So my Facebook news feed erupted today with links to David Brooks’ take on the “Book of Mormon Musical”: Lots of links to the piece with glowing acclaim for his take on Mormonism and religion, followed, a few hours later by critical remarks (from others) about how he was, in the end, wrong about both.
Joanna Brooks, for example, wrote that David (I’ll go with first names here obvious reasons) was wrong because he described Mormonism as a creedal religion, when it in fact subscribed to no creeds or catechisms, unlike traditional Christian denominations. This is one thing that makes Mormonism a unique tree in the forest of Christianity. Two points here. 1) the word “creed,” like most long-established and utilized concepts and practices, has a very broad definition, applicable in multiple contexts. It can be a written statement which believers authoritatively are bound to in belief and practice. It can also be a set of beliefs or aims that guide one’s actions. When Christian scholars, for example, (and its usually scholars, not lay Christians) insist that Mormonism is not a Christian religion, they very often are referring to Mormonism’s refusal to recognize the ancient creeds of early Christianity as religiously binding upon its community–not that Mormons don’t believe that Jesus Christ is the author of their salvation. In other words, Christianity for these scholars is the community of believers that adhere to these ancient Christian traditions, not a group of individuals who believe in the divinity of Christ. In this narrow sense, then, Mormons are not Christians (the community of believers bound to the ancient traditions) but are instead merely believers in a divine Christ (as they construe this belief).
But in the broader sense–the sense of having a set of beliefs that in some way guide one’s actions and even other beliefs, Mormons do have creeds. The Articles of Faith, Proclamation on the Family, the infamous 14 fundamentals in following the prophet and others–these all function, for better or for worse, in a creedal, orientational fashion for large numbers (often majorities) of believers. True, Mormons have nothing that is officially called a “creed,” or “catechism (not officially anyway.) They’re not binding in the sense of there being some formal procedure for prosecuting a believer who does not treat them confessionally, but they still function in a broad, creedal fasion. There are certain documents, sermons, and other semi-formal statements that have stuck around, been recycled, and are recognized by the community at large when utilized in various types of discourses in the Mormon community. We can and should have debates about the legitimacy of these statements, but that many members respond to them creedally (though not in the exact sense of the traditional creeds) cannot be denied.
2) David mentions the word “creed” twice in his article: Once in the title, which is a reference to Dorothy Sayers’s essay of the same name, and the second time in direct reference to this essay. At no other time does he mention the word “creed” in describing Mormonism or orthodox religion (he never even explicitly refers to the Mormon Church–more on this below). One might make the argument that his essay in essence describes creedalism even if it doesn’t refer to it by name, but I don’t think that it does. The theological concept that comes closest to fitting his descriptions is, instead, systematic theology. Systematic theology, way too briefly, seeks to create a rigorous, rational system of thought that accounts for doctrines, sacred texts, practices, and historical developments in Christianity. Mormonism, of course, also does not normally engage in systematizing its theology, and many scholars have argued that not only is this descriptive of Mormon theology (it focuses more on praxis than theory) but that Mormonism should not or even cannot systematize its theology because of belief in continuing divine revelation and its emphasis on practice over doctrinal correctness. (This is an extremely complex and involved debate, and I’ve actually argued that there are intriguing and beneficial ways that that we could be a little more serious about considering what we believe in a more rigorous fashion). But I do think that this is partly what David was referring to when he wrote about religions being “theologically rigorous,” “definite in conviction,” “providing maps of reality,” and “using reason and logic to wrestle with concrete assertions and teachings.” One main purpose of systematic theology for Christians is, to borrow David’s language, that it “allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally.”
“Rigorous theology” means more than systematic theology for David, however (if he even knows about systematic theology at all–I was merely pointing out that his definitions veer closer to systematic theology than creedalism). Intellectual rigor is only part of the picture. For him, rigorous theology is also a seriousness about codes of conduct, codes derived from certain notions of absolute truth. Rigorous theology is serious about self-discipline and personal behavior. It’s serious about its own doctrinal pronouncements and the absoluteness of these pronouncements. Joanna contrasts this with “transformative relationships that grow from that shared hunger” as what is going on instead in Mormonism. Against David’s “vague, uplifting, non-doctrinal religiosity [that] doesn’t actually last,” Joanna insists that, on the contrary, the power in Mormonism comes from its emphasis on community and relationships, which is a non-doctrinal emphasis by logical implication. Interestingly, David never actually directs his “rigorous theology” comments to Mormonism by name. Instead he seems to refer vaguely to (conservative?) religion in general. The question is: do these comments legitimately apply to Mormon religion?
Yes and no. Contemporary Mormon discourse does emphasize a strong individual ethic of personal behavior based on a rigorous code of personal conduct based on what Mormon leaders frequently refer to as “absolute truths.” It is, in many ways, as David describes, “countercultural,” especially in this respect. However, it is not that Mormon theology is “non-doctrinal” or not rigorous (though exactly what Mormon doctrine is, is hard to nail down), but more that Mormon theology is not systematic, nor does it seek to be. However, as Joanna adeptly points out, Mormonism also places high importance on community and relationships, and it sounds right to say that its “power” is largely derived from these elements. I wonder, though, if the staying power of any religion is largely derivable from the communities and relationships formed within the religion, regardless of the “rigorousness” of its theology. David does seem to think that 1) self-discipline and conscientious moral conduct are solely derivable from rigorous religions when I don’t think it’s the case that a religion of any kind is a necessary prerequisite for ethical behavior; plenty of irreligious people exhibit stringent moral conduct. That religion might also produce this does not make it antecedently necessary. 2) He seems to think that only these more conservatively structured religions (those adamant about the absolutes) can do the job of creating the character in people necessary to meet the needs of practitioners, whereas every other religion (seemingly) falls into the morass of relativism. That’s a rigid position (perhaps appropriately dogmatic) that I don’t think holds up under close scrutiny. Sociologists of religion have long pointed out that religions that have staying power maintain an “optimum tension” between themselves and surrounding society: strict enough to maintain a separate identity and even separate values from society but not so strict as to alienate itself completely from society, instead being able to be seen as a valuable asset to the larger culture. In other words, an optimal mix of tradition and open-mindedness. African religions may well be very socially conservative, but I wonder if African society compares well structurally with American society, and therefore if the example David gives is relevant to religion in America.
In any case, Mormonism would seem to compare well with other religions that have stood the test of time: it is in important ways a microcosm of the society it inhabits: a blend of the conservative and the liberal, of tradition and novelty (even the quirky as the musical parodies), of an emphasis on doctrine and an emphasis on community. I don’t think David knows enough about Mormonism to say much about it, and so in the end he really doesn’t. There are elements of rigidity and flexibility in Mormonism, of the creedal and the pragmatic. Where Mormonism is unique (with regard to this discussion) is its blending of the doctrinal with the relational. Community and relationships are not merely emphasized in Mormonism, they are given canonical and doctrinal importance. Doctrine is heavily emphasized but this doctrine is largely the doctrine of relationality. And relationality is often meant to be understood within the context of scrupulous personal behvior (and I would argue, though not unproblematically, that personal behavior should also be understood in the context of relationality).