i know i haven't posted anything in a long while. hopefully there will be more posts to follow.
this is a paper that i wrote up this morning for my mormon theology class. the final is due tomorrow, so any thoughts or criticisms should prove helpful.
What Do We Really Really Believe?
Facing Harder Issues
In the 2004 inaugural annual conference of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, Robert Millet began his essay, “What Do We Really Believe? Identifying Doctrinal Parameters within Mormonism,” by reciting an anecdotal experience he had with a Christian minister friend. According to Millet, the minister asked him, “[M]any of my fellow Christians have noted how hard it is to figure out what Mormons believe. . . . What do you believe? How do you decide what is our doctrine and what is not?” In response, Millet offers four criteria for determining what are true doctrines and beliefs for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this paper, I will show that Millet’s criteria for determining what Mormons “really believe” are problematic for several reasons: there is an inherent criteriological problem, his criteria can at most only offer an abstract and vague set of beliefs, they logically result in a sort of relativism that most Mormons would reject, and they fail to accurately describe what many Mormons actually believe. Furthermore, I will show that while Millet is attempting to face and assuage the “hard issues,” his doing so reveals even harder issues and questions that are often avoided by Mormon theologians.
Throughout his essay, Millet appeals to a limited criteria to answer the question ‘What do Mormons believe?’ In a matter-of-fact way, he appeals to the following four basic standards to determine “what is. . . doctrine and what is not”: its being found or taught (1) in LDS scripture, temple rituals, and/or official declarations and proclamations; (2) by current general Church leaders in general conference or official gatherings; (3) in the current general handbooks, approved curriculum, and official publications of the Church; and finally, (4) it has what Millet calls “sticking power” - meaning that it is “taught and discussed and perpetuated over time, and with the passing of years seems to take on greater significance.”
Millet’s attempt to offer criteria for determining doctrine is a criteriological problem in itself. If understanding true beliefs apart from false ones is as critical for believers as Millet makes it out to be (even to the effect that some beliefs are “central, saving doctrine[s]”), then establishing those criteria seem to be even more important. Yet those criteria which Millet offers do not hold up to the very scrutiny which he demands. Millet offers no scriptural, ecclesiastical, official, or “sticking power” justifications for his criteria.
Furthermore, even if Millet is able to provide such justifications (and perhaps he can), they would still be problematic because the relevance of those sources as justification for the criteria would be based on the criteria they are attempting to justify. In other words, appealing to one of Millet’s criteria for justification of the criteria is circular. For example, Millet cannot appeal to LDS scripture or a general ecclesiastical leader for justification of his criteria, because it his criteria which claims that such are justifications for asserting a certain belief. Appealing to one of his criteria to justify the criteria begs the question of whether they are suitable for justifying a certain belief in the first place. Millet may counter that his criteria is justified because it possesses the aforementioned “sticking power” and is established as a valid criteria by the LDS faith community. However, this also fails because it also begs the question of whether or not “sticking power” is suitable for justification. Furthermore, as will be discussed later, his appeal to beliefs established by the larger faith community is problematic because Millet himself rejects many beliefs as doctrinal that are held by most Mormons.
The second problem with Millet’s proposed criteria for determining what Mormons really believe is that of interpretation. While his claim that the “teachings of the Church today have a rather narrow focus, range, and direction” may be true in terms of the number of beliefs, it can hardly be claimed that particular teachings of the Church today have a “narrow focus, range, and direction.” Millet is not alone in making this claim however. In Louis Midgley’s entry on theology in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, he asserts that:
Since scriptures and specific revelations supply Latter-day Saints with authoritative answers to many of the traditional concerns of faith, members of the Church tend to devote little energy to theoretical, speculative, or systematic theology. . . . Though rationally structured, coherent, and ordered, the content of Latter-day Saint faith is not the fruit of speculation. . .
Though Millet, Midgley, and others wish to assert that an appeal to scripture, leaders, and manuals can deduce a definitive set of LDS beliefs, they seemingly fail to recognize that such an admonition goes contrary to the insights that propelled Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, to set aside appeals to scripture, authorities, and creeds in the beginnings of the restoration. In his 1838 recollection, Joseph Smith recalls the great difficulty he faced in trying to figure out whose interpretation of scripture was correct. He says,
for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.
