The inner logic of Mormonism

Trying to identify the core doctrines of Mormonism is a project doomed to failure, I think, because it sets up an unworkable categorical distinction between core and periphery, and makes the unsupported assumption that doctrine forms the core of Mormonism in the first place. A better way to approach the question is to think of religious belief as a complex system of teachings, narratives, and practices. While not a system of formal logic, the system is largely coherent, although it is also a dynamic system that includes tensions between its elements. External pressures and inner tensions constantly cause the system to realign its various constituents, so that changes in organization or practice can alter doctrines, and doctrinal innovation invites practical changes, often in unpredictable ways.

This approach makes it possible to ask questions that would make little sense in the search for “core doctrine.” Is re-enacting a handcart trek a core doctrine? The idea seems ridiculous. But there are important questions that remain unanswered, like: What do these re-enactments tell us about how the Church views its relationship with American society and with its past? What teachings or narratives do the re-enactments support? What changes might lead to a prohibition on trek re-enactments, or what changes in narrative and doctrine would a prohibition lead to? What if a trek were to become an annual obligation? The Church has taken a particular historical path to get where it is today, and its doctrines are interconnected with its history. The Mormon Pioneers can’t be labeled a doctrine, let alone a core doctrine, and yet that historical episode is an inseparable part of the inner logic of Mormonism.

The concept of “core doctrine” also focuses too much on statements of belief in isolation, although the various tenets and practices are tightly linked to each other as well as to our texts and our history. Take the practice of baptizing children at the age of eight, for example. One might imagine that eight is an arbitrary age so that instituting baptism of four-year olds or infants would be a simple administrative change. But baptism is deeply connected to our understanding of church membership and sin and repentance and agency and the Fall of Adam and the Atonement, not to mention the writings of Moroni Mormon in the Book of Mormon, the established course of a Mormon childhood, the organization of the Primary, and participation in temple dedications and the women’s session of General Conference. One administrative change creates pressures throughout the system, so that a seemingly small change to the Mormon practice of baptism results, sooner or later, in a fundamentally different church.

One could also think of the inner logic of Mormonism as the parameters of Mormon belief, seen most clearly perhaps in comparison to basic Protestant teachings. Protestantism opted for a priesthood that emanates from the congregation, the Bible as the ultimate arbiter of truth, the sufficiency of faith, and salvation by grace; Mormonism chose a priesthood conferred by one bearer on the next, prophetic leadership, the necessity of salvific ordinances, and pre-existent and perpetual human agency. The reason we don’t emphasize grace is that it occupies a much different place in the logic of Protestantism than it occupies in Mormonism, and Protestant theology can’t be simply grafted into Mormonism without causing a massive rearrangement of Mormon beliefs.

Because the inner logic of Mormonism is functionalized through its mental representation in Mormon minds, there are differences to some degree between every member, and one person’s understanding may be highly incomplete or even defective (from the perspective of other community members). But the inner logic of Mormonism is not purely subjective and democratic. Something is likely to be closer to the center of Mormonism’s logic when it is expressed or supported by the following (this list is incomplete and unranked, but support from more of these items suggests more centrality):

  • Scripture, particularly verses that are frequently discussed or interpreted
  • Authoritative discussion, especially recently and in General Conference
  • Local and unofficial discussions
  • Curriculum, manuals, and official publications
  • Popular and unofficial publications
  • Church history and historical narrative
  • Monuments, pageants, and public commemoration
  • Liturgy, hymns and musical tradition
  • Daily lived experience, customs, and important life events

Besides the support of one or more of these categories, there is also the factor of logical consistency. The Church and most of its members are unlikely to accept innovations that result in a massive self-contradiction. The Church is not going to establish in its curriculum, for example, an approach to the New Testament that assumes that Jesus was not divine and that the accounts of his resurrection are fictional.

Overall I think the inner logic of Mormonism is fairly robust, able both to resist many pressures and to accommodate others. Substantial change comes at a cost, however, as both the beginning and the drawn-out end of plural marriage showed. Large sudden changes can result in schism, and too large of a change could bring the whole system crashing down. While a few people might be able to believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet but there is no God, removing the plank of theism would probably bring the whole house down for the vast majority of Mormons. Exclusive claims to authority may not match your personal style, but the whole project of the Restoration doesn’t make much sense without them; Mormonism’s concept of its place in history is also part of its inner logic.

