Rescuing an Orphaned Thread (aka Lazy Blogging)

Last week Nate wondered about how to define “church doctrine.” Near the end of the comments thread, two people very articulately wondered about why we should bother doing so. (Here’s a link to the full discussion).

Greenfrog asked:

“At the risk of being perceived as a bone-headed realist, doesn’t that suggest that searching for some meaningfully mandatory set of doctrines is missing the point? If such a set of doctrines really isn’t an operationally determinate criterion, why should we conclude that it matters?”

Joseph Spencer then usefully reminded us that the word “doctrine” simply means teaching, and posited that the function of church doctrine is not to systematically address every theological question that could come up, but to teach members to look at the world differently.

I’m not sure I have anything useful to add, but I think these are interesting questions, so I want to consider them again and try to ask some related ones:

*How* does doctrine matter? It is true, as Greenfrog points out, that one can quite happily go along improving onesself, working out one’s salvation, with only rudimentary doctrinal understanding. For most of us, it would take a long time to live out the ramifications of the most simplistic understanding of the doctrine that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. Are there ways in which better understanding of doctrine helps us be better at living, or are we frittering away valuable time in mere contemplation?

If, as Joseph suggests, doctrine is actually about changing the Saints’ focus, rather than doing theology in the way it has been traditionally understood, do we need, say, a society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology to do that traditional form of theologizing? How can/should/might the two kinds of doctrinal understanding inform one another? Can we imagine a church in which the General Authorities consult doctrinal experts or people with technical expertise (in the way the Pope consults with Catholic scientists, for instance), or is that raw hubris? Do we agree with the assertion that “the mantle is far greater than the intellect,” and, if so, does that limit the ways we think about doctrine or the importance we assign to those thoughts?

Talk amongst yourselves…

47 comments for “Rescuing an Orphaned Thread (aka Lazy Blogging)

  1. February 9, 2004 at 12:10 am

    One position in the realist camp is that reality can’t be finitely expressed. (Not all realists believe this, but I suspect those of us here who are hard-nosed or bone-headed realists adopt that position)

    In such a case there are a potentially infinite number of unique ways to express correct doctrine.

    I think that a secondary conception is the pragmatic one, in which the meaning of any belief is determined by the effects it produces. Thus the meaning of any doctrine should be judged by what it causes us to do. As such this will determine which doctrines are more important or not, as well as explaining why some doctrines aren’t revealed.

    Of course looking back we might wish somethings were revealed earlier. For instance what would church history have been like had more revelations regarding blacks *not* being inferior and anti-racist views been given to Joseph Smith? What if, along with the translation of the Book of Abraham the Lord had given Joseph a translation of the sn-sn text in a manner somewhat similar to how we now read it? One can only question.

  2. February 9, 2004 at 12:47 am

    It was brought up previously that if it’s not in the temple recommend interview, it’s not important.

    To take the side I wasn’t taking before, if the glory of God is intelligence, and we some day want to become like Him, shouldn’t there be a question asked that specifically deals with learning and progressing? Maybe there is and I just forgot about it (since recommends last for two years now, it’s been awhile since I’ve been in an interview).

    But it seems to me the temple recommend interview was more of a spot check where you say, “yes, yes, no, yes, no, yes”, etc (not necessarily in that order). There were no open-ended questions.

    I’m not exactly sure where my ramblings are taking me… I guess I’m just wondering if the temple recommend interview should be viewed as some sort of end goal. That’s what many Church members perceive it to be. As if, once we walk out of the Bishop’s office, we’re done; we’re temple worthy. We can go lie down in some green pasture somewhere and rest.

  3. lyle
    February 9, 2004 at 3:14 am

    Bob’s ? on temple recommends as end goals:
    No. I thought a temple recommend was a ‘minimum’ requirement, and that the questions are actually more like bearing your testimony to your religious leader; i.e. If I could remember the questions, I could just bear my testimony and be done.

    Kristine re: utility of doctrine:
    1. I shudder to think that GAs/Apostles
    (c/w)ould consult a ‘doctrinal’ expert.
    2. I like Grasshoppers comment and your application cuz I “KNOW” lots more than I seem able to either “DO” or “BE”. So…does more know help me? Or just take up space on my mental hard drive better spent on gospel living RAM?

