Inoculation, Apologetics, Intellectuals, and Blogging

In preparing people to face a skeptical world, we should not confuse inoculation with the administration of poison by degrees. It’s been suggested that the church could lessen the dissonance felt by young adults or new members when they come across controversial aspects of church history or doctrine for the first time by ensuring that these topics are introduced earlier. But the goal of vaccination is not simply to introduce microbes to unexposed subjects, but rather to train their bodies to react in a particular way when they encounter those microbes later. I think the analogy to faith still holds: the goal is not to introduce people to as much potentially troubling information about church history or doctrine as possible, but to model the reactions that are most beneficial.

If you’re serious about inoculation, introducing some potentially difficult topics earlier in the church curriculum is a reasonable place to start, but what is more important than the particular topics is finding productive ways to react. Just trying to come up with a list of all potentially troubling topics is a sucker’s game, as there is no end to learning about history or doctrine, and there is nothing, however innocuous, that cannot be made to seem misguided or depraved. People need models of how to integrate new information about the church with their existing beliefs.

In the context of inoculation, a productive reaction is one that strengthens one’s commitment to the church and its teachings. Wherever you might stand on any particular point of doctrine, inoculation cannot include wholesale rejection of church leaders, teachings, or scripture. You might have your doubts about D&C 132 or the Book of Abraham, but agitating to have them removed from our canon should not be confused with inoculation. Telling people that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or some other prophet simply made mistakes when they thought they were receiving revelation is not inoculation. It’s the opposite of inoculation. Perhaps you are able to accept Joseph Smith as the Lord’s prophet and also as someone who fabricated revelations in order to justify libidinous adventures; I can’t, and I’m fairly confident that strategy won’t work for the vast majority of church members. There are numerous workable gradations that stop short of enthusiastic endorsement of everything that all leaders have ever done, but simple condemnation won’t help anyone. It’s quite likely that, beyond narrow limits, inoculation involves a zero-sum tradeoff with agitation: you can either voice your pain, or you can help your teenage children resolve their doubts. Choose one.

Mormon blogs have certainly enabled discussion of a wide range of historical and doctrinal topics, but I don’t know if they have been a net positive in modelling the kind of reactions that a productive inoculation might aim for. It’s a hazard of living in a clickbait economy, and in a time where suffering is the guarantor of authenticity. Many online discussions of church history and doctrine have yielded the podium to those with the greatest outrage, the loudest complaints, the deepest cynicism, and the starkest doubts. For those who are not given to outrage, cynicism, complaining, or doubt, these discussions hold limited appeal, and their educational value in the cause of inoculation is questionable. If my own children were looking for models of how to react to Mormon history, I’m not sure they would be well served by the Mormon blogging world.

There is already a term for inoculation in the sense of inculcating productive responses to religious controversy: apologetics. For helping members of the church understand the history and teachings of the church, we need people whose expertise matches the reach of their publication platform. Many critiques of Mormon history or belief take the form of statements such that facts A, B, and C point unavoidably to conclusion D. We need people who can push back on sources and check footnotes, who are qualified to say: A is fact, B is speculation, and C is a misreading of a raft of historical documents; possible interpretations of A and B range from D through H. To address the most pointed critiques of church history and doctrine, we need contributions from Mormon scholars who are fully engaged in their academic disciplines and fully committed to the church. I don’t need an apologetics that shows me what the potential of the church is; that’s what I look to our prophets for. I do need an apologetics that addresses the real world I live in, where criticisms are directed at the church from academic fields that I am not well equipped to judge.

So for the project of inoculation and for Mormon spiritual welfare in general, the commitment of Mormon academics to the church is not a small concern. It would be perilous if a gap were to open between rank-and-file members and Mormon intellectuals, if the typical lay member were to regard Mormon academics with suspicion while the intellectuals treated their less educated coreligionists with disdain. Mormonism cannot afford an intellectual class that feels no obligation towards its faith community, or that regards acceptance of the church’s truth claims as an embarrassing spiritual malady.

82 comments for “Inoculation, Apologetics, Intellectuals, and Blogging

  1. “Telling people that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or some other prophet simply made mistakes when they thought they were receiving revelation is not inoculation. It’s the opposite of inoculation.” Jonathan, how do you propose dealing with the history of the understanding and teachings about race/lineage and temple/priesthood eligibility in a faith affirming way?

  2. “It’s a hazard of living in a clickbait economy, and in a time where suffering is the guarantor of authenticity.”

    Wow. Well said. The other issue is that the aims of many blogs are just so different. People already familiar with the topics debating them probably isn’t a great way to get introduced to the topic.

    I’ve been worrying about this a lot. I like blogs because I learn, but sometimes I don’t pay enough attention to how others would perceive what I write. It’s something I need to worry about more.

  3. “In the context of inoculation, a productive reaction is one that strengthens one’s commitment to the church and its teachings. “
    I agree that the institution would endorse your definition of a productive reaction, but I personally have different objectives.

    I want to teach my children the skills of critical thinking. I don’t want them to be constrained to focus on what others define as productive reactions that benefit the church. My view is that allowing for multiple perspectives, some of which traditionally aren’t labeled as productive reactions, is ultimately beneficial to everyone including the body of the church. The end goal in my mind is knowledge, not someone’s perceived commitment to a tradition (we have plenty of false traditions that we need to eradicate.) That does not mean abandonment of obligations to our faith community, but it does mean that truth, understanding, empathy and individual’s needs are prioritized higher than conformity.

  4. DavidH, that’s a question that deserves a long answer, but a short one will have to do. I think the most useful recent contributions have been those of J. Stapley and Paul Reeve. Their intent hasn’t been to show that the temple/priesthood ban was somehow right, but rather that it was an internally coherent response to church teachings and the cultural context of the 19th/early 20th centuries. The apologetic value of that is immense, as it lets us say: here’s the doctrine that we continue to believe in (eternal sealings, in this case), and here’s how church leaders tried to implement that doctrine in a cultural context that found the idea of interracial marriage abhorrent, and here is what we do today after rejecting the culture of racism while continuing to value the doctrine. It’s an approach that doesn’t rely on folklore or demand prophetic infallibility, while still valuing our prophets as inspired interpreters of doctrine for our time.

  5. MJ, it’s too early to let this thread degenerate into sarcasm and exaggeration. Could you formulate your point a little more carefully? Thanks.

  6. “Telling people that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or some other prophet simply made mistakes when they thought they were receiving revelation is not inoculation. It’s the opposite of inoculation.”

    Disagree, at least as a categorical statement. This is precisely how my parents explained certain things to me as a teenager, and I was — at the time — outraged that they could say such blasphemous things. My Seminary experience told me they must be dead wrong, and I feared that their testimonies must be slipping (they weren’t and haven’t).

    And then I learned everything else. And my parents’ words from so many years ago came back as a comfort and helped me make the decision to stay.

  7. Jonathan (#5) The vast vast majority of people excluded from temple sealings were of the same race. They weren’t excluded just because prophets were raised in a culture that was uncomfortable with interracial marriage. They were excluded because the prophets were raised in a culture that thought blacks were inherently inferior – a culture that used scripture to justify those prejudices.

    More importantly, our prophets relied on their fallen culture in pronouncing revelation and church doctrine. For example, they taught as a doctrine revealed by God the idea that blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence. (See the 1949 First Presidency Statement).

    I’m grateful for the recent church essay renoucing these false doctrines. But such renouncing also opens the door to the possibility that our current leaders are teaching false cultural notions as revelation and doctrine. After all, God works through men in the same way yesterday, today, and forever. So if “eternal sealings” are the key doctrine that must be maintained, can a member express a hope that future prophets will reject our cultural abhorance of homosexuality and allow same-sex sealings? That would seem consistent. But it could also easily lead to a disciplinary council.

    To me, the first step in our discussions must be this: “what do we value most?” If our primary love is the church, then our motives should serve the church even when other values must be sacrificed. In my experience, for very many members (and growing) the thing they value most is not the church but “truth,” “authenticity,” “God” and something else. And that’s were the real breakdown is. “Innoculation” vs. “Apologetics” is really just semantics.

