On the Shelf

I’ve been thinking for several days about something that Armand Mauss said in the first “12 Questions” post. Speaking of greying intellectuals (which I assume includes me) and their early choices, he said: “Some of them (maybe half – who knows?) opted to put their Church loyalties, careers, and/or public images ahead of their intellectual yearnings and independence, feeling that the latter could not justify the disruption and jeopardy to their largely conservative spouses and families, to their aspirations for respectability in the Church, or to their career plans. Others (maybe another approximate half) decided that they could not simply put their doubts or their intellectual quandaries on the shelf, or compartmentalize their religious and intellectual lives.” He is speaking in broad terms here, perhaps in terms of types, so it is probably a mistake to personalize the remark and ask where I fit.

I’ve made the mistake anyway, wondering which of these describes me. The question is complicated by the fact that I’ve not been involved directly in Mormon studies. Nevertheless, my interests have been in areas that often overlap with LDS questions. I’ve given those questions a lot of thought as a consequence, and I’ve written, spoken, and taught about the things that I’ve thought about. I don’t think I have compartmentalized my religious and intellectual life.

In thinking and teaching about the issues that arose, neither did I opt to put my Church loyalty, career, or public image ahead of my intellectual yearnings and independence (though as one who has made temple covenants, I hope I would do so if necessary). But neither did I think that my intellectual yearnings and independence would disrupt or jeopardize my spouse or family, my Church respectability (such as it has been), nor my career plans—and they have not.

I recognize that others have had a different experience than I have had, facing problems I’ve not faced. I don’t want to minimize or deny their experiences, but it hasn’t been mine. I have had almost no difficulty at all pursuing my intellectual interests as they relate to my religious life, and though my politics are mostly moderate (read “left-wing” in Utah County), my intellectual interests are not those one would label “conservative.” I read and write sympathetically about dreaded figures like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Derrida. Lately I’ve thrown in the less well-known and perhaps more acceptable because they are overtly religious, Marion and Henry—as well as their critical nemesis and my teacher, Janicaud. So far I’ve never had a problem.

I hear one explanation with some regularity from friends of various sorts: “No one knows what you are talking about. If the Brethren knew, you’d be in trouble.” I think that this is said most of the time in jest, but not always. I object on two counts: First, I think—hope—there are people who do know what I’m talking about. I try to write clearly because I’m no genius and I know how hard philosophy can be. I’d like to make things easier, if possible. At the same time, though I’ve come to know what I know through a lot of hard work, the more I work at it, the more I find that lots of people already know what I’m just figuring out. Most of them are not undergraduates, but so what? All in all, I assume that the things I say are reasonably accessible to intelligent members of the Church.

Second, I don’t think the Brethren care very much about what I’m doing, but I’m not concerned about what they would think if they did. Once or twice I’ve had the opportunity to discuss my philosophical beliefs and their relation to Mormonism with members of the Twelve, even to argue with them about why I think differently than they. They seemed to understand me and to enjoy the argument, and I didn’t leave the discussion fearing that some hammer might fall later. So far, no hammers.

I’ve put a lot of things on the shelf over the years, “doubts and intellectual quandaries,” but I’ve never felt that doing so required compartmentalization nor that it meant I’d given up my intellectual yearnings and independence. Polygamy is an example. I don’t know why we were required to practice it. None of the explanations satisfy me. So I’ve put that question on the shelf with other questions that seem to have no satisfactory answer. I take one down occasionally, dust it off, and try again, but usually it goes back on the shelf to collect dust once more. For me, faith trumps intellect, but it doesn’t follow that intellect is irrelevant, unimportant, easy, dangerous or any of the other things that those who denigrate it may wish to use to describe it.

The result is that I think there must be more than the two types that Armand describes. How many more, I’m not sure. How we find ourselves distributed among them, I’m even less sure. But there must be more.

34 comments for “On the Shelf

  1. Julie in Austin
    April 29, 2004 at 9:51 pm

    Very interesting.

