As I’m sure you’ve discovered by now — my takeaways from this interview between Krista Tippet and LDS Theologian and BYU Religion Professor Robert Millet say much more about me than they do Brother Millet.
That said — in part 3 of this series, I’m going to make my argument that within this interview, we can see yet further signs that both Robert Millet, and the LDS Church, are becoming more and more open/liberal/progressive/tolerant in their willingness to allow for a “Sunstone” or even a “New Order Mormon“-like perspective when it comes to an LDS belief/testimony.
Here are the signs and tea leaves I’ve identified in my own personal Mormonism Rorscharch test….
On Modern-Day Confusion Amongst LDS Church Leadership Regarding Mormon Doctrine, and the Freedom LDS Members Should Feel to Accept or Reject the Teachings of Past LDS Prophets (as Appropriate)
Mr. Millet: In recent years, there’s been an effort to, to try to solidify and codify, if you will, what actually constitutes Latter-day Saint doctrine. And that’s caused us to ask hard questions like this: Is everything that was ever uttered by a church leader on a general level from the days of Joseph Smith, is that considered the doctrine of the church? And the answer has come back no. I’ll give you an illustration. At the time, The Da Vinci Code was very hot and a little controversy raged over it.
At the time it was raging, the church issued a very brief but insightful statement that I was appreciative for. It’s just something that just…
The Church of the Latter-day Saints?
That’s right. The Latter-day Saint leaders issued this statement. It just said essentially, ‘The scriptures are silent as to whether Jesus was married. It is true that early church leaders may have offered their opinion on this matter, but those opinions did not then, nor do they now, constitute the doctrine of the church.’ Now, that’s a statement that’s very important, because what it establishes is while Latter Day Saints revere and honor and respect and uphold their church leaders, we do not believe in a form of prophetic infallibility.
And so we — as we, as we move into the 21st century now, and as we begin having a greater focus upon Christ and Christianity and Christian principles, I think there is a tendency to look back and say, ‘All right, what are the central saving doctrines? And what are some other things we, A, don’t know much about, B, just don’t seem to be in harmony with what, with what — and where we are now? And I think that’s taking place more and more.
On the Belief that the Book of Abraham is Translated Scripture:
And, you know, I know that [Joseph Smith], he reported revelations, and the stories sometimes changed when he told them at different times. And then the thing may be more, on a practical level, there’s the book of Abraham, which he…
…had said that he translated…
…from some Egyptian papyri that were found inside a mummy. And then later, you know, several generations later, when scholars could, could really translate hieroglyphs, they said that these were funeral documents and not a lost book of Abraham. So I want to ask, you know, as a very faithful member of the church and a scholar of the church, you know, how do you, how do you make sense of this kind of contradiction?
I guess this is the side of me that — this is the stubborn side of me that is prone to say, ‘Yeah, I have questions about the historicity in terms of how it came.’ He didn’t tell us how exactly this happened, how he got the information. I mean, you know, scholars even within the church have taken different views. One, one view is that he literally translated it from Egyptian. Another view, perhaps, is that the Egyptian papyri that he had proved as a kind of spiritual catalyst to receiving an independent revelation about the ancient figure of Abraham. I don’t know what the answer is on that. And I, and I’m as eager to learn about that as, as the critics of the church are just curious investigators of the church are.
On Faith or Testimonies Being a Decision — Sometimes Regardless of the Evidence/Facts
I heard a church leader not long ago say this, which is very simple, but it has a profound implication for me. He said, “Faith is just so much more than a feeling. Faith is a decision.” And I think that’s right for me. I made a decision a long time ago about Joseph Smith, fully aware now, maybe more so now as a professor for the last 25 years than I ever was as a young person, full aware that he was a human being, that he made mistakes.
But I made a decision back then that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the work he set in motion was divinely inspired and that what I was about was good and that it would bless my life and bless other lives. And, and I’m just, I’m just sort of taking the stance of I, I just will not allow my faith to be held hostage by what the things I do know to be held hostage by what science has or has not discovered at a given moment in time. Does that make sense?
On the Book of Mormon as an Historical Document
“That’s the faith part of me saying, ‘Well, of course I look forward to archeological evidences of the Book of Mormon.”
On the “The Mormon Lifestyle” or “Mormon Culture” Being Major Components to One’s LDS Faith/Testimony (e.g. being a cultural Mormon)
“But I will, for the time being, put on the shelf the things I don’t know because there are just too many things that I’m, I’m convinced of, and that the way of life that the church promotes highlights to me.’ In other words, would I, would I want to go another way? I wouldn’t.”
On the LDS Church Needing Time to Get Its Doctrine Together — and to Become More Mainstream (also on Religion as a Business, and on the LDS Church Being the “One True Church”)
“We’re in the religion-making business, as you intimated earlier, only for a short time, I mean, compared to the Christian church, which has been at this for a couple of millennia. We’re about halfway to Nicaea. And so, and so in that sense — I remember a very tender moment. I was speaking with — I’ve been invited to the Salt Lake Theological Seminary, basically an Evangelical seminary, to discuss a book I had done on Jesus. And they had read it, and they wanted me to come and just respond to questions. And it was, it was a very enjoyable couple of hours.
The very last question that was asked by one of my friends there was this one. He said, ‘Bob, what can we do for you?’ And I, I wasn’t ready for that question. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘What can we, as Evangelicals, do for our Mormon friends?’ And I, I guess my mind could have gone a hundred different ways, but what I came back with was this. I said, ‘Boy, I appreciate you asking that. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that.’ But, but I said, ‘Try this. Cut us a little slack, will you? Give us a little time. We’re in the religion-making business, and this takes time. It takes centuries. And, and trying to explain the faith and articulate the faith, that doesn’t come over night. We’ve really only been about that for 20 or 30 years.’ “
I can very easily anticipate apologists commenting here that I am misinterpreting Dr. Millet — and taking his words out of context. In all honesty — I don’t believe that I am. If I were to think back 30 or 40 years — I could not imagine someone like Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith, or Ezra Taft Benson even granting such an interview…let alone answering questions in this way. To me, these types of “New Order Mormon” or “Sunstone” responses from our chief theologian provides me, as a “New Order” / “Sunstone” – Mormon with a tremendous amount of encouragement that with each passing year — folks like us will be more and more tolerated within church culture.
Of course it may be a long, long time before we will ever hear our church leaders validate any of these points directly to us, as members, in General Conference (that’s usually not the way they work). Can you imagine the day (in modern times) when you will hear something like this over the pulpit at General Conference….
- “There have been many, many doctrinally incorrect statements by past General Authorities and even by Prophets, Seers and Revelators — but you are free to choose the ones you wish to believe as true.”
- “The Books of Abraham and Mormon may or may not be historical documents — we just don’t know. But their teachings are true regardless.”
- “Whether or not our church is the “One True Church” — the lifestyle is good, and worth pursuing.”
- Etc., etc., etc.
…but this is probably an unrealistic expectation. Churches that do this, I believe, ultimately become weak.
Still — in the mean time — I want to publicly express my gratitude for folks like Dr. Millet — who give the rest of us cover, and perhaps a little less guilt, for the perspectives and attitudes we have recently gained on Mormonism (through an in-depth study of its history).
Thanks again, Dr. Millet, and to you, too, Krista Tippet. You are our hero.