My post on inerrancy generated… a large amount of traffic and conversation. I read a great number of comments on Facebook, Twitter, and forums and message boards, across the spectrum of LDS commitment and faith. I want to take this opportunity to revisit, clarify, and add. I can’t do it all here; some will require another post.
The original conversation which prompted my post took place in a public Facebook group (don’t ask me to specify) and was deleted by a group admin. Neither of the men I argued with currently write manuals or work for Correlation.
Some people wondered why I was making “such a big deal about an internet argument” (because isn’t that what the internet is for?) And yes, usually when I hear this kind of thing, my reaction is simply
However… two points.
First, this is not the first time I have seen de facto inerrancy. I hear it with some frequency. I’ve seen those two men do it before on Facebook, and seen it from other Church employees at various ranks and levels, as well as laypeople who have absorbed it. I know first-hand accounts of junior faculty at BYU being rebuked by mid-level admins because “we’re not trying to disabuse students of their myths about Church leadership.” (Sidenote, um, why not? Shouldn’t BYU, Institute, and Seminary be the ideal places to counteract false ideas and promote correct ones about the nature of Church leadership? Places of faith and intellect where we can tackle hard questions together, in constructive ways that build faith?)
I often write from a place of deep frustration, even anger at times. Crafting careful, argumentative logical language of faith is cathartic for me, like a good run. But.
I have a personal policy not to post such things in their raw form; I don’t gripe for the sake of griping. I hold onto my gripes until a) I have edited out any tonal issues and b) I become confident that I can raise the issue and discuss in a constructive, non-adversarial way. I turn my gripes into non-gripes, my swords into plow-shares. I am profoundly a believer, a committed Latter-day Saint, and one who cares deeply about loss of faith in others. I write in order to build faith, typically by trying to help people gain more mature perspectives, more robust frameworks and paradigms that can handle grey, complexity, and ambiguity.
But in this case, because I perceive the culture of inerrancy to be so widespread and so damaging, I very consciously took the gloves off. This topic needs to be nuked from orbit. I do not cry wolf, in order that when I do sound the alarm, it’s taken seriously. One commenter noticed this (thank you, Eric), who felt that I
frequently let the church off too easy when evaluating the manner in which it approaches our Standard Works via the manuals and other sources. That is certainly not the case, however, with this post. Here, now you have taken the gloves off, for which you are to be thanked and applauded.
Your words today actually carry more force and power because of the restraint you have exhibited in the past.
Second, I would wager that if you took all those people encouraging inerrancy, and asked them bluntly “do you accept or teach inerrancy?” they’d say “Of course not!”… and then they’d turn around, and promote inerrancy, just not in so few words. The manuals must be correct, don’t you know who reviews them?
I received a number of private responses thanking me for calling attention to this, because they too have seen a culture of inerrancy and its negative effects on faith in the Church and don’t know what to do about it. These came from a variety of people, including some Church employees and S&I professionals. I know of one who even assigned the post to a class for discussion purposes. Perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of private comments I received from Church employees, BYU professors and S&I were supportive.
Here I post two private comments, by permission and edited.
First, from a therapist who finds my words helpful with LDS patients struggling with doctrinal issues.
I wanted to thank you for your Fairmormon talk about the composite nature of revelation and your post about the blunder with the Come Follow Me manual. I am a therapist and I have forwarded them on to several patients. You are helping so many people. Your posts have helped me so much! I know you sacrifice by speaking up and you get backlash, but what you are doing is exactly what our church needs!
I think what we need is more faithful Latter-day Saints who read deeply, think carefully, and talk/write publicly about the nature of revelation, prophets, scripture, interpretation, authority, and history. I could name, among others, Terryl and Fiona Givens, Julie Smith, Joseph Spencer, Rosalynde Welch, Nathan Oman, Steven Harper, Spencer Fluhman, Patrick Mason…
As President Hinckley said,
It is imperative that we as teachers in the seminary and institute of religion program of the Church read constantly the scriptures and other books related directly to the history, the doctrine, and the practices of the Church. But we ought also to be reading secular history, the great literature that has survived the ages, and the writings of contemporary thinkers and doers. In so doing we will find inspiration to pass on to our students who will need all the balanced strength they can get as they face the world into which they move.
