Thursday, March 21, 2013

Church Culture and Doctrine

So this post has been sitting around on my computer waiting for me to finish it ever since another blogger suggested I write it.  I don't think she ever needed it, but I figured it was time to dust it off and bring it out

A big problem of separating church doctrine and culture is that church members tend to simultaneously believe fully that revelation that can be received by their church leaders is infallible, but that the church leaders themselves are slightly fallible.  Since if church leaders were very fallible its assumed God wouldn’t have asked them to lead the church, by default church members believe that almost any statement or policy is the result of revelation direct from God or is so affected by the extent of their revelations of the future and past to be just as good as revelation.  We as a people take the idea of honoring our church leaders as a way to honor the office they hold so seriously that trying to separate out where the man ends and where revealed truth begins makes us very uncomfortable.  For every person you can find who might be willing to dismiss statements by any given church leader as a personal opinion, you will find many people who would rather insist the statement was the word of God coming to us through his servants.  There are very few procedures by which church teachings can be automatically counted as absolute doctrine or absolute opinion unless the leader speaking states which they think they are saying explicitly, and even that is unsure.  I grew up being told to treat any statement from a powerful church leader as being the absolute will of God having an absolute claim on my obedience with very little emphasis given on what kind of thought process I might use to critique which of these statements should have a claim on me.  A few examples that illustrate how that causes problems would be caffeinated beverages, blacks and the priesthood, politics, and courtship.

Take the whole no drinking caffeinated beverages thing.  Some leaders in the church noticed that both coffee and tea had caffeine and they decided that the caffeine must be the important chemical to avoid.  You can find a history of statements from prominent church leaders saying that caffeinated beverages were against the church health code.  These statements were never “canonized” but it is extremely rare in the church for anything to be officially canonized in the sense of being voted on.  I grew up being told that caffeine was only advised against by the church but since these people were prophets seers and revelators I could depend on them having received revelation from God that the spiritual and physical costs of caffeine being something I should avoid.  As a result I remember growing up expecting to hear eventually that science had confirmed the supposed harms of caffeine.  I was very interested when a biologist I knew explained that caffeine can cause problems with calcium levels in the body (his recommendation was drink milk if you want to drink caffeine, but that otherwise there was no health risk he was aware of).  I think the church in the United States has shared that anticipation, even to the extent that an article was published in the official church magazine preaching against the evils of overconsumption of caffeine in energy drinks.  More recently, the church had a statement released by their PR department stating that there was no official doctrinal position saying that you couldn’t drink caffeine.  Looking back I’m glad I’m not dependent on expensive caffeine sources to keep me energized for my day, but I feel a little silly having spent so much effort avoiding mildly caffeinated sodas.   Turns out it wasn’t the will of God, it was just church leaders concerned about their community trying to do the best with the understanding they had.

For another example take the whole blacks and the priesthood thing.  There is a very clear historical record that many early church leaders were very in sync with their times about racial concerns, which is a nice way of saying they fully believed a lot of racist trash.  Despite clear evidence that there hadn’t been a ban on blacks receiving the priesthood under Joseph Smith (one black man in particular even was ordained as an Elder, later a member of a quorum of seventy, and even participated in a variety of temple worship ceremonies before Brigham Young stopped him), the church had to find reasons or explanations to justify the ban on blacks receiving the priesthood so there were many statements issued in general meetings by authorities that were presumed to know the will of God on the subject because they were declared as “prophets, seers, and revelators” who authoritatively said a lot of really racist stuff as doctrine.  I grew up being taught some of those ideas.  It was presented that somehow those ideas were doctrine and mattered until God stated otherwise and then they somehow no longer mattered.  It wasn’t until I checked on the subject as an adult that I learned that a lot of the theological concepts appealed to in the bible to support the church’s position are so divorced from the actual scriptural text that pretty much every other church abandoned the ideas long ago.  In response to a CES instructor who was still teaching the old doctrines, the church has again disavowed the racist teachings (thank goodness), but has failed to replace this history of racist doctrine with anything to explain why it happened.  All we get is a “we don’t know when, who, how, or why.”