Millet fails to acknowledge what Joseph Smith plainly saw: that scriptures and statements from leaders are rather abstract and open to interpretation. Even those beliefs that Millet calls the “central, saving doctrine[s]” – “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of humankind; that he lived, taught, healed, suffered and died for our sins; and that he rose from the dead the third day with an immortal, resurrected body” – are not defined in a “narrow focus, range, and direction” in Latter-day Saint scripture, ecclesiastical instruction, and official publications. The plethora of doctrinal expositions written by Millet and other LDS theologians and instructors that seek to explain these saving doctrines show that there is much to be said and interpreted outside the confines of Millet’s criteria. How is Jesus the Son of God? What is his resurrected body like? What is the relation of human works and his saving grace? Though Latter-day Saints have been appealing to those sources listed in Millet’s criteria for nearly two centuries, many have come away with very different and often contradictory beliefs about those saving doctrines – in a way reminiscent of the confusion described in Joseph Smith’s history.
Millet’s criteria for determining whether something is “part of the doctrine of the Church” is also problematic because of underlying relativism implicit in them. Relativism (especially moral relativism) is something that has been harshly criticized by several general LDS leaders. For example, LDS Apostle (and later President) Ezra Taft Benson taught “Our religion is one of absolutes and cannot be rationalized into a relativistic philosophy of the ‘liberal Mormons.’” Similarly, LDS Apostle Neal A. Maxwell condemned “the bitter harvest of ethical relativism, the philosophy of choice of many, reflecting no fixed, divine truths but merely the mores of the moment,” and taught that “If men are not steering by absolute truth, they will drift in the rolling sea of relativism.” These are just a few examples of LDS ecclesiastical discourses condemning relativism as contradictory to the absolute truths of Mormonism.
The relativism implicit in Millet’s criteria arises out of his constant appeal to “what we teach today.” His standards of general ecclesiastical instruction and official publications are both confined by the modifier ‘today,’ and his criteria of “sticking power” claims that “true doctrine” is that which is still taught and discussed in the Church. Millet shows concern and frustration over critics of Mormonism who constantly refer to and focus on teachings of “Church leaders of the past that deal with peripheral or non-central issues.” In light of this frustration, he appraisingly quotes one of his pastor friends who exclaims, “It’s time for us to stop criticizing Latter-day Saints on matters they don’t even teach today.”
The appeal to ‘today’ becomes obviously problematic in light of Millet’s acknowledgement that “Every member of the Church, including those called to guide its destiny, has the right to be wrong at one time or another or to say something that simply isn’t true. They also have the right. . . to change their minds and correct mistakes.” He further acknowledges that problems occur when a Church leader in the past “has spoken on these matters, has put forward ideas that are out of harmony with what we know and teach today.”
Millet’s criteria are relativistic simply because they denote truth as being relative to the present. Truth is what is taught today. What makes something true, according to Millet, is not by correspondence to an actual truth, or even that it was contained in scriptures, taught by authoritative ecclesiastical leaders, or discussed in official church publications. What makes it true is that it is taught or discussed in the present. By this standard, certain beliefs that were once taught, but now abandoned as false doctrines (for example, Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine), were true at a time in the past when they were current teachings. Similarly, what is a true doctrine or belief today by Millet’s criteria, may at a later time be deemed as a false belief if interpretations or discussions change in a future time. What is an absolute truth today may become a false doctrine if the teaching is abandoned or discredited by later leaders.
Millet’s discussion of “sticking power” is similarly problematic because it likewise relegates truth relative to the present time period. According to Millet, “True Doctrine. . . is taught and discussed and perpetuated over time.” A belief is ‘unstuck’ as “[f]alsehood and error [are] eventually. . . detected and dismissed” by Church leaders. By this standard, all teachings and beliefs are ‘true doctrines’ until they have been unstuck. The Adam-God Doctrine, plural marriage as being essential for exaltation, the denial of all death before the fall, young earth creationism, the pre-mortal failings of those with black skin, the fate of the sons of perdition, teachings of God’s past, the morality of birth-control, the virtue of rape victims, and dozens of other former teachings all qualified as “True doctrine” up until the point they were ‘unstuck’ by abandonment and/or replacement with more contemporary beliefs. Even moral stances of abortion, birth-control, abuse, divorce, homosexuality, marital sexual relations, modesty, war, wealth, and equal rights have ‘unstuck’ as they have steered away from their stances as absolute moral truths and have been modified along with the “mores of the moment.” Furthermore, any contemporary belief is relative to its current “sticking power,” and is only an absolute truth because it has yet to be ‘unstuck.’ Because the teachings of the Church can and have changed, any current true doctrine seemingly has the potential to become a false one in the future.
