Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy
by O. Kendall White, Jr


Mormon neo-orthodox theology is a post-World War II response to the twentieth-century accommodation of Mormonism to American society. Traditional Mormon metaphysics, the affirmation of the temporal world, and a preoccupation over conflict with non-Mormons and the federal government mitigated much of the impact of secularization in the nineteenth century. During the second and third decades of the twentieth century, some Mormon intellectuals and church leaders attempted to integrate Mormon theology and modern science. These efforts reinforced the theological synthesis of traditional Mormonism, including its concept of a finite God, its optimistic assessment of human nature, and its doctrine of salvation by merit. Contemporary Mormonism, especially since the 1950s, has assumed a more ambivalent posture, and the anti-intellectual and authoritarian reactions of some Mormon leaders and theologians to secularization challenge the synthesis of traditional Mormon theology.

In response to secularization, Mormon neo-orthodox theologians have embraced some fundamental doctrines of Protestant neo-orthodoxy. The latter’s affirmation of the sovereignty of God, the depravity of human nature, and the necessity of salvation by grace was a conscious effort to [p.160] recapture the essential meaning of Reformation theology in lieu of the “sterility” of liberal Protestantism. These doctrines typically reflected the sensations experienced during neo-orthodox crises with liberalism and modernity. For Protestant neo-orthodox theologians, the secularization of culture constituted a critical situation in which feelings of human inadequacy and helplessness led to a theology emphasizing human contingency, the absoluteness of God, and the necessity of divine intervention to save a helpless humanity.

The encounter with secularization produced a similar cultural crisis for Mormon neo-orthodox theologians. Experienced as a “limit situation,” where ordinary intellectual and psychological means of coping break down, the individual becomes profoundly aware of his limitations. He feels inadequate and helpless. The only way out appears to be to grasp a power beyond himself. These reactions combine with sensations of contingency and helplessness to become the social and psychological foundation of the doctrines of divine sovereignty, human depravity, and salvation by grace. Indeed, this theology crystallizes the basic elements of the neo-orthodox religious experience. As the crisis is a revelation of the human predicament and the divine/human relationship, neo-orthodox theology is a generalization of those sensations encountered during the crisis.

The appearance of a neo-orthodox movement poses some important implications for traditional Mormon [p.161] theology. Of special significance is the Mormon neo-orthodox concept of revelation. By contrasting revelation with reason and empiricism, the neo-orthodox theologian shares much with the Christian tradition in general while apparently denying the spirit of traditional Mormonism. A subtle shift in the meaning of revelation occurs, for example, when Hugh Nibley (1973) reminds us that the “absurdity” of the Mormon denial of the priesthood to blacks prior to 1978 constituted evidence for its divinity, when Glenn Pearson and Reid Bankhead (1962, 67) assure us that any conflict between two propositions must be apparent, not real, if they appear in the scriptures, and when Paul Toscano celebrates the “paradoxical” nature of God (1986) and conceives of his own reason as the “voice of the devil” (1983, 59). These are concepts of revelation that, I believe, deny the rationality of traditional Mormonism, which has little sympathy for paradoxical revelation that “baffles the intellect.” Such a notion depends on the otherness of God and the depravity of humanity—on the profound discontinuity between creator and creature—and evidently requires that religion, as well as religious experience, be nonrational. For only by abandoning reason and the human intellect can one fully appreciate the Incomprehensible God and the “absurd,” or paradoxical, gospel.

But God is neither incomprehensible nor is the gospel paradoxical for traditional Mormonism. Nor is revelation antithetical to reason. In fact, Mormon revelation is rational; its purpose is to make matters more intelligible. It [p.162] proposes to clarify, not to confuse, to solve problems and answer questions, not to indicate that problems are illusory and questions illegitimate. Mormon revelation is explicit. When traditional Mormons tell of God revealing himself to Joseph Smith, for example, God tries neither to baffle the boy’s intellect nor to demonstrate his paradoxical nature. God was not something so large that he could fill the immensity of space and yet so small that he could dwell within the heart of a man. God, for Joseph Smith, was a person, with a tangible body, with spatial and temporal dimensions. He was comprehensible, not something beyond the logical grasp or understanding of human beings. If differences between God and humanity were evident, they were not so significant that Smith could not intellectually apprehend the divine message.

