My grandfather once wrote a monograph on pagan survivals in the Orthodox Church. It was just another academic paper until my uncle read it and then started annotating the next Sunday’s services with “that’s a pagan rite” every time he noticed one. Embarrassment (and the related family story) ensued.

You will notice that just because the services were not the same as those that Peter or Paul or Junia would have led did not stop my grandfather from attending (or there would not have been the event).


The truth is, for much of Christian history there has been academic and popular recognition that the rites and forms currently being used did not reflect the practices of 60 ACE. Further, of course, that whatever form Moses, Abraham, Melchizedek and Ezra celebrated it was not the form or practices used at the time of Christ. If nothing else, Abraham obviously did not celebrate the Passover.

Public interest in what is often referred to as “the primitive church” waxes and wanes. Sometimes it is intense, sometime sit slows down to a “meh” reaction or is treated as even less relevant than “meh.” When is the last time you heard someone making an issue out of changes in the form of worship or attempting to recreate practices from the first century ACE?

This issue of form is completely different from the issue of authority or the issue of saving sacraments or saving theology. Those often (though not always) differ from doctrines around redemption. It is also different from the issue of changing forms of worship. The LDS Church, for example, used to have sermons preached during the passing of the sacrament. No one seems to complain that those sermons are no longer given or feels a need to leave the Church because of that change.

Joseph Smith was in a milieu where the “primitive church” issue was a lively issue, often discussed. It was widely acknowledged that the form of the various churches differed from the form at the time of Christ, and differed from the form it had after the Apostolic conferences. There was a strong awareness that the form had changed and a lively debate on what should or could be restored.

At the same time, many claimed the power and the keys to salvation and redemption, and differed sharply on how that was brought about. The issue of how you could be saved (or damned) was hotly contested. The primitive church issue did not trump or replace the pathway to salvation issue. They were independent and often addressed by the same people.

That milieu led Joseph Smith to acknowledge that the form had changed, while also wondering who was right about how to repent, be forgiven of sins and be saved. That the “primitive church” form was no longer in practice did not mean that people could not be right about the path of salvation.

Some authors cannot see how anyone could hold both views. They have trouble seeing how someone could see that the “primitive church” form was no longer followed, yet at the same time wonder who was right on how to be saved or accept that anyone had correct doctrine on salvation. We recently had an author interviewed at Wheat and Tares who felt that you couldn’t have both issues at the same time (the issue of “what of the ‘primitive church’ should be restored as necessary?” and the issue of “how is someone saved and could one of the churches be right about that?”).

However, we know that concurrent with Joseph Smith’s era there are numerous sermons and examples of people who both acknowledged that the form of the various churches was not that of the primitive church but who still claimed that the doctrine on how to be saved of one church or another was right.

The same is true much later. For example, anyone who agreed with my grandfather’s paper yet still partook of the Orthodox or Catholic sacraments would be a good example of someone who acknowledged a change in form, yet believed in the sacraments none-the-less.

The conflict between recognizing that the “primitive church” was not the current form and wondering who was right about salvation is not a conflict at all, but instead comes into the general category of false conflicts created by a narrative that is too narrow (and ignores the historical reality of that being a common position). Why some are invested in that particular false conflict is not the point of this essay.

Instead, my point is that it is easy to have a false conflict. It often comes from not getting below the surface.

File:Path surface intersections dot product.svg

There are many other false conflicts in narratives, fixating on a false conflict isn’t just something done by the critics of Joseph Smith and the first vision. Much of the solution is to break through to first principles (not surprisingly, something Hawkgrrl is writing about). I tried to illustrate in this post how looking at the underlying principles gets you past the false conflict (and lets you see how for most of religious history it hasn’t been a conflict at all — people can acknowledge change in the forms while still believing in the power of institutions).

This principle of going to underlying principles goes far beyond looking at Joseph Smith or religion. Think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg ‘s analysis in the movie On the Basis of Sex. She made a career of breaking past the surface and into the logic and realities underneath laws that needed to be changed, rather than buying into false choices or false conflicts that were used to keep unjust laws.

Looking at the why’s is a good way to look at everything — one should go beyond the surface to the underlying principles and then reanalyze. Going below the surface lets you see both what the issues are that form the foundation of the surface and why and how the surface got the way it is. It often lets one get past false conflicts or find a better way to solve a problem or look at an issue.

So the questions for today’s posts are:

  • What other false conflicts do you see?
  • Why do the false conflicts you see exist? What underlying foundations, issues or principles are being missed?
  • When have you realized you had a false conflict?
  • How do you look at things to see past the surface?