Exploring Mormon Thought: Signs of the Times

January 19, 2012 | 36 comments
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 Do Mormons do theology? Sure. Do they do theology qua theologians? Not really.

We’ve got some Mormons who do theology qua general authorities. We’ve got Mormons who do theology qua CES employees. We’ve got Mormons who do theology qua Sunday School teachers. We’ve got Mormons who do theology qua historians. We’ve got Mormons who do theology qua cultural critics. But we’ve got hardly a Mormon doing theology qua theologian in sight.

Except (especially) Blake Ostler.

I’m stipulating a particular use of the word theologian here. (Maybe you don’t care for or are dubious about the value of the kind of theology I’m about to describe – that’s fine.) For my part, in order to count as a Mormon doing theology qua theologian, three minimum qualifications must be met: (1) your work must be “scholarly” in character (i.e., you must be reading, citing, and responding to other scholar-theologians), (2) you must be alive, and (3) you must publish a book.

In fact, let’s take this as the benchmark for the existence of Mormon theology qua theology as an extant discipline. Mormon theology qua theology will exist as a scholarly discipline when we have the books (not blogs, not papers, not essays, not journals, not edited collections, etc. – though these may be helpful and productive in their own right) to show for it. The transition from blogs/papers to books is a developmental phase transition.

In this respect, Blake’s work is a theological beachhead. If you’ve read his books, then you know that there is little to nothing else like them in Mormondom. They are a genre unto themselves. They deserve our sustained attention.

As a result, Joe Spencer and I have cooked up a plan. We’re going to spend the next year writing at T&S about all three (with a fourth on it’s way) volumes of Blake’s Exploring Mormon Thought books. We’ll take turns, write something once a week at roughly the pace of one chapter per week, and start next week with vol. 1, The Attributes of God (Greg Kofford Books, 2001). However, rather than simply reviewing/summarizing the books chapter by chapter (you can read after all), we’ll take Blake’s work as an occasion to reflect theologically on the same issues that prompted him to write in the first place.

Looking ahead, I see Blake’s work as indispensable to the (nascent) future of Mormon theology as a scholarly discipline in two respects: (1) it stakes out public ground on the content of a uniquely Mormon theology, and (2) it takes clear positions on what a uniquely Mormon approach to theological work might look like.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of the first volume and join us.

36 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Signs of the Times

  1. clark on January 19, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Great idea. The folks over at New Cool Thang have done this in the past with Blake often joining in with the discussion. But I’m really looking forward to seeing how you and Joe approach the issues.

  2. Matt W. on January 19, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    This’ll be fun. Looking Forward to it.

  3. Chris H. on January 19, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    ” But we’ve got hardly a Mormon doing theology qua theologian in sight.”

    Taylor Petrey:

    1. Doctorate in Theology (Th. D Harvard Divinity)
    2. 2nd year in tenure track position, so not yet a book…though I look forward buying them. However, theology articles in peer reviewed journals.
    3. He was alive as recent as November.

    Now, Mormons who make Mormons “uncomfortable” might not count.

    I know of Blake’s work, but I have not yet gotten to it.

    I agree that we need more theologians doing theology. Of course, we will likely scorn them.

  4. Riley on January 20, 2012 at 1:08 am

    Very excited to see what’s in store. Blake’s book have altered my thinking in that they call me to think. Hopefully this will put some “fire” under his theologian rear-end to finish the last book of the series. [ba-dum-ching]

  5. James on January 20, 2012 at 5:59 am

    Sorry to use a bit of shameless self-promotion, but I have just received a PhD in Mormon theology from the University of Liverpool- it engages Mormon theology with wider Christian theologians to produce a constructive theology of religions. I am alive- and I am currently preparing my thesis for publication- do I count (though obviously on nowhere near the same level as the very nice and readable Blake Ostler)?

  6. Adam Miller on January 20, 2012 at 8:04 am

    It sounds like Taylor and James almost count ;)

    Here’s hoping – as people like Taylor and James indicate – that we’re about to be in for a bumper crop.

  7. Adam Miller on January 20, 2012 at 8:05 am

    Though, also, to be fair, I didn’t say there weren’t any others besides Blake. Just that there were “hardly” any others.

  8. Christian J on January 20, 2012 at 9:41 am

    IMHO – Ostler wins the award for most underrated contribution to Mormonism in the past 20 years. Looking forward to the series.

  9. Blake on January 20, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I’m looking forward to see Adam’s and Joe’s take on the issues discussed in my series. Because they come from a different philosophical tradition and because they are very smart, it will be especially interesting to see how their “post-modern” (hate that empty term) take on things illuminates the issues.

    I have finished my 4th volume and it is presently being edited. I have been informed by Kofford Books that it is scheduled for an early May 2012 publication. In addition, in the next month digital formats of my books will be made available.