Though Mormon neo-orthodoxy challenges the rational nature of traditional Mormon revelation, its position is not yet as extreme as that of Protestant neo-orthodoxy. The preoccupation with God as “totally other” and human nature as corrupt has led some Protestant neo-orthodox theologians to differentiate revelation from religion. While revelation is God’s gracious act of reaching downward to save depraved humanity, religion is arrogant humanity’s attempt to become God. The former is praised; the latter is damned (cf. Tillich 1955, 1-10). Wicked, helpless human beings cannot legitimately reach for God. Such action is the epitome of pride, arrogance, and blasphemy. It is proof of original sin. Any action—any divine/human [p.163] relationship—must be initiated by God. If Mormon neo-orthodox theologians have thus far avoided this position, their concept of revelation may ultimately force them to the same conclusion (see Edwards 1980, 49).

Related to this concept of revelation is the distrust among many Mormon neo-orthodox theologians of rationalism and empiricism. Yet reason and sensory experience are crucial in traditional Mormon thought. Not only are they useful to human beings in their earthly sojourn, they are essential in order to acquire knowledge necessary for godhood. Mormonism’s pluralistic metaphysics, which assumes an orderly reality based upon eternal natural, moral, and spiritual laws, implies a mastery of these laws for human beings to realize their destiny. Only when learning at their fullest capacity are Latter-day Saints living in accordance with their religion.

This faith in the human intellect is consistent with the emphasis on secular education characteristic of Mormonism. Traditional Mormonism went beyond classical Christianity in the direction of Judaism to affirm the basic goodness of the world, the body, and the mind. It did not need the classical Christian distinction between sacred and secular since much that had previously been considered secular was now sacred. Even human beings were uncreated entities capable of becoming gods. Mormon theology thereby denied the old discontinuities between God and his “creation.”

That this orientation was compatible with the belief [p.164] that education helps solve problems and brings human beings closer to godhood is apparent in the exegeses of Mormon scriptures proclaiming that the “glory of God is intelligence” and that “men are saved no faster than they gain knowledge.” Insofar as a knowledge of matter and physical properties is necessary to organize and control worlds, some body of knowledge equivalent to physics and chemistry is apparently necessary for exaltation. Insofar as a knowledge of physiology and human behavior is necessary for an understanding of human nature, some body of knowledge equivalent to biology and psychology is also apparently necessary for exaltation. And so on. This concept of education, which follows from traditional Mormon metaphysics and theology, provides the basis for the belief that “the gospel embraces all truth.”

Much of Mormon neo-orthodoxy seems to challenge this faith in education. A significant consequence of the distrust of reason and sensory experience, and the narrow concept of the knowledge essential for “salvation,” of many neo-orthodox theologians represents an anti-intellectualism which, I believe, could radically affect Mormonism’s commitment to education. Without its traditional faith in the human intellect, Mormonism could become increasingly susceptible to emotional excesses and superstition. Indeed, Mormons may be more likely to withdraw from modern secular society and become increasingly preoccupied with their own parochial problems. These are possible consequences of an inordinate anti-intellectualism.

[p.165] The nonrationality of neo-orthodox theologians can only be reinforced by recent statements from several church leaders. As top officials of the Mormon church, Ezra Taft Benson, Bruce R. McConkie, Boyd K. Packer, Neal A. Maxwell, Gordon B. Hinckley, Dallin H. Oaks, and Russell M. Nelson have all publicly assumed positions that can only be regarded as anti-intellectual (see Bergera and Priddis 1985, 86-92, 411n83; Packer 1981; Maxwell 1979b). Apostle Oaks, for example, declared in 1985 that Mormons should not criticize their leaders even if that criticism is true (1985, 25), while Apostle Nelson suggested that, “in some instances, the merciful companion to truth is silence. Some truths are better left unsaid” (1985, 8; emphasis in original). And in highly publicized speeches, apostles Benson and McConkie advocated uncritical obedience to present church authorities even when the latter are in conflict with previous leaders (Benson 1980; McConkie 1978; McConkie 1982). Recent efforts to circumscribe scholarship and intellectual inquiry have been apparent in the responses of apostles Benson and Packer to the work of Mormon historians, in the church’s officially barring some Mormons from speaking at church gatherings, and in calling others before local church officials to account for their writings (see Bergera and Priddis 1985, 86-92; Salt Lake Tribune, 23, 26 May 1983). While these and similar actions tend to reinforce the apparent nonrationality and authoritarianism of neo-orthodox theologians, their impact on Mormon intellectual endeavors remains to be seen.

