Faithful Dissent

While reading through some of the transcripts of the interviews used for PBS’ “The Mormons“, some of Elder Holland’s comments caught my eye. Dave over at DMI also posted about this interview, although he didn’t necessarily pursue the issue I would like to raise here.

First let me refer to two parts of the interview:

[You say] there are stark choices in beliefs about the origins of the book. Explain why there’s no middle way.

… If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That’s what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody’s liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book, but not agreeing to its origin, its divinity. …

I think you’d be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we’re not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. … We would say: “This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I’m going forward. If I can help you work toward that I’d be glad to, but I don’t love you less; I don’t distance you more; I don’t say you’re unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can’t make that step or move to the beat of that drum.” … We really don’t want to sound smug. We don’t want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.

… There are some things we can’t give away. There are some foundational stones. If you don’t have those, you don’t have anything. So the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, those are pretty basic things. …”

What about people who question the history of the Book of Mormon?

There are plenty of people who question the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and they are firmly in this church — firmly, in their mind, in this church — and the church isn’t going to take action against that. [The church] probably will be genuinely disappointed, but there isn’t going to be action against that, not until it starts to be advocacy: “Not only do I disbelieve in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, I want you to disbelieve.” At that point, we’re going to have a conversation. A little of that is more tolerated than I think a lot of people think it should be. But I think we want to be tolerant any way we can. … “Patient” maybe is a better word than “tolerant.” We want to be patient and charitable to the extent that we can, but there is a degree beyond which we can’t go. …

[End quote]

This also relates to our recent discussion here at FPR on the role of the scholar in the church. In that post I asserted that the dividing line between the prophet and the scholar was not revelation as the role of the prophet versus interpretation as the role of the scholar; but the control of bodies. The church is open to the scholar in as much as his/her work does not compete for power over the individual (usually understood as doing things like coming to church, paying tithing, and generally speaking–”keeping the commandments”).

The questions to ask, I believe, are: Can “good” scholarship (as defined by the community of scholars) come from this limited sphere? In Elder Holland’s terms, is there such a thing as “non-advocating” scholarship? Or does all scholarship at least implicitly “advocate”?

In particular, without looking too much to the past (because Elder Holland’s comments may or may not represent past policy), do these comments create more room for “faithful dissent”? Does this mean that there is more space for a multitude of “faithful” intellectual positions? “Faithful”, here meaning at least no disciplinary action taken against such individuals, or perhaps them even being able to hold recommends. Is it possible to “dissent” from the common voice and still be a member of the church in good-standing?

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Faithful Dissent

  1. Well everything advocates to a point. Look at FARMS. Yeah to a point they are apologists. But at the same time they are staking out a lot of theological ground – often in opposition to established theologies and traditions. Are they advocates? Of course. But they are a sort that Elder Holland probably doesn’t mind as much.

  2. Thanks for the link, axe. I, too, was rather heartened by Elder Holland’s remarks, but reading them again in your post they sound strangely ambivalent. He says there are “plenty of people who question the historicity of the Book of Mormon” and that “the church isn’t going to take action against that.” Yet two sentences later he says the Church will be patient but not tolerant toward such people and “there is a degree beyond which we won’t go.”

    In the prior paragraph, he says “we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins” (referring to the Book of Mormon) but that “we’re not going to invite somebody out of the church over that.” Yet in the next paragraph he calls the Book of Mormon a “foundational stone” that “we can’t give away.”

    So it seems like anyone can read what they want to from his remarks. LDS scholars are still at risk from a bishop who reads their book or article and doesn’t like it. Or who receives a manilla envelope from the COB with an underlined article. Or, for that matter, who receives an anonymous envelope with an underlined article. Am I being too pessimistic?

  3. m&m

    I thought he was pretty straightforward. You have room to personally struggle and doubt, but if you advocate and promulgate information in a public way or way that can affect others negatively and directly counter/undermine what the prophets say, you are very possibly on shaky ground.

  4. Jason

    I read this interview earlier today, and my mind was boggled by this paragraph:

    … If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That’s what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody’s liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book, but not agreeing to its origin, its divinity. …

    What in the world does he mean? Is he saying that it’s ok not believe in the BoM’s origins? It seems like he is, but at the same time, isn’t…

  5. It’s OK to not believe nearly any point of doctrine but if you teach against the Church then that’s an other issue. The Church has always made a distinction between belief and practice.

  6. But what does “teach against the Church” mean, Clark? To some people, the very suggestion that someone can question the historicity of the Book of Mormon yet still be a member of the Church in good standing is itself “teaching against the Church.” By that standard, Elder Holland would be in trouble with his bishop just for holding out that possibility. Of course, as a leader he gets a free pass … but that just shows how vague rules like “teaching against the Church” do not really provide a workable standard.

