Is the church antagonistic toward academics and others with conflicting opinions?  Critics would say yes.  I suggest that the real issue is that some members (even those in leadership roles) do not know how to deal effectively with disagreement within the church’s culture.  Today is another post by guest Jake.

As Boyd K. Packer taught, the purpose of correlation is to “represent the brethren in pointing out to you areas where you, in one detail or another, might, in the interest of the overall program, need to make an adjustment or two.”  This prevents contradictions in what apostles are saying in church publications and ensures consistency through all departments and programs.  The downside is that silence is the only real indicator of disagreement.  Members may wrongly conclude that the Q12 are always in full agreement or that disagreement is against church policy.  The debate behind the policy is not shared, only a single black and white answer.  As a result, members and even local leaders may resort to binary notions of true and false in which two views cannot co-exist because one must be right and the other wrong.

Yet if we look at the history of our church we can find numerous instances when prominent figures in the church disagreed, even strenuously. In the 1920’s and 30’s there was an intense disagreement between James Talmage, B.H Roberts and Joseph F. Smith regarding evolution. The fact that they disagreed didn’t stop them from working together. It gave members the ability to see conflict management within the church.  Unfortunately, history has also shown that often the wrong party won in the debate on the grounds of seniority.  But the fact that the disagreement surfaced is important as it showed disagreement was not a sign of lack of faith, or rebellion against the church.  In the present church we have no examples of conflict from our leadership, or even an acknowledgment that conflict is possible.  This makes it difficult to discuss conflicting views in the church without being labeled contentious and wrong.

This problem is magnified when combined with local leaders and members who are overzealous in demonstrating their allegiance to the church.

When Henry Ford produced his Model T car, he famously advertised it as being available in any colour as long as it was black.  Because the church offers one neat and tidy harmonious answer to each question, it suggests that it is the only way to think about the matter, or worse, that no thinking is required at all since a pre-packaged answer is available.  This translates to “you can think about the gospel in any way you like, as long as it is the one way we have taught you.”  But if we only ever know one side of the case, then we know very little; there are often many other sides to any story, and by considering other views we gain understanding.

The only way to identify errors is to compare alternate views. We know that the church has made mistakes in the past and will no doubt correct errors in the future.   The attitude often found amongst locals seems a far cry from that proclaimed by Orson Pratt when he said that: “Convince us of our errors of Doctrine, if we have any, by reason, by logical arguments, or by the Word of God and we will ever be grateful for the information and you will ever have the pleasing reflections that you have been instruments in the hands of God of redeeming your fellow beings.”  Teaching only one viewpoint is antithetical to personal and institutional growth.  As John Stuart Mill said: “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and even if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”  The more views we have the better our ability to compare them for their individual merits. 

Perhaps it is better to hide debate, though.  Would exposing differences of opinion in our leadership promote faith?  Or would the lack of agreement only serve to divide and confuse members? Is it the case that the average member simply ‘cannot handle the truth’?

An example I have encountered of members failing to hear more then one stance is related to the church’s doctrine about progression through kingdoms. In 1952 the church declared in a letter that: “The brethren direct me to say that the Church has never announced a definite doctrine upon this point. Some of the brethren have held the view that it was possible in the course of progression to advance from one glory to another, invoking the principle of eternal progression; others of the brethren have taken the opposite view. But as stated, the Church has never announced a definite doctrine on this point.” However, since then, Bruce R. Mcconkie gave his controversial “Seven Deadly Heresies” talk and specifically stated that progression through kingdoms was a heresy; despite the fact that this was only a BYU address, his prominent stance within the church and his subsequent frequent quotations, through Mormon Doctrine and extensive quotes of him in institute manuals meant that for many members his declaration that belief in progression through kingdoms was a heresy became seen as the church’s official stance.  In a recent institute class I attended, the entire group attacked a classmate who said that it was possible to progress through kingdoms, citing BRM’s view as the “official stance.”
In this situation most of the class had never considered the alternative view; they simply dismissed it because it contradicted what they had been taught.  They were unaware that the view that they held was just as speculative and indefinite as the one they denounced.  Had they been aware of the possibility of an alternative interpretation (that there was no “one true answer”), perhaps the contention might have been avoided and a more faithful discussion resulted instead of an attack on the alternate voice. In this case then would it be better if the church taught both ways and let members decide?  Or not address it at all, with the result that the speculative popular interpretation could be taken as the official stance?  

Many feel that the one true church must have one true answer to all questions.  Disagreement is seen as disunity.  However, there is not always one true fixed answer; some answers are time-bound or situational. As Joseph Smith taught “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.”  The fact that only one is taught does not mean that it is an unchanging answer.

Real schisms occur when people don’t know how to deal with differences of opinion.  We develop the ability to deal with conflict through exposure to it; children learn by seeing their parents fight and then come to a resolution.  Conflict is an intrinsic part of my life as a philosopher, yet when academic conventions of conflict and resolution are brought to a church setting, it is not considered compatible.  Is this because opinions, when expressed in church, get invested with greater epistemological significance then mere opinion? Is it that an opinion in church can be seen as not simply an opinion but either a profession of faith or of dissent, and thus has greater gravity attached to it than needs be?

The focus on the product of unity (consensus) has deprived us of the process of becoming unified in our differences.  Zion can not be built by giving us one mind to which we must adhere and follow, but will become most beautiful and natural as we all work together to arrive at one mind through reconciliation of a diversity of thought.   The church may ultimately teach a clear stance, but we should not assume that what is taught is the only way of thinking about an issue, nor that the church’s stance is by default the right way.

As Elder Richard Evans taught: “Old conceptions and traditional interpretations must be influenced by newly discovered evidence.”  The only way that we can be influenced by new experience and understanding so that we can improve and progress is if we allow a voice for new evidence to be expressed amongst our fellow members. Perhaps this means that not only must we be more tolerant towards other views, no matter how absurd or much we think they are wrong, but also we must be more outspoken ourselves and present views that create opportunity for people to consider alternative interpretations and new evidence outside of the mainstream.

When the right questions and concerns are raised, they are gateways for revelation. While I think it is right that the church correlates published statements, we need to do more to prevent becoming impoverished in our ability to deal with conflict and disagreement within the church.  Local leaders who lack critical thinking skills may conclude that any deviation from the party line is evidence of fighting against the church and must be stamped out.  This creates dogmatism and fanaticism in the name of institutional loyalty.

What do you think the church can do to promote better methods of handling conflicting opinion?  Is this an institutional or local problem?  Is it a problem at all?  Discuss.