Mad Scientist

December 10, 2011 | 21 comments
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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.

21 Responses to Mad Scientist

  1. Thomas Parkin on December 10, 2011 at 8:58 am

    This was great. Funny and useful. I don’t have any ideas about ‘Theology’ exactly. But it seems to me that you’ve got right at the useful, and also lack of usefulness, of what you’re describing.

    Would you say this: “It looks for the sake of seeing”, might be better: ‘It looks for the sake of looking.’ Seeing, it seems to me, is something else. More along the lines of something else set to work.

  2. Course Correction on December 10, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Love your post. Can speculative Mormon theology co-exist with the current administrative concern about keeping the doctrine pure?

  3. Taylor Petrey on December 10, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Thank you, Adam! I am deeply flattered by this! I think that this also helps me to put into perspective some of your recent posts on your vision for the space for LDS theology, and I am pleased that we share it!

  4. Ben Park on December 10, 2011 at 9:46 am

    A thoughtful reflection on a thoughtful article. Thanks, Adam.

    Not long ago, on a car ride between Oxford and Cambridge of all places, I was forced to defend the virtues of Mormon theology to someone who thought it held no place within the Church. I wish I had this post to draw from.

  5. Adam Miller on December 10, 2011 at 10:53 am

    #1, Good question. I think theology is totally compatible with keeping doctrine “pure” because theology, as I’ve described it, has no say in deciding doctrine.

    #2, I’m glad you liked it, Taylor.

    #3, I think, Ben, I might put this in a slightly different way. There is a place for Mormon theology but it’s place is not “within” the Church. That is, theology is a non-institutional endeavor. Or something like that.

  6. John C. on December 10, 2011 at 11:00 am

    Adam,
    Why would people outside the institution be interested in its theology? I think you are saying that members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy shouldn’t be participating in theology, but that still seems too restrictive. Could you be saying that theology shouldn’t understood as prescriptive in any sense (and that’s why it’s non-institutional)?

  7. Adam Miller on December 10, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Good question. I’m saying something like: Mormons do theology and they may even do it primarily for other Mormons, but this work doesn’t take place under the umbrella of the Church as an institution. (Kind of like my wife’s all-Relief-Society-Sister book club that is not sponsored by the Relief Society ;) As my friend Robert put it: when I teach Sunday School at Church I don’t do theology, I preach repentance.

  8. SteveP on December 10, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Adam, I too was struck by Taylor’s approach. It serves as a model for my work in Mormon ecoevolution. I agree this is the way to do theology. Steampunk theology I’m calling it from now on.

  9. Brad Kramer on December 10, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Steampunk theology FTW.

  10. Chris H. on December 10, 2011 at 11:41 am

    I preach repentance as part of my theology.

  11. Nate Oman on December 10, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    I have to confess that there is something about preaching repentance without authority that makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t think that theological speculation confers that authority. Much better to simply be a mad scientist.

  12. Kaimi Wenger on December 10, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    He is a mad scientist with a Petrey dish.

  13. Julie M. Smith on December 10, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Kaimi! Shame on you!

  14. Chris H. on December 10, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Well, I wouldn’t want to make Nate uncomfortable…

  15. James Olsen on December 10, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Adam, I’m drawn to the ideal, but confess I’m horribly skeptical concerning the practical possibilities.

    If a theologian’s could ever becomes a should or a does, it will because something other than theology has set to work.

    I really like this – which is, I think, true to Mormonism’s essence: we can do all kinds of good, be anxiously engaged, etc., and we should, but vis-a-vis the Kingdom of God on the earth it takes much more than human good will, it takes the union of the heavenly and earthly, it takes direct revelation and divine authorization working in conjunction with human good will. Which is why, as Nate points out, there would be something amiss if you began preaching repentance on your own, as opposed to doing so after having been authoritatively called to such work.

    But here’s the part I’m skeptical of (which is, I think, the heart of your post):

    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 is far too clinical, and I think you’re ideal instantiates very non-human ways of engaging with our community, making analytic distinctions that are conceptually possible but practically implausible and do not capture the holistic manner in which we practice religion. Perhaps if we merely state it as an ideal; but then all we’re really doing is reminding the theologian to be humble, reminding her that she’s not in fact authorized and ought not take herself to be authorized to play a direct institutional role. But that’s the exact same message we’ve got to constantly remind ourselves here at T&S; it’s also the same message we’ve got to tell ourselves when we teach Sunday School; it’s also the same message I’ve got to tell myself when questioned by a member of the media. There’s nothing unique to theology here. There’s no special role or message being given to or carved out by someone academically trained and publishing antiseptic “possibilities” in academic or other journals.

    You’re asking the theologian to play the role of the dispassionate psychologist. Be well-informed, ask lots of questions, help the patient to explore possibilities and help lead the patient to his own conclusions. But this is quite obviously in tension with the humility you’re saying the theologian needs to maintain. And what’s more, I don’t want either a psychologist or a theologian that doesn’t feel existentially and passionately committed to both me and to our relationship.

    By the same token, if Petrey isn’t really concerned with how the church progresses, if he’s just as happy for the church to pursue any potentially “viable” option and is just helping to philosophically explore different such options or lay out what “viability” would look like, then I can’t for the life of me understand why we need him or recognize in him the virtue of charity. There’s nothing particularly useful there.

    Note: I don’t at all believe Petrey’s doing just this – and would be surprised if he claimed he were. He’s explicitly concerned about the “ethical and meaningful” aspects of the debate (which he currently sees as getting short shrift) – this means he cares for more than what is merely socially and theologically viable for the church. My guess is that he recognizes that those things (i.e., ethics, meaning, sociality, theology, and in the Mormon sense, salvation) all go together. And the reality is, in practice, our haves and do’s and shoulds are inevitably part of our could’s.

