featured image by Alyce Bailey, “Gumnuts and Buttons”
I once had a BYU religion professor who said, “If we don’t know the answer, we can make it up!” Naturally as a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old who had gleaned a natural tendency from my upbringing to nip speculation in the bud—I was shocked! This is the slippery slope of apostasy—at BYU! I thought. Of course, with time, I realize that the message he was trying to convey was not to fabricate doctrine, but to explore the unknowns between the lines of scripture, to ask questions, to ponder the “what-ifs,” in hopes that doing so might lead us to discover something valuable and faith-promoting.
I was recently reminded of this tension between Doctrine-with-a-capital-D and the concept of speculation while listening to Elder Renlund’s recent conference talk, in which he expressed concern about where speculation about Heavenly Mother can lead—implying that anything we infer about Her puts us on shaky ground, susceptible to Satan’s tactics. This naturally upset a number of my LDS literary colleagues, several even distraught about their body of work, noting particularly how much they fear church censure because of their speculation, their open discussion. This matters to me because I, too, have a recent unpublished-as-yet body of work about the nature of inspiration, which in writing over the last ten years has led me to speculation on Heavenly Mother in ways that, to me, are intellectually fascinating—the possibilities that might answer some of our questions about where she is, and why we still know little. (For a fairly thorough review of modern-day teachings about Heavenly Mother by church leaders, refer to this article in BYU Studies: https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/a-mother-there-a-survey-of-historical-teachings-about-mother-in-heaven/)
Yet observing the reactions to Elder Renlund’s statements has for the first time made me pause to evaluate if my own creative works have unknowingly run afoul of what the leadership would consider faith-promoting. Have I, in a spirit of sincere intellectual seeking, been “deceived,” as he indicated is likely as a result of speculation? What position would it put me in to publish these poems? Would I one day need to appear before a high council to defend my testimony, to be censured? This is an occasional drama I play out in my mind when I’ve woken at 4 a.m., turning over how I might defend myself, to allay their fears that I’m not an enemy of the prophets, the church, or any of its doctrines. That I believe—that I’ve always been in the boat and want to remain.
While it is tempting to analyze the logic of several of Elder Renlund’s statements, I feel this would border too closely on “trifling” with his words, in the language of King Benjamin, and go against my own personal practice of trying to glean the spirit of the message rather than the word choice. As I was reminded in a recent sacrament meeting talk relating the story of Levi Savage’s support of his leaders of the Martin Handcart company against his personal judgment—what we covenant to do is sustain our leaders, even if we disagree. And this philosophical discussion is of far less consequence.
Yet as someone who has consistently received confirmation to hone my literary talents in a field in which speculating—digging, uncovering, questioning—is fundamental if one is to make any meaningful contribution, I do believe the concept deserves discussion. Where is the safe space of speculation? Do we draw a Maeser circle around revealed doctrine and say, “Beyond this, poets and artists, go no further”?
I certainly understand that beliefs which replace Christ as our Savior (the way the Virgin Mary has become a substitute mediator in the Catholic faith) can rightly be perceived as dangerous to the core doctrine of true Christianity. For whatever reasons there are for a lack of knowledge we have of our Heavenly Mother, God’s plan requires our faith in His Son, Jesus Christ—that His name is the only name through which salvation can come. There can be no equivocating on that point. As a friend of mine recently shared, our Mother had to have also agreed to this plan because surely she is one with God the same way the Godhead is one in purpose and mind, if not in body, so upending this configuration does Her no justice. Except I don’t believe this is the intent of any Latter-day Saint woman who has been seeking knowledge of Her.
It’s concerning to me that in a religion I’ve always perceived as open to questions and speculation, I should suddenly have these worries—and it has dawned on me that so many of these women who have been named in memes as “false prophets” have seen themselves the same way—as believers whose seeking has led them to places that they feel enlightened, that correspond to the pattern of inspiration they’ve spent their lives living and flowing, but that suddenly have put them on the wrong side of someone else’s formula for what constitutes apostasy.
Perhaps if these women had just kept their speculation about Heavenly Mother to themselves, they’d be “safe.” But then—when Elder Nelson encouraged faithful women of the church to speak up, who was he talking to? If you consider yourself a faithful member and have pondered and studied the doctrines in order to find answers to questions that are burning in the hearts of many other LDS women who struggled with the absence of Heavenly Mother, and you believe you have some insight that can help her “stay in the boat,” surely this would justify speaking up. As a mother who has experienced the disappearing act and loss of self that inevitably occurs when giving your body and mind to raising your kids—I certainly understand the conceptual struggles many women might feel at this configuration of a Godhead with a Mother whose existence is only hypothetical. Sometimes, it’s personal down to your bones.
So what, then, is the role of imagination if not to shine a light into areas for which we don’t have answers? Where would the LDS faith be without speculation on the part of early leaders who were re-evaluating what had always been assumed as Truth? How can revelation come without first identifying the questions to ask, which requires acknowledging what we don’t know?
