"SquareTwo and the Future of Mormon Thought "

Richard Sherlock

SquareTwo, Vol. 1. No. 1, Fall 2008


1 Comment



Since the publication of Juanita Brooks’ Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950,  the dominant form of intellectual engagement with Mormonism has been historical. Whether writing Church history or regional history, internal or comparative, serious thinkers have engaged Mormonism mainly as historians. They have marshaled documentary evidence, published sources and secondary sources to produce an impressive array of studies on persons, places, episodes and beliefs that make up the Mormon heritage.

The historians were followed in short order by the sociologists, led by Thomas O’Dea’s 1957 classic, The Mormons.  Social scientists have explored Mormon life, beliefs, demography, social order, families and communities.  These studies too have added to our understanding of ourselves as a people in the world but not of the world.

As a very modest contributor to the historical study of Mormonism, I certainly appreciate the importance of sociological and historical study to a broader understanding of Mormonism.  It is important to know the about the life of the founder, the truth of Mountain Meadows, the way in which Mormonism influences individual lives and the way in which Mormon families respond to the contemporary pressures leading to family breakdown. Still, however important these studies have been and to some extent remain, they represent the past of Mormon studies: they represent the past of the intellectual engagement with Mormonism, not its future. Most of the important historical data is in the public domain.  Most of the crucial narrative has been charted. Though some important biographies, e.g. those of Reed Smoot, Joseph F. Smith and Elbert Thomas, remain to be written, most of the future of historical and sociological study will be rearranging the furniture in the narrative box that has been mapped out, not thinking outside the box.  At their most expansive, these studies might alter the length or width of the box. They do not, I think, ask whether there is a box, a cone, a sphere or a pyramid to name only four of a vast number of possibilities.

Intellectual engagement with Mormonism should not remain content with this sort of thinking. The Mormon tradition is strong enough and capacious enough to go much further. The time has come to declare boldly that the era of history and sociology as the cutting edge of Mormon studies is over. To paraphrase Francis Fukuyama (in a deeply flawed book) we have reached the ”end of history.”

Every Church, indeed every congregation has a history. Because its beliefs, social location, and personalities are different, its history will be different. But what makes Christianity different from Islam, for example, is theology--not history or sociology.  Early Christians did not go to their deaths at the hands of the Romans for early Church history. Muslims did not spread their faith because of certain facts of Muhammed’s rule in Medina.  The early Christian creeds are noticeable in this regard.  The Nicene Creed is an example:  “We believe in one God, the father eternal, maker of heaven and earth, of things seen and unseen and in one Lord Christ Jesus who was born of woman, who crucified under Pontius Pilate and who rose on the third day.”  Comparing the Four Gospels with either the lives of Plutarch or Diogenes Laertius illustrates this difference in kinds of accounts. Though both Diogenes and especially Plutarch have larger points to make than pure history, they are much more attuned to actual events that any of the Gospels. This is not to say that the Gospels are in any sense incorrect; it is to say that their purpose is to recount only those teachings, parables and events essential to their purpose that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ.”

Just like the patristic Church, what makes Mormonism unique and precious is its theology.  Much is made today of comparing Mormonism with other Christian theologies and Churches.  But comparison presupposes that one knows what one is comparing. It may be (and generally is) the case that devout Catholic intellectuals know what the Catholic teaching on divine foreknowledge and human freedom is, or the few alternative metaphysics available that lead to the same fundamental conclusion that God knows now what I will have for lunch on November 20, 2010. But what does Mormon theology say about the same question and why? There are a diversity of positions held by active, faithful Mormons on this question. But cataloguing these answers and then concluding that one can be an active member while holding any of these positions (“See, he agrees with me, and he’s a bishop!") is not thought: it is an excuse for thought. The question is not what various Mormons have said--merely cataloguing positions is a form of lazy intellectual relativism. How is a particular view of this question or any great theological question best formulated and how is this best formulation nested in the larger body of Mormon theology and life? This sort of inquiry requires a deep commitment to Mormonism, its sacred texts and its world picture, to philosophical rigor and, where necessary, empirical sophistication.