    The table of contents for the 4th volume is as follows:

    A. Atonement:

    1. Atonement and the Sacred Thou

    2. The Heart of Atonement

    3. Atonement in Mormon Thought

    B. Spiritual Knowledge:

    4. Faith, Reason and Spiritual Experience

    5. Knowledge is Being

    6. Mormonism and Other Faiths

    C. The Problem of Evil:

    7. What We Learn From the Problem of Evil

    8. Naturalistic and Process Theodicies

    9. The Plan of Atonement Theodicy

  10. Chris H. on January 20, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    Blake,

    I think you may be confusing postmodern with continental.

    As a postmodern analytic, I think the distinction is important. ;)

  11. Adam Miller on January 20, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    FWIW, I would say that both Joe’s work and my own is clearly Continental but not very postmodern. But for most people, six of one is just a half dozen of the other ;)

  12. Blake on January 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Well, Kant was continental analytic so I guess I am too. In the end, the labels tell us little. As Adam suggested, I think I am kinda sui generis.

  13. clark on January 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    I’m not sure even a lot of the Mormon thinkers called postmodern really are postmodern in the normal sense of the term. While I used to use the label (way back in the 90′s) I avoid it for the most part. I know while continental thought perfuses how I think about the issue I don’t read Heidegger or Derrida the way most postmodern people do. (I read them through much more of a pragmatist lens)

  14. James S on January 20, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    I’ve been a fan of Blake’s work for several years now. I own two of his volumes, both of which I’ve devoured and learned immensely from. Thank you Blake for putting it all out there.

    I look forward to this series of posts, although I predict that the comments sections will very often devolve into very technical and esoteric discussions between the very few who are qualified to participate in them. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will limit readership. If the goal is to make Blake’s work accessible to a wider LDS audience (via this blog), I hope that won’t be an impediment.

  15. Dave on January 21, 2012 at 7:21 am

    I look forward to the discussion. It is true that you can’t have theology without theologians, although philosophers and historians who look at doctrinal history and development and religious studies types who do, uh, whatever it is they do sort of point toward the promised land without actually crossing over. I once heard the claim that while in science the scientific paper is the unit of scholarship, in philosophy it is the book. I guess theology is on the book side of the divide.

    Christian theology doesn’t happen in a vacuum — there is an institutional context in which it occurs. Historically, Mormonism has lacked any institutional location that would foster the practice of Mormon theology. With the emergence of academic Mormon Studies programs in the last ten years and the formation of SMPT, perhaps that institutional component is now in place.

  16. aquinas on January 21, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Adam, I look forward to the series. As to your description of theologians, I am glad to hear that you accept Mormons do in fact do theology even if there are some qualifications to make. There are many things that bother me when we discourse on Mormon theology. Perhaps the thing that concerns me the most is that we often fail to recognize that Mormons have a “theology of theology.” That is, there is a whole period in Mormondom when discussions of theology has been used as apostasy apologetics or as Mormon identity formation. This is one of the reasons why many Mormons are schizophrenic when “doing theology.” Because the line “Mormons don’t do theology” has been understood as part of Mormon exceptionalism and as a sign of the restoration (if you don’t do it) and apostasy (if you do), when Mormons have written on theology, they have had to run against this grain either trying to defend their enterprise or apologizing for it. The problem with getting these ideas into wider circulation of readership among Latter-day Saints, I believe, is because it interferes and runs against a particular kind of apostasy narrative which runs deep.

    When any Mormon writes about Mormon theology, my first question is: are you doing apostasy narrative, apologetics, or creating Mormon identity vis-à-vis the religious other, or are you really giving me a good description of what religious ideas Mormonism has to contribute to the larger discussion. This must include not only the critique of other religious traditions but self-critique of one’s own religious tradition.

    This, I take it, is what you mean by “responding to other scholar-theologians” as a criteria for theologians. This is the notion that knowledge is generated by a community and part of becoming a scholar is being initiated into the scholarly community. But the “responding” has to go above and beyond merely arguing that the theological community is spiritually bankrupt. The discourse I want to see is where Latter-day Saints accept and learn from the broader and larger theological discourse that occurred before Joseph Smith, and understand contributions made by Mormon thinkers, and engage broader traditions in ways that go beyond merely apostasy confirmation (yep, we are right!). Only when that is possible will we see the kind of theological discourse that I think many of us look forward to. However, as anyone familiar with Mormon theological history knows, never underestimate the gravitational force of apostasy narratives to shape and define.

  17. BHodges on January 21, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    I’m not convinced all the extra “qua’s” are a fruitful way to frame things, as though there ever was a pure theologian. I wrote an article on C.S. Lewis, Mormons, and the idea of the “virtuous unbeliever” which talked about post-mortal salvation and I consider it, especially in retrospect, as largely theologically driven. But this wouldn’t really fit any of your qua’s in particular, I don’t think.

