Friday, July 11, 2008

the last third

Some things I already realize that I need to add the the paper are a bit on the problems of interpretation; i'm going to add stephen robinson's limited model and point to the problem he has with modern revelation and teachers and doctrine and beliefs; i am also going to point out the problem of doctrines that aren't necessarily true but must be upheld by members as an act of obedience or ritual. and the ending really sucks

Problem of Truth and Doctrine

While discussing his method of determining doctrine, Millet acknowledges that difficulties arise when approaching controversial Church teachings of the past that are no longer taught today when it is clear that “someone in the past has spoken on these matters, has put forward ideas that are out of harmony with what we know and teach today.”[1] Millet recognizes that the “hard issues” arise when Latter-day Saints are confronted with these teachings that were taught as doctrine by previous leaders of the Church (such as Brigham Young’s Adam-God teaching) and then ask:

“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 in our day?”[2]

Millet believes that his authoritative model, with an emphasis on temporary teachings, is able to address these hard issues because modern Church leaders have corrected the errors of the past by either directly replacing or abandoning those former teachings. Other teachings of Brigham Young can be known to be true because they are still taught today. What he fails to recognize is that there are harder issues that arise when these past teachings are put into a context of modern revelation, changing teachings, and the truth claims that doctrines make. While the hard issues for Latter-day Saints may concern the rest of Brigham Young’s teachings, the harder issues in light of these past teachings may ask what it means for something to be true in Mormonism; are our doctrines true; and if leaders of the past could be wrong with their teachings, why should we accept the teachings of current leaders? These questions have largely been ignored by LDS philosophers, teachers, and leaders.

While Oman argues that truth is not co-extensive with doctrine, he does not go as far as to say that Church doctrines are nonetheless true. He does however defend himself from the accusation that he claiming that the doctrine should be contested.[3] One of reasons why truth and doctrine become problematic together is because in ordinary Mormon discourse ‘truth’ is predominantly used along with a correspondence theory of truth. According to this theory, a statement is considered true if it accurately represents the facts of the world. For example, “Salt Lake City is the capital of Utah” is true according to this theory if it happens to be the case that Salt Lake City actually is the capital of Utah. This correspondence theory seems to be what Dallin H. Oaks is appealing to in his April 2008 general conference talk when he says, “A testimony of the gospel is a personal witness . . . that certain facts of eternal significance are true and that we know them to be true.”[4] Not only do most Mormons hold a correspondence theory of truth, but many Mormons and Church leaders frequently appeal to doctrine as being “absolute truth” which does an even better job than science in making truth claims. Richard G. Scott, a former nuclear engineer, recently said of the scientific method, “[I]t has two limitations. First, we never can be sure we have identified absolute truth, though we often draw nearer and nearer to it. Second, sometimes, no matter how earnestly we apply the method, we can get the wrong answer.”[5] Theories of truth that depart from correspondence are usually condemned as relative and signs of a deteriorating society. Exemplifying this claim of absolute truth as opposed to what is considered weak relativity, Dieter F. Uchtdorf just recently said in a general conference:

When we bear testimony, we declare the absolute truth of the gospel message. In a time when many perceive truth as relative, a declaration of absolute truth is not very popular, nor does it seem politically correct or opportune. Testimonies [tell] of things how “they really are” . . . . Satan wouldn’t mind if we declared the message of our faith and gospel doctrine as negotiable according to circumstances. Our firm conviction of gospel truth is an anchor in our lives; it is steady and reliable as the North Star. [6]

