Theology, Worship, and Children’s Games

March 18, 2013 | 24 comments
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I believe in theology as a kind of worship. To spend time and effort in the attempt to reason out the philosophical context for and implications of Mormon doctrine is an affirmation of the authenticity with which we embrace that doctrine. Intellectually wrestling with the angels is thus properly seen as an individual responsibility rather than an institutional prerogative. Theology can never take the place of other forms of worship–from music to service–but it can and should exist alongside them.

2013 03 18 Carl Bloch Christ and ChildOne of the important things to note about this conception of theology is that, in this as in all endeavors, we are ultimately unprofitable servants. One small disagreement I have with Adam Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines is that I don’t believe theology to be uniquely pointless. In all that we attempt in this mortal life, we are little children in the truest sense of the phrase. Our attempt to reason out the true nature of God is no more prone to ultimate success than a four year old trying to get to the moon on a rocket ship made out of pillows, blankets, and cardboard. However, our attempts at theology are no less vital and imperative to our spiritual development than the games that children play as they seek to become like their earthly parents.

My point, in democratizing the notion of theology, is that whenever we respond to our doctrine with the question “Why?” or “How?” then we stand at the start of theology’s path. And we should step forward. “Our favorite study,” wrote Brigham Young, “is that branch which particularly belongs to the Elders of Israel—namely, theology. Every Elder should become a profound theologian—should understand this branch better than all the world.” I think that President Young was mistaken about theology belonging to the men of the Church (he probably had it backwards, if anything, as my sister Rachael Givens Johnson has argued), but the point is that it isn’t the exclusive domain of professional philosophers. We must all be theologians. How far down that path must we tread? I do not believe there is any one right answer. All I would like to say is that the amount of time we should spend in intellectually interacting with our own faith claims is strictly greater than zero.

I believe that theology is about more than individual worship, however. It can and should be a communal endeavor. I see the aggregate effect of a million individual Mormons spending small but serious amounts of time in theological endeavors as a kind of Hayekian spontaneous order. The key to ensuring that our individual efforts amount to something greater than the sum of the parts, however, is the Church as an institution.

There are at least two important roles the institutional Church plays. The first is to provide a sparse but rigid set of doctrines which are both accurate and universally held. This doctrinal skeleton may function like a coral reef, providing the common habitat for a myriad array of individual beliefs and attitudes, all sharing a common home. Of course disagreements will arise, and that’s why it is so important for theology to be practiced outside of the formal framework. Ideally everyone would understand that persuasion comes only by long-suffering, but in practice the proximity of authority weaponizes theology, engendering contention instead of worship.

The second is that the formal Church, with its endless procession of meetings and committees, it’s belligerently plain architecture, and it stubborn insistence on lumping us together in wards based on our home address, provides an absolutey vital and necessary anchor to pure religion. As the Cambridge Platonist John Smith wrote: “that which enables us to know and understand aright in the things of God, must be a living principle of holiness within us.” The sometimes frustrating chores of ordinary Church membership are fetters to bind our wandering hearts and minds, and it is for this reason (although I say this at least partially in self-condemnatino), that I think one ought never to trust a theologian who doesn’t do his or her home/visiting teaching. Without an attitude and practice of humble and practical service, a theologian has nothing useful to say.

The kind of free-wheeling, decentralized theology that I’m describing depends absolutely on the rigidly hierchical Church institution. In short: theology needs the Church.

And I think the Church also needs theology. That is a statement easily susceptible to misinterpretation because the Mormon idea of theology is so different from the conventional one. Although theology is only useful as it strives earnestly to uncover truth, the Church doesn’t need the products of theology. I am not suggesting that we reverse the top-down nature of oragnized revelation with democratically-approved theology and upturn house of order. Far from it. Rather, I’m suggesting that it’s the activity of theology that can make members individually spiritually awake and alive, and that that activity is what the Church needs. To try another phrase: the Church doesn’t need theology, but it does need theologians.