Finally, Millet’s criteria fails to answer the question posed in his essay, “What Do We Really Believe?” It fails because it does not address the descriptive nature implied in his question. His criteria do not describe what Mormons do believe. Rather, the criteria prescribe what they should believe (or really believe unbeknownst to the believer). In some ways, it seems that Millet is doing that which he and others have accused traditional Christians of doing – attempting to tell Mormons what they really believe. An experience that Millet relates concerning a meeting with Latter-day Saints and Protestants illustrates this well:
After the meeting an LDS woman came up to me and said: “You didn’t tell the truth about what we believe!” Startled, I asked: “What do you mean?” She responded: “You said we believe in the virgin birth of Christ, and you know very well that we don’t believe that.” “Yes we do,” I retorted . . . “I’m aware of [the teaching that God the Father had sexual relations with Mary], but that is not the doctrine of the Church; that is not what we teach in the Church today. Have you ever heard the Brethren teach it in conference? Is it in the standard works, the curricular materials, or the handbooks of the Church? Is it a part of an official declaration or proclamation?”
Not only does Millet’s example illustrate the problem of relativism in his criteria, but it also illustrates that his criteria does not answer the question he is posing. Millet’s story ends with the woman thanking him for pointing out that she doesn’t really believe what she thought she believed. Had the question been posed to this woman (before Millet’s correcting her on her beliefs), she might have very well answered that Mormons believe that Jesus was conceived by sexual relations. After all, she is a Mormon and she believed it. Millet’s criteria ignores that many Mormons believe a plethora of varying ideas that do not fit within the confines of his criteria. To say that his criteria define what Mormons really believe is problematic because it fails to take into account that which many Mormons really really believe.
Before concluding his essay, Millet argues that his criteria offer a way for Latter-day Saints to adequately face what he calls the “hard issues.” These are the many teachings and beliefs of past LDS leaders that are no longer the doctrine of the Church. The hard issues for Millet deal with the questions of how Latter-day Saints should handle the whole of teachings of past leaders in light of the occasional false teachings and doctrines by the same leaders. For Millet, the issues lead to the following questions:
Well then, what else did this Church leader teach that is not considered doctrine today? How can we confidently accept anything else he taught? What other directions taken or procedures pursued by the Church in an earlier time do we not follow today?
Millet’s response is simply that that those hard issues and questions should be non-issues because the Church today has divinely anointed leaders to correct mistakes and replace false teachings with true ones.
However, there are much harder issues left unresolved that Millet and most contemporary LDS theologians have failed to acknowledge. While Millet’s criteria may give some resolve to the question of how Latter-day Saints should deal with past leaders in light of their false teachings, there are the larger ignored questions of how Latter-day Saints should deal with current leaders and their teachings today. If the teachings of Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McConkie can be ignored or rejected as false, how are Mormons today supposed to understand the teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, Boyd K. Packer, and other current leaders? Could these teachings also be false? How would one know? How and why should Latter-day Saints trust the teachings of current Church leaders when history has shown they can be false? Furthermore, there are other harder issues embedded in Millet’s essay that need more inquiry from LDS theologians. These include the criteria for determining the boundaries of peripheral beliefs, as opposed to central, saving doctrines; the meaning of truth (and especially ‘absolute truth’) in relation to authority and apparent relativism; the role of interpretation and scripture; the relationship of the community of believers and ecclesiastical leaders in determining doctrine; and the role of personal revelation in the discovery and understanding of doctrine.
In conclusion, Robert Millet’s attempt to provide criteria to answer “What do Mormons really believe?” fails to adequately handle the hard issues associated with the question. The criteria are problematic because they fail to meet their own criteriological standards; they can only provide an abstract realm of beliefs which are widely open for interpretation; they imply a level of relativism that contradicts the LDS standard of absolute truths; and they fail to adequately describe what actual Mormons really believe. Furthermore, while they may resolve some immediate “hard issues” resulting from Mormonism’s past, they lead to and illustrate even harder issues that LDS theologians (and leaders) have yet to fully recognize.
 Robert Millet, “What Do We Really Believe? Identifying Doctrinal Parameters within Mormonism,” presented during the 2004 meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology. Essay in author’s possession. Forthcoming in a published proceedings of the conference (Kofford Books, 2007), 1. Emphasis in original.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 1, 3, 6
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 1.
 Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1st ed., s.v. “Theology.”
 Joseph Smith – History 1:12
 Millet, “What Do We Really Believe?,” 1.
 Ezra Taft Benson, “Satan’s Thrust—Youth,” Ensign, Dec 1971, 53.
 Neal A. Maxwell, “‘Take Especial Care of Your Family’,” Ensign, May 1994, 88.
 Neal A. Maxwell, “Why a University in the Kingdom?,” Ensign, Oct 1975, 6.
 This line (or a variation of it) occurs on nearly every page of Millet’s essay.
 Millet, “What Do We Really Believe?,” 2. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 2. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 4. Emphasis in original.
 Millet acknowledges that some of these beliefs have even “been perpetuated as doctrine for most of our Church’s history.” (Ibid., 4). Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 4. Emphasis in original.