Home » Mormonism » More about Mormon theological epistemology

More about Mormon theological epistemology

How does a Mormon know if a doctrine is true?

Today at the Fall 2013 General Conference of the LDS church, Elder Dieter Uchtdorf gave a very well-received (by my friends and family) talk on those who leave the LDS church.  I don’t think it’s available to read yet but Jana Reiss gave a bit of an overview with some select quotes here.

I wanted to highlight a couple of those quotes and unpack them a bit:

Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended, or lazy, or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question of whether they should separate themselves from the Church. In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly that it was restored by a young man that had questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.”

And here’s another one, also quoted by Reiss:

Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history, along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events, there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.

I have wondered before on this blog why it seems like the standard exit narrative of Mormonism these days seems to be that a person believes totally in the church, then comes across some troubling historical truth that casts doubt on the church, and then the person’s whole testimony in the principles/theology/practices of the church comes crashing down.

It makes me wonder because that just never happened to me.  There isn’t one particularly troubling aspect of LDS history that makes me doubt the church.  Rather, I just felt that Mormon theology could stand or fall on its own merits, and when I really started studying the history of Christian theology, I started to feel like Mormonism simply couldn’t compete.

So why do historical events trouble some Mormons?  What is driving the whole “faith crisis” narrative?  Readers can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that one answer might be that Mormons lean heavily on arguments from authority, and this reveals something deeper about theological epistemology for Mormons.  How does one know a doctrine is true, on Mormonism?  The process seems to be: find some trustworthy source of truth.  This source could be the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or Thomas S. Monson.  Then, whatever that source says must be true.

On Mormonism, how does one, say, find out that God the Father has a body of flesh and bones?  A Mormon might say you just pray to know that Joseph Smith is a prophet.  The good feeling you have then confirms that Joseph is a prophet, and then you can trust the doctrines that he teaches (including that God has a physical body).

However, if you find out some historical fact that seems to cast doubt on Smith’s truthfulness or character, then suddenly your testimony may come crashing down (along with your belief that God has a physical body).  There doesn’t seem to be any philosophical or logically deductive reason why God must have a physical body (a reason that might be somewhat analogous to all the Classical Theist philosophers’ arguments that God cannot even in principle have a physical body), so the deeper doctrines of Mormonism can seem somewhat strange and arbitrary to outsiders.

Combine this with a general pragmatism that seems pervasive in the attitudes of church members (as exemplified by this recent post by Daniel C. Peterson, which I’ll probably respond to soon), and it doesn’t seem like Mormons generally look to the theology or doctrines of the LDS church themselves in order to determine whether Mormonism is right.  Joseph Smith could have said that God is blue with pink hair, or lives on the Moon, or is a unicorn, and as long as these doctrines 1) come from a trustworthy source and 2) pragmatically inspire you to live a good life, then you should just go ahead and believe it.

In other religions they might say you can know if a church is true by whether it teaches correct doctrines, but the downside there is that when people are free to decide which doctrines are correct on their own, they sometimes spend their life jumping around from church to church, trying to find the one that believes exactly what they do (in other words, a church made in their own image).  “Gee, I like this church, but they hold to a Pre-Tribulation Rapture and I think there will be a Post-Tribulation Rapture, so I guess I’ll quit and find something else.”


12 thoughts on “More about Mormon theological epistemology

  1. Correct me if I am wrong, but is there a Mormon blog specific to tear down your beliefs? Why can’t we just respect other’s beliefs?

  2. I am having a hard time understanding your question. Is there a Mormon blog specifically tearing down my personal beliefs? Or tearing down Eastern Orthodoxy? I doubt there is either – the former because very few people care what I think.

    I am also having a hard time understanding why you don’t think I respect Mormon beliefs? If you could maybe detail more specifically what exactly you disagree with in this post, we can talk. I have a lot of respect for Mormon beliefs – and I still attend Mormon church way more than I attend Orthodox church. If you think this post is unfair or incorrect please point out what you think is wrong and we can talk about it.

    If I didn’t respect Mormon beliefs I wouldn’t bother arguing for/against them, and I certainly wouldn’t be a Mormon.

  3. No, that’s totally fine. It’s easy to misunderstand on the Internet. For the record, I think there’s plenty to criticize about my post.

  4. “one answer might be that Mormons lean heavily on arguments from authority, and this reveals something deeper about theological epistemology for Mormons”

    What would you say is the source of theological epistemology for other Christians? It seems to me that it’s primarily from authority as well, either from the scriptures or the teaching authority of the Church, once you have arrived at faith in those authorities for one reason or another. Did you have some other source in mind?

  5. When people say that Christian doctrine is “one foot in Jerusalem and one in Athens,” that’s what I mean. For instance, Thomas Aquinas leaned extremely heavily on the arguments of “The Philosopher” (Aristotle) when he developed the Five Ways and other teachings, and sought to show they were true through logical argument and not appeal to authority (there are very few brute appeals to authority in either Summa). That’s just what I mean – lots of Christian doctrines were developed in conjunction with Greek philosophical ideas and not necessarily esoteric doctrine, which means that they had logical arguments behind them and not just appeals to authority. We could argue about the ratio of appeals to rationality, Tradition, etc. but suffice it to say that the “foot in Athens” provided plenty of arguments.

