How I spend my Sunday nights, and what it means for the future of Mormon thought.
I used to watch “Grey’s Anatomy.” But now I have a newborn Sunday night routine: I put the kids to bed, I straighten the house, and I curl up on the couch with ice cream and laptop for an evening of 100-proof philosophy. A few months ago I was invited to participate in an experimental e-seminar, brainchild of Adam Miller, the subject of which would be Mormon readings of Abraham, and the members of which would include an eclectic group of Mormon scholars, senior and junior, university-affiliated and independent (including my distinguished T&S colleague Jim Faulconer). I accepted the invitation, because who actually watches that show anymore anyway, and also because I was seized by Adam’s vision of the project:
I saw dozens (and hundreds) of these seminar groups, loosely organized around an extra-instutional hub, convening for sixth months at a time and reporting over the course of the next fifty or a hundred years about the practice and foundations of Mormon theology.
I saw the accumulation of insight and the cross-fertilization of discourses and disciplines in the production of consensus reports about relatively narrow and (at least provisionally) answerable questions.
I saw books and whole series of books published containing these reports and the individual contributions that they spawn.
I saw online groups and summer theology seminars with senior scholars.
I saw an immense archive of disciplined theological discussion, organized and searchable according to topic and discipline, that could form the foundation for the emergence of Mormon theology as a unique discourse with its own proper methods and unique subject matter.
I saw Mormon theology, rounding its two-hundredth birthday, growing-up. Lacan on the brain, I penciled the name: the Mormon Theology Seminar.
To make poetry of extra-institutional hubs and consensus reports and organized searchable archives, to discover scholarship and an ecstatic futurism in audacious flagrante—what soul would not soar?
But even Phaedrus’ chariot must ascend first from earth. Adam and Jim devised a sort of syllabus for the project: we would use a blog platform for our seminar room (with comments available only to participants); readings would move us through Genesis and PoGP Abraham, Kierkegaard and Derrida; weekly discussion leaders would frame the conversation in posts to which the rest of us would respond. Four key questions would steer our inquiry:
1. If Abraham is the paradigm of fidelity to God, then what are the essential elements of this faithful relationship?
2. What can Abraham’s relationship with God tell us about the nature and possibility of theology?
3. How do our family relationships shape our fidelity to God and, potentially, the kind of theology we pursue?
4. Finally, in light of the above, what is unique about a Mormon understanding of Abraham?
We started up in January; just now we’re finishing Genesis. And from my perspective, the genesis is good. Discussion has been stimulating and fairly robust; we do, I think, share a sense of common purpose, and I believe we may yet answer a question or two. For me, an independent scholar (that most exalted species), the seminar’s intellectual discipline, imperfectly mustered, to be sure, and lively theoretical play have filled a gap that I’ve never managed to fill on my own in the nearly three years I’ve been out of the seminar room.
We’ve encountered many of the same challenges that bedevil any voluntary, virtual enterprise: it’s difficult to find the time to contribute among one’s obligatory tasks; without a face-to-face connection it’s been difficult to get to know all the participants well; we’ve struggled a bit to combine our various vocabularies and areas of expertise into a common intellectual task. But these challenges are eminently superable.
If you’re so inclined, I invite you to spend some time in our archives—either to follow the progress of our particular inquiry, or to observe the workings of our experiment. As it happens, several of our members, including Jim and Adam, are also participating in this year’s SMPT conference today and tomorrow. If you’re around and interested in participating in or sponsoring future seminars, by all means track down Adam; believe me, he’d like nothing more than to be cornered in an intense discussion of typology and semiotics.