  4. February 9, 2004 at 3:15 am

    I think many recommend questions are very open ended. What does it mean to believe in the scriptures? What does it mean to sustain the prophet? Even the word of wisdom is rather ambiguous. (Is Coke against it? What about ephedra? What about cooking wine?)

    I’d actually go so far to say that most doctrine has some measure of vagueness to it. (Not that I wish to push that too far, but we can all find ambiguities)

    I’d also be very uncomfortable limited doctrine to temple recommend questions. After all the three degrees of glory is doctrine but isn’t mentioned in the recommend interviews.

    A temple recommend interview, in my mind, establishes the bare minimum for active participation in the church. What we ought to be doing and believing entails far more.

  5. lyle
    February 9, 2004 at 3:17 am

    Clark, nice point…but I don’t think that washes well with some here at T&S who believe that anything above the temple recommend is simply personal preference.

  6. February 9, 2004 at 3:41 am

    “…but I don’t think that washes well with some here at T&S who believe that anything above the temple recommend is simply personal preference.”

    Lyle, careful how you word your observations, you may be trying to put words into someone’s mouth, and if it were my mouth you were aiming at, I wouldn’t like it.

    Clark, “…[the interview] establishes the bare minimum for active participation in the church. What we ought to be doing and believing entails far more.”

    Hmm… I think I agree with you but maybe I need a little more definition on “active participation” because it can be confusing to some. When you say it by itself, it sounds like a good thing. It almost implies the putting forth of some extra effort rather than the bare minimum approach. But maybe “active participation” is what you say it is and something like “outstanding participation” is what we should truly be seeking. Sorry, I don’t mean to get caught up in semantics… or do I?

  7. Aaron Brown
    February 9, 2004 at 3:54 am

    I would question the idea that the temple recommend questions necessarily collectively represent the most important gospel principles/practices simply by virtue of their inclusion in the interview process. I have a hard time believing God cares as much about whether I drink coffee as he does about how I treat my fellow men in a myriad of ways not explored in the temple recommend questions. I have often wondered if the Word of Wisdom, for example, gets the prominent treatment it does simply by virtue of the fact that monitoring one’s compliance is so easy to do. It would be a lot harder to objectively answer yes/no to many other questions involving Christ-like living. But whether we imbibed alcohol or had a smoke within the last year is a really cut-and-dried issue, so it has become a litmus test for “worthiness.”

    I agree that whatever other ambiguities there are in the word “doctrine,” the term probably shouldn’t refer only to teachings mentioned in temple recommend questions. Incidently, maybe I haven’t been reading with sufficient attention, but who on T&S has argued that anything over and above the temple recommend questions is mere “personal preference”?

    Aaron B

  8. Kristine
    February 9, 2004 at 8:10 am

    Lyle, *why* does the thought of a GA consulting someone who has time to think a lot about doctrine make you shudder? I’m not saying it shouldn’t, just wondering what about that idea is so distasteful?

  9. February 9, 2004 at 9:19 am

    I always find it interesting the way ‘love’ seems to be portrayed as what ultimately matters in life. How does Christ separate the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25? Based on whether they cared for “one of the least of these my brethren.” In Moroni 7, Mormon says that “whoso is found possessed of [charity] at the last day, it shall be well with him.” Although it seems that there may be a little more to our eternal progression (for example, apparently everyone will eventually need their ordinance work done), I think the idea of “doctrine” may be overrated. I don’t know that the pursuit of doctrine is necessarily wasting time, though. I have found much doctrine to be very helpful to me, but more as a way of helping me figure out what it means to have charity, and not as much as an end in itself.

    Also, as the person who has, I think, come out with the most *liberal* position on the temple recommend interview, I feel like I need to correct some of the straw man statements of Bob and Lyle.

    Bob said, “It was brought up previously that if it’s not in the temple recommend interview, it’s not important.” I sure don’t think that, and I don’t think anyone suggested that it was correct, either. I have said that if it’s not in the recommend interview, I question whether it makes us unworthy to enter the temple. I tried to differentiate clearly between exaltation and temple worthiness. Temple worthiness doesn’t necessarily mean you have nothing more to work on.

    Lyle said, “some here at T&S . . . believe that anything above the temple recommend is simply personal preference.” Come on now, Lyle. I feel like this is just mud-slinging. As Aaron pointed out very ably, many things above and beyond the recommend interview are very complex issues to which people might not be able to give a clear yes/no answer. Also, I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that to some degree, righteous people can disagree on some things (although there may be disagreement as to how large that degree is).