    I want to respond to just one idea–the shelf metaphor.

    Camilla Kimball has used it: in her biography, she says that she puts things that bothered her on the shelf. Years later, she’d take them down: some were no longer perplexing, some didn’t seem important, and some had to go back on the shelf.

    Emily Dickenson used it, too (with different symbolism, but similar general idea):

    It dropped so low in my regard
    I heard it hit the ground,
    And go to pieces on the stones
    At the bottom of my mind;

    Yet blamed the fate that flung it, less
    Than I reviled myself
    For entertaining plated wares
    Upon my silver shelf.

    Anyway, I think that Br. Mauss’s two types presuppose people who are *not* willing or able to put thorny issues on the shelf for later. For them, I think there are only the two options that he describes.

    But for those of us with shelves (mine is really big, and overloaded) . . . the types don’t fit. But I can report (in another context, I would bear tesimony), that I have successfully gotten a few things off of the shelf and resolved over the years.

    So, maybe ther are there three: leavers, squelchers, and shelvers?

  2. Julie in Austin
    April 29, 2004 at 9:53 pm

    Wow, I mangled that last line: I meant to say, “So, maybe there are three types:”

  3. Kaimi
    April 29, 2004 at 9:56 pm

    Long live the shelf!

    I mean come on — shelves are very useful. Otherwise, you just have too much clutter. And that goes for physical as well as intellectual life.

    There are probably hundreds of topics that are still unresolved in some way in my mind. Some are church related; many are political, law-related, literature-related. At the moment, I have a job, and some concrete goals, so interesting questions like “how does the ‘path of the law’ relate to the concept of stare decisis” get shelved until I have time for them. Which, sadly, will for at least some of them be never. But such is life. Shelves are very useful.

  4. Greg Call
    April 29, 2004 at 10:42 pm

    Great post, Jim. There are certainly more than two types, thank goodness.

    I chuckled at “No one knows what you are talking about. If the Brethren knew, you’d be in trouble.” That was my exact reaction at reading a draft of “Scripture as Incarnation” as a first semester philosophy student. When I read it a year or two later, of course, I realized just how shallow my first reading had been.

    The shelf metaphor is widely employed, I think. I’ve had one friend tell me she was leaving the church because her shelf just got too heavy and came crashing down. I suppose that’s another type: those that try their darnedest to shelve but eventually feel like it’s too much.

  5. April 29, 2004 at 11:08 pm


    I think I was actually present on one occasion when you were subjected to that accusation (“No one knows what you are talking about…if the Brethren knew, you’d be in trouble”). A Sunstone panel, or some other sort of panel, on postmodernism and BYU or the gospel or both; John Armstrong organized it, I believe, and I think Ralph Hancock and Hal Miller were up on the panel with you. My memory tells me it was David Knowlton (standing at the back of the room) who made the crack, but it was a long time ago.

    It doesn’t take anything away from your point, but it is worth emphasizing that, as you note, others face problems that you (or I) don’t. While a lot of the “intellectual quandries” which you and I and many other people have faced–polygamy, etc.–are real and complicated, they also probably aren’t (for philosophers or political theorists, at least) a central aspect of our vocation; they can be shelved. Whereas you couldn’t–not if you wanted to be a good continental philosopher–simply shelve the whole debate over meaning of metaphysics. But while there may be many church leaders who have very strong opinions about the ontology of God, for any number of reasons the church as a whole simply doesn’t have a dog in that fight, meaning that constantly worrying over (and employing radical thinkers in an attempt to deal with) issues of God’s being simply doesn’t, for the most part, intersect what the church is saying in any substantive way. On the other hand, the church does have something fairly definite to say about, for instance, gender roles–which means that for those intellectuals for whom gender studies are a central aspect of their vocation (the Claudia Bushmans and Laurel Thatcher Ulrichs, for example), shelving is a much more complicated and difficult matter. (Not impossible, of course. But harder than it is for you or I. In many ways, I regard this as just an accident of history. The shoe would be on the other foot–our foot–if it had so happened that ours was a 19th-century Catholic world, as opposed to a 20th-century Mormon one, and stake presidents, rather than being expected to take the Proclamation on the Family seriously, were instructed in the finer points of Thomism.)

