Unique Interpretations

When I was 16 years-old, my Mormon friends and I were discussing "the mysteries of the kingdom" and my best friend mentioned that Mary (the mother of Christ) was one of Heavenly Father's wives.

I considered my friend just as expert in the religion as myself, so thinking about her statement...I had a WTF moment.

I felt completely unsettled, my head spinning. I remember scouring church resources for the next day or two until I could reassure myself that the idea she'd presented was false.

12 years have passed.

Recently I was talking with two other exmormons, one of whom left the church about a decade ago, and the other of whom left the church three decades ago. The church is an evolving system, and so of course in some ways a lot has changed since both of them left. I noticed that occasionally one of them would make a statement about church doctrine or cultural belief and I would think to myself, "No, that's not how it is." What I meant was, "I never believed it that way." As if my more current understanding reflected greater accuracy. Sometimes I would even speak up to clarify.

And then I had a revelation. ;)

I am the product of church correlation!!! There actually isn't one "right" viewpoint of the LDS church, its members, its culture, its doctrine. There is enough material for the religion to be experienced and understood in an infinity of ways. Correlation fails miserably because it selects a modern-day bias and utilitzes only supporting material. It cannot unite the historical beliefs within an evolving system.

Now, I realize my childhood friend could have found plenty of material to support the belief that Mary was God's spouse. She wasn't wrong. I wasn't wrong either; but I wasn't "right" just because I found enough material to support a contrary belief. My view was, perhaps, more aligned with modern-day correlation. Not more or less accurate.

Give me some time, and my experiences and understanding will sound "not quite right" to those who leave the church at a later date. Interesting.


C. L. Hanson said...

I can totally relate to this exchange. I grew up learning that (though we're all spirit children of Heavenly Father) Jesus is the only begotten son -- which means that he's the only one who is God's biological son in the flesh. They never spent much time clarifying precisely how that came to be, but it was more-or-less hinted that this involved actual copulation and that (since Heavenly Father is probably a polygamist) that means that Mary was one of His wives.

It's one of those things where some Mormons will claim it as "of course we believe that" and others would be shocked that any Mormon believes that. By not specifying what they mean by "only begotten" in the printed manual, it creates a situation where each group comes up their own explanation (discussing amongst themselves), and they don't realize that not everyone agrees.

I've talked about this on my own blog here:

"To use the popular metaphor, defining Mormon doctrine is like nailing jello to a wall. No matter what you say about Mormonism on the Internet, some Mormon will come by and say "That's not true!" And, while each individual Mormon commenter is sincerely trying to clarify the given point of doctrine, the aggregate of all of these conflicting claims is really, really, really annoying for an outsider (or even an insider) who is sincerely trying to figure out what Mormons believe."

Hypatia said...

I agree with your post as well as C. L Hanson's comment. I also think if someone were to sit down with one of the brethren and ask them this yes or no question, you would NOT get a straight answer.

For a religion that prides itself on answers, it certainly leaves some potentially controversial parts, deliciously vague.

Andrew S said...

There was a topic on MSP a while back about some major change in Gospel Principles...especially relating to ideas of becoming gods, who we are in relation to Jesus and Satan as "family", whether we have a Heavenly Mother, etc.,

And of course, there is a new mission of the church...

So, I've begun to realize that the gears are turning too...it could be that in 10 or 20 years, the church I grew up in is no more and rising generations will view my comments relating to becoming "gods" with the same skepticism I view anything Bruce R. McConkie has said (I was quite shocked when I realized that some people -- like my seminary instructor -- actually liked the guy and what he had to say. I thought that EVERYONE was under awareness that he was a gigantic crackpot, denounced and nonauthoritative...oh how naive I was).

It is interesting...

Reuben said...

You're right... as a church, we haven't yet figured out how to have our cake and eat it too. We haven't figured out a way to believe that prophets speak the word of God while still allowing the church to evolve and change with the modern world. BYU professor Terryl Givens discusses this some in his book People of Paradox. I'm just reading it now, so I'm not ready to recommend it, but it's been a good read so far.

Daniel said...

Q: What's the difference between true Mormon doctrine and false Mormon doctrine?

A: About 40 years.

Anonymous said...

