The Three Tentpoles of Radical Orthodoxy

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This is part of an ongoing project to articulate and clarify the principles described in the Latter-day Saint Radical Orthodoxy manifesto.

The radical orthodoxy manifesto is a declaration of loyalty — loyalty to the living Christ, His Restored Church, and the men and women He has commissioned to administer, teach, warn, and guide this community. It is also an argument that this loyalty does not keep us looking only backwards at what has come before. There is plenty of room for exploration and innovation, and for rethinking and reconsidering the customs and traditions we’ve inherited.

The ongoing teachings of prophets and apostles

We do not want to be mistaken, however — we do not see radical orthodoxy as license to engage in apostasy, or to attack or dismiss core teachings of the Church. We believe that all our explorations should be contoured by the ongoing teachings of prophets and apostles. Some asked, “How do you define ‘the ongoing teachings of prophets and apostles’?” After all, we could define this in ways that march us straight back into fundamentalism. 

Certainly, one might ask, radical orthodoxy doesn’t require me to believe every word printed by Joseph Fielding Smith, for example? We would argue no — we see radical orthodoxy as loyalty coupled with imagination, and a willingness to “color outside the lines” of the historical corpus of sermons from Church leaders. We do not think that everything that has filtered into that corpus needs be treated as the word of God etched in stone, to nevermore be re-examined or re-interpreted — or that the interpretations and opinions of isolated, historical Church leaders need to be treated as the absolute and immutable word of God.

Conversely, we also see radical orthodoxy as requiring a deep respect — and perhaps a reverence — for that same corpus. We must avoid an incautious dismissal of anything said before, the presentism of thinking that newer is always better, and the hubris that we are somehow more discerning than God’s servants (including those of past generations). After all, Latter-day Saints in future generations will almost certainly think that some of our own assumptions were, at times, strange and unfounded. Humility is the order of the day.

So, then, what are “the ongoing teachings of prophets and apostles”? Elder Neil L. Anderson explained, “The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many.” Therefore, teachings and themes that are repeated and emphasized throughout the corpus are the most important. Quoting Elder Anderson, President Dallin H. Oaks elaborated, “The family proclamation, signed by all 15 prophets, seers, and revelators, is a wonderful illustration of that principle.” 

The three tentpoles

In this spirit, the manifesto asserts that fidelity — as we envision it — “includes meticulously heeding and unabashedly embracing the counsel and teachings of prophets and apostles regarding chastity and morality, the divinity of Christ, and the foundational claims of the Restoration—even when doing so runs contrary to popular, worldly views.” Jonathan Max Willson, Nathaniel Givens, and I have come to see the following documents as the “tentpoles” of radical orthodoxy:

  1. The Proclamation on the Family. This document presents the Church’s teachings related to gender, marriage, and family. It asserts that our mortal gender is an essential part of our eternal identity as sons and daughters of God, that chastity requires that sexual relations be reserved for marraige between man and woman, and that the family is a vitally important to realizing eternal happiness. While the proclamation also warns against practices like child and spousal abuse, our focus in the manifesto was on those teachings that are in most dispute today: those related to chastity and gender. However, all of the teachings of the Proclamation are vitally important.
  2. The Living Christ. President Russell M. Nelson’s emphasis on placing Jesus Christ at the center of our worship represents the core doctrine of the Church. This document asserts that Jesus Christ was a historical person, that He was divinely ordained before the earth was created, and through Him all things were created, and that through Him all can find redemption and return to live with God. It also reminds us that Christ will again return to the earth. The life, death, resurrection, and eventual return of Christ stands at the center of all that we do. Everything else is a mere appendage.
  3. The Proclamation on the Restoration. This year, the First President and Quorum of the Twelve published a new proclamation reasserting our teaching that Father and the Son visited Joseph Smith, and that Church was restored through him. This document asserts our belief that the Book of Mormon — another witness of the divinity of Christ — is a historical record, brought forth by the gift and power of God. It further teaches that through the Book of Mormon, the Lord’s Restored Church will help prepare the earth for the second coming of Christ.

