What the Book of Mormon Teaches Us about Innovation

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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.

Our ideas for Radical Orthodoxy were in part inspired by observing the evolving church described in the Book of Mormon. In that ancient record, each generation faced new challenges to their faith for which the solutions of prior generations were inadequate. Each generation of believers had to innovate in order to keep the flame of faith burning brightly and advance the purposes of God.

We often pull from enlightenment-era theology the idea that Eternal Truths are things that cannot change, and from this we’ve inherited the understanding that the way the Church is set up today — including our organizational structure, our traditions, even the look and feel of our temple ordinances — is the same in every respect as it was during Christ’s time. The assumption, of course, is that there’s one single right way of doing things, and that any variation must also be deviation. We also assume that the current traditions and practices of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ represent that one correct answer.

Elsewhere, my friend Ed Gantt and I have argued — borrowing from the scholarship of James Faulconer — that this is a very “Greek” way of looking at things. Greek thought prioritized that which does not change, and placed stasis and non-change at the center of our understanding of truth. The Hebrews, however, had a different emphasis. As Noel Reynolds explains, Hebrew thought (in contrast with Greek) places the emphasis “on covenant as a means of establishing stable expectations in a changing world.” God is reliable because He has made covenants with us, and is true to those commitments, not because His instructions cannot change across time and place.

Innovation in the Book of Mormon

If we look at the history of the Church in the Book of Mormon, we can see a history that is full of change. When uniting the people of Mosiah and the people of Zarahemla, King Benjamin found need to introduce a new name and covenant. (This is perhaps because the larger part of the community were no longer descendants of Lehi, and their shared history as Israelites was too distant to serve any unifying purposes.) In so doing, he united them as a single people in a way that their shared heritage could not. This perhaps represented a new way of identifying themselves.

When faced with deep corruption among the priests of Noah and their king (Noah), Alma the Elder found need to establish a new model for worship, in which the covenant community was distinct from the civic community. This was an innovation in a time in which the religious community was normally seen as coextensive with the civic community. Under King Zeniff, King Noah, King Benjamin, and King Mosiah, it appears that the covenant community and the civic community were one and the same. The prophet-king was very possibly also the high priest of the temple. Alma the Elder’s innovation changed this: it meant people could be part of the covenant community set forth by Alma in a way that was distinct from the civic community of King Noah.

When Alma the Elder arrived in Zarahemla, his innovation provided the answer to some crucial questions. In the face of a rising generation of unbelievers, King Mosiah found need to broadly implement Alma the Elder’s new covenant model. He needed a way for his subjects to maintain their civic loyalties while being more flexible in their religious devotions. In tandem, Alma the Elder found occasion to introduce the idea of excommunication, an (at the time) novel new practice wherein someone could be ejected from the covenant community while still being part of the civic community. This model provided some relief, perhaps, for a community divided by growing religious differences.

This new covenant model is perhaps what made it possible for Aaron, Ammon, and their brothers to launch the first successful missionary efforts to the Lamanites, since they could now invite Lamanites into this new covenant community without also requiring them to relinquish their civic loyalties (e.g., converting them to Nephite rule). They could still maintain their loyalties to Lamanite kings, while still stepping into the commitments of their new religious faith. This would never have been possible in an age where joining the Nephite religion also meant becoming a Nephite. Conversion of the Lamanites, en masse, was made possible by Alma the Elder’s shift in covenant models.

In the face of a large body of unbelievers vying for the sympathies of the next king, Mosiah found need to innovate an entirely new system of government, in order to insulate the righteous laws and customs of the people from the meddling of unrighteous monarchs. And thus the system of judges was established.

In the face of contentions and dissensions that centered on Alma the Younger’s leadership as chief judge — which quite probably arose in connection to his overlapping duties as high priest — Alma the Younger found need to innovate by separating spiritual and civic leadership entirely. This way, the chief judge would no longer be in a position where he would be accused of favoritism (as might have happened with Alma’s treatment of Nehor, who was also a critic of Alma’s religious teaching). This fully divorced the covenant, religious community from the civic community, drawing to completion the innovations started by Alma the Elder and King Mosiah.

These sorts of innovations continued throughout the Book of Mormon, as each generation similarly faced new challenges. These scriptural examples provide the template for Radical Orthodoxy. They involved people who were thoroughly loyal to their faith, and who exercised divine authority, who questioned received traditions and introduced new practices that at times dramatically changed the paradigms of the people.

