There are 21 thoughts on “Three Degrees of Gospel Understanding”.

  1. Pingback: Los “tres niveles” de la historia mormona – Vida y Pensamiento SUD

  2. Thank you, Dr. Peterson, for sharing thoughts so familiar to me that I have used many of these lines of thinking myself in past correspondences, even down to some of the direct quotes.

  3. In the Holy Bible we are exposed to the flaws of prophets and Kings. Moses wasn’t perfect and therefore wasn’t permitted to enter the promised land. Joshua allowed himself to be deceived by Canaanites and thus violated the word of God. And then, of course, we have King David! We still quote his Psalms, in spite of his “imperfections”. The history of the Hebrews is more believable because they did not hide the flaws of their heroes, as did the gentile nations around them. The imperfections of the early Saints is noted and should be expected!

  4. Thank you brother Peterson, another article that is both inspiring and clarifying. I applaud your energy and diligence in communicating your thoughts over the years. I am enriched because of your efforts.

  5. I appreciated this fine essay very much. The opening quotation from Alexander Pope about the Pierian Spring was fitting. Joseph Smith quoted that same passage in his final sermon of June 16, 1844:
    “I want to show a little learning as well as other fools—
    “A little learning is a dangerous thing.
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us up again.
    “All this confusion among professed translators is for want of drinking another draught.” (History of the Church 6:475.)
    According to Wikipedia, the Pierian Spring “was said to be in Pieria, a region of ancient Macedonia, also the location of Mount Olympus, and believed to be the home and the seat of worship of Orpheus. . . . The spring is believed to be a fountain of knowledge that inspires whoever drinks from it.”

  6. A, B, and C are essentially Fowler’s stages 3, 4, and 5 of faith.
    I didn’t know what I was experiencing, but I went through these degrees or stages on my own without discussing them with anybody or letting anybody know I was going through them or having any resource to understand. Although sometimes I found myself making less than faith promoting comments in Sunday School mentioning multiple possible interpretations of passages beyond those in the manual.
    The first discussion I had with somebody relating to these issues was with a Catholic colleague who had just completed a doctorate of theology. I asked her about the course and she immediately started talking about “post-modernism.” I stopped her and asked what that was and she explained that post-modernism was the term they used in the program to describe the nuanced way people put together their beliefs after their original simple beliefs went through a painful shredder process with contact with the real world. This caused me to look further and discover Fowler and realize looking back over my life that I had been through each of these stages to stage 5.
    Somebody asked about a degree D. Well Fowler has a stage 6. That said, transitioning from degree B to C or stage 4 to 5 takes making decisions–making commitments. Perry has 10 steps that he documented college students traverse regardless of subject. Step 1 is in stage 3 or degree A and Step 10 is in stage 5 and degree C. The rest are transitioning to, wallowing in, or transitioning out of degree B or stage 4. And it takes decisions and commitments in several of Perry’s later steps.
    Two often, in the LDS context, we think we are alone. But, people of all faith traditions go through these same degrees or stages.
    I think a lot more people are at C or 5 than we often think. Every time general authorities talk about “seasoned” leaders they are talking about people who have gone through “trials of faith.” I think these stages are found throughout the gospel and it is up to us to progress, make decisions.
    I worry about people who think we can provide a road map to other people to get them through B/4 to C/5. As A/3 is about accepting authority pretty much without question, all we do is get people to parrot the levels because they are taught by authority. Rather than grow through personal involvement, trial, and commitments, this would keep people in A/3 and hurt progression.
    We are given examples of people going through these stages. Alma the Younger did and what got him out was not the angels visit but his remembering of teaching when he was in A/3 and making a conscious choice to accept the Savior and follow him–not as a regression to A/3 but as somebody emerging from a trial of faith as a commitment. Nephi also demonstrates these degrees or stages. Much of his early writing is clearly at A/3. Then he seems to have written nothing except 2 Nephi 5 for more than a decade–perhaps in B/4. Then he emerges and produces a lot more nuanced writing but also stronger in personal faith where he was clearly in my mind at C/5.

