Downgrading Doctrine

November 22, 2010 | 20 comments
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Here is a second post (see No. 1) drawn from Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One (HarperOne, 2010). In Chapter 7, titled Judaism: The Way of Exile and Return, Prothero comments on how ritual and ethics receive greater emphasis in Judaism and doctrine receives less emphasis than in, for example, Christianity. I wonder to what extent this is also true of Mormonism.

Noting how narrative Exodus is followed immediately by the detailed legal and ethical recitations in Leviticus, Prothero notes that Judaism is “about both story and law,” and that Judaism stresses “doing over believing, orthopraxy over orthodoxy.” The word “orthopraxy” should set off your Bloggernacle word alert (see discussions here, here, here, and here, for example). If Prothero thinks Jews emphasize orthopraxy over orthodoxy, he is saying that correct practice or action is more important to Jews than correct opinion. He summarizes this by saying, “So Jews are knit together more by ritual and ethics than by doctrine.”

Is this true of Latter-day Saints as well? Do we define our LDS community more by ritual and ethics than by agreed-upon doctrine? Obviously I’m not the first one to make the suggestion. In an earlier post I suggested that ritual is “largely absent from LDS public life and worship,” but I don’t think that’s true if we’re thinking of general practices or informal rituals. There is definitely a Mormon way of doing religion.

Prothero brings up a related idea when discussing the 613 mitzvot or commandments identified by Jewish rabbis. Prothero contrasts ritual commandments with ethical commandments. Ritual commandment regulate relations between humans and God; ethical commandments regulate realtions between humans and other humans.

Is there a similar distinction in LDS commandments? Perhaps, although I might use the terms institutional commandments and moral commandments. Attending meetings on Sunday and wearing a white shirt are institutional, regulating relations between members and the Church perhaps more than between members and God. Other commandments (the “thou shalt nots”) reflect a moral component relating to how we treat others.

In the context of Prothero’s discussion, it seems natural to situtate Mormonism somethere between Christianity and Judaism in that we draw from both traditions but not to the full extent of either. We downgrade doctrine compared to the standard Christian approach with its emphasis on creeds and doctrine; we downgrade ritual and ethics compared to Judaism with its strucured ritual seder meal and its enumerated lists of commandments. Hopefully we draw the best from both traditions.

20 Responses to Downgrading Doctrine

  1. DLewis on November 23, 2010 at 12:33 am

    Great post. I would agree that we downgrade orthodoxy and “upgrade” orthopraxy, but I don’t see this as an inherent trait of Mormonism. Thinking back to the early Church era, it was our doctrine that instantly defined us; our practices were quite similar to other Christian sects. It seems like first with polygamy, temples, and then–in the 20th century–codified practices like the Word of Wisdom, we shifted towards defining ourselves according to rituals and practices. I can’t help but wonder what the church would’ve been like if it had maintained its vibrant enthusiasm towards speculative theology for longer. Would we have ever decided that the Word of Wisdom would be a defining, temple-requirement trait?

  2. Cameron on November 23, 2010 at 1:38 am

    I agree that this isn’t exclusive to the Church but as one General Authority said recently at a stake conference it is easy to measure activity but almost impossible to measure faith. We can do all thsi stuff, church, temple, missions, but the why people do them is harder to measure

  3. Cody on November 23, 2010 at 1:49 am

    Cameron (2)–I think that your comment gets at the heart of the matter of orthopraxy and orthodoxy. There is nothing that doctrinally indicates we ought to try to measure faith on a churchwide basis, but the way the church has developed in practical terms necessitates measurement and thereby perpetual growth–a “Business Plan” if you will.

  4. Bob on November 23, 2010 at 9:58 am

    “It is easy to measure activity but almost impossible to measure faith”.
    No, faith is measured all the time by Mormons___ when they see someone fails to do the activity.

  5. Cameron on November 23, 2010 at 11:05 am

    #4- my guess is that we are not very accurate!