In addition to providing spiritually awake members, however, I think that theology has another role to play. One of the unexpected benefits of the Church’s missionary program is that Mormons speak foreign languages and understand foreign cultures. Our efforts to send the Gospel to all the world have created a cultural empathy that has changed who we are as a people.

One of the unexpected benefits of a bottom-up theological ecosystem would be a similar growth in the ability of Mormons to understand each other and the broader philosophical world. I know that in my own theological pursuits I have been led to explore existentialism, modern epistemology, and Zen Buddhism. I’ve learned a lot of important lessons that have made my spiritual life richer, but one of the most important lessons I learned was the general one: there is always more truth out there. Because I know that I can always learn from other individuals and traditions, I have learned an anticipatory appreciation for the traditions that I haven’t yet explored.

I believe in working towards a literal Zion, but one lessone from the historical failures of Utopian movements (including our own) may be that intellectual or spiritual monocultures are doomed. One thing that is wanted, I believe, is high tolerance for divergent views in the presence of convergent ideals. That is possible only to the extent that, as with missionaries who have learned foreign languages and cultures, amateur Mormon theologians learn for themselves an admiration of and respect for traditions foreign from their own (which will include the theologies of fellow Mormons). I think Dave Banack’s post from last week is an important example: Mormons can disagree about the King Follet Discourse and still love and appreciate each other as fellow disciples of Christ. We can learn to have unity in the presence of disagreement if there is a bedrock of shared ideals and principles. If we do, then Zion’s perfect unity need not await perfect theology. If we don’t: the idea of Zion will be relegated to unattainable symbol.

I quoted D&C 29:30-32 in my last post, and I’d like to reference it again. Nearly two centuries ago the temporal infrastructure of the Church of Jesus Christ was restored to the earth, but the spiritual creation is still underway. I feel that the pace of that growth is increasing as I see more and more Mormons looking for intellectually satisfying varieties of Mormonism that also embrace the core doctrines and historical claims of the Church. I believe and hope that the intellectual growth will be coupled with aesthetic and spiritual maturation as well, and I’d like to cite a moving piece by Mormon playwright Mahonri Stewart as an example.

I believe Mahonri makes excellent points in his piece, but the important thing is not to get the theology right. We already know we will ultimately fail at that through error or incompletion. The important thing is to sincerely try, to take risks, and in so doing to take responsibility for our own faith. It is to seek to be at once autonomous and obedient.

There is no possibility that we will actually become autonomous, nor that our participation in God’s work will improve it any more than my very young children can successfully cook or clean the house on their own. I encourage them to help anyway, even though I know it means fishing out broken eggshells. Despite our failings, we are called to participate anyway. And so we should.  And I have no doubt that God, a  truly loving father, will bless our earnest failures and tell us “Well done.”

24 Responses to Theology, Worship, and Children’s Games

  1. Adam Greenwood on March 18, 2013 at 9:41 am

    After reading the first paragraph, I decided to skip the rest of the post. It could only detract from the pure insight in your introduction.

  2. ji on March 18, 2013 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for this! Here’s what I think I’m understanding — whenever we as Latter-day Saints try to answer the WHY or HOW questions, we are almost certainly going to get it wrong — however, that effort is so important, even essential, to individual growth and understanding. It is individual worship. It best occurs privately, and outside the formal framework of the Church, to help avoid contention. One must practice his religion in order for any of this private study to be of value. Zion’s perfect unity need not wait for unanimity of agreement in all these matters. Regarding my own faith, I can and should be both autonomous and obedient. We can have a high tolerance for divergent views even in the presence of shared or common ideals. There’s a lot to ponder here — thanks again!

  3. Adam Greenwood on March 18, 2013 at 10:14 am

    OK, I broke down and read the rest of it. Utterly enchanting. I resent being effusive, but I can’t help but effuse. You’ve brought to my conscious mind the unconscious logic and structure that has underlaid my bloggizing.

