Post-secular Mormonism and the Role of Revelatory, Covenant Faith

So much angst in debates either for or against religion comes from pitting a dogmatic pre-secular attitude towards religion against reductive secular-only world-views. Often both see no possible way forward. And if religion can only ever be pre-secular and if secularly-informed world views can only ever be secular-reductive then perhaps that might be the case. But between these two extremes there lies a faith which delights in the truths gained through honest secular endeavors but that still acknowledges the reality and power of God.

Mormonism has not been spared from this debate. For some, Mormonism is something to tie down, preserve, and fence in -- to protect it from danger. For others, Mormonism is something that soars, must sail in a direction, and so must be free -- it mustn't be tied down. Maybe there's a role for both; for us to together figure out what God would have us bind to and what God is eager for us to let loose and sail.

I lean very much towards the latter type. I understand the dangers of "looking beyond the mark" (Jacob 4:14), inverting priorities, or confusing worldly wisdom with Godly wisdom. But I am wholly uninterested in a form of Mormonism that defines itself as static or finished (1). As something that has already arrived and so our only task is to keep it tied to a dock or permanently anchored in a harbor. That, I feel, would go against what Joseph Smith worked for. I want my faith's sails fully deployed, full of revelatory winds, and taking us to new places more beautiful than we ever imagined. And post-secularly informed faith can be a way to do so.


Post-secularism offers a way forward. It's not an option that makes everyone happy. Pre-secular religious attitudes may disagree with its inclusion of secular knowledge and secular-only world-views may insist there is no value in including religion. But those tired of reductive or dogmatic arguments and dialogues that assume an adversarial tone can find a way forward in post-secularism. What emerges is a faith and world view that sees great value and truth in both religion and secular understanding and seeks to find a way forward with both learning from and correcting each other.

A quick definition on post-secularism:

"[post-secularism is] the idea [that] modernity is perceived as failing and, at times, morally unsuccessful, so that, rather than a stratification or separation, a new peaceful dialogue and tolerant coexistence between the spheres of faith and reason must be sought in order to learn mutually. In this sense, [it] insists that both religious people and secularist people should not exclude each other, but to learn from one another and coexist tolerantly." (source)

It's also important to know that this kind of synthesis between the secular and religious spheres is not something new. This aesthetic has been expressed before:

"Though much as been written foolishly about the antagonism of science and religion, there is indeed no such antagonism. What all these world religions declare by inspiration and insight, history as it grows clearer and science as its range extends display, as a reasonable and demonstrable fact, that men form one universal brotherhood, that they spring from one common origin, that their individual lives, their nations and races, interbreed and blend and go on to merge again at last in one common human destiny upon this little planet amidst the stars. And the psychologist can now stand beside the preacher and assure us that there is no reasoned peace of heart, no balance and no safety in the soul, until a man in losing his life has found it, and has schooled and disciplined his interests and will beyond greeds, rivalries, fears, instincts and narrow affections. The history of our race and personal religious experience run so closely parallel as to seem to a modern observer almost the same thing; both tell of a being at first scattered and blind and utterly confused, feeling its way slowly to the serenity and salvation of an ordered and coherent purpose. That, in the simplest, is the outline of history; whether one have a religious purpose or disavow a religious purpose altogether the lines of the outline remain the same." -H. G. Wells, Walter Warren Wagar "Outline of History" (1920)

There's lots more to say about post-secularism abstractly, but I wanted to illustrate what post-secular attitudes have lead to in my faith and practice in Mormonism.

Post-secular Mormonism

Here are some terse examples of what post-secular Mormonism has meant for me. Note, these are my personal beliefs. I don't hold them as necessary or obligatory to a genuine Mormon experience (more on that later), but I do strongly believe they are compatible within the domain of Mormonism.

  • Covenant lifestyle centered on Christ above doctrinal creeds (more on that below)
  • Billions of years old Earth and cosmos
  • Rejection of reducing scripture to mere fables (2 Peter 1:16)
  • Rejection of moral relativism, but an acknowledgement of and empathy towards the profound influence culture and language has on moral understanding
  • Seeing the inevitable role science and technology plays in fulfillment of prophecy including (and especially) the realization of resurrection (2)
  • An acknowledgement of and learning from the failings and faults of past and present LDS generations but a greater desire for mutual forgiveness and moving forward
  • Being fine with the idea that my body has emerged mostly or even entirely from biological evolution (3)
  • Viewing consciousness as quintessentially emergent and that though it emerges from a biological substrate it is not biologically reducible
  • Pre-Adamic man and creatures including death -- rejecting the notion of biological stasis and interpreting pre-fall scriptures as referring to spiritual death since pre-Adamic mankind was ignorant of revelations from the Garden experience and thus not held accountable to it (4)
  • Rejection of scientism -- replacing it with a more expansive epistemology
  • Rejection of logical positivism treating logic as a tool and acknowledging its innate limitations
  • The flood narratives as local events (not a one-time global event) and very likely a pattern that has played out many times in mankind's past from various different physical geological processes
  • The Biblical flood account as being primarily about covenants (5)
  • An expanded view of scriptural origins (6) -- noting things like the 2013 edition of the LDS scriptures changing the introductory notes to the book of Abraham to call it an "inspired translation"
  • Revelation as a participation in the relationship between God and mankind focused on functional outcomes utilizing complex symbology, rather than necessarily a strict dictation from God due to semiological constraints in communication 
  • Scripture not as a textbook in geology, anthropology, or biology (7) (8).
  • Belief that both an all-literal, pre-secular approach to faith and an all-figurative, secularist approach to faith are incomplete
  • More nuanced views on the nature, power, and motivations of God moving away from traditional creedal philosophical models of God
  • Real personal freedom -- even to the degree that God may not know how we'll use it moment to moment -- informed by stochastic quantum interpretations; but that not negating God's ability to carry out divine work

