This is a guest post from Jeff G.
With the publication by the church of two essays that touch on feminist topics, the response within some parts of the bloggernacle has been the rather predictable mongering of contradictions. One post sought to show how different words from different leaders “compete” with one another on the subject. Another argued that church policy and church doctrine are in contradiction with one another. The conclusion for which all such posts obviously push is that, no matter what living prophets tell you on these subjects, you are completely justified in rejecting such teachings. It is this attitude of picking and choosing which doctrines and policies of the living church leaders to accept (as if the church were a cafeteria of sorts) that I want to expose and subvert.
Within the church, there are various teachings/doctrines/policies that we are under a moral obligation to accept. An uncontroversial example of this would be a testimony that Jesus is the Christ. Let’s call these teachings “true.” There are also, within the church, various teachings/doctrines/policies that we are under a moral obligation to reject. Within the current church, a full-blown, un-nuanced advocacy of polygamy falls under this category. Let’s call these teachings “false.” In addition to these two groups of teachings, there are also various teachings/doctrines/policies that we are free to accept or reject according to our individual contexts and righteous desires. One’s views regarding Book of Mormon geography almost certainly falls in this category. Let’s call these teachings “open.”
I do not claim that the boundaries that separate and define these groups are clear, universal or timeless. Indeed, I strongly believe that these lines are sometimes blurry, contextual and historical in nature – polygamy being a perfect example. Sometimes the boundaries surrounding truth and falsehood shrink, opening up more space for exploration and pluralism, while other times they grow, bringing with them a more hard-lined orthodoxy. Within some contexts, my being open to some teachings will prevent me from being a Sunday school teacher, rejecting other teachings will prevent me from holding a temple recommend, and advocating other teachings will prevent me from being a member of good standing. We have, however, little – if any – reason to assume that a rejection of the exact same beliefs will receive the exact same punishment/acceptance from all church leaders at all times and in all places. This is the entire point of continuing revelation operating within a bounded stewardship! That said, however transitional and ambiguous these boundaries between truth, falsehood and “open” can sometimes be, they most certainly DO exist. We absolutely do have moral obligations to accept and reject various teachings.
There is, however, a fourth kind of teachings/doctrines/policies that many of the more heterodox within the church wrongly claim to exist. These are the teachings that individual church members (supposedly) have a moral obligation to both accept and reject. These teachings are sometimes called “cafeteria” doctrines in that, precisely because church members have an obligation to both accept and reject them, the only option that we really have is to “pick and choose” which of these conflicting commandments we will disobey with an appeal to some external, secular standard.
Despite their prima facie similarity, cafeteria teachings are NOT to be confused with open teachings. Open teachings are those to which we have no moral obligation to accept or reject. There is, then, no moral obligation or church standard that is being transgressed by our accepting or rejecting open teachings. Cafeteria teachings, by contrast, are those to which we not only have a moral obligation to accept, but we also have a second, incompatible moral obligation to reject as well. It is precisely the existence of these conflicting moral obligations that sets cafeteria teachings from open teachings, for it is this condition which automatically entails a transgression of moral obligations and/or church standards. The perceived unavoidability of transgressing some church standard or another is exactly what gives the heterodox intellectual an incentive to paint as much of their own unorthodoxy as “cafeterial” in nature as they possibly can. This, I suggest, is the primary incentive for the intellectual pitting of one church teaching against another that we often find within the bloggernacle today.
Ever on the defense, such heterodox members are not content to merely paint some of their own beliefs as cafeterial in nature, since this still sets them apart from the orthodox whose beliefs are not so infected with cafeteriality. In order to disguise this moral distinction between hetero- and ortho-doxy, these intellectuals go on to insist that ALL members have no choice but to be cafeteria Mormons. In this vein, a moral inversion takes place such that the difference between hetero- and orthro-doxy has been replaced with the difference between those members who are conscious of their own (unavoidable) cafeteriality and those who are not so conscious of theirs. A robust understanding of church history, these heterodox intellectuals claim, makes it perfectly obvious that the contradictory teachings of cafeteria Mormonism do objectively exist. Thus, no matter what any and every member of the church actually believes and teaches, they inevitably violate some moral obligation or another. This, I insist, is completely and totally false.
