God the Mother
by Janice Allred
Do You Preach the Othodox Religion?
A Place for Theology in Mormon Community
[p.1]Do you preach the orthodox religion? In Mormon doctrine this is Satan’s question. The orthodox religion is what Satan offered Adam and Eve as a substitute for what they had been seeking from God. For the revelation they desired, Satan substituted orthodoxy.
The particular creedal brand of orthodoxy preached by Satan’s hired minister is one Mormons readily reject. But the notion of orthodoxy itself is embedded in our thinking. In Mormon Doctrine, Bruce R. McConkie writes: “In the true sense, orthodoxy consists in believing that which is in harmony with the scriptures. Thus gospel orthodoxy requires belief in the truths of salvation as they have been revealed in this dispensation through Joseph Smith, and as they are understood and interpreted by the living oracles who wear the mantle of the Prophet” ([Salt Lake City, 1966], 550).
What constitutes true orthodoxy and false orthodoxy depends, of course, on what you believe; it is a question of content. In this essay I will ignore the question of content and focus on the notion of orthodoxy itself. To understand what I will be doing it is necessary to understand the distinction between the meaning and the reference of the word orthodoxy. This distinction is also named by the terms connotation and denotation, or “form” and “content.” “Orthodoxy” means right or correct belief and refers to whatever doctrines a particular religious community holds as constitutive of faith or necessary to membership in its church. I will not discuss the correctness of any particular religious beliefs; instead, I will criticize the concept of orthodoxy — its conception of truth and its role in individual spiritual development and in the development of Christian community. What I want to show is that for Mormons the concept of orthodoxy is un-[p.2]orthodox. Putting my aim thus paradoxically, I retain the concept which I intend to repudiate. I do so consciously. I hope it will be clear why by the conclusion of this essay.
Let us return to the contrast suggested by Satan’s promotion of orthodoxy as a substitute for revelation. Contrasting orthodoxy and revelation reveals the limitations, the poverty, and the lack of vitality of orthodoxy.
Satan makes sure that the man he has engaged to preach to Adam and Eve has been trained for the ministry at the university. Orthodoxy is thus presented as something acquired primarily through the intellect and available to anyone who can pay the fees and meet the intellectual requirements the university sets. Adam and Eve, however, seek light and knowledge from God—revelation. Their receiving revelation depends on their faithfulness in keeping God’s commandments. The prophet Alma taught, “Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God” (26:22).
Because it is addressed primarily to the intellect, orthodox theology is fundamentally propositional—logical and systematic. The scriptures, however, contain large portions of narrative—history and myth—as well as metaphors, parables, and poetry. These cannot be reduced to propositions without loss of meaning; indeed, it can be argued that the meanings of metaphor, parable, poetry, and narrative cannot be given in propositions. Therefore, much contained in the scriptures is unavailable to orthodox notions of truth.
This point can be further elucidated by contrasting the objective and subjective dimensions of revelation. The objective dimension refers to what is revealed; the subjective dimension refers to how revelation is received. A messenger from God or God himself might speak certain words. These words might be thought of as the content of the revelation; they might even be propositional. Nevertheless, the words of the revelation do not exhaust its content. If God speaks to me, what I see and feel and the very fact of his speaking to me are at least as important as the words he speaks. The subjective dimension of Joseph Smith’s first vision has proven more important to Mormon theology than its objective dimension. Because revelation always entails the appropriation and interpretation of what is revealed and because human faculties and experience play an important role in this appropriation and interpretation, the objective dimension of revelation can never be separated from the subjective dimension, and orthodox propositional knowledge remains a severely limited substitute for revelation.
[p.3]Orthodoxy regards truth as absolute; revelation sees it as relative. Since orthodoxy also regards relativism as atheistic, this assertion requires some elucidation. Absolute truth is true for all people, in all circumstances, times, and places, but truth related to person, circumstance, time, and place is implicit in the concept of revelation. A revelation is given by someone to someone else at a particular time and place in particular circumstances. The objective dimension of revelation may be thought of as the truth of revelation, but because of the interconnectedness of its subjective and objective dimensions, the truth remains relative. I would like to point out several ways in which this is true.
First, truth is located in language; where there is no language, there is no truth. The orthodox mind sees truth as existing out there, independent of mind, waiting to be found. But sentences, paragraphs, speeches, books, or symbols are created by human beings, spirits, angels, or gods; where there is no mind, there is no truth. Truth, then, is relative to mind and language generally, and specifically to the maker of a particular sentence or group of sentences. It is related to her experience, his knowledge, her language skills, his intelligence, her integrity, his love. Once I prayed for help on a paper I was struggling to write when the thought came to me that God could not give me something that did not exist. Someone had to do the work of giving a form to the jumble of ideas, feelings, concerns, and questions which I had in mind if the paper were ever to exist. I could do it if I was willing. And God helped me.
