Monday, February 13, 2012

On Questioning, Thinking, and Wall Street Mormonism

Mormonism is not known for having a robust culture devoted to asking tough questions and engaging in critical thinking. It does have a robust culture devoted to making it appear that free thinking is valued. The reality is that being right is the chief value. More precisely, "being true" or "on the right side" is the chief value.

A well-known passage of Mormon scripture seems to encourage questioning: "But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong;..." (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8-9).

This passage originally was written in the context of Joseph Smith asking about whether Oliver Cowdery should be allowed to directly read/translate from the Golden Plates rather than merely acting as scribe as Joseph spoke. Over the years, it has been expanded to apply to "personal revelation" in general among Mormons. It is the ground-level model for how "personal revelation" is supposed to work: Think about it, study it, pray, and get your answer.

Trouble is, there is an expectation among most Mormons that there is a list of questions deemed appropriate, and a list of "right" answers to the limited number of "right" questions. Although most Mormons bristle at such a blunt assessment, the supreme governing principle in Mormonism can be expressed in three short words: "Follow The Prophet."

Yes, you'll find all sorts of statements about personal adaptation and sensitivity to local or individual circumstances. But it always comes down to "Follow The Prophet." Everyone has gotten the memo. And it's worth noting that "The Prophet" over the last few years has come to be understood as "The Prophets" PLURAL, encompassing all of those in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the LDS church.

So, at the level at which questioning and answering really matter, the process is to 1) ask the "right" question, 2) study the "approved" materials, 3) pray in the "correct" pattern, 3) be ready to receive the "right" answer from the Holy Spirit, and 4) receive that "right" answer which will always be in line with what "The Prophets" are currently teaching.

A shorter version of this process (again, most active Mormons will bristle) is: 1) ask whether "The Prophets" are right, and 2) the Holy Spirit will tell you that "The Prophets" are right.

Many (although I'd guess not most) Mormons approach these matters a bit differently. They want to be involved in a thoughtful process to find what works for them in their unique, personal circumstances. They want to have direct, personal communion with the divine, including a communion that might involve answers that depart from official correlated Mormonism. There are some leaders, even in the higher ranks, who seem open to that approach---at least to some degree.

In a church-wide leadership training broadcast on February 11, 2012, Dieter Uchtdorf of the church's First Presidency stated:

"Brothers and Sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know, but couldn’t get past the massive, iron gate of what we thought we already knew."

Uchtdorf is beloved in the LDS church---especially among those whose approach to spirituality and religious life is more Main Street and less Wall Street, to put it into trendy rhetorical terms. He is seen as a hope for greater inclusion and openness within a culture of correlation and compliance. He seems to be at least willing to entertain the ideas that questioning is good and that unexpected answers can lead to unexpected goodness for individuals and for the church.

It is clear that the LDS apostles are not unified on this issue. 

During his interview for the 2007 PBS documentary, "The Mormons," Dallin Oaks stated: "I also said something else that has excited people: that it’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord."

There is no indication whatsoever that Oaks has changed his mind about this. If anything, his stance has calcified.

Boyd Packer often speaks of personal revelation. His statements represent the views of the supermajority of Mormons who follow the list-of-appropriate-questions, list-of-correct-answers approach to religious life.

Uchtdorf's statement quoted above has a ring of openness to it. I wonder how far the church would allow people to question, and how open it is institutionally to answers that are not pre-determined. Questioning involves looking at things with a critical eye and being open to the unexpected. Otherwise, it's not questioning at all.

In the LDS church, all are free to think for themselves, so long as that thinking falls within the range of what leadership will allow. All are allowed to question, so long as the answers fall within the range deemed appropriate by the leadership and the prevailing views of LDS culture. Some members have leaders with a wide range, others not so much.

Personally, I'm troubled by how some might seek to use Uchtdorf's statement in a way he may not have intended. I can quite easily imagine someone starting from the assumption that someone knowing they are gay is not knowing at all, but rather a "massive, iron gate of what [they] thought [they] already knew." Twisted this way, a person can, for example, continue to believe that being gay is against God's plan and anyone who accepts themselves as gay is putting up a wall that separates them from the Holy Spirit. They can dismiss others as living behind an iron gate of doubt and apostasy. I don't believe Uchtdorf intended his message to be taken this way. But I'd bet $10,000 of Mitt Romney's money that it will be applied this way by large numbers of LDS church members who think of themselves as Main Street Mormons, but who in practice are Wall Street Mormons.

I appreciate Uchtdorf's efforts, his consistent optimism and his more reasonable approach to how the LDS church could be a positive role in a person's live. I'm glad that he is in the position he is and that his words resonate with so many people starving for something other than the "do what we say" approach of decades past. I hope that he and others like him find at least some success in creating greater space for the free spirits for whom Mormonism still resonates.

But I'm skeptical of how this will change a church and a culture so entrenched. I'm also skeptical about how easy it is to find those cool, hip, free spirit Mormons featured in the "I'm a Mormon" PR campaign. Especially those who have been Mormon for more than five years. For most Mormons, the message (sent and received) is still: Question and think for yourself, just don't ever say anything in public that could be taken as opposing "The Prophets" if you don't want a call from your bishop.


  1. Ha! Yes, personal interpretation can make quotes like that one by Uchtdorf pretty slippery. I think it serves as a Rorschach test of sorts.

    Also, can I just have that $10,000 of Mitt's money? I'm sure he won't miss it.

  2. Looking at it as a Rorschach test is a good insight. Thanks Jon.

    As for Mitt's money, I've forwarded your request to Rick Perry's people, who will get back to you as soon as he's finished reviewing Newt Gingrich's moon colony schematics over pizza provided by Herman Cain with music provided by the Rick Santorum Singers, with fabulous costumes designed by Marcus Bachmann.

  3. I generally agree with what you have written. Though questioning and doubt is allowed on a personal level (how could that ever be regulated anyway??) and sharing doubts, etc. in private discussions is generally OK, there is a Church culture that discourages such activities in public. There are some potential unfortunate effects of this: individuals with differing viewpoints often sit silently in Church meetings, new ideas - the fodder for religious innovation and spiritual growth - are not given the attention they merit, enthusiastic new converts can get "assimilated" as they delve more deeply into the Mormon program... I think inquiry, examination and innovation are the lifeblood of progress in any endeavor including spirituality. I think that the Church will only suffer if it cannot incorporate free-thinking, honest dialogue, and divergent opinions more liberally into its religious culture.