    Now, some thoughts:

    I don’t think you’ve got around the mere Christianity problem that C.S. Lewis had. In a sense you’re advocating Mere Mormonism with our theological work being consciously held secondary, in a sense private. But my own sense is that it is very difficult for people to actually do that, especially when theological ideas get some kind of widespread currency, as they inevitably will. Consciously treating your theological speculation as a form of worshipful art and not as a quest for truth is going to break down. Certainly its nothing like what Stewart is doing in the essay your link approvingly. But if we start to take our theologies seriously as truth claims, then we run into the Mere Christianity problem of trying to see why these set of truth claims that we have in common should be privileged over this other set that we do not, especially if there is a defined subset of us who share these further truths. There are some theological speculations I have about the nature of eternity that are as important and spiritually fulfilling to me as anything else in the gospel and if, may God forbid, I ever ran into an active Mormon community that shared them, I would be in some spiritual danger of construing us as the elect as opposed to y’all.

    I don’t see why you think ‘intellectually satisfying’ comprehensive Mormon systems are possible. I am fairly certain that no such thing is possible without radically redefining or even eliminating some sort of scriptural teaching or core Mormonism. As best as I can see, any such selection of which gospel elements to treat as dependent variables that must be reconsidered in light of the independent variables is arbitrary.

    I also have my doubts that the necessary amount of theologizing is greater than 0. You are a talker-thinker, and so is everyone else in the Bloggernacle, and so am I. We should know more trust our conclusions that talking about thinking is a necessary spiritual activity than we should trust the athlete’s conclusions that physical competition is an indispensable form of worship.

    Finally, your link to the Stewart article really puzzles me. That you see it as a model of what you have in mind makes me question whether I really understood your argument at all.

  4. Nathaniel Givens on March 18, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Adam-

    It looks like I’m having a hard time conveying some of the nuances of my position, and so I’m grateful for the response that will help me hone in on them and try to find better ways to articulate them.

    In a sense you’re advocating Mere Mormonism with our theological work being consciously held secondary, in a sense private.

    I think that there is a private and a public aspect to theology. The private aspect is essential (we all have to think about our faith more than zero, even if we don’t talk about those thoughts) and is the core of the public aspect. But the public aspect is also real and is essential in a general sense (not for every individual) for the growth of the Church.

    Consciously treating your theological speculation as a form of worshipful art and not as a quest for truth is going to break down.

    I think that it is both. To the extent that theological work is not a genuine quset for Truth it can’t be worshipful art. To me this comes back to Matthew 5:48 – “Be ye therefore perfect”. It is an impossible task, but we must be engaged authentically in the pursuit anyway, and it is the authentic pursuit of the ideal that becomes meaningful.

    It’s tricky because if you ever become satisfied with the process and stop seeking the outcome, then you’re no longer authentically engaged. This means that you can never relax and accept the journey without caring about the destination. The destination must matter–and thus the human soul must be in tension–or the journey stops.

    The insight that offers any comfort is simply this: a soul in tension is a natural thing and not necessarily a symptom of something having gone wrong. Even when we’re largely doing what we can as disciples of Christ, we should expect a sense of restlessness and craving to remain (alongside joy and gratitude and many other experiences) rather than be perplexed or afraid that we find ourselves unable to find lasting rest and peace this side of the veil.

    if, may God forbid, I ever ran into an active Mormon community that shared them, I would be in some spiritual danger of construing us as the elect as opposed to y’all.

    That’s what I meant about risk-taking. The servant who hid his talent feared to sin. Fear of sin is not, in the end, a very good motivation. Love of righteousness is. We must never be reckless with our souls, of course, but I don’t think that we can remain forever huddled around a minimalist set of doctrine and afraid to venture from that spot. The doctrine must come first, but it ought to be the safe harbor from which we venture–cautiously and with good sense–out on our own before returning again. (All adventures requiresa home, a departure, and a return.)

    I don’t see why you think ‘intellectually satisfying’ comprehensive Mormon systems are possible.

    I certainly don’t envision some kind of finalized, perfected intellectual system, but I feel that I have learned line upon line as I’ve studied and prayed and meditated, and the process of learning is satisfying to me even though of course it never ends and troubling questions always remain.

