Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Value of Theology

Posted by Lynnette

“It is very strange. But we Christians often seem to be completely unconvinced of the power of thought with regard to our Christian faith.” (Karl Rahner)

I’m currently in my sixth year of studying academic theology. (I’ve posted before about how I ended up in this area.) Despite those inevitable moments of feeling tired of it all, on the whole I honestly can’t imagine doing anything more engaging. However, I’m all too aware that from the point of view of many Latter-day Saints, what I’m studying is worthless at best, and possibly even downright harmful. It’s nothing but the philosophies of the world, I repeatedly hear. It denies the value of revelation. And so on.

Obviously I don’t have a terribly objective perspective on this; it’s going to be no surprise to anyone that I think the subject is a worthwhile one to study. However, I have noticed that those who quickly dimiss theology aren’t always all that familiar with it.

A crucial point, I think, is that theology is second-order discourse. It’s a reflection on faith, and it draws on such sources as scripture, tradition, and experience. (The relative value of these sources varies, of course, depending on your denominational background and general outlook.) I think that many Latter-day Saints get nervous about theology because they see it as making truth claims equivalent to those of these primary sources, and therefore usurping the role of revelation. However, this is not how I understand the theological project. Theological reflection is dependent on these sources; it is not equivalent to them, or meant as a substitute for them.

Because of this, I don’t agree with the claim that theology is what happens in the absence of revelation. I don’t see how theology would even exist without revelation. This also means, I believe, that continuing revelation and theological reflection are quite compatible. From an LDS perspective, I don’t understand why continuing revelation would not be simply an additional source for theology. Nor do I see why continuing revelation would render theology unnecessary; we inevitably try to make sense of revelation in the context of our own experience–and to do that is to do theology.

One of the weaknesses of theology as it has often traditionally been done, I think, is an excessive tendency toward the abstract. My own view is that the real power of theology is actually in its connection to lived experience. As I see it, theological questions actually matter a great deal for the way in which I live my life: if I believe that God is involved in the minute details of the world or if I think God is more hands-off, if I believe that I have to acheive a certain level of goodness before grace will kick in, if I believe that freedom exists, how I make sense of evil–all of those have real implications for how I experience the world on a daily basis. Theology and praxis continually shape one another, as our beliefs influence our behavior and vice versa.

There are many things I enjoy about working in this field. But perhaps what I value the most about it is my sense that it’s a place where people combine serious faith commitments with a willingness to ask hard questions about their beliefs, which is something I really felt starved for when I was growing up. And though it’s certainly posed challenges to it at times, the study of theology has also tremendously enriched my own faith. The sentiment which I periodically encounter–that it’s no more than the uninspired speculations of those who lack access to real truth–hasn’t remotely matched my experience with the subject.

People occasionally ask me why Mormons don’t have much of a theological tradition. I don’t really know what to tell them. But I think it’s unfortunate that we don’t, and I’m encouraged to see indications that this might be changing. In the Middle Ages, theology was the queen of the sciences. My own hopes are rather more modest. I’d simply like to see it have a place at the table.

37 Responses to “The Value of Theology”

  1. 1.

    Amen Lynnette. The whole “theology is what happens in the absence of revelation” thing never made any sense to me. It always strikes me as something someone came up with to be witty, but which unwittingly revealed that they didn’t know what theology was.

    All Mormons have beliefs about God. Those who take them seriously enough to think through their implications, attempt to resolve inconsistencies, and explore their ramifications, engage in theology. People who disparage theology either don’t know what it is, or don’t care a wit about their religious beliefs.

  2. 2.

    What a pleasure it is to read this post! I’ve shared many of your frustrations as an academic and a Mormon whose first intellectual love is philosophy. Philosophy and theology share the same bed, albeit the latter’s specific aim is to consider with God as a consideration. I often wonder why LDS religious culture treats these subjects like intellectual and spiritual lepers when in reality there is so much wealth to be found in them. My ponderings of Nietzsche’s writing, for example, especially On the Genealogy of Morals continually makes me revisit what I define as “good” and why I choose to be a Christian. I find the affirmations to these challenges among the most holy things that I am capable of, right up there with praying. To ignore these amazing avenues for intellectual and spiritual growth is a tragedy.