  8. Well, nice try but no cigar. Prophetic leaders felt inhibited by cultural norms when addressing priesthood eligibility but no such constraints when instituting marriage and family norms that completely violated the standards of the Western world??

    Sorry– can’t get there with you. I guess I don’t need inoculation but a complete epidural.

  9. Jonathan (5) I think that’s a great example.

    Hope (4) I also think that offering multiple views is important. One problem with some apologetics (and even more scholarly work) has been arguing for a single view. So most books you pick up tend to have a single perspective rather than arguing or presenting a range. A book I recently got that I’ve been tremendously impressed with is Terryl Givens Wrestling the Angel. I think he does a great job thinking through a lot of theology and not just arguing for a single view. That sort of popularizing and explaining of work that’s gone on for a more general populace should be our goal.

    Jake (7) I think if all we did was say they made a mistake then it wouldn’t be inoculation. Explaining how people make mistakes is something that really does need addressed more. Not just because of the inoculation issue but just for dealing with our emphasis on personal revelation. If we don’t understand how we can make interpretive mistakes it’s likely we’ll make them. Further every leader I’ve known who tries to lead by revelation has abundant sympathy for the leaders of the church because they know how hard it is. It’s people who perhaps think there’s less struggle that put everything in simplistic categories. So teaching about the reality of revelation means more than just acknowledging fallibilism or emphasizing we should live by it.

  10. Roger (9) I don’t think “felt inhibited” is the right way to consider it. Rather the question is what ways of thinking would be privileged or incentivized simply because of their cultural place. Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. That goes as much today as for Brigham Young. Further, we should note that for many of these people including Young the shift of norms with regards to polygamy was a big deal. It took time to adapt.

    The ultimate issue ends up being why does God speak to us in our culture rather than giving us point by point details of what to do. If there is a God and he gives revelation then we have to accept that empirically. This is, after all, an even bigger deal in the New Testament. Jesus could easily have written texts emphasizing equality of the races, repealing sexist practices, postponing marriage/sexuality, taught about sanitation and the bacteria/viral theory of disease, etc. Heck, he could even have revealed the printing press which would likely have done more than any of the gospels in terms of changing society for the better. That he didn’t suggests something.

    Now of course many people will look at that and simply say, “well there’s no involved God – he’s either so absent as to not matter or there is no God.” If we have interactions with God and we find that he does answer prayers then that’s not really an active choice. Once we think through that sort of thing I think we might be a tad more forgiving of past prophets. Not just Joseph and Brigham, but also Peter and Paul or those before.

  11. Dave K., see, if one of our prophets said something that wasn’t quite correct, the solution can’t be demanding that our prophets never say anything until they’re 100% certain that their words will stand for all time. The better solution is for the prophets to speak more frequently and more freely, adjusting their message as they find the best balance between wisdom and inspiration they can come up with in changing contexts. Sometimes what they say will have to be corrected later. At least I hope it does – otherwise what’s the point of continuing revelation? It’s reasonable to hope for future revelation, although I suspect there aren’t many people who reject the teachings of our current prophets but will accept future prophets. Trying to follow what our prophets teach at each moment seems the safer course.

    I can’t speak about “authenticity,” but I don’t see how loving the church is supposed to be in tension with valuing truth and God. I don’t know of a better path for people’s struggle to recognize truth and know God.

  12. Jonathan, with all due respect, your argument is weak and unpersuasive. Instead of embracing “productive inoculation,” why not do something wild and crazy like simply focussing on the truth.

    The evidence is compelling that, in numerous instances throughout church history, what the prophet or some other church leader thought was revelation turned out to be something completely different. While it does not necessarily follow that the church leader in question was trying to deceive, it does mean that he probably made a mistake and was wrong. Why can’t we just say that? Apart from being honest, it underscores the importance of always doing your own thinking or, as Nephi put it, never “trusting in the arm of flesh,” even when that arm is attached to a prophet.

    Also, your post conveniently ignores the fact that the church has been, to a considerable degree, the source of the problem because it has been something less than forthright in its portrayal of its history and the origin of its doctrines. As Terryl Givens once observed: “[T]he problem is not information, the problem is betrayal. Nobody really leaves the church because there isn’t information to answer a question. And that’s one thing the church hasn’t gotten yet. People leave the church because by the time the question arises, its too late.”

    Finally, if your faith is challenged by the actions of church leaders, the problem isn’t your faith; rather, it’s your unrealistic expectations regarding our leaders. As Armand Mauss has observed: “The human element in the history and the daily life of the Church seems more conspicuous to me than the divine element.”

  13. Young people and even adults must be carefully trained how to react to uncomfortable facts in order to keep them committed to the church? What does this say? Where is the reliance on the Spirit to do its job in all of this?

    I hope that with whatever approach is taken by the church, respect will at least be given to those whose consciences may not allow them to sustain an institution over their own personal judgements. I favor helping people on all sides feel more empowered to draw their own conclusions and love each other in spite of any differences. Let’s model love and respect first and foremost. It’s desperately needed.

  14. Interesting topic. Modeling positive responses is important. It is through such modeling that we create our paradigms, and our paradigms then provide the context in which we encounter the next unforeseen bit of business. I can think of several LDS bloggers of different backgrounds and fields who have provided both helpful information and perspectives, but also, useful models for how to deal with challenges to faith.

    There is always a danger in establishing paradigms based on atypical examples, or from unrealistic expectations. I was enlightened a few decades back when I read through Alma, and noted all of the places where he qualified his knowledge, explaining where he got his information on various topics, and making it clear that some came from revelation, some from a lot of study, some surmises, some from his opinion. Alma makes it very clear that prophets are not to be Flow charted as though possessing one input, the Mind of God, and one output, the Word of God. It’s a lot more complex. And wouldn’t that make a useful Sunday School lesson? No? Well, Sunday School or not, General Conference talk, or not, Ensign or Seminary or not, the lesson is there in Alma for anyone to extract with a careful reading and colored pencil.

    A common meme is “How come no one told me this? I’ve been lied to and deceived and need those feelings validated, rather than analyzed or refuted.”

    My own experience was always, “Oh… that is interesting. I did not know that. I wonder where I can learn more?”

    A difference I cannot help but see is whether a person builds their emotional response on an underlying sense of entitlement. I notice Jesus in 3 Nephi telling the people they he can’t teach it all at once, and recommending that they go home and prepare their minds. And I imagine someone raising a hand, and saying, “But… if you really are God, why don’t you do that for us? So we don’t have to. You know… save us the trouble. All that seeking, knocking, and asking… seems, you know, a bit inefficient. You being God and all. Why not just put in our heads for us?”

    Besides LDS cultural issues, and the inevitable tension between state of the art scholarship and bureaucratic inertia, combined with the real life people and their different resources, talents and temperaments, there are also human developmental issues. A few decades back Veda Hale sent me an email with a summary of the Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth. She’d prepared it for a Sunstone presentation in which she used Perry to map the character arcs a Mormon novel, Levi Peterson’s Canyons of Grace. I’ve found that thinking in terms paths of human development makes a lot more aware and tolerant of the differences in various members, and more skeptical of any attempts to craft a one size fits all solution.

    Isaiah 55 tells about a God who knows he has to work with long term processes to get the results He has in mind.

  15. Johnathan, I was not proposing the rejection of any authority that is not 100% accurate. The world would be quite lonely if we did that. What I’m proposing is that we reject the notion that members must accept 0% or 100% of everything the church teaches. I much prefer the wrestle that Clark discusses.

    Unfortunately, much of the reason we need innoculation/apologetics is that our church culture often puts heavy pressure on members to accept teachings they believe are in error. For instance, consider a member who’s gay son is in a loving marriage that is just as blessed as his heterosexual siblings’ marriages.

    While it’s acceptable to publicly say “church leaders have made mistakes in the past” it’s not acceptable to say “church leaders could be making mistakes today.” There needs to be room for members such as Jeffrey R. Holland, who doubted the truthfulness of the priesthood ban long before it was removed. (See the PBS documentary). Most members who are leaving today (at least youth) are doing more because of current pressures than from uncovering past mistakes.