We need the lineup and the bench strength to think through Mormon theology with commitment and rigor, to propose answers to this important question, and to defend  such answers against alternatives advanced by Mormon and non-Mormon thinkers alike.  A thorough reflection on these fundamentals is needed to prepare us to tackle the pressing issues of today’s world.  Only a few are now prepared to undertake these tasks. There are not nearly enough Mormons with both the religious commitment and the philosophical rigor to make a serious commitment to this endeavor. Those who serve in the Church education system rightly understand their work as preaching the Restored Gospel, not philosophizing. Many historians confuse history with serious theology, a very different intellectual discipline. Many lay writers confuse personal essays, pop psychology and doctrinal once-overs with theology. Many other writers expound “doctrine” without ever raising the foundational question of whether what they so confidently expound makes sense scripturally, philosophically or morally.

For example, to take the problem of divine foreknowledge and human freedom, if one believes that God knows for certain what individual free agents will do in the future, then why would God tell Abraham, after nearly sacrificing Isaac: “now I know.…” Did he not know before the event? Why would God be continually angry at the Israelites for not living up to the covenantal promise to renounce idolatry, care for the poor and forsake sexual sins?  One can regret bad things one knows will happen, but it makes no sense to be angry.

Consider a second example. We are told that “Christ died for our sins.” I have no doubt about this as stated, but what does it mean?  For most Mormon writers it means something like this (a theory taken from Anselm and Calvin):  I have committed a crime and I deserve a severe punishment for my sins. I cannot survive the punishment I deserve, so my elder brother Jesus steps forward and says: “Here, punish me instead.”  We are told how noble this act is and at first glance it seems so.  We are told that this is an “infinite atonement.” But this must be a rhetorical and not a technical claim. Technically, neither a finite human being nor a finite set of human beings can create an infinite set of sins.

But the fundamental problem with this whole way of thinking is this: Would we accept this principle in general? Consider two brothers. An older one has been in jail several times. The younger one has never been in jail. The one who has never been in prison has been convicted of a crime for which he must spend five years in prison. At this point the older brother steps forward: “My brother is frail and ill. He will not survive five years in prison.  I am tough. I have been there before. I will serve his sentence.”  Would justice be served this way? Of course not, and deep in our souls we know it.  Then why should we adopt this very principle when Jesus is the elder brother instead of Joe or Steve?

The two theological issues I have raised can be and have been dealt with in a theologically committed and rigorous way by me and others.  But this is not the place to do so again. What I use these examples to show is that this sort of inquiry--not historical, not sociological--represents the future of the intellectual engagement with Mormonism. Furthermore, you cannot do studies comparing the Mormon view of the atonement with others unless you first argue for what one believes are the strongest alternative Mormon interpretations. This will require the very sorts of inquiry I have noted before one can do comparative studies.  Such an analysis must be intellectually rigorous, rooted in scripture, sensitive to the promptings of the spirit and the Light of Christ,  and nested in a coherent theological whole.

If theology represents one side of the future intellectual engagement with Mormonism, debates in the public square represent the other. The same weakness we have noted in the area of theology also undermines Mormon thought concerning the great issues of our time: that is, since faithful, active Mormons hold a wide number of views on public, often moral issues, I can with a clear conscience hold any of these views. Like its theological cousin this is not completely true.  Let’s think of it first as applied to the past. Suppose in 1855 a Mormon said the following: “Since the Church has not officially condemned slavery, it is perfectly acceptable for me to believe that slavery is morally and constitutionally acceptable.” The late John Rawls, the eminent but flawed moral philosopher got one thing correct when he argued that if we do not know that slavery is ultimately wrong, then we cannot reason morally. But we do know, in the marrow of our bones, by the light of Christ, that slavery is wrong.  Just because the Church in 1850 had not taken an official position did not matter.  Slavery was always wrong and we should know that without being told by the prophet. Merely because the Church has not taken an official position on an issue of great public moment does not mean that all positions on such an issue are equally sound. In the set of infinite possible opinions on any issue, some wil be consistent with Mormon doctrine and some will be inconsistent; furthermore, within the set of consistent opinions, some of these will be more deeply harmonious with Mormon doctrine than others. These are the types of conversations we need to be having within the LDS faith community, so that when we enter the public square with our views, they will already be rooted in a strong, well considered foundation.

