Circuitous Machinations – On Mormon Theology

September 19, 2011 | 33 comments
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A comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation.
—“Rube Goldberg,” Webster’s New World Dictionary

Designating a device that is unnecessarily complicated, impracticable, and ingenious.
—“Rube Goldberg,” Oxford English Dictionary

Theology is a diversion. It is not serious like doctrine, respectable like history, or helpful like therapy. Theology is gratuitous. It works by way of detours. Doing theology is like building a comically circuitous Rube Goldberg machine: you spend your time tinkering together an unnecessarily complicated, impractical, and ingenious apparatus for doing things that are, in themselves, simple.

But there is a kind of joy in theology’s gratuity, there is a pleasure in its comedic machination, and ultimately—if the balloon pops, the hamster spins, the chain pulls, the bucket empties, the pulley lifts, and (voila!) the book’s page is turned—some measurable kind of work is accomplished. But this work is a byproduct. The beauty of the machine, like all beauty, is for its own sake.

Theology, maybe especially Mormon theology, requires this kind of modesty. As a scholarly discipline, Mormon theology is for people who like that kind of thing. The Church neither needs nor endorses our Rube Goldbergian flights. The comic aspect of the arrows we wing at cloudy skies must be kept firmly in mind. The comedy of it both saves us from theology and commends us to it. It is painful to watch a theologian who thinks he’s finally bolted together “the one true Rube Goldberg machine.” But there is joy in a shared comedy that invites us to laugh and wonder as ordinary religious objects are lovingly pressed into doing unusual and amazing things.

Thomas Aquinas is a model. At the end of his life, embraced by God’s own mystery, Thomas throws up his hands and claims that all he’s written—the sum of Catholic theology—seems like straw. Theology is only worth doing if, in full light of this admission, we can take Thomas’ confession as a punchline to be celebrated rather than a disgrace to be brushed under the rug.

Self-aware, such comedy never starts from scratch. It never gets its feet planted. Like an amateur juggler, theology weaves around the room chasing its borrowed pins. Theology works with found objects. It repurposes ordinary stuff in pursuit of ad hoc projects. Nothing is ordered to specification. Our Rube Goldberg machines are made out of ordinary, mismatched, everyday religious objects. Start with a couple of doctrines here, a few rituals there, a pew, and a prayer, then throw in some historical qualifications for good measure, grease the wheels with a sociological observation or two, and wind the whole thing up.

The more ordinary the stuff, the more material the objects, the sturdier their composition, the better for theology. You can’t build a working machine if you rely too much on supernatural ephemera. When the gears crank, the wheels turn, and the hammer swings, you want that head to connect—whack!—with a satisfyingly solid thump.

Good theologians need two skills above all others: they must be shameless packrats and they must be imaginative tinkerers. Because they work with found objects, theologians need to be collectors of religious texts, rituals, and objects of every sort. The collector needs to gather a wide variety of objects from a wide field of sources—Eastern, Western, ancient, modern, literary, scientific, etc. Working just with what is at hand, it is best to have a lot on hand.

Repurposing these ordinary gestures, altars, and texts—sometimes subtly, sometimes wildly, sometimes both—for theological ends requires invention and sensitivity. Tinkering requires patience and care. The only way to successfully exapt an object is to be sensitive to its given shape, heft, strength, and history. Then, in light of this attention, the object can reveal what untapped work it is able do it. Constellated into an unnecessary apparatus, the object can show both itself and the objects aligned with it as possessing a new and surprising strength. Yoked together, the whole thing can shamble along handsomely, showing us the gods and moving us closer to them.

Engaged in this work, theology has only one strength: it can make simple things difficult. Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity.

Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. Rube Goldberg machines, models of inelegance, are willing to loop anything into the circuit—tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats, whatever. This is their joy. Here, the impromptu body of Christ is a Rube Goldberg machine.

In charity, the grace of a disinterested concern for others and the gratuity of an unnecessary complication coincide.

