Zelophehad’s Daughters

How Studying Theology Has Impacted My Faith

Posted by Lynnette

A question I get a lot at church is that of how studying theology has impacted my testimony. Sometimes people make comments along the lines of how studying the beliefs of others must be quite faith-promoting, with an apparent assumption that the musings of non-LDS religious thinkers are likely so self-evidently ridiculous or confusing that they could only result in my having a greater appreciation for the simple clarity of the restored gospel. Others wonder, by contrast, whether engaging religion academically might be dangerous, might undermine my belief in the LDS church. I am not comfortable, however, with either of these paradigms. What I study has in fact profoundly influenced my faith, but in complex ways.

My first semester of theological work, I was positively giddy, to the point where I would see the word “theology” in my email inbox and find a silly grin on my face. It wasn’t quite real to me that I was actually getting to engage this subject full time. Though I’d dabbled a bit in theology as part of my previous studies, I’d never actually taken a class in the subject, and it was all new and exciting and amazing.

But it wasn’t long before I found myself in a bit of a religious crisis. It didn’t arise so much from the content of what I was studying, but rather from the very fact that I found what I’d heard glibly dismissed as “apostate teachings” or “philosophies of men” to be so tremendously rich. In addition, I found myself in a community where religion played a central role; unsurprisingly, my fellow students and I talked more or less constantly about the subject. Mormonism came up quite frequently in these conversations, and I was quite candid about my views on things, and particularly about the aspects of the Church I’ve found difficult. Yet at the back of my mind, I was haunted by the missionary paradigm, by the stories I’d heard all my life about people who had seen these kinds of situations as opportunities to convert others. I did not feel that I could share a sort of traditional faith-promoting narrative without undermining any authenticity in my relationships. Nor did I feel confident that my fellow students, who were deeply committed to their own religious traditions, would necessarily be better off as Latter-day Saints. But I still felt guilt for not following the script in my head of how I thought a Mormon was supposed to talk about the Church.

My conflicted feelings about the matter only intensified when I took a class on Jewish-Christian relations, in which we discussed at great length the problem of proselytizing, and how approaching people as potential converts in need of the truth makes it difficult to engage in genuine interfaith dialogue. I found myself lying awake at night wrestling with some core religious questions related to the exclusivist truth claims of the Church. This was the beginning of my obsession with the problem of religious pluralism, which is an issue I have found arising again and again in my academic work. I don’t have quite the same level of emotional angst about the subject that I did when I first got into this field, but I still find the question immensely compelling. That has been one of the major ways in which I see my studies as having impacted my personal religious beliefs—though I have not completely rejected LDS exclusivity claims, I am still working to make sense of them, and I have strong pluralist leanings.

Another way in which my academic work has caused me to seriously re-examine some aspects of my faith has to do with my understanding of and relationship with God. I grew up believing in a God of wrath, one who was constantly angry with me because I couldn’t stop sinning. Because I was raised LDS, this picture was closely intertwined with my LDS faith, which meant that I found it profoundly difficult to trust God in a Mormon context. Reading what those of other faiths had to say about God was therefore immensely liberating; their ways of talking were often unfamiliar enough that they didn’t trigger the emotional baggage that, for me, inevitably accompanied more familiar LDS discourse. It was in studying the work of the great Christian theologians that I encountered a rather different God than the one of my childhood, that I began to take seriously the possibility of a God who was patient and loving rather than tyrannical. In this way, working in theology has literally been a spiritual lifesaver for me, as I have found that encountering grace in the context of other traditions has enabled me to come back to my own and find it there as well.

I think that studying Christian theology has strengthened my belief both in God and in the power of the Christian message. Some days I do wonder, however, if it has made me less Mormon. There’s no question that my engagement with Protestant and Catholic thinkers has shaped my outlook on various theological issues; for example, in recent years I’ve become quite drawn to the doctrine of the Trinity, especially as it’s been articulated by contemporary theologians. On the other hand, there have also been moments when working in this field has made me acutely aware of my own Mormonness, such as when I realize I’m the one person in a seminar who’s not assuming ex nihilo creation.

I am still working out what it means to be a Latter-day Saint who studies traditional Christian theology. I have moments when I think that navigating between these worlds is simply making me crazy. Yet I remain deeply attached to both of them, and I believe–or at least hope–that despite the tensions which sometimes arise, the two contribute to each other, that my Mormon background brings something valuable to my theological work, and my academic studies enrich my LDS faith.

24 Responses to “How Studying Theology Has Impacted My Faith”

  1. 1.

    A fascinating post, Lynnette. There are thousands of Christians studying Christian theology, but you are almost unique in being a Mormon who is (seriously) studying it. Initially that will seem like an odd mix, but I’ll bet that very uniqueness will provide a lot of opportunities down the road — as long as you can hold the ground you’re standing on. Think of Jan Shipps in reverse.