    I disagree with m&m in comment 3 that publicly discussing or publishing information that others might “affect others negatively” amounts to advocacy. There’s information in Conference talks and the Ensign that “affects others negatively.” I think “advocacy” means actively encouraging other individuals to exit the Church (if they’re LDS) or not join the Church (if they’re not). Otherwise, you give a heckler’s veto to anyone who is offended, or even anyone who is hypothetically offended, by another person’s public discussion. And many Mormons seem to be easily offended by history — look at the Mormon reaction to “The Mormons.”

  7. Randy B.

    I have to agree, at some point, that Elder Holland’s remarks are somewhat ambiguous. That said, this is the most accommodating public statement from a member of the Q12 on this issue in recent memory. One would be hard pressed to say that this is not further evidence that the church is continuing to warm up to serious scholarship. Determining when the “advocacy” line is crossed on any given facts can be difficult, but I don’t think that more detailed guidance is likely (or even advisable).

  8. Perhaps ambiguity is in the mind of the reader. I find nothing in Elder Holland’s interview that looks like an indication of “warming up” to anyone or anything threatening to compromise foundational doctrine.

    A classic address from Elder Faust expresses the long-standing policy regarding the teachings of dissidents.

    Among the activities considered apostate to the Church include when members “(1) repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders; (2) persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority; or (3) continue to follow the teachings of apostate cults (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority” (General Handbook of Instructions, 1989, p. 10-3).

    Those men and women who persist in publicly challenging basic doctrines, practices, and establishment of the Church sever themselves from the Spirit of the Lord and forfeit their right to place and influence in the Church. Members are encouraged to study the principles and the doctrines of the Church so that they understand them. Then, if questions arise and there are honest differences of opinion, members are encouraged to discuss these matters privately with priesthood leaders.

  9. I think it somewhat intentionally vague and open to interpretation. I don’t think that a bad thing either, I should note. It allows one to deal with the situations at hand.

    As for what it means in a vague sense – setting oneself up as an authority. So I think publishing books or articles where one is arguing for an ahistoric Book of Mormon clearly falls into teaching. Ditto if one was teaching this in classes. But holding to it in private clearly isn’t an issue.

    Put an other way, teaching entails when you attempt to persuade others of your view when this view is opposed by the Church.

    However even there you’d probably be left alone unless there started to be political issues.

  10. For what it’s worth, I did a similar post about two years ago: Permissible Dissent. Both Clark and HP (as JDC) contributed comments to that post.

    Perhaps a way to characterize Elder Holland’s remarks are that he is sympathetic to those who hold dissenting opinions but is cautioning against publishing (sharing?) such opinions. I suspect any form of publishing would fall within some people’s definition of “advocacy,” although I would restrict the definition of “advocacy” to actively encouraging people to leave (or not join) the Church based on the published material. In fact, that sort of advocacy could happen in private, one-on-one. It helps, I think, to distinguish the notion of “advocacy” from merely publishing.

  11. m&m

    I see it all as private vs. public (publishing, teaching, trying to convince…”advocating”). Such advocating could happen even one-on-one. I don’t think it’s only publishing that can get someone in trouble. I’ve seen a situation where someone was at risk for trying to convince others in private conversations/emails/etc.

  12. m&m

    I also think there could be a difference between someone in a state of honest struggle and someone in a state of confident undermining of official teachings.

  13. Jason

    Do you think someone publicly teaching that blacks should be allowed to hold the priesthood prior to 1978 would have stood on shaky, excommunicable ground?
    Or was that not a foundational enough doctrine (as opposed to the First Vision and origins of the Book of Mormon).

    Basically what I’m asking is this: does the foundationalness of a doctrine make a difference in deciding whether one should keep quiet or not?

  14. I for one believe JS wrote the BofM, but I don’t teach it. I know of two others in my ward who know that I think this, but I don’t teach it to them, either. It’s a simple “agree to disagree” situation. Oh, and I teach Sunday School. Next year I’ll be teaching the BofM mostly as literature and not as history, but I’ll do it in a subtle way and nobody will even notice.

    I can’t tell you how relieved and free I felt once I accepted this. A huge burden was lifted from my mind; others may see it as dangerous, but for me, it was a pathway to sanity.

  15. Now, should I be disciplined about what I just wrote? The answer is no.

  16. smallaxe

    Well everything advocates to a point.
    I think the two main questions as it relates here are: What does Elder Holland mean by “advocate”? And, does scholarship “advocate”? Is there such a thing as “non-advocating” scholarship?

    Am I being too pessimistic?
    I would like to think so. While I think Elder Holland’s response is political in the sense that he seems to be saying both “yes” and “no”, he seems pretty clear that advocating is claiming the following: “Not only do I disbelieve in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, I want you to disbelieve.” There is no action taken against the person who “disbelieves”, there will be against those who want others to disbelieve. The issue is what constitutes “wanting others to disbelieve”? Is writing an article stating one’s personal position necessarily “wanting others to disbelieve”? Or a book?

