It’s hard for Mormons to find an accessible doorway into theology. David F. Ford’s short book Theology: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 1999) is the first I’ve found to really give me some traction with this elusive subject.
Mormonism itself offers very little to get one started. There are no recognized LDS theologians or theological seminaries. LDS leaders sometimes offer doctrinal exposition but nothing systematic. LDS religious vocabulary and categories developed having little or no contact with the Christian theological tradition. The lengthy gospel topics section at LDS.org doesn’t even have an entry for “theology.” The 10-paragraph theology entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (authored by Louis C. Midgley) offers this: “Since scriptures and specific revelations supply Latter-day Saints with authoritative answers to many of the traditional concerns of faith, members of the Church tend to devote little energy to theoretical, speculative, or systematic theology.” So, you might ask, why bother with theology?
Scope and Diversity
In Chapter 7 of the book, “Salvation — Its Scope and Intensity,” Ford uses the broad topic of salvation to illustrate what might be termed theology as conversation. In terms of scope, salvation is the broadest theological topic, “concerned with the whole of life in its largest context and, within that, with human flourishing in particular.” The nature and power of God matters: does God control and determine all events, giving rise to predestination, or does God somehow preserve human agency? Creation matters, considering how humans and human attributes were created or fashioned “in the image of God” and what portion of this human creature will be retained as “a new creature” in a future, saved state. The problem of evil (a particularly tricky subject for most theologies) matters, extending to questions of sin and redemption. The depiction of Jesus matters: Does one focus on his life and teachings, on his atoning death, on his resurrection, or on the promised arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost? The institutional church matters: baptism and the eucharist or sacrament aren’t just ordinances, they are practiced by a faith community, which must be defined and managed. And so forth.
Each denomination and particular theologian has different views on the above components of a comprehensive account or theology. But I think one’s own theology tends to remain hidden or latent until one encounters a different account or theology. It’s like grammar, which you probably never noticed when you learned your first language at age two or three, but which is generally an indispensable tool when you tackle your second language. Then you gradually realize there is an entire related grammatical structure and system that likewise underlies your first language and of which you were entirely unaware. Likening deep familiarity with one theology (one’s own) to a journey, Ford observes how encountering other theologies has the same sort of revealing effect.
One cannot travel more than one journey, and one’s intellectual outlook is, like all other aspects of life, shaped by the travelling. Yet theology has to study and discuss all of them, and might be seen as a place where those who travel different journeys can meet, be hospitable, argue and even at times persuade each other to alter their route, welcome new companions and redraw their maps.
Apart from scope, which one might grasp by just reading a bunch of books, there is also variation in what Ford terms intensification. In terms of lived religious experience, we rely more on images, metaphors, and symbols to provide context and meaning. Theologies, too, appropriate image, metaphor, and symbol to deepen their impact. It is these aspects of a theology, not dry concepts and doctrines, that intensify the emotional connection between people and their beliefs and that call forth the level of commitment and sacrifice demonstrated by the faithful.
Ford illustrates intensification with different metaphors used over time to describe the significance of the Crucifixion or Atonement: as the ultimate temple sacrifice, Jesus being the Lamb of God; as a military-like victory over sin and death (think Onward Christian Soldier); as satisfaction for the disruption and dishonor of sin, restoring the proper relationship between an individual and God; as payment or cancellation of a debt to God, replacing condemnation with justification through faith.
I think an alternative way to approach intensification is to consider how individuals in different faith communities anchor their commitment or acquire deeply moving experiences. What is it like for an Evangelical to be born again? What is it like for a Catholic who enters an order and lives in a monastery for years? For a Buddhist who meditates for hours at a time? And, from the perspective of an outsider looking in at Mormonism: What is it like to serve as a full-time missionary at 19 or 20? Again, here is Ford on what can be learned from how others intensify their beliefs via different theological metaphors.
I suspect that it is rare for those who travel one journey to find that they fail to learn from a serious engagement both with the journeys of others and also with sensitive attempts to understand them as systematically as possible. Theology flourishes best when learning is part of its agenda, and ideally the result is a fresh intensity of thought ….
Those who are in a religious studies or theology program can speak from their own experience in the comments, but the discussion above at least suggests that theology has something to offer Mormonism. The idea that theology emerges from dialogue with other denominations perhaps explains why Mormonism lags behind — until recently, few scholars have taken Mormonism seriously enough to engage in two-way theological dialogue.
My own suspicion is that theology will soon displace history as the focus of the public discussion of Mormonism. The establishment of several academic Mormon Studies programs will help this along, but so will the higher political profile of the Church, combined with the continuing presence of viable Mormon presidential candidates (not just Romney). Curious voters and inquisitive journalists don’t want a history lesson, they want to know what ideas and beliefs are inside the head of that Mormon candidate or any other Mormon who is around to ask. But the issue goes well beyond politics. We need to learn to give coherent explanations of LDS beliefs, doctrines, and practices — using language and concepts familiar to listeners rather than unfamiliar Mormon terms — if we are to adequately respond to this rising public and media interest. Maybe theology can help.