  2. 2.

    It was good to meet you last week, Lynette!

    I really enjoyed this post. I, too, have found some comfort in my study of theology (well, dabbling, really). I feel like there is little hope for me as a Mormon, but there is some possibility of redemption for me as a Christian due to the territory covered by theologians that could never be traversed by the Church.

    This is a bit of a tangent, but I’m struck by how much power some theologians have in interpreting or even shaping doctrine for believers (granted, this is hugely complex). Sometimes female scholars in Christianity, Islam, and other traditions are able to bypass traditional male power structures to influence their religions to become less discriminatory (though some reinforce existing hierarchies). Do you think that you might have this potential within Mormonism?

  3. 3.

    Lynnette, where are you studying? Or is this just independent study?

    I am the reverse of you, rooted in traditional Christian theology, unsatisfied with pluralism, and deeply saturated within the culture of LDS orthopraxy.

    As far as being attracted to Trinitarian implications, currently, John 5 has set my heart on fire.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. 4.

    I love this post, Lynnette. Thanks for writing it.

    Would it be odd to confess that reading Gustavo Gutierrez helped make it possible for me to remain a Mormon when I had a major crisis of faith a few years back? Odd because many Mormons would be discomfited that the writings of a radical leftist Catholic priest might be a part of my testimony, but perhaps also odd because Gutierrez himself most probably would have hoped for a slightly different outcome — had I left Mormonism I doubtless would have become a Catholic. Since I assume that nobody else in the room has read Gutierrez, I won’t go into details on why his writings helped save my Mormonism. But I hope to echo your experience of how complex and unexpected the interactions between Mormonism and the theological writings of other flavors of Christianity can be — even though my experience with those writings is superficial and haphazard in comparison with yours.

  5. 5.

    I just don’t do proselyting anymore, and I usually manage not to feel guilty about it. When the missionaries ask me to help them with a particularly intelligent or educated case, I’m happy to talk to the person, but in my mind it’s just a religious conversation and I’m not really trying to dunk them (if the missionaries can leverage my conversation into a conversion, then more power to them).

    I loved meeting you, Lynette! You’re one cool chick.

  6. 6.

    Very interesting thoughts Lynnette. As you know, I am an avid Mormon theology hobbyist. Your comments on your pluralistic leanings reminded me that that much of my speculating within Mormon theology is prompted by my deep pluralistic feelings too. I suspect am looking for a legitimate way within Mormonism to be a full-fledged pluralist (and may have found it by assuming beginningless libertarian free will and eternal progression/retrogression…)

    One thing you said made me scratch my head though:

    I grew up believing in a God of wrath, one who was constantly angry with me because I couldn’t stop sinning. Because I was raised LDS, this picture was closely intertwined with my LDS faith

    I was raised LDS too but have never thought of God as always angry with me because of my sins. Now that I look back, I have always thought God was really quite pleased with me…

    I wonder if this is more of a family to family thing than a Mormon thing.

  7. 7.

    Hi Lynnette!
    I enjoyed reading this post and I envy your study of theology. Sometimes I think that I would like nothing better than to be able to discuss religious ideas day and night. The funny thing is that, even as a returned missionary, I related with your feelings of being hesitant to “share the gospel” with non-Mormon seekers. Many times I sense that the peace they have found within their religious traditions far surpasses the angst I have experienced as a member of the “One True Church.” I’m sure some will try to infer from this statement that I don’t have a testimony–not so.

  8. 8.

    What a thoughtful post. I’ve been thinking of this quite a lot over the past summer, and your insights have given me some food for thought.

  9. 9.

    Thanks for this. You brought some clarity to one of the running conflicts of my spiritual and intellectual life. This navigation between commitment to the gospel and ‘strong pluralist leanings’ has been a struggle at times, but one that has been richly rewarding (as far as I’ve gotten). One of the things we don’t do well as Mormons is leave questions open — to be compelled by mysteries without solving them — and my reading and teaching life has required me do this to an extent that has brought blessings and joy.

    And redefining our Mormoness, as individuals and as a church, should be required on a regular basis.

  10. 10.

    Lynnette, I would love to hear what it is about the doctrine of the Trinity (and which contemporary theologians) that attracts you.

  11. 11.

    Thanks, all. Dave, it does feel like a rather unique position. I’ve met just a couple of other LDS grad students in the area–though of course, a lot of other people in fields like history and philosophy also do some theological work. It’s kind of funny; when I decided to go into the field, it just seemed like a fun idea; I didn’t really think about how unusual it is for a Mormon to do such a thing.

    JohnR, it was great to see you, too! And you raise a good question. The place of theologians (and religious scholars in general) in the Church is so ambiguous that I’m not quite sure what role (if any!) I see myself having in that context. But it’s something to think about.

