I’ve been thinking recently about some of the wild theological controversies in Christian history, such as the inclusion of the word filioque in the Nicene Creed (having to do with whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son), which was one of the dividing lines between East and West; the Reformation debate over justification by faith alone; and the meaning of the Eucharist: transubstantiation, or just a symbol? (I recently read about how during a particular historical period in England when anti-Catholic sentiment carried the day, you could be outright imprisoned for elevating the Host.) And I’ve been thinking also about Mormon disputations with other Christians, focused on issues like the nature of God and salvation by grace, as well more internal Mormon controversies over matters such caffeinated drinks, Book of Mormon historicity, and of course all kinds of questions related to gender and sexual orientation.
Those who are deemed on the wrong side of these debates might get the label “heretic.” Bruce R. McConkie famously spoke of “seven deadly heresies”: the doctrine that God is progressing, the theory of evolution, the idea that temple marriage guarantees exaltation, the notion that you can get a “second chance” in the next life, the idea of progression between kingdoms, the infamous Adam-God doctrine, and the teaching that you have to be perfect to be saved. While I might actually believe in some of McConkie’s particular heresies, or at least be open to them, I’m thinking that there are nonetheless certain teachings that I’ve heard regularly which I think are deeply destructive—in my view, much more so than not having the “right” view of the Trinity/Godhead, or even of Book of Mormon historicity. So here’s my list of my own “seven deadly heresies”:
1) If you keep the commandments and/or engage in certain religious practices, you can escape life’s adversities. I feel like I’ve encountered this sentiment in all kinds of forms, ranging from “if you go to the temple regularly, your children will be protected from all harm” to “if you have enough faith, your depression will be cured.” It’s perhaps a natural outgrowth of the Deuteronomistic theology also present in the Book of Mormon that those who keep the commandments will “prosper in the land” (to use the BoM language). It’s this mindset which causes people to attribute their financial affluence, for example, to their righteous behavior—and even more obnoxiously, assume that the poor must have brought their poverty upon themselves through bad decisions.
The thing is—as reflected in the book of Job, among other places—life doesn’t actually seem to work that way. You can do everything “right,” and your life can completely fall apart. And if your faith was that God would give you a “get out of adversity free” card for righteous behavior, it can be incredibly devastating when that doesn’t happen, and feel like a terrible betrayal.
2) There is one person out there whom you are destined to marry, and you just need to find her/him. In other words, the “Saturday’s Warrior” theology that you promised your significant other in the pre-mortal life that you would find her/him. To say that this can mess people up when they are trying to make decisions about marriage is an understatement. (Though I should maybe add that I think the other extreme of “any two people with a testimony can make it work,” sometimes quoted in singles wards to chastise everyone for being “too picky,” is equally problematic.)
3) Your faith can trump other people’s agency. For all that agency is central to LDS beliefs, it seems to go out the window in certain cases. Many approaches to missionary work, for example, rest on the idea that if you have enough faith, God will override the agency of prospective converts and force them to choose baptism so that you can meet your goals. I also see as problematic the idea that the faith of parents will ultimately override the agency of their children, such that wayward children will eventually have to return if their parents were faithful enough. In a similar vein (and related to heresy #1 on my list), I’ve heard it preached over the pulpit that if you have regular family prayer and scripture study, your children are guaranteed to stay in the church. The fallout from this one can be pretty bad. (And in an LDS theological worldview, I don’t see how it holds up: even God doesn’t get any guarantees that her/his wayward children will return—in fact, an entire third of them rebelled at the very beginning—so why would human parents get to override their children’s agency?)
4) Every person who engages in behavior x will get outcome y. I can’t tell you how many promises I’ve heard over the years, sometimes from people holding high church positions, that “the person who pays tithing will never apostatize” or “every person who goes through the temple comes out spiritually edified” or “if you take seminary, you will not regret it.” (I remember that last being stated at a fireside at the beginning of a school year when I was in high school, with great emotion, and an absolute promise that seminary would make your life better. I faithfully went to seminary. I in fact graduated from seminary with straight As. It totally messed me up, and if I could go back and tell my high school self one thing, it might well be “drop seminary!”) I’ve just gotten super skeptical over the course of my life about promises that certain religious practices will have the same outcome for everyone. And when they don’t, the unfortunate tendency is to blame the person for whom the practice didn’t work (“you must have not had enough faith/done it wrong.”) I realize that Moroni’s promise, which is central to the current LDS theology of conversion, fits in this vein, and I don’t know quite what to make of that. All I know is that I’ve met way too many people over the years who prayed and prayed and prayed about the Book of Mormon, and got—nothing. I wonder whether we could temper the absolute nature of this promise with the teaching found in both Paul and the Doctrine and Covenants that different people have differing spiritual gifts.
5) Everything that church leaders say is directly inspired of God. I grew up hearing “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over,” and as a kid, I was taught that this went all the way down the chain so that even every word that came out of the mouth of our poor bishop was held to be the exact will of God for our ward. I’ve blogged before about my view that Mormons tend to believe in “practical infallibility,” even if not theoretical infallibility. That this is a set-up for disillusionment when it turns out that even prophets have taught things that were later abandoned or repudiated seems pretty obvious to me.
6) Suffering is inherently virtuous. Christianity has a complicated—and I would say, not always very healthy—relationship with suffering. The problem is that once you see the redemption of the entire universe as the result of someone’s amazing act of suffering, it’s not such a leap to see suffering as a good thing, maybe even something to be emulated. This appears most explicitly perhaps in devoted religious people who over the centuries have sought out physical suffering as a way of emulating Christ. But while Mormons don’t generally engage in that kind of thing, I do think there is a certain cultural ambivalence about suffering. If God is engineering our trials for our growth, as sometimes gets taught, the motivation for working to reduce suffering in our own lives and in the world kind of has the rug pulled out from under it—because who are we to interfere with the divine character-building plan? I grew up in a family in which medication of any kind was suspect; it was seen as a sort of cop-out to drug away your pain, because the truly virtuous person would embrace the suffering. That’s probably an extreme view, but at least in the Mormon culture in which I was raised, that kind of thinking wasn’t unique to my family.
7) You have to be worthy to have a relationship with God. If I end up breaking with Mormonism, it may not be over polygamy or Book of Mormon historicity or even patriarchy—it may be over this. I really struggle with the elements in the tradition which suggest that a relationship with God is only for those who have merited it, who are qualified for it. I remember a BYU bishopric sending all the members of the ward a letter which shared what I think is a fairly common view: yes, God will love you whatever you do, but don’t expect to ever feel that love or have a relationship with the divine if you aren’t keeping the commandments. I still remember the bleak, hopeless feeling that settled over me as I read those words. I think this worldview is reinforced by the teaching that you have to be worthy to take the sacrament, to participate in temple worship, and even to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost. I’m open to the possibility that some find that that way of thinking inspires them to do better. But in my own life, I’ve come to reject any hint that a relationship with God is something only offered to those who are sufficiently righteous. The radical message of Christianity, as I see it, is that God seeks to be in relationship with everyone, that Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners.” (Romans 5:8)
So that’s my list of deadly heresies. What would you add (or subtract)?