Speculation has, in our culture that privileges perfect knowledge, become synonymous with apostasy. It is an accusation and a red flag. Yet the literal definition of “speculate” is “to engage in thought or reflection”—to “meditate” upon some subject. Is this not a requirement for any disciple of Christ? To speculate is not necessarily to draw conclusions. It often means to live in the realm of questions and uncertainty, to be at peace with less than a perfect knowledge—to cling to faith itself in the face of discrepancies as choice without requiring that perfect knowledge. As someone (whose identity I’ve had no luck confirming) once expressed in a manner that rang true for me, “Belief has a work to do within you that perfect knowledge cannot accomplish.”
It’s no secret that our early church leaders engaged in doctrinal speculation, though some of the more extreme examples of these are lesser known. Kevin Bailey in a 2004 Dialogue article entitled “Mormons and the Omnis: Dangers of Theological Speculation,” listed a few of these speculative beliefs: “that Adam was the father of Jesus, that certain sins require one’s blood to be shed in retribution; practicing polygamy is essential to exaltation; certain racial groups were less valiant in the pre-mortal existence; and humans will never venture into space.” These reasonings now strike us as laughable at best and damaging at worst, but I doubt that anyone would conclude that those hypothetical theories were an indication of how valiant its proponents were—namely Brigham Young and Joseph Fielding Smith.
Joseph Smith himself made it clear that he felt uncomfortable condemning someone, even if they held incorrect beliefs. Prompted by a council concerning a member’s church status, he said:
I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodists, and not like the Latter-day Saints . . . I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine. (History of the Church 5:215, qtd in Bailey 32)
Joseph Smith also said: “Thy mind, . . . if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity” (History of the Church 3:295). This to me expresses the very essence of speculation—not necessarily to assert the way things are, but to uncover possibilities for how they might be.
With regards to literary endeavor, President Kimball asserted in 1977 that LDS literature should encompass the “ ‘struggles and frustrations; apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions’ ” of Mormon experience (qtd in England, xiv). This doesn’t quite sound like a tradition that should play it safe.
Karl Keller in his 1996 essay, “On Words and the Word of God,” asserted that:
literature is essentially anarchic, rebellious, shocking, analytical, critical, deviant, absurd, subversive, destructive. It attempts to destroy institutions; it challenges individual settled faith; it will disrupt all of life. The meek and the mild should not read it. The strong will be upset and uprooted by it. But it provides the service of making surer the grounds of one’s belief. [. . .] A great work of Mormon literature will be like all great works of literature; it will be one that makes me wrestle with my beliefs and which stimulates me by the example of the author’s own effort to re-create my own life on surer grounds of belief. It will be one that doesn’t program life for me, but leaves me free from constricting assumptions to wrestle, rebuild, and search for meaning. (20-22)
These are views I have long espoused, having benefited from a lifetime of studying quality literature, even if it contained things that were somewhat off-putting. So it is tempting for me to brush off the discomfort I feel when hearing warnings from church leaders about how one can be deceived. But if I am honest with myself, I’m no less susceptible to Satan posing as an “angel of light” than anyone who has gone before me, based on my own desires for artistic recognition and validation. So what then, is my ballast against crossing that imaginary (subjective? arbitrary?) line?
The Doctrine & Covenants reminds us to “seek the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given . . . for the benefit of those who love me and keep my commandments, and those who seeketh so to do,” a qualification that is a lovely reminder of how well the Savior knows our hearts (46:8-9). Yet it adds a caveat about the character of our seeking, that we should “ask . . . not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts” (queue spooky music). I take this to mean that if we are seeking answers for something in order to validate our own already deeply rooted conclusions or desires, however sincere, logical, or harmless we might view them, it’s likely we can misinterpret those “signs.” Perhaps trying to turn speculation into perfect knowledge, rather than allowing it to remain hypothetical, is where we can allow our gifts to cause us to “look beyond the mark.”
Elder Oaks suggested in a 1992 BYU fireside, “if we are humble and teachable, hearkening to the commandments of God, the counsel of his leaders, and the promptings of his spirit, we can be guided. We can be guided in how to use our spiritual gifts, our accomplishments, and all of our other strengths for righteousness.”
As a faithful Latter-day Saint artist, this is precisely what I want—and what I believe my colleagues want: to lead people to light through art, to soften hearts like soil where seeds of hope and belief can be planted, even if the heart’s proprietor has little clue what that seed might grow into. To be able to say, “Look what I made!” without fear of being labeled apostate. To work toward, as Keller articulated, “discovering silence and filling it with delight.” To dig down in the earth and discover some ore—not something with which to create a golden calf, but for the beauty of the mineral itself—some personal geode of faith that, broken open, might be filled with light.
Bailey, Kevin. “Mormons and the Omnis: Dangers of Theological Speculation” Dialogue Fall 2004, vol. 37.3, 29-48).
Smith, Joseph, et. al. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1902-12).
England, Eugene. “Introduction: One View of the Garden.” Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature. Ed. Eugene England and Lavinia Fielding Anderson. Signature Books, 1996.
Karl Keller, “On Words and the Word of God: The Delusions of a Mormon Literature.” Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature. Ed. Eugene England and Lavinia Fielding Anderson. Signature Books, 1996.