A few more examples will help make this all more clear.  Take politics. 

I grew up being taught that since Ezra Taft Benson had from the pulpit espoused certain radical polical beliefs as if they were doctrine, that I should accept those beliefs too.  I heard some people vaguely suggesting that all his supposedly apostolic teachings somehow just didn't count, but I was never taught about B. H. Roberts or any other apostles who more or less contradicted these teachings.  So my family growing up participated in passionate conservative republicanism, belief in widespread communist conspiracies, and even subscribed to the magazine of the John Birch Society.  As an adult, I realize now that church leaders have made political pronouncements favoring multiple opinions and have learned about the steps the church made to distance itself from President Benson’s politics after his death.  Today I’d consider myself a moderate liberal, but I live in an LDS culture where extreme conservatism is assumed to be an article of faith and I regularly listen to political pronouncements from local church and church wide leaders who care about their community and try to provide it with leadership including guidance on their political beliefs.

Courtship practices are an interesting place to point out the difference of church culture and doctrine as well.  I grew up outside Utah in a place where physical affection was somewhat more casual.  By casual I mean that as a teenager I exchanged affectionateless embraces with many girls with whom I had no functional relationship, it was somewhat on the level of saying hello to a casual friend.  This cultural norm of physical affection somewhat affected expectations in actual courtship, although not in an extreme way.  Youth were just somewhat warmer with each other.  When I moved to Utah for college I discovered that friendship and courtship norms were somewhat more reserved, casual friendship hugs weren’t as common and every physical touch seemed to carry more weight of meaning.  I even knew a man who claimed that back east those evil members of the church seemed to believe that unless a date included some kind of sexual contact that it wasn’t a date, leading to a confusion of the church teaching people to date once a week meaning that they should have premarital sex.  Strictly speaking this isn’t true, I’d rate my eastern friends who were members of the church as equally chaste as the friends I found in Utah.  However I knew what the man meant, where I grew up there was more expectation of a low level of physical affection.  To be certain teenagers are likely to fall into all sorts of mischief no matter where they live, but hand holding, hugs, and a kiss goodnight are not exactly what I think of as sexual excess.  Many statements are made by church leaders about courtship norms, often trying to encourage a restoration of an idealized image of the 1950's which supposedly involved less premarital sex and marriage ages and birth rates based on principle instead of economics.  The problem is, in the past young people still had premarital sex.  And arguably, birth rates and marriage ages are determined by economic realities just like they always have been- we just have a different kind of economic structure and average income today.  Official church statements trying to sanctify the 1950's family arrangements as ideal can probably be counted as having as much doctrinal weight as early church leaders decrying the waltz as sexually decedant.

Its impossible to talk about church culture without acknowledging that it is different around the world and that I don’t know much about that.  I’ve lived in two towns in Utah and in one town on the east coast.  There are differences in how authoritative church statements are interpreted every where you go.  But, based on my own experience and on the experiences of a friend whose father was in the military and therefore moved around a lot, I’d say that in the United States there is a cultural tendency for members of the church to believe they are more righteous than members of the church elsewhere.  They tend to see it as inevitable that their particular cultural environment is better suited to being righteous that somewhere else.  To be certain there are specific cultural differences throughout the church that are remarkable and interesting, however I think anyone who believes this actual means one group is better than the other has had too narrow of an experience in the world.  When my father visited Nepal on a business trip a church member there asked if he thought being rich made it harder for him to live the gospel.  Is that any more or less true than the idea that righteousness is easier when you have the support of those around you or that righteousness its easier when your testimony is more pure when you stand out from the people around you?  Every area of the world has its eccentricities and customs and norms, but I don’t believe that you can divide people by geography to show that any one group has a better chance at salvation than another.  Speaking of the rich young man, Christ said that salvation was impossible for all men, but with God anything is possible.