Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Creeds and engagement

Posted by Robert C. on December 10, 2010

Jim F. has a new post up at Patheos, “Just say . . . whatever!” I highly recommend it—and it’s better if you read his essay before you continue reading my own comments here.

Jim’s post tackles the question of theology and metaphysics, basically discussing the pros and cons of thinking about theological, doctrinal and metaphysical questions, and ultimately endorsing the Mormon tendency(/”doctrine”) to emphasize practice over official theological beliefs. What I like most about Jim’s post is the (mostly implicit) way that his take on this aversion to creeds in Mormonism promotes personal engagement.

There is a large literature among sociology, psychology, and management scholars regarding the importance of personal engagement. Studies show that passive lecture-style teaching leads to less effective learning than teaching styles that get students involved and engaged in the learning process. I’m currently reading the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink (see a luke warm review that basically captures my own reaction here, and a 10 minute animated video summary here). In this book, Pink summarizes some surprising studies that find that efforts to incentivize employees to work harder frequently backfire. That is, for many tasks—esp. ones that require creativity—promised rewards for accomplishing a task can actually lead to poorer and more delayed performance of the task. One issue leading to these counter-intuitive findings is the way that incentive schemes tend to leave very little room for personal autonomy in task performance. This leads to a disposition for performing tasks that is more extrinsically-motivated than intrinsically-motivated.

The reason I mention this here is that I think creed-like theological statements can have a similar effect in terms of our relationship with God and our Church activity. When Church doctrine is presented as authoritative and complete, then there is little room for personal engagement and autonomous thinking(/searching/seeking/activity etc.). One of the best things about Mormonism, in my view, is its emphasis on personal revelation, engagement, searching, activity, etc. True, we have a prophet and priesthood leaders to help guide us, and keep us from falling off the deep end, but from its Sacred Grove beginnings, Mormonism has always affirmed the importance of receiving personal revelation, engaging in personal scripture study, studying issues out in one’s own mind, and learning from one’s own involvement at the family, ward, and societal levels of leadership and community.

The lack of creeds and creedal mindsets in Mormonism thus preserves space for us to become engaged in the spiritual work—including not just physical and emotional aspects, but intellectual aspects also—of building the Kingdom of God. Moreover, I think that not just the prophets, but the law also, when properly understood, calls us toward a similar kind of autonomous engagement that makes it possible to avoid the dangers of extrinsically-motivated modes of obedience—but that’s another a can of worms I don’t have time for feasting on right now….

5 Responses to “Creeds and engagement”

  1. kirkcaudle said

    “When Church doctrine is presented as authoritative and complete, then there is little room for personal engagement and autonomous thinking(/searching/seeking/activity etc.). One of the best things about Mormonism, in my view, is its emphasis on personal revelation, engagement, searching, activity, etc”
    -Robert

    I agree with what you say here Robert. However, many people (esp. teenagers within the church) will say that the church has too many “rules.” In fact, I think Mormonism just might be best known for its many rules. Church doctrine is most often presented as authoritative, thus, the often quoted phrase, “I can’t…I’m Mormon.”

  2. Robert C. said

    Yes, Kirk, good point. A couple comments:

    First, I think there’s a problem in Church culture of focusing too much on rules (at least sometimes). This, I think, is counterproductive. Of course we have many rules, but I don’t think that this means that rules should be the focus of our teaching and discourse (esp. with youth).

    Second, I think complaints about the existence of (not the focus on) many rules is rooted in a reluctance that is antithetical to what faithful engagement should presuppose.

    Part of my view here perhaps began forming when I was seminary age and discussions frequently focused on rated R movies. These discussions crowded out what I think would’ve ultimately been much more productive discussions (e.g., the spirit of this rule, underlying issues regarding reverence, etc., rather than so much focus on the rule itself…).

  3. kirkcaudle said

    Agree on all accounts.

    In fact, I think often the issue is not so much “what” we do as much as “why” we are doing it. This is especially true when it comes to youth. I find it more productive to talk with youth about the symptoms of their problems/sins rather than the problem/sin itself. This is the exact opposite stance than is often taught in church I believe.

    Therefore, our rules are only a means to an end. I do not think church rules applied without the spirit have any real intrinsic value within themselves.

  4. Robert C. said

    Kirk, I think I know what you mean by talking “with youth about the symptoms of their problems/sins rather than the problem/sin itself,” although I’m tempted to take this a step further. That is, rather than focusing on the symptom of the problem or sin, I think talking even less specifically can be even more productive.

    This is tied to my view of the power of scripture. I think Nathan would’ve been less successful with King David if he had started talking directly with David about the symptoms of his sin. Rather, Nathan introduced a narrative/parable that was, in the sense I’m suggesting, two steps removed from David’s sin. Yes, in that case there were more obvious parallels than we typically find with scripture, but I think the general rule holds: by talking about issues that are, at first blush, unrelated to our own lives, we can bypass the conscious and unconscious defense mechanisms that we have built up rationalizing our own sins.

    By studying scripture which is “two” steps removed from our own lives, our defense mechanisms are bypassed and we are more able to have an honest kind of communion with the Spirit. Then, when our study time is over and we return to our own lives, we have a more clear perspective from which to see our own sins, self-deceptions, rationalizations, etc., etc.

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