  10. lyle
    February 9, 2004 at 9:25 am

    Logan, Bob, all:

    I apologize for any/all offensive I have given (note, I refuse to use passive voice following Justin Timberlake’s disgraceful refusal to accept accountability for his actions).

    Sadly, ‘tone’ is hard to measure in ewords. I didn’t mean offense, nor was I slinging mud, nor…anything. Pleaz…

    I only meant to caution Clark, a la Adam G., to be careful because the comment literally wouldn’t ‘wash’ or ‘wear’ well with some here. Literally…no pun, sarcasm, etc. intended here.

  11. Matt Evans
    February 9, 2004 at 9:53 am

    Hi Kristine: most Mormons would be extremely uncomfortable if the General Authorities started teaching for doctrine the commandments of men. Church doctrine can only be revealed. That’s why, despite 1500 years of diligent thinking and reflection, professional theologians have not progressed in their search for the nature of God.

  12. Sci
    February 9, 2004 at 10:19 am

    What about people with technical expertise? As Kristine alluded above, the Pope has a “pontifical academy of sciences” that is comprised of top scientists in all fields and advises the vatican on all sorts of important scientific issues. I think it’s a great model for productive dialogue between science and religion.

    Perhaps if we had a similar advisory board some general authorities might refrain from the ridiculous statements they’ve made (unofficially) over the years. Evolution comes quickly to mind. There will be many hard questions in the next few years from new biology.

  13. Kristine
    February 9, 2004 at 10:24 am

    Matt–“the commandments of men?” What do you mean?

    I was, of course, not suggesting the GAs should have professors start writing their talks–I’m only wondering whether it wouldn’t be useful to have people who have time to be experts in a particular field help with the process of “studying it out in [their] minds.” There are issues that are technically complex enough that it would be hard to know how to ask the right questions.

    For instance, on a flight to Rome a few years ago, my father sat next to a biologist who was going to meet with several other scientists who regularly advise the pope on issues in science and technology that might invite doctrinal clarification. I would think such a gathering could be really helpful in sorting out issues around the church’s position on stem-cell research, birth control (IUDs, morning-after pills, etc.), and other contemporary ethical issues. The church does use skilled statisticians, historians, public relations professionals in shaping church policies and public responses (which sometimes involve clarifying doctrine). I don’t think it’s completely ridiculous to suggest that philosophers or theologians might be similarly helpful.

    And there’s precedent in the School of the Prophets–Joseph Smith seemed pretty willing to have people teach him what they knew.

  14. Matt Evans
    February 9, 2004 at 10:45 am

    Hi Kristine,

    I agree with your comment regarding scientific concerns. The brethren do speak with experts in various fields. The reason they shouldn’t consult with philosophers or theologians is because it’s a waste of time. Philosophers and theologians are unqualified to create church doctrine. Church doctrine can only be revealed.

    When the prophets have endorsed or appeared to endorse theological or philosophical theories, the result has been confusion. Are they speaking for God, or speaking as a green student of political philosophy?

  15. February 9, 2004 at 11:19 am

    As Matt notes, GAs do consult a wide variety of scientists about a number of things. The church employs a whole division of social scientists whose job it is to conduct research on inquiries the Twelve and other GAs might have regarding members, non-members, etc. I have a couple of friends who used to work in the Church research office and they say it is very interesting work.

    Clearly though the scientists aren’t writing the talks for the GAs. They are collecting the data, analyzing it, and giving useful reports that help frame problems the GAs may be dealing with. Search (research), ponder, and pray…

  16. February 9, 2004 at 11:51 am

    Logan (ALL)-

    You, indeed, are right. My “It was brought up previously that if it’s not in the temple recommend interview, it’s not important” statement may have been a little much if it was trying to refer directly to our mini conversation in a previous thread.

    But I still feel it begs certain questions to be answered as Aaron so kindly points out: “I have a hard time believing God cares as much about whether I drink coffee as he does about how I treat my fellow men in a myriad of ways not explored in the temple recommend questions.”

    But not drinking coffee just *feels* so dang important! So I guess what I’m really asking is whether or not the temple recommend interview puts unduly emphasis on many *things*, which are petty in comparison to other non temple interview issues.

