Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

The Intellectual Activities Of Recent Years
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

Do not yield your faith in payment 
. . . for the recognition and
acclaim of the world.
-Boyd K. Packer

Intellectuals in the Church want either to explore their religious culture and work out the implications of their beliefs, confirming the faith, marshaling evidence to support its claims, or to resist the culture out of unbelief or resentment, wanting to criticize and undermine the faith. Both positions present problems for the General Authorities who feel they should define acceptable beliefs. Leaders have simplified the message to facilitate rapid Church expansion, leaving both intellectual camps hungry for complexity and nuance. Along with the poles of belief and doubt are those of authoritarian control versus free expression. Church leaders assert their authority over doctrine, establishing and regulating institutions, fixing the boundaries of orthodoxy. Intellectuals submit or rebel.

In the believing camp, much of Mormon intellectual activity takes the form of defending the faith against doubters. Articles, books, and pamphlets, published mostly in Utah and appealing to Mormon audiences, rebut critical hypotheses or assemble evidence to prove the miraculous nature of the work. They react to criticism that in the nineteenth century came from the East and England, augmented by local dissidents who wanted to modernize Mormon thinking. In the twentieth century, the University of Utah, once an LDS institution, but becoming increasingly secular, became a site of oppositional thinking. The university housed and graduated several astute critics whose writing and teaching gave traditional town-gown conflicts a religious bent. Local critics Jerald and Sandra Tanner, disaffected Salt Lake Mormons, have opposed the Church for thirty years through their Utah Lighthouse Ministry. They consider the Church to be based on a fraud and have reprinted rare documents through their own newsletters and publications to discredit its foundations. In the last half of the twentieth-century, evangelical critics have led the attack on Mormonism in the name of a more traditional Christianity. To all of these attacks, believing intellectuals mount defenses, creating an atmosphere of constant debate and cultural tension.

Because LDS faith is based on supernatural events that occurred comparatively recently such as the translation of the gold plates and the revelations to Joseph Smith, Mormon history has always been controversial. With the critics constantly challenging the accuracy of the founding stories, apologists have tried to write faith-promoting history. Traditionally, faithful historians have tidied up the record, quashed embarrassing episodes, and overlooked leaders' flaws. New generations of Mormon historians, committed to their religion but trained professionally, have argued for a candid confrontation of good and bad facts. Much of their revisionist scholarship has made its way into mainstream accounts, but conservatives still put faith first.

Controlling belief is difficult in the Church. In line with their do-ityourself theology, believing Mormons differ on a broad range of issues. Many Mormons find the finer points of Mormon history and theology stimulating and worth discussion, although most Mormons are uninterested and unconcerned. Some resent discussion, feeling that exploring problems is a needlessly disruptive exercise. "When the Prophet speaks, the debate is over," they say.

Nevertheless, the Church has a lively intellectual life that is of great importance in understanding Mormonism. The Church has always had standout thinkers who have debated major issues of doctrine and policy. On the conservative side, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, author of the encyclopedic Mormon Doctrine, defined orthodox belief for many Mormons for two generations. Liberals include Eugene England and Richard Poll. A microcosm of the diverging styles can be seen in a celebrated showdown between England, a provocative thinker who studied English literature at Stanford, and McConkie, a lawyer and doctrinaire General Authority. In 1979, England, then associate director of Brigham Young University's Honors Program, spoke to students on lifelong education. He used the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression as an example and, citing God as a model, said that humans could experience the joys of learn ing forever. In England's view, God was ever increasing in glory and knowledge. England believed this idea, extrapolated from Joseph Smith's funeral sermon for King Follett, was perfectly orthodox.

In the summer of 1980, however, Elder Bruce R. McConkie gave an address at Brigham Young University titled "The Seven Deadly Heresies." His first heresy was that God is progressing in knowledge. God was, McConkie asserted, absolute, perfect, and, therefore, not improving. England, confused by this development, discovered in further research a way to reconcile this apparent contradiction by thinking of God in separate spheres, perfect in respect to us, while still progressing within some realm beyond ours.

England wrote to Elder McConkie explaining this interpretation just before leaving for London for a semester abroad. He received McConkie 's long response weeks after a copy of the letter had been circulating in the United States. McConkie noted that he wrote "in kindness and in plainness and perhaps with sharpness." He rehearsed scriptural and historical arguments against God progressing in knowledge. He told England to cease speaking on the topic and urged him to be "faith promoting" and "in harmony with that which comes from the head of the Church." It is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent. You do not have a divine commission to correct me or any of the Brethren. The Lord does not operate that way. If I lead the Church astray, that is my responsibility, but the fact remains that I am the one appointed with all the rest involved so to do. . . .

I advise you to take my counsel on the matters here involved. If I err, that is my problem; but in your case if you single out some of these things and make them the center of your philosophy, and end up being wrong, you will lose your soul.

England did not speak on the issue again until 1989 when he published an extended disquisition harmonizing the conflicting statements that God is all knowing and still progressing. His article quoted Church leaders defending the distinction of spheres. The McConkie-England disagreement revealed the division between theological conservatives and liberals within the believing camp and, in a larger sense, the tension between authoritarian control versus free expression.