An Experiment on the Word (ed. Adam S. Miller, Salt Press 2011) is a product of the Mormon Theology Seminar, a short-term collaborative project in which a small group of people engage in a close read of specific texts. This particular book focuses on Alma 32. It includes a jointly-authored summary report of the conclusions reached by the participants in the seminar, as well as six individually-authored essays approaching the text in a variety of ways.
First of all, I have to say that (somewhat to my own surprise, because I have to admit that I don’t generally expect LDS books dealing with scripture to be very interesting), I immensely enjoyed reading it. I found it both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I would definitely recommend it. It’s not too long (about 100 pages), is written in an accessible way, and includes a rich exploration of such topics as faith, knowledge, humility, the word, and choice vs. compulsion.
Rather than focus on the content of the book, however, I want to look here at how it does theology. One of the guiding principles of this book, Adam Miller explains in the introduction, is that “theology matters to the extent that it is able to show and extend charity.” Theology, in other words, should be centered on the love of God (charity), and should demonstrate this both in its content and in its approach. I particularly like this because of the unfortunate tendency in some theological work to speak only in terms of abstractions, and thereby become disconnected from lived experience. Having charity as the focus of the work keeps it connected to what actually matters in religion. And I think the book demonstrates that holding this as the basic premise does not mean that theology cannot grapple with diverse topics—rather, this central concern keeps it grounded.
An unusual aspect of this work is its collaborative nature. In contrast to the sciences, it is rare in the field of theology to have work that is multi-authored. I have to admit that as the person in the class who always resisted doing group projects, I have some wariness about such an approach. But this book is a testament to the rich material that can arise from a cooperative endeavor. And the format of the book—a jointly authored report, accompanied by individual essays which complement each other—is a nice balance. Almost it persuaded me to become a believer in group projects.
Before continuing, I want to talk a little about the meaning of term “systematic theology.” This book notes, as is often observed, that Mormons lack systematic theology. And resistance to theology in Mormonism, I have noticed, is often framed in terms of resistance to systematic theology specifically. When I first heard this criticism quite a few years ago, I was confused by it—my studies were in the field of “systematic theology,” and I saw no reason why Mormons couldn’t engage in such work. But after a number of conversations over the years, I think I have a better sense of what lies behind the critique—and I am actually fairly sympathetic to it. Those raising concerns about systematic theology, as I understand them, are criticizing the idea that religion can be understood as a collection of abstract, propositional truths which tidily fit together, and the notion that the task of the theologian is to construct these kinds of systems. However, what is being done in contemporary systematic theology often bears little resemblance to this, and much of what currently falls under the label of systematic theology might be better described as constructive theology.1
I will come back to this. But first I want to consider the kind of theology being done in this book. It proposes that Mormon theology “ought to be shaped by the centrality of scripture.” Its method, then, is a close reading of scriptural texts, looking for patterns and exploring meaning. Theology is described in terms of hypotheses and experiments, and as always tentative in its conclusions. I think this last is a particularly important point—one of the perennial concerns raised about theology in Mormonism is the fear that it will usurp prophetic authority. But I agree with the premise outlined here that theology by its very nature does not provide definitive answers, but rather possibilities.
In reading this work, I was reminded of a debate between theologians George Lindbeck and David Tracy.2 Lindbeck proposes that the scriptural narrative is autonomous. One does not bring in a framework from elsewhere and read the text through its lens; instead, the world of the text itself provides the lens through which all else is read. Meaning in this model is intratextual in nature. Lindbeck draws on Clifford Geertz’s idea that the task of the ethnographer is to engage in “thick description,” and proposes this method as a way of approaching religion. He also makes the case that it is the God revealed in the story who should be our final point of reference in making sense of it.
I see some parallels here with the kind of theological work taking place in this project on Alma 32. It largely stays within the narratives of scripture—Alma 32 is put into dialogue with a number of different scriptural texts, including the Fall, 2 Nephi’s rendering of Isaiah, and Joseph Smith’s revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants, but it generally does not bring in extra-textual elements (except perhaps in the final essay by Robert Couch, which draws on the contemporary language of consumerism). In its close read of the patterns in the text, I think the work could be described as a kind of thick description. And like Lindbeck, these authors draw on what is revealed in the text (the love of God) as the ultimate point of reference.
David Tracy lays out a somewhat different method of doing theology: that of “mutually critical correlations of an interpretation of the meaning and truth of the tradition and the interpretation of the meaning and truth of the contemporary situation.”3 This approach does not assume in advance any particular relationship between the message and the situation, but Tracy argues that engagement with the latter is unavoidable. Because theologians deal with a subject matter which makes claims about the nature of ultimate reality, he contends, it must be put in dialogue with other truth claims, and the stories of other disciplines. Scriptural narratives disclose truths about what it is to be human, and these can be put into conversation with other human experiences. This does not mean there is no value in doing the kind of work that Lindbeck advocates, but Tracy proposes that this is only one aspect of theological work, and that theology can have a broader scope.
As mentioned earlier, the Mormon Theology Seminar takes an approach which “understand[s] Mormon theology to be primarily the work of reading Mormon texts.” As I have said, I see much value in this endeavor. But I would make the case that Mormons can also engage in systematic or constructive theology, what Tracy describes as putting the tradition in dialogue with the situation. I think the commitment to charity articulated in this book could be particularly helpful in doing such systematic and constructive work, as it would counter the tendency to divorce theology from lived religious experience. Joseph Smith’s assertion that “one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism” is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may,” also seems relevant here.4 If we believe in truth existing outside the tradition, there is warrant for putting the truths of our tradition in dialogue with those truths found elsewhere (not just in other religious traditions, but also in other academic disciplines). I am not saying that I think the participants in this project would necessarily disagree with these assertions, or that the book precludes other approaches. But rather than describing this as a primary way of doing LDS theology, I would situate it as one legitimate and potentially very fruitful approach which has value in and of itself, but also has the potential to contribute to other forms of theology.
- One can find evidence of this in the annual Call For Papers of the American Academy of Religion. The “Christian Systematic Theology” section always specifies that it seeks constructive proposals. [↩]
- For a sense of their different approaches, see especially George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), and David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981). [↩]
- David Tracy, “Lindbeck’s New Program for Theology: A Reflection,” The Thomist 49: 471. [↩]
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 313. [↩]