Truth is also relative to the language in which it is spoken. For example, Navajo orders reality differently than English, forcing some distinctions that English ignores while ignoring some distinctions that English makes. There are also different spheres or languages of discourse—the language of everyday conversation, the language of formal science, the language of mathematics, the language of poetry, the language of love—and each of these spheres has its own vocabulary and truths.
Truth is also relative to its audience, the listener or reader. This truth was brought home to me by my daughter. When she was three years old, we had a two-hour argument on what day of the week it was. I knew the truth and I was determined never to lie to my children, but she won the argument by screaming for twenty minutes and then falling asleep. My final point was, “You think it’s Thursday and I think it’s Friday,” but she refused to accept even this effort to harmonize our views, and shouted, “I don’t think it’s Thursday—it is Thursday!” before she lapsed into her final passionate plea for understanding. No one speaks or writes without an audience in mind, [p.4]and the presumed knowledge, experience, language, and circumstances of the audience affect the way the truth is formed.
Truth is also relative to history. Every utterance, every sentence, has a story and is embedded in history. Yet orthodoxy is ahistorical. Orthodox thinkers believe that truths can be extracted from the scriptures without reference to the culture, language, and history of its writer(s), or the specific circumstances of its recording.
Orthodox thinkers are especially incensed by moral relativism. They believe that there is one set of commandments equally relevant to all circumstances by which all people are to live and be judged. Concerning this idea, Joseph Smith wrote, “God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed” (J. F. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City, 1968], 256).
I am saying that truth is contextual in the broadest sense of the word. I am not, however, arguing that nothing can be understood without understanding its full context. In fact, since context is potentially infinite, a full understanding is impossible. Such an understanding would, indeed, be absolute truth. Orthodoxy, however, sees absolute truth as being without context. One orthodox thinker, confronted by the view that there is no final truth, exclaimed, “Then there is no point in discussing theology at all. We should all stop talking.” A believer in relative truth responded, “No, if there were a final truth then we should all stop talking, for after uttering it we should have nothing more to say. But because truth is relative, we must talk more, but more humbly and more carefully.” There are many truths for every circumstance. The responsibility and the joy of creating truths and receiving the truths created by others are ours. The Lord said, “And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever” (2 Ne. 29:9).
This leads us to the idea of continuing revelation. In his article, “The Structural Supports of Orthodoxy in the Jewish System and the Christian System,” Andre Paul argues that orthodoxy is a necessity and not simply a possibility for Christianity because revelation is finished and the canon closed (in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy [Edinburgh, 1987]. 26). A closed canon necessitates orthodoxy. How does orthodoxy deal with an open canon? No idea is more fundamental to Mormonism than that of continuing revelation, but, despite the fact that it presents many difficulties and [p.5]contradictions to orthodoxy, some Mormons persist in maintaining an orthodox mindset.
One way orthodoxy deals with contradictions, discrepancies, and inconsistencies in the scriptures and words of church leaders is to distinguish between doctrine and policy. According to this approach, doctrine refers to eternal truth and policy to the procedures and practices of the church as it directs the lives of its members and forms them into a community. After making this distinction, orthodox thinkers then assert that the eternal truths of doctrine never change but that policies may change as the needs of the people change. The purpose of continuing revelation is to direct the church and give needed policy changes. Although the distinction between doctrine and policy may be useful for some purposes, it is not absolute. Were the revelations discontinuing the practice of polygamy and giving the priesthood to all races changes in doctrine or policy? Also, a careful study of the scriptures on any particular point of doctrine (for example, the nature of God, the nature of humanity, or the process of salvation) will disclose many passages difficult to harmonize. Indeed, extracting doctrines from the scriptures has proven to be a difficult task and Christians have never come to a complete agreement about what the scriptures say. This is why Elder McConkie, in defining orthodoxy, found it necessary to say that “gospel orthodoxy requires belief in the truths of salvation as they have been revealed in this dispensation through Joseph Smith, and as they are understood and interpreted by the living oracles who wear the mantle of the Prophet” (550). This shows that the concepts of orthodoxy and continuing revelation are inherently contradictory. Elder McConkie’s statement requires that orthodox Latter-day Saints during Brigham Young’s presidency believe his teachings about Adam-God and that contemporary Latter-day Saints disbelieve them according to the most recent interpretations of this doctrine. But according to orthodoxy, the eternal truths of doctrine do not change. Thus Elder McConkie’s statement constitutes an admission that orthodoxy finally rests on authority rather than on truth.
