DialoguesTheology & Spirituality

Learning from the Latter-Day Saints, Part I

A few years ago, I was working on a sermon, listening absent-mindedly to hymns on a list generated by YouTube. Deep in my writing, I suddenly became aware that the music floating through the background of my mind was filled with strange and unfamiliar words:

If you could hie to Kolob in the twinkling of an eye

And then continue onward with that same speed to fly,

Do you think that you could ever, through all eternity,

Find out the generation where Gods began to be?

Or see the grand beginning, where space did not extend?

Or view the last creation, where Gods and matter end?

Methinks the Spirit whispers, “No man has found ‘pure space,’

Nor seen the outside the curtains, where nothing has a place.”

Unbeknownst to me, I was listening to the Latter-Day Saint[1] singing group, Elenyi, as they performed a medley which included William Phelps’ beloved hymn, If You Could Hie to Kolob. As I reflected on the breathtaking cosmic and metaphysical vision expressed in the lyrics, I felt a surge of curiosity. I wanted to know more about the Latter-Day Saints.

I was already well aware, of course, that Latter-Day Saints were not traditional Christians. I knew they did not hold the doctrines articulated in, say, the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, and I knew that their understanding of Scripture extended well-beyond any received Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant canon. I recognize that for some, this heterodoxy is an obstacle to dialogue and further study; but for me, these differences only served to make my theological explorations more vibrant and stimulating. The more I learned about the Latter-Day Saints, the more I found to contemplate, question and admire, and in the process my own spiritual intuitions were affirmed: intra-Christian dialogue, much like inter-religious dialogue, can be a powerful means of nourishing and clarifying our personal faith while simultaneously deepening the compassion and charity with which we approach the faith of others.[2]

This brings me to the present two-part article. I don’t think orthodox Christians should be afraid to learn from the Latter-Day Saints, and I will admit that one aspect of their tradition I find compelling is the way in which LDS Church members relate to the concept of doctrine. Doctrine is, in essence, precisely formulated religious teaching. While it is true, as Maurice Blondel once noted, that spiritual experience and knowledge can never be “poured ready-made into minds like words into ears,” doctrine is essential to any Christian community. Doctrines work to share and preserve basic narratives and points of self-understanding so that those within the Church have reliable access to her wisdom and judgments.

And yet, within many Christian communities, appeals to doctrine are increasingly viewed with discomfort and suspicion. In the face of growing concerns regarding religious pluralism and the inherent diversity of human experience, a turn to doctrine seems, at least to some, to be a hindrance to creating community rather than a help. Interestingly, Latter-Day Saints do not share these hesitations. They positively delight in their doctrine, and in so doing, I believe they can help us re-imagine the relationship between doctrine and spiritual life.

Doctrine as a Path for Life

Without doubt, the Latter-Day Saints are one of the most remarkable products of America’s uniquely generative (and fissiparous) Christian culture. The movement first gathered around Joseph Smith in the early 1830’s, taking root amidst the general religious fervor that marked the infamous burned-over district[3] in western and central New York. Before long, Smith and his followers quickly gained a reputation for unusual teaching and practices. They experienced new revelations, accepted new Scriptures, instituted new liturgical rituals, and triumphantly announced the full and complete restoration of the original Church founded by Jesus Christ. The doctrines that grew up around these claims made the Latter-Day Saints a distinctive people, and as they fled persecution and sought a place to root and grow their new community, these doctrines offered support and direction amidst the turmoil of life.

In the Book of Mormon, we can see an emphasis on doctrine taking shape early on. In 1 Nephi 15:14, for example, the prophet declares:

And at that day shall the remnant of our seed know that they are of the house of Israel, and that they are the covenant people of the Lord; and then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and also to the knowledge of the gospel of their Redeemer, which was ministered unto their fathers by him; wherefore, they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved.

For Nephi, doctrines are not abstractions. Doctrine bleeds and breathes. It is intertwined with communal history and self-identity, and it illumines the mind so that one may come to know Jesus Christ as Redeemer. Nephi’s doctrines are not meant to be idly thought about; they are meant to be practiced and to effect real transformation in day-to-day life. This view is also reinforced in Abraham 3:24-25, which teaches that life on earth offers a chance for men and women to prove themselves by following the decrees and commandments of God. In both of these texts a common view emerges: the “very points” of doctrine are a spiritual path by which men and women are to traverse the world and arrive at an intimate, saving relationship with God Himself.