  7. Thank you so much for such a fine piece that speaks openly and bears witness to the truth. I have been a member on Level A for many years, but could never quiet the desire of knowing more. However, I had always feared what “knowing more” could do to my faith, so I pushed aside. The truth is that the more real (imperfect) I discover the church (members and leaders) to be, the more my faith deepens. I can’t stop this desire to know more, so I can be prepared to discuss and defend ( in an open and sensible way) what I so dearly believe to be true. This “desire” just drove me back to college to study philosophy In hopes that by wanting to understanding the world outside, with rich culture, language, and diverse experiences and perceptions, and the world within, with inquiries, assumptions, desire and reason, I can find the benefits of an educated mind, that can render clear thinking, examine arguments, and make good judgments, and turn out to be a better member missionary. Thank you for your inputs, really appreciated.

  8. I agree with the argument set forth by Professor Peterson in his fine essay. I have, however, a slightly different way of explaining the dynamic the Saints inevitably encounter.
    There has sometimes been a recognition that we all begin with some necessarily naive faith (or unfaith) in divine things. This can persist especially when unchallenged by what is sometimes called historical consciousness–that is, among other things, the recognition that there are other even attractive alternatives to one’s naive faith. And the fact is Latter-day Saints are not like Roman Catholics living on Malta before WWII, who simply were not aware of alternative ways of understanding the world, although those at the Vatican certainly were. Why? We do not live on an isolated island where we do not encounter alternatives.
    Attending a high school, or a university, even or especially Brigham Young University, as well as serving as an LDS missionary, and often living in a radically different country and learning a foreign language, all tend to challenge a naive faith, and hence require one to explain the mere existence of competing understandings of divine and human things. For Latter-day Saints a naive faith is difficult if not impossible to maintain. And unfaith is always a real possibility.
    Latter-day Saints have never really sought the cultural isolation of Malta or of the Amish, even when forced to flee angry mobs. Instead, they have, even in their poverty, sought to take their faith to the outside world. And thereby they have also encountered vast and challenging difference, which necessarily generate a crisis, a point at which faith either survives or dies. Facing alternatives has always led Latter-day Saints either to a more refined, better informed, deepened, more robust faith, or to a diminished or loss of faith in God. The Internet has made this kind of crisis more or less inevitable for those who are not even beginning to become adults. And also for those who are somewhat childlike adults.
    In addition, the very grounds and hence the contents of the faith of Latter-day Saints directs them to become a genuinely sanctified Saint, as they inevitably struggle with their urges and temptations to move in other much less demanding directions. Those who overcome this kind of crisis generated by the very large array of ways of projecting and pleasuring ourselves, and the constant demand for conformity to often sybaritic alternative voices, one must either choose to follow the narrow way to a genuinely mature faith, and sanctification and Sainthood, and hence to a new birth into a deepened and improved naive genuine trust in God.

  9. Thank you for this insightful article, Dan. We love faithful perspective. I love the way Level C brings things around.
    I remember that as a student at Cal State Long Beach as a new convert in the mid-1970’s I heard about seer stones, Fawn Brodie, and the Tanners (Jerald & Sandra) while attending our LDS institute. Even as a Level A new convert, none of it threw me. At around the same time, I came into possession of a handful of primary source documents on the Adam-God theory. I thought, ‘So what?’ (I still think it’s so-what.) So brother Brigham was spouting off about a weird thing. I had had a spiritual experience before my baptism, and Somehow I decided to trust in it. I chose to believe.
    What did bother me, though, was that Mormon Liberals seemed to refuse to provide faithful perspective to things when they showcased difficulties. Since earliest Eugene England / Dialogue / Sunstone days, they would promote and welcome apostates in their ranks. They still do to this day — much more so in fact. I have no regard for scholars or anyone who vomit contempt on the Church. They see the body of Christ, and focus only on its hangnails. They want us to obsess on our leaders’ bowel habits. But again, their cardinal characteristic is their refusal to provide (or even acknowledge) FAITHFUL PERSPECTIVE. That, I think, is unforgivable.
    But Mormon Liberals in recent years have endeavored upon a brand new ‘low’. In earlier decades, I would never have IMAGINED them conquering a faithful LDS institution — hijacking it — taking it over — gutting it — ejecting it’s officers — and then making it over in their own image. [Speaking, of course, of the Maxwell Inst.]
    That’s a new one. A wholly new triumph for Level B unfaithful’s.