In “Orthodoxy and Orthopraxies in the Old Testament,” Eric Zenger discusses how Old Testament Israel dealt with the problem of orthodoxy and an open canon. He writes:
If we wish to talk at all about orthodoxy in the formation of Israel’s tradition, we might perhaps term it a kairological orthodoxy in dialogue form. Israel knows the three constituents which are summed up in this concept. (a) Without its ties with what preceding generations taught and learned, Israel would be without a home and a foundation. (b) So that Is-[p.6]rael could receive its social and political life from God’s hand in the fullest sense, continual new attempts were made to formulate what had been passed down about God in a way that was related to the present situation, so that the “today” of the language was comprehensible and part of contemporary experience. (c) Israel allows these many different attempts to stand side by side unharmonized in its Bible and this must be interpreted as an offer of dialogue. … This Old Testament orthodoxy rejects the notion of qualitatively progressive revelation…. Israel required this commitment to itself: the dispute about truth must never be ended by any answers that have once been discovered (in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, 7-9).
On the other hand, orthodoxy deals with continuing revelation by refusing to engage in dialogue. New revelations result either in schism if the orthodox believer chooses to believe the old revelations and deny the new or in forgetting, denying, and changing the past and its revelations if one accepts the new revelations. Joseph Smith said: “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions” (Smith, Teachings, 331). This describes the orthodox believer who clings to tradition and creeds. Joseph also said: “I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to though all of them have some truth. But I want to come up into the presence of God, learn all things but the creeds set up stakes, and say hitherto shalt thou come, no further—which I cannot subscribe to” (in A. F. Ehat and L. W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith [Provo, UT, 1980], 256). Orthodox believers who refuse to confront the contradictions, discrepancies, inconsistencies, and difficulties inherent in an open canon will never have more than a shallow understanding of revelation.
Orthodoxy craves certainty. It cannot abide contradictions, ambiguity, paradoxes, and the discomfort and tension of not knowing. Elder Dallin H. Oaks in his April 1989 general conference address, “Alternate Voices,” described this need for certainty as though it were normal and desirable:
We have procedures to ensure approved content for materials published in the name of the Church or used for instruction in its classes. These procedures can be somewhat slow and cumbersome, but they provide a spiritual quality control that allows members to rely on the truth of [p.7]what is said. Members who listen to the voice of the Church need not be on guard against being misled. They have no such assurance for what they hear from alternate voices (in Ensign, May 1989,28).
Compare this to Section 91 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In this revelation the Lord tells Joseph Smith that the Apocrypha contains many true things and also many things that are not true. He then says: “Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifested truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; And whoso received not by the Spirit, cannot be benefitted” (vv. 4-6).
Elder Oaks seems to believe that “spiritual quality control” comes from a correct text (the view of orthodoxy), while Section 91 teaches that the benefits of revelation can only come through the enlightenment of the spirit. In other words, to receive revelation you must have revelation. Elder Oaks implies that it is a bad thing for the Saints to have to be on guard against error; revelation teaches that receiving truth is as much the responsibility of the receiver as the giver. Ironically, in demanding objective certainty, orthodoxy only obtains a false certainty, for there is no such thing as objective certainty, while the believer who is receptive to the spirit is able to receive the subjective certainty that comes only from the spirit. I call this certainty subjective because it is felt in the heart and in the mind: “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost” (D&C 8:2); “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moro. 10:5).
Orthodoxy is given by authorities, revelation comes from God; orthodoxy is available to anyone who can learn the ideas, revelation requires faith in God and obedience to his will; orthodoxy is addressed primarily to the intellect, revelation communicates in a variety of ways; orthodoxy views truth as absolute, revelation sees it as relative; orthodoxy is closed, revelation is open and continuing; orthodoxy demands objective certainty, revelation relies on the spirit. In its demand for objective certainty, orthodoxy deceives itself into believing that it possesses the absolute truth of the revealed word of God. Orthodoxy thus sees itself as revelation, but it is really a kind of theology.