  16. Chris H. on December 10, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    ” Which is why, as Nate points out, there would be something amiss if you began preaching repentance on your own, as opposed to doing so after having been authoritatively called to such work.”

    Why? This does not seem as evident to me as it does others. I would love to hear an explanation.

  17. James Olsen on December 11, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Chris H.: My explanation is the preceding line:

    we can do all kinds of good, be anxiously engaged, etc., and we should, but vis-a-vis the Kingdom of God on the earth it takes much more than human good will, it takes the union of the heavenly and earthly, it takes direct revelation and divine authorization working in conjunction with human good will.

    Others might have different answers – but I’ve here given both the context for the claim and my reason to support it.

  18. Ben H on December 11, 2011 at 1:44 am

    Hm. I do think we need people who are willing to do theology without pretending that everyone has to agree with them. If we always expect everything to be definitive, then it’s hard to say anything much at all, unless it’s been straight from the mouth of God.

    However, exploring one possible way of thinking is not the same as thinking about something that is merely optional or gratuitous

    It seems to me our greatest need for theology actually is for theology about things we should believe. After all, these are the things we are obligated to have a belief on. Hence it would seem especially important that we think about these beliefs carefully and get them right. Of course, such theology would presumably need to rely on authoritative sources, since these are the sources that say what we should believe. We need theologians to refrain from saying that everyone should believe these things in the way they themselves do. However, we need theologians to talk in a serious, sustained, and thorough way about things we should believe.

    If theology is talking about God, then, apart from a vacation now and then, I don’t see how it could be responsible to get away for very long from talking about what we should do and believe, because God is so compelling. If we don’t feel that compulsion, then it’s hard for me to see how we could really be talking about God.

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 11, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I have been living under the assumption that a Mormon theology would have the goal of understanding the Gospel the way God understands it, or perhaps more realistically as we will understand it once we are resurrected and the veil is fully lifted, the veil that separates us from our millennia of direct knowledge about God.

    Our concept of divine reality is that it has a viewpoint that is complete and comprehensive, but the limitations of time and comprehension and our own clumsy language allow us only limited glimpses into that ultimate Gospel, the one that our individual Urim and Thummim will reveal to us in full. I have assumed the role of an LDS theology would be to propose at least the outlines of that unified understanding, even while recognizing that God has specifically limited our knowledge and by so doing limits our liability for our failures to conform our lives to it. Such theology would be, by definition, a venture beyond what is prescribed both for our belief and behavior, but legitimate as an enterprise because God invites us to seek more light and knowledge, and promises that the righteous seeker may find a revelatory answer in the end.

    I have always found it ironic that traditional Christianity calls it anathema to contemplate becoming like deity, but honors theologians who strive to become like deity in the realm of mind, the only realm where God exists in their creeds. At least we Mormons have been taught that one of the purposes of eternity is to give us time to learn what God knows. Who has a better, more consistent doctrinal basis to seek to know the mind of God than the Latter-day Saints?

    We Mormons are forced by the abundance of direct revelation to abandon many of the axioms about deity and perfection that Christianity borrowed from pagan philosophy and incorporated into the creeds. That forces us to abandon the dizzying superstructures that have been built on that sandy foundation, rather than the rock of revelation. Because so much of our foundational knowledge comes from revelatory events, our theology will inevitably look a lot like history at its base, and it will not resemble the spacious halls of philosophy built over two millennia. It is likely to be dismissed by residents of that other ztructure. But apart from questions of academic acceptance in the world, a Mormon theologian would have no reason to worry about that lack of resemblance.

    As Truman Madsen and others have argued, a Mormon theology has the potential for generating answers to persistent questions that can be far more satisfying to many of us. For me, for all its assertion of a God unconstrained by time and space, traditional Christian theology appears heavily concentrated on the historical earth, and not open to a perspective of an eternal continuum of infinite worlds, and thus hobbled in its ability to address modern cosmology and the secular theme that science consists of the constant demotion of the importance of mankind toward an infinitesimal speck squashed on the windshield of the universe.

  20. Nate Oman on December 12, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Chris H.: I take that calling to someone to repentance necessarily involves a claim to authority to speak and act with regard to the things of God. To call another person to repentance involves a judgement that the person to whom one’s speech is addressed is (1) in need of repentance; and, (2) in need of the particular call that you are issuing. Both of these actions involve a judgement on that person, a judgement that may tread upon the kind of action that I take it we are commanded NOT to engage in unless given the special authority to do so.

    Another way of thinking about this is in terms of the philosophy of language. There is a difference between presenting an argument that X is sinful and calling person X to repentance. To call someone to repentance is not merely to make claims about the world. It is an act, an attempt to exercise normative power over another person. This is the kind of thing that if not done carefully can easily be prideful or even apostate.

    “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.”

  21. J. Madson on December 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I agree with Chris here. Not sure why we as a people are so concerned with a speaker having authority. I don’t see preaching repentance as necessarily claiming authority and exercising power over others. In fact, claims of authority are the problem in my view. Authority should be derived from the truth of what’s being said and not by virtue of authoritative claims.

    It is when those preaching repentance start claiming authority over me that I start worrying. Absent that we can accept or reject their preaching as free men and women guided by our reason and spirit. In such a vein, if Taylor were preaching repentance would it be problematic? It seems only if he claimed some authority over others rather than let the merit of his arguments stand on their own.

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