Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

“Our False Traditions and Foolish Notions”

Posted by Andrew on January 24, 2008

When it comes to the question of why we need “continual revelation,” one explanation I have heard (and given) most often is that our world circumstances are constantly changing, and therefore God needs to give us up-to-date revelation to help us adapt and adjust to our present-day situation. Good examples of these types of revelations are our “mini-temples” and additional quorums of the Seventy, which were designed to cope with new demands created by unprecedented Church growth.

Another common explanation for continual revelation is that we cannot understand greater truths until we first understand simple truths. “Milk before meat.” “Line upon line, precept upon precept.” It’s the same concept as why students start with simple addition and subtraction, then multiplication and division, etc. In other words, what’s keeping us from further light and knowledge is that we haven’t yet mastered the spiritual truths we’ve already received.

However, Brigham Young provided another interesting explanation for why we grow “line upon line,” and it might surprise you:

“[God] would be glad to send angels to communicate further to this people, but there is no room to receive it, consequently, He cannot come and dwell with you. There is a further reason: we are not capacitated to throw off in one day all our traditions, and our prepossessed feelings and notions, but have to do it little by little. It is a gradual process, advancing from one step to another; and as we layoff our false traditions and foolish notions, we receive more and more light, and thus we grow in grace; and if we continue so to grow we shall be prepared eventually to receive the Son of Man, and that is what we are after.” (Journal of Discourses 2:309-318).*

President Young’s explanation goes beyond saying we need to learn spiritual arithmetic before we can learn spiritual algebra. What’s holding us back from from further light and knowledge is not just what we haven’t learned yet, it’s what we haven’t unlearned yet, i.e., “our false traditions and foolish notions.”

President Young’s quote has enduring relevance today considering the unending discussions about the priesthood ban that was initiated during his administration, which was subsequently lifted in 1978 during President Kimball’s leadership. A growing consensus among students of this issue is that President Young’s ban resulted from his mistaken adherence to common Protestant doctrines that thousands of “good Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians” used to justify slavery for centuries. In short, the theory is that President Young’s priesthood ban was the result of his bringing “Protestant baggage” along with him when he joined the Church, and that–despite his greatness and inspiration on so many other issues–he failed to recognize it.

President Young’s quote above may lend credibility to this theory. If we believe his words, it seems possible that what held back the 1978 priesthood revelation for so long was our collective failure to “layoff our false traditions and foolish notions” concerning that issue until that time.

That possibility does not in any way weaken my testimony of President Young or the Church. Rather, it simply reflects an inescapable aspect of the human condition. I am proud to belong to a Church led by leaders that are open-minded enough to consider taking us in new directions. And I hope we will continue to be humble and open-minded enough to continue to “layoff our false traditions and foolish notions,” both collectively and individually, so that we can receive all the light the Lord has to offer us.

( * Special thanks to BHodges for providing me with the link to the website where I found the above quote.)

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16 Responses to ““Our False Traditions and Foolish Notions””

  1. Mike L. said

    I know it’s not kosher to plug one’s own blog in the comments, and I rarely do so, but my most recent post (entitled “Cultural Pseudo-Truth”) is directly related to this idea (click my name to read it, or just continue reading to get the general idea).

    I believe that a lot, if not most, of what we believe to be true is influenced by our culture, as opposed to a legitimate source of truth like science or religion. I believe even prophets are not immune to this, and (although I don’t know for sure) I tend to side with those that believe that the ban on blacks in the priesthood was an example of church leaders being influenced by culture rather than revelation. Like you, that doesn’t shake my faith at all because I know that prophets are imperfect like the rest of us (although probably less so).

    The main question I ask myself is how do we know if we claim some harmful view as truth? Racists in the past were confident that their understanding of race was correct, and there many good people who were also racists. But we now understand that their view was misguided and deeply harmful. How do we know that some of our views won’t be seen in another 50 years as misguided and deeply harmful?

    I suppose part of the answer is in your last paragraph. While there is no way to be sure everything we believe is not influenced by false traditions of culture, we at least need to be humble enough so that we are willing to accept that we can be wrong, and change our ways when it is brought to our attention (whether by our own conscience or by others) that we need to change our views.

  2. Andrew said

    Great comment, Mike. I’ll have to go check out your post.

    The idea that our culture influences our view of right and wrong, even as members of the Church, was the subject of a General Conference talk recently by Elder David R. Stone of the Seventy. Here was my favorite quote:

    “What an insidious thing is this culture amidst which we live. It permeates our environment, and we think we are being reasonable and logical when, all too often, we have been molded by the ethos, what the Germans call the zeitgeist, or the culture of our place and time.”

    To me, Brigham Young’s statement about our “false traditions and foolish notions” seems to be referring to just that.

