The Logic of Power and Salvation
In disfellowshipping or excommunicating scholars (like Michael Quinn, Grant Palmer, and others) Church leaders create a theological paradox. Assuming that such actions are eternally binding implies that, regardless of researchersâ€™ choices, it becomes impossible for them to obtain the benefits of the Saviorâ€™s atonement.
The threatened punishment of their leaders leaves researchers with the choice of denying their findings or disobeying their leaders. Denying oneâ€™s insights is lying. Lying is a sin. And sinners are damned.
If researchers choose to be truthful, then their priesthood leaders will deny them the sacrament and exclude them from the temple, both very serious punishments. From the point of view of LDS leaders, the researchers will be damned. Thus, according to Mormon theology, the researcher cannot enjoy salvation. It is important to realize that repentant liars will not escape damnation either, because their leaders would see the act of repentance (telling the truth) again as cause for excommunication. Short of legitimizing dishonesty, claims of inspiration or divine authority cannot resolve this paradox. Whatever researchers do, they will be damned.
This official act of making it impossible for faithful individuals to meet the requirements for salvation means that, on the face of it, ecclesiastical discipline of researchers is abusive. For the same reason, disciplining researchers implies the negation of Christâ€™s atonement, which is a doctrinal perversion.
Consider the recent case of Grant Palmer, disfellowshipped in December 2004 for the alleged heretical statements in his book, An Insiderâ€™s Look at Mormon Origins. In the context of this argument, it is irrelevant what particular statements Grant Palmer may have made. I have never read his book. Even in the unlikely case that Palmer is entirely wrong, his freedom to pursue inquiries would still be beneficial to the Saints and to society.
Jesus Christ has promised us that we can know the truth and that the truth shall make us free (John 8:32-34). As Christians we value truth. Those who want to regulate research outcomes say, in essence, “What should not be, cannot be.” Such an attitude may not negate the existence of truth, but it makes it impossible for the truth to set us free from preconceptions and prejudices.
Research is valuable, but not because it is always correct. Even Albert Einstein recognized that, in the long run, he would be proven wrong. Research is valuable because the pursuit of truth results in progress. Research findings challenging our understanding of the gospel are a learning opportunity. The work of Grant Palmer and other researchers is valuable to Saints and society because rational investigation of the world will bring us closer to the truth.
Tolerance for research is a testimony to our faith. Religion and science share a commitment to the truth. The authoritarian approach undermines the scientific enterprise and violates the prohibition against lying, which is a more central principle in the Christian value system than allegiance to leaders.
Of course, the LDS Church ought to enjoy the freedom of organization. That includes setting its rules and standards for determining membership qualifications. This argument is, however, not germane to the discussion because the research-authority paradox follows from Christian premises that LDS leaders share.
The point is not that LDS leaders subscribe to the wrong values but that they apply their values in a manner that leads to contradiction and abuse. The Catholic Church faced similar problems during the Renaissance and slowly learned how to avoid the research-authority paradox: contest research on the merits, not with institutional coercion.
The truth-authority paradox can only be resolved in two ways. First, LDS authorities can emulate the Catholic example and repent from pressuring people to deny their insights. Defending and refining their positions, they would exercise the option of participating in the scientific process instead. Second, onlookers may determine that God may not hold researchers accountable for matters that are beyond their control. Insofar as the actions of our leaders suggest that conclusion, they should consider that their behavior during the last twelve years increasingly undermines their claims to divine authority.
It is Grant Palmerâ€™s obligation to justify his truth claims with reason and evidence. Those who believe that Palmer is wrong have a duty to advance their arguments with reason and evidence instead of attacking the character of the researcher. Personal judgments in academic and Church forums will harm the aggressors more than they can ever hurt Grant Palmer.
As a Christian, I have an obligation to stand with the oppressed. I believe Grant Palmer to be a man who pursues the truth to the best of his abilities. The LDS hierarchy that confronts him controls far greater academic, financial, and political resources than Palmer. Nonetheless, LDS leaders resort to the argument of power–excluding critics from society by denying Palmer and researchers like him good standing in the Church. Waylaid in their pursuit of truth, researchers require the aid of Good Samaritans. Christians who take the parable of the Good Samaritan seriously should have no difficulty determining where they need to stand.