So I stumbled across a short book titled Judaism’s Great Debates (Jewish Publication Society, 2012) by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz. It includes an interesting chapter on defining boundaries, an issue that is familiar to Mormons. Why do we Mormons sometimes seem so eager to push people onto the other side of a formal membership line? Why do we still have the equivalent of heresy trials, and why are they so poorly managed?
The chapter highlights the story of Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Jew living in Amsterdam who became one of the finest philosophers of his time. A brilliant student, Spinoza initially questioned traditional Jewish teachings. He went on to reject Mosaic authorship of the Torah and to formulate some of the earliest critical studies of the Bible. He was excommunicated from his Jewish congregation for heresy in 1656 at the age of 24.
Spinoza’s experience is certainly a better analogy for the disciplinary disputes that sometimes arise between LDS intellectuals and LDS leadership than the one that always gets mentioned, the Galileo episode. It’s not science that creates LDS difficulties: we don’t excommunicate physicists or even biologists, at least not because of their views on physics or biology. Here is the book’s summary of what got Spinoza in trouble with his local Jewish congregation, which was run by lay leadership but relied on several rabbis for advice on matters of Jewish belief and practice:
[Spinoza] denied almost every major tenet of traditional Jewish belief: that God creates and controls the world, that we can have a personal relationship with God, that God is the source of goodness, that God makes ethical demands upon us, and that the Torah is the revelation of God’s will. Spinoza admired some of Scripture but rejected the belief that Moses is God’s prophet. He had little use for Judaism’s ritual laws and practices (or those of any religion). He rejected the concept of the Jews as the Chosen People.
While I won’t go through the exercise of updating Spinoza’s dissenting views to their modern LDS equivalents, the reader will no doubt agree that an LDS 21st-century Brother Spinoza would likely end up as did the real Spinoza: excommunicated for his religious opinions and beliefs. Teasing out exactly how or why that might result raises three questions. First, there is orthodoxy versus orthopraxy. The claim is often made (see this earlier discussion and its links) that the LDS Church defines its boundaries more in terms of personal conduct and religious practice (orthopraxy) than in terms of a set of approved religious beliefs and opinions which members must affirm (orthodoxy). The September Six episode makes it clear orthodoxy claims alone are enough to create a membership issue, although which heterodox opinions are beyond the pale is not generally stated in black and white. I think LDS leaders generally apply an “I know it when I see it” approach. Orthodoxy, defined or not, is a live issue, regardless of one’s conduct or actions.
Second, the various levels of membership within the LDS Church complicate the question of how heterodox religious opinions affect a member’s standing: a member can be deemed ineligible for LDS employment, ineligible for a temple recommend, ineligible for callings within a ward, subject to informal discipline, subject to formal probation, subject to disfellowshipment, or simply excommunicated. For example, questions posed to candidates for LDS temple recommends require affirming certain orthodox beliefs: the Mormon version of the Trinity, Christ’s atonement, the latter-day restoration of the gospel (which implies an earlier apostasy from that gospel by the early Christian church), and divine authority as delegated to and uniquely exercised by senior LDS leaders. What’s not so clear is what happens if a candidate who satisfies the conduct-related questions posed as part of the interview nevertheless does not affirm one or more of the belief-related questions. How far down the membership staircase does he or she fall? Granted that a Mormon Deist who affirmed God as Creator but disaffirms God’s continuing action in the world would not receive an LDS temple recommend, what other consequences would attend such beliefs? Heterodox religious opinions will certainly affect one’s membership standing well before one reaches the excommunication threshold.
Third, how publicly one expresses one’s dissenting views is a key variable. Strictly speaking, the LDS interview process does not assess a candidate’s beliefs but rather a candidate’s willingness, in the interview, to profess the approved beliefs and to not profess heterodox beliefs. In the wider public forum, the same distinction holds: the transgression is professing heterodox beliefs, not holding them. Publicizing heterodox beliefs, particularly if presented as persuasive criticism, may threaten the faith of other members, a legitimate issue for those tasked with looking after the flock. Spinoza, a young, headstrong, independent fellow, was apparently broadcasting his dissenting views all over town, which made the vulnerable Jewish community in Amsterdam very anxious — there could be repercussions if one of theirs stirred up trouble with the local Christians. [The author notes: "the Amsterdam Jewish Council (Ma'amad) that controlled almost all aspects of Jewish life was ever-fearful of disturbing the peace."] There is this additional community anxiety angle to LDS concern with public dissenters as well, although it relates more to potential damage to the carefully managed public perception of the LDS Church rather than external threats to the community, as with Spinoza’s Jewish community. External threats to the LDS community in the not-so-distant past are, I think, what gave rise to the ongoing concern with our public perception, so the concerns (physical safety, public perception) are certainly related.
So the Jews of Amsterdam pushed Spinoza outside the boundary of the Jewish community there. What did they lose?
[I]n his lifetime Spinoza earned the reputation as the most brilliant, and controversial, philosopher of his age. He published two major works: Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), and Ethics (1675). On the strength of the first work alone he was offered a university appointment, which he declined. His impassioned embrace of humanism — rigorous reason, utilitarian ethics, and political tolerance — laid the foundation for much of modern philosophy and government.
Let’s hope we don’t unwittingly excommunicate the Mormon Spinoza.