Cruise Control and Doctrinal Ditches

December 22, 2010 | 29 comments
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On Friday night, I was heading up the Snake River Canyon toward Jackson Hole, with snow falling gently through the darkness. At the entrance to the canyon, the following message was brightly displayed on a portable electronic sign: “Slippery spots: Turn off cruise control.” I have never seen that particular message on a traffic sign before. Good advice, of course — you’ll live longer if you are thinking (cruise control off, brain on) while driving on slick roads.

Now it just so happened that on my long drive home I had been listening to a few Mormon Stories interviews, including Grant Palmer (in four parts) and Ted Lyons (in three parts). As is often the case in these interviews, the discussion eventually turned to what the LDS Church can do to prevent Mormons from losing their faith upon encountering difficult issues or events in LDS doctrine or history. Palmer suggests the Church should move its focus away from LDS scripture and focus instead on Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament. Lyon thinks that the Seminary and (especially) the Institute curriculum should be upgraded to include discussion of difficult issues from a faithful perspective. There are certainly other possible approaches to consider should one share the view that the status quo is not sustainable.

These two unrelated ideas — cruise control and inoculation — collided and out sprang a metaphor: when you hit slippery doctrinal or historical spots, turn off your correlated cruise control and resume brain-on thinking. You’ll stay in the Church longer if you are thinking while negotiating tricky stretches of doctrine or history.

I won’t kill the metaphor by overexplaining. I think our curriculum, like cruise control, does simplify (oversimplify?) the work that needs to be done by students and teachers. The essence of cruise control is that you don’t slow down, and the LDS curriculum rarely lingers long on any topic or text. One corrective approach might be to slow down once or twice a year and devote a full lesson or even two to one single topic. It wouldn’t have to be a topic some people find troubling, but if you are going to tackle those troubling issues somewhere in the LDS program, that seems like the right place. Perhaps the lesson, like the canyon, could come with a warning: “Caution: Uncorrelated lesson ahead. Turn off mental cruise control and be prepared to think a little.”

29 Responses to Cruise Control and Doctrinal Ditches

  1. Cameron N on December 23, 2010 at 12:42 am

    I don’t think the problem is the curriculum. The problem is people not being receptive enough to the Spirit and/or actively thinking about questions they have. They get lazy reading scriptures, lessons start to seem boring and repetitive because they forget the details and inspiration they had while reading the material, and then they wonder why they aren’t feeling the Spirit.

    I think it’s kind of like Oliver Cowdery. He stopped doing everything he was supposed to, and then wasn’t feeling the Spirit as much, and then instead of deciding to repent and return to diligence, he said to himself ‘oh well I can’t feel the Spirit anymore, guess I was mistaken about my testimony.’ I feel that the vast majority of people that lose their testimony do it in this manner, often combined with doing activities that repel the Spirit.

    Of course, curriculum can always be improved, but I never saw curriculum as anything more that the barest of frameworks around which to construct your personal version of the lesson, as guided by the Spirit. I think the simplistic nature of the curriculum in many ways is like Jesus’ parables. Those who remain open and revisit material they are already familiar with often learn new things, while those that have the ‘oh, this lesson again’ attitude in a sense close themselves off to personal revelation.

    I also submit that if we are bored to tears by a lesson that we feel we have unique insights on, we diligently share our insights to edify others. The Spirit can teach us new things while sharing something we thought we were familiar with.

  2. Cameron N on December 23, 2010 at 12:44 am

    Great post by the way.

    One further question I have is: what curriculum manuals don’t focus exclusively on one principle? Pretty much every manual I’ve seen does (from Primary to Gospel Doctrine).

  3. Hunter on December 23, 2010 at 2:04 am

    I like it, Dave.

  4. Jon on December 23, 2010 at 2:10 am

    Yeah, it would be nice if the manuals talked about some of the more difficult subjects/questions.

    E.g., WoW has that bit about barley beer. It would be nice to read about the history and what that was talking about. But the institute manual doesn’t say a word.

    Here’s another one. The one about render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Well that scripture doesn’t make any sense when compared to Matt. 17 (towards the end) where Christ says those who pay taxes are slaves (the negative of those who don’t are free). The institute manual just says, “Pay your taxes and obey the government.” I call BS on the manual, I think it’s interpreting the Caesar scripture wrong.

    My two cents.

  5. Tim on December 23, 2010 at 7:51 am

    I would definitely like to see more of an emphasis on the NT, perhaps by sacrificing some of the focus we place on the OT and D&C. Not all scriptures are created equal, after all. I think a change like that would help the church and its members come closer to Christ.