  3. 3.

    I enjoyed your post very much.

    I do not have much background in this area, and would like to catch up. I enjoy the discussions that are both philosophical/theological and faithful – as long as I do not feel to much like a dope.

    Thanks for your thoughts here. I often feel that there is a faithfulness possibly associated with digging in to the revelations and exploring the implications. In a way a search for more light.

  4. 4.

    A great post, Lynnette. I think that detractors of theology are generally people who believe that texts interpret themselves. Such people are often surprised, even horrified, to learn that competing interpretations of LDS scripture exist and are even ratified at the highest levels of the church. To take a fun example, there are at least two major interpretive traditions regarding the Book of Mormon’s doctrine of grace and works: one emphasizing grace, and another emphasizing works. The famous “saved by grace after all we can do” statement becomes a central text for both traditions — because the text itself could either mean that we do our best work and then grace makes up the difference, or that grace does everything, regardless of how much we do.

    Theology without revelation might be seen as a mill without grain. Revelation without theology, though, is just sound and fury, because texts don’t interpret themselves.

  5. 5.

    One of the weaknesses of theology as it has often traditionally been done, I think, is an excessive tendency toward the abstract.

    Big Amen to that. Nice post.

  6. 6.

    Wow. Excellent post Lynette. I hope you don’t mind if I reference it in the future. As you may know, Mormon theology is our thang over at the Thang.

    I loved this retort of yours to the “theology is what happens in the absence of revelation” zinger:

    I don’t see how theology would even exist without revelation.

    Amen.

    As you and others said — Mormons create personal theologies as much as any other group whether we admit it or not. We just seem to have a cultural bias against openly talking about theology or doing a decent job of it for some reason. I agree with you that the tide may be slowly turning on that though.

  7. 7.

    “theology is what happens in the absence of revelation”, I believe, leans more toward the classical theological ideas, such as the nicene creed, or the concept espoused for some time in theological circles that everything is ineffable and no treatise can go beyond that, etc. My wife’s Grandfather has my copy of the book where Terryl Givens makes this statement, but I will try to find it and produce it in context.

    Theology definitely does exist without revelation. Otherwise, there would only be one church.

    This does not mean 1.> Theology hasn’t grown up. 2.> Everyone using philosophy or theology as tools to glean information are evil. or 3.> Theology doesn’t have it’s own excellent qualities.

    I beleive the above statement is merely an acceptance, more or less, of the fact that relative truth is what is available to man, and is the best man will achieve. (Now that soudnds worse than it actually is) I beleive absolute truth is available to God, and we can receive it from him, but as we recieve it, the best we can make of it is still relative truth, it seems.

  8. 8.

    Lynette, maybe if you just referred to your discipline as “religious philosophy” it would sound friendlier to Mormon listeners. I like your point that theology doesn’t offer an alternative set of truth claims, but generally works with the truth claims asserted by a particular denomination or faith. I’m not sure that’s 100% accurate, but it does make theology sound less threatening.

  9. 9.

    Theology definitely does exist without revelation. Otherwise, there would only be one church.

    MW, I think this might bean example of the kind of misperception I discussed in my comment #4. If you think there’s any revelation at all in the Bible, then your comment is demonstrably wrong. In general, any given revelation is always compatible with multiple theologies because the text by which the revelation becomes shared beyond its original recipient does not, and cannot, interpret itself.

  10. 10.

    RT- So, revelation, in short, is intended for the original recipient. What’s so difficult about that?

  11. 11.

    Ah, Matt isn’t a Mormon after all! I’m surprised to learn that you don’t regard the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants to be scripture!

    Do you distinguish somehow between revelation and sacred texts? That is, in your view, are the scriptures not revelation? That would dramatically clarify your perspective for me, although I would still be inclined to disagree. After all, people do tend to follow prophets, don’t they? Which inherently involves processes of interpretation.

