“Deep doctrine” is one of the phrases I most dislike in Mormonism. It’s usually used with reference to questions like the location of Kolob, the Lost Ten Tribes, the role of other planets in the Plan of Salvation, the characteristics of different phases of existence, the meaning of various symbols in the book of Revelation, and so on and so forth.
If people want to spend their time exploring such subjects, I have no objection. I have plenty of my own strange interests. What I dislike, however, is the framework in which these topics are “deeper” than more central teachings, or that they are for the spiritually sophisticated. “Deep” all too often gets used as a synonym for “esoteric.” And one might ask, all right then, what are the “shallow” doctrines? Faith, repentance, the atonement? Are those doctrines that you grasp before moving on to the more advanced ones? Something seems more than a little off in such a model.
The idea of deep doctrine seems to be based on a model of religious learning in which learning is about the acquisition of propositional knowledge. But religious knowledge isn’t propositional. It’s relational. It’s experiential. Turning it into nothing more than a string of intellectual propositions divorces it from what makes it meaningful, what makes it relevant to the actual life experience of people. We sometimes talk about the mysteries of God as if they were abstract ideas. But mystery doesn’t mean a code that your decipher. It’s something you engage: intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. Is there a greater mystery, after all, than that of God’s love? And ideally, genuine engagement with the gospel should make you a better person—not a more obnoxious dinner guest.
I think part of the reason that the notion of “deep doctrine” is enticing is that we teach “the basics” in such a boring way. Sunday school, after all, is about asking the same questions and giving the same answers over and over. And we so often act as if we already have all the answers to all of life’s challenging questions; we present things as if we have them all figured out. It’s no wonder that people are looking for more. But I don’t think we need more bizarre doctrines to liven things up. Our basic doctrines actually have plenty of depth. What we need is more critical thinking, more creative engagement, more willingness to challenge our assumptions. If we do that, I think we’ll find there’s plenty to discuss.