LDS Boundaries: The Strait and Narrow Way Through the Big Tent: A Response to Patrick Mason and John Dehlin

The continuing discourse between Mormon Studies professor Patrick Q. Mason and ex-LDS clinical psychologist John Dehlin continues apace, and the general tenor of the discussion, it must be said, at least from my perspective, has been overwhelmingly as I expected it would be as occuring between an LDS academic from within the Mormon Studies intellectual tradition (a tradition that has severely distanced and differentiated itself from LDS apologetics) and an – and yes, let’s use the correct nomenclature here – apostate LDS intellectual who has dedicated, for all intents, the entirety of his professional intellectual life to continual criticism of the Church on a broad number of fronts, virtually all of them dovetailing into a general critique of the church with respect to its non-progressive character and doctrines.

Mason, for his part, is a civil and respectful interlocutor, and this is all well and good, but my perception of professor Mason, from the outset, has been that his civility and respectfulness in an intellectual sense as, theoretically at least, a point-counterpoint philosophical opponent of John Dehlin, is in actuality more than what would normally be understood as necessary, at least for an LDS scholar supposedly taking a position contra to Dehlin within the tradition of civil, substantive academic debate and which has, indeed, based upon what I’ve read so far of their ongoing online discussions, a substantial degree of resonance with Dehlin’s fundamental argument, central to his overall critique of the Church, that the Church is or can be, much like mainstream Protestantism, a place within which the contemporary dogma of diversity can be imported with little effect on what the Church would (and must) understand as (1) orthodoxy or, more property, as Joseph Smith expressed it, “correct principles” essential if one is to know God and approach him properly, and (2) worthiness to participate in the crucial practices and ordinances of the gospel, including the taking of the sacrament and temple worship (as well as other functions such as teaching the gospel in some capacity at the ward or stake level).

The first oddity one notices here is that the concept of diversity as used on the political and cultural Left for decades has stood our sharply (especially on American college and university campuses) as a theory or intellectual template that has not included within its precincts the idea of diversity of thought or perspective.  “Diversity” has been traditionally wholly preoccupied with diversity of human attributes such as race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, class etc., but not with diversity of thought or philosophy within those categories, all of which have traditionally, on the Left from which John hails, been conceived of as containing members who, because of that identity group membership, perceive the world through a lens grounded in perspectives unique to, derivative of, and in collective solidarity with the in-group within which they are members.

It is odd, then, to see a committed progressive such as Dehlin concerned about diversity of thought, doctrine, or belief with the Church while this very feature of human intellectual life has, under progressive pressures, been rigorously scrubbed and cleansed from the most important venues of knowledge and information production and dissemination in the West, including, of course, academia, the mainstream news media, K-12 public education, and other venues (such as the arts and entertainment industry and culture).

John begins with a question, or series of questions, to Mason, centering on one of the core themes of his career as a public intellectual critic of the Church.  Dehlin wants to know if “there is a place in the modern LDS church for a member who does not believe in fundamental LDS church teachings such as (1) an anthropomorphic God, (2) the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, (3) that the LDS Church is the “one true church,” (D&C 1:30), (4) that the Book of Mormon is historical, or that (5) polygamy is one of God’s eternal laws (D&C 132) – but who still wants to remain a member in full standing (e.g., continue to hold a temple recommend, participate in priesthood ordinances, hold callings, etc.?”

As is the usual case with Dehlin and other progressive “cultural” Mormon critics, this body of questions firstly confuses membership in the Church with faithful commitment to covenants, which means essentially that one can be and remain a member of the Church in good standing, in a technical, membership sense, while one’s actual spiritual status from the perspective of God could be placed at any number of levels of faithfulness, all the way to teetering on the brink of complete personal apostasy.  Why?  Because personal apostasy’s relation to official “standing” as a member of the Church is as much or more related to the evangelical nature of one’s doubt, skepticism, or personal rebellion against disparate aspects of church doctrine, practice, and teaching that it is to holding beliefs and views contrary to church teachings.