Generally, Mormons do not regard theology favorably. After all, theology transformed the gospel of Jesus Christ into orthodox Christianity and has given us the philosophies of men in the guise of the doctrines of God. In his foreword to Hugh Nibley’s The World and the Prophets, R. Douglas Phillips writes: “It is thus abundantly clear that the whole philosophical theological enterprise, however well intended, is incompatible with the [p.8]existence of continuing revelation. For this reason there can never be a theology, a systematic theology as such, in the true Church” ([Salt Lake City, 1987], xii). This idea, that theology and revelation are incompatible, that theology is a substitute for revelation, is widespread in the church. I will argue that, on the contrary, revelation and theology are interrelated and that the real danger to the church is orthodoxy, which does not recognize itself as theology but thinks it is revelation.
Satan characterizes the orthodox religion as the philosophies of men mingled with scripture. This is, I think, a fair definition of theology. These two components of theology are recognized in most definitions of theology and in most theological writing. A typical definition of theology is “that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith based primarily upon the scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom and related to issues of life” (M. J. Erickson, Christian Theology [Grand Rapids, 1983], 21). In this definition the scriptures are specified as the foundation of theology which also has rational, cultural, linguistic, and practical dimensions. These dimensions we can call the “philosophies of men.”
We could also say that theology is the interpretation of revelation, the scriptures being a record of revelations which the theologian interprets through the medium of the philosophies of men. This is not a defect, but a necessary condition of interpretation and a defining characteristic of theology. Can we have revelation without interpretation? “When you see a vision pray for the interpretation,” Joseph Smith counseled; and after receiving an answer to his question about when the Second Coming would occur, he wrote, “I was left to draw my own conclusions concerning this” (Smith, Teachings, 161,286).
If we have no interpretation of revelation, we have no thinking about revelation and no response to revelation, which seems to me an undesirable thing. Indeed, we might ask, “What good is revelation if we do not interpret it and respond to it, if we are not changed by it?” Interpretation has both unconscious and conscious dimensions. Unconscious interpretation, our immediate sense of what is being seen and heard, is influenced by our experiences, culture, world view, and particular circumstances at the time we experience or read about the revelation. Conscious interpretation, or theology, can consist of recounting revelation, attaching literal or abstract values to symbols, placing the revelation in its immediate or cultural context, attempting to answer philosophical questions on the basis of the revelation, and comparing revelations for doctrinal content.
[p.9]Since interpretations of revelation vary according to the questions asked and the presuppositions, world view, language, culture, spiritual maturity, and linguistic skills of those making them, it is obvious that the interpretation is not equivalent to the revelation; theology is not a substitute for revelation. Interpretations contain both more and less than the revelations they interpret, more because of what the theologian adds (philosophy, language, culture, questions, etc.) and less because no account or interpretation of revelation can give everything the revelation itself gives. Many prophets have spoken of their inability to write all that they have seen and heard in their visions. After hearing his father tell of his vision of the tree of life, Nephi desired to receive the same vision and his request was granted. Lehi’s account of the vision was not equivalent to the vision itself. Nephi also requested an interpretation of the vision and received another vision along with commentary by the Spirit. An interpretation of a revelation may also be a revelation, but it is still not equivalent to the first revelation (see 1 Ne. 8,11-14).
The idea that the interpretation can itself be revelation leads to another important idea. I pointed out two dimensions or sources of theology, the scriptures and the philosophies of men, and then equated the scriptures with revelation and the philosophies of men with interpretation. It should now be clear that this dichotomy is conceptual rather than existential; that is, if I examine any particular scripture or interpretation of scripture, I cannot necessarily say how much of the scripture is interpretation and how much of the interpretation is revelation. The scriptures are not pure revelation and some philosophies of men are inspired by God. Nephi wrote, “Cursed is he that … shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost” (2 Ne. 28:31). Reason, which guides our interpretations, is not opposed to revelation: “And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space” (D&C 88:11, 12). And: “[The] Holy Ghost has no other effect than pure intelligence. It is more powerful in expanding the mind, enlightening the understanding, and storing the intellect with present knowledge” (J. Smith, History of the Church [Salt Lake City, 1974], 3:380).
At this point distinguishing between two kinds of revelation is important. Joseph Smith alludes to this distinction in response to a letter inquiring for revelation on a particular subject:
[p.10]It is a great thing to inquire at the hands of God, or to come into His presence and we feel fearful to approach Him on subjects that are of little or no consequence, to satisfy the queries of individuals, especially about the things the knowledge of which men ought to obtain in all sincerity, before God, for themselves, in humility by the prayer of faith (Smith, Teachings, 22).
Joseph is not saying here that this individual’s inquiry was not important enough for him to ask God for enlightenment. His words imply that he was declining to ask the Lord for a particular kind of revelation and advising the man that a more common type was available to him.