  6. I see what you’re saying. St. Thomas believed that man could know about God’s existence, and to an extent, his nature, without revelation. As I’m sure you know, he said that revelation was nevertheless necessary, because without it most men would take a lifetime to figure out who God was and what he expected of us, and even then his conclusions would be mixed with error; whereas revelation allows men to know these things correctly from the beginning, so that they can spend their whole lives trying to live the way God wants.

    I don’t think I agree with you when you say that “there are very few brute appeals to authority in either Summa”. The Summa Theologica appeals to authority all the time. I believe St. Thomas himself wrote that appeals to authority are the weakest kind of argument in philosophy, but they are the strongest in theology, since the basis of theology is revelation.

    Philosophical arguments for God’s existence are what St. Thomas calls the preambles of faith, in that they prepare the way for faith by showing the reasonableness of belief in God. Once you believe, through philosophy, in an eternal, immaterial being who is the cause of all that exists, it’s easier to believe in a God who rises from the dead.

    All this being said, your point is well taken that St. Thomas’s preambles of faith hardly seem applicable to the God of Mormonism and therefore are of not much use, I would think, in helping Mormons to believe in Mormonism.

  7. Yeah, I think that’s more or less what I was getting at – in other words, there is no Mormon equivalent to what you call the “preambles of faith” because there’s no natural reason-type argument for a Mormon God (partly because Mormons don’t even agree on God’s essential qualities to begin with – but that’s a whole different post). So ALL they have to fall back on is whether Joseph Smith and Co. were trustworthy, and if not, it all comes down too.

    And the post wasn’t necessarily contrasting this with anything – it might also be the case that Christianity or Catholicism specifically are also like that, but I suspect they’re not for the reasons I’ve mentioned. A Catholic who loses faith that the New Testament, for instance, is trustworthy, can still fall back on natural reason to say, “But I do think that an Ultimate, immaterial, simple entity is the source of all Creation, so why not Catholicism?” The Mormon doesn’t have that recourse because I don’t know of any real arguments why there needs to be a physical, contingent God who is just the cause of this Universe but not ultimate reality, etc. (or whatever other Mormon conception of God there is).

  8. Perhaps I am am biased because I am a historian, but I think history can play a crucial role in assessing the truth claims of a religion. You can look at the probability that an event took place, the consistency or lack thereof overtime, and many other factors that paint a picture that sheds light on a religious movement. For instance, one might look at how each of Joseph Smith Jr’s “First Vision” accounts correspond to what he himself believed, or what sort of theology the denomination he participated in promoted. For my own part, it was not Mormon history that led me to question my faith, but studying an early Christianity that had little resemblance to LDS theology and a strong correlation to catholic, apostolic Christianity. I suppose there is a heavy theological element rooted in these examples, though.

    I do agree that it is strange to hear about people moving from strong faith to disaffection solely because of the troubling aspects of LDS history, though.

  9. Hello, I just found your blog. My husband and I left Mormonism for Orthodox Christianity 3 years ago. I would say it wasn’t just one crisis of faith moments that caused us to leave, but several. For me , it started after I converted. I was young, naïveté, and taught so little about the Mormon church in missionary discussions other than if this feels right, it must be true! I can say that history should help you determine if a church is teaching correct doctrine. There were so many issues with Mormon history that no matter how I tried to overcome them and just have faith, at some point, I couldn’t. It’s like a juror at a criminal trial. The defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution builds the case well, with more and more evidence, at some point, no further evidence is needed , the prosecution has met its burden, and the jurors conclude the defendant is guilty. I just could not ignore all the evidence any longer.

  10. I appreciate your take on things and I do think that history can aid a person in their search. But I know some very genius-level Mormon historians who know all the troubling history and then some, and still are able to make it all work. So while you or I might judge the history one way, I don’t think there are any historical facts that are so troubling that they would be “intellectually coercive” for everyone. History is all about probabilities, so where we draw the line between improbable and unlikely and likely and impossible are pretty vague.

    For instance, one favorite of critics is the differences in the First Vision accounts of Joseph Smith. Yes, it looks very much like the details of the accounts suspiciously shifted over time, but in order to really draw a conclusion about those shifts you have to make judgments about his audiences, his own interpretation of his experiences, his willingness to divulge information, his personal agenda, his knowledge, his fear of persecution, even his mental state/illnesses, etc. All those things are somewhat squishy variables. I don’t think we can know for certain why his accounts shifted, we can just sort of guess at his likely motivations, compare them to ours or a reasonable person’s, and decide what we think he was doing. We might even feel reasonably certain about our judgment, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not a deductive argument like Aquinas’ Five Ways and it’s not going to work like that. There’s enough room or squishy-ness for a faithful, believing Mormon to find a way to explain Joseph’s reasons for his differing accounts. I think every single “troubling” historical event or fact is going to be like that.

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