So I am deeply skeptical about most proposals to simply renounce some bit of offending doctrine or some irritating practice. What is usually proposed as the simple appendectomy of an outmoded teaching turns out on closer inspection to be the amputation of a vital organ deeply connected with Mormon scripture and history and religious practice and a half-dozen other teachings. If the operation were to be carried out, it would kill the patient every time.

This is not at all to say that the Church cannot change. I am instead saying that the Church is constantly changing in response to both internal and external pressures. External pressures can lead to internal rearrangement. Gaps develop that are eventually filled. Change is limited, however, by the structure of Mormonism’s inner logic. The Prophet can announce relatively dramatic changes because doing so reinforces one of its central planks. People who hope for changes that run counter to the Church’s inner logic should have tempered hopes, although they stand more chance of success by arguing on the basis of Mormonism’s inner logic than on the basis of external standards.

It is at least useful to recognize when something belongs firmly within the inner logic of Mormonism, especially in those cases where it’s an aspect of the Church that you may not particularly like. Since it can’t be easily removed, at least not in any human lifespan, the problem instead becomes finding some way to make something positive out of it if possible.

27 comments for “The inner logic of Mormonism

  1. “the unsupported assumption that doctrine forms the core of Mormonism in the first place.”

    This is exactly right. Pretty much all modern thought and ideology is based in the assumptions that:

    1) Ideas legitimize people rather than the other way around (the classical thread in the enlightenment)
    2) To the extent that people do legitimize ideas, they do so equally (the romantic thread in the enlightenment)

    Mormonism, I claim, says that people legitimize ideas (a rejection of 1) and that some people have more authority to do this than others (a rejection of 2).

    Thus, we believe some doctrine because God currently says so through revelation to is living prophets – regardless of how “consistent” it is with “other truths”. It is our relationship to a speaker that matters, not the relationship between disembodied propositions that we might call “doctrine”.

    One view is upfront about the hierarchy that structures persons, while the other tries to mystify this relation by, first, reducing people to ideas (priesthood is replaced by “expertise”) and then, secondly, euphemizing the “top” and “bottom” of the original hierarchy in terms of how “central/core” or “peripheral/metaphorical” the idea is. Both of these structures are different ways of saying the same thing – namely, indicating when a person can *legitimately* question or reject X – whether X is a person or a disembodied doctrine.

  2. “The Church and most of its members are unlikely to accept innovations that result in a massive self-contradiction.”

    Then again, most members seemed to swallow the November 2015 Policy of Exclusion which effectively punishes children for the sins of their Fathers (or Mothers) in what many consider to be a massive self-contradiction with our scriptural Articles of Faith, namely that Men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s Transgression.

    That is, unless proof-texting insists that the only transgression applicable is Adam’s.

  3. It seems you’re making two main claims Jonathan. I accept both of them but not necessarily the implications you try to draw out from them. The first is a kind of meaning holism where the parts are more intertwined than merely presenting a “we believe item X” portrays. That both in terms of the support for their truth but also their very meaning. (For example it’s hard to separate out the Mormon concept of salvation from the Mormon concept of the purpose of life) The second claim is that religion isn’t just about propositional beliefs but there are all sorts of things like practices, concerns, responsibilities and so forth that can’t merely be reduced to beliefs.

    It’s this claim I have more trouble with:

    I am deeply skeptical about most proposals to simply renounce some bit of offending doctrine or some irritating practice. What is usually proposed as the simple appendectomy of an outmoded teaching turns out on closer inspection to be the amputation of a vital organ deeply connected with Mormon scripture and history and religious practice and a half-dozen other teachings. If the operation were to be carried out, it would kill the patient every time.

    This presupposes that the shift by removing a doctrine typically causes problems. I certainly agree there are some it does. But I’m also not sure it’s true of everything. Again here looking at doctrine more normatively in terms of community practice and belief rather than a more narrow conception of what’s ultimately true or what is grounded in clear unambiguous revelation. To give an example a common belief was that Nephites were pale skinned like Scandanavians, used swords like Romans, while Lamanites looked like 19th century north American natives. It seems to me that belief can be separated without causing much disruption. (And what disruption it does cause probably is good)

    To me the more interesting question is first what’s the authority for a particular belief or practice. Usually they’re pretty ungrounded and developed out of the folk rather organically. I don’t mean that as a slight. Just that it means they’re open for organic change in an other direction or disruption by authority.