[p.166] Such sentiments could inhibit the resolution of what many theologians consider to be philosophical difficulties in Mormon theology. Because of their concept of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and/or omnipresent, some neo-orthodox theologians are hesitant to explore traditional Mormonism’s finite God as a potential solution to the problem of evil. Sterling M. McMurrin (1965), Paul M. Edwards (1980; 1984), and Blake T. Ostler (1984) have underscored the value of a finite God while limiting both divine power and knowledge. Traditional Mormon theology, according to Edwards, provides “the best potential theodicy in the Western world” (1980, 49). If traditional Mormonism enjoys an enviable position with its “potential theodicy,” it may still possess too much theological baggage to develop a logically consistent theodicy. The very attempt to address this difficulty with any degree of sophistication becomes even more problematic, however, in view of the anti-intellectualism encouraged by neo-orthodoxy.

Mormon and Protestant neo-orthodoxy generally differ on the matter of social ethics. While Mormon neo-orthodox theologians—with few exceptions, the most significant of whom is Nibley—tend to espouse a conservative political ideology with a superficial social critique, the strength of Protestant neo-orthodoxy derives from its analysis of social problems and critique of Protestant liberalism. With their naively optimistic conceptions of human nature, both religious and secular liberals, according to Reinhold Niebuhr, have reduced complex social problems [p.167] to a simplistic human psychology (1932; see also Kenney 1980). Liberals typically explained the inequalities among races, classes, and nations as products of prejudice and misperception, having their origins in ignorance. Since human beings are moral and rational, the solution to social inequity was to develop compassion and moral goodwill by increasing human reason and knowledge. As the emerging social sciences provided the requisite knowledge, education would become the process of dissemination. Together they would ensure social progress.

Niebuhr rejected this liberal concept of human nature. Though humans were moral in possessing the capacity to place another’s interest above their own, they were also immoral, or self-centered. Indeed, it was this preoccupation with themselves—this egoism—that made the Reformation doctrine of original sin so appealing. Nowhere, according to Niebuhr, had human selfishness and pride been so perceptively acknowledged. While his position was not as extreme as those of Barth and Brunner, Niebuhr found human beings far more immoral than moral. Though capable of morality, people act immorally.

But even more important was the liberals’ failure to distinguish between individual and collective human nature. Because of their moral capacity, individuals dealing with one another in interpersonal settings may suppress self-interest as new information is presented to them or appeals are made to their sense of compassion. However, human collectivities, whether groups, classes, or nations, will not [p.168] act morally. Not only are collectivities organized to protect self-interest, but, ironically, they even exploit individual altruism. Patriotism and war show how the sacrifice of individuals for their society is transmuted into collective self-interest. As an individual puts the interests of others within his society above his own, the society uses his sacrifice and energy to further its own selfish ends. Similarly the relations between groups, races, and classes within a society form a mosaic of collective interests.

To Niebuhr social inequalities are not a product of prejudice and ignorance, but are a result of differences in power associated with collective interests. Indeed, prejudice is a rationalization of social inequality. Reason, which is as likely to be a slave of the passions as to liberate the mind, is typically employed in the preservation of interests and the elaboration of prejudice rather than the betterment of society. Consequently, education may simply teach privileged groups more devious ways of protecting their interests. Though he did believe that an appeal to reason and moral goodwill offered some hope at the interpersonal level, Niebuhr believed that it was purely utopian to expect results at the intergroup level. Privileged classes, as Martin Luther King, Jr., would later learn from both Niebuhr and personal experience, do not—even when made aware of their privileges—abandon them willingly. Only strategies that empower weaker parties have any hope of producing social justice. Thus Niebuhr prophetically concluded, in 1932, that American blacks could expect social justice only by [p.169] abandoning hope in the moral goodwill and reasonableness of their oppressors and by adopting the nonviolent, direct confrontation strategies of Ghandi. Only coercive tactics, in this case nonviolent ones, promised any success.

Niebuhr’s critique of religious and secular liberalism provided neo-orthodox Protestants with an excellent framework in which to debate the question of social justice and to develop appropriate strategies for the creation of a more just society. While they had lost confidence that human beings could bring about the good society—the Kingdom of God on earth—they at least retained hope in a more just society as a potential human creation. However, even the latter would not become a reality through the naively optimistic strategies of liberalism. Change required a new social analysis.