  16. Absolutely fantastic stuff, Jonathan. You’re first paragraph really stood out to me.

    Like Kent, however, I have many reservations regarding apologetics. My own approach is that we should teach students that the church and the university are playing two very different games and apologetics strikes as the church’s attempt to beat the university at their own game – a tacit admission that we have some obligation to play or stick with this game. Instead, I think it important to teach that the university is not our servant rather than our master in that it is there to help us pursue our righteous desire/goals, not to tell us what our desires/goals ought to be.

  17. And the corollary to Porofessor Mauss’ observation, is that perhaps the best testimony to the divinity of the institution as constituted is its continued existence.

  18. FarSide, I think it’s incomplete and not terribly useful just to say: look, over there, the prophet was wrong! The harder and much more useful question is: why did that prophet regard his statement as truth at that moment? What is still true or useful for us today in that statement? Of course we have to do our own pondering, even if we accept a prophet as inspired. (Regarding the prophets as just one more instance of the ‘arm of the flesh,’ though, is not a perspective that is compatible with Mormonism, I think.)

    Dave K.: Man, it’s really too bad the church couldn’t make room for members like Jeffrey R. Holland. Oh, wait…

    Sorry, that was uncalled for. I’m on record as against sarcasm on this thread. Let’s try that again.

    Dave K: I think you’re overstating how much pressure the church places on most people, as opposed to people feeling discomfort when their views diverge from the church’s. The church regards its teachings on sexuality and marriage as core doctrines, and it’s not reasonable to expect the church not to teach, loudly and clearly, the things that it feels are important. Probably most members have some divergent views of some kind. But people should own those differences, rather than expecting the church to fit their views.

    Jeff G, like Kent pointed out, not all apologetics is good apologetics, which is why I add that it’s important for people to be fully engaged in their academic disciplines. There’s been a good amount of flaky stuff written under the rubric of apologetics, and a lot of good stuff avoids the term altogether.

  19. I am impressed that people more aware and educated than myself remain members.

    The reasoning I use to continue as a member is to acknowledge that the church is made up of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, programmes to help us live the Gospel, and conservative american culture taught as if it is Gospel.

    This allows me to remain faithfull to the Church when it teaches the Gospel, but value the programmes as to how effective they are at helping with the original principle ( home/visiting teaching v love your neighbour ), and also value culture as not necessarily for my family, and expect it to change.

    This allows me to deal with racism, polygamy, sexism and obedience is the first law of heaven, as culture and accept that they are taught by Prophets but are their philosophy not the Gospel, and not binding on me, whereas the basic Gospel (which some of the 12 teach ) is. So I do not have to value everything a Prophet has or does say equally and therefore, not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    If you can see flaws in my system, please propose a better one.

  20. It’s discouraging how some here are reacting to the issue of members feeling like they’ve been lied to. Rather than calling for changes in how the church operates, they place blame at those who feel most hurt. Further, some here suggest “modeling” that sounds an awful lot like brainwashing. The church indeed has many programs; why not also program people’s mind to respond to church history in a certain way? Heaven forbid people think for themselves or feel an authentic emotion. Let’s program our youth so they all think and feel a certain way! Hooray!

    Perhaps instead of re-programming kids minds, we could just engage these difficult issues in a more honest, open, and tolerant way? Or is that asking too much?

  21. Jonathan,

    As a mostly passive observer, sometimes rare participant in the Bloggernacle, I appreciate this contribution to the ongoing ‘inoculation’ discussion, particularly your last paragraph. The gap that you speak of is something that I’ve observed slowly growing in online discussions about difficult issues. I worry about the divisive tribalism creeping in in the forms of ‘disdain’ and ‘suspicion’ as you put it, and seeing everyone end up talking past each other.

    Kevin C.,

    Without diverting too much from the topic, thanks for pointing out your examples from Alma and 3 Nephi, you’ve given me something to chew on.

  22. Geoff-Aus,

    “conservative american culture taught as if it is Gospel”

    This sounds like a great candidate for slowly administer poison that pretends to be an inoculation.

    Not that you said the following, but I can’t help but wonder what the church is supposed to be talking about at all if both science and culture/politics are placed out of bounds?

  23. With the publication of the essays at LDS Gospel Topics, the inoculation fight is won — troubling topics will now enter the LDS curriculum, at least to some degree. The question is now one of pedagogy: what exactly to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. Jonathan, you make a great point that modeling how to respond to troubling facts of LDS history has to be part of that plan. But it is a very complex and touchy issue. A parent whose kid leaves the Church because of info first discovered in one of the essays is not going to be mollified by being told that the net effect of the essays is positive. But another similar parent might have a child leave because they *did not* ever hear about troubling issues from an LDS source.

  24. “Telling people that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or some other prophet simply made mistakes when they thought they were receiving revelation is not inoculation. It’s the opposite of inoculation.”

    Not a fan. Prophets did and do make mistakes and I’m not keen on the idea of raising children to believe that they can’t / haven’t / don’t. If anything is a setup for losing faith, it’s that. I agree that there is value in many of the framing mechanisms you have described, and I’m not opposed to using them in certain circumstances, but from my own experience growing up, I wish someone, somewhere would have had the courage to just say that church leader x got it wrong on occasion. It’s the truth, after all, and often the easiest answer to accept. After all, it’s not as if that answer and many of the things you describe are mutually exclusive.

  25. It is significant to me that the there is no calling to do apologetics for the church. The essays are uncited, church manuals some and go. I think both apologetics and inoculation don’t fit with priesthood authority and are not that significant religiously.

    As for teenagers, I think teaching them to study things out in their own mind using the scriptures and teaching of the prophets and then pray about it, is the best form of inoculation and/or apologetics. Teenagers respond to responsibility and they have a sacred duty to come to their own understanding with the aid of the spirit.

    Taking part in argument over these matters in an attempt to convince others rather than come to an understanding for oneself seems to me a path from the church rather than towards it. This is the lesson of the recent excommunications of certain organizers and bloggers to me.

  26. the goal is not to introduce people to as much potentially troubling information about church history or doctrine as possible, but to model the reactions that are most beneficial.

    Amen. I think this gets confused/ignored far too often.

    I want to teach my children the skills of critical thinking. I don’t want them to be constrained to focus on what others define as productive reactions that benefit the church.

    Instead of embracing “productive inoculation,” why not do something wild and crazy like simply focussing [sic] on the truth.

    Further, some here suggest “modeling” that sounds an awful lot like brainwashing.

    I think all of these statements suffer from the assumption that any sort of positive context provision is manipulating the pristine thinking that should take place when receiving supposedly unbiased, raw information. The fact of the matter is that almost no one confronting difficult information is finding it while combing through the Joseph Smith Papers or other primary source documents. They are reading it on less-than friendly websites, message boards, comment sections, YouTube, secondary source books, etc. All of those replace original context with a context of their own. All are biased in their own way, even well-written books published by reputable academic presses (which I love and read voraciously).

    If we want to teach our children critical thinking, if we want to focus on “the truth,” if we want to avoid “brainwashing,” then we need to provide a faithful alternative of assimilating some of this information. Otherwise we are only allowing one (or a few) side(s) of a necessarily biased narrative to have full reign.

    In short, a so-called neutral, objective position of providing unfiltered “facts” is a myth. In my view, covenant members of God’s kingdom are called to persuade others to come to Christ, not simply to provide a selection of raw facts about Jesus of Nazareth (the selection of which would necessarily be biased anyway) and hope that they figure it out for themselves through their native cognitive reasoning skills (which in reality are mostly a reflection of the values of the modern American education system).

  27. It seems to me that part of the problem is misplaced focus. The Church and its members shouldn’t be trying to persuade people that the Church is true. Rather, the Church should be trying to persuade people that it would be worthwhile to pray for revelation that the Church is true. After all, if the Church is true, the Spirit will testify of that truth to those who seek it–isn’t that the promise of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon?

    Which is to say, arguing about how to present polygamy, the priesthood ban, etc., is irrelevant; what matters is living a Christlike life that will encourage people to investigate what the Church has to offer. The Spirit will take care of the rest.

