We are members of an organisation that claims to be the “only true and living church” on the face of the earth. This article aims at investigating the categories of truth contained within what we broadly refer to as “The Gospel”.
Or, in other words, what does we mean when we say “the church is true?” What does that involve?
The two discrete categories of truth
Though we spend an immense amount of time mixing these two types of truth together, so much that they become almost indistinguishable, it is possible to extricate them from each other and discuss them independently.
The first is doctrines, and the second is principles.
Doctrines — the “why”
The doctrines of the church are a highly intricate framework of beliefs in our belief system. Entire books have been written about our doctrine (for example, “Mormon Doctrine” by Bruce R McConkie).
To illustrate what is meant by “doctrine”, consider the following common beliefs or tenets of Mormanism: (AOF means “articles of faith”)
- There is a God, who is the supreme creator of the universe (AOF 1)
- God’s character can be understood by us and trusted.
- There is a need for an Atonement. (AOF 3)
- The concept of sin is real; we sin throughout our lives and need divine forgiveness. (AOF 2)
- Adam and Eve were the first humans on this earth.
- “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:27)
- We existed before this life as spirits, and are spiritual children of God. There was a grand council, etc.
- We have a divine purpose and destiny.
- There is an afterlife.
- The various details of the afterlife (spirit world, spirit prison, final judgement, three degrees of glory, exaltation, eternal families, etc.)
- Prophets and priesthood authority, church structure, revelation (AOF 5, 6, 9)
- The truthfulness and authenticity of the Book of Mormon, and “partial” truthfulness and authenticity of the Bible (AOF 8) (Though we very rarely refer to exactly which parts of the Bible haven’t been translated correctly?)
- Spiritual gifts (AOF 7)
- The second coming, the gathering of Israel (AOF 10)
- There’s a star named Kolob and it’s located nearest to where God resides (Abraham 3)
- Original sin is a fallacy.
This entire framework exists as a coherent system that constructs our worldview. The doctrines of the church answer many hard questions that human beings have (sometimes colloquially called “golden questions” by missionaries; “why do we exist?”, “where did we come from?”, “where do we go after we die?” “can I be with my family forever?” and so on).
The veracity of our vast framework of doctrines is supported by two paths of revelation:
- Priesthood Authority; the people who articulated this system were authoritative, formerly called of God
- Those are bound together with spiritual witnesses.
Doctrines provide the why for our lives. Recall Ether 12:4:
Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.
Doctrines tell us of things that are ultimately beyond our control (I can’t change the afterlife or whether Kolob exists). Doctrines are concerned with spiritual facts and spiritual truth. Doctrines motivate action.
I am at the point now where I am genuinely “not sure” about the doctrines of the church. Are these genuinely “true”? As pointed out in my other articles, we tend to embrace beliefs we feed, and I’m not sure if spiritual witnesses are reliable. As for the “authority” of leaders who dictate doctrines to us, well, their authority of itself IS a doctrine of the church (the doctrines that we have a true and living prophet on the earth and they have priesthood authority) and so using that fact to establish doctrine is circular reasoning.
I also note something conspicuous about doctrine; its ultimate nebulosity.
Nebulous means “Lacking definite form or limits” and “Lacking definition or definite content”, it refers to something that is “fuzzy”.
The fundamental doctrines of the church are not fuzzy and are indeed quite clear, just like a picture when you first look at it from a distance seems to be defined with clear, defined points. Often investigators who are learning the doctrines of the church are highly satisfied with the answers it provides to their deepest questions.
However, one does notice after some time studying the Gospel that it gets to a point where further “zooming in” and higher resolution is simply impossible.
A really simple example of this is: Which parts of the Bible haven’t been translated correctly? Well, we don’t know — this is a question that is, in principle, deemed “unanswerable” or not important to our salvation. I.E as we zoom in and ask more and more specific questions we eventually hit the barrier of “Ultimate Nebulosity” — there is no further zooming in, there is no further clarity, there is no further formal doctrine of the church to answer more and more and more specific questions. The formal doctrine “runs out” on multiple lines of questioning and anything beyond is declared “unimportant” or “irrelevant”.