  6. April 29, 2004 at 11:46 pm

    Personally I think the real reason for polygamy was to avoid assimilation.

    The Church has several issues it struggles with, over and over again.

    First, the lack of leadership. There is a constant struggle between the mission to grow and the need for sufficient leaders. If you don’t grow, you deny people the gospel. If you do grow, you have inadequate leaders. The same is true of quasi growth (i.e. changing inactives into actives. In the 1960s, 10-20% of the Church membership in core areas was active. By the 1980s or so, the activity rate was around 50% or better, which means that the “real” growth rate, that of active members requiring wards, bishops, etc. was about three times the apparent rate based on numbers).

    Second, assimilation. Over and over again parts of the Church have been overwhelmed by the local culture (consider Tonga, for example, or almost all of Europe post WWII, or …).

    Third, direct suppression. Rare, these days, but a constant threat. Same sex marriage may lead to direct legal assault and censorship of the Church as has happened to some groups in Canada already.

    Polygamy fits into the things that would be needed to force the Church to move into physical isolation and that would create a barrier that would protect it from assimilation until it reached critical mass (note that around 1901 there would have been real doubt about whether or not the Church had avoided assimilation or not, had there been people with the right tools to evaluate it).

    Anyway, I think the shelf metaphor is interesting, though there are lots of things I dealt with in my life where I just realized that I didn’t know enough at the time.

    For example, to many people, quantum mechanics just seems *wrong* some-how, and when I was sixteen, I felt that way, but I also knew that with more study I’d probably fill in the gaps — strange how that kind of thing is expected in science, the lack of that attitude is ridiculed in law school, yet realizing that you don’t know enough to fill in all the parts and understand how things work in religion is considered infantile and a way to compartmentalize.

    I never felt that way in Physics or Law School. Sophmoritis … the curse of many, though fresman rejection is just as bad.

    Can you think of anyone who in the first year of law school refused to “put it on the shelf” when things didn’t make immediate sense who was respected for their moral courage? That sort of thing is a stock image of an (hmm, I’m searching for a word without the negative connotations of idiot) …

    I’m perhaps a little strong on the points, and I think the comparison with physics is better than with law school, but I hope I’m making sense.

    I see many of the debates about flaws in Church leaders as “gee, you think” kind of points, combined with “heck, you know you have a one sided story, you associate with people who know the other side and can assure you that the complete story is vastly different from the one you have, yet you take it as a sign of moral rectitude and superiority that you are telling the false story to make a point” sort of thing.

    If I tried that in court I’d get eaten alive.

  7. April 30, 2004 at 12:12 am

    A couple of years into graduate school I found myself quite unexpected delving into a “Mormon studies” topic of sorts. That is, I discovered that a figure central to the movement I was interested in had been raised as a Mormon, and, though he had left the Church, his Mormonism had had a profound influence on his artistic development. Recognizing that I had rather special access to this topic, I decided to pursue it. At first I was quite nervous, because it touched on some of the deeper paradigms of Mormon thought (Abrahamic cosmology, divine materialism, etc.) and concerned certain intersections of or perceived resonances between those paradigms and other, sometimes rather disparate worldviews (Vedic thought, Sufism, psychedelic drugs…). I was so worried, in fact, that I pestered my stake president to read a draft of a conference paper on the topic. His short response went something like: “Interesting. Nothing of doctrinal concern. Too bad we lost this guy!”

