I used to avoid weekend blogging, but as weekdays have gotten busier, I find myself doing meatier posts on the weekend and sliding by with quickie "link and comment" posts during the week. So here I am on Saturday afternoon writing a post on (1) why I think the second half of Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy misses the mark rather badly; and (2) why any book trying to address LDS doctrine faces similar difficulties. My two earlier posts on the book are here and here; the book is available online here.
What Exactly Does "Neo-Orthodox" Mean?
It means the general view of and approach to Christian doctrine and theology exemplified by Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. And what does Neo-Orthodoxy have to do with Mormon doctrine? That's the big problem with the second half of the book — it doesn't really establish any direct connection between the mid-20th century brand of Christian theology developed by the above-named theologians (discussed in Chapter Two) and the more conservative approach to LDS doctrine that emerged in the last third of the 20th century.
A direct influence could be demonstrated if one or more leading LDS thinkers had, for example, studied under a (Christian) Neo-Orthodox scholar, or if there were numerous quotes and citations in LDS books or articles that were used to support or illustrate more conservative LDS doctrines. There is nothing like this. The book really doesn't even show an indirect influence, say if Neo-Orthodoxy had such a pervasive influence on American theology that LDS thinkers just picked it up without realizing it.
All the book did, I think, was note the role of Neo-Orthodoxy in emphasizing a more conservative (or traditional or orthodox) approach to Christian theology (rejecting both liberal and fundamentalist approaches); then note how LDS doctrine moved from the mildly liberal flavor one finds in some LDS thinkers in the early 20th century (Widtsoe and Roberts, for example) to a more conservative approach taken in the last third of the 20th century. There really isn't anything particularly "Neo-Orthodox" about the shift in LDS doctrine. And it's hard to find any crisis in the 20th-century LDS experience that matches the First World War and its effect on Europe and on Barth that was held to be the crisis that gave rise to "crisis theology" (another term for Neo-Orthodoxy). But if influence by Christian Neo-Orthodoxy doesn't explain the conservative trend in LDS doctrine, what does?
Explaining Mormon Doctrine
Let's assume that just as a more conservative Evangelical Protestantism has largely displaced the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations, so in Mormonism has the general doctrinal and social trend become more conservative. There is some basis for that idea: Armand Mauss, looking at the sociology rather than the theology of Mormonism, came to the same general conclusion. But how exactly do we explain a shift in LDS doctrine? What sort of model does one use for which the output is labeled "Mormon doctrine"?
A "revelation model" would seem like the straightforward orthodox response. But why would God direct LDS leaders to follow a liberal slant in the early 20th century, then follow a conservative direction in the late 20th century? God doesn't go with the cultural or theological flow in quite that fashion. So the orthodox explanation, I think, doesn't appeal to revelation to explain shifts in LDS doctrine. Instead, it denies there is any change in LDS doctrine that needs explaining, except for explicit revelatory pronouncements of the Official Declaration variety. The revelation model isn't really interested in documenting and explaining doctrinal change.
A softer but still orthodox approach would be an "interpretation model," explaining that the true doctrines have been there all along in the modern revelations (the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and other LDS scriptural texts) but early LDS leaders didn't fully grasp or appreciate them. As LDS thinkers and leaders became more sophisticated students and scholars of Mormon scripture, this approach notes, their understanding and interpretation of LDS doctrine changed from what they were in the 19th century and early 20th century to what we have today. That's pretty much the approach Lou Midgley takes in his lengthy FARMS review of Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy.
White's approach in Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy is really a third sort or model, a social-scientific approach holding that religious doctrines are a function of beliefs in the general culture or that they are a function of more basic and fundamental economic and social factors. Except that he doesn't then accumulate independent economic and social data to explain a shift in LDS doctrine — he just quotes a bunch of articles, books, and talks by an odd assortment of LDS thinkers. The approach he took in the last three chapters doesn't seem to connect with the model he sketched out in the first two chapters. Maybe he tried to do this (a much larger task) in later books or articles; it just doesn't come through in the book.
Concluding, I'll leave two open questions for further discussion. First, which authors have done a better job with the social-scientific approach to doctrine formation in the LDS context? O'Dea leaps to mind, but I haven't read The Mormons in a long time. In any case, I think the approach deserves a better treatment than it got in this book. Second, how exactly does one nail down Mormon doctrine (absent an official LDS catechism) to do any sort of comparison between Mormon doctrine a hundred years ago versus what it is today? That's the more general problem I alluded to in the opening paragraph. That question deserves a post of its own at some point (and I recognize that it has been discussed at various blogs many times before — links appreciated).
[Note: Minor style edits and a couple of expansions added 4-22.]