I place this idea in contrast to principles. I’m socially not allowed to ask “Which parts of the Bible haven’t been translated correctly?” but I can ask “what are some highly concrete ways I can live the commandment to ‘love one another’?”
The memeplex model
It’s been suggested that doctrines of religious organisations could be analysed using a model called a “memeplex”.
A “meme” is a cultural unit (an idea, value, or pattern of behaviour) that is passed from one person to another by non-generic means (like imitation). A memeplex is a group of memes that propagate themselves together and tend to survive together due to mutual support.
Memeplexes evolve over time, just like Mormon doctrine has;
- We no longer practice polygamy (there aren’t angels threatening us with swords to marry multiple wives anymore)
- Men of African descent can bear the priesthood, although that wasn’t the case before:
- This was not merely a modification in church policy, church doctrine actually changed. Within two clicks of the formal church article on the subject of Race and the Priesthood (from reference 9) I found statements of Brigham Young (still on the church history sites themselves, this is not random anti-Mormon literature) saying things like “Negros are children of Cain I know they are I know they cannot bear rule in priesthood first sense of word”)
- The temple ordinance has changed over time, we no longer have Adamic language in it, etc.
- And so on.
(Naturally, we tend to create a complex web of workarounds for these, which I will address in another article.)
Memeplexes are collections of memes that “hang out” together and propagate together. They also gradually evolve together. Doctrines have evolved and continue to evolve gradually.
Again, I am genuinely “not sure” about the formal doctrines of the church. But to change the direction of this article, let’s talk about something I do believe in passionately; true principles.
Principles — the “what”
Though we entangle them a lot, principles are actually quite different from doctrines.
A principle is an independent truth that is discoverable without revelation from God and without priesthood or other authority. A principle is “A basic truth, law or assumption”, a basic generalisation.
In his book the 7 habits of highly effective people, Stephen Covey spends a long time in the beginning speaking about principles. In introducing the principles of the 7 habits he writes:
The principles I am referring to are not esoteric, mysterious, or “religious” ideas. There is not one principle taught in this book that is unique to any specific faith or religion, including my own. These principles are a part of every major enduring religion, as well as enduring social philosophies and ethical systems. They are self-evident and can easily be validated by any individual. It’s almost as if these principles or natural laws are part of the human condition, part of the human consciousness, part of the human conscience. They seem to exist in all human beings, regardless of social conditioning and loyalty to them, even though they might be submerged or numbed by conditions or disloyalty.
I am referring, for example, to the principle of fairness, out of which our whole concept of equity and justice is developed. Little children seem to have an innate sense of the idea of fairness even apart from opposite conditioning experiences. There are vast differences in how fairness is defined and achieved, but there is almost universal awareness of the idea. Other examples would include integrity and honesty. They create the foundation of trust which is essential to cooperation and long-term personal and interpersonal growth. Another principle is human dignity. The basic concept in the United States Declaration of Independence bespeaks this value or principle. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Another principle is service, or the idea of making a contribution. Another is quality or excellence.
And so on. It is astounding how many basic principles there are that are recognised by people of various faiths, various orientations and widely varying doctrinal or personal beliefs. Why is it that although very few people recognise Thomas Monson as a prophet, almost everybody who hears “Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved. ” will generally agree with his statement? Why do we all understand the concepts of integrity and honesty? Because, as Stephen Covey worded it when referring to dignity and the US declaration of independence, principles are “self-evident” truths.
Gravity is a “self-evident” truth. We don’t need someone to come down and explain to us that we are stuck to the floor; we can see that and are so used to it that we don’t even think about it anymore. Sure, someone really clever can come along and build more comprehensive models of how gravity works, but the natural law itself is, indeed, “self-evident”.