Joseph Smith’s own teachings are a remarkable development and expression of this position. In his Doctrines and Covenants, Smith expounds on the doctrines of his Restoration, adding a wealth of practical detail and counsel. Central to Smith’s teaching is the belief that God held a premortal council in which He presented to all people the plan of salvation (D & C 121:32). Having accepted the plan, all human beings are now called by God to walk in His ways and to learn the necessary spiritual lessons that come with mortal, embodied existence. Seen from this vantage point, the importance of doctrine increases exponentially. Not only does doctrine offer a path through the world, increasing our holiness and knowledge, but it also connects us to the heavenly world we once knew and now yearn to recover. The path of doctrine is, in Smith’s analysis, an eternal road – one that stretches from our premortal existence throughout our mortal life and into the ages to come.

Doctrine and the Work of Love

This robust vision of doctrine remains a hallmark of Latter-Day Saint thinking and practice to this day, but it does not exist in a vacuum. The articulation of Church doctrine is, for Latter-Day Saints, inseparable from the caring, tight-knit milieu of Church life. Latter-Day Saints are, after all, family. They believe they are all children of the same Heavenly Parents; they call one another ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and ‘elder’ when they gather. Familial love and concern are bedrock Latter-Day Saint values, and I believe this too informs their approach to doctrine in positive ways.

For example, in the classic book Gospel Principles – a standard Latter-Day Saint study manual that enjoys wide use in wards[4] throughout the United States – an explicit connection is made between love and doctrine on the very first page. All who teach in the Church are encouraged to care for their students by observing the following practices when they give lessons: (1) Love those you teach, (2) Teach by the Spirit, (3) Teach the doctrine, (4) Invite diligent learning.[5]

As an experienced teacher and catechist myself, I can scarcely offer better advice. Although my own community, the Episcopal Church, prides itself on being both thoughtful and supportive of lay members, I rarely hear strong admonitions from our Bishops to lovingly teach the doctrines of our Nicene faith in such a way as to invite “diligent learning” and spiritual growth among the laity. In fact, at the first parish I served, a prominent Diocesan official suggested the opposite: the parish should “de-emphasize” doctrine, lest it “turn off” newcomers. Outreach ministries and good youth programming, he suggested, were more likely to attract new people.

In contrast, the Latter-Day Saints emphasize the communal wisdom of doctrine over the cultural forces of attraction (a quick glance at Gospel Principles bears this out). Yet unlike some conservative Protestant approaches to doctrine, which may run the risk of being overly intellectual, Latter-Day Saints call attention to the essential relationship between love and knowledge. Indeed, the first duty of a teacher, as Gospel Principles makes beautifully clear, is to love.

This theological emphasis on love, it seems to me, is necessary for the full reclamation of doctrine in contemporary life.[6] Love is revelatory. In the light of love, it soon becomes apparent that the “very points of doctrine” are not, in their fullest sense, a system of propositions. Doctrines are living truths; they must be embraced and embodied. The true teacher of doctrine is one in whom the doctrines are actually at work, drawing the teacher closer to God and filling him or her with greater love and devotion. This is an approach to doctrine that is both true to life and capable of thinking through life in faithful ways. It rests, quite notably, not solely on the teacher’s authority or intellectual mastery (a constant temptation), but also upon the loving capacity of the teacher to call forth a student’s own natural desire to learn, know and experience truth directly.

Concluding Thoughts

For me, the witness of the Latter-Day Saints raises an important question: are orthodox Christians willing and able to delight in our doctrines? Sometimes, I’m not so sure. But the Latter-Day Saints give me hope. They remind me that doctrine is about life and for life – a gift from God to help His children grow in love and knowledge. Learning and contemplating doctrinal truths should not be relegated to Sunday School or seminary classrooms; doctrine should inform the whole of life. Indeed, a properly integrated and comprehensive understanding of doctrine can be a road to greater maturity and spiritual awareness. As the Prophet Isaiah says, “Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts” (28:9).

And if this is true, perhaps it is possible for doctrine – as my ongoing dialogue with the Latter-Day Saints will suggest in Part II – to lead us into higher spiritual climes as well.

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Brian Rebholtz

Brian Rebholtz

Brian L. Rebholtz is the Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Auburn, CA. (saintlukesauburn.org) He holds a B.A. in Religion and Anthropology from the University of New Hampshire, a M.A. in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, and a M.Div from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. His interests include Bible design, homiletics, metaphysics and the spiritual aspirations of human beings. He is married to Catherine, a small animal veterinarian, and lives in a home filled with books, animals and children.

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