What Mormon Theology Looks Like

January 15, 2013 | 16 comments
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Rube Goldberg MachinesThis 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.

Mormon Theology

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.

16 Responses to What Mormon Theology Looks Like

  1. matt b on January 15, 2013 at 9:19 am

    I keep beating this drum, but Adam’s wrong here:

    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

    We _do_ have a professional clergy (just not a lot of them), and their words are at least as central to our theology as scripture is, because we quote them in our theological discourse at least as much as we quote scripture. Indeed, it’s plausible to me to say that we read scripture through them.

  2. Jettboy on January 15, 2013 at 10:10 am

    From founder Joseph Smith, Mormonism has been Anti-systematic theology. I find it ironic, “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,” while Elder Bruce R. McConkie is used as the example. If anything he has proven that a Mormon sytematic theology would be the opposite those things. The minute a Mormonism has developed a theological system is when the whole purpose of its existence has been reduced to what it sought to fight against.

  3. ji on January 15, 2013 at 10:40 am

    I hope we NEVER have a systematic Mormon theology. If we did, only the “trained” theologians could participate in the thinking process. But I believe that every man can speak in the name of the Lord (see D&C 1). I cherish the privilege of thinking and believing and learning and growing and changing — a systematic theology would take all that away and invest it all in the hands of a few academics. How poor the result would be.

    Oh, and by the way, I don’t trust the academics — I simply don’t trust those who would want to establish a systematic Mormon theology to do it right.

  4. ji on January 15, 2013 at 10:45 am

    One more thought — if there ever is a systematic Mormon theology, please don’t have chapters called “christology, ecclesiology, and soteriology” (from the original posting). Rather, let’s have chapters on faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, and charity in the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s my theology!

  5. Jettboy on January 15, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Ji, in a way there is systematic theology under what you have presented. Its in a book called Gospel Principles, although it is the most basic of teachings. Some would hardly recognize it as theology or systematic. That is of course the point. We start from the ground and then let the Scriptures and Prophets guide us as individuals in the direction the Lord would have us go. Revelation, the foundation of Mormonism, is about breaking down rather than building up the walls of academics and theological authority.

  6. Jonathan Green on January 15, 2013 at 11:06 am

    Dave, this is a really nice explanation of what a Mormon theology would involve, and what the stakes might be. I think the opening question of your second section is extremely important.

    And I had the same reaction as Matt B. A Mormon theology would have to acknowledge both the centrality of scripture, and the essential marginality of scripture.

  7. TMD on January 15, 2013 at 11:20 am

    I’m not as sure.

    The first part of my uncertainty is, what would systematic theology look like in the LDS context? Are you looking for something like an equivalent of the Aquinas’ Summa? If so, I’m a little less sure that that’s really what contemporary theologians do. Consider, for instance, my favorite (and one of the very greatest) 20th century catholic theologian–von Balthasar. While his corpus offers and explicates the workings of broad basic principles, I’m not sure that one would see his work as being anything that–like the Summa or (in the LDS context), McConkie–tries to explain all major points of doctrine.

    The other part that I’m not sure about is the institutional context. Again, von Balthasar is somewhat instructive: his doctorate was a PhD (in German literature) rather than an STD. He did not hold major academic posts, and his life as a priest was very much as a working (ministering) sort of priest. Moreover, while he was eventually named a cardinal, the church hierarchy and institutions did the opposite of nuturing him. Rather than an institutional issue, I think the lack of theologizing in the church is the product of the interests (or, rather, lack thereof) of intellectually inclined members of the church. They seem to have a greater interest in church history, policy, and politics, and their work reflects this.

  8. Robert C. on January 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Dave, great post.

    Matt B., but isn’t our canon more stable than the policy- and devotional-oriented teachings of our current General Authorities? Also, inasmuch as members are to seek knowledge, learning and personal revelation for themselves, it seems to me the authority of our leaders is more practical than theological. Until a teaching is canonized, I would suggest it is only binding in a present-practical sense, but not in a larger or more definitive sense (I’m thinking, for example, of evolution which I think is usefully understood in this sense: for a time it was taught as present-practical doctrine by the institutional church, but it wasn’t necessary for every member to hold a literal belief in the doctrine pronounced by Church leader; rather, it was the doctrine that should be taught in official Church settings. Or something like that….)

