There is no Mormon Doctrine. (sorta)

A disaffected relative messaged me one day, “Can you help answer a question for me? What is ‘doctrine’ in the Mormon faith?”

Thinking he had some genuine curiosity and hoping that perhaps he was opening up to me about his concerns, I gladly delved into a multi-hour chat with him about my thoughts on what “doctrine” is.

“You see, sir, considering how healthy green tea is, I’m sure the Word of Wisdom must be a policy not a DOCTRINE.”

I quickly discovered, of course, that there’s no simple answer to that question, since any time you plant your “doctrine flag” you are sure to be able to discover a contradiction from some authoritative source.

Only years later did I realize that his intent was not to have me share my thoughts with him to help him out, but to inspire doubt in me. He wanted me to feel uncertain about my faith, and the simple question “is that doctrine or policy” is one commonly used tactic antagonists use to try and make us feel unbalanced.

Like all efforts to attack our faith, the “what is doctrine?” approach relies on some assumptions. These assumptions are, unfortunately, totally common to our religious culture. That makes this method an easy attack on thoughtful believers, and a satisfying one for those who have already left since they have already fully accepted the absurdity and self-contradictions of “Mormon Doctrine.”

What is doctrine?

Put at its most basic, the word “doctrine” means “a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church,” and synonyms are “creed, dogma, belief, teaching.”

But in our faith, and perhaps in our modern culture, the word “doctrine” has somehow picked up a much more ironclad sort of feel to it. Indeed, countless articles have been written on subjects like “how to tell doctrine from policy” or “how do we know what is doctrine?” The unspoken implication is “Real Doctrine must be absolutely true, and always obeyed.”

We are wrong when we think this way.

There is no Mormon DoctrineWhen we try to treat “doctrines” as anything more than a teaching, we are falling into the trap of creedalism – insistence upon traditional statements of belief. As Latter-day Saints, this should repel us since the very founding of our faith was a rejection of creedalism.

Treating any doctrine as a permanent “creed” instead of simply a current “teaching” means any contradiction to our creed will force us into doubling down on our mistakes or rejecting the system by which we received the creed. This kind of thinking only makes us more dogmatic and defensive and opens us up to further attack.

Mormonism is Truth

Joseph Smith taught often and vigorously about what he felt should define Mormonism. It wasn’t doctrines. It wasn’t creeds. It was far more expansive and dynamic than that.  He said, over and over again, “Mormonism is Truth.”  Consider the following series of quotes:

Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft. …

“… Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same…”

“…the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints … are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.

“It is not wisdom that we should have all knowledge at once presented before us; but that we should have a little at a time; then we can comprehend it.”

There are many powerful lessons in those words, but I wish to focus on just a few.

  1. Our doctrine is best defined as: truth. Anything which is true, we accept as a part of our faith.
  2. We expect to learn truth over time. Along with that growth is the very natural expectation that we will be wrong, be corrected, and build upon past knowledge
  3. Creedalism, or treating “doctrine” like an unchanging truth, can only restrict us from gaining further knowledge. It is the opposite of true discipleship.
  4. Therefore, our doctrine will and MUST change over time as we learn, grow, and repent.

Joseph’s vision of our faith was perhaps best summed up when he said, “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Science, philosophy, revelation, and the arts are all bound up together in our unlimited search for truth. We are not restricted by creeds, nor are we restricted by what was thought to be “truth” in the past. Part of learning the truth is testing it, accepting that we can’t know everything yet, and accepting that we will get things wrong. But that’s part of the journey.

But we must have doctrines. Surely?

Creeds restrict us. So do the antagonists who insist we must have definable, unchangeable doctrines.

Yes, Elder Andersen made a statement on how to detect what is doctrine by indicating we can trust doctrine taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Ironically, his statement fails its own test for being doctrine, since no other member of the Twelve or First Presidency has taught his definition. Further, it does not presume that whatever doctrine is, that it’s unchanging and perfect.

Additionally, our church issued a statement on church doctrine which spoke about a range of importance within doctrines, and differing types of doctrines, making it clear that there is no monolithic “Doctrine” which is always true and always to be obeyed, and instead reinforcing the idea that “doctrine” simply means “teaching,” and that it’s application that matters.

Yes, we have doctrines. But “doctrine” doesn’t mean infallible, unchanging, or even true! Our doctrines are simply what we’re teaching right now and represent our best effort at defining truth. We expect it to change. We are excited for it to change! We believe not only in all that God has revealed but believe he will reveal many things!

Don’t let somebody try to strong arm you into thinking that we have a set of beliefs that must be unchanging and always true. That is simply not the case. We expect to learn and grow. If we have one single unchanging doctrine, perhaps that’s it.

“The Church is True” means different things to different people.

What is Mormon Doctrine?As a final note, I invite you to consider this idea: that when somebody says, “the church is true,” they probably aren’t thinking too hard about it. They’re probably thinking about “the church” as all the doctrines that they have learned and gained a testimony of. That’s their “church.”

Just as it’s unfair for antagonists to come up to us and insist we define our entire religion through a series of creedal statements called “doctrine,” it’s unfair for us to insist others consider the entirety of our religion when saying “The Church is True.” We can’t expect them to know everything about our history, our past teachings, our current teachings, our multitude of programs, our policies, and all that goes with it any more than we can expect that of ourselves.