  5. Robert C. on March 18, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    Very nice post, Nathaniel.

  6. Adam Greenwood on March 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Nathaniel G.,
    I respect that response and agree with it. That being so, I think you need to be more aware or more vocal about the dangers of the path you’re advocating. Because a quest for truth that doesn’t end in truth, or at least the people won’t ever think has ended in truth, is a nonesuch. Truths that are held to be public truths by a subset of a church is a recipe for faction and fragments. There are important checks in the LDS church against that, true, but some of those checks are suspicion of individual public theology and not holding it up as a necessary spiritual activity. The kind of thing we do is valuable to the extent its thought not to be.

  7. Howard on March 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    There are some great ideas here, not sure this is one of them though; I think one ought never to trust a theologian who doesn’t do his or her home/visiting teaching. As if home/visiting teaching were some kind of eternal principle! What a hilarious way to exclude Joseph!

    God offers a lot of coral reef incubators. If we have to overcome the taxes, frictions and inefficiencies of an *institution* to find God, why this one? If there is a compelling answer to that question, why can’t this institution be more accommodating and less resistant to that growth?

  8. Steve Smith on March 18, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Nathaniel, I think that what you’re advocating is untenable (as Adam points out) and contradictory. You promote the development of a “bottom-up theological ecosystem” and then in the same breath claim that one significant purpose of the Church institution is to “provide a sparse but rigid set of doctrines which are both accurate and universally held.” So in essence we are to shape our own sort of private theologies, but only within the parameters that the church has set? If so, then you appear to be conceding that basic rubric of theology has to originate from the top-down (from the church leaders), even if there is some jiggle room as to specific details, which can be originated from the bottom up. To acknowledge as valid all theologies originated from the bottom up (I’m not saying that you’re making this claim) is to negate the function of religion. By contrast, acknowledging as valid a theological rubric originated and protected by a religious institution is to imply that there are limits as to the validity of different theologies. Suppose I concocted a theology that I promoted to friends and family the main tenet of which was that God was a single spiritual essence without physical character. This would directly contradict the long-held doctrine that God had a physical body and that the Godhead consisted of three distinct personages. Sure, Mormons may disagree over some issues, and different conflicting views can be tolerated, as you pointed out in the case of different attitudes about the Snow couplet. But some disagreement just can’t be tolerated, because it ceases to be Mormon.

  9. Adam Miller on March 18, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Nathaniel says: “One of the important things to note about this conception of theology is that, in this as in all endeavors, we are ultimately unprofitable servants. One small disagreement I have with Adam Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines is that I don’t believe theology to be uniquely pointless. In all that we attempt in this mortal life, we are little children in the truest sense of the phrase. Our attempt to reason out the true nature of God is no more prone to ultimate success than a four year old trying to get to the moon on a rocket ship made out of pillows, blankets, and cardboard. However, our attempts at theology are no less vital and imperative to our spiritual development than the games that children play as they seek to become like their earthly parents.”

    Well said. I actually agree with this wholeheartedly. So much of what we do is bootless! And, as you also point out, such things may be all the more vital and imperative for it.

  10. Adam Miller on March 18, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    One other thought with respect to the institution providing a kind of skeleton for our bottom-up theological work: I think this is right, but a better image than a corral reef might be something less anchored like a free-floating framework because much of the “work” we do theologically is to try and see what kind of underlying ontologies and metaphysics and epistemologies might make the most sense given the skeleton. Or something like that.

  11. DLewis on March 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    A great post, thought-provoking post, but I wonder how much your ideal of democratic theologizing is constructed ad-hoc based on the current model of the church, where 1) leaders are given less to writing theological works and more focused on practical or pastoral care, and 2) there are relatively cheap, open-access venues for publishing one’s theological work (blogs, small presses, etc.). Your description of a spare but rigid institution doesn’t seem to describe the church’s structure for most of its existence, when authoritative voices crowded out speculative lay-members. Also, I’m not convinced by your suggestion that a bureaucratic, plain approach to religion is the best for encouraging this type of theological work on the part of its members, since I think that style seems to encourage a matching bureaucratic mindset towards worship. At the bare minimum, the Catholic church seems no worse off for building cathedrals. Overall, it feels like you’re going to unnecessary lengths to justify the current model of the church as the ideal for theological work. Great point about monocultures, BTW.

