05 January 2009

All or Nothing

That's what Austin says he was taught about the doctrine of the LDS Church: either it's all true or none of it's true. If you're going to believe any of what the church teaches, you have to believe all of it. So he wondered how anyone could acknowledge any degree of homosexuality and yet maintain active membership and faith in a church that remains hostile to that characteristic (despite its protestations to the contrary). I promised him some follow-up thoughts.

All or nothing is a folk belief based on a false premise. Its main problem is that the "all" is impossible to define other than by the LDS scriptures, our yardstick for measuring everything else in the Church (see Joseph Fielding Smith quote below), and as shown below, the Scriptures are vague, ambiguous, and even silent on a great number of doctrinal issues. In the past, leaders of the Church have taught or advocated a wide variety of doctrines that neither the Church nor its members currently believe and in some cases now stay well clear of. The 9th Article of Faith's declaration that we expect more revelation and more knowledge suggests by implication that some things we now believe are at best incomplete (that is, not entirely correct).

Everybody is a "cafeteria Mormon." Everyone picks and chooses which doctrines and principles of the gospel they wish to focus on. Nobody obeys all commandments consistently or perfectly, else there would have been no need for a Savior. Things which are easy for some are a huge trial for others. Everyone construes the Scriptures in their own way, according to their own best understanding. The temple recommend interview questions are broad and general, and leave much to individual discretion.

Joseph Smith taught that what "is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another" and that "the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted" is "revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed." His own example was the "doctrine" that "thou shalt not kill" yet the Lord commanded Nephi to kill Laban. Obviously what is "doctrinal" in one setting may not be in another.

Thus, both doctrinally and theologically, the LDS Church is amazingly flexible as compared to other Christian churches which are tied to fixed creeds and don't believe in modern revelation. Culturally and socially, however, Mormons in "The Corridor" are often much more narrow and strait-laced than this. Much of the socio-cultural characteristics of Mormons from Rexburg on down to Mesa still reflect the insular persecution complex of the Utah Pioneer experience. The "all or nothing" folk belief is an example.

One of Satan’s many weapons is the “either-or” dichotomy in which he presents two bad choices as the only possibilities. Which do you choose, he says: the tyranny of communism or the terrible inequities of amoral capitalism? The Spanish Inquisition or Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries? Intolerant bigotry in the name of orthodoxy, or amoral relativism in the name of tolerance? The red rose or the white? In a gospel context, the "all or nothing" attitude would compel someone to believe either an "all" which is impossible to define clearly, or else a "nothing" which would shut them out of eternal possibilities. Because of this, I am wary of anyone who says "you have only two choices." Rarely if ever is that actually true.

Austin's question may reflect the fact that Mormons often fail to distinguish between their own quasi-doctrinal pop culture (e.g. compulsory white shirts, WoW = no caffeine, "no R-rated movies", etc.) and the actual, fundamental principles of the gospel stated in the scriptures. President Joseph Fielding Smith said that if his words or the words of any other member of the Church, "high or low, . . . do not square with the revelations [already in the scriptures, then] we need not accept them. . . we have accepted the four Standard Works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man's doctrine." Thus, anything taught anywhere in the LDS Church which does not find support in the Standard Works need not be considered either orthodox or binding on anyone else. Again, the "all or nothing" idea is an example of one popular perspective which actually has no such support.

There are a great many things in life and in the Church on which the Scriptures do not give a full or clear picture. This includes many doctrinal issues. For example: What is the celestial kingdom like and how does it operate? What does it mean to be exalted? Apart from the fact that the Savior said so, why is the physical ordinance of baptism universally necessary? Why do women not receive the priesthood as men do? How do the steps of repentance vary case by case or person by person, as they invariably do? Why did the Lord allow the priesthood to be withheld from our African brethren for so long, when there is evidence suggesting that the "ban" may have resulted more from early Church leaders' personal attitudes than from actual revelation? Why must the sacrament prayers be repeated verbatim? What is the symbolism of the temple clothing? The questions are endless. All involve doctrine and on all, our understanding is incomplete.