Theology helps us to find religion by helping us to lose it. Theology makes the familiar strange. Theology ratchets uncomfortable questions into complementary shapes. Theology recovers the trouble that is charity’s substance.

When, in the end, all the levers are pulled, all the buttons are pushed, and all the switches are switched, it is a small, hard, round, red, shiny ball of charity that rolls out of the detour machine—or, otherwise, theology is nothing.

33 Responses to Circuitous Machinations – On Mormon Theology

  1. Dave on September 19, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    I think you’re kind of underselling theology, even Mormon theology, Adam. While one can argue that the Church gets by just fine without a lot of theology, it’s hard to argue that the optimal amount of LDS theology is zero. This is evident, for example, from the confusion that still surrounds the status of the doctrine of plural marriage (as opposed to the practice, which is permanently suspended, at least until it is unsuspended) and the folklore that continues to circulate about the former race-based priesthood restrictions.

    Even if one defines theology as nothing more than careful thinking about basic categories and definitions that emerge from reflection on LDS scripture and LDS history, it’s hard to deny that not enough careful thinking has been done and more careful thinking would be helpful. With reference to your first line, I wish we could exchange a few surplus teachers of religion, historians, and therapists for a few LDS theologians.

  2. Adam Miller on September 19, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Dave, I worried mostly that I was over-selling it :)

    Theology, as described here, is taken narrowly as a scholarly discipline. Theology may be helpful to those who decide doctrine, but it does not and cannot do the deciding. And even if it isn’t helpful to those who decide doctrine, I believe it’s still worth doing – for its own sake, like anything beautiful.

    I believe that Rube Goldberg machines are worth making. Though no one has denied that Rube Goldberg machines may actually accomplish some real work.

  3. Jacob B. on September 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Excellent, Adam.

  4. natebergin on September 19, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    I’m a little unclear on exactly how you would define theology. I’ve always thought of people like B. H. Roberts, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McKonkie as theologists: people who seek to consolidate diversities of doctrine into a comprehensive whole.

    Although B. H. Robert’s work could perhaps be described as a Rube Goldberg machine, Bruce R. McKonkie’s work could not, as it became enormously influential in shaping LDS doctrine and culture in a real way. B. H. Robert’s intention was to create a manual for Priesthood study as well, and had the 1st Presidency approved his work, and forbidden publication of McKonkie’s, our church culture and even doctrine might be perceived in a radically different way today.

    But I think that you are talking about another kind of theologian? Non-authorized theologians, or intellectuals not working directly for the church? Who would you give as an example of your definition? I like the example of a Rube Goldberg machine as a metaphor for the work of a Mormon intellectual.

  5. Jax on September 19, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    there is a pleasure in its comedic machination, and ultimately—if the balloon pops, the hamster spins, the chain pulls, the bucket empties, the pulley lifts, and (voila!) the book’s page is turned

    This sentence made me smile!

  6. Cameron N on September 19, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    What is theology?

    Is it not being mired in parenthood?
    Is it not making the most of rare moments alone with a spouse?
    Is it not just trying to be a disciple everyday?
    Is it not doing all those things while studying the scriptures to catalyze the learning we get from all our doing?

  7. Michael on September 20, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Theology-
    The study of the nature of God and religious truth; rational inquiry into religious questions.

    Why are we belittling and mocking the need for a Mormon theology? I have never understood the animosity towards such an effort in LDS culture.

  8. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 20, 2011 at 7:06 am

    When, in the end, all the levers are pulled, all the buttons are pushed, and all the switches are switched, it is a small, hard, round, red, shiny ball of charity that rolls out of the detour machine—or, otherwise, theology is nothing.

    I liked the way you introduced this essence in the beginning and then came to it in the end.

  9. Adam Miller on September 20, 2011 at 8:06 am

    Michael and Cameron, I appreciate the responses but I think you’ve misunderstood. (1) I stipulated a very narrow definition of what I mean by “theology” here as an academic, scholarly discipline (which doesn’t exclude counter-stipulations – I quite like Cameron’s take, but it is offered in a wholly different vein) , and (2) this is an essay in defense of the importance, possibility, and value of Mormon theology. Miss this and you’ve missed the whole post.