    Also, aquinas, I’m pretty much right in line with you on what you expressed.

    But I also look forward to seeing the engagements with Blake’s work here.

  18. Blake on January 22, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Aquinas: Your point about an apostasy narrative and identity formation boundary seems to me to be right on the point. In our view is this view well taken? That is, is the essence of apostasy trying to reason and think one’s way to truth rather than rely solely on revelation?

    I don’t see how one can even begin to understand or make sense of the revelations without careful thought and reason. But this is a powerful assumption (largely unargued) that underlies much of what Adam and Jim F. have written about theology in the Mormon tradition. It is like Thomas Aquinas finally came to his senses when he realized his writings were dung. But is it because he saw that reason was essentially corrupt and corrupting, or because he had reasoned in a way that led away from intimate relationship with God rather than toward it? We’ll never know in this life. I’m not sure what the argument is. Is it that adopting the canons of rational argument (like rules of logic and avoiding fallacies in reasoning) is somehow wrong, contrary to the gospel or corrupting?

  19. Adam Miller on January 22, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    I take up a lot of angles on the theology question. It’s hard to tell from a single post what I, in general, think about theology and its role. Maybe the best summary would the “Benedictus” post. The posts commented on at FPR in the past few months (though I sincerely appreciate the attention) were narrowly aimed (by me) and, I think, easily misunderstood. I take full credit for that though.

  20. Blake on January 23, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Adam: Your post seems more like poetry to me than an explanation of a view of an apostasy narrative. I get that you see a certain type of theology (or is it all types?) as intrinsically valuable and an expression of love for others in an obtuse sort of way. But I don’t see how this opaque post addresses the issue of an apostasy narrative concern with theology.

  21. Adam Miller on January 23, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Maybe it doesn’t. (Though I had hoped the post was more “pointed and luminous” than “obtuse and opaque” ;)

    I don’t have, in general, a problem with reason. I like it. And I don’t think I have more of a concern that theology leads me into apostasy than that my watching too much television leads me into apostasy. In fact, I’m probably more worried about my TV watching.

    I like theology. I like reason. I think we should do more theology and be even more reasonable.

    I don’t think Aquinas’ writings are dung. In fact, I quite like Aquinas.

    I don’t see any inherent connection between theology and apostasy beyond the fact that there seems to be a natural connection between whatever humans do and apostasy. In this sense, we should always be on guard and always perform all our actions with humility and care.

    That’s a banal point to make about life, but an important one. And I think it’s probably a banal point to make about theology, but still an important one.

  22. Blake on January 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Adam: I admit then to having more concern about reliance on human reason alone leading to apostasy than you do! I think that head-cases are especially prone to apostasy not the least because of reasons stated in 2 Ne. 9:28. Perhaps I’m wrong, but my experience is that those (us) who do theology at least think they (we)are learned. I also believe that theology could lead one to become dead from the neck down if reason alone is relied upon.

  23. Adam Miller on January 23, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    I agree with everything you say here, Blake. But I didn’t mention anything about relying on human reason alone. I kind of doubt there is such a thing as human reason alone. But in my experience, my TV watching has probably lead me to be more dead from the neck down than your books ;)

  24. Jason U on January 23, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    This is great! I just purchased Blake’s first three books and am looking forward to devouring them. What a pleasant surprise to find out that there will be a corresponding discussion here on T&S.

    On a side note, I am an LDS chaplain in the US military and am working on a Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Care and Counseling. My intent is write an LDS theology of pastoral care (that is to examine/explicate what resources there are in LDS doctrine, scripture, and practice that would help shape how I as an LDS chaplain can offer empathetic pastoral ministry to Soldiers and their families Fromm all walks of life and faith.

    Any ideas for other LDS informed resources for those of us who are interested in pastoral theology as opposed to more purely systematic or philosophical theology?

  25. Adam Miller on January 24, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Jason, you might contact Philip McLemore, a retired LDS chaplain. He’s done some great work with contemplative practices/meditation as trans-religious pastoral practice. You might start by checking out his “The Yoga of Christ” article in Sunstone June 2007. A google search will bring it right up.

  26. joespencer on January 25, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Yikes, I’m only just coming to this. A thought or two nonetheless, principally in response to the discussion:

    Blake #9 – Keep Kofford on track. If your fourth volumes comes out soon enough, we’d love to include it in this series.

    Comments 9-13 generally – Adam’s quite right that neither of us would identify as postmodernists. See, for instance, my piece on the relationship between Mormonism and postmodernism at SquareTwo.

    aquinas #16 – One of the presuppositions that sets my own theological work in motion—and I think Adam’s as well—is precisely the idea that there’s reason neither to apologize to Mormons for doing theology nor to do theology in order to apologize to non-Mormons. There’s reason, finally, just to think Mormonism.

