Culture and Doctrine

Commenting on a recent FMH thread (see #85), Sonnet raises some good questions:

When we call something “cultural,” then we allow ourselves to think of that thing as peripheral, perhaps silly, and certainly not required for salvation. But who gets to decide what is doctrine and what is culture? . . . I would be willing to bet that everyone’s configurations of doctrine and culture are different: How do you decide what is doctrine and what is not? Do you believe that someone else can tell you? Why is this distinction a useful one to make?

I’ve been wondering the same thing. This separation is frequently proposed as a way to deal with aspects of the Church that a person finds difficult. Once something gets labeled “culture,” as Sonnet observes, it’s easy to dismiss it; in fact, “culture” at times seems to simply be shorthand for “something I don’t like/believe.” However, I’m finding myself more and more skeptical about any clear-cut distinction between the two.

For one thing, what might be seen as cultural excesses frequently have some kind of relationship to what might fall under the heading of “doctrine.” The idea that drinking Coke is a sin, for example, is obviously connected to the way in which people are understanding the Word of Wisdom. If there’s a cultural tendency to act a bit exclusive or superior to “the world”, to give another example, there just might be some link between that and the “only true church” idea. And if sometimes we act like a bunch of overworked lunatics trying to save ourselves, I’m guessing that’s related to Church teachings on faith and works. In other words, the stuff that’s getting identified as culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s intertwined with our understanding of doctrine.

And the reverse is true as well: our doctrine is inextricably tied up with culture. Even in scripture, it’s not always clear which bits we should view as which. (Where does the Nephite practice of capital punishment fall? What about Paul’s prescribed gender roles?) In any case, doctrine doesn’t descend upon us in a completely transcendent fashion; it’s always mediated through language and culture. I’m not sure it’s possible to peel back the cultural overlay to reveal some pure, untainted truth lying underneath; we always encounter doctrine in cultural forms. The atonement, for example, which probably most of us would agree is a “core doctrine,” is explained using a variety of cultural references: Jesus is said to have paid our debt, or to have mediated for us in a kind of legal setting. Likewise, when we say that God is our father, the way people hear that is going to depend on a culturally-shaped understanding of what “fatherhood” entails.

When it comes to making sense of ideas and practices found in the Church, I certainly wouldn’t say that we can’t make any distinctions at all, that everything from white shirts and green jello to teachings about faith, hope, and charity, is on par. But I do think that sorting out where something falls on the continuum from “weird cultural tic” to “essential saving doctrine” is often a less than straightforward process.


  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–mostly how rules and policies (e.g. “no shorts at girls’ camp”) are expressions of doctrines (e.g. “the body is sacred”), which are expressions of principles (e.g. “chastity”), which are attempts at expressing some ultimate capital-T Truth (e.g. “I am a Child of God”). This linear model may not always work, but it does in many cases, and often along the way, a Rule gets mistaken for Truth. I think the cultural lens has a lot to do with that.

    Awesome post.

  2. I would say that strictly speaking there is no hard distinction between doctrine and culture. Theology is a social science, and the ordinances and covenants are the mandatory aspects of our heavenly society. However they imply a wide variety of ancillary practices and conventins which are witnessed to various degrees by the Spirit, which testifies of all Truth.

    And the truth certainly includes all the aspects of the culture of heaven, and the associated reasons for those aspects, not just the absolutely critical ones. Can one really imagine the most sophisticated society in existence having a more primitive culture than the ones we are familiar with on earth?

    And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.
    (D&C 130:2)

  3. Who gets to decide? The Spirit does. Some laws are very strict, others not so much, others, not laws per se, are things that are pleasing unto the Lord.

    And who gets to authoritatively declare the voice of the Spirit? The Priesthood, notwithstanding His voice should be apparent to all those who have received the gift of the Holy Ghost. The spirit of prophecy and of revelation is not restricted to anyone – Would to god that all could be prophets – But the authority to make a binding ruling is vested in the keys of presidency, as long as they are exercised in righteousness. Judge not, lest ye be judged. But judge righteous judgement.

    One last thing – the body of Christ has many members, which body we are (when we live up to the name). Who then is then body of the Holy Ghost? No tangible body has He. But a body He has.

  4. Idahospud made a really good point. There seems to be layers. For example: What is modesty? This question can only be answered through a cultural biased lense. What was modest 100 years ago, is grossly different from what is modest today. However, the doctrine behind the rule remains stagnant: Our bodies are sacred and should be treated as such.
    Great post.

  5. Good post; great points. I think you’re absolutely right that the culture/doctrine distinction largely serves as a tool to help us disparage Mormon beliefs that we don’t happen to like, without our having to scrutinize the source of those beliefs and risk seeing that certain “cultural” practices/beliefs actually meet, or come close to meeting, our preferred “doctrinal” tests a lot of the time (as you pointed out).

    And don’t forget the categories of “policy” and “principle,” which are also invoked to ostensibly make sense of the morass of beliefs and practices in Mormonism, but which fare no better in providing a coherent categorization scheme to classify Mormon teachings.

    Better to stop playing the labeling game, in my opinion, and just acknowledge that the World of Mormon Beliefs is not going to be adequately captured by our nifty little wordgames. (Of course, some sort of shorthand for talking about Mormon beliefs is inevitable, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves in believing that our labels are any more useful than they really are).

    I’ve droned on and on about this before. See the following thread, for example:

    Aaron B

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone.

    Aaron B, it’s good to know I’m not the only one to have droned on about this topic! Thanks for the link; I enjoyed your post.

    Idahospud and Jilopa, I also like that framework of layers. I’ll have to think about that more.

    Dave, you’ve summed up my point quite well, though I might add something going the other direction, too (culture is shaped by doctrine).

    Stephen, I wonder whether most church members don’t have some kind of central text they use as a kind of “this is what it’s all about”; it would be interesting to hear what people see playing that role. Moroni 7 is a good one.

    Mark Butler, I agree that the Spirit is a good place to turn for the “who gets to decide” question.

    One more thought: George Lindbeck makes the case that doctrines should be understood as something akin to grammatical rules. They don’t so much contribute content as lay out the structure for what can be said. Those fluent in a language might not be able to explicitly articulate such rules, but they nonetheless have a sense of what “sounds right.” It’s an interesting approach, and I’m wondering whether it might be useful in thinking about this.


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