Reasoning the Doctrines

May 31, 2010 | 23 comments
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300px-GinkgoLeavesThe question of the truth of the church didn’t enter my consciousness until I was about twelve years old. That was the age when I started discussing religion with my school friends. I remember a conversation I had with a friend after school. His family was not religious, and he was curious about my beliefs. I started by explaining to him the one doctrine that resonated the most deeply with me — the three degrees of glory.

I remember learning about the three kingdoms in Sunday school and thinking, “Wow, this makes a lot of sense. Of course God isn’t just going to assign His children to eternal joy or eternal suffering. We’re a diverse bunch, and it makes sense that there should be a diversity of outcomes for us.”

That phrase — “it makes sense that it should be this way” — sums up my reaction to most of the distinctive doctrines of the Restoration. It makes sense to me that there should be eternal progression for the soul beyond this life. It makes sense to me that the commandments are not arbitrary tests, but rather are designed to prepare us to comport with eternal laws. It makes sense to me that God should be our heavenly parents, and that we should be able to become like them.

In contrast, most of the doctrines that clash with my sense of rightness in the universe are not doctrines of the Restoration, but are instead doctrines that we automatically assumed as a result of our Christian heritage. It makes no sense to me that someone had to suffer infinitely before God could forgive us. It makes no sense to me that God could be all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful while allowing His children to suffer the way they do in this world. It makes no sense to me that the scriptures could be inerrant, with every word inspired and in the right place. Fortunately, I can more-or-less write these doctrines off as vestiges of our pre-Restoration history.

The reason that I make this distinction is that it seems to me that (relatively) sensible, rational doctrines are a hallmark of the Restoration. Senseless, indefensible doctrines, on the other hand, indicate apostate traditions. Defenders of these doctrines often end up leaning on, “Well, we don’t understand this now, but God’s ways aren’t our ways. It is not in accordance with God’s wisdom that we should understand these mysteries now.” Samuel Johnson famously stated, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” I’m inclined to believe that the “mystery of God” is the last refuge of the fundamentalist, and that it is by appeal to the “mystery of God” that people feel justified doing horrible things in the name of religion.

In the light of the Restoration, and by the example of Joseph’s dynamic exploration of doctrines, truth, and divinity, I hope that we can have the courage to study, discover, and discuss our history and our beliefs. I hope that we will never shy from learning more truth. I hope that when we are called on to defend our doctrines, that we can do more than say, “Well, it’s because God said so.” I believe in a rational, loving God, and I hope that we can represent Him as a rational, loving church.

23 Responses to Reasoning the Doctrines

  1. SLO Sapo on May 31, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    “I hope that we will never shy from learning more truth.”

    Amen, Brother. It makes sense to me that we should acquire as much truth as we possibly can during mortality, from whatever source offers truth. It makes no sense to me that some Mormons operate as if we have a closed canon.

  2. Joseph Smidt on May 31, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Yes, I don’t understand why the concept of mu;tiple kingdoms is so unique to the LDS faith. It just seems to “Make sense” it should be this way. People will point out that other faiths didn’t have the good fortune of having the LDS restoration but still, you would think common sense would have led to this.

    I guess once a doctrine becomes a tradition even logic isn’t going to destroy it.

  3. Cameron Nielsen on June 1, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Well, like God says, some things he does are counterintuitive from our perspective, but from his perfect perspective, they are wise and necessary.

    After all, he let his perfect only begotten Son suffer the sum of all humanity’s sin and pain, something which also seems counter-intuitive to the average person, and would be impossible for us to do for one of our children.

    On a side note, your abstract photographs are beautiful, but seem to have no relation to the subject of your posts. I appreciate your feelings though, and thanks for all your contributions.

  4. Dane Laverty on June 1, 2010 at 12:59 am

    I appreciate the teaching of Joseph Smith that, “[God] never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which He has designed.” It provides a key for distinguishing the commandments of God — if a commandment is not designed to bring happiness, then it is not of God. While we are no perfect judges of what brings happiness, I think I would prefer to be wrong in striving to understand than to be right in sitting idly by.

  5. Jared on June 1, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Dave–

    Help me understand your post.

    Are you saying that if a doctrine doesn’t pass “it makes sense that it should be this way” test then the doctrine shouldn’t be embraced and possibly rejected?

