Duality, Doctrine and When Less is More

Stephen MarshMormon 17 Comments

D&C Section 77 and its companion section 113 have an interesting history.  An “older” high priest was publicly debating with local ministers about doctrine and was winning the debates.  Local church leaders felt he was espousing false doctrine and decided to excommunicate him.  At his trial he had a surprise advocate who spoke passionately in his defense, even though he was 100% wrong on the doctrine.

The advocate who completely turned things around:  Joseph Smith (whose corrections became those two sections).  He gave what is one of my favorite sermons about how we have freedom to believe and how open the Church should be to all.

What is interesting is that we have a trend in the Church to reduce the amount of teaching that is considered “doctrine.”  Officially, there is little change. But as a Church we are redefining what we believe at the core and what is speculation.  We have a significant shift away from the “fill every niche” approach and a huge shift towards the Book of Mormon as a testament of Christ.

The move makes a great deal of sense in two completely different ways.  The first is a growing appreciation for a core teaching of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith that our understanding is limited by our context:  our language, experience and knowledge shape what we can understand and how we understand. There is truth in describing some things as the unutterable things of the Spirit — there are things beyond the words we have.

It also works very well if we accept dualism; that is, that multiple conflicting descriptions can be true.  Not that it is a “blind men & the elephant” situation, but rather that somethings are both waves and particles (rather than just particles made of waves). That is, the latest viewpoint is not necessarily the “full” or correct one, it is just another one.

If there is a significant amount of dualism, then a wide range of acceptable points are all part of the truth. In fact, dualism requires an openness to multiple, perhaps conflicting viewpoints in order to encompass all of the truth. It is not a matter of one view transcending earlier partial views.  It is, instead, a need to accept “both” or “many” views as true in order to have all of the truth.

Which means paring the core teachings so that they do not block dualism where it applies.  By paring things down we are actually expanding our access to truth and our ability to teach it by keeping ourselves from rejecting those areas where dualism applies.  In this case it means, very strongly, that less is actually more, and the only path we have to encompassing more.

I am curious where you see dualism applying in the Church today and in the doctrines we have reduced to no longer being exclusionary of other viewpoints.

Comments 17

  1. I can see why acceptance of a large range of views is essential to make sure we ultimately “get things right”. Being involved with science, for example, I see how the “lens of science” often causes members to have slightly different interpretations of various doctrine then those who could care less about science.

    I think the mean “lowest common denominator” is that people’s beliefs about doctrine should be such that they still have faith strong enough to keep themselves worthy to enter the temple regularly. Members whose beliefs in certain doctrines vary but whose beliefs still give them the faith to compel them to live up to their temple covenants and worth to always enter the temple are doing okay in my mind. If a particular interpretation of doctrine is leading you to violate covenants or temple worthiness, such beliefs should be reconsidered.

    Just to give an example, Orson Pratt fought Brigham Young over many interpretations of doctrine. Someone asked Brigham why he puts up with this and Brigham said something to the effect: If you cut Orson up into 1000 pieces each one would testify the Book of Mormon is true. Likewise, regardless of what you think about evolution, plurality of Gods, Adam -God theory, etc… if first and formost you are living to build up the kingdom of God and establish Zion in righteousness you are doing just fine in my book. If you live worthy to attend the temple these things will work themselves out and one day the church will converge on the right answers.

  2. I would love a focusing of the Church on the core of the gospel. I would love to never hear another talk about what color shirt we should wear to pass the sacrament. I would love to see BYU accept a person based on their testimony of Christ and willingness to help fellow human being and not based on how many tattoos or earrings they have. I would love to see the Word of Wisdom be treated as it was originally given and a peripheral thing to the core of returning to God. I would love to see the Church refocus on spending their billions on humanitarian issues rather than shopping malls. I would love all of these things. But I don’t see them happening in my lifetime…

  3. Can you point me to this sermon: “He gave what is one of my favorite sermons about how we have freedom to believe and how open the Church should be to all.”

    I’m guessing that it has to do with his statement on how we ought not be “trammelled” for our beliefs, one way or the other, but if there’s a sermon attached I’d love to read it.

    “Elder Pelatiah Brown, one of the wisest old heads we have among us, and whom I now see before me, has been preaching concerning the beast which was full of eyes before and behind; and for this he was hauled up for trial before the High Council. I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine. (History of the Church, Vol. 5, Ch. 17, pg. 340)

  4. Want to see a great example of dualism found in the scriptures? Just compare Section 13 with Oliver Cowdery’s account of the same event at the end of Joseph Smith History. The statement by John the Baptist when restoring the Aaronic Priesthood is mostly the same in both accounts, but the final phrase has one word change that changes the meaning of the whole sentence.