    I love Rube Goldberg machines. I build philosophical and theological ones for a living. And they can (emphatically repeat: can) do useful stuff. But that’s not primarily what they’re for. And, in the end, they are still Rube Goldberg machines.

  10. Adam Miller on September 20, 2011 at 8:14 am

    What if McConkie had been like Thomas? What if, at the end of this life, McConkie throws up his hands and says: “Mormon Doctrine is just so much straw – stop taking it so seriously people!” Does this undercut his “testimony” or confirm it? I vote for the latter.

    PS “Mormon Doctrine” may easily be the best Rube Goldberg machine any Mormon has every tinkered together. Though it’s still probably not my favorite – there’s no accounting for taste :)

  11. matt b on September 20, 2011 at 8:56 am

    Marilynne Robinson states something very much like this in her essay on Bonhoeffer; theology is an art, and like most art may not be to everybody’s taste, but those who enjoy it will find it perhaps the closest they ever get to transcendence.

  12. Doug Gould on September 20, 2011 at 10:13 am

    What a ridiculous post! Theology is not only “The study of the nature of God and religious truth; rational inquiry into religious questions” (Michael’s definition) but a sacred undertaking. I don’t mind so much the parallel Adam draws between a Rube Goldberg machine and theology (no harm in having fun with theology), but he never gives a concrete example of how this analogy is a valid metaphor for theology. He begins, or attempts to do so, by drawing on Thomas Aquinas’ work; but he fails to draw from Aquinas any specifics that make his case. Adam says, in a followup comment, that his essay is “in defense of the importance, possibility, and value of Mormon theology.” Well, I missed that point (though I read his essay twice) because he never made it; and I could have done just as well had I “missed the whole post.”

  13. chris on September 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Adam, I’m pretty sure I agree, but I wish you would have beat us over the head with the point a bit more with all the machinations leading to the shiny red ball of charity :)

    My line of thinking on this is as follows….
    If all you’re going to do is go to church, go to the temple, read your scriptures and have family home evening, but not ever really internalize and love those around you… not be filled with a desire to lift up your fellow brothers and sisters, if you’re just going through the righteous motions, without ever finding yourself really becoming like Christ in the way you look at your brothers and sisters…

    Well, then, you’d probably be better off just spending your time with habit for humanity building people houses or going to soup kitchens.

    I actually see this as one reason why so many people are turning away from faith in general, and why so many children grow up to turn away from the church. They see a convoluted (to them) church apparatus doing all this “busy work” on one hand, and then see a bunch of people who don’t do any of that but build houses for people or build wells in Africa, etc. It’s hard by any metric to say the church goer, who hasn’t really had their heart and nature changed, is “better” than the one who smokes and drinks and lives with their girlfriend but spends every weekend at the soup kitchen.

    Of course, I think we need to return to the saying that these ye ought to have done and not leave the other undone. There sometimes seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of just what is the purpose of this whole Rube Goldberg machine is for… you call that machine theology, I’d go one step further, and say in someways you could call it many of the things we “do” in the church. Of course, to be a true RG machine, it would have to be seemingly usless, which when you understand the true purpose and can piece together the puzzle you recognize the value in it — and you also see some of the things that can be cut out.

    Well, we could go on, but I won’t…

  14. Aaron R. on September 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    matt b, is that essay in ‘The Death of Adam’.

    Doug, highlighting the possibilities for theology to inspire charity seems like fairly high praise to me.

  15. Adam Miller on September 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Doug, thanks for the response. I agree (of course!) that this is a ridiculous post ;)

    Though, if we disagree, I’m not sure where. You seem to be arguing against someone else’s definition of “theology.”

