Recently, there has been quite a lot of online chatter among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about a manifesto that I helped write advocating for what we call radical orthodoxy.
You can read the manifesto at https://latterdayorthodoxy.org .
You can also read more about it in this news article published by the Salt Lake Tribune last Sunday: https://sltrib.com/religion/2020/12/05/theres-new-manifesto/
Even though I am not actively blogging at the moment so I can focus on finishing my book, I’d like to pop in to share a few insights about what we mean by radical orthodoxy within the context of the restored gospel.
First, let me say something about the title. We explored a lot of different options before settling on the words “radical orthodoxy” to describe the ideas we have tried to articulate.
The word radical is complex, with a rich, symbolic etymology. It has deep roots– in fact, it is derived from the Latin word rādix which literally means “root.”
Over time, words evolve meanings beyond their etymological origins, and in Modern English, the word radical usually refers to a desire for change— not just superficial change, but change at a fundamental, root level. Radical can also refer to something basic or intrinsic. Sometimes it means far-reaching or thorough. In chemistry it refers to atoms, ions, or molecules that have unpaired electrons, which makes them highly reactive. When it is paired with an ideology, radical can sometimes mean extreme. And most people also recognize it as a popular slang term roughly equivalent to “excellent!” or “awesome!”
The word orthodoxy comes from the Ancient Greek roots ὀρθός (orthós), meaning “correct,” and δόξα (dóxa) meaning “way or belief.” So it literally refers to correctness in doctrine or belief. In a religious context it usually refers to conformity to established or accepted beliefs.
By putting these two words together, we intentionally create a paradox. How can you desire deep change while still conforming to established doctrines?
Throughout our lives we encounter this struggle between extremes: change vs statis, conformity vs nonconformity, progress vs conservation. Radical orthodoxy is about navigating the space in between.
G.K. Chesterton famously wrote about the conflict between change and tradition in an analogy that is often referred to as “Chesterton’s Fence”:
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’ This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”
When we talk about the restored gospel in online forums, we find various competing voices in addition to the official communications from the Church.
On the one side we have those who say that because the fence exists it therefore must always remain the same. No changes or adjustments are necessary or allowed.
On the other side we have those who want to tear down the fence because it imposes limits on them that they don’t like, regardless of whether those limits might serve a good purpose that they don’t know about or may not have considered.
Radical orthodoxy sees the great value of tradition, and the potential dangers of change. But it also sees the necessity of change and improvement, and the potential dangers of traditions that become an end in themselves.
Radical orthodoxy looks to the roots. It encourages us to not only examine the fence, but also explore the reasons why the fence exists in the first place, the purposes it served when it was put there, as well as the purposes it continues to serve. And it is open to the possibility that the fence might need to be changed, updated, or moved– though never cavalierly or recklessly, and always with an eye toward the roots of why it exists.
However, in addition to the principle of Chesterton’s Fence, latter-day saints have an additional variable that they must consider: Living Prophets. One of the fundamental tenets of the Church is a deference to those whom God has chosen and authorized to represent Him and to speak on His behalf.
Being a faithful member of the church does not require you to believe that the prophets are infallible or to agree with everything they have ever spoken. But it does mean that you intentionally allow their teachings and directions to weigh more heavily than your own opinions. And it means that you are willing to reconsider or change your views when they conflict with what the prophets teach. Faithful members avoid contradicting or undermining the authority, programs, and policies of the Lord’s authorized servants– especially those teachings that are proclaimed by all fifteen of the apostles and prophets who comprise the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church.
However, apostles and prophets also have personal opinions and personal interpretations. They sometimes speculate. They are not always acting in the capacity of a prophet or apostle. That means that, for example, the content of a private letter written by an apostle to a family member or a friend ought to be considered inherently different than what they teach over the pulpit in a general conference of the Church or when they are otherwise acting in their official role and giving apostolic teachings. Furthermore, some counsel is context-specific and meant for a specific audience, circumstance, or time. Some teachings are meant to address local problems and were not necessarily intended to be generalized into a principle for the whole Church.
A personal opinion expressed privately by an apostle should not necessarily be given the same weight as something taught in a stake conference, which in turn should not be given the same weight as a discourse given in a general conference, which in turn should not be given the same weight as the teachings that have been taught by many apostles and prophets over time.
An idiosyncratic idea expressed a few times by one or two apostles that has not been taught by any of the subsequent prophets or apostles should weigh far less among the factors of your testimony than those precepts, principles, and doctrines that have been taught repeatedly by multiple prophets and apostles from the time of the restoration until the present. The doctrine of the church is not found in a popular quote or some obscure sentence from a single discourse. And the teachings and guidance of the current, living prophets, who relay the will of the Lord regarding present circumstances, should always carry more weight than those of the past.
It can be difficult to disentangle official teachings of the Church from cultural ideas and traditions. Some traditions and cultural concepts are wrong and should be abandoned. Some are good and useful and should be preserved. But the relationship between tradition, culture, and doctrine is complex, and changing tradition and culture can have unexpected consequences. There are always tradeoffs. So just because something is traditional or cultural does not mean it can or should be discarded.
Radical orthodoxy seeks to navigate these considerations while continually defending and following the living prophets. It can recognize the need for change and improvement, and it can acknowledge mistakes and misinterpretations of the past, while still recognizing the value of tradition and culture, and at the same time trusting in the Lord and the prophets and apostles He has chosen to lead His Church.
Radical orthodoxy sees that there is great complexity, beauty, and infinite wonder to be found within the framework of the Church. There are infinite opportunities for intellectual exploration and discovery within the constraints of faithfulness. We do not need to cross lines, break barriers, and deconstruct truths in order to find intellectual fulfillment. In fact, choosing to work within the limits and constraints of the gospel can be the catalyst for profound discovery and invention.
Radical Orthodoxy is orthodoxy with deep roots. It is orthodoxy that is far reaching and thorough. It is orthodoxy that embraces change– but change that is rooted in fundamental ideas and truths– not in the hasty or superficial, not in change for the sake of change itself, and not in change in order to conform to societal pressures. Radical orthodoxy is about letting the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of His prophets change and reform us.
Some might even say that radical orthodoxy is awesome orthodoxy.
Now, back to focusing on my book…