  6. Ardis E. Parshall on November 23, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Orthopraxy protects and allows more important religious experiences to occur, sometimes. I’m not apt to share the most intimate expressions of my faith unless I know those expressions are going to be met with understanding and reciprocity. A white shirt and die, even steady attendance at church and a willingness to clean the chapel on Saturday doesn’t necessarily guarantee that religious communing, but a drunk driving conviction or a boast about picketing Temple Square or a complaint about having to do home teaching pretty well guarantees that no spiritual exchange will occur. It’s not the orthopraxy itself that matters; it’s what it potentially represents.

  7. Ardis E. Parshall on November 23, 2010 at 11:15 am

    … white shirt and tie

    Freudian slip, obviously.

  8. Geoff J on November 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Dave: “So Jews are knit together more by ritual and ethics than by doctrine.” Is this true of Latter-day Saints as well?

    Yeah, I think to a large degree it is true.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 23, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    The temple recommend interview questions clearly emphasize behavior over expressions of assent to certain theological propositions. The 13 Articles of Faith express many basic Mormon beliefs, but most of them are NOT subjects of questions in interviews for worthiness for callings or a temple recommend, including specific ones for one’s first endowment and temple marriage. The belief questions focus on faith in God, in Christ, and acceptance of the prophets as their spokesmen. Alma’s questions at the Waters of Mormon also emphasize our covenant to behave as saints and as “witnesses of God”, as distinct from an affirmation of specific propositions about the Atonement in the style of the Apostles’ Creed.

    I think a reason for this emphasis on behavior versus declared doctrinal propositions is our reliance on the Holy Ghost to make up for our individual deficits in knowledge. We rely on the proposition that, if we are living worthy to have the influence of the Holy ghost in our lives, the detailed doctrinal understanding is not as important as a guide to what we teach. Saints at all levels of doctrinal understanding are equally saints if they behave as saints.

    Paradoxically, I think this approach encourages real understanding as opposed to simple verbal recital of concepts. Doctrines take on meaning as we live them. Our moments of Mormon satori come as we follow a commandment and see its fruits in the lives of oourselves and others.

  10. Bob on November 23, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    I think Mormons feel their rituals are doctines(?) They are living the Restored Gospel, the doctrine of the Church. I guess I don’t see the “separation”. Don’t do the rituals (action/works), and you are breaking the laws (doctrines/or not following the Gospel). Mormons do acts, callings, works, rituals to please God, follow their leaders, to be Worthy to be with God by keeping his commanments.

  11. Brad Dennis on November 24, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    “it seems natural to situtate Mormonism somethere between Christianity and Judaism in that we draw from both traditions but not to the full extent of either”

    I think that is quite right. It seems that one could almost make the case that Joseph Smith had long been disillusioned with Christian denominations that emphasized doctrine and the NT over the OT. For him true religion had to integrate elements of the OT (Judaism) and restore many of the ancient ritualistic practices then absent in nineteenth century Christianity. Contrary to many popular LDS portrayals (as seen in popular literature and movies) that the early Mormon movement was a rooted in restoring true doctrine, it appears that doctrine was in many ways secondary to building a social order. The stages of building the social order seemed to be based upon patterns of movement found in the OT rather than the primarily philosophical NT. Throughout its brief but monumental history under the lead of Joseph Smith, the building of the social order gradually incorporated more Judaic, OT-based elements of ritual and social practice, especially during the Nauvoo period, with temple ritual and polygamy.

  12. Paul Bohman on November 26, 2010 at 1:50 am

    I’m going to present a dissenting opinion here.

    Mormonism is very much defined by doctrine, in some ways much more than mainstream Christianity is. We call it a testimony. Having a testimony makes you a Mormon. Not having one makes you something else.

    Unlike Judaism, in which it is common for individuals to have quite widely varying opinions on matters of basic doctrines, Mormonism emphasizes testimony so much that it is nearly impossible to stay active in the Mormon tradition if any of the core pillars of a Mormon testimony is missing.

