The Problematic Legitimation of Ideas in the Church

By: Hedgehog
January 30, 2014

Several recent experiences have caused me to ponder this topic. It’s not new of course. The most obvious example would be the temple/priesthood ban for people of black African descent, which arose early in the life of the church, was perpetuated until 1978, and which was not properly disavowed until last year. And even then, that disavowal did not come in the form of a formal statement or apology, but as a quiet addition to the lds.org website. It is not the only example however, and I have personally bumped up against several over the last few weeks.

1. Joseph Fielding Smith’s narrative regarding the creation and the fall.

These ideas attained their legitimacy in the past. Where I live the particular views of JFS are almost invariably accepted as doctrine, and taught as such in lessons. Members here are for the most part unaware that there was ever any controversy over JFS’ published views. His narrative is seen by most as the legitimate view. As someone who values scientific learning and endeavour, I try to offer an alternative viewpoint, but I may as well be speaking a foreign language. Last weeks Sunday School lesson was especially trying.

2. Non-distraction

A concept initially applied specifically to the passing of the sacrament (see my post here). It would appear that this may first have suggested in a  in this Dialogue article (2001, which I stumbled across a couple of weeks ago) as a reason behind the wider music policies in sacrament and other church meetings, and later given specifically as a reason in this T&S post by the post author’s stake president (2006). This is an idea which has so infected my ward and stake, presented as the de facto reason why music policies are the way they are, and is accepted by my local leadership without question. I’m wondering if the author (who is British, a musician and a now retired CES employee; CES men are highly regarded as a source of authoritative information in this country) might not feel as though he’s shot himself in the foot. I’d have wanted to question the legitimacy of his suggested reason as a means to restrict musical expression in church, but he doesn’t seem to have done so in the article.

3. Heavenly Mother

This week my daughter told me Heavenly Mother was mentioned for the first time ever in a lesson, and in her Sunday School class. I asked what was said. One student asked why we never talk about Her, and another replied that it was to protect Her. That was the sum total of discussion. That old chestnut has certainly wriggled it’s way in everywhere, and seems to be difficult to shift, the work of Paulsen and Pullido notwithstanding.

4. Valerie Hudson Cassler’s hypotheses about the role & position of women.

I have crossed swords several times recently with Nathaniel Givens over on T&S. Givens is of the opinion that the approach Cassler is taking in constructing her ideas is the correct approach, and as a consequence he likes her ideas. It would appear to me that Cassler’s views are in the process of gaining legitimacy. They have been presented and published by FAIR, and more recently in the church’s Ensign magazine. Cassler herself is a Professor at BYU. Her views mostly sit very nicely within the 1950s attitudes towards men and women, in which men and women are seen as having distinctly separate roles. We have heard these ideas from leaders in recent decades and still hear them from the pulpit from many of our leaders today. They can be seen as way for women who are questioning their roles in the church in today’s world to realign themselves perhaps more powerfully with that particular paradigm. Her views do not appear to call that paradigm into question. As a member who certainly does question that paradigm, who believes it is nothing more than a social construct, I speak out where I can, but as an observer of this legitimation process I am also alarmed. Because it looks a lot to me like the kind of theorising that went on to prop up temple/priesthood ban, and I’d really hope that Cassler’s views don’t gain the same traction those folk doctrines enjoyed.

I read the following in a comment on this post, a view on the topic of women and the priesthood. Whilst ‘An average active LDS women says’ and I would appear in part to be on opposite sides of the issue so far as our personal opinions on the topic go, I did find refreshing the part where she says of the post ‘..it is just speculation’ and ‘..I don’t care what any of you have to say as much as I care to know what God has to say on the subject. And I don’t care what you all think God thinks. I want to know for myself what He thinks.’ and ‘I suggest we stop speculating about what God would say, and start asking for His direction.’

I have strong objections when it comes to being subject to another’s opinion. Sometimes however, the back and forth, the debate, becomes wearisome.  At some point a ‘thus saith the Lord‘ would be a relief, yet even then as members we are obliged to seek our own confirmation.

  • Why do you think ideas take hold like this?
  • What ideas find you on the ‘wrong’ side of them? And how do you deal with it?
  • How careful are you about the things you teach?
  • Does the wider variety of voices, and readier access to dissenting views on the internet mean that new ideas are less likely to be accepted?

Discuss.