    Then you bring up doctrines that don’t pass your test, including the doctrine of Christ’s atonement, writing: “It makes no sense to me that someone had to suffer infinitely before God could forgive us.”

    Are you saying because you can’t reason out the need for the atonement, therefore you reject it?

    If I’m understanding you correctly then “faith” isn’t a true doctrine because it requires, at least to a degree, a suspension of one’s reliance on reasoning.

  6. andrew on June 1, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Just so I’m clear:

    “Fortunately, I can more-or-less write these doctrines off as vestiges of our pre-Restoration history.”
    “It makes no sense to me that someone had to suffer infinitely before God could forgive us.”

    That concept of infinite suffering sounded right to Amulek, and Alma, and Isaiah (Alma 34, 42; Isaiah 53, to name a few).

    I agree that regarding truth “it makes sense that it should be this way,” but God Himself has given us scripture for the express purpose of making Himself known, and is the means by which He will judge the world (lets see, 2 Nephi 29; John 12; Revelation… I forget the chapter).
    I think we should seek truth, that truth will resonate within our souls, and that truth will agree with scripture (that’s why it’s called “the standard”).

  7. Jared on June 1, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Excuse me, I meant to write Dane in my comment #4.

  8. Dane Laverty on June 1, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Jared and andrew, I don’t reject the atonement. Christ’s atonement is at the core of our faith. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Christ himself states, “I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent.” As you point out, Alma 34 & 42 also explicitly identify the need for atonement. What none of these scriptures attempt to explain is how the atonement worked or why it was necessary. And so we fill in the gaps with explanations like, “God couldn’t forgive us our sins until Christ suffered all things.” Scripturally, it’s obvious that an atonement was needed, but to explain that the purpose of the atonement is so that God could forgive us is (as far as I can tell) going beyond the scriptures (and making God appear cruel and capricious).

    Faith is also vital. It is by faith that I have a testimony of the church. It is by faith that I strive to comport with the commandments of God. However, I believe that there is a difference between having faith in ennobling doctrines and having faith in absurd ones. Of course, this line will be drawn differently by different people, so I can only draw it for myself. Fortunately, through respectful discussion and the gift of the Holy Ghost, we have the opportunity to reason with each other in order to come to a greater understanding of truth.

  9. Jared on June 1, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Dane–

    I agree we need to be careful filling in the gaps. However, when it is done ignorantly it is forgivable. When we err this way, the Lord teaches us like He did Oliver Cowdery. The Lord explained to him: Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed…D&C 9:7.

    I think we “suppose” often, that’s why it is important stay close to the scriptures and the Lord’s anointed as we exercise our capacity to reason.

    The absolute, and single most important thing followers of Christ can do is to fulfill their baptism covenant and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Then we’re in a better position to receive and give the things of the Spirit and “filling in the gaps” in error becomes less of a problem. 2 Nephi 31:13-18.

    Thanks for your post and clarification.

  10. Dane Laverty on June 1, 2010 at 11:33 am

    You’re right, “supposing” is by no means unforgivable — it’s a natural, necessary task we undertake in order to make sense of and function in our environment. The doctrines I take issue with above represent the best reasonings of people who confronted similar questions hundreds of years ago. My rejection of their “supposings” doesn’t mean they weren’t sincerely doing their best, and I’m sure that my own reasonings on doctrines will be seen as senseless supposings to my grandchildren (and perhaps even to my peers in this generation).

  11. Adam Greenwood on June 1, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    The doctrines that don’t make sense to you make a lot of sense to me.

    Presumably the hundreds of thousands of people who have investigated Mormonism and decided not to join didn’t all think that its doctrines were rational and sensible.

    I’m not sure that the ‘it makes sense to me’ test amounts to much.

  12. Adam Greenwood on June 1, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Though, come to think of it, Joseph Smith’s ‘it tastes good to me’ test is pretty much the same thing. So maybe my scepticism of ‘it makes sense to me’ is unfilial.

  13. Orwell on June 1, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    It makes no sense to me that someone had to suffer infinitely before God could forgive us.

    Dane, I took the liberty of riffing on this sentence here.

  14. Orwell on June 1, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    (I’ll try again, please delete it if it’s a duplicate.)

