow the Holy Ghost to provide further light and knowledge.

  83. Bob on March 18, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    IMO__ the Church has decided to simplify it’s message to the world__ to the power of Christ, his words, his life + the family + being a better person. Theories will go on the back burner.

  84. Mark D. on March 19, 2010 at 4:23 am

    Bob, I have no doubt that is exactly what the Church has decided to do, and there are a number of very good reasons for that policy. The most obvious downside is that Gospel Doctrine and Institute classes have become about as exciting as watching paint dry. Wasting a couple million person hours every week it not a trivial issue, especially where it influences borderline members not to attend at all.

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