    I’ve explicitly stipulated that what I mean here by theology is theology as a scholarly, academic project. The church does not need me to do academic theology – or they would ask. And my salvation does not depend on my doing academic theology either – or God would tell me to.

    Is academic theology still worth doing? My answer is yes. Can academic theology be a sacred undertaking? My answer is yes – in fact, I explicitly tied the work of even academic theology to that which is most sacred: the pure love of Christ. Is theology severely limited (especially academic theology) in what it can do and how? Yes.

    Is theology’s tendency to take itself too seriously one of the primary ways in which it betrays that which is sacred? My answer to this is also yes.

    But as far I can tell, we probably agree about all of this.

  16. Rameumptom on September 21, 2011 at 6:34 am

    Adam, this is excellent. The imagery is perfect and beautiful.

    I was recently grousing on a blog about how poorly designed the Gospel Doctrine manuals are. They pick little bits of ideas here and there, but never bring them together in a package. This sometimes requires a Rube Goldberg apparatus to do, but the manuals fail miserably in doing so. There really is little theology taught or examined in Sunday School, as everything is boiled down to a few disparate, pat concepts.

    Based on your writing, I would suggest that the temple endowment is a Rube Goldberg contraption, of sorts. It is a true theology, unlike the non-ritualized Sacrament meetings and sermons. We are led from room to room (especially in the older, larger temples), learning about a variety of things that ultimately bring us to the Celestial Room and the purpose of the whole venture: to return to the Presence of God/Shekinah. Perhaps this is the closest thing regular Latter-day Saints get to experiencing true theology.

  17. RG on September 21, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Adam, I think you need to unpack what you mean by academic theology. Surely theology as you understand it can be done inside or outside the academy, so you must mean something more specific. Please elaborate.

  18. Adam Miller on September 21, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Good question, RG. How about: academic theology is the kind of theology that footnotes books that also use footnotes?

    There are other kinds of theology that don’t use a scholarly apparatus and what I’ve said may apply to them as well, but those are essays for another day.

  19. RG on September 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks, Adam. I’m not sure that definition, though, does the kind of work you want it to. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that theology functions kind of like art–we can appreciate it, it works on us, and it can even be sublime; but it isn’t the kind of thing that necessarily transforms us into better people.

    Seems like you need to create a distinction between theology as art and theology as ethic. I don’t think “academic” or “footnotes” gets you there.

  20. clark on September 21, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    It’s interesting Adam since clearly many people don’t like theology or thinking through these things. And so much is tentative that I can understand it somewhat. On the other hand I notice that most of the major Mormon blog posts are angst ridden discussions of social matters that I don’t see important. In fact given a choice between the two discussions I’d always take the theological one.

    While on one hand what really counts is our relationship with God and our Christlike acting in this life, there’s always the question of how to get there from here. I think different people have different aptitudes. For some people musing on theological matters is a way to focus on God and develop close to him. For others it is the opposite.

  21. Adam Miller on September 21, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    RG, good questions. I think this definition is probably enough to say that what I’m talking about here is something different than what we do in Sunday School or when we parent our children or just think really hard about God.

    The edges may be a bit blurry and what I’ve said may apply to other and broader things, but for now I’m just looking to make sense of what I’m doing when I write a journal article about Mormonism or give a paper at a professional conference.

    If there is room for this kind of thing in Mormonism, what kind of room is there? And why? If I find this work “important” to me in some sense, what kind of important does it have and why is the Church still right to find that work inconsequential to its own mission?

    Footnotes matter in this kind work, why do they (rightly) not matter to what the church is doing?

  22. RG on September 21, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Adam, thank you for the clarification; that makes good sense. Do you think, though, that what we do in Sunday School matters in a way that presenting a paper at the SMPT doesn’t?

