What is Essential and What is Optional?

In a ward council meeting a few years ago, someone mentioned that Brother So-and-So was struggling with doubts about the Book of Mormon. “Tell him to stop worrying about that,” the bishop said, “and think about what the Church does for him in his life.”

This bishop (whom I dearly love) was a sort of down-to-earth, commonsensical fellow, and I thought this was wise advice, although– or maybe because– the instruction was ambiguous. It might have meant something like “If Brother So-and-So reflects on the blessings that the Church brings to his life, he will come to realize that this is a divine work, and thus that the Book of Mormon is true.” Or the bishop’s instruction might have meant something like “If the Church is helping him live a good life and get closer to God, it doesn’t ultimately matter whether the Book of Mormon is true or not.” (I doubt that the bishop had ever considered or even heard of the idea of the Book of Mormon as non-historical scripture.) The beautiful thing about the bishop’s advice was that different members with different understandings of the Book of Mormon could accept the wisdom of appreciating the blessings the Gospel brings and not getting hung up on doubts.

But what if someone had reported that Sister Such-and-Such was struggling with doubts about the Resurrection. Would it be sound advice to say, “Tell her to stop worrying about that and think about the blessings the Church brings to her life”? I’m not so sure. If appreciating blessings is supposed to be a way of eventually bringing someone around to understanding the truth of the Gospel and hence of the Resurrection, then okay, . . . maybe. But if the suggestion is that as long as the Church helps one have a better life it doesn’t matter whether the Resurrection is true, then I can’t go along.

It’s true that plenty of Christians– or people who self-identify as Christians– have basically taken that position, in more or less sophisticated forms. I’ve known some of them. A Protestant minister and theologian, for example, with whom I talked once for several hours: we were seated next to each other at a dinner with excruciatingly slow service.  He was sure that the resurrection did not happen in any literal sense– even sent me the text of his most recent Easter sermon in which he had said as much– but he still was the pastor of a Christian congregation and a former professor at one of the nation’s leading divinity schools.  My own contrary view is that, as Paul said, if the resurrection is a fiction, then we are “of all men most miserable.” I think the Resurrection is bedrock. If you don’t believe in that, or if you believe in it only as a metaphor for regenerate life or something of that sort, then . . . Well, I will leave you in peace, but I think you are not really a Christian. (Although of course I’m still happy to welcome you to church meetings if for some reason you’re inclined to come.)

Which points to a question that Christians have been earnestly debating recently, and over the last couple of centuries– this is basically what the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was about– and really from the beginning: which doctrines or teachings are essential to Christianity, and which are more contingent and thus not mandatory (even though they may be true)? To illustrate: some scholars think that the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke– the wise men, the shepherds– are not historically true. For myself, I think that at least Luke’s narrative is historical, and I also want to think it is true: I would be sad if the manger and the angels and shepherds were somehow shown to be fictions. But I agree that nothing truly essential would be lost. The authors of Mark and John didn’t see any need to present these stories. On the other hand, if it were somehow proven that the Resurrection was a fictional invention, I would no longer see the point of maintaining a commitment to Christianity. Maybe I would try to affiliate with Judaism or something of that sort.

The fundamentalism-modernism controversies show, I think, that these questions are fraught with risks. The modernists thought that if the faith were defined as rigidly as the fundamentalists insisted on, Christianity would become simply unbelievable to educated and thoughtful people. The fundamentalists (who were not all a bunch of know-nothing yokels, by the way: on the contrary) believed that the modernists were basically giving away the store. If Christianity retained as little of its traditional content as the modernists were willing to affirm, what would be the point of being a Christian? Subsequent developments– the cultural ghettoization of fundamentalism, the decline of mainstream liberal Protestantism– suggests that both sides may have been right.

These days, it seems, Mormons (short for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) are asking similar questions. Which among the received teachings are essential, and which are optional? Is it enough to believe that God worked through Joseph Smith to bring about a church or movement through which He worked, and works, to bless the lives of those who embrace it? Or is it necessary to affirm the more concrete and specific claims– about the Book of Mormon as a historical record, Adam-ondi-Ahman and the Garden of Eden as specific places (located in Missouri), and so forth? Will insisting on these claims simply make the Church and its message unbelievable to intelligent and informed people? Or, conversely, will relinquishing these claims deprive the Church of its reason for existence? Is it necessary to believe that this is “the only true Church,” or is it enough to believe that God is working in the Church, guiding it, using it to help people live lives more in accord with the Gospel?

The question of what is essential matters greatly, I think, both for internal and external purposes– for addressing the doubts and questions and self-understandings of our members (including ourselves), and for presenting ourselves and our message to the world. We face the same potential risks that the fundamentalists and modernists did, I think. By binding ourselves to historical claims that seem increasingly untenable, we might render our message flatly unbelievable to educated people, and we might thus incur a kind of cultural ghettoization. Which would be tragic, in my view, among other reasons because I think the Church has so much to offer a world that so desperately needs it. Conversely, if we were to abandon too much, we might sacrifice our reason for being.

In the end, I’m thankful that I don’t have the responsibility to answer these questions for anyone except myself. I trust that over time God will guide the Church according to His designs (as I believe God presides over history generally). Exactly what those designs are (beyond the ultimate purpose of bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man), . . . who knows? Not me, for sure.

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