  28. Doug – I think I agree with your statement, though I would point out that “trying to persuade people that it would be worthwhile to pray for revelation” often requires a fair amount of persuasion in and of itself. This sometimes includes persuading others that it is still worth asking God in spite of the hot topics you mention (i.e., finding a faithful construct on these issues that actually leaves room for asking God).

  29. Geoff-Aus & others,
    “conservative american culture taught as if it is Gospel” is rarely encountered or noticed here where I live. Of course I live in a conservative part of the US, so in many instances it is noticeable that the church is less conservative in some ways in its teaching. On sexuality, family, and WoW issues, the church is very conservative vis-a-vis popular US culture, but in other teachings it varies widely.
    There are certain church teachings and practices that clearly derive from conservative US culture, but it does not seem that many members around here see these as core teachings or doctrines. They are more like customs that can be disregarded when they are a burden to a member.
    I wonder if members around here make less of a fuss about some of the church culture issues because we are in the US and local church membership is growing. We already stand out enough to catch others attention, but many different HQ leaders see and hear us frequently.

  30. Can you imagine the upset stomach you would get if you ate everything served at a cafeteria? Assembling a healthy, appetizing meal from cafeteria offerings takes judgement and experience. Experience often gained from past upset stomachs. Even the McConkiest Mormon chooses to pass on some of what is offered.

  31. Fascinating analogy. And others of us would literally starve were we forced to eat in a beans and sprouts health food cafe

  32. Jonathan, I think you rightly point out the limitations of innocultation as a metaphor: true vaccination (almost always) causes the body to react in a way that will provide immunity to disease. The spiritual innoculation we discuss online doesn’t have the same precision; it’s art far more than it is science.

    That said, I think you undercount the benefits of discussions that go further than you’re willing to go. You may personally not be able to accept Joseph’s implementation of polygamy as a mistake (most who go the mistake route—or, at least, most in the bloggernacle whom I’m familiar with—are more nuanced than “libidinous adventures,” though that exists, too). Even if you don’t go that far, there is at least some benefit, I believe, in knowing that people who believe that polygamy was inspired can remain faithful in the church. Knowing that someone else is familiar with the problems, recognizes them as problems, perhaps insoluble, and nonetheless finds value in the institution has its own pastoral value. It may not be a long-term solution, but it can certainly serve as a short-term bridge.

    Moreover, it’s not clearly wrong. Institutionally, we’ve essentially accepted that the priesthood ban was a mistake, that hemispheric BoM claims don’t hold water, and that otherwise cherished beliefs and practices have changed over time. That’s not, of course, any indication of what will happen with questionable policy X. And rejection is not the only possible solution.

    But dismissing it as the opposite of innoculation is as mistaken, I think, as insisting that literal and unthinking belief in whatever a prophet has said must have come from God’s personal mouth. There are a spectrum of beliefs that are compatible with Mormonism, and I believe that faithful members modelling a range of reactions to difficult topics is the optimal way to ensure innoculation. Because where you may reject rejection of prophets, I may need to believe that certain things are unfounded, and vice versa.

  33. Kevin, #15, fabulous comment. You offer a really nice and very relevant close reading of Alma and great insight on the multiple positions and paths of people who engage the historical and theological issues. And the point about entitlement is spot on as well as is the example you give from the Book of Mormon to illustrate that point.

  34. Sam, thanks for your response. You make several good points. Certainly I wouldn’t want to eliminate an approach that lets some people maintain their commitment to the church, and your suggestion that models of faithful doubting can be useful deserves some careful thought. I’m inclined to agree with it. I hesitate to call it ‘inoculation’ or give it an official place in preparing adolescents to respond to criticism of the church, but it certainly has its place among the tools for spiritual triage.

    My reluctance is threefold. First, I think that ‘the prophet was just mistaken’ is always going to be less accurate and less complete than trying to understand why the prophet interpreted things in a particular way. If the history of racial restrictions is a problem – and it is – then let’s use the opportunity to talk about the interplay of culture and revelation and figure out what the doctrinal motivation was, rather than blaming it all on Brigham and then forgetting about it.

    I’m also unenthusiastic about dismissing points of controversy as prophetic mistakes because the stakes are radically different on different points. So one prophet thought we’d never get to the moon? Yeah, OK, that’s a mistake, but not a mistake with any significant implications. For the priesthood/temple ban, on the other hand, at the end of the day we still have to recognize Brigham Young as the only person who was fully authorized to make decisions about priesthood ordination and temple ordinances. The church functions by asking a lot of people to make the best decisions they can with the information they have, and sometimes church leaders are going to make decisions we deeply disagree with. It’s a perilous choice to only sustain leaders insofar as we agree with their decisions. And with polygamy, we have not just administrative decisions, but canonized scripture and a principle that Joseph Smith was convinced represented revelation. Once one gets in the habit of dismissing scripture, revelation, and the teachings of the prophets as simple mistakes, there isn’t much left of Mormonism except the refreshments.

    And, finally, I’m not as optimistic as you are about the long-term stability of that strategy, particularly as a multi-generational proposition. Over time, I think having some kind of faithful narrative to describe the history of the church is a necessity, although I agree that there are multiple possibilities that fall short of fundamentalist literalism (which I actually suspect is not a very good strategy at all for maintaining commitment to the church over the long term). Having various models of faith is important, as you say, but I am cautious about people’s ability to judge their own faithfulness. I think we’ve seen enough examples of people going from ‘the prophet is mistaken’ to ‘my commitment to Truth demands that I oppose the prophet on this point’ to ‘any rational being with a commitment to right and truth must oppose Mormonism’ to decide that this particular slope is in fact slippery.

    But, as I said, I’m only reluctant and unenthusiastic and pessimistic about your approach as a general strategy. I quite agree that it will be the best approach for at least some people.

  35. JT#28, you are spot on in your analysis. Hans Gadamer, the well-known German philosopher makes this point well. We always assimilate new information within the horizon of a set of preexisting beliefs. Without that horizon of beliefs, no thought is possible. It is clear that intelligent, informed people can assimilate all the historical and theological information about the Church and still remain faithful. It is not brainwashing to offer to others the perspectives these well-informed people have that permit them to retain belief in God and the Church while being fully informed. What they have is a kind of intellectual maturity that anyone can legitimately aspire to. Of course, one can also disbelieve in an intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed way. So if models of mature belief are provided (the World provides plenty of models for mature unbelief), each person can choose for themselves the world in which they will live. If the Church and believing members do not provide those models of mature, well-informed belief, the agency of some will be compromised. They will have only one path open to them–the one that leads to unbelief.

    And there is nothing wrong with a parent who does believe, who does know God and has a testimony of the Church, to favor and promote to his/her children models of mature belief.

  36. Jonathan, I get the sense from your post that you want to go back to what the LDS church had been doing (and still is to an extent) for the last few decades, which was essentially focusing on how members should react towards seemingly negative information instead of just giving them all of the information and then allowing them to have their own reactions, hoping that some will continue to react positively towards the church in spite of a deep awareness of its seeming historical flaws. It is an effective approach, I must say, and perhaps more effective than inoculation (at least in the sense that I understand it, which is introducing lots of information to LDS members while young or new in order to keep them from being taken off guard by said information in the future).

    Just trying to come up with a list of all potentially troubling topics is a sucker’s game

    Well maybe in some senses. But the major troubling topics have been troubling topics for a long time, and they are increasingly troubling topics because, through not because of the current education system, but because of many prevailing cultural trends, we are exposed to an environment that is increasingly skeptical towards many religious claims, particularly the more fantastic ones, which Mormonism has a lot of. People in the US don’t believe in magic, divine apparitions, buried treasure, divine revelation, etc. as much as they used to in upstate New York back in Joseph Smith’s day. They are also increasingly accepting of gay romantic relationships and women in positions of spiritual and temporal authority. Thus, LDS people are more likely to experience cognitive dissonance than they used to be. Some manage this cognitive dissonance by coming up with very complex explanations to seemingly troubling material. Those who do often see this as a token of their strength: “look at me, I’m aware of all of this information about church history and yet I still believe it is true.” Others become overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance and end up distancing themselves from the LDS church environment in order to find relief. I think that it is hard to expect members facing cognitive dissonance to act like the latter group. Large numbers of them will likely leave the church. Bearing this in mind, I think that you are correct in saying that the LDS leaders are more effective at maintaining members by guiding their reactions and steering them away from lots of information. The more the LDS leaders can keep its members in the dark about the fine and seeming damning details of its history, the more likely they will retain them. But some inoculation has to be introduced in order to blunt the efforts of the vocal fence-sitters and critics who have become (through the internet and particularly social media) increasingly effective at either attracting agitators for change (like Dehlin and Kelly) or steering people away from the LDS church altogether.