    In Section 13: “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness. ”

    In Oliver’s account: “Upon you my fellow-servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer this Priesthood and this authority, which shall remain upon earth, that the Sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto the Lord in righteousness!”

    Notice the “until” vs “that” when it comes to the Sons of Levi?

  5. Steve:

    I had to go away for a bit and read D&C 77 and D&C 113; these revelations were never canonized in our denomination. I’m also not going to be qualifying for a temple recommend any time soon. Again, not something that came down from the 1830’s through our line.

    So, maybe the core of Mormonism is something Joseph Smith himself could only contribute to partially.

  6. Tom, that is it, I love it. There are other versions floating about (basically a little longer).

    Joseph Smidt — very well said.

    Dave — the change that always got my attention was the two word one “may yet”

    Mike S — I think that the Church being involved in saving the city center rather than giving up on it, something that has evolved and been continuous since the 1970s (when Second South was renown for its streewalkers more than anything else) is a good example of responsibility.

    The Word of Wisdom is another great example. It changed focus when the way cigarettes were cured changed — you do know that BYU students used to face only mockery for smoking, nothing more? But then, cigarettes were cured like cigars then, when that changed, making them more addictive and resulting in deep lung inhaling, other things changed — though the Word of Wisdom was always intended to be binding as fast as people could live up to it.

    FireTag — but I’ll bet you could live with 77 and 113 😉 Good question just what the core of Mormonism is vs. the core of the LDS. That would make another good post. However, I think we can agree our understanding is limited by our context: our language, experience and knowledge shape what we can understand and how we understand. There is truth in describing some things as the unutterable things of the Spirit — there are things beyond the words we have.

    Hope you don’t mind where I took your ideas and your post.

  7. Steve:

    I think that those sections give an example that prophets often do not understand what they are being shown. I probably don’t buy 77 and 113 as interpretations of those Biblical scriptures. I DO buy the overall point that we are always limited to the symbols (including words) available to us.

    Joseph could probably not interpret the vision of Moses as anything but other planets; I probably can’t help interpreting it in terms of parallel universes.

    I would suggest that the essence of any prophecy is the message you can apply BEFORE the prophecy is fulfilled. It’s not just so a later prophet can say “God told you so.”

  8. Most of the dualities are reconcilable only because they are not true dualities. Maybe the grace/works duality is the classic one. They only seem to be incompatable because the scope of our understanding hasn’t allowed us to synthesize them into aspects of one great whole. True dualities – light and dark, for instance – are not reconcilable. Dark exists only as the absence of light, health as the absence of sickness, etc. Where one appraoches ascendancy, the other diminishes. There is therefore a reactionary response on questions of light and health, and the rest, a tendancy to cling to what light and health one has. But that reactionary tendancy is unnecessary, and the distatsefulness of it doesn’t change the dual nature of many aspects of existence.

    I don’t beleive there is anything beyond words, only beyond our ability to express for right now. I look forward to begin able to express my self better, to snickle down into more gaps and crevices, while yet in the flesh. The groanings which cannot be uttered and inutterable because to do so in our time and place would be against the law. But where they are not against the law, we will utter them freely. (A trumpet of a prophecy!)

    Blah blah blah, I’m feeling talky. ~

  9. Less may be more for the position of the church, but more is always more for us. Personal expansion is one of the real signs of actual, rather than put on, righteousness. The man with one talent is always the man with one talent. The man with ten is never asked to give any back; instead, he should go on and claim twenty. I’m uncomfortable with any seeming retrenchement into the “basics” except on grounds that no one really got them the first time around. ~

  10. I would suggest that the essence of any prophecy is the message you can apply BEFORE the prophecy is fulfilled. It’s not just so a later prophet can say “God told you so.” — Nicely said. I actually think that for the most part Prophecy is a rosarch inkblot that allows God to speak to us by the Spirit.

    2 Q. What are we to understand by the four beasts, spoken of in the same verse?
    A. They are figurative expressions, used by the Revelator, John, in describing heaven, the paradise of God, the happiness of man, and of beasts, and of creeping things, and of the fowls of the air; that which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual; the spirit of man in the likeness of his person, as also the spirit of the beast, and every other creature which God has created.
    3 Q. Are the four beasts limited to individual beasts, or do they represent classes or orders?
    A. They are limited to four individual beasts, which were shown to John, to represent the glory of the classes of beings in their destined border or sphere of creation, in the enjoyment of their eternal felicity.