  12. Adam Greenwood on March 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    * believe in working towards a literal Zion, but one lesson from the historical failures of Utopian movements (including our own) may be that intellectual or spiritual monocultures are doomed. *

    No multiculture intellectual or spiritual effort at Utopia has succeeded either.

  13. Ben S. on March 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    ” Intellectually wrestling with the angels is thus properly seen as an individual responsibility rather than an institutional prerogative. Theology can never take the place of other forms of worship–from music to service–but it can and should exist alongside them.”

    Amen.

  14. ji on March 18, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Perhaps the apostle Paul had thoughts similar to the original poster’s — even though he proclaimed truth and denounced error, he still allowed that every Saint could think for him- or herself on important matters that otherwise might divide them. For example, see Romans chapter 14 — a very powerful teaching that it is not necessary for all Saints to agree on all matters, even on seemingly important matters — indeed, there is something more important than absolute truth.

    Looking to what others have already said is an important part of the spritual learning process, but “wrestling with angels” is more than just an individual responsibility, it’s a glorious and wondrous blessing! If “We must all be theologians” means we must all study it out in our own minds and with our own scriptures and with our own interactions with our fellowman, then yes, let us all be theologians. Not that we’ll all get all the right answers — but getting the right answers isn’t the point, is it?

  15. Carsten Nørgaard on March 18, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    I definitely think intellectually satisfying comprehensive Mormon systems are possible. In fact, I think what the Church teaches is really very intellectually satisfying. If anything, the lack of such satisfaction seems rather more likely to be a result of not reading up and not participating in theological pursuits than any failure on the religion’s part, our teachings, our leaders and so on.

    It’s really easy to pinpoint the core of Mormonism. Just read the missionary manual, Preach My Gospel. It contains everything that a person needs to have faith, repent, be baptized, make further covenants all the way to the celestial kingdom, and endure to the end. It does not contain neither vegetarianism, anti-Communism, debates on caffeine, speculations on second anointings, anything on polygamy, or anything similar.

    That book was personally reviewed by every General Authority called at the time and it proves the very point the author of this article is trying to make when it comes to core beliefs and yet having theological diversities in the one true Church.

    As for DLewis’ comments, I think OP manages to justify the current model quite well and agree with that model. It’s great. The members just need to learn how to make use of it in stead of continuing the usual “lets judge each other, annoy each other, dispute away, gossip away”, etc. :D

  16. Nathaniel Givens on March 18, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    DLewis-

    I don’t think that my model is built on the modern Church (21st century) to the exclusion of older incarnations (19th century), but rather on institutional elements that have been constant throughout. For example, Joseph Smith was at times beaten to the theological punch by the Pratt brothers, so that doesn’t look at all to me like authoritative voices crowding out theological speculation. Quite the opposite.

  17. WalkerW on March 19, 2013 at 12:58 am

    Enlightening, practical, and rich, as always. Thanks again, Nathaniel.

  18. WalkerW on March 19, 2013 at 3:27 am

    Good point about the Pratts.

  19. DLewis on March 19, 2013 at 9:42 am

    I would agree that the example of the Pratts suggest that the theological openness of today has always been a latent feature of the church, but certainly at times (and I would say that most of the time) the church’s ecclesiastical leadership has also assumed the role of theologians to the crowding out of “alternate voices” (I have the England/McConkie spat in mind). I’m wondering what Young or Talmage or McConkie would say if you described the church’s role as to provide a “doctrinal skeleton” of “sparse but rigid set of doctrines which are both accurate and universally held.” But I think Elders Oaks and Holland might nod in agreement. All of which is to only point out that the relationship between the church and its theological lay-members does not always exist in perfect balance, and that the church’s current iteration offers a unique opportunity for lay-members to do theological work that is not only personally rewarding but publicly meaningful. Or in other words, carpe diem!

