I admit, I’m a very Thomastic theologian. I think the Summa Theologiae is ruddy brilliant and I appreciate Thomas Aquinas’ vast knowledge of philosophy and logic as well as his willingness to subject his religion under its scrutiny. Because of this, I’ve developed what you could call a very precise, almost mechanical way of studying what we could very well call the Law concerning Mormon theology. Commandments, for the most part, must make sense in some way when framed against the natural laws of God in order for me to verify their veracity and importance.
I’m not saying this to pick a fight. I preface what I’m about to say with this explanation so that people might be able to understand some of my thinking processes.
A recent post by Norbert on By Common Consent spoke of beer-drinking Mormons. It’s a fascinating look into non-American, non-Jello Belt Mormon culture. Basically, five faithful, active Mormons high up in the hierarchy had very differing (but what American Mormons would call unorthodox) views on beer drinking. This got me thinking about a recent discussion I had with my wife.
Most faithful Mormons I know grow uneasy at the idea of drinking non-alcoholic beer – on the other hand, most Mormons I know accept sparkling cider as totally Word of Wisdom friendly, even though they both have roughly the same alcohol content. Concordantly, most Mormons I know agree that cooking wine is probably Word of Wisdom friendly because “the alcohol is cooked out,” while most Mormons I know grow uneasy about the idea of tiramisu – a lovely desert made with cooking wine and (horror of horrors) coffee.
Now, I love the taste and smell of coffee. And I’ve wondered for years whether cooking with coffee was okay. Most Mormons rationalize that cooking wine is fine because the fundamental offending ingredient – alcohol – is mostly eliminated in the cooking process. What, then, is the fundamental offending ingredient in coffee? Most Mormons will instinctively mention the caffeine, but this we know is not necessarily true as the Church holds no official stance on caffeine, instead usually evasively answering that any drink with any addictive substance we should be wary of. Otherwise, drinking colas would be against the Word of Wisdom.
I realize that there are still many a Mormon who feels otherwise – caffeine is to be shunned. Fair enough; however, there is very little historical, doctrinal, scriptural, even revelatory evidence that supports this position. Avoiding caffeine I feel we can safely classify as a Cultural Thing.
So, back to the problem at hand. What of cooking with coffee? A story in David O. McKay: The Rise of Modern Mormonism had this interesting anecdote related to the prophet:
When one guest expostulated, ‘But President McKay, don’t you know that is rum cake?’ McKay smiled and reminded the guest that the Word of Wisdom forbade drinking alcohol, not eating it.
What, exactly, is the problem with coffee? This becomes much more elusive logically. In the end, we cannot say for sure there is any particular substance in coffee which brings about the current ban; rather, it is simply the act of the heads of the Church saying not to wherein the morality of coffee drinking lies. But, if we are forbidden to drink coffee, are we still allowed to eat it?
Bringing this argument and initial thought to a circular close, what of non-alcoholic beer? Uncooked cookie dough, if it contains vanilla extract, probably has roughly the same or more alcohol content than a non-alcoholic beer. How do we divide the line?
Edit: After talking to my friend Jon, he mentioned that the entire spirit of the law definitely starts to come into play – don’t take addictive substances (and he’s not even Mormon; this is after a brief one minute explanation). This, I think, we should also keep in mind when discussing this issue. On the one hand, it makes the cooking with coffee clear – you could get addicted to tiramisu (I know I could!) and so you should avoid it. On the other hand, it tends to make things really murky. Should energy drinks be against the Word of Wisdom? Cola drinks? Root beer with caffeine? Nicotine gum? How much should we leave this to personal preference? The Word of Wisdom could either become a growing experience as a person learns to distinguish good from evil and exercise his or her agency, or it could become a dangerous exercise of rationalization that leads to worse sins. But aren’t all commandments and moral situations like that?