    • Sorry, Glen, if I do not quite see the demise of FARMS as you do, because the likes of Gene England and so-called “Mormon Liberals” had nothing to do with it. Indeed, the opposition to open-ended FARMS research was a long-time ultra-conservative right-wing program run by those with great antipathy for Hugh Nibley (and before him, B. H. Roberts) and his students.
      It is not at all helpful to identify and demonize personal political views (which do not fit our preconceptions) with the efforts at ancient research and publication which FARMS so successfully pursued for several decades. In any case, as you may know, those efforts continue elsewhere.

      • Robert — Mormon Liberals are ‘so-called’? My gosh, maybe they never existed all these years. Maybe there is no devil after all . . . and there no Mormon Liberals. Please not to be sorry — we can disagree.
        Best to you,

      • I don’t know if the demise of FARMS can be attributed to liberal vs ultra-conservative leanings, but I do agree with Glen that FARMS has undergone a demise. It used to be that I could, and did, recommend FARMS publications (especially the JBMS and the symposium proceedings) to other members of the church since I knew that they were written in such a way that a reasonably educated person would be able to follow along. But, over the last decade or so I’ve noticed that the publications have become so full of academic jargon that even I, having two bachelor degrees and a masters degree – including a degree in ancient near eastern studies, can barely follow what they are talking about.
        I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Einstein, “that all physical theories, their mathematical expressions apart ought to lend themselves to so simple a description ‘that even a child could understand them.'” Though most of them were academics, the previous FARMS authors were able to write in such a way that it didn’t require someone who had memorized an academic jargon dictionary to understand what in the world they were talking about.
        Now instead of recommending FARMS I actively recommend that people avoid it. The only exception is if they have a specific question that I know is answered in a pre-2006 publication I’ll pull the relevant journal or book off my shelf and loan it to them, but I would never send then to the website. These days I end up recommending sites like the Interpreter or or using the Word Cruncher app to access the previous FARMS publications.
        I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. A few years ago we took our daughter to the stake patriarch to get her blessing. Somehow in our introductions the patriarch learned about my background in Hebrew and ANES and we spent a good 10 minutes commiserating on the decline of FARMS. Fortunately our good wives were there to gently remind us eventually that lamenting the fall of FARMS was not the reason for our visit!
        It saddens me that Elder Maxwell’s good name has been sullied by association with what FARMS has become.

        • I agree, John. I am put off by arcane wordness in the output of some academic’s. Anybody can write to be understood. The most involved, educated scholar, when standing in line at McDonald’s, will not order by launching into esoteric, pedantic verbiage and word gymnastics. He will speak plainly.
          I was reading in the introduction of a newer book titled “Standing Apart” written by two liberal BYU academic’s. After a time—and re-reading and re-reading, I realized something: I wasn’t able to extract any meaning from the English-language sentences there. Further, I realized the deficiency wasn’t mine, it was in the fog-bound wordplay.
          God bless,

          • Glen, you have used “liberal” in several comments, and always as a pejorative. I confess that I have no idea what you mean by that word.
            In this case, I reread the introduction to Standing Apart to see if I could discover unnecessary academese or anything I could identify as “liberal” leanings. I found what I thought was rather clear, informed, and precise prose without any indication of “liberal” (whatever that might mean). I certainly saw “scholarly,” and I hope you don’t equate scholarship and whatever you intend for the word “liberal.”
            I do see some irony when Wilcox and Young note that there has been a binary narrative about apostasy and restoration that is in need of revision and you suggest a binary narrative contrasting faithfulness with “liberal.” I would personally reject any attempt to dismiss scholarship by labeling it without engaging it.

          • This is interesting, Brant, I can’t find a button to reply to you, so I’ll just reply using the button to my own post above.
            I used the word ‘liberal’ loosely and perhaps in error in this particular post. But I make no apology for the ways I’ve used the term in any of my other comments. I stand amazed that you would even intimate that you don’t know what a Mormon Liberal is. Judging by how you’ve pounced on this it sounds like the authors of Standing Apart are possibly friends of yours.
            We simply disagree, and with your credentials it will certainly mean that your views will easily wash over and obliterate mine. But no matter; I’m not into scholar-worship. I am mystified that anyone can read even the intro to Standing Apart and come through it enlightened. To me it is the clearest example of arcane word-goo I have seen in a while. Your own reply to me itself an example. What is binary narrative? It’s odd that even a google search fails to give a clue. You mention that I was accusing the book itself of being ‘liberal.’ I did no such thing.
            You threw out a challenge to me, saying that you “would personally reject any attempt to dismiss scholarship without engaging it.” With this, you miss the point of my simple little post: I didn’t criticize the book’s scholarship; I merely commented on its arcane, difficult wordage. You were born five years before me, so you are familiar with the Mormon Liberal culture from earliest Dialogue and Sunstone days. I don’t know why you would pretend not to know about it.
            I do apologize for labeling Set Apart’s authors, and especially if they are cherished friends. Judging by the strength of your rebuttal I suspect they are. The aim of my post was to express dismay about intellectually pretentious, obscure writing. I hope you might allow me to have that opinion. On the other hand, you may “reject” it to your heart’s content. I do find it interesting that a scholar commenting on Standing Apart said of the book, “[it] draws parallels between the Catholic practice of indulgences and the Mormon practice of vicarious rituals of salvation.” Forgive my university-educated mind, but I can’t process that idea beyond ‘nonsense.’ It must be binary thinking.