It is certainly the case that, in private consultation with one’s priesthood leaders, it may be determined that one’s doubt or disavowal of core Church truth claims may require that one not accept church (especially teaching or leadership) callings or have a temple recommend.  This does not, however, lead inevitably to a determination that one is not in good standing (this having much to do with one’s moral/ethical comportment perhaps to a greater degree, in the short run, that with correct doctrine/philosophical understanding of the gospel as a system of revealed doctrine/truth).

Dehlin’s examples are interesting in that they range from core, fundamental doctrines that deeply define what it means to be a Latter-day Saint, including belief in an anthropomorphic God (and here, even Trinitarian Christians must believe that Jesus was anthropomorphic, indeed, fully God and fully man, during his mortal ministry, and that he will return to earth in that form at some future time) and in the literal resurrection of the human body (a doctrine, without which both traditional Christianity and the restored gospel come completely undone relative to their stated reasons for existing at all as systems of religion) to plural marriage as one of God’s “eternal laws” (a question of both practice and doctrine in which the doctrine is not practiced at present (and, if our present scriptural corpus is any indication, rarely was through the history of the gospel on earth) while the doctrine – the asserted religious truth claim – remains), and the historicity of the Book of Mormon, another essential religious truth claim that, as a central tenet, defines and signifies both that which the Church and its individual faithful members claim to be: Latter-day Saints and member of the restored Church of Jesus Christ.

This form of “cafaterial Mormonism” ( in which members sift, winnow, and pan through church teachings, retaining only those things that can be installed in the soul “as is” and in accordance with preexisting beliefs and values while expressing doubt, skepticism, or outright opposition to much of the rest, and which may, as John makes clear here, include fundamental religious truth claims, is a signal aspect of the cultural Mormon phenomena.

“When I talk to many of my questioning and/or post-Mormon friends who experience a Mormon faith crisis,” John says, “many of them feel as though once they lose their faith in Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or polygamy (for example), they must leave the LDS church altogether — not only for integrity’s sake, but also because it is their perception that there is no place within the modern LDS church for semi-believers, or for non-believers.

Now my initial answer to this, less professor Mason’s attempt to build a bridge to John with more lanes than I would think anywhere near appropriate, would be that, yes, I have little doubt that if you reject (1) The prophet of the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times and the dispensational priesthood leader of the latter days under the last prophets of prior dispensations holding the keys that were delivered to Joseph during the opening of that dispensation, which would then require you to (2) reject virtually the entire origin narrative of the Church, including the first vision, the subsequent visitations to Joseph by Moroni et al, the divinely commanded and mediated discovery of the gold plates, the existence of the gold plates, and for all intents, all subsequent claims of a divinely mediated and controlled restoration of doctrine, practice, and the organized church itself  (3) is the anthropomorphic nature of God, which would then necessitate the rejection of virtually the entire plan of salvation grounded, as it is, on the literal fatherhood of God and the process of becoming like him and becoming co-creators with him in an eternal”work and glory” of preexistance-to-theosis developmental progression, and (4) the literal resurrection of the human body.

From these it would appear that one would have,  in essence, rejected the very foundations of the entire gospel message.  One would have not only abandoned the restoration as a divine restoration of true Christianity, but Christianity in a broader, elemental sense in terms that would unite both LDS and Christians of many other sectarian traditions across denominational lines.

But, having said all this, let me answer Dehlin’s questions before attending to some of Mason’s initial points.  “If you believe” John continues, “that there is a place for such people, I would be curious to understand your view on how one might maintain this position (of non-literal or non-belief — and retaining LDS church participation) while still not violating their own conscience, and feeling fully welcomed by church leadership.  Do you sense that LDS church leadership even wants such members to continue participating in good standing?”

We will look at Mason’s answers below, but let me just answer John here in my own way: yes, one can (and perhaps definitely should) retain one’s church membership, and yes, one should – and will doubtless be, save for the aforementioned case of evangelical doubt and apostasy – welcomed in any branch, ward or stake of the Church.  The question of the violation of conscience is another matter (as is the problem of “doublethink” and cognitive dissonance, dynamics that do and must, at some point, enter the fray),  but even more critical is the violation of one’s testimony, assuming such exists.  That, however, for later.