    That said your point about ‘inner logic’ while somewhat vague is likely true. There’s a certain natural evolution of the church as it encounters new experiences it has to deal with. Yet at the same time I’m not sure that unconscious development means other changes can’t and shouldn’t develop. It’s just they must develop acknowledging these tensions, practices, and beliefs with which it must grapple.

  4. Clark,

    “Again here looking at doctrine more normatively in terms of community practice and belief rather than a more narrow conception of what’s ultimately true or what is grounded in clear unambiguous revelation.”

    I think that the term “ultimately” in “ultimately true” is doing a lot of dirty work here.

    As you know, I also reject the idea that revelation needs, or even ought to be “clear [and] unambiguous”. Such things only play a role within some social practice of “peer – or independent – review” which, I claim, has no place in the gospel. If review and revelation come through one and the same channel and process, I see no reason to think that clarity and un-ambiguity (if that’s a word) are virtues in any important sense.

  5. Well you and I are likely not going to agree on the work “ultimately” does. (grin) I tend to see there being a real notion of truth whereas you are much more in the Rorty/James camp where truth is a kind of consensus.

    But if we ignore this regulative notion of truth, even as important as I think it is, then of course we only have access to our sense of what is or isn’t true. The issue then is whether we’re doing our duty in terms of inquiry.

  6. Just to throw this out there…:

    “The search for the best things inevitably leads to the foundational principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the simple and beautiful truths revealed to us by a caring, eternal, and all-knowing Father in Heaven. These core doctrines and principles, though simple enough for a child to understand, provide the answers to the most complex questions of life.”

    See rest of the talk for explanation of the “core doctrines and principles” Dieter Uchtdorf is referring to:

  7. Michael, I agree with your point but I took Jonathan to be using “core” slightly differently. Uchtdorf is using it more in terms of what matters theologically to us. Jonathan is using it more in terms of what could be jettisoned. (At least that’s how I took him) So while the Book of Mormon’s reality really isn’t important at all theologically relative to the atonement, in terms of grounding the truth of the church it’s essential. So we have to be careful how we are using ‘core.’

  8. A fair post with good insights. I still don’t understand why trying to identify core doctrines of Mormonism is a project doomed to failure. A doctrine is nothing more than a teaching believed to reflect God’s words and order that is regularly promoted as such by the LDS leaders and members. There are a fair number of such teachings that make up Mormonism and which haven’t changed since its founding, i.e., we must be baptized by immersion after age 8 by a believing LDS male over the age of 16 with priesthood authority in order to be saved. We can pour through all of the words of the LDS leaders to identify which teachings have been consistent and which haven’t and which have been continually emphasized and which have faded away. Why can’t those that have been promoted in a consistent way regularly over time be considered core doctrine? I gather the issue is not so much with the word doctrine but the word core, because it implies that there would be peripheral doctrines. I don’t understand what is wrong with considering teachings about Kolob as peripheral doctrine. It is still considered doctrine by the LDS leaders and rank and file believers, but it simply isn’t emphasized all that much. A few doctrines have been completely rejected or changed.

  9. I disagree with the whole premise that there are no “core doctrines” in Mormonism. There are core doctrines, and the correlation committee has a list of about 20 that church teaching revolves around.

    One example: We’ve just gone through a multi-decade process where all the teachings of all the presidents of the church have been correlated to these core principles, and the teachings that didn’t fit–even signature teachings like ETB’s anti-communism, or JT’s defense of polygamy–were removed.

    A summarized version of these are found in the Temple Recommend questions. If you can answer the questions “correctly,” you are, by definition, a member in good standing, living the core doctrines of Mormonism.

    If Clark G (in #7) is correct, this post is more about “core practices.” These can change–and often do. Elder Holland’s conference talk on Home Teaching that “everything counts” is one example. But the core principle (“Watch over the church) hasn’t changed since the days of Joseph Smith.