    It makes no sense to me that the scriptures could be inerrant, with every word inspired and in the right place.

    Dane, I took the liberty of riffing on this sentence here.

  15. Dane Laverty on June 1, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Nice, Orwell. Your post asks the kinds of questions that I think deserve to be asked. I believe that there is a coherent model for the Atonement, but it’s neither the “takes my licking for me” model nor the “mediator” model. Yet, as long as we continue to be satisfied with absurd explanations, how can we expect to receive better ones?

  16. Orwell on June 1, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    I believe that there is a coherent model for the Atonement, but it’s neither the “takes my licking for me” model nor the “mediator” model.

    I hope you’re right, because I’ve never come across it.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 1, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Dane, you wrote: “In contrast, most of the doctrines that clash with my sense of rightness in the universe are not doctrines of the Restoration, but are instead doctrines that we automatically assumed as a result of our Christian heritage. It makes no sense to me that someone had to suffer infinitely before God could forgive us. It makes no sense to me that God could be all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful while allowing His children to suffer the way they do in this world. It makes no sense to me that the scriptures could be inerrant, with every word inspired and in the right place. Fortunately, I can more-or-less write these doctrines off as vestiges of our pre-Restoration history.”

    I am puzzled by your statements in this paragraph. You seem to be saying that Mormonism embraces these doctrines as “residues” of historical Christianity. I think instead that you are in error about the embracing, or about the doctrines being “residual”.

    INERRANCY:
    I have never heard or read any declaration in General Conference or a Sunday School or Priesthood lesson manual claiming that the “scriptures could be inerrant”. To the contrary, we put a lot of emphasis on the fallability of the transmitted Bible since we accept it as the Word of God “as far as it is transmitted correctly”. A lot of the LDS doctrine of the Apostacy centers on the corruption of the understanding of the Bible by the superposition of interpretations that consist of the “doctrine of men”, such as the creedal statements about God that derive from pagan philosophers rather than scripture.

    Part of the doctrine of “inerrancy” is the “sufficiency” of the Bible as the “final and complete revelation” of God. Obviously that is offended by the Restoration scriptures, and is one of the first things most Traditional Christians attack in Mormon doctrine. A Bible that is “inerrant” has to be “complete”, or it is leaving out some truth, and thus by itself can mislead us.

    Furthermore, as we witness the creation of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants, it is clear that we don’t apply a doctrine of “inerrancy” to those books of scripture either. Anyone who knows the first thing about the history of the Book of Mormon translation process knows that it was fallible at every stage, and that is consoant with the statements of Nephi, Mormon and Moroni about their own fallability in creating the record in the first place.

    PROBLEM OF SUFFERING:
    While LDS scriptures use the terms “omniscient” and “omnipotent” or the equivalent, I think it is clear that, beginning with our doctrines about the nature of God, this is not the absolute monarch of reality that could on a whim revise the rules of justice and make mortal life without suffering possible. Rather, we identify that goal with the one proposed by Lucifer and rejected categorically by the Father. Suffering is seen in LDS doctrine as an opportunity for the exercise of faith and loyalty and integrity. We glorify the suffering of the early Mormons and the pioneers and the martyred prophets Joseph and Hyrum. It is an aspect of mortality that we foresaw and accepted as part of the package deal for achieving exaltation, part of the trial that would “prove us” as able to keep our “second estate” and be “added upon forever”.

    CHRIST’S INFINITE SUFFERING:
    The volume of Christ’s suffering is attested to directly in latter-day scripture. The Book of Mormon is even more emphatic than the New Testament about it. D&C 19 emphasizes the extent of it, D&C 45 emphasizes the role of Christ as our advocate because of his substitution for us, and Alma 7 emphasizes the scope of the Atonement reaching into our personal mortal suffering as well as our sins, connected with the previous issue. The LDS emphasis on Christ being a physical being, though infinite in comprehension and thus in compassion, forcefully rejects the unfeeling “god” of the Creeds who arbitrarily creates the conditions requiring an atoning sacrifice, and instead offers us God who triumphs over the difficult conditions of reality that are inherent in the universe, a triumph achieved through condescension and the experiencing of all the pains of the mortal experience for every individual in the infinite worlds he has created.