  20. Dave on March 19, 2013 at 11:40 am

    One of the unexpected benefits of a bottom-up theological ecosystem would be a similar growth in the ability of Mormons to understand each other and the broader philosophical world.

    Nathaniel, there’s a garbage in, garbage out problem you haven’t addressed. I don’t see anything in the bottom-up theological ecosystem process you describe that transmutes the garbage into gold. Under the right circumstances — the right ward with the right class members or a teacher with the right kind of background — then maybe. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. The curriculum material and directives (no outside supplementary material; suggested questions that avoid any serious discussion) don’t really seem to contribute much to your desired outcome.

  21. Nathaniel Givens on March 19, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Dave-

    Nathaniel, there’s a garbage in, garbage out problem you haven’t addressed.

    That’s because I’m not considering the curriculum to be a significant part of the input. If it was, this wouldn’t be a bottom-up endeavor.

  22. Dave on March 20, 2013 at 11:16 am

    No, it’s not the curriculum I’m referring to, it’s the classroom discussion. If a bunch of people who don’t know much about theology or biblical criticism or religious history have a conversation, the pooling of their opinions is not likely to produce better understanding of anything. It might be a productive conversation in other worthwhile ways (testimony bearing, application of simple themes to the challenges of daily life, etc.) but I just don’t see how it will produce the sort of enlightenment you are hoping for. The same approach is now used in elementary education, where instead of teaching the instructor becomes a “learning facilitator” and the kids are supposed to teach themselves. Ideally it might work, but that’s an ideal that is not often present in the real world. This is why American kids can’t spell anymore and often have to use a calculator to multiply two single-digit numbers.

    Add some good content — via an unusually good teacher, helpful supplementary resources, or an upgraded curriculum that provides better content — and maybe you get there.

  23. ji on March 20, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    I’m not anti-academic — we all benefit from serious work and I want to encourage serious work — but I also believe that when a “bunch of people who don’t know much about theology or biblical criticism or religious history have a conversation,” that great good can come — the Holy Spirit can join them, and some or all of them can benefit from that conversation and they will be closer to the celestial kingdom of our God, perhaps closer than they could approach in the academic classroom.

    For the work of saving souls and helping individuals to really know God, to really know and trust God, well, “expertise” in theology, biblical criticism, or religious history isn’t necessary — good to have, yes, and sometimes important; but necessary, no, except as one’s theology, biblical criticism, or religious history can be converted to faith, hope, and charity.

    Let’s let the children play like they’re going “to the moon on a rocket ship made out of pillows, blankets, and cardboard.” They’ll stay safely in the yard, but will be so much the better for the experience. For adults trying to come to know God, as the original poster said, “our attempts at theology are no less vital and imperative to our spiritual development than the games that children play as they seek to become like their earthly parents.”

  24. Kevin L on March 20, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Dave,

    I have to agree with the idea that the answer is the Holy Ghost. Alchemy is interesting. The whole idea is based on the belief that a “garbage in, good out” system is possible. I believe that premise is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He takes us as the infinitely imperfect individuals we are and, through no merit of our own, transforms us into something far better.

    With the concept of lay theology, the “Sorcerer’s Stone” has to be the Gift of the Holy Ghost. People are going to bring all sorts of theological garbage to the table. We’re already carrying it around right now-all of us. The question is whether or not we will have the opportunity to pull it out and let it be transformed.

    Another interesting thing about this whole analogy is that the tradition of Alchemy doesn’t discriminate between initial substances. And it doesn’t waver in regards to the final product. As input material, iron, tin, and brass are no less valuable than copper, bronze, or silver. And Alchemists weren’t content with making a superior substance like steel from a common substance like iron. Gold was the goal.

    I think that there is a parallel to theology. While I may see my beliefs as greatly superior to other beliefs (My silver to your tin), the question isn’t about the initial substance, but the product of the transformation. And changing your tinny beliefs to my silvery ones doesn’t move either of us closer to being the gold God intends for us.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.