Sometimes you are just reading along in a book or article that has nothing in particular to do with the Church, then you hit a passage that rings that Mormon bell. Thus it was with me last week, reading Chapter 14, “The Haven of Piety,” in Anthony Gottlieb’s excellent The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance (rev. ed., WW Norton & Co., 2016). It’s the last chapter in the book, covering philosophy in the Middle Ages, when the influence and authority of the Christian Church hung over any philosophical writing, not least because just about anyone who wrote philosophy at that time was a priest or friar. Here’s the passage.
At the end of the thirteenth century, conservatives in the Church fired a warning shot at Greek-style rationalist philosophizing. The use of man’s natural faculty of reasoning was, they said, all very well, but only if it came to the right conclusions. In 1277 the bishop of Paris listed 219 conclusions (including some from Aquinas) it was not allowed to come to, and hoped that this would solve the problem. Yet natural reason could not easily be confined within such artificial boundaries. (p. 414)
And what were the consequences of this attempt to impose orthodoxy? A degree of short-term success, perhaps, but no long-term success. In the long run, it might even have hurt the orthodoxy it was trying to protect:
The condemnations of 1277 contributed to the eventual collapse of the neo-Aristotelian world-picture and the birth of a new and less book-bound approach to the investigation of nature. This was a long time coming, for bookish scholasticism was still in its heyday and it was three centuries before a new world-picture was comfortably in place. It was also accidental, because the condemners had merely intended to attack religious heresy and those few parts of Aristotelianism which seemed to lead to it. Nevertheless, the conflict between faith and reason at the end of the thirteenth century generated ideas that eventually helped to undermine the whole medieval approach to knowledge. (p. 415)
I don’t really have to spell out the LDS parallel for most readers. It’s history, not philosophy, that became a threat to LDS orthodoxy starting in the mid-20th century, with the emergence of the New Mormon History. Of the various measures taken by LDS leaders to protect the traditional LDS narrative, the September Six episode is the most noteworthy. Whatever short-term success this generated was cut short by the emergence of the Internet, which successively gave birth to email list groups, boards, websites, blogs, and now social media.
So the attempt to impose orthodoxy, supported on its flank by classic LDS apologetics, has more or less failed. A modified strategy of adapting the LDS narrative to the sometimes ugly facts of history is now being implemented through such materials as the Gospel Topics Essays, the new officially sponsored Saints history of the LDS Church, and other essays posted at LDS.org and at the Mormon Newsroom. Rather surprisingly, little of this new material has penetrated the new LDS curriculum in the new Come Follow Me manuals. There are some references and links at the end of some of the lessons, but the substance of the lessons are not much different from the old manuals. It’s almost like the newer materials are designed to keep the 5% of active members who read books and articles from just giving up, while the unchanged substance of the curriculum lessons are designed to keep the other 95% from noticing that anything has changed.
First question: Is the new strategy going to work? Or, like the 1277 condemnations issued by the bishop of Paris, is it going to have little effect? Will we at some point witness “the eventual collapse of the neo-[apologetic] world-picture” that is guiding the new accommodationist material that has been published by some LDS scholars and posted at LDS sites and which may, sooner or later, enter the curriculum?
Second question: What is your experience with imposed orthodoxy? The veiled threats or even direct disciplinary action that sometimes happens to scholars at an LDS university or scholars who, while not at one of the BYUs, publish unwelcome academic pieces about the Church has sort of broadened out to the general membership (mostly thanks to the Internet). This happens either through the Strengthening Church Members Committee sending memos to local leadership, or through local leaders acting on their own initiative based on social media posts they don’t like or that someone in the ward doesn’t like. And there is also self-censorship, probably the most pervasive result of imposed orthodoxy.
Of course, self-censorship cuts both ways. Personally, I do omit some relevant historical or doctrinal information I might otherwise include in a talk or lesson. But when I teach I also omit a lot of information included in manuals. I won’t teach false or misleading (bad scriptural exegesis) material, which sometimes doesn’t leave much to work with. Call it “the revenge of the informed.” You won’t include good scholarship in your manuals? Fine, but I won’t teach the bad information and faulty explanations you use instead.