  12. 12.

    Note: the first paragraph in my comment was irony. Doesn’t necessarily come across well in print…

  13. 13.

    My personal view, frankly is that when we receive the words of the prophets, we need revelation to interpret them correctly. Thus we may be recieving scripture from the prophet, but we still need revelation to confirm it to us and make it fully valuable.

    this is just my opinion, of course, but I don’t see anything “un-mormon” about it.

    No worries on the irony bit, but I appreciate you caring enough to clarify. I hope I also am not coming across as some sort of “My way or the highway” type… (Whatever that means.)

  14. 14.

    Nor do I see why continuing revelation would render theology unnecessary; we inevitably try to make sense of revelation in the context of our own experience– and to do that is to do theology.

    I know you’ve expressed frustration to me, Lynnette, with Christians who assume the Bible interprets itself (thanks to RT for this great phrase). The meaning is just evident on the face of it; why would you reflect on it? They admit no other interpretations because they refuse to see that their own interpretations are interpretations. So do Christians who believe that do theology? I suspect they do not, but I would be interested to know what your experience is.

  15. 15.

    Thanks for all the comments! I appreciate the kind words, Ben and Eric. Geoff J and Jacob J, I completely agree that Mormons already engage in theological thought whether or not we label it as such–I think that goes along with RoastedTomatoes’ point about revelation not being self-interpreting.

    Vivevada, my experience has been similar to yours. I’ve been profoundly inspired and moved by some of the great thinkers of Christianity, and I’m always a little disturbed when I hear them dismissed out-of-hand. Most Latter-day Saints, at least in my experience, seem quite comfortable with the notion that there is much good to be found in classic literature or art or music, but philosophy and theology seem to be a bit more suspect. The assumptions underlying that would be interesting to explore further.

    MW, I will confess that I’ve only heard the Givens quote thrown around in isolation; I don’t know the context for it, and I’m quite open to re-thinking my critique. But I’m not entirely clear on what you mean about theology existing in the absence of revelation because otherwise there would only be one church. As I think RT’s grace-works example illustrates nicely, one church can have a multiplicity of theologies (and I don’t think that’s a bad thing), so I don’t think theological diversity necessarily implies a lack of revelation.

    If what you’re saying, though, is that not all theology is inspired or completely accurate, I’d certainly agree; I think that theology is always tentative and open to future revision, and sometimes it goes in completely wrong directions. But I’m still not sure what theology without revelation would look like. When people do theology, it seems to me that they always draw on some source which they consider revelatory. The Nicene Creed, to pick one of your examples, didn’t arise from some kind of starting-from-scratch speculation; it’s a particular interpretation of the revelation contained in the New Testament.

    There are, of course, heated debates regarding the question of which sources of revelation are legitimate, and how much relative weight should be given to each one. I suspect that sometimes when people accuse theology of being done in a fashion independent of revelation, what they mean is that they don’t think the source on which the theology draws is actually revelatory.

    Anyway, I pretty much agree with your last paragraph; while I do believe in the existence of absolute or definitive truth, I also think that our access to it and understanding of it is inevitably limited and fragmented. So we’re maybe not really that far apart in our thinking on this.

    Dave, your suggestion touches on the much-discussed question of just what theology is, and how it relates to philosophy. My own view, which I’ve largely taken from Paul Tillich, is that theology has a narrower scope than philosophy because of its commitment to the truth claims of a particular tradition. I see philosophy of religion as asking many similar questions to theology, but starting without the same presuppositions. So I still want to hold to the term “theology” to describe what I do–though your point about less-threatening language is a good one.

  16. 16.

    Hi, Lynnette,

    Yet another well written, thoughful post to which I have nothing to much to add except I very much enjoyed reading it. You have a place at my table any time :)

  17. 17.

