Can Mormonism change?
I’ve been debating my brother about some issues surrounding same-sex marriage on my blog (no link; still trying to remain anonymous). In the course of that debate, a few ideas popped up that I think people here might enjoy. This is a good one having to do with religions changing. My brother insists that religions “can” change. I agree, but for different reasons…
Frankly, I have no problem with religions changing. In fact, much of my sociological theorizing is all about how religions change. The only reason this is an issue for some religions is because of the religions themselves. Here are the problems laid out in premise form using Mormonism specifically:
- Mormonism claims to be godâ€™s church.
- Mormon leaders claim to be guided by god in determining religious doctrine.
- Mormons claim god is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
- The Mormon religion changes. This is more than just structural change; there are also changes in doctrine and policy.
Now, from a logical standpoint, if (2) is true and (3) is true, then (4) cannot be true. Alternatively, if (4) is true, then either (2) is not true, or (3) is not true, or neither of them is true. Thus, from a logic standpoint, when Mormonism changes doctrine, it undermines some element of Mormon belief, as illustrated by the logic as laid out above. If Iâ€™m wrong, please point it out by illustrating which of the 4 premises above is wrong.
How can Mormonism deal with this potential problem? Simple. Redact and/or modify number 2 as follows, â€œMormon leaders do their best to interpret godâ€™s will in determining religious doctrine and Mormon policy, but some times they get godâ€™s will wrong.â€ While a critic, like myself, would point out that this makes the leaders of the religion no better than Joe Blow and this is just â€œan outâ€ for making mistakes, it is also â€œAN OUTâ€ for when they have to change things later on. Mormonism would have to deal with the fallibility of the leaders, which is kind of an issue, but change would no longer be an issue. Currently this is accomplished through a tortuous process known among apologists as â€œretroactive humanizingâ€: Whenever a prophet said something that was absurd (e.g., Brigham Young said there were people living on the moon and the sun), apologists say they were speaking as men, not prophets. How do you tell the difference? Simple, whatever is believed to be doctrine today was divinely inspired, until it is no longer believed, then it was the guy speaking as a man and was not divinely inspired. Itâ€™s about as disingenuous as my approach, but much more deceitful since it involves re-writing history. In my approach, the leaders would simply admit to being wrong sometimes, which is a big no-no in Mormonism.
From a later post, I felt obligated to clarify “doctrine” as there was some confusion here:
Maybe this is an issue of defining â€œdoctrine.â€ As I see it, doctrine is the beliefs of the religion. Practices are either rituals of a religion or behavioral regulations (the code of sins). Changing practices in light of technological change makes sense. Hereâ€™s an example:
- Doctrine: Keep the Sabbath Holy.
- Interpretation for practices in 1800: Do not work for pay on this day; with few exceptions this was possible (e.g., ship captain couldnâ€™t avoid doing so, nor could politicians or military personnel at times, but most others could).
- Interpretation for practices in 2008: Do not work for pay on this day, unless you have a job that (1) requires it, and (2) the job is necessary for modern society to function (e.g., doctor, EMT, pilot, bus driver, electric plant technician, etc.). Today, there are lots and lots of exceptions!
The point here is that the practices can change in light of changes in society, but doctrine should be eternal. Hereâ€™s what the Encyclopedia of Mormonism has to say about â€œdoctrineâ€:
The word â€œdoctrineâ€ in the scriptures means â€œa teachingâ€ as well as â€œthat which is taught.â€ Most often in the Church it refers to the teachings or doctrine of Jesus Christ, understood in a rather specific sense. Scripturally, then, the term â€œdoctrineâ€ means the core message of Jesus Christâ€”that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer. All other teachings are subordinate to those by which all people â€œknow how to come unto Christ and be savedâ€â€”that is, to the â€œpoints of doctrine,â€ such as faith, repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. At one time, stressing the preeminence and foundational nature of this message, Jesus taught, â€œAnd whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rockâ€ (3 Ne. 11:40)â€¦ Thus, the â€œdoctrine of Jesus Christâ€ is the only teaching that can properly be called â€œdoctrine.â€ It is fixed and unchanging. It cannot be modified or contradicted, but merely amplified as additional truths that deepen understanding and appreciation of its meaning are revealed. It is the basis on which the test of faith is made, and the rock or foundation of all other revealed teachings, principles, and practices.
Note the distinction between â€œdoctrineâ€ and â€œpractices.â€ Doctrine is unchanging; practices change. Hereâ€™s where this idea becomes particularly interesting. When Mormons stopped practicing polygamy, did they redact Section 132 of the D&C and change their doctrine? When Mormons allowed blacks the priesthood, did they change the Pearl of Great Price to remove the whole notion of blacks being cursed? In both cases, the answer is â€œNOâ€! Why? Because to do so would be to change â€œrevealed doctrine,â€ which is a big no, no. You can change practices. You can change how you interpret doctrine. But you canâ€™t change doctrine.
Now, returning to my premises. If, as I have stated, 1, 2, and 3 are all correct, then 4 should never, ever happen. The LDS religion avoided it when stopping polygamy and discrimination against blacks. But if doctrine changes, then either 1 or 2 are invalid. 4 has happened (e.g., Brigham Youngâ€™s Adam-God doctrine is a great example; and he specifically stated it was a doctrine necessary for salvation, meaning it meets the criteria of doctrine). By that measure, either 2 or 3 is invalid.