Problems arise though when this correspondence theory of truth is placed into the broader context of modern revelation and changing teachings within the church. This becomes clear if we apply either the interpretive or authoritative models of determining doctrine. If we were to begin with Oman’s interpretive model, we would first have to find a “brute fact” of doctrine to begin with, which would require an authoritative model to define. Because Millet’s authoritative model depends on temporary sources to determine doctrine, what is doctrine at any given time would be relative that time. For example, if we applied his authoritative model in 1952 we would see that Adam-God was taught by the president of the Church; taught by his counselors; published in official Church publications; had consistent ‘sticking power’ at the time; and was allegedly taught as part of the endowment ceremony.[7] By Millet’s criteria, it was a true doctrine in 1952. However in 2008, if we applied this same criteria we would see that it is not only no longer taught by Church leaders, but is condemned as a false doctrine;[8] is not published in any official Church curriculum; and its ‘sticking power’ has long since been unstuck. So by these same criteria, in 2008 Adam-God is a false doctrine. Other examples where a change in ‘true doctrine’ would occur include the age of the Earth, the state of life before the Fall of Adam, the immorality of birth control, the nature of God’s knowledge, the perpetuation of the priesthood ban, and theories for the ban. At various times in the past, if Millet’s criteria are applied, we would get a different ‘true doctrine’ than that which would be received today. Furthermore, many of these ‘true doctrines’ of the past were not considered tangential beliefs, but were taught along with the injunction that adhering to them were essential for our salvation. Thus they were not just ‘true doctrines’ in times past, but they were ‘true saving doctrine’ that are now false or non-doctrinal.

Some may respond that the reason for the changes in what was true doctrine is that they were true for the people at the time these were given and taught, but are no longer true for us today. However this is just as or more problematic because (1) such a reason is an appeal to changing doctrines relative to time which is so frequently condemned by Church leaders; and (2) many of these refer to historical facts of the past which do not change. For example the statement ‘George Washington was the first President of the United States’ refers to a historical fact of the late 18th century. This fact cannot change. Similarly, either God the Father took on mortality as Adam or He did not. Either the Earth is less than 13,000 years old or over millions of years old. The spacing of fifty years between the dominant teachings (and true doctrines) is not enough to account for the difference in age.

This problem is not only for Millet’s and Oman’s models of determining doctrine, but lies at the heart of Mormon doctrine, truth, and modern revelatory authority. If a Church leader at T1 is supposed to be understood to be teaching true doctrine, and if any later Church leader at T2 could preach a revelation that supersedes or contradicts the previous leader, then theoretically any true doctrine at T1 can at a later T2 become a false doctrine. Similarly, any false doctrine condemned at T1 can be overturned and considered a true doctrine at T2. Such a problem cannot be dismissed as being unrelated to salvation because in times past doctrines taught as being necessary for salvation (such as Adam-God, polygamy, and a condemnation of evolution) have since been disavowed.

These problems not only concern simple beliefs, but could have practical and moral implications. For example, in 1880 a person (A) who believed or taught that (a) polygamy would not longer be practiced by the Church in 20 years would have been considered to be espousing a false doctrine and possibly subject to Church discipline. At the same time, person (B) believed and taught that (b) the Church would be continuing to practice polygamy into the 20th century and would have been considered to be holding affirming a true doctrine. Yet in 1900 we would see that person (A) who may have been disciplined for her belief was now holding a true doctrine and person (B) a false one. Likewise, a person today who believes a teaching that is considered a false doctrine by the Church and is excommunicated for teaching it could be theoretically validated at some point in the future by the teachings of a Church leader.

For Latter-day Saints (and outside inquirers), these problems lead to questions that have either not been asked, or have been largely ignored by LDS theologians, teachers, and leaders. The harder issues are not the question of why should we accept the rest of that which Brigham Young has taught when other things he has said were not true. The harder issues deal with questions such as, but not only: If Brigham Young was wrong at times with things he taught, why should we accept all that our new prophet Thomas S. Monson teaches us today? Are Mormon doctrines true? If so, which ones and how do we know? If we must use personal revelation, can those supersede the teachings presented by the modern prophets and apostles? Is a concept of absolute truth compatible with modern revelation? Should a new model of truth be sought within Mormonism? Can salvation be tied to the belief in certain propositions? Should members be required to not believe or not teach certain things? As the wealth of information and discourse continues to grow, these questions will become even more important and the need for adequate recognition and interaction with them will be ever important.

[1] Millet, “What Do We Really Believe?,” 271.

[2] Ibid., 272

[3] Oman, “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Doctrine,” 14.

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Testimony,” Ensign (May 2008), 26.

[5] Richard G. Scott, “Truth: The Foundation for Righteous Decisions,” 91.

[6] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Power of a Personal Testimony,” 38.

[7] See David Jon Buerger, “The Adam-God Doctrine,” Dialogue 15:1 (1982), 14-58.

[8] For example see Bruce R. McKonkie, “The Seven-Deadly Heresies,” BYU Devotional Speeches of the Year, 1980 (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 1981), 78.

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