Indeed, said President Lee,
The future of the [LDS] Church depends on those who are both faithful and learned.
It’s one thing to think in simplistic binary terms as a kid. But inerrancy is as simplistic and binary as it comes, which is what makes it so dangerously fragile. As adults, we should progress beyond aside simplistic binaries (in most cases) or we are at serious spiritual risk.
From an African woman who
immigrated to the US as a young child moved within Africa as a child, and immigrated to the US in her twenties-
I don’t know if you fully understand this, but you are starting conversations about prophets and scripture that members like me want to have, but people won’t listen to us. There are many minorities in the Church, specifically black members, who have been hurt by members who don’t want to admit prophets make mistakes. They don’t like when people talk about prophets as if they’re human and they get uneasy whenever someone insinuates that the scriptures didn’t come directly from God. Problems like our interpretation of 2 Nephi 5 haven’t gone away for the exact reasons you are talking about on your blog and other places. The culture we have of treating everything adjacent to the Church Office Building as infallible is perpetuating a lot of racist ideas that hurt me and my black brothers and sisters every day. People want me to be quiet about the problems I see. They shame me into being quiet because they won’t accept the kind of framework you are talking about. Thank you for fighting for us.
Inerrancy is not to be written off as an arcane, academic concern, or irrelevant bit of pseudo-doctrine; its presence has real effects on real people, as the comment above illustrates.
Now, there were a few reactions like this, of course, but I’m thick-skinned.
Now, why is inerrancy so important, and what’s my motive?
I’m aware that some people pushing the errancy/humanity of prophets are doing so for the (apparent) motive of creating wiggle room for current orthopraxy. That is, they’re motived to argue “prophets can make mistakes” (which is not my framing) to justify their own decisions which are not consistent with Church standards or counsel.
My take, by contrast, is historical/theological/apologetic; That is, people who approach issues of church history or doctrine while committed to inerrancy very quickly find that prophets don’t measure up to the expectations created by inerrancy. If you teach that prophets acting as prophets always know the ultimate truth, then there should be no disagreement between prophets even at different times (complete consistency throughout history) and no disagreement between prophets and well-established knowledge… which we might call science. Particularly when it comes to biological evolution, inerrancy creates a very hard dichotomy, and people often choose science. (Which isn’t a surprise, given the hegemony of science as a way of knowing today.) And so people raised with inerrancy quickly lose faith when those ideas are undermined; they leave the Church and take their inerrancy with them.
So I come at the topic of inerrancy very much from a theological/apologetic “preserve faith” perspective, not a orthopraxy/libertine perspective. I tend to emphasize the humanity of prophets when it comes to what prophets know; the authority of apostles and prophets in the Church is not dependent on them having God-like knowledge. Rather, it’s that God has chosen them to have authority in the Church. (In technical terms, I think their authority is primarily ecclesiastical, not epistemological.) So I draw a distinction between what prophets know or teach, on the one hand, and what they instruct us to do and how to act (morals and behavior) on the other.
And what is the nature of prophetic knowledge? It’s quite different than people think. I’ve got a good essay on it here, and a follow-up here, plus my FAIRMormon talk from 2019. There’s plenty to chew on and think about there.
Inerrancy is false: it’s fragile, it leads to loss of faith, it’s harmful to real people, and it seems to be pervasive in our LDS culture. In order to talk about it productively and counter it, we need to think and read more deeply about the nature of revelation, prophets, scripture, interpretation, and authority. Prophets are real! But they aren’t all-knowing, even when acting as prophets. That fact doesn’t get us off the hook and let us do whatever we want; it just means our discipleship requires more mind, more heart, and more complexity.
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