Responding to a New Critique of RO

Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled… (Isaiah 50:11)

Jaxon Washburn just posted here a lengthy critique of the Radical Orthodoxy position.  I won’t do a point-by-point discussion of all of his arguments; many of the objections to RO have been addressed thoroughly in other places.

But if I were to summarize Jaxon’s position, I might do so as follows:

Radical Orthodoxy and its embrace of the three most recent doctrinal proclamations as a “doctrinal tent” are out of alignment with Joseph Smith’s open, exploratory approach to doctrine.  The RO stance is little more than a thinly-veiled statement of aversion to change.

To sharpen his point, Jaxon prominently features in his post an excellent quote from Joseph Smith:

I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass, as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions; they cannot stand the fire at all.

The implication here may be that RO is a stance to insulate us from new ideas that might be contrary to our traditions; if we were to really face a more “expansive” view of the restoration, we would “fly to pieces like glass.”


Let’s step back and talk about the larger picture of what is happening with so many of these discussions. In a recent discussion about Latter-Day Saints and the LGBTQ+ ally movement, I said this:

Throughout the history of the church, there have been several instances where we have seen the formation of a religion-within-a-religion, as a set of ideas and commitments morphs over time into its own religion.  What are the indicators that something has become its own religion, either adjacent to or apart from a “mother” religion?  I don’t know if there is a definitive answer to that question, but here are some of my ideas:

– It has its own prophetic figures and teachers, whose pronouncements are seen to be more reflective of Gods mind and will than the pronouncements of the mother religion’s prophetic figures

– It has its own rival theology

– It has rival sacraments

– It has its own conversion stories and deconversion stories

– It provides a new set of saints and heretics, “righteous” and “wicked” groups

– It has its own sacred texts

– It has rival approaches to scriptural exegesis

– It evaluates the mother religion’s narratives and doctrines against external ideological frameworks that are seen to be more sound, or having more explanatory power

– It has a discrete community, to which people feel more devotion and belonging than the community of the mother religion

No one can serve two masters, and the objections to RO generally arise from this tension felt by people who have adopted a rival religion and are trying to remake the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the image of that new religion and its “traditions.”  Let’s be clear that it is not the orthodox who fly to pieces like glass every general conference because something has been taught that is contrary to some cherished traditions.  It is not the orthodox who fly to pieces like glass in the face of every secular intellectual fad.  We don’t fly to pieces like glass in the face of queer theory, critical theory, and other rival religious worldviews.  We only care about them insofar as they contribute to church members’ disillusionment with the covenant path.  Without that concern, we would not give any of these ideologies the time of day.

Jaxon points out that the King Follett Sermon was radical in its time, and was rejected by people who simply couldn’t handle its radical vision. This is true. In speaking of Joseph Smith, Jaxon gives voice to a view held by some that in Joseph’s time, theology was open and dynamic. Big ideas were being discovered and debated. Now, the church has hardened into a cautious, conservative posture that cannot accommodate the amount of innovation needed for our day. And why do we need innovation? Because people are leaving the church, and marginalized groups in the church are hurting.

This view is not entirely wrong. In the forming, storming, norming, and performing model of organizational behavior, early church history was forming and storming.  Those are times when most discoveries and decisions are big and disruptive. Later, as an organization becomes more mission-focused, the disruptive decisions and discoveries become less frequent, and most change is in the form of setting norms and making adjustments to enable continued performance. 

In our day, we do need to make adjustments to help the marginalized among us. And – I know this sounds harsh – numerical losses are only one factor to consider in making adjustments. When large numbers of people “go away” (John 6:66), that is not always a sign that the message is the problem. Often, especially in light of Western therapeutization of religion, it’s just a sign of problematic expectations. We know from scripture that our numbers are going to be small (1 Ne 14:12), and the use of numerically small groups has always been God’s pattern of influence. And many of us know from our church service that 40 authentically-converted saints are capable of achieving more of God’s purposes in the world than 4,000 unconverted people who see their faith commitments in terms of heritage or group identity, as indicated by the moniker “Mormon.”

The other problem with this argument about numerical-loss-as-impetus-for-disruptive-change is that it ignores growth in Majority World places like Brazil and the African continent, where people are fulfilling Joseph’s vision of living experiences of prophecy, visions, healings, revelation, and other gifts of the spirit while WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) Latter-Day Saints and Mormons live far below our spiritual privileges. The Majority World is the amazing future of the church, not privileged whites who argue endlessly over abstractions.

In the meantime, if in our day another radical, disruptive King Follett Sermon emerges from God’s ordained prophets, it won’t be the orthodox who fly to pieces like glass. We will gladly enlarge our ideological stakes if that is what is needed. We will simply continue our stance of making the best possible case for teachings that come from the prophets.

6 thoughts on “Responding to a New Critique of RO”

  1. Thank you for saying this. It needed to be said. The vocal minority are not actually interested in hearing the truth, in my experience, but we who try to hew close to the prophets’ words need a reminder now and again that orthodoxy is not an evil position to take in the church. For example, when our leaders say we need to do better on hot-button issues like racism, then reiterate our doctrine: that each of us is a child of Deity – perhaps that means that our cultural take on racism is faulty and we should try to keep the two Great Commandments before adhering to society’s views on the matter.

    1. I could say the same about the vocal majority who have the privilege and power that makes them able to dismissively speak in terms of “the vocal minority”. As if we’re the ones dominating discourse about this in the pews.

  2. I don’t know Jaxon Washburn personally and only vaguely by reputation, so I don’t intend this critique to be personal in any way.

    But one could just as easily argue that progressive Mormons are progressive because they have accepted and internalized the peculiar Western ideals and traditions which underlie the modern phenomenon of progressivism. It is easy (to the point of being facile) to argue that THOSE traditions are the ones which, when contradicted by proper authority, cause their adherents to fly to pieces like glass.

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