  27. clark on January 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    Blake (22) my sense of what Jim and Adam are doing is emphasizing theology as a pure play and amusement without aim or concern. While I’m somewhat sympathetic to that view I don’t ultimately buy it. There was an interesting discussion of this on LDS-Herm this last week. I brought up the parallel to Peirce’s philosophy of science where he thinks science as science needs to be unsentimental. That is scientists doing science shouldn’t have a commitment to views or conclusions. While I think this gets at something true it also misses (IMO) the importance of defending views (apologetics) as well as how individuals have concerns, hopes and aims. I think it’s in the community of research that we see something more like amusement rather than at the individual level.

  28. Adam Miller on January 25, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Clark says: “My sense of what Jim and Adam are doing is emphasizing theology as a pure play and amusement without aim or concern.”

    Clark, this gets something right but I really think it misses the gist of my position: that theology should be performed as an act of charity. I’m more emphatic about this than anything else. I’m willing to negotiate all the rest if you’ll just let me keep this. But this keeps getting left out when my/Jim’s position is described.

  29. Blake on January 25, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Thanks for the clarifications Clark and Adam. It seems to me that Adam must be thanked for his recognition of charity in theology. If it isn’t given out of charity, it is priestcraft. At least in the LDS tradition, theology could come close to being an act of charity. I suppose that it could be motivated by a profit motive as well — but that is much harder in our tradition where no one get paid to do it for a living (and CES folks get paid to not do it in my view – smile). It could be to puff one’s self up as learned and smart. That doesn’t go very far in a tradition that knee jerk distrusts theologians who aren’t GAs.

    When I write, I realize that the time I spend on it will almost certainly reduce amounts I could have earned. It may create suspicions among those who have a different view that they think is normative and must be accepted. (I have experienced a good deal of that especially, e.g., with my Expansion Theory paper). But I think I have a training and perspective that is valuable and I want to give it as my gift. In fact, if I don’t give it then my gift doesn’t merely not get given, it doesn’t even really exist. Since I am otherwise gift-challenged when it comes to what most recognize as gifts, I give what I have to give however meager it may be.

    I was blessed to have Truman Madsen, Sterling McMurrin, David Paulsen and Hugh Nibley (among many others) all as close friends and mentors. I’d like to have something to show for it.

  30. clark on January 25, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Adam, yeah. I should have emphasized that as it is a place where you differ from Jim. What I don’t quite grasp is how you do the charity aspect while maintaining it as play. To my mind they are in opposition. Yet I think that tension is in Peirce’s thought as well. (i.e. science is an important part of inquiry and inquiry is ultimately the ethics of knowledge – but simultaneously we have to be unsentimental)

    Blake, I’m not sure I’m willing to say theology without charity is priestcraft. It’s simply thinking through options as I see it. For it to be priestcraft I think we need a certain conception of aims. I think one can have an aim of charity and still engage in priestcraft (IMO). For instance I think a lot of people enriching themselves while preaching really do want to help people but simultaneously are also seeking after their own aggrandizement. Whether that is enough to stop it from being charity is in my mind a semantic issue. (I’m more than willing to say they shouldn’t seek after themselves while attempting charity for instance)

    Your point about CES is a pretty good example where one is seeking after both oneself and others. I’m not sure it’s bad to have CES paid in the least. I don’t mind GAs getting an allowance either.

  31. clark on January 25, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    To perhaps answer my own question from (30) I think the aim of doing science or theology can be ethical. However adherence to any particular answer can be unethical. At least that’s how I see Peirce attempting to reconcile the tension and I suspect it’d work for theology as well. That said I’m obviously skeptical about having no aims in either science or theology. I think both have to be in dialog with political issues.

    A great example of that might be the sequencing of bird flu. (I think it’s an overblown issue mind you as any terrorist with a molecular biological background sufficient to create bird flu could easily make much more horrific things from existing knowledge) When I worked at Los Alamos I did science but it was classified and I have no problem limiting work based upon secrecy or the like.

  32. Adam Miller on January 25, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Thanks, Clark. I don’t, though, think that this is a place where Jim and I differ. I think this is Jim’s position (that charity is the aim of all good theology) at least as much as mine.

    I guess I’m always surprised when people don’t intuitively see the connection between grace and gratuity. The latter is essential to the former.

  33. clark on January 25, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Hmm. I’ll have to reread Jim then.

  34. Adam Miller on January 26, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Yeah, the connection on this point between charity/grace/gratuity is pretty much straight (Jean-Luc) Marion. And Jim’s all about Marion ;)

  35. clark on January 26, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I think how I read Jim’s discussion of charity though was more that we should be charitable in how we speak and argue. Not that the aim is to produce something valuable for an other. If that distinction makes sense.

  36. annegb on January 26, 2012 at 11:06 am

    I’m going to go FB friend Blake.

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