These three concepts exist, for most Mormons, in a tangled web. This has become especially evident in recent months as members have reacted to the Church’s new policies regarding same-sex married couples and their children that were announced in November. This discussion was stoked again following Elder Nelson’s recent remarks, leading to Dave’s post last week pondering: Policy or Revelation?
The subtext to this question seems pretty clear: doctrine (often used synonymously with revelation in this discussions) doesn’t change. (For example, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism states that doctrine is “fixed and unchanging.”) And that’s the subtext that dominates all of these discussions: many members are deeply uncomfortable with the Church’s stance in relation to homosexuality in general and long for a change that would, in their view, follow the precedent of the Church’s 1978 Declaration (which followed after President Kimball “had received… revelation.”) by ending discriminatory policies that were never based in unchanging doctrine.
Now, obviously the policy changes that came to light in November were just that: policies. But the question is whether they are policies that are rooted in doctrine or, expressed differently, policies that resulted from revelation (or “Revelation,” with a big-R, as Dave writes.) And this is just a proxy for the related questions: how likely are they to change? And: how sure are we that they are correct in the first place?
I am not going to address those questions today. Instead, I’m just going to try and separate out the concepts of policy, doctrine, and revelation in a way that (hopefully) will make discussion a little more clear. Wish me luck. Here goes.
I would characterize doctrine as never changing and also as related to core theologies and beliefs. (I hope this is not at all a novel definition.) Policies, by contrast, are put in place for a limited duration and are related to action or institutional organization. But both policy and doctrine can—and should—result from revelation.
In theory, at least, we could be equally sure that Policy P and Doctrine D reflect the will of God, but Policy P might still have a short shelf-life. So we should separate the idea of duration from the idea of reliability. Furthermore, a policy might be only loosely connected to doctrine. It might just be “the way we do things, because God said so.” It’s actually the capability of policies to derive from revelation that makes them disposable. God could say, “Move your worship services to Tuesday” and we might do that for ten years. Then he could say, “Move them back to Sunday” and so we would. Because these policies were revealed, they can be changed without any need to revise doctrine.
It might be useful to give an example of a policy (something that is largely practical and has a shelf life) that we generally accept as revealed from God. I posit: the Word of Wisdom as it is presently understood. After all, we were originally given it “not by way of commandment,” but now it is. Additionally, we know we’re going to drink wine again when Christ comes back (and that plenty of saints in the past also drank wine), and so it has a shelf life. It’s also related to practice (what we eat or drink) and doesn’t have a simple, obvious connection to any doctrine. So Word of Wisdom observance is a policy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not revealed or God’s will.
Having said all that, however, I do think that there is a reasonable connection to be found in practice between how sure we are of a thing and whether that thing is best viewed as doctrine or policy. In other words, the intuitive connection between “doctrine” and “we’re really sure” and “policy” and “we’re mostly sure” has some basis, but it’s not integral to the concepts.
I would suggest a relationship that looks something like this:
(Eternal) Doctrine + (Temporary) Circumstance = (Temporary) Policy
In this model, a policy is the instantiation of abstract, eternal truths into our broken, changeable world. Thus, the mutable aspect of policy comes not from the fact that it is not revealed, but from the face that—as conditions change—so, also, may policies.
In practice, however, uncertainty does enter the picture.
First, we’re not sure about precisely where the line lies between doctrine and everything else we believe. Of course we have a good idea: doctrine relates to Christ and His role as Savior of the World, but it gets fuzzy if you try to pin down the precise contours. And, of course, there are many eternal truths that we don’t know. So there’s a degree of uncertainty there.
There’s additional uncertainty when it comes to the evaluation of our circumstances. The world is a big, complicated place and none of us know all that is going on. We also don’t have any great way of predicting the exact effects of one policy vs. another. So there’s a degree of uncertainty there as well, and that uncertainty is independent of the uncertainty in the first term.
And so, in practice, when you combine the uncertainty around doctrine with the uncertainty around circumstances you get even more uncertainty around policy. However, this uncertainty is not an essential aspect of the definition. It’s secondary, and it’s basically a consequence of trying to derive policy from doctrine + circumstance.
Of course, even if this relationship holds logically, that doesn’t mean it’s how it actually works procedurally. That is to say, that even if policy is really just the instantiation of doctrine into a changeable world, it doesn’t mean that comparing our view of doctrine with our view of the world is the whole story of how we (which is to say: our leaders) derive policies. Ideally, our understanding of all three terms (doctrine, circumstances, and policy) is augmented by revelation. That is, after all, exactly the pattern Elder Nelson outlined (and I’m stealing from Dave’s transcript):
This prophetic process was followed … with the recent additions to the Church’s Handbook …. [W]e wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter. Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of his hope for eternal life for each of his children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer, and sought further direction and inspiration. And then when the Lord inspired his prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson.
All three elements are present. First, there’s the doctrinal issues (“God’s plan of salvation and of his hope for eternal life for each of his children.” Next, there is the question of the changeable world. For one thing, a policy relating to same-sex marriage is only open for consideration after same-sex marriage becomes a legal reality, so clearly this is a policy that is in response to changing circumstance. In addition, however, there is the added uncertainty I mentioned when it comes to trying to figure out the possible effects of various policy alternatives: “countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise.”