    Todd, nope, it’s not independent study; I’m working on a PhD at a school in northern California. Thanks for the comment.

    Roasted Tomatoes, I love that Gutierrez is a part of your testimony. I could say the same about some of the thinkers who have deeply influenced me at various points, including Luther (I deeply resonate with his struggle to find a gracious God in the midst of sin–in fact it was reading Luther while studying the Reformation that really pushed me in the direction of theological work), Tillich (I find his sermons in particular to be quite powerful), and in recent years, Karl Rahner (who has very much shaped my views on the omnipresence of grace in the world). In fact, I’ve done so much with Rahner that I sometimes joke that I am a Rahnerian Mormon. And the interesting thing is that, like you, I found that these thinkers didn’t lure me away from my Mormonism, but rather strengthened my LDS faith by causing me to think about it in new ways.

    Kevin, that makes a lot of sense; I think I’ve also been much calmer since I’ve for the most part decided to quit worrying about the proselytizing factor and simply approach religious conversation as just that–religious conversation, without some other agenda lurking beneath. And I loved meeting you, too!

  12. 12.

    Geoff, I’m rather fascinated to hear that your theological speculation is at least partially driven by a desire to incorporate pluralism. I can certainly relate to the drive to work out those questions. And I may not have been clear in my post; I completely agree that people in the Church grow up with a wide spectrum of views on God. I was simply observing that that was the sense I personally had, due to whatever combination of personality and local environment–and since I was LDS, it inevitably got tangled up with my sense of Mormonism, if that makes sense. I don’t think I was pulling this all out of thin air; I do think the LDS tradition has a relatively strong focus on sin, for example–but I’m also quite aware that my view of LDS doctrine is always going to be shaped by the context in which I encounter it, and the background I bring to it.

    Hi, Bored in Vernal! Yet another name for which I now have a face. I’ve had similar experiences, having met a number of people who seem much more grounded and stable in their own religious traditions than I do.

    Thanks, Dallas. And I’m glad I got to briefly say hello to you the other day.

    Norbert, I like what you say about leaving questions open; I’m reminded of Rahner’s (see, here I am being a Rahnerian) explanation that a mystery isn’t a puzzle to be solved, but something to be entered into. I don’t enjoy theology because it provides neat answers to everything, but rather for the way in which it explores questions. And I also like that thought about how we should continually re-define our Mormonness.

    Brad, I’m thinking in particular of the idea that God is constitutively relational–that the Persons of the Trinity don’t first exist autonomously and then form relationships with others, but are defined from the beginning by their relationality. The kind of thing you find in Catherine LaCugna, or John Zizioulas, or Christopher Schwoebel. I like the idea that we can look to that model to understand what it means to be a person in the image of God, and to think about relations in human communities.

  13. 13.

    I was raised LDS too but have never thought of God as always angry with me because of my sins. Now that I look back, I have always thought God was really quite pleased with me…

    I wonder if this is more of a family to family thing than a Mormon thing.

    I’d say that as well. We traveled a lot, my dad was career military, and the “God of wrath” is really not part of the tradition I was exposed to. Kind of the reverse, actually.

  14. 14.

    “…the universality of grace…” – I love that phrase.

    Lynnette, I learned about Luther from a different angle (German cultural history) and I was astonished and appalled to read about his violent racism and anti-Semitism. He actually advocated pogroms and the killing of Jews. It has taken some time, but I’m now able to see him in the context of his time and to grant him some grudging respect.

    Mormons sometimes experience anxiety about the more outlandish statements and doctrines promulgated by our early founders. Have you ever encountered Protestants who struggle with Luther? I haven’t, and I wonder why. I don’t think it is possible that they are all ignorant of his views. The passage of time might explain some of it, but probably not all. How is it that they are able to have such a charitable outlook on their beginnings while we LDS sometimes wallow in angst about ours?

  15. 15.

    This post was positively yummy.

    While I have a rock solid testimony of the truth of the Book of Mormon and the authority of the restored Priesthood, where I have struggled the most is how insular I found the LDS church to be. I’ve embrassed religious pluralism for some time, feeling sure there was much truth to be had in other sources. It is a complicated journey to make the move away from either / or thinking to allow for both/and, but for me it is what makes sense.

  16. 16.

    Lynette, thanks for this post. At the risk of sounding very unacademic, I see my time on the bloggernacle as a type of theological engagement. Whereas before I surfed the net for shopping, or recipes, or parenting tips, I now spend most of my time reading and thinking about different aspects of Mormon doctrine and culture. Much of what I’ve read has challenged my previous notions of Truth, but like you said, instead of tearing down my testimony, it builds it because I think about concepts in new ways.
    You said,

    I don’t enjoy theology because it provides neat answers to everything, but rather for the way in which it explores questions. And I also like that thought about how we should continually re-define our Mormonness.