    Maybe it’s like this so that all Mormons have some core on which to agree. So that, on the flipside, beliefs and actions outside the recommend interview may be where we are all allowed to deviate so as to avoid becoming a collective mass of robots.

    Don’t worry, I’m just overanalyzing here… I’m not suggesting that I have some superior way of interviewing people for the temple. I’m just trying to figure out intensions of the current setup.

  17. Kristine
    February 9, 2004 at 11:53 am

    Matt, as Nate noted last week, there’s a good deal of confusion about when they’re speaking for God or articulating Church doctrine anyway. Again, I haven’t suggested that philosophers or theologians should “create Church doctrine” (I thought you said it could only be revealed, not created), only that they could be helpful in framing the questions.

    Aside from the Research Division (which I believe is made up entirely of social scientists?), I don’t think it’s clear that they “speak with experts in various fields”–I know there are some biologists who would really like to have some input on topics like evolution, and find it incredibly frustrating that GAs and the semi-official purveyors of doctrine in the CES [bracketed rant on the confusion created by having a not-quite-official body of more or less lay theologians] go around saying things that couldn’t hold up to the examination of a freshman biology class. The statement on stem-cell research doesn’t look like it had much help from anyone with technical expertise.

    I think the scientific examples are the easiest, but let me take a stab at a theological one: we frequently lament the fact that people say we aren’t Christian. I think it would be really helpful if people who get asked to talk on the record for news stories had just a little background in Protestant theology so that they could sound informed and address the real issues other Christians have with our Christology. Instead, we just lamely protest that “our church is called the Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints” and feel that we’re being persecuted when that’s not taken as a sufficient answer. An hour-long briefing from a trained theologian could be really helpful there, I would think.

    I guess I’ve always been puzzled by Elder Packer’s “the mantle is greater” thing–I just don’t see why there’s a contest in a religion that claims to believe that “the glory of God is intelligence.”

  18. greenfrog
    February 9, 2004 at 12:18 pm

    Might it be that the First Vision message about the existing creeds being an abomination should be understood not as a preface to replacing them with a new set of creeds, but rather with an entirely different approach to religious belief?


  19. February 9, 2004 at 12:24 pm

    Kristine, I don’t know that there is a contest, as we believe intelligence is light and truth. See D&C 93. Thus, it maybe that in certain areas, the brethren just don’t see a need to consult with scientists, as they have sufficient light and truth as to certain issues to fulfill their divine mandate. Evolution is not a huge issue and not all that important to our salvation. Remember the bretheren’s mandate from the Lord is to preach nothing save it be repentance to the world and to baptise all those who believe. That is their primary mission, to bring all souls unto Christ.

    I also don’t know how relevant exactly what others believe about us is to our objection to being called non-Christians. The Lord taught that the the elders were sent out to teach the world, not to be taught by it. (D&C 43:15). Our doctrines and beliefs are what is most relevant. Could it help us to be able to “build upon common beliefs” to have greater awareness of what others believe, sure. And there are some that do have a fair amount of this knowledge. But, the brehtren have limited time and resources. Thus, there appears to be little interest or concern about what others believe, because there is such a need to promote and teach what we believe.

  20. February 9, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    Brent – I agree that the brethren are probably more busy than any human needs to be, but shouldn’t a fundamental component of “building on common beliefs” be an understanding of other religions’ beliefs. Perhaps this is where a paid research assistant might be useful. You could have a theologian flunky who advised the brethren regarding other religion’s doctrines.

    That said, a few of the brethren might already be sufficiently educated in this subject. Doesn’t Elder Holland have a doctrinal understanding of Protestantism?

  21. February 9, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    Matt said, “Church doctrine can only be revealed”. It would be so nice if Matt was 100% right because then each time something was “revealed”, the appropriate apostle/prophet could just add it to a book of “revealed doctrine” of which we could all have an annual subscription therefore eliminating the need to discuss doctrine because we’d already know it.

    But alas, instead, we have General Conference in which our leaders mix revelation, advice, opinion, humor, etc. Why would they make it so confusing for us if it were as simple as “Church doctrine can only be revealed”?

    Well, I’m not exactly sure. But it does seem much more interesting this way.

  22. lyle
    February 9, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    I’m convinced…almost, on both fronts.
    Hopefully, something similar already happens in ‘informal’ social pathways, etc. You are suggesting a more formal process, or at least one that is public knowledge.