Principles are like the “soft” version of natural laws. They are generally accurate truths, but I don’t believe principles are as absolute as natural laws. To illustrate, the “golden rule” as explained by Christ in Matthew 7:12 “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” is a widely recognised principle, but surely sooner or later even though you do that people might treat you badly (as they did Christ). Nevertheless, it is a very decent and accurate principle.
The church is full of principles. Wherever you go in church scriptures or teachings, you find true principles mingled with doctrines. Quite frequently they flow together without any notice to the fact that they are not the same thing. For example, D&C 121:
That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
In this verse the powers of heaven (a doctrine, that we have the priesthood and may access God’s power) are able to be “handled” upon the “principles of righteousness”. Principles and doctrines mingled together. Naturally if all of the doctrine is true then there’s actually no issue with this. But as I will explain in a later article, no religion or person can claim ownership of true principles. (Just like a scientist cannot claim ownership of gravity).
This section goes on to share highly relevant and true principles and is one of my favourite sections of scripture, I will bold doctrine and underline principles :
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
Can you see how much doctrines are mingled with principles? If I shared these scriptures with a Muslim, he’d probably not agree with the bits about the priesthood authority or Holy Ghost, but he’d likely agree with principles like not gratifying our pride, not exercising control or dominion, persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and love unfeigned. In fact most good folks would agree with that stuff, and some who believe in reincarnation might then promptly throw in that we should do that “so we don’t come back as a slug in the next life”.
Same principles, wildly different doctrines. How??
Why are they discrete?
For most practising members of the church, the doctrines and principles of the church are inextricably connected on multiple levels. We read the above verses and see a smooth, coherent journey. We see no distinction between principles and doctrines.
But I do.
The evidence for this I have already alluded to with the above statements. The evidence is that so many people of so many religious orientations and doctrinal beliefs (including atheists who don’t believe anything spiritual) have “somehow” come out with a set of principles that very much resemble each other. Surely, there are variations, but why is it that these generic nuggets of truth are so ubiquitous? So well known? Where the doctrines of those groups are wildly inconsistent?
They are discrete because if you took a large enough sample of people who believe in doctrines and principles, you’d find huge variation in the area of doctrine, and much less variation in the area of principles, thus by this very process you are able to mentally extricate them from each other.
Conclusion, and about me
Referring back to Stephen Covey’s book, he described something that deeply inspired me; a “principle centred life” — basing our lives of true principles. He writes:
By centering our lives on correct principles, we create a solid foundation for development of the four life-support factors. Our security comes from knowing that, unlike other centers based on people or things which are subject to frequent and immediate change, correct principles do not change. We can depend on them. Principles don’t react to anything. They won’t divorce us or run away with our best friend. They aren’t out to get us. They can’t pave our way with shortcuts and quick fixes. They don’t depend on the behavior of others, the environment, or the current fad for their validity. Principles don’t die. They aren’t here one day and gone the next. They can’t be destroyed by fire, earthquake, or theft. Principles are deep, fundamental truths, classic truths, generic common denominators. They are tightly interwoven threads running with exactness, consistency, beauty, and strength through the fabric of life.
I have made the decision to build my life on true principles. I believe true principles are, in and of themselves, “good enough” to motivate me to obey them. Why act with integrity? Because integrity is a true principle. Why be honest? Because honesty is a true principle. Why treat others fairly? Because justice is a true principle. Why be kind to others? Because kindness is a true principle. Why love others? Because love is a true principle.
By “true principle” I mean a practice that consistently tends to lead to increased happiness for myself and for those around me. This is what principles are, keys to happiness for everyone. (Recall “men are that they might have joy”.)
And now the million dollar question, which I throw out to everyone: can anyone actually tell me the difference between a Christ centred life and a principle centred life?
— I argue that the difference is merely mental and emotional belief (what you believe) and not the actual practices and behaviours of life. Surely there are some behaviours that would be different (Christ centred lives involve going to church, paying tithing, doing work for the dead, etc. as examples) but the vast majority of actual behaviours (what you say and do, how you live your life) would be, I’d expect, exactly similar.