    I recently had a discussion with a very devoted Jew who believes in God but is pretty sure life ends at death, with no existence afterward, despite what her scriptures and rabbis teach. And she feels no particular cognitive dissonance about this lack of faith, or her divergent opinion on this matter of faith. Differences of opinion within Judaism are quite common, and are discussed rather openly among mainstream members of the faith.

    Differences of opinion within Mormonism are not discussed very openly at all. Oh, there are good discussions from time to time, but I’ve never heard anyone in the Sunday School openly express the opinion that Joseph Smith was a well-meaning man who made up the Book of Mormon, or that maybe Jesus really died a normal death just like the rest of us and that his disciples made up the whole resurrection thing, and I’ve never heard anyone casually mention that they didn’t really think baptism is a necessary ordinance, or that the priesthood in other churches has just as much validity as the priesthood in our church. No active member of our church says these things, or at least they would not say such things innocently believing that other members of our church would accept these viewpoints as agreeable and commonplace. People who believe those things aren’t Mormon. Or at least we presume they aren’t Mormon, or that they gave up being Mormon.

    Ours is a take it or leave it kind of church. Believe what we believe, or stay on the outside and don’t call yourself a Mormon. Of course, we’ll do everything in our power to try to get you to believe what we believe, but until you do, you’re not Mormon. And if you quit believing what we believe, you’re an apostate Mormon, and that’s not good.

    So, while it is true that Mormons are bound together by common cultural practices and a shared community, the dividing line between Mormons and non-Mormons is not the participation in that community. It is what the individual believes.

    We are very strongly biased to orthodoxy over orthopraxy. Beliefs make a Mormon a Mormon. Our actions and participation in the Mormon community are the ties that bind us as believers, but only because we are first believers.

  13. Paul Bohman on November 26, 2010 at 2:02 am

    As a follow up to my last post: Think about people you know who have decided for themselves that the historical roots of Mormonism are man-made and not God-directed. How many of these people remain active participants in the sociality of the church and call themselves Mormon? If we really privileged orthopraxy over orthodoxy, we would all know many people who fit this description. The reality is that these people eventually stop participating in the Mormon life. It is simply too much of a strain to devote one’s self to a life within an organization that constantly stresses the absolute need to believe things that one does not believe.

    Jews have figured out how to incorporate a diversity of theological opinions into their fold. Mormons are loathe to do so, at least when it comes to core doctrines. We may be willing to grant some wiggle room on opinions about Kolob, the meaning of eternal progression, or a number of other esoteric and unanswerable questions, but if you disbelieve the core, you’re on the outside looking in.

    Personally, I have sometimes wished for a more of a Jewish-style middle ground. We don’t have one though. In our church, you’re either in bounds, out of bounds, or underground (and probably heading out of bounds).

  14. Dave on November 26, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Thanks for the comments, Paul. Your examples suggest there is actually a strong practice component to what you are labeling as doctrine. What one says or does not say in Sunday School is a practice, not a belief. Some probably feel repressed because Sunday School is not a wide open conversation. At the other end of the spectrum, one hears things spoken at the pulpit in F&T meeting that are all over the map.

    Since we don’t use creeds and catechisms to define the faith or condition membership, I still think it is accurate to say the doctrine plays a weaker role in the LDS Church than in Protestant churches. But we certainly value loyalty and conformity. Perhaps overvalue.

  15. Bob on November 26, 2010 at 9:51 am

    So Paul__(or Dave) how may Mormons do you think there are? It seems you both would have a number well below the one used by the Church(?)

  16. Paul Bohman on November 26, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Bob, if you mean that the official church statistics present an inflated number if members of record in contrast to the true number of active, believing Mormons, yes, there is a discrepancy, and the church numbers are artificially inflated. But that’s a question of methodology more than anything else. As far as the church records are concerned, you’re a Mormon if you’re baptized, no matter how often you attend church and no matter what you believe. I don’t have a problem with the church’s methods. The church needs to account for all who have entered into the fold at one time or another, and it needs to provide a way for active members to reach out to the lost sheep and bring them back into the fold, if possible. Even so, I believe that many of those inactive “members” would not self-identify as Mormon. Some would. Some wouldn’t.