    Still, every once in a while when I tell someone at church what I do they will joke (or, I suspect, “kid on the square”) that I’m going to get in some sort of ecclesiastical trouble if what I’m doing gets out. I hate to say it, but sometimes I wonder if this reflects a deep-seated fear among some Mormons that Mormonism cannot withstand ANY intellectual scrutinity–as if, deep down inside, in a place they would never give conscious voice to, they think of faithful membership as a willingness to be complicit in a shared myth, like asserting the reality of Santa Claus when kids are in the room. And it’s not like I’m even scrutinizing the Church, just one of it’s former members; still there’s a worry that even bringing Mormonism into an academic discourse will somehow cause harm to the Church. They seem to percieve a danger not only in arriving at troublesome conclusions through intellectual inquiry, bit in the act of inquiry itself.

    I suppose that my membership in the Democratic Party offputs right away anyway, so I’m under suspicion regardless… :)

  8. April 30, 2004 at 1:03 am

    Russell, I think your emphasis is important. I had an encounter with a well-meaning university administrator once who was anxious to help me understand that no non-Platonists could be good Mormons. It cost me no more than an uncomfortable lunch over which we discussed his concern about my intellect and soul, but I could certainly imagine what my life would be like if his views became Church views.

    Jeremy, I think there’s something to your point. I think that too often we are, indeed though unconsciously, afraid that our religion cannot stand up to careful, thoughtful scrutiny. The other side of the problem is when we think that anything that can’t meet the test of a particular discipline’s demands (physics, philosophy, or literary criticism, etc.) can’t be taken seriously as something an intellectual would be involved in. Each is wrong, though the second may be even more spiritually dangerous than the first.

  9. April 30, 2004 at 1:24 am

    Russell, though I think there is a lot to what you say about me dealing with fights in which the Church doesn’t have a dog, it isn’t completely true. Two of the topics about which I’ve argued with general authorities are feminism and postmodernism. In both cases, it was clear that I was being asked because the person asking me knew that I don’t have standard beliefs and because the topics are relevant to doctrinal questions. I wasn’t being interrogated because I was in trouble. I was being asked to make a case for people who have views like mine.

  10. April 30, 2004 at 1:46 am


    Point well taken. I suppose what bothers me about the types of questions I mentioned is the implicit assumption that my interest in the Church as a culture indicates a desire to reduce it to culture, or to “demystify.” I don’t think the work I do makes any “demands” or otherwise presumes a “validating” role.

    I suspect what you mentioned in the original post about your philosophical discussions with Apostles is right on. I’m quite sure my home teaching record is more of a concern to my Stake President that the stuffy paper I give at some obscure conference.

  11. April 30, 2004 at 2:26 am

    Jeremy, sorry if you understood my point to be a criticism of what you said. I only meant it to be a midrash on what you said. I agree that people often assume that if you are writing about LDS questions using history or sociology or musicology or . . . , then you must be trying to reduce it to something non-religious.

  12. April 30, 2004 at 9:54 am

    No, I just took it as a helpful nuancing of the issue. You put your finger on what I was trying to get at.

    (BTW, your _element_ article continues to pop up frequently in my footnotes, so, good to know you’re not getting in trouble for it… :) )

  13. Ben Huff
    April 30, 2004 at 12:32 pm

    “Can you think of anyone who in the first year of law school refused to “put it on the shelf” when things didn’t make immediate sense who was respected for their moral courage?”

    I think spiritual knowledge is a lot like scientific knowledge in the sense that we (should) expect that what we currently believe will have to be revised in light of further discoveries. I don’t see this as a skeptical way to think; the change from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian conception of gravitation didn’t imply that Newton was deluded! Most religious folk I know probably wouldn’t make this comparison. But then how many people who are not research scientists talk about the findings of natural science as things that we should expect to be revised?

  14. Davis Bell
    April 30, 2004 at 1:23 pm


    I think you’re mostly correct to suspect that there is “deep-seated fear among some Mormons that Mormonism cannot withstand ANY intellectual scrutinity–as if, deep down inside, in a place they would never give conscious voice to, they think of faithful membership as a willingness to be complicit in a shared myth, like asserting the reality of Santa Claus when kids are in the room.”

