In debates over controversial religious issues, one often encounters a certain kind of argument from history, a sort of “once upon a time” argument. Once upon a time, it’s argued, the Church considered a given practice or belief, from witchcraft to usury to the heliocentric cosmos, to be immoral, unbiblical or otherwise forbidden. The particular practice or belief in question varies, but the structure of the argument and its implication are nearly always the same: the Church once considered such-and-such to be evil, but now it doesn’t; thus by means of a progressive trope of enlightenment, the argument proceeds, the Church should also de-stigmatize and embrace the controversial topic at hand. (Often, it should be noted, these arguments are made with a great deal of care and nuance and insight.)
In one sense, I’m sympathetic to this argument. I share the view that knowledge of and from God is a profoundly historical and historicized knowledge—and it that sense, it is a profoundly christological knowledge as well, as Christ is God embedded in human history. And I agree with the suggestion that any human understanding of the cosmic order, including our own, is biased and provisional. Doctrines, even doctrines that seem to be central, can change, have changed, will change.
But the argument from history can’t do much more conceptual work than that. And it raises its own questions about the relationship of the Church (speaking broadly, as Christianity, or narrowly, as Mormonism) to society at large. In particular, one wonders why, if the Church is God’s instrument of enlightenment on the earth, it is so often a follower, not a leader, in human history. After all, in each of the examples above, science or economics or politics “got there first”—that is, staked out what was to ultimately become the generally accepted moral wisdom. The Church eventually got on board, but not without some delay and resistance. Is the Church merely a retrograde cultural parasite on a fundamental moral relativism?
I don’t think it is. It may be that the Church stands in a particular position relative to broader society, functioning not as the driver of history but instead as its interpreter. Thus as society at large moves in response to technological and economic shifts, the Church will also move in relation to those social trends but will continue to do the same important—eternal, godly— interpretive work: this is a kind of moral relativism, yes, but one that fixes the Church in relation to human experience and in that sense is not merely drifting along the tide of history.
One way we might understand the Church’s interpretive role is to provide myths and practices, suited to the current social structure, that establish the greatest possible degree of relatedness, obligation and shared welfare among individuals. This is certainly the case in our own communal- and kinship-focused religious tradition, and it’s fundamental to the broad swath of Christian traditions, as well. Under this principle, the Church will not be a leader in social change, as structural change is nearly always socially wrenching and, at least in the short term, destructive of the established social fabric of institutions and trust relationships. But once society reaches a kind of tipping point, in which the new order has incorporated a majority of the populace, it then becomes the Church’s work to provide a new set of practices, meanings, and motivations that will establish new ways of relating, new kinds of obligation, and new ways of entwining individuals’ welfare.
But there are limits to the flexibility of the Church’s myth and practice. The Church not only works to bring individuals into relationships of trusting obligation in the present, but it must also negotiate the present’s relationship and obligation to the past. Thus a successful innovation in myth or practice will build a bridge of continuity with the past, preserving key narratives and saving interpretations of key texts. This work takes time, and it requires generational collaboration. But this patient, incremental work brings the Church intact through the turbulence of social and global change, prepared to continue its role for and in history.