This is the first of several posts discussing Adam Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology, a little gem published by Greg Kofford Books in 2012 (here’s the publisher’s page on the book). After some preliminary discussion about why there has been so little Mormon theology done (compared to say LDS history) and what Mormon theology might look like, I’ll discuss some of Adam’s observations in Chapter 6, “A Manifesto for Mormon Theology.” Adam, of course, is a permablogger here at Times and Seasons and will likely be adding his own additional enlightening thoughts in the comments.
Last year, Gregory Prince, author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, gave the following short summary of the state of Mormon theology as part of his remarks to the Washington D.C. Mormon Stories Conference (as transcribed at this site):
Mormonism currently is a church that has never systematized its theology and indeed now teaches very little of it, or of its history, for that matter. Instead, our manuals and our sermons have increasingly focused on behavior rather than doctrine. While fundamentalism continues to be the predominant doctrinal philosophy of most Latter-day Saints, perhaps the most significant development of the past decade has been the gradual erasing of Bruce McConkie’s influence on doctrine. New church manuals either eliminate bibliographic references to McConkie quotes or eliminate the quotes entirely.
I like his term “doctrinal philosophy,” which manages to capture the obvious notion that there is a larger institutional and cultural context for LDS doctrine without calling claiming it’s a theology. But Prince seems to be implying that if we Mormons could just get around to systematizing our doctrine and doing some serious systematic theology, the weaknesses or difficulties of our doctrines (which are often a mess) and the fundamentalist tilt of our “predominant doctrinal philosophy” would be remedied. So we need to consider why so little LDS doctrinal systematizing has been done and, more importantly, whether systematic theology could deliver on this promise.
The simplest answer to why there is so little Mormon theology is that there are no Mormon theologians. Yes, some exploratory work has been done in the 20th century by an autodidact, a scientist, a philosopher or two, and an attorney, and the pace seems to be picking up here in the 21st century. But for serious work to be done, we need theologians. There are no Mormon theologians because there is no institution to produce them. There are no LDS seminaries (in the standard use of that term, institutions giving postgraduate education to students of religion, often those intending a career in the ministry). There is no professionally trained LDS clergy, even at the highest levels. LDS universities do not sponsor chairs of theology; they don’t even offer courses in theology. The recent emergence of several Mormon Studies programs, employing a religious studies model, is the first institutional development in our history that will intentionally prepare a growing cadre of interested postgraduate students, both LDS and non-LDS, for serious work in the field. Time will tell what fruit it bears.
The Systematic Problem
But would systematizing LDS theology really solve any doctrinal or devotional problems? This is the deeper question. One might think that theology is a consistent body of fact and theory that grows over time, with the current generation building on the work of preceding generations of theologians and the overall body of theology (or a particular denomination’s theology) becoming an increasingly accurate model of the phenomena that theology attempts to explain. Familiar terms like christology, ecclesiology, and soteriology would be chapters in this growing tome of Christian theology or, in our case, LDS theology. The first reason to reject this view is that systematic theologies are generally produced by individual theologians, not by denominations, and each systematic theologian differs from the other on certain issues, even if they work from within the same tradition. There are systematic theologies, not a systematic theology. That’s not a problem LDS theology presently faces given how little of it we have produced, but it is relevant to the larger enterprise.
A second reason to reject this view of systematic theology is that it is not clear what the relation is between the theological system or model and whatever it is the system or model is trying to describe. This general problem of reference has occupied philosophy for a couple of centuries now. It is tricky enough to give a credible account of the connections between objects in the real world, our observations of those objects via sense perception, and the thoughts and ideas in our heads (because there are real-world object that we don’t see but we nevertheless accept, and thoughts in our heads that do not correspond to real-world objects). Building a larger model describing how the world works, its causes and effects, is even more problematic: we don’t observe causes, we only observe events. We then infer causes or relations between events. Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature effectively critiques scientific models as fully adequate descriptions of a real world to which the model supposedly corresponds; Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions effectively critiques the view of science as a consistent body of fact and theory that grows incrementally over time. Both works have generated a huge amount of response and commentary, some of which rejects the claims of Rorty and Kuhn but most of which largely accepts their critiques and attempts to reformulate the general approach to acquiring knowledge: If theories are not adequate representations of a real world “out there,” what exactly are they and what is it that theorists and practitioners in various fields are doing if they aren’t building models that correspond to the real world? A similar critique emerged from postmodern philosophy under the banner “rejection of grand narratives.” If these critiques apply to science and philosophy, they certainly apply more broadly, including to theology.
Obviously, two paragraphs don’t scratch the surface of this difficult issue. Even two hundred paragraphs would barely get us started, and there are certainly people who could do a better job of that than me. The point of my brief discussion, however, is simply to broaden our view of what Mormon theology looks like. If you are strolling down the aisle at your favorite bookstore and come across a very thick book titled “A Systematic Theology of Mormonism,” and see those familiar topics in the chapter titles, you know what game’s afoot. You may not agree with the author’s arguments or claims, but that’s theology. Then you come across a thin book titled “Selected Essays on Various Theological Topics That Might (or Might Not) Answer a Question or Two You Have About God and Life.” Essays, rather idiosyncratic, some interesting, even helpful on this or that issue … but, you might say, it’s not really theology, at least the sort of Theology with a big T that is offered by the first book. The point of the above critique is that there is no Theology with a big T: the best we can do is theology with a little t, even if it is presented systematically. Selected essays on various theological topics that might (or might not) answer a question or two about God and life have as good a claim to being theology as a book of systematic theology.