  6. john f. on December 23, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Tim, the Church is focused much more on Christ now following a couple of decades of following President Benson’s admonition to take the Book of Mormon seriously than it was before that time. We hear a lot more specifically about Christ in General Conferences, in Sacrament Meeting talks and testimonies and in our Sunday School classes, so if we are going to reemphasise the New Testament, let’s not do so at the expense of the Book of Mormon.

  7. Marjorie Conder on December 23, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Jon–#4 even so, Christ still paid his taxes (and Peter’s too). I don’t think this scripture gives any aid and comfort to the anti-tax group.

  8. Jon on December 23, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Marjorie,

    I think it does give comfort. The Lord sets us free in His own time and once more people realize they are not free then the people will become free but people can choose to be enslaved if they wish (like when the Israelites chose a king instead of judges). The comfort it gives is validation that non-voluntary taxes are truly immoral. The comfort the scriptures also gives are numerous examples of civil disobedience and whole nations becoming free of bondage. There’s a time to submit and there’s a time to be set free as the scriptures have shown us.

  9. Jack on December 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Ironically, many folks leave the church precisely because they “think” their way right out of it. The analogy of turning off the cruise control might be more applicable to “shoring up” activities. We might need to fast and pray a little more, or search the scriptures with more intent, etc.

  10. Dave on December 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Jack, yes there are people who give themselves a pat on the back for thinking themselves out of the Church and are happy to share their story. But it is not a story you can take at face value — that’s the narrative people tell themselves and others, which may or may not correspond to objective events. Just because they say they think their way out of the Church doesn’t make it so. The same applies to conversion narratives as well, of course.

    So I’m opposed to the idea that thinking is bad for your testimony. That’s not to say that some people don’t acquire troubling information, then do some additional reading and thinking, then exit the Church. But thinking isn’t an independent variable that explains their decision to exit. There are also people who acquire troubling information, do some additional reading and thinking, then stay in the Church.

  11. Brad Dennis on December 23, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    I have also listened to the Grant Palmer interview. Since he emphasizes Jesus Christ, it seems that he is almost more in favor of kind of ‘Protestantizing’ Mormonism; in other words, making Mormonism more rooted in the New Testament, and less rooted in its own history and in the Book of Mormon. And since Grant Palmer believes the Book of Mormon to be written, and not translated, by Joseph Smith himself, the BOM, according to him, is best viewed as body of inspirational stories that shed a new doctrinal interpretation on the NT.

    I liked your analogy of cruise control and slippery spots, Dave. There tends to be a general lack of critical thinking among both lesson-givers and comment-makers in the church. And that sometimes makes it hard for the critical thinking Mormons like us. But then again we are in the minority, and the majority of Mormons probably aren’t in it for the critical thinking aspects of it.

    The one issue that I have with your analogy is that is assumes that there is a road leading to somewhere and that people are falling off a preset road. I see it more as people and administrations constructing roads themselves with the hope of getting to a destination that they have not seen, but hope exists. So I wonder if in the future Grant Palmer’s way of thinking will become gain greater influence among faithfuls and if questioning historicity of the BOM will no longer be considered falling off the road, but will actually become a different and acceptable path of Mormonism. I certainly can’t see that happening anytime soon, but one never knows.

  12. JohnE on December 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Dave, great post!

    Cameron, I think that it is damaging to assume that everyone who leaves the church was lazy or sinful. I know of many people who were fully active and sincerely investigated their concerns through study and prayer and ultimately felt it is right to leave the church. I know that accusing others of laziness and sin helps comfortably fit their actions into your worldview, but it is damaging. It seems like we as a people should not be belittling those who leave our flock, but reach out in understanding and love.

    I think that Oliver Cowdery is a great example. I too though that he left the church out of laziness and pride. However, upon a little research it seems like his major reason was that he sincerely felt that the whole Fanny Alger incident was evidence that Joseph Smith had fallen.

  13. Dave on December 23, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Brad. The experience of the RLDS Church (now named the Community of Christ) seems to argue against any sort of Protestant makeover for the LDS Church. They did something like the changes suggested by Palmer, and lost about half their membership over the nest ten years. Palmer himself brought up the RLDS comparison

  14. Ben S on December 23, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Not a bad metaphor, but I see Grant Palmer as creating a whole new (and undesirable) off-ramp.

    As for thinking yourself out of the Church, it’s also possible to think your way in to it.

