Scriptures and Theology
Dogmatism & Mormonism
By Rick Fernández
I believe that dogmatism is inconsistent with the Mormon view of continuing revelation, and with the process whereby revelation has occurred in the church. I was re-reading an essay from Dialogue, Winter 1989 issue, entitled "Knowing Brother Joseph Again: The Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith as Translator" by Karl Sandberg, and found this passage to express perfectly my own view:
The tidying up of Mormonism over the past century or so has resulted in two views of revelation. One sees revelation as divine dictation to which a passive recipient makes no contribution, perhaps pausing even in
mid-revelation to ask, "Would you mind spelling that word?" The recipient may be changed by the revelation, but the revelation is not limited by the culture nor changed by the life experiences of the recipient -- it arrives pure and unsullied, as with a letter brought by a postman. David Whitmer had such an idea of the translation process of the Book of Mormon, believing Joseph saw letters and whole words through the seer stone and then simply dictated them to the scribe [citation omitted]. According to this view, as revelations are collected, their parts are interchangeable and their authority is equal: a verse from I Samuel 11 is just as valuable and binding as a verse from the Doctrine and Covenants or the Sermon on the Mount. Such finalized revelation is a precondition to the construction of a dogmatic theology, one that can give definitive answers and cast the last stone. A dogmatic theology is a closed system. The first item on its agenda is authority, and the practical focus it yields for the religious life is obedience to this authority.
In the other view, the revelator is a prism shaped by his or her culture and life experiences. The light of the revelation is changed by the recipient, whose effort, study and contribution are indispensable. The revelation reflects and in important ways is limited by the cultural context of the recipient, even while transcending it in others. The parts of the revelation are all valuable but not interchangeable. A later revelation may even contradict an earlier one, while each retains its parcel of truth. The revelation is always continuing and progressive, never fixed and final, and always partial.
In 1835, for example, had we asked for an absolute and final answer to the question of the number of personages in the godhead, the Lectures on Faith would have told us, "Two" [citation omitted]. In 1843, we would have been told, "Three" (D&C 130:22-23). In 1832, had we wanted to know what God was like, we would have been told that he was omnipotent and omniscient, and that he had always been that way [citation omitted]. In 1844, had we been present at the King Follet funeral discourse, we would have heard that God was once a man [citation omitted]. We should therefore expect that a continuing revelation may well modify previous revelations and that one day we will see in a wider context everything that we now believe. This kind of continuing and partial revelation, which includes all of Joseph's translations, does not allow the construction of a dogmatic theology. This kind of revelation can vitalize, but not finalize. The theology derived from it serves as point of reference, as something to think about, but the system remains open, and the first item on the religious agenda is the responsibility of the individual to choose what is important in the living of her or her life. The focus on the religious life is on individual initiative.
I recommend this article to everyone here, not only because of what I think are Sandberg's valuable insights into the nature of revelation, but also because of his analysis of the role of the mystical and numinous in the development of LDS religious belief. That is something that tends to get lost in our preoccupation with "literal" truth. The article also provides some context for my own statements earlier contrasting rule-oriented morality with a personalist relational-responsibility approach. My criticism of the rule-oriented approach is not (let me be clear about this) that the rules per se are wrong, but that moral development often ends up being equated with keeping rules. Robots can keep rules. I believe God wants moral agents who have learned to decide for themselves and discern with prudence where rules are inadequate. Secondarily, where rules are inadequate, a static conception of truth prevents the rules from being modified and even discarded, and from developing any sort of principled methodology that would make such an undertaking possible. At heart, our relationships with God and others are not about learning to keep rules, but about learning to be full and responsible persons, with our limitations and all our flaws, but ultimately
graced by a love that calls us forward even when we would rather not, and that loves us all the same, all the while, because we need this love if we are to have any hope at all.