    However, I think that fear is only found in a certain subset of Mormons (to which I fear I belong). I would characterize the members of this subset as intelligent but not brilliant, educated but not scholarly, etc. In short, they know enough to get themselves into trouble but not enough to get themselves out of it. They’ve heared the criticisms, and see some validity in them, but haven’t dedicated the time or effort to navigate the daunting task of studying them thoroughly.

    I would never claim to be a serious student of Mormon Studies. I’ve been exposed to a good deal of run-of-the-mill anti-Mormon propaganda, and some Mormon apologetics. I’m cognizant of the charges and complaints leveled against the Church by its critics, and also of the Church’s response to its critics. And yes, I have a vague fear of unfettered intellectual inquiry into the history and theology of the Church. To be honest, I think this is exacerbated by the secrecy and whitewashing to which many troubling topics are subjected by the Church and many of its members.

    However, I think the vast majority of members are immune to this fear. Of those who are immune, the majority are good, faithful Saints who either aren’t aware of many of the criticisms are who are content to dismiss them out of hand. I mean no criticism of these people by describing them this way. These people regard the arguments found in “A Marvelous Work and Wonder” as sufficient. The smaller number of those who are immune are those who have dedicated a tremendous amount of time to studying these problems and criticisms and have made peace with them — I think many of the people on this site fall into this last category.

  15. April 30, 2004 at 2:16 pm

    Indeed, there are more than two types–about which I will write more later.

    In terms of polygamy, I have largely shelved that too (although I retain tender areas about this topic). I cannot, however, entirely shelve it because I am asked about it fairly frequently. My most recent experience was two weeks ago in a meeting with a rather eminent Harvard theologian who will remain nameless. At the end of an hour of intense discussion as I was getting up to leave he said, “Melissa, what was the theological justification for polygamy?” This question came without warning. I fell back into my chair and sat there stunned and silent for a few minutes. I stammered out something about Joseph Smith being revered as a prophet of the Lord, only to have him counter with, “well, what was Joseph Smith’s theological justification?”

    Tell me off the cuff what would you have said?

  16. April 30, 2004 at 2:46 pm


    “I think that fear is only found in a certain subset of Mormons (to which I fear I belong). I would characterize the members of this subset as intelligent but not brilliant, educated but not scholarly, etc. In short, they know enough to get themselves into trouble but not enough to get themselves out of it.”

    I think you’re exactly right, and you characterize the subset quite precisely. And I didn’t mean to overstate the degree or frequency with which such persons express concerns about the stuff I write; it’s only occasional.

  17. Gary Cooper
    April 30, 2004 at 2:49 pm


    I have faced just such questions on polygamy, from non-members, on numerous occasions. It’s intersting how, over the years, my responses have changed as my understanding of the history of polygamy has grown. My current opinion of the polygamy issue is that polygamy was a true principle revealed to Joseph Smith, primarily as a test of faith for the Saints and a way to keep separated from the world until the church’s membership hit a critical mass, and that like other revealed principles, it is possible that Joseph and the early Brethren did not fully understand it, and may made errors in the way they tried to live the principle. The current amswer I give, when asked the same question that your thologian asked, is to pretty much give the that as an answer, adding that we don’t fully know why God revealed it, but He has since revoked it, for which every member I know is grateful. I’ve not had any problems with giving this answer–it emphasizes the revealed nature of the doctrine (which I believe), allows that it may not have always been lived correctly (which I am prepared to accept), offers my opinion as to why it may have been given (labelled as opinion), and emphasizes that we don’t live it now, with a little humor about being glad it’s gone. *Then I always state what is to me the most important point to make when facing such questions*: “The LDS church does not really have a formal theology the way other churches. Because of the revelatory nature of our religion, we are open to the idea of God revealing Truth a little at a time, as we are able to understand. There are certain reveled Truths that are basic to our religion, and from those we are quite free to speculate and theorize, as many do. Yet, only one person, the prophet, can receive new doctrine, as it is revealed to Him.” This answer seems to work for educated inquirers, and often serves to steer the conversation towards the Restoration, BoM, etc.