Clearly the Apostles were doing their duty to try and wrestle through this issue using their own understanding, as we are all expected to do. They were combining their understanding of the doctrine with their understanding of the circumstances of the world to try and derive the correct policy.
Crucially, however, they were not engaged in this difficult task alone. Instead—while doing all they could to understand what the policy should be—they looked for revelation: “We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer, and sought further direction and inspiration.”
And so the dichotomy Dave puts forward (“Policy or Revelation?”) doesn’t make sense. It’s not policy or revelation. It’s policy by revelation. And so you can count me in his “third view” holding that:
the attempt to draw a distinction between a policy and a revelation is misguided and that, operationally, there really isn’t that much difference between the two. Is the Word of Wisdom a policy or a revelation? If you waltz into your bishop’s office with a Starbucks latte in one hand, saying “Hey, it’s just a policy” doesn’t get you off the hook. Just changing what you call it doesn’t suddenly make adherence optional.
Although I do think there are important differences, I agree strongly with the gist of this.
The fundamental question for me is not policy vs. doctrine. It’s what you think about how revelation works. One difference between my view and Dave’s may be quite simple: I don’t believe in “big-R Revelation.” A lot of what he describes under that concept (“we ought to expect a document, an Official Declaration 3, to be published at some point,”) actually falls under the topic of canonization, which need not necessarily have anything to do with two different kinds of revelation he proposes: a little-r revelation (i.e. “general inspiration we attribute to all decisions made by senior or local leaders”) vs. a big-R Revelation (i.e. “a specific communication from God”).
Attributing little-r revelation after the fact to whatever the leaders happened does not seem to me to do justice to the concept of revelation. Far worse, however, is that putting such heavy reliance on big-R Revelation seems to me to be a tragic mistake.
The real thing that we seem to be searching for here is certainty and, in particular, certainty by proxy. We’re never going to find that. The uncertainty that is endemic to this life is a feature rather than a bug.
And so, speaking practically, you’re never going to find a greater degree of certainty accompanying the showy forms of big-R Revelation. After all, “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14) Isn’t this exactly what happened to Korihor? “But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel…” (Alma 30:53) As art follows real life, Ebeneezer Scrooge wasn’t easily persuaded by his angelic visitors, either. Angelic visitation (and other things associated with big-R Revelation) doesn’t bestow greater certainty. It just raises the stakes.
And so chasing big-R revelation is not the answer to our problems. It is really just a way to try and do an end-run around the uncertainty that is built into this life by design. It’s a wild-goose chase, except the goose wouldn’t do you any good even if it did exist. Even if you find your big-R Revelation, you still won’t have (necessarily) found the certainty you seek. And this is true by proxy as well. Waiting for the leaders to have big-R Revelations is not actually relevant to the problems we—as members of this Church—are experiencing with difficult to understand policies.
Since I’m not enamored of big-R Revelation, then, I’m not that bothered by the fact that it doesn’t exist. By which I mean: there is not a separate class of revelation available to leaders that somehow exempts them from universal uncertainty.
Since there’s no separate category of big-R Revelation, there’s no use talking about any little-r revelation either. All we’ve got is just plain ole unqualified revelation. And this applies to all of us. I don’t imagine that the experiences of revelation that the leaders of this Church have are necessarily or routinely different from the kinds experiences of revelation that ordinary members have. The kind of revelation you can get for your family is not different from the kind of revelation a bishop can get for his ward or that the President can get for the Church or that a child can get praying about the Book of Mormon for her first time. It’s all one thing. In fact, I think it is unfair to expect leaders to be able to operate on revelations substantially clearer or simpler or easier than the ones that I have—or seek to have—in my own life. They’re just ordinary folk, too, even if they have a special and important job to do. (They keep telling us this. We keep refusing to hear it.)
It would be very, very nice if it were otherwise. It would be very, very nice if leadership came with a hotline to heaven. And that’s why I think it’s not true. Because it would be too easy. It would let us, as members, cast our burdens on our leaders. And that’s not where we’re supposed to be casting our burdens. I certainly believe that leaders are probably better at revelation than the average member, but only for one simple reason: practice. That’s it. I don’t think that revelation gets any easier or more clear for them just because they are leaders, although of course their scope for receiving revelation does grow.
Fundamentally, there is one and only one reason to trust the leaders: because you think they were chosen by God. Not because you think they are especially wise or righteous. They may not be. Not because you think that callings come with premium access to revelation. It probably doesn’t. Obedience to our leaders and faith in their counsel can and should exist only as an extension of our personal faith in God the Father and in Jesus Christ as the true leader of His Church. (It’s got his name, after all.) This trust is not unlimited because our leaders are not infallible, but it ought to be substantial. If it’s not, then we’re working at cross-purposes with Christ, who calls these leaders and (without our help or input) sees to their tutoring and education and–when necessary–correction. (If God loves His servants, then He disciplines them, too. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” Hebrews 12:6)
All this in turn implies–and I say this with total neutrality in regards to the policies under so much debate today–that when your faith in your leaders begins to run dry, that it can be renewed only at the source.