So then, initially at least, I and Patrick agree:

In a word, yes, there is absolutely a place in the LDS Church for people with divergent doctrinal views on all the specific points you mention, and many more.

From this point on, however, the proverbial wicket becomes progressively stickier.

Professor Mason’s claim that Mormonism “has always been a doctrinal religion” is interesting (I would say “odd”) in that it is not clear, and Mason does not make clear in this essay, just of what a non-doctrinal religion would consist (even Chan or Zen Buddhism contains “doctrines,” or principles about the nature of the world/cosmos and of the practice of the Zen discipline itself).  A religion without doctrine; without truth claims, propositions, statements, premises, or arguments regarding the nature of the universe (the “terrible questions”) would, of course, be possible, but its meaning and purpose as a religion far less clear (and in restoration terms, valueless).

Professor Mason then delves into what I think is one of the salient features of Mormon studies that marks it as radically divergent from LDS apologetics, and that is the often-made appeal to the sociological, cultural and political dynamics and attributes of contemporary society as given in contrast to the doctrinal and philosophical claims/standards of the Church as given and which frames the truth claims of the Church as given as an imposition on the sociological environment surrounding the Church (which they are) that must be in some sense rectified or modified to take those sociological conditions into account such that the Church may acclimate itself to them.

This is, for me, emblematic of essentially the entire progressive “cultural Mormon” project, and defines the idea of “neo-orthodoxy” in the Church among a subset of its intelligentsia and membership.  Mason uses the example of the manner in which the gospel is taught by the missionaries, a manner he terms “still heavily doctrinal,” a mode Mason seems to find wanting, as “the vast majority of the population is post- or anti-doctrinal,” meaning that our missionaries are “selling something that most people don’t want anymore.”

Now, of course, what nearly two centuries of restoration teaching and the scriptural corpus we have thus far tell us, if they tell us anything, is that the gospel has never been something that the vast  majority  of the human family “want.”  It has always been astoundingly unpopular, for the most part, given expression in the idea that “many are called, but few are chosen”  (even in the Church).  In absolute numbers, from the time of Adam to the present, a large number of mortal human beings have, indeed, chosen it and remained faithful.  In relative numbers, however, the gospel, like Lao Tzu’s Tao, “flows in places men reject,” and when the rains come, the arks are always sparsely populated.

What is the alternative to teaching investigators the core truths of the restoration at the outset and with clarity and lucidity?  Perhaps spaghetti socials?  Moral and ethical precepts not unlike those of most other systems of religion?  Youth camp-outs?  Service projects?  Helping old ladies cross the street?  Well, of course, but also, of course, the fundamental meaning and purpose of the plan of salvation is to become like our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ.  It is to return with our “pearl” to our celestial home. Helping old ladies across the street (among many other things) is a part of the process, but without the doctrine – without the ideas, concepts, and knowledge of why we are here, from whence we came, and where we can go – and what we can become – in future infinities, only the lower kingdoms beckon in the resurrection (provided there is one and that this is not just a valuable if sincere myth created by the apostles post-crucifixion).

“My own view is that people would be far more interested in other aspects of the church, and that doctrine could get loaded in later. But I digress.)”

My own view is that the gospel should be taught as the gospel, as the gospel qua the gospel, as the Lord directs and has directed (less as some intellectuals within he church might prescribe) as a system of doctrine, principles, and ordinances that will “enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels.”  Once all the “other aspects of the Church” are taken into account, and put in their respective places, this is the core, nucleus, and foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Its the only reason we do missionary work at all.

One may decide for oneself whether Mason’s characterization of the TR interview is accurate:

Exhibit A is the temple recommend interview itself. It is most definitely NOT an interrogation about doctrinal mastery or even orthodoxy. There are a small handful of questions exploring a person’s belief, but they are quite broad, and deliberately so, I believe. They simply ask if you believe in the Godhead (not asking what you think about God’s body or the resurrected Christ’s body), and whether you think the church is led by a prophet called by God who is authorized to exercise priesthood keys. Nothing about the Book of Mormon, nothing about the “one true church,” definitely nothing about polygamy. The vast majority of the interview is about orthopraxis, not orthodoxy — concerned with a person’s fidelity to a series of moral and covenantal commitments. I might go so far as to say that the temple recommend interview reveals that the church is more interested in regulating a person’s lifestyle than colonizing their mind.

