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.”