  23. TT on September 22, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Adam,
    Sorry for being a bit late to this, but I am unclear. You seem to restrict the benefit of this gratuitous, unnecessary complication, inconsequential diversion, to being for the pleasure of a few, done for the sake of itself and its practitioners alone. FWIW, I find this to be in tension with how you conclude this piece by saying that theology is about spreading charity, but it is not clear to me that you think that this charity does anything except bring joy and pleasure to the theologian.
    Are you are saying that academic theology doesn’t have any broader social effects or responsibilities, that it can’t have them, or that it shouldn’t have them?

  24. Adam Miller on September 23, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Re #22, Let’s say that what we do in Sunday School matters to the Church in a way that what I do at SMPT doesn’t. In SS, I’m invested by the Church with responsibility to speak on behalf of Jesus as the institution channels him. At SMPT, I speak recreationally, hypothetically, academically, on my own behalf. I have a passing professional interest in SMPT, but I’ve promised to give life and limb without condition to the work of the Church.

    There are some similarities, but the differences (especially the institutional ones) are really important. Partly what I’m interested in here is finding a way of describing how academic theology matters while carving out a non-institutional space for this work to flourish as nonbinding and unofficial.

    Re #23, This is a really good question. In relation to the response given above, I’m saying in particular that Mormon theology, as an academic discipline, has no institutional responsibilities vis a vis the Church.

    The relationship, though, between the gratuity of the work and its expression of charity is more complex. On one hand, the work is gratuitous – no one needs me to do it, no one’s asking me to do it, maybe a handful of people will read it, maybe one or two of them will think about something differently because of it. Maybe I get really lucky and something I wrote about Mormon theology is helpful to 10+ people in a modest way. This is generally how this work goes – but this is fine, I’m interested in the work for its own sake.

    But we need to also consider the way that charity is itself always gratuitous: charity is charity because it does what it doesn’t have to do, it does what it does without any expectation of reward or benefit, it does what it does for its own sake, it goes the extra mile and counts the excess of its gift as something free. Charity has effects, but doesn’t pin its worth to those effects. Theology, if gratuitous, has a chance to be pure in the same way. And, perhaps, be all the more effective for it.

  25. James Olsen on September 24, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Adam, this may be my favorite post by you. And I may or may not be in complete agreement. I’m happy to discuss the value of theology in terms of aesthetic value, so long as we likewise acknowledge the value of the aesthetic to the good life. I think there’s clearly something to the comment above about aptitudes. Also, there’s the same sort of professional-to-church institution gap you note with any profession we take up as a profession – including professions that directly contribute to the church (say working for the church as a computer programming or being an architect or administering some church department). But there’s something additionally ennobling about being able to take that which is the most serious (our religious lives) and making it the subject matter or raw materials of our professional lives. It works with theology – at least for those with certain aptitudes and tastes, an ability to appreciate the beauty of the Goldberg machine like you claim – in a way that seems different than, say, professional basket weaving. But I’m perfectly willing to admit my own prejudices here – never been much of one for basket weaving.

  26. David on September 26, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Adam,

    I enjoyed your comparison of theology to Rube Goldberg, although, like others, I was left to wonder how much credence you lend to Mormon theology. That aside, your post reminded me of Occam’s razor, that commonly accepted scientific approach to truth wherein the simplest answer is more commonly the true answer. Time being a scarce resource forces one to look for the most economical or efficient route to truth, and the unnecessary is dismissed without apology.

    As a big fan of science (and Mormon theology), this constraint forces me to consider why Occam’s razor shouldn’t apply to theology. The only answer I can come up with is that ‘time’ is not really a constraining resource when dealing with the questions that theology tackles. Under a cosmological model of infinite regression, for example, one should actually expect the more complex answer to be the right one. (As we usually observe that complexity naturally increases with time)

  27. TT on September 27, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    “I’m saying in particular that Mormon theology, as an academic discipline, has no institutional responsibilities vis a vis the Church.”