Among Mormon neo-orthodox theologians, only Hugh Nibley has thus far expressed similar concerns with equality and the development of a social ethic based on premises other than those of laissez-faire economics. Using the Book of Mormon, which he claimed is directed primarily towards the Latter-day Saints, Nibley denounced inequalities in wealth and the preoccupation with power that characterizes contemporary Mormon and American society. He saw a prophetic message to the modern church in Book of Mormon warnings about the “accumulation of wealth,” the appearance of “ambitious men,” and a special concern with “power and gain” (1969, 391). While the most serious consequence of wealth, “according to the Book [p.170] of Mormon, is the inequality it begets in any society,” such inequality “is sometimes even its purpose.” Mormons especially need to guard against accumulation of wealth, with its attendant inequalities, because of the unique susceptibility of “wealth oriented societies” to seek “moral justification in a display of religious piety.” The latter, according to Nibley, is a profound insight of the Book of Mormon (ibid., 394-95).

Reminiscent of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, a book partly responsible for the 1960s’ “War on Poverty,” Nibley argued that affluence results in the invisibility of the poor. The preoccupation with power and wealth seduces people into forgetting about others, so poverty becomes a fact of life. People merely suffer the poor, in the words of the Book of Mormon, “to pass by you, and notice them not.” Nibley wrote, “They just don’t exist. The guilty conscience, or rather, the guilty subconscious, is hypersensitive to criticism…and reacts vigorously to it, denouncing the critic as ‘a false prophet…a sinner, and of the devil'” (ibid., 395). Moreover, the message of the Book of Mormon is clear: poverty must be eradicated; equality should be obtained. Speaking of King Benjamin, a Book of Mormon prophet, Nibley noted:

He insisted that anyone who withheld his substance from the needy, no matter how improvident and deserving of their fate they might be, “hath great cause to repent,” (Mosiah 4:16-18), explaining his position in ringing words: “For behold, are we not all beggars?” (Mosiah 4:19). His son Mosiah wrote equality in the constitution, “that every [p.171] man should have an equal chance throughout all the land….”(Mosiah 29:38). “I desire,” said the King, “that this inequality should be no more in this land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike….”(Mosiah 29:32). This does not mean that some should support others in idleness, “but that the burden should come upon all the people, that every man might bear his part” (Mosiah 29:34) (ibid., 396).

Unlike most other Mormon neo-orthodox theologians, Nibley assumed government—even a strong central government—must accept its role in eliminating poverty and protecting minority interests. There were periods, he observed, when Book of Mormon peoples lamented the loss of a “strong central government in the interests of unlimited ambition” (ibid., 404). For government to levy taxes, especially to eliminate poverty and inequalities, is legitimate. Indeed, this use of taxation, wrote Nibley, is “a means of implementing the principle of equality. Whenever taxation is denounced in the Book of Mormon, it’s always because the taxer uses the funds not to help others but for his own aggrandizement” (ibid., 396).

That government may legitimately enact and enforce civil rights legislation to protect “unpopular and weak minorities” is also evident. Sounding as though he were criticizing the social ethics of other Mormon neo-orthodox theologians, Nibley wrote:

Some have felt that the attempt of the state to implement the ideas of liberty and equality by passing and enforcing laws repugnant to a majority or minority, i.e., laws restraining persecution, discrimination, slavery, and [p.172] all violence whatever, is an infringement of free agency. But plainly the Nephites did not think so. As we have seen, they believed that no one was ever without his free agency: one can sin or do unrighteously under any form of government whatever;…Since no one can ever make us sin or do right, our free agency is never in the slightest danger. But free institutions and civil liberties are, as history shows, in constant danger. They are even attacked by those who would justify their actions as a defense of free agency, and insist that artificial barriers erected by law to protect the rights of unpopular and weak minorities are an attempt to limit that agency (ibid., 388-89).

Both Mormon-owned Brigham Young University, where Nibley is a professor emeritus, and the Mormon community in general have been the object of Nibley’s biting social critique (1978a; 1978b). In a 1983 BYU commencement address, Nibley explained cultural decline, presumably in the church and society, as a consequence of the shift from “leaders to managers.” He declared: “Leaders are movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfit the enemy in war and the main office in peace.” Managers, however, “are safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organizational men and team players, dedicated to the establishment.” While leaders enjoy “a passion for equality,” managers find the principle “repugnant” and “counter-productive.” The dominance of managers is associated with inordinate materialism in which value is equated with price. Thus, the “manager ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,’ because for him the value is the price” (Nibley [p.173] 1983, 19). A perverse materialism has become the primary problem confronting the contemporary church and society with this increasing preoccupation with wealth, status, and power.