  10. Thank you ! Perhaps there is even a fourth degree–after the work and study and synthesis, there is the choice and state of faith.

  11. I agree with Brother Peterson. The anti-Mormon critics have criticized us for not teaching that level “C” exists. But that level “C” exists, is one of the plainest truths.
    Actually active Latter-day Saints see a version of level C all the time. In their wards they see the weaknesses of active Latter-day Saints as well as the weaknesses of inactive Latter-day Saints. The Nephis and the Lehis, and the Lamans and Lemuels, and everyone in between, are in plain view. I agree that many of us fail to see the weaknesses of the Nephis and the Lehis, but only because we’re so busy in our own routines – as Brother Peterson himself said: raising families, etc. Anyone who has served in a leadership position has especially seen these weaknesses even in the Nephis and Lehis.
    But even those in non-leadership positions – especially hometeachers and visiting teachers – should discern weaknesses even in the best of the families unless, of course, they (hometeachers and visiting teachers) are not really thinking or praying much about their families whom they supposed to serve. Those in non-leadership positions should know that in all periods of the Gospel, there have been the Nephis and the Lehis, and the Lamans and Lemuels. Lehi begins to grumble, but when asked by Nephi for the best place to hunt, prays, is chastised by the Lord, and quickly repents. Nephi in 2 Nephi 4 feels guilty because of his EXCESSIVE anger against his brothers who have tried to murder him, and who have abused his parents. The Book of Mormon does not hide these weaknesses of these spiritual giants, and does not hide that spiritual giants Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah had been not just the “vilest of sinners” but had been “the VERY vilest of sinners.” Nor does the Book of Mormon hide that Alma the Elder had been a wicked priest of King Noah. The scriptures do not hide that Joseph Smith lost the 116 pages and thereby lost the power to translate for a while. I learned very early in classes that the three witnesses fell away, and that one of them never returned to the church.
    Thus, why in the world would we need to study church history to learn of even more weakness of active Latter-day Saints in church history? Don’t we have enough examples already in our wards and scriptures?
    Thus, no one in the Church should feel that to know the “real” truth, they need to study the weakness of the active Latter-day Saints throughout church history. No one in the Church should feel that they have been denied the “real” truth because we have ample examples of level “C” already in our wards and in our scriptures. Our time is better spent studying our own personal weaknesses and using the power of the atonement, of repentance, and of the Gift of the Holy Ghost to be born again, and thus to become more Christlike. Hopefully we’re not too busy in our routines to do that.

    • My answer to your rhetorical question, “why in the world would we need to study church history to learn of even more weakness of active Latter-day Saints in church history?” is John 8:32 – The truth shall make you free.

      The truth is always best.

      In my opinion, presenting church history with substantial omissions of reality is dishonest, unrealistic, and unfulfilling.

      All the best to you!

  12. I love your thoughts and idea. The “mists of darkness” in the middle, I believe, are meant to give us context to what the Gospel really is.
    Level A is good enough for some people however no one really believes unless they are in level C.

  13. Thank you for this Brother Peterson.
    “He would not, that is, seek to expose Church members to a ‘disease’ that would make them stronger if they survived it but that, in fact, more than a few would find fatal.”
    This bring to mind Luke 17:1-2
    1 Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!
     2 It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.
    I read and know more than I share with other members of the church because of my fear of being the cause of their losing their faith before they can move on to level C. I tell myself that there is time enough in the eternities for them to learn it all as long as they can maintain their faith in this short mortal existence.

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