The distinction may be thought of as being in the mode of reception of the revelation. In the first type, the one receiving the revelation experiences it more objectively than in the second—she is aware of something outside herself. She sees a vision, hears a voice, or sees a heavenly messenger who delivers a message. The second type is experienced more subjectively. Ideas are received, impressions experienced, feelings given. The recipient of the first kind of revelation has no doubt that it was of God. Of course, there is the possibility that he was mistaken. Joseph was concerned about this and spoke often about the discerning of spirits. The subjective kind of revelation contains more of the philosophies of men than the objective. The one receiving it formulates thoughts and expresses impressions and feelings in his own words. What she writes, speaks, or understands is influenced by her culture, language, experience, intelligence, and memory. It is less obvious, but the objective kind of revelation also contains something of the philosophies of men. The vision must be recorded, in memory if not in writing. We receive the words of the heavenly messenger in our own language with its cultural and conceptual biases. Brigham Young said:
I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fullness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, groveling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities (Journal of Discourses [Liverpool, Eng., 1854-86], 2:314).
The scriptures, then, contain revelations as well as the ideas, experiences, and philosophies of men, and thus revelation and theology are inextricably related. Theology, as I use the word, is simply thinking, talking, and writing about the things of God. Concerning this, Joseph Smith said:
[p.11]The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, 0 man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity-thou must commune with God (Smith, Teachings, 137).
Theology is a danger to the church only when it is combined with orthodoxy, when we think it is absolute and final. But as long as we recognize it for what it is—philosophies of men mingled with scripture, revelation interpreted by people—it can be a source of growth both for the individual and the church. We must not, of course, think of theology as being purely intellectual. It plays a vital role in the life of the individual and the development of community.
Continuing my critique of orthodoxy, I wilt now examine its effect on individual spiritual development. The reason Satan brought a preacher to teach Adam and Eve religion was not to teach them anything of value, but to distract them from what they were trying to do, which was to receive messengers from God who would teach them what they needed to know to return to his presence. Revelation does not simply impart abstract information; it expands our minds and hearts. It may lift us to a new level of being as we commune with God and experience higher ways. Sometimes it tells us what God wants us to do, and it can change our hearts and enable us to do what we are commanded. Orthodoxy, although it presents itself as pure truth or correct doctrine, has a hidden agenda: it plays a role in individual spiritual development and it performs an institutional function for the church.
“For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). The purpose of God’s work is to bring us from our present mortal condition of being, where we ate subject to sin and death, to a state of being called eternal life, which is, according to our revelations, the life God lives, the state of being of the gods. The relationship of knowing and doing to being is complex. Mormon revelations give great importance to knowledge. “The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” (D&C 93:36). “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (130: 18, 19). Orthodoxy, with its concept of right belief, focuses initially on knowledge, but its real effect in religious life is to de-[p.12]emphasize knowledge. With orthodoxy’s notion that there are a few fundamental truths and commandments which we are required to believe and obey, its major emphasis is on obedience, and it gives little importance to theology or thinking about religious questions.
The work of James Fowler on the stages of the development of faith sheds some light on the importance of knowledge and thinking in spiritual development (see Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian [San Francisco, 1984], 48-71). For more than ten years, Fowler and his associates conducted extensive research in which they invited people of a variety of ages, of both sexes, and of many different religious and secular orientations to discuss faith in their lives. Interpreting the resulting interviews, he formulated seven stages of spiritual growth. Fowler characterizes these stages according to their typical ways of knowing and valuing. These are directly related to fundamentally different concepts of self, so that transition from one stage to the next involves radical changes, not only in what is known and valued, but in ideas about the nature of knowledge and value and in ways of verifying and justifying beliefs and actions. Because Fowler interviewed people from a range of religious and secular traditions, he believes his findings are valid for all religions.
The first three stages of faith take us from birth to preadolescence and reflect the immature cognitive abilities and ego development of children. Fowler’s next three stages are where most adults are found. His fourth stage, the stage of synthetic-conventional faith, begins in early adolescence. At this age formal, operational thinking becomes possible and abstract concepts and ideals are understood. The project of this stage is to construct a world view, a synthesis of beliefs and ideas. Fowler calls the synthesis that is made conventional because it is largely taken over from significant others in the person’s life: his family, church, or an institution.
Stage five is called individuative-Reflective faith. In this stage people objectify, examine, and critically choose the defining elements of their identity and faith. To be fully in this stage an individual must no longer have a definition of self derived simply from relations with others and the roles she plays, but must begin to be and act from a concept of self-authorization. Characterized as they are by analytical, critical thinking and the need to examine all beliefs in the light of reason or science or whatever tradition seems to offer as valid principles of discovering truth, individuals in this stage are likely to become skeptics.