We can afford to be charitable to others who, in their effort to speak with conviction and fullness of heart about their limited experience with the totality of our shared religion, feel satisfied expressing that fullness by simply saying “the church is true.” We might consider translating in our minds their statement to, “it works wonderfully!” and smiling along with them as we share in their joy at discovering their theory of faith has provided the promised outcome.

Summing Up:

So do we have doctrine?  Of course we do. Everything currently taught in our faith is our doctrine. Doctrine means teachings. What we don’t have is a set of creeds that are unchanging which we call doctrine. Certainly there are some doctrines that change, and there are others that appear to be eternally true. But we need not try to, sort, label, and restrict our doctrines into boxes. We must escape our dogmatic tendency to want to have “unchanging doctrines” which is just a code word for “creeds.” Let’s recognize that there are eternal truths and we hope we are teaching them, but we may yet have more to learn.

This is part 1 of a multi-part series tentatively called “Faith Theory.”  In the next post we will consider how, while there is no silver bullet for destroying a person’s faith, the insistence on “Doctrines” as permanently true is a commonality to almost every attack on Mormonism.  We will also discuss how our church culture’s dogmatism can lead to the injury of faith, and possible ways forward. If you want to be notified when it appears, be sure to follow our facebook page.

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Comments (1)

With regards to the church being “true” meaning different things to different people, I couldn’t have possibly said this better. But I might argue that Orson Scott Card did in his book Lost Boys. Forgive if you have read this; I know I have posted it a half dozen times in various places:

“A lot of people came into the Church with serious misconceptions about the gospel—no matter how clear the missionaries were, people were going to filter ideas through their own preconceptions and come out with something skewed at least a little bit off plumb, and sometimes a lot more than a little bit. If they stuck with it, though, and realized that correct opinions about doctrine weren’t anywhere near as important as learning to serve other people, to accept and fulfill responsibility, then eventually they’d loosen up enough to come around and change their beliefs, too, or at least not be upset that most Mormons didn’t see things the same way.

“Outsiders usually seemed to think of Mormons as automatons, obeying a charismatic prophet the way Jim Jones’s followers obeyed him in Guyana. The reality was almost the opposite—stubborn, self-willed people going off every which way, with bishops and other ward leaders barely able to hold them all together, all the while tolerating a wide range of doctrinal diversity as long as people would just accept their callings and then be dependable.”

(Back to me) Here the main point that sticks out to me is Correct opinions about doctrine aren’t as important as learning to serve other people. I actually take this probably at least two steps further. When people give up on faith, sometimes they stick around and say “even if it isn’t true, it is still good”. I have even heard some who leave say “even if it were true, it wouldn’t be good”, often with reference to policies they disagree with, or a culture that grates against them. I wonder if we conflate the relative importance when we place truth above goodness. I don’t think there needs to be any separation between the two. In my mind, goodness is truth, goodness is true. When a teaching or “doctrine” or practice makes me a better person, it is true. In this way, to me, Mormonism is true, because it made me a better person.

Another OSC quote that I really like, that seems to me to be relevant to the article is the following, sorry for the long quote:

“All revelation is translation. It begins with pure knowledge, communicated by the Spirit of God to the spirit of one of his children. The spirit apprehends as it has the capacity, and is filled with light.

“Immediately, though, the truth that was seen must be passed from the spirit into the human brain, which cannot comprehend it. The human can only understand based upon the images he has seen, the stories he already knows, his understanding of how the world works and why things happen as they do.

“It is like the dream that is so vivid as you begin to waken; you are excited by it, but even as you attempt to remember it, the dream fades and slips away, until you are left with a phrase or a single image which, by itself, has lost its power and vividness. A shard of a broken urn.

“By the help of the Spirit of God, revelations do not recede entirely; but the human brain cannot contain pure knowledge, and so all that is left is a translation.

“And then the prophet faces yet another difficulty: What the Spirit has helped his mind comprehend, he must now translate again into language that can be understood by people who have not had the vision he received.

“The Spirit of God can only work within the language that is in the prophet’s mind; and what good would it do to give him a clearer, better language, if there is no one else who speaks it, and so no one who could understand his words?

“The words on the page become obscure, and subject to malicious or erroneous interpretation. The plain language can now be twisted by those eager to deny the meaning.”

(Back to me) I might take exception to the idea that there is no doctrine in the church, but I don’t take any exception with the idea that we can only understand the doctrine as revealed to and explained by fallible humans to fallible humans. I have personally experienced what is described above, a spiritual experience that I can’t quite put into words, but I tried, and it reminds me of the experience, but doesn’t fully describe it or what I learned from it. I get that. I can only imagine multiplying the feeling by the responsibilities that come with receiving revelation for the church.

One last relevant quote from an Orson Scott Card article. He really has shaped me since the 5th grade, nearly 30 years ago:

“We might believe in many true things, but we also believe in many false ones. For instance, we get married in the belief that our partners will keep their wedding vows. Even if all of us have equal certainty — after all, we’re betting our future lives on those promises! — some of us turn out to have been incorrect. And our degree of certainty might have little to do with our degree of accuracy.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying we “know” the gospel is true — as long as we recognize that we’re talking about our feelings. “Knowledge” is not superior to belief, and when the feeling of certainty makes it impossible for us to learn new truth that revises our old understanding, it can hurt us!

“The reason the gospel stresses the vital importance of faith is simple: Faith is stronger and better than knowledge.”

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