  10. This is excellent. Thank you, Jonathan. No religion can be reduced to a set of core propositions, because all religion is lived in a community of believers. The experience and the conversation of the believers define the religion as much as any statement of doctrine. The effort to define core doctrines is not foolish, but it becomes sterile when we try to isolate it from the much larger context of a practical religious life. The notion of focusing on inner logic rather than core doctrines points in the right direction.

  11. Just a little nit-picking. I believe you meant Mormon’s writings to his son, Moroni, about infant baptism. Moroni had nothing to say on the topic other than engraving his dad’s epistle to him on the plates.

  12. Wally, thanks for noticing that. I’ve corrected the post.

    The other Clark, I’m not saying that there are no core doctrines – far from it. What I am saying is that there’s no clear boundary between core and margin, but rather a long spectrum from more to less central. Also, that the core is not composed only of doctrines, but also of practices and narratives. And finally, that all of these, whether near or far from the core, are linked to each other, sometimes stubbornly so. To establish the core, you don’t need a list of doctrines – you need a map that sketches out the connections between doctrines, and between doctrines, practices, and narratives. As for the examples you bring up, I think that inclusion in recent curriculum and on temple recommend interviews are strong indications that a doctrine is quite near the core. And I agree that things near the center change much more slowly than things farther from it, while things that change quickly are likely quite distant from the center.

    Dan Lewis, I think Kolob is a good example to think about. In a lot of ways, Kolob is nowhere near to the core of Mormonism. However, it does get mentioned in one hymn, and it has a clear foundation in modern scripture, which means it is also closely linked to Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission, and Kolob plays a certain role in our understanding of God’s embodiedness. So while there might not be many logical consequences or behavioral implications of Kolob, it’s only a few steps away from some central planks of Mormonism. The prophet could certainly announce that the name had been misheard the first time around and no one would bat an eye about updating the name, but someone else trying to erase Kolob from Mormonism entirely might run into some surprising resistance.

    Michael H, if there’s any doubt, please ignore me and listen to Elder Uchtdorf.

    Clark, as for your first example about depicting Nephites, I’d say that the ease of shifting away from a belief is good evidence that a teaching isn’t near the center. Yes, there is and was quite a bit of popular artwork to support Danish Nephi, and some scriptural interpretation to go along with it, but I don’t think many people were heavily invested in it. I wouldn’t say that dropping every teaching causes problems, just that the closer you get to the center, the more problems it causes.

    As for what I’m interested in, I’m not particularly interested in jettisoning teachings or practices or anything else, but rather in picking out some things that are nearly impervious to change, especially things we don’t automatically think of when we hear the words “core doctrine.” But that’s something for a later post.

  13. When put like that I certainly don’t have any problem with your position, although often false ideas also have lots of connections making it difficult to disentangle. Even controversial issues like leads to these problems regardless of truth. How to deal with certain gender issues like homosexuality is a great example – marriage as man and woman only is intertwined with so much but then that limits what we can do to deal with the social issues. That’s why most of us think a major revelation on the subject is in order. Regardless of how it resolves things it’ll cause theological problems.

  14. #12, thanks for clarifying. I agree that Mormonism is a web, and while the atonement is at the center, everything is interconnected, and tension in any given area will strain several other related areas, and in fact, will be felt throughout the entire web.

  15. Very interesting ideas, Jonathan. In light of your claim that removing or changing this or that seemingly non-core doctrine or practice might have significant unintended and unforeseen consequences, it would be interesting to ponder the impact of the following changes in LDS practice over the last generation or two. I’m sure other commenters can come up with a few more.

    — Eliminating local seventies, previously an office an a quorum at the local level.
    — Informally dropping Coke and other caffeinated sodas from the definition of “hot drinks.”
    — Emphasizing Heavenly Mother in LDS doctrine (previously a “we don’t talk about it” topic).
    — Acknowledging the possession of some of Joseph’s seer stones and their us in BoM translation.

    This set of changes seems to illustrate how malleable, even ad hoc, are most LDS doctrinal formulations.

    — Creation of the three-hour block and elimination of RS and Primary meetings during the week.
    — Embracing the “smaller temples” idea, then building them all over the world.
    — Eliminating local contributions to building funds.
    — Moving Conference from the historic Tabernacle to the newly constructed Conference Center.
    — Lowering missionary age to 18 for young men and 19 for young women.