The next stage, conjunctive faith, Fowler discovered in some persons in mid-life or beyond; it integrates elements in ourselves, society, and reality [p.13]that have apparent contradictions, polarities, or paradoxes. People in this stage believe that truth is more complex than the logical, either-or categories of the individuative-reflective stage can grasp. People here are open to the truths of traditions and communities other than their own, not through a lack of commitment to their own communities but through the humility that knows that the truths of any tradition need to be challenged.
The last stage, which Fowler found only in a few individuals, he calls universalizing faith. It is marked by the completion of the decantation process. The individual in the universalizing stage experiences an epistemological decentra0tion from self in his ability and readiness to balance his perspective with others. He also descenders the valuing process so that he values from the point of view of the creator and not from the egocentric viewpoint of what values will give himself worth and power.
If we apply Fowler’s model of faith development to our Mormon community several interesting observations may be made. Most observers would agree, I think, that Mormons are typical of the general population, that many Mormon adults are in the synthetic-conventional and individuative-reflective stages; fewer are in the conjunctive stage; fewer still in the universalizing stage. We may have become members of the Mormon community at any of the stages of faith (including the preadolescent stages, which I didn’t discuss). Our conversion to the gospel may also have taken place at any of the stages and may or may not have been at the same time as our entrance into the community.
Because Fowler characterizes the stages according to ways of knowing and valuing in relation to the conception of self, we can use his conclusions to answer the question, “How does the concept of orthodoxy influence individual spiritual development?” Synthetic-conventional individuals formulate their beliefs in abstract language, but they do not reflect critically on them; they simply accept them from their community. Their beliefs are thus, by definition, orthodox—the beliefs which their community considers right. There is a less obvious orthodoxy in the thinking of individuative-reflective individuals. Because these people are critical and reflective, because they test their beliefs in a variety of ways, and because they accept personal responsibility for their beliefs rather than relying on authority to provide them, our first tendency is to say that their conception of knowledge is not orthodox. However, certain elements of their mode of thinking also characterize orthodoxy. They tend to think that truth is propositional, that myths, metaphors, and symbols can and should be demythologized. Their thinking tends to be logical, rational, and either-or; in other words, they believe that [p.14]truth can be discovered through appropriate procedure. Mormons in this stage probably think that the church should have only a few required beliefs, but this is because they trust themselves to find truth not because they have developed non-orthodox ways of thinking. In order to pass from stage five to stage six, conjunctive thinking, orthodox modes of thinking have to be relinquished. Stage seven, universal faith, has moved even farther from orthodoxy. Since our Mormon community comprises, as it should, individuals in all these stages of faith, our thinking, speaking, and writing about our religion, our theology, should be rich and representative of all levels or stages of faith. The scriptures have this richness. They can be read, understood, and appreciated from all these perspectives. However, I am concerned that our public discourse, talks, class discussions, manuals, and material of approved content published by the church do not have this richness. They are dominated by the orthodox notion of truth and have a conventional, noncritical content. What this means is that there is much in our community discourse which hinders people from developing beyond synthetic-conventional faith. People in this stage are usually comfortable with what they hear at church and what they read in church literature, but those in the next stage of faith often have difficulties. I do not wish to imply that theological difficulties are bad and that being comfortable in church is necessarily good, but I think that this is the general perception, which means that people experiencing doubts and having questions often feel that they are out of step with and outside of the community.
Mormonism has been more successful than some other churches in keeping its critics. Much in our theology encourages critical thinking and seeking our own knowledge of the truth. However, there is also the widespread feeling that critical thinking is only acceptable when it supports orthodoxy and that we should share our experiences in searching for the truth only after we have arrived at the truth of orthodoxy. There is a fear among many of us that a critical and questioning theology will destroy the faith of many church members. And this fear is not groundless. Many people do become skeptics, agnostics, and atheists in Fowler’s fifth stage. Understanding the stages of faith, however, enables us to see this problem from a new perspective. The faith that is vulnerable to the theological questions and methods of stage five is synthetic-conventional faith. Remember that this stage begins in early adolescence. Does the church really want to encourage people to stay in this stage? To develop spiritually we must experience the stage of doubt and criticism. We cannot skip it. It is not necessary, of course, to leave the church while in this stage. Many do not. More acceptance of stage [p.15]five theology would encourage people to leave stage four and provide them with guidance and acceptance so that it is not necessary for them to also leave the church.