Now of course, there is no orthopraxy without orthodoxy, and could not be.  Extracting the one from the other to sooth Mr. Dehlin’s progressive sensitivities seems to me, again, to be adding another lane to a bridge that should, at the most, be little more than a catwalk.

“I give unto you these sayings” the Lord tells us is D&C 93:19, “that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness.”

We study the gospel, learn, and seek truth “even by study and also by faith,” states D&C 97:14, that we may understand and comprehend the principles of the gospel “in theory, in principle, and in doctrine,” and for what purpose?  That orthodoxy may be correctly applied as orthopraxy; that “they may be perfected in the understanding of their ministry…in all things pertaining to the kingdom of God on the earth, the keys of which kingdom have been conferred upon you.”

The Preach my Gospel manual says little of “other aspects of the Church” and, from the very outset, bores directly to the center of the matter respecting the investigator.  In the first chapter, the mission, meaning and purpose of missionary work is established:

You are surrounded by people. You pass them on the street, visit them in their homes, and travel among them. All of them are children of God, your brothers and sisters. God loves them just as He loves you. Many of these people are searching for purpose in life. They are concerned for their families. They need the sense of belonging that comes from the knowledge that they are children of God, members of His eternal family. They want to feel secure in a world of changing values. They want “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23), but they are “kept from the truth because they know not where to find it” (D&C 123:12).

The gospel of Jesus Christ as restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith will bless their families, meet their spiritual needs, and help them fulfill their deepest desires. Although they may not know why, they need relief from feelings of guilt that come from mistakes and sins. They need to experience the joy of redemption by receiving forgiveness of their sins and enjoying the gift of the Holy Ghost.

At the very first, we hear of the doctrinal restoration through the prophet Joseph Smith (a major bugaboo for many “NOM” members), those queries regarding the human condition Hugh Nibley called “the terrible questions” (who am I?  Why am I here?  What’s going on around here (in mortality?)?), core questions of values, our lineal descent from the Father as spirit sons and daughters, and eternal life.  Missionaries are to teach “as authorized representatives of Jesus Christ” (itself a major doctrinal/metaphysical claim) that “redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah,” and that no one “can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah””

So here, we see that the reality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah, his redemptive atonement, the reality of sin and its consequences, and dwelling in the presence of God in the post-mortal world, are among the key assertions made by the missionaries and form the very spinal cord of the gospel: the plan of salvation and Christ’s central role in it.

You are called to represent Jesus Christ in helping people become clean from their sins. You do this by inviting them to come unto Jesus Christ and become converted to His restored gospel. To come to the Savior they must have faith in Him unto repentance—making the necessary changes to bring their life into agreement with His teachings.

How this comports with Mason’s “other aspects of the Church” he thinks should lead teaching to investigators I cannot say, as he did not elucidate those points, but suffice it to say, this is the doctrinal (the body of ideas, concepts and principles that comprise “the gospel” as a system) basis for the existence of the Church and the purpose of its missionaries that, the Preach my Gospel manual asserts, “represent Jesus Christ.”

“Nevertheless,” says Dr. Mason, “we know from polls that the majority of active Latter-day Saints tend to agree about doctrinal matters. They know the church’s official doctrines, and by and large they believe them.”  Of course.  And while activity, per se, does not always correspond to faithfulness or acceptance of doctrine, its a good barometer, all things being equal.

Given this learning environment and a general culture of doctrinal conformity, it’s only natural that individuals who have come to different conclusions than other people about the “right answers” often feel uncomfortable and even unwelcome.