  9. Steve Smith on January 15, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Might I ask the question of what the impetus has been that has driven the study of theology in the first place. My belief is that historically the study of theology is 1) strictly Christian (sure, other religions have debated the nature of God, but not to the extent of Christianity) and that 2) it really grew out of question of political legitimacy. Allow me to briefly elaborate. Technically speaking, Christianity was to have an apolitical essence: Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world. However, as Christians sought the support and protection of political leaders, Christianity became increasingly intertwined with politics. Also by converting to Christianity, political leaders could sometimes gain a new support base among increasingly Christian masses that they did not hitherto have, as was the case with Constantine. Theology became a means of establishing and protecting one’s legitimacy. In order to ensure their political future and support among the masses and religious class, it became important to political leaders to be able to maintain the claim that they had the most true understanding of the nature of God, as established through reason.

    Since Protestantism grew to become coupled with state power, it also developed theologies, much like the Catholics and Orthodox, in order to protect the political future of the political entities to which it was bound. However, Mormonism emerged in a time and place in which religion was largely decoupled from politics. Also, thanks to the First and Second Great Awakenings, religion had become a largely individual pursuit. Market forces guided religion much more than political forces and consequently theology became less of an issue. The people in the early 19th century US were already largely Chalcedonian (recognizing the dual nature of Jesus Christ; both the Jesus/man aspect and the Christ/savior aspect) in their theological orientations anyway. Consequently, the question of the nature of God did not factor in greatly to social discourse at the time; however, the question of the most correct interpretation of the Bible did. Mormonism’s main aim was to introduce the concept of revelation as a means of providing definitive answers as to how the Bible should be interpreted and as to how a new social order should be crafted. With a prophet, a person who was recognized as God’s mouthpiece, and his fruit, the Book of Mormon, Mormonism did not rely on sophisticated theological explanations to ensure its growth and protect its future. Historicity and prophetic validity became the battlegrounds for Mormonism, not theology.

    Hence I believe the development of a Mormon theology to be a highly esoteric pursuit that won’t really solve many practical issues, as the it did for the Catholic and Orthodox churches in their early histories. Furthermore, a Mormon theology could only be regarded as legitimate if it emanated from the LDS prophet himself. Lastly the success and growth of Mormonism really rests on the Book of Mormon acting as proof of Joseph Smith’s prophetic role. Mormonism’s persuasive tool is not simply “a most correct Biblical interpretation of the nature of God through the power of reason” but the idea that Joseph Smith received authority from God and then passed it down.

  10. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 15, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    I would be interested if you would address, in your future discussions on this topic, the basic distinctions between LDS and Catholic and Protestant doctrines that constrain the scope of a theology. For example, I would think that the Catholic doctrine of belief in authoritative tradition alongside the scriptures, and the Protestant belief in the completeness of scripture, invite the search for a systemetizing theology that underpins the finite set of doctrines.

    On the other hand, the bedrock Mormon doctrine of continuing revelation means that working out a Mormon theology is akin to guessing about the more complete picture that future revelation will bring, with an awareness that a new revelation could pull the rug out from under large tracts of such constructions. For example, we don’t really know anything definitive about the nature of our pre-child-of-God nature as intelligence(s). A month of pondering and drawing reasoned conclusions from scripture and recorded sayings of the prophets could be neutralized by a single announced revelation on the subject. The detailed rationales that were used to form a Unified Field Theory of racial entitlement to the priesthood were shown to be castles of glass that shattered suddenly after the revelatory events of June 1978. Even more than being a lawyer, being a Mormon theologian seems to be a career path that will expire when the Millenium begins. Those who invest their energy in it are engaged in a risky business.

  11. BHodges on January 15, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    I like the creative possibilities opened up by theologians like Miller. Still, I think we run the risk of oversimplifying the way that Mormon theology (we usually call it doctrine) actually shifts over time. My work on intellectual disability leads me to believe that Mormon doctrine is attentive to surrounding cultural shifts. Also, it is constrained in interesting ways by the initial 14 or so years of the church’s existence–that is, our beliefs about what Joseph Smith taught (whether we’re being accurate in our assessment or not) often constrain the sort of creativity Miller promotes.

    At the same time I’m skeptical of so easily trying to separate praxis and doxy as we’ve become increasingly fond of doing. Sure, particular beliefs may be downplayed while attention to certain behaviors shifts in time. But in religion generally it seems to me that behavior and belief inform each other in circular and often un-traceable ways. There is a feedback loop that starts to whine which makes it difficult to make out the sound of the orchestra, like we’re holding a mic too close to the speaker. I hope to revisit this problem in the future when I have more free time. I also tend to think that any unexamined or accidental theology is still theology, and that we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend that we aren’t theologians.