    This answer works for me, too. In 23 years as a convert to the Church, I’ve put plenty of things on my shelf. I’ve taken some down. Polygamy is less a problem for me than is blacks not holding the priesthood, for example, but that’s just me, and really no issue I’ve faced has ever been one to cause enough doubt to ever make me think the Church might not be true. The shelf exercise works for me very well.

  18. Taylor
    April 30, 2004 at 3:01 pm

    I usually say that JS was recreating biblical religion and saw polygamy as a part of that, along with temples, prophets, priesthood, etc. That seems most consistent with D&C 132.

  19. April 30, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    Melissa: I think that Taylor’s answer is about right. I would add two other concepts:

    1. The notion of divinity as a kind of Abrahamic fecundity (posterity as numerous as the sands of the sea shore, etc. etc.) and polygamy as a kind of hyper-patriarchal imatio dei.

    2. The concept of eternal dynastic alliances, underwhich polygamy became a subset of sealings as part of the larger concept of the law of adoption and becoming eternally welded with the righteous exalted.

  20. lyle
    April 30, 2004 at 3:15 pm

    I think that Ockham weighs in on the side of Taylor & Nate. I like it…three short (if fully packaged & loaded) sentences to explain polygamy. Brilliant.

  21. Ethesis
    April 30, 2004 at 3:23 pm


    But then how many people who are not research scientists talk about the findings of natural science as things that we should expect to be revised?
    Comment by Ben Huff

    end quote

    Ben, that’s a good point, though it is how I look at things. I practice in an area of the law that has migrated about a good deal in Texas, and get asked to predict things sometimes. Sometimes it is easy to predict results, some times impossible. At least once I took a pro bono case fully expecting to lose 9-0 and won by a significant margin on appeal, so I know that I’m not always accurate.

    As to Melissa’s surprise question and reply, the theology of it (vs., for example, why God did it, where I seem to agree with Gary) is that the principle is clearly a part of Old Testament theology (and New Testament practice for some groups) and fits in with any restoration of a Church to the state reflected in the core texts.

    That repeats over and over again in early Church writings on the subject.

    It is neat to find someone else who agrees with me on the anti-assimilation nature of the principle and I think there is a good deal to be said for trials of faith that refine one.

  22. Gary Cooper
    April 30, 2004 at 3:27 pm

    Lyle, et al.,

    I’m not so sure that I am as comfortable with Taylor’s and Nate’s repsponses. Taylor’s in particular seems to make it seem as if Joseph concocted polygamy out of his own head, rather than receiving any kind of revelation on the subject. If you don’t believe Joseph got a revelation to practice polygamy, that’s fine, but for those of us who do believe there was such a revelation, it falls short. It would certainly give the impression to a typical non-LDS person that Joseph simply reasoned that we ought to be polygamous, so he told us to do it. The answer I gave in my last thread isn’t perfect, but every non-member I’ve given this answer to came away understanding that Joseph believed God told him to be polygamous, at the least, and that the really important issue is the LDS belief in apostasy/restoration/modern revelation. Nate’s answer is pretty deep, maybe okay for a genuine theologian, but I think way over the heads of layman, IMHO.

  23. April 30, 2004 at 3:34 pm

    Gary: Taylor was responding to Melissa’s inquiry of how you would explain to a non-Mormon theologian JS’s theological understanding of polygamy in terms more illuminating that “God told me to.” (After all D&C 132 is really long, it must be about something!)

    I don’t think that you can draw any conclusions about Taylor’s opinions regarding Joseph’s inspiration, and having known Taylor for a number of years, I can tell you that it would be a mistake to suppose that he thinks Joseph Smith had no divine revelations and simply cooked everything up.

  24. Ethesis
    April 30, 2004 at 3:36 pm

    BTW, assume that polygamy were restored on the basis that women courted each other and that men just had to cooperate. How many men would dread that even more?

    I got to thinking about that model when a friend’s wife mentioned she always hoped that polygamy would come back. Turns out she had a good friend from college whose primary recreation was cleaning house and who was still single and still >300 lbs. The wife had always wanted an excuse to have the friend move in with them ….