Given his social critique, Nibley differs from other Mormon neo-orthodox theologians who seem obsessed with anti-Communism, the extension of the franchise, governmental regulation of business, government intervention in civil rights and social relations, and the expansion of the “welfare state.” Where other Mormon neo-orthodox theologians see governmental intrusion, Nibley has found political and social responsibility. In this sense, he has more in common with Protestant than Mormon neo-orthodox theologians.

The social climate of contemporary Mormonism, including its rapid growth, enhances prospects for the spread of Mormon neo-orthodoxy. When Catholic sociologist Thomas F. O’Dea justified the study of Mormonism in the late 1950s as a means of better understanding American society, there was little reason to anticipate the phenomenal growth of the church’s influence or membership. This remarkable “success” has led some non-Mormon scholars, especially historian Jan Shipps (1985) and sociologist Rodney Stark (1984), to write of Mormonism as a “new world faith.” Indeed, it is so significant to Stark that he claimed Mormonism to be “the most important case on the agenda of the social scientific study of religion” (1984, 26).

However, this growth has also presented a problem [p.174] for Mormonism. It has raised the ire of Protestant fundamentalists and generated new charges that Mormons are not Christians. Some scholars feel that the antagonism precludes any serious political cooperation between two groups sharing “profamily-antifeminist” ideology (see Brinkerhoff, Jacob, and Mackie 1985; Mauss and Bradford 1985). Though other scholars doubt that these differences doom potential coalition (see Shupe and Heinerman 1985; White 1986), there is clear agreement, supported by survey research, that young Protestant fundamentalists perceive Mormonism as an anti-Christian cult (Brinkerhoff et al. 1985). Ironically, Shipps’s sympathetic study of Mormonism may reinforce this phenomenon. She argues that Mormonism emerged from Christianity in a fashion analogous to Christianity’s emergence from Judaism. While Mormonism retained much of its Christian heritage, it became a qualitatively new religion.

The discontent of some former members of the Mormon church, such as Ex-Mormons for Jesus and Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s Utah Lighthouse Ministry, reinforces these impressions. For example, in The Changing World of Mormonism, the Tanners employed my original analysis of traditional Mormonism (1967) to support their argument that Mormonism is “anti-Christian” (1980, 192-93, 550-52). This argument obviously rests upon provincial evangelical Protestant assumptions regarding the essence of Christianity.

A quest for respectability, the pursuit of converts, and expansion of Mormonism throughout the world tempt [p.175] contemporary Mormons, especially officials, to present Mormonism as mainline Christianity. Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd (1985a) document a trend toward typical Christian themes in LDS General Conference speeches that is consistent with a renewed emphasis on Christ as the center of Mormonism. Moreover, this tendency is evident in the recent decision by church officials to expand the title of the Book of Mormon to include the subtitle: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. On a more popular level, the jacket of Paul Toscano’s 1983 Gospel Letters to a Mormon Missionary suggests that the central message that Christ and his atonement are at the heart of the gospel is “a timely proposition in light of the increasing number of claims, made by critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that Mormons are not Christians.” Consequently, the Mormon neo-orthodox emphasis on the cross of Christ rather than the life of Jesus, the depravity of human beings rather than the goodness of humanity, and salvation by grace rather than exaltation by merit may be simply too seductive for those Mormons seeking to “reclaim” their Christian roots.

If Stark’s placing of Mormonism at the top of the agenda for the social scientific study of religion grew out of his work on the church’s growth, it rests primarily on his concern with the social factors affecting the success or failure of religious movements. I am confident that Mormon success generally, not simply its recruitment processes, derives from its integration of the sacred and secular—in [p.176] short, from the synthesis of traditional Mormonism that Mormon neo-orthodoxy threatens. Whatever the outcome of the continuing confrontation between these two theologies, I believe few things portend a more ominous future for Mormonism than the loss of that fundamental insight of traditional Mormonism that a religion that cannot save humanity in this life can hardly be expected to do so in the next. [p.177]