    On a much smaller scale and in a sloppier way, the bloggernacle does this for me. I haven’t thought about it that way before, so thanks for explaining your experiences in a way that I can relate to.

  17. 17.

    Stephen, I think it’s interesting to hear about the various religious experiences and perceptions that people had growing up. It’s kind of amazing how much variety exists even within the same church.

    Mark, you’re definitely raising some valid concerns about Luther. That’s a good question about how he’s viewed now; I agree that Lutherans don’t seem to have the same amount of angst over his faults that Mormons do over Joseph Smith’s. I have a good friend who’s a Lutheran pastor; I should ask him for his take on this.

    This is somewhat related, I think, to the discussion on Eve’s thread about credentials. It’s the Heidegger being a Nazi problem: what do you with theologians or philosophers who also have commitments which you find morally problematic? Tillich is another example of this; his theology has been both influential and admired, but his personal life included a number of questionable elements. I’m hesitant to too quickly dismiss anyone’s ideas on that basis; I find much of value in Augustine despite his serious misogyny, and in Luther despite his disturbing anti-Semitism. And yet I don’t want to assert that that stuff doesn’t matter. So I’m not entirely sure what I think about that question.

    Thanks, Belladonna. I like the both/and approach as well. I want to think that being a believing Latter-day Saint doesn’t preclude taking a pluralist approach to religion, even if I’m still working out all the details of that.

    Jessawhy, I appreciate your observations. I think I value the bloggernacle for similar reasons, that it gives me different perspectives on all kinds of aspects of the Church.

  18. 18.

    I’m with Geoff and Stephen, raised LDS but never having encountered the God of Wrath. In fact, I always pictured him more or less like my own father, who is the epitome of patience and calm. When we did something wrong, he never raised his voice — he used that old, “I’m so disappointed in you,” tactic, and he meant it. Heartbreaking. I’m an adult now and am still motivated to avoid doing anything that might disappoint my parents.

    So my LDS God is probably more a God of Guilt, lol.

    Thank you for this interesting perspective! What a fascinating subject to study in depth.

  19. 19.

    Mark VI-
    I think Mormons have more angst about the human foibles of Joseph Smith, than Lutherans do about Martin Luther, because of the 2 different missions and identities of the men. Luther never claimed to be restoring true Christianity; initially he envisioned his efforts as simply reforming the Catholic church. And he never claimed to be a prophet, nor did he designate his ideas as direct revelation from God given to him as the mouthpiece of Deity.

    I think Mormons struggle more with Joseph’s failings because he did claim all of these things. While most Mormons have a grasp of the idea that a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such, if a man makes the claim to be God’s one, true prophet, people are bound to feel much more angst in attempting to separate which of their teachings they gave as opinion, and which they gave as official doctrine.

  20. 20.

    I enjoyed reading this post Lynnette especially since I was getting to know you about the same time you began your initial forays into the academic realm of theology. Listening to your excitement studying theology and watching you wrestle with the implications of Christian theology on your Mormon faith has enriched my own theological awareness and shaped my perception of my own faith. I do not know if there will ever be an institutionalized ratification of professional Mormon theologians, but I do know that you have had and will have an impact on your Mormon friends and associates who are searching for a broader (and perhaps more pluralistic) perspective of their faith. While it may be lonely to be the bridge between Mormonism and other Christian theologies, I know your efforts make a difference and will influence the future of Mormonism.

  21. 21.

    Lynnette,
    I know this post is old, but what with your almost being done with your Phd, I was wondering if you still feel the same way as you did in this post.

    This comment particularly made me wonder if you are on the same page,

    though I have not completely rejected LDS exclusivity claims, I am still working to make sense of them, and I have strong pluralist leanings.

  22. 22.

    I can definately relate to the God of wrath idea, it has taken my almost 10 years to get out of that mindset, not entirely there yet. I too studied theology and religion in university for a couple of years ( not a PH.D. program) but I loved it. It came at a crisis moment for me and I think it saved me actually. I love the writings of Henri Nouwen and N.T. Wright.

  23. 23.

    Hey Jess! I have to admit that at the moment I’m mostly just stunned to be actually finishing, but it would be interesting to reflect back over some of these questions (wow–I wrote this all the way back in 2007?) But I would say I’m roughly in the same place as far as the exclusivity question. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last year is how to have pluralist views based not on some general idea of pluralism, but specifically on Mormon teachings. I do think it’s possible, but I need to play with it more.

    Cameron, sounds like a familiar story! Glad you found theology so helpful; I can definitely relate.

  24. 24.

    […] study theology when I went off to grad school. But once I started, I fell in love with it. I’ve blogged before about how it affected my faith more generally. But here I want to mention some of the issues that […]

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