  3. Andrew said

    Mike, I just realized I failed to answer your question about “how can we know if we claim some harmful view as truth?” Here’s my take:

    1. “Follow the prophet” when it comes to deciding whether Church policies are right. They may change in the future, but I figure it’s better to let the Church leaders make that call. I’d hate to put myself in a position where I mistakenly concluded the Church leaders were wrong.

    2. On an individual level, I’m free to constantly re-evaluate my own personal biases, examine myself for misunderstandings and misapplications of Gospel principles. I think it’s best to start with the basics, the Sermon on the Mount, and use those basics to evaluate whether my other beliefs are in harmony with those basics.

  4. Shawn L said

    Andrew: great post. One thing I love about BY is that, if your look long enough, you’ll find an opinion (and, on some subjects, several contrdictory ones) on virtually any subject. This one, nevertheless, rings very true.

    This discussion, however, raises a question in my mind: is there ever an instance when (to borrow’s Mike’s phrasing) our culture can be a “legitimate source” for “what we believe”? All discussion of “culture’s influence on doctrine” generally ends up concluding that said culture poisons otherwise pure doctrine (i.e., the Priesthood ban). Does it ever work the other way around? How about the move (under Pres. Hinckley’s leadership) towards a broader ecumenical outreach? I suppose it could be argued that this is the result of a cultural shift amongst our members towards a more open-minded view towards our doctrine regarding who possesses “truth”.

  5. Mike L. said

    Andrew, I’ll definitely need to look up Elder Stone’s talk. That sounds like a good one.

    Shawn, I’ve thought about whether beliefs that we get from our culture can be good as well. They definitely can be, but only when they are also rooted in some other legitimate source of truth. For example, our culture (meaning western culture, or the US specifically) tends to be better at treating men and women equally, at least when compared to other areas, such as the Middle East. That’s a good thing, in my opinion. You could argue, then, that allowing our culture to influence of beliefs is a good thing. But I would argue that our culture is only “right” so long as it is in agreement with real truth. And there may be some cultures that are more in line with real “truth” than others. But just because culture is sometimes right doesn’t justify using our culture as a source of truth. That would be a little like believing fortunetellers because they are right sometimes.

    On a related note, the other day I was watching TV and some random Joe was being interviewed about the economy. He was talking about how the US would recover because of something like, “Well, we’re American, and we’re more intelligent than the rest of the world, so I’m sure we’ll find a way to recover.” I don’t think most Americans share his ultra-patriotism, but it made me wonder why he thought we were more intelligent. The only reason I can think someone could come to that conclusion is that they have bought into the idea that our culture is “right”, and therefore our world-view is superior to everyone else’s, by virtue of the fact that it ours. I think some people have this view, but I think it’s dangerous.

  6. Mike L. said

    Andrew,

    One more thing. I agree with your 2 points about how to avoid believing in false truths in comment #3, but I’d add something to your first one. Here’s my question: If members of the church had not persistently questioned the ban on the priesthood for blacks, would the practice have ended when it did? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, and it gets into complicated issues on how revelation works that I won’t get into. I don’t know much of the history, but I do remember seeing a video in which members of the church in Africa wrote letters to church headquarters about the issue. What would have happened if they had taken your advice in #1? I’m not trying to be critical, I’m just wondering if your position allows for exceptions.

    Personally, I do believe that there is a time for criticism, but it shouldn’t be with the intent to bring down the church, and it should be done respectfully. Fortunately, I don’t have any major disagreements with the Church, but I can imagine a hypothetical situation when I would have to disagree and not just go along with it.

    Sorry I’m commenting so much. I don’t mean to take over the discussion. It’s probably obvious that this has been on my mind lately.

  7. BHodges said

    Thanks for the recog.

    re #1;

    Cultural Mormonism is a real phenomenon, indeed.
    Part of the frustration regarding Mormon Doctrine may rise from a desire to have everything in life neatly spelled out in a “thou shalt” “thou shalt not” way. When I was younger I saw this “letter of the law” approach as the gospel. I have concluded, however, that the letter does indeed kill, and the Spirit giveth life, as an ancient apostle taught. The commandments being “schoolmasters” are not a list of heavenly “do” and “do not” statements; they are means to an end. I believe the closer we get to God the less we will need specificity in all things, which is crucial because not all things are black and white.

    In regards to official doctrine of the Church, I have stated elsewhere there are several views even on the topic of what is offficial. It may look as though Mormons are trying to be slippery by “conveniently” dismissing a statement they disagree with as not being official doctrine. However, this is the freedom granted us by God in His Church.

    As I have explained elsewhere, the nature of religious thought and doctrine is a lot more ambiguous than some people might like to think- including Mormons and otherwise. The lack of a catechized Mormon theology has been part of the “creed” of the Mormons perhaps since the Church was organized. There are statements of belief, faith, history, etc. and we are to discover the doctrine.