    In the Church I’ve always wondered about some home teaching and care assignments for people who were left out. I still remember someone saying “I sure wish we could just tell Bro. X to marry her and take care of it that way.”

    Makes me glad that I don’t have to worry about those things happening.

  25. Davis Bell
    April 30, 2004 at 3:53 pm

    Question: Would you rather be one of a few people of your same gender married to one person of the other gender, or be the only one of your gender married to several other members of the opposite gendre? (I.e., if you’re a man, would you rather have lots of wives, or be one of many husbands to one wife, and vice versa for women). I was thinking about this the other day, and I decided I’d rather be one of several husbands.

  26. April 30, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    While I think that Gary’s answer is an interesting one, and a version of Taylor’s answer is what I usually give in response to general questions about polygamy, I do not think that either really answers this particular question.

    Professor x was asking for *theological* justification. He didn’t want to know (not really) how Joseph understood this practice in terms of biblical practices and the restoration of all things. He wasn’t asking me about the social, political or economic implications of polygamy either. Professor X was asking me how this doctrine could be theologically justified (systematically) in light of our other doctrines.

    It was clear to me (because I know him) that in the back of his mind he was thinking of our strong pro-family rhetoric and particularly our political efforts to help define marriage as a union between one man and one woman (think proposition 22, etc.). It wasn’t lost on him (nor, I think, on many others) that we have inconsistent theologically over time on this issue. My only answer was that we believe in continuing revelation and thus, that there are and will be these kinds of inconsistencies. However, this makes us seem untrustworthy and dangerous to some.

    This professor is one that argues passionately for a public theology–suggesting that religious people be allowed and even encouraged to voice their religious convictions in the public square and even to offer their religious beliefs as the reasons why they make certain public policy decisions or vote the way they do. He rejects the idea of the “naked public square” as not only impossible, but as irresponsible. Unless we can discuss the real convictions that undergird our decisions–public discourse will not progress on the most important issues.

    With that brief introduction to Professor X’s thought, the polygamy issue would be troubling (I am almost certain) because it means that LDS theology will never really be publicly accessible in the way that he would hope (or worse, we don’t have an undergirding theology at all–except that prophets are to be followed).

    Much more to say obviously . . .

  27. Taylor
    April 30, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    I am curious as to why you don’t count [our] answer as a “theological” one. I agree that functionalist answers (i.e., prevent assimilation or quickly grow the Mormon population) don’t answer his question, but I take the notion of “restoration of all things” to be a crucial theological key to JS thought on this issue and others. How else do you explain a practice “theologically” without reference to an archetype (e.g., the Last Supper, or Jesus’ baptism)?

  28. Taylor
    April 30, 2004 at 4:14 pm

    I agree with you that there isn’t a consistent theology of the family, except the doctrine of sealings. But sealings don’t seem to tell us anything about how the family should be organized in this life. I can see how this would be suspicious for non-LDS theologians (and politicians, and well, pretty much everyone). However, this seems to raise a different question than, “what was JS theological justification for polygamy?”

  29. Adam Greenwood
    April 30, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    I think Taylor’s on to something. Nate’s addendums are theological in the way your Professor seems to want (a-historical principles), and I agree with them. I also see very good reasons why these particular justifications haven’t been explicitly advanced.

    But Taylor’s explanation is certainly theological: it fits our notion that becoming holy is in large part a process of imitation and following models, to where we may wish to do things that our models did that are, strictly speaking, not in themselves necessary for salvation; and it has the sort of aesthetic formalism that we see in other ordinances.

  30. Gary Cooper
    April 30, 2004 at 4:34 pm

    Nate–(and Taylor, this is for you too) I didn’t mean to imply that Taylor personally doesn’t believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet, just that his answer is also similar to what some have repsonded on this issue in the past who did not. I did not mean to offend in any way, Taylor.