Here’s another more down-to-earth take on explaining how theology isn’t really (or isn’t just) a systematic enterprise pursued by smart theologians in seminar rooms who write very thick books. You have a pipe problem in your basement. You don’t begin a search for the author of the perfect theory of plumbing. You look for someone with the skills and tools to solve your plumbing problem, and every town has several to offer. You have a child who is really struggling in school. You don’t search for the author of the perfect comprehensive theory of pedagogy: you look for a teacher or tutor who has the skills and experience to help your boy do math or help your girl to read. You have a troubling religious or theological problem (maybe it’s Is There Polygamy In Heaven?, which has so far garnered 291 comments at FMH, so that is obviously a troubling issue to many). You don’t need to search for the author of a comprehensive, systematic theology of Mormonism; you just need informed theological discussion of your particular problem that helps you reframe it or think it through or put it in a larger context. That’s theology with a little t: it’s local, not global; it’s enlightening, not definitive; it can even be novel and creative in a way we generally associate with literature.
A Manifesto for Mormon Theology
Which brings us finally to Adam Miller’s little book of theological essays. If theology were a machine, it would not be a perfect machine, one that can do any and every task. That doesn’t even make sense — machines do specific tasks or a narrow range of tasks. There is no everything machine, just like there is no everything theology. If theology were a machine, it would be a Rube Goldberg machine. Theology takes the tools, ideas, and materials at hand and constructs something to deal with a specific, relevant theological problem. If a poem solves your theological problem and lets you sleep at night, that’s theology.
Perhaps I’m claiming a bit more for theology than Adam, but he voices similar observations in the book’s Introduction. “Theology, maybe especially Mormon theology, requires this kind of modesty. … It is painful to watch a theologian who thinks he’s finally bolted together ‘the one true Rube Goldberg Machine.’” He describes the theologian as an “imaginative tinkerer” and theology as an activity that “makes the familiar strange.”
In Chapter 6, Adam gives more commentary on his view of Mormon theology. Here are a few quotations from the short essay with my comments following.
Mormon thinking is theological to the extent that it is critical. … [A] genuinely critical approach begins and ends with what is crucial. In the context of theology, this means that criticism is defined by charity (agape). … Human suffering, from blunt trauma to quiet desperation, is the perpetual crisis the precipitates theology. Charity is a name for the critical care that clears away the rubbish of self-regard, penetrates to the root of suffering, and dresses the wound.
We need to unpack the word “critical,” which carries many meanings, only one of which is to criticize or point out flaws. It also emphasizes importance (a critical moment) as well as detailed, careful thinking (critical thought). All of these variations on criticism are, I think, part of good theology. Pointing out flaws is somewhat problematic within Mormon culture generally, but, as Adam notes, such criticism should target important things, not trivialities, and is done with care and with charity.
When I first read the essay, the reference to human suffering in this passage struck me as overly dramatic. But now, having thought through the first half of this post, it seems more relevant. Bad theology can contribute to human suffering. People take religion seriously, and bad theology can contribute to deep personal angst, even sometimes to the bitter end of taking one’s own life. Good theology can prevent or remedy some of that suffering. Good theology can put the hope back in faith, hope, and charity.
Doing this kind of work [critical theology] is different from weighing history, deciding official doctrine, or inspiring devotion. Theology speculates. It experiments with questions and advances hypotheses. It tests new angles and pulls loose threads. Theology, in this sense, is not an institutional practice.
This nicely captures the novelty and creativity, even playfulness, that informs theology. I actually think there is an institutional component to theology in the sense that you don’t get theologians without institutions to train and support them and forums in which theology can be presented and critiqued. But I like the distinction between doctrine, which is institutional, and theology, produced by individual theologians. The admission that LDS doctrine is firmly in the hands of the Church as an institution and that theology is a largely separate activity makes Mormon theology less threatening.
Methodologically, a Mormon theology should be shaped by the centrality of scripture. Absent any systematic theology or professional clergy, Mormonism emphasizes the need for persistent, individual engagement with its founding texts …. For Mormons, reading is a core religious practice and, as a result, Mormon theology reads.
This highlights the importance of a more disciplined approach to LDS scriptural exegesis. Many of our scriptural misreadings were taken over rather uncritically from conservative Protestant sources or misleading translations in individual verses of the King James Bible. The problem is not unique to Mormonism. Hans Kung, the noted Catholic theologian, has opposed the independent status of Catholic tradition and argued that it must be based in good biblical exegesis. Tradition that can’t be supported scripturally (and in his view this describes a lot of Catholic tradition) should be questioned and possibly rejected. While we don’t use the term “tradition” within Mormonism, that doesn’t mean we don’t have it. I think Adam is right to view “the centrality of scripture” as a starting point for Mormon theology and reflection on what it is we really believe (or should believe).
And how should we read scripture? Adam contrasts different ways to read scripture: historically, doctrinally, devotionally, theologically. Note the interesting contrast between doctrinal and theological readings. He notes, “Theology explores the range of meanings that scripture can produce beyond the bounds of its historical, doctrinal, and devotional responses.” He continues:
[W]hen read theologically, the historical, doctrinal, and exegetical dimensions of scripture are essential but not decisive. In addition to these, theological readings involve an explicitly creative engagement with the text ….
There’s that word again, creative. In subsequent posts we’ll look at some of the other essays displaying Adam’s approach to creative Mormon theology.