  37. Should read: 1) “not just because of the current education system”
    2) “act like the former group”

  38. I’m wondering if a major contributing factor to the common reaction of “I never knew that. Now I feel betrayed and lied to”, is how often we’re taught the same subjects. You grow up in the church, go the Sunday School, and hear the same lessons, over and over. It does leave one with a sense of “I’ve been taught everything I need to know”. Then when they do learn something more, at least something of reasonable importance, it generates a sense of betrayal.

  39. Johnathan, you seem to be operating with the premise that it is problematic to recognize that prophets make mistakes. The scriptures and church history are full of examples of prophets making mistakes. This does not mean we don’t trust them carte blanche, sustain them, or support them. It does mean that it is healthy seek personal revelation to validate their teaching because they will get it wrong sometimes.

    It also means we have to do better than simply accepting the non-canonical statement by Wilford Woodruff that ” the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray” as meaning that prophets will never make mistakes. History has shown quite the opposite to be true. The church has survived in spite of the many mistakes made by prophets and I find that to be part of the beauty of the gospel truth.

  40. I think our God is far more patient with and forgiving of our prophets than some of us are. In His eyes, some of these matters that some point to as mistakes might not be mistakes at all. Here a little, there a little…

  41. Inoculation is mostly, most of the time, in most circumstances, for most people, about seeing alternatives, seeing another way to think about things. About why the naive meaning is not the only way to hear for all time in all places. But that’s the 80% case. If one tries to push it into a box with an absolute edge that cuts off the 20% (5%? 1%) cases, then I think it will end up failing on the 80% case as well. It seems to me that there are four approaches that will FAIL:
    1. The prophets are always right.
    2. The prophets are always well-intentioned; if there are errors they are always errors in our understanding.
    2. This is the one true interpretation.
    3. Leaving is never the right answer.
    To be effective, in a teaching situation with people I know, inoculation has to admit of alternatives, including that there might be error, the error might be on the part of the prophet not the listener, there might be several ways to understand that might be situational, i.e., a function of person/place/time, and even the theoretical possibility that getting out is right for some persons some times.
    That said, my preferred approach, when I let myself get into the inoculation business, is to spend almost no time on the edge cases, acknowledging that they exist but suggesting that (as is often the case for boundary solutions) they are not very interesting.

  42. Mike Maxwell, #42:

    “Johnathan, you seem to be operating with the premise that it is problematic to recognize that prophets make mistakes. ”

    I don’t believe this is what he is saying. His theme is helping people see healthy and positive reactions to negative information. As such, a quick “Brigham got it wrong” ignores the connected and equally important question of WHY Brigham got it wrong, what else Brigham got wrong, and what Thomas S Monson gets/has gotten wrong, etc…

    In #37, he clarifies:

    “First, I think that ‘the prophet was just mistaken’ is always going to be less accurate and less complete than trying to understand why the prophet interpreted things in a particular way. If the history of racial restrictions is a problem – and it is – then let’s use the opportunity to talk about the interplay of culture and revelation and figure out what the doctrinal motivation was, rather than blaming it all on Brigham and then forgetting about it.”

    The further exploration, at least in my opinion, has a few tangible benefits:

    1. It helps contextualize the mistake
    2. It broadens the understanding of the mistake
    3. It serves as a useful learning experience to figure out where we ourselves might repeat the mistake
    4. It helps us observe current Church leadership and learn to discern mistake from true revelation

    I really think he’s got a great point. As has been mentioned elsewhere, I think the only real failure of this approach is that it teaches a reaction rather than lets a reaction happen. I don’t deem that failure (if it can be termed as such) to be very important, because I don’t think it’s possible to have opinions, facts, belief, culture, testimony, and the like in a vacuum. So you might as well be up front with people, tell them you want them to continue believing, and that you as a continuing believer have taken this particular path, starting with the mistake, why it’s a mistake, what complexities are involved, and how it shapes your expectations and testimony.

  43. My approach is to reject some LDS truth claims, dilute some LDS truth claims, and do my best to adopt other LDS truth claims.

    Rejection. D&C 132:51-65 is one example of something I reject. To my mind, those verses represent actual corruption. If I put myself in a position where I must defend or rationalize those ideas, it causes actual damage to my soul. I reject those ideas.

    Dilution. There are a number of LDS truth claims about alleged actual historical events. One example is Native American origins. I try and dilute these types of claims. These types of historical claims are made to swim about in a sea of competing narratives.

    Adoption. There is so much that is good in the LDS faith. I see this particularly in the lived faith of the people I know and love. I genuinely want to do what I can to encourage “healthful living” in my own family.

    This solution has worked for me for at least two decades. Is it viable in the long-term? When combined with other habits I’ve developed in my family, I think it might be. Time will tell.

  44. Re: the prophets are sometimes wrong, the Old Testament is virtually a compendium of screw-ups made by various prophets and other servants of God. Moses, the law giver, is a terribly flawed man who is denied the promised land. Solomon, wisest of kings, turns to idolatry, etc. etc.

    In the Gospels, likewise, we see that the Twelve are very human–confused, cowardly, treacherous.

    This overarching message, that even God’s chosen are still human and make mistakes, is extremely relevant to the modern day. Perhaps more detailed study of the Biblical leaders of the Church and what they did, right and wrong, would be more helpful to the members than trying to explain away or rationalize awkward or inexplicable actions by modern day prophets.

  45. Also, an Old Testament style history of the latter day Church would be awesome and fascinating. Brigham Young, in particular, seems like he would fit right in among the patriarchs and prophets of the Israelites.

    The leaders of the later 20th century church, not as much–no beards, for one thing.

  46. Ccr, not really. The question is not, what is correct and what is mistaken, but rather: why is the prophet telling me this, and what should I do about it?

    Josh Smith, your comments on other threads are among the things that suggest to me that low commitment to truth claims and low respect for church leaders tend to go along with low levels of church activity, tending towards zero after the first generation. As you say, time will tell.

  47. Jonathan,

    If we were to meet someday, I’m sure we’d get along just fine, despite varying viewpoints on organized religion.

    My parents are both converts to the LDS faith. My grandparents were Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist. If you go further back in my family tree, you find Anglicans, Church of England, Quakers, a guy unusually committed to the Salvation Army, and many, many good people not particularly attached to an organized faith.

    Neither of my grandfathers were religious men. I have nothing but admiration for how they lived their lives. So much of the goodness I now have in my life I attribute to the good lives of my grandparents.

    From my point of view, goodness is independent of the LDS faith, and the LDS faith can act badly. That is, the LDS faith is not the author of what is true, good, and beautiful in this world. The LDS faith can help people find those virtues. It can also fail and lead people into darkness. Let me try one other way …

    My faith, and the faith of my fathers it would seem, is to have faith in certain experiences, to have faith in certain principles. My faith is not in a particular institution or a particular person. Please be charitable with that idea because it is offered in sincerity.

  48. Josh, it’s not a matter of liking or respect or charity. I fully accept that you are sincere in your beliefs. But the question at hand is how best to prepare young people so that they will maintain church activity over the long term. There are several possible ways to go about that, and more than a few times you’ve described a strategy of low commitment and irregular participation. I dearly hope that I am wrong, but I do not think that your strategy will preserve commitment to the church over a time period of several years to a few decades. If maintaining church affiliation is not a high priority, that may not be a problem for you. For people who do make it a priority, I’d have to recommend a different approach.

  49. That makes sense, Jonathan.

    This is just an experiment to see if we can find some common ground. Please feel free to ignore this question if it deviates too far from your initial post.

    Is there anything you want for the future generation that is *more important* than active participation in the LDS faith?

  50. “The question is not, what is correct and what is mistaken, but rather: why is the prophet telling me this, and what should I do about it?”

