Dalle-3 depiction of “Legalistic religion”
One of those interminable discussions we members like to get into is whether a particular teaching is a “doctrine” or “practice.”
The issue behind the issue is what is changeable or not. Presumably if something is defined as core then stakes are placed in the ground and it is beyond discussion. At the same time if the “doctrine” label is used as conversation stopper for current teachings, the “practice” label is imputed to past teachings that did change, even if leaders at the time specifically said they wouldn’t change. At times it feels like it’s an attempt to have a cake and eat it too, to be able to dismiss past teachings that aren’t followed anymore, while granting privileged permanence to the current ones.
People occasionally claim there’s some system very clearly demarcating the two: if it’s presented to the Church as a sustaining vote as canon, if it has passed through the correlation committee, if it’s a revelation that says “thus saith the Lord,” if it’s in the quad, whether Joseph Smith taught it, etc., but taking a step back I’ve always gotten the sense that these are post-hoc parameters that are thrown up to try to turn the gospel into some sort of systematic, legal schematic. Besides, they beg the question of what those rules are based on, and in many cases you can find disconfirming counterexamples that checked a particular box but are still not held up as doctrine anymore.
Latter-day Saint personal epistemology of belief is rooted in a numinous, personal, revelatory experience, not legal/rational argument like some other faiths. The Restoration was founded on an unlearned boy “driving the plough” receiving eternal truths from Gods and angels, Moroni did not did not unload a multivolume legal treatise on Joseph Smith delineating specifically which institutional triggers have to go off for something to be considered binding, as if our discipleship is based on “commanding in all things” and legal coercion. With a few exceptions such as disciplinary courts and baptism protocol, the D&C is relatively sparse on legalistic details. Even the endowment has always been seen as a work in progress.
Again, I think that’s a feature more than a bug; this isn’t a case of “holy envy” of religions where the core is more legalistically demarcated from the periphery. “There are greater things in heaven and in earth…” and all that, but there is still enough structure to not lapse into doctrinal nihilism.
If God meant to manage His Kingdom by some legal/rational schema, Joseph Smith would have had a successor tidily picked out, with a revelation clearly outlining the laws of Apostolic succession far in advance. God didn’t give one. It was up to the Saints to use their own discernment to figure it out in the chaotic aftermath of the martyrdom. We like simple rules and heuristics—they’re comfortable, but we have to use our own discernment too, and again I think this is a good thing. Overreliance on some systematic schema can make our own discernment atrophy from disuse.
This is not to make an argument for hierarchical anarchy when it comes to teachings. I do believe that there are concentric circles of authoritativeness for contemporary Church teaching. If I had to make a diagram it would go something like: the D&C at the core, followed by statements made with the unanimous authority of the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12, followed by statements made by the President of the Church in formal setting, then statements made by the other leaders, etc., with the more “doctrinal” core items more to the interior, and the more flexible policy items on the outside.
Still, this is in general. The point I am making is that, with the possible exception of the D&C, our theology is not nearly systematic enough to claim that there is some kind of airtight, unambiguous schema about where exactly the boundaries between different tiers of authoritativeness end and begin. Rather, Latter-day Saint “doctrine” is more of a system of overlapping Wittgensteinian “family resemblances.”
Again, that is not an excuse to simply dismiss the words of the prophets. As members we should logically “doubt the doubts” of items closer to the core if we have received revelation that the whole is true, but still, there isn’t some roadmap that we can just follow on autopilot without using our own spiritual discernment. If President Nelson hit his head tomorrow, released his counselors, appointed new ones, and announced with the unanimity of the First Presidency that Chtulhu is the only God with which we are to do, I think I’m safe disregarding that bit of authoritative prophetic teaching.
Of course, nine times out of ten this line of thought goes directly to “see, and therefore the Church should adopt [insert conveniently fashionable social view here]” when one doesn’t necessarily follow from the other.
For the Church to function you do kind of need a “follow the prophet” ethos, especially when God keeps having the Church do very counterintuitive things that turn out in the end. Already experiencing extreme persecution? I know, let’s introduce polygamy. We can either settle sunny, green San Diego or a salty desert. Let’s go to Utah!
The history of the Church is a history of an institution operating against the comfortable, conceived wisdom, that counterintuitively became larger than many of the faiths that took the easier roads. There is no way that would have happened had we not had a strong, centralized hierarchy of authority. Still, unless we are so incredibly restrictive about what we define as “doctrine” that hardly anything is left in that category, there really isn’t a clear legalistic schematic for determining in the contemporaneous moment which prophetic counsel will be deemed clearly inspired in generations to come versus which ones will be sort of relegated to the back shelf, of interest mostly to ex-Mo redditors and history nerds. (Don’t worry, the difficulty in knowing which beliefs will stand the test of time probably applies to your liberal or conservative political views as well.)
And I suspect most members grasp this intuitively. There’s a certain class of member that loves to point out that the Proc has not been canonized. That’s true, but even if it was I doubt it would actually change the minds of members who see it as problematic simply because it technically passed through the filter from “quasi-canonical” to “canonical,” so why don’t we talk about the substance of the thing instead of relying on an appeal-to-technicality?
Ultimately, the Church’s teachings provide the overall scaffolding and structure, and there’s no reason why the same spiritual discernment that leads one to embrace the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as God’s Kingdom can’t also be used to parse out the true “doctrine” from the “practices” while using the concentric circles of authority as general guides.