I have purposely defined theology democratically—as thinking, writing, and speaking about religious matters—because it is important that no group should think that theology belongs exclusively to it. I believe this is a real danger. I have noticed that people who accept the validity of developmental stages usually classify themselves as being at or near the top. Those who would have to classify themselves as being in the lower stages usually think the categories are types rather than stages or they think the theory of stages is totally wrong. In other words, people in stage four are not likely to regard those in stage five as being more developed spiritually than themselves. Rather, they are more likely to think of them as irreligious or lacking in faith, while people in stage five may think those in stage four are stupid, ignorant, or closed-minded. People in stage six may see those in stage five as being too rational or one-dimensional, even closedminded, and those in stage five may think stage six people are too mystical and irrational and that they hold crazy, contradictory ideas. In other words, people in different stages have difficulty understanding and communicating with each other. People often feel threatened by those in the next stage because they feel challenged to change, and those in the higher stage may feel contemptuous of or superior to those in the stage below, if they have not entirely distanced themselves from it. Can people with such diverse ways of knowing and valuing possibly discuss theology without coming to blows? My argument here does not depend on the validity of Fowler’s work. His higher stages may reflect different personality types or modes of knowing. The important point for my argument is that the church contains people of all personality types and people with different ways of knowing and valuing as well as people at different stages of their spiritual development.
This brings us to the problem of contention and the function of orthodoxy for institutions and groups. Elder Russell M. Nelson in his April 1989 general conference address, “The Canker of Contention,” asserts that conflicting ideas are the beginning of contention, that the divine doctrine of the church is the prime target of attack by the spiritually contentious, and that dissecting doctrine in a controversial way in order to draw attention to oneself is not pleasing to the Lord (in Ensign, May 1989, 69-70). Elder Nelson’s remarks might lead some to conclude that any critical approach to understanding doctrine is contentious and that the church will become free of contention only when there are no conflicting ideas. The scriptures do [p.16]teach that contention is of the devil and that there should be no contention in the church of God, but nowhere do they teach that God requires everyone to have the same thoughts or beliefs, despite the surprisingly widespread view in the church that in Zion, where the people are of one heart and mind, everyone thinks and believes alike.
What is the nature of the contention that the scriptures so vigorously condemn? In the Book of Mormon contention is often synonymous with war and war seems to be either the literal or figurative meaning of contention whenever it is used in the scriptures. War is concerned with winning and so is contention. When we contend over an idea the purpose of the argument is to get our opponent to admit that our idea is right. The concept of orthodoxy, that there is only one right answer to every question, which is supposed to do away with contention, thus actually promotes it. Since there will always be differing ideas, orthodox notions of truth will always lead to contention in a community that defines itself by its beliefs as differing factions attempt to gain control of the community.
Control is, in fact, the hidden agenda of orthodoxy. Christianity’s history of controversy over doctrines and creeds, of schism and putting down heresies, is more of a history of the struggle for power than of the development of ideas. If we think of the church as being defined by its doctrine, if the unifying principle of Mormon community is a set of fundamental beliefs, then orthodoxy becomes very important; church membership is contingent upon it. And who decides what the doctrine is and what views are consistent with it? If orthodoxy is defined by consensus, then there will be contention as individuals and factions compete to have their viewpoints gain supremacy. If orthodoxy is defined by authority, then compulsion of beliefs will arise. In every case where a church tries a member for heresy, the fundamental issue is always obedience to authority, not the truth of any particular doctrine. Although the authorities may attempt to persuade the heretic to believe the orthodox view, they never open themselves to his view. So the point of all trials for heresy is that members of the church must submit to authority if they want to remain in the church because the authorities get to decide what is doctrine and what isn’t. Heretics must then decide whether to be excommunicated or to lie. Because belief cannot be compelled, people cannot just decide to believe what they do not really believe. So if they choose to submit to authority, they are compelled to lie about their beliefs. This analysis of what it means to define a church by a set of beliefs should make it clear that orthodoxy is an inherently divisive and oppressive principle.
[p.17]In an article entitled “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Marxism-Leninism and Psycho-analysis,” Iring Fetscher writes:
The end point of the development of “orthodoxies” outside the sphere of the churches is always—not by coincidence—a “doctrine of infallibility.” … Examples from the extra-ecclesial use of the dichotomy orthodox-heterodox shows that this demarcation is always the work of organizations whose interest in self-preservation requires the preservation (and transmission unchanged) of a binding ideology. Such institutions outwardly behave in an authoritarian manner towards their members, while their posture towards other institutions is defensive (in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, 99).