    (I would add, the most critical doctrine may be the least studied; that of gaining faith in Christ, hope, and finally, charity, and all that entails. Hence, Christ instructing his followers to “do” His will in order to “know” of His doctrine, whether it is of God, or whether Christ was just giving some nice ideas, or incorrect theories, see John 7:17).

    As members we may be prone to desire a comprehensive theological treatise on doctrine. B.H. Roberts pined for such a work. Bruce R. McConkie, among others, attempted to complete something similar to a complete work on doctrine. But overall in the history of this Church we find that God was as interested in telling stories, history, as He was in dictating lists of doctrine.

    Richard Bushman pointed out that people, in their desire to comprehend the Book of Mormon, brought their own views to what they read. Mormons believe in “likening the scriptures,” but when does “likening” become “wresting”? Perhaps CKSalmon’s thread on the simple “17 points of the true Church” is a good example of “likening gone amok.” Bushman related the problem with an example from the Book of Mormon, how some people read “republicanism” into the record. He concluded, saying “The preconceptions of the modern age led Mormons as well as critics to see things in the Book of Mormon that are not there.” (Believing History, pg. 122)

    Hence, some Mormons may read Alma’s letter to his son Corianton and come away believing that whatever sin (usually interpreted as sexual) Corianton had engaged in was literally second only to murder, or denying the Holy Ghost. So we have some members teaching a view of different “weight” of sins, but a different reading of the text could yield different results. There is a definite “cultural doctrine” aspect to the Church, and critics can use this to criticize the Church just as members can use it to relate incorrect traditional renderings of text. I am reminded of Henry Eyring, the scientist, when he said “you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.” I don’t feel compelled to believe anything that isn’t true, even if my whole ward or stake believes it.

    But these “doctrines” can ultimately lead to divisions and contentions, something Jesus Christ warned the New World disciples about during His visit in 3 Nephi.

    Brigham knew that traditions carry over, and God will weigh the circumstances accordingly.
    Brigham said:

    “Conscience is nothing else but the result of the education and traditions of the inhabitants of the earth. These are interwoven with their feelings, and are like a cloak that perfectly envelops them, in the capacity of societies, neighborhoods, people, or individuals; they frame that kind of government and religion, and pursue that course collectively or individually, that seemeth good to themselves.” (JD 3:88)

    Brigham explained revelation can overrule rationalization based on culture, or what the Book of Mormon might call: the “traditions of the fathers.” [there are both good and evil traditions spoken of in the BoM, by the way] What God commands might not automatically fit in with our immediate sense of “right and wrong.” For example, Nephi equivocated over killing Laban, and felt remorse.

    This, indeed, is where some true revelations being misinterpreted, or false revelations thought of as true, can lead people to do terrible things in the name of religion. That the possibility exists must be conceded. Nonetheless, God’s ways are not man’s ways.

  8. Eric James Martin said

    I find it interesting that although we claim to have modern prophets and revelators, our Church hasn’t added a single section to the D&C since 1918 when Section 138 was given by President Joseph F. Smith, whereas, on the other hand, the Community of Christ, formerly the RLDS church, has just recently added a new revelation to their D&C, known as Section 163 in March of 2007.

    When I’ve asked about this seeming discrepancy in actual practice of our theology, I’m told that the GC issues of the Ensign and Liahona are our ‘new revelations’, but such cannot be said if they are not canonized into the D&C and added on as additional sections.

    Also, I’ve noticed that the Community of Christ church votes on any revelations put forth by their prophet, and it is not mandatorily held as inspired unless the Lord speaks the majority of the members in attendance at their World Conference held every three years.

  9. Nita said

    I’ve enjoyed this discussion. I’ve thought often about these things, too and would add a couple of ideas.
    Ridding ourselves of incorrect ideas that are in our “inherited” culture is a difficult, not just lengthy, process, which begins, probably, with recognizing false ideas. And sometimes we are not able to even accomplish this first step. For example, I find that many many Mormons do not like the idea of polygamy, in any form, in any age, in any way. Historically, it is obvious that it is part of God’s idea of what is good, in some situations. So why are we stuck on thinking it is always distasteful? I have my opinions about the answer to that question, but I’m really just illustrating that we DO have trouble getting past our cultural biases.
    And second, a related problem: how can we recognize our own weaknesses/sins, some of which are camoflaged as “okay” by our ability to rationalize? We can observe other people who seem oblivious of a weakness that seems to plague their lives, but we miss seeing our own. So, in other words, how do we deal with overcoming the “wicked traditions of our fathers” in our individual lives as well as in the society as a group?

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