    Matt and RT, in reading your conversation I’m thinking that maybe some of the confusion that comes up around this topic stems from the different ways the term “revelation” gets used. On the one hand, there’s public, official, ecclesial, textually-encoded revelation; on the other, there’s private guidance and confirmation from the Spirit. And when people worry that theology is being done without revelation, I’m not actually sure if they’re referring to the latter or to the former. But I think that theology as a discipline is necessarily based on public revelation, or else there would be no common ground for theological discussion. (Which isn’t to say, of course, that private inspiration never plays any role in the process.)

    Ziff, that’s a really good question. I’ve certainly run across conservative Christians who see “theology” as a dangerous practice which detracts from the plain and simple truths of the Bible. But many conservative Protestant seminaries have theology programs, and I’d be curious to find out what they were like.

    Interestingly, evangelicals–who tend to see the message of the Bible as fairly unambiguous–nonetheless have some heated theological debates. For example, the premillennialists (who think Christ will come before the millennium) and the postmillenialists (who think he will come after) can really go after each other. And in recent years there’s been tremendous controversy over open theism.

    Thanks, ECS! I’m glad to hear that you have a theology-friendly table. :)

  18. 18.

    I take a pretty low view of theology, but from the opposite perspective of most Mormons, perhaps. The few theology classes I took in grad school (I believe they were socio-theology of gender and liberation theology) made me want to scream because they used OT or NT texts as a foundation point without ever acknowledging the problems with interpreting the texts. Now I realize it isn’t fair to hold theology hostage until exegesis is universally agreed upon (as if . . .), but it somehow seemed irresponsible to me to say “The NT teaches X (see vss. blah blah blah) and therefore …..” when there is no overwhelming consensus that verses blah blah blah actually teach X.

  19. 19.

    Great post, Lynnette. I think theology is a great field of study (but then, some Mormons would think my field of study (anthropology) as harmful as well, so I might be a little biased).

    I don’t have much to add, but I wanted to address this point:

    People occasionally ask me why Mormons don’t have much of a theological tradition. I don’t really know what to tell them.

    I think one reason Mormons don’t have much of a theological tradition is because until fairly recently Mormons were seen by those of other major religions as a cult rather than a religion. There is a fairly large field of Mormon theological scholarship, but theology in general is (at least in my view) something that compares and examines various religious traditions, and to do that you generally need to have people from more than one religious tradition willing to work together at it. (Of course, this is just my rather uninformed opinion.)

  20. 20.

    The frustration Julie describes regarding the lack of universality of theological opinion is precisely why I find the theological frameworks of religion fascinating. Competing interpretations of scripture and religious doctrine present opportunities for us to understand how and why the fundamental principles and religious values collide.

    Mormonism doesn’t have a history of dialogue and intellectual discussion of its theology – partly because Mormonism has very little theology – but also because of the Mormon cultural bias against dissent (however respectful) and debate.

  21. 21.

    I think there are indeed very deep-seated (though not necessarily “good”) reasons for a Mormon aversion to theology. For example, we believe that our leaders can receive revelation in a way that the rest of Christianity does not. One view of Bruce R. McConkie is that he’s a case study in attempting to be too theological (OK, bad and simplistic theology, but still…), and so he looks very bad when, for example, he was wrong about saying the blacks would never receive the priesthood. It seems, then, that there is an implicit challenge that systematic theology poses to this kind of revelatory trumping power that Mormon leaders have–and therein, I believe, lies a lot of the skepticism among Mormons toward theology. I think it’s a fascinating issue in and of itself, esp. from a feminist perspective, b/c it is so intertwined with the hierarchical/patriarchal structure of the Church….

  22. 22.

    #21 continued: I think this is also why a Scriptural Theology (cf. “New Testament Theology) will be more readily accepted by Mormons b/c, as Julie hinted at above, its very name acknowledges the interpretive difficulties. Also, it limits the scope of the project in a way that is less threatening to Church leadership. That is, if I do Scriptural Theology as opposed to Systematic Theology, I can always say that the view I subscribe too is historical and therefore doesn’t create tension with anything that a new prophet might say.

  23. 23.

    Lynette, just to clarify, I am MW and Matt W., anyway, thanks for your response, and I believe you are correct, that in the long run, we are not that disimilar.