On the other side, Mormons often conclude that they will simply adopt a position on an issue the Church cares about, without offering reasons for their view.  Supporting the Church is one thing, but not doing our homework is another. I think that the Church is profoundly right to oppose same sex or genderless marriage. Though most Mormons I suppose agree in opposing this radical innovation, the Church officially has only provided a modest defense of their position, not the kind of deep robust argument in support of their position that is needed and, unfortunately, neither have Mormon intellectuals. This leaves many young people in the Church (and even older people) stunningly inarticulate in the face of a barrage of self-righteous arguments in favor of “gay marriage.”  We have left them virtually defenseless, and that is not to our credit.  It is our Church leaders’ responsibility to stake out positions on issues they regard as absolutely crucial to salvation. It is our responsibility as thinkers to articulate the rationale for such a position. To date, I must admit, those of us who believe that same sex marriage is a profound threat to the family have not made this case as publicly and strongly as we must.  In other cases, where the official Church is silent, as in the case of embryonic stem cell research, we have failed in not taking on popular but ultimately incoherent views like those held by every Mormon member of the United States Senate, who support such research.

Perhaps the greatest defect of Mormon thinkers who generally agree with a more “conservative” view on public issues is timidity. Too many Mormons with the intellectual skills and credentials to speak out simply don’t want to “get involved” in public debate. Some of these intellectuals are friends of mine for over 40 years whom I greatly admire in most respects. But in this case they are wrong. Timidity is not a virtue, and compromising with forces that are anti-religious, deeply immoral and/or anti-Mormon is neither right nor honorable. In the conflict with forces unleashed by an eternal opponent, hiding behind disciplinary boundaries or an unwillingness to offend those we know or work with is no longer acceptable. In this as in many cases, Leo Durocher was right: “nice guys finish last," where "nice" means "timid."

Those who who style themselves as our opponents, whether in or out of the Church, are not shy about disagreeing with us and complaining about our supposedly irrationality and intolerance. We should respond. We must be bold and forthright in arguing our side. We can strongly disagree without being disagreeableor contentious. But we cannot ignore the moral and religious truth we know.

Unfortunately, timidity affects too many Mormon outlets owned by the Church. In my opinion, publishers, broadcasters, and journals seem to shy away from taking on the issues of the day.  Many forums do not invite speakers who address these issues with commitment, rigor, and vision. (The recent 2008 forum address at BYU of Robert George, a prominent Catholic theorist and eloquent defender of traditional marriage, is a notable and welcome exception.) The task of those us involved in founding SquareTwo is never to be silent or take the easy and timid way.  Nor must we be averse to debating contentious matters – without, of course, yielding to a contentious spirit.  A friend of over 30 years--one of the most devout persons and brightest philosophical minds I know--and I have a deep disagreement about the Church’s position on the Supreme Court case of Smith v Oregon and the subsequent attempt of Congress and the Clinton administration to reverse it.  In this case the Supreme Court upheld the firing of a Native Anerican drug counselor in Oregon who was fired because he used peyote in a native American religious ceremony. It was the first time in a century that the Court had cited favorably Reynolds v The United States, the key anti-polygamy case.  He thinks that Smith was rightly decided and that the subsequent Religious Freedom Restoration Act was bad policy. I disagree and believe that religious liberty is a non-negotiable demand on the state. SquareTwo ought to encourage a debate on these and other issues.

Committed public intellectualism plus rigorous theological exploration are the two halves now needed for real intellectual engagement with Mormonism. These tasks require intellectual rigor, theological commitment, and empirical sensitivity. Even if some do not respect us, we must respect those who disagree with us and consider their arguments carefully.