These documents are not exhaustive. The continuing, repeated themes we see in General Conference each year are certainly included among the “ongoing teachings of prophets and apostles.” We also believe that the standard works are vitally important as well. However, these documents are central enough and broad enough that we feel we can treat them as the tent poles for radical orthodoxy. 

Radical orthodoxy is a big tent

We see radical orthodoxy as a big tent. These three tentpoles are tall, and the tent covers a lot of ground. There’s a lot of room for exploration, innovation, and questions within the tent. There’s room for a host of competing and diverging views. We expect that we (the authors of the manifesto) won’t agree with everything that signatories will write. Some of those disagreements may even be consequential!

However, our argument is that once you dismiss, critique, or undermine the core teachings found in The Living Christ, the Proclamation on the Restoration, and the Proclamation on the Family, you’ve left the tent of radical orthodoxy (as we understand it). For example, if someone argues that the Book of Mormon is a modern midrash, argues that no unique divine authority was given to Joseph Smith, questions the historical Jesus as the sole anchor of our salvation, celebrates gender transitions as compatible with the Gospel, or promotes the expectation that same-sex couples will someday be sealed in the temple, they are no longer operating within the paradigm laid out by radical orthodoxy.

The purpose here is not to put up fences around our explorations within the Gospel (although these are pretty sturdy fences). The purpose is to give us a common ground that we — as scholars, thinkers, writers within the Church — can rally around, some shared baselines that we all acknowledge are part of orthodoxy (as understood here). We are not asserting that these are the same as the requirements for attending the temple or being a member of the Church. Those are not within our stewardship. We are simply describing the limits of radical orthodoxy, as conceived by the writers of the manifesto.

Another way to think of it is that these documents can serve as the center of gravity, the three stars in a triple star system, around which we (as scholars and writers) can orbit. Our various trajectories may be different from each other, our orbital inclinations may diverge, but we will all be under the influence of and orbiting the same core teachings. Of course, not everyone involved with radical orthodoxy will emphasize the same things. Not every player in an orchestra needs to play every note! However, we will treat those central teachings as the non-negotiables of our faith and scholarship.

The manifesto further states that “those who embrace radical orthodoxy strive to be valiant in their witness of restored truth.” In our minds, this includes a recognition that total silence when those within our circle of influence challenge these teachings can be as damaging as the critiques themselves. Radical orthodoxy, we argue, requires a willingness to speak out in defense of the divine truths in these documents, when the occasion calls for it. 

Steelmanning the prophets

Not all the teachings of prophets and apostles are found in these documents. Not all teachings and warnings have been around enough to be treated as continuing and repeated themes. For example, President Nelson’s admonition to use the full name of the Church, and to avoid nicknames like “Mormon,” is in none of these documents, nor has it been around enough to be reiterated by others as a “repeated” teaching, so to speak. However, radical orthodoxy does not dismiss the duty to pay close attention to what President Nelson is saying. 

We would argue that the teachings of prophets and apostles — whether in the three tentpoles or not — deserve steel man treatment. The steel man is the opposite of the straw man. A straw man treatment finds and attacks the weakest interpretations of an argument. A steel man strives to find the strongest interpretations of an argument. It requires that we be generous with the prophets, not immediately dismissing them because we don’t agree or don’t understand. It means striving to step into a worldview (even if only provisionally) where we both understand and can embrace their warnings.

We do not argue that those who embrace radical orthodoxy have a duty to agree with everything President Nelson, President Oaks, or others say at General Conference. We agree that “sustain” does not always mean “agree.” Rather, what we are arguing is that we have a duty to steel man their teachings before rushing to conclusion — to strive to see the world through their eyes before dismissing what they have to say. And that, if we do ultimately disagree, we also have a duty to not “undermine the projects and programs of the church, or ignore the moral witness and counsel of living prophets and apostles.” 

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