Well, yes, of course they do, especially when those different conclusions are clearly inconsistent with or overtly hostile to settled church doctrine and fundamental values and standards, values and standards that, inevitably, will come into contact with alternative values and standards found in “the World.”  One may well feel alienated and “unwelcome” in a radically different cultural setting, and if any branch, ward or stake is moving effectively towards a Zion culture, one’s “culture shock” when coming into contact with  Zion culture, values, standards, and concepts from a “Babylonian” frame of reference, or when one begins to move from a zone of Zionic culture out, or back, into a “Babylonian” culture (and why Dr. Mason encases the phrase “right answers” in quotation marks, I will leave in limbo for the present).

Mason is aware of the demarcation line, mentioned above, between “what you think” and “what you say,” demarcating the space between personal apostasy in various forms and the suborning of apostasy among other members, but adds that “though to many that understandably feels stifling.”

Well, again, not to point out any lingering banalities, but yes.  “Still,” according to Dr, Mason, “within the boundaries of the temple recommend interview, I think there’s room for a pretty healthy amount of diversity.”

But the temple recommend interview, looked at at greater depth, is implying in its questions far more than it appears to ask on the surface.  Just at the outset, asking a member (and remembering that the sole purpose of the temple and temple worship is to exalt – deify – the member and his family as a family in the celestial kingdom) if they sustain (TR question #2) the Prophet, his counselors, and the Twelve as “prophets, seers and revelatory” is by direct implication asking if you accept all the teachings, counsel, and interpretations of gospel doctrine that come from them under that divine mantel of authority.  This question is inextricably linked to TR question #1, which asks if one has a testimony – a living, spiritual witness within oneself – of  “the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?”  “The gospel” is the entire system; the entire plan of salvation and all its doctrines, ordinances, standards and Zionic culture in toto – no cafeteria mentioned here.  This is a call to the wedding feast, not a cafeteria for a donut and cup of coffee.

John, for his part, even given Mason’s endless olive branches, is still, as always, essentially churlish and on the offensive (as he always is with Dr. Mason, for what I think should be easily discernible reasons).

John claims that many LDS teachings, including work for the dead, the persistence of personal identity and family structure into the next life, and theosis, were “thrilling” in his early days as a member, but that, in time, other apparently preexisting ideological commitments or traditions, in the scriptural sense, interposed themselves (the seed was sown among “thorns” such that “the cares of this world” and “the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful” (I would here insert the concept of the “idolatry” of ideology, which I think is probably the most pressing concern of both the Church and LDS apologetics at the present time) and created a rift between himself and the Church.

It is no shock to find out that each of these issues is inextricably linked to issues and concerns, primarily political and social, that have arisen around the church in the mainstream secular culture just since the late sixties:

That the Mormon church was the only legitimate church on earth (D&C 1:30),

That Native and African-Americans were cursed by God with dark skin (2 Nephi, 5:21),

That God did not want women to lead the church,

That I would be required to be a polygamist in heaven (D&C 132:61), and

That same-sex marriage is an act of apostasy, and that the children of same-sex married couples are not welcome in the Mormon church.

Now, its quite painful to have to tell John, seemingly countless times, over and over again (as with many LDS progressives” that 2 was never a “doctrine” in any official or established sense (Amerindians were among the first people proselytized by the Church in the 19th century, whenever possible, so the “dark skin” cultural marker the Book of Mormon uses to symbolically set apart a people culturally (not racially) is clearly different than the lineal priesthood restriction of which black peoples historically partook, according to all that is known with any clarity about the “ban”); 3 is a sophistry,  1 is, if not accepted at the outset (when one is baptized, ideally) will cause problems if it is not comprehended in its full implications and, again ideally, known by revelation; the fourth is not a teaching of the Church unless one is living in a time or place in which one is called to this practice (and is hence a misreading of D&C 132:61) and five would utterly unravel the entire plan of salvation at its very foundations.

Dehlin’s order, then, is not just a tall one, but a megalithic one, a wall of ideological boundaries he cannot cross without he himself – not the church – transcending his own mortal tunnel vision and the “riveted” traditions he had brought into the church, and retained.