    My Wife’s Grandfather has alas borrow my givens book and “lost” it, so context from Givens must wait.

    Typically Givens is a major proponent of personal revelation, which he “invented” the buzzwords “Dialogic Revelation” to explain the Mormon concept of.

    I know Julie Smith has a copy of the book, maybe we can beg her for context.

  24. 24.

    I think Mormons don’t like (systematic) theology because of the attitudes of the early leaders, particularly Joseph Smith. Theology is interpreted as Dogma, and “Dogma” is considered even worse than theology because it is a closed system. The word “Doctrine” is far more accepted a term because it isn’t seen as related to a closed set of rules and beliefs. Thus, why Bruce R. McConkies book was named “Mormon Doctrine” rather than “Mormon Theology” when published.

    So, Mormons do have theology, but it is open to various interpretations and added revelation. Because of that, they use the word Doctrine that represents a set of teachings that can be independant and changed according to prophetic and personal insights.

  25. 25.

    Matt,

    Which Givens book is that phrase used? (I only have By the Hand of Mormons — a book I immensely enjoyed BTW.)

  26. 26.

    Geoff J,
    The Mormon Experience in America I liked it as much as By the hand of Mormon and recommend it. However, fair warning, it is priced as a text book, not as a typical book.

  27. 27.

    Correction, I meant the Latter-day Saint Experience in America oops

  28. 28.

    I think this article by Dan Peterson illustrates many reasons why theology is looked on skeiptically by Mormons. Although I think he oversimplifies many things (and is even mistaken on others), it does a good explaining what I think are deep undercurrents to the tension.

    It’s a pretty long article. Basically, he argues that the Apostacy was a result of Greek philosophy influencing Christian theologians who, following Plato esp., put more emphasis on correct belief, at the expense of orthopraxy. The Jews did a better job preserving the dynamic and hence unknowable character of God, so there’s no such thing as Jewish theology (also related to an emphasis on following the law more than beliefs, dogmatic or otherwise). Joseph Smith, then, can be viewed as restoring the original, correct ideas of Judaism, but with the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah.

  29. 29.

    I read the entire Dan Peterson article. It reminded me of when I read Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time” a few years ago. I didn’t understand a word of it either, but what a thrilling intellectual experience. Thanks for this peak into the minds of really, really smart people.

  30. 30.

    Ok, here’s my guess about Mormons and their dislike of theology. They just don’t know what it means.
    I think this is true on 2 levels. First, they don’t understand the word itself. . .
    Secondly, they, or should I say, I don’t know what using theology or engaging in theological discourse would look like in my life. It is totally out of our cultural identity. There are no centerpeices or refreshments: I don’t think there is anything to “bear” or “bare.”
    So, Lynette, how about a Theology 101 for our ZD Sunday School class? (I’m happy to take a few homework assignments)
    Seriously, I have really enjoyed this thread, but it seems a little, esoteric? I need a little more hands on to be able to understand some of this . . .

  31. 31.

    Julie, I think that’s a fair complaint; it’s true that theologians often aren’t trained much in exegesis. In my ideal university (with no time limits) there’d be time to do both. Of course, I have to admit that I wasn’t always crazy about the scripture classes I was required to take; sometimes it felt like we spent so much time discussing whether such-and-such a phrase was actually written by Paul or was the addition of a later redactor that we never got to any interesting questions. ;) But the question of how much biblical expertise one should have to engage in theological work is a good one. With some exceptions, systematic theology seems to draw much more heavily on the tradition than on scriptural texts–which may account for why those of us who are trained in it often end up more familiar with Augustine and Aquinas than with the Bible.

    Vada, you raise an interesting point about having multiple traditions involved. I agree that what theological work has been done in Mormonism has been quite insular, and not in dialogue with the broader Christian theological tradition. I think there’d be benefits to both sides if that were to change.

