Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Toward a Theology of Dissent: An Ecclesiological Interpretation

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Toward a Theology of Dissent: An Ecclesiological Interpretation

Article excerpt

My goal here is twofold. First, I want to demonstrate that current notions about dissent in the Church-whether it is good or bad-are inadequate because the language available for talking about dissent is insufficient. Both dissenters and their critics oversimplify and improperly conf late categories, which leads to a great deal of suspicion and mistrust on all sides because we can't communicate effectively with each other. This deficiency is not particularly anyone's fault; rather, it indicates that we need a better concept of what dissent is, so that we can talk about it in more subtle ways.

Thus,my second task is to present a particular way of thinking about Mormon ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is relevant because dissent is inherently a churchly act; the very word implies a particular relationship with authority. What I have to offer, I hope, will aid us in thinking about the roles dissent might play in a Mormon ecclesiological context.

For many Mormons, the word dissent functions, more or less, as a synecdoche for apostasy-that state defined in official Church publications as a state of being rather than as a particular violation, as a general orientation against the principles of the faith.1 Elders Neal A. Maxwell, James E. Faust, and Russell M. Nelson, among other contemporary General Authorities, have used the terms interchangeably. There is simultaneously a great deal of line-blurring and very little wiggle room here. Dissenters stand in company with "critics" and "skeptics-anyone who keeps us in darkness and tries to keep us from finding the light," as President Faust put it.2 "Saints of the Lord follow Him and His anointed leaders," Elder Nelson warned, so inevitably "the path of dissent leads to real dangers." He offered as an example the corrupted Nephite dissenters referred to in Alma 47:36, who "not long after their dissensions became more hardened and impenitent, and more wild, wicked and ferocious."3

According to these apostles, dissent is a manifestation of two sins: the specific crime of contention and disobedience but also, consistent with its characterization as apostasy, a sign that one is generally out of harmony with the Church and therefore out of harmony with the faith the Church teaches. Indeed, the identification between assent to authority and commitment is so close that that the Church's official reference work True to the Faith promises: "You can safeguard yourself against personal apostasy by keeping your covenants, obeying the commandments [and] following Church leaders."4

This sort of conf lation is unfortunate but also understandable. The most famous dissenters in Mormon history may be the Book of Mormon characters Laman and Lemuel.5 Close behind, of course, come the triple anti-Christs of the same book. Given the imperative of "likening" that governs Mormon scriptural hermeneutics, the examples of Sherem and Korihor can be read, not merely as particular events, but also as normative generalizations. Since Sherem and Korihor advocated dissent out of insincerity and a conscious decision to follow Satan rather than God, and since Laman and Lemuel murmured, and since the Nephite dissenters who followed Amalekiah did so despite their "knowledge of the Lord" (Alma 47:36), it is easy to conclude that dissent is inherently harmful both to the Church and to the believer. Moreover, in all of these cases, dissent is not accidentally or unintentionally harmful but is undertaken with deliberate and malevolent intent.

Consequently, given the scriptural and institutional authority behind these assertions, it seems clear that it is quite Mormon to label dissent evil. But many dissenters insist that their actions are not the fruit of apostasy. Rather they are motivated by deep commitment to the principles of Mormonism. They point to the tradition of Joseph Smith, dissenter from frontier evangelicalism. They insist that Mormon doctrine describes individuals who are born equipped with the right to seek divine inspiration, tools of powerful spiritual discernment, and a conscience uncorrupted by the Fall; thus, they are able to correctly make moral decisions- and all of this independent of the structure of the institution. …

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