I take the call to believe in whatever is true and let that affect both my religious and secular ideas. I look for synthesis rather than stasis. I acknowledge that any snapshot of religious or secular understanding is incomplete because I also acknowledge that God has not revealed all that will be revealed religiously or secularly. This is encoded into the foundation of Mormonism in the 9th and 13th articles of faith:

 9 We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God. 

13 ... If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

This aesthetic is echoed in a 1910 LDS Church Christmas statement:

Diversity of opinion does not necessitate intolerance of spirit, nor should it embitter or set rational beings against each other. ... Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense.

This lays out the willingness and desire to accept "demonstrable" truths but also a reservation to jump head-long into mere philosophy and theory which can provide some context to the cautious change that occurs in Mormon culture and policy.

Importantly, LDS leaders have pointed out that the totality of truth God would reveal is too much for the church (or even religion) alone to be responsible for and that it doesn't make a claim on a monopoly on truth:

"[God] is using not only his covenant people, but other peoples as well, to consummate a work, stupendous, magnificent, and altogether too arduous for this little handful of Saints to accomplish by and of themselves." -Elder Orson F. Whitney

"While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is established for the instruction of men (and women); and it is one of God’s instrumentalities for making known the truth yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place. God raises up wise men (and women) and prophets here and there among all the children of men, of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend. … All the great teachers are servants of God; among all nations and in all ages. They are inspired men (and women), appointed to instruct God’s children according to the conditions in the midst of which [they] find them." -Elder B. H. Roberts (parenthesis added)

The debate between pre-secular interpretations and post-secular interpretations generated sparks in LDS history between Joseph Fielding Smith and B.H. Roberts, which largely lead to the LDS church taking no position on evolution broadly but still leaving the door open to non-evolutionary elements in garden interpretations (9). Tragically, this chapter in LDS history is often a source for modern anti-secular rhetoric.

And finally, Joseph Smith shows strong anti-creedal attitudes which are a key ingredient in moving beyond pre-secular dogma:

"The most prominent point of difference in sentiment between the Latter Day Saints & sectarians was, that the latter were all circu[m]scribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing any thing not contained therein; whereas the L. D. Saints had no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time." -The Latter-Day Saints' Millennial Star, Volume 20 

"The creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further, which I cannot subscribe to." -Sermon on Oct. 15 1843

"[Methodists] have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty to believe as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled." -Words of Joseph Smith (pg 183-84)

"I believe all that God ever revealed, and I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief." -History of the Church 6:477

And summarizing this aesthetic and openness to all truth, Joseph Smith stated:

“Mormonism is truth; and every [one] who embraces it feels [oneself] at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from [their] neck; and [their] eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft . . . in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. . . . The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of [humans], or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.” -Letter from Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, Liberty, Missouri, published in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53–54; (spelling and grammar modernized).

Revelatory, Covenant Mormonism

If post-secularism provides a way forward affording diversity of beliefs, then reasonable questions are, "Where is the shared identity and meaning in Mormonism?" and, "Is there a place for a systematic LDS theology?" While there may be a role in finding a systematized belief in Mormonism, such efforts are only going to work for snapshots of time. With anti-creedal attitudes and a core belief in continuous revelation, belief in particulars in Mormonism is a moving target. This isn't much different from secularism. Much of the particulars of our secular snapshot today will be unworkable tomorrow. This is simply the result of being open to new information and truth whether secular or religious.