Daniel said it. The church is ever-changing, and so the doctrine and teachings are as well. Now, if this was really an institution created by an all-mighty and perfect God, it would remain the same forever and ever amen. But, it's not. Pretty obvious now that I'm looking at it from outside in.

Daniel said...

Okay, but now the obvious dodge they'll use is: Well, our doctrine expands and refines as we learn more about the ways of gawd.

The problem there is that the evolution of Mormon doctrine isn't an evolution toward new ideas as they become revealed -- it's an evolution away from ideas as they get falsified or become unpalatable.

Reuben said...

I'm not sure I agree that an institution founded by an all-mighty and perfect God would always remain static and unchanging - because that means I would also have to believe in a community that has no use for contact with God. I take strange comfort in believing that while the church probably isn't as inspired as it claims to be, it's every bit as inspired as any other church or organization has ever been.

Andrew S said...


But what's to say that "every bit as inspired as any other church or organization" turns out to be "not inspired at all."

For example, while I say Apple is doing some opportune things for itself right now, I wouldn't say it's because it or Steve Jobs is "inspired" (or, I wouldn't use "inspired" in ANYWHERE NEAR the same sense that we use it with the church.) Also, even if, say, I find Apple products useful, I don't have such an allegiance to it as the church expects of its members.

Yet if I treat the church as any old organization, then I'm breaking norms and am apostate.

Reuben said...

If the church is only as inspired as every other organization, then it's only as inspired as we want it to be. For many, that means "not inspired at all." We get to choose how often we see inspiration in the events, people, or organizations around us.

IMO, arguing that the church is entirely void of divine inspiration is about as reasonable as arguing that everything the church has ever done or any GA has ever said is a result of divine inspiration. I view both extremes as equally unreasonable.

Andrew S said...

I don't know, man, if there are ideas associated with the idea of "divine inspiration" itself that makes it unreasonable, then it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that that the church -- or other events, people, or organizations -- are void of it.

This is really a nitpicky discussion about now, but I think it is important...for example, you say that "we get to choose how often we see inspiration in the events, people, or organizations around us."

Isn't this a markedly subjective approach? So, in other words, inspiration (and divine inspiration) aren't things that necessarily objectively exist as traits within events, people, or organizations, but rather they are things that individuals *perceive* and *project* into these things.

Now, I have no problem if we take such a subjective approach. But if we do, we are already reaching for a decidedly different view of the divine than most. The divine is commonly viewed as something that objectively exist (e.g., God objectively and externally exists, and his actions are objective and external.) If inspiration becomes "only as inspired as we want it to be," then this is a much different idea.

Reuben said...

Andrew, you're right. I think we agree with each other more than this exchange might suggest. I'm definitely promoting a subjective approach to inspiration - an approach that most of my fellow Mormons would probably reject. I'm aware of this - and saddened by it. Like Sarah said in the OP, "There is enough material for the religion to be experienced and understood in an infinity of ways," and I yearn for this. One of the biggest disservices the church has ever done for it's members is promoting the idea that God can only be experienced in finite terms - or that the church has a monopoly on inspiration.

It's not that I don't think inspiration can exist objectively - it's just that I don't trust myself to be able to accurately perceive or recognize inspiration when I see it.

Gardner said...

As you've pointed out Sarah the Church definitely changes more than believing members like to admit and yet they all know deep down there have been changes (and I loved Daniel's '40 year' comment BTW).
The Church is, in my opinion, becoming more and more 'generic' in it's approach. More and more the Church is attempting to portray itself as a 'mainstream' Christian Church. Things which made it appear distasteful are quietly removed from manuals and Church materials (and members are instructed to throw away old manuals in Church libraries) and in ceremonies. Gone are the days when it was clearly taught that dark skin was a punishment from God (which ironically evolutionary theory suggests we actually all came from darker skinned ancestors), that God has a wife, that polygamy is part of the celestial order that will be continued after we die, that birth control is evil, that evolution is an evil theory of men intended to destroy belief in God, when the endowment told you your throat would be slit for disobedience, or when initiatories had various uncomfortable aspects. Such things are phased out, then only discussed occasionally in private conversations and eventually dismissed among Church members as little more than rumors about the past.