    Jonathan, the way you have framed your question and the tenor of your post suggest that you have completely ruled out the possibility that the prophet was simply mistaken, that his rationale for communicating the thought/idea/teaching that he articulated is flawed, and that there is never a situation where it should be disregarded or that we would be justified in doing nothing about it.

    Many of us categorically reject that premise, especially since we have know that a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such and that often times, when he thinks he is acting as such, it turns out he was wrong. And to imply that our commitment to church activity or to the gospel is somehow less than those who have swallowed the blue pill and bought into everything that emanates from Salt Lake is, frankly, insulting.

    For prophets, and the rest of us, the best of course of action when you make a mistake is to acknowledge your error and vow to try to do better. Maybe someday our leaders will actually do this. If and when that happens, my faith will increase considerably. I will follow to hell and back an ecclesiastical leader who concedes his errors. Whenever, however, a church leader assures me that he is incapable of leading me astray, I count my spoons.

  51. I’m not sure how the conversation moved from inoculation to prophetic infallibility, a doctrine we reject on paper but somehow encourage in practice. That’s a clue to the inoculation problem, or what I referred to above (#25) as the pedagogy problem: “what exactly to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it.”

    It’s fine to teach Primary kids that God talks to the prophet and tells him how to lead the Church. At some point in the curriculum — to the youth in Sunday School, to young adults in Institute, to adults in Sunday School — we ought to be teaching or at least tolerating a more sophisticated notion of revelation, one that embraces the idea that God doesn’t tell the prophet everything; sometimes God doesn’t tell him much; and maybe even that once in awhile (oops!) it wasn’t even God talking at all.

    The fact that the curriculum doesn’t make this sort of transition but instead addresses every audience as if they were Primary kids is a big part of the problem. I think Correlation is responsible for this, although that wasn’t exactly the goal they spelled out in the beginning. I wish LDS leaders would move a little bit of those tithing billions into curriculum development, even hire some professionals who know what they’re doing. They spend millions on advertising; how about a little product development?

  52. I think that’s right Dave. I think the problem is that for whatever reason we don’t like to clarify what is really a burden of proof view of Church leaders. When the prophet speaks he may be mistaken, but probably he isn’t. At a minimum we need to take what he says very seriously and better have darn good reasons for thinking him false.

    I think the shift occurs because it often seems like in practice the biggest problem is simply people not taking the prophets seriously because what they say goes against their political beliefs, practices or simply because it’s inconvenient. That’s not just on a left political or theological spectrum. It’s not hard to find hobby horses of the right getting critiques ranging from some of Pres. Kimball’s comments on the environment or hunting, Pres. Benson on the MX Missile program, or more recently Church comments on immigration.

    The social problems that come up in an obvious way from assuming the prophet’s right seem less obvious than those more common ones that come from assuming he’s wrong. So that’s what get’s focused upon. Yet the dangerous of a near de facto infallibility are starting to have an effect on retention. If the Pew stuff on the Nones is to be believed, this is more a conflict between social politics and the church. But the straw that breaks the back may well be finding flaws in church history or the like.

    How much of this can be prevented by teaching a burden of proof view I’m not sure about. At a certain level I think we have to not just pay attention to inoculation but also why these issues are a concern for some but not a concern for others. For instance you and I aren’t bothered significantly by controversial history and can accept leaders as flawed humans. Frankly a lot of people never inoculated when they hear the controversy may be bothered but don’t lose faith. Some do. What’s the distinction?

    I think we have to do some inoculation and frankly moving to a burden of proof view should be a part of that. But we also have to look at the other issues. I think conflating social acceptance with a testimony is a big problem too. As is learning how to truly turn to the Lord when the inevitable test of faith arrives.

  53. To add, I’m far from convinced changing the curriculum much would help. I do think that perhaps moving to topical lessons without a focus on particular prophets or book of scripture would help. That’s how PH was done and I think Sunday School too if I recall. But at a certain point you’re at the behest of your teacher and lessons are only as good or as bad as the teacher is capable of.

  54. Josh, that’s a reasonable question, but I’ll have to defer an answer for now.

    FarSide, trying to figure out why a prophet is saying something and what to do about it is not the same thing at all as treating a prophetic statement as infallible. Actually, it’s a pretty minimal standard for how to react to the words of someone one sustains as a prophet. If we can’t even manage that level, is there any substance left to the claim that we accept someone as prophet, seer, and revelator? It would be a pretty tepid restoration of prophetic authority that gave us only prophets who could be ignored whenever we felt like it.

    The problem with approaching prophetic statements in the framework of separating acceptable ones from mistakes is that it forces one into the stance of critique and protest. My observations of others’ experiences suggest to me that over the medium to long term, that stance leads to declining levels of church participation and less productive contributions to a local congregation. It’s not the only path to inactivity or disaffiliation, but it’s not exactly uncommon, either.

    It brings me no pleasure to injure your feelings, but I think I’m just stating the obvious: one who is in the habit of rejecting prophetic counsel is, by definition, less committed to the church than one who isn’t. The guy who accepts a calling at his bishop’s request is more committed than the guy who doesn’t. The guy who thinks that the prophet might just be on to something when he tells us to serve a mission or not drink coffee or pay tithing or attend Sunday meetings is more committed than the guy who thinks the prophet is mistaken. Someone might have compelling reasons for taking those contrary positions, but that person should be clear with himself about what it is that he’s up to.

  55. Jonathan, your approach appears to favor commitment to the prophet over commitment to finding truth, the latter of which the church leaders appear to emphasize more than the former. You’re interested in measuring a person’s level of commitment to the prophet more than their commitment to truth. Hence, while you may acknowledge that the prophet is fallible and liable to err in word and deed, your approach encourages the treatment of the prophet as if he were infallible.

  56. Jonathan,

    I appreciate your perspective, and regret the efforts of others to misrepresent what you are saying. In this matter, there is truth in D&C 112:20 and D&C 84:36. Thank you!

  57. #59 Commitment to the prophet and commitment to the truth are only at odds if the probability of an independent judgement being correct is greater than the probability of the prophet’s judgement being correct. The issue, when it comes to truth, is not prophetic infallibility. It is the relative fallibility of prophets and those who choose to follow/not follow their counsel. One can grant that prophets are fallible and still, reasonably, defer to their judgement when it conflicts with one’s own if one believes they are, in fact, a prophet who is sometimes but not always guided by God. The burden of proof proposal above addresses this. If we approach prophetic counsel by placing the burden of proof on ourselves when we choose to reject what the prophet says, outcomes will be different than if we place the burden of proof on the prophet, which would largely leave us without prophetic guidance. Prophetic utterances rarely include a this-worldly rationale that warrants the utterance. Indeed, the genre pretty much precludes supporting arguments because if there is an adequate this-worldly basis for a course of action, a prophet is moot.

  58. Pacumeni, commitment to a person (no matter what they say or do) and commitment to the truth are mutually exclusive. Treating the prophet as if there is always a greater probability of his judgment being correct is treating him as if he were infallible. By saying that the prophet is fallible, but it is not our place to judge when he might have done or said something wrong, which is what you appear to be saying, is treating the prophet as if he were essentially infallible.

  59. I should add to the first sentence that commitment to a person (no matter what they say or do) and commitment to the truth are mutually exclusive, unless the person is infallible in their words and deeds.

  60. “why these issues are a concern for some but not a concern for others”
    –Clark #56

    This interests me as well. I suppose there are many, many ways that individuals process new information, information that contradicts a previously held belief.

    As I sit here today, I see no way for me to ever believe the things I once believed (barring major brain trauma). I also feel absolutely no animus towards any who continue to believe those things. Towards those I love who are believers, I feel no desire at all to discuss or persuade them in a way that would change their belief. On the other hand, I’m not too keen to sit through three hours of having others tell me that not sharing their beliefs is a character flaw.

    The “inoculation” discussion makes me uncomfortable. I’m having a difficult time thinking of another area of my life where people would discuss “inoculating” others from certain ideas. As if history or facts were a disease from which we must protect others. Really?

    Better to just give the future generation everything we know and why we know it and let them make their own decisions. No need for a vaccine.