Orson Pratt made this observation:

"What does the Lord intend to do? He is introducing a new dispensation, yet it is the Gospel dispensation, the same as all other dispensations; the Gospel is included in this new dispensation. The Lord intends to do a great many things in this dispensation He never did in former ones; and a great many things that were in former ones will eventually be done away in this new one. What is to be done away? A great many things Jesus taught on the Mount will actually have to be done away in this new dispensation. A great many things were given to meet the circumstances of the people, that when they all become righteous many of those laws and regulations that were given to them in an imperfect state will vanish away; they will be of no use; they are like the platform erected around an edifice, which serves a good purpose for the time being, but when the edifice is completed, the platform is taken away." -Journal of Discourses 57

I believe a new scaffolding in Mormonism is being erected. The foundation in Christ is the same but much of the prior rhetoric and scaffolding simply doesn't work anymore in light of new knowledge and understanding and a new scaffolding is needed. Can we honestly expect anything different from a God who continuously reveals truth? If one's faith is in static creeds of prior rhetoric and scaffolding, instead of the foundation, change will be seen as a threat. But if one's faith is in the foundation of Christ, new scaffolding that builds on it is simply the work of revelation and restoration.

With belief in particulars unlikely to be systematized into a long-term creed, what then is the enduring aesthetic in Mormonism?

I believe LDS aesthetics mainly come not from belief in particulars, but from behavior and attitudes that transcend creeds. This is the unifying power of covenants. Creeds try to start at correct belief in particulars and derive Godly behavior. Covenant faith uses behavior and attitudes as tools that reveal correct belief. It is in the living of the covenant faith in Mormonism that its enduring aesthetic is found. And this opens the door to world-views such as post-secularism.

This is a different epistemological mode than what is used in secularism. But it seems to be the mode Christ emphasized with regards to the treatment of the faith He revealed:

"Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:54) (10) 

"If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." (John 7:17) 

"If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:31-32)

All of this points to this main theme: Systematized Mormonism isn't found through spectatorship; it is found primarily through discipleship. It isn't something to derive or merely think about; it is something to be lived, brought to life. It's similar to music written on a page. Its beauty isn't discovered until it is rendered and expressed anew. Someone can study the page of music by itself, but until they go about playing it using the instruments of the day, they (and those around them) won't understand its beauty and purpose. Music and covenant faith exist to be rendered, not abstractly systematized. The music provides an aesthetic domain, and the diversity of its renderings provides the variation of that domain.

This isn't to say beliefs aren't important. Beliefs are there to help us accurately understand and model the world and universe. And incorrect beliefs have real consequences on behavior. But what I believe Joseph Smith worked to restore was a religion that provides a robust, shared meaning in covenants around which can be afforded a diversity of beliefs in particulars. This becomes very empowering for the individual to engage intellectually in beliefs but also offers a strong, shared communal foundation of lifestyle centered on Christ.

This balance is mentioned by Jacob in the Book of Mormon:

"But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God." (2 Nephi 9:29)

Covenants transform faith from mere intellectualism to a pattern of life out of which a domain of different beliefs can be supported. But covenants do more than that. Beliefs are often abstract or immaterial centered on things. Covenants grapple with the complexities of human relationships. And covenant faith deals not with an idea of God but with the development of a relationship with God.

In Mormonism, covenants anchor us to Christ and set us free to live our faith rather than chain us to dogmatism. Covenants are how we have LDS general authorities like Joseph Fielding Smith (among others) on one hand who thought evolution was categorically false and B.H. Roberts (among others) on the other hand who believed evolution is largely a sound theory to understand the natural world and our own biology. All were righteous disciples not because of merely what secular opinions they had, but because of how they lived the revealed covenants of God.

Covenants turn us away from making religion about merely "what to think" and instead emphasizes "how to live". It's the shared set of meaning and purpose in that covenant relationship with Christ that can transcend differences in opinion and bind a people together. This is the enduring, systematized aesthetic of Mormonism: practicing the covenant, reconciliatory power of Atonement driven by the winds of continuous revelation. And as I practice that, I find more charity and appreciation for my fellow Mormons (including leaders) who have particular beliefs which I disagree with. I see their earnest desire to live a Christlike life guided by revelation and my shared desire to do so with them binds us together. And this is what harnesses the revelatory winds which will allow us to together sail and discover new places more beautiful than we ever imagined.

1: President Dieter F. Uchtdorf "Are You Sleeping through the Restoration?" (2014): "Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us—Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he received priesthood keys, the Church was organized. In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now. It includes “all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal,” and the “many great and important things” that “He will yet reveal.” Brethren, the exciting developments of today are part of that long-foretold period of preparation that will culminate in the glorious Second Coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."

2: Howard W Hunter, March 1995, Ensign: "In recent years we have begun using information technology to hasten the sacred work of providing ordinances for the deceased. The role of technology in this work has been accelerated by the Lord himself, who has had a guiding hand in its development and will continue to do so. However, we stand only on the threshold of what we can do with these tools. I feel that our most enthusiastic projections can capture only a tiny glimpse of how these tools can help us—and of the eternal consequences of these efforts."