    Together, these and other changes make life as a Mormon rather different in 2017 than in say 1977, only forty years ago. A mix of both retrenchment and assimilation moves.

  16. It’s probably easier to add or re-emphasize things that had normatively become neglected than it is to delete items. Of course we can delete significant things. Patriarch to the Church is gone. Blacks and the Priesthood issue dropped and theological defenses largely rejected.

    I don’t think heavenly mother or seer stones work since in many circles they never dropped out.

    Policies are always easier to shift when they don’t depend upon doctrine. So the number and sizes of temples, meeting schedules, practical methods of collecting and distributing funds etc. Indeed I kind of wonder in these days of everyone contributing electronically how long deacons doing fast offerings are for this world.

    The rate of change seems a bit different. Especially if we use 1977 as the pivot point. Maybe this just reflects my biases but 1977 seems a whole lot more like 2017 than 1937 does to 1977. Admittedly the differences aren’t profound. The real big changes happen in the decades immediately prior to the 30’s. But if you lived in 1937 you’d probably have polygamists in your ward which seems freaky to even consider. There’s a good chance women were giving blessings to women for child birth or feminine problems. There likely were young but married men on missions still. (Don’t recall the exact date on that shifting) Most members had likely regularly come in contact with apostles directly.

    On the other hand since the 1980’s we’ve had tons more scholarly work on Mormon history and particularly Mormon scripture. The Church is nearly everywhere rather than primarily limited to the Mormon belt in the west. Mormons aren’t seen as nearly as weird. The theology in many ways has changed, largely in response to closer readings of neglected scripture, closer attention to early Mormon history but also more of a harmonizing of science and theology through primarily apologetic groups like FARMS in the 80’s through 90’s. Then the use of the internet both for critics but also for Mormons even in meeting halls is huge.

  17. Clark, re “young but married men on missions” — My uncle born in 1930 was [allegedly] the last of those 19 year old missionaries given permission to marry before going. He married two weeks before departure. Some years and 4 children later that marriage ended in divorce. This would put the final shift in that practice around 1949-50.

  18. Trying to identify the core doctrines of Mormonism is a project doomed to failure…

    I agree! One Mormon’s doctrine is another Mormon’s folklore. I’m okay with this, what some see as dissonance.

  19. JI: So you need a system that incorporates both doctrine and folklore, and allows for individual differences – and also allows for both competent and defective understandings of Mormonism. Everyone’s different, but not every view is equally valid.

    Dave, I think the example of Mother in Heaven is particularly interesting. It’s a good example of a doctrinal gap – if marriage is eternal, then what about God the Father? What fills the gap, both semi-officially and as folk doctrine, though, is very Mormon stuff: sacred silence (paralleling temple worship), ideals of domesticity or cooperative partnership, even plural wives. What tends not to fill the gap are things like Mary or Mother Earth. It’s much easier for Mormonism to fill its gaps with existing parts of itself, while outside material gets treated with more suspicion.

  20. “the teachings that didn’t fit–even signature teachings like ETB’s anti-communism, or JT’s defense of polygamy–were removed.”

    That’s pretty slanted. No one would argue the books are comprehensive of their teachings that are true. But that the books served a purpose to teach principles that the Lord wanted the church to focus on.

    If you read and honor the teachings of the prophets you’d come to the conclusion that you should to opposed to communism, and you’d also should to come to the defense of the prophets who practiced polygamy.

    But that doesn’t mean the Lord or his servants think those topics need our attention right now. They were important in their day and no less important when people try to use them as a wedge against faith, but not generally important enough to teach the body of the church when the principles taught and the spirit followed will lead to those conclusions anyway.

    To the extent that more and more people feign confusion on social issues (gender, Priesthood, homosexuality), the prophets do speak clearly to the Doctrine for those that have ears to hear.

    It’s usually only the people who don’t have ears to hear that are saying there’s no doctrine there.

    If you want to disagree and say I’m being too harsh, just imagine that this whole discussion is taking place in the time of Jesus’ mortal ministry. Do you think that Jesus will say, yes you’re right there’s no clear Doctrine and the truth is mushy? I think he’d be clear about all the sophistry and speak unambiguously about the prophets saying if you have read them you don’t understand them. And then he’d give a parable about servants in the vineyard disputing amongst themselves about the master’s directives rather than doing them.