Change is the order of the day

In our own dispensation, each new generation will find similar need to innovate in our practices, norms, and institutions. An unyielding conservatism, in which we strive only to preserve and conserve everything that has come before, forecloses that innovation. However, the Book of Mormon shows us that that change is not a defect, nor even necessarily an exception. It is, in fact, the norm as God guides and directs us within (and in response to) our changing socio-historical contexts.

The fact that things change does not mean that what came before was deficient. What came before may have been sufficient or even essential for the challenges faced by preceding generations, and a crucial step in the unfolding Restoration of the Gospel. We can embrace change without disparaging the spiritual intuitions of prior Church leaders and members. In the Book of Mormon context, a theocratic kingship might be preferable in some contexts! (King Mosiah even tells us so.) That it was changed does not mean that the prior model was inferior.

None of the above innovations in the Book of Mormon were undertaken without direction from God through authorized servants. An incautious progressivism has led many members of the Church down distinctly non-orthodox paths, leading them to “get ahead” of prophets and apostles and to agitate for things that are contrary to the laws of God. In contrast, Radical Orthodoxy prioritizes loyalty to the Church and its leaders. Writers and thinkers can explore ideas and possibilities for innovation, but as we do so, we should pay careful heed to the ongoing concerns and priorities of those God has called to lead his Church today.

Furthermore, in its embrace of change and innovation, Radical Orthodoxy rejects the common presumption that this innovation will always be in the direction of more progressive / liberal policy preferences. The innovation we need in order to face today’s unique challenges could just as easily be in a direction people consider more conservative or traditional, reinforcing (albeit in new ways, with new traditions) what has come before. And either way — as much as lay writers and thinkers can speculate and opinionate — such innovation will always be carried out by those with spiritual authority. In this way, Radical Orthodoxy embraces the challenge of threading the needle between unyielding conservatism and incautious progressivism.

Some possible examples

I’ve often considered whether one way to open up missionary work among Muslim populations is to revisit the “monoculture” we sometimes embrace within the Church. I can easily imagine, for example, Muslim converts to the faith carrying forward many righteous traditions, including their regular daily prayers, their fasting traditions, holidays, etc. In so doing, they could maintain a large part of their heritage as Muslims, even while they embrace the doctrines of Christ and the Restoration, and the sacred ordinances of the Church (including the Holy Temple). They could explore what it means to be Latter-day Saints with a uniquely Muslim flavor, and they would not have to embrace the Western individualism we sometimes take for granted in our own congregations. Nothing in our faith requires that they relinquish their righteous traditions in favor of our own.

Of course, this would require us to revisit some of our presumptions about what it means to be a member of the Church, and employ a greater tolerance for cultural diversity and a plurality of traditions within the Church. The downside of this approach would be the dangers of fomenting cultural factionism. The adversary is good at sowing the seeds of discontent and using cultural differences as a pretext for institutional defection. In other words, some measure of assimilation can help prevent different groups of the Church from splitting off. All of the innovations we see in the Book of Mormon had both advantages and disadvantages. And so even as I’m willing to consider and explore these ideas, I recognize the importance of humility and deference to those with spiritual authority.

Another example might be to revisit what we mean by our emphasis on the family. Western tradition has generated this idea of the nuclear family (father-mother-children) as a separate unit, complete in and of itself and independent of prior generations. There’s this Western, individualist approach to family where sons and daughter move away from home — sometimes across the country! — to start a family of their own. Grandparents see grandchildren a handful of times a year, and have little (if any) moral authority in the lives of their children and grandchildren once they move away.

I think it would be interesting to consider (and reassert) the vital importance of family writ large. Let’s restore the place of the patriarch and matriarch, of treating our elders with genuine respect and deference, by virtue of their experience and their stewardship as heads of the family. We could reinvigorate the idea of robust family dynasties playing a stabilizing role in our communities. None of this need downplay in the slightest the importance of the nuclear family; rather, it simply means that we can envision a society in which family clans can be among the “little platoons” that Edmund Burke describes, that insulate us from the state and provides mechanisms of recourse for those aggrieved and resources for those in need.

In conclusion, we see radical orthodoxy as a deep and abiding loyalty to Christ, His Church, and His chosen servants. What makes radical orthodoxy unique, and different from mere fundamentalism or straight traditionalism, is that it couples that loyalty with a vivid imagination, and a willingness to explore new ideas. What separates it from progressivism is that radical orthodoxy does not assume that all innovation will track progressive or liberal ideals. It can in fact do the opposite! And most importantly, radical orthodoxy strives to contour and flavor its imagination with the ongoing teachings of prophets and apostles, using those teachings as guideposts and benchmarks at each step along the way.

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