To give examples of the vision we have for SquareTwo, I am going to provide essays to SquareTwo arguing that Orrin Hatch’s position on embryonic stem cell research is incoherent and a separate one arguing that gay marriage is a profound threat to the form of marriage that is the foundation of civilization. I will not anticipate these arguments now. Let me then exemplify my point about public intellectuals by way of an argument involving the one issue that may be more contentious than gay marriage: abortion.

I have heard a number of active members of the Church say something like this, which is a Mormon version of the position advanced by Catholic politicians like Joe Biden, Mario Cuomo, and Nancy Pelosi :

            “I personally believe that abortion is wrong, that it is the taking of a human life. I would never have an abortion. But I also believe in free agency and I would never interfere with someone else’s free choice to have an abortion”

I suspect that many readers of this essay have heard same thing from people they know who are faithful members who they respect.  I deeply respect but profoundly disagree with thoughtful persons who say that they believe that human life does not begin at conception and that as a political matter they are pro-choice.  Gloria Steinem once said that abortion is no different than an appendix removal. I strongly dissent, but I respect honesty.

But the Biden/Cuomo/Pelosi position above does not just reach a conclusion I think is wrong, as Steinem's position is wrong--rather, the argument itself is incoherent. Showing that this position is incoherent is not difficult and I have often wondered why this point cannot be seen by otherwise thoughtful persons.  Consider it this way. To say that one believes that abortion is morally wrong requires reasons for this belief. The reason or reasons must be very strong because they lead the person to conclude that they would never or almost never have an abortion. If so, what reason could be sufficient to justify this strong conclusion about what the speaker would never do?

The reason, I submit, must be that the person believes that the unborn is essentially morally equivalent to the born. That human life begins at conception is obvious, but this is not precisely what I have just said. I have said that to reach the conclusion about abortion being always wrong, one must hold that the moral standing of the born and the unborn are equivalent.

This is a more precise version of what most people mean when they say that abortion is murder. I believe that this what my hypothetical speaker means when she says that abortion is the taking of a human like.  So let’s try this on for size:

            “I believe that killing John or Mary is murder. I would never kill Mary or John. But if you want to kill one or both of them I won’t interfere because you have your agency.”  This sounds like moral nonsense because it is. Insert slavery, rape, robbery, pedophilia or any number of other topics and all comes out the same: obnoxious moral nihilism.

I would welcome a serious argument for the position taken by the speaker. To date I have found none. There are several serious arguments for the pro-choice position and they can and must be met. But the most successful of these arguments deny the premise that my speaker started with, i.e. abortion is immoral.

To flesh out in full the argument I just made would require more space that I have in this inaugural essay. Especially, we need to think through how this position would apply in the realm of contested public policy, where we must keep one eye on the stability of our government and the rule of law in our land.  No LDS member can adopt any approach whatsoever to reach preferred policy aims: bombings of abortion clinics are rightfully illegal, for example. But my example was meant to show how public intellectuals can challenge the easy relativism that hides behind our LDS embrace of free agency, and which also results from the understandable general reluctance of the Church, led by a prophet, to take stands on issues where they do not have specific revelation.  There are so many important issues where Mormonism has something important to contribute and where Mormon thinkers can contribute to the intellectual life of the Church that SquareTwo will hopefully have difficulty keeping track of all the good writing produced. I can only make a couple of suggestions here and hopefully others will pick them up.

As a one-time Professor of Moral Theology at a great Catholic university, I can’t help but note that the Biden/Cuomo/Pelosi position is not Catholic theology.  There are beliefs that Catholics hold as matters of faith such as the virgin birth or the immaculate conception. These must be accepted as matters of faith. Reason cannot demonstrate them. Abortion has never been held to be one of these. Abortion has always in the Catholic tradition been held to be deeply immoral by a rational argument which I believe is fully sound.  Therefore the question to Biden et. al should be, “given that you profess to be a Catholic and accept the Catholic teaching on abortion, why do you remain pro-choice when your church finds the pro-life position more rational? Are you a better moral theologian than John Paul II or Benedict XVI who were eminent scholars in this area?”