    ECS, I’ve also wondered how our cultural resistance to debate plays into this. I’ve occasionally heard that theology isn’t necessary for Mormons because we already have all the clear answers. If Latter-day Saints–even General Authorities–have different takes on theological issues, does that call into question our claim to be the true church? I don’t see that it necessarily would, but I have gotten the impression that’s a concern.

    Robert C., that issue of church leaders and the revelatory trump card really is at the heart of this, I think. Is it possible to have both a strong church hierarchy with inspired leaders, and a theological tradition? The Catholics seem to do it–though ecclesiastical leaders do clash sometimes with theologians. In the LDS faith, I’ve often wondered: do we believe that the call to be a GA involves playing the role of a theologian? If we had professional theologians, would that potentially undermine the ecclesiastical hierarchy? I have to say that the current situation, in which the quasi-official interpreters of doctrine seem to be BYU religion professors–many of whom don’t have much academic training in religion (though I do realize there are exceptions to that)–doesn’t strike me as all that optimal.

  32. 32.

    Matt W/MW, thanks for the clarification about your name. I did realize that it was the same person, but not until after I’d written comments to you as if you were different people. ;) I’ll add that Givens book to my (far too long!) list of books to read.

    Jettboy, that’s a good point that Joseph Smith had quite a bit of contempt for what he referred to as “dogma,” and I don’t doubt that his outlook has continued to influence the church. However, I’m not sure that theology as such has always had the bad reputation that it currently does–I can think of a number of people in the first century of the church’s existence who seem to have understood themselves as engaging in theological work: Parley P. Pratt, John A. Widtsoe, B.H. Roberts, James E. Talmage. I don’t know the history well enough to know when and why that changed.

    Robert C., thanks for the link. That article brings up more issues than I have the energy to tackle at the moment, but I do think that question of how an emphasis on orthopraxis (and I agree that Mormons seem closer to Jews than to mainstream Christians in that regard) relates to a theological tradition (or the lack thereof) is one worth thinking about.

    Ruby, someday I too plan to read <em>A Brief History of Time</em>, though I may well have the same experience that you did!

    Jessawhy, that’s a really good observation; I think the term “theology” is often a rather vague one for Latter-day Saints, because it doesn’t obviously connect to any aspect of church experience. As has been said several times, it’s there implicitly–when a Sunday School teacher asks “what is faith?” or “what is revelation?”, they’re asking you to engage in theological thought. But I certainly had no idea at all what academic theology looked like before I decided to get involved in it; that’s a good idea for a future post.

  33. 33.

    “Parley P. Pratt, John A. Widtsoe, B.H. Roberts, James E. Talmage.”

    I suppose you are correct in your interpretation of what they did as theology. However, I think most of their work was less theological than explanations of doctrine. The exception would probably be Parley P. Pratt and B.H.Roberts whose major works and ideas were highly contraversial during their own lives. In other words, they were exceptions rather than the rule when they wrote. If you include them, I don’t see why you can’t include Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie as theologins as well.

    Not that the above can answer the question of why theology is looked down upon so much today. My own feeling is that the processes of theology isn’t seen as a problem so much as the idea of theology. Perhaps it is a samantics problem. Who isn’t enganged in doctrinal topics who aren’t also engaging in theology? Are the two interchangable or completely different? What is theology?

    If it is true, as your post almost more than implies, that “Theological reflection is dependent on these [traditional outside] sources,” no wonder most Mormons reject it. They already believe those sources are what they are trying to get away from and should be rejected. At best they can be used to follow the path of Apostacy and not for any insight into God’s words. Even those early LDS theologins you listed often spoke negatively of the teachings of the Christian Fathers. My guess is that you overstate your case when you say that what the LDS thinkers you listed did was theology as you understand the term. That is, of course, dependant on the definition of the word.

  34. 34.

    Jettboy, my earlier comment probably wasn’t very clear. Like you, I’m not sure how much qualitative difference there actually is between the work of say, Talmage and McConkie. However, my impression (which could be mistaken) is that the authors I mentioned understood themselves to be engaging in theological thought (Widstoe and Pratt both authored books with the word “theology” in the title), whereas McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith did not. That’s the shift I’m curious about. I don’t know if it’s merely a matter of semantics, or it reflects something deeper.