The argument for cafeteria Mormonism is based in an entirely false understanding of prophetic authority and looks something like the following:
P1) Some (all?) prophetic authorities (living or dead) are equally authorized to declare truth/falsehood.
P2) Some authorities have declared some teachings to be true while other authorities have declared those same teachings to be false.
P3) We cannot live up to our moral obligation to both accept and reject the same teaching.
P4) We must, therefore, pick and choose which of these teachings we will accept or reject according to how consistent they are with some external, secular standard (science, politics, etc.).
By this confused line of reasoning, our secular teachers are tacitly placed on the same level as (perhaps higher than) the prophetic authorities in question. This is what makes the “cafeteria Mormon” such an appealing category to the more intellectual church members whose Enlightenment values resist their being in tutelage to traditional church authorities. (As a side note, it is for this very reason that I myself am so suspicious of those members who prescribe as much of an overlapping consistency between science and religion as possible. It’s not that I am hostile to a robust overlap as such, only to the ways in which this overlap can be illegitimately leveraged against prophetic authorities and lead us down false paths.)
Note well that most such intellectuals typically do not spell out P1 when they argue for or appeal to the “cafeterial” nature of Mormonism. This first premise is necessary, however, if P2 is ever to gain any traction, for if the differing authorities are not actually equal in authority, then there is no need to appeal to an external, secular standard. Instead, such intellectuals busily go about illustrating P2 by multiplying differences in church teachings and giving them the illicit appearance of contradiction.
If, however, no two prophetic authorities are ever equal to each other, then the fact that different authorities have declared one and the same teaching to be both true and false is morally irrelevant. Here is how such a counter-argument runs:
P1)* No two prophetic authorities are ever equally authorized to declare truth/falsehood to one and the same person at one and the same time. One authority always supersedes another.
P2)* Different prophetic authorities are supposed to teach different and even inconsistent things to the different people that fall within their differing stewardships.
P3)* When different prophetic authorities pronounce the same teaching to be both true and false, we only have a moral obligation to follow the one who has higher authority over us.
P4)* To pick and choose teachings by an appeal to any external, secular standard just is to (wrongly) treat that secular standard as if it were the higher prophetic authority.
The heterodox member’s basic argument for cafeteria Mormonism was to say that since church authorities contradict each other and thus cannot be trusted, we will, therefore, rely on those secular authorities that we can trust – “You think the prophets say this, I think they say that… So we’ll let science be the higher judge and break the tie.” But this just is to make unauthorized, false prophets out of scientists, even when these typically do not pretend to such authority. This, however, is exactly what follows from Cafeteria Mormonism. The correct view, by contrast, is to say that since there never was and never will be any tie to break between prophetic authorities, we simply have no need for any appeal to external, secular standards. For this is exactly what appeals to cafeteria Mormonism are supposed to do: give the appearance of legitimacy to the heterodox member’s allegiance to external and secular standards/values/politics over the living church leaders.
To anticipate what I think is the most potent objection, it could very well be the case that this counter-argument does not cover every single tension that might exist within one and the same church authority. I am not totally uncomfortable with this objection, however, if only because it tacitly grants my proposal to sideline all contradictions between different authorities – this being the primary tactic of the heterodox members in question. I would also suggest that since we do not have a full and equal moral obligation to accept every single teaching of any particular living authority, I suspect that most such disagreements are merely “open” in nature. If the heterodox still insist that there are genuinely cafeteria teachings within the church such that the same living church authority has placed one and the same person under a moral obligation to both accept and reject one and the same teaching at the same time in the person’s life, then I would simply state that this rather high burden of proof has not been unambiguously met. Not by a long shot.