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.