Fetscher gives no reason why churches should escape this tendency of orthodoxy. I can only conclude that he hopes they do. My observation is otherwise. Of course, the church does not have a doctrine of infallibility for the president of the church. We have too many statements of the prophets specifically rejecting this doctrine for it to be adopted, but we also do have our own LOS version of this doctrine in the widely held belief that the Lord will not permit the prophet to lead the church astray. (This belief has proven to be too optimistic. See “Him Shall Ye Hear” for further discussion of this idea.)
Joseph Smith specifically rejected the idea that the church should be defined by orthodoxy. On one occasion he said, “did I ever exercise any compulsion over any man. did I not give him the liberty of disbelieving any doctrine I have preached if he saw fit” (in Ehat and Cook, 337). His most explicit rejection of the idea, however, was given at a general conference in which he discussed a member’s being brought before the high council for erring in doctrine. The high council evidently considered it their duty to make sure no one erred in doctrine. Joseph said, “The High Council undertook to censure and correct Elder Brown, because of his teachings in relation to the beasts. Whether they actually corrected him or not I am a little doubtful, but don’t care.” For Joseph, then, church authorities had neither the right nor the ability to correct anyone’s doctrine:
I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a [p.18]good man because he errs in doctrine (Smith, History of the Church, 5:340).
M. Scott Peck in his book The Different Drum, which is about community making, discusses what he calls pseudocommunity:
In pseudocommunity a group attempts to purchase community cheaply by pretense. It is not an evil, conscious pretense of deliberate black lies. Rather it is an unconscious, gentle process whereby people who want to be loving attempt to be so by telling little white lies, by withholding some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict ‘” The essential dynamics of pseudocommunity is conflict avoidance … [and] the basic pretense of pseudocommunity is the denial of individual differences ([New York, 1988], 88-89).
The assumption, then, that a community consists of a group of people who share a set of beliefs actually prevents people from becoming a community. Again orthodoxy requires that people lie in order to maintain their membership in the group. Peck makes it clear that this pressure to lie need not come from a tyrannical inquisitor but may also come from the pressures of conformity, the perception that only certain ideas, certain modes of talking and acting are acceptable in a group.
Peck maintains that a community must be inclusive. This means not only that it must include all kinds of people but that it must include the whole person, his sorrows as well as his joys, her anger as well as her tolerance, his feelings as well as his ideas, her problems as well as her solutions, his weaknesses as well as his strengths, her false ideas as well as her true ideas. Thus we cannot exclude the concept of orthodoxy from community. As we have seen, at certain stages of development individuals have an orthodox conception of truth. Since these individuals cannot be excluded from the community, orthodoxy cannot be excluded. How then does the community escape the division, oppression, and falseness which inhere in orthodoxy? By containing it rather than being contained by it, by refusing to define itself by a set of shared beliefs.
When one of my sons was two years old, he believed that he was five. He would often declare this belief, and my older boys, all orthodox thinkers, attempted many times to get him to renounce his belief and say that he was two. They were unsuccessful and appealed to me, the authority, to make him say he was two, to forbid him to think he was five. “How can you let him say he’s five when he’s really two?” they demanded. “How do you know what he means when he says, ‘I’m five’?” I asked them. “Maybe he only [p.19]means that five is his favorite number. A two year old doesn’t understand time in the same way you do,” I explained to them. I told them that they could not tell him he was stupid or yell at him or make him feel that he had to say what they wanted him to in order to be accepted by them. They could try to teach him about time and express their belief that he was only two in nonconfrontive ways. But he was to be allowed to discover the truth in his own way.
How is the community of the church to be defined and unified? When Jesus spoke to Joseph Smith in the first vision, he explained why none of the churches were true: “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men” (JS-H 1:19). The churches put their own creeds in the place of Jesus. They spoke of him but he was not their real foundation. Speaking to the Nephites after his resurrection, Jesus declared, “And this is my doctrine … and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me. And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God” (3 Ne. 11:32, 33). In a modern revelation he declared, “Behold, this is my doctrine— whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church” (D&C 10:67, 68).
The doctrine of Christ is not a metaphysical truth, an eternal principle, or eternal law. It is that we must believe in him to be saved. The unifying belief of the church is not in correct doctrines or principles but in Jesus Christ himself. “I am the way, the truth, and the life” John 14:6).
The community of the church is the community of Christ, the body of Christ, where all members are of equal value, where the truth of every member is listened to and valued, where it is recognized that all members receive revelation. As Joseph Smith said, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy,” and “No man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations.” Church members are united by their covenants with Jesus and with each other. They are of one heart and one mind when each member values the heart and mind of every other member in the same way he values his own.