When John says that “it has brought me a small amount of comfort over the past decade to see the Mormon church backpedal away from some of these doctrines,” it becomes clear again that John has little understanding of what constitutes doctrine as over against policies (which may have a doctrinal background) and the theological speculations of individual church leaders.  John has always been very vocal about the idea of the way in which church teachings ebb and flow following cultural, social, and political trends (while dodging the explicit implication that perhaps his beliefs do as well), but continues, after many years, to conflate doctrine, policy, and theological conjecture among church leaders as if the Church itself did not or had not attended to those distinctions long ago.  The clarifications of the difference between the priesthood restriction and non-doctrinal speculations, posited by some church leaders in the past (which were, it should be noted, culturally conditioned), has been made many times and, in recent years, officially by the Church, but the “ban” as a policy underwent no “backpedaling,” nor has the nature of priesthood nor the character of  homosexuality in moral and spiritual terms.

John’s alienation from the Church was a personal matter, but as John’s own words suggest, when he says “when I became public about my doubts,” his doubts moved boldly and aggressively into the public square and then moved – the fatal step, not simply having such doubts within his own mind or even expressing them publicly – into active opposition to and then open hostility towards the church, its leaders, and those Jurassic creatures once known as “LDS apologists” who mount philosophical defense of the Church in response to people precisely like John Dehlin.

Within a very short time of sharing these views publicly, I was hauled into my bishop and stake president’s offices, grilled about my unorthodox position on each of these teachings — and ultimately was told, very explicitly, that I could not remain a member in good standing with these doubts and doctrinal positions. I was told that I either had to stay silent about them, or I would be excommunicated (which was my fate in 2015).

Now, it was not – and John knows it was not – having these doubts and criticisms that propelled him towards excommunication, but the rooting of an entire professional career as a clinical psychologist essentially on the basis of presenting himself as a professional critic of the Church: an “anti-Mormon.”  John’s key work as a critic: the suborning of apostasy among others undergoing similar doubts and/or conflicts between church teaching and the teachings of the surrounding secular/pagan culture, is at the center of his excommunication.  His “doubts” are central to the process of personal apostasy, but I see little reason he could not have remained a member “in good standing” had he not risen in active, open ideological opposition, and not grounded his professional career as a psychologist in becoming an anti-shepherd to those weak in faith and struggling to grasp the iron rod.

For the rest, which we will not dwell on here, John descends into his usual pathos and melodrama, standard in post-Mormon exit narratives, of “harsh and punitive treatment” within what he claims (and ascribes to Dr. Mason)to be the LDS “big tent” in which dissenting members are “harassed” and victimized by “coercion, control, and rejection” by church leaders for “expressing” doubts and ideas contrary to church doctrine.

For John, as always, church discipline in which members become, not just doubtful, but active opponents of the church in a philosophical, moral, cultural and political sense, is “unjust at a fundamental level.”  John can say this, of course, because as a secular progressive, John sees the church as just another, if unique, social construction or human cultural artifact in which the members, because of their “investment” of time, energy, and will in the church have a democratic option to engage the church in desired amendments of its doctrines, practices, polices, and standards.  The Church should be (always if it is to “survive” in the 21st century) a “big tent” and a “bottom up” organization that should ultimately be open to democratic, participatory control in relation to its teachings and standards.

The church is, of course, a kingdom, not a religified democratic town hall, and failure to comprehend that core truth is to potentially set oneself up for a “faith crisis” that will manifest itself sooner or later, but hopefully, neither.


One Reply to “LDS Boundaries: The Strait and Narrow Way Through the Big Tent: A Response to Patrick Mason and John Dehlin”

  1. I find it interesting that attempts to reframe the Church as one where one can hold any belief imaginable (or none at all) rarely take into account that to join the Church new converts must believe certain things in order to get baptized. The attitude seems to be that if one is “culturally” Mormon, or one is descended from pioneers or whatever, that somehow means one is under different rules from converts seeking to join the Church.

    I can only imagine what the apostle Paul would say to that. I find myself tempted to paraphrase John the Baptist “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Brigham Young to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Brigham Young”.

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