Deep Doctrine

“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.

14 comments

  1. There is absolutely no upside for an active LDS person to want to explore “deep doctrine” during the sanctified 3 hour block in most wards. There are just certain topics that those teaching are either ill prepared or unwilling to discuss. Wanting a dialogue, again in most wards, on “deep doctrine” will earn one a reputation of borderline apostate. An institution that proclaims that “the glory of God is intelligence” has a very long way to go to live up to that mantra.




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  2. “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.”

    Spot on, Lynnette. Do you think this is related to our model of religious learning as acquiring a body of propositional knowledge? That is, we’re sure we have everything figured out because we have a bit of propositional knowledge to throw at every difficult question?

    Q: If God is just and all-powerful, why did my baby die?
    A: Because people need to have their agency. Or maybe because the world is fallen. Next question.




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  3. Oh, and regarding your point that it’s no surprise people are looking for more, I wonder if this isn’t a problem for full-time seminary teachers. At least in my limited experience, they were veritable founts of all the looniest bits of pseudo-doctrine, perhaps as a result of having grown bored with the boring way we treat the core of the gospel.




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  4. Yes. So much “amen” here:

    “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. […] 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 here:

    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.

    I agree that the way we frame this – as though something obscure like “how do you make spirit babies (and do they even exist)?” is somehow more “deep” than the mystery of divine grace – is off.

    I’ve wondered if this is in part because of the way we frame learning generally in broader Mormon culture. We place such a high premium on rote memorization (memorizing the Articles of Faith in Primary; scripture chases in Seminary) and its outgrowth, using scriptures as proof texts (in Institute; in missionary work; in Sunday School – we have scripture-as-prooftext modeled to us from the pulpit at General Conference with some regularity as well). It makes a certain kind of sense that, in a culture that values this kind of memorization and recitation of scriptures and talks, we could assume that less-discussed, more arcane topics are somehow more “deep” because of the assumption that one who focuses on them has already mastered the earlier “basics.”

    If this is the case – and acknowledging that my speculation may be off-base – I wonder how we could more effectively include critical thinking and creative engagement, as you suggest, to shift the focus back to the depth inherent in things like the love of God?




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  5. Cami, I think that depends. I’ve been in wards where people loved to speculate, and cooked up all kinds of strange theories.

    Ziff, that’s a really interesting point about seminary teachers! I too found them to be the source of the some of the strangest stuff I’ve learned in the church, but it makes sense that when the basics get presented in mind-numbing way, you might go off in speculative directions.

    Ziff and Galdralag, I agree with both of you about this being related to the way we frame learning. I think we’ve borrowed from the academic model as well, wherein the first stuff you learn is the simplest and the foundation for more advanced stuff. There are probably some ways in which the model works, but I think that’s not entirely the case for religious knowledge.

    And yes, how to shift that? Really good question. I think good pedagogy can make a difference. I’m thinking about the really good teachers I’ve encountered, who managed to facilitate actual discussion of real topics, and thinking of how they did it. It seems like a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, to sit with contradiction without having to immediately fix it, is helpful. And if we seriously read our scriptures–and not just what the manual has to say about them–there’s all kinds of good stuff to grapple with.




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  6. “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.”

    Yes, and I would add, what we need is a space to share our individual viewpoints and perspectives more. I find different interpretations, assumptions, and life experiences deeply interesting. However, most of what is shared in the Mormon sphere is framed within a prescribed rhetoric and, thus, stripped of the elements that would make what is shared most interesting to me.




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  7. Lynette,
    You are absolutely correct. That is why I said most wards and should have said most wards we have attended. A few years ago we were a member of a ward in Walnut Creek, CA. There was tasteful guitar music in sacrament meeting and the young sister who taught gospel doctrine wore a pant suit and had a degree in anthropology. There was stimulating conversation from time to time in that ward. We have moved around a fair bit and found most of the conversations in the other wards were pretty pedestrian when compared to that experience.




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  8. Great thoughts. We could get a lot of soul-enriching mileage out of discussions about grace and atonement if only we could curtail the deeply-ingrained instinct to quote an apostle and be done with it.

    My other problem with the term and idea of “deep doctrine” is that often very salient matters get lumped in with the not so salient just because we don’t talk about them in our basic lessons. It sure doesn’t matter to me what specific atoms spirit matter is made of, but doctrines about Heavenly Mother, polygamy, and yeah, even spirit babies, matter to me a lot because they color my relationship with God. Church leaders used to throw deep doctrine down at General Conference all the time, and their delving in those areas left disturbances that our current squeamishness in dealing with deep doctrine has left untouched.




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  9. I hate the term deep doctrine, too. Mostly because I acquired the impression that deep doctrines were known by only a few special people, and most of the rest of us were not privy to them. Maybe that’s just me.

    Ziff – totally my experience with most of the seminary teachers, too! (Davis County, Utah public schools here)

    Can I ask a question of Galdralag (or anybody else) about prooftexting. It’s a term I hear around the Bloggernacle somewhat regularly, and I can tell from context it’s used pejoratively. So I Googled it one time and from what I can tell it means to take a verse out of context and use it to support one’s meaning, regardless if it would mean the same thing given the proper context. Is that right? If so, would it still be prooftexting if you still just used one verse or verse fragment, but actually did convey the meaning of the original context? Because really how often does a speaker have time to present scripture in its full context?




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  10. Amens all the way down. Thanks, Lynette! I think that instead of looking for esoterica, we should simply pay closer, critical attention to the basics. Any student of theology (like you) knows that vast treatises have been written on, say, faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Spirit. We might risk transforming these things into just another kind of arcana, but on the other hand it’s annoying that we rattle off the Sunday School answers as though we actually knew what they meant, or the implications of believing one thing about them instead of another. I don’t mean to say that we should get more propositionally specific; rather, I believe that this kind of inquiry can lead us as a community into greater spiritual union. It’s not that the doctrine we discuss is shallow, but that our way of discussing it all too often is.




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  11. I must disagree with a point. “Deep doctrine” does not mean esoteric doctrine. As commonly used, it generally means folk doctrine (though those really into folk doctrine ususally think it’s actually esoteric doctrine), or it could also be used to mean unrevealed doctrine. In either case, it should be avoided. Rather, folks should search for deeper meanings of established doctrines which, far too often, never happens during block meetings.




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  12. I love what you said about “more willingness to challenge our assumptions.” It would be refreshing to have a Sunday discussion where someone said “have you ever looked at it this way?” without it causing the downpour of assumed correct answers. I think too often people use esoteric doctrine to show off how much more they have studied the doctrine than anyone else. It rarely adds anything to a lesson.




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  13. “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.”

    I AGREE. But I doubt the brethren would agree. Critical thinking and challenging assumptions leads to the opening of the mind, which leads to doubting the church. I think that is a good thing, but not many TBMs would think so.




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