    Sure, but this isn’t the same thing as saying that it has no responsibilities toward the LDS church, even if it is not required by it. I think my negative reaction to this framing of theological work is that it insulates itself from any sense of responsibility. If you don’t think that what you do has any value to more than 10 other people who also value gratuitous intellectual “self-massage”, then I’m afraid that that is what you will produce. Ultimately, I think that my real concern is with what kind of charity you see as the result here. Doing theology is your charitable act, and you see charity itself as gratuitous, rather than an obligation! It is not just your understanding of theology as having no social responsibility, done for its own sake, but also charity!?! I’m not suggesting that academic theology adopt some kind of messianic self-importance, but that it at the very least take itself seriously enough to realize that theology is NOT some abstact intellectual exercise, but actually affects real people’s lives. How we think theologically about race, gender, power, texts, ethics, politics, justice, and even charity is not a gratuitous act of self-satisfaction, but actually has real effects. I don’t think that discourses are so separate from “real life,” but discourses, including academically produced and informed ones, constitute and shape “real life.” Theology bears this tremendous burden!

  28. clark on September 27, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    That’s a good point TT. I’d agree with it. I think some people raise ideas without taking responsibility for what their ideas do.

  29. Adam Miller on September 28, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Thanks, David and TT, for the additional comments. A couple of thoughts:

    1. About Occam’s razor – I agree that, all things being equal, simplicity can be a virtue. But simplicity is no virtue in itself. My position is that it is not always possible to say some things simply and directly. Especially when what you’re addressing is not itself simple and direct. In such a case, simplicity would be a falsification.

    And, perhaps, this may be especially true of the most important things. People, for instance, are important. And they tend not to be simple.

    2. About responsibility – can’t we be responsible for our Rube Goldberg Machines? And wouldn’t part of being responsible for them be the upfront acknowledgment that they are, in fact, Rube Goldberg Machines? This isn’t a way of avoiding responsibility for them but of acknowledging it.

    3. About theology and “real life” – in real life, things are always messy and cobbled together and ad hoc and circuitous. I’m claiming that theology, in this very respect, is part and parcel of real life.

    Pretending that theology is other than messy, cobbled together, and ad hoc is a way of treating it as an abstract intellectual exercise detached from real life stuff. Any theology that claims to not be a Rube Goldberg Machine of some kind is one that denies its real world status, its real world connections, and its real world responsibilities.

    4. About “self-massages” – that’s probably not a very charitable reading of what I said. Self massages might be appealing, but they are never gratuitous. To be gratuitous, the thing would have to be done for its own sake and not for the sake of the onanistic pleasure it produces.

    My claim is something more like: in order to NOT be reducible to a kind of intellectual “self-massage,” theology must be gratuitous. All onanistic theology is, by very virtue of this fact, NOT gratuitous. It is no kind of grace.

    What is more simple, direct, and solipsistic than a self-message? The whole point of theology’s detours is to loop as much foreign stuff, as many “tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats” into the circuit as possible.

    The detour demanded by the machine is a detour OUT of the simplicity of the self.

  30. TT on September 28, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    We are perhaps mixing too many metaphors here. Perhaps my objection is to the metaphor that you started with. The point of a Rube Goldberg machine is to take a long path to arrive at what should be a simple solution. Just put the cage directly on the mouse, rather than having to go through a whole procedure. The Rube Goldberg metaphor suggests that theology takes us on a detour, but we arrive at the same place without it. It accomplishes nothing that couldn’t be accomplished with out it. In contrast, I think that theology does take us to new places that we couldn’t have arrived without it. We actually end up in a different place than had we taken the seeming short cut. I think that your metaphor suggests that it ropes in new things along the way, but where I think the metaphor fails is by suggesting that in doing so you still arrive at the same place. Rather, I think that by roping in new things along the way, you end up someplace different, or at least you should.
    The issue of responsibility is not about taking responsibility, but about an ethic of care towards the subject, but also of critique. Again, this is where I think that your metaphor fails, because I don’t think that theology is a Rube Goldberg machine, because Rube Goldberg machines are useless, unnecessary, not helpful, etc. I don’t think theology is any of those things, so taking responsibility for me means bearing the burden that theology is.

