The trouble with answering questions

Apologetics correlation

Runtu has added some new insights in the continuing discussion of LDS Doubt in the NY Times:

It seems the church has learned at least a few things from the rescue experience. First and foremost, don’t send anyone official out to discuss the issues. Instead, they’ve sent out (or at least haven’t objected to) Richard Bushman and Terryl and Fiona Givens to hold meetings with doubting members. I have tremendous respect for Richard Bushman, who in my view epitomizes the faithful historian, acknowledging the problems but finding reasons to believe. The Givenses, however, don’t add much to the conversation, in my view, as they seem to approach Mormonism from a sort of aesthetic point of view, admiring Joseph Smith’s creativity and seeing it as evidence of his prophetic calling. And as others have pointed out, Terryl Givens is every bit as dismissive of the problematic as anyone else. You really can’t resolve someone’s problems if you refuse to acknowledge that they are problems, and that is why I don’t think the Bushman/Givens meetings will bear much fruit for the LDS church.

I think Runtu is right that the leaders of the CoJCoL-dS probably regret sending church authorities to give official answers. Simon Southerton (and others) noticed pretty quickly that this means that the FAIR/FARMS responses are the official church responses, despite many disclaimers to the contrary.

But I don’t agree 100% with Runtu’s claims that “admiring Joseph Smith’s creativity and seeing it as evidence of his prophetic calling” is necessarily unsatisfying. Yes, it’s counterproductive to refuse to acknowledge the existence of problems, but different people find different answers satisfying. A certain percentage of Mormons will say “I know that Joseph Smith correctly translated the writings of Abraham from Egyptian papyri and that there really were horses in the Americas during Book of Mormon times, and any evidence and arguments you show me to the contrary are simply wrong.” Other people prefer to confront the issues with FAIR/FARMS-style apologetic responses. Yet others are totally OK with believing that Joseph Smith had a prophetic calling even if he made it all up.

The problem comes about when one of your only “official” doctrines is that you have living, breathing leaders who are capable of talking with both humans and with God. There are all these questions that should have answers, like: “How many Heavenly Mothers are there?” Even if you insist that the CoJCoL-dS shouldn’t be required to answer such questions, logic would suggest that this question should have some kind of correct response that doesn’t vary depending on who’s asking. But any “official” response the leaders might give would alienate a portion of their audience.

Wouldn’t it be convenient not to have to give an “official” response at all?

If you’ll indulge me for a minute, I’d like to do the usual and compare to the Jewish model. For a lot of questions, it wouldn’t even make sense to say there is an “official” Jewish answer. Yes, there are the discussions in the Talmud, but the people who wrote it are dead, and there is no one “official” organization that regulates all the synagogues and excommunicates all of the heretical ones. So people can pick whichever response they are most comfortable with when it comes to various theological questions, and pick a branch accordingly, and they can all believe that the other branches of Judaism are wrong on this or that question — but that they’re all Jewish, and there’s no particular reason to expect that they would all agree.

It can be similar with Mormonism when people are willing to acknowledge the various branches of the Restoration tradition. But the one conclusion that the CoJCoL-dS most wants to reject is that its leaders don’t have a monopoly on the right answers.

Trouble is, that leaves people wondering what those answers are, and why the prophets, seers, and revelators won’t answer them.

7 thoughts on “The trouble with answering questions

  1. There are all these questions that should have answers, like: “How many Heavenly Mothers are there?”

    Or, “If the doctrine that black men couldn’t really have the priesthood was never in point of fact doctrine, what was it?”

  2. @1 exactly! There was a post I quoted long ago (that has since disappeared, sadly) that nailed it:

    “Not known precisely why, how, or when…”, is what we are told. Officially. Who is running the ship? How does a policy and practice, (but apparently not a doctrine), codify itself into sermons, preaching, manuals, guidelines for temple attendance, books, talks, handbooks… all with the upmost air of authority – how does this happen and not have doctrinal roots?

  3. [O]thers are totally OK with believing that Joseph Smith had a prophetic calling even if he made it all up.

    Well, the policy had been, and it’s probably adjusting, the Church is fundamentally about “bringing people to Christ” and not about resolving, maintaining in public memory historical details/answers to theological conundrums, etc. So, basically, an assumption that, for everyone, “even if Smith made it all up, that’s okay.” So, given that this has been the policy for so long, I doubt we’ll see much in the way of “official” answers anytime soon.

    I think Runtu is mostly correct to not read an “evilness” or intention of “lies” into this. It’s a policy in which things become forgotten, in which the important and the trivial become conflated, like how when Jensen’s daughter asked him about JS’ polygamy and he responded, “I just didn’t think it was important to mention.” I take it back…anti-intellectualism is a kind of evil.

  4. So, basically, an assumption that, for everyone, “even if Smith made it all up, that’s okay.”

    I have absolutely no problem with that response. Let’s see a GA state it openly if they think it’s OK too.

  5. Let’s see a GA state it openly if they think it’s OK too.

    According to Wikipedia’s entry on the First Vision, during polygamy, polygamy was the main pillar of the LDS faith. And then after polygamy’s fall, the truthity of Smith’s vision was made more fundamental by Joseph F. Smith — second in importance only to belief in the divinity of Jesus.

    I think with the Family Proclamation, Church leaders were attempting to better establish “eternal gender” as a Mormon pillar, but 15+ years later, that has largely had mixed success.

    I certainly think there’s room for the sole belief in “divinity of Jesus” to qualify one as a “Mormon.” However, in terms of GAs, in 1998 Hinckley said that “Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision,” which unfortunately made it harder to be a “good Mormon” while simultaneously call Smith a “fraud.” =D

  6. According to Wikipedia’s entry on the First Vision, during polygamy, polygamy was the main pillar of the LDS faith.

    this is very well documented and thoroughly discussed in The Politics of American Religious Identity: the Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle by Kathleen Flake.

  7. It would be quite interesting, and kind of fun, to see the church give up all it’s control, all it’s correlation for the more ‘Jewish model’ of defining things for yourself and choosing a synagogue (ward) that suits your beliefs.

    It would be interesting to see the church wards take on the flavor of the demographics surrounding it and not expecting to agree with one another. It’s never going to happen; however, it is fun to imagine.

    ‘I know the 4th ward is the true ward.’

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