    However, here is one problematic that I think still needs addressing. re: a formal consultation process that is public knowledge:
    1. What if a scientist or Prophetic/Apostolic archivist professional statement type person disagreed with the GA/apostle/prophet? Would there be a Sarbanes-Oxley type “noisy withdrawal”?
    Or…are we simply talking about letting members know that the GAs have done their homework before opening their mouths? And if so…does this mess up inspired spur of the spirit statements by such?

  23. Matt Evans
    February 9, 2004 at 1:15 pm

    As an aside, the statement on stem-cell research that the church spokesman read to the press has to be one of the least cogent paragraphs I’ve ever read. I sincerely hope none of the apostles were involved in writing it, it’s so convoluted. (It’s no longer listed with the 2001 press releases on, even though it was a press release from July 2001. Maybe someone was too embarrassed and removed it from scrutiny? I couldn’t find the whole paragraph online, either, just snippets from news stories.

    Anyway, the first sentence of the press release says the apostles have not taken a position on stem-cell research. Then the rest of the press release is a position supporting stem-cell research, so long as it is done ethically. (There are moral and immoral ways to destroy a human embryo? Give them anesthesia? Don’t kill more of them than necessary?)

    It was clear that whoever wrote the press release knew almost nothing about the status of the debate they were entering.

    A couple of weeks ago the Deseret News said that Jon Huntsman and researchers from his cancer institute lobbied church leaders to keep the church on the fence.,1249,585037055,00.html

  24. Nate Oman
    February 9, 2004 at 1:19 pm

    Kristine: I know that the Church leadership regularlly consults with attorneys when considering both institutional decisions and political/legal positions. The church has an in-house legal department, as well as a firm (Kirton & McConkie) on regular reatainer. In addition, they from time to time retain outside firms for specific issues (e.g. Sidley & Austin for Sup. Ct. litigation), as well as consulting with well-qualified, individual attorneys. Indeed, Elder Zwick, who currently serves as the Church’s lead counsel, was originally a partner at an LA firm that would provide the Church with advice from time to time. I think that the powers-that-be figured he would be cheaper and more available as a GA.

  25. Matt Evans
    February 9, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    Update, here is the stem-cell press release:

    “While the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have not taken a position at this time on the newly emerging field of stem cell research, it merits cautious scrutiny. The proclaimed potential to provide cures or treatments for many serious diseases needs careful and continuing study by conscientious, qualified investigators. As with any emerging new technology, there are concerns that must be addressed. Scientific and religious viewpoints both demand that strict moral and ethical guidelines be followed.”

    Whoever wrote this (and I again assert that the apostles are far too intelligent to have written it) demonstrates zero understanding of the debate.

    The whole debate hinges on the status of the human embryo: whether they are human beings in the full sense and have full moral worth, like human beings with partial moral worth, or like other red blood cells — having no moral worth.

    The press release concerns itself with who and how the killing is done (“in accordance with strict guidelines”, of course, whatever that means.).

    The stem-cell debate is over what it is that is being destroyed to harvest stem-cells.

  26. Matt Evans
    February 9, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    Bob, I didn’t mean to suggest that noting that church doctrine must be revealed that it was therefore easy to determine what is church doctrine. There is a lot of uncertainty about what church doctrine is precisely because it’s difficult to know whether something was revealed or not. But there _is_ certainty about the source to which should look for church doctrine.

  27. Frank
    February 9, 2004 at 1:41 pm

    Nate: Elder Zwick is not the Church’s lead counsel. It is Elder Lance Wickman. Elder Zwick has a construction background.

    All: The church regularly consults with BYU professors, in a variety of departments, on a number of doctrinally related matters. Obviously, the religion faculty is frequently used to assist the brethen in fleshing-out certain issues. For example, many professors were involved in preparation of the new scriptures, and in the lead-up to the Second Proclamation. Moreover, I am aware of several BYU biology professors working with the Church on several DNA related projects. I am also aware that the Twelve keeps up on developments in areas of importance to them, and will at times reach out to individuals who have published or done research to congratulate them or seek further information.

    The bottom line: is that we can be sure that the Church does its homework in relation to doctrinal development.

  28. Nate Oman
    February 9, 2004 at 1:50 pm

    Oops! At least I remembered the “wick” sound correctly….