  61. I’m jls2455. For some reason my WordPress login is changing my name on the comments.

    –Josh Smith

  62. Jonathan, I assume by inoculation you are trying to find a way that will work for people to deal with the church warts and all. My method is at 20.

    As for being able to judge whether what Prophets say is right or not. I think it depends on which Prophet (Pres Monson says very little of depth), but Elder Oaks says a lot that I judge has more to do with teaching his culture as Gospel. Opposition to Gay marriage for example.

    As far as I am aware there is no revelation, or credible scripture to support his view, and I see it as in direct contradiction to “love your fellow men”, so where does his opposition come from, other than his conservative culture? So he is teaching his culture as if it is Gospel, and it is my duty to discern whether he is teaching the Gospel (NO), and respond accordingly.

  63. Josh, it may well be that ‘inoculation’ is a flawed metaphor. If you take a careful look around, though, you’ll see that most of the facts we deal with are embedded in contested narratives. For example: did the War on Poverty substantially improve or worsen the lives of those in poverty? You’d think the answer would be straightforward since we’re only trying to measure dollars and cents and there were regular surveys of the relevant facts, but the answers are all over the map. So it’s tempting to say that we can just offer people the facts and let them decide, but there is no history and precious few facts that are not contested. The church needs to find the best way to say: while history is contested, this is how we understand our story and we’re not embarrassed by it.

    Geoff, the problem with your approach is that it would require one to believe that our prophets are incapable of making divinely-guided statements concerning a matter that touches on fundamental areas of core doctrine and that has been the subject of broad public debate for a decade or more. Since continuing revelation is more or less the whole point of Mormonism, if one takes that approach, there isn’t much left to believe in. Dismissing repeated statements on the topic from the apostles as mere culture doesn’t actually get you anywhere. It’s like saying that you love swimming, but reject water. Culture is the medium in which prophets live and work and reveal truth as they understand it. Rejecting emphatic apostolic statements as mere culture is edging towards the boundaries of what can be called Mormonism, if that term is to have any meaning.

    But what I have been trying to say all along is that there are other possibilities beyond the duality of prophetic infallibility and prophetic error. In your chosen example of gay marriage, where the apostles keep saying things that do not make sense to you, you might pause for a moment and notice that there is a long tradition of prophets saying and doing highly unusual things with respect to marriage. Interestingly, our own prophets too have made some earnest pronouncements and taken some highly publican actions about marriage. Now, you note that those statements and actions are embedded in western American culture, but they’re probably motivated by important doctrines and principles. What are the concerns that seem so important to the apostles that they are doing such unusual things? And how might you, embedded in Australian culture, profit from whatever it is that the apostles want you to learn, and apply it in ways that would help you and further the missions of the church?

    So there are several different ways that you can choose to respond to apostolic statements that don’t immediately make sense to you. Each way has consequences and potential pitfalls, though, so choose carefully.

  64. I have a daughter who is 13 and finished reading Rough stone rolling earlier this year. She knows that Joseph borrowed Sally’s green glass, to find the brown seer stone near the bank of lake erie in 1819 with which he then found the white seer stone on the willard chase property, which he then used to find the plates and the nephite interpreters. She knows that the urim and thummim were not used after the book of lehi was lost, and that joseph used a scrying seer stone in hat method to obtain “second sight”. She knows the artwork of the book of mormon translation on mormondotorg is completely false. She knows that the monogamous portrayal of Joseph Smith on mormondotorg is also completely false. We have had discussions about Fanny Alger, Nancy Winchester, the frigging of Mary heron, and the article about Joseph’s 40 wives in the NY times which is the top 4 hit on google for a search on joseph smith. The problem is that as a family we believe that marrying and having sexual relations with another woman without the consent of your wife, whether or not it was a sealing, or illegal marriage for time/eternity is adultery. This is how our family interprets the covenant of marriage and sexual relations ethics. So what model do we use to “integrate [old] information about the church” so that we create a productive reaction which “strengthens one’s commitment to the church and its teachings”? How does reading the facts about Joseph’s closest relationships strengthen our belief in the values taught in the Proclamation to the world, or the for the strength of youth pamphlet if our family is on the side that Joseph committed multiple adulteries (sexual relations and secret marriages without the consent of his wife emma) ?

  65. Scott, this is our issue as well. We have 4 daughters. Our oldest turns 14 this month. How in the world do we teach Joseph Smith marrying 14-year old girls (let alone other men’s wives) in any faith-promoting way? It violates everything our family stands for, and everything we have taught our children.

  66. We could say from a hopeful perspective from reading the footnotes in the Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo essay that it is clear that Joseph was restoring new ways of linking individuals and families together. However, the fact that he was not limited by the laws taught in the old or new testament, the book of mormon, or the doctrine and covenants (1844 edition of the D&C section 109) is heart wrenching and brings to mind Jacob 2 feelings i.e. “daggers placed to pierce their souls.” Although it would be easier if in reality “the times and conditions”, “were clearly laid out by the Lord” the historical facts remain unclear, i.e. the polygamy essay says 7 times that “we don’t know”. From what we do know in history on marriage laws taught by the Lord:
    1) No concubines: Jacob 2:27 “For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;” – yet Joseph married Helen Mar, and Nancy Winchester 2) No marrying sisters: Leviticus 18:18 “While your wife is living, never marry her sister as a rival wife and have sexual intercourse with her.” – yet Joseph married both the Lawrence and Partridge sisters. 3) No polyandry: Romans 7:3 “So if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she will be called an adulterer.” – yet Joseph married Harris, Jacobs, Buell, Lyon, Lightner, Sessions, Hyde, Durfee, Cleveland, Sayers, and Holmes while they were simultaneously married to another man. 4) no marrying mother/daughter: Leviticus 20:14 “When a man marries a woman and her mother, they have done a perverted thing. The man and the two women must be burned. Never do this perverted thing.” – yet Joseph married both Sylvia sessions Lyon and her mother Patty. 5) Marry only virgins with your wife’s consent: D&Cov 132:61 – yet the essay says Emma only approved of 4 of the 34 marriages, and 11 were not virgins.

  67. Brad 62 and 63. If the only thing that matters is the base probability of our being right on a question verses a fallible prophet who is sometimes but not always inspired by God, then your would be right to say that the prophet would be functionally infallible. But baseline probability isn’t the only consideration. There is also the question of how much evidence we have for our position, how strong our feelings or own personal revelation may be on the question at hand. Again, I am supporting a burden of proof standard, with the burden falling on us rather than on the prophet. Sometimes, we may rightly feel that our circumstance or experience or inspiration on a matter is enough to overcome the usual deference that we give a prophet. We may be convinced, even rightly convinced, that the prophet is mistaken about one thing or another or that we are an exception to the general rule he articulates. But under this standard, we will not lightly reject prophetic counsel or opinions. We will do so when the weight of evidence is strongly supports our contrary view.

  68. Scott R, #70. Part of the answer must be that the standards you cite are not true for all times and all places. The biblical Jacob married sisters Rachel and Leah, apparently without offending God. The Jacob in the Book of Mormon adds the provision in 2: 30 that God may, at times, command otherwise. Were the commandments of God always time and context independent, we might have little or no need continuing revelation. But if we judge from the scriptures, that isn’t the case. The commandments are not a logical proof where all the statements are seamlessly integrated, each being both indubitable and logically consistent with all other statements. But outside of pure mathematics, we almost never get that kind of conceptual unity. We see through a glass darkly, and the prophets aren’t exactly looking through a polished Pella window.

    But there are some fruits that suggest prophetic leadership has value. It has been noted in the news the last few days that children in Utah are more likely than those in any other state to be raised in a home with both biological parents present–a circumstance that has all kinds of demonstrated practical benefits. Likewise, in all the Utah counties for which there is data, the prospect that poor children will rise above their birth condition are much higher than the national average. Utah and Minnesota are exceptional in that respect, as is southeast Idaho (Mormon country) and northern Iowa. And Utah has the lowest Gini coefficient–a measure of wealth egalitarianism–of all the states in the US. Its coefficient is even better, as I recall, than that of Denmark, which is a world leader. Prophets probably deserve some credit for these desirable social outcomes.

