Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wibbly Wobbly Doctrine-Woctrine...Stuff

The idea for this post has been bouncing around in my head for a while, and it’s all David Tennant’s fault. I’m not a huge Doctor Who fan, but my wife is, and as a result I’ve seen a decent number of the show’s post-2005 reboot episodes. One of the best is a fan-favorite episode called Blink, and while I won’t go into all the reasons it’s an entertaining episode (hint: has something to do with these guys), I will highlight my favorite part of the episode, a small discourse from David Tennant’s Doctor on the nature of time:

Phone readers, see the gif version HERE 

Besides being a great way to hand-wave away the tremendous amount of retconning and timeline bending a show like Dr. Who requires, that line has also given me a useful way to conceptualize Mormon doctrine and religion and general. My take, with thanks to The Doctor, is this: People assume that Mormon doctrine is a strict progression from eternal truth to prophetic teachings, but actually, from a non-correlated, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, doctrine-woctrine…stuff.


I know many Mormons, particularly more traditional, orthodox ones, are fond of claiming that we possess and teach God’s eternal, unchanging Truth, revealed unambiguously through his modern-day prophets, and this Truth extends in an unbroken line to our past, through ancient scriptures until the beginning of time itself. This collection of Truth and teachings are what we call doctrine, or sometimes the gospel. I can see that being a very comforting and uplifting idea. It's definitely how I used to think of things.


Yet I can’t shake the feeling that this view is incomplete, even myopic. For one, it tends to cause us to downplay some thorny and real problems in Mormon history, from black people once being denied temple ordinances to radically differing ideas about marriage to evolving and sometimes irreconcilable teachings about the nature of God. To me it’s self-evident that Mormon doctrine has changed a great deal since the 19th century, and that they will likely continue to do so.

And that’s not even mentioning the myriad of historical and scriptural problems, some of which are unique to Mormonism and some of which are shared with Christianity and Judaism. For example, it's difficult to square our modern, embodied, exalted "Heavenly Dad" with the God(s) of the Bible, an amalgamation of tribal deities that coalesced from a polytheistic pantheon into the strictly monotheistic El/Yahweh. Attempts to shoehorn our modern Godhood into that model are unconvincing to me. Then you have to grapple with the likelihood that the historical Jesus was not the gentle, Aryan, incarnate God of modern Christianity but was (depending on which source you prefer) an apocalyptic prophet/charismatic healer/political revolutionary whose primary stated goal was not to die for the sins of mankind but to help establish a literal, contemporary and utopian Kingdom of God.

No, probably not.

What I’m saying is…it’s complicated. The straight line, it isn’t there. At least for me it’s not. It’s all wibbly wobbly doctrine-woctrine. Some parts are clearly more important than others: God exists and and seems to care how we treat each other. Jesus and some version of the atonement are somehow critical. Beyond that, there are things I believe and hope to be true, but I’m not willing to stake a firm claim on much else, not when there’s so much evidence out there to problematize or contradict any particular viewpoint. The Spirit can be a useful guide, but even it (she? he?) can only work from within the bounds of my highly subjective and personal perspective; I can't step outside myself to experience it.

Fortunately, I kind of like doctrine-woctrine. For one, it ensures that I don’t feel compelled to defend God for seeming (at times) at times to have been a bit racist, misogynist, xenophobic, and downright genocidal. I don’t have to jump through the mental hoops of imagining that an archetype for marriage established in the America of the 1950s somehow represents God’s eternal will even though my own church once practiced something radically different. I can proudly claim to be a cafeteria believer: I’ll take what I believe to be good and ignore what seems toxic. For some that might seem dangerously close to creating a God in my own image. Maybe so, but I think everyone does that to a large extent whether they admit it or not.


Now I don’t necessarily have a problem with anyone else thinking about doctrine in terms of unchanging, absolute Truth. I’m all for people believing whatever makes them behave decently towards each other. I don’t think that a strict progression from eternal truth to prophetic teachings holds up to logical or historical scrutiny, but it seems to work for a lot of people, which is fine.

In fact, there are undeniable downsides to doctrine-woctrine. First is that, in a faith community that sometimes prizes expressions of faith in terms of concrete and absolute certainty above all else, it can leave me feeling excluded or ostracized. But honestly, that’s not so important. Thanks to my wife, good friends, and the internet it's easy to connect with people who feel similarly or are at least willing to lend a sympathetic ear to my cheerful heresies. What’s worse, what can be achingly difficult, is wondering whether, when I pray, anyone is listening at all. I think so, but I don't think I know. If faith is hope then on most issues faith is all I have. Luckily, if the scriptures are any indication, faith is a decent place to start. For now wibbly wobbly doctrine-woctrine is good enough.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post! It really resonated with me...of course, I'm a huge David Tennant fan too. ;)

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  2. I think your perspective on the consistency of doctrine is firmly based in the unspoken and incorrect assumption which is ubiquitous throughout the 'nacle. This assumption (which is Greek rather than Hebrew in origin) states that to say something true is to accurately and objectively reflect the way that nature really is. By all appearances, this is not an assumption which the scriptural authors ever spoke from and as such is the foundation of a systematic misinterpretation which we all too naturally bring to their writings. Once this assumption is set aside, the scripture take on a rather unexpected consistency which we otherwise can't see.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jeff. I admit to being a little unsure of what you mean about my assumptions, but I agree with your general point about the thinking of scripture writers being different from our modern rationalist approach. Still, whatever unexpected consistency you might find in the scriptures, and their applicability to your life, depends as much on the assumptions that you bring with you as anything in the text itself. Again, no criticism implied there; I do the same, and I definitely have a bias towards more historical approaches, at least as much as an interested layman can do so.

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    2. I don't want to go into too much detail, the Greek tradition holds that truth is like a perfectly accurate map which is changeless across space and time. No matter where or when you are and no matter where you want to go, it is always the same. The Hebrew tradition sees truth as more like a compass, or better yet a liahona which is definitely not changeless across space and time. Where and when you're are matter a lot, almost as much as where you want to go. Whereas the Greek seeks consistency which is totally independent of final destination, the Hebrew seeks consistency in the final destination.

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    3. Again, thanks for the response. I still can't say I get what your explanation has to do with what wrote, but if you got here from the r/latterdaysaints posting and you're who i think you are we'll probably have to agree to disagree on a few things (I actually wrote a response there that the mods apparently deleted, which is one reason i don't visit that subreddit often).

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  3. I'm a new reader. This post resonated with me. I have come to accept the reality in my life that faith is made of unresolved doubt, and that my particular kind of doubt-faith is actually a blessing and a spiritual gift. I'm learning to be at peace with that. Thanks for the post.

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    1. Thanks, Kathy! I like the idea of doubt-faith (daith?) as a spiritual gift.

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  4. Nice post! And, I appreciate the animated GIF for "phone readers." I'm not connected to the internet through a phone, but... being in not-"first-tier"-China is about the same thing. Any way to avoid being subjected to Youtube "streaming" is appreciated.

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  5. Forgot to include this! This is my go-to source for explaining doctrine woctrine: www.patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople/2012/04/why-is-it-so-hard-to-figure-out-what-mormons-believe/ . I think the author pretty much hits it on the head.

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