  31. Joe Spencer on September 30, 2011 at 9:36 am

    The key word in Adam Miller’s post is, as Robert C. has made clear in the discussion at TT’s thread at FPR, “gratuitous.”

    I worry that TT’s take on theology is indeed a kind of works-righteousness approach to the task—too concerned for ends and aims, too focused on getting somewhere specific, too confident about what it’s doing. At the same time, I worry that Adam Miller’s take on theology is, rather than actually gratuitous, more a reaction against works-righteousness. The crucial point is to sort out exactly how a theology might be oriented by grace.

    In a word, TT assumes a telos in order to keep theology oriented (it aims at “charity”), and Adam Miller gets rid of the telos and so leaves theology disoriented (something he undertakes in the name of “charity”), but neither approach it seems to me quite captures the task of theology—which is oriented (against Adam Miller), but to something other than a telos (against TT). Theology doesn’t aim at charity, nor does it avoid aims because of charity. Its charity is, I think, something else, a characteristic of its style rather than the motivation that gets it going.

    What gets theology going? What orients it, and from where (if what orients it is not a telos)? An event—in the case of Mormon theology, the event(s) of the Restoration. Those events send the theologian on an aleatory journey that could end up absolutely anywhere, a missionary journey that must craft its message anew every moment, always fighting against every temptation to narrow the message and compromise charity.

    In this sense, it seems to me, every Latter-day Saint who believes is (called to be) a theologian. The more faithful one is, the more a theologian she becomes.

    The good theologian, attuned to this particular moment of the theological journey, will always be ready (and happy!) to throw away every theological construction so far constructed as so much Thomist straw—not because theology is just a diversion, but because the task of the moment leads another way, because charity calls her in a different theological direction, because she hopes but without desperation for a better world. TT is right: theology is serious. But it is serious about the task to which it has been called, not about the Other. And Adam Miller is right: theology is not-serious. But it is not-serious about particular theological constructions, not about the task of theology as such.

    Such, at any rate, is my conception of all this. Only in this sense can theology become genuinely gratuitous—that is, oriented by the grace of an event I never asked for.

    I’ll have much more to say about all this soon over at the Feast blog. I was about halfway through a lengthy post on the nature of theology when I became aware of all this. I’ll be finishing it soon….

  32. Adam Miller on September 30, 2011 at 10:03 am

    I’m definitely sympathetic to your response, Joe. But like nearly every other reader of the post you seem to have disregarded my stipulated use of the term “theology” as here referring to an explicitly academic endeavor.

    Is it true that every Latter-day Saint who believes is called to be a theologian? Maybe.

    Is it true that every Latter-day Saint is called to do academic theology? Not by a longshot.

    Is academic theology potentially helpful to the kind of the “theology” you’re talking about? My emphatic answer is: maybe.

    Is academic theology necessary to the kind of theology you’re talking about? I’m extremely dubious that the answer is “yes.”

    If the word theology is stretched far enough to pass Jim F’s grandma test (“but what about Jim’s [hypothetical] grandma who couldn’t even read or write, snapped beans all afternoon, loved her husband and kids, prayed at dawn every morning, etc., but she never did anything like “theology”!), then maybe we could say that “the more faithful one is, the more a theologian she becomes.” But that seems pretty far from the field I marked out here. No?

  33. Joe Spencer on September 30, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Adam,

    For the benefit of those who might be reading along here (we’ve begun to pursue this conversation elsewhere), I’ll offer at least the following short rejoinder:

    It seems to me either that the distinction between academic and non-academic theology doesn’t work (there is no clear mark separating them), or (if that distinction does work) that the idea that academic theology is a Rube Goldberg machine simply doesn’t work (it, like every other form of theology, doesn’t offer itself as a virtue in and of itself—indeed, academic theology is less likely to offer itself that way than any other form of theology).

    But I take it your post is meant to be pre- rather than de-scriptive. In which case, why bother to draw the distinction between academic and non-academic theology?

WELCOME

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