  29. February 9, 2004 at 2:03 pm

    Matt, I think that is how *you* frame the debate. Many others (including apparently the brethren) don’t quite see things in such black and white terms. It could well be that a fetus in stem cell research isn’t a full human being but that there are still unethical ways to treat it. (Indeed that is I think the standard LDS belief, which also was basically Hatch’s position in the debate)

    But even beyond that there is the issue of what to do with existing lines of stem cells arising from aborted fetuses.

    I also think that, even for people who think life begins at conception, there are more ambiguities. After all consider a death row person who wills his body to science. If one feels that the death penalty is completely immoral, is it moral to utilize those bodies?

    I think you continually try to oversimplify things. When people speak in ways that acknowledge more complexity, of course it seems convoluted and missing the point to you.

  30. Greg Call
    February 9, 2004 at 2:09 pm

    An interesting account re: apostles consulting with “experts” appears in Blake Ostler’s “The Mormon Concept of God”:
    “However, the notion that God is timeless has recently been introduced into Mormon thought. Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, writes, “The past, present, and future are before God simultaneously…. Therefore, God’s omniscience is not solely a function of prolonged and discerning familiarity with us–but of the stunning reality that the past, present, and future are part of an ‘eternal now’ with God”[29] (italics in original). The idea of God’s eternity here appears to consist not in the Hebrew notion of God’s eternal duration in time without beginning or end; but of transcendence of temporal succession. In fairness to Elder Maxwell, we must recognize that his observations are meant as rhetorical expressions to inspire worship rather than as an exacting philosophical analysis of the idea of timelessness. Furthermore, in a private conversation in January 1984, Elder Maxwell told me that he is unfamiliar with the classical idea of timelessness and the problems it entails. His intent was not to convey the idea that God transcends temporal succession, but “to help us trust in God’s perspectives, and not to be too constrained by our own provincial perceptions while we are in this mortal cocoon.””

  31. February 9, 2004 at 2:09 pm

    Yes, it seems that stem cell research is one issue where we have a difficult time separating our personal politics from the doctrinal basis of the issue. I suppose that this is because the Church, to my knowledge, has never come out with an official statement about when life begins. If it were doctrine that life begins at conception, I doubt that Church leaders would leave the issue of stem cell research ambiguous.

  32. Grasshopper
    February 9, 2004 at 2:38 pm

    To what extent does the Correlation program raise the same concerns about those with prophetic callings consulting with others?

  33. Matt Evans
    February 9, 2004 at 4:51 pm

    Clark, I have been active in the debate surrounding stem-cell research and have followed it closely.

    Everyone agrees that the rewards of stem-cell research might be enormous. That is why no group opposes adult stem-cell research (stem-cells taken from bone marrow or other non-embryo cells). Harvesting the stem-cells destroys the cell, but no one thinks bone marrow cells have moral worth. In the case of embryonic stem-cell research, removing the stem-cells destroys a human embryo. This was the only objection to stem-cell research. The controversy was over the status of human embryos — do they have full moral worth, no moral worth, or something in between.

    No one based their objection to stem-cell research on the fear that the researchers were insufficiently careful, conscientious or qualified.

    Both sides agreed that researchers should be bound by strict ethical and moral standards.

    Having a position on stem-cell research that ignores the status of the embryo, but adds that “concerns must be addressed” ducks the question.

    Admonishing researchers to abide by strict moral and ethical guidelines begs the question.

    Feel free to point out mistakes in my analysis. No doubt it may be simplistic.

  34. February 9, 2004 at 5:07 pm

    Matt originally you said, “The whole debate hinges on the status of the human embryo: whether they are human beings in the full sense and have full moral worth, like human beings with partial moral worth, or like other red blood cells — having no moral worth”

    You now say, “The controversy was over the status of human embryos — do they have full moral worth, no moral worth, or something in between.”

    The point I was making is that you typically don’t allow room for that “something in between.” Specifically you only typically allow for either they are human beings or they are not. Even allowing for human beings with “partial moral worth” seems to avoid the issues. I’m not sure what you mean but I assume by “partial moral worth” you mean something like human being on death row or enemies on the battlefield.

    The fact is that one can take a legitimate position that 1st trimester fetuses (especially those of the initial week) are prepratory bodies for a spriit but are not human beings until the spirit enters in. So far as I can recall, you never leave room open for that position. As such the issue changes significantly.

