Theology and Conversation

February 24, 2009 | 11 comments
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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.

Intensification

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 ….

Conclusion

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.

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11 Responses to Theology and Conversation

  1. Mark D. on February 24, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    One of the nice things about studying Christian theology is one can identify which unofficial doctrines and apologetic arguments in Mormonism have outside origins and what theological reasoning lead to them in the first place.

    For example, the common Mormon position on divine foreknowledge and free will is essentially the same as the Arminian one. There are a number of arguments pertaining to theodicy and the nature of evil that bear great similarities as well. There are many others.

  2. Mark D. on February 24, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    That should be “general Christian theology”. I might add that Protestant theology from the Reformation to the Restoration is where the most direct similarities are to be found. Arminian (classical Methodist) theology in particular.

  3. Jacob J on February 24, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    The New Mormon Challenge definitely took us on in terms of our theology. This was one of the first places I’ve seen with a real two-way theological dialog. The responses (mostly by Blake Ostler) tend to take the approach of trying to explore the possible options open to a Mormon, given that we have nailed down almost nothing (theologically speaking) as an institution. I don’t see that changing any time soon. Given our commitment to continuing revelation, I think we will always want to keep our options open on topics that have not been revealed, leading to a very flexible theology. Put another way, we will likely have various competing theologies within Mormonism, but it would be nice to see major schools of thought develop and define themselves more rigorously.

  4. Kent (MC) on February 24, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Dave, is this a veiled attempt to introduce readers to The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology? If not, then I will. The members are producing some great stuff (I’m very fond of Adam Miller, Blake Ostler, and Nate Oman) and one finds this type of dialogue with other faith traditions regularly at conferences and in the publications. Critics complain that it appears that FARMS, FAIR, and other apologists are defining what the church believes rather than the prophets; but in a nation of prophets what can they expect?

    Mormons are relatively free to speculate and use a utilitarian approach to doctrine (whatever works to help you keep the commandments and feel the spirit).

  5. Kent (MC) on February 24, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    I agree with Jacob that it would be really great if members could draw on different well developed schools of thought within our tradition. When someone asks a question about Mormonism we can answer, “Well there are several schools of thought on that topic…” and then give various approaches to the issue. I think Mormons could definitely find themselves in the position of modern Jews who provide references by various Rabbis and leave issues open ended. That doesn’t mean that I as an individual don’t believe a specific thing, rather that means that we don’t see theology as a binding thing and we allow other members to believe differently than we do.

  6. clark on February 24, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    While not great theology the Lectures on Faith speak highly of it.

    I should note that SMPT (above) has podcasts of the conferences for members. Some of the talks were very good.

  7. Clean Cut on February 24, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    “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.”

    I second this.

  8. Jim F. on February 24, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    “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.”

    “I second this.”

    And I third it. We really need people who can do this. But I offer the caveat that we remember the danger of doing so, the danger that we will forget that we are trying to find ways to explain ourselves to others in terms they understand. There is an unavoidable tension between theology and living prophets.

  9. Clair on February 24, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    What good have 20 centuries of theology done Christianity?

  10. Matt W. on February 24, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Besides the tension between theology and living prophets, we have to accept that in a lot of places, our doctrine is about an inch deep and we don’t know the whats, the wherefores or the whys of why things are the way they are. We have tons of lacunae in our revelation, and while it is easy to create a “fill the gap” response, it isn’t always wise to do so.

  11. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on February 28, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Before the Protestant Reformation, by Martin Luther in Europe, there was the Dark Ages and very little theology. I believe that Dave Bannack’s conclusions derived from his reading of David Ford book are realistic. Theology is a branch of phylosophy. It is a knowledge devoted to worldly things.

    The LDS people do not yet have a theology. What we have are Doctrines of Father in heaven as proclaimed by Jesus Christ and His prophets. It is a Doctrine that should lead to obedience to Father in heaven and not rebellion. Jesus was led to His crucifixion as “a lamb”. In His position as the Son of Man, did He not have the power to wipe out the abominations of the Herodian Jerusalem Temple Authority?

    Dave’s conclusion that theology will displace history as a public discussion among voters and reporters; will happen as the JosephSmithPapers project by the Church History Department concludes over the next decades.

    Why is this project so important? It will make visible the acts of civil authority and their neighbors against a people, who chose to worship Jesus Christ according to the Will of Father in heaven. The nature of this project will be the actual documentation; how Joseph Smith perceived what took place?

    Mormon political candidates, like Mitt Romney, are at a disadvanged, because they have to defend the Doctrines of the Church and the history of the Church as told by Mormons. A theology is needed, if Mormons are to have an impact on our political world.

    The outcome of the JosephSmithPapers project will bring controversy among members of the Church, because we do not understand, what obedience the doctrines of the Father means, in the same way.

    We need further light and knowledge in a theological way. I am weary of the issue of bigamy, which is prominently brought to the fore by the FLDS year after year. It is time that this controversy is laid to rest. With wars and rumors of wars and fraudulent behavior in business and politics. Is this the best that Mormonism has to bring?

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