    Melissa—thanks for the additional information. Sounds like your theologian is a real gem, and able to handle a fairly deep answer to his question. So therefore…

    Taylor—your last thread makes sense, now, so I think I’ve been persuaded to change my mind. I think my answer may be okay for layman, but for someone who actually is a theologian, and want’s to know the theological explanation (“yes, I know you believe God revealed it, but WHY did he do that? Any ideas?”), Nate’s and Taylor’s responses could be helpful.

    Ethesis—so it was you who talked about the assimilation motive! I had always felt this was a one of God’s reasons, and I remember somebody here had mentioned it, so it was you. Yes, we agree!

    By the way, for you Ethesis and for Davis Bell—this idea of letting women pick out the man’s plural wives—I once thought this over, and I suppose that would work out for me, since my wive’s friends are all Latins, like herself. But–being a Southerner, would I feel the same way if my wife’s female friends were Yankees? Hmmm….

  31. April 30, 2004 at 4:46 pm


    I’m not sure you could’ve said anything to satisfy your professor, because he’s starting out with the faulty premise: namely, that our religion attempts to provide a systematic theology. I don’t think that’s the case for polygamy, and I also don’t think it’s the case for our other doctrines like the Word of Wisdom.

    Jim wrote a paper on this idea which I found very influential. Your statement that “we don’t have an undergirding theology at all–except that prophets are to be followed” is part of the idea. Beliefs in continuing revelation counteract our desires to systematize our religion in the way your professor would like.

  32. Juliann Reynolds
    May 1, 2004 at 12:48 am

    I’ve never understood the hoopla about polygamy, perhaps because it is just a fact of life for those of us born from it. I think we have the same issues that religions who currently baptise third world polygamists have–to make an issue of it becomes a works based problem. For LDS, it is also a problem because there is really nothing in our modern theology that makes anything but marriage a requirement for exaltation.

    It doesn’t bother me if JS or anyone else was left to figure out how best to impliment an immediate or a greater goal. With a little help from Malina, I see the value of polygamy as binding for a community. Malina’s analysis of early Christian theologians showed that they did not form alliances based on theology (as we tend to expect), they formed alliances through family or friendship and then took on their theology. What better way to form a strong theologically based community than through a system of intermarriage? From what I can see, Mormonism was a social system as much as a theological system and they were busy turning many social mores upside down in their zeal to create a utopian theocracy.

    As for polygamy, it surprises me how many people are still concerned with it as an ongoing “principle”. First, it requires a politically/socially repressive system to give the man a level playing field and second, it needs an outside supply of women. Look at Colorado City where they drive out younger men and snatch up the young girls. The birth rate cannot accommodate multiple wives for ongoing generations without raiding neighboring villages.

    The theological ramifications of a Celestial Kingdom almost exclusively inhabited by *women* is much more amazing than anything JS seems to have been thinking at the time. Yet, I rarely find anyone willing to ponder the consequences of this when they state a belief in “eternal” polygamy. That and the brief practice of polyandry tell me that we haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of all of this.

  33. Ethesis
    May 1, 2004 at 9:39 am

    Julian, you make some excellent points.

    Think about pre-baptism mortality rates and birth rates for boys and girls. You suddenly have a Celestial Kingdom with lots of unmarried men to be adjusted for.

    That skews the entire Colorado City model even more and makes one wonder about a Celestial Kingdom inhabited mostly by women and unmarried men …

    Obviously the issues are deeper, including the polyandry issues and it isn’t just polygyny.

    I find the Book of Mormon comments, that polygamy is a temporary condition, to be engaged in from time to time as God directs, but generally to be avoided, an interesting gloss on the entire matter, and one that is rarely discussed.

    It fits in nicely as “polygamy when you need it as a social force, for short duration inputs by God, otherwise not a permanent part of things” sort of belief that most members have.

    Makes the deeper, why did God do that fit into models that are consistent with the idea of Prophets who give different guidance for different times.

  34. Anonymous
    November 3, 2004 at 5:45 am

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