    As far as the rest of your comment, I think it goes back to the debate I mentioned earlier about which sources are in fact revelatory and therefore legitimate. However, while I think that’s as an important discussion, I see it as being at least to some extent separate from the question of whether theology per se is a legitimate field of inquiry. But I do think that you’ve hit on one reason why Mormons have often been skeptical (fairly or not) of theological work.

  35. 35.

    “A crucial point, I think, is that theology is second-order discourse. It’s a reflection on faith, and it draws on such sources as scripture, tradition, and experience. (The relative value of these sources varies, of course, depending on your denominational background and general outlook.)”

    If this is the useful definition of Theology, than I would say the difference is attitudinal. For the first mentioned authors, they were engaging in reflective religous thought. The J.F.S. and B.R.M. writing was considered by them more authoritative commentary on gospel doctrines. Ironic, considering their distate for such things as Dogma. As much as I like these two far more than what many bloggernacle participants have expressed, it is perhaps in their coming close to codifying doctrine that theology has fallen out of favor.

    On top of that, theologizing in the LDS faith has more often been political than religious in purpose. Such a thing has put a bad taste in many member’s mouths about theological explorations. In fact, this has been the situation with religious discourse outside of the Church in recent years. Because of this, members see (in combination with other factors) theology as a bludgen rather than a help in coming to spiritual knowledge.

    The reason I am engaging in this discussion is that I consider myself a Conservative Mormon Theologian. As such, I have noticed the same things as you have regarding attitudes toward the subject of theological discussion. Believe it or not, I would like to change that. The problem might be (and I don’t know you well enough) that our purposes for doing so are probably different. For me, it seems such an attitude of theological distancing has created a serious confusion as to doctrinal teachings as understood by those not of the faith. Non-members too often take as a given things that are not set as absolutes. When they discover this, they consider it contradictions rather than fluidity of doctrinal discourse. Even Orthodox Mormons understand this, but they don’t know how to articulate the theological implications because they usually only know how to talk in absolutes. This is not about opening up to divergent ideas (that I am opposed to), but rather ability to effectively and correctly communicate nuances. My interest in Mormon theology is that it is very complicated, and cannot be understood (as Joseph Smith said) without serious contemplation.

  36. 36.

    Jettboy, thanks for letting me know more about where you’re coming from and your perspective on the potential value of LDS theology. Like you, I can see a lot of advantages in having a theological tradition to draw on when we’re attempting to explain our doctrines to others. Though I’ll freely confess (and this is where we might disagree) that I’d also like to see us more engaged with the theological tradition of mainstream Christianity; I see a lot in it that’s “virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy,” and I think a kind of ghettoized or self-contained LDS theology would be an impoverished one.

    One more thought on this topic– the discussion about the value of formal training that came up on my other thread dealing with professional vs. lay clergy seems central here as well. To put it starkly: if access to the Spirit is the only relevant qualification for one to engage in theological work, professional training in theology really is a waste of time. I think I tend to see theology as being similar to other academic disciplines; I believe that the Spirit can inspire one to greater truth and insight in any field, but I nonetheless wouldn’t suggest that someone substitute prayer and scripture study for taking classes in calculus if they’re planning to be a mathematician. On the other hand, I do think theology is in a somewhat unique situation– unlike most academic disciplines, it finds itself accountable not only just to other academics, but also to ecclesiastical leaders. And that makes those questions about what qualifications are needed somewhat more complicated.

  37. 37.

    […] There was a discussion about the value of theology that questioned why Latter-day Saints have such a hard time accepting the study of theology. It got me thinking of my own interest in the subject. Surely Mormons dabble in the study of theology more than credit has been given. They just don’t know it. Discussing the personal opinions about the Last Days and what the Afterlife will be like can generate a lot of theological debate. The confusing might be on how casual it all can sound. There is a disjointedness that is hard to say creates a formal approach to doctrinal exigesis. […]

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