    I’d also simply suggest that the church saying that what be done be done ethically but recognizing that ethics involves issues the church has no position on is itself a clear position. You may feel it begging the question, but then one might well say that about any doctrinal matter which has not been fully revealed. (i.e. is the church begging the question when it takes no position on how God made human bodies? i.e. evolutionary issues? I don’t think so)

  35. Matt Evans
    February 9, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    Clark, thanks for responding to my comment.

    As for the apparent confusion occasioned by my definitions of the status of the embryo, I meant for them to say the same thing. The second one is clearer. The first one should have said “human organism with partial moral worth” instead of “human being”.

    Death row inmates and enemies are usually assumed to have full moral worth. They can be killed in certain circumstances not because they aren’t persons in the full moral sense, but because the value of their life is trumped by competing values.

    The most common example of something with partial moral worth are animals.

    As for the press release begging the question, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the press release is supposed to be responsive to the question, “Does the church think embryonic stem-cell research is ethical?”

    (Reporters ask the church about stem-cell research because it is an ethical debate and churches take positions on ethical questions. Reporters don’t ask churches whether the NFL should have instant-replay.)

    To respond to the question “Does the church think embryonic stem-cell research is ethical?” by admonishing that strict ethical guidelines be followed, begs the question. (I don’t understand your comment in this regard. If their position is “We don’t know if stem-cell research is ethical or not”, what do they mean when they say that research must follow strict ethical guidelines? Which ethical guidelines are they talking about? OSHA?)

    As for “ensoulment”, Mormons accept other “ensoulment events”, too. Some of the frequenty ones I hear are:

    – birth (stillborns aren’t sealed to parents)

    – birth (Jesus told Nephi that “tomorrow cometh I into the world”)

    – first breath (“the breath of life”)

    – quickening (John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb)

    – implantation (position of 4 of 5 LDS Senators)

    – fertilization/conception (“that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost”)

  36. February 9, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks for the clarification. I don’t follow closely the ethics of abortion, so I may not be up on the terminology. BTW – stillborns are in somecases sealed to parents (or considered sealed). My wife’s grandparents had GAs tell them several stillborn children could be sealed to them in the temple.

    Regarding the church’s position, I think I see your point now. I think that the church’s position is basically saying that what scientists think of as ethical (or at least the consensus) should be followed and that they don’t add to or subtract from that consensus. But I can see why someone may read it differently and see it simply as ducking the question. And I admit it may well be simply ducking the question. Heavens knows that is sometimes a good thing to do.

  37. February 9, 2004 at 9:55 pm

    Matt, though I am in general agreement with your belief that it is a waste of time for General Authorities to consult with philosophers and theologians, they do, in fact, sometimes do so. I take it that asking for opinions and about technical questions from such persons doesn’t undercut their authority nor hamper their ability to receive revelation any more than does consulting scientists of various kinds.

  38. Matt Evans
    February 9, 2004 at 11:43 pm

    Jim, that is interesting, and it sounds like you probably have first or second-hand knowledge. Can you share what kinds of questions they’ve asked of professional thinkers?

  39. February 10, 2004 at 12:44 am

    To my knowledge they have asked questions about the history of thought, about how non-LDS understand some of their own teachings, and about possible explanations of LDS teaching.

  40. February 10, 2004 at 10:10 am

    Matt, I was taking a religion class from Joseph Fielding McConkie around the time when President Packer gave a talk in General Conference on repentance. Bro. McConkie shared with the class that prior to giving his talk, President Packer assembled a group of religion professors and went over his message with them. He wanted their opinions on his strong message that through Christ, forgiveness is possible to everyone, save only those who commit the unpardonable sin. Opinions were shared, but ultimately, President Packer said he shared the message he felt the Lord wanted him to share.

  41. Matt Evans
    February 10, 2004 at 12:09 pm

    Thanks Brent, that’s interesting. I would have thought that of all the current apostles, Packer would be the least likely to consult professors about the content of his conference talk.

  42. February 10, 2004 at 12:20 pm

    I looked it up, it was President Packer’s October 1995 talk entitled “The Brillian Morning of Forgiveness.” In it he makes a very strong statement about our ability to receive forgiveness. He stated:

    “The gospel teaches us that relief from torment and guilt can be earned through repentance. Save for those few who defect to perdition after having known a fulness, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no offense exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness.”