    I don’t have any problem with that, and rather like it.

    Most of the dualities are reconcilable only because they are not true dualities Well, with grace and works the problem is that grace vs. works is the wrong question, the issue is surrender and acceptance. But waves and particles make a nice duality — the core example and a part of physics. I’m coming around to that as a duality rather than thinking of them as particles made of waveforms superimposed on each other. A better example is sin. Sin is an observable, tangible blot on people, that can be washed away. From another perspective, there are no mistakes, no sins, no wrong decisions, only lessons learned. Every turn away from the truth has both sides to it.

  11. A couple of thoughts.

    1. I think that the term “opposition in all things” is a teaching about duality, more than a teaching about Satan always nipping at our heels. But, then again, it could be both! How dualistic!

    2. The gnostics, (according to my methodist religion professor) were dualists in the sense that they felt that the physical and the spiritual were separate. Some historical gnostics thought physical = bad and Spiritual = good. They would participate in physical austerities in order to transcend the physical. Other gnostics conceptualized that the physical is an illusion and the spiritual is the only reality. Some of them would pay no attention to the physical, while a few would do whatever they wanted physically because it wasn’t real anyway.

    This idea of the physical realm being a complete illusion is what makes some Unity and Religious Science (New Thought / Law of Attraction / “The Secret”) practitioners call themselves gnostics. Actually, it’s more common for fundamentalist Christians to call them gnostics and therefore heretics.

    Although I was a long time Unity practitioner, I came to feel that calling the physical an “illusion” or something to “transcend” didn’t ring quite true to me. I feel that the physical life and the spiritual live are very much linked, and that the body is designed as a vehicle for spiritual growth. For me, this is an important part of the grace/works question, because for me, as “unfair” as it seems that an unhealthy body can slow down your spiritual growth, it seems clear to me that it’s not a free ride because we have to take care of our bodies to grow spiritually. We just have to.

    Remember that PBS Documentary on Mormonism? It pointed out that, perhaps because Mormons believe in a physical resurrection and perfected bodies, and that God has a body, Mormons have had a strong tradition of celebrating the body in dance, and place emphasis on taking good care of the body. I’ve always appreciated in Mormonism this pro-physical attitude, that feels compatible with my view that the body is an important spiritual vehicle of purposeful design. (Though, I also see a lot of anti-sensual attitudes in stoic Mormon musical presentations, which bums me out.)

  12. One more idea:

    The dualistic concept of Good/Evil and Jesus/Satan always bugs me, even though light/dark don’t so much.

    I like a Jewish story I heard, where a traveler in the woods is being chased by a monster, but when he finally faces it, he sees that the monster has a glowing ember of goodness in his heart. The idea is that even in the heart of darkness there is some goodness, and that the larger encompassing reality is goodness. Sometimes goodness uses darkness for a purpose.

    It’s this whole yin/yang oneness type of thinking that gives me the feeling that I’m on the trail of Truth.

  13. Steven: I think a porn comment got through the spam filter. I presume you can edit.

    Justin: Let me be clear that a duality is not simply two opposing things that together make up reality; that’s dualism. It is not just the proverbial blind men grasping an elephant, either — although that may be true about reality, too.

    Duality is two alternative total descriptions of the same thing. I may call something a wave, or I may call it a particle, because the phenomenon has features that remind me of those simpler concepts. But if someone follows either the Schrodinger (wave-like) formalism OR if one follows the “non-commutative algebra” (particle) formalism hard enough, the same wave or particle effects have to come out in either description. But even simple predictions become almost impossibly hard if you start from the “inconvenient” formalism.

    The advantage? Well, if a problem seems insoluable in one description, but you know that a dual description exists, try solving the problem in the other description. You can then act on the solution you get in confidence that doing it “the hard way” would have eventually gotten you to the same answer.

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  15. Steve, I may have missed the name of the excommunicant, but was it Pelatiah Brown? Tom seems to suggest this is the guy, but I hadn’t known his story was the source of inspiration for those D&C sections. Can someone confirm?

    I’ve always liked what Joseph Smith said in reference to how this sort of parochialism smacked of the Methodists. Thanks for including that quote, Tom.

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