    CONCLUSION:
    When we start with a different understanding of who God is, the issues of suffering and atonement, explained in the words of scripture, take on a very different meaning. It is a meaning that Evangelical theologians who advocate the theology of the Openness of God are groping toward, as they see the need to reject the Creedal picture of a “god” that lacks real emotions, as it is directly contrary to the Bible’s witness of the atonement and the resurrection. Even though the words we quote from the Bible are the same as for many other Christians, the light that is cast on these issues by Restoration scripture giveS all those words a distinct meaning that appears, to me, to make sense of what are difficult doctrines for Traditional Christianity.

  18. Stephanie on June 1, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    In contrast, most of the doctrines that clash with my sense of rightness in the universe are not doctrines of the Restoration, but are instead doctrines that we automatically assumed as a result of our Christian heritage.

    I love, love, love this post. This sentence in particular helps me to understand and cope with gender inequalities in the church. If it’s not Christian heritage, it’s just culture in general.

  19. Jim F on June 1, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Dane, it’s one thing to believe you’re right and to have a testimony. It is quite another to arrogantly dismiss the beliefs of those who don’t see things as you do, especially when there have been and are millions of them. It’s impossible to believe that at least some of them haven’t given reasonable thought to the questions you raise, among others. In other words, your caricature of non-LDS Christian belief is unfair. Rarely do explanations of their beliefs come down merely to “It’s a mystery”–and sometimes our beliefs, too, come down that way, though we say “It hasn’t yet been revealed” instead.

    If a non-Mormon spoke of your belief so innacurately and dismissively you would rightly be offended. So why do you want to be the offender?

  20. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 1, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Inerrant scripture? Moabites cannot enter into the congregation for ten generations (which is defined as a way of saying “forever). Ruth was a Moabite. Hmm, was it ten generations to David? “Forever” until Christ?

    Just thinking on that as I go through the Old Testament again.

  21. Dane Laverty on June 1, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Jim, I’m not caricaturing non-LDS Christian beliefs. I’m accurately presenting beliefs that I, as a Mormon, have held in the past, and that I have heard commonly expressed by other Mormons.

    Part of the problem is that the doctrines taught by general authorities are not consistent with the doctrines taught by local authorities. For example, Raymond points out that the church doesn’t have an official doctrine of “scriptural inerrancy”, but our Gospel Doctrine classes are taught as though we did. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught that God is limited and approachable — that He is like us and is still progressing in some sense. But in our Sunday school lessons, God is presented as a magical, transcendent, and ineffable being.

    You’re also certainly right that we in the church turn to the “mystery of God” in order to justify damaging or absurd beliefs. In fact, that’s my focus with this post. I’m not speaking to people outside of the church; I’m speaking to us, inside the church.

  22. Jim F on June 2, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Dane, you describe at least some important non-LDS beliefs as “senseless, indefensible doctrines.” That is a caricature of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christian belief–even if many of their beliefs are, as we both believe them to be, mistaken. As several respondents have pointed out, “I don’t see things that way” and “I don’t understand that” don’t imply “That makes no sense”–except for God.

    Your criticism of how many Saints think about their belief isn’t strengthened by a condescending portrayal of the beliefs of others.

  23. matt b on June 2, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    Dane – I think there’s at least some aesthetic, spiritual, and mystical value to thinking of religion as, in some sense, mysterious or sublime. Reducing it to what is ultimately ‘rational’ means, ultimately, that religion is something we apprehend with our minds. And the end of that is a kind of sterile deism, in which being religious is ultimately being ethical, and it demands that God fit into the box of logical syllogism.

    The Apostle Paul throws out dozens of metaphors to describe the atonement; the gospels use several more. Is the atonement a ransom? Is it a legal transaction? Is it the fulfillment of a debt? Is it a victory in combat? All of these are metaphors for something ineffable. The _whole point_ is that metaphor helps us think around a concept that’s ultimately not logical at all, the same way that we use metaphors in poetry to convey truth in a non-rational way. To cite another example: to say that Christ is fully human and Christ is fully divine – as the creeds of traditional Christianity do – is to express something that’s paradoxical and illogical, but it’s the constant and irreconcilable tension of the paradox that pushes us toward deeper meanings about what it means to call Jesus, Christ. This is, I think, what Joseph meant when he linked truth to paradox.

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