    I thought he was pretty straightforward. You have room to personally struggle and doubt, but if you advocate and promulgate information in a public way or way that can affect others negatively and directly counter/undermine what the prophets say, you are very possibly on shaky ground.

    Allow me to complicate things a little. Some of the people he refers to are not “struggling” with the authenticity of the BoM. They have decided. To “advocate” is different than to “promulgate”. Elder Holland seems to mean encouraging others to believe likewise. I don’t think this falls under a definition of “promulgate”. Can one not publicly state their opinion without “advocating”? Show me, according to this quote, that one could not hold an opinion (not “struggle”) contrary to the church, and not advocate, and still be on “shaky ground”?

    … If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That’s what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody’s liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book, but not agreeing to its origin, its divinity. …
    What in the world does he mean? Is he saying that it’s ok not believe in the BoM’s origins? It seems like he is, but at the same time, isn’t…

    I think he means there is value in the BoM aside from its historicity. Many would probably add, “there is significanly less value”, but here he ssems to be saying there is some value.

    The Church has always made a distinction between belief and practice.
    To some degree I believe this is true, but I think the distinction that most people seem to be working with here is “public” and “private”. Is Elder Holland saying, “If you disbelieve, keep your beliefs private”? Can I publicly disbelieve and still be a member of the church? One in good standing? Can my disbelief be publicly accessable yet non-advocating?

    I think “advocacy” means actively encouraging other individuals to exit the Church (if they’re LDS) or not join the Church (if they’re not).
    What do you think of the possibility of “non-advocating” scholarship? I know everything advocates to some degree, but it seems that Elder Holland asserts some type of distinction, and I think we should give some consideration to that possibility.

    Perhaps ambiguity is in the mind of the reader. I find nothing in Elder Holland’s interview that looks like an indication of “warming up” to anyone or anything threatening to compromise foundational doctrine.

    Prove to me how this quote does not allow one to be an active member while still at the same time disbelieving the authenticity of the BoM. That seems to be significanly more open (which I would constitute as “warming up”) than things have been. This I think is clear. It starts to get a little unclear whether this also means this individual could be a “faithful” member in regards to holding callings, attending the temple, etc. It is also unclear whether this individual could produce “non-advocating” scholarship. Is such a thing possible?

    I also think there could be a difference between someone in a state of honest struggle and someone in a state of confident undermining of official teachings.

    Of course, but what do you think of one who disbelieves (not “struggles”, but does not believe) in the authenticity of the BoM? I don’t think we can separate people simply into the two groups you suggest. There may be many more in between. Is that person a “faithful” member of the church?

  17. Do you think someone publicly teaching that blacks should be allowed to hold the priesthood prior to 1978 would have stood on shaky, excommunicable ground?

    I think it depends on how you say it: “The Church’s policy is wrong and should be changed,” vs “The policy doesn’t make any sense and seems wrong; I hope the Lord will see fit to change it.” There was at least one person who actually ordained a black person in defiance of the policy. That person was excommunicated.

    More generally, my opinion on this matter–having never really tested it myself–is that how you say something can be as important, if not more so, than the substance of what you say. I don’t think the danger is as much in discussing difficult facts or issues as it is in the drawing of conclusions and whether a person appears to be picking a fight with Church leaders (past and present) or trying to disprove foundational doctrines.

  18. There are two good illustrations of the basic principles in the Book of Mormon itself. The story of Nehors in Alma 1, and the story of Korihor in Alma 30.

  19. smallaxe

    There are two good illustrations of the basic principles in the Book of Mormon itself. The story of Nehors in Alma 1, and the story of Korihor in Alma 30.

    I am familiar with these accounts. In what ways to do they apply here?

  20. Yes, I want to know the correlation of those two figures to these accounts as well. As for Korihor, the dude had a chip on his shoulder from the start, so I don’t think he qualifies. He’s not interested being part of the community of believers; people like me, who could be disfellowshipped for teaching what we truly think, are not like Korihor at all.

  21. jupiterschild

    I want to challenge the idea that publishing = advocacy. While in certain publications there may be an implicit request for adherents, I don’t think that any serious academic publication that I know of asks people to become “followers”. In other words, to use smallaxe’s language, it’s about who has the authority to “mobilize bodies.” Does publication constitute an attempt to mobilize bodies? I don’t think so. Even when people argue strongly for a particular understanding of a problem, they’re not trying to attract a cadre of adherents that will follow wherever they lead. Besides, do we not do a disservice to Church membership to assume that they won’t be able to make up their own minds as to what to believe? Especially when the Church takes a different official stance?

    Another question: What about the intra-apostolic debates (Widtsoe and Fielding Smith, if I remember correctly) as a model for Faithful Dissent?