We therefore have an individual responsibility to study such things out in our own minds and seek our own understanding and even revelation on them. Individual understandings will therefore differ. That's unavoidable! There can't possibly be an "all or nothing" standard in such circumstances. How could we even define what the "all" is, when the only universally applicable yardstick is the Scriptural canon, which is open and subject to change, and when the prophets themselves allow for individual perspectives and interpretation?

Stephen L. Richards, one of David O. McKay's counselors in the First Presidency, confirmed that all members of the Church should "hold individual views and express them with freedom so long as they are not seditious to the basic doctrines, practices, and establishments of the Church…if anyone holds views and gets satisfaction from them, I say let him have them, and I for one won’t abuse him for them…I fear dictatorial dogmatism, rigidity of procedure and intolerance even more than I fear [any of the] other devices the adversary may use to nullify faith and kill religion. Fanaticism and bigotry have been the deadly enemies of true religion in the long past. They have made it forbidding, shut it up in cold grey walls of monastery and nunnery, out of the sunlight and fragrance of the growing world. They have garbed it in black and then in white, when in truth it is neither black nor white, any more than life is black and white, for religion is life abundant, glowing life, with all its shades, colors and hues, as the children of men reflect in the patterns of their lives the radiance of the Holy Spirit in varying degrees…Truth and love will save the world. May they be our portion."


Bravone said...

I enjoyed your thoughts Alan. I will be thinking about it for a while.

October Rising said...

VERY well written Alan! It is interesting to note that in rhetorical theory, the phrase: 'either' it's all true 'or' none of it is true, is a logical fallacy called "false dilemma". and you are definitely right.

Chedner said...

I wish it were all-or-nothing; it would make things so less complicated.

Grant Haws said...

Thank you for this. The "all or nothing" complex of many Mormons is what shuts out reality and under the "all or nothing" no one can actually exist.

For me the challenge is differentiating Mormon doctrine and Mormon culture. As you've pointed out Mormon doctrine would leave a lot to the interpretation of individuals. However, Mormon culture isn't as merciful. And that is the struggle for me. The doctrine says all are welcome, but the culture says "not so fast".

Bravone said...

Amen Grant.

Ezra said...

Amen Grant!

Beck said...

I like to look at the final judgment as a one-on-one interview where I am compared against no one else but myself with the Lord. There is no black-and-white in that setting. There is a lot of room for situations and circumstances and mercy considering my bag of talents that I was given and what I did with them... nothing else.

Somehow thinking this way, I don't feel the need to get caught up in the all or nothingness of things.

Austin said...

Thank you for the follow-up! I appreciate your response to my question.

Like Bravone, I think I'll need to ponder it for awhile.
But if you are correct it is extremely disappointing to know that the church purposely misleads it's members in this way. I was a member of the church for 20 years and this "all-or-nothing" theory was discussed many times in many different settings, and I can tell you that my parents, siblings, and family believe this way as well.

Thanks Alan!

Alan said...

Thanks Austin, glad you found it thought-provoking. If you want to add more fuel to the fire (and possibly gather some ideas with which to tweak your "traditional LDS" family!), check out this excellent blog post for a similar perspective but with a twist:


Tommy said...

Dang it! I have been thinking about this the past few days and was going to blog about it, but you stole it :P

And then I was going to tell you that "All or nothing" is an actual logical fallacy called false dilemma/dichotomy, but October bet me to that.

I was thinking about the conference talk a few times ago where the speaker told a story that pretty much ended with "It [the Church] is true isn't it? Then what else matters?" And how that is and example of this logical fallacy. Especially if you are one who differentiates between the Church and the Gospel.

Z i n j said...

Can I keep this for future reference? You have the mind of a steel trap. Great stuff as always.

Ned said...

Hey Alan, I had not read this excellent discussion when I wrote this. I see now why you commented that we see things similarly. I had never seen the Richards quote before. Wow! Thanks for sharing that.