    I recognize that this sort of analysis might seem unappealing to a lot of people for various reasons. Perhaps especially for folks who say, why talk about doing it or about how it is done when we can just as well be doing it ourselves? Or as Miller might ask, why watch someone else’s Rube Goldberg machine when we can be building our own? I fear that if we don’t address such questions, though, we’ll mostly be talking to ourselves and an increasingly limited circle of friends, though.

  12. Dave on January 15, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. If you like the topic, be sure to catch the series just starting at BCC on the philosophy of religion.

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2013/01/15/introducing-philosophy-of-religion/

  13. Ben S. on January 15, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    I agree that while we rhetorically give scripture center spot, it’s actually the General Authority teachings that are center.

    If we did, only the “trained” theologians could participate in the thinking process.

    That is already largely the case, substituting GA for “trained theologians.” Many members don’t accept anything that can’t be explicitly grounded in GA statements, and Deseret Book won’t publish anything that hasn’t already been said, more or less, by a GA.

    I liked this interview portion.

    “One of the problems that we have in the Church is that we have the idea that unless you are with CES or the BYU Religious Education faculty, on the one hand, or a General Authority, on the other, you really do not have what it takes to talk about the scriptures. There are, at least in our unspoken assumptions, two groups of authorities who have the qualifications, and no one else. The rest of us just sit around and wait for them to say something. I think that is appropriate for the General Authorities, but I think that we put too much trust in the scholars of our culture, and we do not realize that each of us has the ability to be a scholar of the scriptures. It is important to remember that the word scholar means “a person of leisure”—someone who has the time. Given today’s society, most of us have the time, if we want to, to spend reading the scriptures carefully…. This is something that any member of the Church can do. You do not have to have a PhD to do it; you just have to take the time. If you have that time you can be a scholar, but it does mean reading a lot and think carefully about what you read. It means studying, but you do not have to have formal training. Of course, that is not to say that I do not appreciate what those with formal training can do. We need more people in the Church with formal training in Hebrew and Greek and in biblical scholarship, church history, and so on. I just don’t want to cede all thinking and discussion to them.”

  14. ji on January 15, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    Ben S. (no. 13) — I understand where you’re coming from, and I agree that too many Latter-day Saints live below their privileges. I believe every man can speak in the name of God the Lord (see D&C 1), and that the most effective learning occurs when through the distillation process described in D&C 121. I’m not an academic, or a General Authority, and I haven’t ceded to them my responsibility for thinking and discerning and even revelation. I prefer an arrangement where we’re free to think and learn, rather than subscribing to a creed or a systematic theology.

  15. Adam Miller on January 16, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Thanks for this series, Dave. I’m looking forward to more. Let me add just a thought about my approach to “theology” in these essays.

    Many people want Mormon “theology” to be descriptive of what Mormons, at the nexus of scripture, authority, and personal revelation are thinking and experiencing in Mormon practice. That’s fine and I think this is a great project. I’m all for other people doing it and being as accurate and normative as possible in their descriptions. I think that Blake broadly takes this approach.

    But this doesn’t interest me as a primary project. I’m not interested in doing theology as reporting on what others (in scripture, in general conference, in sacrament meeting, etc.) say about how Mormonism addresses the fundamental problems of human existence.

    I’m interested in thinking in my own name about these fundamental problems, using the resources of Mormon scripture and tradition and practice (but especially scripture – and that decision is primarily pragmatic) as material from which to work. If the work I produce in my own name on these problems is of interest to anyone other than me, that interest is a continual surprise.

    When I’m doing it, I don’t take “theology” – as narrowly and stipulatively defined in these essays – to be about discovering and accurately reporting what Mormons think or have thought. Matt Bowman and Terryl Givens and co. are welcome to this project. They’re good at it – much better than I am. I’m no historian or sociologist or anthropologist.

    But since “theology” isn’t a word that Mormons like to use self-referentially, I’ve suggested in this essay in particular that we might take “theology” to be a suitable name in a Mormon context for idiosyncratically thinking about the problems of human existence from the perspective of my/our personally being a Mormon.

    The first model of theology wants something like a thinking about what it means to be a Mormon.

    I’m interested in thinking, as a Mormon, about what it means to be a human being.

    These are obviously interrelated projects, but their differences in orientation (together with the divergent freedoms and constraints that characterize these differences) are crucial.