Another twist on the abortion problem is provided by the willingness of couples to abort when the baby will be born with handicaps.  Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her husband knew that the baby they had last year would be born with Down’s Syndrome.  They chose to keep the baby.  90% of American women who face the same choice abort.  I know of active, faithful Church members who defend this. A personal note is in order. I was on a panel once with an LDS Stake President who was a national expert on in vitro fertilization with donor egg and/or sperm. He was chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at a medical school. He also was completely in favor of “selective abortion” of the handicapped.  He had a well developed argument that I, of course, harshly contested on the panel. His argument was that the purpose of mortality was to grow and develop physically, mentally, spiritually and morally. When an unborn won't be able to do these things we should abort and let God start over.

I found this argument repugnant. Here’s why.  Abortion for these reasons requires knowing that the child will be born handicapped. But the relevant test cannot be done and results returned before 18-20 weeks into pregnancy. By this time there can be no doubt even among pro-choice advocates that we are dealing with a baby. Only the blind could fail to see it. By waiting that long and having an expensive test that carries some risk to the baby the couple is saying effectively this: “We wanted a baby. We were ready for baby but we won’t take a ‘damaged one’.”  The argument here is not that the unborn is not yet a person with rights. The argument is that this child has no rights because it is disabled. But if being disabled means you do not have a right to life this argument will go directly to the lives of millions.

Moving to another important contemporary problem, during the Bush administration the question of war has been front and center.  But this discussion is only part of a much larger discussion of the morality of war and the just war tradition that follows from  patristic sources like Augustine into the works of eminent 20th century thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Ramsey, William O’Brien, James T. Johnson,  Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Paul II.  These great alternatives have, to my knowledge, not been looked at in dialogue with the Book of Mormon, the last half of which recounts war after war .  SquareTwo would be a perfect place to encourage this.

On yet another vital topic, eminent Catholic thinker James Burtchell, in The Dying of the Light, and Protestant historian  George Mardsen, in The Soul of the University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief, have chronicled the decline of seriously religious colleges and universities. Using Elder Holland’s great missive, “A School in Zion,” how can we maintain academic excellence and serious faith?  It is hard. Is it worth it?  A discussion should ensue.

SquareTwo is a bold venture. We must nurture young writers and encourage older ones to contribute. We must be faithful, thoughtful, charitable, and bold at the same time. But I firmly believe that SquareTwo’s time has come: it is time for a new era in Mormon thought.   


Full Citation for This Article: Sherlock, Richard (2008) "SquareTwo and the Future of Mormon Thought," SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleSherlockManifesto.html, accessed [give access date].

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COMMENTS: 1 Comment

1) Steve Reed says:

I liked the Manifesto. I like your premise and while I'd probably like to read through it a few more times, I want to at least mention some of my initial thoughts. Reading your article made me think of a frustration that I've had for years, and that is how people always seem to attack the ORIGINS of the Book of Mormon and the person responsible for bringing it forth, but they rarely seem to try and examine the contents and message of the book. It's always been a mystery to me how even though people dismiss the book as a fabrication made by Joseph Smith, they will not examine it as if it WERE a book written by Joseph Smith. There is such beautiful doctrine that is ignored, the allegory of the olive tree, Alma's discourse on Faith and hundreds of other powerful writings.

I think we underestimate each other. We should never be afraid of our doctrine; it should be approached boldly and in the full light. I heard it once said that there is no such thing as 'deep doctrine', that there is only 'true doctrine and false doctrine.' I understand the 'milk before meat' teaching and I believe it, but I think too many of us are still feeding milk to 50 year-olds, not knowing the right time to wean.

Anyway, just some late night comments, I could go on all night so I'll stop now. Interesting thoughts, I love the Gospel and I am a firm believer in the idea that we all need to be defenders of the faith and should take it upon our selves to be educated in our doctrines enough to be able to have an answer when a question is posed.