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16 Responses to The Problematic Legitimation of Ideas in the Church

  1. dba.brotherp on January 30, 2014 at 4:46 PM

    It was easier for me to understand why ideas take hold in the church when I looked at the church as a company The product that the church sells is “authority.” For good or bad everything the church does is done to market its “authority.”

    If the church did address something and the members balked, this would weaken their authority. Also, I think that the church believes that publicly correcting church wrongs also weakens their authority. This is why, I believe, wrong ideas are so hard to stamp out.

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  2. Nate on January 30, 2014 at 11:30 PM

    I also find Cassler’s views problematic, because it seems to me that they are simple window dressing what are innately sexist doctrines. Those doctrines don’t need to change if they can be obfuscated.

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  3. Hedgehog on January 31, 2014 at 2:35 AM

    dpa #1, Your comment in part reminded me of Andrew’s much earlier post on plausible deniability (http://www.wheatandtares.org/9394/caffeine-withdrawal-a-case-scenario-of-plausible-deniability/), and which I had forgotten. I guess there could be an application here.
    However, I do wonder if in the long term that failure to address wrong ideas doesn’t eventually undermine authority.

    Nate: “I also find Cassler’s views problematic, because it seems to me that they are simple window dressing what are innately sexist doctrines”
    Ha ha ha! I’m laughing because Givens’ argument was that whilst OW (for instance) indulged in window dressing in their use of scripture, Cassler was doing something different. Perhaps everything is window dressing? Certainly Cassler’s window dressing, if we’re calling it that, is more detailed.

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  4. Howard on January 31, 2014 at 6:35 AM

    I think the larger problem is that we typically get our official doctrine mostly from the correlation dept. or the church newsroom rather than directly from the mouth of the prophet so we are left to make sense of this watered down hodgepodge on our own. The problem is a lack of leadership at the top. Yes they speak to us at GC but it is often pretty obscure requiring us to ‘read the tea leaves” and their opinions vary widely from the letter of OT law being spouted from Packer or Oaks to the spirituality of Eyring and the words of Christ rephrased by Uchtdorf. TSM has finally stopped harping about porn at every conference (thank God!) and I know he loves widows, young missionaries, young marriages and he can wiggle his ears but “where’s the beef?” and where’s the leadership to draw all stuff this together? In a leadership vacuum others step in to fill the void so we have Mormon authors and philosophers all attempting to either sell books or control the message or both. No one would need to speculate if TSM simply stepped up and made things clear.

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  5. New Iconoclast on January 31, 2014 at 7:47 AM

    His narrative[re. evolution and YEC] is seen by most as the legitimate view. As someone who values scientific learning and endeavour, I try to offer an alternative viewpoint, but I may as well be speaking a foreign language. Last weeks Sunday School lesson was especially trying.

    I wonder how that would play out in different areas of Mormondom, and how it would correlate to level of education and any number of other demographic factors? I don’t think, for example, that an old-Earth, scientifically-supportable creation timeline would raise any eyebrows in my ward, although we do have one YEC holdout who is well-educated enough to know better.

    I read the link you offered to the dialogue between Henry Eyring the Elder and JFS, of which I had been somewhat aware, and admire Br Eyring’s restraint and gentility.

    Has there ever been – does anyone know of – a broad-based survey on creation beliefs amongst Latter-day Saints that captures demographics like age, location, educational level, occupation, and the like?

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  6. Roger on January 31, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    To answer Hedgehog’s questions, I remember getting blasted in elders’ quorum 35+ years ago for taking issue with an instructor who quoted McConkie’s views as the official Church position on capital punishment. Lost in the discussion was my own ambivalence on the topic but a resounding clamor that the Church was definitely pro-capital punishment.

    This was just a minor controversy from my days of active participation in the Church. If you don’t attend, you really save yourself from a lot of grief.

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  7. dba.brotherp on January 31, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    Hedgehog,

    I guess it depends on the kind of market the church is after. If the church wants to grow (and I believe that they do) then yes, not addressing things hurts them in the long run. I think that putting out those essays on their website is a step in addressing issues.