  15. ken on December 23, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    RE: “Palmer suggests the Church should move its focus away from LDS scripture and focus instead on Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament. Lyon thinks that the Seminary and (especially) the Institute curriculum should be upgraded to include discussion of difficult issues from a faithful perspective.” I like the second part–the idea of “innoculation” and an open discussion of difficult topics seems like a good thing. It might reduce the shock and betrayal so many people experience when they stumble upon some historical or doctrinal tidbit that is not congruent with current LDS culture/values. But I disagree with the idea of focusing away from LDS scripture. How does minimizing or moving away from the Book of Mormon enhance our faith in Christ? Is he suggesting we lose our unique LDS cultural/doctrinal perspective and become more like RLDS/Community of Christ? Sounds like a recipe for becoming less pecular, certainly, but also less Latter-day Saint.

  16. Tim on December 23, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    john f (#6)–
    Agreed. The Book of Mormon should remain emphasized. But I’m not sure discussing the New Testament only once every four years in seminary and Sunday School is the best way to go–as I said, cut down a bit on OT and D&C, and place more of an emphasis on the NT, especially the Gospels.

  17. Brad Dennis on December 23, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Dave (#13), I didn’t catch that part from Palmer when he brings up the RLDS in the interview. It is long and I didn’t have time to listen to the entire thing. But I’ll have to when I get time. It could be that if the LDS church were to give up its claims of historicity of the BOM that it would entail great division and erosion. I agree with you that the curriculum is simplified and does not stimulate good discussion. Perhaps slowing down once in a while would be good for a change. But I think that the church deliberately tries to maintain a simplified approach and to not “tackle” “troubling” issues, simply because many issues are not that easily tackleable in a single setting. The church needs to leave some questions open, such as the historicity of many OT stories, in order to accommodate the multiplicity of views that exist among its faithfuls.

    Ken (#15), I think you are right about Palmer. Bear in mind that although he claims to be an active LDS member, he believes that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon and has written a book to that regard (An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins), which was the reason for his disfellowshipment some years ago. For the time being his worldview and ideas are highly unlikely to gain much traction among believing LDS, most of whom would see them as heresy.

  18. Bob on December 23, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    #15: Ken_ I have always disliked the idea/word “innoculation”. The Truth is not an disease that needs to be fought off. If the Church was always in a state of telling the Truth, no one would be caught off guard.

  19. grego on December 23, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Quick thoughts;

    More thinking? Great!

    Need for a new curriculum in order to think? Not needed.

    Better teaching? I think this is greatly desired, and often needed.

    Better student preparation and participation? YES!!

    Homework assignments and reports/ training (not reading, but doing)? I’ve found it to be an incredible experience for classes where it’s been done. I think it’s the greatest “temporal” change that could improve classes.

    I love the deep stuff too. I also know it’s hard to swim in a river or the ocean when you can’t swim well in the pool, especially if you don’t master basic skills after multiple swimming lessons on those basic skills.

    I think the most important things to remember when you hit the ice are:
    1. In poor conditions, you should already be driving slowly, relying on the Spirit, praying for help (a talk from the November 2010 Ensign comes to mind…).
    2. Realize you have a situation.
    3. Don’t overreact.
    4. Remember your knowledge, and especially your training. Do your best.
    5. Get back on the road as safely and quickly as possible.
    6. It’s ok to not be the perfect driver who never has an accident.
    7. Accept road service when you’ve got a problem you can’t handle. Still, be wary of who you allow to help, and how.
    8. ?

    Lessons on “principles on approaching doctrine and issues” are much more important than lessons on “every doctrine that is problematic or over which you could leave the church”.

    You really do need your own oil.

  20. Cameron N on December 23, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    My point was that when we commit sins of omission (not reading the scriptures/praying/pondering), that is sinful (by definition), and when we think lazily about Gospel questions (assume all sorts of false dichotomies that we don’t really know the answer to), that is bad.

    I think the main problem with doctrinal ditches is the false dichotomy thing. We have so much knowledge that we seem to think we deserve to know all the answers, when in reality a large portion must still be left up to faith.

    I also submit that there is no way the manual could possibly cover all the difficult questions adequately in a way that would be beneficial. It’s better to leave those things up to individual agency and the Spirit.

  21. Cameron N on December 23, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Sorry for the double post, but I must second #19’s call for much better student preparation for lessons (and teachers as well).

  22. Jon on December 24, 2010 at 1:14 am

    I question if people that have questions over Joseph’s faithfulness have ever read the OT. It tells of all their sins and we still respect them for they great deeds. Sure we are saddened by their sins but we still respect them. Why can’t we do the same with Joseph. It would be nice if it were more out in the open but I suppose we don’t truly know the truth on the subject. I haven’t read much about it and don’t know if I ever will. It’s not that important in the end. What’s important is that God answers my prayers and that I believe or don’t believe in His answers to me.

