Taylor Petrey is a mad scientist. He’s hard at work – goggles affixed, white coat misbuttoned, pocket-protector full – blowing up the lab. He’s a mythbuster. He’s Jamie Hyneman with a walrus mustache. (That cannonball in your living room is his.)
His Dialogue article (PDF) exemplifies my prescriptive take on what the future of Mormon theology, qua theology, should look like.
Mormon theology should be neither descriptive nor prescriptive but speculative.
It is not the theologian’s job to tell Mormons what they have believed (though the theologian must be an avid collector of historical curios). It is not the theologian’s job to tell Mormons what they do believe (though the theologian must be saturated with such anthropological and sociological data). And it is not the theologian’s job to tell Mormons what they should believe (though the theologian must be faithful to God’s call).
Rather, it is the theologian’s job, qua theologian, to mock-up alternatives, to slide into adjacent spaces and speculate – given what Mormons have, do, and should believe – about what they could believe.
This kind of speculation depends on history but isn’t justified by it. It is attentive to Mormon devotion but isn’t itself devotional. It is respectful of Mormon institutions but has no institutional warrant. It’s only warrant is charity. No one asked the theologian to do this work. No one is taking notes. There are no patents to be won.
Theology wells up like hunger. It’s an attempt to bear all things, hope all things, believe all things, and endure all things.
Compelled by charity, theology is the mad work of trying to think all things.
Not all things are given, but theology looks to see what might be. As Petrey puts it in a related post:
One of the primary questions LDS theology faces is whether it merely offers a philosophically sophisticated window dressing to what is spoken over the pulpit, or if it has its own voice, its own purpose, and its own rules. Is LDS theology a given set of truths to be vindicated through philosophical theology, or can it produce new ways of thinking with the resources provided to it, and expose problematic elements of past and present articulations of LDS thought?
Or as he puts it in the article itself:
What follows is a thought experiment on the question of how Mormons might imagine different kinds of sealing relationships other than heterosexual marriage. Such an experiment neither constitutes Church doctrine nor intends to advocate itself as Church doctrine. Rather, this essay provides an occasion to think critically about the intellectual and theological problems posed by the reality of alternative relationships outside of heterosexual norms. (107)
Theology must be neither window dressing nor advocacy. In order to be justified by charity, it must be more like pure research. The weak force it musters depends on slipping the knot of our interested agendas. Good theology, as pure research, is like good theoretical physics: in and of itself, it’s good for nothing. It’s useless. It experiments for the experiment’s sake. It looks for the sake of seeing. It, like the love of Christ, forgets itself as it empties itself of itself.
If a theologian’s could ever becomes a should or a does, it will because something other than theology has set to work. In such a case, a theologian’s work may, in fact, prove useful to those called to effect such change. But in order to be useful in this way, theology must itself refrain from trying to impose it’s use. Theology is useful to others only to the degree that it is faithful to its own uselessness.
On my account, Petrey’s essay is real theology: it’s genuinely gratuitous.