3: See work done by Steven L. Peck such as: or

4: 1987 September Ensign "I Have a Question" (asking about fossil records) answered by Morris S. Petersen, professor of geology, Brigham Young University: Among the life forms God created were apparently many species now extinct. Fossil-bearing rocks are common on the earth, and these fossils represent once-living organisms, preserved now as part of the earth’s rocky crust. The existence of these animals is indisputable, for their remains have been found in rocks all over the earth. What eternal purpose they played in the creation and early history of the earth is unknown. The scriptures do not address the question, and it is not the realm of science to explore the issue of why they were here. We can only conclude, as Elder Talmage did, that “the whole series of chalk deposits and many of our deep-sea limestones contain the skeletal remains of animals. These lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation.” (“The Earth and Man.”)

5: The Noachian flood account is primarily about covenants. It is framed in the context of some kind of catastrophic geological event, but it is fundamentally about God choosing a lineage through which the covenant pattern is established and preserved His covenant pattern. It's not about whether it was literally covering the entire "earth" (as "earth" is conceived and understood in the modern era vs. how it was in ancient cultures). Notice the number and frequency of the word "covenant" in the Biblical account (7 times alone in Genesis chapter 9).

6: From Bushman's "Rough Stone Rolling": The Book of Mormon actually recasts the meaning of the original scriptures by offering what has been called a strong reading of the Bible. Instead of seeing the Bible as a book of holy words, inscribed by the hand of God in stone, the Book of Mormon has rather modern sense of scripture coming out of people's encounter with God. In the vein of modern scholarship, the passage seems to say that scripture is the product of a people whose labors and pains must be honored along with their records. Expanding on this idea, the Book of Mormon multiplies the peoples keeping sacred records. The Jews have their revelations in Palestine, the Nephites have theirs in the Western Hemisphere. Beyond these two, all the tribes of Israel produce bibles, each containing its own revelation: "For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews, and they shall write it, and I shall speak unto the Nephites, and they shall write it and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth, and they shall write it." Wherever Israel is scattered on "the isles of the sea," prophetic voices are heard and histories recorded. Every nation will receive its measure of revelation: "For behold, the Lord doth grant unto nations, all of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word; yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have." The tiny land of Palestine does not begin encompass the revelation flooding the earth. Biblical the revelation is generalized to whole world. All peoples have their epic stories their sacred books.

7: From Talmage's "The Earth and Man" (Chapter 37): So far as the history of man on the earth is concerned the scriptures begin with the account of Adam. True, the geologist does not know Adam by name; but he knows and speaks of man as an early, continuing and present form of earth-life, above and beyond all other living things past or present. We believe that Adam was a real personage, who stands at the head of his race chronologically. To my mind Adam is a historic personage, not a prehistoric being, unidentified and uncertain. This record of Adam and his posterity is the only scriptural account we have of the appearance of man upon the earth. But we have also a vast and ever-increasing volume of knowledge concerning man, his early habits and customs, his industries and works of art, his tools and implements, about which such scriptures as we have thus far received are entirely silent. Let us not try to wrest the scriptures in an attempt to explain away what we cannot explain. The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a text-book of geology, archeology, earth-science or man-science. Holy Scripture will endure, while the conceptions of men change with new discoveries. We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation. 

8: St. Augustine's De Genesi ad Litteram I, xix, 39: Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

9: Michael D. Rhodes and J. Ward Moody "Astronomy and the Creation in the Book of Abraham": "Was There Death among Plants and Animals before the Fall? This is a question that has generated much discussion within the Church, with strong opinions held on both sides. In the late 1920s and early 1930s Elder B. H. Roberts, senior president of the First Council of Seventy, wrote and spoke extensively of his beliefs concerning pre-Adamites and death among plant and animal life before the fall. His views were strongly opposed by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve. Elder Smith's arguments centered on the passage from 2 Nephi 2:22 that if Adam had not fallen, "all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end." Each attempted to have his views confirmed by the church. Both Elder Roberts and Elder Smith formally presented their views to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. After careful consideration, the First Presidency issued a report. Dated 5 April 1931 and addressed to the Council of the Twelve, the First Council of the Seventy, and the Presiding Bishopric, the report stated: "Neither side of the controversy has been accepted as doctrine at all." Thus, the First Presidency made it clear that the Church has no official stand concerning the existence of pre-Adamites and death among plants and animals before the fall... It is important here to stress that although there may have been death among plants and animals before the fall, this does not apply to Adam and Eve. The scriptures and the teaching of the Brethren make it absolutely clear that before the fall Adam and Eve were not yet subject to death, and it was only by partaking of the forbidden fruit that they became mortal."

10: Notice the wording, "hath eternal life" (σχέω in Greek text) - not "may eventually" or "perhaps will" have eternal life, but "hath" (here and now). Eternal life isn't a destination, it is a lifestyle and relationship. And we activate this process through covenant living -- not by merely holding beliefs.