  69. Is one of the goals of “inoculation” to get our children to rely on the words of mortal prophets over their own conscience when a conflict arises between the two?

    Am I to say to my teenage daughter (and son), “yes honey, I understand that reading about Joseph Smith’s polygamy makes you feel icky no matter how many times you read Brian Hales explanations. You just need to let your own feelings go and trust our leaders on this. God gave you your conscience for a very good reason so be sure to pay close attention to it when it comes to details in your own life, but when it comes to these historical issues it’s not reliable because God likes to test us to see if we’re willing to obey mortal authorities over our internal instincts of right and wrong. Morality is relative. Obedience will always be a higher virtue than your own reasoning.”

    Will this lead to them giving their control away in other areas of life? Does this perpetuate to any degree self-doubt and unempowerment when it comes to judging their own feelings? This is not what I want for my kids. I don’t think it will do them any favors. Sorry.

  70. On the topic of conscience, Cari, as a missionary I had my first stupor of thought while arguing with an old man that Joseph Smith had only one wife. The Lord works in mysterious ways. That same conscience, the Spirit, has not driven me to assume the worst about Joseph’s polygamy. To me it has an ‘OT translation vibe’ to it, with many clear indicators that the story is woefully incomplete.

  71. “The church needs to find the best way to say: while history is contested, this is how we understand our story and we’re not embarrassed by it.”

    –Jonathan #67

    I agree completely with much of your comment. I’ve worked for many years in the business of advocating interests and one thing I’ve learned is that it is very rare in life that facts inevitably lead to absolute conclusions. I’m very receptive to the idea of “contested facts.”

    My concern is rationalization. I’m worried that constructing excuses or justifying certain behavior acts as endorsement of certain behavior. Two examples:

    1. Recently I was made aware of a seminary lesson for LDS youth that teaches that D&C 132:51-65 is inspired by God. Scott Roskelley (#68 and #70) and Cari (#73) have stated why such an approach is offensive to many parents. I’m in complete agreement with their comments above. I’m very much opposed to rationalizing Joseph’s polygamy. Hopefully you can understand why rationalization is so offensive to many.

    2. The other day I had a conversation with someone I admire very much. He’s one of the most caring individuals I know. He was telling me about his great-great grandmother who was married to an LDS man at age 17 without knowledge that the man was already married to several other women. She learned of the situation after she became pregnant. She gave birth to the child and sought a divorce. She was granted a divorce but was not allowed to take the child with her. She left Utah for California without the child.

    I’m unwilling to rationalize what happened to this woman, her impossible choice of remaining an LDS plural wife or leaving her child. She had no legal rights. She had no advocate. She was given by her father to her husband without any knowledge of the situation. My concern is that by rationalizing the behavior of certain people because of their apparent historical importance to our faith, we become complicit in their actions. I believe it is better to reject certain behaviors outright than try to excuse them.

  72. The “inoculation” discussion makes me uncomfortable. I’m having a difficult time thinking of another area of my life where people would discuss “inoculating” others from certain ideas. As if history or facts were a disease from which we must protect others. Really?

    I think preparing people to understand the culture and class of people and separate the ideas from the persons. The founding fathers are great examples. Both Washington and other founders had slaves for instance. That leads some to more or less discounting the significance of the constitution.

    Likewise you have the same issue with famous thinkers ranging from Einstein’s frequent misogyny or Richard Feynman. When you go into philosophy you can find great thinkers who (to cut to the chase) were complete slim balls as persons. (Heidegger comes immediately to mind) Learning how to deal with these in a mature way isn’t something everyone can do. I suspect slowly broaching these issues so people learn the world is a complicated place in inoculation.

    Of course for some, there is no excuse. That’s perhaps a little more excusable in philosophy where people could argue that Jefferson’s or Heidegger’s actions significantly undermine the place of their philosophical positions.

    I think that the religious issues are much like this. I’d go so far as to say that probably it’s people who understand that sort of thing who are far less phased by Mormon history. Which maybe suggests that the most important part of inoculation isn’t introducing these controversial issues but that mature view of ideas and meaning as not controlled by the actions of an individual.

  73. Josh the difficult with rationalization is there often is a basic dispute about the events in question. There’s then a question of what ethical value trumps the other when there’s a conflict. You are suggesting one set of ethical values trump, but I don’t think we can just assume that’s the case. Of course people do have values they value more than others. But perhaps the issue is less rationalization than it is inquiry into our assumptions about values.

    I’m not saying you or the people you are talking with would agree with Jonathan’s views. Just that perhaps they might come to realize there are more shades here than it first appears. That is you are casting aspersions on those you think are rationalizing dogma whereas from a different perspective your own views are dogma that might be being rationalized. When is something rationalization and when is it inquiry? Sometimes that’s just not apparent at the time.

  74. Jonathon 67, I do believe in ongoing revelation, I am not aware of anyone claiming there has been a revelation on Gay marriage. I would love there to be such a revelation, because I believe it would say love your fellow man, even the gay ones and stop persecuting them.

    I would be happy for a Prophet to say he had a revelation that something basic in the Gospel should change (priesthood for all worthy members), but to just preach something without claiming revelation, leaves me thinking they are preaching their own beliefs, especially when they oppose the teachings of the Saviour, as discriminate against Gays, seems to oppose love your fellow men.

    I can’t see Elder Oaks asking for that revelation because he knows the answer (the one his culture tells him) . If we had a Prophet who was open minded enough to ask the Lord, we would be going places.

    I would like that open mindedness applied to the succession of the Prophet instead of allowing tradition to choose the next leader, and the tradition that Apostles can’t retire decide that too.

  75. Clark,

    #76:

    We don’t “innoculate” children regarding the Founding Fathers, or physicists, or philosophers, or musicians. We teach them to judge ideas on the merits. So for example, one could read the Constitution and reject some ideas (slavery) without fear of undermining the entire Constitution. We don’t have to endlessly rationalize Jefferson’s or Madison’s views on race. We can judge their ideas on the merits.

    Obviously that’s not the case when judging Joseph Smith’s ideas. Regardles of the facts, regardless of the merits, Joseph Smith’s ideas are tied to the LDS conception of God. To judge Joseph Smith is to judge God. That system of thought is unsustainable in the 21st century. LDS people in the 21st century need to tell a different story than the 19th-century-hero-Joseph story. That ship sailed.

    #77:

    Let’s first make sure we’re working from the same definition. How about this one from Wikipedia?

    rationalization. (also known as making excuses) is a defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors or feelings are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable – or even admirable and superior – by plausible means.

  76. I think that the whole inoculation theory is about teaching people to judge ideas on their merits. That is to try to explain context. At least that’s how I’ve always understood it.

    Personally I think teaching the history of polygamy without raising the theological questions that make it a live issue (marriage after death) isn’t good inoculation. It’s better than what came before but it avoids the central issues. As I’ve said here many times if I die I want my wife to remarry, both for her emotional and financial health but also my children. I’d want her to remarry someone she loves. But that is then a real relationship and there are theological implications for what happens in the spirit world and resurrection.

    So I think a lot of these discussions about inoculation are as much as anything saying we can and should do better.

    I don’t quite see why “that system of thought is unsustainable in the 21st century.” Of course all of this ends up resting on the conception of God. Especially the conception taught in the King Follet Discourse. Even those who reject the KFD’s strength for theology still tend to adopt a radically different conception of God from Protestants or Catholics. God is in the universe instead of the source of the universe. (Meaning universe broadly rather than the sense within physics) There are tons of implications for that.

    The mature view is to recognize the theology while also recognizing people in ignorance trying to live it screwed it up a lot. But of course it wasn’t just polygamy that was lived poorly in the 19th century. Monogamy was done poorly as well with few living as true partners in a life affirming way. However again discussions of polygamy tend to decontextualize things a lot. Once again good inoculation should bring in those contexts.

  77. Clark, thank you for the thoughtful response. I’ll respond this evening when I have a moment to really think about it. Thank you.

  78. Sorry, JS, it didn’t meet the standard for a thoughtful reply. I think I’ll close comments on this post now so that people can focus on the fascinating conversations going on elsewhere.

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