Mormonism, in its very short history, has a rich tradition of theological speculation. The foundations of the Church were based on burning desires to know concrete answers about the great mysteries. The existing answers in the early 19th century felt stale or unsatisfying as the world was changing and new frontiers opened up. Formerly settled religious questions were thrown back into the ring for debate. This happened within a frontier tradition attempting to interpret and combine ideas from the newly forming materialistic sciences with the long-established magical world view held in western culture.
Mormonism today runs a balancing act between its roots of free speculation and the need to create a cohesive religious and cultural organization. The social bond of a church is based at some vital level on common belief and understanding among people practicing their religion. Lacking firm creeds, we conduct this balancing act on a personal level. Problems arise when we attempt to impose our speculation on others. Conflict occurs when we need others to validate our individual interpretations. There is a line between personal belief and the beliefs that all Mormons must share in common. But where is it?
There has to be official Mormon doctrine. There has to be something common that brings people together in the religion. Don Ashton recently published a paper on this topic at http://www.staylds.com. It is called “What is Official Church Doctrine?” You can find it in the “Additional Support Resources” section of the website: http://www.staylds.com/?page_id=29
Don argues that the official and binding core of ideas, the cannon of doctrine that is fixed, is actually limited and abstract. That abstract characteristic allows following generations to interpret and develop the core to suit the needs of their contemporary environment. The same can be done by individuals to meet personal needs in their eternal journey of progress towards divine enlightenment.
Don summarizes this nicely in his opening section:
The 14 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are spread across 160 countries on 6 continents. Yet there is a remarkable consistency in beliefs, attitudes, teachings and practices among Mormons everywhere. A traveler visiting congregations throughout the world will find familiar curricula materials, beliefs, and attitudes on most every religious topic.
Yet Mormonism is not dogmatic. There is no creed or statement of core beliefs which adherents are obliged to accept. Both members and leaders alike hold varying opinions ranging from whether watching TV on Sunday is sinful, to whether every statement by a General Authority must be explicitly and unconditionally obeyed.
Such questions may be insignificant or disquieting. If a person is struggling with faith issues, it may become important to distinguish between Official Doctrine and less authoritative council. A clear understanding of Official Doctrine can reduce controversy, minimize anxiety and perhaps open up new options for resolving faith issues. This essay attempts to evaluate the authoritativeness of council ranging from canonized scripture to conventional wisdom.
The practical implications of this speak to a common encounter, which is a feeling of having to believe or practice things sometimes that do not make sense to us. The first question should then be whether the problem stems from an unbending core of fundamental doctrine; or instead, is it actually our own incorrect expectations and assumptions, someone else’s personal speculation, or something that we can freely explore.
Many ideas and practices touted as “official” are not. They are someone’s personal speculation and interpretation of the core doctrine. That means we are free to agree or disagree. It does not mean that person is wrong in their religious journey. What they do and believe may be valuable to them. But we should feel justified and even compelled to use our free agency and God-given intelligence to build what works for us. That is the soul inherited from our Church founding, and it is a theme to be nurtured today. We should expect our understanding to evolve over the course of our life. We should also expect the larger and broader concept of Restoration in the Church to continue its course of evolution from the past to today, and on into the future.
What do you think? Discuss.