  23. don't know mo on December 24, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Dave and commenters,
    I don’t mean to presume that any of you should care what I think, but I want to express my gratitude to you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for not demonizing Grant Palmer in this discussion. As one who is struggling with my own faith, I so appreciate the kind and civil tone of this conversation.

  24. Bob on December 24, 2010 at 11:25 am

    I read Grant Palmer’s book. It seems he wrote what he felt needed saying from his view. I don’t think he was wrong in that.

    The ‘rightness’ of what he wrote is another matter.

  25. Michael on December 24, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Demonizing is crass and vulgar. Earning respect for one’s viewpoint is a different matter altogether. It has been my life’s experience that most proponents of a particular viewpoint that seek the limelight often do so with pre-defined agendas. Struggling with one’s faith in a very public manner and seeking to sow unnecessary doubt in other’s faith are not conducive to gaining respect.

  26. Bob on December 24, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Michael: ” Struggling with one’s faith in a very public manner….(is) not conducive to gaining respect”.
    I disagree. I do not think Plamer had an agenda to hurt people.

  27. Cheryl on December 27, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with Grego #19 – couldn’t have said it better!!! So many teachers don’t think outside the box of the set presented questions and outline presented in the manual – and that’s not the point of the manuals. And waaaay tooo many LDS don’t get ANY scripture study on their own outside of the 35-40 of Gospel doctrine once a week. Hard to get much of a gospel discussion going at that point.

  28. Lisa S on December 28, 2010 at 1:17 am

    I think people need to be careful with who they listen to….I see too much over analyzing the gospel, and that causes people to leave. The Primary songs says it best, “Follow the Prophet..don’t go astray…”

  29. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 28, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    We are on “cruise control” when we are not honestly examining our lives compared to the covenants we renew each Sunday in the Sacrament. The Holy Ghost is offered to the Latter-day Saints as a kind of GPS system, giving us a “map view” of the roads ahead and where we are on them. Many traditional Christians are very leery of the way we Mormons claim to follow the influence of the Spirit, and teach investigators to rely on its intimations in making their own decisions whether the Book of Mormon is true and whether Joseph smith was a prophet of God, but the confidence we have that supra-rational intelligence will guide us beyond the reach of our own intellects is very much what distinguishes Mormons from many other religious believers. It is what allows us to rely on untested 20 year olds as the mainstay of our missionary force, and to trust amateurs to lead our congregations.

    I call it supra-rational rather than irrational, because time and again I see it as a manifestation of communication from someone who is smarter than myself and my fellow human beings. Year after year, things that I have accepted as true based on the testimony of prophets and spiritual confirmations to me have borne intellectual fruit, growing into an integrated and beautiful yet ultimately simple system for understanding reality and comprehending its purpose.

    Looking back through several decades of the intellectual exploration of the Book of Mormon by scholars from a variety of disciplines, including geology, the idea that Joseph Smith, Junior, a poorly educated 24 year old farmer, could produce a work of such self-consistent complexity, that shows the marks of an ancient Hebraic culture and language, and with such beautiful and powerful teachings about the nature and mission of Christ, is simply laughable. On top of that, the witness of the 11 other men who testified consistently to their dying days that they had seen and handled the original record adds another layer of difficulty for anyone who makes the claim that Joseph composed the narrative. If he was doing that, why go through the entire charade about an original record and all the difficulties that it adds to the story of the book’s origins? Why not simply claim that he had received it all be revelation from God, in the way he received the revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants? For that matter, if he was simply a religious genius interested in building up a new version of Christianity, why not follow the pattern of Alexander Campbell and other prominent religious leaders of his day and simply proceed to teach and organize a new church, without the difficulty of writing and financing the publication of a book that never made any profit? To claim that Joseph wrote the Book of Mormon is to claim that he was a religious genius who expressed that genius the hard way, rather than employing it the easy way that so many other preachers did before and after, and rose to prominence, popularity and riches.

    Instead of taking the easy path to religious leadership and riches, Joseph made numerous claims that offended more people than they attracted. Any man who was venal would not have put up with the difficulties and dangers that Joseph experienced. Any man who did not sincerely believe in the divine origin of the Book of Mormon would not have, with his co-president and brother, Hyrum, resorted to it for comfort just before his own imminent death (as pointed out by Jeffrey Holland).

    Anyone who automatically discounts the possibility of a God who actively communicates to us in modern times is driving without the voice prompts and visual help from above that God offers to the Latter-day Saints.