  21. P.L., “If you read and honor the teachings of the prophets you’d come to the conclusion that you should to opposed to communism, and you’d also should to come to the defense of the prophets who practiced polygamy.”

    Apart from those two examples that I don’t choose to address, if you read the teachings of the prophets you’d come to the conclusion that on who God is either (or both) Brigham Young and Spencer W. Kimball were simply wrong on the identification of God the Father with Adam. There are other examples of such contradictions among the teachings of persons sustained by the Church as prophets and revelators. The whole matter of reading and honoring the teachings of the prophets is not as simple as you (or perhaps The Other Clark) portray it.

    If Jesus were to address disputations about points of His doctrine (as opposed to the teachings reflecting the limited understanding of men (or women) including Church leaders), perhaps it would be in the form reported in 3 Nephi 11:31-40. There is no mention of communism or polygamy or numerous other matters on which leaders of the Church have taught (whether or not you call their teachings “doctrine.”) Jesus concludes “And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock…” That conclusion may be a bit harsh if one equates the doctrine or teachings of leaders of the restored Church with the doctrine of Christ. I prefer to read it as making a distinction between Christ’s doctrine and others’ sometimes flawed attempts to interpret it or apply it in the context of specific concerns, whether cultural or theological. Of course, this is not to say that my attempts are not also flawed or have not also changed over time,

  22. P.L.– I agree with your overall point that those books are not comprehensive, but instead focus on the “core doctrines” that Church leaders want the membership to focus on.

    Your other point that studying the “core doctrines” leads naturally to conclusions about free market economics, etc. supports the conclusion of the original post, i.e. “everything is related.” However, looking at worldwide membership–or even within Utah–I would have to disagree that church doctrine leads inevitably to a single political viewpoint.

  23. The problem with politics is that especially in the US where there’s huge incentives towards two parties that means you’re always in a coalition and are usually doing a calculation of tradeoffs. No one in the coalition likes everything that gets pushed but usually they like it better than the opposition. That means even slight differences in emphasis by people who may largely agree can have them on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

  24. One interesting doctrine/practice continuum to consider is the number of children that people have. Elder Cook recently quoted Pres. Kimball about church opposition to practice which greatly limit the family. The practice of church members has been a reduction in the number of children from earlier decades. Are and were large families a core doctrine of mormonism? I think that is the corest of core doctrines and that the majority of church members have been in apostasy to that doctrine. It will be interesting to see if the trend reverses.

  25. Martin, family size is a really great example of a Mormon practice that is tied to a bunch of different doctrinal pieces, including the plan of salvation, our role in bringing spirits into the world, the eternal nature of families, eternal increase, even agency vs. destiny and so on. But the “corest of core doctrines”? Really? More than the Atonement? More than eternal progression? More than faith, repentance, baptism, and the G of the HG? I don’t think so.

    If it were, we’d hear about it every general conference, and frequently in sacrament meetings and Sunday School. We’d be asked in our temple recommend interviews. The fact that it isn’t, to me, is a good indication that it’s more to the periphery of the web.

  26. Other Clark: I didn’t mean corest as most important, I meant it as “fundamental to what differentiates mormonism from other Christian churches. I would put living prophet and priesthood in that corest of core also. Personally, I find the increasing lack of differentiation of LDS doctrine to be an indicator of a lack of faith among the membership. Atonement doesn’t differentiate LDS doctrines from other churches. What else have we had from recent prophets that approaches the proclamation on the family? Abrahamic covenant wasn’t on your list but it is in my core also. The doctrine of intelligences combined with coming to earth to get a body would seem to mean that if births are curtailed, intelligences don’t come to Earth which seems pretty significant.

  27. This is a sad post. Sad because there are a lot of Mormons who cannot recognize the core doctrine of the gospel. I will do it for you. Love the Lord your God with all your might mind and strength and the second is like unto it. Love your neighbor as yourself. This doctrine casts man in the middle of a relationship to God and to his neighbor. Whoever fulfills these two commandments becomes a similitude of Jesus Christ, in other words a Saint. We are the church of personal mediators of the atonement (i.e. Saints) through Jesus Christ.

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