  17. Paul Bohman on November 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Dave, it may make sense, as the behavioral psychologists do, to narrow the field of observation to only the behaviors of individuals, rather than try to spend much time deciphering their inner thoughts, and if we do that, then I suppose it makes sense to say that behavior is a more important defining quality than belief within Mormonism. If we apply that lens equally to Mormonism and creedal Christianity, though, I think you would have to concede that their insistence on adherence to their interpretation of Christianity is equally behavior-oriented. They have a culture of acting and speaking in ways that demonstrate their alllegiance to their doctrine. As such, the reliance on behaviors as a metric loses its relevance in a discussion of behavior vs belief. Or rather the beliefs of all individuals and cultures become irrelevant because we’re purposely excluding them from the analysis.

    Whether you want to give primacy to the outward behaviors or to the inner thoughts, I still think that the Mormon culture is first and foremost a culture of believers, just as creedal Christianity is. Judaism is a mixture of believers and non-believers. It has a strong ethnic component that is compelling enough to make even non-believing Jews feel comfortable calling themselves Jews, and raising their children as Jews. Non-believing Mormons don’t do that. They may respect the faith of their ancestors, but they do not keep it and they do not claim it as their own. At some point, they drop the label. They say things like “I was raised Mormon…” “I was Mormon…” and “I used to be Mormon…” By way of contrast, I’ve never heard someone say “I used to be Jewish…” Maybe someone has said it, but I’ve never personally heard it.

    In fact, the Jewish converts to Mormonism that I personally know describe themselves as Jewish converts to Mormonism. They don’t drop “Jewish” from the description. They just add “Mormon.”

  18. Paul Bohman on November 26, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    In fact, we have a sort of creed in Mormonism, even if we don’t call it a creed. Part of our creed is in the questions of the temple recommend interview. Part is found in the Articles of Faith. Children even memorize and recite those articles. Worthiness to participate fully in the church through temple ordinances is dependent on our ability to affirm our belief in the core doctrines of God, the atonement of Jesus Christ, and the authority of the leaders of the church by virtue of the Restoration and priesthood. We really do have a creed, and it has some very specific non-negotiable components. We just call it a testimony instead of a creed.

  19. Brad Dennis on November 27, 2010 at 1:29 am

    Paul, you make a compelling case that doctrine does factor into Mormon identity much more than has been argued by Dave and others. I would have to say that I agree with you to the extent that doctrine is defined as something emerging from the bottom upwards. Certainly there are central beliefs that you hear reiterated time and again in different LDS environments. Clearly our missionary approach emphasizes a set of principals and beliefs as the primary reason to convert to the church.

    However, when viewing doctrine as a set of specific beliefs emerging from the top downwards, which is the most correct way of viewing doctrine, then I would have to side with Dave. While there are core beliefs that the church urges us to accept, these are not as important as elements of behaving and belonging. Misbehaving and non-participation disqualify you from enjoying a good church status more than does unconventional beliefs. For instance, while the majority of active LDS probably do not believe in evolution, one’s belief in evolution does not disqualify him or her from getting a temple recommend. If anything the church leaders shun traditional theology-based methods of delineating doctrine and prefer simply-stated business-like piths, as heard in conference talks. The twelve are careful to check each other to make sure one does not venture too far out to more carefully define doctrine. Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine was not a welcome piece of literature for many of the twelve. In fact it is no longer in circulation and there is limited supply of the book.

  20. TMD on December 4, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Dave, you have a perhaps idealized view of protestantism. Remember that those denominations which have relatively tight organizational structures have very wide ranges of ‘doctrinal acceptability.’ Think of the anglican communion, which has everything from anglo-catholics and evangelicals to overt agnostics as bishops. Baptists are loosely organized by conventions, and congregations move between them from time to time; doctrinal conflicts there are only really significant in seminaries. The other main-line demoninations are similarly tolerant of extremely wide ranges of beliefs. Very few of them take their creeds very seriously.