    His concern apparently was that some might interpret his talk incorrectly, so he vetted his talk with Bro. McConkie and others.

  43. Joseph Spencer
    February 10, 2004 at 12:43 pm


    Again, I think the discussion has gone off in a “funny” direction because there is something very fundamental that is being misunderstood.

    “The study of doctrine will change behavior quicker than the study of behavior will change behavior.” — Boyd K. Packer

    So what does this mean? I think it means the following:

    Teaching requires the collision of two worlds. You have a way of seeing the world, and your teacher has a way of seeing the world. Indoctrination is the passing of worldview from one individual to another. Studying behavior, however, requires no such collision. One may observe behavior from afar and always interpret every bit of it in terms of his or her own experience and worldview. We all know those in the Church that, upon hearing of a GA who drinks caffeinated drinks, assumes that the story must be false, assumes that there is some “higher purpose” on a given occasion, or even assumes that even that GA has some things to still repent of. The observing of behavior does not change behavior very easily, because we just ignore the outlying data points, and we force all of the remaining ones into the curve we have already made up for the world.

    Teaching, on the other hand, forces understanding… at least much more than observational study. If a GA tells you that he drinks caffeine, you cannot begin to think one thing, perhaps even tell him that, but he has the opportunity (in teaching) to tell you, “No. This is why I do it.” And you cannot really argue with a point like that.

    Because teaching requires two worlds to at least touch, hopefully one of them, if not both, is affected. That is teaching, and what is taught is what we call doctrine. As I said before, I think that the purpose of the Brethren is to show us how to see the world. “Go with me,” said Joseph. He wanted to show us an entirely different world, and any charitable reading of his teachings (his doctrine) makes that abundantly clear. It was Joseph that forced us to see the importance of ritual. It was Joseph that forced us to see the importance of priesthood. And I don’t think that “the importance” here can refer to anything practical or pragmatic, and they cannot be brought up in a temple recommend interview. “the importance” is doctrine. Joseph indoctrinated us. And if the worldview he still shares with us as we study his teachings and the D&C, etc., produces in us happiness, then our adjusted worldview is that much closer to eternal life, or God’s life.

    Sorry for the length on this, but I realized that my last posting just didn’t click without a lengthier explanation.

  44. Joseph Spencer
    February 10, 2004 at 12:51 pm

    Now, I’ll also address two questions posed to me:

    Matt Evans: I don’t think that doctrine means the process, but that “indoctrination” is the process. Doctrine is whatever is taught. What is Church doctrine then? Whatever is taught, in some sense.

    Kristine: I think that something like a council of theologians and philosophers (and even scientists) would be no real hindrance to the work of the Kingdom. I don’t, however, think that it is all that much of a help. I think that teachings (as has been taught a million times from the authoritative pulpits), and hence doctrine, distills from scripture. What I think we need is more commentary, but not “doctrinal commentary” that forces theological doctrines into contexts that don’t suggest anything such. I think we need exegetes, historical experts, linguists, etc. I don’t know that they need be professional, and I don’t know that they need be officially sponsored by the Church. But I do think that the scriptures need to be explored in much greater depth if ever we are to understand “doctrine” any better. We need teachers in Sunday School, in Priesthood and Relief Society. We need study. I could go on…

  45. February 10, 2004 at 2:11 pm

    Actually I do think that a council of theologians and philosophers would be a hindrance. If only because it would tend to twist doctrine to be in line with their own philosophy.

    I rather appreciate the careless, sometimes contradictory, moves at theology that our lay leadership has. There’s a great quote from Sherlock Holmes. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

    While we certainly have the “study it out in your mind” I think the meaning of that study requires us to be far more open than we frequently are. We all recognize how assumptions limit our ability to receive revelation. (Or make assumed dogma treated as if it were revealed) I think listening too much to philosophers would aggravate this.

  46. lyle
    February 11, 2004 at 9:22 am

    Joseph: What I think we need is more commentary.

    YUP! What about mundane practical life commentary? i.e. stories re: how scriptures were studied and that then had a practical effect/changed outcomes on life/choices.

    Also…books by experts on subjects, i.e. The Lawyer’s Scripture…the Doctor’s Scripture, etc…that give viewpoints perhaps unique to someone’s practical/professional training…

  47. August 3, 2005 at 4:29 pm

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