    However, if the church decided to forgo a larger market share and instead develop a niche market, then not addressing problems won’t hurt them. Of course if they decided to go the niche route, then they would shed a lot of members but then it wouldn’t matter to the church because they aren’t interested in those type of members. But that’s just my opinion and I may be wrong.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on January 31, 2014 at 6:48 PM

    The essays are a step in the right direction but concurrent with making the exact same mistakes again. Teaching the Proclamation on the Family as “doctrine” will simply end in more disavowal in the future when they also reveal it was written by lawyers to block gay marriage in Hawaii, misuses the term gender, and promotes stereotypes from the 1950s as eternal.

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  9. Howard on January 31, 2014 at 8:32 PM

    I think enough LDS members find their golden calves so comforting they just can’t resist their illogical beliefs. Use SWK’s own words to clearly demonstrate some of the fallible problems of our prophets and revelation and the (arm chair) apologists who once argued their infallibility go into high gear backfilling the void with the complete opposite argument of course they’re fallible but they’re good men who need our unquestioning support and obediance. It doesn’t matter how strong the opposing evidence is it isn’t strong enough to sway the faithful, don’t confuse me with the facts! To someone who is no longer cult addicted it is a very strange phenomenon to watch!

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  10. Kristine on February 1, 2014 at 11:01 AM

    Just a footnote–the “principle of non-distraction” (ARGH!!! That’s the best we can hope for from our music??!) did not, alas, originate in a Dialogue article. It’s from Elder Oaks: http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1998/10/the-aaronic-priesthood-and-the-sacrament?lang=eng

    It would be awesome if Dialogue were a channel for ideas becoming wisespread in the Church, but I’m not holding my breath :)

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  11. Angela C on February 1, 2014 at 11:46 AM

    “It would be awesome if Dialogue were a channel for ideas becoming wisespread in the Church” From Kristine’s mouth to god’s ears!

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  12. Hedgehog on February 1, 2014 at 1:36 PM

    Kristine, yes I discussed that in my post Distracted by Non-Distraction linked in the OP. But it seems to be the Dialogue article that links it specifically as a principle to the music in meetings, not simply the sacrament ordinance itself. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear enough. Part of that post was questionning why the link to music.

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  13. Hedgehog on February 1, 2014 at 1:43 PM

    Also, I believe the author’s PhD thesis is dated 1997, but as I haven’t read it, I don’t know whether the thesis covered material in the III section (the relevant part) of the article, though it did cover the analysis on hymnbook composition. There’s a more recent article on ijms site updating the first part of the Dialogue article (not relevant to this post) referring to the thesis, which was how I also came across the dialogue article, since it was referrenced there.

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  14. Hedgehog on February 1, 2014 at 2:25 PM

    Howard (4,9) I think you’re right about the wanting to fill a vacuum. And mostly I don’t mind people theorising and speculating, I do plenty of it I dare say, as long as it’s absolutely clear that that is what is happening, and that everyone is clear that it is only theorising and speculation, and other’s are not expected to align themselves with those views.
    To your later comment, I liked this post on Rational Faiths (http://rationalfaiths.com/infallibility-vs-arm-flesh/).

    NI (5) On evolution there was a post discussing just that (http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/01/07/so-just-what-do-mormons-think-about-evolution/). The main argument seemed to be the problematic wording of the question, and how that might have affected the answer. Still depressing though.

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  15. Hedgehog on February 1, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    Roger (6), I remember capital punishment being discussed back when I was 12 or 13. Not sure why the subject would have come up. It certainly doesn’t come up these days. We don’t have capital punishment, so there’s not much call to discuss it. But there is a tendancy not to discuss any sensitive political issues at church anyway these days, in this country. SSM does not get mentioned, for instance, an unspoken agreement. I understand it’s rather different in the US.

    dpa (7). I agree. The church leaders certainly give every other indication that they want the church to grow, what with increasing missionary numbers, and the whole ‘hastening the work’ thing. And I agree with Hawkgrrrl (8) – the essays are a step in the right direction, but yes, we still see the kind of conflation that sees the Fam Proc (and every GC talk) defined by many as scripture. I confronted that in Sunday School a few weeks ago. So as fast as past harms are being addressed new ones are being perpetuated/created.

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  16. Howard on February 2, 2014 at 7:47 AM

    Very interesting article Hedgehog thanks for posting the link. I think today’s correlated LDS “doctrine” is more faith permoting folklore than solid gospel and I suppose if you’re incapable or unwilling to think for yourself it’s a big relief for the church to dictate what to think, what to ware and how to act but let’s not allow the R2D2s to take over.

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